Sunday, December 30, 2012

Leadership discoveries in 2012

During the years I've worked in international schools I have worked with some amazing school leaders. I am extremely grateful to those people who saw the potential in me and who encouraged me to move forward. At the same time I've also worked with some people who have clearly had the opposite effect on teachers, where school life was characterized by a heads down approach by teachers who put a lot of effort into flying under the radar and not doing anything to draw attention to themselves. Today I was reading an article in Psychology Today about your brain at work  which discussed some new discoveries in 2012 about leadership.  I found this fascinating and so decided to summarize the results below.
  • The reason that incompetent leaders keep moving on and getting rehired is because they are narcissistic and extroverted and therefore tend to do better in interviews.  However these leaders end up having a detrimental effect on the motivation of their employees which leads to a negative atmosphere in the workplace. 
  • Effective teams are characterized by "smart collective intelligence", and teams with more women on them have been found to be more intelligent as women are better at reading the social cues necessary for collaboration and effective decision making.
  • Transparency and "open book management" alleviates distractions, fears, threats and negativity.
  • Not feeling connected at work leads to feelings of insecurity at work.  We only thrive when we feel accepted at work.  It's more important for leaders to lead with their hearts than their heads. 
  • Contrary to popular belief, leaders often suffer less stress than those in lower positions as they have more autonomy and status. 
The article concludes in the following way:
In summary, we’ve learned a lot about leadership this year – with many findings being surprisingly counter-intuitive. Let’s stop hiring the most confident, start to share more information, increase the percentage of woman at the top, and remember that leadership really is personal. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Being reflective

One of attributes of the IB learner profile is reflective.  This applies to all of us working in an IB school:  the students, the teachers and the leadership.  This is how the IB defines reflective people:

They give thoughtful consideration to their own learning and experience. They are able to assess and understand their strengths and limitations in order to support their learning and personal development.
As we are coming up to the end of the year, as as I'm half way through my first year in a new job, I decided today that it was time to reflect on the past 12 months, my strengths, limitations and my own personal development.  Today I also followed a link on Twitter to Marc and Angel's blog which outlines the 12 big mistakes that it is likely that most people made this year.  As I read them through it occurred to me that the first half of the year was definitely characterized by these mistakes, but that half way through the year I switched jobs and that none of these apply any more.  As Marc points out "mistakes are the growing pains of wisdom".  Certainly I have made mistakes, certainly it has been painful, and certainly I am now a much wiser person as a result.  Let's consider what I've learned:

  • I needed to take more risks.  Working in Switzerland was a pretty "safe" option for me 4 years ago when I made the decision to move there.  I also wanted to go back to Europe for family reasons.  For a long while, when my job there didn't pan out as I wanted it to,  I wanted to stay in Europe too.  However when I was offered my current job in India I didn't hesitate for long.  I'd lived in India before, I'd made the decision when I was there before to become a teacher, I felt like it was karma that was moving me back there.  The risk wasn't moving - the school itself is known in international circles as one of the best schools in the world -  the risk was accepting a job on a campus of the school that hadn't even been built at that point.  I took the risk - life has improved tremendously - the school opened on time and it is amazing.
  • I gave in to fears and negativity.  In the first part of the year I allowed myself to become stressed by the situation I was in and this stress was destroying all the good things about me as a teacher.  When I made the decision to move on my thoughts became more positive, and as Marc writes "thoughts drive your actions and your reality will catch up with your thinking."  It occurred to me the other day that there is not a day that has passed since I left my old job where I haven't been truly grateful for my new life.  There is not a day where I haven't been inspired to be a better person and a better teacher.  Fear and negativity are things of the past.
  • I was paralyzed by uncertainty, which was a by-product of what one ex-colleague described as "professional suicide", and I had to learn to relax and trust my intuition, even though this was hard because I'd made what I'd thought was a good decision to move to Europe some years earlier and it turned out to be a bad decision - so it was hard to trust my own judgement again.  However in doing so, as Marc explained, I ended up being the right person, in the right place, in the right time, doing the right thing.
  • I have learned to let things go instead of letting things consume me.   Some of my ex-colleagues tried to tell me this, but I didn't want to let go of what was right because I felt in that situation I would lose my self-respect.  What I have learned about myself from the dark days at the start of this year is that it takes courage to do the right thing, it even takes courage to walk away from a bad situation when it might be easier simply to put up with it, but that I have the courage to let go.
  • I let people drain me.  Marc writes that you have to choose wisely because people either inspire you or they drain you.  I think what I wanted was to be accepted and appreciated as a professional who had a lot to offer, yet I felt I was being squashed into a smaller and smaller hole which sapped my energy.  Now I feel I have a lot of autonomy, responsibility and trust.  Now I'm working with inspiring people who are constantly raising the bar and who are saying that good just isn't good enough because all children deserve excellent teachers.  Now I'm actively encouraged to develop myself and move forward as a professional. I like the way the bar is moving upwards all the time - I like jumping higher and higher.  I love the way that Marc writes that "you never have to sacrifice your dignity for your destiny."
  • My expectations were too high for my situation.  This was the choice I had:  improve your situation or lower your expectation.   I improved my situation.
  • I lacked the courage to make mistakes that I could learn from as I was in a culture that regarded mistakes as failures.  Now I'm in a place that believes in exploring and prototyping and finding out what works and what doesn't.  Finding out that something doesn't work is a stop closer to finding out what does work.
It has been an interesting year - and I'm energized by what lies ahead up to the end of the school year.  First there's TEDxASB, there's Un-plugged which is focused on brain research, there's the Flat Classroom Leadership Workshop, there's the R&D groups, there's Critical Friends, there's facilitating an online course through the ASB Online Academy, there's presenting at ISTE at the end of this school year - and who knows what other wonderful opportunities will come along in my second year here?  I feel like I'm working much harder than I ever have before and yet I'm buzzing with enthusiasm and energy.  When I reflect on how I felt this time last year having just accepted a job at ASB it's hard to realize I'm the same person - but I am - I've just grown an awful lot in the meantime.

