Chicken or the Egg – A Reflection on Experiences vs. Solutions

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Lately my daughter has moved on from watching Dora the Explorer and Peppa Pig, to partaking of various kids films. Starting with Frozen, she has since moved to the various Disney princess films. Having initially seen them all when I was growing up, there are two strange feelings in watching them again. Firstly, the many themes and subtle story lines that just aren’t as present for a younger audience. Secondly though, watching the films with a cautious three year old, you get a different view about how dark and scary these seemingly innocent films can actually be.
It would be easy to suggest that this experience with my daughter makes me a better person and a better teacher. This was the lesson implied in a recent post from +Craig Kemp in which he discussed how being a dad makes his a better teacher. His premise was that being a parent has made him more aware of his students and their many diverse needs. Before this moment in his life he did not realise the impact that parents can have on a child’s life. Although Kemp must be congratulated on his openness and honesty, suggesting that being a parent makes you a better teacher misses the point.
In response to the Kemp’s assertion, +Corinne Campbell stated that being a parent does not magically qualify anyone to be a teacher or make them better than those who do not have children. Not being a mother does not make someone half a woman and not having children does not make someone half a teacher. Instead, all of our experiences in life impact and change us, adding spice to what we bring to the classroom. However, it is what we actually do the classroom which matters the most.
To me, our perspectives on the world are moulded by our experiences. As +David Weinberger posits, in his book Too Big To Know, “Perspectives are the maps we give to ourselves to represent the lay of the land.” However, to argue that certain experiences and perspectives somehow hold more capital than others misses the point, instead they simply makes us who we are. It is what we do with our experiences and perspectives which matters the most. We can learn from everything in life if we are willing and open to it. For example, I am sure that there are other parents who may put films on for their children and not have one iota what is going on in them. However, even realising this does not automatically make me a better teacher, it is what I then do with this insight, how I use this to inform my practise, which makes me a better teacher.
Here then are some of the experiences that I have had in my life and the perspectives gained:

 

Senses

A few years ago I had the experience of teaching a blind student in my English classroom. What was even more significant about his situation was that he had actually spent most of his life with full vision and only lost it late in his teens. Having him there really made me reflect on how I saw the classroom and how much we take it for granted when it comes to the senses. This has particularly impacted on how I deliver instruction in class.

 

 

Needs and Wants

When I finished studying my undergraduate degree, I went on a guided tour through South-East Asia. During this trip, I had the opportunity to stay in a traditional home in the south of Cambodia. I am sure participating in a Winter Sleepout would have given me a similar such experience, but it just made me realise that we don’t always need everything in life in order to survive and that for some having a deck of cards is a luxury, let alone a desk to do homework at. This has helped me empathise with students from different situations.

 

Death

I recently lost my mother to cancer. During this time, I learnt many things, such as making the most of every moment, that denial never works for no-one and that at some point the show must go on. However, the biggest lesson that I feel that I have learnt is that I am not alone, that I am not the only one who has lost a parent to cancer. For example, I know someone whose father was told he had four months to live and was dead in two weeks. More importantly though, it really made me realise how much we can take for granted and how futile life can be.

 

Administration

For the last few years I have been lucky enough to split my time between the classroom and various administrative roles. This has included doing daily organisation, creating class timetables and coordinating timetables. This has given me a deeper insight into the impact of which teachers are used for coverage or when classes are timetabled has on student learning. Some of my solutions have been to improve learning by spreading core classes throughout the week, as well as trying to create some sort of consistency in regards to booking relief teachers and assigning extras.

 

Councillor

This year I took up the position as councillor with the Australian Education Union – Victorian Branch. This has included representing my region at various meetings and reporting back to my constituents about various campaigns and complaints. It has taught me that there are no quick fixes to education and that politics is a messy game. For example, many teachers I know believe that the union has not done enough in regards to the Victorian Government’s new performance and development plan. However, with an election coming up at the end of the year, whether rightly or wrongly, it is not the battle to be had. It has taught me the need to provide people with a glimpse of the complexity involved, rather than simply keep them in the dark.

 

Koori School

When I lived in Swan Hill a few years back, I was lucky enough to work for a year at the now defunct Koori school. Basically, the school was created to cater for those students not coping with mainstream education. My class consisted on secondary aged boys ranging from Year 7 to Year 10. As much as we encouraged the students to come to school, picking them up each day and providing them with breakfast and lunch, you still never knew who you were going to get. Therefore, I learnt the importance of being flexible, as well as an insight into what is and is not always so important in life and education.
There are many more experiences that I could discuss. However, I think that this smattering serves its purpose. At its heart perception is about developing a wider set of skills and solutions. I feel that the different experiences in life have helped me respond to various situations that have arisen in and out of the classroom. It is these answers and solutions that decide whether or not I am a better teacher or not, not the experiences that produced them.
So what moments in life have mattered to you and what influence have they had in and out of the classroom?

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Different Podcasts, Different Voices

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/14476927585
 
Someone recently asked me which educational podcasts I listen to. It got me thinking about the different podcasts and what makes them each unique. Although they all focus on education and so often incorporate some element of technology and pedagogy. What makes them each unique in my view is the voice in which they provide. By ‘voice’ I not only mean the perspective grasped, but also the means in which it is presented. I feel that the best way to represent these differences is through different forms of refreshments and the context created through each one.
 

RU Connected

I am not sure if it is my habit of listening to the podcast at school early in the morning or it is the style of conversation, but I always feel as if I am sitting at a cafe with +Jenny Ashby and +Lois Smethurst drinking a coffee and having a chat. Wandering from one subject to the next, each different episode seems to flow into one. What I like most is that it is a celebration of learning with an effervescent joy.
 

2 Regular Teachers

A little bit like RU Connected, +Rick Kayler-Thomson and +Adam Lavars podcast is a open discussion about education from the chalkface. It is an open and honest discussion of what is happening in and out of their classroom, as well as some musing about how things could be different. Whether this is due to the two duelling personalities or the common nature of the topics discussed, but listening feels like sitting at a bar and just having a few casual beers.
 

Teachers’ Education Review

Unlike the subjective approaches to education provided by RU Connected and 2 Regular Teachers, the +TER Podcast attempts to provide a more serious platform for the deeper discussion of anything and everything relating to education. Although +Cameron Malcher and +Corinne Campbell will share examples of their own experiences, it is often to dig deeper into a particular issue in the news. What is also a little different is that the podcast often provides a platform for experts to dig deeper into a wide range of topics impacting schools all over Australia. To me this is a more complex mix and I think that with its length, it is something that you dedicate a certain amount of time to. It is a serious drink.
 

Ed Tech Crew

I think that the +Ed Tech Crew Podcast is a bit of an enigma to explain. One week it will be casual chat between +Tony Richards and +Darrel Branson about tips and tricks collected via social media, another week there might be guest interviews, whilst other times they will open things up to a panel of people. In the end, I think that the podcast is best thought of as a night around at a mates sitting around drinking home brew where everyone is welcome. Although the process has been somewhat perfected overtime, you still never quite know what you are going to get each time you listen. There is no promise of anything in particular, just a few guys who love technology and education.
 
 
So these are some of the local educational podcasts I listen to, what about you? Are there any that I have missed that should be added to my playlist? If so, what is it about them that you like and keeps you listening. Feel free to share below.
 
NOTE: I must apologies for using the drinking analogies, however I couldn’t think of anything better to differentiate. 

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Compass and the Spectre of the Ultranet

creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/14441599366

 

Recently a representative from Compass, a relatively new LMS, came and presented at my school. The presenter began with the statement, “This is what the Ultranet should have been”. After he had finished and the presenter had left, I was asked for my thoughts. One of my biggest weaknesses is that I always see the positives and potentials in technology, whilst being blind to the negatives. Some of the pluses were the ability to share classroom content with students and parents, the idea that students could gain permission digitally and the possibility to publish reports through a portal with the click of a button. However, once the glimmer and gleam had waned, I started thinking about what failed with the Ultranet and why it would not simply happen again.
 
Looking beyond the poor product provided by the Ultranet, there were also many other hiccups and hindrances that existed. I have reflected on some of the more positive aspects of the Ultranet elsewhere. Here though I wish to pose some questions that were largely left unanswered in regards to the Ultranet and subsequently need to be addressed before embracing a product like Compass:

Who is in charge of getting everything up and running?

One of the problems associated with implementing anything within ICT is that someone is always responsible for getting stuff up and running. Even if a part of this is organised by an outside entity, there are still questions to be answered and information to be provided. Whether it be Google Apps for Education or the Ultranet, there is always some sort of administration issues. In some schools there is an ICT Coordinator or 21st Century Leading Teacher whose plate such rolls and responsibilities often fall upon. However, this is not the case in all schools. Therefore, it both needs to be made clear and equitable as to who is responsible and how they will be supported. Although the argument maybe that it makes teaching easier and allows for more focus on learning, at the start the most basic of tasks can take hours.
 

Once things are up and going, who is responsible for maintaining the system?

After everything is organised, the next question is who is in charge of maintaining things? This process involves many aspects, including ironing out bugs, sorting out passwords and other menial issues that always arise along the way with setting things up. Maybe Compass is different to the Ultranet and has rectified many of these challenges. However, one lesson learnt is that such issues can’t simply be left to one person, there needs to be a team of people responsible for driving things. Interestingly, I recently heard Phillip Holmes-Smith speak about setting up his Student Performance Analyser. One of things that he suggested is that you need a group. Although there may be someone who oversees the whole process, they are there to finalise things and sort out problems, not simply do all the work, absolving other staff of responsibility altogether.
 

 

What leadership is there around providing support and guidance for others?

One of the really interesting things to come out of my post exploring the supposed digital revolution was the amount of people who referred to the failure to provide sufficient leadership as one if the key reasons for the perceived failure. This sense of leadership comes in many shapes and sizes, whether it be modelling best practise or coaching others about how to utilise various programs to aid pedagogy. Although many argue that change and reform needs to come from the bottom up, the failure to empower such roles from above often means that they are either considered as being insignificant or treated in a tokenistic manner.
 

 

What expectations and requirements will be put in place to measure and maintain teacher take-up?

Linked with leadership is a failure of staff to get on board. The lack of any care and urgency from those above can have the detrimental effect on those below. Too often this gives staff an escape clause. If they don’t see it as important why should I? It is important to set clear expectations early for everyone. Attached to these expectations, there needs to be a plan about how things will be unfolded. One of the issues with the Ultranet was that it was realised in two phases where initially it was unclear exactly where things were heading as there were still aspects being designed and developed. I understand that this is the way things are and that there is no program that does not grow and evolve. However, it needs to be made clear from the beginning where things are heading and how the present situation relates to the future.
 

What happens when the connection to the cloud goes down?

The Achilles heal of the Ultranet, Compass, GAFE and so many other ICT products is the fact that they are online. Being in the cloud has many advantages, such as the ability to access it anywhere, anytime. However, it has one very big drawback. If the internet is down then Compass won’t work. What is interesting with this is that most staff will question the program before they interrogate the infrastructure. For example, many jumped off Google Drive into Dropbox because the Internet was simply too unreliable. (+Corinne Campbell recently wrote an interesting post on a similar matter calling for more digital resilience.) What is sad is that the solution that many schools are going with in regards to the problem of the web is to pay for their own Internet, subsequently adding to the divide between those schools who can and cannot afford such resources.
 

 

How will parents be introduced into the system?

 

One of the big selling points for the Ultranet was that parents would be able to log in and gain access to different points of information, such as students assessment and attendance. The biggest challenge though was actually engaging parents in this process. Too often information evenings and pamphlets are done in isolation. To succeed there needs to be a multi-pronged approach to the pushing the benefits. This means running information sessions, providing hands on support, placing details in the newsletter and online, both on the school website and any social media platforms. This approach though needs to be tied together with a clear explanation of the benefits for students and their learning, for as Sir Ken Robinson suggested, “If there is no teaching and learning going on there is no education happening”.

 

 
In the end, it is easy to pretend that all the challenges faced by the Ultranet belonged to the Ultranet. However, so many issues still persist, lying dormant, waiting for an opportunity to raise their head once again. The question isn’t whether Compass provides a great potential to improve education, the question is whether schools are ready for these changes. That is the real question.

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