Friday, September 30, 2011

An Open Door Policy - the IB Learner Profile Communicator

 I have worked in places where there was an open door policy - which meant that any administrator's door was open to any teacher who could stop by whenever they felt the need to discuss something, make suggestions or bring up new ideas.  It was a way for teachers to feel that their voices were being heard without having to go through the more formal channels such as staff associations.  The idea behind it was to encourage trust, open communication, feedback and discussion about any matter that any teacher might be concerned about.

I suppose as teachers all of us actually have open door policies in our classrooms - we encourage our students to come and talk to us about their personal, social, emotional or academic concerns - we are always there to support them.  As a homeroom teacher I've had students tell me about serious issues such bullying, unwanted pregnancies, family breakups, death, illness and abuse.  Some of these students are still in touch with me many years later and they still feel the door is open and that although they are now adults, and despite perhaps not seeing me for a fairly long time, they can still call on me for a chat if they need to.

Do open door policies work in schools?  In some cases this is a great way to encourage communication from the bottom to the top.  Administrators who show empathy and open-mindedness when listening to teachers' concerns are often well respected and are seen as good communicators.  Of course this only works when teachers know there is a culture of trust and don't feel that what they are saying is going to be used against them at a later date.  Teachers need to know that they can be honest and not have to fear reprisals, otherwise even if the door is open they will not walk through it.  The policy only works in situations where the administration also feels secure and not threatened by the open communication.

In some places I've worked a lot of staff feedback was through online or written surveys.  Some of these surveys were completely anonymous, whereas others asked for information that certain teachers felt might be able to identify them (length of service, department, grade taught etc).   As an IT teacher I've even been asked whether teachers could be identified through the laptop they use to complete the survey.  In some cases teachers have been so afraid to answer honestly that they have asked me to log them in to do the survey using a lab computer or have told me that they only felt comfortable filling out the survey in an internet cafe!  Although I find some of these reactions extreme, it's clear that these teachers had reason to be afraid - perhaps because of a previous bad experience.

Communicator is one of the attributes of the IB Learner Profile.  Everyone in the school is expected to model the learner profile, and as such it would seem that in an IB school an open door policy would be encouraged.  This is what I have experienced:  doors will only stay open when there are good channels of communication, and this is something we all have to work hard to maintain.

Photo Credit:  Open Door by Brian Yap AttributionNoncommercial,  Cartoon from Dilbert,

Two Stars and a Wish

Two stars and a wish is something we often use with students who are doing self-evaluations, peer-evaluations or goal setting.  Today I was thinking about how these could be used with teachers too.  At a recent Making the PYP Happen in the Classroom regional workshop that I was leading with one of my colleagues we used this for our exit cards at the end of each day.  Looking over these cards later, we got a lot of valuable feedback about how we were presenting the workshop and which things we still needed to work on or tweek before the next day's sessions.

Over the past few weeks I've been thinking about the role of mentoring and coaching colleagues too and wondering how this routine could help.  This school year I've been covering for an absent colleague, so most of my time has been spent with teachers who are new to the school or new to the grade level.  In some senses the "old hands" have been left to sink or swim, simply because I haven't had enough time to support all 37 of the class teachers that I usually work with (which does not even include the specialist teachers that I also have to support).  Now that my colleague is better, and next week we will be back to both of us supporting these classes, I realise that I will have to refocus in order to give a lot more support to some of the teachers who haven't seen so much of me so far this year.

I feel the sink or swim approach has definitely not been a successful one - and I'm asking myself why, when I have been co-teaching and modeling good IT practice with some of these teachers for the past two years, they still flounder when left in the lab or in the classroom with the laptops by themselves.  Have I been too supporting and nurturing, not letting them try out enough things for themselves and by themselves over the past few years.  Have I been a bit like a "helicopter parent", hovering over them and not letting them make their own mistakes and learn from them?  Or is the real problem that the technology is unreliable, that we don't have an IT assistant in the lab or who can be booked with the laptops and the teachers are not able to trouble-shoot all the technical problems that are constantly arising and so they are reluctant to use the technology by themselves?

I think that most teachers find me really supportive and feel that over the past couple of years I have helped them to move forward with using technology to enhance learning.  The teachers trust me - they know that if they make mistakes I am there to help them not to judge them.  I am a teacher just like them.  I'm not an administrator who will write something up that reflects badly on their competence if things don't turn out well.  I'm not evaluating their performance, I'm just helping them to move forward, develop professionally and do a better job.  I'm not the kind of person who says "If you don't like where the bus is going, get off " and I'm not a carrot and stick kind of person.  I'm more the kind of person who says "Keep moving forward, you'll get there in the end."  I try to focus on the growth.  But despite the huge leaps forward that many teachers have made, they still lack confidence.  However I still think my approach is the right one - two stars and a wish will lead to more trust and will move people forward a lot further than one star and two wishes!  It might just take a bit more time.

Today I was in a classroom with a teacher who last year had told me she didn't like using her SMARTboard.  This year, she said, she's a lot happier with it.  She's moving forward at her own pace.  I think being able to voice her concerns in an atmosphere of trust last year helped her a lot.  She knew I wasn't going to get judgmental or think she was a bad teacher for not using her board in the most effective way.  She needed a bit more time to play with it, to explore some more possibilities.  I think she has benefitted from a co-teaching approach too.  She knows her class and her units of inquiry, I know how to use the technology.  Together we have made a great team.

Photo Credit:  Paper Heart by Tull Nishimura AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Taking a Detour

Last week I was away on a Personal Development Week with our Grade 5 students in the Swiss Alps.  While I was there I came across this presentation by Chris Betcher  entitled Lessons from the Yamanote Line.  One slide particularly caught my eye:  There is always another way. Detours can be interesting.  Don't be afraid to take them.

This was the first time I'd been on a PDW since arriving at my current school over 2 years ago - and I have to say I loved it.  I went rock climbing, mountain biking, on a ropes course (terrifying!) and hiking with the students.  I remember thinking that it was amazing the things that an IT teacher could get up to on a school trip.  For me, this was certainly a detour from my normal job and definitely a chance to see the students in a new light.  I guess many of them saw me in a new light too - especially when I was high up in a platform attached to a zip line and very afraid to jump off!  This little detour, this little break from my usual routine of teaching in a lab or a classroom, did me the world of good, even though at times I wasn't altogether comfortable.

A good friend of mine also took a detour last year.  She left her school where she was teaching children and took a job where she was teaching adults.  Now she's back with teenagers again, but I can see the year did her the world of good.  It renewed her faith in herself as a teacher and in her love of the profession.  It allowed her to re-discover all the reasons why she went into teaching in the first place.  Now she's in a better place and a better school.  The detour was an interesting one.  She discovered that for her there were other options if teaching didn't work out.

While I was away I started to think about other detours in my life.  I did many jobs before I became a teacher, and then after teaching for 6 years I also took a year out and worked for the biomedical division of a publishing company.  When I returned to teaching it was to an international school and in a different country - the detour had done me so much good and rejuvenated me as a teacher.  If I had stayed teaching in the UK I'm pretty certain I wouldn't still be teaching now.  Taking a detour allowed me to put things into perspective and decide what I really wanted to do.

Taking a detour can be a bit scary.  Just like on the ropes course last week, sometimes it's hard to be in a situation where you don't know where you are going or where things are leading.  Now I'm trying to work out something:  do I need to take a detour, or, compared to the straight line I appeared to be moving in for the first 9 years I was teaching IT where I felt I was constantly learning new things and moving forward in new ways, am I actually taking a detour now, and if so should I just be enjoying it?  I haven't thought about it before in this way and in some ways it's a bit confusing.  I have some ideas of where I want to go and professional development I want to take that may get me there.  Is this PD going to be a detour or is it getting myself back on track again?  In any case I hope that the journey will be interesting and that I will discover other options.

The photo was taken by my colleague Noel.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Importance Of Digital Literacy

 A guest post by Lindsey Wright:

Knowing how to read, write, and do arithmetic is certainly important. However, in the 21st century it is going to be just as important in conventional and online education to be literate with technology as well. Not only is it already difficult to find a job without basic computer and technological skills, but it is going to be hard to learn without them as well.

Computers and other digital technologies have become such a basic part of our lives that we frequently take them for granted. Do you remember the days when you wrote a letter instead of an e-mail, or actually used a phone to talk to someone instead of sending text messages, or looked something up in an encyclopedia rather than accessing the Internet? These technologies are so integrated into our lives that not knowing how to use them will leave you very far behind.

Think about how much we use technology to learn and perform even basic tasks. Instead of reading a paper book, most books can be accessed electronically. Instead of writing out an assignment, it's typed on a computer. Shared interest groups often don't meet face to face, but use social media to connect and share information. Being literate in these new technologies isn't just going to hold you back in school, it will hold you back in life.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, computer literacy can be connected to the ability to read and write. A 2010 study commissioned by the FCC found those who weren't literate offline were not digitally literate either. In response, the Digital Broadband Plan was created to offer digital literacy training to those who couldn't use the Internet due to lower levels of education. The fact that those who struggle to function on a digital level tend to have lower levels of education lends credence to the idea of the Internet both as a way for people to network and learn new things, but also as a potential barrier to further educational opportunities.

What is the impact of digital literacy beyond school? Finding work can be hard because not only will the digitally illiterate not have critical skills employers want, they're also potentially limited by inability to use social media to network and find jobs. At a very basic level, most job applications are now submitted online without ever using a piece of paper. Not knowing how to use a computer severely limits your ability to find work.

The MacArthur Institute did a study that took the implications of digital literacy one step further and talked about how it can influence social and cultural values as well. The conclusion was that while learning based on interacting with others allows people to socialize and develop in new ways, those new ways are still effective. Forms of education are changing, but the lessons learned are still be the same.

Being digitally illiterate is not an option. There are too many educational, social, and professional issues that come with not knowing how to use technology. Everything has gone digital and it is becoming such a basic part of our lives that it is going to hold you back in life if you are not able to use modern technology. Perhaps most importantly, ability to use technology is a critical prerequisite for understanding information communicated through that technology, and as such constitutes one of the keys to 21st century learning.

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Information Literacy, Digital Literacy and Digital Citizenship

As I'm working closer and closer with our school librarians I'm thinking about the terms we use to describe our roles and the skills we want our students to develop.  Over the past couple of weeks I've heard myself using the terms information literacy, digital literacy and digital citizenship and today I thought it was about time to have a good think about these terms and whether or not they are referring to the same things.

Information Literacy has been defined by the American Library Association in the following way:
To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and has the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.
Digital Literacy seems to be very similar: In Wikipedia it starts with a definition that is almost word for word identical to ALA definition of information literacy but adds on three new words:
Digital literacy is the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate and analyze information using digital technology.
Then it goes a little further and defines digital technology as computer hardware, software, the internet, cell phones, PDAs and other digital devices.  It also adds on the concept, not of just finding and using the information, but also the skills of creating and communicating information.

Digital citizenship refers to the use of these skills to interact with society.

Last week I was in the library classroom at a time when our librarian was reading the book "Our Librarian Won't Tell Us Anything!" Robert, the main character in this book, finds that although the librarian won't actually place a book in his hand or find him a web site, she will teach him how to search the online catalogue and find the information he wants.  What she does is give him the tools to find the answers for himself.

It seems that both our library and IT teachers have the same role in this respect.  We are teaching the students to use the technology that is available to find the answers to the questions they have come up with as a result of their inquiries.

As our roles are changing, perhaps our titles should be too.  The library and IT departments are central to any programme where students are inquiring and constructing their own knowledge, our focus is not on the technology but on the learning.  As I was reading last week, we should not be thinking in terms of technology integration specialists (which is a role that many IT teachers have now taken on in schools), but of 21st century learning coaches.

Photo Credit:  L'amour toujours by Blair 25  Attribution 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Using Tech Tools for Assessment and Differentiation

Last year at school we had a good look at our curriculum and wrote Pre-School to Grade 12 learning outcomes for the different subjects/curriculum areas.  This year we are looking at assessment - how we are going to formatively and summatively assess the students on their learning journeys.  At the same time I've been thinking about how we can use technology to differentiate instruction, to help all students succeed in reaching these outcomes.

I've always favoured choice.  Students learn in different ways and show their understanding in different ways too.  As far as technology goes, some tools may be perfect for one student to show his or her understanding, but might not be right for another student.  Some students like to talk, some like to write, some may prefer to show their understanding as a graphic.  In IT I like to think we can support all the different ways that students want to show what they know.

Last year our Grade 3s got to the stage where at the end of the year students were able to choose what tool they wanted to use, and we would support whatever choice they made (see post supporting whatever they want to use).  These students are now in Grade 4, of course, and so it seemed that a good way to start the year would be to offer them the same choices for their first unit of inquiry.  In a planning meeting we decided that all Grade 4 students would get to explore Glogster as a possible tool that they might want to use, but that there would be choice given for the students who didn't want to make an interactive poster.  I feel the students have already been introduced to a variety of different tools last year. Perhaps students might now decide to make a video, a cartoon or a mind map rather than a "traditional" presentation, and even if they want to make a presentation there are many tools they know how to use, such as Prezi, Voicethread or Spicy Nodes.  It's up to them to decide what to use and how to use it.

Given this sort of choice, the technology the students choose will naturally lead to differentiation.  Even students who choose to use the same tool will use it in different ways to produce something unique and something that reflects their differing interests, abilities and skills.  They will all show their learning in the way that is best for them.

A couple of years ago, with our older Middle School students, I was teaching MYP technology and gave similar choices.  At that time I didn't even teach the students how to use the tools, this was part of their exploration.  I showed them some different examples of what could be done with the tools, their role was to dig deeper and teach themselves a couple that appealed to them, eventually choosing one for their assignment.

Getting back to our Grade 4s, another thing I'm shortly going to be introducing them to is their own blog.  Last year in Grade 3 all the classes had a blog and the students all used that.  Now I think it's time for them to start their own, to be able to collect their work in one place and reflect on it.  To be able to take this on with them as they move up the school.  I'm thinking of showing them Posterous (which I see has now been revamped into Posterous Spaces).  I'm thinking this blog may be a sort of ePortfolio, a place where students will be able to reflect on their learning, what they know, understand and can do. And this blog can also be a tool for assessment, and one that provides plenty of scope for differentiation.

Photo Credit:  Colours that reflect Joy AttributionNo Derivative Works by Rilind Hoxha

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reformation -v- Transformation

Every so often I read a blog post that really makes me go Aha!  This morning was one of those times.  I was reading The Single Best Idea for Reforming K-12 Education by Steve Denning on the Forbes website.  Steve starts off writing about the fact that if we are talking about reform, it's in response to a problem, and that in his opinion the biggest problem is the factory model of management (top-down, controlled, carrot and stick approach, weeding out dead wood).  He says:
I believe that the single most important idea for reform in K-12 education concerns a change in goal. The goal needs to shift from one of making a system that teaches children a curriculum more efficiently to one of making the system more effective by inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy.
Steve Denning highlights several implications of this shift, some of which I am summarizing and commenting on below.  To me these involve not so much a reformation of schools, but a transformation of student learning.
  • As education shifts from students learning content to students creating knowledge and being able to use their skills in new situations, teachers and parents need to take on new roles to enable and inspire student learning.  For me having worked for many years in IB PYP schools where the focus is on inquiry and students constructing their own knowledge, this is probably the most important change that I've seen that has had an impact on learning.
  • With a change of focus from covering content to developing knowledge, understanding and skills the shift of emphasis for assessment needs to move from output to outcomes.  It's not a matter of looking at the test scores or the statistics of the average number of points the school has achieved, it is more a matter of looking at each individual student and what they are able to do.  Steve Denning refers to this as a shift from a focus on things to a focus on people.  Once again I can say I'm happy to have worked in schools where the focus is on outcomes (again a big part of the IB PYP).  At the international schools where I have worked there have been some standardized tests, but teaching to the test is certainly not what we do!  Both of my own children, who have only attended international schools, have benefited from this focus on outcomes with the emphasis on what they know, understand and can do.
  • Teachers will only be able to inspire their students if they themselves are inspired - therefore the role of the administrators will also change.  Steve Denning describes this shift from being a controller to being an enabler.  I am thankful that I have worked in a couple of schools where this was the case - where I thrived and grew as a teacher as a result of being empowered - and I have worked at other schools where I was controlled and where I felt stifled and unhappy and as a consequence I was a fairly mediocre teacher.  Of course the schools where I was able to make the biggest impact on student learning were the schools where I was supported and empowered.
  • The role of accountability must change in a system of self-driven student learning.  Students take more responsibility for decisions about how the learning takes place.  Learning is measured in terms of the questions students ask, not the answers they give.  Self-assessment becomes more important.
One of the most powerful aspects of blogging is that it is two-way communication (I've also heard this referred to as communicating WITH as opposed to communicating TO) and responses to Steve Denning's articles were numerous (in just a week his article was read by over 10,000 people).  As a result of this Steve has been able to refine his thinking and to respond to some of the questions, comments and feedback from readers.  Please click here to read Part 2 of this debate.

Photo Credit:  Cheerleaders by Lew Holzman AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Do 21st century skills make you more marketable?

Although the new school year has only just begun, already some teachers in international schools are making decisions about where they want to be teaching next school year.  In my last school teachers who gave early notice that they were leaving - before the end of September - were rewarded with a cash bonus.  This allowed the school to immediately start searching for new candidates and, in some cases, to interview and appoint these teachers over the October break.  There was another date where you could also give notice - the end of October - and still receive a (lower) cash bonus.  Again this gave the school the opportunity to search for and appoint teachers before the frantic rush of the recruitment fairs which started during the Christmas holidays.  Now some teachers like to have an offer of a new job before they resign from their current one, but excellent international teachers can be hard to find and many are confident of their own reputations on the international school circuit and therefore opt for the early resignation and cash bonus.

Yesterday I was reading a blog post by Silvia Tolisano about reverse recruiting.  She and her husband have registered with international recruitment organisations, but are also trying to use their social networks to find a position.  Silvia defines reverse recruiting as "identifying the best job vacancy for a candidate" and they have therefore built their online hub in the hope that schools who are looking for someone to fill a position or perhaps who are looking to create a 21st century learning position, will come to them.

Another article I was reading today was from Online Universities which discusses the skills needed to be a 21st century educator.  I was interested to read about these, as I assume that these are the skills that good schools are looking for and asking about during their recruitment interviews:

  • Competence in blogging:  as someone who has been told last year that my blog represents a "professional concern", I was delighted to see that many good schools are encouraging this sort of reflective practice and seeing it more as an asset than a liability.
  • A presence on social media:  connecting with other educators by using sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn is also seen as an important 21st century skill for teachers, allowing them to exchange their ideas and grow professionally.
  • Interclassroom communication:  using Skype to connect classrooms around the world is described as a valuable skill - and this can also encourage administrators to use Skype as a recruitment tool too.  I've had a number of interviews in the past using Skype and have found it to be much easier (and less costly) than attending recruitment fairs.
  • Cultural literacy:  knowing that a teacher has lived and worked in a number of different countries can be an advantage for recruiters.  Moving to a new country and adapting to a new culture can be daunting and stressful.  The majority of teachers I know who have broken their contracts in good schools have been those for whom it was their first overseas experience.
  • Teaching styles that value student participation:  many international schools follow one or more of the IB programmes where the emphasis is on constructivism, creative and critical thinking, collaboration and international mindedness.  Being open to a range of different perspectives among the students encourages open-mindedness.
  • Involvement in community service or action:  many schools value experience in these areas.
  • Information literacy:  excellent schools need teachers who know where to find information, organise it and use it with their students.
  • Networking:  schools need to see that teachers are also learners, that they are attending conferences, professional development and connecting with other educators at the cutting edge - and often these connections can be done online and from home.
  • Using technology to transform learning: being able to provide evidence of how you have used technology not just to enhance but to transform the learning is definitely something school recruiters are looking for.
Another article that I was reading today was about the growth of international schools (and therefore a need for more international teachers) particularly in Asia as a result of the expansion of global companies.  New schools are springing up all the time in Asia, though many of them have owners and are run for profit and therefore not schools where I would consider working myself.  As Asia tends to have the best recruitment packages (housing allowance, home leave, medical insurance etc), and because competition among them is fierce, top schools there are scrabbling to recruit and retain the best teachers.

For teachers themselves, using social media sites can have many advantages during the recruiting season.  There are a number of sites where teachers can rate their schools, directors and principals, and while some of these ratings are obviously by disgruntled employees with an axe to grind, over time it's clear that some schools are consistently rated better than others in areas such as housing, salary, resources and academic standards.  Even more telling are some of the schools and administrators which do not feature on these sites at all - why not, I ask myself.  Why isn't anyone writing anything positive about them?

Today it's extremely easy to find and connect with teachers in schools where you are interested in working, and to ask them directly for their opinions.  Again, if I found a school where teachers were not blogging, networking and sharing their expertise, this would immediately start alarm bells ringing for me.

On the whole, therefore, I feel that 21st century skills do make teachers more marketable - and perhaps even more important than this, they allow teachers to connect with others and get a more balanced picture of some schools than would be shown by slick presentations at recruitment fairs.  Administrators with 21st century skills make their schools more marketable too, and this will certainly encourage better teachers to apply to them.

