Supporting Struggling South African Schools With Online Learning

Hatfield Christian School serves 730 students on an expansive campus shared with a big modern evangelical church in Pretoria, South Africa. Hatfield’s mission is, “Training leaders to serve nations.” About 5% of the students at the mission-focused school are on scholarship. Student benefit from strong academic and extracurricular programs.

Given the dire condition of education in South Africa and the pivotal condition of the young democracy, Executive Principal Graeme Holloway wanted to do more to extend Hatfield’s impact. At the iNACOL Symposium, Hatfield strengthened ties with Greg Bitgood from Heritage Christian Online School in British Columbia and Greg was willing to help.

By aligning Heritage content to South African curriculum and adding content, Holloway’s team created Hatfield Online to support home school parents and struggling public schools. Holloway recruited corporate sponsors and donors to support the public school outreach effort.  

They started in Soweto and Mamelodi, former townships west of Johannesburg and east of Pretoria respectively. Math and science teachers were given laptops, access to the online content and training. Mentor teachers visit each classroom every other week. The combination has improved math and science passing rates on national exams.

Hatfield now supports 48 underprivileged public schools across South Africa. Where computer and internet access allows students to have access to the online curriculum.

Early results are promising with big gains in math and science proficiency rates for schools in the program two and three years. Individual student success stories have been inspiring. Watch this:

Trip report. Three Mamelodi secondary schools working with Hatfield Online are simple buildings strung together in open campuses that take advantage of the beautiful climate. While the campus grounds are reasonably well maintained that isn’t true of classrooms which have old and assorted furniture and equipment. Science labs that may have been functional 20 years ago are in disrepair. Small inoperative computer labs are filled with old equipment.

Students wear uniforms and are generally well behaved and compliant. Ninth grade classes are crowded; smaller upper division classes point to a substantial dropout rate.

The best instruction in the three schools was provided by teachers partnering with Hatfield Online; it was didactic and content-centric. Students took notes and recalled answers. The digital curriculum helped teachers explain electric circuits, biological systems, and compound interest. The Hatfield trained teachers appeared confident and knew their content.

In other classrooms we observed chalkboard lectures and ancient textbooks– more chaotic and less engaging.

The test focused system culminates with a matriculation exam that determines graduation (with 30% proficiency cut off) and eligibility for tertiary education. Parents choose high schools based on “matric” passing rate.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa. English is the language of instruction but it is often the second or third language for students—and teachers.

The simple intervention of providing quality curriculum, teacher training, and ongoing mentoring is making a big difference for most students in the partner schools.

For more check out:

Learner-Centered Vision Will Frame Next Generation Learning

The last 20 years of American elementary and secondary education were framed by federal accountability legislation. The well intentioned consensus to promote equitable improvement didn’t work as well as hoped and had unintended consequences.

The next 20 years will be framed not by legislation but an emerging vision of learner-centered learning. Created by the rise of new tools, new schools, and new informal learning opportunities, a new vision for authentic, engaged, and personalized learning has become widely shared.

Blending face-to-face and digital learning, the emerging vision suggests each learner should have a unique path and pace, progressing as they demonstrate mastery.

Grant programs reflecting this learner-centered vision have been launched by Carnegie, NGLC, NewSchools, Nellie Mae, and more. The new film Most Likely to Succeed shares the learner-centered vision.

Further evidence is a diverse group of 28 practitioners, advocates, and business and union leaders came together to reimagine education. Supported by nonprofit Convergence, they created a learner-centered vision of an education system where experiences are “adaptable to the needs and potential of each learner and supports the highest possible outcomes for each and every learner.”

The working group, Education Reimagined, outlined five elements of the new system (more details on elements are available in the vision document):

  • Competency-based learning is an alternative to age- or grade-based learning. In competency-based learning, each learner works toward competency and strives for mastery in defined domains of knowledge, skills, and dispositions.
  • Personalized, relevant and contextualized learning is an approach that uses such factors as the learner’s own passions, strengths, needs, family, culture, and community as fuel for the development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions.
  • Learning that is characterized by learner agency recognizes learners as active participants in their own learning and engages them in the design of their experiences and the realization of their learning outcomes in ways appropriate for their developmental level.
  • Socially embedded learning is rooted in meaningful relationships with family, peers, qualified adults, and community members and is grounded in community and social interaction.
  • Open-walled learning acknowledges that learning happens at many times and in many places and intentionally leverages its expansive nature in the learner’s development of competencies. learners with authentic, rich, and diverse learning opportunities.

