Interview: Mark Barnes introduces the ‘Hack Learning’ app

I’ve been following the work of Mark Barnes for quite a while (I highly recommend following ‘Teachers throwing out grades’ group on Facebook) and was very happy when he got in touch with me recently to discuss a new app that he was developing.

The whole idea of ‘Hack Learning‘ was instantly appealing, and I’m happy to say that, now it has become available, Mark has agreed to answer a few questions about the app and how it came into existence.


What inspired you to create this app?

I created an education book series called The Hack Learning Series, books that solve problems with simple ideas. While working on the first book and planning others, I started looking for ways to spread the word about Hack Learning. I watched a webinar about how publishers can deliver content directly to readers, in an unconventional way, with a mobile app. I reached out to a developer, and before I knew it, the project was under way.

Click on the image to learn more about the 'Hack Learning' app.

Click on the image to learn more about the ‘Hack Learning’ app.

How easy was it to develop the app?

Anyone can do it, if you have the right people behind you. There is a ton of engineering behind any app, and you need experienced coders. The hackers behind the Hack Learning app are from a company called Papertrell. They specialize in making apps for book publishers and other content providers. I basically told them how I wanted the app to function and they made it happen. They code the app, but I add all of the content and do most of the graphic design. I can add a video or podcast to the app in about an hour, depending on how much time I spend on graphic design.

What exactly can people find on the app?

The goal is to deliver amazing content that is both educational and inspirational, and even though I’m an author, I know that not everyone wants to absorb content through books. So, Hack Learning provides multiple paths to learning. The app has feature length books, short format books, how-to videos, podcasts, and brief articles. It is rich with beautiful graphics and media. It has the best of all content delivery worlds.

What do you expect to be adding to the app in the future? How will you develop content further?

There is new content every week. I spend a great deal of time now on acquisition. I talk to authors, bloggers, podcasters, and screencasters about their projects. When I see something that is a good fit for the Hack Learning audience, I approach the producer about the possibility of adding it to the app. All of the Hack Learning Series books will be on the app—the first is coming later this summer. The second this fall. We’ve got the Join Up Dots podcast—one of the most popular inspirational shows on iTunes. We’ve got Talks with Teachers and we recently added KQED Public Radio podcasts, and I’m always looking for new podcasts to add. The site is all about variety. There are some marvelous books coming from some big names in education and inspiration later this year and early next year.

Where can we find the app?

Hack Learning is in both the Apple and Google app stores. The easiest way to find it, though, is to go to It contains info about the app and direct links to the store of your choice.

What advice do you have for teachers thinking about making their own apps?

Find the right people to help you do what you don’t know how to do. A legitimate, interactive, beautifully designed app like Hack Learning doesn’t happen with some do-it-yourself toolkit. It takes smart developers, graphic design expertise, plenty of time, and great content. Running an app with thousands of users is a big job. It’s exciting and fun, but it’s not easy.

Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to talk to us.

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Dogme essentials: Going materials light

A couple of days ago Phil Wade delighted us with a post about physical distance in the Dogme language classroom. He’s back again here with the second mini-series on the Dogme approach; this time he’s looking eschewing the use of materials as and when possible.

If you want to know more about the Dogme approach before reading this post, I suggest having a look at this (implementing the Dogme approach), or this (preparing Dogme materials), or maybe perhaps this (video clips on Dogme ELT).

Dogme essentials: Going materials light

A big criticism people have of Dogme is about not using materials. How can you just replace a professional coursebook with stuff from the students? This is the common question and it is a good question. Well, there are teachers who decide to go full Dogme and throw out the book and there are others who decide to wade slowly into it. Another group, which I am a member of, are those who work with 0 budget so have no other option but to get creative.

along these linesFor me, Dogme changes the role of the coursebook from a bible which you spend 90% of class looking at and using to a resource which you may use for preparation, read from, use to show images or for recreating in the lesson. It becomes a resource for the course. Probably one of many. This first idea can be daunting for some. Just imagine confiscating all the class coursebooks and how confused everyone would look. But now think about what you really need in this week’s unit. There is probably a text, a recording, a speaking activity, of course some vocab and grammar too. Maybe even a writing box. Now, be very honest with yourself. Which of those things do students really need the book in front of themselves for?

