Filling a Pail, Lighting a Fire: what works best for learning?

At Edkimo we regularly meet with actors from the education, startup, and research community. Over the years we have encountered very different approaches when we discuss learning and technology. We have seen this for example at our EdtechXEurope startup pitch. The differences boil down to two basic ideas: “Lighting a fire or filling a pail.” Justin Reich makes this point in his new book, Failure to Disrupt – Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education.

Filling a pail, lighting a fire. Symbol image for two basic approaches to learning.
Christopher CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Filling a Pail or Lighting a Fire

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This idea was developed by the ancient thinkers Heraclitus, Aristophanes and Plutarch. The last one writes about it in his essay On Listening. Rabelais and Montaigne rediscovered it during the Renaissance. Until today, public education as well as edtech approaches can be broken down into these two concepts. Justin Reich makes this point in his essay “Failure to disrupt”.

Social Constructivism – The Fire

The people in lighting-the-fire camp adhere to John Dewey (1859-1952): “I believe that education, therefore is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” Learning is socially situated and knowledge is constructed through interaction with others. A person constructs a new understanding based on prior understanding in the context of learning communities. Researchers label this idea as social constructivism.

Instructionism – The Pail

Filling the pail comes with measuring whether it is still half-empty or starting to fill up. Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949) believed that learning could be precisely observed and measured. He was an early developer and advocate of standardized tests, textbooks, and intelligence testing. You might label this standardized approach to teaching and learning as instructionism.

New Technologies, Old Pedagogies

Public schools as well as educational technologies that emerged in the 20th and 21st centuries, each align with one of these two ideas – either lighting the fire for learning itself in the Plutarch/Dewey sense, or, and far more often, filling an imaginary bucket with knowledge and skills, following in Thorndike’s footsteps.

In most cases it’s a combination of both ideas, and this is probably a good thing. This would be a school where knowledge is measurably enriched, pails are filled and at the same time a fire, a passion for a subject is ignited. However, one should be very careful not to extinguish the sparks or the fire again with the bucket.

Student Voice, Student Choice, Feedback for Learning

After reading “Failure to disrupt”, the main difference between Edkimo and other online feedback apps can be found in exactly these two approaches. Edkimo relies on a constructivist approach with tested questionnaires created by teachers themselves. We are convinced that learning and good teaching is socially situated: in this school, in this class, with this teacher, at this time. The learning process is co-created through student voice, student choice, feedback, and interaction. Other project like MET or Tripod 7C seek to measure learning and instruction more closely with validated questionnaires: “to capture essential elements of instructional practice” as they put it. This falls more in the instructionism bucket so to speak.

The tools are not equal as the different approaches are also reflected in software development and the way data is collected. Teachers and schools have a choice and can opt for the tool that suits them best.

If you like our approach and want to try out Edkimo, sign up now. It’s free!

Further Reading:

Feedback is a constant dialogue at eye level

“Feedback for us means improving through feedback. Because if you’ve stopped getting better, you’ve stopped being good.

Andreas Dietwald and Dagmar Louran-Pergantis, Goethe-Gymnasium Kassel, Germany

Why did you choose Edkimo at your school?

Prior to the introduction of Edkimo, we initially worked with paper questionnaires in 2010 until the working group responsible for organizing the school feedback processes developed its own online questionnaire in 2011. This was usable through the use of a special survey internet site, but required an access code for each participating student, which was distributed by the teachers. If the codes were lost, replacements were difficult to obtain, and students were given separate access for each subject. Use of the site incurred regular costs and required maintenance. The system worked, but was just quite complicated and not adaptable to the situation.
With Edkimo, we were immediately attracted by the high level of user-friendliness: students can answer questionnaires directly with their smartphones, and even colleagues who are not tech-savvy can quickly get to grips with Edkimo. The app allows situational feedback and can be customized according to requirements. When Sebastian Waack, who had found us through our feedback website, contacted us at the end of 2014, we were therefore happy to test the Edkimo app as a pilot school and jointly develop it further for school practice.

How was feedback solicited at your school beforehand?

