Soapbox cart

It was half term and I had a bit of free time so I decided to see what Thomas had been up to on my iPad. There alongside the Rugby15 games and half-finished Hopscotch coding attempts was a copy of The Beano from the website. It featured Danny from The Bash Street Kids in what we used to call a cartie.

The Bash Street Kids are all nine years old – a little older than Thomas. So I figured I had time to build him a cartie of his own so he can pretend to be Danny, Denis the Menace, Roger the Dodger or whoever else he admires from those hallowed pages.

Here are the results. I’m now well on the way to building a second model so Thomas can have races with his friends (or sisters).

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What struck me taking the cartie out for the first time was the number of people (men and women) in their sixties, seventies and (in one case) eighties who stopped us to say “Oh my! I used to have one of those!” or “A soapbox cart! I haven’t seen one of those for years!” It was a lovely way to connect with people in the village decades removed from Thomas’ own age.

The cartie goes like a dream – and yes, I did decide I needed to “test it out” (ahem). A great way to get outdoors and engage with an active boyhood. For all its fascination, there are some things the iPad simply cannot do (although, admittedly, in this case it at least provided the inspiration!)


Apple, Lemons and Bananas!

It’s Thanksgiving, and although I happen to be in Tokyo this week I’m surrounded by Americans and the team I’m with (visiting Tokyo International School) has a strong US-component.  As a result I’ve been hearing a lot of American English of the sort that hasn’t become that hybrid of British and American that you hear from Americans who have lived in the UK for a while, and who form my usual company.  Consequently, we have had a lot of fun with that “divided by a common language” notion that Winston Churchill famously noted. When one of my fellow team members used the phrase “When life gives you lemons…” I noticed that she wasn’t intending to complete the sentence.  She assumed we’d all know the next part was “make lemonade”.

As I took in the blank faces from some on the term wondering what lemons had to do with anything I remembered hearing the phrase a couple of weeks back when a teacher at one of our sister schools was responding to another teacher’s complaint that there weren’t any good iPad apps for teaching mathematics.  I often wonder what lies behind assumptions like this.  Clearly an app cannot actually teach a subject like mathematics.  It can at best provide an opportunity for practice – or a real world context for using mathematical skills to achieve other tasks.  Many of the apps that the teacher was complaining about were simply content consumption apps that framed mathematics skills practice in a games format or a simulation.

These are fine as far as they go but there are plenty of apps that come with the iPad straight out of the box that can be used to practise mathematics too.  It was these apps that ACS Hillingdon teacher Sue Rankin wanted to explore further with us at a recent Apple forum.  Thanks must also go to Sue Wakefield, another ACS Hillingdon teacher who had organised the event – to which school administrators had been invited from the London and Home Counties area.  Each of the schools represented had implemented an iPad initiative over the past year or two.


Over the course of the next hour Sue (pictured above) demonstrated how apps like Clock, Maps and Camera that come free with the iPad can be used to enhance lessons in lower school and middle school mathematics.  For example, Clock can be used not only to tell the time but also as a timer, a calculator of elapsed time and a reference for World Times (we were using iPad 2 devices and iOS7)

I’m currently sitting in my room in Tokyo at 6:48 in the morning and this is what I see on my iPad when I tap World Clock in the Clock app.


Clearly, there are plenty of opportunities to explore how the current time varies across the time zones of the world and work out time differences between distinct locations.  Similarly, using the stopwatch function I can time different activities, compare and contrast the durations of each and possibly even present that data in another form – on the iPad or elsewhere.  Looking around the room it was easy to spot the administrators and teachers making mental lemonade with these Apple lemons.


The Maps app has perhaps been overlooked since the well publicised problems associated with its re-release in 2012 but it offers an impressive degree of functionality to the maths teacher too.  Here I’m viewing two different views of my current location (satellite and standard – a hybrid option is also available) and varying scales to cover more or less land in the same screenshot.

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There is an abundance of scope for problem solving with scale, distance measurement and compass directions for the maths teacher to explore here.  It could also be an excellent opportunity to create app workflows using compass apps or apps like iSpy that allow you to screen grab photographs of various places via local CCTV cameras.