Think about it. You normally set up a speaking activity by creating context then giving them instructions. Then, the students will read the instructions in the book, the task and whatever else is on the page and only then start thinking about speaking. Take the book away and they have to listen to you and then begin. You have taken the reading part away. For instance, if the task in the book describes 2 roles and then says ‘now talk to your partner and…’, it is easier and quicker to either make very brief notes on the board, dictate the roles to students or just explain them in very simple terms.

Here’s another example. The book has some PTV , a listening, a gist task and then some grammar focus. In total, probably a full page of exercises and reading. Take the books away and you can decide whether to do the PTV, leave it or have it as another focus activity later. You are also now free to play all or just some of the recording. You could also pause it or let a student control the playback. As for the questions, do you want gist, detailed, focus or all of them? Pick the ones you want or the ones that seem relevant and as above, write them on the board or explain them. I like to do them orally by stopping the playback and just asking a question or asking 5 at the end.

As you can see, you can use the book as a resource but adapt it as you see fit. This is still a Dogme lesson in a way as it is based on speaking, the people in the room, is personalized, has no materials and is highly motivating.

About the author

Phil Wade is an English and Business English educator interested in developing tailored effective teaching solutions. He is also the author a great range of freely downloadable e-books on teaching business English.

Posted in Life inside the classroom, Teaching ideas, The teacher perspective | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Dogme essentials: Physical distance

Here we go with another thought provoking guest post from Phil Wade. If you want to know more about the Dogme approach before reading this post, I suggest having a look at this (implementing the Dogme approach), or this (preparing Dogme materials), or maybe perhaps this (video clips on Dogme ELT).

When I first got into Dogme, I looked for videos to see what it looked like. What I found were always small classes with teachers sitting in circles with students and often using small portable boards or moveable ones that were brought into the student space. My first impressions were that the resulting ambiance was very neutral and the teacher really seemed more like a helpful colleague. No desks and no books left students without defenses and had to rely on being themselves and their own skills. They could no longer pretend to be writing or reading or spend minutes looking up words in dictionaries. In the Dogme circle, they had to use what they had, listen, take part and contribute.

The 'dance floor'

The ‘dance floor’

Since then, I’ve been using and experimenting with Dogme and seating. In some classes it is hard to move students due to fixed rows but in others, you can. A small circle works wonders when used for real conversation. Over an hour, two or three it can get tiresome though. As with teaching young kids, varying seating every 30 or 45 minutes works well. Thus, this ‘coming together’ is just like mat time with the primary teacher used at the start and the end of the day to warm up and cool down students.

If you think of your room as just a room with 10/20 chairs and 10/20 tables then why do they need to be and stay in the order they are when you arrive? Yes, some other people may complain if you move and leave them in odd places but what goes on in your class is for you and your students. As long as things are left as before, nobody is bothered. With this freedom of placing, you can let your imagination go wild by drawing and envisaging seating for each task. For example, what works best for groups of 4 co-writing a story? One table? No table? A circle? Standing? How about the teacher? Should you be sitting taking notes, sitting with students or sat on a table enjoying the lesson?

Varying seating will be a shock for many students as they may have sat in rows for 20 years. Stick with it though but don’t get too crazy by using random seating in every lesson. Students like continuity so having 3 different seating types and varying them in every session is a good start.

About the author

Phil Wade is an English and Business English educator interested in developing tailored effective teaching solutions. He is also the author a great range of freely downloadable e-books on teaching business English.

Posted in Life inside the classroom, The student perspective, The teacher perspective | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Are we wasting time planning our lessons?

Marek Kiczkowiak has written an excellent post on his TEFL Reflections blog about the relative importance of lesson planning in the greater scheme of things.

Given that I recently wrote about approaches to planning your lessons in my post-CELTA series (you can find all of the posts listed here), I consider this to be great follow-up reading!

