My Application for ADE 2015

I decided to apply for the Apple Distinguished Educator program this year. The primary reason is that the various ways I work toward my classroom goals tend to involve my use of their products. Their design aesthetic has had a strong influence on my own design tendencies as I create materials for the classroom, digital or not.


I was not selected for this year’s group. In hindsight, it’s possible that my use of technology is platform independent enough that I don’t really need Apple to do what I do. Oh well, maybe next time!

The process of reflection is always valuable. If nothing else, my application stands as a pretty straightforward summary of my ed-tech philosophy these days.

Here is my application video, and my answers to the questions:

How have you as an educator transformed your learning environment?

My major realization about technology in the classroom is that single-purpose devices are quickly losing their value. An iPhone in my pocket is simultaneously a document camera, graphing calculator, and assessment tool. My MacBook is a content recording studio, interactive whiteboard, and software development center. Student MacBooks combine authoring tools, answer manuals, problem generators, and nodes of an instant communication network in my classroom. All of us have access to the same tools; there is no way that I as a teacher am doing any sleight of hand. My students can learn to do what I do, make what I make, and then make completely new things on their own.

In contrast, when I first started teaching, I had a number of useful (but single purpose) technological tools at my disposal: an interactive whiteboard, graphing calculators that networked together, and document cameras. My approach to integrating these tools into my lessons was to ask myself how I could use them to enhance my presentation of content to students.

When my wife and I decided to move overseas to teach, it was to my current school which had a 1:1 MacBook program for the students I would be teaching. It felt awkward standing at the front of a classroom in front of desks of students behind screens. I was asking students in a whole class setting what they observed while I clicked through a program on an interactive whiteboard. The students had their own laptops in front of them – they should be the ones to be clicking, tapping, and sliding mathematical objects on screen. They could be making observations, drawing conclusions, and building intuition for what we were learning based on their experiences. No matter how good my direct instruction might be, students would be better served by spending more time actively working together.

This has since become the new ideal for my classroom. I do not start with the technology, and then decide what I could do with it to make my teaching better. I start by asking myself what I want my classroom environment to be, how I want students to interact, and what students should do there in order to learn. Technology then serves to help me build that classroom. My planning time consists of making or searching for tools that let students construct knowledge themselves. When direct instruction seems necessary to help students learn, I work to reduce it to its essential elements. I have recorded videos of content that students watch during class. This frees me to circulate amongst the students and listen to the conversations students have with each other.

Technology helps maximize the quality of social interaction between students and me in the classroom. It helps minimize the time spent collecting student answers and responses in one place, which then maximizes the time we can all spend discussing and analyzing that work. It provides structure to keep me and my students organized, which maximizes the brain space available to manage abstract thinking in mathematics and physics. It reduces the clerical work associated with selecting questions for a quiz or making copies, and instead moves students and me quickly to the point where we can have crucial conversations about learning.

Illustrate how Apple technologies have helped in this transformation.

The simplest shift came from unplugging my MacBook from the projector screen. I can sit anywhere in the classroom and project notes, problems, and student ideas wirelessly through an AppleTV using AirPlay. I use a USB tablet and stylus to make handwritten notes during class. I use the same set up to record short instructional videos and share them with students for use during class, or when they are on their own.

There are many applications and online tools that exist to make it easy to collate responses in a classroom, make collaborative documents, and share images. The reality of accessing these tools through Chinese internet filters makes use of these applications is unreliable and difficult, if not impossible. The features of these tools, however, would be valuable for helping create the learning environment I want for my students. I have learned to use Python and JavaScript to build tools with some of these features for my classroom. I host these applications on my MacBook and students access them through Safari over the school network.

I created a web based application that allows me to take a picture of student work with my iPhone, and then upload the file directly to a folder on my computer. We can then flip through different responses using Preview and discuss the content as a class. Students can also share images of their work using their phones or computers, anonymously or not.

I have implemented standards based grading for almost all of my courses so that students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of what they have learned. I wrote another application that sends individualized quizzes on specific learning standards to students through a web page, also hosted on my laptop. Students can access their individual quiz site through whichever device they have availiable. I experimented with the Meteor JavaScript framework and built a site that lets students sign up for these quizzes at any time, from anywhere.

I let the technology handle the collecting, organizing, displaying, and calculating, as these are what computers do best. As a result, the valuable but limited time that I have with my students can be spent learning to do the thinking and develop the skills that are uniquely human, and that will be necessary long after students leave my classroom. The versatility of the tools that Apple provides makes that process possible.

What successes have you seen with your learners?

I survey my students frequently on what is or is not working well in the classroom. Listening to me talk and go through problems, though it is easiest for me in terms of planning, is consistently at the bottom of student preferences. The more student-centered methods are, by far, the most effective and preferred methods for students to learn in my classes. My presence in the classroom is most valuable when spent moving from student to student, listening to conversations, and asking questions based on my assessment of their comprehension level. In the lessons that involve my recorded videos, the ELL students appreciate being able to pause the videos and switch their focus between the concepts being taught and the language. The more advanced students often start with the assigned problems, and then work backwards with the video content when they need to get unstuck in solving a problem. I can monitor how students are engaging with these videos through written notes and solving problems, and can provide assistance on an individual basis.

Many of the students in my classes are used to rote instruction, as this is what they experience in schools in their home countries. My use of technology as a tool for investigation, and emphasis on sharing student ideas to develop understanding, helps reduce the belief that memorization and obtaining answers are the primary goals in mathematics and science. My students understand that there are many tools available to help them arrive at an answer. They use one tool to verify the results of another.

I have had excellent results with students in my AP Calculus and AP Physics courses over the past five years. I attribute much of this success to the positive learning habits that students have developed through my classes. Students know how to get unstuck. They know how to use each other’s presence in the classroom to build on their understanding.

The best feedback on my teaching often comes from students that are no longer in my classroom. One student from last year’s physics class was often frustrated that I would not generally not lecture on how to solve every type of problem. Here is an excerpt from an email I received from this student earlier this year:

“…I am very happy that you made me struggle with physics last year because now when I don’t see how to solve a problem immediately, I know how to use the tools available to me to experiment to find the right answer. ”

I often wonder if I am doing what is best for my students. Comments like this one lead me to believe that I am moving in the right direction.

How do you share these successes to influence the broader education community?

When I first moved abroad, I left a large department of teachers to be a member of a one person team at my current school. While this team has since grown to include amazing collaborators, I get a lot of my best ideas and encouragement from teachers that I have never met in person. They push back when I think I have everything figured out, and never let me stop tweaking a lesson to be its best. I am in communication with this network of teachers from around the world regularly through Twitter, blogs, and email. Many of these teachers are already in the ADE community, and their feedback was important in deciding to apply to the program myself.

Any time I have an experience in the classroom, successful or not, I turn to my online community. It has been important to share the good ideas, but it is increasingly more beneficial to also share uncertainty. I blog whenever possible at my website about my experiences with students. When an activity has materials that can be shared in their raw form, I make these materials available on my website. Otherwise, I include enough details that teachers that want to imitate what I have done can do so with minimal effort. When computer code is involved, I share it through Github or other online repositories.

I have presented at conferences in my region about my use of technology for teaching. This includes the EARCOS Teachers Conference in Bangkok, the 21st Century Learning conference in Hong Kong, and Learning 2.0. On my personal website, I post videos of these workshops and presentations so that anyone can benefit from what I have to share. I also have presented to my colleagues about mathematics, technology, and assessment.

These experiences have led to invitations to join online communities for teacher education. I have collaborated with leaders in mathematics education to build online learning experiences for students around the world. I have spoken to online groups such as the Global Math Department, Global Physics Department, and a Google Hangout on computational thinking.

In short, I am eager to share my ideas and learning with others. Doing so helps me develop as a teacher and stay active as a learner, which also lets me model life long learning for my students.