Monday, January 31, 2011

The most important transnational educational initiative of our time

The International Baccalaureate is the most important transnational educational initiative of our time.  - Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
For me, one of the most important aspects of the IB PYP is the way curriculum is developed through inquiry, a collaborative process involving both teachers' and students' questions.  What teachers who use inquiry have come to discover is that combining the interests, knowledge and experiences of both teachers and students leads to rich and authentic inquiry.  As teachers our job is to create the right environment for learning, whereas for students their role is to pursue their personal inquiries and seek answers to their questions.  Learners will only engage in personal inquiries in an environment that values their ideas and where their voices are heard - where they participate meaningfully in the decisions that affect their lives - where they are not just given a choice among options determined by their teachers but where they have a role in coming up with the options in the first place.  It's what Kathy Short and Carolyn Burke have referred to as education for democracy.

The most powerful forms of inquiry I've experienced as a PYP teacher, are those where teachers have given up a broad coverage of topics, characterised by many different activities, and have encouraged deeper and more critical thought in their students with a much narrower focus.  Students need to move on from fact-finding and research that involves reading about and around topics, to more practical hands-on doing and they need to know that they are never "done" with a topic or unit of inqury - that there is always more room for learning and moving in different directions as new questions emerge.  In fact students should be encouraged to ask more questions and pose more problems, rather than just find answers and solve problems that teachers have set for them.  The significant questions, the ones that really encourage learning, are the ones the students have come up with themselves and that they feel ownership of.  Answers are static and "always right".  Understandings evolve and develop.  Experience is important - if all a student does is to fact find using the research of others, then that student is not fully engaging in the inquiry/discovery process him or herself.

This post was written as a response to my thinking about a question posed by one of our teachers last week:

Some years ago in another school the whole primary school did a workshop on inquiry.  There we were encouraged to "let go" - to not overly plan the direction we wanted the inquiry to take or the students to go.  We were told that we might not always know what the student would learn at the start of a unit of inquiry, because the questions had not yet been asked by the students.  For some of us - especially those who firmly believe we have to "start with the end in mind" - this is a hard idea for us to grapple with.  However it is the thinking, like that of the teacher who sent me the above message last week, that will move our students forward.

Photo Credit:  Sunlight by Rishi Bandopadhay

Friday, January 28, 2011

Differentiation - how do you plan for it?

When I start to think about differentiation - about all the many individuals I teach (over 300 of them) - it feels almost overwhelming.  How does a teacher plan to meet all the needs of all the students?  How do you make sure that every student is learning?  Here are some more thoughts based on the Differentiation in Practice book that I'm reading.

It's important for teachers to know the following about their students:
Student readiness -  this is the thing that I find most challenging:  if a student can complete a task effortlessly, he or she may not be learning.  If the work is too difficult, the student will end up being frustrated and also not learning.  The best learning takes place when a task is a little too difficult for a student's current level of knowledge, understanding or skill, but only when there is a support system that helps students to bridge the gap.
Interest - there are many ways to link what has to be learned with the students' own interests.  However the best teachers also help students to develop new interests.
Learning style - working in collaboration with others, or working alone, for example.

How can teachers adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of their students:
Content - teachers need to keep constant WHAT all students need to learn, but need to modify HOW students access the content.   For example this might mean varying the reading level of materials.  Sometimes teachers need to vary WHAT the students are learning, depending on their readiness.
Process - teachers can vary the activities that students do which lead them to their knowledge, understanding and skills.
Products - teachers can vary what students can do to show their knowledge, understanding and skills.

Photo Credit:  Crayon Tips by Darren Hester

Differentiation - what does it look like?

This post is based on the book Differentiation in Practice by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Caroline Cunningham Eidson.

Last year some teachers from school went on a workshop in Rome about differentiation.  It was great to have a talk about this workshop with one of the teachers on her return.  Now I'm reading about what a differentiated classroom looks like.

  1. A strong link between assessment and instruction - pre-assessment is very important and forms the basis on which lessons are planned.  Assessment, both formal and informal, is ongoing throughout the unit of inquiry, so that teaching can be adjusted to ensure students are making progress.  It's important that there is choice - more than one way of students being able to show what they know, understand and can do.
  2. Clear learning goals for all students and a good knowledge of skills and understanding that precede and extend beyond the grade-level curriculum so the teacher can help students make up their learning deficits or can challenge those who need their learning extended.
  3. Flexible groupings - sometimes whole class, sometimes individuals, sometimes based on similar learning needs or interests and sometimes mixed-readiness groups.  It's important students have the opportunities to mix with a wide range of peers.
  4. Flexible use of time, space and materials 
  5. Students are involved in the workings of the classroom - for example making class rules/essential agreements, helping other students, keeping records of their goals, doing various class jobs - all of which contribute to a sense of community.
  6. The emphasis is on individual growth and on students achieving their personal best - each student is stretched - tasks are difficult but achievable.
  7. Teachers have high standards for their own personal growth
  8. Teachers work with specialists to meet students' needs - second language teachers, learning support teachers, gifted education teachers and counsellors are all partners.
Photo Credit:  Colors by Brian

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Asking provocative questions

Asking provocative questions is an important part of inquiry as it encourages students to think deeply and come up with their own understanding.  These questions are ones that don't have simple answers (facts) and that spark curiosity in students, encouraging them to discover the answers for themselves.  In searching for the answers to these questions, students develop more complex and critical thinking and come up with more enduring understandings.

Guiding questions that teachers ask should move students' thinking from the factual to the conceptual level of thinking.  In her book Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul, Lynn Erickson explains how to write guiding questions.  She tells us to turn generalizations into questions, for example by asking why.  The generalization "community members have roles", she turns into a guiding question by asking "Why do community members have roles?"

Having read this book, I'm now finally coming to grips with when to ask why (for guiding questions) and when to ask how and so what (for moving from level 1 to level 3 generalizations).

As part of our inquiry process we have the students generate their own questions.  Once again we need to be able to guide students to write good questions - so that they are not just "fact finding" during their inquiry but are actively thinking about the concepts that are embedded in their units.

Photo Credit:  q is for .... by DorkyMum

Panoramas: AutoStitch and 360 Panorama

Today I decided to follow up on from a comment I received after my post last week about apps for taking photos with the iPhone.  Thanks Britt for recommending 360 Panorama.  I'm posting the photo from this week and the photo from last week to compare.  Of course last week the sky was an amazing colour - and that was reflected in the lake.  Today it was more of a grey, overcast and snowy day.

The interesting thing about 360 Panorama is that it doesn't feel like you are taking photographs, or even a series of photos - it's more like taking a movie.  The resulting photo isn't a nice straight photo, but appears stretched at the edges and it's necessary to crop it.  Despite that, I feel it took a good photo - though I will need to wait for another sunny day to check out how it actually looks with bright colours.  For using with primary students I would probably be tempted to use AutoStitch, simply because you can snap as many overlapping photos as you like, whereas with 360 Panorama you need to pan carefully and watch as the different parts of the picture appear on the screen.

Skyping in Grades 1, 2 and 3

Yesterday I wrote about how the past few months has seen an explosion of blogs in our primary school.  Today I'm reflecting on another explosion - of the use of Skype in our grades 1, 2 and 3 classes.

Our Grade 1 students have been looking at different ways of communicating - it's part of our Where We Are in Place and Time unit of inquiry and students are inquiring into different methods of communication that depend on the purpose, the audience and the resources.  Our students already used email to send questions to students in other classes in Italy, the USA, Ghana, Singapore, South Africa and Tanzania.  Now they are skyping with those students to find out their answers.  Students are responsible for introducing themselves and asking their question of another student.  The fact that we have already sent the questions means that each student in our buddy classes has had time to think about and maybe research the answers for us, and has a little idea about the person they are going to talk to.  Each Grade 1 class therefore connects with one other class, and each students asks and receives one answer from a student in that class.

In Grade 2 we are also skyping - this time to find out how the weather affects us.  This is part of our How the World Works unit of inquiry.  This time we are not skyping other students but family members in different parts of the world (or in one case an old school teacher).  So far we have skyped 4 different people in Australia, Norway, the USA and Singapore.   For these calls the whole class participates - there are just 4 students asking questions and the others are taking photos, taking video or making notes. We are posting the photos and movies on the class page.

In Grade 3 they are skyping as part of their How We Express Ourselves unit of inquiry into poetry and song.  These classes have had hour long skype calls with the poet Kenn Nesbitt.  They have found out how he started writing poetry and how he goes about writing poetry and have had a go at writing a poem with him!  They have brainstormed questions they want to ask as a class and each class has voted on the 5 "best" ones.  Students have many different roles - before the skype call they have been blogging and finding out where Mr Nesbitt is in the USA using Google Maps and Google Earth.  During the call some students have been greeters, others have been questioners and others have been responsible for taking notes, movie and video.  After the skype call other students blog, make slideshows and send the movies to YouTube - everyone is busy and everyone has a job to do.

Moving on from learning about poetry and what it is to be a poet, the students are now starting to become poets themselves.  They know the process Kenn Nesbitt goes through when writing his poems and now it's time for them to write their own.  They have composed music using GarageBand so that they see the connection between poetry and song, and they are about to start taking photos to go with their music that they will then write poems about.  The idea is that the music, photos and poems will be used in an Animoto slideshow (and we already have a few experts in the class who can teach the others how to do this as they learned how to do this already after the skype call) and students' artwork will be put with other poems they have written in VoiceThread so that all the students in the class can listen to each other's work, view each other's art and make their own comments.  In order to do this, students have all used Bitstrips to design their own avatar to use in VoiceThread.

I have loved the way that skype has been used to bring the world into our classrooms during the past couple of months and am excited to see how rich the learning has become.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cooperative Learning

I was reading last week that of all teaching strategies cooperative learning has the greatest potential for teaching the greatest number of students.  The article went on to list the reasons why this is the case:

  • Inclusive - all members of the group are expected to participate and often each student has a different role to play in the group so that there is positive interdependence.  The success of the group depends on each student being responsible for his or her contribution to the work.  All students are thinking and working.
  • Students have more face-to-face interactions - more dialogue - and more thoughts and ideas are shared.
  • In classes where many students are still learning English, cooperative groups give students the opportunity to use and practice their language in a more social setting.
  • Interpersonal and small group skills are promoted.
  • Members of the group give feedback on how well the members are working together and can suggest ways the performance or effectiveness of the group can be improved.
With all the benefits of cooperative learning, my question is why do we see so little of it?  I've taught all ages from Pre-School up to Grade 12, and I have certainly seen more of this in the primary classes - perhaps because it is easier to organise when the same students are with the teacher for the whole day.  I think some secondary teachers may also be concerned that while group work may lead to deeper understanding, it would result in less coverage of the curriculum.  In other cases it may just be that cooperative learning looks messy - it's noisy, students move around more, there appears to be less control.

As an IT teacher sometimes I've found it difficult to have students work in groups in an IT lab - often with computers arranged in rows or around the edges of the room - especially if each student is expected to come up with some sort of product/presentation by him or herself.  Working in a classroom with a set of laptops is often better for group work - perhaps with students using one laptop per group.  Thankfully now there are more opportunities for collaboration to happen online - with Google docs for example many students can be working on the same presentation, document or spreadsheet at the same time.  Prezi Meeting is another tool that allows a group of students to all create together.  I conscious that the traditional set up of computer labs may work against cooperative learning, and I'm trying hard to find ways around this, for example by giving students different roles.  Our recent skype activities have resulted in a number of "experts" in the classroom - some students now have a better understanding of how to take good photos, others know how to turn these into slideshows and others know how to make movies.  I'm hoping these "experts" will  have the opportunity to share their knowledge and skills with the other students in their classes when we move onto other units of inquiry during the rest of the year.

Photo Credit:  CK-CO126 World Bank from the World Bank photo collection

Who, what, where and how

One of the activities we did at the Project Zero summer institute I attended was to debate what was more important - what we taught or how we taught.  The participants got into 2 different corners of the room and had to persuade those in the opposite corner to join them by explaining their thinking - some people did change after listening to the arguments.  Me, I sat in the middle with 2 others. We couldn't decide.  On the one hand what we teach is so important - the choices we make about what is important for our students to know, understand and be able to do, the choices we make to concentrate on conceptual understanding rather than just knowledge of lots of facts.  On the other hand, how this is taught can be the make-or-break for students.  The whole time teachers are making choices - they are balancing the needs of the students and the requirements of the curriculum, or, as Carol Ann Tomlinson says, the are addressing the who, where, what and how of teaching.

Who:  a classroom is made up of diverse individuals all of which affect learning:  gender, culture, personal interests, ability, experience and intelligence.
What:  this is the knowledge and skills students will need in life.  For some students who are missing critical understanding and skills the teacher will need to backtrack and give additional instruction, for other students they need to be challenged and encouraged to move forward.
Where:  the learning environment is very important if students are to feel the classroom is a place where they are valued and can become the best they can be.
How:  each student needs to be taught in accordance with his/her readiness, interests and learning style - at times whole class teaching, at other times small groups.  It's important for students to come to know what works best for them.  It's the how of teaching that really determines whether or not a teacher is differentiating and meeting the needs of all the students.

Photo Credit:  Water Drop Photography Tutorial by Steve Wall

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Differentiation - some more thoughts

The year after I first became an international teacher my school hosted the ECIS Social Studies Conference.  Despite the fact that I was a new teacher at the school, I was encouraged to present at this conference, along with 2 of my colleagues who were ESL teachers.  Our presentation dealt with the issue that many of our ESL students found social studies to be their "hardest" subject.  Just as it's often difficult to translate menus or jokes, they felt that social studies for many students was an "untranslatable".  Our presentation asked teachers to consider ways they could differentiate for the ESL students in their class.  We gave examples of how at times all students could be doing the same thing using the same materials, sometimes all students could have the same task, but use different materials to access the information (books in their own language for example), at other times students could all use the same materials (for example maps) but be working on different tasks and sometimes both the materials and the tasks would need to be different.

Last year some teachers from our school went to Rome to a workshop by Carol Ann Tomlinson on differentiation.  She suggests 5 elements of differentiation:  content (what the students will learn), process (how they will learn), product (what they will produce to show their learning) and two other elements she calls affect (the interactive nature of the mind and emotions) and the learning environment (climate and structure).

What differentiation means is that we plan so that all students can learn effectively - that all can develop their knowledge, understanding and skills.  It means we have to give up a one-size-fits-all approach and think more about how we get them to these goals - the journey may well be very different for individual students.  However what it definitely doesn't mean is that some students have a watered down version of the curriculum.  Of course differentiation is not always easy - it can involve a lot of extra work for teachers who work in schools where are limited support services for students - but it does mean that we are showing that we believe in all our students and that we want all of them to reach their full potential.

Photo Credit:  Distinctively Red by pshutterbug

Ruled by the TV?

Many people say they want to be in charge of their life, but then they turn their evening schedules over to their tv sets... Stephen Covey

We don't have a TV, so for sure we are not ruled by it, but what I have noticed is that often our computers have become substitutes for the TV.  In some ways I would even say that this is more problematic than the TV - when we all sat down together and watched the same thing and talked about it together.  Now I've noticed that we're often all engaged with our computers - on 3 totally different things - and we don't talk about what we are doing at all!

I was passed on this article during the week by a friend - it's about a mum who banned electronic devices in a 6 month experiment.  It seems a bit of a drastic step to take, unplugging the whole family for 6 months, but it seems there were benefits too.  This Christmas our son was back with us from university and I loved the way we spent our evenings playing games:  backgammon, rummikub and cards - and not just plugged into our computers working.  Of course it's easy to do that during the holidays when you don't have to plan for a full day of school the following day, but I certainly think it's something we need to work on doing a little more of in the future.

Photo Credit:  Traveling without moving by Frederic Poirot

Different types of Assessment

During the past week I've been involved in assessing the Grade 3 students' oral presentation for their How the World Works unit of inquiry.  The students have been inquiring into natural and man-made processes and disasters.  Since each student has chosen his or her own process/disaster to investigate, the way we are assessing their knowledge and understanding is through performance assessment - and as a Geography teacher assessing their knowledge and understanding about this particular unit of inquiry is right up my street.

Performance assessments not only look at what students know, they also look at what students can do with what they know.  This form of assessment has been described as "taking knowledge to the doing level".  In this particular case the doing involved using Web 2.0 tools to support an oral presentation.  Since the PYP is a concept-based curriculum I was also seeking to see how the students could demonstrate their conceptual understanding of form (what is it, how is it formed?),  change (how does it affect the Earth, how does it affect people?) and connection (how can we be prepared and respond?)

Students have also been involved in assessing these oral presentations - peer assessment is something that has been developed during this unit.  In general students have presented to small groups and I have asked  2 of the students to be looking just at the communication skills - is the presenter speaking at a good pace, not too fast or too slowly, is the presenter loud enough, does the presenter look at the audience?  The other students are listening to the presentation with a view to asking questions at the end if they need clarification or further information.

Self assessment is very important too.  Some classes have now started their own ePortfolios to collect and display their work.  All students have paper portfolios so this is an extra, and is used to display work that will not fit easily into a folder - such as these sorts of Web 2.0 presentations.  Recently portfolios were sent home and the classes that had an ePortfolio had an extra page that went home so that parents could see their child's work online.  I was delighted to read the comments that came back from the parents - many of whom recognised that their children were already far ahead of them in using these tools.

When looking at assessment I believe it is important to think about how much growth each student has made over time - this is why I am so keen on developing the ePortfolios more.  As they move forward from one grade to the next the ePortfolios can go with and grow with the students - and by looking back at the work samples that they have added students will be able to see just how much learning and progress has taken place.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

An explosion of blogs

At the beginning of the school year 3 teachers approached me and asked if I could help them set up blogs.  One was a PK teacher, one was a Grade 3 teacher and the other one wanted to have a blog for her extra-curricular activity after school.  I set them up with a Google Apps for Education account, and showed them how to use Blogger.  I was really happy to see that these teachers were ready to jump into blogging and they have done an excellent job.

Recently, however, there has been an explosion of blogging at school.  All our Grade 4 and 5 students on both campuses have their own blogs (some using Blogger, some using Posterous).  In addition for our last unit of inquiry in Grade 3, all the students have been introduced to our Grade 3 Poetry and Song blog.  Each week one of the Grade 3 teachers takes it in turn to post prompts for the students and to moderate their comments.  We introduced the students to commenting on blog posts by having them first write a post on a post-it note, and then copy it onto the blog as a comment.  We talked to them about writing appropriate comments, that they should write in their best English and that they should only add their first name to their comments.  Since then, individual students have started to add posts to the Poetry and Song blog themselves as a result of the various activities we introduced around skyping the poet Kenn Nesbitt.  Some students blogged before the call with the questions we wanted to ask him, others blogged after the call with the answers.  Some worked on turning photos of the call into Animoto movies which they then posted, others worked on iMovie and sent their movies to YouTube and I showed them how they could embed these into the blog.  I would say that some of our Grade 3 students are real "blog experts" now!

Last week our Grade 1 teachers expressed an interest in starting their own class blogs too.  They are starting a 12 week unit about narrative writing and wanted a place to publish their artwork about characters and settings.  We talked about the fact that it was also possible to photocopy the writing the students had done and save it as PDFs which could also be published.  When I showed them some of the ways their students could make online books they got really excited.  Currently I'm thinking of using Combine PDFs to put the work together and then using Issuu - though I'm up to other suggestions if anyone has better ideas.  So at the end of last week I sat down with 2 of the Grade 1 teachers and we set about designing their class writing blog - the other 3 classes I'll have to get to next week.

Finally last week I was approached by one of our Grade 4 teachers.  He was excited to see what the Grade 1s were doing and wanted a blog or a wiki for his class too so that students could publish their writing for everyone in the class and at home to see.  I'm not exactly sure what he wants, but I've made an appointment to see him on Monday to find out more.

Up to now, I've always maintained a student website for the 2 campuses I work at.  This has pages set up for each class for each unit of inquiry.  It's a place to publish student work and a place for providing links to good resources that students can use in their inquiries.  Now I'm thinking that next year I'll probably be able to slim it down quite a lot if each class has its own blog and is publishing the work the students are doing.  I like the fact that I can "hand over" this to the teachers - that they will be able to run their class web pages themselves as blogs and that they will have more control over what these pages look like and how the students use them.

We have come a long way in technology in the past 18 months, both the teachers and the students, and this week I'm so excited to see the explosion of blogging.

Photo Credit:  BOOM by Fabian Gismondi

Grade 2s start to skype

As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, I teach on 2 different campuses (both doing PYP).  The units of inquiry are, in many cases, different on each campus and even when they are the same they are often taught at a different time of the year.  As it happens, the Grade 2s in both campuses are doing an investigation of how the weather affects us around this time of year - probably because it's very clear to see in Switzerland in the winter that the weather definitely does affect us in many different ways.

Last year when I worked with the teachers on this in our main campus, we decided to skype and email with schools around the world to ask them how the weather was affecting them.    This is the process we went through:

This year I have started this unit of inquiry with the students on our smaller campus.  They decided that instead of contacting other schools, they would contact family members in other countries to ask them how the weather affects them.  One of the boys in the class has an uncle in Australia who is a farmer so we skyped with him and asked him about the current weather in Australia and how this has affected farmers.   He talked to us about the financial impact - how the price of vegetables has gone up because of the recent floods destroying crops and making them more scarce, the fact that topsoil has been washed away by the floods, the type of crops that he is able to grow and how many animals he is able to keep.   He explained that when it is too dry or too wet the grass doesn't grow very well and therefore he has to buy in hay and grain for his animals.   Another of the boys has grandparents who live in Florida.  He talked to us about La Nina and how this has affected weather in the USA, giving Florida warmer summers and colder winters. He talked about how people in Florida wear cooler clothing and spend more time outdoors than people in other parts of the United States, and how many people leave Florida in summer to get away from the heat and humidity.  Next week we are going to skype with relatives of one of the girls from Singapore.

Last year when we skyped with schools we set it up that a small group of students would skype with each school and would become "experts" on the weather in that particular part of the world.  This year we have set it up in a different way so that all students participated in each call and that for each skype call every student had a job to do.  This could involve being a greeter, a questioner, a recorder, a camera person to take still photos and a camera person to take video.  It was very useful to be able to put the movie onto YouTube so that the students could look back on it later.  I like the way this unit has evolved this year, and the way that the students are more involved in all the skype calls the class is making as they inquire into how we adapt to the weather.

Photo Credit:  Sky Palette by Nicholas T

East is East and West is West

During the last week or so I've read and viewed some things that have disturbed me and provoked me.  These have made me question my role as an international teacher as well as how I view myself as a parent.  At a curriculum leaders meeting last week we were handed a copy of George Walker's position paper East is East and West is West.  I've read this paper before of course, and blogged about it too, and now I'm happy we're actually going to be discussing it at school.  In my time in IB schools I've heard many parents and teachers question how international the IB Learner Profile is, with many feeling that it is merely promoting Western values.

The video below, however, really made me question my role in international education.  Having been in Ladakh in the early '80s, I was shocked to see this movie (much of which is shot there).  To be honest it was my time in India, working on a public education programme with adults, that made me decide to become a teacher of children.  Yet the answer to the question:  if you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it?  got me thinking.  With the best will in the world, imposing our Western education system is certainly changing, maybe even destroying, the traditional way of life, the traditional values, of many places, and I am asking myself what right we have to assume our values are "better" ones than the ones that have existed there for generations.

I have always loved teaching in an IB World School, which certainly promotes certain attitudes among students and educators.  At the same time I am also conscious that a value-laden programme smacks of cultural superiority as we try to promote a "better" way of life.

The article in the Wall Street Journal from Professor Amy Chua, moved my thinking in another direction.  While many found her extreme parenting verging on abusive, it surprised me to read the letter from her daughter supporting her mother's parenting style. The comments to the WSJ article are numerous (over 7000 of them) - clearly there are very strong feelings both for and against this method of parenting - and the debate that followed in the NY Times provoked even more comments.   I have taught many Asian students who would say similar things to Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld - students who practiced a musical instrument (or several instruments even) for many hours a day, and who loved the way they felt when they mastered a difficult piece - who came to love something because they were good at it, and they became good at it because they had been forced to practice - they learned to love it and then they loved to learn it.

I think in the West we do things the other way round - what has been termed "the romance and the rigor".  Here we encourage students to fall in love with something first, then once they are in the "romance" they are introduced to the rigor - the hard work it takes to become really good.  

When I worked in Asia, I worked with a number of women the same age as myself who had had arranged marriages.  This is definitely not something I would ever have wanted for myself, but having spoken to these women (one of which was busy arranging a marriage for her own daughter, who was in her 20s), it was clear to me that their family lives were just as happy/successful as my own.  What they had done had worked for them, one way was not "better" than the other.  East is East and West is West - we shouldn't be trying to push our own ideas of what is "right" onto others (therefore I still have an issue with Professor Chua who claims Chinese mothers are "superior").

I'm still thinking about the video, however,  I still  have a way to go to straighten out my thinking on that one.

Photo Credit:  Prayer Wheels by Njambi Ndiba

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Taking pictures with an iPhone

Today I decided to do an experiment.  I've been looking into apps for the iPhone and I wanted to use 3 different apps to take the same picture.  Since today is a Tuesday, and on a Tuesday I always work on another campus - with a staff room that must have one of the best views in the entire world - I decided to try out my new apps this morning.


I've been using Pano recently to take panoramas - many have turned out more successful that this one as I tend not to take them into the light.  This morning, however, I had no choice - the sun was rising and I was pointing the phone at it which meant I got some very odd colours in the middle of the shot.  Pano is easy to use as you get a faint version of the previous photo to match up with your next shot.  Of the 3 photos I took this morning, however, this was my least favourite.


This is another app that takes panoramas.  It's ridiculously easy to use - just take a series of photos with the camera making sure there is some overlap between the photos, then open the app and load the pictures - the app automatically puts the photos together for you and you can crop out the edges that don't match.  Top marks for this one - but I still don't really like the contrast - the trees in the foreground are very dark compared with the light of the sunrise in the background.  I later went on to crop the panorama to give what I thought was a better composition.

Pro HDR:

This doesn't take panoramas, but what it does do is to take 2 photos of the same scene and combine them so that the dark and light is more balanced in photos where there is a lot of contrast.  There is an Auto mode (which I used to take this photo) and also a manual one which I haven't tried out yet.  Once the 2 photos are combined you can still use sliders to adjust the brightness, contrast, saturation, warmth and tint.

Conclusion:  The photo that ended up most like what I was actually seeing was the one taken using Pro HDR, though I have to admit that I do like the silhouette effect of the trees and the colours using AutoStitch.  I thought both HDR and AutoStitch did a great job because I was facing right into the sun.  I was most disappointed with Pano - however I have used it to take great shots (just not looking directly at the sun).  

Do you have any other apps you would recommend for using with an iPhone?  If so, I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Enduring Understandings

Coming up with a really great central idea for a unit of inquiry is, for me, the most important starting point for our collaborative planning.  Inquiring into the central ideas are what leads our students to enduring understandings.  We want to encourage our students to synthesise the knowledge and understanding they come to during their inquiries and to come up with their own transferrable ideas.

In her book Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul, Lynn Erickson writes about generalisations as "statements of conceptual relationship".  These generalisations come from fact-based studies but "transfer through time and across cultures and situations".  Erickson writes about the process we need to go through to identify generalizations - she tells us to start looking for concepts that can be paired to make statements of enduring understanding - what we want the students to understand beyond this specific unit of inquiry.

When writing our generalizations, Erickson tells us to use active, present tense verbs, and to avoid the passive voice, past tense verbs and the verbs to have and to be.  Generalizations should not be definitions and they should use qualifiers such as may or can.  If you don't use such qualifiers then you don't have a generalization, instead you have a principle - which is always true and therefore may leave little room for inquiry.

For example we have a central idea that states:  weather affects life on Earth.  This is a fact and is what Erickson would refer to as a level 1 generalization.  How can we move from this to provoke a deeper level of understanding?  Erickson tells us to ask the question how:  how does weather affect life on Earth?  This brings us to a new concept, that of adaptation - we have to adapt to the weather (perhaps by putting on warmer clothing, perhaps by considering which types of crops can grow in a particular area, or where houses can be built safely, or what materials the houses should be made out of to keep the heat either in or out).  Perhaps we are now at a level 2 generalization:  that we have to adapt to different weather conditions.  Now to move onto a level 3 generalization we need to ask the "so what" question:  So what would the effect be if we did not adapt to the weather?  Well in extreme cases we are talking here about yet another concept - that of survival.  If we don't have the right sorts of clothing, we will not stay very healthy when it is extremely cold, if we do not build houses of the right sorts of materials, these houses may not survive severe weather that leads to floods, if we don't grow suitable crops for the weather conditions, the crops will fail and we won't have enough to eat, for example.  Finally we have arrived at a situation where we have two new concepts - adaptation and survival - that can be written up as a level 3 generalization:  We need to adapt to the changing weather, otherwise we will not survive.  With this central idea there are a huge amount of things that students can inquire into that will lead them to enduring understandings of how the weather affects us.

Photo taken by Woodley Wonderworks

Sending the right message

Today I was working with a class of grade 5 students who were using Posterous.  We were talking about blogging and discussing how they could post their work onto their blog to keep a permanent record of what they have been doing in IT to support their work on the units of inquiry.  We didn't really discuss the word ePortfolio, but of course this is what they would eventually end up with if they continue to display their work on their Posterous blog.

This was only the second time the students had worked on this blog.  The first lesson had just involved setting up the blog and choosing their design.  We wrote one blog post on the first day so that they would see how to add to their blog - students wrote a simple recount of what they had learned in their current unit of inquiry, Who We Are, which deals with physical, social and emotional changes during the different life phases and the roles and responsibilities associated with each.  Today I wanted to show them how easy it was to put other things to their blog, so we looked back to see what they had done over the past few months that they could add.

At the start of the year the students worked on Sharing the Planet.  They were looking at peace and conflict and all of them made a Bitstrip cartoon showing a situation of conflict and how it could be resolved peacefully.  We therefore decided to try to post the cartoon they had created.  This was a very simple task which involved saving the image from either the Bitstrips website or from the student website if it had already been displayed there.  We put this image onto the desktop and then uploaded it into Posterous (after which we trashed the image from the desktop).  Students wrote a few sentences to reflect on making their cartoon and how this helped their understanding of the unit.  This was such an easy process that we then went on to upload a movie that students had made and saved on the school's YouTube channel, for their How We Express Ourselves unit of inquiry.

Some students didn't finish in class but I reminded them they could always log onto Posterous/YouTube/Bitstrips and the school website from home so that they could finish off.  I found myself talking to students about how easy it was to use Web 2.0 tools and that creating, communicating and publishing their work online was a 21st century skill that it was important for them all to master.

I know of teachers whose eyes glaze over when they hear the words 21st century skills.  I know of others who switch off when they hear talk of some skills now being obsolete.  Often this is because they are worried that their traditional skills may no longer be seen as relevant or of value.  Some feel threatened or criticized - they feel that all this talk about the 21st century skills that our students will need for their futures means that the skills they learned in the 20th century when they became teachers are no longer valid.  For many of those teachers, publishing was the final step in a long series of writers workshop lessons, and happened only after careful discussion, editing and peer review.  Publishing two or three pieces of work in one lesson, with little time given at this stage to editing and no time at all for discussion or peer review of what the students were writing would have seemed very shoddy!  Yet for the Grade 5s today, publishing this work was the first step in a process that will go on to look at reading and commenting on each other's blogs - the discussion and peer review will happen online and at a later date.

For me, sending the right message is letting our teachers know that the skills that they taught in the past are still there - perhaps they are being taught in a different order, perhaps they are being taught in a different way and using different media and tools, but the communication skills remain the same.  By writing a blog we are still working on the PYP transdisciplinary skill of communication - which includes, for example, keeping a journal or record and also constructing visuals and multimedia for a variety of purposes and audiences - and using appropriate technology for effective presentation and representation. What I was hoping for today was that our 5th Graders would come to love writing on their blog and publishing their work in all its various formats - and that they will want to do it more and more.

Photo Credit:  Embraced by Words by Robbert van der Steeg

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Skype Call is a Learning Call - activities during and after the call

Last week we had our first skype call with Kenn Nesbitt.  As mentioned in a previous post, we had been using the guidelines drawn up by Silvia Tolisano, so that all students were aware of their roles before, during and after these calls.  Earlier in the week some our our Grade 3 students had already been responsible for researching about Mr Nesbitt in the library and by using the computers in the IT lab, other students had been responsible for using Google Earth and Google Maps to find out what it was like in Spokane, where Kenn Nesbitt lives.

Everyone was very excited on the morning of the call.  We had some students who took the role of greeters, and in each class 5 students had been chosen to ask Kenn questions.  We all listened to him talking about how and why he became a poet, and we enjoyed listening to the poems he shared with us.  During the call, some students also had the job of taking photos and movies.

Later that day I spent time in each class with the students who were responsible for the post-skype jobs.  Some students were bloggers and added to the Grade 3 Poetry and Song Blog, others turned the photos into a slideshow using Animoto and some worked on editing the movies in iMovie and sharing them on YouTube.

Here are some comments from one of the Grade 3 team about the process we went through and what she thought were the highlights of the call:

  • Everyone knew what he or she was doing
  • Everyone had the chance to participate and use IT, either before, during or after the skype call
  • The reflection activities were done immediately afterwards while they were still fresh in everyone's minds
  • Students were excited to see what others had published on the blog
We are skyping with Kenn again this week - what an exciting way for our students to learn about poetry!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Minding the gap - the art and science of teaching

Yesterday I was involved in a fantastic collaborative planning meeting with our Grade 3 teachers where we focused on reflecting on the last unit of inquiry, How the World Works.  During this unit students investigated natural processes and both natural and man-made disasters.  I was curious to hear the comments of the teachers on how they felt the IT had supported the students during the unit.  For me the most important reflections from this unit were:

  • It was really helpful having the IT and Library working together so that the same research skills and tools were used in both areas.
  • Teachers liked students using different tools in different classes across the grade for showing their understanding
  • Students were able to learn and practice using the tools in school and to complete their research in school and then to actually create presentations to show their knowledge and understanding at home - we talked about how this was the reverse of what had happened last year when a lot of the lesson time was taken up with actually creating the presentations (PowerPoints in this case) because they were stored on the school server so not accessible to the students outside of the lessons.
The teachers were keen to learn about more Web 2.0 tools that the students would be able to use.  They wanted to be able to give the students more choice (Yes!) but realised they could only do this if they knew more tools themselves.  They asked what tools the students already knew from last year.

This got me thinking - last year I drew up curriculum documents for all the grades that I taught (which did not include Grade 3 so they didn't get these documents).  These documents contained information about what we had done, which IT skills had been developed, which software/tools/peripherals were used, digital literacy skills and which PYP transdisciplinary skills had been covered.  This year I'm replacing the section on digital literacy skills with the new ICT in the PYP strands.  It occurred to me that most grade levels only actually saw their own documents so they had no idea where they fit in the grand scheme of things - no idea where the students had come from or where they were going - that in fact there was a big gap in the teachers knowledge of the IT programme.

This year at school teachers have been introduced to Atlas Rubicon as a curriculum mapping tool.  Such a tool should be very useful for identifying gaps or redundancies in the content and skills taught and should also show which content can be brought together in interdisciplinary units.  Currently the different departments in the school are working on learner outcomes to add into Atlas Rubicon.

Today I read a short section in Lynn Erickson's Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul about objectives, outcomes and standards which helped me get the differences between these straight in my own mind.  Erickson writes that in the 1970s and 1980s the emphasis in education was on drawing up specific, measurable objectives for each subject.  Often these involved a topic plus a verb taken from Bloom's taxonomy.  For example the topic might have been the effects of exploration - in this case the conflicts and cooperation between Europeans and the  Native Americans - this was then turned into an objective by adding a verb:  Describe the cultural interactions leading to conflicts and cooperation between the Europeans and the early Native Americans - which in turn was made into a standard or benchmark:  The student will know the reasons for and the effects of European exploration and settlements in North America.  Clearly this standard is simply factual knowledge that often involves memorization, not conceptual understanding as a concept is universal (whereas this standard is specific to a particular culture) and timeless (whereas this standard refers to a specific period of history).  To turn this standard into something that leads to conceptual understanding we would need to drop the references to place and time and have a generalization or central idea more along the lines of:  exploration involves cultural interactions which can lead to conflict and cooperation.  This opens up inquiries into many different explorations which deepen the students' understandings.

Now objectives are out, and outcomes are in.  The difference between an objective and an outcome is that an outcome involves students demonstrating what they know through performances.  Erickson warns us that it is easy to "do the verb" - but is this useful and relevant?  We should be asking WHY students need to demonstrate knowledge of this fact and whether this demonstration has led to deeper understanding.  She also warns against having too many topics to cover leading to less time for students to develop the skills they need for accessing interpreting and demonstrating their knowledge.  Erickson states clearly:
Some educators think that the more specific and factually oriented the standards, the better they are.  In my opinion, though, well-written concept-based standards .... value the intellectual pursuit and deeper understanding of knowledge.
She tells us:
It is important to list the critical content ..... for each grade level and subject - with the exception of skills and processes - without verbs.  If teachers see the skill sets for grade levels and subjects, they can internalize the skills and apply the appropriately in lesson plans and assessments.  This is their job:  it is the art and science of teaching.

Photo Credit:  Mind the Gap by spin'n'shoot 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Concepts -v- Topics

I've been dipping into H. Lynn Erickson's book Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul again today, this time thinking about concept based curriculum.  While many teachers have now come to believe that teaching facts is not the best form of education, many are still confused about the difference between concepts and topics.  For example, if I ask teachers what unit of inquiry they are currently studying, some will give me the name of the transdisciplinary theme (How the World Works, for example), others will give me the word of a topic (Energy, for example), very few will actually come up with the concept (Energy Conservation, for example).  I'm asking myself today how we move from a focus on topics to a focus on concepts.

A concept is defined by Lynn Erickson as "a mental construct that is timeless, universal and abstract".  She also refers to them as the cells for categorizing factual examples - the understanding of the concept becomes deeper the more examples are studied.  Concepts are timeless, so examples can be taken from any period of time.  They are universal so examples can be taken from any culture.

In IB World Schools, students start in primary school with the PYP, a transdisciplinary programme, move onto an interdisciplinary approach during the MYP and finally come to study in disciplines for the final 2 years of school for the IB Diploma.  With a transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary programme the goal is higher-level, integrated thinking.  With this approach it's therefore not possible to study themes - which only allow for a multidisciplinary curriculum with many subjects providing facts or activities related to the topic.  Interdisciplinary thinking by its very nature must focus on concepts.  The example that Lynn Erickson gives is that of dinosaurs which is a topic and can be studied from a historical viewpoint, or perhaps from a scientific viewpoint.  The concept extinction, however can use the extinction of dinosaurs as one example, but also allows students to look at other animals that have become extinct or which are today in danger of becoming extinct (timeless) and it also allows students to investigate the many different ways animals can become extinct such as loss of habitat, climate change, hunting and so on (universal).  For me, what I have found is that a concept based curriculum allows students to really ask their own questions, follow their own interests in their investigations and come up with something unique and meaningful to them, while still supporting the overall concept being studied.  Topics, however, end up with all students in the class basically working with the same facts to come up with something that is similar to that being studied by everyone else in the class.  With a concept based curriculum the students are more active and engaged with  their inquiries - and what they are learning is transferrable which helps them to become lifelong learners.

Photo Credit:  la girondola by i k o

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Skype Call is a Learning Call - Pre-Call Activities

This week I've been working with our librarian and our Grade 3 teachers to prepare our students for a skype call with the poet Kenn Nesbitt on Friday.  The students are working on the How We Express Ourselves unit of inqury which is focusing on poetry and song.  For these skype activities I've drawn heavily from the excellent  blog post and resources from Silvia Tolisano.

On Monday this week, the librarian and I had the students together in the library and we did an introduction so the students would know what to expect on Friday.  The students worked in pairs to find out information about Kenn Nesbitt, using his website Poetry4Kids.  Our library has several copies of his books, so the students were able to read his poems at that time too.

Today I worked with one Grade 3 class to get ready for the skype call.  First of all we talked about the different jobs students would be doing before, during and after the skype call.  One student would be using Google Earth to find where Mr Nesbitt lives (in Spokane, Washington State) and another would be using Google Maps to find out what it was like in Spokane using the street view.  Two students would work together to find out about the USA using various web sites.  Jobs that are allocated for the actual call involve asking questions (all students will get the opportunity to ask questions - they are working in pairs on their questions), taking photographs and taking video and notes.  Other jobs will be done after the skype call such as putting the photos into a slideshow, putting the movie onto YouTube and writing on the class blog.

Right after that session the students who were working on the pre-call activities came to the computer lab with me and started work.  They took screen-shots and posted them on the class blog and used the internet to find out various facts - such as the fact that Spokane is 9 hours behind us here in Switzerland. We will be speaking to Mr Nesbitt at 9am, but for him it will be midnight!

We're excited to be involved in this great learning activity and are looking forward to our skype chat.

Making Change in a Changing World

In November at the PYP Workshop Leader Training I attended it was recommended that we read Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul by H. Lynn Erickson.  Having had several staff meetings devoted to her work on concept based curriculum at my last school, I was keen to read this book, and today I found it in our professional development library in the staff room at school.

Chapter 1 of this book is entitled Making Change in a Changing World.  Erickson writes in this chapter about the difficulties of making change in schools where teachers are working in their own comfort zones without a coordinated, systematic plan for change and she notes the major difficulties to improving the education system:

  • management by measurement - which tends to be short-term in focused and devalues "intangibles" that cannot be measured
  • compliance based cultures - where people get ahead by pleasing the boss/principal and where there is management by fear
  • managing outcomes - where managers/principals set the targets and teachers are accountable for meeting the targets regardless of how possible these are within existing structures
  • "right answers" -v- "wrong answers" - divergent thinking outside the box is discouraged
  • uniformity - diversity is seen as a problem, conflict is suppressed in favour of superficial agreement
  • predictability and controllability - management focused on planning, organizing and controlling
  • excessive competitiveness and distrust
  • loss of the whole - fragmentation so innovations do not spread
My reflection on the above:  I'm lucky to have been outside national systems for so many years that I seem to have totally avoided standardised tests, league tables of schools and so on.  However some of the other points do ring true of places where I've worked.  For example the idea of management by fear - the idea that "I'll be writing your reference/talking to your next prospective employer on the phone" is enough to pull many people into line.  I have spoken with teachers who said they have committed "professional suicide" by being at schools with this sort of style of management and who have said they dare not speak out about problems as all that happens is that they are seen as being the problem.  I have also been in schools where cronyism was rife - the only people who ever seemed to get on or be valued were the personal friends of those in leadership positions or who had ingratiated themselves into the inner circle, and where everyone else was basically ignored.  Needless to say, in those places, morale was extremely low and staff rooms were places to be avoided like the plague (to this day I still find it difficult to spend much time in the staffroom).  I can also identify with the point about uniformity - all too often teachers who are reluctant to "rock the boat" by asking questions end up in a situation of superficial agreement - they are not satisfied by this and then moan about decisions that have been made - even though they have had the opportunity to give input (but have chosen not to as a way of keeping the peace).  

I'm not so sure about the point about loss of a whole, however.  In my teaching career I have worked in three schools that were whole campus schools, and two which were not.  One of these two was only temporarily on two campuses, as a result of having too large an enrollment for the existing buildings.  I was lucky enough to be one of the teachers who moved to the smaller, satellite campus.  I have to say this was one of the highlights of my career and I simply loved being in that smaller building that just housed the Pre School, Grades 5 and 6.  This year I'm also in a situation where I do four days a week on one campus and one day on another smaller campus.  It's that one day that is always the high point of my week - I love it there.  Perhaps, if there is no movement between the different campuses or buildings this might lead to a stagnation or lack of change - however I have not found it to be so.  Last week I was talking to a principal at another school about the differences between large schools and small schools and she said that large schools were like oil tankers - big and solid and able to push through changes but very difficult to stop and turn, small schools, however were more flexible and adaptable and could easily head off in a new direction.  I really liked this analogy and totally agree with it.  A lot of really great innovations and a lot of great personal and professional development comes from teachers in these smaller schools.

The last part of Chapter 1 refers to another book I read earlier this year:  On Common Ground.  It deals with becoming a professional learning community where teachers see themselves as being part of a collaborative team rather than just as individuals and where principals see themselves as leaders of leaders rather than leaders of followers.  Erickson writes about the fact that in PLCs the intellect is engaged therefore teachers are more motivated as they feel they are contributing and being valued.  When we are told what to do, say or think, then we feel little personal fulfillment.  When there is a shared vision, the school moves forward.  

My reflection on the above:  I'm thankful that I have worked in excellent schools like this - where, for example, at ISA I was involved in a year long Project Zero cohort of teachers who met every 2 weeks to reflect on our professional practice.  In NIST I was part of a curriculum leadership team which met, again every 2 weeks, to read and discuss professional literature (On Common Ground being one of the books we read and talked about together.)  For me being part of a professional learning community in these schools has been intellectually very stimulating - and for me now I am so grateful to have a wonderful PLN who I interact with on a daily basis though Twitter and the Blogging Alliance and who constantly stimulate and challenge my thinking and help me to move on and reflect on what I am doing and where I am going.

Photo Credit:  Fly away with me by Aussiegall

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Note taking to aid remembering and understanding

Right before the Christmas holidays I introduced note taking to our Grade 3 - 5 students on one of our campuses.  This was to support the units of inquiry they are currently working on:  in Grade 3 they are looking at culture, in Grade 4 they have been looking at belief systems and in Grade 5 they are looking at legacies from ancient civilizations.  All the students needed to have the skills of being able to read a book or a website for information, and to be able to watch a video or listen to a speaker to gather more information.  We talked about the fact that different skills are needed when reading or when viewing where the information is coming at them in a faster pace and that often in movies students will be expected to take in visual stimuli as well as just to listen.

I think it's important for students to understand why we ask them to take notes when they are searching for information.  Therefore we talked about how much information is actually retained a day or a week after first reading or viewing something.  As Dale's Cone of Learning shows, very little is retained with simply reading.  If we look at how much is retained with watching a video (seeing and hearing) more is retained but still 50% is lost after just 2 weeks, as all of these are passive, so the students and I were talking about why we take notes and how this gives us a written record with details that we can refer back to later.

Our librarian had already introduced some of the students to note taking using books and websites.  She had pointed out that books have headings and sub headings and are written in a very linear way - therefore to take notes from books and websites it's important to do this in a linear way too with headings, subheadings and bullet points.

Our librarian had drawn up some templates for note taking and I introduced these to the students to see if we could also use these for taking notes on a movie.  In all 3 classes students watched a short movie connected with their unit of inquiry and practiced taking notes using these sheets.  The handout was arranged with 2 columns - one for writing quickly during the movie and one for summarising afterwards.  I explained to the students that it would not be possible for them to write in full sentences that they should just try to write down a few words about the things that seemed most important.   At the end, after a discussion of the main points and identifying some key words that were common in all the students' notes, I asked the students to summarise or synthesise on the other side of the page the notes they had quickly written down, using the key/common words we'd identified as headings.  With our Grade 3 students, the following week I asked them to get out their notes and again, using the keywords as heading, I introduced SpicyNodes to them, showing how they would turn the headings into the nodes and the notes they had made under the headings into sub-nodes or descriptions of the nodes.

Our Grade 3 students are shortly going to "meet" the poet Kenn Nesbitt using skype.  This is a different kind of oral presentation but one where students need to be well prepared for what they are going to be hearing - as our librarian said:  there is no rewind button for a speaker and being part of the audience is also an important role they need to play too - they need to be looking at and interacting with the speaker, not just looking down and scribbling notes .  For this session I have also reproduced some of the handouts from Silvia Tolisano's post about how, during a skype call, students can have different responsibilities - so that not everyone in the class needs to be note taking at the same time.  I am sharing these handouts with our Grade 3 teachers so that they and the students are well prepared for the skype call with Kenn next week.

As mentioned in previous posts, in the past few months I've been looking at our units of inquiry, and how technology is used to support these units, in the light of the 6 new strands identified by the PYP.  So far the note taking has been part of the investigate and organise strands, or in the more traditional language of the inquiry cycle, it has been part of the finding out and sorting out stages of inquiry.  After this it will be time to move on to the more active parts of the Cone of Learning.  Students will use the results of their investigations to create something that communicates their knowledge and understanding. Our Grade 3s will be using SpicyNodes or Prezi, our Grade 4s are using VoiceThread and our Grade 5s are talking about using interactive timelines.  The notes they have taken will reappear in what they are saying and doing - and finally we will be able to assess their (new) knowledge and understanding based on these units of inquiry.

Thanks to Silvia Tolisano and to Elizabeth, our Librarian, for the ideas and resources that have helped me support our students in their inquiries.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Different Leadership

I'm a member of The Educator's PLN and this week on their website I came across this Prezi by Jennifer Angel based on the book What Great Principals Do Differently:  The Fifteen Things That Matter Most by Todd Whittaker.  As I was looking this through, I was asking myself how this could apply to me in my position as a team leader and while obviously all these 15 things are important these are the two I feel I would like to work on myself:

#12 Understand high achievers - ignore minor errors, provide autonomy and recognition.  There are some teachers who are way ahead of the pack with their thinking and use of IT.  Some of these teachers are so enthusiastic that I realise that I'm spending more time with them than perhaps some of the other teachers in their teams - this is because I get energised by their enthusiasm.  I feel I need to provide them with more autonomy and recognition, perhaps by encouraging them to take on more of a leadership role in their grades so that they are the people others turn to.  It would be great to have some more formal way of recognising their drive and achievements too.

#8 Focus on behaviour then focus on beliefs - a change in behaviour naturally leads to a change in beliefs.  I think that our teachers are living proof of that.  We changed a lot in the past year, for example introducing a flexible schedule (behaviour) which eventually led to teachers wanting to use the IT more with their students because they could see how much it was transforming the learning (beliefs).  Once teachers see that something works, then they believe in it.

Think Differently

"Think Different" was an Apple commercial/slogan from the 1990s.  As someone who has always been an Apple fan, I have loved buying the newest technology which has then become mainstream.  I remember the first Mac computer I ever had - a Mac Classic, I remember my first lab filled with multi-coloured iMacs, and I remember my excitement at buying my first iPhone and iPad.

As mentioned in previous posts, it's not always easy to be a different thinker.  People are comfortable with what they know and many are not comfortable giving this up.  Change involves risk taking.  As I've been thinking about this recently I've been thinking about the future of education and what needs to change.  Is the future something along the lines of the Khan academy, for example, where students will be able to choose what they learn and when they learn no matter where they happen to be - and that all these lessons will be delivered through the internet in a free virtual school?

Studies have shown that American students lag behind students in Europe and Asia in both maths and science - these STEM subjects appear to be where a lot of emphasis is now being put in schools in the USA.  For me what was really interesting to read this week, however, is that schools in Finland are far more focussed on the arts, and that schools in Singapore are having a big drive with PE to improve health and fitness (ie they are not focussing on the STEM subjects) and my experience of international students has shown me that students in Finland actually start formal schooling much later (several years later) than students in many other countries - despite this they are outperforming those countries where students are put into education at a very young age.  Quantity of education certainly is not the same as quality.

In the past year and a half I have been in my current position I've been encouraging our teachers to think differently about the way IT is taught too.  We have changed from a fixed period a week where IT was taught in isolation to a flexible schedule where IT has been refocused from information technology to information and communication for teaching and learning.  We have also adopted the SAMR model - where teachers are responsible for leading lessons where technology merely enhances the curriculum (the s = substitution and a = augmentation) and ITCL teachers lead the lessons where technology is used for transformation of the teaching and learning (the m = modification and r = redefinition).  For more information about how we are using the SAMR model please find other blog posts here and here.  We are working more closely with the librarians too now to deliver a more holistic information literacy programme.  This year we have also jumped with both feet into the Google Apps for Education and other Web 2.0 tools, and we have given up separate IT reports for most classes and integrated our comments into the reporting of the units of inquiry, maths and language arts.

IT is no longer seen as a separate stand-alone subject but has become embedded into the curriculum where it is concept driven and transdisciplinary, and both students and teachers have been given much more choice about what tools are used and how the tools are used to support learning, rather than a more traditional one-size-fits-all approach of teaching specific skills or programmes.  IT teachers and librarians are both involved in collaborative planning and reflection and are involved in providing continuous professional development for the teachers.  Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the past year or so is that our students have connected with other students beyond the classroom and school, and that they are using their time at home much more to engage more fully in their learning or the presentation of their understanding.  Who would have thought that we would come so far in such as short time - all as a result of thinking differently?