Happy 2013 everyone - here's to moving on!

Photo Credit:  Izzy the Ecstatic by Evan Stoecker, 2008  AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Using technology to learn collaboration

The document ICT in the PYP lists important ICT skills for inquiry.  These include being able to connect globally and explore different perspectives.  Collaborating is one of the six ICT skills - and is also a transdisciplinary skill to support learning as well as being a valuable life skill.  The question is often asked, how do you teach collaboration through technology?  The answer, it seems, is to use digital media and environments to participate in the creation and sharing of knowledge.

Here is a good example today from Grade 2, who were using Google Docs.  Students were working in groups of twos on collaborative writing and there were three steps involved:

  • Create a Google Doc with a name and share it with your partner
  • Spend 15 minutes planning your story or poem
  • One of the pair should move to a different space, yet you should write together
This was a great introduction for the students who had to learn to collaborate online using technology, and such an activity could be a good starting point for eventually being able to collaborate on a document with students in other schools and other countries.

Photo Credit:  PudĂș by Lisette Greco,  2006 AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Achievement -v- development

Following on from yesterday's blog post about the purpose of education, a quick poll among my colleagues reveals that most teachers chose to become educators above all the other choices because of the human side of teaching - they wanted to make a difference in people's lives, develop the whole person and help students reach their full potential.  In other words, they wanted to focus on people and not on academics.  In Chapter 2 of The Best Schools, Thomas Armstrong writes about the difference between a focus on achievement, which implies that something is "finished" measured using a quantitative summative assessment, and development, which is ongoing and is measured using a qualitative formative assessment as part of the actual learning process.

One of the two goals of ASB this year is personalized learning (the other is 21st century skills).  Personalized learning, according to Thomas Armstrong, involves a flexible and individualized curriculum and giving students meaningful choices.  The PYP with its emphasis on constructivism and inquiry seems to fit this perfectly - there is no body of knowledge that has to be mastered but instead a focus on the curiosities and questions of the students.  This year with both the Curiosity Project in Grade 2 and Independent Studies in Grades 2 - 5, we have gone further in giving students the skills to make choices about what they will learn and how they will communicate this learning to others.  Here are some of our hopes:

  • Students will be better prepared for investigating "real world" issues
  • Students will develop 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication and creativity
  • Students will develop their strengths and interests
  • Students will be empowered to make autonomous choices about their learning
The work the students are doing in Independent Studies will not be graded, though students will self assess based on rubrics we have devised.  All their work will be published - in Grade 5 we will publish using an eBook with QR codes linked to the online projects students have created; in Grade 4 we are creating a web site with one page per student/group where they can publish their work; in Grade 3 we are having students add their creations to a Google Slideshow.  Our focus, throughout, has been on the development of their passions and interests.

Photo Credit  Kite love by Brett Davies, 2012  AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's academic

"It's academic" is an interesting phrase.  On the one hand it refers to education and scholarship, in particular an emphasis on traditional subjects such as reading and writing as opposed to something technical or practical, on the other hand the phrase "it's purely academic" is often used to mean something fairly negative, for example something that has no practical relevance or something that has theoretical interest only and no effect on an outcome.  As I was thinking about this earlier this week, it called to mind the question asked by Doug Belshaw on the purpos/ed website:  "What's the purpose of education?"  Last year when this site was launched, various people contributed 500 word answers to this question and more contributed the to campaign in 2012.

The reason why I was pondering this question earlier this week was because I started reading The Best Schools by Thomas Armstrong (someone I was fortunate enough to do a workshop with when he came to the International School of Amsterdam where I was working in the 1990s).  The first chapter of this book is all about academic achievement and whether this can be used as the measure of a great school.  As both Thomas Armstrong, and many of the contributors to the 500 word campaign concluded, a narrow focus on grades and test scores misses a great deal of the point of education.

The focus of academics is on both content and skills.  For example academic subjects include science, maths and the study of literature and studying these develops skills such as reading, writing, problem solving and critical thinking.  The purpose of education, some argue, is to construct outcomes for these subjects and skills and then to assess students' mastery of them - usually coming up with a quantitative measure of their achievement.  Such assessments rarely take into account personalized learning or different learning styles, and rarely give students choices in how they learn or what they learn or how they express their understanding.  In such systems learning is not valued for its own sake, but to prepare students for "the future".  Scores are used to compare students against each other and rank schools against each other and even countries against each other.  Students and teachers often have little or no say in what is taught or even how it is taught and in the rush to compete for academic success many subjects get sidelined or neglected (mostly the "non-academic" subject such as music, art or PE).

Thomas Armstrong points out other negative consequences of a purely academic focus:  teaching to the test, cheating and plagiarism, manipulation of test scores and a decreased emphasis on learning for its own sake.

