Category Archives: Master of Teaching

Negotiation Fail on the Siftables

So unfortunately this week I was denied on my cunning plan to write a paper on the application of the Siftables to the classroom. It seems that a key part of the outcome is that the course coordinator wants us to actually build something we can pick up, and take directly into our work after we graduate. Part of the plan is that we will show our work with other students and take copies of the stuff we think is cool. 

I'm not completely convinced about using resources developed by students as part of their skill development as actual teaching resources, but I'm not going to have that argument (nor the various other objections I could make). Know which battles to fight as they say.

On a more positive note, I have exchanged several emails with David Merrill who is very helpfully providing me with some more detail on what the Siftables will be capable of which will inform how they can be deployed in the classroom. If I get enough detail from him I will a) share it here, and b) probably have a crack at writing the paper anyway.

In the meantime, I will have to think of something I can actually develop for the assessment. While AR/VRML is tempting, it sounds like it could be a lot of work for not much return. Will have to investigate further…

Mayer and Moreno meet The Credit Crisis Vizualised

Having readMayer and Moreno’s paper identifying five principles of multimedia design, it is an interesting exercise to apply it to something out there in the real world and see how their principles hold up. While it is tempting to look at some progressive interactive educational whizz-bangery, I thought it was only fair that I stuck to their definition – “words and pictures” that “explain the step-by-step operation of a cause and effect system in which a change in one part causes a change in another part” (p.108). It’s pretty limiting, but hey, I’m just trying to give the guys a fighting chance.

I thought the best place to find a non-interactive explanatory video of this type would be YouTube. Interestingly, the videos I looked at were generally the kind of things people viewed by choice, not because they were part of a study curriculum (having said that they were all explicitly educational). I was particularly keen to look at Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us (a presentation by Mike Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University). I love the way it uses text in a post-modern way that actually demonstrates the ideas and technology it describes. Unfortunately I think Mike’s decision to not use narration may have been partly a resource issue, so I felt it was a little unfair to assess the piece using Mayer and Moreno’s criteria.

Being a pinko-commie, I also considered using War Corporatism: The New Fascism, a piece written by Brian McNamara (design by Knife Party). It is a superb piece of visual storytelling that makes clever use of animation to bring out subtexts… but at the end of the day it didn’t really fall into the “step-by-step operation of a cause and effect system” definition.

Having said all that, if you haven’t seen either of those two pieces, do yourself a favour and check them out.

In the end I decided to look at The Crisis of Credit Visualised – Part 1, an animation by Jonathan Jarvis to explain the mechanics behind the sub-prime mortgage debacle. It is a seven and a half minute presentation using animation, text, music, sound effects and narration to explain a complex system that many of us are unfamiliar with the workings on – and it strives to do so in a straightforward and accessible way. I thought this was a particularly suitable example specifically because the content is so complex (at least for the economically-challenged like myself) – as a result you can really feel your brain starting to hurt, giving you some introspective insight into the ‘cognitive load’ issue that is driving Mayer and Moreno’s study. To date, this video has been viewed on YouTube almost eight hundred thousand times, by people doing so of their own free will.

Having already gone on for far too long, I will limit my comments to looking at how Jarvis violates two of Mayer and Moreno’s principles, and whether this suggests a flaw in Jarvis’ work, or their model. The principles reviewed will be the redundancy principle (suggesting that text and narration should not co-occur) and the coherence principle (suggesting that extraneous content should be avoided).

To be fair I should say that Jarvis is very much in tune with Mayer and Moreno on the other three principles. He presents key ideas by representing them visually as well as in words (the multiple representation principle), is very careful to synchronise the visual appearance of objects with the narration (the contiguity principle) and uses spoken narration for the majority of the text (the modality principle).

He violates the redundancy principle by using text on screen while narration is also occurring. I do feel that some of the on-screen text that mirrors phrases not specific to this discussion (‘how did it happen’ and ‘here’s how’ around 0:25) are redundant, and hinder rather than help. Most of the time however, Jarvis uses text on screen to identify the key terms and objects he is discussing (such as ‘collateralized debt obligations’, ‘mortgage lender’ and so on). In these instances, simultaneous text and spoken words serve to reinforce key concepts, to facilitate different preferred modalities (as a visual learner, I struggle if I can’t read these key terms), and helps signpost the important concepts in the narration. When used selectively and intentionally, Jarvis demonstrates that redundancy can add value.

He violates the coherence principle by adding in small visual details (at 7:25 ‘less responsible lenders’ are represented by silhouettes featuring tattoos, cigarettes and what looks disturbingly like a mullet) and sound effects (like the completely unnecessary ‘typing’ noise as text appears at 0:21). With such a dry and complex topic, these elements create engagement through emotion and humour – an engagement that is critical in holding the attention of a voluntary audience for over seven minutes. I think it is very interesting to note that the narration does not contain any extraneous material – clearly Jarvis agrees with Mayer and Moreno that putting irrelevant information into his story in this way will make it harder to grasp.

