05 May 2019

To Grade or not to grade, that is the question...

Getting Garrulous about Grading 

A snapshot of one section of one of my grade sheets... 

If you're ever stuck for a conversation starter in a room of educators, you can be sure mentioning the 'g word' will get people going. Grading seems to be a particularly contentious issue that is perennial and generally (in the circles I move in anyway) criticised vigorously

I've been teaching for nearly 25 years at the time of this post, and during that time, my feelings on the subject have vacillated wildly, but—and maybe this just the wisdom of age—while appreciating the various sides of the arguments, I can't help but return to the fact that to me, instinctively, intuitively, it just makes sense. But as in most issues of this nature, it's how you do it that counts

Many teachers who tell me they don't grade are just playing semantics, if they are any good (and most are) they are making judgements about the efficacy of the work their students do all the time. I’ve seen all sorts of attempts to avoid it, but other than prose comments (which takes ages, and students generally ignore) they’re all still essentially (and will be) forms of scoring, whether you use a rubric, continuum, thumbs up/down, traffic lighting, or even 'impression marking' unless you’re going to rely on screeds of text you'll end up with 'grading' in all but name. Unless you just do ... nothing? Does anyone think that is better? 

All grading is, is quantifying the qualitative, it's giving an assessment judgement a number/letter in order to make using it as a rich source of data easier. That's it. 


My main protestation about the use of grading for years has been its inauthenticity, its artificiality. After all (like examinations—which I still maintain intense disdain of) how many of us get 'graded' in the real world? For most of us the last day of exams, is the last day we'll be graded on anything. Once you stop being a student and enter the world of paid employment, the grading ceases. 

Unless of course you reenter the world of education as a student, in which case it can feel like a rude reawakening—at least that's how it felt for me. When I did my Master's degree a few years ago, I really resented the grading component (despite getting very good grades) for me it changed the whole dynamic, it undermined the focus. But that is because of the way it was graded... it felt like too much too late, and at least once, fundamentally unfair. But since returning to teaching (having been in a primarily coaching role for 8 years), I’ve returned to it with gusto. 

So to its irrelevance; actually if you think about it, in many ways grading is effectively a proxy for $, for adults $ is commonly an indicator of success. In many careers appraisal is common, and the results can often have $ implications. Even if you're not in a career where your 'performance' is assessed and rewarded financially, there are many where your 'performance' is your work to date, your reputation, and your performance at interview; the reward is the 'assessment' of your success, perhaps employment, and/or promotion. Students whose work is graded get a taste of reality, accountability, a 'real world' experience; in the world outside school, your work will be judged, and depending on how successful it is deemed to be, you will be rewarded. And if you're not (you don't get that job/promotion) you use that as feedback, you reflect, you make changes, and you move on. Life is a series of assessment experiences, the results of which shape the people we become. They may not always be represented (directly) with a number, but they are frequent, they are generally (relatively) low stakes, and preparing students for a world where this is the case is essential. 

There are some authoritative voices out there who defend the use of grading, and—of course—a considerable amount of research: 

Students Should Be Tested More, Not Less (Atlantic) 

"Complaints that excessive testing detracts from learning tend to be aimed at summative testing. As summative tests do not teach, and classroom hours spent engaged in summative assessments detract from hours a teacher has to educate her students, those complaints are probably well-founded.
“Formative assessments,” on the other hand, are designed to discover what students do and do not know in order to shape teaching during and after the test. Formative assessments are not meant to simply measure knowledge, but to expose gaps in knowledge at the time of the assessment so teachers may adjust future instruction accordingly. At the same time, students are alerted to these gaps, which allows them to shape their own efforts to learn the information they missed.

"Formative testing at its best is low-stakes and high-frequency."

"When teachers expose students to frequent low-stakes tests in order to reveal gaps and foster active, continuous engagement in the material, students are given more ownership and power over their education."

Making the Grade: What Benefits Students? (Educational Leadership)

"Grading enables teachers to communicate the achievements of students to parents and others, provide incentives to learn, and provide information that students can use for self-evaluation."

There is a great deal more, but the problem is, very few of the methodologies used in these studies actually (by their nature) use FLS, they assume a model where either high stakes examinations are the focus, or one-off summative testing. That is not what I'm talking about, the reasons why could be the subject of many ranty posts, but I'll leave that to others more qualified and more authoritative than me, no I want to focus on frequent, low-stakes, grading

FLS (Frequent Low-Stakes) Grading

I haven't alway known that what I do has an acronym, but I've been instinctively using this approach for as long as I've been teaching. It just makes sense to me, low stakes, frequent grades that students know they can improve if they make the effort are very useful. Much more efficient than a prose laden alternative that dominates in schools and systems that purport to be 'grade-less'. 

