Friday, May 27, 2011

The future is mobile

Last year when I was doing kite making as part of MYP Technology, students were at the stage of designing and planning the materials they would need to make their kites.  As there were quite a few calculations involved, one student asked if he could use his phone as a calculator.  I was amazed that he asked this question and that he hadn't just automatically done it.  Having spent 4 years in a school with a tablet programme it was hard to think that any teacher might discourage a student from using any technology he happened to be carrying around with him.  And yet in many schools cell phones are banned in class.

The Horizon Report K-12, however, shows that the future is mobile.  Students are getting phones at a younger and younger age and the predictions are that in less than 2 years mobile devices will outnumber PCs - already in Japan 75% of internet use is on mobile "always connected" devices.  Phones that were at one time seen as a distraction in the classroom, that were at one time just devices for sending SMSs and for calling, are now the doorways to the vast content of the internet.  I would say it would be hard to find a high school student at our school who doesn't have such a phone.

The iPad has done a lot to transform the view of mobile devices into a tool for learning.  Already schools are using them with students as e-readers and places to view video as well as to connect to the internet.  Another feature of the iPads (or iTouches) is the vast number of educational apps that students are using and web content is now adjusting itself to being used on mobile devices too.  At the recent ECIS IT Conference I was talking to teachers and IT leaders from schools who said they were ordering hundreds of iPads for next school year.  They said they were leapfrogging over the 1:1 laptop programme and going straight into a 1:1 iPad programme.  Certainly this is much cheaper and needs less infrastructure and technical support, and it's even cheaper if students are allowed to bring in their own - schools won't even need to buy or maintain them.  In middle and secondary schools I can see iPads becoming part of what a student needs, in the same way that graphic calculators are used in maths and science.  I can see the hardware budget going the same way as the software budget has gone in recent years with the explosion of Web 2.0 tools.  This year, for example, our total spending on software has been less than $300.  If we are not having to buy desktops and laptops, I can see our hardware budget being dramatically cut too.

The great advantage of the iPad or other tablet is using them as electronic book readers with highlighting and annotation tools, dictionaries and so on.  Now they also have many apps for creation, images, audio and video which means students won't need to use a desktop at all.   Best of all is the size and weight of these devices - small and light enough to fit into a pocket or small bag.

Photo Credit:  iPaddr by Daniel Bogan AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 

Who do we really need?

In both my previous schools we had someone in the position of IT Director and although my current school doesn't have this position yet, it will be created in the near future.  I'm happy the school has recognised the growing impact of technology on teaching and learning and the need for students and teachers to develop 21st century skills.  With 1200 students aged 3-18 spread out over 3 different campuses it would be good to have an all school vision and a plan for achieving it.

Now over the last day or so I've heard a variety of different opinions about who we really need.  These range from groans and comments like "we don't need yet another member of the admin team" to gratitude that it is finally recognised that students are going to be using computers every day for the foreseeable future and therefore we really should have a vision of what we can be doing as a school to transform the learning environment and empower students to use them in the very best possible ways.  As I've listened to the diversity of opinions I've been thinking a lot today about what are the most important qualities for someone who will take on this position of 21st century leadership:

  • First of all the person will have to be very visionary and practical - to be able to transfer this vision into a plan.  
  • Since the future of technology is always uncertain this person needs to be a risk taker.
  • Since the technology changes quickly, this person also needs to be a continuous learner.
  • Personal qualities this person will need to lead us forward are being helpful and approachable - a real collaborator.
  • As this person will be leading teachers and students forward, it's important he or she is a practitioner - someone who is actually modelling and using Web 2.0 teaching practices in class every day, that he or she is student focused and has the ability to empower both students and teachers.  I think that too many people in this position are very removed from what is actually happening in the classroom and don't understand in a practical way what teachers really need to help them use the technology in the most effective way.
  • It's important that he or she is visible and "walks the talk", that the person is not just office based.  Teachers need to respect and have confidence in what the person can do, not just what they say.
  • It's important that the person is a real communicator with an openness to discussion and even to dissent - we won't always agree the best way to go.
Photo Credit:  The new year is that way by Adam Foster AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why cloud computing will NOT fail

