How do you balance preparation for high stakes assessments with teaching and learning in your classroom?

Author: Richard Wells
Teaches grade 6 to 12 – Head of Technology at NZ High School
Top 40 in edublog awards 2013
Top 12 Blogger – The Global Search for Education
Known for Educational Infographics (see Posters above)
Presenter and also a father to 2 beautiful girls. Twitter :  @iPadwells

How the average classroom operates, especially in high schools, has to change if we are to level the playing field in preparing every child for assessments, not just the middle class.


Image credit˙

This post is written as part of The Huffington Post’s The Global Search for Education: Our Top 12 Global Teacher Blogs: A series of questions that Cathy Rubin is asking several education bloggers. I’ll be sharing the link to her post that collects all of the responses. I’m excited to be part of this group of edubloggers.

Do your parents affect your grade more than your teacher?

What makes the real difference to who succeeds in high stakes assessments? What generally correlates most consistently with exam success in the US, Europe and Australasia? Is it IQ or access to technology? Is it money spent on schools? No, It’s family background or socio-economic circumstance. This has always been the elephant in the room when discussing the approach to and success of education in the developed world. For decades, the the traditional teacher-led classroom model has helped purpetuate the obvious trend that, in general, the higher your family’s social status, the better your grades. This fact alone proves how ineffective most classrooms around the world have been in attending to student needs. But there is hope.

Does government money help?

student teams01In New Zealand, we have what we call a decile system that allocates government funds to schools based on socio-economic student circumstance.  So surely we have a fair system where all classes achieve equally. Of course we don’t. In general, it is still the wealthier learners who succeed in school. One reason the government money does’t change grades in the lower deciles is that the considerable extra funds received by the more needy schools quickly disappears providing the extra social, medical and family support required in such situations and little extra gets spent on the education of those students.

Teachers can’t do it alone

Government money is a great start but once you’ve ensured every child has had breakfast (still not the case in New Zealand and certainly not in the US), what can the classroom teacher do to start to leveling the playing field regarding the support and motivation for learning each child experiences. The classrooms need to operate in ways that maximise the amount of support every child has access to at any moment but with only one teacher in the room, this means collaborative environments that build knowledge and skills not rely on receiving them.

ocKids2-ipadAll learning environments and classroom activity should allow and cultivate collaborative workflow from early years all the way through to college. Classrooms should not be reliant on either each individual student’s personal access to the teacher or a child’s ability to stay focused on the same single point of information delivery. By making teamwork the learning norm, you not only mimic standard workplace practice but also start to provide more support to more students.

This is why a number of new classroom models, such as Project-based learning (PBL), Universal Design for Learning (UDL) or Design Thinking, to name but a few, focus on building knowledge collaboratively so as to involve every learner in an active role, rather than as a passive receiver. Building a team mentality around learning will also mean students have more people to turn to in preparing for high stake assessments, alleviating the pressure on both the teacher and the family at home.

A Teacher’s Target

I had a fantastic brainstorm meeting with an extremely talented educator and colleague Maya Foster (@MayaFoster4) where we decided to summarise our vision for a teacher’s daily priorities, the order they should be placed into and how we could get teachers to reflect on their own practice in regard to them.

We developed an idea that Maya had sketched out on paper which placed the student at the heart of successful teaching and highlighted assessment as the last thing an effective teacher should be considering. We both agreed that many teachers start with the assessment and work backwards towards considering the students as individuals. This leads to very uninspiring and often un-motivating classrooms. I’ll break our discussion into its four components but here’s the graphic:


 PDF version here


students targetSpending time to build a strong understanding of exactly who each student is can save time in the long run. Students who feel genuinely appreciated will perform better throughout the school year and just knowing their name isn’t enough. The more you can connect with a student around a personal interest, the more a student will work with you and respect your ideas. This will make everything else much easier. Using the school’s data to find out which areas or school they are strong in can also help build a more useful understanding of how to design activities for the class.


ped targetYou might know your students but you won’t get every student to engage with your content unless you have a variety of sound pedagogy at your disposal. Successful pedagogy leads to student engagement in the content without constant teacher oversight. The careful design of activities and tasks tailored for the specific students in the room can reduce the energy required by the teacher in the classroom. I have covered in previous posts my belief and findings that any lecturing does not attain the the assumed outcome of all students engaging in or listening to the content. Make sure your students are active and working together to challenge the content with deeper thinking.


content targetSuccessful teachers bring any content to life. This is done by knowing the students, using appropriate pedagogy and the linking the content to current affairs, the students’ culture, other subjects being studied or its relevance to the future. All topics can be made relevant. Throughout history, humans have showed a wonderful talent for sticking to about 5 core themes, such as, greed, love, war, innovation and charity. If your subject is not directly linked to modern developments like the sciences might be, then it will always parallel something going on in the students’ lives or the world at large. Make sure you are reading-up on the developments and stories relevant to your subjects. Make connections and place the content in some kind of real context. Disconnected content leads to disconnected students.

Priority Fore: Know your assessment.

assess targetYes, the assessment should be the last consideration, but sadly is often a teacher’s first. Worrying about tests and marking guides can suck the joy from both teaching and learning. That said, it should not be completely ignored either. Make sure the requirements of the assessment are known early in the course and ensure the classroom activity allows the students to explore and challenge the content whilst being able to relate it to the demands of any future assessment. One trick is to use Flipped Teaching to relieve the pressure from worrying about whether you’ve mentioned every detail. The students can then access that detail in their own time.

Priorities for success

Too many teachers worry about assessment and grades and in doing so actually do damage to the success of many students. Many, if not most high school teachers are still subject first, teacher second. This devotion to content can lead to a devaluing of pedagogical ideas and a reduction in genuine engagement from all the children. I say genuine because ‘good’ kids will always play the game but if you get your teaching priorities straight, more students will love learning.

Digital and Collaborative Learning

A three minute video highlighting a journey from 20th to 21st Century learning. Video transcript below.

An incorrect start…

At the beginning of 2014, we started a new computer programming module with all our Year 8 students. This was part of their technology curriculum and offered them 2 hours a week to look at coding and how applications were made. My colleague and I went though a relatively standard planning period for this and as experts in code, we broke the subject and potential problems down into sections and prepared resources and videos for the students to access.The students were using iPads and an coding app called Hopscotch.

student teams01During the first term, we noticed that although the work was self-paced, the diversity in both ability and interest for coding was causing problems for real understanding and engagement. Students were attempting to learn the separate coding elements by running through our tasks as individuals, asking a friend if they got stuck but the classroom had only small numbers of students showing a genuine love for learning this knowledge. At the end of Term 1 we reviewed the course and i highlighted that the students’ level of communication was very shallow, limited to short moments where one would help another over a small coding hurdle.

A new beginning…

student teams02The start of the second term meant a rotation in the timetable and a new group of students for our programme. I proposed that to gain more engagement from a wider pool of the students we focus not on coding elements, i.e. the content, but develop the programme so that collaboration and engagement become the primary goal. If we focus on team-based activity, there will be more sharing of knowledge, collective responsibility and knowledge creation. We were also in luck, Hopscotch added built in tutorials and most importantly an online sharing and feedback community for students to upload their products to. A shared learning journey would make it more enjoyable for all and the Hopscotch online community will allow the teams to share their products and offer feedback and advice to others.

A change in leadership…

student teams03So the course transformed from a teacher led, heavily structured acquisition of knowledge and skills into a more inclusive and active programme that all could be enjoyed by all. The teams of students set about developing a computer game without teacher-led instruction. The focus was shifted away from the content and more towards the experience of collaboratively learning. We even got a mention by Hopscotch when I published evidence of a the new level of engagement. Another development that arose from this new more open approach was that I would often learn from the students and the traditional teacher-student hierarchical relationships started to change.

As covered in the ITL research on 21st century learning design, we were now focused on skills such as collaboration, learning with ICT, self-regulation, and knowledge construction, whilst also being more successful in students developing coding and problem solving skills.

This post is a quick assignment for the Mindlab.

‘The task’ vs. ‘My task’

“Teacher, I’ve finished your work” 


It can be easier for a teacher managing a class of iPadding students to design projects where students own their own learning and thus care about the quality of their outcomes. For me, ensuring students care is my primary goal when designing tasks and programs. If they are doing ‘the teacher’s work’ then any motivation to produce the best result will probably have to come from external sources, like material rewards from the teacher or even as simple as making the teacher happy (Teacher’s pet). The teacher’s work is always seen as ‘work’ and genuine engagement is difficult.

Intrinsic Motivation

Here is a list of ideas for adding incentives to tasks to help the kids intrinsically care about the outcomes.

