Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools

Note: This post is the first in a series on The Agile Schools Manifesto that I introduced in an earlier post.

I do love my gadgets and tools. I rarely leave my local bike shop without another freewheel remover or cone wrench, and I’m always up for a conversation about which apps you are using. There is nothing inherently wrong with tools. I could not have prepared my bike for its daily ride to school without my bottom bracket adjustable cup wrench, and it would take a mighty big plan ‘B’ in my class if Google Drive went down.

It would be easy for this post to devolve into a rant about how smartphones in our classrooms distract us and that we get so hung up on the tools and learning how to use them that our focus drifts from the learning outcomes to the tools themselves. Certainly the tools could distract us; especially when they are new and we are learning how to use them. However, I generally believe practicing teachers quickly recognize distraction and do a pretty good job of owning their tools instead of letting the tools own them. No, the real potential danger of tools and processes are much deeper and more subtle than simple distraction.

Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly) in a conference keynote at the end of the 20th century said:

Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. These ideas are often hidden from our view because they are of a somewhat abstract nature. But this should not be taken to mean that they do not have practical consequences.

Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism: To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. I do not think we need to take these aphorisms literally. But what they call to our attention is that every technology has a prejudice. Like language itself, it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments.

Beyond technology’s potential for distraction is the bigger question, “How are our tools shaping us?” What prejudices and values are inherent in the tools we use? The Agile Schools manifesto wants us to value people and their interactions more than tools and processes. I think many people would agree with that priority. However, it is my contention that prioritizing people is only possible if we are thoughtful and intentional about our tools. If we are unaware of the value-shaping tendency of tools, then it is entirely possible that any time and energy spent on relationship building will be undermined by our tools. I’ll give an educational example.

Several years ago, many schools began using digital grade books and parent portals in order to increase and improve the efficiency, transparency, and communication of assessment (For now I’ll avoid discussing the other, more pessimistic reasons for open grade books). The early digital tools only allowed for columns of numbers that averaged to a percentage. This encouraged and reinforced a task-based classroom structure, and while parents were potentially more knowledgeable about classroom assignments, communication didn’t necessarily improve. Parent/Teacher conferences focused more and more on the tasks and the marks rather than the student and his/her learning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the answer to avoiding an awkward conversation about the validity of my marks was…more tasks and marks to justify my marks! (Yes, I’m confessing here.)

The tool that was hailed as a way to improve communication actually inhibited it. Instead of discussing students and their learning with parents in a way that would allow us to build relationships and learn from each other, we were discussing marks. The tool’s bias in favour of tasks had me creating more tasks to satisfy administrative guidelines and justify marks which actually inhibited my relationships with parents, students, and administration! Yes, I was using the tool poorly, but the tool itself was biased toward process, not people.

Others, like George Couros has here, have already written about how technology can be used to build relationship. Teachers want to build relationship because we know it is an important way to set the stage for quality learning. In order to prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools, we need to support each other in selecting tools that are biased in favour of relationship. For example, this semester I chose to use the tool, EduSight Notes (as I wrote about here) precisely because it would create a routine that would help build relationship. I think it will help infuse community-building into the very structure and processes of my practice. The tool will support, not undermine, what I value–the students I’m teaching and learning with.

That, paradoxically, is how I can write an entire post about valuing people over tools while focusing mainly on tools. Through collective reflective practice, let’s find the tools that best support our values.


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Agile Education: Not Necessarily an Oxymoron

Of all the adjectives applied to education, “agile” would seem to be a sarcastic choice. Education is typically about as agile as an elephant. However, coming from the business and software development fields, “agile” may be just the adjective and philosophy that education needs. If you’d like to learn more about agile, particularly agile in education, you can check out Agile Classrooms and this article on agile learning. My aim over several blog posts is to briefly reflect on the four basic values of the Agile Schools Manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Meaningful learning over the measurement of learning
  • Stakeholder collaboration over complex negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Cited From:

These values (adapted from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development) question the value and priority of some longstanding education practices. Schools love their processes and tools; measurement of learning is the lifeblood of many schools and school systems; and, as the cell is to the body, so the lesson plan is to the school year. Of course tools, measurement, and planning are important components of school life, but the manifesto is a clear call to reflect and to prioritize. So, while assessment and reporting are important, are they more valuable to teachers than meaningful learning? Administrators can and should create processes that help schools run efficiently, but does a focus on routines and procedures have unintended negative effects on individuals and their ability to build community? Over the next few weeks we’ll reflect on what our practice reveals about our values and priorities in the hope of learning from our experience.

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”
― John Dewey

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Edusight Notes: Simple, No-Nonsense Assessment Aid

I often know the right thing to do, but my execution is regularly lacking. I know the power of writing conferences and their many benefits, including mentorship, relationship building, deeper learning, and occasionally outright joy. Unfortunately, my memory isn’t what it used to be. After a few weeks into a semester, I can’t recall what Savanna is working on, whether Tyler needs practice with voice or structure, or even what advice I offered Faith that led to a great moment and revision. Once I start second-guessing my memory, my conferencing slows down and becomes much more tentative. In my head I’m thinking, “I should know this. I’m going to damage a relationship that we’ve built if I can’t even remember this. She/he will think I don’t care when I really do care.” 

Now I show how I care by finding ways to remember and keep track. Edusight Notes is one of my go-to ways to remember. It is sometimes billed as a student portfolio app (and it can be), but I use it as a note-taking app for conferences, and anecdotal evidence of learning that too often disappears into the mist at report card time.

Edusight Notes is an iOS app that does one thing simply and well. It takes notes. The simple interface begins with card icons for each class. Tap on a class and the students appear by name (and picture if you’d like. How about a first day of school selfie for everyone?) in rows of icons. Tap a student and you are directed to their timeline/portfolio where you can review past notes or add a note in the form of a picture (from the camera or roll) and/or text. That’s it. It isn’t fancy, but it is exactly what I need. My only minor complaint is that you have to type in the names of your students (though it will remember them for future classes).

Now, my memory of that great conference moment is only a few taps away. I take my iPad to all conferences and record anything I wish to remember, including pictures of perplexing paragraphs and items to review during the next conference. In a day or two when it is time for that next conference, I review the notes and pictures of work in progress and pick up with the student where we left off.

Now I don’t forget…because I do care. Edusight Notes helps me show it.

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Learning From Setbacks: Next Steps

My last post discussed how some of my standards based assessment plans went awry. The next post or two will document the adjustments I’m making in the new semester in order to improve the process. I’ll begin with communication.

The SBA grade book I created worked well for me, but it was difficult to share with students who only were able to see a PowerSchool summary of my much more detailed assessments. This semester I’m using the =importrange function to open up my grade book for each student. It requires some initial setup, and there is probably an easier, more elegant solution, but this is how I’m getting the job done on the fly.

The =importrange function allows me to take information from one spreadsheet and display it in another spreadsheet. In this case, I created a spreadsheet for each student in class and imported only their grade information to their personal sheet. Then I shared the sheet with them on Google Drive. The best part is that whenever I make changes to my grade book, the =importrange function updates the student sheets, so after my initial investment in time, the grade information flows to the students without any extra work on my part. Here is a quick look at part of a student spreadsheet. (And, here is the link. Feel free to make a copy.)

Importrange Capture

I could explain how to use =importrange, but anyone really interested in the details should check out Alice Keeler‘s posts (like this one). I don’t have anything to add to her already helpful explanations.

Some tips:

  • importrange moves information in cells but not formatting
  • Create one student sheet as a template and include any colour formatting you would like, then duplicate the template for each additional student using FILE–>make a copy…
  • My grade book is one spreadsheet with a tab for each student. Once I set up my first student sheet each duplicate sheet only required me to change the tab name in the formula to import the student specific data (No need to rewrite the entire formula). For example, in the photo above, if I change the tab name, “Student Sample” in the formula to the name of the next student tab, “Jane Smith” suddenly Jane’s grade information is connected to her spread sheet.

Once the setup is complete, I’ll assess as I did last semester, but the communication (and hopefully conversation) around assessment will drastically increase. It isn’t a perfect system, but it is an important next step.

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The F-Word

I’m talking about failure. Failure has become quite the educational buzzword these days. Articles, research journals, and blogposts all tout the need for failure as part of the learning process. I’d argue that most people mean “mistake” instead of “failure,” but that is an argument for another day. I’d just like to say that failure–necessary or not–is no fun.

One of my PD goals this year is to implement an improved standards-based assessment system into my Grade 12 English class. While I still believe in the idea, I have failed in a few ways during the process so far.

Communication has been a failure. It took me an embarrassingly long time to communicate the idea to students. My reporting of their progress was weak. I developed a pretty helpful grade book to keep track of student learning, but I was unable to adequately share that grade book with students and parents.

The structure let down a significant chunk of students in the class. About a third of the students in the class embraced the idea of building their own reading/writing portfolio and followed through with managing and completing the task. However, while the middle third eventually caught on, the bottom third floundered and produced very little. Upon reflection I think the top third already had the required academic and life skills necessary to manage and complete a long-term project, and I failed to scaffold instruction for the rest of the class, many of whom need smaller stages that would allow them to recognize the necessary skills and sometimes fail to execute them without jeopardizing the entire big picture.

I failed in execution. The heart and soul of this idea is that the teacher can spend 30 to 45 minutes per class in one-on-one conversation/instruction with students, giving immediate feedback and allowing students to articulate their learning. I accomplished this less than half as much as I would have liked as I tried to wrestle with the two failures mentioned above. It took me so long to communicate the big picture at the beginning of the course, that I didn’t firmly set up the necessary culture of conversation and conferencing.

I share all this because too often teachers feel isolated in their individual classrooms and that they are the only one struggling to improve. Certainly this post focuses on the negative, and in the middle of the semester I felt the weight of my shortcomings, but with the support of some amazing colleagues, I am past the negative. I can recognize some of the successes, and I have started to develop solutions that will prevent the same type of failure from happening again (or least they will happen to a lesser degree). I strongly believe this is professional learning (PD if you will). I’ll blog about my developing solutions as they…well, develop.


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Padlet: A Quick and Easy Collaboration Tool

Padlet (formerly Wallwisher) is hardly a new tool, but it is easy to use and very versatile, so it is definitely worth checking out or revisiting. Basically it is a blank wall online, and people add sticky note posts to the wall which will expand as needed. Posts can include text, links, video, and pictures, so there is potential for a rich variety of information and interaction. With a free account at you can create walls with a variety of customization options, including privacy settings that range from completely public to email invitations to collaborators of your choice.

A Padlet wall can be used in the classroom in many ways. Recently a colleague and I combined our different grade level writing classes in order to begin some group writing projects. We are hoping to teach/learn about various government agencies and use writing to inspire positive change through those agencies. We want student choice driving the projects, so we had students brainstorm individually and then post their interests to a padlet wall so that they might benefit from other’s brainstorming and find partners with similar interests with whom they might collaborate. Teachers and students could see all the posts and even rearrange them into groups and categories. It sure is handier than writing all the ideas on a whiteboard only to erase them at the end of the period.

Once again, imagination is the limit to how you could use this tool. A student could use it to curate their knowledge of a topic and submit it like an interactive poster. Students working in a group could organize their research and writing on a wall. Here’s a wall I set up last year as a welcome back to school activity that also measured my students’ comfort with using their iPads in a 1:1 environment.


Padlet offers handy embed codes, but they don’t play nice with my free WordPress account.

Padlet has great features such as embed codes for your class website, social media sharing, QR codes, privacy settings, moderating, and all kinds of customization to fit your classroom application, and it is a web-based tool that works with laptops, tablets, and phones. Show this tool to your students and see what they can do with it.

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Tracking 50 Passion Projects at Once

As my second full year of Genius Hour passion projects begins, I’m trying something new in order to better track each student’s progress. Last year I learned plenty from my students, including that I need a leaner, more agile tracking system in order to assess, encourage, and praise progress. Google Forms to the rescue!

Instead of clipboards and growing piles of paper charts, I created a simple Google Form that looks like this:PassionForm

The form is short and takes students only a minute or two to complete at the beginning of their Passion Project time (I schedule this period once a week on a Monday or Friday). The form can be distributed to students in several ways: email, url (I’d use a url shortener for this), or a QRcode (I use Qrafter Pro, but there are free apps). Most students simply bookmark the form the first time they use it, but some love scanning the QRcode every time because it makes them feel like they are attending class on the Starship Enterprise. If not all the students in the room have a device or access to a computer, they can complete the form on a friends device or take turns on a classroom computer. I’ve even circulated the room with my iPad so that students could complete the form.

If you don’t know how to make or use a Google Form, it is very simple, and @alicekeeler has a very good Intro to Google Forms that will walk you through the process.

Once students complete the form, the real power of Google Forms is at your fingertips. All the answers are sent to a spreadsheet like this:PassionResponses 

Obviously this one is blank at the moment, but once it is full of data, the spreadsheet is a versatile and handy assessment. If you click on the heading of column A (timestamp) and organize the information in alphabetical order from Z-A, you have a list of what everyone is doing (or supposed to be doing) today (alphabetizing the timestamp Z-A puts the most recent answers at the top and the oldest answers at the bottom). I use this information to connect with each student during passion project time and to help some students manage their time. It is a great way to help students to learn over time how to set reasonable goals and manage time independently.

After several classes have passed, I click on the heading of column B (Name) and organize alphabetically by name. This enables me to look at one student’s progress over time. Are they making progress? Are they accomplishing their weekly goals? Do they seem to recognize their progress (or lack of)? This helps me to identify stragglers and strugglers much earlier than I have previously, and all the information is on one spreadsheet in Google Drive instead of a pile of paper charts in my desk.

If you’re tired of treading water in a sea of paperwork, Google Forms may be the tool for you. It is very versatile and can be used in many situations. Some teachers use it to get to know their students, others to organize events or collect information from parents. Start with a simple form, and I think you’ll quickly see the power and potential of Google Forms.


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