Author Archive: GrantMac

Learners First with Educational Technology


A quick search on the web for educational technology will turn up a long list of articles with titles like “10 best apps for the classroom”. While this information is useful, it does encourage inexperienced teachers to place the technology at the centre of their planning. Let me explain with a simple example.

In a staff meeting about 12 months ago a teacher at my school presented to the staff. Teachers were impressed by this technology and they could see that it was fun and engaging. As a result classrooms all over the school started doing Kahoot quizes. Kahoot is a nice application and I am in no way critical of it. The point I want to make is that a well written Kahoot is a good educational exercise, while a badly written Kahoot is not. might be fun (until the students get sick of it), but it is not inherently beneficial to educational outcomes. In the words we are hearing more and more lately, it is pedagogically neutral. (

In this example I sensed that the teachers liked, and based on that made the decision to incorporate it into their lessons. In effect the technology was driving planning … and that worries me.

I work for the Tasmanian Government and the motto for our education system is “Learners First”. If technology is at the centre of our planning how is that putting learners first? Surely learners need to be at the centre of our planning. In a world, however, where most of the information we get about educational technology is presented by the developers and promoters of the technology, how do we ensure that the learners and pedagogy remain the driver?

I have written in the past about the learning design studio approach ( There are features in this approach which I believe ensure that learners and learning drive our planning. Two key elements in the learning design studio appraoch are establishing good learning intentions and writing student personas.

Learning Intentions


At an early stage in the learning design process it is important to establish what students will be learning. Good learning intentions have the following properties:

  • They need to be clear.
  • They need to be context free.
  • They need to be true to the parent document.(curriculum  and standards.)

As an example consider the learning intention “To be able to construct arguments for and against assisted suicide” 1

This appears at first sight to be a good learning intention, but it is too closely associated with an activity. The real learning intention, divorced from context, is “to be able to construct arguments for or against emotionally charged propositions.” For effective learning this intention should be applied in a range of contexts, such as abortion, assisted suicide, … After the learning intention is established the most suitable context(s) will be developed as the learning activity is designed.

This short video explores how learning intentions are developed, connected to the parent document and how they lead on to the next stages in the learning design process.

Student Personas

The key to putting the student at the centre is empathy. When we design our learning activity, we are designing it for the benefit of learners. In order to design effectively we need to have an appreciation of how those learners think and feel. In many design exercises the development of empathy involves research, but in our case we have familiarity with our students. All we need to do is spend some time documenting what we know.

A good way to document what we know about our students is to develop a persona. A persona is a description of a typical student in our class. (We may write more than one to accommodate differentiation).

Teachers know their students and tend to exercise empathy as an automatic process, but I think it is important to do this at a conscious level. Take the time to write about your students, record their likes dislikes and frustrations, their hopes and plans for the future, their weaknesses and strengths and their situation outside school.

Students at the Centre

Once we have clearly documented learning intentions and student personas we are in the position to begin to plan the learning activities. It is highly likely that those activities will involve some technology, but the use of technology will come out of an understanding of the the learning intentions and the students.

Technology will no longer be the driver. We will be putting learners first.


  1. D. Wiliam, S Leahy, “Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical Techniques for K-12 Classrooms”, Learning Sciences International, 2015 pg 35.


Looking through the attributes of a good game it is obvious that several of them are connected with motivation. Teachers know that motivation is at the core of effective learning and one of the main complaints I hear around the staff room (expressed in a number of ways) is the lack of students’ motivation.  Fishman points out that students don’t lack motivation, they are just not always motivated towards our learning goals.

A key theory of motivation is Achievement Goal Theory. AGT identifies three types of motivational orientations:

  1. Mastery Orientation. These students are motivated to achieve mastery in their learning. This is the preferred type of motivation and leads to better learning outcomes.
  2. Performance Approach Orientation. These students are motivated to look good. this may mean a student strives for an A to look good, but if in their peer group a C looks good, then that will be their goal.
  3. Performance Avoidance Orientation. These students are motivated not to look bad. They will be satisfied with any mark that doesn’t make them look dumb, or failing that they will try to hide their performance.

