Learning and Teaching-quick fix diet or lifestyle decision?

I’m feeling strangely reflective today. This time two years ago I was recovering from the back operation that changed my life for the better. To cut a long story short, I was 125kg pre operation and 6 months later I’d lost 30 kg thanks to my new ability to exercise and a serious change of diet. So why am I writing about this in my education blog? Well, it got me thinking ( strange though it might sound ) about how education is a lot like what I went through to lose all that weight. I think education is like the weight loss industry. You can treat the experience two ways – a quick fix, short term success crash diet, or a life changing lifestyle decision.
Bear with me, if you can, as I explore this analogy further. For three months after Christmas following the operation, I became firmly focused on changing my body forever. I studied everything there was to know – being a self directed learner, I wasn’t going to any weight loss centre. Just like learning anything else, I felt it was best that I do it my way. By mid April, I had lost 25 kg. I had all but achieved my goal. For the rest of the year, I felt comfortable that I had changed my lifestyle and had consolidated my learning. And how did I do it? The way we should be doing it as learners in the classroom.

  • I set myself a long term goal to improve part of my life that wasn’t working. I didn’t make it unrealistic., though. A student in Grade 5 who has been assessed and diagnosed as 3 years behind in Mathematics is not going to be achieving a consistent, Grade 5 standard by the middle of the year so teacher, parent and child need to be realistic and set a goal for gradual but real improvement. You need to believe you can reach the goal or you won’t make the necessary effort. Sometimes, by making it achievable without too much work results in better than expected results because it wasn’t the struggle you expected. My goal was 30 kg by September – I’d reached 25 by End of April. Without stress but gradually working hard, I have taught students that have made huge improvements in a year.
  • I planned achievable steps to reach my goal. I took away the foods that were a problem, then added in the foods that would make a positive change and then organised the daily menu plan that would become a sustainable, enjoyable diet for me long term. I started walking for 3o minutes after school, built up to 30 minutes before and after, increased one of those to an hour, added in some bike riding of gradually increasing durations until I had a daily program which was manageable, flexible and consistent. Likewise, with learning, we need to plan goals that gradually build to success. If a child wants to improve their multiplication skills, we don’t rush into the ultimate short cut algorithm without going through the stages of conceptual understanding. If we rush, we will think they can multiply but then find out when concepts become more difficult, that they don’t really understand multiplication, just a procedure.
  • I monitored and tracked my progress. All the good nutrition and healthy living advice really stresses this. Once I was fully into my lifestyle change, I tracked the calories of each meal and snack to check I was maintaining my goal intake. I measured and recorded the distance, time and calorie burning result of each of my exercise sessions. I checked my weight regularly ( but not obsessively). This appeared over the top to some in my midst, but the methodical monitoring ensured my success and also enabled me to track my mistakes as well and plan for getting back on track. This is the same in education. Learners can’t just set goals and steps; they need to monitor their progress and level of achievement as well. Students need a journal to reflect on their learning and how it related to their goal. If they achieve some success, by recording what they did they can reflect back on those actions that worked. On the days they ‘failed’, they can think about what they didn’t do and plan what they need to make the progress they need. They can adjust the steps in their plan to catch up if they have fallen behind ( more revision, learn more strategies, work harder on editing, research a better way)
  • Above all, it was my responsibility and I made the decision. I had advice from my doctor and physio. I received encouragement from family and friends. But in the end, it was up to me. For years I had found being healthy difficult to achieve because of something I had let happen. Yes I had a bad back but it was caused or sustained in a big way by my weight problem. The operation fixed the back. I now had the chance to change my lifestyle tof fix the bigger issue. In the same way, it is the student’s responsibility to improve. Great teachers, dedicated parents, fantastic, well researched educational programs can all help, just like the back operation. But if the student doesn’t really want to make the effort, the goal will not be fully realised. It is the same with education in general. School leaders and departments can have the greatest plans but the teachers and students have to buy into them.

So, why am I being so reflective about my lifestyle change? Unfortunately, because I have fallen back into bad habits. I’m like the student who comes back to school after summer vacation and forgotten everything my teacher ‘taught’ me last year. I thought I learnt. I thought I had changed my lifestyle permanently. But ‘one good year does not a great education make.’ Where did I go wrong?

  • I stopped tracking my progress
  • I lost sight of my goal
  • I started taking shortcuts and stopped making the effort
  • I stopped taking responsibility and let others affect what I was doing
  • I decided near enough was good enough
  • I chose short term success over life time success
  • I ignored my mistakes even though I recognised them
  • I stopped planning and put off what I needed to do to a later ( but never completed) date

This is bad learning but it can be fixed. I still know what worked and I am recalibrating next week when Term 3 holidays begin. I got too close to stop now and the plan is coming back.

On the larger scale of Education, there are lessons in this.

Learning is not an isolated year by year proposition. The aim is not to get all the work done in Grade 5 so we can go on holidays at the end of the year. The aim is not to ‘cover the curriculum’ and hope that next year’s teacher will start all over again from scratch. Learning has to be maintained. Learning has to be maintained. Learning has to be tracked. And as soon as cracks start to appear in EVERY student’s progress, we need to be able to identify what happened, what caused it and have a plan for doing something about it. We can’t find out in Grade 4 or 5 that a student can’t count past 100 or double numbers.

We can’t rely on a curriculum set in concrete. For the last 25 years, I have been told that our curriculum documents are guides, not prescriptions. It is the responsibility of schools and individual teachers to ensure that students’ individual needs are met. This has for a long time troubled me. There are gaps everywhere in our systems’ curricula. Mathematical concepts are being introduced in Grade 3 then not reappearing again until Grade 6. Then we wonder why our students aren’t making connections from year to year. It’s one thing to have a curriculum that adresses key essential learning for each grade level. It’s another thing to actually provide a sequential plan for getting from Point A in Grade Prep to Point B in Grade 8. This is too often lacking system wide. We rely too much on individual schools solving these problems. We are doing a great job planning our new Maths curriculum but I don’t get why the Education Department doesn’t do that in the first place so that EVERY school has access to what we will have by the end of the year.

Learning is not a superficial experience. It is not a set of disconnected assessment tasks and projects that result in a good or bad report card. It should not be guided by week by week handing in of work that is judged by a teacher and handed back to file away for parents to see three months later. It certainly shouldn’t be determined by a series of multiple choice questions on a given day that are then reflected on four months later. It needs to be meaningful, ongoing, flexible, monitored, altered, maintained, ‘owned’ and lifelong.

Just like my diet and fitness program.

What are you doing to make writing real in your classroom?

Are your students writing for you or themselves? Are your students writing for you or for a real audience? Are your students writing because they have to and don’t know or because they want to and have a purpose? Have you thought about what you are doing to make writing real in your classroom?

  • Do your students write the school newsletter and fill it with interesting student generated content or is just full of a bunch of reports from teachers, parents and the principal?
  • Do they publish their writing as ebooks that are uploaded to the school website or a class/personal blog so that parents, friends, other students and any other interested reader can download it onto their iPad, Kindle, smartphone and read it, giving them a audience beyond their teacher and classmates?
  • Are your students writing advertisements on fictitious products because it’s the genre of the month in your class or have they made a connection with a local business and put forward a proposal to create some real ads for them to promote their product in the local community or on YouTube?
  • Do your students write a news report so it can be checked off as a non fiction piece of writing to contribute to the requirements for Term 3 writing OR are they part of a dedicated group of students across the school publishing a school newspaper or online news service including school and local news, sport, editorials on important issues they are concerned about, restaurant, music, book and movie reviews, comic strips or satirical cartoons, letters to the editor as well as ads for school and local events? OR Have you made contact with the local newspaper and set up a program allowing children to have their articles published on a regular basis in an actual newspaper?
  • Are you singing Silent Night and Jingle Bells for the 30th Christmas Concert in a row or have you used the talents of local songwriters to run workshops to write some student created songs to perform instead?
  • Have you contacted and made arrangements with an interested author to run workshops with budding writers and possibly collaborate on a book together instead of relying on your own limited narrative writing abilities to teach them to write something with a decent plot?
  • Have you thought of students creating textbooks for other grade levels to use for their next inquiry topic instead of just finishing the unit off with long winded presentations in front of the whole grade and then filing them under “Done”?
  • Have you given them the opportunity to collaborate on a play that they will write and perform for an audience of their choice? Have you given them the opportunity to write a letter to the local theatre company and put forward a proposal to gain their support in the production?
  • Have you considered contacting the local community radio station and booking a regular spot for your class to present a radio program, reader’s theatre performance of a play they have written, conduct an interview of a local celebrity, participate in a debate,all of which have been written by them? OR if not the radio station have you published them as podcasts online?
  • Instead of getting them to write expositions in preparation for the next state or national standardized writing test, have you given your students opportunities to send persuasive texts to the principal, local councillors, members of parliament, major newspapers, TV and radio news programs to argue for change?