By the way, I have no personal preference between Google Maps and Maps, and I’ve also used paid for Maps apps over the years too although I have yet to see one worth the money.


The camera and Photos apps bundled with iPads can also be used in creative ways beyond the simple function of viewing photos in the camera roll or photo stream.  For example, students can be sent on a campus (or school corridor) walk to capture images of geometric shapes, Roman numerals, instances of bases other than base 10 or the Fibonacci Sequence or similar number patterns.


The session I’m describing didn’t actually finish with our making lemonade, but we did have a go at making banana smoothies!


Maths teachers have long recognised the opportunities inherent in cookery classes for practising maths skills such as measurement, conversion and timing.  Our training day added a tech layer to these activities that involved using Book Creator to make an interactive book that captured the stages involved in making a banana smoothie.  This was engaging and involved the use of the Camera app as well as Book Creator.  As we debated which stages to photograph – and from what angle and with whom in shot, it became increasingly clear that we were internalising maths skills such as staging and process almost without knowing it.  The lesson returned to my mind a week or so later when we hosted an IBM visit at my own school at which the presenter was at pains to impress upon our high schoolers that regardless of what their degree course was it was important to gain skills such as systems thinking and problem solving.

As the banana smoothies neared completion and the room filled with the smells of mashed banana, honey and spilt milk we prepared our books for presentation back to the group.  We had been instructed via the directions in the QR code suck to our desk to use Book Creator.  I happened not to have this app on my iPad although I have Creative Book Builder.  My partner had Book Creator so we used her iPad.  Neither Book Creator nor Creative Book Builder is a free app, but there is no reason why other apps could not be used to do something similar.  Apple’s offer to bundle Pages free with all new iPads is obviously one potential answer to the ever-present budget problem schools face, but even Notes could be used to create a document for the banana smoothie activity.  Teachers will principally be concerned with capturing the most essential pedagogical elements of the activity, and the choice of app is in that sense less relevant.

Defending Creativity from Facile Memes

I was sent a poster meme on Facebook this week and took the step of sharing it on, which is not something I do with 99% of what I receive.  It had to do with Obamacare, and whilst, thanks to the NHS, that’s not something that we on this side of the Atlantic have to worry about, I did think the wider message about the democratic process was worth Facebook’s equivalent of a retweet.  However, there was one thing that bothered me about the meme and that was the fact that it took the form of a quotation next to a large publicist’s photo of the US actor George Clooney.  When I shared it on Facebook I commented people should ignore the picture and concentrate on the words.  I argued it doesn’t matter who said it;  the words themselves are the power of the message.

I had a couple of people disagree with me on that.  Possibly they are not serious and were simply making a point about the physical attractiveness of George Clooney, but I think there’s a serious point to be made that our connected students need to recognise and engage with.  The problem with the picture in the meme, apart from the fact it may not be Mr. Clooney’s words we’re reading here, is that it distracts from the message and perpetuates the notion that the force of an argument is somehow magnified if the idea is articulated by a celebrity. We see the same problem in all the posts that are ascribed to Albert Einstein. In reality he said hardly any of the things that are attributed to him on the web (although I earnestly hope he’d said the one about reading children fairy tales because it is SO true!) but we read so many quotations with his name cited underneath that it does seem people are so nervous to express an idea these days that they cloak it in the artificial protection of celebrity endorsement (or in Einstein’s case, intellectual endorsement) to see off any potential challenge. In my view this is a serious failing and a manifestation of the creativity crisis so often spoken about by Sir Ken Robinson and others. This is a crisis those of us in education should be concerned about and be working to solve.

As this is a blog about the use of iPads in schools, as since online sharing is responsible for  the rapid global proliferation of memes like the George Clooney one – as well as the diminishing tendency of people to take the time to check sources, it seems to me appropriate to address this concern here.  Last month’s TES interview with Sir Ken Robinson prompted many teachers to raise the awkward observation that Sir Ken, for all his inspirational (and witty) comments on the dearth of creativity in schools, doesn’t actually offer any practical advice in changing the situation.  However, give teachers the time, space and tools to nurture children’s creativity and they will produce results.