FLS Transformed by Tech

I guess one thing that really excites me about this approach is the way tech can transform it. In the 'old days' the data that builds over time would only really be available to the teacher, I would share it with students and their parents, but it was tricky, as I needed to preserve the privacy of the rest of the students in the class. This invariably meant either making/printing individual copies, or fiddling about with folding over sections of sheets to hide information, even then a hard copy is quickly out of date if you're using FLS. But the advent of online platforms has radically changed this. For example with the platform we use in Middle and High School (Teamie) students have access to their Markbook, so they can see the data, and act on it accordingly. This runs the gamut from students who use it to moderate their efforts so they can work towards a pass (and maximise their time for other pursuits/subjects) or those who use it to constantly refine and revise specific tasks until they are as good as they can make them. It puts the student in the driving seat, and gives me rich data to use as a  basis for my teaching, and my conversation with each of my students about their next steps. 

Fortunately for me, it wasn't hard to find some clever people who have summarised this approach and its benefits for me: 

Benefits of low-stakes assignments

  • Gives students a realistic idea of their performance early in the term, enabling them to seek appropriate resources as needed
  • Opens up lines of communication between students and their instructors, and may increase students' willingness to ask for help
  • Allows instructors to direct students to resources if they need further assistance or support
  • Gives students an opportunity to be active participants in the evaluation of their own learning
  • Increases the likelihood that students will attend class and be active and engaged

"These exercises are low stakes, they can improve learning outcomes without increasing student anxiety. "

"Frequent, low-stake assessments as opposed to infrequent, high-stakes assessments actually decrease student anxiety overall because no single test is a make it or break it event."

"Feedback should be given often so that students can benefit from having multiple opportunities for improvement. Though given less weight, low-stakes assignments may be similar in type and kind to high-stakes assignments: they tend to reflect the kind of work students are going to be expected to do for a final exam, paper, or other summative project. All in all, early feedback is one of the most important contributions faculty can make towards helping students succeed in their classes and make critical progress…"

(Sarah Jones, Michigan State University)

02 February 2019

An Undistinguished Educator: Why I'm not an ADE

Why after over twenty years working to integrate digital technology in classroom K-12, I'm still not an Apple Distinguished Educator, or a Google Certified Educator. I'm happy to remain an undistinguished educator. 

So having an Apple logo appended to my signature makes me 'distinguished'? Passing a multiple choice test means Google will 'certify' my teaching efficacy? 

These ‘certifications’ have more to do with huge corporations influencing educators into a form of brand loyalty and in turn using those educators as 'influencers' than it does about genuine continuing professional development.

Now it could be said that it’s okay for me to take this position as I am fortunate to be working in an amazing school; if I was seeking employment I might have to swallow my pride and get me 'some o dat certification', just to satisfy the naive expectations of administrators and schools who should know better. And that may be true, however I’d also have to seriously question whether that the kind of school that values that kind of certification is the kind of environment I would like to work in.

Many moons ago, at the beginning of this branding exercise, I kept an open mind and attended sessions at tech conferences dedicated to both of these qualifications and was absolutely appalled at the focus they outlined; clearly designed by both parties to foster an exclusive focus on their tools to the exclusion of any others, no matter what they might say. Because creating a video and writing a letter is the gold standard in determining educator efficacy?

That sounds like the kind of process that would be dreamt up by a corporate marketing team than anyone serious about improving education to me.  

When I attended the Google certified educator session it was even worse, the admission criteria included taking and passing a multiple-choice test, one where the questions didn’t even match the current iteration of the Google Apps suite that was being used!  So candidates were informed that they would need to answer the multiple choice questions (yet another ludicrous way to determine teaching talent) in a way that aligned with the way the tools used to work... even then what precedent does this set? Based on sample questions we were shown, the sign of a skilled educator is that they have memorised the locations of commands in the menus of the tools they use? That’s not how I operate, if you were to ask me where to find a certain command in Google docs I couldn’t tell you from memory, I haven’t memorised them,  but I know where to look for them when I need them. The criteria for appraising the efficacy of educators in Google is fundamentally flawed, not built on skilful pedagogy but on a naive surface level assumption that memorising the location of functions in software is of paramount importance?

I can tell you that when the institution where I work seeks to recruit coaches/teachers, whether or not they have one of these superficial qualifications is not a consideration.  I’ve encountered many educators who are clearly very poorly skilled and have a very dubious understanding about how tech can be integrated effectively (nouns over verbs, tech viewed more like toys than tools), and their naive display of their certification just served to further undermine their credibility.

The aspect I find most difficult to accept is the way these titles facilitate a kind of exclusivity or 'club', how do people expect to effectively engage in effective professional development if their first criteria is exclusion? Even more ridiculous, you could, like me, be a teacher who has many many years of experience working with tech integration, or/and have a Masters degree in this area, but that will still not permit inclusion to this inner sanctum. When a community values a superficial label over a rigorous professional qualification that takes years to acquire you know there must be something wrong.

So, if you were considering pursuing this certification, my advice is to forget it. Use the time to focus on designing better lessons for your students, and if you’re seeking a qualification, pursue something like a degree, or masters degree instead.

14 October 2018

Digital Literacy & Vitamin D

Vitamin D (VITAD)

Five Essential Domains: VITAD: video, image, text, audio, data - 'Vitamin D' 

Just like all subject domains, tech has its own overarching domains or strands that are an efficient way to organise the essential skill sets needed for true digital literacy.  We should not neglect opportunities to read and write, for example, realistic fiction, or physics or shape and space in Mathematics, I believe the same applies to what could be called the 'digital domains' or modes of digital technologies: text, image, video, audio, and data handling.

Digital Illiteracy... 

An easy easy way to recall these essential areas is with the acronym 'VITAD', 'vitamin digital', now when you're considering whether not you can consider yourself, your students or any 21st century citizen to be truly digitally literate, how do they measure up to VITAD?
  1. Can they view, edit, create, compose with video?
  2. Can they organise, edit, resize, manipulate, incorporate image?
  3. Can they browse/read/search text? Are they proficient at word processing, commenting, curating  texts?
  4. Can the manage audio files, organise, edit, create, compose audio using multiple audio tracks/sound effects?
  5. Do they know their way around a spreadsheet? Can they organise data efficiently, perform basic calculations, use functions and formulae, analyse, synthesise, and model data? Can they think computationally? 
When, and only when you can confidently answer a confident yes to all the above, then, and only then can you call yourself digitally literate!

To put it another way - we're talking about students becoming holistically literate, that literacy has to incorporate 'multiliteracies' including language, scientific/methodological ways of thinking, mathematical literacy and of course digital literacy. ALL of these can be defined as 'subjects', all of these could also be (and arguably should/could be) taught in an integrated way. Just because we've chosen to integrate a subject, does not mean it should be treated less rigorously - integration should not mean invisibility - at least not for teachers. (I'd argue invisibility would be great from a student's perspective, but so would it be for maths and science et al - they don't see it as a 'subject' it's just another natural (for them) way of thinking and working)

WWPP,  a pragmatic compromise: WP, WWW, PPT & PDFs


However... if there is one thing I've learned in my now 8 years as a DLC, and from now over 20 years working with 'edtech' or the integration of digital technologies in the classroom from K-12, it's that there is a fundamental shift, in terms of how these domains are experienced as students move though the school lives. A shift from VITAD to WWPP, what is WWPP? stakes examinations. 

  • Word Processing
  • Websites/Web Search
  • PowerPoint Slideshows (or similar)
  • PDFs & Posters 

WWPP describes the fundamental domains that are the norm for most teachers, and represent the actual reality in most secondary school classrooms, especially those that are organised around the premise of preparing students for high stakes examinations. The fact is that, like it or not, what studies repeatedly show as 'effective' use, is use that can be translated into evidence that is represented by a standardised test score, and if that is the only metric we are prepared (or able) to consider, then WWPP is the model that works, for more on the practical ramifications of this in high school classrooms, read my post: PDFs, Pragmatism & WWPP.

