Sunday, January 31, 2010

What's out there, on the horizon?

This weekend I finally found the time to read the Horizon Report for 2010. As in previous years the report outlines 6 emerging technologies that are likely to impact teaching and learning during the next 5 years. This year the following trends have been identified as likely to have an impact on education by 2015:
  • Easy access to the internet - information is everywhere and now the main challenge is to access how credible this information is.
  • People expect to be able to work, learn and study whenever and wherever they want. There is more emphasis on just-in-time learning that is timely and efficient.
  • Technologies are increasingly cloud-based. Most people are not concerned where their work is stored, only that it is accessible from any computer anywhere.
  • Students are working more collaboratively.
These trends create several challenges:
  • Teaching and learning must adapt to meet the needs to today's students and must emphasise critical thinking and inquiry.
  • Evaluation is failing to keep up with the new forms of researching, authoring and publishing.
  • Digital media literacy is a key skill in every subject and in every profession. There needs to be less emphasis on the tools and more on ways of thinking and seeing.
  • The economic crisis has led to cost cutting - which is in turn affecting the adoption of emerging technologies.
Here are the 6 technologies to watch in the next few years:
  1. Mobile computing, for example smart phones and netbooks with applications designed specifically for mobiles. People all over the world now have these devices which can connect wireless to the network from anywhere. Applications such as Evernote allow students to manage their information and applications such as Dropbox allow collaboration and sharing of files.
  2. Open content - free online course materials. As information is everywhere, the real challenge is to find and evaluate useful information and to make effective use of it. Concerns with open content include issues of intellectual property and copyright.
  3. Electronic books - hundreds of books can now be stored on very small mobile devices such as the Kindle.
  4. Augmented reality - especially applications for laptops and smart phones.
  5. Gesture based computing such as that used with the iPhone, iPodTouch and Wii.
  6. Visual data analysis - blending statistics and visualisation such as Gapminder (which I used a lot with my IB Geography class last year) and Wordle.
For me out of all these I am most excited about the eBooks. The Kindle was Amazon's top seller of last year and reading this report I discovered that the Kindle edition of books now account for half of Amazon's sales. Those people with Kindles buy 3 times as many books as they did before they had them - therefore people are reading more too. It's simple to purchase an eBook - and it takes just a few seconds (though Amazon is pretty good at shipping out the books too - I ordered 2 books last Tuesday from Amazon UK and they arrived in Switzerland on Thursday - not much of a wait!) The price of eBooks is a little lower too - and of course there's no paper so they are more environmentally friendly. I can imagine students would love to have all the books from all their courses on just one device rather than having to lug lots of different books between lessons and back and forth between home and school.

A Change of View

As we are now at the end of January I decided to change the banner at the top of the blog. I thought I'd put a different Swiss scene at the top of each month, showing our changing views throughout the year. I heard from the school caretaker that we are now getting an extra 4 minutes of light every day and I know that soon the dark days will be behind us. Although we are still in the winter season, it's good to know that spring is around the corner. From a technology point of view I'm hoping that the brighter days will inspire teachers to take a new look at what they are doing and become risk takers, trying more new things out. A change of view is good for us all.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Why we don't have a TV

In just 4 short years how lives change! When we moved to Thailand from Europe in 2005 we didn't take our TV with us - it was getting rather old - but we bought a new one as soon as we arrived. On leaving Thailand for Switzerland this summer, however, we decided to give away our TV as nobody in the family had watched it for about a year and a half and having been in Switzerland for 6 months now without a TV I can truly say we haven't missed it at all (though I do resent having to pay a TV licence because according to the Swiss the house can still actually receive a TV signal!)

Jeff Utecht, in an old blog post now about Moving from Consumer to Producer of Information highlighted the trend that many people today prefer to be on social network sites than looking at the TV. He goes on to say:

What I have noticed personally is a change within myself from a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge. Watching TV does not allow me to interact with knowledge, allow me to leave a comment, remix it into my own words, or interact with the author in a true and meaningful way.

Social Networks, and the social web (also known as Web 2.0) allows me to not only consume but easily produce knowledge of my own. It is this interaction with knowledge that leads to new understandings and pushes me to think.

For our 16 year old daughter, Facebook, Skype, IM and so on has made such a difference to her transition here. It's a tough age to move halfway round the world and leave all your friends and have to start again - but it's certainly made easier when she can keep in touch with them on a daily basis. For me the move has meant that I have become a blogger - I started blogging last year when I knew we would be leaving Thailand so that friends and family could follow our adventures. Since coming here I've started this blog too - tossing out ideas about teaching and getting marvelous feedback that helps me grow as a teacher. When times get tough, I know I can rely on my PLN to pick me up and point me back in the right direction again.

PhotoCredit: Multimedia Message by Rockcreek

Other people, with their differences, can also be right

Yesterday I was blogging about the 3 programmes offered by the IB - the PYP, the MYP and the IB. The IB states:
These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

Today I saw this TED talk on a tweet from Rob Newberry (@robinthailand). This short video sums up what this post is about. Sometimes there is no right answer or right way to do things, we have to accept and appreciate our differences for true international understanding.

Free is the Nice Price (Part 3) - Grade 7 Technology

If you have been reading this blog over the past couple of weeks you will know that I'm right in the middle of Grade 7 MYP technology presentations where students to got choose any Web 2.0 tool they liked to try to teach Excel to a group of younger students. I have been recording which tools they decided to use and their reasons for using them. Today another 15 middle school students showed what they had been working on. Prezi is still the most popular choice, but this week many more students showed us that they were using Glogster and Scrapblog. In total our students have chosen 8 different tools, though Empressr, Slideroll, Yodio, SlideRocket and Photoshow have only been used by one student each (they are almost too small to be seen on the Wordle above).

What is influencing our students when they are deciding which tool to use? Well today some of the students told us that their final choices were not actually their first choices. Some started off using other tools and then changed mid-way through their creation. I was interested to know why they did this as the idea behind the design cycle in MYP technology is that they first needed to investigate and research which tools they wanted to use, and then later they were to come up with design ideas for up to 4 different tools before making a final decision as to which one they would take forward to the planning stage. To actually switch during the creation stage of the design cycle is not recommended, though the criteria do allow for the plans to be modified if necessary. The students who changed all told us that they had changed to something that was easier to use for them. In fact ease of use and time taken to create their presentations seemed to top the reasons for the students' choices, followed closely by the actual design features themselves. There was a big difference between those students who wanted to go for the simple, no-frills approach like Prezi, and those who wanted multi-coloured, multi-features of tools like Glogster and Scrapblog. So far 2 of our students have set their presentations to music!

This project has created a lot of dialogue among the students as to why they are doing what they are doing and how to make what they are doing better. I asked today's group whether they liked having so much freedom of choice and one comment was that if I had told them which tool to use instead of giving them a choice then I would have given them more help! For me, though this was a deliberate decision to step back and let them create whatever they wanted without a lot of guidelines. I wanted them to figure things out for themselves, to work independently, to come up with something that was unique and that they loved. The conversations they are having about design are amazing to listen to. They are learning so much more from each other than they would have if I'd actually "taught" them how to use the tools. They are experimenting and if they don't like the results they are going back and figuring out how to get things to look the way they want.

Now all I need is to find a couple of classes in the elementary school who really want to learn how to use Excel. Having the Grade 7s look at how these students learn using the presentations they have created will really be the icing on the cake. They will be able to see what they have done that works and what needs to be further tweeked. Again, they will learn so much more from these primary school students than they ever would just listening to my comments or receiving a grade from me.

I Believe

I have to admit I was feeling a little low this morning. Perhaps it's something to do with the depth of winter. Perhaps it's because it's been snowing for days and I haven't seen the sun. I needed a pick me up. Then I read this amazing blog post and video from What Ed Said and it made me realise, once again, that teaching is the best and most important profession in the world. Students will learn to be creative when they are allowed to experiment, solve problems and take risks in a secure educational environment. Ordinary children will often become extraordinary when they know we expect great things of them.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Learning from my students

I've been working in international schools in Europe and Asia for over 20 years now - all of them IB World Schools. The driving force behind these schools is a deeply held philosophy about the nature of international education along with a set of beliefs and values. A few days ago I was examining the mission statements of the various schools where I have worked. Today I read over again the IB mission statement:

The International Baccalaureate Organization aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

There are 3 IB programmes: the Primary Year Programme (PYP), the Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the Diploma Programme (DP). The IB states:

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate andlifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

At the heart of all 3 IB programmes is the learner profile which aims to develop "internationally minded people who, recognising their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world". IB learners strive to be:
  • Inquirers
  • Knowledgeable
  • Thinkers
  • Communicators
  • Principled
  • Open-minded
  • Caring
  • Risk-takers
  • Balanced
  • Reflective
The important things is that everyone in the school is a learner: students, teachers and (hopefully) parents too, and the attributes of the learner profile need to be interpreted and modelled for students.

The purpose of the modelling is not to encourage students to mimic but to provide support—a metacognitive framework—to help students reflect on and develop their own set of values, albeit in the context of that being demonstrated.

Now as well as thinking about the mission of our schools, I have also been thinking about the last attribute of the learner profile, that of being reflective, which means that as teachers we should be giving thoughtful consideration to our own learning and experience and that we should be able to assess and understand our strengths and limitations in order to support our learning and personal development. For me, development implies moving forward, growth and change. It's the change that seems to be so difficult for so many teachers.

As a school we are going though a self-study, forcing us to reflect on our teaching, looking at where we are now and where we need to be going. I've also been reading Focus on the Facts by Tom Whitby, who writes about teachers reflecting:
New information makes a big difference in what they teach. Research affects what they do and how they do it. If all that is true, there is only one factor that stops this from creating change. That would be the teacher’s unwillingness to reflect, consider, and implement change on a personal level. Teachers too often see no need to do so.
As someone who has changed direction several times in my own teaching career (having started as a high school geography teacher, spent several years teaching classes of remedial children, taught ESL, elementary school and now finally IT), I can only say that for me change has been an invigorating and rejuvenating process. I get itchy feet after teaching the same thing twice, and if I have to teach it a third time I am definitely restless. It's safe to stay in the same place and teach the same things over and over again, but I have to say that the times in my life that I've done that have not been times of any personal or professional growth at all. It's stepping out of my comfort zone that has led to me developing as a teacher.

For at least half of my teaching career, I would have laughed out loud if anyone would have suggested to me that I would end up as an IT teacher. My husband and children would have laughed too: I was not techie at all, not even into the latest gadgets. Like many teachers I used to take my class to the IT lab and someone else used to teach them. I used to switch off. Sometimes I didn't even stay around to see what the students were doing (since IT was taught as a stand-alone subject and wasn't connected at all to what I was doing in my classroom). I would trot off and get a cup of tea and then pick the students up again at the end of the lesson. And then one year I had an ESL teacher, Linda, supporting me who was very much into technology, and I had a student in that class, Tommy, who was very much into technology too. This was in 1996 and our school didn't even have an internet connection in those days, I certainly didn't have one at home. Yet Linda was encouraging my students to write and was publishing their work on an external site, and bringing in disks for us to look at offline, showing us that the rest of the world could see what we were writing, and Tommy was constantly bringing things in and putting them on my computer and saying "You just have to try this". As a class we got very excited by all this and we pushed for our own internet connection.

At the end of the year Linda moved to the USA and Tommy moved up to 7th Grade, yet both of them kept in touch, and Tommy came to my room almost daily with new ideas and new things to try. It was Tommy who taught me how to make web pages and how to upload them. It was Tommy who taught me how to use Photoshop. Suddenly out of the 4 teachers in my grade level, I had become the techie and like any convert I was zealous. I started going to the IT lessons with my class, then we stopped going because they weren't helping my students and instead I started taking my students to the middle school IT lab and teaching them myself. Two years later, when I was offered the chance to actually become an IT teacher myself I jumped at it. I've never really looked back.

Tom Whitby makes the same point:
Students may become the impetus for learning technology for the teacher. As the students take ownership of their learning, they should use the tech to accomplish their goals. If the teacher is driving the bus there is no need to be able to do an engine tune-up. Students will use tech more and more as the teacher guides them through their tasks. Learning will go both ways.
I think this post has jumped around a little but but I think what I am trying to say is this: we are all learners. We are all on this learning journey together. And if we are not learners ourselves, then we have no business being teachers.