At ASB we recently launched a new programme of Independent Studies.  Students from Grades 3 - 5 have some time each week to pursue their own passions and interests - and there have been some remarkable interests that have ranged from a study of the red eyed tree frog to an investigation into the evidence that aliens have visited Earth.  We're starting a new investigation of our own after Christmas. Building on the success of Independent Studies we are looking to see whether we can change a couple of the PYP units of inquiry so that they are more student-led.  We're also investigating whether it's possible to turn a unit into a project based learning unit of inquiry.  Follow along with my posts in the second half of the school year to read about how we get on.

Photo Credit:  Academic by Tim Ellis, 2008 AttributionNoncommercial 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The gift of today

This video was shared by our Superintendent in his weekly message today.  I'm posting it here because I think it has an important message for us all - to be grateful for the uniqueness of each day and of each person.

Getting off the ladder to nowhere

Two great things happened today - the second of these was this evening when I attended TEDxBandra at my school tonight.  There were some great speakers, including Elizabeth Slavitt from Khan Academy who has been at ASB all week as we are one of three schools participating in a NESA (Near East South Asia) Classroom Pilot Program using Khan Academy math resources.  A TEDx video was also shown, the theme of this was finding and doing the work that you love.

I love being an educator - I feel I'm blessed to have found a job that I love, and even though I've worked in some challenging situations at times, the joy that I've found from helping students and teachers to grow has kept me in the profession.  Scott Dinsmore talks about 3 things that are vital for doing the job you love:

  • Become a self expert -  work out what your unique strengths, values and experiences are by reflecting on what went well, what went wrong and why.  It's important to know what success means to us.  He says if you don't know what you are looking for you won't know when you find it.  Over a year ago I went through a time of reflection and at that point I was ready to get off the "ladder to nowhere" as he called it and move to a place that was truly inspiring.  I totally agree - you have to define success in your own terms and then go out and work at it.
  • Push your limits - don't be defined by what you think you can do or what others tell you that you can do.  Last year when I reflected on where I was I came to see that there were so many things that I wanted to do, that I knew would transform learning.  I had to move away from other's limited visions of the power of technology, I had to move to a place where it was OK to prototype new ways of doing things.
  • Spend time with people who inspire you and who believe in you.  Scott said that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.  If you are with people who don't believe in you then you don't grow.  80% of people don't like the work they do and being around them encourages complacency - you have to get away from those people and surround yourself with people who inspire you with possibility.  I now understand why even though I've always loved my job it was hard to work somewhere with people who didn't love theirs - who were marking time, getting through the days, waiting until they could leave.  These are the things that create a toxic culture, that drag you down.
So let me share with you the first reason why I was so excited today - I heard that 5 presentations by teachers at our school have been accepted for next summer's ISTE Conference in San Antonio - and let me tell you again how proud I am to be a part of this dynamic school, where I am pushing my limits with people who inspire me and encourage me to be transformative.

Scott's video is below:

Photo Credit: Toucher le ciel... by Sophie & Cie, 2006 AttributionShare Alike

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

If technology is invisible, can students use it in a balanced way?

One of the attributes of the IB Learner Profile is that students should be balanced.  This is defined in the following way:

They understand the importance of intellectual, physical and emotional balance to achieve personal well-being for themselves and others. 

In Jason Ohler's new book Digital Community, Digital Citizen he refers to Standard 4 of the NETS-Ts:
Teachers understand local and global societal issues and responsibilities in an existing digital culture and exhibit legal and critical behaviour in their professional practices.
He and writes that teachers should balance, and help their students balance, many things:

  • opportunity -v- responsibility
  • empowerment -v- caution and consideration
  • personal fulfillment -v- community and global well-being
  • local action -v- global perspectives
In Chapter 6 of his book Ohler writes about how technology can both connect and disconnect - and that students have to be able to appreciate and balance both in order to analyze the impact of technology.  This is often hard to do as the benefits of the connections are immediate and obvious while the disconnections are often only appreciated in hindsight and when we are actually focused on or looking for them.  Another challenge is that in order to help students achieve a balanced point of view, we have to help them to see technology that is largely invisible to them (as they have never known a life without it).   Chris Lehmann coined the phrase, "Technology must be like oxygen:  ubiquitous, necessary and invisible", and yet the danger, as Ohler points out, is that if something is invisible then we don't think to question it and therefore it's harder to think about its potential impact on the future that students want for themselves and their communities.

Plenty to think about in this chapter!

Photo Credit: Lapicero by Gerard Avila,  2010 AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Making the transformation - so that demographics no longer define destiny

Here are some statistics:  There are 320 million children in India.  4% of these children never go to school.  58% of students who do go to school managed to complete primary education and move to secondary.  10 % of students in India will go to college, however only 1% of girls from rural India will go to college.  These are the statistics, and yet every day teachers working for organizations such as Teach for India and Akanksha Foundation are working to change them - their belief is that every child deserves an excellent education.