(There are a lot of other great examples teachers are using. I’d love to hear them in the comments below.)

If we want to know why our students are still not correcting their spelling errors or leaving out punctuation and paragraphs, maybe we need to consider whether we give them reason to. So let’s make writing real. if you at going to put all that effort that teachers do into conferencing, feedback, exposing them to all those great tech tools for publishing, surely we should give them a reason for all that effort to be put in.

So what are you doing to make writing real in your classroom?

Teachers need to be learning role models

One thing I miss most due to my new part leader/part mentor/part member of teaching team role this year is a full time relationship with students. I get to play cameo roles teaching mini units to focus groups, taking extension groups in Maths and helping children use ICT effectively in their learning. What I don’t get to be, though, is something I believe in deeply – being a role model in learning.

With the shift in emphasis to independent, student centred and driven learning, I think sometimes we drop the ball as teachers in showing students how to be learners through example. I believe teachers have to jump out of the comfort zone of providing guidance, developing rubrics for students to follow, working on samples of work created by other authors and other pre-prepared lesson plans and ideas and get involved in real learning as an example for their students to follow. While I’m not a full time class teacher anymore, these are some examples of how I was a learning role model over the previous years that I think are important for teachers to do.

READING

I read to my class a lot. When I did, I showed joy in sharing the stories I read. I was, and still am when I can be, a performer. Asking children to read with expression but then reading to them without passion does not encourage them to make the effort. Use character voices. Accentuate emotion. Model getting involved in the story. Vary the pace to match the mood. Show them how to respond to written text. I have worked with teachers who always passed responsibility to reading class novels to the students, saying it was important for children to practise reading to an audience. Agreed. But the students won’t know how to if you don’t model how to. If performing is not your thing, modelling the struggle to “sell the story” becomes a teaching moment in itself.

Respond to texts in the same way you expect students to. We often bemoan the lack of detail and quality in our students’ text responses. Sometimes the blame has to be placed on us. We rely on textbook annotated models that break down a response into a series of soulless sentences that follow a structure. For me, I always thought it was far more beneficial for me to write my own reviews, character descriptions, book reports and answered the questions they were expected to answer too. I wrote them at an adult level to show students what could be achieved if they pushed themselves. They didn’t reach my adult level but they wrote some great responses because the bar was raised and the example was set. Teachers need to write, not just tell students to write by following a pattern.

WRITING

Clearly I have embraced blogging and I write for an adult audience for a specific educational purpose. Alongside this blog, though, I have another less visited blog that I set up to be a model for the writing we expect our students to write. I haven’t maintained it as much as I want because I haven’t been involved in students’ writing as much as I had hoped. As a full time class teacher, though, I see genuine writing as a vital component. I don’t see all teachers being as passionate about being writers as they should be. How can you assess a student’s ability to write a narrative or a poem or an exposition, if you can’t show you can do it yourself? I have a problem with children being expected to meet the requirements of rubrics created by teachers that follow ideas from writing textbooks but the teachers don’t write themselves.

Not only should we be writing during class time to model writing behaviours ( and sometimes we may struggle to meet the standards, modelling how difficult writing can be and what we might need to do to achieve some success ) but we should be writing independent of class time to show that writing is a genuine, meaningful activity. Teachers can’t expect students to set up Writers’ Notebooks and Writers Gifts or blogs if they don’t have their own and maintain their own. I love writing. My students have read my stories, plays, poems, songs, reviews, reports, explanations, persuasive and argumentative texts and used them as models for their writing, rarely meeting my standards but pushing themselves ( not all of them, obviously) to achieve a high standard. They’ve also critiqued them and I have accepted some of their advice ( and knocked back plenty, too), modelling the whole conferencing and editing process. Again, some teachers may not find writing as easy or enjoyable as me, but students can learn just as much about the struggles of writing – my blogs are littered with half finished or initial ideas as an example that not all writing ideas work ( I keep them to show not finishing is part of a writer’s life).

MATHEMATICS

We rightly push the importance of problem solving. Modern maths teaching methods revolve around multiple strategies. If we are genuine about this, again we need to be role models for  contemporary maths thinking. Again, ( I know I sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet) I find Maths easy at the primary/elementary/middle school levels I work in but I am very careful to model the varied strategies I want my students to use. As a student in the 70s and 80s I went through the era of pure procedural calculation. I could do it easily then and can easily do it now. By being a role model, though, I have actually improved my Mathematical thinking and understanding by using various strategies and maintaining their consistent use.

I don’t have a problem with procedural algorithms; sometimes they are the most efficient method. What I have a problem with is teachers working so hard in a 4 week unit on mental computation and multiplication strategies in Semester One then undoing all their good work by falling back into their comfort zone of algorithms and times table tests in Semester Two. We have to maintain the rage, easy or not, and keep being role models for mental strategies. I repeat, I have improved my mental computation over the years through sustained use of multiple strategies. Students will too, if we keep up the pressure. If we aren’t good role models, they will follow what they think is the “best maths” and use algorithms when they don’t need to.

Problem solving is the same. Students need to see us trying to solve problems and not problems we find easy. I believe as Maths teachers, we should be modelling the struggle involved in problem solving by tackling problems we don’t know the answer to. No shame in getting others to help you too. That is good role modelling too. I like to work on problems in front of the students. I like investigating with the students. We need to show we think problem solving is relevant and useful by doing it, not just setting the problem and showing them how to solve problems we have the answers too.

INQUIRY

I love learning. A lot of my colleagues think I’m a weird freak ( in the nicest possible way!) at Trivia nights and constantly ask me questions to find out quick answers, often in front of the students. I make the mistake often of telling them the answer. They shouldn’t be asking me the question. They should be inquiring themselves. We expect our students to do the research. We should be role models here as well. The reason I know so much is not just because I grew up in the educational era when you were actually expected to remember stuff, not just “Google” it. I know stuff because I am interested in learning. I investigate. I show interest. I experiment. I do this in front of my students. I have a genuine interest in their topics and want to find out more. I ask probing questions to show how they can go further with their questions because I actually want to know what they are researching. When my classes research, I research. When my students do projects, I do projects. Why wouldn’t you if you really believe in the life long learning mantra we spruik in our policies and mission statements. Again it’s about being genuine. I don’t copy and paste so the students know I won’t accept copy and paste. I want deep understanding so the students know I won’t accept superficial answers to research questions. We have to be good role models as inquiring learners.

It might sound like a lot of hard work. Sometimes it is but I enjoy hard work if the result is learning. But sometimes the work actually make teaching easier. Less planning involved for literacy if you just model what to do. Don’t go looking for books on how to teach narratives. Just write a narrative and share your work with the class. Learning will happen on the job. Don’t spend days making up a poster outlining the research process. Just start researching with the class. Be a role model. Don’t tell them what to do. Show them how it’s done.

Creativity and Quality vs Time Constraints and Quantity

Thanks to Dangerously Irrelevant for the video and the spark for this post

What do we hope to achieve as teachers? Good grades for our students? Year over year growth based on testing, standards and outcomes? Engagement in life long learning? Develop fully their talents and creativity? All of these are important goals in education but at some point we need to decide which is the most important in this “21st Century/Contemporary Teaching/Personalised Learning Education Environment we purport to be in today.

This simple video has made me think again about my philosophy of teaching and my dream for education. Creativity is one of the great goals that drives the push for contemporary teaching and learning. Do our actions support its development?

For me, we are still driven by time constraints in the day to day reality of school. This hampers creativity.

Instead of expecting a student to write, edit and publish (whether teacher or student is satisfied or not) a text every week so we have “enough” evidence to justify the grade on the semester report card, why can’t we allow the student time to work on one or two texts over a long period of time until we are all proud of the result? Did the D student get a D because he can’t write or because he didn’t get the opportunity or support to improve his text before moving on to task 34? ( It reminds me of 2007 when my daughter came back from our Europe holiday and had to complete the statewide Gr 5 writing test, a 40 minute exercise in putting words on paper. She was ‘slightly below standard’ on the report because she didn’t finish. I should have sent the assessors her 100 page journal she compiled while on our trip, the writing that captivated family and friend alike for its detail and reflective depth.) What is it as teachers we are assessing – product or process? The time limited end result or the growth and improvement over time? Do children have to write a persuasive text, a narrative, a report, a review, an explanation, a recount, a book response all in one term or semester just because they’re all written in your system’s curriculum document? Was Shakespeare not “at standard” because he didn’t write an expository text on the strengths and weaknesses of Queen Elizabeth?