Photo Credit:  From the Classroom Displays set AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Technology - what teachers want

It's been an interesting start back to the school year.  A colleague has been off sick and I've been doing what I can to support all the teachers and students in the primary school alone.  Invariably this has meant that some of the more experienced teachers are using the lab or laptops with their classes by themselves.  For the past couple of years I've wanted to move more towards the teachers being empowered to use technology to support teaching and learning without the need for an IT teacher to actually be leading the lessons.  I've felt the teachers can do this with the right support and over the past couple of weeks I've been able to see what support is really needed for this dream to become a reality.

Technology that is reliable, adequate and easy to use:  This has got to be in place before teachers will even think about integrating technology into their lessons.  Teachers want to know that when they book the lab or a cart of laptops, that all of the computers will be working and that they will all work as expected.  That all computers will have the software on that the teachers have planned to use (and most teachers will want this software in the dock, they don't want to have to search through the applications folder for it).  That they can create work on their laptops at home and then work from their laptops at school, rather than having to transfer everything onto a memory stick and then onto the school computers or email it to themselves.  That they and their students can save and print their work easily.  That they won't get any unexpected problems, such as blocked access to websites, or pop-up messages telling them that they need to allow certain functions that they cannot allow because they don't have the administrator's password.  I feel for teachers who are faced with these problems, which can cause chaos with their carefully constructed lesson plans, and who then decide it's just too much hassle to bring the students back to use the IT again.  I feel for them because I've been in this place myself.  A couple of years ago I was creating 3 lessons plans for every IT lesson I taught - one if everything was working, one if some of the computers were working and the students could use them in groups, one if none of the computers were working.  I was at the stage where even I wanted to throw in the towel and give up using technology forever!  This brings me onto the second thing that teachers want:

Adequate technical support:  Teachers want to know that if there is a technical problem someone will come straight away and help them to fix it.  If their SMARTboard is not working at the start of the day, for example, and they have planned some lessons using it, it might be possible to re-jig the lessons and do them later in the day, but they don't want to have to wait 2 or 3 days for help.  If they are in a lab or using a cart of laptops the situation is probably more urgent - this might be the only time they have been able to make a booking for the lab or laptops for that week.  If help and support is not given straight away, it may not be possible to redo the lesson the following week - the students will have moved on in their learning.  This brings me onto the third thing that teachers want:

Training:  Sometimes the need for some of this technical support can be reduced if teachers are properly trained on how to use the equipment or the software, or in what to do if problems arise.  The sort of training that most teachers are requesting is in-class coaching and mentoring, not extra "add on" sessions about things that one day might be useful.  Last year, at the end of the year, I conducted a technology survey with our teachers in grades 2-5.  The overwhelming thing they asked for was that they not get any new technology but that instead they are trained to use the technology they already have more effectively and that they are trained on how to use the technology not just as a teaching tool, but as a way of transforming student learning.  I've often thought that this is the thing that is really lacking in many decisions to buy new hardware or software: staff training is the key to integrating technology and has to be thought about as part of a technology plan and budgeted for.  And this brings me onto the fourth thing that teachers want:

Time:  The biggest issue raised by teachers who talked to me last year was that the technology they have been given has not changed their teaching in the way they hoped it would, and the reason it hasn't is because they need time to develop their pedagogy as well as their skills when new technology is introduced.  Many teachers expressed disappointment - not in the technologies themselves but in the way they were using them.

Appropriate policies:  Teachers don't want a one-size-fits-all approach, they want something more individual.  Just as we differentiate for students' needs, we need to differentiate for teachers' needs.  Different teachers have different training needs, they have different times when they want to do the training and different learning styles.  Depending on the age of the students they are teaching, teachers may prefer different ways of communicating with parents too.  Many of the teachers of our Early Years children see parents daily, as they bring their children to school or collect them.   Perhaps the need to send home newsletters is not so great when there is this personal contact, but perhaps a good way to communicate is through a class blog with photos of what the students are doing in class so that parents can talk about these things with their children at home and give feedback.  In other cases a portal might be useful as a way of older students accessing their work, whereas with younger children it may not be age- or stage-appropriate.  Teachers, like everyone else, get frustrated if they are mandated to use technology is a way that is not useful or that is too time consuming.

Are there other things that I've missed off this list?  What do you think teachers really want in order to use technology effectively to transform learning?