05 May 2018

PDFs, Pragmatism & WWPP

WWPP,  a pragmatic compromise: WP, WWW, PPT & PDFs

If there is one thing I've learned in my now almost a decade as a digital literacy coach (DLC), and from now over 20 years working with 'edtech' or the technology enhanced learning (TEL) in the classroom from K-12, it's that there is a fundamental shift, in terms of how opportunities to learn and to create with digital tools are experienced as students move though their school lives. There is a gradual progression. During their primary/elementary years, students at UWCSEA regularly (ie, at least once a year) work across all five of the domains that span what I what I would describe as true digital literacy, or perhaps a better word is competency; video, image, text, audio, data—or VITAD. Then as they progress through middle and then high school, there is a narrowing of focus as students become more specialised in their learning, and their range of learning experiences narrows, from VITAD, to something I call WWPP:

  • Word Processing
  • Websites & Web Search
  • PowerPoint Slideshows (or similar)
  • Printing, PDFs, Posters (yes I realise that's more than one P)

WWPP describes the fundamental domains that are the norm for most teachers in most subjects in terms of the tools they rely on to do their own work, and so, not surprisingly, represent the kinds of digital technology they are comfortable using with their students, and in (hopefully, but not necessarily) expecting their students to use. This means, whether you like it or not, this represents the actual reality in most secondary school classrooms, especially those that are organised around the premise of preparing students for high stakes examinations.

This doesn't mean that VITAD is non existent in secondary schools, it just means that it will be more isolated and consigned to certain subject areas, eg data handling in the Sciences, image in the Arts, audio in Music, video in Film et cetera. This doesn't mean these experiences aren't beneficial in other subject areas, the work they do in primary school clearly demonstrates that it is, it's just that, having worked on trying to facilitate this, I've had to concede that it just doesn't happen much, if at all, once students are taught by subject specialists. This observation is one I have observed both as a teacher and a parent for many years, and it is one that is borne out by the literature. I've already written a post about this phenomenon, that can be summed up by these quotes from two recent studies into the dominant use of digital technologies in secondary schools is in terms of their assumed and actual use: 

Laptops are typically purchased by schools and sometimes by parents, and they are largely used to write and revise papers, conduct Internet searches, and engage in personalized instruction and assessment using educational software or online tools. (Zheng et al, 2016, p2)

... schools revealed moderate use of many well-established digital technologies, such as word processing, presentation software, and quiz games. (Hughes et al, 2018, p1)

... students reported using word processing, spreadsheets, presentation tools, and web searches most frequently in class. (ibid, p2)

So the fact is that, like it or not, what studies repeatedly show as 'effective' use, is use that can be translated into evidence that is measured using a standardised test score. And if that is the only metric we are prepared (or able) to consider, then WWPP is the model that works, and WWPP is a model that works for preparing students for high stakes examinations; until those examinations change in terms of their expectations, then WWPP is here to stay. 

Now I'm not ecstatic about this, but I am pragmatic; by this I mean if we're going to accept that this narrowing of expectation exists, that the least we can do is teach these skills properly. The danger at the moment, is that in the same way that these skills reflect their teachers ICT skills, they also reflect their teachers competency, or as is more often the case in my experience, their teachers' gradually increasing competency. Now—don't get me wrong—I don't blame teachers for this, it's very powerful when a teacher can model for their students that they are also 'lifelong learners' and anyway, if they are anywhere near my age, they didn't actually own a computer until they were in their 20s, and even then they were never taught how to use them, they were just expected to figure it out themselves by trial and tribulation. I've written more on this skills issue in another post, but suffice it to say here, that at the very least, if we're going to narrow our focus, can we at least expect these skills to be taught properly? To be used in a skilful, or especially at high school level, a competent way? I think we can, and I think we should. The benefits to both teachers in terms of their ability to do their jobs more effectively, and to their students are clear. 

What does skilled WWPP look like?

It looks like the expectations for any adult who would be deemed to be digitally literate, and adult who wants, no, needs to function effectively in their work place. Some suggestions below:  

Skilful Word Processing 

  • Use and format tables: insert & delete rows, columns, & merge cells
  • Use the tab key (also add new row to a table/indented bullets)
  • Use commenting tools to give, receive & respond to feedback
  • Paste text without formatting, or to match destination formatting
  • Insert/format/manage page numbers
  • Add/use headers/footers 
  • Use, modify, and create templates
  • Use document page breaks, section breaks & styles
  • Use automatic features like table of contents (TOC), references, citations
  • Reference source materials, ie MLA, APA et cetera
  • Extend these same skills to the building of web resources/sites

Skilful Web Browsing/Searching

  • Use History and bookmarks effectively instead of relying on excessive tabs
  • Use multiple accounts with web browsers to manage private/professional practice
  • Access and find information in an online database not just Google/Bing et al.
  • Identify key words, names, & phrases for a search
  • Appreciate the advantages & disadvantages of a variety of sources
  • Use the find command to locate specific words on a page
  • Upload & download files as appropriate, understand the associated file sizes. 
  • Understand & carry out an (advanced) multiple field search
  • Search using Boolean terms (site:, intitle:, —)

Skilful PowerPoints/Slide Shows

  • Create well designed slideshows that rely on image, not text  
  • Format & customise well designed themes 
  • Create presentations that use multimedia effectively, eg video, sound &/or animation
  • Format & edit master slides to manage the formatting of a presentation
  • Use appropriate images, eg pixel width, proportion, illustration not just decoration
  • Crop & enhance images to complement your slides 
  • Select, trim and incorporate video clips/animations
  • Visualise data effectively using charts and graphs 
  • Understand the affordances of different tools, eg PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Slides... 
  • Use slide aspect ratio intentionally (wide screen v 4:3)
  • Use the slide sorter view to manage/organise your presentation 

Skilful use of PDFs & Posters

  • Organised and synchronised online for ease of access/sharing
  • Edit to isolate certain pages, extract specific content, reorder content
  • Annotate, comment, and highlight 
  • Convert (hard or soft) documents to/from PDF 


I've been hesitant to concede this facts, but I console myself with the knowledge that if the students have been given the appropriate foundations and experiences what span VITAD in primary and some extent, middle school, their ongoing development in terms of digital literacy is now something they should be able to pursue independently throughout high school, and for the rest of their lives. This means that high school teachers have one focus and one focus only and that is to enable their students to succeed in their examinations in the same way they have for the past 50 years. Until the examinations change, there little point expecting teachers to change, Especially as the efficacy of their teaching practice is often based, either explicitly or implicitly, on their students’ grades. 

It’s obvious internationally that many if not most schools don’t understand this, or don’t care.  This is why Google Chromebooks and similar budget computers are thriving in comparison with iPads and MacBooks in schools. The former is fine all you want students to experience is WWPP, but if you want them to demonstrate true digital literacy with VITAD and all of the wonderful combinations and permutations between those domains, budget computers can’t and don’t deliver this. 


Hughes, Joan E. and Read, Michelle F. (2018) "Student experiences of technology integration in school subjects: A comparison across four middle schools," Middle Grades Review: Vol. 4 : Iss. 1 , Article 6.
Available at: https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/mgreview/vol4/iss1/6

Zheng, B., Warschauer, M., Lin, C. H., & Chang, C. (2016). Learning in One-to-One Laptop Environments A Meta-Analysis and Research Synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 0034654316628645.

26 October 2017

Video Games & Playgrounds

One of the most profound shifts in terms of childhood in a digital age, is the rise of online gaming. Once the preserve of teenage and tween geeks and nerds in darkened LAN rooms, now it is a common pastime for younger children, certainly many of our Junior School children regularly engage in these pursuits as a regular pastime. This is not a post about whether or not this kind of activity is one we should encourage, (I think we should) that is a subject I have written about elsewhere, and present a parent workshop about gaming every year. No, this is about providing some advice for the many parents who, for whatever reason, have kids who like to play online.

There is a growing collection of video games that fall into the category of multiplayer online game, from Clash of Clans to Club Penguin, to Minecraft, Roblox and Overwatch, and many more.

21st Century Playgrounds

As is often the case these days/this century, parents and teachers often find themselves faced with trying to relate to a child, whose normative childhood experience bears little resemblance to their own, but let me reassure you—while the medium has changed—the message and the meaning, and the opportunities and obstacles that surround group play have not.

The main place and space you are likely to encounter this is at home, as playing video games in class is generally not something kids will have time to do. There may be exceptions, eg possibly as a one off iTime project, but even then, the objective of creating something that they are accountable for in terms of achievement would need to be paramount. This is the stance we take with these kinds of gaming experiences, like Minecraft and Roblox. That said of course, there may be teachers who find this to be a useful strategy as a reward for hard work for example. If so they will take the necessary precautions, just as they would if sending kids to play on the playground.

Safe Play

When it comes to games for kids, Roblox is a great game, just like its progenitor Minecraft, however—as with all making, creating, playing, social experiences there is always the potential for inappropriate use, and experiences, whether the playground is virtual or actual. The solution, much as we would advocate for any 'multi-player' 'off screen' play—from playing tag or handball, to playing football, to swimming or having a sleepover, is to make sure there a​re​ clear parameters, and appropriate supervision, to ensure that we are minimising the likelihood of potentially harmful or unpleasant encounters.