Is it more productive to assess ONE 15 page piece of quality writing over the course of the term or semester (not just at the end when its finished-no one wants to do that), progressively monitoring and assessing the language conventions, sentence structures, use of literary devices that you have discussed and taught the student over time OR give a score to 15 “OK” pieces of writing the child gets no opportunity to improve? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Our students may not want to persist at editing and improving a text over a long period of time because they have grown up in a system ( and I’ve been part of it for 25 years so I’m not criticising anyone without taking the blame too) that values quantity over quality, product over process and finishing over creating. If we really want to bring about Sir Ken Robinson’s revolution, this has to change. Collecting 20 samples of writing that are not good enough has to be replaced by a paradigm shift to working on a text until it is great. Ticks, crosses and percentage points don’t teach a student how to improve their writing ( or counting, calculating,thinking, questioning,researching, drawing). Guidance, tracking, encouragement, constructive feedback, expectation and TIME does.

Can we do it? Should we do it? What do you think? Would love to hear what others have to say. Join the conversation.

Digital Portfolios – is Blogging a good option?

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

A couple of things happened last term. My school finally took the plunge and allowed the Grade 6 students to replace their file books with digital portfolios as a means to collate their work to share with their parents at home and during parent/teacher interviews. The other thing was that a small group of teachers dipped their toe into class blogging. By the end of the term, we ended up with two problems – How do we create the best Digital Portfolio and Do we want to really blog?

Let me explain.

During my ‘Techie Brekkies” before school, I introduced blogging to a group of interested teachers. They had lots of questions and not all were answered but we ended the couple of sessions with setting up blogs, but apart from one grade level who used their blog for Camp updates and reflection, not much happened after the meetings. Then I introduced Edmodo and it seemed to be a more useful and easier to set up option. Edmodo now has full adoption across all Grade 5/6s as a collaboration/work sharing/assessment and class organisation tool. It was seen as more relevant than having a class blog at this stage in the development of the teachers involved. ( Note: the whole “Techie Brekkie” thing went into hiatus during report writing season and so there was no follow up to blogging session. We’ll pick it up again next term).

In terms of the Digital portfolios, there was a push for them last year in the 5/6 area but because they were just an add on to the  school wide  file book/work sample policy, they were not fully embraced by teacher or student. In 2012, however, change came about and the Grade 6 students moved from paper based file book to digital portfolio. They adopted Powerpoint as the platform ( not my personal choice nor my decision to make) and then last term decided they would  export them over to Sliderocket so that they could be accessed via the internet at home. It was soon apparent, though, that this was a fail as a workflow as the export experience didn’t upload attached files or links. This was compounded by SlideRocket’s sudden policy change which locked the children out of accounts ( hence my recent posts about Web 2.0 for the Under 13s).

When this happened, I started thinking of alternatives. The teachers initially decided to stick with PowerPoint but start a new portfolio ( the originals quickly became bloated, growing to unmanageable sizes that took forever to load over wireless networks – need to invest in video compression software!) I started thinking of blogging.  From reading about blogging over the last year, however, from the likes of Kathleen Morris, Linda Yollis and Langwitches Blog ( who seem to respected in the field of class blogging) and reflecting myself earlier in the year in this post (and here as well),  my quandary is that I may be blurring the lines between blogging and digital portfolios. Am I rushing the students and teachers into blogging by attaching the importance of the official digital portfolio to it without going through the process of preparing them for blogging as outlined by the aforementioned “experts”?

Nevertheless, today, I am pushing ahead with a “Pros and Cons” list to help me decide what the best choice might be from my point of view. Obviously, I would like feedback from you, my readers, on what you think is the best option. It’s a work in progress and would like to hear suggestions from you for both the pros and cons. 

PROS FOR BLOGGING AS DIGITAL PORTFOLIO

  • “Anywhere, any time access” to their work for composing, editing, publishing and sharing with their parents. One of my problems with the whole twice a year file book access is that parents aren’t kept informed on the progress or quality of their children’s work. With the blog as portfolio option, the child’s work is more transparent and because the parents can see the work during all stages of the year, children may be more motivated to work at the standard Mum and Dad expects of them.
  • A bigger audience for greater purpose and motivation. Opening up their work to a wider audience puts the responsibility of quality back on to the students. It should also motivate them to publish quality work as well since it is being viewed by others.
  • Feedback and collaboration. Through moderated comments, parents, friends and the wider world audience can provide feedback, encouragement, praise and advice. With access controls, individuals can be invited to collaborate on posts under the supervision of the teacher to ensure collaboration goes smoothly. Shared posts can be linked to each others’ blogs so that the work can be shown to both students’ parents and audiences.
  • Controlled environment and ease of communication between teacher and student. With student blogs linked to a teacher blog, teachers and students can control the level of privacy and access to their work. Students can save their work as unpublished drafts and teachers can review their work before they go further. Students and teachers together can make decisions about which posts go public and which remain private. This gives a student control over what he/she wants to publish to a wider audience while still being able to show their parents all their work.
  • Wide range of publishing options available through uploading, hyperlinks and embedding published work from other web tools. One of the time wasting tasks I have seen through the PowerPoint Digital Portfolio option is organising file storage, folder structures, hyperlinking to files, linking to work published with software not available at home and the resulting broken links when all of these tasks are completed effectively. An online version with links controlled by the blogging platform and a central storage area coupled with the ease of linking and embedding to work that exists on the internet, not in random folders spread across the school network is a more user friendly option. Having the online option may also encourage students to try out more web tools for composing and publishing their work. It may move them away from just typing words out in Microsoft Word and onto Prezis, comic strips, slideshows and audio presentations that can easily be embedded in their portfolio blog.
  • Purposeful blogging. I’ve checked out a lot of student blogs in my research for setting up blogging at school. While there are some outstanding examples from very talented student writers, there are also a lot of blogs out there that don’t meet the standards and guidelines outlined by the blogging experts above. Like a lot of technology, many teachers never progress their students past the experimental stage and we are left reading unedited “my Favourite……” posts by the truckload. Using the blog as a digital portfolio gives a consistent purpose to what is being posted and students won’t spend time wondering what to write next.
  • Part of whole school program, not an added extra. A digital portfolio blog would include work from all areas of the curriculum and would encourage publishing of work in the Arts, Sport, Mathematics and other subjects besides Literacy which can dominate a blog as the “writing subject”. Hopefully, this would encourage the use of technology for reflecting upon and showcasing learning in the non text based subjects.
  • Consistent, purposeful reflection across all curriculum areas. By using the blog as a digital portfolio, students will have an accessible place to store their reflections on learning side by side with the actual work they are reflecting upon.
  • Easy to use publishing and organisational platform. Thoughtful tags to identify each post, organised in Portfolio categories ( subject areas ), pasting the embed code or link from work done on another web tool – and we’re done. A simple to organise workflow that allows easy access to all files with a simple click on a link.
  • Home/School Link. On top of the connection between school and home available to the parents through the blog option, the maintenance of the blog becomes purposeful homework in all curriculum areas.
  • Teacher Accountability/future direction. Access to student work is soon to become part of our Educational landscape in my system. I can already access individual files of my own children’s work, albeit work that is uploaded and commented on by their teachers in their own time. Having the blog as a digital portfolio easily accessible by parents places some onus on teachers to be consistent and up to date with their assessment and feedback, which helps with teachers planning for children’s learning and improvement.

CONS OF BLOGGING AS DIGITAL PORTFOLIO

  • Rushed process without preparing for the responsibility of online publishing. This is not a problem with blogging itself. Rather it’s more a problem with moving straight into using it as a Digital Portfolio platform without having already having experience in blogging. When we adopted Edmodo, there were plenty of teething problems with getting the students to use it appropriately ( that is now ironed out). Morris, Yollis and Langwitches all emphasise the need to for a gradual release of responsibility and training in posting and commenting. Having said that, as a Digital portfolio, the work that is published on the blog will be controlled in some way.
  • Maintaining feedback. There is a danger that teachers will find it too difficult to maintain the same level of feedback and commenting over the duration of the year, considering the public nature of the blogging platform.
  • Negative feedback. How students react to possible feedback of a critical nature is something to consider. Does the digital portfolio component of the blog remain separate from other posts through privacy settings?
  • Separation of Teacher/Student/Parent Comments during the composing process and once published. How do we manage the situation of comments from teachers at the composing/editing stage being misunderstood by parents? Does the student want their classmates’ comments being seen by parents or vice versa? Should the teacher comments be privately viewed?
  • Making a blog “all work and no play”. When you look at successful blogs, they’re about building relationships with audiences, being free to publish posts of your own choice, having fun with the layout, plug ins etc. By making it the Digital Portfolio, you run the risk of sucking the joy and freedom out of blogging and making it all about school work.
  • Access/Connection issues. 90 students simultaneously trying to blog at school can play havoc with the wifi. We run the risk of making the students’ work inaccessible during high traffic periods. Not all students have easy and regular access to the internet at home.
  • Quality control/Teacher accountability. Keeping track of 30 student blogs is no easy task. If students have publishing rights, unchecked work might slip through to public viewing and cause concern for teacher responsibility. Teachers who aren’t confident with technology may find the blogging platform difficult to manage.
  • The linear blogging structure. While tags and categories can make linking to individual post simple, the scrolling, back dated, linear structure of a blog is not always the best way of presenting a large body of work.

I personally think my pros outweigh my cons, although their are some definite issues to address. But I’m a prolific blogger and a confident user of web tools. That doesn’t make it the best choice for everyone. I know there are alternatives but I haven’t experimented with them as much as blogging. As I said earlier, I would really like some feedback from others who have used Digital Portfolios with their students. Do you use blogs or something completely different? What have been your issues and challenges? Please leave a comment and join the conversation. I’d really appreciate it.

School iPad Program – not as easy as I thought!

One term into the official launch of our iPad program, I thought it would be opportune to reflect on the successes, failures and everything in between. I have to admit, as a self professed, but not certified, iPad/Mac “expert” and ‘All Things Apple’ zealot, things haven’t gone as smoothly as I’d hoped. I would like to blame it all on our proxy server, but I suspect Apple has something to do with it too.

THE SETUP

I set up our iPads before Apple’s Configurator software for managing iPads came out. Regardless, the initial set up was pretty smooth. I set up the base iPad configuration on a targeted iPad and backed it up to my dedicated Mac Mini iPad machine. (Last year, when we trialled a small set of iPads with teachers, I was stuck using an Acer PC Laptop. Windows + iTunes + iPad ≠ smooth management. I strongly argued for a lone Mac to maintain my sanity in dealing with our iPad setup this year.) I set up all the apps in designated purpose built folders, created the school network connection, connected to iCloud, configured the network app FileBrowser to connect to our school network so we could access files and thought everything was ready to go.

In the main it was fine. I set up each of the remaining 34 iPads from the backed up iPad configuration using a 7 port USB hub. I know you can sync more than that with the Mac, but the 7 port hub was bought last year to work with the Windows ‘solution’ ( I was lucky to get 3 connected at one time!) and I never got around to buying a bigger one for this year. In the end, the delay in waiting for the Restores to finish before I could start the next installation meant having 16 plugged in would have meant a lot of waiting anyway. The whole set up took about 2 days to finish and was pretty painless; I had one error on one iPad that I had to reinstall but other than that each iPad’s installation went flawlessly if not a little long in duration but that was because I installed too many apps (more on that later). About a week later, Apple’s Configurator was released. ( missed it by that much!)

The hassles came in the weeks to follow. Due to a lack of forward thinking on my own behalf, there were several configuration set ups I didn’t think to do on the base iPad “image”. It was only when the iPads started being used and teachers and students wanted to email documents that I realised that I had not set up an email account on the iPads. Orginally I hadn’t considered it because of the perceived hassle of everyone wanting to use their own email on a shared iPad. That wasn’t going to work. However, we still needed a system to email work in apps that didn’t support other solutions. In the end, I set up a dedicated account in our school internet-based mail system just for the iPad ( with my account as the forwarding address in case inappropriate mail was being received) so that anyone could SEND emails to their own accounts to be opened on other computers. I also soon realised that I had inadvertently set up the FileBrowser app’s network access and the Edmodo app under my name so that any user on any iPad was logged in as me! All these settings had to be individually changed to fix that obvious security hole. Fortunately, I solved this quickly through the use of my newly appointed Student ICT Leadership team who spent an hour with me changing all the settings. Before you worry about the handing over of responsibility to students, none of this required providing sensitive information to them. I actually recommend training up a small group of students to help with non-critical management that doesn’t need passwords or the like – they’re easier to train than most adults as long as they are trustworthy, which mine are under supervision. They have also helped me with setting up numbered wallpapers for better identification, folder creation and maintenance and other simple management tasks.

MAINTAINING THE SETUP

The next issue to arise is the updating and installing of new apps and system updates. Originally, I had set up the iPads to sync and update wirelessly so that I wouldn’t have to manage that constantly. Unfortunately, I found this too be less than ideal for a number of reasons.

I’m not sure if it was because of our proxy server being mean to iTunes, the wifi being overloaded and inconsistent or a combination of both but I could never get the iPads to consistently sync. Some iPads would end up with newly purchased apps automatically installed while others wouldn’t. Some iPads would backup and update apps while others would deliver error messages to iTunes. Often, someone would open up an iPad to use an app they had previously used to find it in a longstanding waiting to update state, rendering it unusable. Then the emails from the Office complaining about the bills for exceeding our monthly downloads started coming. So I went back to physically connecting the iPads to iTunes and manually syncing for app updates and loading of new apps. This has proved to be less problematic and allowed me to keep all the iPads consistent in setup.

Having said that, with the number of apps I have loaded on iTunes , the download limit for the school is still being exceeded and I’ve resorted to taking an iPad home and updating there with my unlimited iTunes download account and then syncing the updated apps back to the Mac Mini at school. This is clearly not a viable long term solution as I won’t be around at the school forever and my home account can be relied upon as a management system. My ICT leader just informed me this week that the download cap issue is being fixed so that is one problem solved for us but is still a consideration for others to deal with .

Just as frustratingly problematic has been upgrading the iOS system software. As soon as I had set up all the iPads at the start of the year and rolled them out for use , the 5.1 update was released. Sometimes in schools, upgrade cycles are delayed because the benefits of upgrades are outweighed by the hassles of interrupting the workflow of others when dealing with a large scale deployment of devices. From personal experience, though, upgrading iOS was a walk in the park so I decided to do the upgrade straight away. Apple’s own upgraded apps wouldn’t work without the update anyway.

Well, again, not sure if it was proxy problems or trying to manage too many devices from a single computer but it wasn’t smooth sailing. Waiting for each iPad to install, load and restart before the next update cycle for the next iPad could begin meant a lot of wait time. iPad management is not my full time job so this was a time issue that could effect teachers in other schools who also become the iPad person. Occasionally updates would fail and you would have to start again. Once or twice, I’ve discovered one or two iPads in a set not up to date. For some reason, again possibly the proxy server problem, I couldn’t update wirelessly so I’ve just taken them home to run the update. As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t used Apple Configurator software yet because I haven’t had the chance to interrupt the workflow of iPad use to reconfigure the whole set up. Reading some reviews, it seems to be a good solution so will see how that goes at end of year when I reimage and set up for 2013.

GENERAL USAGE
Once all the setup hassles have been tackled, I can at least report the general day to day usage has run smoothly. In our case, all the iPads are centrally stored in one locked cupboard in my office. I set up a borrowing system on GoogleDocs that the teachers use to book out sets of iPads for timetabled sessions. We have five sets of 7 iPads in transportable kits. Instead of spending money on expensive sync carts, we decided to buy dish washing racks from the local hardware store and attached a powerboard to each rack. The iPads fit snugly in the racks and can be easily carried from office to classrooms. There are teachers who don’t like the hassle of “collect and return” but for charging, syncing and security reasons, we want all the iPads in a central locations at the end of the day. Each iPad is also assigned to an individual teacher so they can take one overnight or on weekends to explore. They have to sign an ipad agreement before this happens to ensure due care is taken. There have been occasional care issues with the return of the sets. It would be nice to see teachers take the extra 5 minutes to ensure the cables aren’t tangled or crossed over and the iPads are put neatly back in the racks.

There was a suggestion that the iPads should be available to only the junior grades since the senior grades had access to so much technology and the juniors didn’t but I pushed for a trial period of P-6 access. I didn’t want the situation of 35 iPads sitting idle waiting for the juniors to use them while the older children were hanging out for a chance to get their hands on them for valid reasons. As it stands, everyone is using them fairly consistently and there are still days when some sets don’t see the light of day. More training sessions are needed to showcase their potential use, Once that happens more frequently ( report writing time has delayed that in recent weeks ) I’m sure we’ll see empty cupboards.