Since 2011, the Goethe-Gymnasium Kassel has been conducting regular and binding feedback processes on several levels: Student feedback, feedback from the teaching staff to the school management, and parent feedback. Two years earlier, a ZEIT article drew our attention to the Fontane-Gymnasium in Rangsdorf (Brandenburg), where feedback processes had been successfully implemented for years. This made us curious! We contacted the school and interested colleagues and students took part in a training session with the school management there. This gave rise to our feedback group, which has since been working to promote a sustainable feedback culture at our school.

What challenges did you face in implementing Edkimo?

Of course, not all colleagues are immediately enthusiastic about technical innovations. This also applies to the introduction of the Edkimo app. Some teachers were initially somewhat skeptical and feared additional work. The issue of data protection was also raised again with the app, as it had been before with our PC program. But the positive feedback from colleagues, as well as from students, gradually convinced more and more of them. Today, more than half of the colleagues at Goethe-Gymnasium use Edkimo to gather student feedback. Tendency increasing.

What are the next steps in terms of feedback culture?

Our goal is to get as many colleagues as possible at Goethe-Gymnasium to provide feedback using the Edkimo app. Teachers are not always open to student evaluation. And students do not always immediately recognize the meaning of feedback processes. Feedback should become a matter of course without coercion and should be used flexibly after a lesson, a unit, a semester, etc. It is precisely through the subsequent feedback discussion that meaningful learning and change processes emerge. Feedback means: giving feedback, but also taking feedback, a constant dialog at eye level.

Feedback group at the Goethe-Gymnasium Kassel

Dagmar Louran-Pergantis
Teacher for German, History, Politics & Economics / retired since August 2016.
Head of the Feedback group until 2016
Andreas Dietwald
Teacher for Art and French
Since 2016 Head of the Feedback group

Feedback and digital media in vocational education and training

“So far, I have collected stacks of paper questionnaires with the trainees’ feedback. Afterwards, I had to spend ages evaluating the results. Since we started using Edkimo, it’s all automatic.”

Horst Hochkirchen, Feedback representative and deputy head master Motor Vehicle Guild Hagen/Ennepe-Ruhr, Germany

Trainee feedback in vocational training

Does the training correspond to the idea you had of the profession beforehand? How satisfied are you with the company? With the feedback app Edkimo, trainees give an honest, anonymous assessment. The evaluation in real time enables us to continuously develop quality and motivates trainers and trainees alike.
The Hagen/Ennepe-Ruhr Motor Vehicle Guild is one of the first guilds in Germany to work with the Edkimo feedback app. The integration of digital media in vocational training and continuing education is also one of the core elements for the debate on vocational training 4.0. Personally, I have gained a lot of time through online feedback. I’m using it to develop a new questionnaire. In it, I would like to ask the master craftsmen how they actually assess their apprentices.


Systematic, software-supported student feedback in the classroom

“It’s about student participation, co-creating learning, and signaling that as a teacher, I am always a learning person.

Micha Busch, teacher for German and English, Stadteilschule Am Heidberg, Hamburg, Germany

What does feedback mean to you?

Student feedback is an easy way for me to have a conversation with my students – about the time spent together in class and how that time can be used wisely for everyone, if possible. In other words, the question of how we can learn best together. It’s about more than just increasing efficiency. Feedback involves respectful exchange, it’s about student participation, co-creating learning processes, and signaling that as a teacher, I am always a learning person as well. In order to improve my teaching, I therefore also constantly reflect on my own teaching, seek discussions with colleagues, regularly attend training courses and conferences, and follow inspiring debates in the specialist literature and on social networks.

As a teacher, what student feedback has surprised you the most?

It’s often the critical feedback that sticks. For example, when students report back that what happens in class doesn’t reach them or doesn’t interest them. Of course, this feedback hurts at first. But it’s very important, and if you talk about it and take the criticisms seriously, then you can work together to figure out what the lessons should look like so that these students can also benefit from them.

Why did your school choose Edkimo?

I had a good experience with Edkimo as a test user and then introduced the app to my colleagues as part of an annual pedagogical day. After a pilot phase, we as a school then decided to use this tool across the board and to use it as a process support tool.

What challenges did you face in the implementation of Edkimo?

I believe that the colleagues who have always sought feedback had hardly any problems adjusting to this tool. For them, it was first and foremost a relief. The situation is different for teachers who are just discovering feedback as a tool for their teaching development. Here, it is primarily a matter of seeing at which points in the learning process systematic, software-supported feedback can be usefully integrated and how this feedback is then dealt with.

You also use Edkimo for your in-school trainings, could you briefly describe the scenario?

We used Edkimo, for example, to evaluate our Pedagogical Annual Day “Learning in the Digital World” in the form of a partner interview with live feedback and to get valuable hints for further development projects. However, we also use the tool for the further development of the upper school. For example, we use it to conduct teacher, student, and parent surveys on the future of our upper secondary school.

You published the book “55 Web Tools for the Classroom”. How can apps and websites be integrated into the classroom in a meaningful way?

Best in the hands of students, if they work with it creatively and productively. Marc Albrecht-Hermanns recently described this well in a blog post. A while ago, I described the possibilities and challenges of digital technology in schools in more detail in this text.

Using Edkimo for a classroom project

“It’s really great that the Edkimo app can be used in so many ways and provides valuable support for both teachers and students.”

Claudia Schräder, Quality Management Coordinator, Kirchhain Vocational Schools, Germany

Edkimo as a “market research tool”

I chose a market research project as an introduction to learning area 10 – Planning, controlling and monitoring sales processes – in accordance with the framework curriculum for the training occupation of industrial clerk.
The trainees were tasked with developing a soft drink with a marketing idea in project groups, having their drink tested and, in this context, conducting a survey on their new product and then evaluating it. Finally, the groups had to forecast the market opportunities for their products.


From paper questionnaires to online surveys

In the past, the questionnaires were created on the PC as part of the survey and copies were made for the test and survey campaign. The questionnaires were filled out by hand by the test persons and finally evaluated by counting.
In this context, the Edkimo app, which has been available to our school since 2019, turned out to be an absolute stroke of luck. I had the idea that we could use the Edkimo app as a tool for the survey by the students and accordingly do without paper and elaborate counting of the survey results.
The Edkimo team has been super helpful to me in this regard and has set up six accounts for the project groups in a completely straightforward manner. I gave the trainees a short introduction to the Edkimo app and they were then able to create their questionnaires with the app immediately and without any problems.

Mobile learning with tablets

Another big advantage was that our school has iPad cases. So the trainees created the Edkimo surveys about their product using the iPads and had other students and also teachers from our school answer the surveys on the iPads during the beverage test as part of the project.
The form of questioning with the Edkimo app and the iPads went down great with our test subjects and, according to feedback, left a really professional impression. In addition, the fact that the evaluation with the Edkimo app could be done super quickly and easily made the whole survey action absolutely round and more than satisfactory for my trainees.


Versatile survey tool

After conducting the surveys, colleagues approached me very enthusiastically that they would also like to use the app so that students can work with it and conduct surveys accordingly. The Edkimo team has set up 10 accounts for me for students, which I manage at our school and will make available to classes if desired/needed. The first concrete requests have already been received.

A business based on honest feedback

edkimo-research-in-germanyThis article was first published in the June 2018 newsletter “Research in Germany”Sign up here

When German start-ups feature in media reports, it tends to be companies that have been set up in major cities such as Berlin, Munich or Hamburg.New businesses are also being established elsewhere, however. In the small town of Lüneburg, for example, where Sebastian Waack (a teacher), Jessica Zeller (a media educator) and Kai-Roman Ditsche-Klein (a software developer) founded their company Edkimo in March 2015. Edkimo offers an app by the same name for feedback processes in schools and training institutions. In 2013, the three entrepreneurs came to Lüneburg – a historic Hanseatic city in northern Germany – when they won the Leuphana Business Accelerator competition staged by the University of Lüneburg. All the same, it took them quite some time to turn their idea into a marketable product. On the one hand, the app – which teachers can use to obtain anonymous pupil feedback about their lessons – needed to be extremely easy to use. But on the other, it had to be sufficiently complex for teachers to establish a continuous feedback process. Thanks to the app, teachers no longer need to laboriously analyse paper-based questionnaires. It gives an on-screen summary of the answers to the questions that teachers have sent their pupils via the app. Answers to individual questions are also evaluated automatically. This allows teachers to quickly appraise the situation and respond as necessary. “The whole thing is designed to ensure that teachers get straight into a conversation with pupils about the findings”, explains Jessica Zeller.