Oh and Tommy ... last I heard he was working for Apple.

Photo Credit: Painting the Sun by MJIphotos

You can't buy change

When I first moved to my new school this year it was clear that there was a real need for change. We had lovely new iMac computers and carts of new MacBook Pros for the students. Some classes also had Promethian boards. Coming from Thailand where I was using 4 or 5 year old PCs this seemed like heaven on earth. Six months on, however, I'm realising that you can't buy change. A lot of money has been spent on the hardware, but nothing has been spent on professionally developing the staff who use it.

Sylvia Martinez, who writes at Generation Yes says:
“You can’t buy change. It’s a process, not a purchase. The right shopping list won’t change education.”

When I attend planning meetings I often hear "Well, last year we did .....". I have to keep pointing out that I'm not really interested in how things were done last year (which again was just the same as the year before), what I really want to do is to talk about what we need to do NOW to prepare our students for their future. What is needed is not more money, but more time, though of course it can be argued that times costs money. Time for teachers to experiment, time for teachers to visit other classrooms to see what is going on there. Time for them to make mistakes and learn from them. But time is something that we just don't have. We are all looking in the right direction, but I feel some of us are just looking and not walking forwards and of the ones that are walking, most are not walking fast enough. That's just not good enough for our students as we have to educate them for tomorrow not for today and we and they don't have the luxury of having plenty of time to waste on things that will soon become irrelevant.

Technology needs to be infused into all areas of the curriculum. As Don Knezek, CEO of ISTE says:
The use of technology in learning and teaching is essential for real and lasting change.
The question to me is how do we get teachers to accept that they need to change and then how do we get them to change. For me, now, it's more important to be investing in professional development, in showing teachers the possibilities that are out there. It's also a matter of requiring that teachers develop themselves as professionals and for that sometimes you have to use a carrot and sometimes you have to use a stick. Here is another quotation I ran across yesterday when looking at a slideshare from a workshop at Educon:
Change is like sunshine: some change because they see the light, some change because they feel the heat.
In the dark winter days in Switzerland, I think what we need here is a little bit more sunshine.

Photo Credit: Money by TWCollins

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Playful Learning

Today in class I twice heard myself using the word "play". The first time was with a group of second graders who were on the National Gallery of Art website looking at interactive art students can make online. This was supporting their How We Express Ourselves unit of inquiry which focuses on abstract art. We had already done several activities from this excellent website before the Christmas holidays: PhotoOp and Brushster. Today we were looking at Flow and I wanted the students to look at the pre-set images first and have a go at seeing them move around the screen before they designed their own. I told the students to go and play with it. Later I had a group of 5th graders and I was introducing them to XtraNormal as part of their Who We Are unit of inquiry which focuses on how rights and responsibilities change depending on which stage you are in your life. Again, after giving the students a quick demo, I told them to go back to their computers and play.

Several times today, our admissions officers have come round the school and into the IT lab with groups of what I assume are prospective parents. Often when they come into the lab I take the time to show the parents what the students are working on. Sometimes they stop and ask the students what they are doing. I wondered what the reaction would be if parents asked these grade 2 or grade 5 students and were told "Ms Maggie told us to go and play on the computer". I mentioned this on a Twitter post and got a great reply from Adrienne Michetti (@amicetti) who said:
there is nothing wrong w/that word. The problem is that we've stigmatized it, made it sound opposite to learning, when it's not
Earlier this month at the BETT Show, I met up again with Professor Stephen Heppell and attended his Playful Learning presentation. He was also talking about play and said "play and technology have always been seductive". He went on to say that as a result of play, children observe, question, hypothesise and test - they are learning through playing. Another thing he said was "When you see engagement, you see performance too". So tonight I'm going to have a little think about play and entertainment, about engagement and empowerment, so that the next time a parent or an administrator comes into the room and asks what we are doing I am going to tell them that the students are playing - and I am then going to tell them how educational this in. I will be blogging about this again later this week once my thoughts are a little straighter. Watch this space.

Have just returned to this blog post one week later as I have just seen this slideshow on the Langwitches blog and wanted to post it - there are some great quotations about play here.

Photo Credit: Lost in Thought by Sven Kellenberger

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Which Inquiry Cycle?

I was at a team meeting today - I think it was a HOD team meeting (though I'm not a HOD) - it could be that it is called a Curriculum Leadership Team meeting (note to self: check what this meeting actually is!) and we were discussing the inquiry cycle. Being a PYP school, we are committed to inquiry and to students actively constructing their own meaning through purposeful learning. The document Making the PYP Happen outlines what inquiry looks like:

Inquiry, interpreted in the broadest sense, is the process initiated by the students or the teacher that moves the students from their current level of understanding to a new and deeper level of understanding. This can mean:

• exploring, wondering and questioning

• experimenting and playing with possibilities

• making connections between previous learning and current learning

• making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens

• collecting data and reporting findings

• clarifying existing ideas and reappraising perceptions of events

• deepening understanding through the application of a concept

• making and testing theories

• researching and seeking information

• taking and defending a position

• solving problems in a variety of ways.

What we were talking about today is which inquiry cycle we should use. Should we have common terminology from Early Years up to Grade 5? We discussed the Super 3 (Plan, Do, Review), the Big 6, Kath Murdoch's inquiry cycle and others. All are very similar, though with some there is more emphasis on action. One of the things brought up at the meeting is that more emphasis should be put on making the world a better place. We felt that it would be good to have just one word that described each part of the cycle that was accessible to all students from EY to G5 and this is what we are playing around with right now:
  • Tuning In: what do students already know and what are they asking. We initially thought this could be summarised in the word Ask, but tuning in really comes before asking - it is more like students thinking "What do I know?"
  • Finding Out and Sorting Out: These could be summed up with the words Ask and Investigate.
  • Going Further: This could be Create - which is actually the highest level of Blooms's Digital Taxonomy. We liked the idea that create came in the middle of inquiry cycle, not at the end, which allows more room for feedback.
  • Making Conclusions: This could be Reflect.
  • Taking Action: This could be Do.
There is still a lot more discussion to take place around this subject, but today we moved quite a long way forward in our thinking.