Online maker spaces like Roblox and Minecraft are unique in terms of the sheer potential they offer in terms of unbridled creativity, and are also very familiar in terms of their potentials and pitfalls.

With all of these kinds of games the same safeguards we would have applied to playgrounds as children apply, ie be aware of the other people who are playing in this online arena or space, and the extent to which this space is effectively supervised, or moderated. If, as kids, we had been permitted to play unsupervised at nearby playground (I was, in London in the 70s, that seemed to be quite normal). We would have taken appropriate action if, for example, there were bullies in the playground, making life miserable for everyone. The same is true of these online spaces, which are very much similar to playgrounds, only on a screen, instead of in a park.


The developers behind games like Roblox and Minecraft are very aware of this, and design in safeguards for children, but this only works if the child has been honest about their age when creating the account, whether it's a Roblox account, or an Instagram account. Whenever a child creates an online account, like any other internet account, it's important that they set these up with the parent, or with the parents permission, otherwise they can 'accidentally' end up effectively creating an account for adults which could result in their being exposed to content that is inappropriate. Ideally a teacher or parent should be involved in the account setup and in ensuring that the child plays/uses the account responsibly—this is a skill that will serve them w​e​ll for the rest of their lives, in all sorts of online environments.

Roblox, for example, have a very clear commitment to safeguarding children; but it can be all too easy for children to create adult accounts, thereby effectively bypass any and all safeguards that would automatically be applied in the case of younger children. This usually happens if a child 'accidentally' enters the 'wrong' year of birth when registering their account, then the system assumes that are older than 13. In the event that this happens, my advice is for the parent to have a close look at the child's account settings, if Roblox or Minecraft knows that a user is under 13 there are a slew of safeguards that will be applied to the account to ensure the child's welfare, eg:

"For users age 12 and under, however, we take extra precaution to ensure their safety and privacy by automatically enforcing more restricted settings so they can only directly message other users that are accepted as friends on Roblox." 
"Players age 12 and younger have locked privacy settings to prevent contact from people they don't know. These players must first become friends with another user before certain activities are allowed, such as messaging, following into game, and playing in private servers."

Have Fun!

There are advocates in some quarters who encourage parents to join their child and play with them, to be honest, I think you'll find that most kids are less than enthusiastic about this idea.... Would you play tag, or have a sleepover with your kids and their friends? Probably not, so why would online play be any different?

Last but not least, the best thing you can do as a parent is be consistent; online and offline play are rich experiences that are enjoyable and highly beneficial provided some basic precautions are followed; for more on the potential benefits of gaming, see the following on video games as 'sandboxes'.

Holidays, Screen Time & Parental Guilt

Screen time: Interacting? Consuming? Communicating? Creating? [www.heart.net]

Holidays are fabulous, and with them comes, especially for your children, time, in particular, more leisure time; and in a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” for many, while we anticipate some great memories and experiences, with the typical 21st-century family it doesn't take long before the inevitable tensions caused by the multiplicity of screens in the home can start to cause problems. The fact is that a vacation inevitably means more time spent with screens, for the whole family, not just the kids. Yes, you know it's true.

Cue the inevitable pangs of parental guilt, brilliantly summed up in an article from The Atlantic:

"Tune into the conversation about kids and screen time, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that before the invention of the iPhone, parents spent every waking moment engaging their kids in deep conversation, undertaking creatively expressive arts-and-crafts projects, or growing their own vegetables in the backyard garden. There’s a tendency to portray time spent away from screens as idyllic, and time spent in front of them as something to panic about. 
But research shows that vilifying the devices’ place in family life may be misguided."

Depending on where you will be spending your vacation, you may well find yourself in a situation where your children are stuck indoors for many hours. Obviously a long haul flight means that kind of scenario and most families are prepared to tolerate a lot more screen time in that situation for the sake of maintaining sanity. But what happens when, at your destination, you are faced with, for example, inclement weather (yes Ireland, I'm looking at you). This means that potentially your children are stuck inside for days on end, and there's only so many hours you can spend persuading them to play board games and read books before screens and their many distractions become a temptation... Then when (not if) parents inevitably concede, it causes a great deal of guilt, not to mention potential condemnation from in-laws?

Screen Time - Not just a kid thing [Credit Paul Rogers]

How much is too much?