FINAL THOUGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
After reading this you could either be doubting my supposed credentials as an iPad blogger or hesitating to tackle large scale deployment of iPads. Hopefully you won’t do either of those. Despite the hassles, the general experience has been a good one. My biggest mistake has been trying to do it all on my own. As a lifelong Apple user, I’m used to working out issues by myself but on a big scale you need support. Have a look at Configurator in the Mac App Store. Call Apple. Talk to others in the same situation.

Plan. Have a clear plan for what you want on each iPad. Make sure you know what you want in terms of network settings, mail settings, apps, restrictions and so on before you set up the iPad image you want to use. Think about how you are going to manage the upkeep long term and have an organized plan for that. Do your research. Make sure you have all infrastructure in place that can manage your plan effectively. Know what your school’s Internet usage is. Know how your security setting like proxies are and how they may affect your plan. ( ICT leader has just met with new Education Office expert who informs us that new system coming will solve the proxy problems we have – double Yay!!) Know your budget and for those outside USA, know that the Volume Purchasing Program is on its way and we will need to be stricter on our app purchasing and deployment.
Plan.

I would love to hear from others their success stories and frustrations. This time two years ago the iPad was just a personal media device intended for individual use. In a very short time it has become a must have educational tool without a perfect system to make it happen. It’s no that simple yet.

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Household Maths – real maths in the classroom

Back in the 90s, as a young teacher known for his knowledge in Maths, I developed a comprehensive Maths program based on the curriculum of the time. I personally had great success with the program, which I dubbed “Household Maths”, and with my support several teachers I worked with also followed the program enthusiastically. With little co-ordination or entrepreneurial skills, I even managed to sell a few copies of it. For various reasons I don’t ant to get into here, I was drawn away from using the program for many years, even though I still had a strong belief in its purpose and results. Now with a renewed push for purposeful Maths, I want to bring “Household Maths” back again.

I think the basic premise of the program and the majority of its content and curriculum base is still sound, 20 years after I first created it. However, to get it adopted today, I’ll need to link it to current curriculum documents. Before I do that though, I’d like to throw it out there to the teaching community and gauge whether it is worth the effort. As I have said already, I really have faith in this program but I’m not going to spend months rewriting it for the 21st century curriculum if others don’t share my enthusiasm.

What follows is the original introduction and program summary ( with some comments about how I would integrate new technologies, as is my want). I would really appreciate some critical feedback on what you think. Attached at the end is the PDF version of the whole program so that you can view it in its entirety.

 During my years involved in education, whether as a student or teacher, many teachers have made Maths such a boring subject. In turn, their classes have responded by being bored. Sheets and sheets of repetitive sums have done nothing other than keep the bright child occupied and the struggler frustrated. I have been guilty of this myself. The struggler learnt to hate Maths and the bright child just did the sums because they were easy.

I have always looked for programs that made Maths interesting for the children. Many books and programs have been released under the heading of “Real Maths”. Too many, though, are just a book of activities that are not related to each other and could be dealt with in a single session ,are part of a program that still had too many worksheets filled with monotonous equations or aren’t that real to the children, anyway.

Finally I’ve decided to do something myself . I thought to myself – When is Maths most useful and meaningful? The simple answer was in daily life at home. Maths is all around us in our house. Paying bills, going shopping, looking for bargains, building a house, developing the garden, planning holidays –  all of these tasks are Maths at work.

I wanted more than a book of activities to keep the children busy once or twice a week, though. I wanted my entire Maths program for the year to be a rewarding, interesting and entertaining learning experience based on Maths at home. Children love pretending to be adults. So this program was going to treat them like adults.

The key to it all was always going to be making it interesting and fun. When faced with a policy that says Maths must be taught for one hour a day, so many teachers decide to make a worksheet of equations with as many sums as they can fit on it to keep the children working for the hour. Of course what happens is that the bright children barely have to think and finish within twenty minutes while the strugglers get stuck on the first sum for twenty minutes and just know they’ll never finish in time. This only builds up their frustration and hatred towards maths while the bright sparks just confirm what they already know – they’re good calculators. But can they think? Have they been taught to think?

The Household Maths Program aims to teach the children to think about Maths, to use Maths and to realise Maths is a vital part of life. It is aimed at Upper Primary/Junior Secondary/Middle School classes because of the processes involved. If used by an enthusiastic teacher willing to be challenged by the work the children will produce, it will send out into the world students who enjoy Maths and are able to use it effectively. The teacher will have a lot of fun too.

SUMMARY OF PROGRAM

The Household Maths program is made up of  two components.

– Weekly activities including shopping for essentials, receiving pay, paying Bills and rent / loan instalments, petrol, Life’s Little Surprises and other weekly expenses decided upon by the “family” of the household.

– Major tasks incorporating many maths skills and running concurrently with the weekly tasks. These tasks can last from 1 – 2 days to 4 – 5 weeks or more .

The weekly activities are set out as follows:

A description of the household is given to each child. Six different households are included  in this  program to  provide  a  variety  of  environments in the classroom.( you can create more if you wish. )  The description covers the weekly / fortnightly pays  ( or unemployment benefits ) received by spouses, the number of children in the family, house payment situation ( rent, loan or fully owned ), bank balance, credit card allowance, number of cars and something the household is saving for. The children fill in the blank lines with the names, ages and birthdays of their “children”.

Each child is given an exercise book or something similar. Each page in the book is to be divided up into four columns: income, expenditure, savings and balance. The children record all transactions in this book. An example of this transaction record is provided.

Provide each child with enough shopping lists to last the year out. ( master copy provided ). Each week the children will fill the list in and look through catalogues and dockets for prices to complete their weekly groceries. Get the children to plan a weekly menu to give them an idea of how much food they will need to buy their family.

A checklist of bills is provided to remind the children when they need to pay their bills. Set months for gas, electricity, water, council rates and phone bills are given by teacher. All other dates for bills are decided by children. Teacher gives bill totals to children. ( copies of services bills are provided in program. )

A record of credit card transactions is given to the children to allow them to keep  a record of what they have spent on their cards. Payment ( or part payment ) will take place at the end of each month.

A checklist of weekly expenses will be given to each child so that they can make sure they aren’t forgetting to do anything.

Each week the children will choose at random from a collection of cards called Life’s Little Surprises. On these cards are a selection of unplanned expenses and incomes such as fines, repairs, presents, updating, competition prizes, debts etc. Draw up a chart to record when these expenses will be paid.

The weekly tasks generally provide opportunities to use the four basic operations of addition,subtraction, multiplication and division and are fun and useful alternatives to pages and pages of drill worksheets.

NOTE: When I originally ran this program, all of these resources involved a lot of paper use. Today, with the advent of 1:1 laptop/iPad programs, all of these components could be implemented more effectively with technology. Google Calendar, the iPad Calendar or Edmodo’s calendar could be used to deliver or remind the students of all their bills and expenses. Databases, spreadsheet programs or iPad/iPod finance apps could be used to send scheduled bills or track expenses. Excel/Numbers/Google Spreadsheets could be used to record/check the weekly cash and credit card transactions. Users of interactive Whiteboards could hide the Life’s Little Surprises cards behind a graphic and the students could drag random expenses or incomes out on the board. 

New skills are taught and, more importantly, used through the Major tasks or integrated activities. It is important that new skills are taught in the context of how they can be used. There is no point teaching something like percentages as just a whole lot of unrelated numbers on a blackboard or worksheet. Children, especially those with a dislike for Maths, will see no use for them. Therefore, even at the teaching stage, the skills must be related to a useful purpose.

Just as important is to show how a variety of skills are needed to complete real life tasks. The integrated activities in this program involve the use of a number of skills. The age group this program is aimed at have many of these skills already so it isn’t that big a task to have the children working through these tasks. It is also easier teaching the new skills because the nature of the tasks gains and maintains the children’s full attention.

There are thirteen integrated activities in the program. Combined, they cover all the requirements of a Maths curriculum and will easily make up a year’s program.( Note: operations involving fractions may be found lacking in this program, mainly because it is hard to find a real life purpose for adding, subtracting and dividing fractions for the average person. They will have to be taught in a different context. )

Each activity is outlined in detail and the skills covered by it are included. Worksheets are occasionally included but the beauty of this program is that most of the resources are accessible to the children already and worksheets aren’t always needed. The materials required for each task are listed and most will be found in the home. Detailed lesson plans are also provided. Included is a checklist of skills that are taught through the program. You should find that everything in your school’s Grade 6 syllabus is included ( with the possible exception of some fraction work ). Use the checklist to record your students’ progress by ticking the box each time evidence of the skill being used is found. Space for comments is also provided.