Last year at school we had an IT retreat and each member of the department made a 5 minute presentation about a subject of choice.  We had presentations about Web 2.0, 1:1 laptop programmes and robotics as well as one about why (in his opinion) cloud computing would fail.  Only months after that I attended the Google Teacher Academy in London and on my return to school we started using Google Apps for Education with our Grade 4s and 5s initially, and then with a roll out to the Middle School and to any other classes that wanted to use it.  Teachers were given support for blogging and using Google Docs and just-in-time training for any Web 2.0 tools that they wanted to use to embed into their blogs.  As I reflect back on this year the impact has been huge - teachers have gradually taken control of how these tools are used in their own classes and how they communicate with parents using them.  As a result I've decided I will change the student website to a "resources only" website next year, everything the students are producing can easily be showcased on the class blogs.

The Horizon Report K-12 lists cloud computing as one of the technologies most likely to have a large impact on teaching and learning over the coming year.  Partly this is because of the fact that it is saving schools money and resources by providing storage and services to internet users without the need to invest in and support physical machines.  As IT coordinator in my previous school a large part of my budget was taken up each year on software, this year I've seen our department spend less than $400 on software.  Students have created multimedia, used email, created documents and presentations and started their own blogs/ePortfolios all using a browser.  One great advantage we have seen is that students can start working on something at school and continue accessing their work at home.  Another advantage has been the collaboration we have seen with the introduction of Google Docs.  Our teachers have noticed that we can now be much more flexible than before, as we are not limited by the times students are physically present in the computer lab, and as as result students have become much more creative and have real choices about what they use to show what they know.

Photo Credit: Descending Clouds by Gary Hayes AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

The Horizon Report K-12: Trends and Challenges

For the past 10 years, the Horizon Report has described and commented on emerging technologies, and every year there is also a Horizon Report for K-12 which looks at the technologies that will have a large impact on teaching, learning, research or creative expression in schools around the world.  The first part of the report always deals with trends and challenges that are likely to affect the adoption of technology in schools over the coming five years.


  • Our roles as educators are changing because of the abundance of easily accessible internet resources.  It's important we teach students how to assess these resources and make sense of the information they find.
  • Technologies are increasingly based in the cloud - information is accessible everywhere on many different devices .
  • Technology skills are critical for success as technology affects the way we work, collaborate and communicate.  The digital divide is no longer a product of wealth, but of education - of the opportunity to use technology.  Students who have this opportunity are more likely to succeed than those who don't.
  • People expect to be able to learn and work whenever and wherever they choose.
  • Innovation and creativity are becoming increasingly important and this must be reflected in their importance as professional skills and therefore included in school subjects.
  • Although digital media literacy is growing in importance as a key skill in every area, teacher training and professional development in these skills is rare.  Digital literacy is "less about tools and more about thinking, and thus skills and standards based on tools and platforms have proven to be somewhat ephemeral."
  • New models of education are competing with traditional models of schools.
  • The demand for personalized learning is not being supported by current technology or school practices.  Technology should be supporting individual choices, but all too often is still used in one-size-fits-all teaching methods.
  • The structure of K-12 schools  must change as students now have more opportunities for online education.  However change is hard in education.
  • A great deal of learning takes place outside the classroom.
The report outlines changes due to happen in the near future (within the next year) as well as changes predicted to happen in the more longer term.  I find it very difficult to think in terms of what could be happening in schools beyond the next three years.  Here, therefore, are the predictions of what will be come increasingly important in the near future:
  • Cloud computing - at one time the focus was on free tools, now the focus is shifting more to data storage and access.  
  • Mobiles - iPads have changed the way many schools view personal devices for accessing information, social networks, tools and apps.  
  • Games based learning - currently constrained due to the lack of quality educational games, they are now being seen as important in fostering collaboration and student engagement.
  • Open content - the sharing of curricula, resources and materials represents a shift in the way students study and learn.
Photo Credit:  Daysleeper by René González  AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 