Common sense media have recently released the results of a huge census that they have taken, 'Media use by Tweens and Teens', researching typical uses of screen time. I've written about the issue of screen time before in the context of early childhood. But what make this census of particular interest is that it's focused on the screen time of older children. The findings are certainly worth reading, and for the most part they handle the issues it represents well, other than their tendency to grandstand with their "9 HOURS OF MEDIA DAILY" (which includes listening to music, something you could be doing while spending a week hiking in the mountains...) But my main gripe is their strange choice to exclude adults from the census—it's my contention (recently confirmed by another media census focusing on parents) that many if not most adults would rack up just as many hours as our children, if not more (especially if they're working on screens during the vacation, which many do). Given a comparison like that, it would put this kind of alarmist rhetoric into a much more reasonable perspective. For example, at least two recent studies show that the typical adult spends between eight and eleven hours on screens, although "to be fair, much of that probably happens while doing other things at the same time." (Statista)

"On any given day, parents of American tweens and teens average more than nine hours with screen media each day. Eighty-two percent of that time (almost eight hours) is devoted to personal screen media activities such as watching TV, social networking, and video gaming, with the rest used for work."  
The Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents of Tweens and Teens

As mentioned, the amount of "free time" available to everyone in the family during vacations increases, but you can be sure that especially for your children, with this significant increase, the likelihood is that your children will want to occupy most, if not all of this free time with "entertainment media". This was the focus of the census, and included media like books, not just screens, but as you will not be surprised to learn, screens dominated. A lot.
"entertainment media” is a very broad category, including everything from music, TV shows and videos, books, and websites to computer, video, and mobile games. But the fact that tweens and teens in the U.S. are using an average of six to nine hours' worth of media a day is still astounding. As discussed elsewhere, this does not mean they are stopping all other activity and attending only to media during this time; but it is still a large amount of time spent absorbing a large amount of content.
on any given day fully one in five 8- to 12-year-olds in this country is using more than six hours of screen media, and nearly as many teens (18 percent) are using more than 10 hours of screen media." (The Common Sense Census, 2015, p 30)

The survey provides little of anything in terms of advice as to how to manage this, although one particular statistic really stood out to me, and it is at the heart of my advice to parents in dealing with this tricky issue.

Media Use by Tweens and Tweens Report - Page 22

"Only 3% of teens' and tweens' digital media time is spent on content creation" 

Almost every vacation I get bombarded with emails parents and teachers desperately requesting ideas for ways that they can use screen time more productively during their vacation, so here is my advice if you want to try and make screen time more productive in your family this holiday.

Get creative

The notion of screen time as a one-dimensional activity is changing. Computers, tablets, and smartphones are multipurpose devices that can be used for, well, lots of purposes. Designating their use simply as "screen time" can miss some important variations. The Common Sense Census identifies four main categories of screen time.

  • Passive consumption: watching TV, reading, and listening to music 
  • Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet
  • Communication: video-chatting and using social media
  • ​Content creation: using devices to make digital art or music

21st Century Family Screen Time [image credit: pc.advisor.co.uk]

If screen media use can mean writing a short story on a computer, video-chatting with relatives, watching videos, reading the news online, or playing games, what is the point of documenting the total amount of time teens spend using screens? Instead of auditing, let's focus more on balance, the paltry amount of time spent creating with screens could be nudged up extensively by replicating at home some of the ways we encourage our students to use screens in school, only this time giving your kids much greater freedom of choice in terms of the focus of their creative endeavours...

If your children are dual language learners (DLLs), this is an excellent way to encourage them to reinforce their language other than English, by replicating some of their school projects in their mother tongue.

A model I use for framing our use of screens at UWCSEA is something I sum up as 'vitamin digital' of 'VITAD'; five domains of tech use. Even better, as your kids have been working within many (if not all) of these domains, they will already have a good idea of the kinds of tools they need to use, without you needing to teach them! Each of these domains is powerful in its own right, but they really come into their own when you start exploring combinations of them...

VITAD - Video, Image, Text, Audio and Data Handling - Core Domains of Tech

Video editing:

Make music videos, animation, stop motion video, 'supercuts' from YouTube clips. Why not appoint your kids as family 'media journalists', why not give them the job of documenting the holiday? I'm sure they'll let you contribute some of your media to the project... 

Image creation:

Image montage/mash up, slideshow, add music to convert the slide show into a music video? Image editing, filters, layers, digital artwork... 


Make an ebook, presentation, blog, choose your own adventure (hyperlinked Google Slides), coding, website, browse (research holiday destination?) persuade, demonstrate...

Learn to touch-type, for more advice on this see my related post, but it's safe to say that if you/your child dedicated 15-30 minutes a day to this everyday throughout the holidays they could be proficient by the start of the new school term in August! 


Slideshow commentary, soundtrack, podcast/radio show, composition in GarageBand, or remix of favourite tracks? 

Data handling: 

Spreadsheets: pocket money, trip budget, holiday costing, problem solving, graphing stats (choose data and gather ie how many times does 'x' do 'y'???


Do not be mistaken, just because they are working with Maths activities on a screen, doesn't make the experience much more palatable for your kids. That said, there is no doubt that using screens to encourage greater numeracy is a no-brainer, these tools are brilliant at enabling practise, with immediate feedback, and developing 'automaticity'. Despite this, Maths practise will most likely need to be encouraged with tangible rewards for completion of certain achievements. I expect my kids to do a half an hour of Khan Academy before they do any other screen activity, half an hour a day during vacations is the goal. Maybe offer them rewards as they complete certain mile posts or missions? In order to keep vacation stress to a minimum, I find it a really good idea to ask them to go back and master grade missions that precede the grade they're in, as this is an effective form of revision/consolidation/practise, even if this means a Grade 5 student working on the Early Years mission to get started, if I did it, so can they! This way you're also less likely to be called on to help with problems that they can't solve independently, and they are more likely to enjoy the sense of fluency and confidence that comes with working speedily through concepts that they have practised in previous years, not to mention the reward of mastering a grade level. That said, both you and they might be surprised at how many foundational skills they are less confident in than they thought, just as well you did this then, isn't it?

... Better still, why not join them in a little Maths revision yourself? The Khan Academy App on the iPad is particularly good for this.

There are plenty of other options besides Khan Academy, especially if you don't have a reliable WiFi connection, these can be really useful. One of my favourites is the Ken Ken App, like Sodoku, but with basic operations thrown in. Also, pretty much anything from the developers behind Squeebles is a safe bet—there are many tried and tested Maths Apps, such as these, and these, that you can install on an iOS device near you, I'm sure many if not most of these are also available on Android.


Check out my coding posts on this blog and you'll see a complete guide of many kinds of apps and sites to fill any vacation... :)

Focus on the Meaning not the Medium

Now I'm not going to pretend that all these ways to use screens to create are going to trump the use of screens to consume, interact and communicate, any more than you have any intention of only using screens in your life for creating. For this reason you may need some incentives are going to have to be in the form of some essential agreements; with a bit of careful negotiation I'm sure you can work out some sort of compromise...

Finally, some wise words from the American Association of Pediatrics (updated October 2015):
"Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually. Like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects. 
Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer."

Record & Flip - Blended Screencasts

Record & Flip

Record it, then flip it, simple!

Screen recording, or Screencasts are one of most most effective teaching tools in the arsenal of a teacher who is fortunate to be work in a 'technology enhanced learning environment' but, if the devices you have to hand are laptops, not tablets, than expecting your students to create a screencast can be more of a hassle than it's worth. 

That is unless you know how to record and flip. 

I've used demonstrated this technique before in a context of asking students to model a skill with apparatus, such as how they can measure an angle with a protractor, but with a little imagination it's not difficult to see how this could be used in other ways:
  • Mapping skills in Humanities
  • Rationale for a design proposal in Design & Technology
  • Description of the significance of imagery in the Visual Arts
  • Mind Mapping relationships and connections
  • Reflection on ideas and opportunities for development in a flash draft in English
  • Reflection/critique of a passage/excerpt in a printed book/magazine
  • Annotation of musical notation to indicate understanding of the structure
  • Annotation of diagrams, graphs, and charts
  • Explaining a strategy or process in solving a Mathematics problem
  • and many more...
All the students need is a whiteboard or a sheet of paper, and to position it as shown above. They can tap the spacebar to start and stop the recording. 

Once the recording is finished the student can flip the video horizontally and vertically, then review and trim* the video is necessary before sharing it with the teacher. 

An Example from Mathematics

Here's one I did earlier...**

*If the student has done a great deal of  'umming and ahhing' they can delete the segments of the video that are unimportant, but most of the time this is probably unnecessary as you're not looking for a highly polished artefact here, and hesitation (when and why) may well be useful information in and of itself.

Student Example

** Disclaimer, the hesitation you see in this video was intentional in order to create a sense of authenticity, honest, it's true!