In his post, which I’m happy to say references mine, he makes logical arguments against placing too much emphasis on planning for an observed lesson, namely that purpose-written plans don’t reflect the kind of planning we do on a day-to-day basis, and that they don’t allow room for the ‘unpredictable‘. Instead of looking at planning as we often do, he suggests a seven-point action plan for effective planning as a tool for professional development:

'Teaching Japanese students at Sussex Uni' by @eltexperiences on #ELTPics

‘Teaching Japanese students at Sussex Uni’ by @eltexperiences on #ELTPics

  1. Pre-observation meeting where teacher and observer discuss teachers strengths, weaknesses and PD needs
  2. Observation
  3. Post-observation meeting where teacher and observer reflect on the lesson and agree on PD goals
  4. Teacher develops an action plan with the help of the observer and agree on the time frame, goals, action research tools, etc.
  5. Teacher carries out the action plan with support from the observer
  6. Observer and teacher meet to discuss the results of the action plan (possibly preceded by an observation)
  7. Teacher continues working on all (or some of) the same developmental goals OR go back to point 1 to start a new cycle

He also gives a great list of further reading, which I’m blatantly stealing and sharing with you here (to which I’ll be adding more recommendations very soon)!

Read Marek’s post here.

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Apps for ELT: Managing time with ‘My Study Life’

As we all know, one of the biggest movements in contemporary language education is towards the promotion of learner autonomy. While it’s something that I would say is easier to theorize about than to actually get learners to put into practice, I’m always on the lookout for practical tools that will help my students to take control of their studies.

my study lifeMy Study Life looks extremely promising, as it enables learners to organize tasks according to their particular courses. In order to start using the app, learners have to enter their course schedules at which point they can then start to enter tasks into each course, with each task assigned a due date. Your learners’ My Study Life homepage shows them the tasks that have and the due dates approaching.

Naturally, any study planner will only help a student if and when they get into the habit of using it. My Study Life could prove to be a helpful resource, as it works according to weekly schedules and offers timely reminders of what needs to be done and when. It works across all devices and platforms. Take the app tour by clicking here.

Posted in Life inside the classroom, Life outside the classroom, Teaching ideas | Tagged | 1 Comment

Interview: Tyson Seburn introduces ‘Academic Reading Circles’

In today’s post I’m pleased to be discussing a new book hot off the press, ‘Academic Reading Circles’, with its author, Tyson Seburn. I’ve known Tyson ‘online’ for a number of years now, have used his ARC materials in my classes and have followed this project from its early days on his blog. Therefore, I’m absolutely delighted to see it in publication, as well as having Tyson discuss his work here with me on the blog.


Your book is titled ‘Academic Reading Circles’. Can you tell us briefly what these circles are and how they work?

Academic Reading Circles (or “ARC” as was coined by an early adopter) is an approach to intensive reading of non-fiction texts, like those encountered at higher education contexts, that aims to improve text comprehension by engaging learners with the content by examining the text through different lenses. They undertake one of five roles that focuses on a specific aspect of the text (e.g. contextual references, visuals, vocabulary, etc.), then work together as a group to co-construct a deeper understanding of text concepts. We all do this process to varying degrees simultaneously when reading in our L1, but in another language, especially in high stakes programs, it’s helpful to have this process broken down into manageable steps like it is in ARC.

Click on the image to learn more about ARC.

Click on the image to learn more about ARC.

How did the idea for this originate? What was happening in your teaching which made you see the need for this? How did you trial things?

It stems from experience in classes I teach at the University of Toronto to incoming international students. When faced with a typical required reading, my students spent a disproportionate amount of time focusing a word-by-word deconstruction of these texts. If I looked at their notes, the majority included merely scribbled translations of words above words. Though they could answer detail questions about the text like who/where/when, they demonstrated very superficial understanding of the main ideas, the support the author used and the culturally-specific references. Rarely could they discuss the author’s points with evidence from the text, and sometimes were even completely wrong.

