When I saw the Google in Education Summit come up in my feeds a few months ago, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to reinvigorate the implementation of Google Apps in my school. Having had a bit of history with Google Drive, the implementation process has come to a bit of a stalemate. I’ve got to a point where everything is set up, raring to go, but nothing was being used.
 
Often the heart of a conference is its keynotes. There were three all up. The first was from +Suan Yeo, Head of Education in Asia/Pacific region. He spoke about Google’s place at the forefront of change and innovation. He shared various things such as Google Glass, the Loon Project and 20% time. What was missing though, is that although Google offer possibilities that were not possible in the past, such as a virtual tour of CERN via Google Glass, there are more pertinent points of innovation that still remain unaccomplished. For as +Richard Lambert tweeted when Google announced the Loon Project:
 
 
The second keynote was from +Jim Sill, a Google Apps Certified Trainer from America, who spoke about creativity. He illustrated all the ways in which people create digitally these days – vine, instagram, twitter, youtube – and encouraged people to “slap a sadle on it and ride it”. He also warned that if you do not allow students an avenue for creativity in today’s day and age there are stark consequences.
 

 
The third keynote ended the summit and was from +Chris Betcher. Short, but sweet, Chris provided a snapshot of the world fifteen years ago when Google started and where technology has come to now. He suggested that the things that we are able to do now, we could do then, but with the development of the web, we are able to do them now without friction and stress.
 
In addition to the keynotes, one of the anomalies of the Google in Education Summit was the Demo Slam. A little like the speed sharing sessions at the ICTEV conferences, except competitive, presenters are given three minutes to wow the audience in order to get bragging rights. Some of the ideas thrown out there was using a formula in Spreadsheet to translate, using Google Docs Story Builder to … build a story and a Chrome extension, Too Long Don’t Read, to summarise various webpages. All in all, it was a great way to end the first day of the summit.
 
The rest of the time was made up of various presentations. Although there was a wide range on offer, I chose not to go to some of the more complicated sessions revolving around scripting and supercharging chrome, instead I focused on trying to best utilise the basic set of Apps provided through Google Apps for Education. I also realised quite early on that there were so many resources bouncing around that even if I missed out on a session, there was still plenty of information that I could go to later if I wished (see for example Chris Betcher’s fantastic collection of resources at http://www.summitstuff.com/).
 
Firstly, I attended a few sessions that focused on using Apps to connect, collaborate and store information using the cloud. Whether it be sharing a Doc or creating a community in Google+, there are so many options for connecting with others and collaboratively solving problems that it is really up to you how you use it. John Thomas summed up the benefits in his presentation by stating: “If my computer had not worked today, I would have just used somebody else’s”
 
In another set of sessions I looked at Google Sites. I had personally looked into Sites in the past, but really didn’t know where to start. The first session I went to was run by Chris Betcher and looked at how to create a Site from scratch, while the second session was by +Anthony Speranza and explored the potential of using Sites to create ePortfolios. The two things I came away with in regards to Sites was that it is actually easier to start from scratch rather than use the different templates, while it is also really important to have a clear purpose as to what you are trying to create and why.
 
Lastly, I went to few sessions exploring the implementation of Google Apps for Education. Although we have already gone through the various steps involved in setting it up, I was hoping to get a few ideas on how to improve things. Again, like Sites, I went to a mixture of sessions, one by +Mike Reading which went through the intricacies involved in setting everything up, posing some great questions to consider along the way. The second presentation was by +Corrie Barclay who gave a bit of an overview of the practical ways in which Google is used at his school.
 
So in summary, my three pluses were:
Connecting and collaborating. It is always great to learn with a whole bunch of new people.
New ideas. Whether it be improving search capabilities or using Google to build a site, there were so many new and exciting ideas to share back at school.
Meeting people for real. It may seem silly, but it is actually good to meet those people I connect with online in person.
 
My three minuses were:
Tool or Teaching? Although there was some effort to associate things with the way we learn, it always felt like the focus was on the tool rather than the teaching. (Edna Sackson has spoken about this in her blog post ‘I Want to Talk About Learning…’.)
Artificial Authenticity. There was often an attempt to provide authentic learning situations, however too often they seemed a little artificial and contrived. (I must make a massive exception Matt Limb who used a Google Form as a means for exploring different ways in which we can do research using Google.)
Finding a Seat. Yarra Valley Grammar School was a great venue, but the idea of simply turning up to the session that you wanted to go to led to some pretty cramped presentations.
 
My three goals:
Google Sites. Whether it be a portfolio or an assignment, I think that Google Sites has a lot of potential sharing to the world.
Improving Search Skills. I think that this is something that is both simply, but really powerful and has an impact on everyone.
Developing a Vision. For GAFE to go anywhere in the school, there needs to be a clearer set of goals as to what we wish to get out it. A part of this is spreading the load, getting more people on board.
 