Extensive support from the university

Looking back, the entrepreneur says: “Edkimo wouldn’t exist without Lüneburg University. We were provided with time, money and know-how that allowed us to make our concept market-ready.”The university financed not only the office and two part-time positions. Thanks to its Innovation Incubator, it also enabled collaboration with the university’s Gamification Lab, where the potential offered by games for various areas of society is researched. In addition, the university organised meet-ups with other start-ups and offered advice on legal matters and drawing up contracts. Through this close affiliation with the university, the entrepreneurs were also able to forge contact with partners. The software was first trialled at a grammar school in Lüneburg, for example. For agreeing to act as a pilot school, it can continue using Edkimo free of charge.

Paying its own way after four years

Today, a good four years after being established, Edkimo has 40 paying customers and the app has so far been used by 7,000 teachers and nearly 100,000 pupils. “Edkimo has become an economically viable business”, reports Zeller, now a member of the management team. “Things are moving forward, albeit not as quickly as we had initially hoped”, she adds. There are also plans to market the app in Austria, France and Switzerland.

Praise for the Innovation Incubator

Edkimo is just one of twelve firms in all that were “hatched” in the Lüneburg Innovation Incubator. In the six years from 2009 to 2015, more than 400 new jobs were created by the start-ups. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was impressed by this result. In its report “Lessons learned from the Lüneburg Innovation Incubator”, the OECD concluded that a regional innovation system had been created.

Lasting cooperation between entrepreneurs and the university

To follow up on its Business Accelerator competition and the Innovation Incubator, the University of Lüneburg rolled out another programme for knowledge and technology sharing between the university and the business world in 2017. NIREM (only in German) aims to establish a regional knowledge network over the next three years. Partners cooperating on the project include SMEs in the region, the university’s Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM) and Hochschule 21 in the nearby town of Buxtehude. The project focuses on issues of sustainable business practices and energy and resource efficiency. The aim is to leverage the innovative potential of SMEs in the region in the interests of sustainable development. Expert researchers and practitioners get together in workshops to find solutions to questions of sustainable consumption and mobility, as well as to more localised problems such as biodiversity in the companies’ grounds.

Cooperation between the University of Lüneburg and regional business is also having a lasting impact. Edkimo in any case still has strong ties to the university, and the reverse is also true. Media studies specialist Mathias Fuchs, a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at the University of Lüneburg and founder of the Gamification Lab, remains on hand to support the start-up. “Whenever we need scientifically-founded advice“, says Jessica Zeller, “we know exactly where to come for it”.

Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM) at Leuphana University Lüneburg

On the basis of its own research, the CSM in Lüneburg develops sustainability solutions for companies, the economy and society. In the process, the various dimensions of sustainability management are taken into account: ecological, social and economic aspects. Furthermore, the CSM offers the world’s first MBA in sustainability management and corporate social responsibility. > CSM

The Power of Feedback – Video

Recently we stumbled upon a nice instructional video made by Faith Thomas. In her video, she explains the main concepts outlined in the article “The Power of Feedback” by Hattie and Timperley. If you want to read the full article Columbia University provides a PDF to download.

Google Launchpad Berlin – Round-up

As in the original version at Google Campus Tel Aviv each day at Google Launchpad Berlin was focused on a different subject: Minimum viable product (MVP), user experience/user interface (UX/UI), technology, marketing and presentation skills. The idea behind this accelerator program for early stage startups is one-on-one mentorship that brings together early stage startups and experienced mentors from different fields – not (only) Googlers as one might expect. From the startups’ perspective it means a very quick learning cycle, a lot of focused work and rapid progress within one week. The Edkimo team was happy to be part of the first edition of Google Launchpad Berlin!