On reflection, it is clear that Mayer and Moreno’s intent is sound, but their scope of study is very limited and their conclusions overly rigid. I would suggest that rather than relying on work like this to interpret how the cognitive load model should inform our resource design, we should actually go and learn a bit about the cognitive load model itself. This gives us the capacity to be more flexible in applying it to resource development, and gives us the ability to apply it to a much wider range of scenarios. As classroom teachers who are operating in multiple modalities during our teaching, these insights will be invaluable.

Of course, once we have a good understanding of cognitive load, why stop there? Cognitive psychology provides valuable insight into much broader areas that may be just as useful in shaping our resource development, such as selective attention, short term memory capacity, visual perception and reasoning.


Mayer, R., & Moreno, R. (2002). Aids to computer-based multimedia learning. Learning and Instruction 10, 107-119.

Reed, S. (2009). Cognition: Theory and Application [8th Edn]. Wadsworth Publishing.

Small epiphanies – a little self-directed learning in Berala 1M

Needless to say, my first experience of the primary classroom as a student teacher yesterday was an interesting one. While there were many things that struck me which I may touch on later, I wanted to tell one short story today.

The first class I sat in on was a 1st class who were working on 'measurement'. Their task was to measure a defined set of objects listed on a page (table, pencil, book…) by using other objects (paper clips, 2cm cubes, paddle pop sticks, their hands…), and as a consequence to write down a sentence on the paper in the format 'the table measures 7 pencils' (horrible sentence, I know). It was interesting, watching them choosing which object to use, laying them out and counting, and then writing their sentences.

Toward the end of the class several of the students completed the task, and I noticed that the teacher had suggested that they could get up and go measure the chalkboard. I was up the back of the class, where one girl had finished her last sentence and was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next. I squatted down next to her and we talked about a couple of her sentences and she explained what she had measured, and with what.

I was about to suggest that she could go and measure the board, when I thought "hang on, we can do better than that". I looked at the girl and asked her whether she could see anything in the classroom that she thought it would be interesting to measure. She paused for a moment and looked around for a few moments before her eyes came to rest on the back wall and she pointed out the most unexpected object, a small label taped to the wall. I took it off the wall for her and she set about using her plastic chips to measure it.

The point of the story is a simple one. In that moment, as she looked around for something to measure, there was a qualitative change in the engagement of that girl. Even with my paltry forty-five minutes of classroom experience I could see the change. Suddenly she was no longer ticking off the predefined items on her list, but had the creative freedom to shape her own education experience. While the freedom may have been incredibly constrained, it was enough to change the way she felt about the task.

Concepts like 'self-directed learning' fly fairly glibly off the tongue when you are in a university tutorial, trying to be heard over the house music emanating from Manning Bar. Its quite something else to see how meaningful these ideas become in the real world.

Using Haidt’s dimensions to examine the morality behind our ‘9 Values’ framework

Reading 'The National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools', I was intrigued by the list of nine values deemed universal enough to be taught in schools across this wide brown land. For those not familiar, the values are (in alphabetical order);

  1. Care and Compassion
  2. Doing Your Best
  3. Fair Go
  4. Freedom
  5. Honesty and Trustworthiness
  6. Integrity
  7. Respect
  8. Responsibility
  9. Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion

Now I must say, I can't find too much fault with any of these (or the list in general). While thinking about it, I recalled the work that Jonathan Haidt did on identifying fundamental moral dimensions (check out his wonderful TED talk on the topic). To recap, the dimensions he identified as being universal across cultures (through held in various levels of regard by different individuals – hence 'dimensions') are;

  1. Harm/care
  2. Fairness/reciprocity
  3. Ingroup/loyalty
  4. Authority/respect
  5. Purity/sanctity

How, I wondered, did our 9 values match up against Haidt's 5 dimensions? Let's have a look…

  • Harm/care : Care and Compassion
  • Fairness/reciprocity : Fair Go | Freedom | Honesty and Trustworthiness | Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion
  • Ingroup/loyalty : Responsibility | Doing Your Best
  • Authority/respect : Respect
  • Purity/sanctity : Integrity

 I must admit I was surprised by this outcome. Haidt identifies Fairness as the value most highly regarded by liberals and Loyalty, Respect and Purity being highly valued by conservatives (Care is universally regarded as important). Given this, it must be acknowledged that the values outlined by the national framework are quite liberal in their skew. If I were a conservative I would perhaps like to see more of a focus on the acknowledgement of authority, and a little dose of righteous sanctity. I am sure that the additional layer of values provided by a nice Catholic school would probably sate that need.