I have consistently argued in this blog that the iPad is one such tool.  Since it was launched in 2010 there have been many copycat devices launched by rival technology firms.  My comment on this is good luck to them; if they spark a child’s imagination and push him or her to show innovation that formerly remained hidden, what’s not to love?  We’ll probably never find agreement on which tablet is best suited to nurturing creativity.  There are entrenched positions on all sides of that pointless argument. But one thing we could all agree to stop doing is falsely attributing ideas to individuals within a narrow category of people whose celebrity status is somehow supposed to elevate both their existence and the outpourings of their mouths to hallowed status.  Most innovations that have truly changed the world have had their provenance in the febrile imaginations of obscure or little known individuals whose desire was to power an idea to wider acceptance.  I doubt very much that George Clooney was the first to observe the failings in US democracy that led to the recent shutdown, and we do the argument a disservice by projecting it as a meme with his photograph pinned to it.

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And in the time it took me to write this post I see I’ve received another one!  This time it’s Michael J. Fox‘s picture next to a quotation on teaching styles I first heard in 1995 (above).  I’m guessing it’s another example of someone hearing a nugget of good sense for the first time, and wanting to share it but defaulting to the habit of putting it in the mouth of a celebrity.

Or it could really be Michael J. Fox speaking.  But surely, even a time traveller can’t be THAT far behind the curve!

Some thoughts on Content Creation and the iPad


Storyteller Katrice Horsley shows second grade teacher Christie Down PuppetPals HD in an Outdoor Education lesson.

The release of iOS7 on September 18th this year prompted the customary exchanges of views on the blogosphere about what was good and what was less good about the upgrade.  Design purists celebrated the apparent demise of skeuomorphism at the hands of Sir Jony Ive. Others took turns saying Apple has lost its way, scored another hit, become out of touch, proved once again it has its finger on the pulse, fallen behind, taken the lead and all the other polarised clichés that seem to accompany new technology releases these days.

Personally I was keeping an eye out for the return of that old chestnut “the iPad is fine for content consumption but it can’t do content creation”, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Several commentators who have obviously somehow missed Pages, Numbers, Keynote, PuppetPals HD, Morfo Booth, Evernote, Penultimate, Moxier Collage, Art Rage, Moodboard, Collabracam, Me Books, Showbie, Edmodo, Explain Everything, iMovie, GarageBand, Creative Book Builder, Book Writer, Strip Design, Hopscotch, Animation HD, Aurasma and so forth trotted out that line on various forums.

This got me thinking.  It simply beggars belief that all these people are in the pay of Google or Samsung.  Some of them probably genuinely believe that students and others cannot create meaningful content using iPads – or at least that they cannot create content that cannot be replicated on laptops or desktop computers (as, for example, the work created on the iPad apps for WordPress or Prezi etc. could be).  The visit of accomplished professional storyteller Katrice Horsley to our school campus this week gave me the opportunity to see how someone unconnected with our school and its recent history of iPad integration would approach an outdoor learning opportunity. To my delight one of the frist things Katrice did once she was out in the woods with our second graders was to introduce one of our newest staff members to the wonders of PuppetPals HD.



Katrice Horsley in full swing talking to the second grade shortly before tasking them outside

There is almost nothing in PuppetPals HD that qualifies as content consumption.  The power of the app lies entirely in its capacity to provide a vehicle for users to express themselves.  As a language teacher I have used PuppetPals HD for script capture ahead of practical work in drama.  In the case of Katrice’s outdoor learning lesson PuppetPals HD provided an option for storytelling.  The second graders told their stories today using traditional materials like sticks, rocks, bark and some novelty eyes that Katrice brought along.  But photographs of these characters, settings and objects can easily be incorporated into PuppetPals HD shows which can then also be edited within the app or in  other apps in an app workflow.

StorytellingSecond graders tell their stories to Katrice at the end of an outdoor learning lesson

PuppetPals HD happens to do this task extremely well, especially if one invests in the paid version of the app, but there are myriads of alternative apps out there.  Students are also using apps such as iMovie (now bundled with new iPad purchases) to tell stories, Pages (similarly bundled) to create eBooks (many other apps facilitate this too these days) and Garageband to create soundscapes and backtracks for their story creations.  The iPad hasn’t invented all this – any more than the development of the four treasures (paper, ink, brush and inkstone) in second century China “invented” writing.  It merely provides a much  tool for the job than was previously available.

I don’t expect the content consumption die-hards to surrender just yet.  I’m sure they will still be claiming that the iPad can’t create anything in years to come when work done on tablets constitutes a majority.  But then again, I read today that the Flat Earth Society still has nearly 2,000 active members.


It’s a bird; it’s a plane and it’s a travellers’ digital tool kit!

Other WordPress bloggers do a fine job of blogging about their families, and it’s not my intention to attempt to emulate that, but it was interesting to reflect back on my own family’s recent short break in Egypt last week (see below) during spring break (Easter holidays to those not from the USA) – especially after asking the students at my school how many of them took their iPads with them on their travels and finding that the answer was most of them!

Taking the view that the iPad is, in Vickie Bacon’s words, “the digital pencil case” of the twenty-first century it is easy to see why the iPad is the tech tool of choice to take with you on a holiday trip.  After all, most of us used to take pens, paper, children’s games and colouring books, Walkmans, cameras, travel books, beach paperbacks and diaries with us when we travelled.  And we are beginning to realise that the iPad replaces all of those things and more.  Moreover, when we get to our destinations we still write and send postcards, make videos, consult maps and phrase books and check out restaurant guides.  Again, the iPad can replace all those things.

So it was fascinating to see how my own three digital native children would react to this latest trip, and it was noticeable to me how much lighter we were able to pack compared to our last family flight three years ago.  It was a long journey to Cairo (where we were going to be visiting friends and seeing the sights) mainly because the last-minute nature of our decision to go meant that the only flights available enforced a night’s layover in Milan en route.  Angry Birds came to the our rescue (along with Harbourmaster, Cut the Rope and Temple Run inevitably) as it has come to the rescue of so many parents whose nerves are frayed by tired children, but I was encouraged to see the kids also experimenting with Senet – the board game beloved by the Ancient Egyptians that now has its own iPad versions (see below, left).  We also played the Royal Game of Ur (also pictured below, right) that hails from the even earlier civilisation at Sumer.

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Another app that proved to be a popular distraction during airport transfers was Plane Finder (I used the free PFHD version, but the paid for version includes much more information).  PFHD allows you to track aircraft on a real-time map and identify flight number, airline, destination and altitude.  The paid for version allows the iPad holder to point the device’s camera at a commercial airliner flying above and collect the same information.  It’s probably a plane spotter’s dream, but it’s also a great guessing game for youngsters learning geography.  You simply look at the map, find an aircraft and ask the children to guess where it’s going.  “Look, it’s leaving from Cairo and flying south and it’s an Egypt Air airliner.  Do you think it’s going to Nairobi or San Francisco?” etc.

FlightsSo, to paraphrase the old Superman cartoons that I used to watch to excess when I was a child, the iPad can be a bird (albeit an angry one!), a plane (or at least a plane finder) and it can also be a digital toolkit.  It was at Egypt’s breathtaking tourist sights, that the iPad really came into its own.  There are literally scores of quality apps dealing with all manner of aspects of this enigmatic land, from interactive guides, to photo collections, to views of Egypt from above, to phrase books, to games, to hieroglyph readers to scholarly works on the ancient civilisation.  And that’s not to mention the iTunes U courses on Egypt.

My own son loved the pyramids – and had no difficulty dragging his Egyptomaniac dad into each and every one we came across, but at the age of five he also defaulted to the iPad when it came to taking photos (see below).  In fact, I wonder if he even differentiates in his head between a camera and a phone – or an iPad.  In any case, the results were great.

If I had to choose a favourite Egypt-related app, it would probably be Touch Press’ Pyramids 3D.  The flyover scenes at Giza are impressive, but it is when you navigate via the app into the pyramids’ tunnels themselves that the app really comes into its own.  It also shows a “then and now” version of the wall hieroglyphs and features a small selection of the treasures of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities.  At £9.99 Pyramids 3D is probably an app for people like me who are keen on Egyptology, as there are cheaper apps (some even free) that do some of the same things as this one.  But it certainly gets my vote for the best ancient history app on the iTunes Store.

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i Before E? Outdoor Learning and the iPad

We’re notorious for acronyms in the education world.  We bandy about initials to each other all day and chatter on about LEAs, SENs, the ISI and so forth, finding ourselves having to switch back to normal English whenever we’re dealing with those who don’t live their whole lives in the world of education – like parents for instance.  EL used to mean English Language (in terms such as ELL and BEL) but now it’s gone the way of LOL and changed.  EL now refers to the realm of outdoor learning and can either mean expeditionary learning or experiential learning depending which side of the Atlantic the speaker hails from – and what professional development course he or she took most recently!

In both cases the E refers to the experience of the learner.  Learning outside takes away the physical and figurative ceiling on the learning space and allows the learner to engage with the learning material in new ways.  At ACS we have the most amazing campus it has ever been my privilege to work with, and it would be a crime if we had not long ago put outdoor learning at the top of our agenda.  The introduction of iPads has enhanced our provision of outdoor learning.  Technology being almost as notorious as education for the prevalence of acronyms (iOS, LAN, PS3, Wii etc.) one might say the “i” has in no way compromised the “E”.  But it does come as a surprise to people that this is the case.  It seems we have an assumption that technology is an indoor thing and that the outdoors is somehow tech-free.

Our most recent visiting experts in the world of outdoor education (Julia Robertson, Bushcraft, Forest Schools) all disagree with that assumption.  For a long time now, but particularly since Julia’s visit last fall we have made efforts to incorporate iPads into our outdoor lessons with conspicuous (if nascent) success.  Here are some illustrated examples:

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Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 18.04.47Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 18.06.56First Graders Take iPads Into The Woods On Their Mushroom Walk

Accurate identification of fungi sometimes depends on being able to examine the gills on the underside of the fungus. This often leads to careless handling breaking the fungal stem. Mirrors are the traditional way round this problem, but the iPad offers a superior alternative in the shape of the inbuilt camera. The captured image of the fungus’ underside can then be compared with an online database, a teacher-prepared database or (as is the case in the last picture above) a traditional chart.

IMG_6166 IMG_6168 IMG_6170High School Computing Class Using iPads to Emulate Camera Shake

Here we jump to the other end of the school scale and see a high school (tenth grade) computing class.  They have been designing video games. We caught them on a day when they were using a combination of iOS and Mac apps to insert real world camera footage into their games. The teacher explained that an important component of video game authenticity is the camera shake you get when you’re moving through an environment. The students took their iPads outside and filmed as they walked a few steps along the road.  This shake was then imported into an emulation app on the Macs and integrated with their video games. Next stop is composing the music.  This too can be done on the iPad.

IMG_1474 IMG_1472 IMG_1466Measurement Of Angles (4th grade)

Finally, last Friday (February 8th 2013) I caught up with a fourth grade class measuring shadow angles by photographing and marking them, and then both using on-screen and manipulative protractors to work out the size of each in degrees.  This maths lesson could easily have been done indoors in a stuffy classroom.  It was a cold day, but as the teacher explained “there’s no such thing as bad weather: only inappropriate clothing”. Well wrapped-up children got some fresh air and the chance to contextualise content and the experience of learning in an outdoor setting. How bad can that be?

What is notable about the above examples is that they incorporated iPads with other forms of technology (analogue and digital) as well as with the outdoors.  We have certainly loved using specialist expeditionary learning apps like Aurasma in the school’s many outdoor learning locations, and such apps remain awe-inspiring. But it is important to include easy-to-master lessons such as the shadow angles too. These give both teachers and students the confidence to experiment and to see that at its simplest level outdoor learning is nothing more than learning outdoors.