Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Grade 5s and the 4 Cs: Creativity, Collaboration, Communication and Critical Thinking

I've been thinking about the 4 Cs all year and since reading the Futurelab report Digital Literacy across the Curriculum I've been thinking even more! I think many people's first reactions when they think about encouraging creativity in students is to think about the arts subjects or maybe creative writing. Yet I believe we need to consider creativity in maths and the sciences too. The Futurelab report states:
Creativity is about more than just artistic ability, it is also about how we think and how we construct and share knowledge.

In IT lessons students are both consumers of information and also creative producers. During the year IT has allowed the students to be creative in many different ways to share their knowledge and learning. Currently I'm working with some Grade 5 teachers on a maths unit that involves shape and space. Their central idea is that geometrical ideas and relationships can inspire us to create. They have already looked at reflective and rotational symmetry and this week have gone on to create tessellations out of shapes and to take photographs of different things they have found around the school that are made up of tessellations - from brickwork, to the wire netting around the playground, to the roof tiles. We are going on to use Prezi so that the students can share their knowledge of what they have discovered about maths and art through IT.

Earlier in the year these same students were making movies to support their unit of inquiry How We Express Ourselves. In their language arts lessons they were learning about persuasive writing. Now most of these students have mobile phones and cameras that can take video, and I'm sure many of them use these to share things they are doing with their friends. My whole aim in teaching movie making, however, was to have them go through the process of making a film, rather than just shooting off a quick clip on their phone or on a camera. We talked about different sorts of movement in film, such as pans, arcs, zooms and different camera angles - and when was the most appropriate time to use these shots in a movie. We talked about close ups, medium shots and long shots and how to put these together in sequences. Students had to write a script and produce a storyboard and only then did they start the filming. A lot of critical thinking went into the shooting of these movies, before the students even started on editing. I worked with the class teachers to draw up a rubric that covered both the IT skills that I would be assessing, and the persuasive content of the film that they would be assessing. At the end of all this, the movie really was something that was co-planned, co-taught and co-assessed.

The 5th Grade movies were definitely an area this year where there was a lot of collaboration - between us as teachers and between the students who worked in groups of about 4 or 5 students to plan, shoot and edit their stories. There was a lot of dialogue and discussion as the students shared and communicated their ideas with the rest of the group.

The Grade 5s are now deep into the PYP Exhibition, and my support of this unit so far has involved mentoring small groups of students who have come with ideas as to how to show their understanding of whatever it is they are investigating - from how to stop smoking, through to animal welfare and environmental issues. For me, as an IT teacher, the most important skill I am trying to develop in the students during these meetings is choosing the most appropriate communication tool for the task they are wanting to do, as well as helping them to develop expertise in this chosen media. Thinking about how they want to present their ideas is enabling them to critically engage with their inquiries in a focused and meaningful way. They have all done plenty of research already, now they need to add meaning to what they have discovered, analyse it and transform it to create something that is theirs. They need to develop their critical thinking skills and they need to develop their reflective skills and evaluate their findings.

When I look back on the year so far with our Grade 5s I feel very pleased that the IT lessons have given these students many opportunitites to be creative, to work together collaboratively and to communicate their ideas as well as to think critically. I'm confident that all these skills will give them good grounding for moving up from the Primary School and into the Middle School in just 2 more months.

Photo Credit: Windows by Andrea Costa. Tessellations by Carlotta and Dora

Education for International Understanding

A couple of years ago I worked at a school whose mission was to provide education for international understanding. I have already written about my current and my last schools' mission statements, but over the past few days I have been reading the Futurelab report Digital Literacy across the Curriculum and what I've been reading has led me back to this old mission statement and the question: just what is education for international understanding?

The Futurelab report draws on the analogy of moving to a new country (something I'm very familiar with having lived in 7 different countries myself):
If you want to fully participate in the life of this new country you need to understand much more than the simple mechanics of the language which is spoken there. You need to know how what you say and what you do might be interpreted and why this might be. You need to understand that the same actions may have different meanings in different cultures and you need to recognise that there are certain social, cultural and historical influences that shape your understanding and knowledge.
Cultural and social understanding, therefore, begins with yourself - understanding how your own perspectives have been shaped by your cultural heritage will allow you to appreciate others. This immediately reminded me of the HSBC advertising campaign in recent years with a single image repeated three times and a one-word interpretation superimposed over the pictures. For example the same photo of a car has the words "freedom", "status symbol" and "polluter" over it, a rug has the words "decor", "souvenir" and "place of prayer" over it. The HSBC also had a similar advertising campaign where there were three different pictures all with the same word on them, for example the word "responsibility" is shown over a footballer just about to take a penalty shot, over a recycling bin filled with plastic bottles and over a goldfish bowl. In these advertisements word and images are very powerful.

Working in international schools for over 20 years has made me very conscious of different interpretations and of different customs in the various countries where we have lived. In Thailand we would always take our shoes off before entering a house or temple and even now I can't walk around indoors in shoes, it just feels rude. There are different values too. Our culture and our education system promotes independence, yet that is not a value that is held particularly highly by some cultures who value the success of the group or family more than one individual member. I once taught a Japanese student who returned to Japan and later told me she had been bullied because her hair was different from the other girls there (hers was long with different coloured streaks in the front - the other girls in her new school in Japan all had identical bobs). In Europe we had taught her to value being an individual and celebrate being different, back in her home country being different just seemed odd. Being open-minded is an attribute of the IB Learner Profile. Yet many of our students will return to countries where the culture is not open-minded at all.

From an IT perspective the Futurelab report suggests an interesting activity that I would like to try with a group of students as a jumping off point for cross-cultural comparisons. Going back to the HSBC advertisements where a single word can conjour up many images, depending on your cultural and social understanding, I would like to try something similar using Flickr. As images are uploaded and tagged by people all around the world with many diverse viewpoints, it would be interesting to compare images across cultures that have been tagged with the same words. Perhaps as a starting point we can have a look at the PYP attitudes (appreciation, commitment, confidence, cooperation, creativity, curiosity, empathy, enthusiasm, independence, integrity, respect and tolerance) and see if we can find some interesting and different images that reflect diverse understandings of these words.

Photograph by Rick Elkins

Friday, April 23, 2010

IT and Library - is there an overlap or are there gaps?

Many years ago, when I was a 5th Grade teacher, I was asked by my Head of School where I saw myself going as a teacher in the future. At this stage I had already moved from being a High School Geography and English teacher, to being a Primary teacher responsible for delivering the whole curriculum to the students in my class. My answer was that I would like, at some stage, to move into either IT or Library. At that time I never thought that it might be possible to fuse the two departments into one.

I will always be grateful to my Head of School for remembering that conversation and giving me the chance to move into IT. A couple of years after this meeting she phoned me during the middle of my summer holiday and offered me an IT job. I've been an IT teacher now for 10 years.

As those years have passed I've noticed that the work I'm doing in the IT department and the work being done in the library are getting closer and closer. Now I'm at the point of asking myself whether we are really just two sides of the same coin. And then I'm going on to ask the question: are there overlaps in what we are doing, and are there gaps?

Last week I started a new unit of inquiry on trade with the Grade 4s. Our students were being introduced to a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary, so I showed them Wordle and had them write down all the new words. The students told me they already knew this tool - they'd used it in the library earlier this year. At the same time a class of Grade 5 students were up in the library and our librarian was introducing them to Glogster - she was surprised to find that earlier this year I'd also set up accounts for the Grade 5 students and had them make glogs.

These incidents during the past couple of weeks have led to the librarian and myself sitting down and discussing our programmes - we are still separate departments and never have any common planning time together - but we decided almost immediately that we should be one department as we are both teaching the same things: finding and selecting information, critical thinking and evaluating the information, collaboration, creativity and communication. We are both dealing with thinking skills, approaches to learning and problem solving. In some cases we are teaching different skills and in one area there might be more emphasis on something than in the other (for example I am more likely to deal with issues of internet safety and cyber bullying, she is more likely to deal with literature appreciation) but we are both basically dealing with supporting subject knowledge and enhancing teaching and learning rather than separate subjects added on to the curriculum - we are working within the programme of inquiry, not teaching in isolation. The skills we are teaching are relevant in all other subjects, in the same way that, for example, reading and writing are relevant to all other subjects. At the same time we decided that the skills we are teaching do not have to develop sequentially, but can be fostered simultaneously.

Today we found this diagram showing the components of digital literacy. It is taken from the Futurelab report Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum (you can download the pdf from this site). We felt it summed up where we currently are with the library and the IT at our school. We do have overlaps and for us the challenge is to make sure that there are no gaps. Of course this would be easier if we really did become one department - and both of us are very keen and committed to seeing this happen.

Photo Credit: Library by Pieter Musterd - The photo shows the library near the Central Station in Amsterdam

Are "digital natives" really more tech savvy than "digital immigrants"?

A few years ago, when I first heard the term "digital native" it seemed to make a lot of sense. Most of the students I teach can't remember a time before the internet and have grown up in a time where any question they want to ask can be searched for on Wikipedia or YouTube. Many of them have probably never written a letter - they communicate using email, SMS and Facebook. They are engaged with digital media for a large part of their day, watching TV and films, listening to music, playing computer games and creating their own animations, music and videos to share with their friends. Most of the students I teach seem confident in using a whole range of technologies and they learn how to use anything new very quickly.

However what I am coming to realise more and more these days is that although our students are very confident in what they are doing and how they are using technology, there are very big gaps when they engage in research or inquiry. They struggle to find relevant material and can often be overwhelmed by what they find on the internet. They often don't read the information on websites critically and tend to believe anything they come across. They skim across pages and often end up with a fairly superficial knowledge of what they have read. Many of them rely on the top hits in Google, believing they are the most reliable sources of information - very few of them have any knowledge at all of how websites get to the top of the list. They are great at regurgitating the information they find, but they are not good at synthesising it or recontextualising it.

The digital immigrants, on the other hand, appear to be more critical about what they are reading online. When they search, they are doing it more competently and are questioning the reliability of the information they find and judging its value. They are also less likely to share information that may later come back and "haunt" them, such as inappropriate photos and messages. They seem to have more understanding about staying safe online and can often communicate more effectively and appropriately. I'm wondering if perhaps that is actually because the digital immigrants have had to actually master the "old" communication skills first?

As teachers I think we need to move on from this digital native and digital immigrant argument. We have the experience of the higher-order thinking skills that can foster in our students the skills and understanding that enable them to be critical and creative users of technology. We need to show them how to collaborate and communicate while staying safe online. We need teach them how to tell the difference between when technology is appropriate and helpful and also when it is not.

Photo Credit: Phone by PhotographyByPaul

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Techie Breakie Session 3

This morning we had our 3rd Techie Breakie session. In the first 2 we covered using Twitter and Blogger, and now that teachers have set up their own accounts it was time to help them to read about what other educators are doing. To do this I used a couple of short YouTube videos to introduce them to the idea of RSS feeds and Google Reader.

Having set up their accounts, we discussed good blogs to follow. I suggested several, some of which deal with pedagogy and some of which will give them good resources to use with their students. I think that it would also be useful for our teachers to follow and connect with other teachers in the same grade levels world-wide, so that when they start using Web 2.0 tools with their students they have other classes to collaborate with.

Now that the teachers are set up with ways of connecting with other educators through Twitter and blogging, I want to move the focus of these sessions to address Web 2.0 tools they can use with their students. We had a discussion about the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 and in the next session I want to develop this further and show them a few of the tools that we have used already with some classes this year, and some that I am going to suggest using later such as Glogster, Prezi, Animoto, ZimmerTwins, Xtranormal and VoiceThread. I'm hoping to get 3 more Techie Breakie sessions in before we finish for the summer in late June, covering Web 2.0 tools, social bookmarking such as Diigo and Delicious, sharing photos on Flickr and being able to make and share videos and podcasts.

Next year I have some more ideas for professional development. One of the things I want to do, jointly with our librarian, is to run a Professional Development Bookclub, where we choose a book to read each month. Teachers would be able to sign up for as many of these books as they want to discuss and I'm hoping we can have the school actually buy and give the teachers these books (rather than have to borrow them from the school library) so that they can highlight and annotate them as they are reading.

I'm enjoying doing these morning sessions (so much better than after school meetings) and I'm excited to see how our teachers start to use these tools.

Games-based learning

I've been thinking about games-based learning since reading and blogging about the Horizon Report K-12 last week which indicated that this technology will be becoming increasingly important in education in the next 2-3 years. Today I've been investigating this further with our Grade 4s using a game to introduce them to the idea of trade.

Our Grade 4 students recently started their How We Organize Ourselves unit of inquiry about trade. Their central idea is that people trade to gain what they need and desire. They will be investigating the idea of making and selling goods for payment and the fact that people need to make choices about how they spend their money as they cannot afford to buy everything they want. Some of these ideas are very complicated (I seem to remember studying the same things when I did A' level economics!) so I was trying to find a way of introducing them to the concepts at a level that they could all grasp.

First of all we introduced some new vocabulary using Wordle. Students were then able to use Visuwords, an online graphical dictionary and thesaurus to investigate the meaning of the words. Today we started with the Coffee Shop game. The idea behind this is that each student starts off with $30 and has to buy cups, coffee, milk and sugar to set up a coffee shop. Each day over the next 14 days the students need to decide on a recipe for the coffee and fix a price to sell it at. If customers like the recipe and the price they will buy the coffee and the students will make money. If they don't like the coffee they will spit it out or tip it away, which will destroy the reputation of the coffee shop and other people will be less likely to buy the coffee there. People will buy more coffee when it is cold - so the students discovered they could put the prices up on those days to make extra profit.

Each day for 14 "days" the students had to adjust the recipe, work out what supplies they needed to buy and set a new price. There was a lot of maths involved, for example if they purchased 25 cups and decided they needed a recipe of 2 1/2 spoons of coffee, 0.8 cup of milk and 2 spoons of sugar for each cup, then they had to work out how much coffee, milk and sugar to buy. If they bought too much and the coffee was not good or the price was too high people wouldn't buy the coffee so they ended up with stock left over at the end of the day (some of which went bad and was unavailable the next day). If they didn't buy enough of each ingredient, they ran out of stock and lost out in sales.

The students were very involved in the game and at the end of the session we got back together to find out who had run the most successful business and made the most money. We asked these students what the secret of their success was. "Nice creamy coffee," said one student. "Charging a fair price," said another.

This game was such a success and so much learning was going on that I've decided to let the students play a similar one called the Lemonade Game. Then I'm going to introduce them to the idea of world trade by playing the IMF Trading Around the World game where students can take on the role of a trader in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, North or South America. They will buy commodities from the other continents and at the same time will sell their goods to make the money needed to buy other produce. They will need to barter and negotiate to get a good price for the goods they are buying and selling and how successful they are at bartering will be determined by the global economic conditions. When the conditions are bad, they won't be offered a good price for the things they are selling. On the other hand they will probably be able to buy things at a low price from other countries. As I think this game is quite a bit more involved than the earlier games I'm going to have the students do this one in pairs so that they can discuss what to do with a partner. I'm hoping that the discussions the students will have before making their decisions will help their understanding of how world commodity markets really work.

Towards the end of the unit the students will start to make their own products that they will be able to trade or sell as a class. We thought of some good ideas, for example we could have the students use glass paints to paint pretty light bulbs to sell. One of the students had the idea of making jewelry out of recycled materials. We're hoping they can apply the skills they have learnt during the games to help them be successful in this mini-enterprise.

Photo Credit: Blue Glow by Jim Sneddon

Integrating Maths and Art, through IT

Our Grade 5 students have been exploring the links between geometry, art and design. The central idea or understanding we want the students to come away with is that artists apply their knowledge of angles, symmetry and pattern to "create", bringing maths into everyday life. We decided to use IT to have the students explore these concepts and to create their own artwork.

We started this unit using the shapes in Word. The students chose 3 shapes which they then grouped, copied and flipped. The resulting shapes were then grouped again to create a pattern that could be tiled down the document. Students were able to print these out and laminate them and use them as bookmarks. Back in class they were able to show the lines of reflective symmetry.

We then went on to explore rotational symmetry. We used Kidspiration for this and the students made their patterns using the shapes and then coloured them in to show the pattern. Again, the students were asked how many degrees their shapes would have to be rotated to look the same.

Students are now moving onto the concept of tessellations. We are looking at tiling patterns, Islamic art and the work of M.C. Escher. They are going to investigate which shapes will tessellate and which will not. They are going to have a go at making their own tessellations out of paper and on the computer.

We also decided to take cameras out around school to see if we can find examples of real-life tessellations, for example in the brickwork.

Finally I'm hoping to introduce a bit of programming - I would like the students to be able to use Logo to programme an onscreen turtle to draw repeating patterns which can then be coloured in. I'm excited to see how these very different subjects can all be brought together to create real and authentic learning experiences for our students.

Artwork by Eleanor and Elodie in Grade 5

Monday, April 19, 2010

The SAMR Model - From theory to practice

Last month, while at the Apple Education Leadership Conference, I went to a presentation about the SAMR model. This weekend the IT department went on a retreat to our school's chalet in the Alps and one of the issues we were considering was how to raise the level of technology from enhancing the curriculum to transforming the curriculum. Often we attend planning meetings where teachers suggest using technology in a way that is merely enhancing what they are doing (the S and A in the model) - we have decided that if they want to do that they should book the lab themselves and do these activities, the ones shown in blue on the above diagram - and that this will free us up as IT teachers to go into the classrooms to concentrate more on the M and R to transform the learning experience (shown in pink on the diagram).

We have discussed just what skills the teachers will need to take on this new role. In the case of substitution we felt that teachers themselves should be able to lead lessons that involve simple data handling - adding information into spreadsheets to produce graphs for example. They should also be able to support students using a simple graphics programme, have students take photographs and transfer them onto the computer, use a digital microscope to view images, access the internet for research and use word processing software.

Once we move onto augmentation, we felt that we might need to give teachers some inservice so that they will have the confidence to lead lessons, with us supporting them, where students can do the following to show their knowledge and understanding of the concepts and content they are covering in class: record audio using a variety of devices and then save a sound file; use formulas on spreadsheets to perform calculations and to sort and organise data; edit images they have captured from various digital sources; follow a storyboard when filming and to use keywords and other search methods to find information and assess its validity. We would want them to be able to support the students to include bibliographical information on their creations for the sources they have used. We would also assume they could help the students to use the spelling check and thesaurus if they are wordprocessing and that they can help them to insert images, use page set up and other layout tools. We would expect them to be confident helping students to create slideshows and other methods of presentation.

We then went on to consider the things that we, as IT teachers would be expected to introduce and lead. Here we would be using the technology to redesign the tasks the students are doing. For example we would like students to be able to use layers of sound and loops to create an audio presentation or music and we would like students to be able to create graphics with multiple layers. If students decide to make a movie we would want to show them how to do multiple takes and use different camera angles and then edit them into a movie or perhaps to record time-lapse or video with the digital microscopes. We would also like the students to be able to create animations and to be confident in using the software on the interactive white boards.

Our ultimate goal, of course is redefinition. The sort of things we would like to work with the students on here would include them being able to publish a movie or podcast to share with others and to be able to contribute to online collaborations such as wikis, threaded discussions, forums and so on. We want the students to be able to post to their own blogs and to comment on the blogs of others and to use a variety of Web 2.0 tools to collaborate with and communicate with the world outside of school.

We went on to consider the Horizon Report for K-12 which indicates the technologies that are likely to become increasingly important over the next few years. In keeping with the trends indicated in the report and in order for us to concentrate our energies as teachers on the M and R levels of the SAMR model, we felt that next year it will be important for us to concentrate on cloud computing and collaboration amongst the students both within the school and world-wide. We will be using many more Web 2.0 tools and will try to introduce more Google Apps - which should become possible with the improvement in bandwidth planned for over the summer.

It was great to have this weekend away at our beautiful school chalet in Wengen to discuss all these issues and we are excited that we will be offering more professional development to our teachers next year in order to empower them to move forward on their learning journeys and to take more control of the technologies their students are using in their classrooms.

I would like to acknowledge the work of Dr Ruben Puentedura who has been the force behind SAMR.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Let's go fly a kite - Grade 7 MYP Technology

Today was the day - we went out and flew our kites. When I arrived in the art room after lunch all the students were ready and waiting. I was a bit nervous as it didn't seem to be very windy and I wondered how successful we would be at getting the kites airbourne, but we trouped out to the playground, looked to see what direction the wind was coming from and then in pairs we launched them.

The students had to run in order to get the kites above shoulder level. We quickly discovered which designs would go up into the air and which would just spin around and eventually drop down and trail behind the students.

The paper kites didn't do at all well. I think many of them were too small and the students hadn't paid a lot of attention to where the strings were attached to the frame.

One of the most successful kites was made out of thin bamboo and covered with cling film. It was light enough to fly, but also strong. In general the kites made out of balsa wood had problems with the frames snapping. This kite was a hexagonal shape with a spider web shaped frame.

Because the playground is surrounded by tall trees on one side, we then decided to walk up to the top of the nearby hill and see if we could catch a bit more wind. This kite was very successful - it was made out of two pieces of balsa wood and was a sled kite design.

Some students tried various methods of getting the kites airbourne - running very fast downhill was quite a popular method!

The traditional kite shape was a popular design. This one actually managed to get quite high.

Generally a fun time was had by all, and now the task for the students is to evaluate their designs and suggest how they could improve them.

Drawing up a 3 Year Plan - What's on the horizon for K-12

Yesterday a colleague and I had a discussion with our Primary Head and Assistant Head based on our experiences at the Apple Education Leadership Summit last month. One of our goals in the near future is to draw up a 3 year technology plan, starting with our vision of what we think IT will look like in 3 years time and then working backwards from there to come up with a strategy to get to that point. We were originally asked to come up with a 5 year plan, but to be honest I'm not really into crystal ball gazing and wouldn't even know how to begin to predict what things will look like in 5 years. 3 years is hard enough.

Luckily today I came across a Twitter post that directed me to the K-12 edition of the Horizon report which just came out a few days ago and which deals with emerging technologies likely to impact teaching and learning in the next few years. The report focuses on 6 emerging technologies, but for our purposes I am just going to focus on the 4 that are most likely to enter mainstream education in the next 3 years.

The report starts off looking at 5 trends that are driving technology. These trends are as follows:

  • Technology is a means of empowering students, of communicating and socialising. Young people use it as their way of staying in touch and also use it to control their learning. Technology gives students a public voice and a way of reaching beyond the classroom.
  • Technology affects the way we work, collaborate, communicate and succeed. The digital divide is now a factor of education not of wealth.
  • Creativity and innovation are becoming increasingly important. Schools must design learning to give students these experiences in order for them to succeed after leaving formal education.
  • Just-in-time, online learning and independent study are becoming more important.
  • Learning environments are changing and becoming more community-driven, interdisciplinary and use technologies for communication and collaboration.

In order to keep up with the current trends, educators face certain challenges:

  • Digital media literacy is important, but absent from teacher education and professional development. Digital literacy is not about the tools, skills and standards but about thinking.
  • Education is changing only slowly - it needs to shift to become more learner-centred. Assessment must change along with teaching methods, tools and materials.
  • There is little agreement as to what a new model of education might look like.
  • Many learning activities take place outside the classroom. There is a great potential for using online resources, games and social networks. These real life experiences need to be incorporated into what is happening in the classroom. Without real life experiences, students feel little connection between their lives and their schooling.

The Horizon Report identifies technologies that are likely to become more important over the next year - cloud computing and collaborative environments. Interestingly enough at our last retreat in November, when all the IT department made 5 minute presentations about how they saw the future of IT, our network manager dismissed cloud computing as not being secure enough. We're off for our follow up retreat tomorrow, so I will bring this one up again, especially as more and more schools do seem to be using this as a way of communicating, storing work and collaborating. For myself, thinking about the 8 months since I started here in Switzerland, I have noticed a big increase in collaborative projects with our students interacting with other classes worldwide (for example our Grade 2s who collaborated with schools around the world to make a VoiceThread in their weather investigations) which has given them a more international perspective. I know there are many, many schools using Gmail and other Google Apps, Dropbox, Flickr and so on, and I definitely think we should be investigating how we can use them more here. As for the teachers, I am constantly singing the praises of social networking sites such as the PYP Threads Ning, the Educators' PLN and Classroom 2.0 and several of our teachers have now set up class blogs and netvibes. I can only see this increasing in the future.

Looking further ahead to where we would like to be in 3 years time, I'm interested to read the Horizon Report on game-based learning and mobiles. Again I have seen schools adopt iPod Touch programmes very successfully and we are planning on buying our Kindergarten classes a set of these out of our Fund for Excellence. I'm interested in getting hold of some iPads too, to see how they can be used in the classrooms. As far as mobile phones go, however, we still have a way to go. I brought the subject up with some of our teachers this week and was told they are banned at school - mostly I think because the teachers are afraid students are "time wasting" with them and because they don't yet see their potential as a learning tool.

I don't know much about game-based learning, though I have used several games with students over the years - from things like Reader Rabbit with our Kindergarten students in Amsterdam, to the historical ArcVentures games with our Grade 4s in Thailand. At the moment I'm not completely satisfied with these sorts of games, but for sure I am looking forward to new games that have the power to transform education and that are open-ended, challenge-based and collaborative. At the recent Apple Education Leadership Summit I attended a presentation by the Quest to Learn school in New York which uses games as its pedagogical model for students:
Games work as rule-based learning systems, creating worlds in which players actively participate, use strategic thinking to make choices, solve complex problems, seek content knowledge, receive constant feedback, and consider the point of view of others.
Mobile computing is definitely something that is going to be part of our vision for the next 3 years. We do currently have laptops for our students to use (though we need more) and I'm certainly wanting to try out the iPad soon too. In the last few months I've noticed that I use my mobile phone much more with applications such as Evernote, Dropbox, TweetDeck and Facebook and I would like the students to be able to use these on the phones too. I think most of our middle school students have phones and really I find it quite ridiculous that we can't use them in class. I'm heartened to read in the Horizon Report that:
Over time, the vast potential of these devices for learning will begin to outweigh concerns about misuse that currently dominate most conversations about their use in school settings.
I will be happy if we can include mobiles in our vision for the next 3 years.

I haven't spent much time reading or thinking about what is beyond that. The Horizon Report mentions that on the far-term horizon of 4-5 years there will be augmented reality as a portable tool for discovery-based learning and flexible displays embedded in books, attached to desks and walls and integrated into many common objects. To be honest I know very little about either of these new technologies and don't really want to spend a lot of time talking about them at our IT retreat.

My focus, therefore, in the plan will be to investigate cloud computing further, to work on more collaboration for our students with schools around the world, to investigate using more mobile devices and to start to think about games-based learning. I'm sure we'll have lots of talk about this weekend and that I'll come home with lots more to think about too.

Photo Credit: Seen Scene by ViaMoi

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Inquiry as a Stance

This morning I saw a tweet from Jessica (@yourjoyismylow) where she said she is reading Taking the PYP Forward: The Future of the IB Primary Years Programme. Here is a link to the first part of the book on Google Books which has the first 30 pages or so of the book. Chapter 1 is by Kathy Short and deals with inquiry as a stance, and having read just this one chapter I am determined to buy the entire book.

Having taught in 3 PYP schools, I can truly say that inquiry poses a challenge to many teachers. This year we have gone through a self-study at school, and my group was looking at teaching and learning. We had several interesting discussions about what inquiry is, and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn't. We decided that it isn't fact finding or research, both of which tend to be topic-based and teacher-directed. The whole idea of inquiry is to go beyond the information and to ask questions: why? and perhaps so what? in order for students to gain a deep understanding of the concept. Understanding a concept will allow students to transfer what they know to new situations - ones that will be critical, perhaps, to their future. Just knowing the facts probably won't allow this transfer.

What I have never been able to get straight in my mind before today was the different sorts of inquiry: guided, personal and collaborative. Kathy explains these as follows:
Personal inquiry involves the learner as both the problem-poser and problem-solver in pursuing personal interests and tensions that may never be the focus of the school curriculum ..... Collaborative inquiries, where teachers and students collaborate on problem-posing and problem-solving through a process of negotiation within the curriculum are at the heart of units of inquiry .... teachers negotiate the curriculum with students, not just build curriculum from students, so that investigations grow out of process ..... Guided inquiry, where the teacher is the problem-poser and the students are problem-solvers, is often found in skill instruction.
Looking at inquiry this way, it seems that much of what is currently done during the units of inquiry is guided inquiry and that the students themselves never really become the ones posing the problems, and often guided inquiry becomes just another word for research or fact finding. What should be happening is that the units are collaborative inquiries.

One of the big discussions I have had with teachers recently is that with 4 or 5 classes in the same grade all engaged in inquiry, the form the inquiry takes in each class should look different, as each class should be focused on the inquiries that are driven by the students' interests and questions. What I am seeing, on the other hand, is that some teachers want the classes to all be doing pretty much the same things. If this is the case, it is clear that the inquiries are teacher-guided rather than collaborative inquiries. Going even further, within each of the classes the inquiries should be looking different too - with students pursuing their own questions and deciding how best to show their understanding.

As an IT teacher I'm often involved in the students creating something on the computer to show their learning. Most of the time, up to now, this has involved all the students creating a similar product - a web site, a VoiceThread, an online book and so on - with very little choice given to the students about how they want to show their understandings. Recently, for the first time at my current school, we did give the 4th grade students a choice as to how they showed their understanding about different belief systems. Some chose to use VoiceThread, some chose to write and perform a play or skit, some chose to interview people and write up their responses. An example of what one class did can be found here. I felt pleased that the summative assessment, in this case, was one that was student-driven rather than another guided inquiry.

I have asked myself several times this year why it is that so much inquiry that goes on is indentical both within a class and between the classes in a grade level, and the conclusion I have come to is that it is probably because the central ideas are fairly limited and do not lead to the students having ownership of the direction they want the learning to take. Last year at my old school we looked at every single central idea and rewrote them all to encourage deeper understandings - the hows? whys? and so whats? I'm thinking that here we will need to do the same thing at some stage, and at the same time we will need to have more professional development so that teachers have a greater understanding of just what inquiry really involves.

Photo Credit: Goodbye by woodleywonderworks

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

You can learn a lot by looking back

Someone once told me that the view you get from halfway up a mountain is often better than the view you get from the top. That's why it's important to stop every so often and look back to see where you've come from - and often this can give you the feeling of accomplishment and confidence to face future challenges.

So today I have decided to reflect back on the past 8 months at my new school. At times it has been extremely frustrating, as I have documented before - at times I feel like I have stepped back a good 5 or 6 years when I compare what I am able to do now with what I have been able to do in previous schools - we have brand new iMac computers but often I feel the network and infrastructure problems we are facing here are getting in the way of me being a good teacher. Sometimes I focus too much on just getting the technology to work, when really what I want to focus on is the teaching and learning.

Anyway, today I am going to think about what we have been able to do and how far we have been able to move, and then when I return to school again next week I'll start to look forward again and hopefully be ready to tackle all the problems anew.

I think for me the biggest sense of achievement must come from integrating the IT into the units of inquiry in a more authentic way than seems to have been done before. This has been brought about by me attending an enormous number of planning meetings with each of the grade levels which has led to much more collaboration. As a result of attending these meetings it has been possible to start writing up an IT curriculum showing the IT skills, the integration of IT into the PYP units of inquiry and which transdisciplinary skills are being covered. At the same time I have set up a primary school web site to publish student work and to collect resources together in one place for the students to use both at school and at home. I see this website as a fairly short-term thing - I'm hoping that at some stage in the future I will be able to hand this over to the teachers once they know how to set up their own class blogs.

I have started training teachers so that they are more empowered and confident to use technology for teaching and learning. So far we have just made baby steps here - one teacher per grade level. We have covered blogging and twitter, but I want to get onto lots more web 2.0 tools that the teachers will be able to use with their students. I feel I need to take a step back from all the IT teaching I'm currently doing - I want the IT to be more truly embedded in what is going on in the classrooms, so that the class teachers and myself are co-planning, co-teaching and co-assessing.

All the above has become possible as a result of pushing for the introduction of a flexible schedule. This happened in January. I can't begin to explain how much of a positive impact this is having - enabling me to plan to attend meetings and increasing the opportunities for the students to use technology.

Hardware and software - we have got more sets of digital cameras and recently we got 10 proscopes from the Fund for Excellence set up by the development office at our school. We've managed to purchase a some software that is designed for primary school students too. However much of what I have done this year has been web based. Recently I was asked by a colleague when I was going to start teaching Word and PowerPoint. I thought for a while and then decided that I probably wasn't going to be teaching those again. I haven't used PowerPoint myself for a number of years and I very rarely use Word. Instead this year the students have used blogs, wikis, email, skype, VoiceThread, Bitstrips, Xtranormal, Glogster, xtimeline, Prezi, OurStory, Google Earth, ZimmerTwins, Scrapblog, and so on. To be honest, after all that, I think the students would find Word a little boring!

So what have I learned from looking back? Well, I think we have come a long way in a short time, though we still have a lot further to go. I think I also feel that we will eventually get there - though the destination keeps shifting all the time. It's like climbing a mountain that doesn't have a summit and perhaps that's why it's important not to focus on the top, but to stop now and then, look back and enjoy the view.

Photo Credit: The Altitude by Ria579

You can't go full tilt all the time

One of the great things about teaching, I think, is that you get regular holidays. I know that some people who are not in education often joke about how lucky we are to be only working "part time". Gosh! If only they knew the amount of hours we put in after work, in the evenings, weekends and also during those holidays! The hours certainly add up to more than a 40 hour working week!

Sometimes as a teacher I feel a bit like a piece of elastic - I feel I am being stretched all the time and even when I feel there is nothing left to give, usually I can manage to stretch a little more. However I also know that it's possible to stretch too far - I have seen colleagues who have become "burnt out" as a result of taking on too much. The secret is to stretch and grow, but not break - and that is why it is necessary to have our holidays. They are a time to relax back into ourselves again and to reflect on what we have accomplished.

This week I've been in Spain. I didn't take my computer. I didn't use my phone to access my email as I wanted to have a complete break from work, but I did do lots of thinking about how far I have come this school year in my new job. For me, it has been a good experience to look back for a change, instead of always looking forward.

Photo Credit: Colorful Rubber Bands by Tanakawho