Unifrog: review

This is the second of three posts. See the first here and the third here.

Unifrog intro

Unifrog was set up in the UK by two individuals with experience of the education context, one of whom was a teacher; this is tacit throughout the system and is one of the systems real strengths in my opinion.

A quick scan of the website belies how UK focussed it has been in its history. All of the testimonials from schools are from UK schools, although the website does point to partner schools all over the world. Many of the tools presented within the system still suggest this UK-centric background – there is a sixth form/college search tool (the use of the word college here could be confusing for American colleagues); there is a UK apprenticeship search tool (international students need not apply); there is a separate Oxbridge tool and an equivalent for other leading unis (Ivy league for example) is conspicuous by its absence.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Unifrog is adding in more globally orientated features – they are currently developing a global applications shortlist, for example.  Some international schools, with very diverse student bodies, may currently be put off the platform as the current UK focus could well not be seen to fit with their family and student body.

The student side

When students log in they are presented with tools grouped into the following categories:

  • Exploring pathways
  • Recording what you have done
  • Searching for opportunities
  • Making applications

“Exploring pathways” contains tools to allow students to research careers (career library), university subjects (subject library), how to apply to different systems (know-how library) and MOOCs. The former three tools, while not yet complete, are very well developed and give students some very detailed information about these areas. The layout is well designed and engaging, allowing students to also favourite topics that they have seen to bring these to the home page for each tool for ease of reference. The MOOC tool allows students to search for MOOCs that they can take – a really cool feature.

The “Recording what you have done” area includes tools for students to record the activities that they have undertaken and the competencies that they have developed. There is also a section for recording interactions between students and teachers which is gold, particularly if you want your other teachers on your team to be able to see all the discussions that a student has had or if you are worried information being lost.

Both of these sections combined with the CV writer are ideal for getting younger years to think through what they need to do over the final few years of schools to formatively develop themselves in reality and on paper. One of the jobs of the counsellor and the team has got to be about catalysing thinking in the younger students so they don’t end up in their last two years with no experience to reflect on.

The final two sections host tools most useful for the final two years of school. “Searching for opportunities” includes tools to research and shortlist UK universities, UK apprenticeships, College and sixth form, Oxbridge, US universities and European universities. The “making applications” tools include UK personal statement, references, post-18 intentions, UK top 5, CV/Resume writer and common application.

The CV writer and personal statement builders all include good guidance and annotated worked examples to support students in their writing. These are easy to view and real thought has been put into the user experience of these tools.

Note here that research and applications are limited to the UK, US and Europe, but Canada will be being added shortly, and a global applications shortlist feature is in the pipeline.

The teacher side

On using the teacher side it was obvious to me when I first started using the platform that this site had been designed by a teacher, certainly someone who had worked in a school and understood how they worked. In fact, I think that the teacher side is one of the strongest points that the platform has going in its favour and that’s saying something because their careers tools are excellent if UK leaning.

As well as being able to view the student side, teachers have access to two view levels, basic and advanced. The basic view enables teachers to write references, enter predicted grades and view personal statements. The advanced view allows teachers to manage and track students across the whole range of tools that they use. Using this function teachers can comment on what students have done and add interactions to log meeting minutes with them.

The strength of this layout is that I can, say, have a representative from the English department work with the kids on their personal statements and that person is just as easily able to view the students work as me. Of course, if I don’t want anyone else involved I can just train my teachers to only use the basic mode. There is flexibility built in.

One drawback is that teachers have to be added to the system manually, this means someone in the school filling out a spreadsheet and sending it back to Unifrog to add the teachers in. There is no link up with other school MISs.

Once set up though, each teacher can easily provide comments for references for each of their students with one single sign in. There are also exemplars for the teachers showing them how to write references. Everything has been thought of.

Conclusion

Unifrog has a lot of strengths – great layout, intuitive design, ease of use. They have developed excellent career tools, and you can add as many kids, years and grades to the platform as you want at no additional cost, allowing you to get other teachers involved – form/homeroom teachers, for example. The teacher side is also fantastic – simple to onboard teachers and a well thought out system that distinguishes between “basic” and “advanced” utilities, bringing flexibility for those counsellors who want a program that pulls in colleagues or not. Their reference writing areas and cv writing areas are truly excellent, structuring the process for teachers and students as well as providing a clean interface for collecting teacher input and predicted grades for students.