A quick round-up of things we have learnt at Google Launchpad

  • Step back, don’t code: That was one of the most surprising things for us. As an early stage startup you will almost always get lost in code. Debugging, refining, optimizing the engine. The thing is that once you are only coding you might loose sight of the bigger picture. Does anybody actually care about the product you are building? That leads us directly to the next point.
  • Test your assumptions: As an early stage startup you have a lot of assumptions. You are probably building something the world hasn’t seen yet and you cannot know for sure how your future clients will use the product. That is why you need to go out on the street and talk to people as early and as often as possible. Talking to strangers is definitely something out of the comfort zone for most people. But it is invaluable when it comes to avoid building a product nobody really wants.
  • Design a great user experience (UX): Well, this is one of those buzzwords that most often comes paired with another one: user interface (UI) and is probably mixed together. The launchpad mentors insisted on a clear separation of the two concepts. Design a great user experience first, the user interface will follow quite naturally. If you know your users well, you will know how to design a product and user experience that makes them feel good. In the end it’s all about the emotion.
  • Marketing starts at day one: Never build a product first and start to market it afterwards. Everything is linked and once you know your users you can reach out to them and test and refine your marketing strategies. Who are your users? Who will pay for the product? How do you reach out to different customer segments? Which are the right marketing channels to reach your different customers in the right manner (e.g. B2B vs. B2C)?
  • Privacy: If you make it in Germany, you’ll make it in the world. It seems like the opposite and paraphrase of Leonard Cohen’s “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.” And when it comes to privacy and data security Germany has definitely one of the toughest laws in the world. Building a product here – or in Europe in general – means that you have to think very carefully about which data will be used for what purpose. Is this data really needed to make the product run? How many data points do you use? Could you lower the resolution, blur the data? Reach out to data privacy officials as early as possible to make sure your future product will meet the standards.

Google Launchpad Presentations

Google Launchpad Startups

  • Appizy – Convert spreadsheets into web-apps in 2 clicks.
  • Youvo – “I want to change the world! But I’m only good at Photoshop…”
  • Addsura – Pet insurance.
  • Simplora – Price comparison for online groceries.
  • AirMarkr – Draw in the air with a 3D mobile app.
  • itwiy – An app for cars and drivers.
  • Roomister – Short term office space.
  • – Repair your mobile phone.
  • timply – Personal tipster for your free time.
  • Skillndeal – Platform for creatives.
  • Sciencebite – Unlocking scientific know-how to solve technical challenges.
  • Edkimo – A fun, visual way to get feedback from students.
  • Uberchord – Personal guitar chord trainer.
  • ZENchef – It’s about cooking.

And a big THANK YOU to our mentors and the other Startups for sharing your ideas!
And to Dirk and Katha for organizing this event!

Google Launchpad Pictures

And we have taken some pictures every day at Google Launchpad Berlin.
Check it out here: Day 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

5 tips for feedback in the classroom

1. Don’t assume you know what your students want.

And don’t assume that what made other students you taught happy will work for your new students now. Often teachers look to make improvements very generically, based on something they read in a book. That’s the wrong approach. Use student feedback to improve your teaching in this specific classroom.

2. Start with an anonymous survey.

Your first task is to find out which aspects of learning and teaching matter most to your particular students. But if you just ask them directly, you won’t get an honest answer. Try an online survey that your students can fill out anonymously. Nobody will be afraid to get a bad mark, and you will get valuable feedback about the learning and teaching in this classroom.

3. Ask how you’re doing on the issues they care about.

Your survey should offer students a list of qualities they really care about related to their learning and achievement in your classroom. These may include such items as respect, motivation, student-teacher relationship, classroom climate, whether they feel their opinions are valued, and so on. Look for the gaps between what your students think is important and what you think you are doing well. And ask what you can do together to make things better.

4. Plan possible responses ahead of time. And focus.

Although you’re asking for your students input about their learning and your teaching, you should also have a plan of action in place, depending what you learn from their answer. Before the survey goes out, sit down and plan out what specific actions you will take, depending which two or three items turn out to be most critical to respondents. After the survey you have to focus hard on the two or three areas students tell you they care about the most.

5. Don’t ask about things you can’t or won’t change.

Just as important as what is on the survey is what isn’t there. Asking your students about things knowing your school has policies in place that aren’t going to change isn’t a good idea. When you ask your students about what they want, there’s an implicit promise that you’re going to do something about it. So focus on student learning and your teaching to get feedback right.

How do you use feedback in your classroom?

We’re happy to hear from you by email, on Twitter or in the comments.