Broader aims. Communities all over the country are embracing broader educational aims. Recently hundreds of families gathered at Henderson Middle School to discuss the question “What should all El Paso students know and be able to do?”

Parents said they want their children to be critical and creative thinkers, informed problem solvers, bilingual communicators, productive citizens, and socially intelligent individuals.


As stated in the Education Reimagined vision, and particularly notable for their consensus, in order for the next generation of learners to succeed and thrive, their learning experiences must facilitate their development in three primary domains: knowledge, skills, and dispositions. The chart below shares their descriptions of each of these domains and a set of examples adapted from the work of the Council of Chief State School Officers:


This learner-centered vision starts from the evidence that all children are naturally curious and motivated to learn. It envisions a system that adapts to learner needs and interests and supports their development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to thrive.

The vision is a call to action for all of us.

For more check out:

EdTech 10: Coming Together to Focus on What Works

This week’s news takes a cue from the launch of Getting Smart on Next-Gen School Design. The new Smart Bundle shares the stories of six regional hubs for innovation through NGLC’s Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools. In this week’s news startups, organizations, teachers and students are huddling over new tools, partnerships, and reports that are moving the needle and creating real progress on what’s working to support next-gen learning.

Blended Schools & Tools

Blended data. The Clayton Christensen and the Evergreen Education Group teamed up to share first-of-its-kind data on schools implementing blended learning. Looking for blended implementation strategies? Check out the Blended Learning Implementation Guide 3.0.

Integrating in Space City schools. Houston Independent School District uses IMS Global’s Learning Tools Interoperability Standards to integrate data from different sources. HISD uses IMS OneRoster and informed the new IMS how-to guide 

Sharpest tools in the shed. Two news stories to note on the new tools front:Search giant Google will be soon be offering a VR field-trip simulator system, called ExpeditionsLittleBits, Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, released four new projects as part of their launch of LittleBits Education to enhance making the classroom. 

Digital Developments

Just because everyone is using it doesn’t mean it works. Based on the data of 200,000+ teachers, OpenEd found that the most widely-used online education resources may not be the most effective. Ron Drabkin, VP of Marketing at OpenEd recently joined the Getting Smart blog community in asking, should teachers share formative assessment results in the classroom?

Making the connection. According to a new survey from Pearson, student mobile device ownership is increasing while connectivity at schools continues to lag. Connectivity is critical, here are 33 reasons broadband boosts learning.  

From the locals. If you follow Getting Smart on Instagram, you’d know that we aren’t shy to show our #PNWwonderland love. That’s why we were so excited to learn that Washington State community colleges are now offering a new flexible competency-based business degree modeled after and with support from Western Governors University.

Dollars & Deals

Charting the course. The U.S. Department of Education announced new grants totaling more than $157 million through its Charter Schools Program, which funds the creation and expansion of public charter schools across the nation. These grants have had a major impact on the nation’s charter school sector, with nearly half of the nation’s public charter schools benefitting from these investments in 2013-14.

The Big “D”

Better understanding on better data. Data Quality Campaign, who we recently joined us for Getting Smart on Personalization and Privacy, released a new analysis that sheds light on the continuing evolution of student privacy legislation.

For the folks. Parents deserve a more thorough look into how their students are performing in the classroom, especially with new developments in assessment. This was the belief behind the My School Information Challenge. This idea gained greater support from the findings of Future of Privacy Forum’s new survey that set out to gain a better understanding of what public school parents actually know and want concerning the use of technology and collection of data.  

Movers, Shakers & Groundbreakers

Going big. Ten emerging leaders were selected by Big Picture Learning and Internationals Network for Public Schools for an initial cohort of Deeper Learning Equity Fellows. We recently sat down with Andrew Frishman, Executive Director of Big Picture Learning to talk about the supports that all learners deserve — listen to the podcast here.

For more more EdTech 10s, check out:

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Getting Smart on Regional Next-Gen School Design

Authored by Sarah Luchs & Tom Vander Ark, and with support from NGLC staff and Getting Smart
In partnership with: Next Generation Learning Challenges

Download the Bundle

Next generation schools are creating powerful learning opportunities for students. The Regional Next-Gen School Design blog series seeks to illuminate best practices and share the stories of six regional hubs for innovation through NGLC’s Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools. These hubs are located in the following regions:

  • New Orleans
  • Chicago
  • Washington, D.C
  • Colorado
  • New England
  • Oakland

The publication highlights each of the six regions individually and shows the unique ways they are approaching the work, including best practices and lessons learned in order to incubate and support next-gen learning. NGLC Breakthrough Schools accelerate student outcomes and achievement through personalized, blended and/or competency-based learning.

