Learning, Innovation and Success – A Reflection on the Impact of #GTASYD14


flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

In a recent post, Jon Andrews reflected on the influence of Edutech and its ongoing relevance. It got me reflecting on my own experiences in regards to conferences and professional development. One event that stands out in particular was the 2014 Google Teachers Academy.

There was so much conjecture prior to the event about what it meant and how the representatives were selected. While in a conversation afterwards, one of the questions brought up was that of impact. I argued that time would tell the success of the evolution associated with Google Teacher’s Academy move from a focus on tools to a focus on innovation and change. However, a part of me thinks that this also misses something. Focusing on ‘success’ sometimes misses the chance influences and impact. As I have discussed before in regards to data and connections, reducing success to a particular outcome does not recognise the serendipitous learning and experience through failure.

So as I look back, here are some aspects that have impacted me:

  • Design Thinking: The biggest take-away was to not only learning about, but learning through Design Thinking. From the different immersion activities, such as drawing a classroom to interviewing different stakeholders; to using hexagons to maps ideas in order to develop a how might we question; then generating ideas and then filtering them; as well as prototyping and critiquing different iterations. I have long wondered about the different facets of inquiry-based learning. However, I had not really had the opportunity to properly explore Design Thinking. One of the things which really stood out to me was the cyclic nature of the process. Although it focuses on an authentic end goal, as other forms of inquiry do, it incorporates an element of ongoing refinement that is sometimes lost within other processes. This experience also made a lot more sense when I read Ewan McIntosh’s book How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make The Happen. This is not to say that Hamish, Tom and the coaches did not do a good job with the constraints of time. However, it was not really until the end, when you can stand back and reflect, that you can make sense of the process, rather than just the ideation being actioned.
  • Connections: I remember reading that being a part of the Google Teachers Academy would provide access to a range of connections. Although I am now in a few new Google Groups, which is dip in and out of, the real bonds and connections were those that I formed simply being a part of the process. Ironically, it was the time spent chatting around meal times and during the taxi rides when the friendships were formed. It simply reiterated the fact that learning is more often than not relational. We can follow all the people in the world, but there is always something humane and so much more meaningful associated with face to face contact. Although I knew quite a few people before (and they knew me I found out), I feel that bit more connected now. I am not sure if this justifies the program, but must not be overlooked.
  • Start with Why: One of the interesting things that occurred at GTA was that every coach received a copy of Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why. Before the event, I had not heard of Sinek and his golden circle. After watching his Ted Talk, I read the book over the Christmas holidays. It was one of those books that, like Carol Dweck’s Mindsets, really clarified the way I saw things, particularly in regards to innovation. Just being ‘right’ or bringing a good idea to the table does will not necessarily bring the change desired. The challenge is to really be clear why such change and innovation is important. This can mean supporting others to drive change, helping them as leaders.
  • GEG: Considering it was an event organised by an edtech giant, I am not sure how much Googly knowledge I left GTA with and I am not sure that it really matters. Instead, the event demonstrated the potential for using Google Apps to support change. I actually think that I left with more thoughts about how to facilitate professional development. For example, Corrie Barclay and I ran a Google Educator Group event at the end of last year. We designed it around the idea that teachers could share and create. It was not necessarily the ‘success’ that I envisaged, but it did leave me with more to critique and think about. A part of a longer process exploring how to support others with change.
  • Driving Change: It has been interesting seeing some others celebrate their successes. Whether it be Riss Leung and her new makerspace or Steve Mouldey’s website 1st Follower, designed to support others with the change process. I left GTA with the question: How Might We ENGAGE PARENTS in a CULTURAL SHIFT to make RELATIONSHIPS and CONNECTIONS the focus of learning? Part of me thought that this might have been a little too ambitious. However, to me, that was the point of the event. I would liked to have jumped into disruptive pedagogies or some other area of change, but I felt that was the safe option. I chose a topic that was messy and wicked, with no clear solution. Every school is unique and has its own context. Engaging with parents and the wider community in a meaningful way is one area that this shows through. Since then, I have continued to ask questions, read widely, listen to different perspectives and test out different iterations. I will be honest, I definitely have not succeeded in bringing parents and the community into the classroom as Chris Betcher and I had envisaged. However I have started implementing different means of sharing and connecting beyond the classroom, which is definitely a step further in what feels like the direction.

So what about you? What big events have you been a part of? Programs that you’ve been privy to? What are the lasting impacts on your professional practice? As always, comments are welcome.


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Just Make – Documenting Play and Exploration in Robotics


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs

I have been wondering for a while about all the hype around the Reggio Emila Approach, an early childhood program that focuses on relationships, documentation, project work, personal expression and active listening. Initially my attention was sparked by Dan Donahoo’s keynote for ICTEV13 Conference and the notion of the digital village. More recently, Cameron Paterson piqued my interest. Firstly, with a post about the links between Project Zero and Reggio Emilia through his discussion of the book Visable Learners. Then more recently in a post exploring the use of documentation in the Secondary classroom. I have been left thinking about what Reggio might offer my own teaching practises.

