Experiments in Gamification Elements: The Inquisition of the Damned Part 1

At the beginning of 2015 I experimented by bringing in a new unit into my level 2 classical studies course.  It was on the analysis of sacred texts & we focused on the theme of evil, more specifically demonology.  We examined The Vendidad a sacred text of the Zoroastrian faith, which, of course, has some nice meaningful connections to the classical world.  I used it as a scaffolding unit to teach students core skills & processes (as this is the first year level for classics). It also set the tone of using difficult primary sources & demonstrating the variety of secondary interpretations of historical evidence.

The previous year I made a goal to try & bring more elements of ‘fun’ into learning.  I started to do that thing that I do when I am thinking about something.  I read widely, casually participated in some mooc courses, & sought out resources for inspiration.  The problem with game elements is that they tend to appeal to extrinsic motivation (though a recent literature review indicated that the right extrinsic motivators can lead to strong intrinsic motivation).  Badges, points, silly little icons.  These are things that marketing departments love.  Am I a marketer?  In the yearly drive of subject snake oil salesman ship to recruit sufficient numbers for classes I have been successful.  Can I use such manipulative schools for enticing reluctant learners into learning or increasing the engagement of many learners in my classes.


I decided that on the one hand whatever was done needed to be done with purpose.  On the other hand, I would probably only know if it works successfully if I try it.  In that demonology unit  it started with a hook.  Drawing the students in with a ‘demon-hunter’ type of vibe & drawing on scenes from Supernatural, students were interested.  At the time I remember it being fun but I dismissed its significance.  Until the end of the year.  All of those student voice & reviews & looking to the future & things turned out that this made a lasting impression for many students.  This prompted me to undertake conversations with the classes about how we could productively expand this.

Game-based learning & gamification are complex & diverse topics with limited authoritative research.  Most of the examples I come across as a gimmick or are designed by marketers to lull you in: collect these points & badgers.  Now, I am not above using such tacky ploys if they can be used in a way that meet my learning goals.

So I started with the idea of a theme, The Inquistion of the Damned.  This theme would colour the dynamics of my inquiry approaches.  So I took the four key elements (inquiry, tools, context, & action) of my resourcing & put connected them into my theme.  The theme came naturally out of the demonology concept & sought to extend it to encompass revealing the mysteries of elements from the entire classical world.

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1: Inquiry

In my model, Inquiry has always been like a compass.  Not something that you follow like a flow chart but something that acts as a means of direction.  I don’t much care for arrows & things.  I always feel that with an arrow, they are just giving me something to rebel against.  I would not argue that this is complete or a definitive model or a model that will work for others.


The elements of this model came from my dissatisfaction in finding an inquiry model that was right for me & my approaches (& no arrows).  In a future post I will take some time to delineate the details of this inquiry process.

2: Tools

Connected to inquiry is a series of skill areas & resources I have developed on key things like analysing source or writing.  I see these as skills that are developed through training.  The idea of ‘The Learning Pit’ is prominent in the Stonefields model, where failure or being stuck is OK & you develop strategies to get out.  Drawing on Dante’s Inferno as something that tied in with the development of my theme came the Pit of Despair.  Here there are different circles/arenas for training to up skill before continuing to progress through inquiry.  The next stage is to complete the construction of a formal toolbox of weapons that can be used to train with.

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3: Context

The other important element is the context that I impose or we co-construct. I don’t particularly care if students are learning about Virgil or Ovid or Alexander of Augustus (though Alexander & Ovid are my favourites), but I do care that they are engaging with a context that is appropriately challenging & will add cultural capital to their base.  In addition to traditional topics, I also encourage exploration of more traditional topics like Socrates & philosophy or occultism.  I believe a balance between the student choice & teacher imposition is where I currently reside.

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While this is not an exhaustive list of the various topics, these are the main areas which I have explicit resourcing to support student inquiry.  Students who have demonstrated sufficient autodidact skills are able to break out or negotiate a different context.  I do not believe it is sufficient to merely say here is some Arrian, Plutarch, Diodorus, & Justin go forth & become Alexander experts (though some can).  Learners need a critical frame of reference & supporting resources (whether critical questions, narratives, or explanation).

4 Action

The last of the four key components are our primary methods of evidence collection.  Diaries of the Damned focus on reflection processes; scrolls of suffering teacher-learner dialogue; spirit seance is collaborative actions; & tracts of torment are more formal types of submission.

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In times gone past, I have had a problem with losing things for small periods of time in the cloud.  Is the cloud so full that it will one day spit back acid rain of lost google docs down upon us?  To overcome this challenge, thinking about my gamified theme, the idea of a status hub.  Many prestigious organizations have a personnel file, no doubt criminals do too, not that these are mutually exclusive.  With this, I can navigate through a whole class on a single web page.

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In the next segment I will go into more detail about the development of rank & specializations.


Driving out the grade-hunting demons: Assessment as Learning.

One cultural problem in my learning context is that as a result of institutional processes that are meant to empower students (and it does) students are focused on the bottom line.  The min-max principle sees wise students minimize their effort to maximize their grade outputs.  That is to say, for many, there is a stronger focus on outcomes & achievement (credits) than learning.  There is a recent push for new course design principles to focus more on topics of learning than assessment & credits.  How & to what extent this translates as a success in alleviating this remains to be seen.


