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!)


Teaching and Learning Chinese on an iPad (part 2)

Most of my students in my weekly Mandarin classes are native speakers who require brushing up on grammar, pronunciation or perhaps fluency.  As I learned Chinese in the eighties I’ve used books, newspapers, magazines and other media to keep up with the changing language over the years, but these days I rely heavily (though not exclusively) on technological tools to ensure the Mandarin I’m teaching is current.

The iPad is useful for access to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social network site, as well as YouTube, blogging sites and language resources such as ChinesePod and the search engine Baidu. I follow several Chinese microbloggers on Twitter and I can usually pull together some topical dialogues on appropriate subjects that reflect Chinese commentators’ opinions on things happening that week.  This helps to keep the lessons fresh and current.  Back in my student days, my own Chinese teachers often used fairly dull and artificial-sounding phrases based on asking someone where the nearest post office is and so forth.  It was a functional approach but it scarcely thrilled, and these days I find I can engage students more easily with lessons that take as their subject matter topics that are genuinely being debated on various web-based forums that week by authentic speakers.

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Above Sina weibo, China’s most popular microblogging site. Weibo is a Mandarin term for web, although others exist.

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Baidu (above) is China’s answer to Google. It is illuminating to search for the same terms on Google and Baidu and see the differences in what comes up – although it can also be illuminating and surprising to see what remains the same too.

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ChinesePod  (above) is a useful repository of dialogue-based learning. The accompanying podcasts vary in quality but can be very good.

Recently, I’ve also been using Siri to test my students’ pronunciation. The idea is that if Siri can understand their question and provide a reasonably coherent answer, that is the benchmark for communicativeness. If, on the other hand, Siri responds with the wrong information or simply asks the student to repeat the conversation (she is fond of the phrase 对不起我不明白! which translates as “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that”), the student needs to try again.  Usually, the problem is with the tones of the language (Mandarin is a tonal language where the inflection used in one’s voice can change the meaning of each utterance), but occasionally, my students have made some amusing mistakes with the wrong word completely.  These have included one student’s asking directions to Paris and ending up with a recipe for an Indonesian dish called Bami!


Here a student has asked Siri how long it would take to get to Paris. After repeated efforts to get Siri to understand the word Paris, the student hit on the idea of saying “Paris France”. Siri responded with a route map from Cobham to Paris (below)!



Siri’s welcome screen (above) suggests things you can ask her. Students can work in pairs to translate these suggestions and either ask Siri exactly what she suggests or make up their own variations.


Before the student added the word “France” to her question, Siri offered a number of solutions to the situation she understood the student to be asking about. Above, the options include directions to the Eurostar homepage (which handles train bookings and information between London and Paris), but also flight information for flights from beijing and Shanghai to Paris too.

The ubiquity of Siri means that students can practise at home on their own devices and then come in with screen shots of dialogues they have exchanged with Siri.  We’ve probably only begun to scratch the surface of this instructional strategy’s potential but the students are having fun with it, and the learning is authentic so for me that’s a “ying ying” situation.

再见! 🙂

Happy New Year – and a Christmas joke that didn’t quite go to plan…

It’s New Year’s Eve and I was just preparing to close the laptop and get ready for the party when a message pinged into my inbox telling me visitors to this blog have increased by 55% this year.  There are thousands of visits – and I think I can assume that’s not just my mother clicking multiple times!  Seriously, many thanks for the support and for the comments I’ve received from you via WordPress, Twitter and Facebook.  Those of us exploring the roles of iPads in K-12 education rely on the wisdom of each other to gain insights and make progress. I appreciate learning from all of you reading this blog.

It being Christmas my wife and I took the children to a slightly earlier service on Christmas Eve than we were used to attending in our days before kids.  It was fun with plenty of carols, mince pies and mulled wine mixed in with the more serious messages this time of year brings.  At one point the vicar asked the children in the congregation what they thought the best Christmas present was. He was preparing to tell that old joke about it being a broken drum (because you can’t beat it – yes, I know!)  It didn’t quite go as planned.  The first response from the crowd of under-tens was “an iPad”.

When he replied that he was thinking of something even better than an iPad another child offered “Two iPads?”

Happy New Year.  May the best of 2013 be your worst of 2014. And thanks for reading!

Thoughts on the NWEA Fusion Conference

IMG_3920The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA)’s annual Fusion conference is underway in Portland, Oregon and I write from that beautiful city on the third and final day of what has been undoubtedly the CPD highlight of my year.  It is not simply that the speakers and presenters have been so engaging, but also that the quality of discourse in the halls, lobbies, corridors and coffee stations has been so high.

As ever, one can measure the buzz to some extent by the number of tweets being uploaded to the conference’s hashtag, but it’s also noticeable to me how many presenters are switching to iPads instead of relying on cue cards or a teleprompt (pictured above is NWEA President Matt Chapman who gave his excellent keynote on day one with the aid of his new iPad Mini).  This has to be a skill we start to teach students.  It’s one we can state with a fair degree of confidence will be useful to them – at least in the mid-term future.

My own presentation was titled The Data Honeytrap – and how to avoid it, and I’ll be posting on that topic and including some of the content from my presentation in a future post.  The central thesis is the need to teach data literacy.  I was delighted to see that by sheer coincidence a non-school-related statistic I quoted in my presentation (one that cast doubt back in May on the assumption the UK had suffered a double dip recession) was verified yesterday – just a day after my presentation.

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Above my slide – presented June 26th. Below BBC new story posted June 27th!Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 06.43.44

I wish I could say I had planned it that way, but my influence doesn’t stretch that far.

Part of the rest of the presentation was focused on sharing the preliminary results of the Teacher Reflections Project.  In preparing for this presentation I noticed that two of the ten pedagogies that teachers reported most useful in the iPad classroom had already changed since my first presentation of this emerging data in March.  Collaborative learning and mnemoics-supporting apps have both dropped out for different reasons.  Flipped-classroom supporting apps and student-centred learning apps supporting peer-to-peer discourse (e.g. Socrative, Edmodo and so forth) are in.  I’ll be discussing why I believe this is so in a later post.

NWEA Fusion has a day to go and if it’s anything like the first two, I’ll be very glad I returned to the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

Learning to Love the iGeneration: Viewpoints from our Keynote Speakers


The ECIS biennial Technology Conference has come and gone and left in its wake a rich discourse on the place of technology in the modern classroom and in modern society.  We had engaging and challenging keynote speakers, provocative and practical breakout sessions and panel discussions that were often heated but always respectful.  The media were there in number and our visiting guests included representatives from the business community as well as the international education sector.  Our local MP also stopped by on Friday to meet the keynote presenters and exchange views (see below).


Above: Dom Raab MP (centre) with Richard (l) and event chairman Steven Cliff (r)

It was notable how many times keynote speakers took issue with the title of the conference.  Two pointed out that they didn’t feel they needed to learn to love anyone. One observed that the term iGeneration (Larry Rosen‘s term originally) would probably be rejected by this generation as they are the first generation who will name themselves rather than accept a label foisted onto them by their elders.  Curiously, enough Rosen’s article itself takes issue with the terms “Y Generation” and “Millennials”, calling them “an insult to our first true cybergeneration”. Words matter, it seems, and keynote speaker Marc Prensky‘s own terms digital native and digital immigrant were themselves challenged at the conference.


Above: Teaching Digital Natives author Marc Prensky (speaking on his birthday – the Ides of March) gives the conference’s opening keynote.

The breakout sessions mixed the practical (programming with Scratch 2.0, flipping your classroom, working with Nearpod) with the grander designs of setting up research projects and framing pragmatic schemes within theoretical frameworks.  My two fellow presenters and I were gratified to see such a large attendance at our own presentation “iPad Therefore I Learn?”, and as usual these days, we received live Twitter commentary as we were proceeding.  I do hope those of my readers here who were in attendance last Friday got something useful out of the session.  I’ll upload a version of the Keynote to Slideshare soon – and put a version here too.  Unfortunately, the longbow I passed around during the hands on section was later broken by Jeff Utecht (that guy simply doesn’t know his own strength!)  I let him stew for a while thinking he’d done irreparable damage to a priceless mediaeval relic before telling him I bought it online in 2000 🙂


Jeff Utecht began proceedings on Day Two with a rousing call to celebrate old tech – particularly the Atari 2600: the best gaming system EVER! That’s not even controversial 🙂 W00t W00t!

A nice contrast to Jeff Utecht’s nostalgic trip back to the eighties was given by Julie Lindsay, who presented the concept of the flat classroom.  In the flat classroom the walls are removed (or flattened) and the learners are taught and encouraged to see themselves as global community members.  There are some exciting technologies enabling this approach these days, and Julie shared some of her experiences, noting that the asynchronous activities (i.e. those that do not depend on all the collaborators being active at the same time) are just as valid as the synchronous activities.  This observation encourages teachers to look for potential sources of telecollaboration far beyond the time zones of the originating classroom.

Calilean Hargrave, who closed the conference on Saturday afternoon, was notable for his energy, his colourful shirts and the fact that he was the only keynote speaker to make use of Prezi.  I remember giving my own first Prezi in my first week of becoming principal at the International School of Paris back in 2009.  It felt new then, but I was genuinely surprised to see at a technology conference of all places how new it still appears to be to audiences four years on.  Excellent though Prezi is, however, no presenting tool can make up for poor content, and Cailean’s enthralling vision of the present and near future was far more than simply an entertaining slideshow.  He drew from technologies showcased in IBM‘s 2011 book Making the World Work Better (published to mark that company’s centennial year), as well as many new technologies invented since then.  It was thrilling and also a little unnerving.  Education faces the challenge of how to ensure we take optimal advantage of new technologies, but the traditional model we have espoused for so long of a bricks and mortar building in which students matriculate across a curriculum composed of core subjects and electives is completely up for grabs.