Having written the above, we trekked out to Berala Public School and observed for a day. Suffice to say that my concern for distraught conservatives wringing their hands over the overly-liberal framework. Basically, three things struck me;

a) the school (and apparently other schools are similar) has created a simpler value set that it communicates very actively as the code of conduct for students which rests on four value. Two of these values are not drawn from the framework, they are more practical given the age of students and the school environment – safety and positivity. Positivity is interesting actually, not really present in our overly morbid and flagellant nine values. The two values that are drawn from the framework are respect and responsibility – two of the conservative values, at the expense of all those namby pamby Kumbaya values.

b) between the school song, school prayer and school mission that we enjoyed during an assembly, the school is finding other places to introduce the values they wish to inculcate (yes, that was a school prayer, read aloud during assembly as a school that makes Benetton ads look like Aryan propaganda)

c) the very nature of the school environment (the uniforms, the routine, the teacher/student power dichotomy) all reinforce key conservative values of traditional institutions – conformity, authority etc.

In short, I was surprised at the contrast between what the ideals that the values framework sets out, and the reality of everyday life in first class.

Eyes to the front – policing behaviour in a laptop-based classroom

Amongst many sensible things they bring up in their 'Discussing New Literacies', Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear relate an anecdote about 'multitasking' in the classroom. They tell the story of Zoe, a digitally empowered student who, while her teacher is managing a class reading and discussion of a poem by Robert Frost, is surreptitiously reading other people's (unrelated) blogs, and writing blog posts of her own. While the 'formal classroom' frowns upon Zoe's behaviour, Knobel and Lankshear applaud her 'multitasking'. They suggest that the workplace values this ability, and that there is no 'disrespect' in Zoe's behaviour as "she was able to provide at least as much attention to the tasks specifically associated with the official learning of the classroom to perform them adequately." (p. 83) 

This all seems like a bit of a utopian, rose-tinted view of things. For one thing, many would argue that multitasking, simply, 'isn't'. As David Weinberger suggests in 'The Cluetrain Manifesto' (a text I hope would be progressive enough for Knobel and Lankshear);

"Humans can't multitask – we can't pay attention to two things simultaneously. You can multitask? Fine. Then read a book and write one at the same time. No, multitasking is really just rapid attention-switching. And that'd be a useful skill, except it takes us a second or two to engage in the new situation we've graced with our focus. So, the sum total of attention is actually decreased as we multitask. Slicing your attention is less like slicing potatoes than like slicing plums: you always lose some of the juice." (p.50)

Beyond this, its worth looking at their suggestion that multi-tasking is valued in the commercial sphere. Without doubt, the ability to successfully manage (or 'juggle') a variety of tasks can be a boon in the workplace. In terms of 'multi-tasking' however, it is more relevant to ask what the reaction is when one takes a Blackberry into a meeting, or continues to write an email while conversing with a colleague. As in other areas, the general belief is that attending to multiple tasks simultaneously is achieved by diminishing the quality of attention to each task.

Looking at Zoe's situation, if we assume that this is time set aside for her education, then even a die-hard anti-establishment liberal like myself would suggest that her focus be split (if it is to be split) between tasks related to her schoolwork. This feels less like a flaw in her teacher's understanding of her capacity to manage multiple tasks, and more like a flaw in their ability to inspire interest and enthusiasm around the topic at hand. If Zoe were more engaged by the material, she would perhaps still be 'multi-tasking', but would be pulling up imagery, analysis, and so on, around the Frost poem in question.

The situation does raise the question of how best to police behaviour in a laptop-based classroom. On the one hand, I believe there should be (at least at certain times) significant freedom to choose different applications, resources, destinations etc. to achieve the objectives of a learning exercise. On the other hand, it is perhaps unrealistic to assume that a class will operate without a degree of oversight. The solution that springs most readily to mind would be a capacity by which the teacher could view the screens of the students in the class at will. While this has some echoes of the Panopticon about it, it really strays no farther toward 1984 than the teacher who wanders up behind you in class while you are carefully sketching what your girlfriend would look like without skin.   

‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ – not just a Bronte novel

Bloom's taxonomy was mentioned in class today, and if I remember rightly may have been alluded to in our readings, so I figured I better look it up. It's a nice model of the different forms of knowledge (or engagement with knowledge – my epistemology is getting shaky here) that students can have. The idea is that knowledge is built on a foundation where each level is required before the next can be obtained. 

  • Evaluation
  • Synthesis
  • Analysis
  • Application
  • Comprehension
  • Knowledge

Like Maslow's hierarchy of needs it looks like one of those very accessible, portable psychological models that can probably be abused, but so far I kind of like it.

One week down…

It has been an interesting week. Having survived a few lectures and tutorials, I think I have a much better grasp of what its all about (and where Sydney Uni hides its various lecture spaces and seminar closets).