  1. Screen Shot 2013-05-11 at 2.09.33 PMThe success criteria should be devised by the students themselves before commencing any task. These should be discussed and agreed upon by the class or group. Design a success criteria template that’s always filled in by the group.
  2. Screen Shot 2013-05-11 at 2.11.44 PMThe teacher  only asks questions. Give no answers. Students should find their own answers and be taught to confirm them with more than one source including each other’s research.
    e.g. Try to always prompt for output with ‘Why’ questions and never start a lesson with “today class we will…” because who knows what the kids will do in todays lesson!
  3. head-37523_640Choose a creative & fun task for all and / or allow freedom of expression (choice of app) but remind students of the success criteria.
    e.g. You must record a TV news story containing an interview but it must explain how X affected Y. This will be shown on the class TV channel.
  4. 6181049228_4dbbf2c9aeFocus on the students producing ‘products’ that could actually be used to benefit others, be they classmates or the community. Even if it’s not used in the end, work should seem purposeful and be seen as usable in the real world.
    e.g. If you are writing stories then ensure they look into how one self-publishes online. This opens the possibly of a real audience with real feedback. student blogs are an obvious starting point but why shouldn’t a child consider starting their writing career now, earning real cash? (There are examples online of this happening)
  5. 1272px-Internet1I think the world is getting to a point where evidence of all student work should be stored / published online. My students always react with amazement when they first realise the videos / animations are going onto Youtube on my dept. channel. This creates an environment where students can easily peer review and encourage but also parents too, which I find has the biggest impact on motivation.

I have started to have a go at this with my year 7s and 8s and am now considering how future senior classes who have iPads will also own their learning whilst still working towards the national qualifications. I am lucky as the New Zealand assessment system if very flexible and I look forward to the challenge!

Gaming as School Assessment?

What can schools learn from why millions of people of all ages are turning to online gaming and online virtual environments? I’ve been reading this book by Jane Mcgonigal on the effect of and reasons why millions of people of all ages are turning to online gaming and online virtual environments. Here’s Jane at TED summarizing the book in 15 minutes. The basic premise is that the continuous feedback and desire for self-improvement becomes the drive to continue.

It goes as far as to say that games that have a definitive end and can be won are less appealing. A classic example is “Tetris” which became one of the most popular games in history regardless of not being able to win it! It never ends, you just continue to challenge yourself to last longer each time, whilst receiving continuous visual and sound feedback.

Gamers just want work and learn! The more work the better. World of Warcraft has clocked-up 6 million gamer hours in about a decade! (That’s as long as humans have been upright!) It takes 500 hours of play to reach the highest levels in the game and this is now seen by gamers as a small amount of work time!

The constant desire to get more work done within the world, whilst continuously “levelling-up,” and the fact that one’s levels are shared across the system is what drives the engagement. The other thing going on in these games is learning. the students only really score points if they show they have learnt something new. I’m wondering if we can bring that level of drive & dedication to work and learn into the school environment.

So I thought I’d have a go!

Here’s an idea for a mobile app system used by teachers and students that could work in many schools to drive student engagement but also provide individual student performance analytics to the school.

Allowing for my previous blog posts, I must add that this would only work in a student-centred environment where students were self-directed on large enough projects that the teacher is free to only offer 1-to-1 guidance and have time to truly assess how each student is developing.

Step 1 (Objectives)

The school decides on about 8 core requirements for life in the 21st century. Skills that it feels students must be assessed on across all their school-life and students can then “Level-Up” on each day/week.

These might be things like:

  1. Creative Thinking

  2. Independence

  3. Leadership

  4. Physical skills

  5. Collaboration

  6. Sharing

  7. Language depth

The school could outline a matrix of examples of how students might behave and think to Level-up in each requirement.

Step 2 (Technical)

Classes are set up on a database system accessible through mobile devices by everyone in the school. An app is created with both a student and teacher version. A website also collates the data for the school leadership team.

Step 3 (Levelling-Up)

A Mobile app is used by all the teachers to simply issue points on-the-fly to each student. Any evidence at any moment, either in the classroom or when marking work in the evening can gain points in any of the identified core requirements.

The app design is key and is simple to use. The class list is shown and clicking on a name brings up 8 large buttons that allocate a point on each click to the student for any of the core requirements identified by the school.


Step 4 (Feedback and Socialising)

Students download the student app and can login to view a live self-profile and see the levels increasing day-to-day. For fun they can design an avatar (maybe to illustrate a future career) and possibly even share their thoughts on their scores with other students in the school. Socialising about your levels using the app would also be key to the engagement. Students who have Levelled-Up in Creativity, for example, might share what they did to show creativity. Their peers might then attempt to model the same behaviour.

Step 5 (Student drive)

Students start to question at all times in the day how they might show evidence of creativity or leadership etc,  knowing they’ll receive the feedback on the mobile app almost immediately. They also understand the core skills are cross-curricular and essential to life in general. It also pushes the idea that any moment of the day is an opportunity for self-improvement.

…anyway, it’s just an idea and please feel free to make the system and become a millionaire! However, I might spend some time next year developing it.