I would love your thoughts and reflections in the comments below if you were also there or have introduced Google Apps for Education in your school.

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Tom Whitby stated in a recent blog post addressing Connected Educator Month that: “Being connected is not an add-on or a luxury for educators: it has become a necessity”. I could not agree more, there are so many benefits to being connected with the wider world that were not possible in the past. The question that constantly comes up though is why are there not more people connecting? Why are there not more people sharing their ideas with the wider world?
In a previous blog I wrote about what I perceive as being some of the benefits of blogging. However, what is often missed in these discussions is why more teachers do not jump on board. Some reasons that come to mind are that teachers do not see any direct benefit for them and their teaching. They do not really use the internet ‘like that’. They connect enough with the people that really matter and they are the teachers in their team. The biggest difficulty though, in my view, is finding the time to grow and cultivate all my ideas into legible arguments, something that they feel confident to publish.
 
In a piece about writing, Bill Ferriter suggests dedicating set times for writing. This is a strategy that I have heard before, but I think that it only elevates a part of the issue. Many teachers that I know already feel challenged in finding the ideal work/life balance and believe that writing a regular blog just isn’t a priority. In response to the dilemma of time, in a recent episode of the Edtech Crew, interviewee, Ian Guest, stated that “a blog in the first place is for yourself, it has to be”. His reasoning is that it is only then that you will find the extra time needed to commit to your task. I myself could not agree more and am always scraping a few minutes here and there to get my posts out there. My concern with this though is whether or not it is acceptable in today’s day and age that teachers are not connecting and being involved? Is it acceptable to just allow teachers who do not want to connect to simply stay offline? For as +Tom Whitby argues, “We must have digitally literate educators, if we want digitally literate students.” How then do we do this without going down the road of forcing teachers to keep learning blogs that they do not really care about? How do we provide a situation where teachers are not committed to writing regular blog posts. My answer is simple, why not start a school blogging space?
Most schools these days seem to have their own Facebook site and Twitter handle, why not extend this and have a central blogging space as well? A place where everyone has the ability to write a post. One of the challenges with blogging is that you don’t want to publish once every month, ideally you want a steady stream of information coming in. Also, it can reflect badly on you. (‘Gee so and so hasn’t been doing much …’) In sharing the load, this daunting prospect of keeping up is alleviated. Instead of considering the space as having ‘one’ authorial voice, a school space would become a place to collect together a wide range of ideas, voices and perspectives. An example of such an approach is the Smartblogs website where a wide range of people submit different content, often specific to their area of expertise.
 
In addition to relieving the stress of time, by writing a blog as a school, everyone is able to come on board. Too often the big ‘sell’ is left to the principal, with different school-based achievements celebrated through their blogging space. I wonder whether it wouldn’t be more powerful if everyone was a part of this process, even students. The reality is, can a principal know about the finer details of every single achievement that may have happened in the school and more importantly, should they? Isn’t it more empowering if those people who actually facilitate events and may have organised then then actually share their achievement. This is often what happens with the school newsletter, why can it not happen with the school blog? Everyone talks about the power of ‘student voice’, but what about the power of the ‘learners voice’ – this includes teachers and students alike, as well as teaching and non-teaching staff. Such a blogging space would therefore offer a place where everyone’s ideas and achievements can be recognised in a way that does not put pressure on one solitary voice.
 
 
 
In addition to sharing (isn’t that enough), by creating a school blogging space staff would be getting a hands on experience of many conundrums facing us today, such as tagging post do that they are able to be searched easily and publishing for an often unknown audience. Working in a collaborative manner where the school is involved would hopefully create an environment that breaks down some of the fear with taking on the unknown, a space where staff can learn and learn together.
 
This idea is still in its infancy. I would love anyone feedback as to whether this is done at your school or what people see as being an issue.

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There seems to have been a few blogs bouncing around in my feeds of late. These include Deb Hicks‘ ‘Why Blog’, Tom Whitby’s ‘Why Blogs and Who Needs Them Anyway’ and Peter DeWitt’s ‘The Benefits of Blogging’. It kind of occurred to me that I hadn’t really ever stated, nor really thought about, why I have chosen to blog. I have therefore decided to have a go at providing some of my reasons:

  • Scratching an itch. Often while reading, there are things that stick out, that prop the ears, the spike the imagination, that remain like an itch. A blog is a way of  responding to these things, somehow alleviating the irritation.
  • Being connected. I love being connected, following various threads of thought, commenting, tweeting and reaching out to others, but sometimes a responding needs to be something more substantial. A blog is one avenue that allows this.
  • Critical engagement. I read on the wall in a coordinators office the other day the statement that ‘behaviour unchallenged was behaviour accepted’. I kind of feel that the same can be said about ideas. Online environments allow for encounters of all kinds, a part of this meeting of ideas is a need to critique. Not so that we may be ‘right’, rather that we may be wrong, in order to become better. As Seth Godin puts it in talking about ‘failing often’: “Fail often. Fail in a way that doesn’t kill you. This is the only way to learn what works and what doesn’t.”
  • Life long learning. What I love most about writing a blog is that it allows a space to follow through on different points of learning, a kind of thought experiment, a place to grow ideas, in order that I may develop further. At its heart, a blog allows for the cultivation of seeds of inquiry, exploring and discovering what they may produce.
  • Lead by example. J. Hillis Miller once posed the question: “How can we teach reading if we are not readers ourselves?” I think the same argument can be applied to tools for working in the 21st century. I do not think that ‘teachers’ have to be in control, but they do need to be the ‘lead learner’ as Joe Mazza would put it. To me, that means getting involved from the inside – testing, trialling, questioning, understanding – not just commenting from the outside, and especially not just when you are forced to.
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Here are some of the reasons why I choose to blog. Although I am sure there are more, it is at least a start. So what are the different reasons you blog?


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In a recent blog, Corrie Barclay shared his experiences from a recent meeting he attended where Dr. Bill Rankin spoke about presentations. In conclusion, Corrie came up with the following, that:
The creation of a presentation is more than just images and text on a slide. To effectively engage an audience and convey powerful messages, you need to consider those messages and specific design principles that will allow present your information in the most effective manner possible.
I could not agree more that it is more than ‘images and texts’. A presentation is also about more than just an app or a device. I am not saying that apps are not powerful, but in my view having a good app is only one part of the puzzle that is a good presentation. Let me diverge for a moment to explain.
 
At a recent staff meeting, we had Tony Richards come and speak about cyber safety smarts. Not only was I left pondering the consequences of my ongoing digital footprint, but I was also left perplexed as to what made the presentation so compelling. Usually staff are ready to sprint out the door at 4:30, but everyone stayed seated for an extra twenty minutes as proceedings went a little overtime. In conversation the next day, a fellow staff member commented on Tony’s slide transitions and questioned whether I could do that in my presentations. While I knew that his visual presentation was smooth and seamless, a very well-oiled machine, I still felt that it was only part of the magic. In addition to the visuals, I felt that the knowledge and control of the content was impeccable. There were no questions that he was asked that he could not respond to and add to in an instant. Having heard endless cyber-safety presentations before, there was also a sense of honesty about what was said. Supporting this, Tony has the great ability to fluctuate between the serious and the humorous, such as showing a video of what it would be like if we did what we did on Facebook in real life to highlight some of the absurdities of social media, to speaking about particular cases of sexting and child pornography to highlight some of the hidden realities of life in a virtual space. All along, he provided a positive message, even if many of the consequences seem rather gloomy. Lastly, what kept many of the discussions going over following days was the fact that Tony sent through a plethora of resources in support of the ideas that he was talking about, therefore allowing teachers to follow their own trails of thought.
 
I am not saying that Tony’s presentation was the greatest presentation that I have ever witnessed. However, in my view, it was a successful presentation. In my opinion, I think that there are three key ingredients that make for a successful presentation. They are:
1. Having good content and a clear message
2. Delivering the message in a flexible and engaging manner
3. Providing supporting material that builds upon and adds to the delivery of the content
 

I will now build upon each of these things.

Content

Whenever I teach story writing, I always explain to my students that it is the ability to delete material that makes the success of a composition. This is no different when developing a presentation. More often than not, we get caught in a trap where we try to provide too much information. feeling that everything needs to be covered. However, the consequences of this is that so many different (and sometimes contradictory) ideas get bounced around that the original message and purpose for the presentation gets lost in the noise. What is important is to take a step back and unpack each piece of information, questioning whether it adds or hinders the presentation. If it hinders, then often it needs to go (or be provided in the additional material).
 
Associated with having a clear message, is the challenge of what to present in the first place. Sadly, more often than not, the whole content of professional development and presentations is dictated by financial pragmatism or legal imperatives. It is always hard to be passionate about what you present when what you are presenting you have no passion for. (No offence, I have yet to meet anyone in life who is passionate about occupational health and safety.) 
 
This is often the case with staff meetings, where the content provided is dictated by education office or various health and safety guidelines. It was a breath of fresh air at the start of term when my principal had the opportunity to present about something that he was truly passionate about, the history of the Victorian education system. Although there is a requirement to rollout the National Curriculum, he started the meeting by putting the current situation in context with all of the other changes that have occurred over time. Although it may not have been the most interesting of topics, the presentation carried a certain energy that comes when you are passionate about something.
 
Another similar example was a recent ICT smorgasbord that I was a part of. Although maybe not as free and open as an un-conference or a teachmeet, staff were given the opportunity to present on the topic of ICT prior to the day, with the rest of the staff then signing up for two different presentations. Not only did this give staff a sense of trust and autonomy in regards to the choice of PD (Peter DeWitt recently wrote about this topic in his recent blog), but it also allowed people to share what they are most passionate about, whatever that maybe. What is most disappointing about both of these scenarios is that they are often few and far between in today’s age of overcrowded meeting schedules.
 