What has impressed me the most has been the passion that my fellow students have for the course. Many of them have given up nice corporate jobs to make a significant life change in order to become a teacher; others have completed their undergrad in economics or analytical chemistry and decided immediately (or after a couple of years in the field) that they made a terrible mistake. I think you could count on one hand the people in my tutorials who are not sure why they are doing the course. So many of the stories that have led people to the course share common themes: ‘my parents are teachers and I rebelled but now I know its what I really want to do’, ‘I took a holiday in Mexico and spent two months teaching kids to speak English, and that’s when I realised’. For many it seems somewhere between following a calling and coming out.

My usual antisocial behaviour is being well supported by my ‘reduced load’ status meaning that I have to rush off after each class to get back to work… but I have a feeling that even I will end up getting to know some of these very interesting teachers-to-be.

David Merrill says I can be his research bitch (Yay!)

One of my upcoming assessments is to choose a technology (inc. PowerPoint, Excel, Animation tools or web development) to create a small computer-based learning tool. The idea is that based on your level of experience with things geeky, you can create a self-directed project that is interesting but achievable.

Feeling that I have done quite enough PowerPoint and Excel in the last fifteen years to give me a pretty good handle on them, I have decided to ask the course coordinator if I can do something a little different. My first choice would be to do some original research/thinking into how Siftables could be integrated into the classroom. I thought it would be wise to see if any similar work had been done, and if the people actually working on the technology (now being commercialised within a venture called Sifteo) thought it would be worthwhile.

Within 24 hours, David Merrill actually wrote back to me! Now all I need to do is convince my course coordinator that it is a worthwhile endeavour…

Hi Brett,

Thanks for getting in touch. We have done some investigations in the past about the types of educational material that Siftables would support best — but not anything as comprehensive as a full analysis / report. If you're interested to dig into that, feel free to proceed — we'd be happy to learn the results! Mapping the connections to curriculum, and storyboards about the types of interactions that would support the material, would be particularly interesting.


 -David M.

On Tue, Mar 2, 2010 at 4:03 AM, Brett Rolfe <> wrote:

Hi Sifteo team,

After following the groundswell of interest in the Siftables project triggered by your TED talk I was very excited to hear you guys have put together a commercialisation venture – awesome stuff!

I am currently a postgraduate student in Australia studying teaching (focusing on the first few years of schooling) – unsurprisingly I am very interested in the application of Siftables (and similar technologies) as flexible interactive learning tools. I presume you have a lot of interest at the moment, and are no doubt receiving many (and varied) requests, inquiries and suggestions!

What I am curious to know is whether you (or anyone you have been in touch with) has reviewed the relevant literature on learning/schooling and written an overview of the ways that Siftables could potentially be deployed into classrooms given current best practice thinking? As I see it, this could be on an 'overall potential' level, or on a more detailed 'where is it appropriate, and what applications would be relevant' level.

This is an area I would be very interested in exploring over the next few months as part of my course if you feel it is a productive field of investigation. If not (for whatever reason), I would be very interested to hear any other areas you feel would benefit from some form of academic review or analysis with respect to school use of this technology.



Brett Rolfe

Aids to Computer-Based Multimedia Learning (Mayer & Moreno)

So I started out all excited about this reading, and then quickly realised it was a little bit ‘not exactly rocket science’ territory. Having said that, it’s sometimes nice to see some robust research (ignoring sample size concerns) that reinforce a model which I probably would have accepted at face value.

In essence, Mayer and Moreno provide a five-point plan for building audiovisual explanations to teach concepts (for example, consider the awesome recent YouTube clip explaining the credit crisis). By drawing on some pretty straightforward cognitive psychology (mainly around the issue of ‘cognitive load’) they posit and then find supporting data for the claims that…

  • you should use present the explanation using both words and pictures (multiple representation principle)
  • you should present the words and pictures at the same time (coherence principle)
  • you should not include extraneous material as it uses up cognitive processing bandwidth (coherence principle)
  • you should present words as auditory rather than written, otherwise they use up visual processing bandwidth (modality principle)
  • you should not supplement the auditory narration with written text for the same reason (redundancy principle)

So, fairly obvious if you were thinking about it from a cognitive load point of view, but a couple of counterintuitive ones in there if you are approaching it from a ‘more is better’ or ‘add some interesting bells and whistles’ point of view.

Obviously, I’m really curious about taking this type of research-based approach into more interactive, and technologically recent types of environments. Perhaps more of that in the weeks to come. One of our assignments is to develop a multimedia piece, drawing on these guidelines. Given that the aim of the assignment is for us to build skills, I am tempted to look at creating an explanation using augmented reality and 3D modelling. Just for fun 😉