The NGLC Regional Funds have created a strong connection to the incubators within regions where funds exist, infusing these schools with a culture of design thinking, professional learning and entrepreneurship.. The regions are bringing an iterative approach to design, research and development of new school models, sharing and promoting emerging practices within and across regions. The best practices and lessons learned from the work thus far showcased in this blog series and publication pave the way for further investigation into thriving next-gen regional ecosystems. Join in the conversation at #SmartBundle and #NextGenLearning and download Getting Smart on Regional Next-Gen School Design today.

The publication is the result of a blog series on Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools, an NGLC initiative with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and local funders in several of the sites. 

Sarah Luchs would like to acknowledge Kristen Vogt from NGLC and the following Regional Funds partners who provided valuable feedback and contributions to this series: Margaret Angell, Steve Bumbaugh, Tim Carnahan, Angela Hardy, Amy Huang, Indrina Kanth, Greg Klein, Mark Kostin, Samantha Olson, and Alyse Utley. The Regional Funds network benefits from the support and expertise of NGLC staff members Dalia Hochman and Stefanie Blouin whose work is also reflected in this series.

Download “Getting Smart on Regional Next-Gen School Design

For more on next-gen learning, see:

This bundle was published in partnership with NGLC.

Innovative Blend Could be the Spark for South Africa

Forty months ago a recent MBA graduate named Stacey Brewer told me she was introducing the first blended learning model approach in South Africa to “provide quality education at a cost that the country can afford.”

Last week I had the chance to visit the first of four schools they opened in Johannesburg. It’s an extraordinarily thoughtful school model powered by an energetic and talented staff.

Brewer and classmate Ryan Harrison were compelled by what looked like an economic and educational crisis in South Africa. After studying options, they formed eAdvance to launch a chain of affordable private schools for low-income communities. More broadly, they sought to “create a workable blueprint for South African education, which will ultimately contribute to the success of the country as a holistic entity.”

Ferndale. Located in between what a local school head called “up market apartments” in a converted five story office building SPARK Ferndale is an attractive and inviting facility on a tiny lot where every square meter is utilized.

The first of four SPARK Schools serves 529 K-4 students. A grade will be added each year through seventh (although parents have already started asking about high school).

Director of School Design Bailey Thomson was a TFA teacher at the original Rocketship school. When Ryan and Stacey visited in 2012 she introduced herself. A veteran world traveler, Bailey didn’t wait for an offer, she told them she was joining them for the school launch in Johannesburg.

Blended Learning Lead Dee Moodley graduated from a teacher training college in Durban, Kwazulu Natal. She taught in a state primary school in England where technology was part of the curriculum and a blended learning rotation model was emerging. After moving back to Johannesburg, Dee heard about Spark and became one of the first teachers at Spark Ferndale in 2013.

Innovative blend. Following Rocketship’s lead, SPARK uses a lab rotation model in grades K-3. The Learning Lab features 128 Chromebooks (the first in South Africa). Students spend an hour every day in the learning lab. 


Bailey is a big fan of game-based ST Math, and so are her students. ST Math challenges students to develop and test hypotheses and provides instructional feedback when they fail. Thompson said, “We want our kids developing grit by persisting through failure.” SPARK is the first international client for nonprofit MIND Research Institute.

“It’s exciting to see ST Math’s impact on these students – not just in helping them approach math more conceptually, but instilling them with a thirst for learning and challenges,” said Matthew Peterson, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of MIND Research Institute. “Because ST Math is visual instead of language-based, it’s ideal for a setting like SPARK.”

Learning Lab apps also include Reading Eggs (complete with British spelling and accents). Letters and Sounds is the classroom literacy curriculum.

SPARK students speak 8 of the 11 official South African languages. Students study isiZulu from Kindergarten as their mandated additional language.

In fourth grade, SPARK flips to an innovative five station flex-blend where students have choices about what and how to learn. This year, students in the flex model are on 16 different timetables. Next year, by adding another competency-based element, they will be operating on 64 unique schedules (a challenge given the lack of great scheduling software).


The competency-based flex allows students to progress as the demonstrate mastery in core subjects. More than half of the students have different reading and math levels and, as a result, benefit from a differentiated approach.

The fourth grade flex finds students on their Chromebooks for two 40 minute sessions where they work through ST Math and Reading Eggs. They also work on the open learning platform Gooru where they learn social and natural science content through a playlist of videos, articles and websites. Assignments and quizzes are also distributed as Gooru playlists so that teachers can assess online and decide on next steps for students learning.

At the beginning of each week, students receive five assignments differentiated by level. They can work on them when and how they want but they are due at the end of the week.

SPARK Designs is a 60 minute exploration around the engineering design process (below). Last week the SPARK Design project explored sustainability—and presentations had to be recyclable.


Google Classroom is used to deliver curriculum content to teachers in all four schools. The platform also serves as a collaborative space where principals and teachers can share ideas as well as best practices. Assessments are charted in a series of spreadsheets. (They are waiting for a super grade book that automatically combines multiple forms of formative assessment).

Making the link. One challenge of a lab rotation model is making the link to classroom instruction.

“We are trying to create a culture of celebration and accountability by having teachers update their ST Math trackers on a weekly basis in the math classrooms, thereby cementing for students the link between the classroom and Learning Lab,” said Moodley.

They encourage teachers to test drive objectives that students struggle with in the lab as well as introduce classroom objectives using ST Math.

There are a few teachers who have decided to track Reading Eggs in their classrooms. This investment has come from a few PD sessions that Reading Eggs delivered to the literacy teachers. Reading Eggs has an intensive teaching resource site that we encourage teachers to use to deliver life skills and reading content. These teachers have gone further to assign reading assignments to students on Reading Eggs. These assignments are either set to extend or support students´ learning.

SPARK teachers reinforce behaviour for learning in the classroom that will promote student progress in the Learning Lab. “Many of our teachers begin their classes with a report from the Learning Lab tutors with classroom incentives for students whose behaviour allowed them to complete a certain number of games or master a certain number of objectives,” said Moodley.

As a result, “Students do not feel like the Learning Lab and classroom are divorced from one another, but that they are two different modalities of the same learning,” added Dee.

Transparency of data, from the lab to the classroom, is a big change for new students but they quickly become comfortable with public information.

Scalable. With school fees of 16,000 Rand, SPARK costs less than half of a medium priced private school. In fact, the fees are not much more than those charged by public schools. (As an affordable private school, SPARK is eligible for government subsidies but the management team has chosen not to apply for them given some of the red tape that comes along with the process.)


Pearson’s Affordable Learning Fund invested in eAdvance in May 2014. Fund manager Katelyn Donnelly said, “SPARK Schools is a great investment for us as it is a pioneering educational model with quality at it’s core that has the potential to scale to tens of thousands of children.”

When four more schools open in January, SPARK will serve more than 3,000 students. Hiring teachers and school leaders has proven to be a critical success factor. The team has found it easier to train new teachers in the SPARK model than retraining veterans. They provide 250 hours of annual professional learning to build team skills.

Facilities are another critical growth factor. The SPARK team works with several developers that acquire and improve properties and lease them back to the school network.

SPARK is one of the most interesting K-12 blends on the planet. The team is building on the best US blends and are leveraging the development of tools. The independent school sector and the political climate in South Africa (where they just suspended annual tests) is open to innovation. Strong demand for each new school is fueled by parent frustration with the public system.

With Bridge International Academies in Kenya, Omega Schools in Ghana, SPARK is among most important K-12 work being done on the continent. They suggest that high quality education for every student in Africa is within reach.

For more check out:

3 Reasons Coding Should Be a Core Subject

The push to make computer science a core subject in K-12 schools is on of the hottest, most popular educational reform issues of our time. England has already done it, and other countries have plans to follow suit. Here in the U.S., everyone from politicians to parents is talking about it. In a recent poll commissioned by Google, two-thirds of parents said that computer science should be required learning in schools. And those parents are right. Here’s why…

  1. Programming is rapidly becoming a foundational skill that has value across disciplines. It is no surprise that scientists have come to rely on programming, but programming isn’t just for scientists! When you consider that computer programs are now used to analyze great works of art and literature to identify patterns, cross-connections and authenticity, one thing becomes clear: in nearly every field, those who understand how to program computers have a profound advantage over those who don’t.
  2. Computer science is a powerful way to teach kids problem solving and critical thinking skills. Math, science, and computer science are the three pillars of modern problem solving in the 21st century. In math, we learn how to describe our world with numbers. In science, we learn how to build testable theories with predictive power. In computer science, we learn how to turn our mathematical models and scientific theories into executable simulations. Through programming, students learn how to describe the solution to a single problem as a precise, repeatable process that can scale to solve millions of similar problems.
  3. Careers in computer science are abundant and lucrative. All kids deserve to have some exposure to CS so they can discover whether it is something they might want to do professionally. Computer science is far more than “just a trade skill,” but to the extent that programming is a trade skill, it is a particularly important one to our economy. In the U.S. programming jobs are growing at twice the national average, and our ability to fill those jobs affects our global competitiveness.  Our nation requires a strong CS “pipeline” that readies kids for information technology positions in order to compete economically with other countries.

Even though most parents agree that computer science should be a required subject, only one out of every four schools even offers it. One of the most common reasons cited by principals and superintendents for not offering CS is that there simply isn’t enough time in the day – the teaching focus needs to be on core subjects which are measured by standardized tests.

Setting the record straight

This kind of thinking is based on the misconception that teaching CS is an either-or proposition. Part of what makes CS so valuable is that it synergizes with other subjects. CS instruction doesn’t necessarily need to be taught as a separate topic, especially at the early grade levels, where it can easily be integrated into other subjects, such as math and science, in a way that makes those subjects feel even more practical and relevant.

Cracking the code – the correct answer is “hybrid”

The Bootstrap curriculum for middle school students is a shining example of what CS education should look like at the middle school level. Bootstrap is aligned with Common Core standards for algebra, so it can be used as a drop-in replacement for existing math courses. It harnesses students’ excitement around gaming, teaching kids to directly apply algebra to program video games of their own creation.  In other words, replace your math class with a math/CS hybrid class and you get a better math experience, plus you learn programming.  It’s a win-win.

Budget, budget – who’s got the budget?

There is simply no budget (especially in primary schools) for the necessary computer equipment to teach programming. Here’s the magic. You don’t need to be sitting in front of a high-powered, expensive computer to learn computer science. I’m a big believer that some of the strongest ways to learn computational thinking are away from the computer, through non-electronic logic puzzles, activities, and games. One superb example of this is the CS Unplugged curriculum, which I have used with great success.  

Look Ma’ – No Screen!

Using offline puzzles and logic games to teach CS is something I’m personally passionate about, which is why I’ve partnered with ThinkFun to bring a programming puzzle game, Code Master, to market. Code Master is, in essence, a board game with a coding twist, where kids build and test their programs by hand, without the aid of a computer. In many ways, this is an advantage. Kids can’t just hit a “run” button and watch their programs play out – they must thoroughly understand the rules of program execution in order to run their programs themselves. The result is a low-tech, low-budget activity that delivers a meaningful educational experience as early as grade school.

What’s next?

In the U.S., education decisions are mostly made at the local level. Progress is happening, slowly, in scattered communities. For example, New York City recently set a deadline for all its schools to offer computer science within 10 years. If we want to see computer science offered in our schools, parents will need to communicate directly with their school boards and actively advocate for change in the classroom.

And, while it may realistically take some time to integrate coding curriculum into the classroom, there’s no reason parents can’t tap into the plethora of consumer-available tools, toys, games and resources to help our children become code literate now.  In today’s digital world, when we teach our kids critical thinking and logic skills through computer science, we are programming them for success.

For more check out:

Mark Engelberg is the inventor of ThinkFun’s Code Master. Follow Mark on Twitter, @thinkfun

Talking Math: How to Engage Students in Mathematical Discourse

The importance of engaging students in meaningful mathematical discussion has long been identified as an essential component of students’ mathematics learning.

When students share and exchange their ideas, both they and their teachers benefit.

Dr. Gladis Kersaint

Understanding the Importance of Mathematical Discourse

Talking about mathematical concepts allows students to reflect on their own understanding while making sense of and critiquing the ideas of others. When done in a collaborative and supportive learning environment, this can support achievement of higher order thinking skills, as required by the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice. Students can make conjectures, link prior knowledge to current understanding, reason about mathematics, refine and amend their approaches, and take ownership of their mathematical knowledge.

Students benefit greatly from learning to use the tools of mathematical discourse—including words, symbols, diagrams, physical models, and technology—to present and defend their ideas. Imparting these new skills on students allows teachers to access, monitor, and evaluate students’ mathematical understanding and development.

Mathematical Discourse in Action

One approach to giving students the information needed for a mathematics lesson involves the teacher simply telling the students what they need to know. Far more productive, however, is more a thoughtful approach to student engagement that encourage a productive dialogue, as seen in the example below. As educators, we need to structure lessons to encourage student interaction, address gaps in student understanding, and help students express mathematical concepts more precisely. Providing opportunity for conversation does just that.

Classroom Example of MD

Does this look like a classroom dialogue you’ve seen before? To further your understanding of the importance of facilitating mathematical discourse, ask yourself:

  • How did these students benefit by sharing what they knew as part of the mathematics discussion?
  • Why did the teacher allow students to evaluate the correctness of Julie’s answer?
  • Why did the teacher ask another student to restate what James said?

Establishing a Discourse-Rich Mathematics Learning Community

To engage students in productive mathematics discussions, it is important to establish a learning environment that welcomes student involvement. The first step is setting the expectation that every student will contribute to the discourse community.

Students must be encouraged to use their problem-solving, reasoning,and communication skills to make conjectures, explore their own ideas and approaches, and find solutions to routine and non-routine mathematics problems.

In particular, the five process standards–problem solving, reasoning and proof, communication, connections, and representation–can be seen in action in a discourse-rich mathematics community as students interact, question one another and convey their understanding. During this dialogue, teachers can recognize errors in context and reinforce that they are natural occurrences that enhance learning.

What does a classroom rich with mathematical discourse look like? Walk into one and you’ll likely see:

  • Students and teachers acknowledging and discussing errors and the reasons behind them to help students build greater understanding.
  • Students questioning each other using mathematics arguments to establish the correctness of solutions.
  • Students reaching and justifying conclusions based on their own mathematics knowledge without relying on the authority of teachers.
  • Students engaging in “productive struggle” with appropriate scaffolds for support.
  • Students encouraged to use a variety of approaches to convey their knowledge and solution strategies, including oral presentations; written explanations; and physical, graphical, pictorial, or symbolic representations.

Facilitating Meaningful MD

Understanding Student and Teacher Roles in Mathematical Discourse

Facilitating student engagement in mathematical discourse begins with the decisions teachers make when they plan classroom instruction. The tasks they use, the ways in which they organize the classroom, and the behaviors they model communicate expectations for classroom norms, including the ways students are expected to engage in classroom discussions.

Depending on prior experiences, students might find these new expectations for engagement uncomfortable and may not be ready to plunge into mathematical dialogue feet first. Teachers must ease the transition to a dialogue-rich mathematics classroom and prepare students to engage in such discussions. It is also important to carefully consider the best ways to coordinate student interaction in pairs, small groups, or whole-class interactions to ease transitions and maximize learning.

To support students, teachers must help students create avision for expected behaviors and actions, prepare them for their roles by modeling or role-playing, and reinforce these behaviors consistently. Teachers need to monitor progress as students engage in mathematics discussions, supporting them as their mathematical knowledge grows and they become more skilled at expressing ideas coherently and using vocabulary, syntax, and semantics precisely.

Teachers should observe, listen to and monitor students to support instructional decision-making. Determining what questions to ask, which students to call on, when to intervene and when to extend student thinking provides opportunities to understand student thinking, monitor growth and assess knowledge. A discourse-rich classroom enables teachers to gain insights not only about what students know, but also about the approaches they use, how–and how well–they understand the ideas, and the ways they present their knowledge.

In addition to content knowledge, mathematical discourse allows teachers to monitor students’ dispositions and gauge their developing confidence, interest, and perseverance. Teachers can use this information to determine areas of confusion or frustration in order to decide when an intervention might be needed. They also examine understandings and misconceptions revealed during classroom discussions and adjust lesson plans accordingly.

Asking the right questions can help support instructional decision making and direct student focus. Some examples are below:

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 11.37.57 AM

Engaging Every Student in Mathematical Discourse

All students are mathematics language learners, regardless of their level of English language proficiency, and discourse allows ALL students to develop mathematical language.

While it is important to build scaffolds to support students who are learning English and mathematics at the same time, it is essential to recognize that mathematics is a technical language that all students must learn. Students who are English speakers also require support as they learn the language of mathematics.

As outlined in the Standards for Mathematical Practice, students should become fluent in mathematical language, including vocabulary, symbolic representations, syntax, semantics, and linguistic features. In addition, they must have ample opportunities to use the language of mathematics as they engage in various forms of communication. Discourse allows students to practice precision in multiple areas, including:


  • English words with a different meaning in mathematics, such as “negative,” “table,” or “rational.”
  • Specialized terms, such as “hypotenuse” or “trapezoid.”
  • Terms with multiple meanings in mathematics, such as “median” or “base.”

2. Symbols

  • Ways to read and interpret symbolic representations. For example, “a × b” can be expressed as “a times b,” “the product of a and b,” or “multiply a and b.”

3. Syntax

  • Understanding the rules that govern the structure of sentences. For example, “A number y is 4 more than a number x” is translated symbolically to “y=x+4.”

4. Semantics

  • The process of making meaning from language.
  • The same mathematics word may be interpreted differently depending on the context. For example, the median of a set of numbers versus the median of a triangle.

Teachers support mathematical language development by asking key questions and encouraging students to ask for clarity. By doing this, teachers motivate and encourage students and facilitate productive discussion, fostering a supportive classroom culture that maximizes learning.


This blog is part of a three post series on the importance of mathematical discourse from Curriculum Associates, a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, and Dr. Gladis Kersaint, the author of the recently published whitepaper Orchestrating Mathematical Discourse to Enhance Student LearningDownload your free copy here

For more on Curriculum Associates, check out:

Dr. Gladis Kersaint is the Dean of the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut and an author of the Ready® Mathematics and Ready® Classroom Mathematics programs from Curriculum Associates.

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Smart List: 50 Advocacy Orgs Making a Difference

They’re back! The annual Smart List series acknowledges people and organizations making a difference. From now until November you’ll see around 20 ‘Best of’ lists, not in order, not exhaustive, just people we appreciate doing innovative work.

Today we are recognizing 50 great policy and advocacy organizations. These groups put students first, illuminate the path, and lead the conversation.

Equity Advocates

Digital & Competency-Based Learning Advocates

Policy Advisors & Resources

State Advocacy Organizations

Who did we miss?  Who would you add?

This Smart List was published in partnership with Getting Smart Services. Getting Smart Services provides advocacy, advisory, consulting and public relations services to turn ideas into impact. We help for-profit and non-profit organizations construct cohesive and forward-thinking strategies for branding, awareness, advancement and communications.

*Learn Capital Partner, # Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, ** Board Member or Advisor

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Making MOOCs Teacher-Centered, Competency-Based and Personalized

Dr. Mary Ann Wolf

“When I’m lesson planning now, I try to design to the edges, or stretch all students in multiple directions. … Whereas I might previously have blown off some behaviors as a lack of motivation, now I try to dig deeper to understand such behaviors.” – Teacher, Learning Differences MOOC-Ed Participant

Do you sometimes feel like you are out of strategies for a particular student or several students in your class even though you have tried many different instructional approaches? You are not alone. All students learn differently – and teachers work hard to meet the various needs in their classrooms. However, when I was a teacher, I didn’t feel like I was prepared to meet all of my students’ needs, nor did I feel like professional learning experiences were personalized to what I needed or how I learned most effectively. The Learning Differences MOOC for Educators addresses this gap by providing educators with rich information about students’ learning differences, while also using an online platform designed to personalize learning for educators to meet their learning needs.

This free, six-week professional learning opportunity, which kicks off again this week, helps participants understand students’ learning differences by exploring the concept of a learner profile and then by going in depth into constructs of learning differences, including working memory, executive function and student motivation. Teachers learn about these topics conceptually, from the perspective of a student with that learning difference, and with concrete applications to the classroom context. As a former teacher, gaining an understanding of these constructs provided me with the specific language I needed to be able to think about, address, and appropriately plan for my students with learning differences.

“I was able to immediately apply strategies… I have one student with what presents as working memory issues and it’s been really, really helpful to me to first, put a name to it and second, I have been able to educate myself on it so I do not just think she’s “lazy” and then implement small changes to see if they make a difference to her.” – Teacher, MOOC-Ed Participant

The Learning Differences team at the Friday Institute employs a modified take on the “traditional” MOOC structure, which allows them to meet the unique learning styles of teachers participating in the course. MOOCs for Educators, or MOOC-Eds, provide a variety of opportunities for participants to learn – by reading articles, watching videos, through application activities, or by discussing with peers in the course forums. Participants are able to move through the course at a pace that works for them, using only the course components that best support their learning. And, if participants want to extend their learning, they can earn micro-credentials, also called badges, as they connect the course content to their practice.

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University created this course in partnership with the Oak Foundation, the New Teacher Center, Teach for America, Teach for All, National Board, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. Leaders in online professional learning such as Digital Promise, Coursera, EdX, Relay Graduate School of Education and others have demonstrated that personalized professional learning opportunities have the potential to empower teachers to be better, more prepared leaders in their classrooms. MOOCs for Educators, micro-credentials, and other online learning models provide great models for scaling high quality, personalized professional learning to all educators. The Learning Differences MOOC-Ed brings together several of these models in an effort to ensure that all students and teachers have access to outstanding learning opportunities specifically tailored to their learning needs.

To learn more about the current course offerings and to sign-up for a MOOC-Ed, visit

For more blogs by Mary Ann Wolf, check out:

Dr. Mary Ann Wolf is the Director of Digital Learning Programs at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University. Follow Mary on Twitter, .

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A Vision for Every Student: Exploration-Based Learning

Kelly McGrath

As infants, we instinctively learn through active exploration from the moment we unleash our first wail as the nurses poke and prod our wrinkly, tiny bodies. We are born with a natural curiosity and an explorer mindset. That mindset guides babies and toddlers as they taste, touch, smell, listen, and observe the world around them and form brain pathways based on each of their real world experiences. When left to their own devices in a roomful of various playthings, toddlers will follow their own paths, fascinated by things that interest them. Some children become absorbed with a single object for long periods of time while others move from one bright, shiny toy to another, touching, tasting, smelling, observing, and listening along the way.

What is exploration-based learning?

Exploration-based learning is an active learning approach. Students’ abilities are dynamically balanced with difficulty level in the system to provide exhilarating and fulfilling learning experiences.  The visually and intellectually compelling storylines within the environment challenge each student to leverage their own curiosity and passion to solve complex problems using data and evidence to form arguments and reach conclusions. This model is positioned to deliver high levels of engagement and concentration while reducing stress and boredom for all students. Through these experiences, students build their levels of confidence and creativity, resulting in improved performance and sustained motivation to learn.

This learning model is also built with today’s teachers in mind. Whether it is lesson planning, evaluating, observing, collaborating with peers, or active instruction, teachers’ time is a precious resource. Exploration-based learning maximizes teachers’ time by providing real-time, meaningful data and analytics on student performance and point-of-use, individualized instructional strategies, while time on learning is increased due to sustained student motivation to learn. Targeted feedback forms the backbone of the success framework along with professional learning community forums to build capacity and personalize each teaching experience.


Another key element of this approach is the focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) subjects. A curriculum that successfully integrates these subject areas will result in empowered, new age learners who can compete internationally and make informed decisions in the science and technology-centric society of the future. Advances in education like this are critical to mitigating global change. With an initial focus on Earth, Life, and Physical Science, the curriculum will deliver standards aligned content in a real world context.

Recent research has identified several learner attributes that indicate likely success in the classroom, the workplace, and in life. As part of a STEAM curriculum, Planet3’s new platform will track, analyze, and offer opportunities to strengthen attributes such as creativity, perseverance, problem-solving, and collaboration. Students will receive rewards and recognition for working to improve these life skills within the learning environment.

Hyper-connected Technology at the Core

Integrating the most advanced Earth observing networks of NASA, NOAA, and other research entities, Planet3’s hyper-connected platform enables students to explore and contribute to real world science. In Planet3’s exploration-based learning environments, students will have the opportunity to ask their own questions and find their own answers. Empowerment will come from self-directed learning where students enjoy the process and see the personal significance of each experience. This digital platform presents the entire Earth as a living laboratory, enabling each learner to more fully understand the science of our rapidly changing planet. Real-time scientific data from various sources will be presented in multiple visual formats. Students will learn through experience how to read, interpret, and analyze data, and communicate their results within the classroom and with scientists and experts around the world.

The K-12 education technology marketplace is rapidly shifting. Access to digital devices and information is changing the way instructional materials are delivered and used in the classroom. New providers are entering this market and range from research-based, university funded learning platforms to game-based innovators, such as Rovio. This Finnish company has partnered with NASA to deliver fun learning experiences, like Angry Birds Space. At Planet3, we are working to pioneer the new teaching and learning frontier by re-igniting the natural curiosity of every student through exploration and discovery.

For more see:

Kelly McGrath is the Chief Learning Officer at Planet3. Follow Planet3 on Twitter, @exploreplanet3.

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