Today I listened to Maureen Ferry, the Director of Training and Student Impact from Teach for India, who said that regardless of where they come from, our children need us to commit to changing their path in life so their full potential is reached, instead of letting demographics determine their destiny.  She talked about the teachers in her organization and how these teachers are working to transform education:
  • Transformational teachers hold students to high academic expectations so they master the knowledge and skills students need to succeed.
  • Transformational teachers find pathways that position their kids for outstanding academic and life opportunities.  They determine the key milestones their students must accomplish to access those pathways.
  • Transformational teachers incorporate values and mindsets necessary for students to achieve academically and pursue life-changing opportunities.
  • Transformational teachers leverage their students' interests in their visions for the class and throughout the year heighten their aspirations.
Maureen invited Jyoti to tell us her story.  Jyoti was born in a slum and yet spoke warmly about her early life there as a pavement dweller.  She pointed out the dangers too - accidents on the road or pavement are common, there are problems with a lack of sewage facilities or clean water, there is rape, violence and murder and many girls get married young and have children young.  Jyoti was able to attend an Akanksha Foundation school where she learnt to read.  Reading opened up the world to her and she started to dream.  She spoke about her teacher, Anjali, who taught her for 8 years and who told her never to set a bar for herself, as if she reached it she would stagnate.  When Jyoti moved from primary to secondary class there was a change from memorization to understanding - this was hard for Jyoti, but her teacher continued to impress on her that she was capable and should not give up.  Jyoti's father died when she was 13, and as the oldest in the family she was under pressure to leave school and work, yet Anjali encouraged her to stay.  It's clear that Jyoti's life is different from what it would have been without this education and Anjali's constant encouragement.  Today she exudes confidence, she has choices, is in college and wants to be a film maker.  She is able to look to the future.  When asked about how she has transformed the life of this slum girl, Anjali herself is very humble - she says she didn't do very much really, she just did her job!

Another speaker at InspirED was Jon Schnur, the founder of America Achieves and one of Barak Obama's advisors on education.  His message to teachers at the conference was that they have the opportunity to change the future of the children of India and so change the future of the country.  He talked about the power of school leaders and how these transform schools and how he had spent time studying the differences in excellent schools that mark them out from the average ones:

  • In excellent schools there were specific high expectations for every student - then teachers worked backwards to plan how students would reach those expectations.
  • There was an intense focus on teaching quality - school leaders put a lot of effort into attracting and retaining excellent teachers.
  • There was a focus on constant improvement, a data driven process for moving forward.  In these schools every teacher was getting a visit once a week from a school leader with feedback on how they could modify their teaching.  Jon described this as performance management based in the classroom.
  • There was funding and autonomy and a nurturing of talent.
  • There was the opportunity to expand and spread the success.
The last point is an interesting one as I think it is very motivating to be able to spread the message of what is going well and to get other teachers and schools on board.  After the conference I was talking to  two of my colleagues who have volunteered with the Teacher Training Program our school runs to help train and mentor Indian teachers in Mumbai - they have told me that it is the most inspiring and energizing thing they have ever done.  One of these teachers who volunteers with the NGO Mumbai Mobile Creches goes to a building site to help teach the children of the construction workers who actually live in the half-built buildings or in temporary shelters and tents built of of rubber and metal sheets on the construction sites.  And once again I realized how proud I am of ASB for hosting this amazing conference to inspire Indian teachers and how blessed I am to work in a school that believes in reaching our and sharing ideas with others.  

Out of my comfort zone

This weekend I've been presenting at the InspirED Conference, organized by TeachForIndia.  Along with some other colleagues, we've been presenting about 21st century assessment.  When I was asked to present by our Assistant Superintendent I jumped at the opportunity, however what she asked me to do next pushed me right out of my comfort zone - because many Indian teachers don't have access to technology, she asked me to do the presentation without technology.  Now as an IT teacher for the past 13 years, I could come up with plenty of assessment strategies that used tech tools - but to think about some that didn't use technology at all was a real challenge for me.  However most people who know me know that I actually like challenges - and I'm so glad I did this because it made me reflect on my practice and to cast my mind back to some really good strategies that I've used in the past.  I therefore decided that I'd do a presentation about different Visible Thinking routines that could be used for pre-, formative and summative assessment.  Teachers often find it difficult to assess what students are thinking and how much they understand, these routines can help them to make this thinking visible.

Pre-assessment routine:  I see, I think, I wonder - this routine involves looking carefully at something and thinking about why it is the way it is.  This routine "helps stimulate curiosity and sets the stage for inquiry".  As teachers it can help us to know what the students are thinking before a unit starts - teachers can use it as a way into the unit or to motivate student interest.  With this routine I demonstrated different ways that students had used it, for example with a map and with a couple of picture books, and then let the teachers practice using this routine themselves.  We talked about how student responses to the routine and their wonderings can be recorded so that they can be returned to during the course of the unit.

Formative assessment:  Think, pair, share - this routine involves students pausing to think, turning to another student to talk about these thoughts and then feeding back to the rest of the class.  It can be used during maths lessons to assess how students are thinking about solving a problem, during science experiments, during a reading lesson when discussing what is happening in a book and so on.  One of the most powerful ways of using this I've found is to have students share what their partner is thinking rather than what they are thinking themselves.  Students can write down these ideas or make drawings of them before sharing with the rest of the group.

Formative assessment:  What makes you say that? - this routine takes students' thinking a little deeper as it asks them to give explanations to justify their thinking.  I've seen this routine used as a pre-assessment too, as a way of trying to find out what the students already know.   This routine can be used in exploring a poem, making scientific observations and so on.  In my case I gave the participants a photo of a city and asked them to talk about where they thought it was.  We had a lot of interesting observations:
I think it's in Europe.  What makes you say that?  The buildings look too old to be the USA.
I think it's in a Christian country.  What makes you say that?  I can see church spires.
I think it's in a country that is very environmentally friendly.  What makes you say that?  It seems very clean
I think this city is trying to preserve its culture.  What makes you say that?  I don't see any tall, modern skyscrapers so I think they want to preserve the historical appearance of the place.
I think it's on the coast.  What makes you say that?  I can see large cruise ships so I don't think the water is a river or a lake, I think it's the sea.