Photo Credit:  Help  by Mike Scullen AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Homework -v- Learning

The weekly #elemchat happens in the middle of the night in Switzerland, so I can't participate "live" in it, but I always look forward to Sunday morning and reading the various tweets that have come in overnight.    The subject this week was homework, one that everyone in education seems to have an opinion about, parents, students, teachers, administrators.

Now first I have to make a confession.  I haven't actually assigned any homework for the past 12 years, which is how long I've been an IT teacher.  Before that, when I was an elementary homeroom teacher, I assigned a lot of homework as it was the school's policy that students would do an hour a night for 4 days a week at the top end of elementary school.  This hour was usually split into 3 sections - a sheet of maths that "reinforced" what we'd done in class that day, some sort of writing activity and the remaining time of the hour devoted to reading.  In this school the homework was returned on the following day, and as a teacher I would spend some time in class checking it.  Then I would spend more time chasing up the students who hadn't completed it.  Perhaps some of these students might even be required to miss their break in order to catch up with the homework they hadn't done the previous day.  The crazy thing about this was that all students were told it was an hour a day, Monday to Thursday.  If the maths and writing took up a whole hour, then the students didn't get to read at all.  If the maths and writing took up 15 minutes, then the students were expected to read for 45 minutes to complete their hour of homework.  Clearly this policy met the needs of very few of the students, some of whom spent the entire hour focused on something they were bad at or perhaps disliked and never got to do something that they might have enjoyed.  A list of things to do, and a time for them to do it in, is not empowering and it's definitely not learning!

When I look back on this now it seems that a large amount of time each day was spent on these sorts of administrative tasks:  explaining what the homework was, checking to see that it was done, coming up with consequences for the students who had not done it - and all of this time took away from the real purpose of being in the classroom:  the teaching and learning.  Perhaps if I'd spent less time on all these things, the students would have had more time in class to learn and to practice their learning.  Perhaps the need to "reinforce" that learning would have just disappeared.  When I look back at all the time that was focused on homework I think most of it was a complete waste of time - of mine and of the students and of the learning - which is what the time at school should have been devoted to.  I don't think that the homework that was set ever really extended the learning that was going on, and in many cases I think the class time spent on setting, checking and monitoring the homework actually got in the way of reflecting on the learning.

For the 12 years that I've been an IT teacher I haven't set any homework at all.  In the beginning this was because everything that the students produced in the IT lab was stored on the school servers and was therefore not accessible to the students from home.  It wasn't possible for them to continue from outside the school, but if they needed more time to work on something it was always possible to give them extra time in school in our drop-in lab or on the classroom laptops.  Over the past 5 years or so, however, almost all of the things the students are doing with computers are very accessible from home.  We use the internet for investigating, we use Web 2.0 tools for organising the results of our investigations, for communicating and collaborating with others and for creating and showing our understanding.  While I have never set homework, I've often pointed out to students that the same tools that they are using in school are available freely from home.  That anything they start in school could be continued at home if they wanted to.  Even without this prompting, students are often excited about what they are doing and ask "Can I do this from home?"

Last week I was talking with some teachers and the subject of homework came up.  At their school, homework is given out on a Monday and collected in on a Friday - students can work on it at their own pace during the week.  It occurred to me that there were some serious problems with this policy, for example some students do all the work on the first day it is given out to "get it out of the way".  This means they are in some cases doing the maths homework to reinforce the maths being covered during the week before the lessons have even been taught!  Some students are doing all their homework on the last day and perhaps rushing to get it finished.  If these students misunderstood something covered at the start of the week, a whole week of learning might in fact be lost before the teacher collects it in to check.  So even before yesterday's #elemchat, as a result of this discussion I was asking myself: What is the purpose of homework?   Many teachers continue to give out homework without really addressing this question.  Many schools have homework policies that mandate a certain amount of homework be set by teachers each week.  Many parents expect their children to bring work home to do and don't really question it either.  Some parents, however, do question it and say that their children spend many hours in school each day and that time at home should be family time or that it should be a time for children to play or relax.  Some of these parents know that homework and learning are in fact two different things.

Basically homework is schoolwork that is done at home.  Many educators who participated in the #elemchat questioned why this schoolwork was not being done at school.  Edna Sackson came up with a wonderful suggestion.  She said "I think writing, maths etc should be done in school.  Homework should be reading and thinking," and asked why school learning needs to be reinforced at home: "Isn't it done well enough in school?"  She said:

Photo Credit:  The Joys of Homework by Cayusa  AttributionNoncommercial