Photo Credit: Botanist by RadioFlyer007

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Entertaining, Engaging or Empowering?

The first computer I ever used was one I borrowed from my next door neighbour about 25 years ago when I was off work sick with back pain. I think it hooked up to my (black and white) television and was used just to play games. I never used a computer for work until I started teaching in an international school and managed to buy one out of my professional development allowance one year. At home I used it for recording my students grades. I'm sure I used it for other things too, but right now I really can't remember what. At some stage one appeared in my classroom (I was a middle school social studies teacher by this time) and after a visit to our school by Tom Snyder, I also had the Decisions, Decisions software installed on it and used it with my students in the one computer classroom. Students were in groups trying to find the best way to tackle an environmental issue (dead fish found in a lake because of a leak of toxic waste). The students were enthusiastic, and the computer made it more entertaining for them than if we'd done the simulation straight from a worksheet or booklet. The computer added a little to their learning experience, but to be honest, not that much.

Some years later I became a 6th grade teacher and we started using the internet. Now when I say using the internet I don't mean that we were connected to the internet at school. Our ESL teacher, Linda, who was connected at home, downloaded websites she thought were useful for us and brought them in on disks and we then viewed these sites offline. Somehow we started to move from using the computer for enhancing the lesson, to being more engaged in the content. However the students were merely the "consumers" of information and while using the computer was more engaging than previously, we could probably have got by perfectly adequately without it. But something important happened that year - Linda started to publish the students' work online - and at that point everything changed. Although we were still not connected to the internet at school, students could view their work from home. We started getting emails from other teachers and from other schools and from some parents.

The real shift for my students happened the following year after Linda moved back to the USA and our school moved into a new building where we had an internet connection in each room. At that point we had decided we would continue our collaboration using email, and Linda continued to find us websites that would be useful in our inquiries. One of the projects we did over the Christmas holidays when the students returned to their home countries that year was to have the students interview the oldest person in their families, usually their grandparents, about their lives and to publish these on the internet as "My Grandmother's Story" or "My Grandfather's Story". That year I had an Israeli girl in my class and she interviewed her great grandmother about her life. She called her story "War of Sadness" and in it she wrote about how her grandmother had left her family in Poland shortly before the second world war, taking a couple of her children with her to a Zionist colony in what later became Israel. The rest of her family who stayed in Poland disappeared during the war. Michel wrote about the village where her great grandmother was born and about what her grandmother did in Israel after moving there. Some months later, we got an email from a man in the USA. He had recognised the name of the village (which Michel had spelt differently in her story) and also the last name of her great grandmother and wondered was he a relative. Michel's mother flew to Israel with the information he gave us and yes, he was one of her relatives who had survived. This story has a happy ending and would never have happened without Michel's interviewing her great grandmother and publishing her story, and without someone else, far away, recognising some names in the story and wondering if he was part of that story too. This had a tremendous impact on my class: the students went from being engaged to being empowered as they realised the internet had enabled them to bring people together.

A couple of years after this, I was teaching Grade 5. My students, being international, were often a long way from their families. That year I had a girl in my class called Jordan. Her mother lived in Holland with her second husband, her father worked in California studying earthquakes and earth movements. Because of the distance, it would usually have been very difficult for Jordan's dad to be a part of her school life in Amsterdam, but because of the internet and because the students were publishing their work on a weekly basis, he was very much a part of our class community. I would hear from him by email almost every week - he was totally involved in all we were doing. So much so that when we studied earthquakes he was our expert who talked to the students and shared his work with them.

Nowadays these stories are probably commonplace, however the days I am talking about are before I was an IT teacher and I have been an IT teacher for over 10 years, so we are talking about the late 90s here. Looking back I would definitely say the computer led to more student engagement in their studies, but did it really lead to them being empowered? The truth is, only sometimes.

Today we have 1st Grade students who communicate using email and skype, we have students using VoiceThread and sharing their stories with others worldwide. We have students posting videos to YouTube. We have students making their own Google Earth tours. We have students composing their own music and sharing it. We have students blogging and using wikis. For sure we have engagement. They are definitely more confident and they know what they want to do with the technology. What I am seeing more and more these days is the students doing things in school using Web 2.0 tools, and then going home and making their own accounts, and coming back a few days later and showing me what else they have done. They have taken control of their own learning and the ways they express themselves. This wasn't possible before Web 2.0. In the past students would create something at school, but it would stay at school. Most didn't have the software at home that we had at school. Now that's changed - now any computer connected to the internet is able to be used to continue the creations they have started at school or to make new ones. That's powerful. And that's empowering.

Photo Credit: Although you're far by ~Aphrodite

Why are we doing this on a computer?

Last weekend I was reading the Langwitches blog post entitled It's not about the tools, it's about the skills. At my new school this is the first time most teachers and students have been exposed to Web 2.0 tools and questions have obviously arisen as to the benefits of using a computer -v- the benefits of the students handwriting projects on paper (which in many cases has also involved the students downloading photos from the internet and sticking them onto their pages - with no regard to copyright at all!). This post and the excellent graphics show that there is far more to blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 tools than just typing skills. Of course we are still teaching writing skills, but we are teaching so much more too.

For me one of the main advantage of using Web 2.0 tools, as opposed to some of the applications more familiar to our teachers such as Word or PowerPoint, is that the students can work on these projects from any computer without the need to carry their work around from school to home on USB memory sticks. In addition these tools are more interactive and allow collaboration in a way that is difficult using a simple Word document. Of course I am constantly asking myself "Is IT the best tool for the task?" Most of the time, I have to say the answer is YES!

Photo Credits: Blogging Skills and Wiki Skills by Langwitches

"If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough." (Mario Andretti)

I was reading The Learning Blog by Todd Wandio this weekend and came across the quote that forms the title of this blog post, and it started me thinking of how things have changed at my school since my arrival 6 months ago. I arrived in Switzerland after spending 4 years in Thailand, and before that I taught in Holland. In 2005, when I moved to Thailand, I think it was true to say that technology in schools in Asia was quite a way behind technology in schools in Europe. Where was my interactive whiteboard? Why were students still coming to IT 1 lesson per week rather than when they actually needed to use IT? Why didn't the school have a website where student work could be posted and shared? Why was the only software on the computers Microsoft Office? And had anyone ever heard of ePortfolios?

In the past 5 years things in Asia have changed rapidly! I know we are constantly seeing updated versions of the Did You Know? where we are told that the USA is falling further and further behind countries such as India and China, but in my years in Thailand I actually lived through that change. Our school became the first tablet school in Bangkok - every student in Grades 9-12 had their own tablet. In the elementary school in Grades 4 and 5, there was a cart in each room with enough laptops for half the class (if teachers wanted each student to have one to themselves they just negotiated to borrow the cart next door with their colleagues). Teachers obviously had to change their teaching as a result. We developed a website for elementary students where they could post their work. We introduced ePortfolios for Early Year students to record what they were learning. Students in Grades 4 and 5 started making their own ePortfolios. We started blogging about the PYP Exhibition. Teachers had their own wiki pages on the school portal. We bought software that was specifically designed for elementary students, as well as using Web 2.0 tools. We came up with IT benchmarks, and then integrated them into every subject so that IT was taught through the units of inquiry in elementary school and through the various subjects in secondary. By the time I left we had got some interactive whiteboards too. We had class sets of cameras and video cameras, digital microscopes, roamers and beebots. Teachers were leading their own IT lessons, and I was out there in the classrooms helping them. Life was good!

And then we moved back to Europe. Now this was a family decision, rather than a career move for me and it was a bit like deja vu. Where was my interactive whiteboard? Why wasn't there a school website with student work on it? Why don't we have laptops in every class? And do you seriously expect me to write IT reports on a stand-alone basis for over 400 students - why isn't IT integrated into the curriculum here? Do you get the picture? It was like going back in time all over again. I was experiencing reverse culture shock, as for some reason I had expected that technology in Europe would have moved forward at the same pace as it had in Asia. Actually I was expecting that my new school would be ahead of the game, but it isn't, and having got used to IT supporting the curriculum and being used as a tool, coming here was a bit of a rude awakening.

So bit by bit I have started to change things. Out has gone Microsoft Office, in has come all the free Web 2.0 applications. Out has gone the fixed lesson times, in has come the flexible schedule. We have a website too now. But what hasn't really changed is people's mindsets - it's what Ian Jukes called TTWWADI (That's The Way We've Always Done It). The last time I mentioned that I wanted to see teachers leading their own IT, I was told that we need to "manage change" so that it's not so stressful (which means I am moving too fast). My response has been that we are already far behind. If we are not moving fast the gap between us and them is getting bigger by the day. In fact in IT if you stand still, you are really moving backwards.

This Christmas holiday my family and I went to Wengen, a ski resort in the Alps. The photo above is of me on a toboggan, right by the north face of the Eiger. I had never been on a toboggan before. There I was at the top of the mountain, looking at a run down into the valley of about 8 kms. Some bits were steep. I had asked the guy who rented us the toboggans if it was safe - yes, he said, as long as you're not drinking! I could see families with children on these things, zooming off down the mountain, but for me letting go was scary. There are no brakes and nothing to steer with, and fairly sheer drops at the sides of the run. Not to mention the skiers and snowboarders who come hurtling down right across your path (apparently they have to give way to you as they are going faster - ha ha). For the first few kilometres I wanted to dig my heels in ALL THE TIME. I definitely didn't want to go faster. I was sure I would lose control and hurtle over the edge. But what I discovered is that if you don't lift your feet up you don't move. And being stuck on the side of a mountain is no fun either. You just have to tuck up your feet and go with the flow, lean a little this way, lean a little that way, and trust that the many thousands of people who have gone down before you know what they are doing. And if you fall off, well most of the time it's no big deal - you just pick yourself up, climb back on your toboggan and set off again.

Somehow I realise I have to encourage this same attitude in the teachers here with regard to technology. They don't have to be "in control" all the time. They have to go with the flow and stop digging their heels in. It can be exciting and exhilarating to let go and see where the ride takes you.

Anyone for tobogganing?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Free is the Nice Price (Part 2) - Grade 7 Technology

This year at school I've been teaching Grade 7 MYP Technology for the first time. The course is a bit of a hotch-potch as it is taught by myself and 2 science teachers and is set against instrumental music - so we get the students who are not currently having their instrument lessons at that time. To make it even more challenging we have 80 Grade 7 students doing Technology all Friday afternoon, and it takes place in a room right next to where 8 students are having their drumming lessons. Does this sound like a recipe for disaster?

At the beginning of this school year I wasn't very enthusiastic about this class. Nor was I enthusiastic about what I was expected to teach and how I was expected to teach it. Clearly the people who set this course up at school had no clue about the real nature of MYP Technology which is to expose the students to an equal mixture of information technology, materials/design technology and systems. My brief was basically to teach the students Excel for the first 6 months of the year! For the first few weeks I went along with the flow and did what I was told - having the students graph the results of experiments done in the science lessons. Actually I quite enjoyed these experiments, especially the one where we were throwing metals into acids and then setting the resulting gas produced on fire! Of course then we had to come down to earth and graph this! But 6 months of this? Pleeeease!

It didn't take me long to realise that as the only IT teacher on the team, I was going to have to do something to bring us back into line with the real purpose of MYP Technology - the design cycle. To be honest, after 6 weeks of teaching Excel all Friday afternoon, I was longing for a break myself too! Therefore I decided to come up with the first design project of the year: now that the students were familiar with the various features of Excel, could they teach it to younger students by producing some sort of Web 2.0 presentation that would show them the main features of the software and how to use it?

I started with the Dominoe 50 Ways website and just let the students play. Actually I called it exploring, not playing, because after all the assistant principal of the school was teaching right opposite my classroom and I didn't want him to think Friday afternoon was playtime for the Grade 7s. I divided the class into small groups and had each group explore 10 of the excellent tools mentioned on the Dominoe website. They then had to report back to the rest of the class which tool they liked the best and which they thought was most suited to the task and why. Immediately I noticed a change in attitude: the students became more interested and engaged. They loved some of the tools, though thought some of them were not going to work for the actual task I had set them. They then spent some time taking screen shots of the various features of Excel that they wanted to teach to the younger students.

Following this we gave the students several lessons to actually work on the Web 2.0 tools they selected - each student had a completely free choice and we had a whole variety of different tools being used. When we left school for the Christmas holidays the students knew that on their return they would be showing their presentations. What I have seen in the past couple of weeks is a bunch of what used to be fairly switched-off Friday afternoon students coming alive. They have been in my room at break times, at lunch times and have been working hard at home too. They are happy and motivated. I am happy and motivated too.

Friday was presentation day for the first set of students. Initially they were nervous and reluctant to show what they had done, but after the first few students they all really got into it and were proud to step up and share their work - they were so proud of what they had designed and created. Comments from the students showed that they had really appreciated the fact that they were given a totally free choice of tool - some said this was the first time they had ever been given a choice of how to present their work! Students justified their choices saying things like "I chose Yodio because it is multi-functional and effective", "I liked the high-tech design tools of SlideRocket" and "I found Prezi to be an original way of presenting the information and it was easy to use". They were all totally focussed on the design and the way they could communicate their message effectively. Many said "I loved using it" about their particular tool. Some said "I will never, ever use PowerPoint again". Only one student came in with a PowerPoint and I told her she would have to redo this as it was not a Web 2.0 tool (which was the whole purpose of the task). Other comments students made showed that they really appreciated being able to work from any computer at school and at home without having to carry their work around on memory sticks or email it to themselves. The best thing, of course, is that all these tools are completely free - though some students noticed they could do even more with a paid version .... so they paid!!!!

We had some disasters too. One boy who decided to use SlideRocket before Christmas came back to find out his 30 day trial had expired. Not daunted by this, he created a new identity and did the whole project again. Some students tried out one tool and then abandoned it when they found it was too complicated. Luckily our rubric allowed for this as one of the descriptors said: The student was able to monitor progress and describe and explain the reasons for making changes to the plan if necessary.

So after the first 15 presentations I was interested to see which Web 2.0 tool was the most popular - I added them all into the Wordle above and you can see the results: Prezi is the most popular choice so far with about half the students choosing it. Glogster is the next most popular choice. I'm interested to see the presentations next week and see what other tools the students have used and whether Prezi remains the top tool.

By the way, our next venture is going to be to move onto the materials part of MYP Technology. Now bear in mind I have never done this before and would usually run a mile at the sight of a screwdriver or a hammer. We've decided we're going to design and makes kites and then go outside onto the hill behind school and fly them. It will be a steep learning curve for the students and for me. Watch this space!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Reflective Practice

I've been following links and jumping from one blog post to another today. Having recently been involved in a one-day in-service for teachers, the first post I read today was by Peter Pappas who was writing about designing effective professional development. I was interested in reading his comments about the importance of teachers having a meaningful role in deciding what PD is offered - in our case we did give teachers the choice of which workshop they could go to - but with the proviso that someone from each grade attended each different workshop so that they could come back later and share their learning when working on their PYP planners. We definitely did include all the teachers in all subject areas - I had foreign language, special needs and PE teachers in my workshop as well as the homeroom teachers. I think it was well focused on the PYP - though I think my session out of all of them was the least focused on the PYP planner as I was exploring how IT can support the entire programme of inquiry. We wrote our own "central idea" for this PD session which was as follows:
Web 2.0 technology allows us to create and collaborate in new ways in order to enhance student learning.
I think that one of the strengths our our in-service day was that each workshop was run by someone at the school and that we felt we had enough expertise "in-house" to do this, we didn't need to get an "expert" in from outside, though with the exception of my workshop all were run by administrators. The afternoon sessions where teachers returned to their grade/subject areas were also facilitated by the administration - I didn't join in with these (not being a member of the administration - actually I'm still unsure quite how I feel about that - I was obviously good enough to give a workshop but not good enough to facilitate the follow up, which I find a bit insulting). I think most of the staff felt that the workshops were extremely useful and relevant and they were given the opportunity to complete an on-line survey with their comments and recommendations for the future.

The final comments in Peter Pappas' blog really got to the heart of the matter I felt as he discussed reciprocal accountability:

If administration is holding teachers accountable for student performance, then administration is accountable to engage teachers in the design and implementation of meaningful PD. Likewise, if teachers have an active role in shaping their professional learning environment, then administrators should expect to see the strategies utilized in the classroom, followed by an honest appraisal of what's working.

However, the purpose of this blog post was not really to reflect on the recent in-service, interesting though this topic is. The real reason for writing to was talk about how reading this excellent blog post led me to look at other blog posts by the same person, which led me to his taxonomy of reflection.

In several earlier blog posts I have written about Bloom's Digital Taxonomy. Peter Pappas has taken this one stage further and applied it to reflection and critical thinking for students, teachers and principals and this great post led me onto the reflective teacher post which was what I really wanted to write about today.

The questions that Peter Pappas poses as a result of his Taxonomy on Reflection are very useful for all teachers to ask, and go from lower order questions/reflections such as did the lesson address all the content and was it completed on time, to the higher order questions/reflections such as how could this lesson be modified for different learners (application) what were the results of the approach I used and was it effective (analysis), were the needs of all learners met (evaluation) and finally questions that I am constantly asking myself such as how can I best use my strengths to improve and is there training or networking that would help me to meet my professional goals. For me this was a very thought-provoking article and the questions posed by Peter are the ones I would like asked of me when I am being evaluated as it is only by reflecting on our own practice that we improve as teachers.

Photo Credit: Where there's water, there's life by Garry

Missions and Values

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation about the difference between a mission statement and a vision statement. I think the conclusion we came to was that a mission statement is something we are doing now, therefore is written in the present tense, whereas a vision statement is something we aspire to become, therefore is written in the future tense.

