Saturday, April 30, 2011

Radical Thinking

This morning I watched another TED talk.  Charles Leadbeater argues that although by 2015 all the world's children will be able to go to school, the model of schools we are "exporting" to many countries is not applicable for their needs - he is arguing for transformative new ways to learn and says that education needs to work by pull not by push.  It's about the things that make a difference to them, motivation is essential and therefore education needs to be immediately relevant so that it attracts students into learning.

Charles Leadbeater discusses 4 different types of innovation:  sustaining -v- distruptive and formal -v- informal.  Most investment is in innovation in sustaining formal education but he argues that we need more investment in other types of innovation:
  • Reinvention:  innovation in distruptive but formal education, where for example learning starts from questions, not from knowledge or curriculum.  These schools are highly collaborative and high tech.
  • Supplementation of schools:  innovation in sustaining informal settings such as the families and neighbourhoods (examples he gave included Reggio Emilia and the Harlem Children's Zone)
  • Transformational innovation:  getting learning to people in new ways
Charles Leadbeater has written a new book called We Think.  Below is a short 4 minute movie about this:

Learning how not to do the wrong things

My son sent me this TED talk yesterday.  John Hunter talks about the World Peace Game where 4th Graders solve real-world problems using critical and creative thinking and in the process create and make meaning out of their own understanding.  This talk is about the importance of:

  • clearing the space for students to learn
  • giving control over to students - letting them decide what they want to do
  • appreciating the collective wisdom of the class
  • creating a better and more peaceful world.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Think, Puzzle, Explore

Our Grade 5 students are currently in the middle of their PYP Exhibition.  This is the culmination of the IB PYP programme and the requirement for students is that they demonstrate the 5 essential elements of the PYP (knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes and action).  Students work very independently and take a good deal of responsibility for their own learning.  It is a way of celebrating and reflecting on the entire Primary Years Programme and showing that they exhibit the attributes of the learner profile as the students move up into middle school and start on the MYP.

The exhibition is shared with the entire school community, many teachers and administrators volunteer to mentor the different groups, and in previous schools where I have worked parents take on a role too.  The exhibition takes the place of one of the units of inquiry - it can take place under any transdisciplinary theme (though in my experience the common ones tend to be Sharing the Planet and How We Organize Ourselves) as students work on collaborative transdisciplinary inquiries where they identify, investigate and offer solutions to real-life issues or problems.

This year our students have also been able to use Micromobs to collaborate and discuss issues with students in other international schools also working on the PYP Exhibition at this time.   We've found it simple to use for our students and we feel it allows students to demonstrate qualities of the learner profile such as being inquirers, communicators and open-minded as well as attitudes such as respect.  As teachers we have also used this tool to remind students to be good digital citizens and to be cautious about sharing personal information online.

Yesterday I was asked to help a friend in another school who is mentoring a PYP Exhibition group.  Her students are investigating the effects of technology and have come up with a central idea and ideas for their inquiries, but she wanted to know how to take them further.  As this year I'm working on my personal goal of trying to include more of the Visible Thinking core routines in my teaching, this has given me an opportunity to reflect on the Think, Puzzle, Explore core routine.  This routine is used at the start of an investigation to encourage students to develop their own questions.    This routine asks 3 questions:

What do you think you know about this topic?
What questions or puzzles do you have?
How can you explore this topic?

The Project Zero website suggests it's better to do the Think and Puzzle questions together first and then to do the Explore question after sharing ideas and puzzles.  I like the idea of puzzling as a way into exploring and investigating something in more depth.  Puzzling something out through inquiry involves moving from confusion to understanding and involves deep thinking about something that students find difficult and worthwhile of independent investigation.

Photo Credit:  Why by Tintin44 and Sylvain Masson

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The News - Bullying and Apps

Over the Easter holidays I've been in the UK and I've been unplugged.  Instead of reading the news on my computer, I've been watching the BBC World News.  One thing I've realised as a result of this is how irritated I get with watching the news on TV.  I'm used to going online and selecting the news that I want to read in the order that I want to read it.  I'm used to clicking on links to find out more about the stories that interest me, and skimming on quickly from the ones that don't.  I found it irritating to have to watch the same footage over and over again as it was made to fit with the length of the story.  As a result of this I turned to reading newspapers as I felt a little more in control of what I actually read.  There were 2 stories last week that really caught my attention - about bullying and about apps that help children at school.

The first of these articles was entitled  28% of teachers report bullying.  The report went on to say:
More than a quarter of teachers have been bullied at work, according to new figures.  Of these 25% said they had been picked on by a pupil and 23% claimed they had been abused by a parent, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said.  The rest claimed they had been bullied by a senior leader such as a headteacher.
I was really shocked to read that - which means that basically more teachers are being bullied by those who are supposed to be supporting them in their jobs than by students or their parents.  I had never heard of the ATL before but I checked out their website when I got home today and there is a lot of information there about bullying of teachers - clearly it is a problem.  The statistics are based on schools in the UK, not international schools, but it's started me thinking about how common bullying is internationally too.  In the schools where I have worked I've been lucky enough to have wonderful students and parents on the whole who wouldn't dream of bullying, but I do know teachers who have claimed they have been bullied by managers.  This can take many different forms and I was interested to find on the ATL website that there is no legal definition of bullying, though the arbitration service ACAS defines it as "offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient".  The ATL website states:
Bullying has no place in the management of people.  Indeed a positive, constructive management style motivates everyone to make greater efforts.
The second newspaper article that I read this holiday that got me thinking was one entitled Apps help children at school.  This article, based on research from the Encyclopedia Britannica, was about how primary school pupils who use educational apps on smartphones are performing better in their lessons.  94% of parents who had downloaded an app said it helped their child.  I went onto the Britannica website and found a number of iPhone and iPad apps that look interesting to try with students.

It was hard to be unplugged for 10 days, but interesting to see how reliant I am on the internet.  In just a few short years my sources for news have completely changed.  I realise how much I want to interact with the news, not just passively consume it.  This has started me thinking about school websites too.  How the traditional website or newsletter is becoming less and less useful, and how blogs and wikis are far more useful as 2-way communication tools.

Photo Credit:  Elegant reader by Dean Ayres

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Leadership for student learning - part 2

I've been continuing to think about teacher leadership as I read the School Leadership for the 21st Century report from the Institute of Educational Leadership.  Although it's quite common for teachers to take on positions of responsibility such as heads of departments and team and grade leaders and it's also common for teachers to head up curriculum committees and action teams, most of the leadership that teachers take on is connected to their role in the classroom, as they decide how to teach (mostly they don't get to decide what to teach), how to organise their time, how to assess the students and how to deal with individual students' needs.  All of these decisions help build the qualities that make good leaders - they foster "a knowledge children and subject matter, empathy, dedication, technique, sensitivity to communities and families, readiness to help, team spirit and the ability to communicate" - all of which are essential for good school leadership.

The IEL report however states:
It is readily apparent that, expect in unusual cases, the basic decisions that affect the work lives of teachers, as well as the performance of their students, come from on high, from top-down leadership in its most pristine form.  In most settings, teachers have little or no say in scheduling, class placement, how specialists are assigned decisions on hiring new teachers and, perhaps most telling at ground level, the preparation of budgets and materials.  This is not the stuff of professionalism.
The final section of the report is full of questions - suggestions for discussions in our own school communities.  I summarise below the ones I feel are most important:

  • Are we facing a shortage of motivated teachers?
  • What kind of turnover do we have?  (many international schools have "lifers" - people who are there because they are connected with the local community - but leaving these aside what is the turnover like for those who are free to leave?)
  • Do teachers feel isolated and alienated or do they feel their input is valued in school decisions?
  • Are new teachers provided instructional support, technical resources and mentoring?
  • Do teachers have frequent and meaningful opportunities for peer networking and collaboration?
  • Does the school encourage action research and the sharing of effective instructional approaches?
  • Is teaching a "flat" career or is there a ladder for professional advancement?
  • Do teachers have active roles in selecting and evaluating administrators and teachers?
  • How does the evaluation process provide teachers with the information they need to grow professionally?
  • What incentives are built into teacher evaluation and accountability systems to encourage lifelong learning and to recognise teacher leaders for their contributions and accomplishments?

Photo Credit:  Leadership by David R AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Keeping the channels of communication open

This weekend I was contacted one of my former students and asked for help with a university assignment.  I taught her for geography in my last year in Thailand - she is now in her 3rd year of university and studying journalism.  The interesting thing was the way she chose to communicate with me - she sent me an invitation through Facebook to an event about coltan - if I accepted it meant I knew what it was and could help her.  What happened as a result of this was a very interesting 3-way communication between her, myself and another of her former teachers who also accepted the invitation.  We all communicate in different ways and this is her way - it was very effective for what she wanted to do.

Later I started reading a blog post by George Couros about Leadership and the Internet.  He writes about his reasons for blogging as opposed to communicating through a traditional school website.  I have had this sort of conversation with some of our administrators too - and what it really comes down to is what George mentions in his blog post:
Effective leadership is often amplified by our communication skills.  When we use the term “communication”, many default to the belief that leaders are great speakers. Communication though is a two way practice and we often talk about the art of listening as essential.  Do we provide our stakeholders a forum that they can communicate to us their thoughts?
I doubt I would ever have come across George if it wasn't for his blog.  Certainly I would never have visited his school website.  And this started me questioning how effective our school website is.  We have one, which I feel is great as a marketing tool for new families or for information that will not change such as the school calendar which is useful for our current families to be able to access.  It's also the "gateway" to our parent portal with information about the classes the students are in, subjects they are studying and so on (but which as a parent I have never used as it is way too clunky).  We also have a student website where we add links to resources for our students to use to support their learning and where we showcase their work.  This year I have also helped individual teachers to set up their own class blogs - this is where the real communication is taking place. One of our PK classes has had almost 2,000 visitors to their blog this school year, others have had comments from families, friends and other students around the world.  If I was to count up the total of the visitors to each of the class blogs I'm sure it would add up to much more than the total visits to our school website.  This is the way people want to communicate.  George goes on to say:
We need to go to where our stakeholders are and provide them different opportunities to communicate.  As I listened toMichael Fullan a few weeks ago, he mentioned that effective leaders are both able to send and receiveOur communication tools need to be able to do this as well.
Recently I have been working with our Grade 1 and Grade 3 students on comments - how to write effective comments on a blog post.  It has been a great opportunity to bring up many issues related to digital citizenship.  We talked about how to stay safe online.  We hope that by teaching the students how to do this in school, they will stay safe out of school too.  Last week we were discussing Fakebook and whether or not to use this as a tool for our Grade 3 students to create imaginary profiles of famous explorers for our Where We Are in Place and Time unit.  Some of our teachers were very enthusiastic, others felt it was too much like Facebook, and since our Grade 3 students are only 8 or 9 years old was it appropriate to create something that might prompt them to ask for a real Facebook account?  Some of our  Grade 3 students already have Facebook accounts, however, despite the fact that they are well below the age limit.  Should we be teaching them how to use this safely, or should we just assume this is their parents' responsibility?  The important thing for me was that we were having these discussions, we were communicating our ideas, we were listening to others' perspectives, including the perspectives of parents who had been invited to a meeting about social networking last month.

George highlights this as another plus point for blogs over websites.  He says:
Giving parents the opportunity to give feedback on initiatives within the school and how they can best serve learning will only make our schools stronger.  We do more together than we ever could alone.  School blogs that get feedback through the comments are a great way to build stronger, collaborative environments.
Next year my intention is to do very little on the static student website and to move much more towards blogging for all the primary classes.  The teachers are ready for it, the students are ready for it, the parents are ready for it - and the channels of communication are wide open.

Photo Credit:  2/365 Communication by Daniel Horacio Agostini

I used to think .... now I think .....

It was great to reflect on our teaching practice at a recent staff meeting using one of the Project Zero Visible Thinking routines "I used to think .... now I think ...."  This is a great routine for reflecting on how and why our thinking has changed.  Teachers said a variety of things, for example:

  • I used to think I had to cover a lot of content, now I know I need to have a smaller amount of content but to go into it in more depth (less is more). There were a lot of similar statements to this one.
  • I used to think that technology could enhance student learning, now I think it can transform it.
  • I used to think I could never become a music teacher, now I am one.
  • I used to think students learned in quiet, orderly classrooms, now I think they need to be active, moving around and talking to learn.  Again we had a few like that.

There was one negative comment:  I used to think that PYP was great for really bright children, now I'm not so sure.  It was an honest comment and one that we will need to explore further.

Photo Credit:  All I want for Christmas is a 2 dimensional reduction by Kevin Dooley

Leadership for student learning

One of the units of inquiry PYP students study each year is Where We Are in Place and Time.  Several different grade levels are doing this unit right now and it is prompting me to ask the question of myself:  where am I in place and time?  and more importantly where do I want to go, to move forward, from here?  I'm at the time in my life where I don't necessarily have to carry on teaching.  Once our daughter is finished with her IB diploma next summer I no longer need to be concerned about being in an IB school, or even in a school at all.  In some ways this is a liberating thought.

Some teachers I know are very driven to move into administration as soon as possible.  I've worked with teachers who tried out a different position of responsibility or grade level every year so that they would have a variety of experiences to put on their CVs.  Most teachers, however, have very little interest in becoming administrators - they have found their niche in the classroom and are genuinely satisfied with their roles.  I'm speaking, of course, of teachers in good schools.  In poor schools many teachers are not satisfied because they are not trusted, valued or respected - and often because they feel isolated.

This year I've thought a lot about teachers as leaders.  Oftentimes when we think about school leaders we think about administrators, yet teachers are incredible leaders too:  student learning depends more on the quality of teachers than it does on many other variables (class size, school size, funding, race, educational attainment of parents etc).  According to the Task Force on Teacher Leadership report that came out some years ago teachers are "indispensable but unappreciated leaders ... they instill, mold and ultimately control much of the learning and intellectual development of the young people in their charge.  It would be difficult to find a more authentic but unacknowledged example of leadership in modern life."

Here are the 10 areas defined in the report where teacher involvement is essential to the health of a school (some of these summarised into my own words based on my own experience in international schools):

  • choosing instructional materials
  • shaping the curriculum
  • setting standards for student behavior
  • deciding which students need special classes/extra support/extension
  • designing staff development and in-service
  • setting promotion and retention policies
  • deciding school budgets
  • evaluating teacher performance
  • selecting new teachers
  • selecting new administrators
Yes I have worked in schools where teachers were very involved in these, and others where these were made without reference to teachers at all.  Where shared decision making simply involved sharing the decisions that had already been made!

In the 21st century things are changing - "vertical hierarchies are giving way to horizontal information-sharing networks and collective decision making" and "leadership is being seen more as transformational than transactional".  Even in schools that still operate the "old way", some teachers are now emerging as leaders too - they are using social networks and seeing there are better ways of doing things, they are seeking and finding challenges to help them grow - and finding mentors outside of their schools to help them reach these goals, and in their schools they are supporting their colleagues, taking risks, collaborating and are getting involved in peer coaching.  It's not that they necessarily have any more power, but perhaps they do have more influence.  They are creating more professional learning communities and student learning is improving as a result.

Photo Credit:  Who's the leader?  by Tanakawho

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bad Science

Another colleague sent me this YouTube movie this morning.  Donald Clark argues against Aric Sigman's views that increasing use of technology and social software is damaging students' minds and undermining the benefits of traditional methods of learning.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Let go of the word technology

I was so lucky last week at the ECIS IT Conference to meet Silvia Tolisano, a member of my PLN, face to face.  Silvia and I have connected by Twitter, blogging and Skype for more than a year now and it was great to spend time with her and to attend a presentation she made about using Skype to transform teaching and learning, making it more engaging and motivating for the students.

At the conference Silvia and I spoke about the SAMR model we have introduced this year and about automating and informating the way we teach. Silvia blogged about this recently in a post entitled Bringing in Experts.  Transformative Teaching and Learning? The first two levels of the SAMR model are using technology to enhance learning - this is what Silvia refers to as automating:  adding the technology on top of what teachers are already doing which doesn't necessarily improve learning.  The top two levels of the SAMR model are using technology to transform learning - this is informating and allows us to learn in a way that would not be possible without technology.  She quotes from Alan November's article Creating a New Culture of Teaching:
The real revolution is information and communication, not technology.  Let go of the word technology.  If you focus on it, then you'll just do what you're already doing.
This year has seen a big shift in the thinking of our IT and Library departments - we now see ourselves as one information and communication for teaching and learning (ICTL) team and have weekly collaborative planning meetings where we discuss how to support teachers.  Last week we had a long and interesting discussion about how to move forward next year with more students and more classes but  without any increase in the number of teachers in our team.  One of the suggestions was to move away from the separate jobs within our team, to have each of us embrace all the information and communication support across a whole grade level.  The lessons would not be specific to a place (library/lab/classroom) or to a person (librarian/IT teacher), instead one teacher would be responsible for supporting all teachers in a particular grade across all their units of inquiry, maths and language, and all the specialist teachers too.  This makes a lot of sense to me, and all the teachers in our team are willing to give it a try.  We hope that this will be received in a positive manner by the admin, as a way of solving a problem before it even occurs, and as a way forward that truly embraces 21st century literacies and skills.

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

Photo Credit:  Seattle Central Library.  Photo entitled I Can Gather All the News I Need on the Weather Report by Thomas Hawk.  Please click on the link to read more about this amazing library.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The New 3 E's of Education

A couple of weekends ago I was in Frankfurt at the ECIS IT Conference where I heard a lot about schools that are involved in 1:1 programmes and where they are using iPads and iTouches.  Today I met up with an old colleague who is now teaching at another international school nearby and she was telling me about how her school has 5 iPads per class.  This is something that many teachers in my school wished for when I asked for their technology requests for next year.  Parents have also spoken to me about their concern that we are not "cutting edge" enough with technology.  Therefore I was interested to read The New 3 E's of Education today which addresses parents concerns about the way technology is being used in schools.  The report from the US is based on the responses of nearly 300,000 students, over 42,000 parents, 35,000 teachers and thousands of librarians, administrators and technology leaders - it makes interesting reading.

The report opens looking at 6th graders - which it says are more tech savvy with the emerging technologies than older students in high school.  From my own experience I would tend to agree with this.  The survey showed that almost 85% of 6th graders have cell phones and smart phones, but that many complain that school filters and firewalls block sites they would like to use for their schoolwork.  I was interested to read that half of the 6th graders take online tests and that a quarter of them use e-textbooks.  The question was posed:  what will 6th grade look like in 2015?  Will mobile learning, online classes and e-textbooks be commonplace?  These 3 emerging trends directly address the new E's of education:

  • Enabling - students are able to reach their potential through increased access to resources, extending learning beyond the limitations of the school.
  • Engaging - students develop deeper knowledge and skills in problem solving, creativity and critical thinking with more engaging learning experiences.
  • Empowering - students are able to take responsibility for their own learning.
The report highlights the "digital disconnect" between the tech-intensive lives of students outside of school and the experiences provided to use technology at school.  What is clear in this report is that parents are using these tools themselves and are driving the use of these new technologies with students as they see the potential for using mobile devices within education to increase the effectiveness of the learning process and to expand opportunities for learning.

Several trends emerge from the survey:
  • Mobile learning has increased hugely across the education sector in the past year - in some cases fueled by the wish to replicate the benefits of a laptop/netbook 1:1 programme at a much lower cost.  Students see the benefits of anywhere/anytime internet research, the ability to communicate and collaborate with peers and teaches and the ability to create and share documents, video, podcasts and to record lessons.  The report highlights the fact that over 50% of middle and high school students say their biggest obstacle to using technology in school is the policies prohibiting the use of their cell phones - the students themselves have a clear vision of what they want from mobile learning.
  • Online learning is providing a different experience for students who claim they can get extra help from teachers and that they are more comfortable asking questions - this leads to more motivation and sharing of ideas with other students.  Students are already using web tools such as Google Docs to write collaboratively with and place a high value on their ability to produce digital media such as blogs, vlogs, podcasts, digital stories and video reports.
  • E-textbooks are seen by many schools as a good way of reducing the cost of providing textbooks and parents are embracing them as they are concerned about the weight of books students are having to carry around.
  • Parental digital choice - the survey shows that parents are supportive of students' vision and are enabling and empowering the use of these emerging technologies.  The report highlights that parents are purchasing these devices for their children in the same way that some parents have chosen to have their children attend private schools or to pay for tutoring - they believe that a technology-enabled education will directly influence their children's educational success.  Parents are more aware that a one-size-fits-all approach may not fit their particular child - they want schools to use technology to create personal experiences for their children.  They also find the static school website unacceptable - now they want more of an interactive, collaborative relationship with their child's teacher, perhaps through a class blog.
How are schools tapping into the potential of emerging technologies?  Some innovative schools are adopting trends such as mobile learning, others are lagging behind.  I hope our school decides to buy more iPads next year.  I would love to be involved in such an exciting project to integrate their use into the classrooms.

Photo Credit:  Meet Junior by Andy Ihnatko

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Covering -v- Discovering

Today I'm thinking about something I hear a lot: "we have so much to cover" is something I hear in many, many meetings and "there's not enough time to cover it all."  I'm lucky as I work in an international school and we do not have the demands of a national curriculum with exams or standardised tests at ages 7, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18, yet I still hear teachers talking about how much they have to cover and how little time they have.  In our school these conversations appear to be happening more frequently as we draw up learning outcomes for each area of the curriculum and only a couple of weeks ago I was having a discussion with a colleague who claimed that even if we just addressed each learning outcome for 2 days, we wouldn't have enough days in the school year to cover them all.  What I'm hearing more and more both at school and at conferences I attend is that less is more - we don't want our students to skim the surface as that is not meaningful - we want them to go in deeper.  We don't want to cover the content, we want them to inquire, to discover what is below the surface.

Reading Tomlinson and McTighe's book I came across the following question:  If the content we study represents the "answers" then what are the questions?  They write that one way of uncovering the content is to frame the content as answers to questions or solutions to problems.  In the PYP we talk about coming up with provocations - questions to stimulate the students' thinking which will lead to them inquiring and constructing their own understanding.  These questions need to be open ended, with no right answer.  Currently our Grade 3s are starting a unit about exploration and discovery.  This is really what inquiry is.  Our provocations are the launching pads that will send our students out on their own journeys of exploration - to discover, understand and learn.

Photo Credit:  Discovery, Wonder and Amazement by Arturo Sotillo

Friday, April 8, 2011

The 10 Picture Tour

Cale Birk in his Learning Nation blog called on educators to take 10 pictures of their schools to share our learning environment.  Here are my 10, taken in the different seasons of the year.  As the admin at school don't really approve of my blog, I am deliberately not including the name of the school here.

Main entrance


Middle School corridor with art display

Outside the Middle School

Early Years Playground

Pre-School building


Smaller campus where I teach one day each week

Balcony outside the staff room

Statues outside the Grade 3 classroom

Write the book you want to read

This week, in one of the grade level planning meetings, the discussion was all about literature circles and guided reading.  Now as an IT teacher I don't really have a lot to do with these, nevertheless I really enjoyed the discussion and learning about how the Grade 1 teachers are using them.  I think I'm a bit of a learning-junkie.  I read lots of educational articles and blogs every day, our school library has a good collection of professional development books and I've fallen into the habit of borrowing them and trying to read a chapter from one every day, I love going to conferences and courses and then on top of all that I blog myself.  I realise the writing is mostly for me - to reflect on what I'm thinking about what I'm reading, hearing and doing.  I like going back over past blog posts and reflecting some more and seeing how my thinking has moved forward.  In blogging it seems that what I'm doing is writing the book that I want to read.

Photo Credit:  ... putting things in a row isn't bad either ... by Kasaa

Thursday, April 7, 2011

You don't get points for forecasting the flood - you get points for building the ark

After the low point I reached yesterday with the guest speaker who was invited to our school to talk about the negatives associated with technology, it was good to hear today that many other teachers and parents shared my misgivings.  Some students appeared to have got the message that using a computer makes you anorexic and lonely, others that it makes you obese and lonely.  I think it's negative and destructive to try to turn back the clock, the horse has already left the stable so it's no use closing the barn door now!  Our students have mobile phones and laptop computers, they are on Facebook and other social networking sites.  They need advice from us about responsible use, about being good digital citizens.  A "just say no" approach is not going to work.  In a great analogy, one of our teachers said to me today, "You don't take children up to the top of a mountain and send them off skiing down a black run, you start them on the nursery slopes first."  I think that school is a great place for our students to learn responsible use of technology and when I reflect on what our students are doing with technology I feel extremely positive.  I don't feel like we are dwelling on the flood - I feel our teachers and students are working together to build the ark.

Photo Credit:  Noah's Ark Toy Skirball Cultural Center Los Angeles by Al Hikes AZ

Integrating Understanding by Design and Differentiated Instruction: focusing on the learning

The only way we can truly know what our students have learned, what they have understood, and what they still need to understand is with formative and summative assessment.  As teachers this should inform our teaching too, so that we can effectively differentiate.  Tomlinson and McTighe refer to effective assessment as a photo album, not just a snapshot of where a particular student is at a set time.  Reliable evidence of learning will involve using more than one assessment, more than just an end of unit test, and because our students vary in the way they prefer to show their learning and understanding it's important to assess in a variety of ways.

While it's easy to assess knowledge, it's harder to assess understanding.  Knowledge of basic facts is something you either know or you don't.  Assessing understanding is more a matter of seeing where a student is on a continuum and will often involve a student being able to apply the knowledge to a new situation.  This is where choice is very important:  some students may prefer to show this understanding by doing or making something, some may prefer to give an oral or written report, others may like to use something more visual.  To really assess understanding the student will need to make a choice of which way best shows their learning.  Tomlinson and McTighe state:  A totally standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to classroom assessment may be efficient, but it is not "fair" because any chosen format will favor some students and penalize others.  Recently when our Grade 3s were designing energy efficient buildings as part of their summative assessment for Sharing the Planet, they had the choice of making a model of a building and then photographing the model or designing it using Sketch Up.  There was also a booklet where students could write about the energy sources used to power their building, the materials they would use for building and tips for making their houses more energy efficient.

I've often thought that formative assessment is more important than summative assessment as it allows for feedback and the students can then adjust what they are doing and improve.  For the Grade 3 summative assessment students worked on the house design throughout the week.  They could get help and advice from their homeroom teacher as well as from me from an IT or design technology perspective.  We could ask them questions which would prompt them to think further about what they were doing.

The approach to this unit of inquiry and its focus was completely different from last year.  I think both the teachers and the students were all learners in this unit.

Photo Credit:  Selection 1 by Jim Manka-Taylor

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Two monologues don't make a dialogue

Yesterday I followed a link on Twitter to this article about Dialogue -vs.-Discussion.  I was happy to have found this so that I had time to think about the distinction between the two, especially as I was asked to take part in an interview with Dr. Aric Sigman who visited our school today to talk to students from Grade 4 up about electronic media use and the implications of this on cognitive and social development.  I am no fan of Dr. Sigman - who often seems to cherry-pick through scientific evidence - as in the Daily Mail article about how Facebook can cause cancer - however as team leader for ICTL it seemed the job of conducting this interview would fall to me.   As everyone reading this blog will know, I believe passionately in the transformative nature of technology - that it can make a real impact on student learning - and I'm sad that such a negative view of technology was presented to the students and parents.

In a nutshell here are the differences between dialogue and discussion:
Discussion - a presentation of our ideas - the purpose of discussion is to ensure your point of view is the accepted one, therefore you support your idea and make your points strongly until others agree with you.
Dialogue - everyone contributes towards an idea - more and more is achieved as each person's ideas are added.  The aim of dialogue is to learn and create.  Team members are equals.

The purpose of an interview is neither of these.  The interviewer (in this case me) is definitely not seen as an equal with ideas to contribute, nor is the role of the interviewer that of presenting his or her own ideas.  All the interviewer can do is ask questions.  I decided I'd like to ask questions based on the report "The New 3Es of Education:  Enabled, Engaged and Empowered - How Today's Students are Leveraging Emerging Technologies for Learning" which was featured in Time Magazine online yesterday.  I tried to ask open ended questions about responsible use and good digital citizenship, multi-tasking, social networks, cell phones, texting and so on.

This afternoon a colleague shared with me this link to the Bad Science website run by Dr Ben Goldacre, an award winning writer, broadcaster and medical doctor who specialises in unpicking dodgy scientific claims.  He has been writing the Bad Science column in the Guardian since 2003.  Dr Goldacre disputes the claim that social networking leads to loneliness and to biological harm and he appears with Dr Sigman in the following video.  As we teach our students to think critically about what they hear, see and read, I thought it might be interesting to post this video.  Dialogue is extremely important and clearly two monologues don't make a dialogue!

Photo Credit:  Romain Gerard:  Speech balloons by Marc Wathieu

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Integrating Understanding by Design and Differentiated Instruction: focusing on the teaching

One of the most important things teacher can do is decide WHAT to teach - what it is essential for our students to know.  Yet learning goes much further than the simple retention or recall of information, true learning consists of organizing and using the ideas and skills embodied in the learning.  Because of this HOW to teach - the instruction - is also an important focus for teachers.  Tomlinson and McTighe state:
Attending to quality of curriculum while de-emphasizing  instruction may provide great mental stimulation for teachers, but is unlikely to do the same for the young people we serve.  On the other hand, attention to the quality of instruction without an equal emphasis on curriculum may provide novelty or entertainment for students, but it will almost certainly not result in durable and potent learning outcomes.
They go on to identify the attributes of good teachers, some of which I summarise below :

  • They establish clarity about curricular essentials:  it's not possible to teach everything, so it's important to prioritize what is most useful and durable.  At the same time it's important to differentiate.  Giving struggling learners less to do is not helping them master the content or skills, giving advanced learners more of what they already understand doesn't help them either.  Curriculum based on enduring understandings, however, will give multiple entry points for the students, many different options for exploring or inquiry, and many different ways for students to show their learning and understanding.
  • They accept responsibility for learner success and understand that if a student has not learned something this could be because the teacher has not taught it well enough - if a student is not making progress than the teacher is not teaching or reaching that student.  Great teachers know there are alternative ways of teaching and learning and that they need to find out which ones work for each of their students.
  • They develop communities of respect by valuing the multiple perspectives of their students and help students to take responsibility for their own successes.
  • They use many different ways of teaching - as Tomlinson and McTighe point out a dining room that serves only one or two items quickly becomes monotonous - different instructional strategies are more engaging for learners.
Photo Credit:  Listen and Love by Denise Carbonell

Moving from S to R - part 2

This post is to celebrate the movement of our Grade 1 and Grade 3 teachers.  Since the introduction of the SAMR model a little over 6 months ago, our teachers have moved from using IT as a substitution to redefinition, where the tasks they are doing now could not have been done without technology.

Our Grade 3s are just finishing a unit about energy - it's part of Sharing the Planet.  Last year the central idea of this unit was: energy exists in different forms and is changed, stored and used in different ways.  The focus was on electricity and in the IT lessons students used a programme called Crocodile Technology where they dragged and dropped icons onto the screen to create circuits.  I'm assuming this was an on-screen version of something I once did years ago with circuit boards where students could create actual circuits using wires and batteries to turn on light bulbs and as such I would define this as substitution.

The current unit has been totally changed - the central idea is now energy can be converted from one form to another.  Students are looking at how all energy starts with the sun and how it can pass through a food chain giving energy to plants and animals, how these can die and form fossil fuels and how energy can be renewable.  This year the students were using DoInk to make animations of how energy is converted and the focus has been on conservation.

Students for their summative assessments have been designing energy efficient houses that would be suitable for building in one of three locations, Denmark, Switzerland or Australia.  In order to inquire into building design they looked at the new middle school campus and met with the architect to ask about different design features.  In the IT lessons and in their classrooms they used Sketch Up to then design a building for a specific location.

Today one of our teachers pointed out that all students were able to use Sketch Up easily, in fact creating their houses was much easier than if they had drawn them by hand.  The assessment itself could never have been done without the computer.  Another plus I noticed is that learning to use this tool is leading very nicely into their next unit of inquiry: exploration.  The central idea of the upcoming unit is: exploration leads to discovery and develops new understanding.   When introducing this tool to one of the classes I was keen to use this vocabulary - therefore once the students had finished using DoInk I showed them how to find the software on the computer but gave them no instructions at all about how to actually use it or what all the different tools did.  Instead I told them we were going to explore and find out what new things we could discover.  Some of them discovered how to do some things, some discovered others.  They shared these discoveries and made their practice buildings better.  Some went home and taught their parents how to use it too.

Our Grade 1 students have been moving forward too with their current unit of inquiry How We Express Ourselves.  The central idea is performing allows us to express ourselves in different ways.  Last year students spent quite some time recording each other reading using digital cameras and playing back what they recorded so that they could critique their own reading.  This year we have used the teacher's laptop to record whatever performances the students chose to do.  These were uploaded to YouTube and then embedded on the class blogs - which were new for all our Grade 1 teachers this year.  We have taught the students how to add appropriate comments to the blog posts, and of course family and friends around the world have added comments too.  The little performances the students did in front of their classmates have been viewed by others worldwide.

Our Grade 1 and 3 teachers now all have their own class blogs.  One of these teachers even has 2 class blogs (one for students to publish their writings, one for students to publish their performances).  A couple of our teachers in Grade 3 have started quad blogging with other schools.  Some are using the blogs as places where the students can do their homework.  Parents and families are loving the interactive nature of the blogs.  Students are learning how to be good digital citizens and what is and is not appropriate to publish.  We have come a long way in a short time.  These teachers are my shining stars.

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

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Integrating Understanding by Design and Differentiated Instruction: focusing on the content

Last week was a fairly tough one for me with meetings about learning outcomes where some teachers were visibly upset.  I struggle with the idea of a locked-down Pre-School to Grade 12 approach with hundreds of different outcomes that need to be assessed each year - clearly teachers are feeling stressed by the "overload".  I have never been a fan of a one-size-fits-all approach.  I do not like pushing square pegs into round holes.  I have been reading further about UbD and DI and how this relates to content.  It seems the crucial question is this:  how can we address the required content standards while remaining responsive to individual students?  Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe state:
Despite all the good intentions and many positive effects, the standards movement has not solved the "overload" problem.  In fact, instead of ameliorating the problem, the standards may have exacerbated it.
The backward planning process is one way of trying to ensure that the desired results are at the forefront of planning.  At our planning meetings we do always start out by asking what we want our students to know, understand and be able to do by the end of the unit of inquiry.  We cannot cover everything - we need to decide what our priorities are and to focus on those.  We have to decide what content is worthy of understanding.  I know some teachers have a hard time with this one - there are things they love to teach and many activities they know are fun, interesting and engaging - but we have to make choices.  After my Project Zero summer school I remember ditching about 70% of the "activities" I was doing.  It was scary and liberating at the same time.

Jay McTighe refers to the "twin sins" of activities and coverage.  He says that the first sin is most prevalent in elementary and middle schools where the focus is often on activities - many of which lack long-term substance.  The second sin of coverage is more prevalent at the secondary level - where often the text book is seen as the syllabus that needs to be worked through.  I've seen this second sin in primary schools too, however, where teachers feel they have to have all students work through a particular spelling book, reading scheme or maths book by the end of the year.

Reading through chapter 2 of Tomlinson & McTighe's book I came across an interesting section about how we identify the big ideas and how we develop essential questions while at the same time being true to the standards or learner outcomes.  The strategy involves unpacking the nouns and verbs:  the nouns are the big idea and lead to the essential questions, while the verbs suggest how these understanding can be assessed.  This seems like a good way forward so next week I am going to have another look at the some of the learner outcomes and see if the big ideas and suggested assessments mesh in any way with our current units.

Photo Credit:  Square Peg by Simon Greig

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Making a Difference

Sometimes, like everyone else, I get fed up and frustrated.  At those times it's good to get away and perhaps look back at what you are doing with fresh eyes and a different perspective.  Last weekend at the ECIS IT Conference was one of those times.  I love presenting - preparing for what I'm going to say makes me think really hard about what I'm doing and why.   And of course it's great to have so many people affirming that I'm on the right path, moving in the right direction and doing good things.  On the way back from the conference I had many hours on the train to reflect on this and why I was feeling so good.  I realised it came from a sense of feeling valued by people that I respect.  I did my best to hang onto that feeling for the whole of the week.

This morning I was sent a video by my son.  It's all about adapting and changing to fit into the place around you whilst still achieving the goals you have set out.  Because this is a true story and set in Thailand, where we lived for 4 years, I can see why he thought it would be something for me.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher is making a difference in the lives of the students. One of my challenges over the past 18 months has been inspiring our teachers to think differently too - about technology and how it can be used to transform learning.  While I am still frustrated by the "big picture", the lack of a school-wide vision, I know I need to celebrate all the small steps we are making.  I love working with our teachers and I love the way they are taking on new ideas all the time.  A little can still create positive changes.

I like the message behind this video:  if you think you can make a difference - you can.