Embracing the Backchannel

The backchannel is the conversation that goes on alongside the primary activity, presentation, or discussion in your classroom. Victor Yngve first used the phrase back channel” in 1970, in a  linguistic context, referring to how people communicate back and forth alongside a conversation.  I (Cathy) have recently started using TodaysMeet as a backchannel chat platform to help me redirect the constant distractions or backchannel discussions in the classroom, especially, the digital ones. Have you ever been frustrated by the frequent use of digital devices (i.e. digital phones, computers, tablets) in your classroom that are not related to your lesson?  This tool may help.  I use TodaysMeet to help me harness the backchannel and redirect it onto a platform that can enable new activities and discussions.  My students are invited, through a link, into a “room” much like a chat room. I then project this “room” onto my screen for all to see.  As I progress through my lesson, questions and comments about the lesson are posted by the students through their own computers or other devices.

Below are a list of benefits from using backchannel tools in your classroom.

  1. Shy/introverted students are given a place to ask questions and contribute to conversations.
  2. Students who process information by asking a lot of questions can ask an unlimited amount of questions without dominating the classroom conversation. Everyone can see their questions and you can choose when to address their questions.
  3. Gauge students’ interest in and or prior knowledge of a topic.
  4. Extend your classroom conversations beyond the time in your school’s schedule. If you have started a backchannel during a classroom conversation and it’s going well you don’t have to worry about running out of time because you can have students continue the dialogue later in the day.
  5. Gauge the effectiveness of an activity in real time, by having students share questions and comments during an activity
  6. Conduct formative assessment by asking students about their understanding of a topic and gauging the responses

From :  http://www.freetech4teachers.com/2013/06/5-benefits-of-using-backchannels in.html#.VRAQv-E01q8

Other backchannel platforms include: Socrative, Padlet, and BluePulse. And, yes, tweeting on the same hash tag, during an event, is also a form of backchannelling. To obtain a comprehensive guide on harnessing the backchannel, follow the URL below: http://www.freetech4teachers.com/2013/09/backchannels.html#.VRAXx-E01q8


Three Minute Thesis Competition

Today I (Clare) will be a judge for the 3M 3 Minute Thesis Competition. This competition is found in many universities.

The Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition is a University-wide competition for doctoral students, in which participants have three minutes or less to present their doctoral research to a panel of non-specialist judges. The challenge is to present complex research information in an engaging, accessible, and compelling way. ​​

This competition is a unique opportunity for graduate students to showcase their innovative and significant research to a wider audience, across disciplines within the University, and to the broader public. It is open to the public and adver​tised within the community.​ 

Graduate students must summarize their thesis (topic, methodology, findings) in 3 minutes. They must present their research in accessible language so that others not familiar with the field can understand it. They can only have 1 ppt slide (which is static), no props, no notes ….

I watched the winner from last year, Daiva Nielsen, and it was amazing. Her research in nutritional sciences examined a large number of participants who were given diet guidelines based on their DNA. There was a control group who just got regular diet info. The group with the specific diet guidelines made much bigger gains (or losses). I highly recommend you watch the video because it is fascinating research made accessible – both content and presentation are so interesting. For those of us who do doctoral supervision this process might beneficial. My thesis supervisor used to tell me that I should be able to summarize my research in 1 sentence, 1 paragraph, and 1 page. I tell my doc students you should be able to explain your research to my mother – no technical language and no jargon. Enjoy the video – here is the link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvHqTgjCSu4&index=12&list=PLV7zOJyRGNPP2zAt6XFcQCV7hPNpElPFd



Honouring Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss fans will be happy to know the museum honouring the author’s work is scheduled to open June 2016, in the his hometown of Springfield Massachusetts. Organizers say the museum will be an “interactive, bilingual showcase” of the author’s work, which will include “three-dimensional book scenes, reading areas, and a re-creation of his studio.” Sounds fun!


Dr. Seuss

Phenomenon Teaching: Finland’s New Approach


Much has been written about Finland’s exemplary education system (See:http://literacyteaching.net/2014/10/14/an-infographic-of-finlands-education-system/) They are often at the top of PISA rankings in both literacy and numeracy skills. Further, they boast small teacher to student ratios which allow for more individualized instruction. The teaching profession is also highly regarded; teachers are highly esteemed professionals like their peers doctors and lawyers. Now, Finland is reforming the way their classrooms run and everyone is talking about it. Teaching by topic (or phenomenon teaching) will replace teaching by subject throughout the country’s classrooms. This approach intends to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the “real world” and encourage collaboration among students. The Independent, a UK based blog, provides some examples of how this would be done.

Example #1:

“a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.”

 Example #2:

“…pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union – which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.

I like this approach because it allows students to experience subjects in a contextualized way. Phenomenon teaching makes school relevant again. I suspect much of the world, myself included, will be closely observing how this unique approach to teaching fares in Finland.

To read more from the Independent:


But we already DO this at the Laboratory School: Learning from Leaders

Building on Clive’s post from yesterday I (yiola) want to extend the discussion on inquiry- based pedagogy and its many high-level thinking practices. Question posing, experiential learning, researching, sharing, collaborating, exploring, imagining, experimenting — these are but some of the qualities you will find in inquiry-based classrooms. Problem-based and play-based (some use the terms interchangeably) do too.  And, these are the practices that I see being used daily at the Laboratory School here in downtown Toronto. It is good practice. Students are empowered, responsible, creative thinkers. They are also happy when they learn. It is good to read then that the Finnish system is moving away from the subject oriented traditions of schooling into a more “topic” based or what we call “inquiry time” approach to learning.  It is what we’ve been doing at the laboratory school for a very long time.

Here is an article the speaks to Finland’s transition:


What I find interesting is that the countries out outperform the groundbreaking work of the Nordic country are countries I presume have a very different pedagogy. China — a country whose system is very subject driven, standardized,  and competitive in nature. Yes?

I find it interesting to contrast the 2 systems and to consider what the long-term projections will be for the students who exit out of each system.

I see students from our Laboratory school entering high school as creative, capable, high-level thinking individuals. Data shows that in the long term, the Laboratory school graduates go into creative and high performing fields in the arts, academia, public service and corporate sectors.

The article shares:

Welcome to Siltamaki primary school in Helsinki – a school with 240 seven- to 12-year-olds – which has embraced Finland’s new learning style. Its principal, Anne-Mari Jaatinen, explains the school’s philosophy: “We want the pupils to learn in a safe, happy, relaxed and inspired atmosphere.”

We come across children playing chess in a corridor and a game being played whereby children rush around the corridors collecting information about different parts of Africa. Ms Jaatinen describes what is going on as “joyful learning”. She wants more collaboration and communication between pupils to allow them to develop their creative thinking skills.

This is the work of the Laboratory School and more.  I look forward to hearing more about Finland’s transitions, the upcoming PISA rankings and to sharing in greater detail just how the Laboratory School here in Toronto is very much a leader in Inquiry-based teaching and learning.

Who Poses the Questions in Teaching?

In Ontario at present, “inquiry learning” or “problem-based learning” (including “play-based learning”) is widely advocated. However, while many proponents of the approach maintain that all the questions guiding inquiry should come from the students, I (Clive) beg to differ. Although generally in agreement with the approach, I think a balance is needed: teachers should pose questions too.

For example, the students in the course Reflective Professional Development I am teaching this term seem to love the questions we are pursuing; e.g., how much do teachers learn informally, how can informal learning be enhanced, how can formal PD be more effective? I don’t have to push the students at all – in small groups, whole-class discussion, and individual writing they go to work on the questions in quite a refreshing way. However, many of the questions we discuss came from me: they are inherent in the structure of the course and the readings I recommend.

So there has to be a balance. The classroom should be a setting for co-learning or “co-constructivist” learning. Teachers should suggest many of the questions, but also do the following:

  • Let a question go if there is no “uptake” from the students
  • Respect the additional questions and sub-questions students raise
  • Allow the students a lot of air-time so they can identify questions and express their views about them
  • Encourage the students to pursue their own questions in their assignments

Over time, with this approach, we will get a better sense of which questions are interesting and fruitful, and which ones we should pose next time we teach the course, while again looking for new questions from the students.

Videos Now Available: Experts Speaking about Teacher Education

Last year I (Clare) received a grant for the project: Rethinking Literacy Teacher Education for the Digital Era: Teacher Educators, Literacy Educators, and Digital Technology Experts Working Together. One of the main activities of the project was to bring together 16 experts from three fields and 4 countries (Canada, US, UK, and Australia) to address the following questions.
• How is our understanding of literacy evolving in light of the new ways we communicate?
• How can literacy/English teacher educators (LTEs) prepare student teachers to develop and implement literacy programs that capitalize on digital technology (DT)?
• What teacher education curriculum changes are required to better prepare future teachers to integrate technology in their own teaching?
• What professional learning support do LTEs need to develop courses that will integrate and make greater use of DT?

We held a Symposium in London England in June. Click on the link http://literacyteaching.net/connection-grant/ for more info on the Symposium and for some photos.

At the Symposium we interviewed the participants which we video taped. These videos are now available. They are incredibly interesting, informative, and short. Teacher educators can use these in their courses/presentations. Click on  http://literacyteaching.net/IMG_2599 (the box to the right of this post). I want to bring your attention to the first video which is of Bethan Marshall from King’s College London. She addresses:

First video: A key insight she has had about education

Second video: Recommendation to improve teacher education


Heather Has Two Mommies

Heather Has Two Mommies, Lesléa Newman’s trailblazing picture book is celebrating a 25-year milestone. Many years ago advice from an acquaintance motivated Newman to write the book. She explained, “an acquaintance, who happened to be a lesbian mom, had stopped me on the street and as we were talking she said, ‘There are no books that show a family like ours. You should write one.’ ” Newman recalled. “I decided to take it seriously. I knew how those kids felt. When I grew up in the 1950s there were no books about a Jewish girl eating matzoh ball soup with her bubbe on Shabbat. I definitely felt like an outsider. It struck a chord with me.” Publisher Candlewick is celebrating by publishing an all-new illustrated edition of the book. See the link below to read more about how the book was initially received and some of the controversy surrounding the picture book: http://www.publishersweekly.com


Henry Giroux Named 1st Paulo Freire Chair at McMaster University


Henry Giroux was recently named the first Paulo Freire Chair in Critical Pedagogy at McMaster University. The McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning established the chair position to honour scholars who have made a significant advancements in studies of education.

The McMaster website describes Giroux’s work:

Giroux has been a celebrated scholar, author and cultural critic for more than three decades. He currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest, and is a professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies.

His life’s work has been central to the development of critical pedagogy as a field — exploring intersections between the role of education in schools and universities, the role of educators and academics as public intellectuals, as well as topics related to public pedagogy and the educational force of the wider culture.


Giroux speaks about his recent appointment. He answers questions such as:

  • What does critical pedagogy have to say about education?
  • Why is critical pedagogy significant to the important work of teaching and learning centres?

Watch the video here: