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’.


Good Games

In my last post I started thinking about the work of Barry Fishman on Gameful Learning. I got as far as concluding that school is a game, but not a very good one. On the other hand, we know from experience that good games are powerful learning environments, but the learning is generally not very useful outside the game. The logical conclusion from this is, if we could make school into a better game then useful learning would be enhanced.

In his EdX MOOC (Gameful Learning 101), Fishman identifies 10 principles behind good games.

1      Clear Learning Goals

Games all have clear and well defined goals.

2      Identity Play

In game play the identity of the player merges into a game identity. It is easiest to understand this in the context where a player identifies with a character in a computer game

3      Embedded Assessment

Games don’t stop to see what you have learned. Skill is demonstrated and rewarded within the game play.

4      Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Games have built in motivators which reward play. They also have extrinsic motivators, for instance digital badges which can be shared to earn status in the game community.

5      Support Autonomy

In a good game the players are often allowed (or encouraged) to explore and find their way through he game. They are also often able to find alternative ways to play the game.

6      Encourage Belonging

Good games are supported by communities that promote belonging. Sports clubs and online communities for computer games are examples.

7      Support Competence

As competence grows the games gets harder and more enjoyable.

8      Productive Failure

In a game failure is never final. Gamers know they can come back and learn from their mistake.

9      Encourage Exploration

A game always encourages exploration. In any game a good gamer will explore, even after competing a level, to find out more about the level and a better way to complete it. This is particularly true of computers games. Another example is golf, as golfers will repeatedly play a course to improve their score and find better solutions to the problems the course presents.

10    Practice and Reinforcement

Practicing a game is rewarded by improvement in the skills of the game.

The School Game

If some of these attributes of a good game can be applied to education, then the game we call school will be improved. Leading to improved student engagement and learning.

How to do that will be covered in future posts.

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.

A tool for teaching coding

I have been a computing teacher and IT professional all my working life, so it is exciting to see coding being elevated as a new ‘literacy’. While I have some reservations about the direction this is taking, I will leave it till later to comment, once my thoughts have settled.

One positive coming out of this is the wave of new coding tools and IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) being released with education in mind.

This brief post is to introduce a tool I have recently found called Greenfoot.

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.


Submission to 9-12 Curriculum Review


In my home state of Tasmania there is a curriculum review of grades 9-12 taking place. Currently most students complete grades 7-10 in a Secondary School and then change to a Secondary College for the next 2 years. Currently in that system slightly over 40% of students achieve the leaving certificate at the end of year 12. The state government are currently extending the Secondary Schools so they will offer grades 7-12. This review is to look at curriculum and attainment in that context. This is my submission to the review.

Analysis of data at 4 key points in the system indicates that there are about 10% of students that fall short of the educational standard all through their education. Approximately 60% succeed at each stage and around 30% fall below the standard at some point but succeed at other stages. This diagram illustrates the data. (Lamb S, 2015, p. iv)

The index of educational opportunity in Australia


(Diagram reproduced from Lamb et. al. page iv)

As senior secondary educators in Tasmania our best chance of improving attainment is to capture the ~17% that fall below the minimum standard between grade 7 and grade 12 and boost them back to a satisfactory level of attainment, as well as improve the outcomes of the ~10% that have consistently failed to meet the minimum standard. The question of course is how to go about that.

What is restricting attainment?

Before looking at solutions we need to find out what factors mitigate against attainment. Lamb, suggest a number of factors (in summary):