Summative assessment:  I used to think ... now I think - this routine is used by students to reflect on how and why their thinking has changed and I often use it at the end of a unit so that students can self-assess their learning.  I wanted to do something very quickly that would actually cause a change in the participants' thinking so I decided to ask them this question: "If you are standing and looking at yourself in a mirror and you want to see more of yourself do you step forwards or backwards?"  Some of the participants said forwards, some said backwards.  So we then went and all stood in front of a long mirror and tried it out.  Some stepped forwards, some backwards.  I knew that the results of this quick experiment would blow their mind because every single one of them was wrong.  The answer is that it doesn't make a difference.  This is a real challenge to our thinking - every single person I've asked this question to really believes they know the answer and are always amazed when they actually do this experiment.  After this it was very easy for them to practice this thinking routine!

I really enjoyed doing this presentation.  Thinking outside of the "technology box" was good for me.  I'm glad I stepped out of my comfort zone.

Friday, December 7, 2012

7 Online TED Talks for Global Awareness

A guest post from Aniya Wells:

Teaching at an international level is just as challenging as it is rewarding. Some days the differences between your own culture and your students' cultures can seem insurmountable, while other days remind you that there are really no differences at all. Most of us teachers are more than a little obsessed by history and human culture, and this is definitely a very important thing to share with students in all parts of the world. Many of us have stumbled upon TED lectures in the past, but it's always good to remember how great they can be as course resources. The nature of TED Talks in general make them especially apt for international students.

Applicable to a huge variety of disciplines, the following TED Talks provide a wealth of information and inspiration for students and teachers on some of the biggest questions facing humanity. This is only a sample of the available talks. They can be a great way for any teacher to add some fresh air to a class lecture or simply get inspiration for new class activities. For more TED talks visit the website.

Here are some excellent global awareness resources in the TED library:

David Christian: The history of our world in 18 minutes
David Christian teaches a world history course that extends from the theory of the creation of the universe to present day. Encapsulated in only 18 minutes, the story is a broad look at the existence of humanity and a quick and fun classroom video.

Jean-Baptiste Michel: The mathematics of history
Jean-Baptiste Michel explains how mathematics can be applied to history to uncover important facts. He discusses the use of math in studying language to war, bringing to light revealing historical patterns.
Aaron Huey is a photographer and storyteller who has been documenting poverty in America. The project brought him to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the native Lakota people living there. After five years, the images reveal the intense poverty and struggle resulting from the history of Native American abuse in the United States.

Ivan Krastev, a researcher based in Bulgaria, discusses the various modern day revolutions that have helped shape a new look at the effectiveness of our current democracy. He speaks about the global cultural turn in the 1960's and advancements in science that have brought scrutiny to trust in democracy.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and writer and presenter of the BBC Radio series, "A History of the World in 100 Objects," brings a 2600 Akkadian cuneiform script to light in this engaging lecture. The Cyrus Cylinder was a symbol of religious tolerance and multi-culturalism thousands of years prior to modern day society.

Spencer Wells is a geneticist and researcher of human diversity and the basic human genetic structure. In this talk, he examines the common DNA shared by all humans passed down from Africa. He speaks here about how, in the living example of human DNA, we are more connected than separate.

Nate Silver, a well-known statistician, sabermetrician, psephologist and writer, speaks about race in politics and to what extent President Obama's race hurt his votes in the 2008 presidential election. Nate Silver first became recognized for developing an almost no-fail predictor of Major League Baseball player careers and has been names among the World's 100 Most Influential People by Time. He was able to predict the presidential election down to the winner of all 50 states and is the author of FiveThirtyEight, a New York Times best seller.

Aniya Wells is a freelance blogger whose primary focus is online education and education technology. She is passionate about increasing international connectivity and expanding education opportunities for students across the world.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

What's in the digital toolkit?

All this year our students in Grades 3-5 have been involved in Independent Studies.  They chose a topic they were passionate about or wanted to investigate more and have had the time to do an in-depth inquiry.  They have formulated simple questions, made them into complex questions using command words, come up with keywords and related search terms, looked for information, paraphrased and organized this information and now it is time to share their knowledge with the rest of the students.  This week we have been asking the students how they could present their findings.  We don't intend to teach the students anything new as far as presentation tools are concerned, so we wanted to find out what tools they actually felt confident in using - what they already had in their digital toolkit.  Here's what they said:

  • We could make a video (using WeVideo, iMovie, Animoto, GoAnimate)
  • We could make a presentation (using Google Slides, Powerpoint or Prezi)
  • We could make an eBook (using Little Bird Tales or FlipSnack)
  • We could make a website (using Weebly or Google Sites)
  • We could make a poster (using Glogster)
We then asked them to make a choice about what they actually wanted to use.  The Wordle below shows which of these tools were the most popular:

So the students are now working independently on their presentations and we are thinking about which tool we want to use to pull them all together.  For Grade 5 we are thinking of an eBook where we can embed all the videos, posters, presentations and so on.  For Grade 4 we are thinking of making a website.  If you have suggestions for tools we can use to show all of our students' understandings, we'd love to hear from you - please leave us a comment below.