Personally, I have some reservations about the platform. They are currently relatively limited in scope covering Europe and US. Although they will be adding Canada shortly, and a global applications shortlist is the pipeline, there is currently no flexibility here to add other universities.

I also feel that presenting all the data to students in one list may well be a little overwhelming to many students and actually hinder their progress in finding future options – no counsellor or student has time to go through all the university options available, although being able to set your own filters is a nice feature.

All in all, l think that for the right school this is an excellent platform, particularly currently for UK based or out looking schools. You will get great customer service and a very friendly team to work with along with some very developed career advisory tools and systems to reduce the counsellors time on admin and increase their time with students.

Well that’s was over 500 words!

Global university admission guidance: review of #edtech platforms

Update (17th July 2018): You can see all my reviews linked below including the one published today of Cialfo:

Update (28th June 2018): You can see my review of MaiaLearning here. I will be chatting with Cialfo next week and hope to have a review coming out sometime towards the end of July.

Update (21st June 2018): Since publishing the reviews of BridgeU and Unifrog I have also had the chance to get acquainted with MaiaLearning and will be publishing my review next week.

Background

In recent months a hole has opened up in the marketplace for global university admissions platforms due to the announcement that the biggest kid on the block, Naviance, was retiring from supporting the work of global university admission guidance counsellors.

I don’t know about my colleagues, but personally, these platforms provide an invaluable resource for my work. If you were to focus purely on the intricacies and nuances of applying to a variety of different university systems and the requirements of those systems alone, you may begin to appreciate the task of trying to help families and students make sense of all the options. When you add in the sheer number of universities on the planet and the impossible task of knowing all of them, let alone knowing about them, then you begin to see the value that an online database and guidance tool brings to the work, if only to limit counselor bias, particularly the anchoring and halo effects.

In this first of three posts, I want to introduce the next two posts examining alternatives to Naviance: UniFrog & BridgeU. Both platforms are same-same but different, approaching guidance with different philosophies and outlooks.

I am not aiming to compare these platforms (except on two points – see below) but will instead aim to describe their functions openly and honestly, before outlining my opinion of what works and doesn’t on these platforms.

Reader beware that this is coloured by own use of the systems in my own context: a small, but very diverse international student body, delivering the three IB programmes from primary to the diploma. This was also my first guidance post and one where I set up the program. I am fully aware that my experience of this work will not be the same as other colleagues.

Any counsellors considering two these platforms should certainly have a go at trialling them both themselves. I have worked with BridgeU since 2016 and have blogged about my experience here and here. I have since worked with UniFrog since 2017.

There are only two comparison points that I will make: Firstly, the platforms are both great! They both solve the counsellor’s dilemma: how do I get more knowledge of the options available to best serve my students. They both democratise that knowledge and enable students to be much larger change agents for their future-selves.

The second comparison is about outlook: BridgeU attempt ultimately to use an algorithm to match student and institution. Thus be aware that there is a layer of filtering that goes on within the system, I make no comment about the pros and cons of this.

UniFrog does not believe in filtering the data for the student. Instead, they aim to provide all the information at once and present a range of filters for the student to play with. Again I make no comment about the pros and cons of this approach.

The different philosophies of each company in the management of the data they present lead to differences in their style of working.

Finally, I am learning that blog posts are best kept short and sweet and so each post will be limited to around 500 words. Each post will appear over the next two Thursdays. With the UniFrog 500 word review next Thursday and the BridgeU 500 word review the week after.

Keep a lookout for them!

 

Review: What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

This Easter holidays I read David Didau’s 350+ page compendium.

Basically, this book is an essential must read for any teacher. It is detailed and covers quite the range of ideas relating to classroom practice. On top of that, it is very well written, with clear and accessible language.

It is broken into four parts.