A culture of over-emphasis on academic grades & success is a double-edged sword.  Finding success from extrinsic motivators like grades can lead to intrinsic motivation.  More often, though, it leads to a narrow output & outcome approach to assignments & distinguishes assessment from learning.  Assessment, curriculum, learning, & praxis should be part of what Phil Wood describes as an interpenetrating process.  An outcomes-based approach skews the focus away from this balance.  Learning is always complex: one dimension is the individual cognition process; another is the social construction process; there are our emotive mental models; & there are the structures that are imposed.


If we approach learning in a linear fashion, we are not being student centred or having a needs-based curriculum.  Students do not learn at the same pace, even if you teach stuff, they have not all learned it at the same pace, so why is there so much insistence on uniformity & conformity? By sticking to elements of traditional or even more modern teaching patterns of extensive prescription are we really dehumanizing the education process?


If we blurr the lines between learning processes & assessment, this means that the processes become prioritized rather than the outcomes.  It is not that formative or diagnostic assessment is good or bad, it is the context in which it is used.  Are they used to push further towards a prescriptive model or are they being used as a holistic element in the entire process of learning.  To this end, formative assessment models in current use are not sufficient to reduce the liminality between assessment & learning.


Ruth Dann contests that a model of assessment as learning sees assessment fully embedded within learning.   This involves assessment while teaching to shape the next steps, & assessment by teaching where a teacher evaluates the amount & what type of help is required to maximize learning.  What is great about this model is that it places the focus on the interactive processes in teaching that are used to inform the future direction of what is next.  Feedback is less formalized & acts more as a dialogue.  In a sense, a move towards co-construction or Ako.


If we want to develop lifelong learners, then we need to be pushing towards more independence or autodidacticism.  If one thinks how historians work, they work in a community of scholars who provide critique & peer review to co-construct as a community the nature of our historical knowledge.  This is why community of inquiry models are a pragmatic tool or conceptual approach in building a learning community.  So we need to be aware of the implications of our approaches.  For brevity, below is a three-part structure to the learning process.


  1. One approach is a receptive-transmission model.  Teachers act as the font of all wisdom to pass on their knowledge & skills to students.  Such a model constructs learning as highly individualized & focuses on learning new stuff (a focus on the cognitive element).  Feedback in this model acts to evaluate their work.  It is like a gift given to the students by an expert to help them do better.
  2. A second approach is the constructive model.  The teacher is still the expert & they act as a facilitator to help students discover the new knowledge or skills.  The teacher aids them in the process of meaning making.  This model still focuses on the cognitive element of learning but it does take into account the social element of learning more frequently.  This view sees learning as being developed through experience.  Feedback is focused around the teacher being an expert who uses open questions or insights to enable students to gain new understandings.  Feedback in this model is a two-way process but the primary aim is to describe & discuss the experiences.
  3. A third approach is the co-constructed model.  This model aligns strongly with the concept of Ako & the there is a more equal power dynamic in which the teacher views themselves as a learner.  In this process the teacher is also a facilitator who help students discover new knowledge & skills.  However, it also adds a further dimension: facilitation of self-reflection & the adoption of a reflexive process where everyone is learning through collaborative dialogue.  In this model the cognitive, social, & emotional dimensions are seen as equally as important as each other.  Feedback on learning is a reciprocal process of talking about learning.  It aims to illuminate learning for all & feedback becomes a process of dialogue.  All learners in the community are connected through a series of loops in their engagement with this feedback process.

In order to attempt to move further towards the third way, there are a series of approaches that I aim expanding further & adopting.  Increasing the loops through dialectic discussions & having peer review processes more formalized will help.  Having open & visual conversation spaces, like a wall or whiteboard of questions, ideas or problems or the use of virtual environments for conversations like Slack may help improve the extent of this discussion process.  Having conversation recording documents that are co-contructed & facilitating formalised processes of reflection & collaboration will also be helpful.  The shift to a portfolio process
that encompasses a broader range of evidence of student learning is a productive start.  Through this adoption I will be able to better gauge important elements that are still missing & to evaluate any negative impacts the imposition of my structures on students is having.

The Lesson Palette: Experimenting with Flexible Lesson Planning


There is something about the rigidity of lesson plans (& intentions, success criteria) that I don’t like.  Even if I co-construct the experience, it is still too linear.  I remember coming across the idea of an inquiry palette.  You know those horrible inquiry visuals with all of those arrows to try & make it seem flexible as a process.  The one provided by TKI online for social science inquiry actually makes me feel dizzy to look at.  There is no way inquiry can be so neatly packed into a process anyway.

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So linear planning doesn’t work for me when students are on their own learning journey through inquiry.  This is where the idea of a painter’s palette works perfectly.  One can pick & choose what colours to paint with & perhaps some might even be compulsory.



So the idea behind this lesson-plan model is to provide a series of opportunities for learning.  The idea could relate to things like learning stations but it can equally apply to things like formal writing.  Some examples will be scattered below.  It is about to start BETA testing this year & will no doubt change significantly based on our experiences with it.  There are certain experiences that are essential for my students to engage with on a regular basis but this does not mean they have to be regulated in an entirely linear fashion.

Priming: To prepare or make ready.  This refers to preparation requirements.  This may include background reading or planning.  

My unit model is going to be based on two types of lessons: BASE & PROJECT lessons.  BASE lessons tend to be on traditional or teacher-selected topics & PROJECT lessons are linked to the same inquiry but are on students’ interests (each is based upon a 100 minute lesson per week).  For example, in semester one in Level 3 classical studies (the final school year for senior students) our inquiry is on the legacy of the classical world: To what extent has the classical world had a lasting influence on other cultures through time?