Research has found that the orientation is an indicator of success, with mastery orientation supporting the best learning outcomes and performance avoidance the worst. Surprisingly, it has been discovered at Michigan University that Gameful Learning design mutes the effect of performance orientations.

Students may still [have that performance orientation], but you’ve created a safe space for them to feel like they can accomplish what they want to accomplish, and not let their performance drive be … what’s really ruling their decision making.

Barry Fishman

So in summary, Gameful Learning Design overcomes motivation orientations which are limiting effective learning.

At this point in the MOOC I was starting to get very excited about Gameful Learning, as I could see that my intuitive sense that gameful design improved learning was supported by research findings and learning theory.

Next we will move on to look at motivation and ‘flow states’.

What is Gameful Learning?

I am currently working through a MOOC led by Barry Fishman and offered through EdX by University of Michigan on Gameful Learning.

I have written previously on Gamification and Game-Based Learning and while this can be effective, it concerned me that there is a danger that (for the students) the learning activity might become more about winning the game than learning. This is  true for Game-based Learning and badly designed Gamification. One of the things that attracted me to research Gameful Learning is that it seemed to be a way of keeping the positive aspects of Gamified Learning while maintaining learning as the goal for students.

In developing the principles of Gameful Learning Fishman has progressed Gamification and made connections with other learning theories such as Vigotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and theories about motivation including Achievement Goal Theory.

School is a game

What is a game? Fishman does some analysis of games and concludes that there are  key elements that define a game.

  1. A games has rules. These may not necessarily make any sense in the real world, but they are consistent within the game.
  2. A game has goals.
  3. A game has its own context or environment.

Looking at this definition we can see that school is a game, just not a very good or well designed one.

Looking at this from the other direction, games are good teachers. It is just that what they teach is often not very useful.

The core of Fishman’s MOOC is about redesigning learning so that it is a good game rather than a bad one.

In my next post I will investigate the principles of a good game.

Why complete year 12?

There has been much discussion lately in Tasmania about student retention and attainment in the final years of secondary school.The state government have established programs such as the 11/12 extension of High Schools and a review of 9-12 education to plan for and encourage student retention and attainment. Other groups such as the Education Ambassadors and events such as The Hothouse , represent a community focus on Secondary School completion.

This policy and community activity is in response to a slowly increasing level of TCE (graduation certificate) completion, which reached a disappointing 50.8% in 2015.

In spite of this there is anecdotal evidence that a large proportion of the regional Tasmanian community still view TCE completion as a worthy secondary objective, behind gaining employment.

In response I would like to put forward some reasons why it is important for students to complete year 12 and gain their TCE, even at the expense of a couple of years in the workforce. These comments are based on a brochure produced by the Department of Education.

Increasingly, career opportunities in the future will be based on non-routine problem solving. The best preparation for this is to complete a quality general education including literacy, numeracy, ICT and  21st Century skills such as collaboration, problem solving, knowledge construction etc. Completing secondary education improves these skills.

In the past (last century) most people would enter the workforce and continue working in the same area using the same basic skills throughout their working life. This is no longer the case and most employees will change jobs and industries a number of times. Even within the same job, technology brings changes. Each change requires new learning and new skills. A solid general education provides a basis for adapting and efficiently developing new skills as they are needed.

Most employers agree that they would rather employ a person who has completed year 12. They find that year 12 graduates are more skilled and more mature that those that have left school at the end of grade 10.

Completing grade 12 opens up more employment opportunities and choices. It also opens up more highly paid and interesting jobs.

With employment comes money and financial independence, so it is not difficult to understand why young people find a job offer tempting at the end of grade 10. On the other hand, however, staying at school will provide better opportunities and a better lifestyle into the future.