Ben Williamson on Digital Technologies

Digital Technologies is more than just learning to code. This post re-imagines the curriculum around blogging and explores how it maybe better integrated.


There has been a lot of discussion around the changes to the curriculum brought on by Digital Technologies. This is a part of a global movement to increase knowledge and understanding of the way the digital world works. It is a move away from the treatment of digital technology as solely being associated with ‘information and communication’. Some have maintained the two, while others seem to have made a clear break. The concern has been that for some digital technologies has come to equal coding in the classroom. (Listen to the Kin Lane and Audrey Watters discuss this on the Contrafabulists Podcast.) This problem though is only one part of a bigger story.

Digital Technologies is made up of a number of parts which combine into three strands: working with data, systems thinking and creating solutions. DLTV break this down into a focus on decomposing a problem and algorithmic thinking. Although there is a focus on ‘technology’, this change is as much about mindset as it is about skillset. This is something Doug Belshaw touches upon in his work on digital literacies. A focus on thinking means that many of the steps accounted for in the curriculum can be completed offline. See for example the work of Tim Bell. The real challenge therefore lays in how to integrate within the wider curriculum.

The biggest complaint I hear is how to incorporate Digital Technologies into an already crowded curriculum. To me, this misses an opportunity. I remember when the Victorian government brought in AUSVels, which called out a lot of new areas of learning, I attended a session that demonstrated the intent to focus on learning and inquiry. Instead, too many interpreted these new additions as silos to be further compartmentalised. I think that the Digital Technologies curriculum offers the same potentials and problems.

To model a possible integration, I took a look at the curriculum from the perspective of blogging. Many schools integrate blogging into their day-to-day practice. (See Adrian Camm’s work.) Here then is a breakdown as to how the Digital Technologies could be incorporated into the wider curriculum:

I am not saying that everyone should blog, even if I think that blogs offer a lot of potential. My intent here is instead to encourage others to think more divergently when approaching the Digital Technologies curriculum. Every context is different. I hope then that this example helps address that. So rather than jumping to the assumption that Digital Technologies simply means that every student needs to code, what ideas can you think of moving forward? As always, comments welcome and encouraged.


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creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by Enric Martinez: http://flickr.com/photos/runlevel0/6297898421

At my school, we are currently in the throes of implementing a new ‘instructional model’. One of the interesting ideas that has come out of the whole process is that instruction is always built upon what Robert Marzano calls a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Beyond what Marzano actually means by the ‘guaranteed and viable’, this got me wondering what ingredients influence the making of a curriculum. Here is my attempt at some questions designed to unpack some of complexities:

  • What is included in the curriculum? – Central to designing curriculum is the importance of having a clear guide as to what is to covered and when. This list often stems from the standards, but is also often supplemented with other elements such as UbD’s ‘Big Ideas’ or the inquiry model’s ‘Through Lines’. This map of standards lays out the overall narrative associated with what we expect our students to learn.
  • Why should students be learning what they are learning and what sort of future is being created? – Once we have a map outlining the landscape ahead, it is important to have a plan and approach through this space. This guide is the why. Why are we doing this? Why were these choices made? Why is it deemed as important? This is the complication which drives the narrative. Associated with this, there needs to be some explanation of what future is being created.
  • How are students learning and why? – Too often one pedagogical approach is seen as covering everything. This misses something in my view. How we learn needs to be the right approach for the situation at hand. For example, there are sometimes when direct instruction is needed, while other times students need hands on and problem based opportunities. Just as we ask why are students learning something, so to is it important to ask how are they learning it and why is this so. Is this because it is what we as teachers feel most comfortable with? Is it because the research says so?
  • How are staff being encouraged to own the curriculum? – Too often change is pushed onto staff as an expectation, with little time provided to work through issues or to actually own the situation at hand. No matter the potential associated with the change at hand, if we do not own ‘the why’ the idea or innovation will never truly succeed as it will not be driven passionately by those on the ground.
  • In what ways are students being empowered? – Although curriculum is designed with students in mind, involving them and allowing them to own it can be overlooked. We may focus on incorporating aspects such as critical thinking, questioning and collaboration in the classroom, but unless students understand why these practises are being pushed then they either get misunderstood or go nowhere in regards to improving learning outcomes. One thought is that instead of teacher at the centre, teachers instead become facilitators. Observing what is going on, providing constructive feedback, supporting students with the setting of personal goals, creating a space where students are engaged in their learning.
  • What is the role of leadership within curriculum? – All curriculum needs some sort of leadership to guide it, but what this leadership looks like has a significant impact on the final implementation. Leadership for many is about making decisions and dictating to the masses. The problem with this is that it takes the power from those who actually drive the change. Subsequently, it is important that leaders act as a resource, a mentor, checking, commenting, questioning, creating a culture, inspiring, not holding too tightly and allowing others to own it too.
  • How is assessment (and reporting) embedded within the curriculum? – In many respects it seems strange to talk about curriculum in isolation of assessment. It is essential that the assessment for, as and of learning is embedded throughout the curriculum. Associated with this, tasks should be authentic where applicable and involve sharing with more than just the teacher.
  • In what ways is technology laying the foundation for curriculum and learning? – Michael Fullan suggests that technology is not the driver of change, rather it is the foundation on which it is built upon. As Steve Brophy and I have stated elsewhere, technology makes higher order thinking and collaboration more possible. What needs to be considered when it comes to curriculum is that technology is not simply 1:1 laptops, instead it includes such things as cameras, projectors, file sharing platforms, robots, webcams etc. The list goes on. What matters isn’t what device people have (although some would are better than others), rather what is made possible.
  • How is the curriculum being communicated with parents and other community stakeholders? – One of the interesting points that came out of my school’s work on instruction and curriculum was how do you communicate it with parents. Although reports provide them with a summary of learning, this is usually published after the fact. The challenge to me is to create a culture of communication with parents beforehand. Whether this be through a class blog or an program like Edmodo, technology provides the means for involving parents and celebrating student work and achievements.
  • What is at the heart of the curriculum: subjects or skills? – One of the first comments that is often made about curriculum is that it is too crowded. The question, as I have discussed elsewhere, is whether the crowded nature comes from a focus on splitting content into definable subjects, rather than engaging students in skills associated with projects and problems. Claire Amos, an educator from New Zealand, wrote a great article on this matter, pushing for a refocus of curriculum around the five key competences: thinking; using language, symbols and texts; managing self; relating to others; participating and contributing.
  • How is the curriculum organised within the timetable? – I will never forget when I started out teaching many years ago, two of my four hours of Year Nine English were on Friday afternoon. This soon became all about survival, rather than quality learning. Consideration as to when something is taught can have an influence on how students engage with it, no matter how fun and exciting the topic may be.

So these are some of my questions. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe there are things unasked or perspectives that I haven’t quite seen. If so, I would love your thoughts. Is there an ingredient that you would add?


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creative commons licensed (BY-NC-ND) flickr photo by Let Ideas Compete: http://flickr.com/photos/question_everything/4447757532
 
The big announcement that came out of the recent review into the Australian Curriculum was that it was crowded. There is nothing new about this perspective. People have been making noise for a long time, particularly in regards to the primary curriculum, since the introduction of subjects such as science and history in the Early Years. However, is this really the case or is there something else at play?
 
One of the areas that people often get caught up with is the interdisciplinary learning. These strands span the areas of: 
  • Communication
  • Design, Creativity and Technology
  • Information and Communication Technology 
  • Thinking Processes
I have been in many different settings and I have yet to see these strands implemented effectively. I remember sitting in a session nearly ten years ago where the presenter explained that the purpose of the strands is not about adding to the curriculum, but about intermingling them through all area of learning. Coming from an inquiry pedagogical point of view, she suggested that it is about making learning more explicit. Although it may be inherent within good teaching, by making it clearer in the curriculum, this removes some of the ambiguity.
 
As is stated in VCAA’s F−10 Curriculum Planning and Reporting Guidelines:

There is a view that acknowledges the development of these capabilities as an important role of schooling but regards them either as forms of pedagogy or as attributes that students acquire through a process of osmosis. That is, if the right conditions of learning are put in place and the right learning experiences provided, students will naturally pick up, acquire and develop these attributes. And of course for many students this is the case.

But this same argument was used for many years in relation to the acquisition of literacy skills, that is, that if the right learning conditions were put in place, all children would learn to read. That view has been almost universally rejected in favour of one that recognizes the importance of explicit instruction within a context of rich, meaningful learning conditions.

Sadly, this desire to create a rich and meaningful context is often lost on many educators who begrudgingly worry about who is assessing what, missing the point that the students are more often than not already doing the skills within their learning whether they choose to realise this or not.
 
I was again faced with this connundrum this week as we were put in a team to write the ‘ICT’ comment bank. Returning to the VCAA guidelines, there is reference made to electives. However, from my reading there was no reference to making ICT an explicit subject. I know I should be glad that students have the opportunity to ‘study’ ICT, but really they should be doing many of these things within their own learning. As +George Couros points out, “Technology should be at the point of instruction and be as accessible in learning as a pencil; it shouldn’t be an event. How many pencil labs do you have in your school?” The problem is that ICT is often confused with computer science. I have subsequently spent the last two years trying to shake the moniker of the ‘ICT’ teacher, instead focusing on topics such as media, publishing and robotics as the drivers for deeper learning and investigation.
 
The question that I have then is whether it is the curriculum really is over-crowded or do we just need to think more creatively about how we cover the different domains? How are you combating the crowd and covering all facets of learning, I would love to know.

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Universal Design for Learning by Giulia Forsythe (Flickr)
 
In a recent post, I wrote about the idea that a PLN, whether professional or personal learn network, as actually being something that you do, a verb, rather than something done, a noun, I think that the same argument can be applied to the notion of curriculum. Too often when we discuss ‘curriculum’ it is as something stagnant, something finished, something complete, a document held in the hand. However, treating it in this way misses something, denies the reality that it is something that is constantly developing, growing, adapting, changing and evolving.
 
One of the reasons that we see curriculum as being something stagnant is that often the changes can occur over long periods of time so we do not consider it as something constant. For example, in my time teaching, I have seen three significant curriculum shifts. Firstly the transition from CSFII to VELS. This was significant because it moved subject based assessment to also recognising various interdisciplinary strands of learning. Associated with this, there was also a move from grading students in an individual manner to assessing them in relation to a continuum. The second transition is from VELS, a state based curriculum document, to the Australian Curriculum, a nation wide initiative. What is interesting is that although each evolution brought about significant change, after a period of transition, a mystical sense of inertia kicks in.
One of the reasons that curriculum changes is because the world changes. In a recent post about whether everyone should learn to code, +Richard Olsen made the suggestion that curriculum is a form of future prediction, that is, it is “designed to predict need.” This being the case, curriculum does need to keep on evolving, because once the current set of needs are met then a new set of needs emerges.
I remember hearing David Howes from ACARA present about the National Curriculum a few years ago. One of the things that stood out was what he said about how the cross-curriculum priorities. Howes explained that indigenous histories and culture, Australia’s engagement with Asia and sustainability were chosen as priorities because they were contemporary issues faced by students today. What was significant though was that Howes’ stated that there will come a time in a few years when when these priorities will need to be revised. For if they are implemented properly, then they will no longer be an issue in society. Therefore, there will come a time when a new set of priorities will need to be devised.
This is what much of the debate the 21st Century learning is about. Too often we get caught up with the present and fail to grasp the coming future. Although many of the skills, such as collaboration and problem solving, are needed today, it is a technologically and socially rich tomorrow which they are truly derived for. The problem is that it is so much easier to respond to today, rather than worry about tomorrow.
So far I have discussed the epic seismic eruptions associated with curriculum, however there is also the flip side to all of this, those tectonic shifts in the plates which more than often go unseen. I think that the worst thing that we can do when reflecting on curriculum is to consider such documents as the Australian Curriculum as being the same thing for each and every person. This completely denies any sense of subjectivity associated with the creation of knowledge and understanding.
For example, I remember a few years ago there was an effort to align what was being done in Middle Years English with some of the changes to VCE. One such change was the introduction of contexts, such as imagined landscapes or encountering conflict, as a focus, rather than a particular text, as had previously been done. What was interesting is how everyone saw this change differently. For some it was simply a way of looking at a particular text, while for others there was no central text, rather it was about approaching the context from a wide range of perspectives. Added to this, even once an agreed approach is achieved, it is then further moulded and adapted as new teaches take to it. As I stated elsewhere, the process is often far more instrumental than the actual outcome.
+Richard Olsen sums this whole process up, suggesting that “it is not commonly understood that curriculum is a compromise.” Whether it be compromising on what is included or compromising on how it is implemented, curriculum is always in a constant state of choice and reflection – and that is ok.