One of the things that stands out to me in regards to Reggio is the power of play and discovery. The idea of students driving their own projects and inquiry with the teacher providing a space and documenting the various experiences has a lot of potential. Although this could happen in any context, I saw a real opportunity through the teaching of robotics.

I felt particularly challenged by Steve Brophy in regards to letting go. In a post talking about developing a Makerspace, he explained that:

From a facilitator point of view, I purchased everything but opened nothing. I left the whole process to the kids and was constantly amazed by how much the kids would ask “are you sure we can do this?”

Although I had brought in inquiry in regards to wondering about robotics, I was still reluctant to let go of control of the building process. What I noticed in reflection was that for some students this was fine. They liked the structure that I provided. However, there were some that just wanted to explore and I was only inhibiting, rather than harnessing, this.

As I could find nothing in the AUSVels documents that specifically said students must be able to build and program a NXT Mindstorm robot, I decided instead to provide them with the requirement to ‘make’. What unravelled when I handed out the kits was amazing. Some started with instructions, others tested and tinkered. Some explored programming, others making. Some scrapped the instructions part way through, while others picked them up after some initial open explorations. Some walked around to check what other groups were doing, while others supported different groups with their questions and issues. Although I answered a few questions and found some missing parts, I just moved around and documented what the students were doing. All in all, most students demonstrated a depth of understanding and engagement at the end of the first session far beyond what I had ever seen before in a building session.

in a recent post about play, Tom Barrett suggested that:

It is not simply the timeless nature of immersive play but also the way that physical barriers, and even the rules of physics, become non-existent. They are changed, thwarted and ignored. Superpowers ON!

What was so exciting to observe in the lesson was seeing students enact the greatest superpower possible, the ability to not only learn together, but to in fact drive their own learning.


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Electives, What is Your Choice?

creative commons licensed (BY-SA) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/16593420862

In every school that I have taught, there has been some form of electives in place. From photography to robotics to zoology to outdoor education, the idea is to provide an element of choice and agency. However, this choice is continually contradicted by an essentialist ‘core’ curriculum, where what is taught is decided long before the students arrive. This creates the circumstance where students enter electives feeling that they don’t really matter, for if it did then everyone would be doing it.

Another problem with electives is that they are often decided by looking at the core curriculum and trying to fill in the gaps. The issue with this is that the supposed offer of choice is undermined by the fact that students choose from a predefined list, but often have little say in what actually makes up that list. Although this can be answered by asking the students what they want to learn or are passion about once they are in the subject, there are often expectations already set about what such subjects mean through subject descriptions and historical hand me downs.

I was interested in reading Greg Miller’s post on how his school conducted an enquiry into their elective initiative. Through this process they sort to reinvigorate the various courses to make sure that they were delivering the best learning opportunity possible. As Miller described, the purpose was threefold:

  1. CLARIFY that is, to….. “Make clear or plain” the intent of the Year 9 Interest  Elective Initiative.

  2. DISTINGUISH that is, to…..“Recognise or note/indicate as being distinct or different from; to note differences between” current BOS approved/mandated courses and the  new courses.

  3. INVESTIGATE that is, to….. “Plan, inquire into and draw conclusions about” the best way to deliver Year 9 Interest Electives in 2015.

What stood out was that instead of back filling the subject areas, the focus was placed on the areas of: inquiry, self-directed learning, collaboration and connectivity.  Such innovative practises got me wondering about whether there were any other points of improvement that could be made to the age old elective programs?

One question that came to mind was what if all the electives worked together in a collaborative manner, each addressing a different area, but working towards a common goal? A few years ago, as a part of my Digital Publishing elective, we worked with the Photography, to take pictures of all the students for the school yearbook. However, that was only two classes. Imagine if you had six classes working towards a common goal, at what could be achieved? In conversation, Jon Andrews told me about the Big History Project run out of Macquarie University. Aimed at Year 9 and 10, it is about gaining a deeper understanding of “the cosmos, earth, life and humanity.” As is stated in the introduction, it “offers us the possibility to understand our universe, our world, and our humanity in a new way.”

Going beyond the Big History Project, broadly speaking, Project-Based Learning offers a model to work in a fluid and agile manner. In her work with Learning Futures, Valerie Hannon talks about the power of Project-Based Learning. One of the things that stands out are the many entry points available, whether it be a whole week or a few hours. For example, many schools are using Genius Hour as a means for introducing Project-Based Learning. I wonder if Genius Hour could work in the place of electives? Where instead of teachers taking set subjects, their role is to support students with whatever it is that they are doing.

A similar example to the Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time or whatever you want to call it is the account given by Jon Andrews in the book Experiences in Self-Determined Learning of ‘Immersion Studies’. (You can also hear a presentation of this on the TER Podcast.)  Like an electives program, Immersion Studies Time was a designated time in Early Years designed for students to engage with the Arts. What is significant about this initiative is that it fits with school’s heutagogical philosophy. It is not an event, a one off, rather it is another cog all running together.