They needed better instruction on what elements to look for and focus on for a meaningful understanding. One of my colleagues suggested a literature circles activity that they’d heard about, which breaks fiction down into different reading responsibilities for each student. While we trialed this back in 2010, it became apparent that the existing roles weren’t meant for the genres we used with our students. Shortly thereafter I experimented with adaptations to get the most meaning out of the types of texts my students face. You can get a sense of the initial adaptations from early posts on my blog (e.g. Intro to ARC, the Interactions of ARC, practical example of ARC). Since then, ARC has evolved to better meet the needs of undergraduate students and ultimately facilitate textual comprehension enough that they are confident to use their knowledge in assignments. The most recent iteration of ARC is very detailed in the book. The great thing about ARC is that while any teacher can use the approach exactly as is suggested in the book, adaptations for specific contexts are very doable. My students may be reading undergraduate social science texts, but I’ve witnessed teachers from nursing programs and engineering programs adapt them in interesting ways for their students too.

Tell us about publishing with ‘the round’. What attracted you to this publisher? What was the process of writing and publishing a book like?

That’s easy: Luke Meddings and Lindsay Clandfield. They’re both ELT authors and I’ve followed what they have to say about our profession for a long time. Once they founded the round, its premise of “bridging the gap between blogs and books – and about the difficulty of placing innovative, niche or critical materials with the big ELT publishers” was a natural fit for me and ARC. I really liked the idea from their mission that the round was a community of authors—a bottom-up approach to publishing.

Read my interview with Luke and Lindsay!

The process has been relatively smooth, as far as writing something substantial goes. For me, writing was very spread out because of other projects I’m involved with (my graduate dissertation occurred during the same time period), but one where I learned a lot, from really owning material to embracing feedback from others to understanding costs involved to the humbling nature of being edited to the limitations of publishing ebook formats on Smashwords and Amazon. What’s been very consistent throughout is my enthusiasm for ARC and Luke and Lindsay’s encouragement and support. I’ve been able to talk with several of the round authors about their experiences and we’re all friends now.

What advice would you give for classroom practitioners who’d like to follow in your footsteps?

Find your idea and run with it. Be committed to it and enthusiastic about it. Put it out there for the ELT world and see what comes. It takes a lot of effort and a long time to reach your goal, but you need a goal to reach.

Where can we get your book?

It’s available on Amazon and Smashwords, depending on the device or e-reader you have. You can also download Adobe Digital Editions freely for your laptop if don’t own a mobile device. All links to buy are on the round’s page for ARC.

Adam, thanks for caring enough to support me on your blog. Thanks to everyone else who uses ARC in the classroom. Let me know sometime how it goes.

Posted in Life inside the classroom, Teaching ideas | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Dogme shift

Here we go with another thought provoking guest post from Phil Wade. If you want to know more about the Dogme approach before reading this post, I suggest having a look at this (implementing the Dogme approach), or this (preparing Dogme materials), or maybe perhaps this (video clips on Dogme ELT).

The dogme shift

The shift from a pre-Dogme to a Dogme lesson is quite significant in some cases and, depending on your style, it can be quite abrupt.

The ‘in at the deep end’ approach

'Sunglasses cases' by Chrysa Papalazarou‎ from #ELTPics

‘Sunglasses cases’ by Chrysa Papalazarou‎ from #ELTPics

The students turn up, get their books and pens out as normal and sit waiting for the teacher to start the lesson and explain the objectives. The teacher, instead, announces that from today on, the class will use a Dogme approach which is about spoken student-centered and low resource lessons using emergent language. The teacher tells them to put their coursebooks away and then says that students will now take charge of their own learning and decide on topics, homework and class content, even assessments.

So, if we analyze this, there are a number of things that will scare even the most flexible student. Here a few thoughts about this sudden shift and what students may think:

  1. The ‘no books’ rule removes the security blanket they have got used to.
  2. The new approach places speaking at the heart and it is the skill many students are weakest at and the most shy doing.
  3. Being ‘student-centered’ means the teacher will want the students to talk about themselves and reveal personality information to almost strangers.
  4. Handouts and other resources are fun and add extra value to lessons that students have paid a lot for. No extras means they are not getting the same value for money.
  5. Pinpointing examples of emergent language means the teacher will become a grammar policeman/woman and just listen and correct errors.
  6. Being put in control and becoming part of the pedagogical decision making process means that the teacher has given up but students are not experts and pay to have a teacher prepare and deliver the course.
  7. Students won’t ask for homework or tests.

