Wrong but not Crazy

pexels-photo-207756.jpegI’ve been reading a lot about formative assessment lately and one recurring theme that stands out to me is the importance of wrong answers. From multiple choice questions to class discussions, finding students’ misconceptions, incomplete understandings, over-simplifications and over-generalizations is so much more valuable than seeing how many questions students can answer correctly.

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I [heart] spreadsheets

8399214678_8b1ee3f361_bI love spreadsheets! I love spreadsheets so much that my colleagues gave me an “I love spreadsheets” t-shirt. I use spreadsheets for typical spreadsheet tasks, like managing a budget and analyzing data, but I also use spreadsheets for other stuff too, like taking notes for research projects.

I think learning to use spreadsheets should be a standard high school learning outcome. It doesn’t matter to me whether students learn to use spreadsheets in a science class, math class, information technology class or humanities class, as long as they learn to use them. Here’s why I think it’s so important:

  • Spreadsheets let you do a lot of computations really quickly. When students use spreadsheets to solve problems, they can focus on other parts of the problem-solving process, like posing interesting questions and selecting appropriate mathematical techniques to solve them. Conrad Wolfram explains this better than I could in this TED Talk. Here’s an example of how I have used spreadsheets to speed-up the computation in order to focus on deeper problem-solving.
  • Because spreadsheets allow students to out-source computations, they are a great introduction to programming. When using spreadsheets, students learn to tell a computer what to do. This begins with familiar language, like the mathematical operations, but can become more complex with functions like conditional formatting, relative referencing and pivot tables. Learning how to determine what you want to do with a data set and then learning how to say that in a language the computer will understand is the beginning of programming.
  • Finally, spreadsheets have applications across the high school curriculum and in all kinds of work. I know most students are unlikely to use spreadsheets as enthusiastically and as widely as I do, but most will need them at some point and its a good skill for students to have.



It goes both ways

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of facilitating a session with IB Primary Years Program (PYP) teachers about inquiry in math class. Because we all work in British Columbia, we share the opportunities (and challenges) of delivering the new BC curriculum within the IB framework. As I prepared the session, the image of a double-headed arrow kept coming to mind.

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The Wisdom of the Crowd

Inspired by this segment of the BBC’s series, The Code, I recently tried replicating the jelly bean experiment during my school’s science fair.


I filled an old pickle jar with jelly beans and put it on display as students, teachers and parents explored the science fair. All science fair visitors were invited to estimate the number of jelly beans in the jar for a chance to win all the jelly beans. Meanwhile, I collected the estimates to determine whether the average estimate approached the actual number as more and more people participated.

In order to streamline the data collection, I had students enter their estimate in a google form. The estimates were automatically collected in a spreadsheet that I could analyze. It only took a few minutes to graph the results:

Jelly Bean Graph

The display was a popular exhibit at the science fair and appealed to both elementary and secondary students, as well as parent visitors. As it turned out, the three best estimates all came from elementary students. I just presented the results at the elementary school assembly and it was a big hit. It was great to be able to present scientific evidence that two heads (or many heads) are better than one!

Would you like to give this a try at your school? Here’s a sample Google Form that you can use to get started.

Progress vs. Performance

I am increasingly aware of the distinction between progress and performance when it comes to assessment. While assessment is about evaluating a students performance in relation to a specific set of standards, I think it is important that teachers, students and parents focus more on the progress that they demonstrate through assessment.


When we focus on performance, students can be afraid to show their work for fear that it won’t meet expectations but when we focus on progress, all student work is an opportunity to improve and demonstrate growth.

When we focus on performance, students are extrinsically motivated by grades but when we focus on progress, students develop intrinsic motivation.

When we focus on performance, we measure all students from the same starting point, but when we focus on progress, student growth is measured from each individual’s starting point.

When we focus on performance, we are tempted to lower standards so that all students can feel successful, but when we focus on progress, we are more likely to raise the standards, so that all students can continue to improve.

A New (school) Year, A New Perspective

This post is adapted from an article I wrote for my school’s newsletter.

As I write, I am enjoying the view from my new office, looking across to the PYP Building. After having spent last year housed in the PYP Building and working with PYP teachers as their Coordinator, I return to the MYP with a whole new perspective. The extent to which my sojourn in the PYP transformed my understanding of the MYP really hit home last week at the Grades 6 and 7 retreat. I spent most of the retreat with the Grade 6 students, the same group I got to guide through the PYP Exhibition last spring. In one workshop, we discussed some of the similarities and differences between the PYP and MYP. Our conclusion: The programmes are essentially the same, but just like the Grade 6 students are more sophisticated versions of their Grade 5 selves, the differences between the two programmes reflect the evolving abilities and needs of students as they mature.

My time in the PYP also taught me to think differently about collaboration amongst teachers. It was such a privilege to work with the PYP teachers in their Program of Inquiry review, a reflective process in which all the PYP teachers work together to refine each individual unit to ensure it is part of a cohesive whole. Because the MYP consists of eight distinct subject areas, rather than interdisciplinary units of inquiry, as in the PYP, the process is a bit more complex. Nevertheless, the MYP staff embarked on that journey during our back-to-school meetings. In a flurry of colour-coded paper, we mapped out the entire program to ensure that students at all grades will enjoy a balanced variety of units and that they will develop their conceptual understanding consistently throughout the five years they spend in the MYP. 

‘Student-centred learning’ is a major focus in education these days. While most teachers understand this within their own classroom, I see now that the structure of IB programmes promotes student-centred learning in multiple ways. By promoting collaboration amongst teachers, both the PYP and MYP ensure that a cohesive and comprehensive student experience is the focus of all curriculum planning. Moreover, the particularities of each program ensure that the curriculum is delivered in a way that is developmentally appropriate for students as they mature.


Connected Math

Last week, my colleagues and I – while taking a break from marking final exams – noticed that many students struggled to apply their skills during the multi-topic exams. We were surprised by this because students had previously demonstrated these skills in the unit tests throughout the year. As we discussed this, we realized that students had trouble moving from one topic to another. For example, students cross-multiplied fractions within an expression, not realizing that cross-multiplication only works in equations.

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