I have taught in an environment that ran inquiry-based programs in two hour blocks. Beyond the issue that if there was something on that week, such as sport or a public holiday, students simply miss out on their dose of inquiry. The bigger problem was that, as Kath Murdoch points out, “we can’t expect kids to be curious ‘on demand’.” If such pushes to innovate, to wonder, to be curious are not celebrated and perpetuated elsewhere, then there is a danger that they often go nowhere. This starts, Murdoch explains, long before planning. It is a way of teaching.

What about you then? What are your experiences of electives? Of Genius Hour? Of heutagogical learning? I would love to know. Comments welcome, as always.


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Adding Ambiguity into the Learning Mix

creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by CaptPiper: http://flickr.com/photos/piper/4249136849

One of my goals this year has been to move towards a more student-centred approach. Whether it be reducing the time spent on instruction or providing more meaningful tasks, I have sort to evolve my own practise. Often such conversations open up into talk about choice, authentic projects and placing students at the centre of discussions. However, a particular ingredient that I have added to my cocktail this year has been the focus on ambiguity.
 
Ambiguity can come in many shapes or forms. For me, it maybe leaving a project open for interpretation or providing a task where students are given a space to decide on various elements. In his book on digital literacy, Doug Belshaw wrote a fantastic explanation of ambiguity, influenced largely by William Empson’s book Seven Types of Ambiguity. For me, ambiguity has come in the form of narrative. My focus has been to move the focus away from what to focus on why. Although this feels like a long way from +Ewan McIntoshcall for students to find their own problems, it is at least a step towards a space where students can play and explore. I feel that at its origin all learning is ambiguous and messy. The biggest challenge is what we do with this.
This year has been a bit topsy turbo in regards to my allotments. I have had the opportunity to teach a wide range of subjects, including music, media studies, literacy intervention and business studies. Some of the challenges I have facilitated have included creating a yearbook and developing a performance based on space, not just content. However, the topic that I found most interesting was the use of 3D shapes with a group of Year 7 Numeracy Extension students.
 
I always find intervention and extension classes interesting. Unlike a traditional classroom where you maybe in charge of implementing the curriculum, I always feel a responsibility to not only provide support based on where students are at, as all teachers should, but also to sustain some sort of connection to what is occurring back in the classroom. Therefore, I always ask the usual teachers if there is anything that they would like me to cover? This term the students had been focusing on shape and measurement, I was therefore asked to explore surface area. 
One of the interesting things associated with extension classes is which pedagogical cocktail do you use. I made the decision to provide the students with a beginning, interested in where they would take it. I decided to use measurements associated with houses. So after brainstorming all the different forms of measurement associated with houses, I gave each student a net of a simple model house created using Foldify and asked them to choose a particular form of measurement to focus their investigation. I am going to be honest, I was a little nervous, but isn’t it amazing how with a little faith students can achieve amazing things.
 
Although I spoke to the students about surface area, I encouraged them to focus on any problem and said that I would support them with whatever they came up with. Some of the projects that students posed were:
  • how much paint would be needed to repaint the exterior
  • how much glass would be required to replace all the windows
  • how much wood would be required in making a staircase for a second story
  • how many tiles would be required to replace the roof
In addition to the problem, I told the students that they could use any measurements that they liked. If they wanted their house to be twenty meters wide then they needed to consider the height and whether it was still logical based on the model at hand.
What was great about all of the different problems was that each of these tasks was just as unfamiliar to me as it was to them. Unlike the situation that often arises in class where the learning at hand is relatively familiar to the teacher providing support and instruction, in handing over some sort of ownership and providing an element of ambiguity, the role of sage is truly compromised. What takes pride of place in such situations is learning.
Although +Ewan McIntosh makes the point the challenge of finding a problem is often the first decision taken away from students. I feel that providing the situation for them to develop their own problems is at least a step towards this. To me this is also a step towards what +Peter Skillen‘s calls Tinkering-Based Learning, where the focus is on exploration that leads to questions, rather than vice versa. 

So what has been an ingredient that you have added to your pedagogical cocktail this year and how has it turned out?

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Teachers are Learners Too – A Reflection on Professional Development, Being a Mentor and Teacher Inquiry

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by William M Ferriter: http://flickr.com/photos/plugusin/14823535028
 
It is so easy as educators to fall into the trap of: do as I say, not as I do. Education constantly gives lip service to lifelong learning, but how many actually practise it in a meaningful way? A part of the problem is that so often we neither know what it actually means to learn something as an adult or simply where to start. For some it is confronting to take the teachers hat off and approach this from the perspective of a learner. What is sometimes even more confronting though at times is teaching teachers, mentoring them through the learning process.
 
This year I have been lucky enough to be a part of the DEECD’s ‘Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century’ program. The premise behind it is to introduce educators to 21st century pedagogy and technologies through the use of the inquiry process. What could be understood as the ways of working, as well as the tools for working. This has involved a large amount of learning by doing for both myself as a coach and the participants I am responsible for.
 
As a part of the program, I have mentored a group of teachers through their own project(s). The group was initially brought together around the common theme of collaboration. From there we explored, chatted and posed a range of questions online, through a range of platforms. This finally led to the formation of our driving question: “How can we use technology to enhance collaboration in the classroom?” The thought was that instead of collaborating on a big project, that we would each work on something specific to our own context. Some chose to investigate the potential of Google Apps for Education as a means for students to collaborate in and out of the classroom. While others explored the power and potential of student blogs.