TIMETABLING THE PROGRAM

 The general practice in schools is to allow approximately one hour a day for Maths. In doing so I would allow about 40 minutes for the main activity (10 minutes teaching and 30 minutes working on the task ) and the remainder of the time on individual household finance organisation.

I would begin most days with a few minutes for the children to carry out essential transactions , such as bill or loan payments and entering their pays into their accounts. Life’s Little Surprises is an activity the children looked forward to at the start of the week to see what was going to happen to them this time so I always timetabled it for Mondays. By the time they all chose the cards it took about 5-10 minutes . If they had the money, or it was a straightforward transaction such as a speeding fine, they often completed the transaction at this time. But often it required shopping around so having LLS on Monday gave them time for this.

After this brief activity , I would go straight into the main activity – the integrated tasks on the following pages. It is important not to spend too much time at the beginning teaching because the children will lose interest. Plan carefully which skills you want to focus on and what that will allow the children to complete. Remember the tasks are not one day activities so the children don’t have to be finished. Once the children are engaged in the activity, you are now free to concentrate on the children who need extra teaching.

Allow about ten minutes at the end of each lesson for the children to use their checklists to see what weekly transactions they must complete. (e.g. petrol, newspaper, bill due,etc.) If they don’t have much to do, allow them to browse through catalogues to find bargains, extra items they have to buy because of Life’s Little Surprises or to start filling in their shopping list. This time may also be used by the slower children to complete work on the main activity without being seen not to have finished as much as the other children.

At times, you may feel that the children are not doing enough Maths. They may spend ten minutes looking through a catalogue and complete two equations. The thinking you have to develop is : have they successfully used maths skills in this situation? Yes! And that is what is important. A child who completes 25 equations on a worksheet and the child who has bought a lounge suite, paid a bill and put her pay into an account are doing the same thing. Except the second child knows why she is doing those sums and is using Maths.

This program is about quality learning not filling in the time with lots of irrelevant equations.
( Of course you should still allow time for drills / games in basic number facts such as times tables.)

INTEGRATED ACTIVITIES
The 13 tasks I planned are;
BUILD YOUR OWN HOME
DESIGN YOUR GARDEN / ENTERTAINMENT AREA
PLANNING A HOLIDAY
GET THE MET / UP,UP AND AWAY
THIS IS AUSTRALIA CALLING
ON SALE NOW
FAMILY FUN
PARTY TIME
I’M BROKE
COOKING UP A STORM
CLASSIFIED INFORMATION
ODDS ON
ELECTION TIME
Check out the PDF below for more detail.
Each task is outlined as follows:
PURPOSE OF TASK
MATHS SKILLS TAUGHT/DEVELOPED THROUGH THIS UNIT
PREPARATION / RESOURCES
TECHNOLOGY COMPONENT
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN ASSESSING
DEVELOPMENT OF SKILLS THROUGH ACTIVITIES

With greater access to websites, programs and apps, many of the tasks would be easier to complete while still requiring the same level of mathematics skill. Online shopping and auction/advertising websites, measurement and money converters, recipe sites and apps, travel websites and apps, websites for utility companies, on line maps and world time clocks….. the list goes on… provide a wealth of content to be used in real life situations.

 

Would appreciate feedback on whether the program still has merit today. Here is the PDF of the whole program     householdmath

Tailor Made ICT PD for Staff

Sometimes we need support getting to ICT heaven!

In an earlier post on Teacher Technology PD, I mentioned 5 key ingredients to support the important development of Educational Technology in schools.

  1. PLTs dedicated to Technology integration into our teaching practices
  2. A constant focus on Technology throughout lesson and unit planning
  3. A restructuring of the role of ICT Leaders/teachers in schools
  4. A greater focus on Technology in Teacher Training programs
  5. A commitment to Technology Professional Development courses on an equal footing with Literacy and Numeracy Projects.
Obviously, I have no influence over the last two points, which are system wide initiatives. It is the first three that we can make a difference at individual school, and possibly, district level. In another post, I reflected on my dreams for this year in ICT at school.
  • Collaborative, ‘always on’ staff communication. In short, I dream of school system wide adoption of Edmodo, GoogleDocs, Dropbox and Diigo.
  • We have the hardware, let’s ALL use it. In short, PD has to be regular, consistent, continuous, collaborative, hands on and purposeful (linked to teaching and learning practice)
  • Student-led ICT development and  improvement. In short, establish an energising, active and supportive Student ICT Leadership team dedicated to the ongoing adoption and growth of ICT in our school
At the time, I thought they were great ideas that were unlikely to be implemented but we’ve made some real progress at the leadership level since then and I am really excited about the upcoming term at school. A commitment to ICT PD  for 2012 has been made and several initiatives are on track.

 

As part of our Contemporary Teaching and Learning Project, each Grade Level has taken on a project to trial and implement new learning and teaching techniques. A couple of teams have chosen ICT as a focus. This means a number of PLT sessions and extra planning time will be dedicated to planning for ICT at the classroom level. One team has chosen Web 2.0 tools and have already had a session with the ICT team to discuss their options.

 

What was exciting was that in that initial session, we quickly moved into a discussion about how the ICT can be used to improve learning. We discussed possible uses within the Grade Curriculum and finished the session with a clear plan for what we wanted to do. This is what I meant when I said staff meetings couldn’t meet the needs of individuals or specific teams, The level of professional educational discussion we had would never happen at a whole school meeting. Within this PLT environment, individuals were able to open address their strengths and weaknesses, set goals for themselves ( within the group were early adopters willing to try anything and self professed technophobes who had a great desire to improve and use ICT effectively but didn’t know how to start.). By the end of the session, they had a chance to explore some tools we had discussed could address the educational outcomes we had developed and are ready to go next term.

 

Encouragingly, ICT has also found a place in the PLT timetable. Teachers also communicated in the survey mentioned below a desire for sections of Curriculum Planning/PLTs to be dedicated to ICT integration with input from ICT team members who can attend for short amounts of time. This will require communication of planning focus so ICT team members can come prepared to contribute effectively.

 

Outside of the PLT/Planning, we agreed upon the need for further training in specific Web Tools, ICT usage and iPads/iPod Touches/Interactive Whiteboards. Again, we identified that there was a need for more than the occasional staff meeting or relying on teachers to train themselves. With less involvement in actual classroom teaching this year, I offered to take on a role in developing targeted PD for the teachers. I wanted it to address their needs so I sent out an online survey to identify what the teachers wanted. I also linked the survey to a page that outlined what each PD area would involve. From the survey, I was able to identify key areas the staff were interested in. The main areas were Blogging, iPad/iPod Touch, Assessment, Edmodo, Web 2. 0 tools and Special Needs and ICT. A majority of staff were willing to commit to at least fortnightly sessions and many to weekly. I’m now in the process of sorting through the survey data to plan the sessions, ensuring I cover everyone’s needs and time commitments. I have also started to develop a separate blog ( not live yet but will link later) that will provide information about each session, tutorials from the Web and a space for staff to ask questions and provide feedback. It’ going to be a lot of work but I’m excited, especially that some staff members have also offered to lead some sessions themselves.

 

On top of that, I’m also genuinely excited that Leadership is making a commitment to take on ICT more proactively. We will be including sessions in our meetings to develop awareness of the tools as well as attending the PD sessions with the staff. It was recognised that as leaders of curriculum areas, we need to have sufficient knowledge of how ICT can have an impact in our expert areas. We have made an initial commitment to forming a group on Edmodo and exploring how that can enhance our communication as a Leadership team.

 

Finally, the ICT leader and I have finally met with the Grade 6 Student ICT Leadership Team. It was an interesting beginning. They started out rather cautiously and predictably talked about having competitions for ICT products as their main goals. They seemed very unsure what their purpose was because it was the first time we had formed an ICT team and previous Student Leadership groups had been more involved in organising events than making real change. Gradually though, we managed to get them talking about their desire to learn new ICT tools and wanting to teach others. They started identifying purposes rather than tools, which was a great step to take in the space of a single meeting. Suddenly promoting the school, collaborating, creating content, blogging, website development and the like started springing from their minds. We also got a good commitment from the vast majority of the team to give up some of their lunchtimes to achieve these aims. It’s early days but I think there is great potential in this group for real change led by the students.

 

So what started as a pipe dream at the start of the year has become a reality. Hopefully we can maintain the commitment throughout the year and notice a real change by year’s end. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from others how they have taken on the responsibility of building capacity in their schools. Join the conversation.

