iLearned vs. iLearning: Differentiated portfolio assessment with the iPad?

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Differentiated learning is at the heart of my teaching philosophy. I believe teachers need to make a conscious effort to embrace all learning styles in their instruction, and to embed these learning styles in their assessments. I also believe the iPad makes doing so much easier, as it has for me. The iPad, and its enormous range of educational apps, offer multiple ways of teaching. Additionally, a very wide range of creation-apps means that students can create and produce content that suits and caters for their preferred learning style.

Differentiation needs to be equally embedded in assessment as it is in teaching. Students should be given opportunities to demonstrate their learning in a manner that suits their preferred learning style. Giving students tests under exam conditions is not always the ideal way for many students to demonstrate what they have learned. I have argued in an earlier post that teachers need to make more use of alternative assessments and achieve more of a balance between assessments for learning and assessments of learning (which appears to be a lot more prevalent to me). While my main timetabled subject is Drama, I also teach Humanities, English, ESL and the Business Studies. I would like to see more of the assessment practices used in drama in those non-drama classrooms. I have been making an effort to do so myself in my non-drama classes.

I am a big fan of portfolio assessment. The iPad allows the documentation of learning all throughout the learning process, not just the final product, which is exactly what portfolio assessment is about. In the drama classroom, my year 7 students can use their iPads in every stage of the drama process:

  • Planning : a huge variety of brainstorming and mind-mapping apps can be found in the App Store. My favourites are: iBrainstorm and Idea Sketch. Students collaborate in their groups called ‘theatre companies’ (which work very well for the people-smart/interpersonal learner) to brainstorm for their performance based on the prompt assigned or the task given, and then take screen-shots of their brainstorms to share so that each can document evidence of brainstorming in their portfolios (I use shared notebooks with every student through Evernote). This works perfectly for the more visual learners. However, some learners prefer to talk during their brainstorms and keep recorded audio clips on Evernote as evidence of brainstorming, or hyperlinks to an uploaded ShowMe where they screencast their brainstorms (works well for auditory/aural learners).
  • Preparing: the second stage of the drama process requires students to transform their ideas into writing a script or preparing a storyboard. Students can use Evernote or Pages for writing (if they are more word-smart, verbal or linguistic learners), or Storyboards app for preparing a storyboard (if they are more picture-smart or visual learners). ShowMe can also be used to prepare storyboards where students sketch-and-talk how they will go about their performance. Again, whatever is prepared has to be documented in their Evernote portfolio, whether as a note for their script or an embedded screen-shot for their storyboard, or hyperlink for their ShowMe.
  • Rehearsing: I believe the iPad has been most helpful in this stage. Students use the camera to take pictures during their rehearsals or to keep video footage. Watching video footage of their rehearsal allows them to see themselves (very useful for the visual learner) and facilitate reflection and evaluation (for the intrapersonal and reflective learner), so that they can brush up their performances before delivering them to a wider audience. Pictures can easily be embedded into their Evernote portfolio. If videos are kept, the students can upload them onto the class YouTube channel and add hyperlinks to their portfolios. Students can also choose to fill-in this Rehearsal Log and either screen-shot it or attach it to a note in their portfolio.
  • Performing: the students are expected to document their performances through taking video footage. These videos are taken primarily to facilitate student reflection, self-assessment and self-evaluation. Students also use these videos to evaluate their peers. Again, those videos can be uploaded on the class YouTube channel and hyperlinked in their portfolios.
  • Reflecting & Evaluating: students are expected to keep record of their reflections, either in written format (for the word-smart/verbal learner), or oral format (for the auditory/aural learner). Written reflections can automatically be typed in Evernote, and oral reflections can be recorded and embedded right through the Evernote iPad app. I also make sure there is some sort of structure or framework for reflection, so my students use the reflection help-sheet as their guide. Additionally there are many templates that I use for reflection and evaluation and I can easily share them with my classes through Evernote. The students can then take a screen-shot of the template and write over it in Skitch, which can then be embedded into their Evernote portfolio.

Additionally, there are multiple opportunities for students to create media-rich and authentic content in the classroom, whether they use iMovie to create trailers for their performances throughout the semester, or audio podcasts of tips for actors/directors/writers, or screencasts of theoretical material to teach other students and document their learning, or sound effects and background music using GarageBand, or photo collages of their group work, rehearsals and performances using iPhoto or FrameMagic.

While I have described my portfolio assessment practices in the drama classroom, along with my attempts to differentiate to cater for all learning styles, I believe such practices can be replicated in any other subject area. Whether it is video footage of experiments in Science class, audio podcasts of book reviews in English class, screencast videos to explain complex mathematical theories in Maths class, I believe the iPad can be used to differentiate assessment practices. All that needs to be done is to view learning more as a process, and not just the final product, then find ways to document evidence of as many steps of that process as possible.

To conclude, I believe the iPad can be used to teach across all levels of the Bloom’s Taxonomy, with a very wide range of opportunities to create (the highest level of thinking on the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy). Additionally, it can be used to differentiate teaching to cater for all learning styles. However, it is not enough to just use it to differentiate our teaching, our assessment practices need to also be differentiated and the iPad can facilitate this differentiation.

Update 25/05/2013

I delivered a presentation at the ICTEV 2013 conference about this, you can find the PowerPoint I used here.
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To drama or not to drama?

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Drama is a very powerful learning tool. There is lots of academic research in education to back this statement up. I will not be presenting arguments to back it up in this post. What I will be discussing is how I made use of drama, as a learning tool, in the other subjects that I teach (other than drama).

I have always been passionate about theatre and drama. But one thing frustrated me: a lot of the theatre programs I participated in, whether as a teacher or a student, were more focused on the show than on the learning experience for the participants. My passion for drama was a lot more educational than it was artistic. Maybe that is why I did not really feel that a career in theatre is what I wanted (and I did experiment with that path for a short period of time).

Also, I wasn’t just satisfied with a career as a drama teacher. I wanted to bring the educational benefits of drama into other subject areas. I wanted to find ways of integrating drama more into other curricula. I set out on a quest to find out how, and I experimented with a lot of tools. This is a post I wrote to share my experiences.

Firstly, there are a lot of theatre or drama conventions/strategies that drama teachers generally use with their students to help them analyze text to build character and to understand motivations and objectives. My first experiment with taking these tools outside the drama classroom was with conscience alley in my year 10 humanities class in 2011. This technique or convention requires students to form two lines facing each other (i.e. an alley) and one student plays a character facing a dilemma or a difficult decision. The student-in-role then walks through that alley, whilst being bombarded with advice and conflicting arguments. I used this technique to explore the motivations the Muslims may have had for invading Spain in the Middle Ages. One student stepped into the role of the Caliph at the time, while the dilemma was ‘to invade Spain or not to invade Spain’. The students had to quickly read through the text and come up with arguments for and arguments against invading and bombard the Caliph with their arguments as he/she walked through the alley. This activity was then used as a basis for a reflective journal entry in which students had to weigh up the arguments and solve the dilemma. The students thoroughly enjoyed the activity and were very engaged, and I believe the activity improved their arguments in the journal entry. They even requested more similar activities being brought into the humanities classroom.

Later on, I experimented with hot-seating, where a student would step into the role of one of the historical figures studied, and be interviewed by the class in a sort-of press-conference-setting. This activity requires the students to have some good background information about the historical figures, but also there is a lot of room for creativity and just having fun with improvisations. Mantle-of-the-expert was yet another drama strategy that I used in the same unit of work about the ‘Islamic History of Spain’. The students studied the achievements of the Islamic world during the Golden Age of Islam, and so some students were assigned the role of a panel of experts from the various fields of achievements (astronomy, mathematics, geography, agriculture, poetry etc…). The class would then interview that panel of ‘experts’ about their contributions to the Golden Age of Islam.

This year, I used thought-tracking to explore the thoughts and feelings certain characters may be having during certain parts in a novel studied in my year 8 English classroom. A student would be asked to step in role and voice the thoughts and feelings of the assigned character at a certain stage in the novel. I also made use of the other drama strategies mentioned earlier, and I noticed a much higher level of engagement from the students and deeper reflections when these activities were used as a stimulus for journal-writing.

Earlier this year I designed an assessment framework (as part of my masters) that relies wholly on drama strategies as a stimulus for speaking and writing, and to assess reading and listening. This was when I came across this fantastic resource: Joe Winston’s book ‘Second Language Learning Through Drama’. I would highly recommend it for any teacher interested in integrating drama more into their classroom, even if they do not teach drama. I also found the Swansea Grid for Learning literacy resources to be very useful, especially this leaflet.

The advantages I observed of using drama as a learning tool in the classroom are:

  • Engagement: I noticed students were a lot more engaged and interested in the material studied, even if they did not necessarily want to participate in the drama activity, they were still keen to watch their classmates perform.
  • Kinaesthetic learning: these drama strategies require a lot of movement and can appeal more to students that get restless when sitting down and writing for too long.
  • Great stimulus or prompt for a writing task: as it allowed students to dig deeper into the text and actually step into the role of the characters or historical figures, which improved their understanding. This was in turn reflected in their writing.
  • A practical and authentic formative assessment tool: to see whether or not the class have understood the content or the text.

However, there are challenges that teachers should be aware of:

  • Not all students will be keen to participate at first: of course, not everyone likes to perform because they may be shy or self-conscious. I found that slowing introducing these activities and encouraging students to try their best eventually led to full participation. I told my students that trying something new for the first time is the hardest, like riding a bike for the first time, but the more you do it, the more confident you become at it.
  • It will often get noisier: I noticed that students get very excited when I apply these strategies in class and this can led to them being noisier. Moreover, the strategies themselves do encourage a lot of talking. Just relax at first and understand that while they are noisy, it does not mean they are not learning. Just be clear about your expectations and set up an easy class signal to get back their attention.
  • These activities are not a panacea: they are engaging strategies that can be added to a big repertoire of other teaching activities. Naturally, a teacher should have many diverse tools and tricks in their teaching arsenal to appeal to all learning styles, and ensure that everyone is learning.

I hope this reflection on my experiences with drama outside the drama classroom was helpful and that you may take at least one thing out of it. Now, it’s your decision: To Drama or Not to Drama? Maybe set up a conscience alley to help you decide 😉