Throughout the process, there have been two aspects that have really challenged me. Firstly, what exactly is my place as a coach and mentor. For at times there has been little activity in the Google Community we created. Whose problem is this and what then is my role in elevating this situation? Secondly, I feel that there is a need at times to unlearn preconceived notions. One of the challenges is that it is not a traditional approach to professional development where educators are simply spoken to and told what to do or think, instead the programs involved a large amount of personal buy in.
 
In a recent post on the role of the instructor in student centred learning, Mary Stewert suggests that three key elements:
  1. authority and responsibility for the task
  2. providing guidance for the sidelines
  3. presence rather than defined role
The purpose of each is to continually find a balance between learning design and space for emergence in the push to facilitate collaborative learning communities. I really liked how Stewert outlined the place of the instructor as being important, but in a different way than usual. Erica McWilliam describes this as the ‘meddler in the middle’, still their, but with a different purpose. While coming from the perspective of coaching, +Cameron Paterson borrows from Needham in suggesting the leader needs to not only enable the conditions, but make sure learning in linking back to students.
 
The whole process has been challenging for although I have provided guidance and been present, in hindsight I fear that through my fervour and enthusiasm, I have been too present and provided far too much support, ironically undermining the space for the emergence of learning. Another coach actually allocated the role of leader to another team member, they therefore acted as a support for the support. I am feeling that this may have been a better model to push for. Associated with this need to lead without always being the actual leader, the other challenge I have faced is the need at times to unlearn.
 
In an interesting post discussing the constant to and fro between instructionism and constructionism, Paul Dunbar suggests that at times there is a third ‘ism’ needed to evolve the learning process, what he calls ‘destructivism’. As he states, “at certain points on the learning curve, some deconstruction needs to take place before the learner can move on to the next level.” The most obvious area for unlearning often relates to the roles and expectations in the learning space. Although this does not apply to everyone, many of us have a default setting associated with professional development which involves others doing the work for us. 
 
In addition to learners needing to ‘unlearn’, I have found that instructors sometimes need to unlearn certain habits too. For as +Cameron Paterson puts forward, “if we want teachers to take ownership for their learning, the coach cannot be the expert, as this creates learned helplessness on the part of the coached teachers.” Initially I would answer every question that was asked of me, overload the space with a wide array of resources. The problem with this is that I was taking the messiness out of the whole process. After this was pointed out to me, I turned to Diigo as a place to share various resources. My thoughts were that I was still sharing, but in a way that people had to go and look for the resources if they wanted it, rather than being served on a platter.
 
 
There have been some great posts relating to the challenges relating to professional development. From +Steve Brophy on the connected nature of learning, to +Corrie Barclay on the endless journey of being more effective. However, the one constant is that the best learning environments are driven by us not for us. Something often easier said than done. Just as Fisher and Fray suggest that we do not need another generation of teacher-dependent learners, so to do we not need another generation of leader-dependent teachers.
 
What has been your experiences of professional learning? What worked? What didn’t? What were the biggest challenges? How were you empowered? Or empowering?

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So Which Pedagogical Cocktails Are Drinking Today?

cc licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by Thomas Hawk: http://flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/2355249759


I am not sure if I was being naive or slightly arrogant, but this post began its life as an effort to provide an overview of the different modes and methods of inquiry. Whether it be challenged-based, project-based, problem-based or plain old inquiry, I was trying to bring everything together in my own head, to make more sense of it all. However, what I soon realised was that the more I explored the topic, the more variants that appeared, with so many different ideas and interpretations. It all came to a head when +Richard Olsen shared a blog with me from +Ewan McIntosh on the difference between project-based learning and design learning. As you read through both McIntosh’s post, as well as various comments that follow, you realise that there is little consistency throughout. Although many of the differences are only marginal, there is little agreement on what constitutes either problem-based learning and design learning.
At the end of the day, the reality is that every teacher is different – we just choose to deny it. Even though we may practise a certain pedagogy, it does not necessarily mean that it will be the same as the next person. Rather, everyone has their our own intricacies and twists on the way they do things. What then starts to matter more is the practitioner rather than the pedagogy. I think that this is the point that John Hattie and co are trying to make by moving the focus from the student to the teacher.
I believe that this re-visioning of education is best summed up by Kath Murdoch in her fantastic post on the attributes of an inquiry teacher. Murdoch argues that inquiry-based learning is more than planning a unit, it is about facilitating this learning in the classroom. As she states, “Inquiry is not just about knowing how to plan – it’s about how we teach.” This got me thinking that maybe a better approach to work towards isn’t about identifying the ‘best’ practise as revolving around curriculum where the end is decided before the beginning, maybe our focus should be on how we teach and adjusting this to the needs of each and every situation.