So students might look at the influence of old attic comedy on Shakespeare or the influence of Ovid on well … Shakespeare or Renaissance art.  Students might choose to build projects around something in the classical world or from some element in Western culture that has been influenced by the classical world: for example the influence of classical dragons on medieval dragon slaying or classical influences evident in Dante’s Inferno.  In respect to Priming we could draw on planning preparation for project work for the following week or for the BASE unit this would likely be an expectation of regular annotated readings.

Refresh: Give new strength or energy to. This refers to making connections with prior learning.  This may include reviews involving feedback or cogitation.

Unfortunately due to its overuse & misuse (repeated token reflection exercises that made it a chore in other subjects) reflection is a dirty word that I have replaced with cogitation.  However, the concept of Refresh sounds like it inspires action: we look back critically at what we have accomplished before we build new questions to move forward with.

Autodidacticism: To work in an Independent/Self-directed way. This refers to taking ownership of your own learning & managing your time.  It may include a set of assigned accountabilities from your group or your teacher.

I believe in giving students a lot of freedom in choosing how they approach their learning but encoding it in a process of Autodidacticism formalises it.  Having students set their own agenda & outcomes & giving them space to get stuck in is really beneficial.  It also provides a time for those who might want to seek out support to request organized workshops or informal chats.

Activation: To set things in motion. This refers to the development of specific skills & processes (with appropriate scaffolds).  It may include modelling/exemplars or developing inquiry skills.

Modelling & scaffolding are essential elements & having an explicit palette colour to this means we can use it for the whole class when we learn new skills but we can also go over processes & skills multiple times through multiple sessions.  Students might request sessions & ideally run sessions with groups on these.  The focus of this is built into my inquiry model & is about training or learning the tools to go out & take on difficult tasks head on.

Discourse: Written or spoken communication. This refers to the creation of your own interpretation in response to our critical question.  It may include set writing or other communication tasks.  

One does not simply pass an external exam or develop strong written literacy without writing, often.  This does not have to be the form of essay after essay, we use a variety of things from blog-posts to visual essays.  I use a writing system built around cuisenaire blocks (stolen from maths teachers).  Irrespective of form, certain written tropes can be identified as representing the desired things we are looking for: examples of analytical communication or evaluative communication to represent critical thinking skills; the use of evidence & different ways that evidence can be presented; and basic mechanics topic/concluding sentences, citations, etc. The purpose is to build a habit of communication that is aware of the mechanics of communication.

Dialectic: Discussion and reasoning by dialogue. This refers to collaborative critical discussions.  This may include community of inquiry discussions or online discussions.

This acts as a nice function for collaborative critical discussions.  This could take the form of a Philosophy for Children (P4C) community of inquiry or similar approach on a philosophical question to build, critique, & engage with out inquiry or it might take the form of digital conversations using Slack (which you should look into, it is like an organised internal digital twitter).  The points to avoid being insular, to open up your ideas to others for critique & review, & to participate in engaging with others’ ideas.

I am still pondering over the words & whether there are alternatives & what might be missing.  However, I do not want to overcomplicate the process to begin with.  The last section, Convocation, is possibly the most essential  In a sense it acts like a struggle plenary (though not necessarily at the end). Perhaps it might be used in conjunction with something like a Wonder Wall (renamed to something like Mirage of Misery) but it is about creating a regular dialogue of students setting the agenda & direction (no doubt with a little prodding) of their learning.

Convocation: To call/come together.  This refers to meetings for decision-making.  This may include meetings of the whole class or meetings for specific groups.

Portfolio Learning & Assessing Naturally?

Hungry, assessment-focussed teenage learners is a significant hurdle to effective learning.  In my NCEA context, I have previously tried to build all learning around an assessment in an attempt to holistically merge the two.  Empowered students are usually a good thing right? Perhaps not, when they make logical choices about how to commit their time.  It is a natural instinct for many to want to maximize their grades for minimal effort.

This year, I aim to change my structures in a significant overhaul in an attempt to try & place grades in the back seat.  Productivity in learning if what I would like to happen.  I have tended to use a portfolio approach where possible but I am transitioning my entire curriculum to this model.

I am introducing a semester-based system for my four classes.  I am also introducing a new type of structure, what I have termed BASE & PROJECT Units:

  • Base Unit: Your base unit is like a home base & you will learn & present evidence of your understanding from a set menu of topics relating to the inquiry.
  • Project Unit: Your project unit is where you will work with a group of your peers & you will present evidence of your understanding on topics that you choose relating to your inquiry.

We have two 100 minute lessons a week & one of these will be on our BASE Unit & the other on our PROJECT Unit.  While there may be different learning contexts, the two are intended to work together in terms of the type of learning I want to facilitate (or if you are a Hattie fan, activate).  The skills & processes are the same, but the way we work together & how evidence is collected is different.

Level 2 classical studies will learn about classical society in Semester 1.  This will be the first time they will study classical studies.  So everyone will participate in a compulsory unit on Zoroastrian Demonology.  This is not to say that everyone is doing the same thing at the same pace though.  This is designed to introduce our key disciplinary mechanisms for students to engage with.  Students will then be able to dig into an area of classical society that might interest them: art & archaeology of Pompeii; the weird & histories (inquiries is a better translation) of Herodotus; or some other event in the classical world.  This is a half year project.  A similar approach is taken in Semester 2, where we will all learn about Homer & choices about mythology can be made for the special projects, whether it is the underworld, the gods, or dragons.


Level 3 classical studies has a large proportion of experienced students.  Semester One is on the Legacy of the classical world, its lasting influence.  Nonetheless, I have a heavily structured option for those who are new built around Ovid.  Other BASE options include Virgil, Tragedy, or Aristophanes.  For special projects students could explore the influences of art, myth topics on gods heroes & monsters, or even philosophy.  Semester 2 is on classical belief systems (ideologies) & has BASE topics on Alexander the Great or Augustus.  Project options are almost limitless (as long as they are from ancient Greece & Rome) but popular options include necromancy & witchcraft or Platonic philosophy.


Finding a balance between traditional written assessment methods & encouraging students to take risks with more creative expressions was what I am hoping to achieve.  This got me thinking about other things we do that already that could be used for assessment: self & peer reviews; verbal exit interviews; & even practice exams.


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So I looked to formalise processes that we already engage with in order to capture more evidence of learning for assessment.  It also got me thinking about other ways, like having students teach others & run their own workshops as part of their project evidence.  I wanted to find a balance between flexibility & accountability.

BASE UNIT PORTFOLIO COLLECTION: Three compulsory outputs
  • Tracts of Torment (ToT) is a way of demonstrating your understanding through formal written submissions.  They are mini-essays that are around 1-2 A4 pages.  There are twelve opportunities for submission for each inquiry. You can co-construct with your teacher on the number of ToTs you will submit & which dates you will submit them on.  You must submit a minimum of three ToTs but 4-6 is the recommended amount.  These must be submitted in Google Classroom before 8.40am on the assigned Monday.  You may only submit one ToT for each Google Classroom due date.
  • Peer Review is way of demonstrating your understanding through a formal process of learning from the work of others & giving constructive feedback.  This evidence is captured in the form of substantive commentary on peer review segments in Slack.  There are three In Class check-points of your contributions.  You are required to reach a satisfactory score in at least two of these.
  • Self Review is a way of demonstrating your understanding through a formal process of analysing your own work & generating feedback on it.  This evidence is captured in the form of a small review paragraph of an artifact or a copy of an annotated page of work.  There are three In Class opportunities to undertake a self review.You are required to reach a satisfactory score in at least two of these.
  • Project Display is a form of demonstrating your understanding through showcasing the final product & learning from your project.  This can draw on work from your Base Unit.  This could take the form of a display board, a digital presentation, or some kind of tangible artifact (like a board game or a performance that is recorded).  There is a set In Class due date for this & is due at the end of the assigned lesson.
  • Workshop is a form of demonstrating your understanding through sharing your project learning with others.  You are required to prepare a brief 10-15 minute activity to help a group of your peers interact with & learn about the classical world by using your project material.  There is a set In Class due date for this & it is expected that you are prepared BEFORE the lesson starts.  The workshop will take place during the assigned In Class lesson.

Team Review is a form of demonstrating your collective & individual understanding that has been developed through collaboration with your peers. This will be assessed through the substantive quality of your commentary & planning on your project.  You have five checkpoint opportunities & you are required to achieve a satisfactory in at least four of these.  They are expected to reflect your individual contribution to the project AND the contributions of your peers.

Both: Four compulsory outputs
  • Diary of the Damned (DoD) is a form of demonstrating your understanding through a series of log-slide exercises.  These are normally very brief (up to 15 minutes) & are assigned weekly.  You will have five checkpoint opportunities for your DoD submissions to be reviewed.  For authenticity purposes, you are required to achieve a satisfactory level in four of these checkpoint reviews.
  • Scrolls of Suffering (SoS) are a form of demonstrating your understanding through recorded summaries of learning conversations.   These involve regular 1-1 conversations on the progress of your learning with your teacher.  You will have five checkpoint opportunities for your SoS submissions to be reviewed.  You are required to achieve a satisfactory level in four of these checkpoint reviews. You may need to arrange times for conversations outside of class if you are absent too often.
  • Open Book Examination is a form of demonstrating your understanding independently in test conditions.  This is a compulsory requirement & if you miss the assigned day, you will need to complete a missed assessment form.  If approved, you will need to arrange an alternate time to undertake it under supervision.

Exit Interview is a final opportunity for you to demonstrate your understanding of your inquiry.  It involves a series of questions for you to respond to verbally before your grade is confirmed.

This model is my starting point & I may refine or overhaul it completely in due time.  I wanted to have students to go wide in the types of outputs for evidence of learning.  I believe this achieves a balance between encouraging creative expressions, capturing learning evidence that has not bee typically assessed by me in the past, & still having some traditional writing & open-book exams.


The Tyranny of the Standardized Lesson Plan: Learning Intentions & Success Criteria

Given the limitations of educational research, it comes as no surprise that the magical lesson-based formulas with a starter with clear objectives & success criteria are put forward as forms of best practice.  The tyranny of the standardized lesson plan.  What I don’t like about educational research & how it is applied is the fact it is assumed by many that all research is applicable to an individual teacher’s context.  In this sense, if you have a traditional approach with learning intentions & success criteria, then I agree that you are demonstrating best-practice pedagogy.  Best-practice of what? Well, I would contend that is is teacher-centred behaviourism that is based on a banking model of education that limits the personalization of learning.  If your aim is to apply student-centred constructivist methods, then I would suggest you change your track (or at least pause to think critically).  While this dichotomy can be oversimplified & overstated, & it is possible to work with mixed approaches, I still believe that there are some fundamental differences between these educational world views that are reflected in the approach to learning.

If I am personalising learning & I have a class of twenty different learners, here are some things I need to consider:

  1. I have 20 different learners with different capacities, prior knowledge, interests, & expectations.
  2. If I teach a one-size fits all model, then it is likely to be unproductive for many students in terms of their readiness for learning.
  3. If I direct the plan, then the students are passive recipients with no agency in the development of their own learning (& this is a tragedy for senior students).

Given this, I take issue with the lesson-plan model.  This is not to suggest that preparation & clarity in my approaches are not important, in fact increasing student empowerment & greater differentiation takes more work (at least in the initial stages).  Given the complexity of learning, it does not make sense to have predetermined outcomes, content, or even processes (Dylan William etc).  How can we, as teachers, or even observers, even know what each learner is taking from the learning experience?  I don’t believe that we need to narrow or standardize learning in this way.  One might make a case for process-based objectives but I prefer to engage in inquiry with a series of learning opportunities & experiences.

So, I don’t like to see structures pushed on me because research says so.  Well, not research that is relevant to my constructivist teaching context.  I do also wonder, though, if it is also encouraging a feel-bad education.  If students have not achieved the prescribed objectives & success criteria, does that make them feel like failures? I have always had an issue with this traditional lesson model that is pushed by all teacher-education institutions & I have found that it creates no academic disadvantage for my students (in fact, in terms of grades, it is the opposite).

Such standardized uniformity rubs me up the wrong way.  There are a number of reasons.  First, this is not how my specialist subject literature on teaching history structures approaches (it almost universally starts with a question).  My study of Philosophy for Children (P4C) & use of various community of inquiry models tells me that meaningful learning often does not come out of a pre-planned packet or prescriptive approaches.

I contest that they have the potential to have a corrosive influence.  One problem with them is that they come across as limiting flexibility in their prescriptive nature.  Next, we may have a conversation about maybe it is in how we design them.  Perhaps these outcomes could be more inclusive to cover the possible variations that I would want: this becomes either too generic & vague or an exhaustive list.  A better idea would be to co-contruct learning intentions & success criteria with students.  It may be at a whole-class level or even on an individual’s student level.

Recently I have been pondering the concept of learning productivity.  Now the word is unfortunate in how it might be connected with a factory model, but remember, the focus on so-called 21st century skills is simply preparing the future industrial workforce for the new digital industrial revolution that is occurring.  My main issue is that these approaches actually represent a fundamental shift away from learning towards an outcomes-based model.  It is about simplifying education down so that it is unambiguous.  If only people, the world, & history were all unambiguous.  Life would be much easier.

The argument in their favour is clarity.  I agree that this is a worthwhile goal.  However, I also believe that the type of clarity from learning intentions & success criteria is part of the creation of a simple form of clarity that can be measured easily, as if learning was not complex & was entirely visible in front of us.  This utilitarian approach to educational lesson structures devalues what we understand about education.

What perhaps annoys me the most, of those who preach its value, is the assumption that this universal strategy applies equally across disciplines.  Now, perhaps, in some disciplines, & for many teachers, these approaches work successfully.  I would argue, & here Wineburg & Seixas would likely agree, that in engaging in the historical past, it is far better to be focussed on a central or critical historical question to guide learning.  There are skills to learn & outputs to engage with, but we don’t need to be so linear & limiting about it all. Education is not certain & what learning will take place in my classroom is also not certain.  Learning intentions & success criteria promise a degree of certainty that is not only unobtainable but in the teaching of historical inquiry is ultimately undesirable.  History & learning are not fixed or stable but are fluid & unpredictable.

This model of learning intentions & success criteria encourages a banking model of education, where what is to be learned is fixed & student voice is limited.  In short, it goes against anything remotely close to Socratic approaches to teaching (quite important for a classics teacher).  A dialogue is not a dialogue if we have an idea of what it will produce.  If you are a fan of Martin Robinson & Trivium, I would argue it goes against the heart of dialectic.  You might make a case for learning intentions & success criteria if you were building grammar, though.  An outcome of this is that students will feel uncomfortable with uncertainty.  Richard Hill, writing on such issues in a tertiary environment, argues that such interventions are not about clarity but represent the “rigidification of pedagogy”.  He suggests that such outcomes create a type of mimicry: complexity is removed & ‘template speak’ becomes the norm (undoubtedly another outcome of rubrics too).

In sum, there are a few significant reasons to be concerned at the uncritical use of learning intentions & success criteria:

  • Its limitation on personalization of learning
  • Their rigid nature that is either inflexible or too generic
  • Their lack of alignment with disciplinary literature on teaching historical thinking
  • The strong messages about who controls & drives learning that results in reducing student agency (unless they are co-contructed)
  • Assuming that there is a linear pathway that has a pre-determined ending
  • Its discouragement of creative & responsive approaches that do not fit the rigid learning expectations
  • Its oversimplification of the complexity of learning
  • Its focus on measurable, particularly immediately measurable, outcomes
  • Assumptions about the extent that learning is visible
  • It encourages a uniformity & control mindset in the educational context or culture

To conclude, this is not to say that someone can’t use them beneficially or that clarity is not important.  I believe there is a pluralistic nature to the world & there are multiple ways of achieving what you would like. However, authentic learning is not a linear or short-term process.  It is a series of experiences over time. In history, it is about the process of inquiry that drives the learning going on in the classroom.  I believe constructivist approaches are less likely to be focused on clear objectives & measurements of success but are built upon creating meaningful learning experiences.





Spoon Feeding to Free Range

In my teacher training I witnessed the role of spoon feeding & rote learning towards exam success.  Who can blame the teachers who were in a climate of academic performance as the primary basis of success in learning. Starting out in teaching I was astonished at the extent of student expectations of the teacher to not only prepare all the ingredients, but to cook it & then feed it to them.