Photo Credit:  Web toolbox 2011-2012 by Aivar Ruukel, 2012  AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Paying the price

I have a son who has just finished at university, and a daughter who has just started, and of course I often think about the cost of university fees and how much value for money this is.  I was therefore interested to look at an infographic today which concerned attitudes towards American universities (neither of my children considered applying to US universities, so these statistics from the Pew Research Center might not actually be relevant to my family's experience).

  • 84% of university graduates reported that college was a good investment for them.  My son, who graduated in the UK, would tend to agree with these I think, as he would not have got his current job (a graduate management training scheme) without his degree.
  • 75% of adults say that college is too expensive to afford.  When considering whether to do another degree recently I certainly considered the cost.  I had to weigh this up against following my own interests and learning most of what I wanted to know for free - but not ending up with another university qualification.
  • 57% of adults say that US university education fails to provide good value for money.  At first this might seem to be in direct contradiction to the first point, however conversations with my son have shown me that while he felt he needed a degree qualification for his future career, he was extremely dissatisfied with the quality of the tuition he received in value for money terms.
This year university fees in the UK tripled to approximately 9,000 pounds a year - students who started this year are facing debts/loans of up to 50,000 pounds for tuition and maintenance for completing their education.  Not surprisingly there was a drop of about 12% in applications to UK universities, and about 50,000 less students entered universities in the UK this autumn, which could have worrying implications for the future - or maybe not.  Maybe those 50,000 are continuing with their education, but just in a non-traditional way.  Maybe they are doing online courses or simply deciding what they want to learn and then going out and learning it in other ways.  Maybe they have decided that a classic university qualification comes at too high a price and they are better off investing their money and time in other ways.  Maybe it's also time for universities to rethink how they educate their students.

Photo Credit:  Hero of the guitar by Nic McPhee, 2007 AttributionShare Alike

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A culture that makes the obsolete impossible

I'm at the Google Summit, and also reading through my Twitterstream and just came across a link to a blog that I've not seen before.   As we're learning so many new things here, I think it is very relevant to ask the question:  what do you do about teachers who simply don't want to change the way they do things, who just don't want to move on and try out something new?  One method of dealing with this was advocated by someone I once worked with who made life so horrible for people who didn't fit in that they ended up becoming sick and leaving.  The really awful thing about this, though, was that this was a school that did not have a supportive culture - teachers were not encouraged to try things out, make mistakes and learn from them as that was seen as damaging the reputation of the school.  The fear of failure was so palpable and the consequences so dire that very few teachers wanted to try out anything new that might possibly lead them to being in the spotlight, so the end result was that the school in fact did not move forward.  Ironic, really.

J Robinson, on his blog The 21st Century Principal, asks:  What would a school that has a culture that makes obsolete impossible look like?  I feel I can answer this question, because I am now working in such a place.  Here's J Robinson's suggestions:

  • an expectation of personal and professional growth, a culture of lifelong learning and professional development.  This is certainly true of ASB and I think I have mentioned in previous blog posts how many opportunities I've been given for professional development both inside and outside the school.
  • the school culture values risk-taking more than playing safe.  At ASB our culture of research and development means we are prototyping new things (some of which we may decide we don't want to adopt).  J Robinson points out something very important here:  leaders can't ask others to take risks if they themselves aren't willing to do so.
  • leadership in the school includes more than the principal.  Teachers at ASB are encouraged to be leaders and every single committee that exists does so because teachers have volunteered to be part of it.  J Robinson writes that having teacher leaders means that peers are the ones who are pushing other teachers to grow professionally. 
  • collaboration is the norm - everyone is part of the solution, everyone owns the future of the school which leads to teachers feeling that the school is "their school" and that they have a voice in its direction.  
So how do you get a school culture like this?  Well clearly it is mostly down to the leadership of the school and here our leaders are forward thinking and inspirational: I can feel their energy and passion and their commitment to the school's mission, values and goals.  I love listening to our school administrators, I love reading the things they are writing and the questions they are asking, I love the way they are thought-leaders.  I love the honesty and integrity that is shown in the way they live their beliefs and values.  I love the way they listen to us and communicate with us and value us all and the contribution we are making to the education of the students.  I love their passion for what they are doing.  I love the way that they say that great just isn't good enough.  I appreciate that they are real and not fakes.  If we all admire these things (which it seems we do) and all aspire to emulate them, then clearly we are striving to move forward, to be the best we can be, and obsolescence is therefore impossible.

This is actually the 3rd international school where I've worked that has had this culture.  At a time when I'm hearing that in countries like the UK and the USA teacher morale is low and stress levels are high, I feel I've been blessed to spend 90% of my teaching career at schools where the culture was a forward thinking and supportive one, and where I was supported as a learner as well as being a teacher.

Things we know to be true

Yesterday was the first day of the Google Apps for Education India Summit, which we are hosting at our school.  The day opened with a keynote from Suan Yeo,  the head of Google Enterprise Education in the Asia Pacific region, and with a welcome from Craig Johnson, ASB's Superintendent.  Craig focused on Google's statement about what they believe - he talked about how with a small change of wording or emphasis, this is what we believe as educators too:

  • Google says focus on user and all else will follow - educators say focus on the student and all else will follow
  • It's best to do one thing really, really well -  in this case Google searches, we teach
  • Google says you don't need to be at your desk to need an answer - we say you don't need to be in the classroom to learn - this is the education of the 21st century
  • Google says you can make money without being evil - we say we are teaching people how to do this every single day through being part of the most noble profession on the planet
  • Google says the need for information crosses borders - we say the need for information crosses disciplines - what we learn in maths is not only useful in maths - we have an interdisciplinary existence
  • Google says great just isn't good enough.  We say good is the enemy of great - as educators we know we can ne ver be good enough.  Our kids deserve the best and even better.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Appropriate Technology

"I felt proud because I knew that something that wasn't already there before was suddenly there."

This movie was shared with us at the Google Summit, hosted at ASB this weekend and I think it basically sums up my feelings today.  This is the first Google Summit in India, the first time that ASB has opened the doors of its new campus to "outsiders" - and yet already there is talk that this will be an annual event.  Information is powerful - but it is how we use it that will define us.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A career -v- to career

A couple of days ago I was interviewed for a new promotional video that the school is making - apparently I'm seen as a positive person and colleagues here feel that the passion for what I do oozes out of me.  I was asked a number of very interesting questions about the ways that ASB uniquely engages its students, about the ways in which ASB is forward thinking and about the professional culture at school.  Actually I can hardly believe the professional development opportunities that I have been given here:  I have done an online photography course through the ASB Online Academy, I have done a course to become an online workshop leader and am currently facilitating a Making the PYP Happen online workshop for the IBO.  I have done the DataWise training.  This weekend we are hosting the first every Indian Google Summit and I'm a presenter.  Next week I'm going to be involved in Teach4India's InspirED Conference, the week after that it's TEDx.  After Christmas we have two days of professional development as the school hosts ASB Un-Plugged's Brain Workshop.  In March I'm going to the Flat Classroom Leadership Workshop in Japan.  In June I'm off to San Antonio for ISTE.  As well as all this I contribute to parent newsletters, am on the school's R&D core team, and make presentations to parents as part of ASB's Tech Connection Points.  I'm growing in so many new ways and I absolutely love it.

I've just been reflecting on the word career, on how it can have two very different meanings (both of which I've experienced).

A career: an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life and with opportunities for progress.  This is what I have now and I feel that I am being given every possible encouragement to move forward and become the best possible educator that I can be.

To career:  to move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction.  This characterizes my experience in a different school, where I was actively discouraged from moving forward - I was on the treadmill of mediocracy.  Lewis Carol puts it well:

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where ... " said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
" - so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

So when I'm asked if ASB has lived up to my expectations, what can I say except that it has been an inspiration to work here.  There is an amazing leadership team and an overwhelming sense of trust in what they are doing as they "chart the route".  It's a place where new paths are cut through the educational jungle by people who have thought about where students need to go in the future, and where people walk along these paths, even though they have the freedom not to.

Chalk and cheese really.

Photo Credit:  Colours by Camdiluv, 2007 AttributionShare Alike

How do curious people feel when they present their findings?

Today our 2nd Graders presented what they found out as a result of following their curiosities.  While many students said they felt nervous sharing their investigations with so many parents and other students, the word that occurred most often when students reflected on the Curiosity Project was that it had been fun.  Parents commented too:  that they were amazed by the things that 2nd Graders were curious about.  Who would have thought a 7 year old wanted to dissect a heart?  Who could have imagined a 7 year old would want to plan and plant up a miniature garden?

I've been interested to see how the Curiosity Project - an intensive 6 week project - compares with Independent Studies which is ongoing throughout the year for students in Grades 3-5.  I was particularly interested to know if the investigative skills we have been working on with the students in Independent Studies carry over into others areas of the curriculum.  Recently our Grade 4 students have filled out a Google Form to reflect on their Sharing the Planet unit of inquiry where they have been inquiring into different biomes, writing up their findings into Google Presentations, turning them into PDFs and then making them into FlipBooks.  The things that students identified on this questionnaire that had carried over from Independent Studies were as follows:
  • an understanding of  copyright, plagiarism and the importance of paraphrasing
  • knowledge of where to go in order to search for images that are labelled for reuse
  • an understanding of the different creative commons licences 
Developing research skills is an important element of the PYP.  When I look at the list below, taken from Making the PYP Happen, I can see that both the Curiosity Project and Independent Studies is helping our students to develop these important 21st century skills.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Virtual Spaces: One Life or Two?

Yesterday I spoke to a group of students about some inappropriate comments that had been made online and forwarded on to me.  The students were embarrassed that something that they thought had been a private conversation ended up being viewed by adults who were not a part of it.  As I was thinking about this later, it occurred to me that there are many people who view conversations that I am having, that are also not a part of them.  These could be friends of friends on Facebook or anyone who happens to read something I post on Twitter.  This led me on to thinking about my conversations that are viewed on Facebook by all those people who are my friends, but who don't necessarily know each other - people who have known me in very different times, situations and circumstances.  For example there are my immediate family, friends that I knew when I grew up in the UK, colleagues from when I worked in Holland, Thailand and Switzerland who are now scattered all over the globe and so on.  All of these people knew me in slightly different ways - and yet these personal identities merge in some way online - and some people who thought they knew me in one life, suddenly find they don't necessarily know me that well in another.

In his book Digital Community, Digital Citizen Jason Ohler writes about 4 kinds of virtual spaces, each of which are characterized by different modes of communication:

  • Intimate spaces - usually 1 to 1 conversations such as emails, texts and IMs
  • Personal spaces - communication among a few people, for example a group email
  • Social spaces - group communication such as Nings, wikis and blogs
  • Public spaces - one to many communication such as newsletters, web pages and videos
The interesting thing is that these spaces are not mutually exclusive - emails can be forwarded to others, videos can be posted and commented on, people may choose to reply privately to something that is posted publicly and so on.

Young people sometimes have a hard time sorting out what is appropriate in each of their virtual spaces - and understanding that what's posted online in a private space can easily become public.  Sometimes it's a hard lesson to learn - that you are responsible for what you say.

Photo Credit:  Who's Who by Jessica Polanco, 2008 AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Talking about technology - part 2

Several weeks ago I blogged about how one of my roles as tech coordinator has been to talk with teachers about the NETS-T standards.  As a result of these conversations I've decided to write a series of posts about how teachers can develop their own skills to support these standards.  This post will be about the discussions we have had about how to facilitate and inspire student learning and creativity.

The first standard in this strand is to promote, support and model creative and innovative thinking and inventiveness. One way that teachers can encourage a constructivist learning environment in their classrooms is to provide what has been described as "crystallizing experiences" which can be turning points in the development of a child's abilities, interests and talents.  These experiences could be things like field trips, visiting guest speakers - or in the absence of these teachers could use technology to conduct virtual field trips or skype calls with experts.  For example students could use Google Maps or Google Earth to explore a place that would not be possible to explore in any other way.  Skype can bring in experts such as authors or poets to the classroom.

The second standard is to engage students in exploring real-world issues and solve authentic problems using digital tools and resources.  Project-based learning can really support this standard, encouraging students to explore and help solve problems.  Technology can play a role in identifying such problems, for example teachers could use online news sites, email, blogs, social networks and so on for information about current events.  Using Google search tools, students can access and translate news stories from different online newspapers, so getting multiple perspectives on world issues.  While it is not possible for students to actually solve these problems, games based learning and simulations in virtual worlds around these issues can certainly give students experience in decision making and encourage higher-level thinking skills.  Students can use presentation tools to share their solutions and get authentic feedback.

The third standard is to promote student reflection using collaborative tools.  There are many digital tools that can help students reflect on their learning - some of the best tools for reflection that I've used with students have been blogs and microblogs.  Students are often really motivated to post their reflections when they know that others will respond to them.  Currently we have Kindergarten classes sharing their reflections on their current unit of inquiry using VoiceThread and 3rd Grade students using Edmodo.  Wikis are another tool that I've used successfully for reflection, with students collaborating on providing and editing content and getting involved in discussion forums.

The final standard involves teachers modeling collaborative knowledge construction.  Teachers need to model that they too are lifelong learners and that they can learn from others.  Successful ways I've seen of doing this have included teachers setting up class blogs where everyone can post and reflect.

Although at the start of some of these conversations I've heard teachers say that they can inspire students without using technology, after our discussions many teachers come to see that technology can be an important doorway into facilitating learning and creativity.

Photo Credit:  Franci plays maze by Franco Cavallotto, 2007  AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works

Covering content and other games of Trivial Pursuit

Some years ago I was at my mother's house and we were watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on TV.  One question was which way does the River Nile flow? with the options being North, South, East or West and I can remember the contestant struggling over this.  To me this was a very simple question.  I thought that everyone knows that rivers flow towards the sea, everyone knows that the Nile is in Egypt and that Egypt is south of the Mediterranean Sea, and therefore everyone must know that the Nile flows north.  I must have said something along these lines, about how I was surprised to see someone struggling over such an easy answer, and was surprised by my brother's response:  "The answer's always easy when you know it."

I was thinking about this last week as I was re-reading the Grant Wigging article "The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance" which was one of the readings for last week's module of an online workshop that I'm facilitating.  This article has certainly provoked some interesting discussions among the participants and has prompted me to go back yet again and re-read it from other's perspectives.

Wiggins refers to us facing a Sisyphusian problem:  the boulder of "essential content" can only come thundering down the (growing) hill of knowledge, and his article is about how "the problem of student ignorance is thus really about adult ignorance as to how thoughtful and long-lasting understanding is achieved".  As the expression goes, you don't know what you don't know!  However what Wiggins advocates is enabling students to learn about their ignorance, take pleasure in this learning and be able to take control of the resources that will help them know more.  This is what he refers to as developing habits of mind.

Wiggins calls for a move away from scopes and sequences that assume a logical progression through knowledge, he argues we must move away from covering content that simply "reduces essential knowledge to Trivial Pursuit"  and instead we should concentrate on developing a "thirst for inquiry" and a "perpetual need to think".

Although some of the participants in my online workshop have criticized parts of this article (which is good of course, as it promotes discussion), I think Wiggins does stress the importance of inquiry and going where the questions lead.  He writes:
One learns the power of the questions only by seeing, for oneself, that important "facts" were once myths, arguments and questions .... Since it is impossible to teach everything we know to be of value, we must equip students with the ability to keep questioning.
Another take away I had from this article relates directly to what we are doing this year in ASB with Independent Studies and the Curiosity Project  (where students pursue something of interest to themselves) and with our goals of personalized learning.  Wiggins writes:
The deep acceptance of the painful realization that there are far more important ideas than we can ever know leads to a liberating curricular postulate:  all students need not learn the same things.
I think that this is true and something that we will need to accept if we are really to walk the talk of personalizing learning.

Photo Credit:  Trivia Caught by Stephen Train, 2007 AttributionNoncommercial