Delivery

Whether I agree with everything he says or not, Jony Ive, the Senior Vice President in Design for Apple, has got the art of delivery all worked out. Although I maybe sceptical about the exaggeration of the content provided, he certainly knows how to use intonation, pitch, pace and pauses to hit home his message. After watching his spiel for the the new iPhone 5c, I was wondering whether it really was the ‘cheaper’ iPhone.
 
Another master of delivery is Bear Grylis, particularly in regards to his post-production narrations. Even though you know fully well that he is not going to die, the tension that he creates through his delivery carries the viewer along.

 
In addition to the manner in which presentations are given, another key element relating to delivery is the ability to adjust to the situation. Coming back to Tony’s presentation, I think that is one of his strengths, to be willing to crack a joke in order to break things up. Associated with this, it is important to be able to adjust to the situation. I remember a few years ago having to listen to a tour guide in Vietnam speaking about the ruins at My Son. It was six in the morning and everyone was barely awake, let alone showing much interest. However, our guide went on and on for near on thirty minutes, as if he was reading from a manual, unwilling to either answer questions or shorten  his spiel. Not only was his delivery dry, but it lacked an authentic sense of voice.
 

Supporting Material

I remember being told an urban legend at university about a presentation given by Simon During, during the heydays of Cultural Studies, where he showed images of supermodels while delivering a presentation on Victorian novels. I think the point was to break up the unquestioned connection between the presenter and their support material. I think that what During’s example shows is that supporting material has a story to tell and is often just as important as the content and delivery of a presentation.
 
There are many programs used to create and support presentations, with the original being Microsoft PowerPoint. However, some other examples that have popped up in recent time include Haiku Deck, Prezi and Google Presentations. Each of these applications offers a suite of tools and tricks, including transitions, animations, effects etc… However, in my view, the greatest trick of all is being able to tell a story in a clear and uncluttered manner.
 
A great practitioner of the ‘clear and uncluttered’ mantra is John Pearce. In all of my conferences and professional development sessions, I have never actually seen John present, but through a range of means, such as Twitter and other people’s blogs, I have viewed many of his presentations. (I think this as much testament to John’s penchant for sharing.) Whether it be focusing on student curation or providing an introduction to Edmodo, John’s presentations are usually not much more than a so-called collection of ‘images and texts’. However, it is his ability to clearly tell a story that makes his presentations so good. This is not only done through the use of clear headings and images, but he also provides various points of commentary along the way. Take the following page as an example:
 
 
On this page, the heading clearly states the purpose of the page, this is then followed with a screenshot from Edmodo showing the aspect in question, while further explanation is provided at the bottom of the page. Although seemingly nothing more than a Google Presentation, the presentation does everything that it needs to do to help carry across the content.
 
In addition to backing up the presentation at hand, supporting materials, whether it be links to various websites or resources, allow the listener to continue their investigation. This may include simply providing examples and materials in support of the content spoken about or even providing a whole book in some cases. Again I come back to Corrie Barclay. For his presentation on integrating iPads at VITTA 2013, he created a eBook full of information that allows the participant to continue their learning long after the actual presentation has finished.

Another way in which supporting materials are important is that they allow the dialogue to continue on. Recently whilst trawling my Twitter feed I read a tweet from Troy Moncur.


What struck me about the tweet is that with the advent of various social media platforms, presentations now have the ability to carry on long after the lights have been turned off. They no longer need to finish, rather they now have the ability to link from one presentation to the next.
 

Conclusion

Coming back to the initial argument, that presentations are more than ‘images and texts’, there is one thing that has been taken for granted and that is what a presentation actually is. In today’s day and age of screencasts, digital presentations and flipped classrooms, the notion of a person presenting to people is already under threat. However, there is one thing that will never change, that is that it will always take more than an app to make a good presentation.

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In a recent blog post on being a connected educator, Tom Whitby suggested that:
The unconnected educator is more in line with the 20th century model of teacher. Access to the Internet is limited for whatever reason. Relevance in the 21st century is not a concern. Whatever they need to know, someone will tell them. If they email anyone, they will follow it up with a phone call to make sure it was received.
The question that it got me thinking was that if not being connected means not being a part of the 21st century, what does it actually mean to be working within the 21st century? There are many contrary opinions out there about what 21st century learning is and what are the skills associated with it. However, the one thing that stands out across all discussions is that to ignore one element often collapses the whole definition.