Monday, May 23, 2011

One department - part 3: The view of the teacher librarian

As I've been searching for up-to-date studies on how IT and Libraries are merging, I've been pleased to find today that a report has been published by the Parliament of Australia about school libraries and teacher librarians in Australian schools.  This report states
Literacy in the modern age is about so much more than just reading and writing. Today our technological society requires students to have information and communications technology skills (sometimes referred to as digital literacy skills) as well. This means that not only can students use a computer to do word processing and spreadsheets, but can also create, read and write digitally in order to access the internet, find and edit digital information, participate in electronic communications, and use online information and communications networks.
Clearly, then, the roles of the teacher librarian and the IT teacher are coming together in teaching the students the skills they need for the future.
The report goes on to discuss the role of the teacher librarian as a teacher of digital literacy skills to other teachers too - in a similar way that the role of the IT teacher is:
Teacher librarians teach digital literacy skills to both students and other teachers alongside information literacy skills. Such skills include verifying credible sources online and how to cite electronic resources. Issues such as copyright and plagiarism are also included. 
Later in the report it recommends developing the concept of an i-centre where the library and IT are one:
The library associations advised of discussions it had been instigating within the profession, and with principals, on developing the concept of an i-centre in schools ... a one-stop shop model whereby the information, the technology and the teaching and learning services are all integrated into one space. ASLA went on to describe how they might work, with school libraries and IT departments (where they exist in larger schools) merging: it becomes easily accessible for the students, it is available to them all day and they have staff who can guide them through technical problems and information problems.
What does this mean for the teacher librarian?
ASLA described how teacher librarians are moving away from being labelled teacher librarians and gaining new status as ‘the head of digital learning’ or the ‘head of e-learning’, as part of the development of i-centre concept.  In this context, e-learning refers to all forms of electronically supported teaching and learning i.e. online learning.
I'm still looking for more information about schools where this has actually happened.  However I'm pleased I've found this so far and happy that this validates all the discussions our IT and Library teachers have been having about the direction we are moving and how the IT and Library are at the heart of any school's programme of inquiry.

Photo Credit:  Because it helps me learn by Lester Public Library AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What do teachers want most?

Tomorrow I'm involved in a teacher compensation workshop.  In the past I've sat on various committees to look at restructuring teacher pay scales so I'm interested to see what this workshop will bring.  To prepare myself I've been reading the blog posts of John Littleford, the consultant, as well as listening to what teachers in other schools have said about their experience of working with him.  I've also been reflecting on my experiences with KSBP (Knowledge and Skills Based Pay) and the proposals of another consultant Marc Wallace on changing the salary system at a previous school, which after a lengthy consultation process was rejected for various reasons.

In the past year I've also done a workshop with Daniel Pink, who argues strongly that money is not a motivator for teachers.  Today I've been reading The Principal Difference blog post which deals with supportive leadership.  More than anything, certainly more than a salary increase, 68% of teachers ranked supportive leadership as the thing they most want.  This is defined in the following way:

  • a listener, a learner, an active participant:  teachers want collaboration, they want a partnership
  • trust and respect:  teachers want transparency
  • consultation on key decisions
  • emotional support
I'm interested to know if other teachers have experience of different methods of teacher compensation, what are the positives, what are the negatives?  What is the experience of schools that have radically changed the way they pay their teachers?

Photo Credit:  Money by TW Collins AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

Professional development within the community

This year I've been asking myself how to deliver more support in using technology within the school community (last year I spent more time developing my own professional learning network, this year I felt it was time to put some of this learning back into the community of educators I work with on a daily basis).  I tried several different approaches such as before school sessions, scheduled and drop-in sessions at lunch times and after school, working with one teacher per grade level who could act as a mentor, organising an outside consultant to come and and give PD, and writing a blog so that teachers could explore new things at their own pace.  At the end of the year as I reflect back on these I'm not really very positive about their impact.  One of the biggest challenges I have faced is time - everyone is so busy that it's hard to add something else to the day.  I think the most meaningful support I have been able to give, the one thing that has led to the most change in what the teachers are actually using, the skills they have in using the technology with their students and the way they view technology, has been working one-on-one with teachers in their classrooms.