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One Size Doesn’t Fit All

I was faced with a new challenge the other day. With the choice of the new professional learning communities the group that I was allocated to was given an additional challenge, that we would in fact be leaderless, that we would work collaboratively to develop a focus and go from there. Initially, I was apprehensive, as I had concerns about where technology had been heading – the group was meant to focus on using technology to engage. However, what was interesting was the group did manage to develop a voice of its own, a collective voice, with everyone adding their own question and concern. This got me thinking again about +Dan Donahoo‘s keynote at ICTEV13 Conference that a community is not about everyone doing the same thing, rather it is about recognising the place of everyone in the village. 

This led me to reflect upon a bigger problem that has developed in the past few years, the mix and match of different technological devices and platforms. The school I work at has an array of devices, including Windows netbooks, desktop computers, Windows 8 tablets and iPads for leadership. With this assortment comes the issue that some things open on one device, but not another. Although my answer was Google Drive, as I have discussed elsewhere, however the majority of teachers have taken to using Dropbox as their solution of choice. I think what is significant about this choice is not whether the use of Dropbox is more useful than Google Drive, rather that there has been a lack of discussion and consultation. The reality is that I can live with any answer. However, when the community is not consulted, does the answer even matter? Is there a bigger issue at play? Does one size fit all?

In the end, to come back to Donahoo’s message, often the process is far more important than the actual outcome. Maybe that is what community as curriculum is, about a constantly evolving dialogue where everyone’s thoughts and opinions are given due diligence. Something easier said than done at times, but maybe that is the challenge.


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It is so easy to get caught up wanting one thing, but not necessarily wanting everything that it may bring. Take for example, the following:
  • Want an 8 cylinder car, but don’t want to pay for the increase in petrol
  • Want to use Google Apps/Chromebook at school, but don’t want to invest in quality Internet and appropriate infrastructure
  • Want to go on a holiday, but don’t want to pay for accommodation
  • Want writing proofread, but don’t want to discuss any of the changes
  • Want students to be at the centre of learning, but still as a teacher want to have all the control
  • Want a bigger house, but don’t want to clean it or pay the increase mortgage repayments
  • Want to have a big night, but don’t want to put up with the hangover in the morning

And the list goes on … This happens in all facets of life, where there is a discrepancy between what we want and the reality of the full situation. However, it is becoming more and more pertinent in schools.

 
So often the ‘next best thing’ is brought in. However, all that will be discussed is the idea, the concept, the skill. What is often missed is the baggage that it brings along with it. For example, I remember when Restorative Practices came into my first school nearly 10 years ago. People thought that it was simply about using the right language and reading off a cue card. Although this is a part of it, for some it failed to bring about the desired results because deep down they still wanted to punish the students, they still wanted to enforce control and discipline. For although they would ‘read through the scripts’, it was what they did beyond those moments that undermined the whole program. What was missing was a change in mindset, a move away from punishment to a focus on relationships.
 
Another great example of wanting one thing, but not necessarily recognising all the other consequences, was outlined in the latest +TER Podcast in an interview with +David Zyngier about engagement, curriculum and pedagogoy. Through the course of the discussion, Zyngier discussed some of the myths and misnomers associated with creating an ‘engaging’ classroom. One of the things that came up was the call for smaller class sizes as an answer to engagement. However, as Hattie and co have pointed out, class sizes in itself has little impact on  student achievement. What Zyngier points out though is that smaller class sizes combined with a change in pedagogy can have a positive impact, particularly in the early years. The problem is that so often we feel that continuing with the same old approaches will somehow achieve results simply because there are less students to teach. I think that ironically, the whole conversation between Zyngier and +Cameron Malcher,which started with ‘engagement’, basically pointed out that you can’t simply have ‘engagement’ in itself. Rather, engagement is something that intrinsically attached to so many other aspects of learning, such as knowing students’ background and interests, and if we are unwilling to recognise these requirements, then we cannot be surprised if students are not engaged.
 

As I have stated elsewhere, just as we have choice, so to do we have consequence. Often the worst decisions that we make are the choices where we are not also recognising the consequences at the same time.

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