 

Reading, a Sum of Many Interconnected Parts

The other day, I was discussing the practise of reading with a fellow teacher. Although seemingly obvious now, it occurred to me that although there are various strategies and focuses (inferring, summarising, questioning etc …), they are all interrelated and interconnected and cannot really be taught in isolation. Take inferring for example. Students are asked to refer to background knowledge or text structures in order to develop inferences from the text, even if they are not necessarily the focus (see Harvey & Goudvis Strategies That Work). The reality is to talk about any strategy or skill-in-itself often misses or denies something else that is happening during the process of reading, pushing the other activities into the margins. Reading is subsequently often taught in an isolated fashion, with ‘focuses’ and so forth, based on the effort to structure or organise practices. In this situation, I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ S/Z where he unpacked the different layers of meaning inherent in Balzac’s novella, ‘Sarrasine’. Barthes approach was to be open to the meaning within the text, rather than restrict himself with a predefined focus. This seems in vast contrast to the practise of reading with a ‘focus’ in mind. The question this poses then is whether focusing one particular strategy really constitutes reading? (I have also written about this elsewhere). To me it is comparable to a running through a training drill as opposed to playing a game. Clearly they are related, but are they really the same? 

 

21st Century Learning, A Whole or Many Parts?

In an effort to organise the different skills associated with the 21st century learning, the researchers at ATC21S divided them into four different categories:
Ways of thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning
Ways of working. Communication and collaboration
Tools for working. Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy
Skills for living in the world. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility
Often this division into separate categories leads to people responding to the different parts in isolation. However, when you start to look at the list, you begin to realise that each of the different categories are inseparably interlinked. For example, it is through the use of Blogger that I am able to critically engage with ideas and communicate them with others. The question that needs to be considered then is whether the different categories can really be dealt with in isolation? Are they things-in-themselves or just a way of thinking about the bigger question of learning in the 21st century?

I think that this point is particularly comes to the fore when you consider the use of ICT tools. It is often believed that teaching the tool somehow automatically  equals  utilising 21st century skills. However, in my opinion, this is a bit of a misnomer. Too often the focus of professional development revolves around the use of a particular tool, as that is where the money has been spent, rather than focusing on the skills that are made possible and the changes that this might bring to learning.

Take for example the failure of interactive whiteboards. I was once privy to an inspiring presentation run by +Peter Kent for Promethean. His main point was that the interactive whiteboard offered an opportunity to modify the way we teach and the way students learn. Take this possible sequence of events as a model: after brainstorming ideas, students are invited to come up to the board and engage with the content by reorganising the information, these choices are then used to develop a further conversations, such as ‘why did you make that choice’. This series of events shows the possibility of the interactive whiteboard to not only decentralise the classroom (at least remove the teacher from the stage), but also the ability to engage students in the critical question of ‘why’ they made the decision that they did. Sadly, from my experience, the use of IWB’s has never really gotten past using the boards as an overpriced projector, a part from those few cavaliers trying to lead the way. I feel that there are two things that have inhibited the take up of IWB’s by teachers. Firstly, many staff struggle to utilise the associated software to its full potential (this is often the biggest hurdle), but more importantly, there is often an inability to link the use of IWB’s with the skills of thinking and collaboration. Is it any wonder then why they have never really taken? (I am of the belief that many of the benefits of interactive whiteboards are slowly being undermined by the rolling out of 1 to 1 devices, see Rich Lambert’s blog on the matter.)
 

Thinking in the 21st Century

Once again we come back to the question, does focusing on one particular category really constitute 21st century learning? Does the fact that you are focusing on thinking-in-itself simply equate to focusing on the skills of 21st century learning, rather it means you are focusing on thinking. Would you consider teaching students how to infer as covering all the different skills associated with reading,? Clearly not, it is simply teaching students how to infer. Why then does the same not apply to the different skills associated with the 21st century? When introducing 21st century, it is not about a solitary category or skill, rather it is about the projects, the problems and the many possibilities. There are sometimes in life when the sum of the parts are just different to the whole.

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It’s interesting, when you let go of the usual teacher/student hierarchy, as +Joe Mazza has with the idea of the ‘lead learner‘, all else seems to slowly crumble around it. Take for example the notion of ‘professional relationships’. I am not so sure which of the two words has had the biggest change. The profession to which everything has become seemingly so serious and accountable or the concept of relationships, which in the past were always so haphazard. Let me firstly look at the profession.
 

What’s in the Name?

Often people say that you don’t always choose your family, I think that the same thing can also be said about colleagues and clients (that is what students are, right?) This may have been different in the past where a student could have been ‘expelled’, where they would be shunted off to the next school and then the next school until they eventually flunked out of school. The profession of teaching has changed, subsequently highlighting the how unprofessional such actions are.

These days, students (and parents) have more rights as to where they go, often more power than the schools themselves, with their entrance often more likely to be dictated by location rather than anything else. (I would deem this a question of ethics rather than a question of professionalism.) Some complain that with the introduction of various institutes and the registration of teachers that the profession has become too legal minded. (Often these people are rather nostalgic and believe it was better in the past.) However, the one thing that this recognises is that, whether you think of it as one or not, teaching is a profession. Just like lawyers and nurses, teachers are now mandated to obey a clear set of rules and regulations. (I assume that there were always rules and regulations in place, but creating professional bodies makes them clearer and more explicit.)