Here are some other ideas I've heard about from friends in other schools as to how they deal with professional development within their school communities:

  • Visits to other classrooms and learning from observing colleagues - I know I have learned so much from being in classrooms or having the homeroom teachers in the labs and seeing some different instructional approaches.  It's great to observe colleagues who are doing things that we want to know more about or who are experimenting with new ideas and who also value our feedback.  I believe this approach was tried very successfully in our Middle School this year.
  • Sharing best practice at staff meetings - teachers showcase what they are doing and what is working well.  I've seen these done as "speed-geeking" sessions as well as something more along the lines of an EdCamp where teachers choose what they want to learn more about.
  • Walkthroughs - I tried to do these on a weekly basis during the first half of the year - I was focused first on whether the new technology in the classes was working and then later on how it was being used.  Walkthroughs could have many different focuses.
  • Peer coaching so teachers can try out new skills and strategies with support.
  • Being part of a professional reading group to discuss and share ideas based on books we read together
Outside of school I have found the following the most beneficial for my own professional development:
  • Networking - finding teachers with a similar vision about teaching and learning.  There are teachers around the world that I follow on Twitter, educators whose blogs I read and comment on, educators I skype or email with regularly, many of whom I have never met in person.
  • Joining with teachers in another school on a collaborative project.
  • Attending and presenting at conferences
  • Online courses and webinars
My reflection:  time is what is needed to do most of these things.  Schools need to commit to giving teachers the time they need to learn and develop.  Some schools I've worked at have given this time, either to the whole staff through late start/early release days, or by releasing teachers from duties and/or clubs.  If teachers are seen as the leading learners in the school, the students will surely benefit.

Photo Credit:  Master Learner (SMART) by Josh Allen AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 

Can technology create more empathy?

I was first drawn to this movie after seeing it tweeted out because it seemed to be dealing with empathy - one of our PYP attitudes.  However the more I watched the more interested I became not just in what empathy is, but also in how empathy has developed over time and shaped society.  In this movie empathy is defined as the ability of human beings to show solidarity with each other, and perhaps with the entire human race and the biosphere.  Jeremy Rifkin asks if technology now is allowing us to connect with empathy to "a singe race in a single biosphere", giving as an example the ability of posts on Twitter and YouTube to spread an empathic reaction to natural disasters around the world in a matter of hours.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How do we know?

The central question in the IB's Theory of Knowledge is "How do we know?"  and the purpose of the TOK course is an inquiry into different ways of knowing and different kinds of knowledge.  I find it an amazing course for our students in their last 2 years of schooling as they look into knowledge: the facts, information and skills acquired through experience or education.

Knowledge is different from a point of view of course and one of the things I've been thinking about this week is the Circle of Viewpoints thinking routine.  I think this routine also ties in with the IB mission statement that "other people, with their differences, can also be right".  I think the one thing that links both knowledge and points of view together, however, is the idea of critical thinking which involves withholding judgement and asking good questions instead of just accepting or believing everything we are told.  The idea is that we examine the evidence carefully before we draw our conclusions and that perhaps we challenge authority with our questions until we are satisfied.

I've also been thinking about the idea of wondering as opposed to questioning.  Wondering is much more open-ended whereas questioning is more aimed at leading us to find the "correct" answer.  I think wondering has a very important role to play in inquiry, which is the basis of our PYP curriculum.  All this thinking has been coming together recently as our Grade 3 students have been inquiring into exploration and discovery.  Instead of taking a historical approach to others' explorations and discoveries, we have become explorers ourselves.

Photo Credit:  New Growth by Kelcey Loomer AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

Friday, May 20, 2011


Today the readership of my blog this school year passed the 50,000 mark which is completely mind-blowing.  To all my readers this is a big thank you - for reading what I have written and coming back to read more, for emailing me, adding comments and sending me messages on Twitter, for engaging in dialogue and showing me different perspectives, for sharing things that have made me think further, for supporting me in my dark days, for making me a better educator.

Photo Credit:  Thank You! by Vern Hart  AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 

One department - part 2: Information literacy as an umbrella term

As I wrote yesterday, I'm continuing to search for up-to-date research on library and IT departments in schools coming together as one.  I've heard of a number of cutting-edge international schools that have gone this route, as well as many schools in various countries.  This morning I came across a post at Synechism by Doug Belshaw, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last summer at the Google Teacher Academy.  Doug recently put together a presentation for the 2011 Association of Independent Schools IT Manager's Conference about the essential elements of digital literacies.  Please click here to read the whole post.  Doug is currently writing his Ed.D. thesis on new literacies.

