So lets get started! How do you motivate/inspire kids to take control of their learning?#edchatNZ

This was the opening question in last nights #edchatnz twitter chat – a topic which I’m quite interested in and keen to hear how other people are “doing it” and grappling with the challenges. I tried to chirp in a few comments here and there, but the twitter character limit was beating me into submission, so I’ve resigned myself to the fact I’d better hit the keyboard and record some of our journey. Thankfully it’s a PRT day, so I’ve got the wiggle room! Until next year, then I become a fully registered teacher with no time – maybe I can be like PRT Pan and never grow up! PRT days every week! Bangarang!

This is a bit of what we do – it’s probably not the most epic way, or the best way, but it’s one way. Please leave a comment or get in touch if you’re doing anything similar or even unsimilar, it’s all good!

Taking control of your learning is about knowing where you’re at, where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and then knowing when you’re there.

Knowing Where You’re At

Every kid at our school has three matrices shared in with them via Google Docs – a reading, writing, and maths one. These are updated as much as possible (once a term, sometimes once every term-and-a-bit) with recent progress.

Having these shared in with children to view through their school Google account is key. They can, at the drop of a 5 cent coin, bring up a detailed view of their progress and next steps. The parents can be shared in as well, or can access them through their child’s account.

Mathematics Standards Matrix – identifying next learning steps

Knowing Where You’re Going

Our matrices are great for a wide, detailed, current picture on where a child is at. In order though to distill this wealth of information into workable, manageable next steps, we have another document called a Personal Learning Treaty (or a PLT). Together with a teacher, the matrices are used to determine three main learning goals over reading, writing and maths. These are then put into the PLT along with a co-constructed learning behaviour goal.

Last year we held mini-meetings with each child in order to discuss the creation of these PLT goals. This year, with the seniors in particular, we are moving to children formulating their own next steps and translating them into their PLT. I can then sit there on the weekend and check out their PLT docs and make comments / suggestions if necessary. It’s a bit more practical in a time-constrained busy school environment.

Knowing How You’re Going to Get There

So the kids have these goals, they are current, manageable, and co-constructed – but do they know how to actually go out and work to achieve them? When do they do this?

When: we block in self-directed learning time (we called it iTime last year, but call a spade a spade this year) each week. I just peeked around the corner to our planning timetable on the whiteboard (see below) and we have just under three hours scheduled in total this week at various times, and in various chunks of time. We rarely have all 74 children in our hub on self-directed learning time at once, as it would be a strain on the devices and the equipment – it’s usually a part of a rotation.
Timetabling self-directed learning blocks

How: I’m going use maths goals as an example, as it was raised as some kind of no-can-do area in the aforementioned #edchatnz discussion:

We agree that choice motivates. How can we engage students in subjects where less choice is available? Eg. maths?#edchatNZ

We made a series of how-to videos called Snappers which we recorded, played around with a little bit in iMovie, then put up in an area of our blog. Admittedly, we haven’t made many, but more are on the cards! Current Snappers cover topics such as “Using Maths Equipment”, “Using Texts” as well as various times tables and fractions Snappers outlining strategies to independently learn and understand the concepts involved. Some upcoming Snappers include a handwriting one, a series of tutorials on various web-based applications, maybe even a ‘cleaning up at the end of the day’ Snapper! We’ve also started putting up Snappers from other educators around the world – there’s no point reinventing the wheel!

Having videos students can watch and re-watch (directing them to appropriate activities or tasks) helps focus their self-directed learning time by having them do the things that matter, rather than faffing around with activities that don’t really help. This year we have planned learning workshops where we run through what you can do if you like to learn in a competitive way, or an independent way, or a creative way, and a plan to produce a larger variety of Snappers as mentioned above. At the end of the day, it’s about giving the children the direction they need to work on something independently and meaningfully.

Simply even having the PLT accessible and understandable helps focus their time too. If kids can do a quick check-in at the start of the day to refresh themselves about their goals, they are more likely to be conscious of their next learning steps throughout the day.

Knowing When You’re There

When a child feels they are independently, consistently and accurately performing a skill, strategy or built knowledge, they record somehow – they capture – evidence of their learning.