One of the key changes is the sense of responsibility associated with the duty of care. When I was growing up, it seemed almost a novelty for a student to quip to the teacher that they (well there parents) will ‘sue you’. The reality today though is that this is no longer a throw away line, it does happen. Teachers are responsible for providing a safe and productive environment to learn, that is their ‘duty of care’. This means maintaining an orderly classroom and adjusting to the needs of each students. (I know it is more than that, I just didn’t want to go into it here.) However, the biggest change that this move towards legality emphasizes is the seemingly arbitrary nature of it all.

Sadly, professional can often equal forced. I was talking with a clinical educator at a hospital the other day about approaches to education. She pointed out the seemingly obvious, that the nurses under her watch were required to complete various modules as a part of their competences to practice as a nurse. As she stated, ‘it’s in their contract’. What this points out is the current trend towards professionalism and the challenge that it brings to authenticity. The strength of professionalism is also its weakness, that is, in making everything more rigid there is something that is lost in the process. The idea of learning because you have some intrinsic desire to be better often goes out the door and is suffocated by the endless list of required learning. The question then is, how does this relate to relationships?
 

Relationships, Just Not Like That

I think that in the past if you’d spoken about having a ‘relationship’ with a child everyone would have looked at you strangely, whereas with the inundation of such measures as Restorative Justice, Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty and Ramon Lewis’ Developmental Classroom Management, relationships have become the heart and soul of the classroom. It could almost be argued that in today’s day and age the ability to build rapport with students is just as, if not more important, than having curriculum knowledge. You watch some teachers from a distance and it seems as if they possess some sort of magic the way they manage to extrapolate work where no work had ever been done before. It kind of seems obvious when you consider any filmic representation of a teacher, from Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers to Kenneth Monnitoff from Donnie Darko, but too often these examples were far from the reality in the past. When I think back to my own past, Mr F’s reward of a Mars Bar (was this gamification in its infancy?) for carrying around the roll all week is the closest thing that comes to mind. (Let’s be honest, I am probably being highly subjective and I’m sure their are better examples, apologies to all my great teachers who have helped guide my learning.) 

I think that the challenge today is to firstly find a way to foster a relationship with every student in the classroom and then to incorporate the new found knowledge to add to the special herbs and spices that make Kentucky Fried Learning, that secret mystical experience that occurs like a bleep on a radar and then disappears once again. It begs the question, what does the notion of relationships mean for a home economics or woodwork teacher? Teachers who may see a student only once a week and see hundreds more on top if that. Surely their experience of relationship is going to be different to the mathematics, let alone English, teacher who may see their student every day if they are lucky. I think that this is where taking extra classes and spending time out in the yard can be so powerful. This time is usually devoid of any notion of curriculum and is often solely about rapport. For example, a science teacher may be taking one of their students for a Japanese extra. In this situation all notion of teacher/student dynamics is broken down as the teacher (unless by chance they can speak the language) is just as much a learner as the student.

In addition to building a relationship outside of the classroom, it is also important to work as a team. Often one of the biggest challenges in starting a relationship is having some sort of entry point. While on the contrary, one of the first ways in which relationships fracture or are stunted is when a teacher may not be aware of an issue or some background information, subsequently sabotaging the whole situation. This is where working with a team and as a team can also be so useful.
 

One Moment at a Time

In the end, I think that the biggest thing to say about the notion of ‘professional relationships’ is that it does not occur naturally, that is, it is not chance, rather it takes time and takes effort. Often it may be a chance occurrence here or magical spark there. That is where developing relationship over years can be so powerful. However, one of the biggest difficulties is maintaining it. For as the saying goes, often it only takes one bad deed to undo ten good ones. The biggest challenge today with being ‘professional’ is persisting and persevering no matter what. The question that remains is how are you building relationships with your students and are they professional?

 


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Strength is in the Weakness

In my view, the strength of any team is not in the leadership group, although having strong leadership is important, rather it is in the supposed lower ranks, those individuals and stakeholders deemed to be at the bottom, and their ability to carry the overall vision for the organisation. To use a sporting analogy, it is often the depth of the reserves rather than the strength of the seniors that a teams metal is truly tested. With enough money, any team can buy enough players to be a good side, but to be a strong and successful side, it is the ability to stand up against injury and adversity which often decides between winning a game and maintaining long term success. This same mentality can be applied to the day to day actions in any educational environment. Often effort and money is put into key areas associated with big data, such as NAPLAN. However, it is those areas found in the margins of the curriculum, areas which neither provide clear measurable data nor any direct benefits, that the strengths and weaknesses can truly be tested. In the past I have written about the problems with reading conferences, another aspect often shunted from the day to day activities is that of goal setting and their role in supporting learning and development.