This is what I learned from Doug's presentation:

  • Information literacy is an umbrella term that covers many literacies (media literacy, digital literacy etc)
  • Digital literacy is the ability to participate in a range of critical and creative practices that involve understanding, sharing and creating meaning with different kinds of technology and media (Futurelab 2010).
  • Terms vary across countries:  for example media literacy in the UK, digital media literacy in the EU and in Australia, Info Comm in Singapore, digital kompetanse in Norway,  and information literacy in the USA.
So I'm thinking - if we are talking about umbrella terms, if we have the same information literacy processes in library and IT (these processes are outlined in the 5-step model - define, access, understand and evaluate, create, communicate as mentioned in Doug's post) which seem to match the strands we too are using when writing our learner outcomes, then surely the practical manifestation of this umbrella is a single department?

Leaving aside literature appreciation, there are 4 more strands in our information literacy programme delivered through the libraries:
  • Define an information task 
  • Access and select information
  • Organise and reference information
  • Evaluate the process and the product 
At the same time we originally came up with IT strands (as part of the inquiry cycle) which were:
  • Investigate
  • Create
  • Discuss/Evaluate/Reflect
and we have the ICT in the PYP strands which are:
  • Investigate
  • Organize
  • Create
  • Communicate
  • Collaborate
  • Be responsible digital citizens
Clearly we have about a 70% overlap which in a practical sense we realised last year led to inefficiencies, with both departments covering the same things but with conflicting messages (at times students even had different log ins for the same tools that were being used in both library and IT such as Glogster and Animoto) and at other times led to gaps as each department thought something was being covered by the other when in fact it wasn't being covered at all.

And so the discussions go on .....

Photo Credit:  I love Rainbows and Sunshine by D. Sharon Pruitt Attribution 

One department or two?

During the past week I've had a number of really interesting discussions about IT and Library - are they one department or are they two?  I started off by thinking about different departments I've worked in during the years I've been a teacher, and thinking about the subjects taught by the teachers in those departments.  For example in my last school I was in the humanities department and worked as a geography teacher.  In that department were history, economics, psychology, business and management teachers.  With the exception of history, which I have a degree in, I definitely wouldn't have been able to teach any of the other subject in that department, though there was obviously some overlap with human geography and economics.  So what was it that we had in common, why were we seen as a department?  Basically because all of these subject are studies of different aspects of the human condition.

As an IT teacher I could have also been a member of other departments, for example I could have been in the technology department which covered design technology (materials, systems, information), the maths department which was the home of the computer science teachers, or again the humanities department if the school had offered ITGS (Information Technology in a Global Society).  Here we have one subject but 3 very different departments it can fall in.

Then I started thinking about the science department.  Biology and physics, for example, have few areas of overlap.  What puts both these subjects into the science department?  A little more thinking and reading brought me to the conclusion that these, along with chemistry, are empirical subjects.

So how about IT and Library?  We are both dealing with information literacy and digital literacy.  I started reading the most up-to-date articles I could about these subjects to see what way these are developing in education, in the workforce and in society as a whole.  Let's start with digital literacy - this is:
the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used ... Research around digital literacy is concerned with wider aspects associated with learning how to effectively find, use, summarize, evaluate, create, and communicate information while using digital technologies, not just being literate at using a computer.

Locating, organizing, evaluating and analyzing, creating and communicating information,  - does that sound like something we do in IT?  Absolutely!  The new ICT in the PYP document has 6 strands:  investigate, organize, create, collaborate, communicate, be responsible digital citizens.  It seems we are talking about the same thing.  How about library?  According to the American Library Association information literacy skills involve being able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.  Does this sound similar to the skills we have seen are involved in digital literacy/IT?  Absolutely.

Reading further into the uses of digital literacy and information literacy in education I came across this:
Teachers often teach digital literacy skills to students who use computers for research. Such skills include verifying credible sources online and how to cite web sites. Educators are often required to be certified in digital literacy to teach certain software and, more prevalently, to prevent plagiarism amongst students.
Is this library?  Of course.  Is this IT?  Again, yes.  My conclusion:  2 subjects - possibly - as some of the library skills such as literature appreciation and borrow and browse are not actually taught by the IT teachers.  But should these subjects be together in the same department?  Everything I've read in the past few days seems to indicate that they should be.

Photo Credit:  Norman Foster Library FU Berlin by Svenwerk AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Moving forward one conversation at a time

I used to work at a school where people volunteered to be on committees just because they were interested in the things that were being discussed, where teachers were part of professional book groups and where teachers signed up not to go on a professional development course, but to be part of a year long cohort involved in action research which would then be presented at a conference so that teachers in other schools could also share in our discoveries (the PD for this action research was then also provided and funded).  I used to work in a school where students and parents also volunteered to sit on different committees, were actively involved in the strategic planning of the school and presented their viewpoints to steering committees (which were also made up of volunteers).  I used to work in a school where teachers and parents competed to coach the various sports teams, where mums and dads came not just to watch the games but also to support the practices, where the students in the teams organised their own social "team-building" events.  Of course I've also worked at schools where teachers grumbled bitterly about attending meetings because they were a "waste of time", where they felt that their voices were not heard and that decisions had already been made, where parents and students were not welcomed on committees - where they were actually seen as being a nuisance - where teachers coached sports teams because it was part of their contract regardless of whether or not they'd ever played the game before or knew the rules, where teachers counted the Mondays, Tuesdays and so on before signing up for extra-curricular activities so that they could choose the club that met the fewest times.  Why are there such different cultures?  Why do some places seem to be drowning in negativity?  How can we move on from these situations to ones that are positive and where people are willing to get involved?

Chris Wejr writes in the Connected Principles blog:
How many meetings do we have per year that do not include the voices those that have something to offer? Students? Parents? Support staff? Teaching staff?
How many decisions are made without those who the decisions have the greatest impact (ie. How many decisions are made about teaching that involve those that do not teach)?
It is time we move away from the traditional structure of admin meetings and staff meetings to a model of learning conversations that include those who choose to be there and those that want to see action (similar to the movement toward EdCamp model for professional development). What if, instead of a certain number of staff/admin meetings per year, we lessened those and added meetings that were open to engaged parents, students, community members and the dialogue focused on a specific area of interest?
About a year ago I was lucky enough to attend a conference at Munich International School where they talked about moving forward one conversation at a time.  This is important I think.  To be part of a discussion, part of a dialogue, where all sides are heard, all opinions respected and valued.

As I've been thinking about this, I've also been reflecting on my personal goal this year to incorporate more of the Project Zero thinking routines into my classroom practice.  One that I haven't used so far this year is Circle of Viewpoints as a way of exploring different perspectives.  The way of doing this with a class is to brainstorm many different perspectives about a topic or the points of view of the different characters in a novel.  With my IB Geography group I used to use this thinking routine when we were discussing controversial issues such as should we develop oil in Alaska or the views of the different groups who wanted to develop or preserve the Amazon rainforest.  Students would then take on and speak from these different viewpoints.  I'm thinking this could have been a good way to look at the different perspectives involved in our recent exploration unit too.  The final part of this thinking routine is to ask the students to think of a question they have from their chosen viewpoint - it's a great way to generate new ideas and questions.

I'm wondering if this thinking routine would also work in schools where the culture is negative.  If people were able to articulate another viewpoint, would they come to appreciate and respect it or at least understand where these people were coming from.  If we saw others trying on a different hat, prepared to accept another way of thinking, wouldn't this create more goodwill?  Wouldn't we all then be moving forward?

Photo Credit:  Rainbow hats by Susanne Koch

Supporting "whatever they want" to use

Last week I wrote that I was excited about the current unit our Grade 3s are doing on exploration.  Yesterday they went out to 4 different locations and today the students have been working on various presentations using whatever software they want to try to persuade their class to go to "their" area for a trip.  Students had very definite ideas about what they wanted to do with the computer.  There were some who just wanted to print out the photos they'd taken and use them in some sort of poster, while others wanted to revisit tools they had used earlier this year such as SpicyNodes or Prezi.  Glogster, for making online posters, was also a popular choice.   Some students wanted to use their photos to make a movie using Animoto, others wanted to combine them in iMovie.  Google Maps was a popular choice, with students using the line tool to mark their routes onto the maps and being able to upload pictures to Picasa, that were then embedded into the Google Maps placemarks they were adding .  There were also a few students who worked in groups to design presentations using Word and PowerPoint.