As you can see, students may think they are having their course taken from them and being told to make their own up. They aren’t. They are being included in the, what normally is, course planning and decision making process.

An alternative is the ‘ease them in gently’ approach.

About the author

Phil Wade is an English and Business English educator interested in developing tailored effective teaching solutions. He is also the author a great range of freely downloadable e-books on teaching business English.

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2 great tools for picking student names at random

Last week I was fortunate enough to a lesson idea swap with the teachers of the Esayan Armenian School in Beyoğlu (many thanks to Eva Buyuksimkesyan for organizing this). Of the many useful ideas I learned from this day, the first I’d like to share with you was a tool we used to ‘pick names’ and decide who would make their lesson presentation when.

At one time or another we’ve all asked for volunteers in class and been met with blank faces (or is it just me?). When this happens, a random name selection tool is the easiest way to choose learners in a fair and democratic way. Here, then, are two good random name selection tools, the first of which was the one we used last week!

1. The Random Name Picker

It's useful to be able to pick names randomly.

It’s useful to be able to pick names randomly.

First up we have the Random Name Picker, which is a free tool available through This allows you add names and then ‘spin’ a virtual wheel to have names randomly selected from the list. When a name is chosen you can have it removed from the wheel so that it is not selected again; very useful for making sure everyone gets a turn and that no one has to answer too often. Random Name Picker is not only free to use, you don’t have to register on either. You can embed the Random Name Picker wheel into your blog or website. Importantly, you can save and reuse your lists by assigning passwords to them, making it easy to set up once and reuse with your classes again and again.

2. The Random Name Selector

An alternative option is the similarly titled Random Name Selector: this is another easy-to-use tool for picking names from a class list. To use the selector, just type in or copy a list of names then hit “go.” After a name is has been picked, you have the option of launching a two minute or seven minute countdown timer. This one might therefore be a good if you want to put in group names and then give each chosen group several minutes to feedback on an activity to the rest of class. Again, you have the option of removing names from the list after they’ve been selected. Here’s a short video clip showing you how it works.

Please let me know if you find any other tools for choosing learner names at random.

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Apps for ELT: Creating image-based quizzes and polls with Riddle

Like many people, I’ve been using Kahoot a lot with my students recently; it’s a fun, motivating way of checking what they’ve learned that’s easy to set up and easy to use in class.

One alternative that I’ve just found is Riddle, that enables you to quickly create an image-based quiz or poll for your class.

The video embedded below is the promo clip created by Riddle, but it gives you an idea of how easy it is to create a poll or quiz.

I like Riddle’s format of using images as response choices, as my learners tend to respond to visual stimuli such as this and I find that it helps them retain new language. I’ve just started playing around with this and I like what I see so far. Your quiz can be played through the website or embedded into a blog or even through Facebook.

If you’ve used Riddle, or are inspired to do so by this post, please leave a comment to let me know how you feel about the app.

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Apps for ELT: Edmodo for Parents

Edmodo for Parents is exactly what you’d imagine it to be: an App just for parents to keep an eye on their kids’ progress. I’d describe myself as an occasional user of Edmodo, although I would nevertheless say that it provides a good platform for sharing resources with learners, hosting conversations, sending reminders, and creating content via third-party apps. The Edmodo apps already prove to be useful in enabling teachers to manage content as and when they want and in enabling learners to quickly check for new content from their teachers.

Edmodo for Parents takes things off in a tangent: It is available for both Apple and Android operating systems, and allows parents to quickly check for announcements from their kids’ teachers. More importantly, though, the app features a student activity feed, which shows parents which assignments their children have completed. It also shows lists of upcoming and overdue assignments, quizzes, and events.

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Posted in Teaching ideas | Tagged | Leave a comment