We’ve had children create docs where they upload three or four different samples of their work, whether it be photos, scanned writing, videos, webcam reflections, screenshots or links to online goings-ons and then submit it to us.

As teachers, we use our professional wizardry to judge whether the compiled evidence of learning meets the indicators – the matrices are updated, and another learning goal is created.

Why do it?

  • Children are engaged and motivated via ownership, choice and independence – they design their own learning pathways
  • Self-directed learning time necessitates knowing your own learning goals
  • Providing evidence of learning means understanding what success looks like
  • Students can learn how they learn best – the style and the preference
  • It offers deep personalisation of learning

Learning how to take the reins of your own learning is a powerful competency to build. In an era where an absolutely ridiculous amount of knowledge is available at your fingertips, self-directed learning endows agency and creates lifelong, confident and flexible learners.

[Note: I’m saying smartphones. Not Androids, not iPhones, not Windows phones. They all do the same stuff, with a few little differences here and there. Lets not narrow the focus to one particular brand. Although I kinda did that in my last post…]

As promised a few weeks ago, I’ve cobbled together a couple of ways in which smartphones are impacting assessment, sharing and communication around our neck of the woods (a primary school).

Check out my last post for the first half of the story – smartphone apps that can help keep teachers organised, connected, up-to-date, and sane.

But now, here are some of the ways smartphones are changing up the game.


We all have to do standardised tests and OTJs, and I think by now we all realise that this just isn’t enough. It’s a narrow view of learning in a mucky system fraught with inconsistencies. I’m not saying they are useless – they have their place – I’m just saying traditional tests and government mandated judgments should not be the be-all-and-end-all.

Assessment needs to be holistic. We need to value competency based achievement and personal growth right alongside traditional academic achievement, on an equal footing.

Smartphones can facilitate the collection of both! Hoorah!

We can snap a picture of a piece of writing, or take a video of a child reading a story fluently, or explaining how they worked out a maths problem and use that as evidence that a child has met certain learning indicators. Use this evidence (along with other evidence – observations, traditional assessment etc.) to triangulate learning goals and next steps.

We can also collect evidence of participation and contribution in a game of tag at lunchtime, relating to others on the soccer pitch on a Sunday morning, collaboration skills during an inquiry, or responsibility and self-direction when working on personal goals.

Capturing team-work and participation                                              Capturing evidence of maths learning

Having a smartphone in your pocket and a quick trigger finger can validate and celebrate a wide range of learning.

It lets you record the hundreds of tiny snapshots, the highs and lows, the triumphs and tribulations of regular school life that whizz past a teacher every day.


But then you need to do something with the collected evidence of learning right?

Photos, videos, and audio can be put into an e-Portfolio: a living scrapbook of a child’s development across a wide range of learning areas. Media can also be put onto blogs and shared with parents, often minutes after it was captured. We have a weekly ‘Top Shots’ slideshow we put on our school blog every week filled with the week’s highlights, for example.

                       Capturing collaboration and tenacity                                   Capturing ability to sort and report information

This has been a big hit with whanau. It’s a window into school life, and can pull parents into the fabric of life at school, creating a closer home/school link – a central determiner of a child’s success and happiness.

This has been especially powerful on camp recently too, with teachers reporting live from the field and posting to the blog. Parents have commented that these posts have been reassuring and entertaining, and many have been checking multiple times throughout the day.

                   Capturing responsibility and trust                                     Capturing self-direction and basic facts recall

Communication / Translation

I talked a little bit about this in a previous post, but having quick access to a translation app has been so beneficial to the ESOL learners in our hub. Harder technical words can be translated into the native tongue, so kids can really get a grip on what and why they are learning.

So, there are a couple of ways smartphones can be utilised inside and outside of classrooms. They help you to:

  • stay organised, connected, and enjoy PD in your pajamas 
  • collect, asses, and share a wide range of rich learning evidence. 


I can’t remember who said it, possibly Dan Meyer (edit: Ewan McIntosh), but it made a lot of sense.

Why is the central task in a lot of mathematical activities the computation of numbers? It’s important to get the basics, for sure, but are we spending too much time in the later years of primary school (and up) on computation? Is the computation of numbers by hand really a skill integral to living well in the 21st century?

A fascinating part of maths, an exploratory, playful, more authentic part of maths is when we don’t have the full story or all the data at hand – when we need to delve into the problem deeper, and ask the right questions to extract the right information. Then compute.

Problem Posing, THEN Problem Solving. Take one step back from the problem. Remove the numbers, the key data in a rich word problem, and leave the bones. The kids’ task is to read the supplied question, formulate their own questions they think will get them the information they need to solve the problem, get the data they require, then go and solve it.

Instead of:

“Martha’s Bakery makes three types of bread each day – 120 white, 80 multigrain and 90 Vienna.  How many loaves of bread are made each day?”

Why not:

“Martha’s Bakery makes three types of bread – white, multigrain and Vienna.  How many loaves of bread are made each day?”

It’s an interesting, engaging aspect of maths. It’s inquiry based, contextual, social and fun. In all my numerous three terms as a teacher, I’ve never seen such engagement – and to have that in maths! Awesome.

Problem Posing:

  • Encourages mathematical curiosity and investigation
  • Is highly engaging and fun
  • Is authentic – when are you given all the information you need to solve a problem from the get-go in real life?
  • Is collaborative and social – kids work with each other, discussing, building upon each others ideas
  • Is challenging at different levels
  • Can be reactive to student needs – if you notice kids have gaps in place value knowledge or strategies for example, make your session based on place value
  • Provides a forum to practice key mathematical skills, and develop number knowledge.

We’ve been doing this for a few terms now at Amesbury School, and have refined the process somewhat.

Planning and Implementing a Problem Posing Session

At our planning meetings, a mathematical focus is decided upon for next week’s Problem Posing (for example, place value). These typically change week-by-week depending on where we feel the kids’ needs are at.

The teacher tasked with planning Problem Posing (we rotate) decides upon a context – one which could be the “flavour of the week”, or related to our inquiry, a current event, or one which is just plain fun. Some which have cropped up are: One Direction, the Olympics, camp, Minecraft, medieval warfare etc.

The teacher plans four or five questions over the weekend. The complexity of the questions increase. The teacher also plans a hook – a photo or video or song which we quickly show and discuss at the start of a Problem Posing session to get things cranking. The teacher also plans the groups (usually of three or four kids each, multi-leveled Year 4 – 6) or plans a cool way in which to put the kids into groups randomly.

The teacher writes two documents: one for the students, containing the core questions (which we cut up into strips), and the other for the teachers containing the core questions, the particular questions the kids should be asking you, and the right information – the answers, which we supply them with if they have asked the right question.

On the day (excitement is building!), the teacher prints out copies of the core questions, cuts them up, and puts them in four or five numbered envelopes. The teacher copies are handed out to teachers so they know what questions they will expect and the answers they should be giving.

We hook them in with some exciting or thought provoking media, they get into groups, we hand them the first question, then step back and watch the magic happen. Kids are constantly mobbing teachers with questions, discussing between themselves, scratching down numbers and strategies furiously, all coming at it from different angles.

Expect frustration, persistence, thinking deeply and widely, Aha! moments, excitement. It’ll get louder and more chaotic in the room.

Once a group has come to a final answer to their core question, they proceed to the next question up. I like to announce the step up as a loud “LEVEL THREE, UNLOCKED” or another kind of ridiculous announcement. The kids utter whoops of joy and satisfaction, then speed off to open the next envelope and reveal their next problem.

Problem Posing Plans

I’m going to post all of our Problem Posing lesson plans eventually, but for now, here are a few links to some of our more successful sessions over the last couple of terms.

Farmerama PP (Mult, with a little Div) by Matt (me! @hunch_box)
Olympic PP (measurement) by Urs (@urscunningham)
Minecraft PP (subtraction) by Tara (@taratj)
Feel free to use these, or adapt them to your own needs / contexts. They could also give you ideas to come up with your own.
Go forth and Problem Pose!
tl:dr Take the data out of rich mathematical tasks. As Dan Meyer says: “Be less helpful”. Have the kids pose questions to ask you – if they are right, they reveal the data needed to solve the problem. Give them a hook and an interesting context to spice things up.