There was a real buzz in the lab this afternoon, with Grade 3 students being able to drop in anytime to work on their presentations.  Our lovely librarian was in the lab with me all the time, helping the students to learn and create with the applications.  Class teachers dropped in and out with the students as appropriate.  Nobody asked to use something really "different" but not everyone in the groups knew all the software well, so they had to teach each other or ask for help if the whole group was stuck.  About an hour and a half into the process our Librarian and I both looked around and saw everyone engaged and working hard in their groups.  It was loud and it might have looked a bit chaotic, but there was a lot of learning going on.  We were excited to see how successful this model of assessment is turning out to be and how easily we were able to support all the different groups.

Photo by Lauren Paulsen AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Assessment: knowing right from the start

Last weekend I went to a baby shower.  It's definitely baby time - at the party there were 9 women there who have either had a baby in the last year or who are expecting to have one soon!  There was a lot of talk along the lines of "do you know if you are having a boy or a girl?"  When I had my children many years ago it wasn't possible to know this before the birth just from having a scan.  The scan I had of my son was just a static picture of a grey blob.  By the time I had my daughter there were moving pictures - but still of grey blobs and at times I would see something fuzzy and be told "that's the heart" or some such thing.  Since there was never any possibility of me knowing whether I was having a boy or a girl, I never even thought to ask.  Now I don't know what I'd do.  Would I want to know right from the start, or not?

When I started using the Backward by Design process I also found it hard to understand how we could plan the assessment at the start of the unit of inquiry.  After all, if we were inquiring, how would we know where we were going at the beginning of a unit?  And surely telling the students what the assessment would be in advance would be a bit like cheating, wouldn't it?  Now of course I've come to reject that way of thinking totally.    If students know right at the start of the unit what they are going to be assessed on, it puts the responsibility for learning onto them and lets them set their own learning goals and work towards them at their own pace and in their own way.  It does not tie down the inquiry, it gives the inquiry a real direction.

Recently in a unit about energy we wanted students to think about their responsibility for conserving energy.  We therefore decided the summative assessment would be to have the students design an energy efficient house.  Students knew upfront what the task would be, but they still had many choices.  For example we gave them the choice of where this house would be located - they could decide to have it in Denmark, in Australia or here in Switzerland.  This led to the students inquiring into what types of renewable energy would be best suited to these places - sunny places might be great for solar energy, places with lots of water and mountains might be able to generate hydro-electricity, other places might be more suited to wind energy.  Once students had made a choice of location they could then start their inquiries into what type of energy and what design of house would be best.  They could think about things like the orientation of the house, the slope of the roof, where the windows would be, what materials the house could be made of - all of these were very authentic inquiries into how best to conserve energy.

When I was at my last school in Thailand I went to a workshop organised by the Bangkok Teachers Network with Grant Wiggins.  This workshop looked at authentic assessment and I thought it would be interesting to see whether or not the assessment for the energy unit met these criteria:

  • Realistic, problem-based tasks related to what we do in the world - our assessment certainly seems to fit this as conserving energy is definitely a "hot topic" in many countries
  • Requires judgement, innovation, knowledge and skills - all of these were part of the assessment
  • Asks students to "do" the subject - students worked as "architects" on the computer using SketchUp and/or as "builders" to actually make models of the houses using a variety of different materials
  • Allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources and get feedback on their performances or products - students all practiced using SketchUp, had an opportunity to meet an architect and had a tour of a new building
Throughout the unit the class teachers made it clear to the students what an excellent project would look like.  Students knew upfront the criteria that would be used to judge whether or not their work was outstanding and that what we were looking for was knowledge, skills and creativity, not just that everyone would end up with something that looked similar.

At the end of this assessment a number of students actually said they would like to become architects.  Of course many of them may change their minds, but once again if they know now, right from the start, what they want to do in the future then they can start working towards that goal.