The Pedagogical Cocktail

The idea that caught me was the metaphor of a cocktail. While chatting with some new found members of my PLN (Dick Faber and Alan Thwaites) it occurred to me that our chats were something akin to being at a bar and what we were drinking were pedagogical cocktails. However, unlike a traditional bar where you go up and request your drink, all the ingredients are laid out for us to make up our own. This creates a scenario where choice is only limited to our own creativity. Then after enjoying a cocktail or two, we are able to share back and reflect with those in our networks, hearing about the ups and downs, and helping us with our next choice of cocktail.
I think that the problem is that sometimes we think that we feel that we can only partake of a particular cocktail, that someone else always knows better, therefore we should listen to them. However, this denial of choice often results in teachers who have little engagement and ownership over their curriculum and classrooms, while it also restricts many potentials and possibilities. Instead, teachers maintain a status-quo that often no longer accounts for the world that will come tomorrow, let alone we live in today.
In an interview for the +TER Podcast, John Goh captures this situation by suggesting that, “all of us have a ‘default’ value from teachers college.” This concoction of tastes reassures and comforts us. That old friend whose welcoming aromas makes us feel at ease. The challenge though, as Goh goes on to propose, is that “we need to make sure that we move on from that.” Although we may know it, like it and find comfort within the default value, we need to move on and adjust our choice of cocktail to the food on offer or to the environment being set. It just wouldn’t feel right drinking a stock beer with everyone wearing tuxedos. The reality is that it is not enough to going back to the tried and trusted again and again.

The Right Method for the Moment

I entered this year with the endeavour to provide more time for student lead learning. Other than exploring +Mark Barnes‘s The 5-Minute Teacher, I took to exploring the potentials of different modes of inquiry. Having had some history with inquiry-based learning, I returned like the prodigal son, but this time instead of sticking to one particular model, I was instead interested in identifying the right method for the moment. This is portrayed by two contrasting units of work, one for Robotics, while the other for Business Studies.

An Introduction to Robotics

Having taught the class for three years, it was due for an overhaul. Fine, I had refined things each year, but instead of rolling out the same assignment with a set of questions and tasks containing a restricted set of ideas and information, I had taken to providing more opportunities for students to follow up on their own interests. So I began with a series of lessons focused on immersing students into different aspects of robotics, such as what constitutes a robot, some of the history associated with robotics and how everything is represented through popular culture. Once students had completed these tasks, they posed questions associated with each of the three areas. They then chose one of their questions to investigate and present back. As a class, we then created a measurement for greatness to provide a point of reflection for students to work towards. I really wanted to share these collaboratively and get everyone commenting and questioning on each others presentations. However, due to some technical restrictions, we weren’t able to do this. 

How Can we Measure Success?

On the flip side, for Business Studies I started the unit by posing the question ‘how can we measure success?’ From there the class investigated who they consider as being successful and what makes them so. After that, I gave the challenge of coming up with a way of measuring the success of a student, the principal and Lionel Messi. They then shared their different conceptions with each other, giving feedback about what they thought was good and what they would improve. Once they had fixed up their various forms of measurement, the class then used Socrative to vote on which one was the most effective and why. With this decision, they then decided to work in pairs to make a series of profiles of successful people and combine them into a book.

Although I am sure there are some who would argue that I have not really done inquiry, that I have probably cut corners and that I haven’t really taken authentic action. I would agree and I admit that this is something that I still need to work on. However, sometimes ideals aren’t always ideal. At the very least, a move from the teacher at the centre to the student was a positive change.

Know What Your Drinking When Ordering from the Bar

It can be so easy to jump on a band wagon, to wear a certain ‘ism’ on your sleeve as if it were some sort of given. The reality though is that there are no ‘givens’, instead their are choices and consequences, as I have stated elsewhere. The most difficult thing to do is actually making the best choice for the current context and situation. In a recent interview on +TER Podcast, +David Price suggested, “I’d rather you do didactic learning well, than project learning badly.” His point is that we sometimes choose a particular method because we feel we have to and baulk at others, because they are seen as flawed or contradictory. However saying a blanket ‘no’ to didactic learning is just as bad as saying a blanket ‘no’ to inquiry-based learning. No is not really a useful word when discussion choice.

+John Spencer makes a similar point in his insightful post ‘Seven Horrible Things That Really Aren’t All That Horrible‘. In this post, Spencer discusses such taboos as worksheets, multiple choice tests and textbooks, arguing that sometimes it is how these things are used which is the issue and that sometimes they do have a place.

In the end, the most important thing that we can do is be conscious of the decisions we make. I am aware that this is no simple matter, as was pointed out to me by +Darryn Swaby on Twitter:

@mrkrndvs #pedagogicalcocktail Here’s the thing…I’m not sure I know [what pedagogical cocktail I’ve been drinking]. I think that is why your analogy resonated with me.— Darryn Swaby (@DarrynSwaby) March 28, 2014

To me this all starts by asking yourself, what does my classroom look, feel and sound like and how is it different from other classrooms. I think that this may be what +Richard Olsen is aiming at with his new venture ‘The Modern Learning Canvas‘. Where teachers are not only encouraged to identify the how and what associated with learning and teaching, but most importantly, the why. At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to at least be informed, through data and feedback, so that we can make the best choice possible, rather than keep on drinking the same old cocktail again and again.