  • Completion is linked to achievement in school. Only one in two of the lowest mathematics achievers (lowest decile) at age 15 completed Year 12 by age 19. For the highest achievers, 94.3 per cent had completed Year 12 by age 19.
  • Levels of student engagement in school – cognitive, emotional and behavioural – as well as student dispositions towards school and learning (sense of belonging, sense of purpose, self-efficacy, determination or grit) vary by student background and are correlated with achievement.
  • Linked to the likelihood of doing well at the end of the senior school years are social and cultural factors, as well as differences in the concentrations of disadvantage across schools and communities.
  • Year 12 attainment among 19-year-olds varies substantially by socio-economic background. The SES gap is a much as 28 percentage points between highest and lowest. About 40 per cent of young people from the lowest SES backgrounds do not complete Year 12 or its equivalent by age 19.
  • Location is strongly linked to Year 12 attainment. Remote and very remote communities have high numbers of young people not completing – 56.6 per cent and 43.6 per cent respectively.
  • Of these SES is by far the strongest factor, followed by location. These are things, however, which we cannot do anything about. Things which we can exercise some control over are engagement and achievement.


Students that achieve well tend to complete their education. The building blocks of achievement are literacy and numeracy, students with poor literacy and numeracy skills do not achieve well at school in general and as a result they tend to disengage and not complete their education. For this reason one way to improve completion and attainment, particularly for the ‘at risk 30%’, is to build literacy and numeracy.

A good tool to evaluate the literacy and numeracy skills of our students is the PISA testing for 15 year olds in 2009. On this scale Tasmania provides the following results (Lamb S, 2015, p. 49):

Mathematics Reading
Mean score Mean score
OECD 487 OECD 496
Australia 504 Australia 512
Tasmania 478 Tasmania 485

Clearly Tasmania is behind in these areas when compared to the Australian average and the OECD in general. These mean scores hide even worse results for low SES students. Poor literacy and numeracy undermines learning and achievement, and contributes to poor attainment and retention figures.

One focus for improvement is therefore to boost literacy and numeracy, particularly for those students who are at risk. At the moment most students only complete one year of Maths and English in grades 11/12. In fact those students who are weakest in these areas are more likely to complete the least Maths and English subjects. I propose that students complete 2 year courses in literacy and numeracy, in line with the national curriculum. This will give students the best opportunity to build their skills in these areas.

As a teacher of Maths I will use that subject area as an example. If students enrolled in Maths courses over 2 years they would end up with an improved and less rushed coverage of the Maths curriculum and the standard and morale in classes would be much better. With minimal curriculum modification I can see possible Maths pathways for students as follows:


This can be achieved now by having students enrol in a 2 year pathway for Maths rather than individual subjects. A simular collection of pathways could be developed for English.


“Engagement is of primary importance to succeeding at school. Many students who do not feel they belong at school, or reject school values, and become alienated or disaffected, struggle to succeed and place themselves at risk.”

(Lamb et. al. page 53)

Engagement refers to the extent to which students identify with the school and value the outcomes. There are three aspects to engagement (Lamb S, 2015, p. 53):

  1. Emotional engagement refers to acceptance of school values and responses to peers and teachers.
  2. Behavioural engagement refers to participation in school activities.
  3. Cognitive engagement refers to connections with the learning tasks.

Measurements of these 3 dimensions of engagement indicate that Tasmania is slightly behind the Australian average, but more importantly this measure is also strongly influenced by SES and therefore has most impact on the students who are often already struggling with poor achievement and family support.

As an exercise it is interesting to think first about what sort of things mitigate against engagement:

  1. Emotional engagement
    • Ensure students are constantly changing groups so that they find it difficult to get to know their colleagues. Make sure that all their class groups are different and they have little time to develop relationships.
    • Ensure that students have as many teachers as possible so they find it difficult to get to know their teachers well and feel comfortable with them.
  2. Behavioural engagement
    • Make sure that students have as little time and opportunity as possible to engage in extra-curricular activities.
    • Ensure that any extra-curricular activities have as little connection as possible with the school.
  3. Cognitive engagement
    • Make the curriculum as complex as possible.
    • Ensure that the assessment is complex and difficult to understand.
    • Make the enrolment process confusing and subject choice is complicated by a bewildering array of options.
    • Teach what the curriculum stipulates. The objective is getting a pass, not learning something useful or valuable. Also don’t connect anything learned with the real world.