Part 1 “Why we are wrong” introduces the reader to a few general psychological concepts. Throughout the book, David references Daniel Kahneman’s work “Thinking, Fast and Slow” a lot and I think much of what is written here is sourced from that book, although, perhaps, simplified and certainly written in a much less head scratchy way. If you have read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” many of the ideas about psychological traps and biases will be familiar to you. Still, David is able to show how to apply these concepts succinctly to the classroom setting. He also provides an excellent explanation of effect sizes and the statistical techniques used to compare the effectiveness of classroom interventions before giving some real food for thought as to why this evidence might not be as robust as we think. His critique of Hattie’s work was quite surprising for me and I welcomed the explanation of a concept I had heard lots of people talk about, but nobody has ever explained.

Part 2 lays out what David refers to as the threshold concepts for learning to teach effectively. David unpicks many commonly held myths about classroom teaching and learning and makes an argument as to why many of these cherished ideas are wrong. The key idea here is that learning does not equal the same thing as performance in class. Learning is essentially an invisible process happening in peoples heads and by looking at performance in class we assume that this equates to learning in the mind of the student. Classroom observers look for evidence of “rapid and sustained” learning during class time, however learning, David makes the case for, is messy, non-linear and if it is going to be sustained cannot be rapid. Aside from the difference between learning and performance he covers concepts such the difference between novice and expert learners, the structure of our memory in terms of storage and retrieval strength and cognitive load.

After explaining our cognitive biases and how they apply in education before unpicking many myths about classroom practice held in educational circles, in part 3 David goes on to apply the cognitive concepts from part 2 directly to teaching practice. He gives a clear exposition of interleaving, the spacing effect, the testing effects and the effects of feedback. His writing will prompt you to think about these topics and how they may apply in your own planning and instruction – I know that they certainly have for me.

In the final part, he examines other pet theories in education that we could be wrong about. The first chapter deals with formative assessment and presents a surprising critique of Dylan Wiliams work, with a reply for Dylan Wiliam. There are also chapters on the problems of lesson observations, differentiation, praise among others.

One of the things that I was most surprised about and enjoyed reading was the critiques of the work by very established researchers. The work of both Hattie and Wiliam were picked apart at different points in the book. I am not sure I am fully convinced by the arguments but it was a pleasure to read something that was a little bit different in the sense that I have never come across critical reflections of these, much discussed, in schools at least, concepts before.

I also like the way the book is laid out. Now that I have read it through, I am able to easily go back and find relevant chapters for different concepts again.

This book has given me quite a bit to think about in terms of my curriculum planning and my classroom practice. Despite having just finalised my DP curriculum, I am already prompted by thoughts in this book to review it – particularly in line with David’s thesis that we should plan curriculums around threshold concepts. Doing that first involves identifying them which will probably be the springboard for my next CPD drive. However, I am fully aware that even the threshold concept of threshold concepts may turn out to be an unevidenced and unprovable claim made by education researchers and that my time here will be wasted. Only time will tell!

Where is the evidence for your ideology?

The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment.

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. – IBO Mission Statement.

As I outlined in this post, I am an IB educator who really believes in the mission of the IB. I believe in developing inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better world. I think these aims are laudable and, with enough schools, teachers and families on board, achievable.

However, as I have reflected on my own practice over the last few years I have begun to question some aspects of the IBs ideology. In this post I want to examine the IB’s approaches to teaching. These “main pedagogical principles that influence and underpin IB programmes” are:

Fairly innocuous? Why write a post that is critical of these statements and principles? Well, there is one general reason and some specifics which I will come to.

My problem with the approaches to teaching in general is the following: The IB is the only awarding body offering a truly international curriculum. There are others; IGCSEs spring to mind, and of course, some international schools do offer national curriculums but the IB really is one of a kind in the sense that it is the only qualification awarding body, that I know of, that is not rooted to a national system and is found in schools, both private and public, countries all over world. It has no competition.

The ITT that teachers from different countries and from within countries will vary widely. For example my school-based training, via the GTP, really offered nothing academic – no explanations or reasoning or evidence for why teachers have to plan their lessons a particular way – it was essentially a check sheet of fadish skills that I had to demonstrate I was doing. When I converted this to a PGCE I was motivated by a desire to get to understand the theory behind teaching. I have since come to reflect that those theories I was exposed to had little to no evidence to support them.

As someone who has completed a science degree and masters, when my someone explains a theory to me without evidence, it just translates into my mind as an idea, an unsupported hypothesis. And this is what the great many “theories” in education circles appear to be, whether you are talking about Vygotsky, Piaget, Freire, Bloom, Bruner or many others, ideas without evidence, or if they have evidence it is low quality, small-scale or anecdotal.

The IB admittedly was founded in the era when some of these ideas were being taken up seriously:

From its beginnings, the DP has adopted a broadly constructivist and student-centred approach, has emphasized the importance of connectedness and concurrency of learning, and has recognized the importance of students linking their learning to their local and global contexts. These ideas are still at the heart of an IB education today. – ATL website

But now the tide is changing and I wonder if the IB is willing to keep up with that. Robust, evidence from cognitive science is seriously beginning to shine a light on what works. Even better some of this evidence is being triangulated not just from laboratories but from classroom studies as well.

My general concern is, therefore, this: if national ITT systems vary inter- and intra- nationally then the IB has to do something to help get all its teachers on the same page. Becuase it lacks competition it also has quite the sole market on influencing the teachers of its programs. It must make sure that the teaching methods it advocates are backed up on solid evidence, not just on what feels good socially and culturally or what is simply a la mode.

Now to my issues with specific approaches to teaching:

A focus on inquiry

A lot has been written about the effectiveness or not of inquiry-based teaching and learning. The debate rages on but essentially some of the arguments against inquiry-based teaching are:

  1. It is inefficient – students simply cannot learn as much knowledge in the same amount of time as they can from guided instruction.
  2. It is inequal – students who have knowledge richer home lives bring far more to the table than their knowledge deficient partners (just think about EAL learners in that context for a minute).
  3. It generates misconceptions – students can easily discover wrong-knowledge which can be very hard to dislodge and unlearn.
  4. It can lead to the illusion of knowledge – this is when students think that they know something but lack deep understanding of the content.

Concept-based teaching

Is great so long as you teach the right concepts and don’t make the unproven assumption that skills and knowledge can simply transfer from one domain to another. They can’t. Skills are context and domain specific. Concepts are domain specific. We should focus on domain-specificc threshold concepts, which requires careful planning on a content rich curriculum. Once you know the content that needs to be taught then you can identify the threshold concepts in your curriculum and plan your teaching interventions appropriately. The arbitrary lists produced for the MYP nor the self-imposed “essential ideas” of the DP biology curriculum, which forces teachers to lump certain knowledge together, in what may not be the most appropriate way, will do.

Differentiation

The black art of teaching. There are so many issues with this I don’t know where to start. On one hand, you lower the boundary for some students, therefore making a value-based, subjective decision about what a student can achieve and potentially limiting their potential, on the other, school management have carte blanche to drop any student into your class and expect you as the classroom teacher to “differentiate” even if that student doesn’t speak English.

Yes, we are all individual and unique but as David Didau points out, so are snowflakes and those differences mean nothing when it snows. The fact is we all learn in broadly similar ways and we all have broadly the same ability. Differentiation assumes that ability is the cause of differences in what students learn in the classroom but it may well be that ability is the consequence of the student’s classroom experience. Therefore if you lower the bar, overtime you lower their ability.

Differentiation to the point of tailoring learning engagements for individuals students is a huge workload issue for teachers and at what opportunity cost? There also appears to be no evidence for the efficacy of differentiation, even some that may suggest it has a negative impact.

For more information see chapter 22 of “What if everything you knew about education was wrong?” by David Didau.

Biology EAL Resources

General Bio EAL teaching resources

Quizlet deck of 100+ suffixes and prefixes

Suffixes and Prefix list supplied from comments in this post

Suffixes and Prefix list supplied by Gretel vB

IBDP Bio Reources