Having just moved to Switzerland from Thailand I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the mission statements of my two schools and see how they are similar and different. In my first year at my old school, the New International School of Thailand (NIST), we underwent a process of strategic planning. Almost the whole staff was involved in one way or another, and one of the groups came up with the Core Values - this was something the whole group had to reach consensus on therefore there were a lot of hard conversations before this list was finally drawn up:
Embracing diversity strengthens the individual and community.
Individuals have the right to choose and are responsible for the consequences of their choices.
All learning enriches life.
The pursuit of excellence is worth the effort.
Understanding deepens when meaningful connections are made.
People thrive in a safe, clean and caring environment.
As I was working in an international school, I very much appreciated and supported the first of these. I have been in other schools that talked about respecting diversity and international understanding but this was the first time I had seen a statement that celebrated the fact that diversity made us better people. I also loved the statement about the pursuit of excellence being worth it - actually I used to say this to my son many times when he was struggling through the IB.

NIST had a mission statement too - it was displayed all around the buildings in very large letters so that if you were outside playing and looked up, you couldn't fail to see it. Here is the mission:
to inspire and empower each student to pursue individual excellence and to enrich the world
Again there is the focus on individual excellence but here it goes further to show the purpose of striving for that is to enrich the world. I absolutely love this mission statement as to me it shows the whole purpose of international education in an IB World School. I feel the school did celebrate excellence - in academics, in the sports teams and in the amazing Arts programme.

How about the mission of my current school? Well the mission statement (more of a slogan really) is Respect, Motivate, Achieve:
ISZL promotes a climate of respect, where outstanding teachers encourage students to develop self confidence, positive relationships, and an enthusiastic approach to learning.
ISZL is committed to excellence in education through a balanced academic programme.
Students at ISZL share responsibility for their own learning in a caring and stimulating environment designed to promote achievement.
Respect is an important word in this statement. I believe this statement was newly written last year as a result of the three schools that form ISZL merging. Apparently this was the word mentioned by all sections of the school community: students, teachers and parents when questioned about what should be in a mission statement. I think the general feeling was that if there was no respect there would be no motivation and therefore no achievement - all very true.

Both schools inspire, empower or encourage students to excellence and both stress that students are responsible for their actions: their learning and their choices. The difference between the two is that the ISZL mission seems to stop with the student - achievement and excellence seem to be an end in themselves, whereas the NIST mission statement goes on to talk about enriching the world. I remember the discussions we had about that simple word "the". Should it be the world, or should it be their world or even their worlds? Could these students really influence the world? Isn't it more realistic to talk about them enriching their world - the people they meet, the communities they live in. At the end of the day we went with the world - maybe we did have some future world leaders there and if they could go on to enrich the world, so much the better.

Photo Credit: Peace by Cayusa

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Does the Internet make you dumber?

This is quite a controversial movie, and something that I've been thinking about recently (along with the recommendations by an administrator in a previous school that I read The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein). I went and looked up a book review for this on Amazon and this is what I read:
Despite a world of knowledge at their fingertips, the younger generation today is less informed, less literate, and more self-absorbed than any that has preceded it. But why? According to the author, an English professor at Emory University, there are plenty of reasons. The immediacy and intimacy of social-networking sites have focused young people’s Internet use on themselves and their friends. The material they’re studying in school seems boring because it isn’t happening right this second and isn’t about them. They’re using the Internet not as a learning tool but as a communications tool: instant messaging, e-mail, chat, blogs. And the language of Internet communication, with its peculiar spelling, grammar, and punctuation, actually encourages illiteracy by making it socially acceptable.
All quite depressing really. This movie asks: Is memory really all that important? The message is that real intelligence is about thinking, not memorizing.

Revamping the PYP Transdisciplinary Skills

Throughout the PYP students are developing and using transdisciplinary skills: social skills, communication skills, thinking skills, research skills and self-management skills. At the BETT Show at the weekend, I met up with Kirsten from the IB Office in Cardiff and one of the things we got to talking about was how up-to-date these skills are and whether or not they need to be revised. Kirsten suggested that communication skills could be replaced with collaboration skills. I have been wondering about the thinking skills and how these could also be revamped in the light of Bloom's Digital Taxonomy. These new levels represent a transition from lower order thinking skills (remembering, understanding and applying) to higher order thinking skills (analyzing, evaluating and creating) - perhaps these are now more relevant as the thinking skills of the PYP?

The lowest of the thinking skills is remembering: this is made up of students being able to list, identify, describe, recall, name, match, label, locate, recognise and select. Understanding builds on these skills and involves recalling knowledge and demonstrating comprehension. Here students will need to be able to interpret, summarise, paraphrase, classify, compare, explain and categorise. Students will use the thinking skills of understanding and remembering in order to apply their knowledge, for example to solve problems, to graph results, to predict, or to modify or change something.

Moving on to the higher order thinking skills, analysing is seen as a transition. It involves students using the lower order thinking skills of applying, understanding and remembering in order to quantify, organise, or outline their knowledge. Evaluation was once regarded as the highest order thinking skill in Bloom's original taxonomy. It uses the lower order thinking skills in order to judge or critique, review or appraise, comment on, justify or argue a point of view. Creation is now the highest order thinking skill, where students design, construct, produce, make, assemble mix and mash.

I am wondering if the PYP thinking and research skills could be combined into just one category, using Blooms Digital Taxonomy. Formulating questions, observing, collecting and recording data, for example, would seem to be developing the lower order thinking skills, whereas organising, interpreting and effectively communicating what has been learnt would appear to be using the higher order thinking skills.

In addition I'm wondering could communication skills and social skills be combined into just one new category: collaboration skills? Collaboration involves working together to achieve common goals, to share knowledge and learning, to build consensus and to create. This does seem to encompass the social skills of accepting responsibility for taking on and completing tasks, respecting others, working cooperatively and resolving conflict and group decision making. It would certainly involve the communications skills of listening, speaking, reading, writing, interpreting visuals and multimedia and creating and presenting information and ideas in a variety of ways.

Photo Credit: Engrenage by fanfan2145

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Learning Cone

The idea of the learning cone was developed by Edgar Dale over 40 years ago, and it has been adapted many times since. The most recent version of this I saw had an extra layer on the bottom as well which said "teaching it to another person". As a teacher when I have to rack my brains to think of a way of teaching a concept to a group of students so that they really understand it, this is definitely something that will stay with me for a long time.