Over time I have begun to notice a range of practices that are problematic in the sense that they cripple students’ ability to learn long term.  I have a practical philosophy that nothing should be scaffolded for students unless there is a plan to remove that scaffolding.

I also remember thinking in conversations with a range of people how prescriptive their courses were.  While NCEA promised many things, it was so enabling for teachers that they could effectively teach the same stuff the same way since the 1990s.

Cognitive research makes a claim that real learning must be effortful.  Have you ever witnessed how engaged students can be with easy activities that they are comfortable with? Have you noticed how textbooks, few of which I like, tend to take the challenge out of learning?   Sure there are some good exercises & diagrams with little snippets.  However, this is not how one engages with the past!

I resolved to not sacrifice learning through extensive simplification & reduction of challenge.  Ironically, given frequent commentary about its lack of rigour, moving towards a free-range model helped increase the challenge.  In 2014 in our professional development we had the opportunity to create focus groups on areas of interest to us. My focus group was on free-range learning.



The learning mismatch model was quite significant, despite how obvious & oversimplified it was.  While there are plenty of problems with this, it was important in thinking about free-range methods.  In my first year of teaching (mostly level 3 classes) I assumed that the students would be far more self-directed.  This was a valuable lesson, though, on why we can’t rely on having one approach for all.  The spectrum from dependent to self-directed is difficult to manage without proper processes in place.  Learning intentions & success criteria for individual lessons were counterproductive:

  • Students will learn exactly the same material & skills at the same pace & in the same way as each other, irrespective of their prior learning & readiness to learn.
  • Students will aim to meet the successful benchmarks that have been imposed on them, even though it might not be enough of a challenge or realistic for them to achieve.

In short, I quickly realised that most of what had been taught in teachers college & most educational focus areas were inherently traditional in their approaches.  Absolum says clarity in the classroom.  I agree, just not in the way he suggests.  Nuthall says many students already know 40-50% of the learning that goes on in the class.  It’s just that every student knows different stuff.  How boring must it be to be in a class that is not a challenge.  How horrible must it be to work at a pace that is too fast for you to keep up.

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So I needed to change my approaches.  I could not just implement one model but I needed to have clear structures in place to support the development of chick-o-saurs.  Megan Peterson had put together & worked through a portfolio model in classical studies as a means to challenge high-achieving learners.  I wondered if such a model could be more inclusive? Why only high-achieving learners?

I developed some reasoning about adopting this model.  I offered a structured context, semi-structured contexts, & open choices for students to develop.  The rationale for it is provided below.  There was a big unanticipated problem.  I assumed students wanted free range.  Students with a stronger capacity in the skills required for classical studies tended towards the structured options.  This was comfortable & less challenging.  Students who lacked the capacity to be self-directed were keen on fun interesting topics but they needed more skills to find success. So I have gone back to the drawing board & developed a new model for 2016 (to be discussed in another post).

Portfolio in Classical Studies Reasoning

  • Students are currently assessed incrementally across the year but the majority of their summative assessment is undertaken at stages when their skills are less developed.  Therefore, providing a way to ensure students can use their work, particularly towards the end of the year when it is more developed, as the basis of their assessment will provide them with more significant opportunities for success.  In classical studies this is particularly significant given the fact that there are 2 X 6 credit internal assessments.
  • The current model of my curriculum assessed students on one standard in term 1; another in term 2; and had an external focus in terms 3.  The entirety of the term three focus is completely lost in terms of the internal assessment.  It also represents the highest level of students’ skill development in classical studies & is therefore lost.
  • Portfolios enable a more flexible approach to curriculum while enabling relevant scaffolding.  It reduces the extent of prescribed content & opens up opportunities to explore other areas of interest.  While too much open learning could have negative impacts, the use of this particular portfolio approach includes scaffolding at the beginning and drawing on more narrow external contexts for pragmatic reasons.
  • Previous portfolio work in classical studies limits this method to ‘gifted & talented’ students.  This is at odds with ASHS philosophy & there are significant opportunities for benefits to all students.
  • Portfolio assessment is difficult to segregate from teaching & learning programmes. One area of potential critique could be it takes away structured learning approaches at the expense of freedom.  This is addressed within the teaching & learning programme context through two split opportunities: with a clear availability of structured contexts: classical mythology; socratic philosophy; & alexander the great; and the opportunity to be flexible in the extent of engagement in these contexts or to move onto other areas of interest.  The recent investment into sourcebooks & the expansion of internet primary sources makes accessibility to material less of an issue.
  • A key limitation is the role of the teacher.  Teachers used to inflexible pedagogical practice with a focus on rolling through several topics of content may find wading through the unknown difficult.  However, a teacher with sufficient cultural knowledge of the key skills & methods from artistic techniques on greek vases; to philosophic techniques; to ancient history methods should be able to adjust.  In short, a teacher would need to have sufficient cultural capital in a subject in order to successfully enable this to happen.  This is to ensure adequate engagement with lesser known contexts.  Without this, a teacher might not have the disciplinary expertise to appropriately work with or assess students.
  • It draws on assessment for learning as a central focus of pedagogy.  While this is credibly backed up by extensive literature, the sacrifice of this approach is the prioritization of assessment over learning (see Kohn).  Yet, this is arguably the only pragmatic balance between meeting assessment qualification needs & enabling a more productive learning experience than extensive teacher-driven pedagogy.
  • It does not limit the potential challenge for students.  They can go deeper without the extensive pressure of moving along with the teacher’s prescribed content focus & topics.
  • One size fits none.  This better enables students to follow their particular interests & passions
  • The portfolio method also enables for flexible assessment.  Students are able to take risks with presentation methods (beyond just essay writing) with a safety net of being able to make multiple & additional submissions.  The choice of activity can mean a mixture of group & individual submissions which can help assessment be more relevant & connected with the key competencies
  • Follows generic suggestion from Megan’s focus: topic 1: teacher-selected context to introduce concepts with some flexibility;
  • Portfolio helps build community of inquiry models more effectively, particularly in drawing on self & peer assessment.  The focus of authority on knowledge shifts from the teacher to the community & increasingly to the individual student
  • The learning process is a particular focus for the pedagogy.  It becomes the student’s responsibility to present  & build knowledge; the focus of most teaching is in relation to making meaning.
  • Northcote showed a 10% jump in level 2 excellence achievement.  The problem for ASHS is currently their excellence rate of 34% is on the low end.  Perhaps the effect on grades of the portfolio approach may not be as successful.  Perhaps the current method of teaching pedagogy is better.

The Homer-Dragon Dichotomy: Cultural Capital vs Exploratory Curiosity

Reflecting on the idea of what learners might get out of classical studies, there is a contrast between traditional topics that will help build a wealth of knowledge and cultural capital or enabling learners to explore relevant areas that they are interested in.  An example of this can be found in my Classical Mythology semester in NCEA Level 2 Classical Studies (16-17 year olds):

  • Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey are foundational pieces of literature that resonate throughout the classical world & all of Western culture.
  • Dragons are awesome! Who doesn’t want to study it.

For better or worse, external assessment is a necessary evil & is a necessary skill that needs practice for those wanting to get university entrance & to do well in university exams.  Homer is perfect for this.  Dragons are not (both are equally viable for an internal assessment).

One might be a snob & think, well, surely Homer is more difficult than dragons, but you would be wrong.  Dragons is much more complex due to the textual requirements across a broader range of sources. There are a lot more resources to help one learn about Homer & I have range of resources specifically developed by me to work with my pedagogical approaches.  While practicality is a consideration, I found myself going backwards & forwards between student empowerment & choice over their learning contexts & cultural capital.  Now, I could go on a tangent about the fact that high culture is merely a construct of evil power structures seeking to suppress democratic agency, but I do genuinely believe that Homer is such an important text that everyone should study it.

This issue & our renewed focus on course design principles to refocus on learning rather than assessment had me thinking of assessment & learning occurring naturally together.  I have traditionally had three units, built around three assessments, on three different topics.  The first was quite controlling as we learned the key processes to learning in our environment.  The second was open & students took an inquiry-project approach on areas that interested them.  The third was tyrannical, in which learners chose from a list of topics that would put them in good stead for the external assessments.  I tended to be quite flexible, being a fan of the why not principle: if a student had a suggestion about their learning, like a topic or way of doing things, the first reaction would be to try & accommodate this.

The idea of classical monsters came from a student’s interest in gaming & how the classical world was strongly represented throughout many game genres.  Over my time teaching classical studies I have increasingly tried to be flexible & responsive to the interests of my students.  It is not unusual for there to be half a dozen different contexts being engaged with at the same time & a range of different learners working at different stages on these different contexts.  I have increasingly tried to collect & invest in a broad range of source books & build context resources that are designed to fit into my pedagogical approaches.  I like to think that this flexibility has led to a dramatic uptake of classical studies, where the numbers have nearly tripled from when I started (in 2016 I will only have classical studies classes).  My blatant propaganda has also helped.2016_2CLA_Topics.png

Small changes have been made to align the course with a stronger focus on learning rather than credit-hunting in response to our new course design principles:

Course Design Principles

  1. In classical studies, students have the opportunity to co-contruct their learning programme & assessment opportunities. This means that the assessment is used to enable the learning program as students are able to be assessed when they are ready.
  2. In classical studies, all students are provided scaffolding into the basic skills & processes. After this, students can co-contruct the intensity & difficulty of the programme. This enables students to be able to engage with a curriculum that enables them to be challenged at an appropriate level.
  3. A gamified environment is adopted with purpose-built context resources & modelling & process scaffolding examples relevant to historical inquiry methods.

I spent some time thinking about all of the learning that occurs that does not get captured as evidence for assessment.  I also pondered how I could continue pushing a free-range learning agenda further.  In 2014 I was part of a focus group on this issue.  One of the more colourful metaphors suggested by an unnamed SLT member (& former English teacher), & condemned by the English department as a poor stylistic choice,  was that we do need some gates, or the chickens will get out & be eaten by the neighbour’s dog.  So we wanted to try & use genetically modified chicken feed to help prepare the chickens to become chick-o-saurs.

Web_Kelly Poster A4.jpg So we focused on how, where, what, & evidence collection.  We focused on a spectrum model to encourage experimentation.  Working with seniors, it is our responsibility to prepare them for life-long learning & the types of andragogical approaches towards the right-hand side of the scale. This was a progression approach.  This is what I wanted to work towards but the limitations of appropriate external contexts & cultural capital still sat in the back of my mind.  These things are important aren’t they? Really, they are not.  Who am I to say that Ovid is more important than Virgil? Or that we shouldn’t study Aristophanes but Alexander the Great.  I still stand strongly against the teaching of stupid pots (Greek vases).

My answer then, was that there are many things that have value as areas of learning that have cultural capital.  In 2014 a keen Level 1 student asked me about possibly studying Aristophanes.  I was not ready for that then as I felt I could not be as supportive as I would like to be, as I still believe I am a better provoker of learning through questions when I have at least some strong knowledge.  Having read all the plays & many critics’ works this year it is now one of my favourite traditional contexts.

So, what did I resolved to be my answer? A compromise.  Half of our class time would be based on a choice of contexts that had significant cultural capital (the first half of the week).  The second half of our class time will be open for students to build their own project around areas of curiosity.  The structure & an approach to assessment that captures more evidence in portfolio form will be the subject of another post.

Hattie & the Quantitative Educational Research Fallacy

One can pick up a thing or two reading John Hattie’s Visible Learning propaganda.  His summary resources on feedback or the idea that different strategies should be employed for different learning phases, while entirely unoriginal, are things that can be useful to look at again.

My issue, though, is the representation of Hattie’s work as an authority.  Some kind of magical evidence that is used with generic terms like ‘research says’ or ‘according to Hattie’.  More than anything, Hattie’s work has inspired me to look more closely under the hood at quantitative educational research more generally.  It is not a pretty sight.

Anyone who has rudimentary skills in statistics should be aware of the extensive compensation mechanisms needed to create valid interpretations of data.  We must be careful in confusing correlation & causation & making generalisations that extend beyond the empirical scope of the study.  Unfortunately, most of us have better things to do then read research studies, so instead, we give up any critical thinking & choose to passively accept the output of the research. All intelligent educators should be spending time looking under the hood of the actual research conducted rather than the just focussing on the final conclusions & output.

Most education & social science research does a great job of pretending to be scientific.  As the key to the scientific method is founded on positivism & empiricism, one might expect such things as replication of studies, particularly in quantitative research.  We might also expect there to be control groups or other mechanisms to account for bias.  While I will be the first to admit that these mechanisms are all delusions in the quest towards objectivity, it seems that it is ludicrous to not replicate them if you accept an empirical paradigm.    In short, it tries to emulate the methodologies & creates a series of justifications to compensate for the lack of ability to implement a control group, to conduct valid replication studies, & to make generalisations beyond the specific research context.

At the heart of comparative analysis, including meta-analysis, is the codification of the data of research outcomes.  Studies are assigned a level of relevance, for example, ‘inquiry learning’ in order to make sense & generalisations across multiple studies.  On the face of this, this may seem logical.  However, most of us know that creating such generic classifications, like mindsets or feedback, are problematic.  Are we talking about Dweck & Duckworth together when we categorise mindsets?  Is problem-based learning the same as other forms of inquiry-like learning?  Even within the same codification, there issues.  The less specific we are in our discussion of research, a step away that only looks at the abstract, the less generalizable & useful it is.

This becomes even more problematic when we start comparing different instructional models that have different goals.  The majority of quantitative educational research uses standardized testing as its primary form of performance measurement.  I am sure this is fantastic if performance on standardized tests is what you equate with learning, but it is even less useful for someone like myself who does not teach in a context that uses standardized tests.  So, when someone critiques or measures the effectiveness of methods, for example, on the basis of a measurement that does not appropriately align with my teaching context, then I can’t help but find its level of relevance dubious.  This is before we even delve into the damage of testing anxiety on the well-being of a large population of learners.

When someone  refers to an ugly barometer that indicates the effect size of what is useful, after my initial urge to vomit, I wonder, why would I care about the average? Surely if I am wanting to take a quantitative measurement, I would look to exclude studies that are poorly conducted, have small sample sizes, & have limited transferable potential to my own context. I would also question any study that does not consider unanticipated effects.  The problem is that most studies are focussed on a very narrow scope of measurement & do not sufficiently try to take into account the diversity of classroom contexts & its potential impact.  Context is, in fact, extremely important.  However, it is something that we can only partially understand.  Nuthall’s work in learning raises concerns about how much is missed in the semi-visible sphere of peer interactions & that there is always that invisible context for every learner.  Given these limitations, even if research was controlled & replicated, it can only be used, at best, as an anecdotal piece of evidence relating to the specific research contexts.

So this is where the idea of quantitative educational research as a fallacy comes in.  The very paradigm that is used to promote its importance is its downfall.  It attempts to be scientific & mimics science’s methods but it cannot come close.  Nor is this desirable.  There is undoubtedly great value in considering scientific research on cognitive psychology, neuroscience, or behavioural psychology.  Even this, though, has its own limitations.  In 2014 I attended some conference sessions where participants discussed research in education.  Three PhDs (myself included) dominated the conversation.  Three different disciplinary areas were represented: education, science, & history.  The education professor strongly voiced the lax standards in education as an academic discipline in its peer review publication standards.  A lot of junk research is out there.  The interesting thing, though, was that all three of us had the same type of approach to how to look at research:

  • Start with the data/evidence or the substance before reading any conclusions.  Judge for yourself what generalizations or conclusions can be made & how reliable the methodology of the study may be.
  • Analyse the argument or hypotheses or conclusions that are being drawn from the research.
  • Evaluate the extent that the data/evidence is sufficient enough to substantiate any claims that are being made.

If I am being honest, this is the type of thinking that secondary students should be undertaking (at least in history or classical studies) & it is not too much to expect a less passive approach to interpreting research from all of teachers.

If the positivist-empirical paradigm is insufficient, what then, can make valid research?  Qualitative research has just as many pitfalls in attempting to replicate the scientific method.  While not perfect, one might turn to critical theory & postmodern research methods.  In their favour is the fact that at least they are not pretending to be something that they are not.  The best research, though, must surely be outside of the academy.  Perhaps it is action-based research or professional inquiry research.  It at least has the advantage of being set within the teaching context that it is being applied to.  What I do know, though, is that there are significant issues with blindly accepting the results of educational academics conducting quantitative research.