Based on this much of what we do in senior secondary education actually works against engagement. Again much is outside our control, but there are some things which I think we can work towards.

  • Reduce the number of subjects. This will make the enrolment process less confusing and reduce the number of different subjects that students are doing, giving them more in common with their peers. There is evidence that reducing subject choice improves engagement. (Darling-Hammond, et al., 2006/2007)
    • A good first exercise is to establish subjects on the basis of learning outcomes and level of difficulty, rather than content. If two subjects in the same learning area have simular learning outcomes then is there a need for both of them?
  • Encourage project based learning.
  • Provide credit for the learning that takes place in clubs and societies, or community work.

These are just a few thoughts, and they are somewhat controversial and in some cases counterintuitive. But I think that a new direction is needed to improve attainment and retention.

Grant MacDonald B.Sc. (Hons.), M.Ed.Studs


The opinions expressed in this submission are personal and not representative of my employer or any group I am associated with.

This is a public submission – it does NOT contain ‘in confidence’ material in the main submission or its attachments, and can be placed on ACER’s website.


Lamb S, Jackson J, Walstab A, Huo S, 2015. Educational opportunity in Australia 2015: Who suceeds and who misses out, Centre for International Research on Education Systems, Victoria University, for the Mitchell Institute, Melbourne: Mitchell Institute

Linda Darling-Hammond; Peter Ross; Michael Milliken. (2007), High School Size, Organization, and Content: What Matters for Student Success?, Brookings Papers on Education Policy, No. 9, 2006/2007, pp. 163-203)

To VLE or not to VLE?

There has been a growth in the number of Virtual Learning Environment packages in recent years. Fueled perhaps by the marketing hype, teachers are under pressure to move their learning online. many teachers are working hard to learn and implement a VLE to deliver their course online.

In a subversive moment I decided to ask why?

I have used a VLE to great effect, so I am a believer in the technology, but like many good things there is the risk that it is overused. With that in mind I decided to take a step back and ask when and how a VLE should be used.

Broadly speaking I see three levels of technology integration into teaching practice, roughly connected to the SAMR model.

  1. Classroom teaching is unchanged but online resources are provided to support students. So the teacher might provide some extra resources like Khan Academy links for the students. This corresponds to Substitution and Augmentation, or the enhancement level in the SAMR model. I would include a flipped classroom in this section as it is really just an augmentation of traditional teaching.
  2. Students are provided with a classroom blended learning environment where they use online resources and activities integrated into the classroom learning. In this situation the underlying pedagogy is quite traditional but the students also work online to complete activities and assessments. This corresponds to the Modification stage in the SAMR model, where the technology has significantly modified teaching and learning, but the learning design is fundamentally the same.
  3. The final approach is where technology is factored into the learning design stage. This is quite difficult to do but I have attempted this approach in a previous post. This would correspond to the final Redefinition stage in the SAMR model, where the students are engaged in learning that would not be possible without the technology. By this I don’t mean a single online activity like a Kahoot quiz, but a  course that integrates technology at the learning design stage and probably would not be possible without Edtech.

Now looking at these three scenarios it is obvious that most classroom use of technology falls into the first scenario. Most teachers are using technology to support isolated activities, or to provide students with remedial support. That is not a bad thing, and I make no criticism of what they are doing. My suggestion, however, is that teachers don’t require a VLE for that level of technology integration. A VLE is a complex package and learning to work comfortably in the VLE environment can be a significant hurdle to teachers wishing to use technology in their classroom. By setting that consideration aside many teachers will feel more comfortable and confident to try using technology.

So if there is no VLE what can teachers use?

  1. The simplest solution is to use Dropbox or Google Drive. Free cloud services like those are extremely simple to use and resources can be organized in folders for students to access.
  2. The next level up is to use a blog site such as WordPress. This can start as simple blog posts with work for students and with time it can grow to become a relatively sophisticated virtual classroom environment. Teachers can add features as their confidence grows. I have been using this method for some years now and an example can be found at
  3. To my way of thinking the Rolls Royce of simple solutions is Mosaic LiveTiles. This is provided free to schools with  a SharePoint/Office365 environment and while the infrastructure requires some expertise to establish, the package is extremely simple drag and drop technology for classroom teachers wanting to provide resources to support their students with an attractive interface.

So in summary teachers wishing to support their class with online content don’t need to implement a VLE. It is much quicker and easier to use other sharing technologies.

An example of Participatory Pedagogy in an online environment

Recently I have grappled with the problem of developing an online course within my VLE that uses modern thinking on pedagogy for 21st Century skills. The course I am developing is called the Design Workshop and this is the pedagogical design which underpins it.

Most online courses are attempts to provide the equivalent of classroom learning experience in an online environment. The design Workshop takes the opposite approach and seeks to use the unique features of an online environment to bring a new style of learning to the classroom.

In proceeding through the 5-6 week course students are taken through the design process towards a goal of their own. At each stage they share their progress with other participants within the online forum. After the introduction there are 5 modules representing 5 stages in the design process.

The purpose of this discussion, however, is to focus on the pedagogy. This approach could be applied to any online course.

The Design Workshop explores a pedagogy and assessment that are not practical in a traditional classroom. The pedagogy is based on a concept called ‘participatory pedagogy’, while the assessment is based on the principles of ‘assessment for learning’ and digital badges.

Participatory Pedagogy

The pedagogical theory that the Design Workshop is based on is called Participatory Pedagogy (PP).

PP uses a collaborative and reflective process to formalize knowledge. It aims to develop transformative learning (changes in how we know) rather than informative knowledge (changes in what we know).
Successful PP contains three main elements:
1. providing choice and flexibility in learning activities and assignment work.
2. navigating the balance between challenge and risk.
3. creating contexts for critical reflection.

Students will have had little experience in learning like this. Most of their experience will be with informative learning. Given information, learn information, reproduce information.

Students familiar with the PP approach have reported that the teacher using a participatory pedagogy approach needs a range of features (quote from reference):

  • Be open to the interaction thereby enabling the students to have a voice.
  • Be willing to commit to the style and be an active participant yourself.
  • Have courage and be willing to go outside of your teaching safety zone into new unexplored domains.
  • Be frank, up front with the format, and provide encouragement to the students so they feel supported during this new learning format.
  • Plan learning based on student interests and choice, and do so by collaborating with and guiding learners as opposed to informing them.
  • Create an atmosphere of learning where expectation of learner action is high and modify the activities/plans to meet their needs.
  • Be open, willing, and supportive to students if you are trying creative adventures because it can be a risky thing for adult learners to engage in.
  • Be very comfortable with awkward pauses and strange looks, and be willing to walk students through their discomfort.
  • Be humble but have a good depth of experience, both human and professional.

To be successful, therefore, a participatory pedagogy needs to be well supported by a mentor style teacher who demonstrates these qualities.

Choice and Flexibility

In the Design Workshop students will choose the design task they wish to embrace. This provides for choice and flexibility. As a result:

  • They will have ownership of the task
  • The task is in a context they are interested in
  • Within the design process they are able to work at their own pace
  • Can go into as much depth as they wish.
  • Assessment/success is based on reflection and collaboration rather than comparison with external standard

Other courses using PP will need to find their own way to provide for choice and flexibility, but allowing (or forcing) students to set their own goals or topics will be one way of doing that.

Challenge and Risk

In the Design Workshop students will set their design brief/task before they embark on the solution. This has inherent challenge and risk.

  • Can the task be completed?
  • Do they have the skills of ability to effect a solution?
  • Resilience needed to overcome problems and stalled development.

Students share their work for comment by others and comment on the work of others.

  • This is a risk for students.
  • Also a challenge.
  • What do they say, how do they evaluate the work of others?
  • This evaluation process is closer to that which they will face in the real world. Students need to feel comfortable with putting their work and opinions out there for others to see and comment on.
  • Risk involved in not knowing what basis others will evaluate the work.

The higher the challenge the higher the risk. Structure provided by the design process gives a paradigm for managing the development of the solution to the design task. It provides an intellectual safety net to allow for a higher degree of risk than normally attempted.

Use of mentor or sponsor also provides for support with managing challenge and risk.

Once again other courses will need to incorporate risk, but using a forum is a method which could apply in almost any situation.

Critical Reflection

Students share their work for comment by others and comment on the work of others. This is a powerful driver for critical reflection.

  • What do they say, how do they evaluate the work of others?
  • Is their work ready for criticism?
  • How do they respond to the criticism?
  • This evaluation process is closer to that which they will face in the real world.

This process is closer to a ‘real world’ process and the structure encourages the students to reflect on their own work and provides the tools for them to do that. They begin to see their work through the eyes of others.

The use of a forum is therefore central to this pedagogy.


Assessment for Learning

Assessment can be formative or summative (or even both). Formative assessment can best be defined as an assessment which moves learning forward, while summative assessment measures learning.

The assessment used in the Design Workshop is intended to be strongly formative and is developed from principles collectively referred to as “Assessment for Learning”.

When considering formative assessment we need to think about where the learner is going, where they are now and how they will get there. This needs to be considered along with the joint responsibilities of the teacher, peers and the learner.

Leahy et al. [2] uses this framework to identify 5 key strategies of formative assessment.


The teacher in traditional classrooms spends a significant amount of time on content delivery, lesson planning and assessment. When a course is delivered through a VLE these roles are filled by the VLE. As a result a teacher has more time to spend in a mentoring role.

The teacher/mentor does not need to be expert in design or the skills the student requires, but they do need to fulfill some of the roles of the teacher in the formative assessment structure described above. The mentor is responsible for providing encouragement, support and advice. Clarifying the goals of the course and monitoring progress through the course. The mentor needs to be prepared to intervene as necessary to keep the learning moving forward.

The roles of peer and learner are also key in the Design Workshop. In a traditional classroom it is not easy to effectively activate peers and learners as owners and resources of learning. On the other hand educators agree that these are important steps towards students being independent learners and therefore life-long-learners. The Design Workshop makes use of the online forums throughout the course to activate students in this respect and it is important for the mentor to monitor this activity and intervene as needed to ensure that the forums are working effectively.

So what is the assessment for the Design Workshop? In a typical course there are defined outcomes which students are assessed against. But Wiliam and Leahy [3] point out that often a specific learning outcomes cannot be identified, rather a horizon of outcomes exist and

“…sometimes it is appropriate to do things not because they are guaranteed to result is specific learning outcomes but because they are important experiences for students”

The Design Workshop fits into this category of learning experience. Every student will be working on something different and taking a slightly different path through the course. The value of the course is the experience of designing and collaborating, so success is measured in terms of the degree to which they have engaged in that process.

For this reason, while some teachers may decide to assess the final design, it is intended that assessment focus on completion of the 5 modules and effective engagement in the forum discussion.

Digital badges

The primary assessment for this course is through earning digital badges. Many students are familiar with these in the context of computer gaming. A badge or trophy is awarded to the player in recognition of an achievement. The badge is designed to provoke engagement and reward success, but it is not necessarily an indication of completion. There is more discussion of how badges work at

Badges differ from marks in that a mark is seen by students as final. If a student gets an unsatisfactory mark then they are likely to just move on. If a student does not qualify for a badge, however, they are more likely to go back and make another attempt. The badges also have clearly defined criteria for earning them, so students know exactly what they need to do to succeed.

Digital Badges are more formative than a traditional assessment and more in line with the principles of ‘assessment for learning’.


Through this discussion I have used a specific course as an example, but the principles can be applied to any online learning environment.

Technology provides for new and better ways of doing things, but in education many (most?) teaching is essentially the same process when moved online. This discussion is an attempt to describe a new pedagogy which is specific to the online environment.


[2] Leahy, S., Lyon, C., Thompson, M., & Wiliam, D., (2005). Classroom assessment: Minute-by-minute and day-by-day. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 18-24

[3] Wiliam, D., Leahy, S., (2015). Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical techniques for K-12 classrooms, pg. 29, Learning Sciences International, USA

Assessment for Learning in an online environment

At Don College we have made assessment for learning as defined by Dylan Wiliam a PD priority this year. As a teacher who makes extensive use of online content I found that many of the techniques described were not easy to apply directly to my classroom (which is a computer lab). With that in mind I have addressed the task of devloping some AFL strategies which can be used in my classroom.

What is assessment for learning (AFL)?

AFL has been developed and promoted by Dylan Wiliam. In a nutshell AFL encompasses 5 principles for embedding formative assessment into our pedagogy.

  1. Clarify learning intentions and ensure that teachers, learners and peers share that understanding
  2. Engineer effective classroom discussions, activities and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
  3. Provide feedback that moves students forward
  4. Activating students as instructional resources for one another
  5. Activating students as the owners of their own learning

(Teachers to Schools: Scaling up professional development for formative assessment, Siobhan Leahy & Dylan Wiliam, These 5 principles have been applied by Wiliam to develop a (large) collection of strategies for teachers to employ in the classroom and if you are not familiar with Wiliam’s work I encourage you to investigate further. Wiliam does not expect teachers to use all the strategies, and he is specific in saying that teachers should use those strategies which best suit their class and teaching style. The important thing is to ensure that whatever the teacher does is true to the 5 principles above.

In general the techniques published by Wiliam are designed for a typical classroom. As a teacher of Graphic Design and Computer Science I spend most of my teaching time in a computer lab, so I have been thinking about ways of applying those 5 strategies in an online environment by adding to and adapting existing AFL techniques.

Use of online forums

All VLE environments have a forum feature. There are also free online services that provide a forum platform. (I use a service at which provides a free forum service if your school does not have a suitable in-house solution) An online forum can be used to support AFL in a virtual environment. Dylan Wiliam describes a technique called the ‘double deadline’.

  • When the students arrive at class they hand their work in with a colour coding. Red indicates that they are struggling, yellow indicates that they have done the work but are not confident, green indicates that they believe they have a full grasp of the work.
  • The teacher then uses those categorizations to pair the students up. Strugglers with confident students, and the teacher puts the yellow students together and helps them.
  • The students review the assignment in pairs according to a check list of expectations.
  • After the discussion the students take their work away and refine it before submitting it at the next lesson for the teacher to assess.

Another technique is called ‘2 stars and a wish’.

  • A student presents their work to the class (or a group) and each class member then reviews the presentation.
  • The review follows a standard format of 2 stars (2 things done well) and a wish (one suggestion for improvement)
  • It is important for the teacher to make clear what the students are looking for so that their stars and wishes are helpful.
  • There needs to be some preparation so that students understand how to give feedback in a positive way. In other words suggest improvements rather than just indicate what was not done well.

I am using online forums as a way of adapting those two techniques to an online environment. When students get their work to a state that is just short of complete they submit it to a class forum. To do this the students upload their work in a cloud service (I use OneDrive) and share the link on the forum. All students check the forum and respond to the posts of their peers using the 2 stars and a wish formula. Students can then take the feedback and modify their work before submitting it for assessment.

  • This technique allows the teacher to monitor the communication between students and step in privately if assistance is needed (for instance if a student is not getting suitable feedback, or enough feedback). Which is something that the classroom techniques don’t allow.
  • Students also learn the best time to ask for feedback. In general students are used to submitting complete work, while it is actually more powerful to submit incomplete work and ask for guidance in completing it. This is a big shift for students, and it takes some getting used to.
  • This technique also provides for students to submit their work at different times, so they submit when they are ready, not when the class timetable dictates.
  • Not only do students benefit from their own feedback, but they see the work and the feedback of all the students in the class. Indeed some students that are having difficulty getting started will be inspired by the early starters.
  • Students experience the difference between plagiarism (stealing work) and collaboration (drawing on work). By not working in isolation they are modelling the real world and learning an important 21st Century skill.
  • I can monitor the forum and assess the final submissions and the quality of feedback each student is giving.

This use of a forum in this way clearly applies all 5 of the AFL principles listed above.

Use a class wiki

This is not a direct adaptation from an assessment for learning technique (at least the ones I know) but it does implement the principles of AFL. We are all familiar with Wikipedia. In my design class the students have developed their own wiki on graphic design, focussing on the curriculum content of their course. You can view this wiki at (Another service available is Wikispaces, or some schools have an intranet that can house a wiki.) At random I allocate each student a topic or key word related to the curriculum . They then check the wiki and if a page exists they read through it and make modifications, additions and corrections as necessary. If the page doesn’t exists they get one started. I don’t make this a long task and typically only commit 20-30 minutes to work on the wiki each week through a school term.

Each year we have a mid year exam. I allow my students free access to the class wiki as they complete the exam. This has the effect of adding a strong formative element to the exam. It also gives the development of the wiki an added purpose.

  • The wiki structure  encourages students to see and form the connections between information, which is the way experienced learners operate.
  • The activity is well differentiated in that some students can add in a picture or correct some typing, while stronger students make more substantial contributions. All contributions are valued.
  • The development of the wiki actually models effective exam preparation. It is commonly known that writing and answering their own sample questions is a highly effective study technique. Writing wiki pages is, I believe, similar in nature and equally as effective.
  • Students are reviewing and improving each others’ work. They are also able to see what other students have done with their work.
  • Students experience an authentic 21st Century collaborative environment and experience the difference between copying and using information.
  • Using the wiki in the exam models 21st Century problem solving and also turns the exam into a formative assessment exercise. Some might think that since they can look up the answers all students would get full marks. My experience is that they don’t as the questions are not simple fact recall, but the wiki does help students to think more about the questions in the exam and not give up if the question looks unfamiliar. I believe I actually get better information about the competence of my students from this ‘open wiki’ exam than I do from a closed exam.
  • The wiki platform allows me to see past versions of each page and identify the edits each student has made. This allows me as a teacher to do an assess the contributions they are making if I wish.
  • The wiki has been running for a few years now, so students are also collaborating indirectly with past and future students.

This learning activity supports all 5 of the principles of assessment for learning, but it is especially powerful at activating students as instructional resources for one another and activating students as the owners of their own learning.


Assessment for learning provides principles and a range of techniques which improve learning. I found that applying the techniques as described by Dylan Wiliam and others were not directly applicable to my ICT based learning environment. I have however, found that activities can be planned using  online forums and wikis that effectively implement the underlying principles of assessment for learning.

Gormenghast Education

 In the Gormenghast Trilogy, Mervyn Peake paints a vivid picture of a huge and crumbling castle looming over a community. Within Gormenghast Castle the residents perform endless ritualized activities which have no relevance to the population around the castle, and even the residents of the castle can’t remember why, they just believe them to be important and not to be broken. Once a year the citizens of the village outside the walls were allowed to enter the castle and display their carvings for the castle residents. This quote describes that annual event.

Very little communication passed between the denizens of these outer quarters and those who lived within the walls, save when, on the first June morning of each year, the population of the clay swellings had sanction to enter the Grounds in order to display the wooden carvings on which they have been working during the year.

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

While Gormenghast is clearly a fantasy I can see certain similarities between it and our current schools. Classrooms are strange places which bear little resemblance to the world outside the school. They have their own rituals and practices which are rarely questioned.

When parents visit a classroom there is something of the atmosphere of the village people visiting Gormenghast. The atmosphere is that of people entering a space where they don’t belong. The education space is separate from their day-to-day life. Children enter this space to get an education before emerging (graduating) to enter the real adult world. Rather like butterflies emerging from the chrysalis.

Teachers find these analogies confronting. As a teacher we see schools as vibrant social spaces where children and young adults grow and develop, but this is the view from within the castle. For those looking in from the outside it appears quite different. When someone in the community thinks about a class room they often imagine something like this:

As teachers we know this is outdated. Modern secondary classrooms look like this:

The students look happier, but in my opinion, functionally the difference is small. The fact is that our K-12 schools are still based on an industrial model. They are essentially production lines where students enter in kinder and work through the curriculum in lock step, coming out the other at a graduation. It comes a surprise to many that education has not always been like this. Schools  as we know them appeared as a way of providing mass education in the 1800’s. Prior to that time education was based around community tradesmen and experts passing skills on to the young people (professional teachers were rare) and usually look more like this:

When asked to provide mass education to the community in the industrial age, the educational leaders of the time used an industrial model. They essentially developed an education factory and in industrial societies it was, and continues to be, spectacularly successful. In Australia we have emerged into a post-industrial 21st Century world. The most valued traits are now creativity, individuality, problem solving skills, communication skills, initiative and entrepreneurship. We need an educational model which encourages these 21st Century skills.

At this point you might think I am going to advocate doing away with traditional schooling. Actually no, I happen to believe that traditional/industrial schools are still a very effective way of mass educating basic skills and starting to teach 21st Century skills. They are also an excellent way for young people to develop social skills vital for surviving in our overcrowded world. In our schools students learn the limits to individuality and the communication skills and social customs which are the glue for our society. What I do want to see, however, is a change in community attitude which recognizes that learning is an integral part of life. Schools provide one type of learning important in the early years of life, but there is learning which continues outside school throughout life. This life learning allows people to adapt and enriches their life. Life learning is needed to hone and further develop 21st Century skills and learn new skills as the employment market changes. It is the life learning where people further develop their creativity, problem solving and communication skills in a real world context. In saying this I don’t want you to confuse life learning with life experience. Life experience is certainly valuable, but life learning can also be structured learning. Attending short courses, reading, practicing new skills, etc. these are the life learning experiences I am referring to.

There are a number of reasons why many in the community do not see learning as part of their life. Their experience in school, the opportunities available, cultural factors and many other things contribute to community attitudes to learning. To cover them all would require a text book rather than this short blog post. One aspect I would like to focus on is recognition of learning. Modern society places high importance on evidence and the measurement of learning. This gives institutions like schools an advantage, as they have the infrastructure to provide robust credit for the courses they offer. This in turn means that formal school-based learning is more highly valued by the community. The life learning, which is often  not supported in this way, is considered of less value and more of a hobby activity. In fact as we grow older it is the life learning that becomes more important.

To raise respect for life learning and encourage more participation, one important step, therefore, is to democratize recognition for learning. The giving of credit needs to be taken out of the exclusive control of the learning institutions and distributed to the community. One effective way of doing this is to facilitate and promote open badges in the community. Open badges are a computer image or icon which links to information about what the badge was awarded for, the issuer, the recipient and supporting evidence provided by the recipient. The badges can be shared online (social media and blogs) and through email. Using open badges it is possible to give robust credit for skills and achievements in a non-institutional context. I believe that providing an open badges infrastructure to a community so that non-institutionalized learning is recognized equally with institutional learning we will take a big step towards a learning community. A community that sees learning as a part of living rather than something associated with a period in their early life. Some communities are beginning to embrace this idea to great effect. Perhaps the best known are the Cities of Learning in the USA. Even there, however, the emphasis is on youth and I would like to see programs develop that encompass all life stages. So, in summary:

  • Our schools do their job, but they are an uncomfortable environment for most adults.
  • If we are to have a learning community, a community which views learning as part of life we need to break the association learning has with schooling.
  • In turn we need to democratize recognition and credit for learning within the community (pre-industrial model learning) so that learning outside institutions is seen on an equal footing with school learning. Open badges are an effective way of achieving that.