Future proof your Education

The concept of 21st Learning has been around since the 1990s. There was a recognition that with the pace of technological change, the jobs of the 20th Century would be unrecognisable to those living in the 21st Century. We had to prepare our students for a future of great difference and uncertainty. As a result, we needed to move towards a more independent, skills based education system rather than the model we had that was based on content knowledge and specific skills for specific jobs. Well, we are into the second decade of the 21st Century and the question has to be asked – how well have we advanced in developing 21st Century Learners?

This concept came back to the forefront of my thinking when I discovered this wonderful Prezi above by Maria H Andersen (@busynessgirl) from Muskegon Community College. If you have a spare couple of hours, I recommend you delve into the full breadth of information she presents about ‘Future-Proofing Education” or take it in small chunks, which through the power of Prezi you can do comfortably. Or you can read my summative commentary on what Andersen presents.

INTRODUCTION

The presentation begins with an often viewed “did You Know” video that challenges us to consider the future direction of education. As mentioned earlier, preparing for the future means developing the skills involved in the multiple career paths the current and future generations will be taking. In a global community, international competition from the massive populations of developing powerhouses India and China means developing a workforce ready for any challenge. The confronting statistic that India has more “honours kids” than America has kids makes you realise education has to develop lifelong learning skills rather than a narrow curriculum based on key content. With information exponentially increasing via technology, we can’t keep up with pure knowledge retention. Skill based education has to be the focus.

The Prezi presentation then outlines the skills required to “future-proof our education” and develop a generation of creative, collaborative learners and workers,heavily linking this to the role of technology.

The skills are:

Focus, Explain, Interact, Analyze, Flex and Learn.

What follows here are my  reflections on Andersen’s compelling message.

Focus

  • A humorous video clip stresses the challenge of managing the information stream: Students are in real danger of information overload if we don’t develop in our schools curricula on how to work with the massive amounts of information we are exposed to in today’s media rich world. The focus needs to be on dissemination of this information, not the information itself, which can be out of date by the end of the year.
  • Pay attention to details-like Copyright: Kids will post anything on the internet and have grown up in an environment of anything I can download can be mine. In a closed classroom filled with printed posters of information. It is important at an early age we develop the understanding that the opposite is actually true. Responsible Digital Citizenship is a more important skill to develop than downloading. Awareness of Creative Commons is a must for a generation of Internet content creators. (the embedded video outlines CC effectively)
  • Remember when you need to: We need to develop strategies for sorting information into manageable chunks that we can remember. Skills in separating the “wheat from the chaff” ( necessary information from the superfluous) need to mastered so that students can find the required knowledge effectively and quickly. Organising,categorising, streamlining, accessing data replaces endless and often futile memorisation.
  • Observe critically: With the focus on critical thinking rather than fact collection, students will be more prepared for unknown challenges that don’t rely on regurgitation of facts. With more information presented visually, observation is also important.
  • Read with understanding: This follows on from critical thinking. Experiences in the classroom have to focus on understanding the message, not recalling the event or fact.
  • Set and meet goals: This is a massive challenge for students now and the teachers who aren’t used to this type of goal setting themselves. However, if we are going to be prepared for an uncertain future, we need the skills to plan for it in an methodical, analytical way.

Explain

  • Media literacy: Past generations were exposed to text based information at school with an occasional special film viewing to introduce a topic. This literacy model based on text is outdated today. Expecting our students to learn via a multimedia, internet experience is a massive challenge if we only teach literacy skills through static,text based materials. If we are wondering why they are plagiarising information from Wikipedia, maybe its because we haven’t taught them how to actually access information from the Internet effectively. News is no longer just text in a newspaper. Encyclopedias have been replaced by interactive graphics and hyperlinked sources. Many adults today are overwhelmed by the Internet because they weren’t prepared to use it. Future generations have to be prepared for it. We’re not going back to text only.

  • Present ideas digitally/Design for the audience: If all our information is being presented to us digitally, we have to learn to present our own ideas digitally. The audience of today expects it. The audience of tomorrow won’t know any other way. I’m not saying goodbye to handwriting but we have to focus on the digital text.
  • Depict data visually. Infographics have become the way of presenting data. Manageable chunks of information visually presented for the visual learners of today. ” A picture paints a thousands words” is even more relevant today. Students need to learn how to do this effectively. They’ll understand the data better by creating it visually and they will get the point across better too.
  • Convey ideas in text/Speak so that others understand: Data is visual but ideas still needs to be written to develop their complexity. The role of blogging becomes important here. Having an audience through a blog forces you to explain your ideas with greater clarity because you want the readers to understand. A text between you and a teacher doesn’t seem so important so less thought is put into it. Getting a job in the future is going to require communication skills. We need to develop these skills as early as possible.

Interact

As far as we can predict, working collaboratively with others is going to be a major focus in the future, both face to face and particularly via telecommunications. It’s already here in a big way, but will be the mode of working and communicating in the future. Having skills in interacting in a variety of ways then is paramount.

  • Advocate and influence: Developing skills of persuasion, fighting for worthy causes and issues, representing others in a global community of the future will be a necessity. Communicating with others over the internet ( or whatever it is 20 years from now)  will be needed to have an influence on decision making. Therefore, we need to start this kind of action in schools today. In this presentation, it is put in the context of influencing through game dynamics. How can we use game play to influence a generation of video game players in a meaningful way to bring about social change?
  • Resolve conflict and negotiate: In a collaborative work environment, whether in an physical office or part of an online community is a challenging but inevitable part of life. Difference of opinions have to be resolved and negotiating solutions will be necessary skills. Having student led ( but teacher guided) environments for learning lead to the need for the children being responsible for decisions and their own learning.
  • Collaborate Face to face or virtually: Technology today has made collaboration so pervasive in our lives. We have to make this part of the curriculum nowt prepare students for what is inevitable in their future careers. Expose them to online forums, discussion boards and videoconferencing.
  • Guide others: Student driven learning gives them the experience of teaching others rather than being passive learners.
  • Lead (and the first follower): Having children involved in authentic decision making is necessary to develop leadership skills. Not everyone can be the leader and teaching them how to influence as part of a team is also important. I love the message of the video used here that a leader working alone is useless without the support of the first person to stand up and follow the leader. This is sometimes the hardest thing for a child to do: decide to make their own call to follow someone. Only then does a team begin to form.

Analyze

It is expected that the jobs of the future will involve much analysis of information. The ability to:

  • Interpret data
  • Make decisions
  • Think critically
  • Solve problems
  • Forecast
  • Filter information
needs to become a greater focus in today’s education. Software that converts data into easy to understanded organised forms needs to become commonplace. Out of date maths text books with out of context maths word problems  need to be replaced by the use of software that takes real data and presents,sort, organises and analyses it in useful ways. So much more of the information we present to our students should be done in this way rather than long sequences of text.

Flex

In an ever changing global workplace with employment opportunities forever changing as the world changes , students need to become flexible, adaptable team members.

  • Think across disciplines: We need to stop teaching separate subjects and content and integrate tasks so that multiple skill usage becomes the norm.
  • Think across cultures/See others perspectives: As work shifts to overseas environments or migrant workers become more commonplace in our own countries, we have to become better at understanding other cultures and adapt to working with people of different backgrounds. This is possibly one of the few content areas to override skills based curriculum – the knowledge of different cultures and how they operate differently to the culture we belong to.
  • Be creative and innovate/Adapt to new situations: We need to leverage the use of creative Web 2.0 tools and current/emerging tech tools to develop  skills in our students to create new ideas that can have an influence on their future world. Start small by providing opportunities for inventing products, innovating on existing products, looking for ways to improve current practice. When we don’t know what we will be doing in 20 years, we need skills in creating, not just following predetermined norms of behaviour that are now redundant. We have to adapt to new living conditions and use our creativity to solve problems. Past education systems based on the industrial models to create workers for a single industry won’t work in a future where human based industries can be replaced by technology.

Learn
All of this change in the way the world operates means we have to change the way we learn and the purpose of learning at schools. The world we live in today is so different even to 5 years ago. The pace of change post-mart phone/tablet/web 2.0 is unrecognisable. We have to change education to prepare for this new world that will be unrecognisable in another 5 years from now.

The Prezi covers the following areas under the umbrella of Learn:

  • Formulate a learning plan
  • Synthesize the details
  • Information literacy
  • Formulate good questions
  • Reflect and evaluate
  • Meta cognition (know what you know)

I’m going to go into more detail in this area in my next post as there are certain aspects of technology use and shifting Literacy foci  here that deserve more attention than a dot point.
The depth of my thinking about Education has profoundly changed as a result of writing this blog this year. Through my exploration of other education blogs, I have been inspired to dig deeper into what my beliefs about education really are. This Prezi presentation has had a big impact on that thinking. It’s not a major research project. It’s not created by a world famous education expert. But the ideas behind these images and the videos ( several are from TEDTalks) Andersen has selected should be what teaching and learning is all about in the future. I implore you to spend some time watching them. I hope they inspire you to change education for the better as well. Would love to hear what you think.

Writing Prodigy or not, this is also about expectations, support and technology

A lot of you have probably heard of Adora Svitak.The now 14 year old literacy prodigy, came to prominence at the tender age of 7 (!) as a prolific writer. On her blog is a referenced article about a report on her by Diane Sawyer from Good Morning America. After reading the article and viewing the popular TEDTalk Adora presented a couple of years ago (as seen above), I started thinking about the impact of her story on education. Many have commented on Adora Svitak. Some comment on her unusual prodigious talent. Others ( not that much stock should be taken of the views of faceless YouTube commenters) question the “coaching” of her parents and how much of her ideas are truly hers. However, I approach her story differently. I focus on what has made an impact on her astounding growth in literacy skills and wonder whether the same influences can have similar, albeit not at the same level, effects on other children’s learning. Can Adora’s story be the story of every student in your grade?

Writing as means to express ideas
“On Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer called Adora Svitak a ‘Tiny literary giant.” The title seems astute when you measure her diminutive stature against her accomplishments. Though only four feet tall, seven-year-old Adora has written over 250,000 words this year alone. Try that one on for size. She may be small, but she has big ideas, and, thanks to writing, she has the means to express them.”

While I don’t expect many children in Grade 2 to be churning out 250 thousand words this year, this highlights the importance of valuing their ‘big ideas’ and giving children the opportunity and time to express them. I used to love watching those interviews Bill Cosby did with kids. Those little wonders could talk about amazing things. Cosby let them be the star of the show. Do we give our children enough opportunities just to express what they are thinking? Or do we only let them talk about topics we plan to cover our curriculum? Have we ever considered that its not that little Johnny is struggling in class because of poor literacy but because we don’t let him share what he likes and knows about?

As we continue to teach in this new Age of Personalised Learning, has our mindset changed enough to stop pigeonholing class timetables into pockets of time limited rotations of lessons or 40 minute standardized tests and start giving our students the time and freedom to express what they are really thinking? If we do, maybe we’ll get more Adoras writing 250,000 words in a year.

Early Support, genuine interest in the child’s passions and pushing your own passions, time and effort is important even before they are ready. Over to you, Parents (and teachers).
“At an early age, Adora’s passion for reading inspired her love for writing. Although she was originally not so confident in her spelling and grammar and her early writing depended on help from her mom, her sister, and her tutors, she refused to be discouraged by her mistakes and kept asking for help. Pretty soon she was able to write simple stories that were a few pages long. Her ideas and vocabulary were now advanced beyond her years, but she was still hindered by a typical five-year-olds’ limited handwriting skills”.

Obviously, Adora wanted to write and loved to read. Where did that come from? Her parents. What’s important in the reference above is that her parents and others recognised she wanted to write, had some limitations but didn’t let those limitations get in the way of Adora’s passions. We need to find ways to support students to keep pumping their ideas out and not hold them back because they have not achieved mastery in all required areas. So what if we can’t read the student’s work? Write it for them. That’s what publishers do for authors. JK Rowling didn’t personally type the 450 million copies of Harry Potter books. If we want students to develop as writers we have to teach writing as expression of ideas, not as a series of perfectly constructed letters spelt correctly and in beautifully constructed sentences. I’ve sat through too many writing moderation sessions where teachers are automatically drawn to the poor handwriting and spelling mistakes before they even read the content of the text. This has to change. Adora wan’t discouraged by her mistakes or issues with spelling, grammar and punctuation, or her five year old handwriting skills. She and her parents were determined to get the stories told one way or the other. Did it make it any less of a story because Mum wrote the words out correctly? I don’t think so. Children end up hating writing because we focus on the mechanics and aesthetics, not the content. Let’s shift the focus.

Watch the  video from 4:50 onwards. She tells of the other support her parents gave. I love the fact that Dad read Pioneer Germ Fighters and Aristotle to her as well as the Wheels on the Bus. As parents ( I have 2 brilliant (not quite Adora) kids of my own) it should be our goal to push the limits with our children. And it doesn’t have to be writing for parents who don’t have that passion. But push those boundaries. Teachers, I’m talking to you too. It is an abrogation of our responsibilities to let our our own limited interest in certain areas restrict student development. It’s also a crime not to share your own passion for learning, whatever it is, with children. Reach high. Expect greatness ( but not be disappointed if it doesn’t come ) Don’t be afraid to challenge your children and let them struggle. Support them through the struggle, as Adora’s parents did. This is not pushy parenting I’m talking about. This is just expecting the best for ,and from, your kids.

Technology plays its part. Don’t fear its influence. Embrace it.
“Her breakthrough came in the form of a used Dell laptop that her mother bought her in the spring of 2004. She was fascinated by what she could do with Microsoft Word. After her aunt and uncle showed her some of the functions, she was very eager to experiment and discovered many tools on her own. With the help of “JumpStart Typing for Kids” and DK’s “Creative Writing” program, she was soon typing 60 words a minute.

Her passion for writing grew as Word helped her surpass technical limitations. She could now check her own spelling, which helped her gain confidence. Even if she was not 100% sure of a word’s definition, she could now use the program’s simple ‘Look Up’ feature (Encarta Dictionary) or Dictionary.com on any new word she discovered in her reading, and she began using synonyms or antonyms to make her writing more exciting and precise.”

The key focus for me here ( and from the content of my blog my obvious bias is showing) is that technology enabled the breakthrough from struggling to prolific writer. As mentioned earlier, Adora’s writing was restricted by the limitation’s of a 5 year old’s physical writing skills. Using a laptop to compose her writing changed all that. I’ve made this point in another post, but I’ll say it again. We must stop seeing technology as an easy way out for writing. Spell check is an enabler, not the systematic destruction of spelling skills through laziness. Adora could concentrate on her ideas and let the computer help with the mechanics. From what she has become, it certainly didn’t affect her development as a writer. Access to computer based reference tools helped her expand her vocabulary far easier than flicking through page and pages of paper thesauruses and dictionaries. ( and when it didn’t help, no doubt her family was there to support). She didn’t have to wait for ‘teacher’ to correct her work before she moved on and I’m sure she wouldn’t have handwritten 250 thousand words in a year.

I’m not saying we just let computers take over the whole writing process. I am a major proponent of scaffolding writing, modelling text writing and improving grammatical and spelling knowledge. I’m saying that computers/laptops/tablets need to be part of the whole writing process. If we want more Adora Svitaks in the world, then we don’t just pray for good DNA; we need to build the environment she flourished in. TEchnology was a big part of that and continues to be today. She blogs, she authentically publishes for the world ( not just her classroom teacher and parents), she writes with other children. She’s done it all with technology at the forefront. We need to take notice of that.

What kind of person do we want our children to be?
“Adora has imagination, an ability to distill her vast learning into dynamic prose, the courage and curiosity to explore different genres, the wisdom and maturity to accept and learn from criticism, and a tireless desire to better her craft by writing and revising every day. She truly is a working literary giant.”

As teachers and parents, we have to develop these qualities in all of our children, not just the prodigy and the gifted. Not every child can be Adora Svitak. But every child has an imagination, which is sometimes repressed by the limitations of classroom protocols and restrictive parenting. Every child has curiosity, which can be killed off by the restraints of a prescribed curriculum focus. Genres are just different ways of communicating, which every child can explore if we allow them to, instead of mandating expositions for term 1 in preparation for standardised tests. As adults, we have to be brave enough to be critical so children can learn from their mistakes and our constructive feedback, instead of worrying about their fragile self esteem that can only handle ” that’s a great effort” when they write 1 sentence. Every child wants to be better, which will only happen in writing if we focus on revising. If we shift the focus from quantity and speed to quality, and allow technology to support revising instead of rewriting, there will be a lot more children out their writing as prolifically as Adora Svitak.

There will always be child prodigies in the world that stand out from the crowd. Little Mr “one sentence a week” in Grade 5 will never be Adora Svitak. Get him early, though, and with expectations, encouragement, support and a healthy dose of technology to guide him along, we can get him a lot closer. That’s my opinion, anyway. Am I way off? Without any research to back it up other than an amazing talent’s story, can I get this to happen? Over to you, readers. What do you think? Is it possible to create a world of Adoras if we get education right? Can all parents be this supportive? Join in the debate.