The dynamic Cailean Hargrave: his funny, informative and energetic closing keynote rounded off a successful conference brilliantly.

As he built up to his announcement that he would be offering a prize of a placement and on-site project support using items picked from IBM’s catalogue of products, Cailean reminded us that the number of patents held by IBM is greater than the next eighteen highest patent holders combined!  His company started, 102 years ago, with a cheese and bacon slicer. “I like to think we’ve come a long way since then”, he quipped.

Without a doubt the most contentious keynote speaker was Chandran Nair, and speaking as the man who booked Chandran I would have been disappointed if this hadn’t been the case. Chandran’s last appearance at an ECIS event back in 2010 had seen him positioned as the techno-sceptic opposite technophile John Couch (Apple’s Vice president, Education) and the more neutral Sugata Mitra.  On that occasion Chandran revisited one of his favourite themes, considering the relative priority Indian society gives technological advancement at the expense of basic needs like sanitation.

IMG_1826Global Institute for Tomorrow CEO, Chandran Nair, closing the first day of the conference with a challenging (and for some, uncomfortable) address.

This time, Chandran launched a counterpoint to the vision Marc Prensky had outlined earlier that morning which assumed technology would continue to shape our lives and redefine learning and becoming for the iGeneration.  Chandran began by telling his audience to turn off their devices. Most of us had been taking notes on iPads, Chromebooks, laptops and phones all conference – and tweeting commentaries to the conference hashtag as the keynotes went on too, but Chandran was adamant that wasn’t going to happen during his talk.  “It’s called respect”, he said. “I don’t do Facebook. I’m too cool for that. I do Face People”. He went on to say “I don’t do that other thing either. What’s it called? Twatter?”

If at this point he had some of his audience wondering whether he might like to rethink the title of his organisation (the Global Institute for Tomorrow), he quickly explained that his was an Asian perspective and he wanted to offer his audience something different from “worshipping at the church of Google”.

Chandran’s argument was that there is something severely wrong with a society where the number of mobile phones is significantly higher than the number of toilets (India). Strongly pro-China, he asked (rhetorically) “If you were poor, what would you rather be, Indian or Chinese?” And he challenged his audience to consider whether the sacrifice of individual freedoms for the greater good of the many wasn’t after all a legitimate point of view.  His implication was that this was the Chinese way.  As someone who is partly Chinese himself, speaks Chinese and who lived there for many years in the eighties and nineties, I could easily contextualise Chandran’s arguments – albeit I disagree with his conclusions.


Above: A consistent feature of the conference was the inclusion of students as M/C’s, presenters and panellists.  After all, it would be odd to have a conference dedicated to the needs of the iGeneration that omitted its members from the line-up!

It was Jeff Utecht who got the best laugh out of the keynotes – and it was at Chandran’s expense although it was not until the following morning when Chandran himself was on an aeroplane flying back to Hongkong (he was barely in the country twenty-four hours). “I finally figured out what this guy’s problem with technology is”, Jeff told us at his own keynote speech on Saturday. “He’s got one device… and it’s a Blackberry!”

iPads for Languages

This week I’ve been asked to offer thoughts on what apps might be most suitable for using iPads in language classrooms.  It’s a natural question and one to which a number of answers suggest themselves, but fundamentally, it is interesting to note that we still seem to consider iPads as vehicles for delivering apps to the consumer.  This is one function iPads can fulfil well, but it is far from the full picture.

As I teach a once-a-week language class myself, and as I still try to keep attendance at my evening adult education classes at least one trimester a year, I maintain a close interest in the pedagogy in language classes.  There are some apps that I would consider using were I still teaching languages full-time: Latin Builder, for example, is a good way to develop linguistic and strategic competence skills by using pre-written Latin sentences to retell well known Greek myths.  But apps that appear to have very little to do with language learning form some of the most valuable tools in the toolkit when they are used by skilled teachers.  Last year my grade three and four Mandarin class used Pages and PuppetPals HD far more than they used Chinagram, Flashcards, En-Cn Dict or any of the other apps we bought and downloaded in the assumption they might be useful!  This spring, the only app I’m going to make compulsory is Evernote.

Hurst for Blog

On a recent visit to Hurst, a colleague and I were struck by how many of the teachers were using apps that ostensibly were unconnected with the subject matter. Yet they worked beautifully because the teacher had identified an appropriate and weighted use for the app in the specific context they planned to create.   In one case, it was as a slate for holding up suggested answers to teacher question prompts (see above).  If that sounds as though the iPads were merely being used to substitute the functions of the previous technology, let me observe that the ability to screenshot the students’ answers and save them to the camera roll allowed for the creation of flashcards for a further activity later in the lesson.

We’re all aware that there are some game-changing apps out there that can seriously transform learning and redefine the tasks students perform in schools: that same day in Hurst I sat in on part of a geography lesson in which a student teacher led the class in collating real-time temperature data from the Met Office’s website and recording it on a map app to show the effects of global warming.  But even in this lesson it was the simple spreadsheet on which the data could be tracked and analysed that was the killer app.