There's so much talk today about 21st century skills. Sometimes I hesitate to use this term with my colleagues as it seems a bit derogatory - as if I'm implying what they are doing is old hat if they haven't jumped onto the 21st century bandwaggon. Good teaching is good teaching, and the traditional skills of reading, writing, numeracy, research, communication and social skills are certainly always going to be essential skills for students to have for the future. But at the same time there are some traditional skills that are becoming more important, such as the processing of information, critical thinking and problem solving and there are some new skills that are becoming essential too such as social networking and online communication: our students need to learn how to become writers, artists and composers too to do well in this digital age.

I have attended several presentations by Ian Jukes, both in Europe and in Asia. On his Committed Sardine website he argues that important skills for the future are what he calls the 5 fluencies:
  • solution fluencies involve defining the problem, designing a solution, putting a plan into action and debriefing or evaluating the result.
  • information fluencies involve being able to ask good questions, access and acquire information, analyze and authenticate the information, evaluating good and bad, fact and opinion, and then apply the knowledge.
  • creative fluencies involve imagination, design and storytelling.
  • media fluencies involve understanding how media is being used to shape our thinking and how it is used to communicate a message effectively.
  • collaboration fluencies involve being able to interact with people all over the world and jointly create products online. It also involves knowing how to act as a digital citizen.
Jukes has come up with these fluencies to try to avoid us turning out "highly educated useless people who are good at school but not adequately prepared for life". His argument is that literacy is not enough for the digital age.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Doing without Doing

Tomorrow I'm going to the BETT Show at Olympia. Many years ago, before I became a teacher, I used to work in Olympia as a secretary for a firm of impressarios called Harold Holt Ltd arranging concerts for famous musicians and I was lucky enough to get tickets to see some of the most amazing musicians and conductors that passed through London in the late 1970s. While I was thinking of returning to my old stomping ground for the BETT Show, I've also been thinking about a TED talks video I watched right before Christmas where the Israeli conductor Itay Talgam talks about the leadership style of great conductors. This got me thinking about the similarities between leading an orchestra and leading a school.

Itay Talgam starts by talking about how a conductor can bring order out of chaos as noise becomes music. Great educators can also bring order out of chaos - after all what could be more chaotic than hundred of teenagers all in one building together - and how the success of an orchestra is to do with the harmony the players create together. In the first video clip he shows, the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic don't even look at the conductor and the audience almost becomes part of the orchestra by joining in. If we took out the words musicians and audience and replaced them with the words teachers and students, perhaps we are looking at the kind of harmony we could get in a good school, where the conductor/administrator was spreading happiness and this joy was enabling the students and teachers to walk their own paths and to all succeed at the same time.

Itay Talgam goes on to compare this style of leadership with that of Riccardo Muti - his style is definitely one of commanding - his instructions are clear and so are the sanctions for those who don't "make the standard". Of course this does work to a certain point, but Talgam tells us that eventually the musicians of La Scala asked him to resign as they didn't feel they were given the freedom to develop. They were not seen as partners in the creation. Certainly I have worked with administrators who have made the staff feel just like that. At times I have been commanded to do certain things that to me just didn't make sense (park my car down the road in the carpark of the local swimming pool, rather than in the school car park, for example). This type of leadership left me and the other teachers at the school feeling most uncomfortable. In this particular case the outcome was the same: eventually, to the joy of all the staff, the Board told this Director that his contract was not going to be renewed - he then left education altogether. This Director had previously characterised his role as "the big man on top" (he actually showed a vaguely pornographic cartoon depicting a rather large man squashing a tiny lady at a staff meeting once!) I think he felt the rest of us were beneath him - certainly this was not a partnership. Sadly I have seen a lot of great teachers and middle managers become very poor leaders once they reach the top. It's the whole idea of the Peter Principle where people are promoted if they are working competently, but at some point they are promoted to a position where they are no longer competent and there they sit as they are unable to move up any further and can't face the idea of moving down. The truly great teachers who have found themselves in this position have actually picked themselves up and said "I don't enjoy doing this any longer .... I'm going back to the classroom" and most of them have ended up a lot happier, but this has usually involved a change of school and even a change of country as it's very hard to go backwards in your professional life.

The third video shown is of Richard Strauss who once said "never look at the trombones, it only encourages them!" His philosophy was to let the music happen by itself and in addition that there was no room for interpretation, only execution. Again I have seen this style of leadership totally stifle creative teachers who thought a little bit "out of the box". These leaders seemed to be of the opinion that those teachers should be "brought back into line". My own children have had these types of teachers on a number of occasions during their school life and have grown and thrived by being encouraged to march to the beat of a different drum. Personally I think every child should have an experience like this at least once during their schooling. There is no reason why every class in the same grade should be on the same page and doing things in the same way.

Herbert von Karajan was the next conductor to be discussed. He conducted with his eyes closed which made it very difficult for the musicians to know how to play together. In the Berlin Philharmonic the first players led the way. Von Karajan thought the worst thing he could do was to give a clear instruction as this would prevent the members of the orchestra from listening to each other. Once again I have worked with administrators like that - ones who never made a decision, one whose office was known as the "black hole" (lots of things went in, very little came out), one who was known as "the invisible man" as nobody ever saw him. This laissez faire style certainly did lead to others lower down the school developing skills of leadership, perhaps I even became the person I am today as a result of having to take a lead in areas when nobody else appeared to be moving forward, but it wasn't a situation where I felt nurtured or encouraged as a teacher and most of the time I ended up feeling that nobody noticed what I was doing or even cared.

Carlos Kleiber was the next conductor shown. He also did not tell the musicians what to do, but opened a space for them to put in their own interpretation. This deliberate style of leadership keeps things moving by a process of building partnerships. When there is a mistake, the authority is there, but most of the time this leader has made his staff his partners and the staff in this type of establishment are proud of the role they are taking in building an excellent school. I have grown and thrived as a teacher with this sort of leadership style in schools, and it is such a joy to have the things you do noticed and recognised - I so loved getting those happygrams! In Amsterdam this type of leadership led to the school becoming known world-wide for its approach to professional development - the "yes you can go, and come back and share it with the rest of us" approach. It was the person who said "try it out, go for it, if it doesn't work you have learnt a valuable lesson that will help you do better next time." It's the idea that we are all in this together, that the success of the school is everyone's success. It's the doing without doing. It's the "if you love something, give it away" approach. It's the reason most of us became teachers in the first place.