Important vs Urgent Skills

One Reason Flipped Learning Makes Sense in a STEM Classroom

This is the first generation of STEM teachers who must choose between teaching important skills and teaching urgent skills.  In previous generations, there was no difference. The important skills were the urgent skills. Now there is a fork in the road, which presents a threshold challenge to STEM teachers in 2017.

“Importance” is about how much something matters. “Urgency” is about how soon it matters. In previous generations, it was understood that the more knowledge students had when leaving school, the better their career prospects. The urgency of exam preparation incentivised students to learn the important skills that would later underpin their career success. But that is no longer true.

There is a growing, collective understanding among STEM teachers that the skills which prepared yesterday’s students to thrive in a knowledge economy are inadequate preparation for today’s students. As information continues to be commoditised and processes automated, retaining knowledge is less important than it once was. It is still helpful for a student to know the first 20 elements of the periodic table, but failing to know them is a much smaller handicap than it was 20 years ago. After all, you can ask Siri what the atomic mass of copper is, should you ever need that information.

I’m not saying (as some do) that knowledge has no value, nor that looking something up (no matter how efficiently) is as good as remembering it. If students are ignorant on a topic, they have no filter through which to sift new information. In a “post-truth” world, critical thinking is more valuable than ever and critical thinking is problematic for someone who lacks the context that knowledge affords. Nevertheless, YouTube is a pretty effective knowledge prosthesis.

Creativity, problem-solving, resourcefulness, computational thinking … these are skills that have always been valuable but are now at a premium! Teachers get this. Every time I mention it in a presentation I notice teachers nodding. But there seems to be a disconnect between that understanding and the way many teachers plan their classes. Many of us still spend a large portion of our class time teaching knowledge. Why? Because in November students will sit an exam to answer questions that in any other context would be googleable! If we have failed to prepare them for that we will have let them down. We’ll not have done any favours for our own reputation, either! Personally, I don’t think exams effectively measure student learning in any meaningful way in 2017. But as a science teacher I have no influence over the State’s assessment processes (“God grant me the serenity…”). For as long as exams are the gate through which students must enter to pursue a STEM career, we need to hold that gate open for them.

Therein lies the dilemma we face in 2017. Do we spend our valuable class time on the most important or the most urgent things? Do we equip our students with the skills that will matter to them most, or those that will matter to them first? Do we prepare them to thrive in the economy of the future, or to thrive in the exams of November?

I don’t think we can neglect either! But clearly there is insufficient time to do both.

Since we are unlikely to be given more time, we need to make more efficient use of the time we have.

A common criticism of the flipped classroom model is that it is still a fundamentally didactic, teacher-centred approach. I don’t disagree with that – although if done well, I do think that it is much more student-centred than it might seem. Nevertheless, it is not my aim in this article to discuss different approaches to the flipped classroom model, how to do it well, nor to explain how it can be student-focussed. The point I want to make in this article, rather, is that it is much more efficient than traditional approaches. By taking didactic learning out of the classroom, class time is reclaimed for more “important” learning tasks, those which prepare students for the economy of their future. At the same time, it allows students to cover the “urgent” content they need for exams much more efficiently. They can, for example, listen to a lesson at double speed, while multi-tasking it with washing the dishes (or some other mindless chore), thereby saving precious at-desk study hours for other tasks. It also makes that kind of learning demonstrably more effective.

In many ways, I think the term “flipped learning” does a disservice to the concept of flipped learning by implying that it is the wrong-way-round. On the contrary, I think it should be the new normal – at least until we do away with high-stakes standardised testing.

Nobody races down to the bank during lunchtime any more, to withdraw cash during bank hours. Instead, we enjoy lunch with our colleagues in the staffroom. Then we multi-task cash-withdrawal with our grocery shopping that evening when the bank is closed. We don’t call it “flipped banking” – but that is what we are doing! We are using technology to time-shift a necessary, “urgent” errand to make more efficient use of our time, while also reclaiming our lunch time to rest and cultivate rapport with colleagues – both of which, are important but not urgent.

Why students still need knowledge when anything can be Googled

In my enthusiasm to explain why teachers should be spending more time with their students working at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, I have often pointed out the fact that knowledge has falling value. I stand by that statement. Google is a pretty good knowledge prosthesis. A head full of knowledge is unlikely to get you a job any more. The skills that make a person valuable now are the so called “soft skills” – problem-solving skills, entrepreneurship, computational thinking skills, presentation skills, communication skills, an eye for design and leadership skills. Those skills are hard to automate and you can’t easily google them. In 2017 a head full of facts is only valuable at trivia nights. Oh! – and in exams.

But in my effort to point out that the value of knowledge is falling, I have sometimes been misunderstood to be saying that the importance of knowledge is falling. On the contrary. In many ways the importance of knowledge is rising!

Every year the Oxford Dictionary announces their word of the year; a word that has entered the public vocabulary in a profound way. In 2013, for example, the word of the year was “Selfie”. Can you guess what the word of the year was in 2016?


“You can’t believe everything you read in the papers” is a saying that long predates the internet. But the saying is doubly true now. You definitely can’t believe everything you read on the internet. As the value of knowledge has fallen over the past two decades, it has taken trustworthiness down with it. That’s the downside of the internet giving everyone a voice. There are now lots of unedited voices being exercised.

A student without knowledge in a subject, has no filter through which to sift new information. In a post-truth world, knowledge is more important than ever – it’s just not what employers will be basing their hiring decisions on.

The Threshold Challenge for Teachers in 2016


My favourite definition of education is this:

“Education is a conversation between one generation and the next, about what is important” ~ Sir John Jones.

The quote does, however, invite the question – “What is important?”

At a secondary school recently, I asked that very question of staff, who discussed it in small groups, and together we make a list of what they thought was important. Here’s what was listed (in no particular order):

  • Learning how to learn
  • Creativity
  • Resourcefulness
  • Resilience / Willingness to risk failing
  • Teamwork
  • Communication and presentation skills
  • Problem solving skills
  • Independence
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Tolerance and understanding of others
  • A growth mindset
  • Research skills
  • Digital citizenship
  • Self-awareness / Self-assessment.

What interested me is that nobody mentioned “memorising important historic dates” or “knowing the first 20 elements of the periodic table”.  Nobody even mentioned “learning times tables”. That’s not to say that those things are no longer useful, but that nobody mentioned them, shows me that teachers know, tacitly, that some things, while still useful, are now less valuable, and other things which have always been valuable are now even more so.

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The threshold challenge for teachers in 2016, is how to spend more time teaching the things which, in our heart of hearts, we know have increasing value, while still preparing our students for assessment systems that primarily measure the things that have falling value.  Do you see what I mean? If we spend all our class time teaching creativity, communication skills and resourcefulness – we are doing them a disservice if they face an exam testing their knowledge recall in a room where communication is banned and resourcefulness is called ‘cheating’.

The threshold challenge for teachers in 2016, is how to spend more time teaching the things which have increasing value, while still preparing our students for assessment systems that primarily measure the things that have falling value.

We have to do both, not either/or. That is one reason (of many) that the flipped learning model makes so much sense. It allows us to make sure we are covering the knowledge they will need for the exam, while freeing up significant class time for “…what is important”.  Flipped learning is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end – which end is the freedom to teach the things that matter most, in engaging ways, whether or not they are assessed on an exam.  (Until the yoke of exams is lifted off our shoulders).


If you are interested in flipping your class, or if you have already done so, but are looking for easier, cooler and more effective tools, workflows and strategies, I’ll be running a workshop in Melbourne on 19th February.  You can find the information about that workshop here.

Or if you would like me to present to your staff on this, or any other topic related to the use of ICT in education, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Student in a Flipped Class? Cut homework time in half using this tip!

Most of us read much faster than talking speed yet still comprehend what we read. In the same way, it’s possible to listen much faster than your teacher can speak. But many of us have never thought about that, because in real life, we only hear words as they are uttered. (In the classroom, the speed your teacher can move her mouth is holding you back!)

But If your teacher makes screencasts, videos, or audio podcasts, try playing them at double speed. You’ll be amazed to find that you can comprehend what you are listening to just fine. In fact, after listening for a while, you’ll discover that it starts to sound surprisingly normal. After listening at double speed, if I slow a podcast down to “normal” speed, it sounds comically slow!

So how do you do it?

With an audio podcast it’s easy. Almost all podcast players have the option to adjust playback speed. My favourite is Overcast. To my ears it does the best job of speeding up voice while preserving clarity. Plus it has some really innovative features like “Smart Speed” which reduces the length of the pauses between words; shortening the total listening time, without speeding up the words themselves. Brilliant!

Swift Player

For videos or screencasts on your iPhone or iPad, try Swift Player. It lets you speed up any video on your device, or online (YouTube, Vimeo, etc).

One curious reason students more readily listen to podcasts than complete traditional homework

I’ve always found that students are much more likely to watch a screencast or listen to a podcast at home, than to complete a traditional reading-writing homework task.

There are a number of reasons for this, but one that I’d never considered until recently is that psychologically it’s always easier to commit to a task if you know how long it will take. I’m much more likely to attend a working bee, join a committee or even go shopping with my wife, if I know in advance what my involvement will cost in time.

Think now, about a student contemplating her homework. If it’s a reading and writing task, she doesn’t really know how long that will take to complete. It could take 20 minutes but it might take 45. Her time commitment is indeterminate. So if she has half an hour ’til bed time, does she make a start on the homework? I offer that many students will put it off until tomorrow.

On the other hand, consider a student with a podcast to listen to. He knows precisely how long it will take, because it says so, right there in the progress bar! He knows he can listen to that podcast in 25 minutes and 45 seconds – leaving precisely 4 minutes and 15 seconds to brush his teeth and put on his pyjamas, before bed. Homework done. Check!

Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the Whiteboard…” (Are you serious?)

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 8.49.07 pmOn the heels of my previous post about why some teachers fail to realise the efficiency gains of technology, Today I had a conversation with a teenager that went like this:

Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the whiteboard with my iPad.”
Me: “Are you telling me, they make you copy off the whiteboard with pen and paper?”
Student: “Yes”
Me: “How many of your teachers do this?”
Student: “All of them!”
Me: “Are you serious?”
Student: “They tell us that copying the board will help us remember and understand the information better”
Me: “And do you think it does?”
Student: “No, I’m usually not even thinking about what I’m writing; I’m just copying down the words”

I don’t buy for a moment that students will remember or understand information significantly better by copying! Telling that to students is as disingenuous as it is absurd! When I read the morning newspaper I don’t need to copy out the news stories in order to comprehend them! When researching a topic of interest I read relevant articles, maybe make a few notes and save them to Evernote for future reference but I don’t transcribe the articles in full onto loose leaf! What makes anyone think that copying paragraphs of text from the board will make students remember or understand? As you began reading this blog post, did the thought even cross your mind to start copying it out with pen and paper to aid your understanding? Of course it didn’t! That would be a prodigious waste of your time and would make little to no difference to your comprehension.

Let’s be honest. The real reasons teachers make students copy information from the board are:
(a) It pads out the lesson with busywork, so a very small amount of learning will use up an entire period (It reduces the teacher’s preparation time : class time ratio).
(b) It is the easiest way to “wing it” when a teacher hasn’t prepared a genuine and engaging learning activity.
(c) It keeps students seated, quiet and under control.

In 1989 copying information from the board was a practical way for students to collect a body of examinable subject knowledge to learn (i.e. memorise / encode), because schools didn’t have photocopiers, students didn’t have cameras, and nobody had Google.

In 2015, valid reasons for using a whiteboard might include sketching a diagram to answer an extemporaneous student question, teaching basic literacy skills (character formation, perhaps spelling) or to capture a group brainstorming session. A whiteboard is useful for that kind of thing. (And don’t be ridiculous – if your students have smartphones, let them take a photo, if it helps them!). But I can’t think of any good reason for entering class, with the intention of writing screeds of informational text on the board for students to copy like it were still 1989.

It’s a squandering of class time – a great example of wheeling technology, instead of riding it (to borrow the metaphor from my previous post).

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Teacher: “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”

A teacher said to me “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”.

What a strange thing to say! – I can’t think of any other professional occupation in which people feel that computer technology slows them down, gets in the way and makes their work less efficient? In other professions it reduces friction, increases productivity and saves time (and money).  That is why those industries least forgiving of inefficiency, are most invested in computer technology.

I don’t think the teacher I spoke to is alone, either (I think her feelings are quite common among teachers, actually). And what’s more, I don’t doubt that she is right! Technology probably does make her work less efficient. But that is because she’s doing it wrong.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 5.37.57 pmSteve Jobs said that a computer is like “a bicycle for our minds” meaning that it magnifies the efficiency of our thinking the way a bicycle improves the efficiency of our locomotion. I love that analogy – and I think it’s very true, but it does, of course, assume that you actually ride the bike (rather than wheeling it alongside while walking). In order to ride a bike, you have got to stop walking. You can’t do both. If you’re not prepared to give up walking, then the bicycle is a hindrance.

When teachers describe technology as a hindrance to their work, I say that’s because they are unprepared to let go of their old methodologies. Instead of “riding” technology, they’re “wheeling” it alongside their old teaching practices.

Why your school needs clearly defined social media policies

pinnacleIt’s not to stop teachers from doing the wrong thing with social media; It’s to give them confidence to use social media well, knowing there is no appearance of impropriety.

If there were no balustrade on the ‘Pinnacle’ lookout in the Grampians, very few people would venture to the edge to take in the arresting view.  The barrier gives hikers confidence to go further than they would otherwise dare, because their safety is assured.  The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

Is it appropriate for a teacher to reply to a student’s electronic message at 9:00 pm? 11:00 pm? I don’t think there is a universal answer to that question, but I do think there should be a school policy about it.  If a student sends a text at 9:45 pm, and the school policy says 10 pm, a teacher can confidently reply, leaning against the balustrade of that policy.

I meet a lot of teachers who are reluctant to use “this website” or “that web 2.0 service” with their students for fear that doing so might make them the star of a story on 7’s Today Tonight (and not in a good way).  That fear can be soothed by creating well publicised, unambiguous and clearly defined policies.

Narcissus and the Selfie Stick

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 12.56.41 pmIn Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter, so good-looking that he didn’t consider any of his female suitors fair enough to be worthy of him.   One day he glimpsed his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love!  Unable to resist the charm of his own visage, he surrendered to his fate, sank into the pool and drowned.

If Narcissus were alive today, I reckon he’d carry a selfie-stick in his quiver.  I’m just saying.

What can teachers bring to the classroom, that has increasing value?

For the past 12 months I’ve been asking this question to teachers and school leaders in various forums:

What do teachers bring to the classroom that is still scarce now that we have Google, YouTube and Wikipedia?

As expected, I’ve received numerous answers to that question, and with a nod to ‘Family Feud‘, the top ten answers are on the board:

top ten responses

You’ll notice that “Providing Knowledge” is not on the list.  Twenty years ago, knowledge was one of the most valuable things a teacher contributed to the learning experience of students.  Now it doesn’t even make the top ten.

I think an equally valid question to ask is this: What can teachers bring to the classroom that not only still has value, but which has increasing value?

What can teachers bring to the classroom that has increasing value?

I’d be interested in your answers to that question. I have a few of my own, (which i’ll develop further in future posts.)

  • Critical thinking.
  • Mindfulness.
  • Wisdom.
  • Honest and constructive feedback.

Here’s the point: You can cut the ‘Class-time Pie’ anyway you want.  But if the largest slice is being given to standing at the front of the room disseminating a commodity of falling value, then less time can be devoted to really building a precious classroom experience for students.

classtime pie