Photo Credit:  Finish/Start by Anne  AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's sauce for the goose is (not) sauce for the gander: giving students a choice

I had an interview last week.  One of the questions was about assessment.  As most people who read my blog will know I am passionate about giving students a choice in the way they show their understanding in their summative assessments.  I was asked the question:  Do you think students should always have a choice?  My answer was Yes.

Yesterday I was using Fotobabble with students in Grade 1.  This is the first week of a new unit and we wanted to find out what the students already knew about plants.  We had 3 questions:  what do plants need, why do living things need plants and how can we look after plants in our local or global environment?  I was recording the students talking about this and at the same time in class students had a paper with these 3 questions on.  Some of the students wrote an answer on the paper, some of the students drew pictures.  These 3 ways, speaking, writing and drawing, have now given us a good pre-assessment of what the students already know - now we can start to plan how to take their understanding further.

Students acquire information in many ways - a good assessment should use many ways for students to demonstrate their understanding too.  Not all students think and behave alike.  In an international school students may be able to think about a concept very well in their own language, but be unable to express it in English - but there are many other ways to express their ideas.  Not all students are good speakers, writers or drawers.  Different assessments, different experiences, tap into the different strengths of the students.

When we give students a choice we are giving them the message that we don't expect just one "right" answer.  Of course if we are assessing just for factual recall, then perhaps it is not necessary to give a choice, but in a PYP school we are assessing for understanding and that involves the ability to use knowledge and apply it in different ways.

If we don't give students a choice, if we have a "one size fits all" approach to assessment, then how can we claim to be child-centred.  If we believe in multiple intelligences then giving students a choice is the only way that really makes sense.  Giving students a choice leads to motivated students who have ownership of what they are doing.  Encouraging their interests will lead to deeper learning.

Here are some examples of summative assessments I have worked on with students recently where they were give a choice:

  • In a unit about energy, students were asked to design an energy efficient house.  Some students chose to do this on the computer using SketchUp, some chose to make a model out of cardboard and various other materials.
  • In a unit about story telling, some students chose to make an eBook using StoryBird, others chose to make an animation using ZimmerTwins.
  • In a unit about exploration, students will be working in groups to create a presentation of their choice about an area they want to go and visit.  I'm excited to see what they will choose (listening to the discussions so far some students have talked about Prezi, others about SpicyNodes, others about VoiceThread).
  • In a unit about poetry, some students took their own photos, wrote their own music, added a poem and presented it in Animoto as a movie, other students made collages or other artwork which they photographed and added into VoiceThread and then recorded themselves reading their poems.
  • Grade 5 students currently working on the PYP Exhibition have a whole variety of different tools they are working on to explain their understanding of democracy and decision making.
Photo Credit:  Canada Geese (North Wales) by Christian Roberts AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

Alphabet Soup - KWL or KWHLAQ?

You see KWL charts everywhere.  Students are often asked what they know, what they want to know and then later on what they have learned.  Today I was reading about an alternative called KWHLAQ.

K- What we do think we know about this subject?  Some students may think they know something at the beginning of the unit, only to find out that it is in fact a misconception as they delve in deeper.  It's ok to think something and then later on to revise what they are thinking.

W - What do we need to find out?  Students need to think about what they need to find out in order to address the provocation, solve the problem or to answer questions they may have.

H - How will we find out the answers to our questions?  Students need to think about what resources are available to help them find the answers.

L - What are we learning and what have we learned?  We can ask this question every day as students find out new information.

A - What action will we take?  This is another way of asking how students are applying what they have learned.  Action is one of the 5 essential elements of the PYP and it is an expectation of the PYP that inquiry will lead to responsible action initiated by students as a result of the learning process.

Q - What new questions do we have?  At the end of a unit of inquiry there should be time to reflect on whether we have successfully addressed our initial questions and whether we have come with with other questions.  Actually, if the unit is successful I believe there should be more questions - we should not be "done" with learning.

This KWHLAQ chart is taken from the book "Why are School Buses always Yellow?" by John Barell

Photo Credit:  Alphabet 02 by Leo Reynolds AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike