Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Parental Controls & Internet Filtering

I am regularly contacted by parents for advice about software they can install on the devices their children use at home that will enable them to filter out or block inappropriate content, usually based on the assumption that we must use some sort of monitoring software on campus. Often these parents are surprised to discover that while we do have filters to block the most egregious of content, it is fair to say that our college filters are not as strict as many might expect. We do use a commercial filter on our internet traffic to block inappropriate sites, however, such filters work on the basis of keywords and blacklists and neither of these methods are foolproof. So why do we take the risk?

Our college policy regarding parental controls goes a long way to explaining this:
In general the College has an ethos of developing personal responsibility in students and ultimately we believe that it is essential for students to develop the skills and attitudes necessary to survive and then thrive in a digitally connected world.
The sentiment behind this policy statement is very similar to the description of 'e-safety' as defined by Becta:
The term e-safety covers a broad range of issues around the need to ensure that children's and young people's experience and engagement with technologies is a safe and positive one. While parents, educators, government and industry all have a role to play in keeping children and young people safe, supporting them to become independent in online environments is critical to nationwide, effective e-safety. ‘Independence' does not mean here that they are expected to deal with every incident themselves: it means that they develop social skills (including resilience); that they know how to identify and manage risk; that they understand their rights and responsibilities and know how to access help and advice if needed. 
Becta's Contribution to the Rose Review, 2009  
When we teach our kids how to use the internet, we do so from a position of preparing them for the 'real world' of internet access that most will encounter at home. While there are a minority of families who use some form of filtering software, the reality is that few families have internet filters of any kind on their home connections. This is not a criticism, I have not installed any filtering software at home either. This situation reflects the norm in my experience, a norm that we need to be teaching our students to operate effectively and responsibly within.  For example, you cannot guarantee that even walking down Orchard Road you are not going to see images or overhear a conversation that you feel is inappropriate for your children. So in addition to the filters, arguably, more important than filters is the need to teach our children the skills they need to navigate the internet safely, and how to react appropriately if, or should I say, when something occurs.

This policy very much underpins our approach and throughout the Primary School, where, even from K2 (in K1 teachers use Guided Access), all students are effectively 'administrators' of their devices, this applies all the way through the iPad grades, and then on through from Grade 3-5, all students receive their own laptop in G6, which they are administrators of—all the way through to grade 12. This means that our students are already accustomed to using and managing their laptops as an 'administrator' although they may not even be aware of this, as we treat this as the 'normal' operating state. This is an arrangement we encourage all parents to maintain, unless of course a situation arises where you feel that you need to withdraw the privilege of an admin account, in this (hopefully rare) situation, we encourage parents to ensure that this is a temporary arrangement. We also employ this as a sanction in the primary school, if a student is unable to demonstrate the level of responsibility we expect, we remove administrator access. To my knowledge this remains a threat we have not needed to follow through on... yet.

"Nearly half of 10 year olds say they have the skills to hide what they're doing online from their parents." 
Sky News, Swipe

It's worth noting as a practical point, that the process of imposing parental controls is not a simple one, this is mainly because the process of setting the 'tightness' and 'looseness' of controls is a tricky balance to find. If your main concern is distraction rather than access to inappropriate content, there are a range of strategies we encourage at school that you can also model at home, and encourage your children to practise as well. The other critical consideration is that if you are not very careful, you could end up effectively creating an unhelpful dynamic where you effectively teach your child that they are not trusted, at which point you may well be encouraging them to find ways to subvert your attempts at policing their online activity, then when they do encounter problems they are unlikely to come to you for help as they will have to confess their nefarious scheme... For more see this short video on the 'the secret cyber life of young people'...

Road Safe, Web Safe

This is where the analogy of road safety that we use with students comes in. Roads in every country are commonplace, and at some point everyone of our children will need to learn how to navigate them safely and independently. The same can be said of the 'wild wild web'; like roads they are a modern and essential reality, and while they can be dangerous, they shouldn't be treated is if they are inherently dangerous places—although they can be very dangerous places. The solution to both is very similar: education and supervision. Like roads, we expect kids to be able to navigate the web from an early age, but never alone; although any wise parent should be modelling for their kids how they navigate the web, when they are using it together. Just like road safety, there are some basic rules we expect all young children to follow, to make these effective we've kept them simple:

  1. Only search the internet with a responsible adult present.
  2. If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, show the responsible adult.
  3. If you need to search online unsupervised, use a search engine designed for kids like Kiddle or Kidrex.

About point 3, we liken these 'child safe' search engines to playgrounds, spaces that are designed especially for children, this doesn't make them harmless, after all, kids in playgrounds can still get hurt, but it does make the likelihood of this less likely. In the same way we liken searching using Google as tantamount to walking down Orchard Road, not an inherently dangerous space per se, especially in Singapore; but clearly the possibility of encountering something or someone inappropriate is more likely. As children we did not grow up with the dangers of the internet, but we did grow up with dangers, and our parents, in my experience were quite comfortable with allowing us some controlled exposure to risk situations, precisely so we could learn from them. I fell out of several trees, and off several bicycles during my childhood, not to mention the stairs I fell down. Stairs, now those are really dangerous, but I doubt anyone is seriously considering preventing children from using those... So we're not looking to create a zero risk environment for our students, but a managed risk environment, this distinction is essential. This last point is one I've written about before, but a recent article from the Washington Post, entitled, 'Why I don't monitor my kids' texts anymore' does an excellent job of articulating this tension, along with some practical parenting advice.

"As a young and socially inexperienced person, I was sometimes mean, sometimes gross, and sometimes way out of line. Every kid tests his or her own boundaries. That’s how they start to grow up. The queasiness in my stomach or the ache in my heart when I crossed that line is what helped me learn from those mistakes. 
When we hover over our kids’ social interactions, on high alert to catch each mistake and steer them back on course, we squelch their internal barometer for embarrassment and guilt. Had my mom listened to all my conversations and called my behavior out into the light, I might not have learned to read my moral compass."

This does beg the question, "at what age is it okay for my child to browse the internet unsupervised?', and the answer is very similar to "at what age is it okay for my child to cross the road unsupervised?", which is, when you have taught them how to navigate it safely, and what to do if things go wrong. In my experience this is unlikely to be until grade 4 or 5, which is, incidentally, when students are allowed to make their own way home (with parental permission, of course).

Not all families or children are the same, and the home environment is not one that is necessarily conducive to ensuring that young children are never able to go online unsupervised. Given that our policy is to teach responsibility, we'd like to think that even if unsupervised, our students would still make the 'right choice' and either stay offline (working within an app for example) or use one of the child safe search engines that they are encouraged to use in school.  However there are clearly scenarios where this is not a realistic option, in which case you may want to consider some digital tools that can assist with this, but bear in mind these are unlikely to be free if they're any good, for example a one year family subscription to Azoomee costs £40, " No ads, no in-app purchases. And a PIN lock to keep kids inside the app and take away the worries."

The Gryphon Router is a new product (as of Jan 2017) on the market which appears to be pretty much a one stop solution that offers you complete control, but with a simple set up. All security is built into the actual router so there is nothing to install on each device, anything that connects to your network would be controlled by that system. Gryphon comes with an app for real time management of any connected devices. It's designed with a US market in mind, maybe worth a look... ?

This article contains some very practical advice, over and above the 'unplug the router' (one I have to say I like, simple but effective!) strategy, along with some wise caveats,
"While we can certainly recommend a bunch of apps and devices for you, this is more about your approach than the tools you’re going to use. Kids generally don’t like being spied on and dislike being spied on without their knowledge even more. While a number of monitoring tools can run without children knowing about them, we strongly recommend being transparent with your kids about when and how you’re tracking them. 
You know your kids better than we do, and we can’t prescribe the right approach for every type of child, but whatever your situation it pays to be open and honest about the dangers out there on the web and in the real world."  David Nield

Friday, 23 September 2016

Protection, Paranoia & Parenting

Some articles I read years ago, and this one from Common Sense Media more recently have a habit of continually popping back into my head, every time the inevitable web scare rears its ugly head.

There is a paranoia associated with the web which can easily be exaggerated, for example parents who are profoundly uncomfortable at the thought of a photo of their child being viewable online, even if the image is buried in a website with an extremely obscure URL, a proverbial needle in a digital haystack. Yet this same parent will almost certainly allow their child to walk down Orchard Rd, Fifth Avenue, Oxford Street, knowing that they can be seen (perhaps even photographed unawares) by the general public? Not to mention the ever increasing presence of CCTV cameras watching our every move. Could this same parent be in the habit (as I am) of regularly posting images of their children on social media? ... The fact is that without an associated name and detailed localising data, such as an address, it is almost impossible to track down one child based on the image of their face alone (in the extremely unlikely event that someone wanted to).

So, like the concrete jungles of our cities and towns, the Wild Weird Wonderful Web is an amazing place, but it is a metaphorical jungle, and, as it happens, the wild wild web has a great deal in common with a jungle as it happens—not too many leaves—but many wonderful opportunities and yes, many dangers, dangers, that with a few basic precautions, can be avoided.

The first Article makes a few controversial but critical points, which could be broadly summarised as:

Less monitoring more mentoring

The expectation of constantly monitoring children and teenagers on the Internet is an impossible ideal. Who has time to stand over the shoulder of your kids for the entire time they are online? Children’s freedom to roam in the physical world has been radically curtailed. While previous generations could ride bikes or walk to school or play outside unsupervised till dinner time, this generation is watched all the time. They have lost that thrill of being on their own until they are much older, and, for them, the Internet can provide that open space, to test and explore and try out the outside world—while being a lot less painful than ... say ... falling out of a tree, a risk that was commonplace in my childhood. In fact a shiver runs down my spine when I consider some of the risks I routinely took as child, with n'ere a parent, or even an adult in sight or sound. There is educational value in this kind of risk, this exploration even if it is online, perhaps even because it is: a lot of the work kids do is apprehending the social world, and for them, much of this work is done online.

Less restrictions more responsibility 

The important thing is to give kids the ability to handle choices, assess risks, and take strategic, or calculated risks. You want, in other words, to create the kid who can handle the Internet without you. And how can they become that kid if you are watching them all the time, if you are always hovering right there next to them? You don't just throw a 5-year-old out on the streets and tell them to figure it all out. The same is true online. But, accordingly, you can't expect to put them under surveillance and control every action they make until they're 18 and then magically assume they'll be fine at university, and the world 'beyond school' (I dislike the use of 'real world' to describe life outside school—school life is real life too!) when they haven't had any experience managing their own decisions.

Pain is a powerful teacher

Pain is a powerful teacher, sure, it's not kind, but it certainly is effective. Parents need to face up to the idea that they cannot protect their children from every potential negative experience, online, or offline, this is an impossible fantasy; there is no way to seal your children off from awful or painful or frightening things. This is nothing new, think back to your own childhood, bad things happened, you got over it, hopefully you learned something from it.

A caveat...

With great power comes great responsibility, not anonymity

A huge part of responsibility means ceasing the dubious practice by many, well meaning, but poorly informed parents, of allowing their kids to create social networking accounts in anonymity, based on the ludicrous notion that this somehow protects their child. STOP! All this does is remove all responsibility, and in far too many cases actively encourages irresponsibility, as far too many children wreak havoc online from behind the veneer of a name like Puff the magic Dragon, with an Avatar of an aardvark or ... a pineapple ... or, you get the idea... Like no paedophile has ever thought of doing that? It is important to note here that online predators are far less likely to be paedophiles, and far more likely to be your child's own 'friends' and acquaintances. All you've done is encourage a situation where your anonymous child is forced to socialise with other anonymous people online, strangers, because they are similarly anonymous, oh, but they SAY they are your child's best friend ... . If you're going to let your kid 'play outside'; make sure they are playing as themselves, no disguises, no anonymity, their name, their face, and they should make sure to only socialise with people who do likewise.

The point, is not to create a safe world, but a safer world. 

Tim Elmore wrote an article more recently on this subject,  Three Huge Mistakes We Make Leading Kids…and How to Correct Them - a great article, and again, if you will permit me, it can be summed up similarly and thus:

Over-protection is damaging our children—

We Risk Too Little

“If you’re over 30, you probably walked to school, played on the monkey bars, and learned to high-dive at the public pool. If you’re younger, it’s unlikely you did any of these things. Yet, has the world become that much more dangerous? Statistically, no. But our society has created pervasive fears about letting kids be independent—and the consequences for our kids are serious.” (Gever Tully)

The truth is, kids need to fall a few times to learn it is normal; teens likely need to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend to appreciate the emotional maturity that lasting relationships require. Pain is actually a necessary teacher. Over-protecting our young people has had an adverse effect on them, we are failing miserably at preparing them for a world that will not be risk-free.

We Rescue Too Quickly

This generation of young people has not developed some of the life skills kids did thirty years ago because adults swoop in and take care of problems for them. We remove the need for them to navigate hardships. This may sound harsh, but rescuing and over-indulging our children is one of the most insidious forms of child abuse. It’s “parenting for the short-term” and it sorely misses the point of leadership [parenting]—to equip our young people to do it without help. Just like muscles atrophy inside of a cast due to disuse, their social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual muscles can shrink because they’re not exercised.

We Rave too Easily

Praise effort and persistence, not ability. Carol Dweck (Mindset) tells us that our affirmation of kids must target factors in their control. When we say “you must have worked hard,” we are praising effort, which they have full control over. It tends to elicit more effort. When we praise ability 'you're smart/clever/awesome!', it may provide a little confidence at first but ultimately causes a child to work less. They say to themselves, “If it doesn’t come easy, I don’t want to do it.”

A helpful metaphor when considering this challenge is inoculation. Inoculation injects a vaccine, which actually exposes you to a dose of the very disease your body must learn to overcome. It’s a good thing. Only then do we develop an immunity to it. Similarly, our kids must be inoculated with doses of hardship, delay, challenges and inconvenience to build the strength to stand in them.

So let them fail, let them fall, and let them fight for what they really value. If we treat our kids as fragile, they will surely grow up to be fragile adults. We must prepare them for the world that awaits them. Our world needs resilient adults not fragile ones.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Maths, Automaticity & iOS Devices...

Using iOS devices such as iPads for 'skill+drill' is something we generally discourage in school, where we would rather these technologies are used for creating and collaborating, along with the many other skills that are described in the UWCSEA profile.

You see, skill+drill Apps don't need a teacher, what they do need is a device, time, and perseverance; so what this is, is an excellent productive activity children can easily engage in at home. This kind of practise builds the kind of 'automaticity' (instant recall without hesitation) that is fundamental to confidence in numeracy. Knowing mathematics facts frees up the mind to solve more complex math problems.  If a child has to struggle to solve 8 + 3, they have no mental energy (or desire) left to grapple with the types of problems that will increase their capacity as a mathematician.

In my experience spanning over twenty years, I find that teachers commonly (and traditionally) facilitate this through a relentless torrent of photocopied worksheets, something I myself have relied on over the years. However since the advent of the integration of digital technologies, I really struggle to understand how having kids complete a photocopied Maths worksheet can ever be seen as better than the kinds of differentiated, adaptive, multimodal practise offered by Maths apps, and Maths sites like Khan Academy. If teachers ceased to set these tedious sheet as homework, they could free up the time to plan better lessons, no need to 'mark', instead use the time to analyse the data—where are they struggling? Where are the gaps? Where should they go next? What group of kids do you need to conference with tomorrow?

Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practise.

So while I generally discourage skill+drill in school, I can see its value at home. Below I have included the collection of Maths Apps we use (sometimes) at school that I believe are particularly powerful for this kind of learning, learning through practise. 

This is a small selection, no doubt a Google search would turn up many more, although I doubt they will be very different to these.

Top Tip: Ask your child to take a screenshot of their score after first attempt, then compare their progress after a week or so.


These kinds of Apps are basically teaching mathematics in old ways using new technology, albeit amplified

Chocolate covered broccoli...
These Apps are essentially worksheets on steroids, so while your kids may be more engaged in the short term, don't expect this to last. These tools are essentially 'chocolate-covered broccoli'. That’s what designers of educational games call digital products that drape dull academic instruction in the superficially appealing disguise of a game, using the trappings of games “as a sugar coating” for what would otherwise be unappetising content—in short don't treat these games as a replacement for 'proper' games like Minecraft, but by all means treat them as replacements for worksheets.

What these Apps do offer that worksheets don't are features like, interactivity, capacity, range, speed and automatic, accurate, reliable responses at the speed of light.  These unique features make a contribution to the teaching and learning process, in that they motivate and interest children by interaction, allowing them to change the work in progress and facilitate a variety of paces of working.

We sometimes think of being good at mathematics as an innate ability. You either have "it" or you don't. But what these Apps can encourage, is what we call a 'growth mindset' it's not about ability it's about attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try.  Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for 30 minutes to make sense of something that some people would give up on after 30 seconds.

Drill & Practise

"Of particular interest is the effect of drill and practise – and despite the moans by many adults, students need much drill and practise. However, it does not need to be dull and boring, but can be, and indeed should be, engaging and informative. Drill is a euphemism for practise: repeated learning of the material until it is mastered – this is the key ingredient in mastery learning, [...] and of deliberative practice. It does not have to be deadly, and a key skill for many teachers is to make deliberative practise engaging and worthwhile. Luik (2007) classified 145 attributes of drills using computers into six categories: motivating the learner, learner control, presentation of information, characteristics of questions, characteristics of replying, and feedback. The key attributes that led to the highest effect included learner control, not losing sight of the learning goal, and the immediate announcement of correctness or otherwise of the answer to the drill." (Hattie, 2013)

Many computer games are basically invested with high levels of drill and practise and many students can be thrilled and motivated to engage in these often repetitive tasks to attain higher levels of skill and thus make more progress through the game. Computer games include much engaging drill and practice with increasing levels of challenge that usually is mastered by overlearning or undertaking high degrees of drill and practice. So often, the evidence has shown positive effects from using computers to engage in deliberative practice, particularly for those students struggling to first learn the concept." (p 224)

Hattie J (2013). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Organise Email Better

I think it's fair to say, that despite the proliferation of digital tools in the past decade or three since this whole digital and information revolution started, other than the web browser, the humble email remains resolute, and love it or loathe it, remains absolutely essential. I've written before about the mistaken hype around change in tech, but I'll say it again; change is not as fast in tech as people often assert, a fact that can be underscored by the persistence of email. So if you've been waiting for this form of electronic communication to become obsolete, I'm afraid you'll be waiting a long time—it's not going anywhere soon, so you'd better develop some effective strategies for managing it effectively.

Now before you complain about your overloaded inbox, that's not the fault of email, that's the fact of living and working in a large, busy, complex organisation—I still remember the days before email, when we used 'pigeon holes' in staff rooms, and there were plenty of those that were stuffed to overflowing then as well. I'd venture so far as to say, it's a safe bet, those people who struggled to manage then, will struggle with email now—fortunately email has a few features to help that pigeon holes didn't/don't.

Number 1. DELETE NOTHING (unless it's abusive). There is plenty of space in your GMail inbox, so chillax, let that email slumber sweetly within your nice and comfy inbox. It's OK. You have better things to do with your time.

Number 2. Read them all, even if it's but a glance, it only takes a click, just open one at the start (or end), and keep clicking through until you get to the end (or the beginning). You might even find this easier to do on your phone/tablet than in your browser...

Number 3: Instead of leaving messages unread, STAR (or Flag in Mail) emails you have read, but need to follow up on, then unstar (Is that a word? It is now) them when you're finished. Just click on the star icon. If you find yourself loving this option as much as I do, you might be interested in taking it further with different kinds of stars, to indicate the kind of email it is—urgent? useful info? question? See this post if you'd like to know more...

Number 4: Use the Starred option in the menu to easily view just the Emails you need to deal with.

Number 5: Don't waste time making/organising labels/folders, just rely on search, after all this is GMail and that is what Google do best. Putting to:name and from:name are really handy search tips, but if an email is proving really hard to locate just pop open the extra search options and you'll find it in no time—works searching Google Drive too!

Number 6: Try a tabbed inbox, all emails to groups (not directly to you) go to a separate tab, and emails to social platforms like Google groups get routed to a separate tab.

Number 7: Block Spam, not interested in those emails? Well stop them from continually clogging up your inbox by either unsubscribing (usually a link hidden at the bottom of the email) or hit the 'Report Spam' button, that tells GMail to delete and to delete any others coming from that sender.

Number 8: Last but not least, try Boomerang—what? Boomerang is a useful tool with a strange name that informs you if an email you sent has not been replied to after a certain period of time that you designate. It also allows you to time when emails you send are actually delivered.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Google Drive, Google Photos & Pixels

Picasa is dead

... well it's dying... The good news is that Google are replacing it with a new tool, that's better, called Google Photos. The new tool as several advantages over Picasa, with the exception of the fact that for some reason Google have removed the ability to embed albums, which, let's face it, very few people need to do, the switch to Google Photos is a big win. 

Let me count the ways:

  1. Unlimited storage (for GApps domains)
  2. Let me say that again,  UNLIMITED storage - wow.
  3. Vastly improved user interface
  4. Support across all devices, mobile, laptop, desktop...
  5. iPad friendly albums, Picasa albums could not be viewed, those days are gone.
  6. Searchable photos, even without your naming them, Google can recognise the content in your photos, eg if you search for 'dog'. 
  7. Media backup, using the desktop uploader you can now upload all (or as much as you want) of your media to Google Photos, and remove it from your hard drive to save space.

Don't Panic!

Google reassure us that, 

"If you have photos or videos in a Picasa Web Album today, the easiest way to still access, modify and share most of that content is to log in to Google Photos, and all your photos and videos will already be there. Using Google Photos, you can continue to upload and organize your memories, as well as enjoy other great benefits like better ways to search and share your images. 

However, for those of you who don’t want to use Google Photos or who still want to be able to view specific content, such as tags, captions or comments, we will be creating a new place for you to access your Picasa Web Albums data. That way, you will still be able to view, download, or delete your Picasa Web Albums, you just won’t be able to create, organize or edit albums (you would now do this in Google Photos)."

Google Photo Albums

You can easily find Google Photos, by using that link, or you can also find it by clicking on the app grid in GMail, then scroll down:

What about Google+ Photos?

This replaces that as well, which is also better in many ways as it's specifically devoted to photo and video sharing, with no intrinsic ties to the Google+ social network.

In fact if you try to access Google+ photos you will automatically be redirected to the new Google Photos, don't panic, all of the media you uploaded to Google+ will be available within Google Photos. If you want you can still use Google+, you can even still use the relatively geriatric Picasa but not for much longer, although it is not very mobile device friendly, and does not allow parents to download videos... So I wouldn't if I were you.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Gaming - Parent Questions

How much is too much?

During a normal school week, during term time, spending about 2 hours per day on screen for recreation (not including homework screen time) is normal; and I would expect this time to easily double during holidays/weekends. An important point to consider here is that we should not treat screen time as different to any other time, it is the activity that is essential to consider, not the medium they are using. For a more authoritative position on this, here is a link to the updated guidelines from the AAP:



What age is appropriate for a child to play video games?

Whenever considering questions of this nature, I find it helpful to think of the activity of gaming as being more akin to a sporting activity, like football, or swimming—they are similar in many ways.

Bearing this in mind, then the answer is, ss soon as they are able to—this is another example of 'media bias'; do we ask what age children should be allowed to read? watch TV? play outside? The answer is the same for all of these, as soon as they want to/are able to. The question is not when, but what; what games, books, video, kinds of play are appropriate? And as with all of these forms of media, most of them will require parental assistance at early ages.

Do you have any helpful guidelines that will practically help my child to control their consumption of the games ?

Again I have to caution parents on media bias with this kind of question; do they ask these questions about controlling their child's consumption of books? Watching video? Their time spent playing outside? With any happy, healthy lifestyle, balance is always paramount, and I would advocate balance between all of these valuable ways to spend time in recreation. I encourage balancing active recreational activities with passive recreational activities, ie reading books balanced with watching video, playing video games in the 'virtual world' balanced with playing outside or the 'real world'.

What games do you play?

I am personally not keen on multiplayer games, perhaps a sign of my age, as I rarely encounter any students who have a similar predilection. I engage in video games in a similar way to that of other forms of media like books and films and, as such I like my games to be very strongly story driven, with a powerful narrative elements, utilising a single player format with a preference towards action adventure games. A list of my favourite games would indicate a very strong bias towards this genre eg Zelda, Uncharted, Half-life, Tomb Raider, Skyrim, The Witcher, Assassin's Creed, Bioshock, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Batman Arkham, Shadow of Mordor, Uncharted... there are many more!

Don't games sap a child's imagination?

I have yet to encounter any authoritative research that makes this case, although I would say it is unfair to expect a genre like gaming to provide exactly the same kind of cognitive experience as that of other forms of media, which is why I strongly advocate for children to engage with many different types of media as a part of their recreational life. My question in response to this is, do you ask the same question of the other active recreational pursuits such as football, skiing, tennis, swimming et cetera? Do you believe participating in sports 'takes away' imagination? Do you believe this is a relevant question to pose in the context of these kinds of active pursuits? I do not believe they are. I do not believe that active pursuits like sport and gaming are pursuits within which you can expect ‘imagination’ to be engaged in the same way as it is when someone is, for example, writing a story or constructing a narrative in their heads as they are reading a book.

Why do games always involve shooting, fighting, conflict, etc?

I think the answer to this is simple, although you may not like it… conflict is a core element of any media narrative, and it takes many forms, some of which will be shooting, some fighting, almost all of which ultimately result in some form of victory or loss. Again I appeal to a comparison with other active forms of recreation; do you really think anyone would enjoy playing a sport where there was no rivalry? no winner or loser? Even if this is you losing against your previous performance? I doubt it very much, this appears to be very much a part of the human condition. I think you would struggle to find a great story in History that does not require conflict to be a major theme, again please let us not single out games the criticism in this area, but let us subject all forms of media to the same scrutiny. So a better question would be, why do books, films, always contain conflict? I think that is a question for a psychologist. 
"Conflict is the essence of drama and all literary fiction requires drama to please the reader and to succeed as a story. At the story core, conflict is the momentum of happening and change and is crucial on all levels for delivering information and building characterization. Conflict is the source of change that engages a reader, and in a story, conflict and action does what description and telling of feelings and situations do not."

​Is TF2 ​[Team Fortress 2/Overwatch - a shooting game] ​appropriate for 12 year old child?

I believe that ​it is,​​ as it falls​ into the category ​that​ I ​describe as ​"​cops and robbers" ​games, ​or​ ​"wild west" ​violence where there is​ a great deal of​ shooting, ​but there is ​little or no blood. In this game the entire ​arena is cartoonish and certainly not photo realistic.​ Regardless of your personal qualms, I think you need to accept that, especially for boys/men, shooting is inherently fun; whether that is paintball, archery, airgun pellets shooting cans off walls, or peashooters, there seems to be something built into the human psyche that finds this fun. I know I do!

This is of course also a parenting choice, and you would need to make a choice that is consistent with your advice to your child in other forms of media; so if you do decide that this level of violence is inappropriate your child, you should also ensure that you are consistent in this standard across the other forms of media that your child enjoys, specifically the books to read and the videos they view.​ Finally, whenever these questions arise it is a good idea to consult websites like those I've listed below to get parental reviews and other parental opinions. Also look at game footage in YouTube so that you can see yourself how the game plays in terms of the appropriateness of the content.



Which console do you recommend for kids below 10?

I'm conscious that as my current console is a PS4 so my recent experience with games is oriented to that platform, added to which, my own kids are now much older, so my awareness of games is more attuned to older gamers. All of that said...

The most obvious choice is the Wii U, or the Nintendo Switch (which has parental controls) the most 'family' oriented console.

Unfortunately many families buy the console, and then fail to buy the best games for it. So whatever you do, don't fall games that 'look' good, only go for games that also have an excellent reputation. How? Using sites like:


For example, my search for games for an 8 year old brings up:


I'd stick with only 4-5 star reviews. Even then, once I'd found a game that looks appropriate, I'd cross reference it with other sites like Metacritic to make sure it really is as good as they say. For example everybodyplays recommends Yoshi's Woolly World, with 5/5, metacritic says 75/100 - that's still pretty impressive, so assuming you like the sound of the game, go for it.

For whole family fun, it's hard to beat Mario Kart, but Nintendo in particular have always been good at catering to 4 at once, more than that is difficult, as long as you have a big TV!

You'll notice that if you do the same searches for games on the PS4 there will be far fewer titles, but no matter your console choice there will be something that fits. Also bear in mind that there are games that are not designed for kids, but that kids would still love although they'd need help from mum or dad to play it, on the PS4 that includes games like Journey, Flow, Fez, Flower ...

To sum up - compare game reviews for parents with other game review sites, I'd recommend these 3:




How do you teach your children not to play games during class/homework? What if they always get distracted because the game is so good?

This is not really a question about video gaming, it is more question about parenting, and it is not really a new problem. As long as there have been activities that are preferable to other activities there are always tensions between parents and their children in terms of managing these temptations.

The alternative could be an attractive girl/boy, best friends, new bicycle, even climbing a tree, most of these things would be preferable to doing homework, it just happens that video games have been added to the tempting list. As with all of these distractions you will need to work out reasonable compromises with your children that involve them committing to a certain in amount of time on the thing they don't want to do before you give them time to do the things they would rather do.​..

What if they start playing with strangers on a server?

What if they start playing with strangers in a playground? Again there is no need to select video games servers for special treatment, all a video game server is is a digital version of a playground, in this regard is subject to the same kinds of opportunities and challenges as​ a​ ​'​real-world​'​ playground.​ With the possible exception of the fact that in a digital playground they cannot actually be physically hurt, although the possibility of the emotional trauma due to emotional abuse is just as likely if not more so, if the server is not supervised or moderated.​

As long as you keep in mind this consistency in terms of an analogy you should do well, because the same expectations apply. Your child should make responsible choices about the spaces they choose to play in. If they find that there are people in that space who not playing nicely they should politely asked them to stop, if they do not do so, then they should report the behaviour to a moderator (the kids call these 'mods', the equivalent of playground supervision) then they should leave and play somewhere else. There are many online servers available for multiplayer gaming, many are designed specifically for adults, but they also exist for children. Of course the kind of behaviour tolerated in an adult server will be very different to that on a server set up for children, just as you would expect if your child attended an adult football game, compared to a local children's playground. It is generally the case that kids are aware of a range of servers (digital playgrounds) that they use, and in my experience they are generally quite adept at making responsible choices, after all no one really wants to play in an environment that is abusive or aggressive.

My son wants to play a game called 'Uncharted 4'. I looked it up on the sites you suggested, and have mixed feelings... 

However, I am open, but would also want him to try out more appropriate educational strategy games. You mentioned the Legend of Zelda, but it looks like that this is not available on PS4. So, long story short, may I trouble to ask you:
- whether you have a view of the game
- whether Zelda is indeed not available on PS4
- what games you would propose a 13 years old former Eragon reader looks into

The Uncharted series is absolutely outstanding, so if he is going to play it, he should really start at beginning, the first 3 games can be downloaded from the PlayStation Network Uncharted: 'The Nathan Drake Collection'. As for appropriateness, there's no swearing, violence is of the 'cops and robbers' variety, ie not gratuitous. Again, commonsense media's rating is not much use, but the parent reviews are, I would wholeheartedly agree with this assessment:

"This game contains 3 amazing adventures that have won tons of awards. My 10 year old nephew plays and loves this game. There is no sex and language is occasional and mild. Violence is cinematic. In the second game, the opening scene shows protagonist on a hanging train off an exploded track. He has blood on his chest and his face. Blood splattering isn't present. Most of the game is spent scaling cliffs and hand to hand combat. Guns are an option but it is nonviolent and non bloody. The game is like an adventure movie with tons of action. It is similar to Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. 10-11+ depending on how protective you are."


The actual review from commonsense is useful, as long as you rely on that, and not on their rating, I’d say it’s fine for kids aged 10+:

"Parents need to know that Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is a compilation of three third-person-shooter games starring charismatic treasure hunter Nathan Drake. Play comprises a mix of exploration, puzzle solving, and frenetic melee combat and firefights. Nathan uses a variety of weapons to shoot and kill hundreds of ill-meaning human enemies over the course of all three games, rarely expressing remorse over his actions. He's also a very likeable guy who generally tries to do right by his friends and those he cares about. His romantic relationships, while an important part of the narrative, result in nothing more physical than kissing and a bit of innuendo. Light profanity occurs occasionally in dialogue, and a major character is fond of cigars."

So if you'd allow your son to watch an Indiana Jones film, or even James Bond, and allow him to read Eragon, then I don't see why you'd say no to this. If you're still unsure have a look at some gameplay footage on YouTube, watch it with your son, and have an honest conversation about it, tell him your concerns, and encourage him to reassure you ... if he can!

Yes, as you are correct, the Zelda series of games are exclusive to Nintendo, they are so good that it is common for people to purchase the Wii U, just so they can play those games, I did! to be fair the same is true of the Uncharted series, a Playstation exclusive.

The Zelda games were/are such a such an industry defining tour de force, that they have had a massive influence on pretty much all the 3D action adventure role playing games that followed, none that can match the originals, but even close is amazing.

Games that emulate the genius of the Zelda games - exploration, puzzles, boss fights, story, epic scale, legendary status, 'good' central hero, 'puzzle box' level design, ... are:
  • Beyond Good and Evil
  • Okami
  • Darksiders
  • Portal 2

Unfortunately all only on the PS3! There are rumours that Sony are going to enable the PS4 to play PS3 games, we await with baited breath!

But all's not lost, there are still many great games that employ similar game mechanics to the Zelda games on the PS4, unfortunately a few of them are not appropriate for Grade 7 students to play, (like The Witcher, and Dark Souls)... But I would recommend the following, 3rd person action/adventure games:

  • All the Batman games, Arkham Knight et al.
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition
  • Ratchet & Clank
  • Any Assassin's Creed game, but especially Black Flag IV (you can turn blood off in settings)
  • Tomb Raider

My presentation and the related content is available here: bit.ly/uwcgaming

Tech Enhanced MindMaps

Mindmap Methodology via Examtime

Mind maps are such flexible, powerful ways to represent learning, and yet I rarely see them used. I think one thing that probably puts people off is they think they might as well just use paper, and I too once thought this... I was wrong.

Shifting mind maps to a screen drastically changes what you can do with them—so when you ask students to mind map on a screen, don't just ask them to replace what they can do just as well with paper mind maps—use SAMMS to transform them, so they are used in ways that can’t be replicated using static media like paper:

Situated Creativity

Online or 'cloud based' mind maps can be worked on in groups, synchronously and asynchronously - collaboratively or cooperatively, a seamless blend of classwork/homework. This means that rather than the tedium of teachers collecting in the work regularly to 'mark' the can view any of them, at any time, anywhere.


Smart web search for images to illustrate stages - combine with smart use of unit keywords (process, source) to really empower inquiry, eg students can clarify the understanding of essential words and terms by adding images that to illustrate (not just decorate) their maps; eg students learning about the process of how chocolate is manufactures can add an image that illustrates “chocolate process” or ‘chocolate source” to amplify the meaning of key ideas with images, and even videos. Terms that are ambiguous or confusing for the student can include a simple definition (in Google just type define: ). The treasure trove of knowledge that is the internet becomes a cornucopia of content to simple and easily make a mind map a glorious representation of that students expanding understanding.


This is probably the most powerful enhancement of mind mapping on a screen. The mind map can be evolve, so it a form of assessment I call an ‘ongoingative’, in that it starts as a pre-assessment, gets used formatively throughout the unit, and ends up becoming a summative assessment. A much more natural, nonlinear, ‘organic’ way to organise ideas—starting very simply with initial ideas and understanding (pre-assessment), then revisiting the same mindmap regularly (once a week?) taking screenshots of the changes/evolution over the course of the unit.* Another factor here is that, unlike with the paper equivalent, ideas can easily be dragged and dropped, disconnected and reconnected, moved and removed as the overall map becomes more focused and as a clear structure emerges. Also, on the screen there is no need to be confined to the limits of a page, they can allow their mind map to expand in any direction their thinking takes them. The examples below (Rewind, Review, Reflect) shows how this works in Mind Meister using the history tool to review a process that took weeks in minutes.


At the end of the unit, the screen shots of the mind maps over the previous weeks can be turned into a screencast with the student reflecting on their learning. In iOS Puppet EDU makes this very easy, or use Quicktime to narrate a sequence of screenshots. Alternatively kids could use PicCollage to make a montage of key screenshots of a LJ post, with some text to summarise their learning? Mind maps like Mind Meister incorporate a Prezi like presentation mode, that allows the students to guide the audience/teacher through the elements that are most essential, they can even add a narration using an app like QuickTime - see the 'Reflect, Present, Narrate...' example below.

Socially Networked Activity

Mid unit reflection, kids can share their on going work in a multiplicity of ways, from sharing their mind map with their peers to facilitate collaboration or cooperation, or as simple as posting a screen capture of the most recent version of their mind map to share with the class, either via a class online space, or a Padlet et cetera. Peer to peer feedback, mediated by the teacher.

An Example from Grade 3

Michael Wheeler worked though a unit with his class that really exemplifies how well this approach works. Over the course of several weeks the mind map/concept map became a repository for recording and reflecting on their learning experiences throughout the unit; special guests, website info, BrainPop activities and videos, educational interactives—all summarised and and mapped in relation to three essential understandings. 

Rewind, Review, Reflect

This video powerfully demonstrates the 'history' tool, which effectively allows the students to rewind the map, and review the entire process of learning and inquiry captured over the preceding weeks.

Reflect, Present, Narrate...

The screen captures below demonstrate the final stage of the project, where each student was able to turn this formative record of learning into a summative presentation with a few clicks, this was then used to record a screen narration where the students reflected upon their work, by summing up the overarching understandings from the unit, not just narrating the text on the screen.

Grade 5

Across the Curriculum

Mind maps can be used for:

  • problem solving - WWWHWW
  • outline/framework design
  • structure/relationship representations
  • marriage of words and visuals
  • condensing material into a concise and memorable format
  • Project management 
  • Book/film/unit summaries
  • Word study - spellings, forms, etymology, patterns/conventions/connections
  • Brainstorming (ideation)
  • Knowledge management (including pre assessment) 
  • Planning 
  • Ongoingatives 
  • Connections between concepts, ideas, knowledge, skills. 
  • Maths strategy representations and connections, and/or process stages/steps

Concept maps vs Mind Maps

Technically mind maps differ from concept maps in that mind maps focus on only one word or idea, whereas concept maps connect multiple words or ideas. Also, concept maps typically have text labels on their connecting lines/arms. Mind maps are based on radial hierarchies and tree structures denoting relationships with a central governing concept, whereas concept maps are based on connections between concepts in more diverse patterns. A concept map is a way of representing relationships between ideas, images, or words. In a concept map, each word or phrase is connected to another and linked back to the original idea, word or phrase. Concept maps are a way to develop logical thinking by revealing connections and helping students see how individual ideas form a larger whole.

A Mind map reflects what you think about a single topic, which can focus group brainstorming. A Concept maps are more free form, as multiple hubs and clusters can be created, unlike mind maps which fix on a single conceptual centre. The reality is that I doubt many people really care about the semantic differences, my mind maps also exploit the features of concept maps, or maybe it's vice versa? The point is that this model is versatile and dynamic, it can be whatever you want it to be. This is a sentiment clearly echoed by a passionate advocate of this way of working, Ken Robinson; who gives the following, practical advice:
There is no wrong way to create a mind map as long as it makes sense to you. Mind mapping offers you a lot of creative freedom and can open whole new ways if thinking. Here are some of the main principles you to keep in mind as you practice mind mapping: 
  • Use single words or very short phrases for each line. Remember, this is a visual as much as a verbal system.
  • Form organic connections.
  • Use a variety of colours throughout the mind map. Colours give the map visual appeal and they help to identify different levels and types of ideas."
  • Each keyword or image should have its own line. 
Finding Your Element, pp 11-12

Key Concept Mind Maps

No need to look far for the a set of powerful single words that can form the basis of a concept map in any curricular area, some or all this essential 8, I call, '2Fs, 3Cs, 2Rs and 1P' are all you need:
  • form - define it, what is it?
  • function - how does it work?
  • causation - why is it like this?
  • change - how is it changing?
  • connections - how is it similar to other things?
  • responsibility - what do you/we need to do about it?
  • reflection - how do you know what you think you know is true?
  • perspective - what are the possible points of view?
Key concept starters in Popplet

Key Concepts in Mind Meister

Some Suggested Tools

For the reasons outlined in this post, mind mapping tools that are situated online make the most sense, top of my list for these is Popplet, followed closely by MindMeister, which has the added advantage of working with GApps, although it is more suited to older students, as you can see in the examples above, it works well with students as young as grade 3 as well.

Further Reading

MindMeister have published a great post on the benefits of mind mapping, "From Collecting Dots to Connecting Dots": Using Mind Maps to Improve Memory and Learning" that is well worth a read. It provides a short overview of principles of memory and learning and effective learning techniques, and demonstrates how students can use mind maps to become more effective learners.

*Mind maps like Popplet and Mindmeister include history tools that literally allow you to rewind to the start of the process and play it back.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Not another Test/Rubric...?


Assessment drives everything educational. So, not surprisingly, assessment is the biggest factor in terms of planning the use of tech in effective ways. This means that it's critical to ensure that we use a varied range of assessment strategies, which is where I find a surprising lack of options.

Why do so many teachers assume that only rubrics and tests are suitable for assessment? Sure they have their place but only within a suite of assessment strategies...

I don't mean to denigrate any particular assessment tool—clearly rubrics and tests can be effective assessment tools, but when they dominate, they have an unfortunate tendency to diminish the importance and efficacy of all of the other tools that are available. It is depressingly common to me that in virtually any educational context (classroom, conference, online) when the conversation inevitably turns to assessment, the question seems to default to, 'what rubric or test will we use?' rather than any awareness that there are a plethora of other tools and strategies that could be just as effective if not more so.

Do less, but do it better.

Now of course it's highly possible that teachers are unaware of the wider range of assessment tools they use effectively almost everyday, such as the ad hoc/informal conversations (conferences in the jargon) with students every day, to spirited class debates (not lectures) that utlise skilful Socratic strategies, which are in and of themselves valid assessment tools. The problem is that I think these are seen as somehow inferior to a "proper" test/rubric. All this does is create a lose/lose scenario for the teacher and the student.  Rather than focusing on tests and rubrics, wouldn't it be better for everyone if we were to embrace a much wider tool kit when it comes to assessment? To see them all as valid/powerful, maybe that conversation/conference was so effective that adding a rubric or a test is not only unnecessary but possibly even counter productive?

I think if you had asked most teachers why it is that they rely so strongly upon rubrics and tests as opposed to all of the other powerful forms of assessment, I think you would find that they would point to one sad fact; they feel they need paper with marks on, that they can attach a grade to, so they  can point to it as being hard evidence of their assessment judgement. While there is clearly a place for this kind of formal (usually summative) judgement, in my experience it is far too frequent and far too common. Teachers could do themselves a favour and do their students a favour by focusing on the goal of learning rather than the need to have a hard artefact to present evidence of every stage of progress.

What if instead we were to focus on the goal, that is, as long as the assessment tools you use allow you to provide effective individual feedback to the student and enables them to progress in their learning point where they are improving compare to their previous level of competence (ipsative assessment), then the goal has been achieved! So why not work a little smarter and use a range of assessment tools that are a far more varied. In so doing you create a classroom environment that is more dynamic, and far more effective for both the teacher and the student.

So what does this have to do with tech?

From my perspective, a classroom that exploits a wide range of assessment tools is a much richer environment within which to be able to integrate digital tools that can truly enhance and transform the way teachers teach and the way the students learn, and demonstrate the extent to which they have mastered the skills, knowledge and understanding that is truly the point, not just in ways that can be measured quantitatively on another test or a rubric. You don't have to look much further than an early childhood classroom to see this in action. Why? One thing their students can't do is demonstrate their understanding via tests or rubrics!

I've always found this matrix from the PYP to be particularly useful to illustrate this, although you may be surprised by the omission of tests from this grid, I believe they (somewhat disparagingly?) categorise these as 'check lists':

From Making the PYP Happen (IBO)

From the 'old days'—not new, but not common either.

If you really insist on using rubrics, a nice way to use them is for the teacher to define a central standard (eg a level 3 on a 5 point scale) and then ask the students to define and justify the level they feel their work sits in comparison to that, with examples.

More reading on the problems with rubrics, if you're so inclined:

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Digital Mini-Lesson

There are times when you might have students away from class on field trips or when you wish to capture the essential understandings of the lesson for other everyone to refer back to later. With a couple of clicks of your laptop you create a simple screen recording to explain a concept.

Teamie is now a quick and easy platform to share such screen-recordings. With any post, you can choose to attach a video which will be published in line for your students to see and comment on.

There are three simple options to self-create digital mini lessons. From simple to slightly more sophisticated.

1. Quicktime Screen Recordings

From within your mac you can click and open Quicktime and then choose to record your screen. At the same time you can select the white arrow button to activate the microphone so that it can record your voice at same time. You can now open any presentation, document, image and then record you speaking over the top. If you are using Powerpoint or Keynote you can choose the pencil button and annotate on your thoughts.

2. Using a Document Camera 

Around the school there are plenty of Document Cameras which you can borrow to make a mini-lesson. By using Quicktime and the Movie Record option you can choose the document camera as an external video source and record your explanations. It is excellent for unpacking concepts, or for analysing a piece of text. Once done, save to your desktop and then upload to Teamie.

3. Screencasting apps on the iPad

An iPad allows you to create short tutorials on anything using annotation and voice recorder tools.
Using either Explain Everything or Doodlecast Pro you can prepare several different slides and then speak over them your narration. You can click on the drawing tools to explain your thinking.

Short mini-lessons created this way are a perfect way to unpack any misconceptions or issues that groups of students might have.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Quizlet - back to an old favourite

Quizlet is fast becoming one of those Swiss Army knife apps that you end up repurposing and going back to time and time again. Like most teachers you probably got the email about their new Quizlet Live feature so I was keen to give it a go.
In essence using Quizlet is a perfect approach to get students to revise new terms or develop and broaden their vocabulary. In Economics I want student to use the appropriate terms and words to explain the nuances of complicated concepts. For instance we want our students to confidently use the term 'appreciation' rather than trying to just say that a currency has gone 'up' In my experience Quizlet is a pretty good tool to help develop this basic knowledge.
Quizlet Live is a free games based add-on to the core flashcard tool. The game cleverly takes any existing stack of vocabulary and definitions and then creates a game. On the first prompt students visit Quizlet Live and then enter your class code from the screen. You need more than 6 students to join and then it will place them into groups.

The best hint is to get kids to then move to sit in the randomly allocated group. Once you click begin, the students have to match up the answers. (see demo) Each member of the group has a different list of four terms which they can use to answer the pop up question. Collectively they use the terms to answer all of questions in the race to reach the end first. A great catch is that if they get one term wrong it makes the students start again.
On first impressions it sounds a little simple and a bit too much of a game, but it was one of the most fun and yet effective end of lesson activities I have done in a long time. Yet at the same time I think they all have mastered a broader list of terms that will hopefully help develop their ability to write more academically like an economist. Never underestimate the competitive nature of teenagers on a Monday morning.
A couple of hints to make it a more effective assessment task...
  • Share the Quizlet set of terms with the students for homework to look at independently before they do the game in class.
  • Carefully choose your lists of terms. A couple on my list had the actual word in the definition so made it easy to guess. (this was my Macroeconomic set)
  • Add a few terms to really stretch the students, or even from the next topic. 
  • Once the game is finished the screen changes to show feedback... essentially what were some commonly confused terms, what was the hardest to get correct etc. This is a good learning point where students could add to their notes or the teacher could unpack the misconception. (my students all stumbled on the inflation/disinflation/deflation terms and it was a timely reminder when the game prompted the kids to reflect on this at the end)
  • Pictures you might have added to the quiz don't show in the game at the moment
  • You need at least 6 kids and I think at least 12 terms to make it worthwhile.
  • You can repeat the same activity at the end of the game and choose to keep students in the same groups. If you want to then use a different set of terms you need to restart Quizlet Live and it then resets the groups. 
Enjoy and please comment if you find it useful or have other ideas on it's use.