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Digital Publishing – My Foray into Project Based Learning

Background

One thing that I have learnt over time is that there is no silver bullet in education. However, there are some things that work better than others. The problem with this though is that you do not always know what the ideal solution is until you are in the midst of learning and teaching. 

I have taken a range of ICT-based electives for a few years now. From Pulp Publishing to Multimedia. One of the biggest changes that has occurred during this time has been a transition from teaching ICT to teaching through ICT. One of the consequences of this change has been the search for the best way to teach technology without actually teaching the technology. One of the answers that I have found is the notion of Project Based Learning. 


I first stumbled upon Project Based Learning via a post from +Rich Lambert looking at the difference between Project Based Learning and Challenge Based Learning. After exploring a range of free resources provided by BIE, such as Rubric for Rubrics, and incorporating some of these into my teaching, I got to a point where if I really wanted to see its worth, that I really needed to enter into it in a more whole hearted manner. I had already seen some of the issues associated with Inquiry Based Learning as the school actually prided itself on being an inquiry school with various ‘critical’ friends, such as Jen Wilson and Kath Murdoch. 


I just needed a little bit of encouragement and that came in the form of a post ‘PBL: Managing the Mushy Middle‘ from +Bianca Hewes. I always felt comfortable with structuring an inquiry unit. However, some of my early experiences with inquiry had petered out in the middle section and dragged at the end. Hewes’ post provided a wide array of resources and was the impetus for throwing myself into the wolves once again. To relinquish control in the hope of empowering students in their learning. I decided that the best place put PBL to the test was in my Year 9 Elective entitled Digital Publishing.

 

Context & Background

Small businesses, home office workers and social organisations often find it necessary to prepare their own advertising flyers, promotional pamphlets, menus, display notices, catalogues, timetables, tickets, letterheads, business cards and web pages. However, the question that people often ask themselves, how can it be done easier and quicker? Students in Digital Publishing will explore different information and communication technologies and reflect upon their potential. This elective will culminate in the creation of the Year 9 Yearbook.

 

Blurb from the Year 9 Elective Handbook

 

If you ask anyone, Digital Publishing is the subject where the students make the Yearbook. What that actually means, no-one really cared too much. So, Just as +Anne Mirtschin describes trialling gaming because she wanted to see their potential, I wanted to trial getting the students to produce real and authentic publications from scratch to see what would happen if students were given control over an authentic task. So other than creating the yearbook, I really had a blank slate on which to work upon. Spurred by +Jim Sill‘s call during his keynote at the Melbourne Google Education Summit 2013 to allow creativity in the classroom and let go, I let go – a bit.
 

Publishing with Purpose

I started the class off with a focus on publishing with purpose. One of the challenges that I had spent hours racking my brain trying to come up with an authentic task for students to complete in order to learn and explore the different ways we can publish digital content. A few years ago, when the focus was on the tool, not the task, I had methodically gone through a range of applications and programs with the students. Although some students got something out of this, surprisingly, there was little engagement overall. I therefore came up with the idea of creating a publication for students and staff focusing on programs and applications to use when programming.
 
In unpacking this task, students grappled with a number of challenges and issues, such as:
  • What programs should be reviewed
  • What should the structure of each of the reviews be
  • What program should be used to create the publication
  • How would the publication be organisation
Each of these questions was discussed by the class in a communal manner. Once this was done, each of the students chose their own program and went about exploring.
 
There were quite a few issues that arose out of the process, such as some students taking more responsibility than others, as well as a lack of care and consistency for the end product. In addition to that, some students took the task as being able to find other examples of tutorials and ‘borrow’ from them. 

Some of the reasons for this were that students did not believe that anyone would actually use the document, even if it were shared with staff and students, because if people really wanted to find such information then they could look it up themselves. Another issues was that I took on the responsibility of being the project manager and bringing the end product together. I think that this was the biggest mistake, because many students showed little care for what they submitted, believing that I would fix up any mistakes.
 

Yearbook 

After my mixed experiences with exploring different types of publishing, I took a different tact with the Yearbook. Instead of controlling the structure of the project, I stepped back. I handed control over to the class and instead of being the focus of the lesson, I stepped aside and simply added comment as a kind of devil’s advocate, querying decisions and posing questions when students stopped talking.

Initially, I had thought that the yearbook would simply be a digital publication, a PDF publication, that students would get access to. With little money in the budget, I was unconvinced as to how we would get the yearbook published. However, the students had a different idea. They did some research, surveyed the staff and students in Year 9 and even made some calls to some companies. Next minute, they had teed up a trial and demonstration from Fusion Yearbook Australia.


Associated with this, the students had looked at some examples of yearbooks and brainstormed a list of things that they thought should be included. Once they had refined this list, they then divvied up the list amongst themselves, with students working in pairs. In addition to the various jobs, such as student profiles, elective reviews and organising photographs, two students were chosen to oversee the whole project, helping out where needed and making sure that everyone knows what needs to be done.


The students then proceeded through what Hewes’ describes as the ‘mushy middle’. One of the biggest difficulties faced was in gathering together all of the content and information. A part of the problem was that the photographs and reviews had to be gathered. In addition to this, just as with the first project, some students put in more effort than others. This led to a tight situation in regards to submitting the yearbook online on time, which meant that instead of having a few weeks to thoroughly edit and proofread the finished product as a class, this process was left to a group of dedicated few, who gave up their own time to make sure everything was as it should be. 


Although I had always intended to implement many of Hewes’ initiatives, such as developing a comprehensive project calendar, creating a contract and constructing a self-assessment rubric, once I had relinquished much of the control to the students, they were sometimes hard to implement. Often, the class leaders thought that some of these things were a waste of time and were really about me taking back control. 


Although running a class on passion led to some great initiative on behalf of some, it still had the problem of everyone being being passionate about the task, which was not always the way. I guess though that this is sometimes the risk, if you are not willing to fail, then sometimes you cannot really succeed. My only concern is that sometimes I felt that the class failed more than it succeeded.

 
Once the yearbook had been submitted to the publishers, the class came up with a list of suggestions for future students and this is what they came up with:
  • Maybe use Microsoft Word, instead of Fusion, unless the Internet is improved.
  • Spend less time planning what needs to be done and more time doing it. 
  • Find an ‘alternative’ to student laptops, as they are too slow and crash all the time 
  • Collect images from the start of the year, rather than wait until the end.
  • Have people should take more ownership over editing of their own work.
  • Be clear and consistent about the fonts, layouts and backgrounds used.
  • Split tasks so that each individual knows what to do to help with accountability. 
  • Develop a ‘cheat sheet’ for students, which include jobs, layout and timeline. 
  • Have a weekly update as to where things are at and a list of any new jobs.
  • Create clear descriptions and expectations for the different roles 
Although I did not agree with all of their points of reflection, it was interesting what the students identified in their sometimes scathing review.
 

Learning is about Lessons Learnt

Some of the lessons that I learnt from the whole unit include:

  • Be more stringent with timelines. That means not only providing the due date, but breaking projects up into its part and providing each of these a due date too. I had encouraged students to set both short and long term goals in regards to the project and was hoping that managing deadlines would be a part of this. However, some students are better at setting goals than others.
  • Plant the seeds for the task earlier on in the year. That means that people need to be aware from the very start where to save photographs or submit reviews to.
  • Be clearer with descriptions of the different roles and the project as a whole. It is funny reading back through Hewes’ post now, especially when she says things like, “I thought team contracts were completely naff. I didn’t use them for years. Now, I think they’re really important documents for my students.” I could not agree more. I did not implement them because I thought that the students would laugh at them, telling me that they were for primary classes. Whereas now I think that they were exactly what was needed, something that they could refer back to, a reference point, a set of expectations that everyone agrees to.
  • Support the People, not the Project. I really did not know where to step in and when to stay out. I was so worried about it being the students work that I don’t think that I got involved enough. Although I helped a few groups solve some of their problems, I think that I could have done more equipping the leaders in the class by sitting down with them and not just discussing the project, but also helping them to better facilitate the project. Although they did a fantastic job, they still needed prompts and guidance and I could have done this better.


In the end, I am not sure that this is the best representation of Project Based Learning or if it really constitutes Project Based Learning at all, for the end goal/product was decided upon prior to starting. However, I learnt a lot about how students learn and look forward to running the class again this year.


Would love your thoughts and comments below, especially about how you think that the whole process could be improved.


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A Meditation on the Taboos Associated with Being Connected

 
There has been a lot shared lately as a part of Connected Educator Month about the benefits of connecting online. In many respects, I agree with +George Couros that ‘isolation is now a choice educators make‘. However, something overlooked in many of the discussions and debates are some of the taboos associated with being a connected educator. Some of the reasons why teachers do make the choice to stay isolated.
 

Teacher-Student-Friend?

In a recent post, Peter Dewitt spoke about how he saw a photo come up in his feeds from an ex-student, whom he had taught in Year 1. She was photographed finishing her last teaching round. It got me thinking, when is it ok to connect with students (and ex-students) online? Another similar example that comes to mind is from +Adam Bellow‘s inspiring keynote from ISTE2013 where he invited people to ‘change the world’. A part of this is utilising the power of social media to connect with students through such mediums as Facebook. In addition to this, +Anne Mirtschin‘s many posts and presentations on connecting online seem to be littered with incidental connections with students in and out of school in a whole range of spaces. Now I am not saying that any of these situations are wrong, but it begs the question, when do we cross the line, when does our relationship with students go from being a professional one to being personal?
 
A few years ago, a friend of mine who works at a different school told me about how his principal directed teachers to remove all ex-students from their social media accounts. He spoke about the threat of images and ideas being spread, the spectre of being sued for negligence and a litany other things. Now I am not sure if the principal in question was mandated by their region to tell the staff this, but what confuses me about such situations is that little attention was given to what teachers actually publish online in the first place. I know some teachers who won’t even connect with other teachers online, let alone ex-students, in the fear of being caught out and incriminated, while there are others who won’t connect with anyone and simply leave social media altogether. I have written about the culture of fear elsewhere. To me, this makes me wonder what are they afraid of? For some, it is a fear of their lifestyle choices outside of teaching crossing over into their professional life. Others, it is a political decision, a refusal to share personal information and ideas with online corporations. Sadly, what is not brought up enough during such discussions amongst staff is what is published online, rather than who we are publishing too.
 

Connecting in the Classroom

Attached to his website, +stephen heppell and his wife, have provided a different take on the social media phenomena. Instead of running from it, the Heppell’s propose that we run to it in a safe and constructive manner. Correspondingly, they have developed a list of some do’s and don’ts associated with using social media safely in the classroom. 
 
Some of their do’s include:
  • Developing a personal and professional presence online 
  • Let students ‘friend’ you, not vice versa 
  • Build groups for your classes and share information and resources 
  • Post positive information 
Some of the don’ts include: 
  • Don’t FB chat 
  • Social networks in school are not places for criticisms or whingeing. 
  • Don’t look at, let alone comment on, pupils’ pictures 
Now in some respect, I think that sites such as Facebook and Google+ have actually come a long way since 2010 when the Heppell’s space was last updated. For example, you are now able to ‘post’ and ‘share’ with different groups and circles, you are therefore supposedly able to maintain different connections within the one ‘presence’ (although I wouldn’t want to post the wrong information to the wrong group, may be a bit awkward.) However, many of the original tenets remain pertinent today. Whatever medium you are communicating in, it is always important to have boundaries. 
 
I think that this is sometimes why some staff have issues with students sending emails to their school email account. For them, this crosses their private and personal boundary. They just don’t expect to have students sending through questions, while they are checking their work email. Whether it is using a school’s student emailing system to engage with students or setting up spaces like Edmodo, the most important thing is to set up boundaries. The problem is though that such boundaries are often left unset or worse, they are set by the habits of other teachers whose classroom culture creates a different set of expectations.
 
A simple example of where a clear set of boundaries has been set up comes from +Richard Lambert. In his school two different email accounts have been created to differentiate between staff to staff communications and student related communications. The school’s Google Apps for Education account email that staff and students get is used to facilitate collaboration and connections between staff and students, while staff’s edumail accounts are left for professional correspondences.
 
Sometimes though there is something even more than boundaries, sometimes the question is what we choose to publish in the first place.
 

Duty of Care … To Ourselves

 
 
Just as there is some confusion at times where duty of care and professional responsibility starts and stops, so too is there a dangerous blurring between our private and professional relations when it comes to our online identify. Often, through social sites such as Google+ and Facebook, we connect with people in the community that we work in. Whether it be someone met at the gym or a team mate at a local sporting club, these online associations often compromise who we are and raise questions about our actions. The big challenge is that we are all many things to many people. For some, this is just too much to handle.
 
I have been privy to many a holiday briefing where staff are warned about how they ‘act’ in public over the break. This fear can lead to some staff almost refusing to go out in the community in which they work in, instead going to great lengths to create a divide between their professional and private worlds. Sometimes though, you can never escape past students or parents in the community. I remember a fellow staff member sharing a story about how she bumped into an ex-student at three in the morning a long way from home.
 
I think that this dilemma of trying to create a divide between our private and public worlds relates to our online identity as well. No matter how far you run, how many walls you hide behind, you still leave a trace whether we like it or not. Often we provide information to corporations whose goal is to make money, they often slip with keeping information and accounts private. Facebook, for example, has a long history of ‘accidentally’ changing users privacy settings, switching them from private to public.
 
Although I clearly don’t agree with what Facebook does, my bigger concern is what we put up online in the first place. The big question, in my view, is that we continue to think that we can really have a public and private divide completely separated from each other? We speak to students about the issues associated with digital citizenship, when in fact many of us fail to heed the warnings ourselves.

In an insightful article, ‘On Best Behaviour: Three Golden Rules for Ethical Cyber Citizenship‘, +David Tuffley suggests that:

Eventually, but not soon enough for some, society evolves rules of acceptable use that become established as standard behaviour.

As various sources of technology becomes a part of our everyday lives, we need to consider what these ‘rules’ should be. Addressing our universal actions online, Tuffley appropriates Kant’s notion of ‘categorical imperatives’. He outlines three suggested guiding principles for the ethical use of technology:
  1. Before I do something with this technology, I ask myself, would it be alright if everyone did it?
  2. Is this going to harm or dehumanise anyone, even people I don’t know and will never meet?
  3. Do I have the informed consent of those who will be affected?
Whether Tuffley is right or wrong, I think that it highlights one important factor, that we need to better self-monitor ourselves when it comes to technology. For in the end, our first duty of care should be to ourselves, for if we cannot maintain our own public identity, what hope do students have?
 

Conclusion

Now I am not saying that all the points and ideas that I have discussed here are right, such as connecting in the classroom, but they do deserve to be given due diligence. If teachers are to become more connected, then these are some of the things that need to be discussed. Instead of young potential leaders going offline in the fear that their digital footprint may hinder their climb or locking themselves within their gated communities, we need to discuss these issues in a more meaningful manner. The question that we always need to be mindful of through all of these discussions is what are the consequences of our choices and, in particular, what possibilities are being missed if we make the decision to stay isolated, rather than being connected.

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I Blog Therefore I Am?

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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What’s so Professional about Relationships?

 
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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