Not so Smart Goals

I have experienced many reincarnations of student goals during my time, from goals written with no students in sight to students being given five minutes to scribble down a few vague ideas on a piece of paper. What ties all of these experiences together is that they are all about students, but far too often not composed for students. I have lost count of the amount of times that I have had to work through the SMART acronym with students. It surely says something when students need to be reminded again and again what supposedly makes a ‘good’ goal. I find the most poignant attributes of the so-called SMART goals is the ability to be ‘measured’. I completely agree that a goal needs to be measured, that is not my qualm. However, far to often the data that students use to supposedly measure their goals is not their own. Although they can demonstrate some sort of measurable evidence, they have little ownership over it. They merely complete a task and receive their grade as some sort of just reward. For example, many students often speak of improving their grades or getting better marks, when sadly these grades and marks often only tell a minuscule part to the story of learning.

Another interesting aspect to student goals is the frequency which they are completed. In my experience, goals are often set once a semester, usually connected to the mandatory requirement to include them within reports. Little interest is given to following up and managing them. Associated with this, school diaries have seemingly morphed to contain a treasure trove of learning resources, from study tips to style guides. Squashed in there has been the attempt to provide some sort of structure of the whole process beyond the usual biannual occurrence. However, again this attempt to contain goals in a regimented manner is often lost on those to whom it matters most, the students.

In the end, the goals that students set are often lost in the system. Although they may make it into their reports or be filed for safe keeping, most students have little memory of what their goals were beyond the current set. Is it a surprise that student goals have little perceivable impact?

Life Long Teachers

On the flipside, the goals set by teacher are often no better. In the recent AEUVic industrial action, it was argued by the government that the whole incremental review system was flawed and that teachers were simply getting moved up each year whether they had earned it or not. Sadly, bringing in performance pay would only make a flawed system even more fractured. The problem with the current review process is that, like student goals, it is far from an organic process. Most schools (in Victoria) meet with staff twice a year. Once at the end of the first semester to set the Performance and Development plan and then again at the end of the year to review it. In addition to this, work is often done in teams to set goals based on the previous years data. This is all good, but it overlooks a major aspect of goal setting and that is the need to be timely. It must be said that over the last few years that there have been some great diagnostic programs, such as ePotential and the AITSL Self-Assessment Tool, developed to provide staff with feedback whenever they require it. However, these tools depend on one missing element, an intrinsic desire to forever be better.

There is a real push from some within education at the moment to push for more individualised professional development and to form more personalised Professional Learning Networks. (See for example Tom Whitby’s blog on ‘How Do We Connect Educators’ as well as Andrew Williamson’s presentation relating to PLNs.) I think though that one of the things inhibiting teachers from taking more ownership over their own learning and development is actually feeling confident enough to identify weaknesses without fear of retribution. I think that many teachers baulk at the idea of being truly honest out of fear that this may come back to haunt them if they were to apply for any sort of position of leadership. On the flipside,  I think that there is also a fear among administration at times to allow any sort of freedom with staff as this may lead to precious professional development time being squandered. The problem that remains though is that some of the best professional development I have been to have been the sessions that I chose to attend in my own time, because I had an interest and I saw some worth in it for me. It begs the question, what will any goal achieve if it is not also attached to some sense of ownership?

Power is in the Program

One of the biggest frustrations that I have had with setting goals, whether it be personally or while supporting students, has been the fact that too often goals were developed and left at that. For example, student goals were set and the teacher kept a digital copy, while student would gain a print out. However, there was little feedback or progressive notes developed. This hurdle has been somewhat rectified with the recent inundation of collaborative tools that allow multiple people to be responsible for a single document. Whether it be keeping track of goals using Evernote, creating a Google Doc or simply sharing a document with Dropbox, there is no longer a reason why goals are not living and breathing documents. On a bit of a tangent, I am particularly interested in the work on Tony Moncur from Nichols Point Primary School who has started using the Ultranet (GenED 4.0) to manage and share student learning. I think that if there is anything to be said it is that technology allows the process to become more manageable and accountable. However, as I queried in my previous post, does technology really provide a complex solution or does it simply create a complicated answer that misses the real question, who are goals really been written for?

Student Goal Centered Learning

It is often spruiked that students are at the centre of all learning, then why aren’t goals as well? Surely if we are to make any move into the 21st century then we are going to have to learn to support learners in setting goals rather than just continue to write them for them. For how SMART are learning goals if they are not being driven by those individuals who they relate to? This may mean failing, but it also means allowing students to learn from those failures. If students are to truly be at the center then we need to support them in the process of taking ownership. How are you supporting your students with their goals and do they own them?


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Image drawn by Bryan Mathers
Image drawn by Bryan Mathers

Reform needs Team

I was in a staff meeting the other day, the start of which focused on auditing the curriculum in regards to a whole school initiative that had been progressively implemented over the last few years. The task was divided into year levels. As staff all sat down together, many looked at each other wondering who had sufficiently incorporated the different modules in their planning. There were a few cases of ‘it doesn’t fit into our learning in …‘ and ‘I just did it informally‘, while others simply had a blank look of ‘what are we talking about here‘. The one thing that did become apparent was the necessity to work as a team, crossing all learning areas, focussing on the student at the centre.

The River of Education

Being in a somewhat unique situation of having both ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’ classes in the same school – and having taught in traditional ‘Secondary’ schools in the past – it can sometimes give you an insight into the different ways things work (and sometimes don’t work). For example, in my view, it is often easier to implement a cross-curricular program in a primary environment as there is usually a core group of staff responsible for the majority of the learning. Juxtapose this with the Secondary scenario where students can have anywhere up to 7+ subjects, creating a sense of consistency across the board becomes a more fraught process.
 
To me, this whole difference in structure is analogous to the path of a great river. Initially students feed into the main stream from different points, with different backgrounds, different interests, different experiences. More often than not though they are progressively consumed in the main current that slowly meanders its way to the sea. This has its benefit with all students presumably benefiting from the same learning opportunities. However, something happens in the Secondary situation where the once uniform river starts to spread out into a delta where students are invited to start choosing divergent pathways as they make their way to the sea. The problem that arises in this situation is that sometimes, some things are missed out, overlooked, forgotten about. They start becoming somebody else’s problem. It is in this scenario that having a strong sense of team and support is so important, where everyone works together, picking up what the other might have missed, so that no student is missed.

Complicated or Complex?

I guess this leads me to a greater concern though, where to now? In thinking about this whole scenario, I can’t help but think about Sir Ken Robinson’s many discussions about 21st century learning. It makes me wonder, is this it? Is continually auditing, reviewing and managing curriculum really reforming learning or is the idea of a river not some slight more organic portrayal of the age old mechanistic factory line? I have been reading a lot recently about different models of curriculum reform from around the world. The one thing that seems to jut out is glaring problem that to fix many of the problems involves finding a complex solution. +Peter DeWitt suggested in talking about Common Core’s attempt to solve the poverty issue in the USA: “Poverty is a complex issue and it needs a complex resolution”. Continuing with this, it makes me wonder, are our solutions really that complex or are they just more complicated versions of what we have done in the past?

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Too often in education we get caught up worrying about our own situation, our own students, our own children, our own resources. What the Gonski Review set out to do was to fix a system that was failing a certain group of students and failing them badly. If you look at the PISA results you will notice that Australia is above the PISA average in regards to the quality of the education provided. However, you will also notice that there is a significant drop off in regards to equity and access across the board. Australia has a large group of students who for a range of reasons are being disadvantaged when it comes to learning and risks creating a two tiered culture of those who have and those who have not.
 
What has been disappointing in the whole debate is that we often hear about who will supposedly be missing out in ‘real’ terms and so forth, but what is missed is that if a school were to ‘miss’ out, it would be because their need is not as great as that of another school. Sadly, the real people who will miss out are those who are silent in all of these debates, the students, especially those from a disadvantaged background. To help the students our schools need more support, whether this be in the form of coaching or resources. That is what the changes to funding are about, not about increasing wages or other such absurdities. Teachers will always continue teaching and students will continue to learn. If you look at any of John Hattie’s work you will see that, there is always an element of progression. The question though is how much are they progressing and to what extent is the system letting them down?
My greatest fear is that many teachers do not necessarily realise the day to day support that they receive, such as learning coaches, student support programs and smaller class sizes. A lot of this is currently provided through National Partnerships, which finishes this year. The ‘real’ consequences are clear for all to see, larger classes and less support. If we fail to grasp this once in a lifetime opportunity to make a wholesale change to the way things are done then by the time we realise what has happened, it will all be too late.
In the end, what people need to realise is that EVERYONE benefits from a first-class education system. However, at the moment these benefits are being reaped by too few.

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This is a summary of the workshop that I presented at ICTEV13: IT Takes a Village 

Discovery often starts with a problem. My problem was the use of mundane exercise books and worksheets. After exploring different potentials (Microsoft Word, Evernote and the Ultranet), I finally introduced Google Drive.

Some examples of how Drive has been used to transform learning include:

  • access everywhere. With student laptops often re-imaged, work is not only continually backed up, but also accessible from any computer.
  • the opportunity to work collaboratively. Some examples have included adding to a single document for book clubs, sharing student goals to all relevant stakeholders and staff working together on a curriculum document.
  • the ability to provide flexible feedback. Whether it is a teacher commenting on a workbook anytime, students posing questions on a presentation or using Forms to ascertain different points of information.

On the other side of the coin, there are always hurdles faced when introducing a new application. Although students are usually quick to jump into the potential of new technologies, staff often question why they need to change, just look at the Ultranet. In addition to this, some staff feel that other applications offer more potential.

In the end, the question that remains is that if Google is not the tool to rule them all, then what? I’m ok with not using Google, but doing nothing is no longer an option.

Also published in Term 3 ICTEV Newsletter


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