This is an introduction to a series of posts I plan to write about what has shaped my recent thinking about education and learning starting with a reflection on the workshop that made me realise I had been resting on my educational laurels for too long. A short summary and a few thoughts you might want to respond to are provided at the end.
About four years ago I shuffled into the back of our school auditorium for the start of a weekend worth of professional development with a cup of tea and relatively low expectations. I had been on a bad run of PD events at that stage, too much worthiness, too much preciousness not enough substance.
“What do you want to talk about?” said our speaker who had left his podium and was looking accusingly at us from the centre of the room. “No really, where do we want to go with this?”. He waited for an answer but it wasn’t forthcoming so he offered some possibilities; The nature of curriculum? What is literacy? What are the difficult questions that we need to ask our students? Then he announced “The most important thing I learnt in college, never take a class or attend a lecture led by with anyone with a ponytail”. His ponytail was just visible as he turned back towards the podium. I sat up in my seat, my tea was going cold.
His name was Professor Allan Luke and he kept my full attention for two and a half days of talks and workshops. It was not so much that he was telling me radically new things but by articulating his views so forcefully and pulling so originally from the traditions of educational theory he pushed me out of the complacency I realised I had fallen into. He had me retracing my pedagogical steps and imagining the paths that I might take. He talked about learning as productive activity, about the need for rich tasks and freeing the curriculum up of content to go deeper and focus on critical literacies. He supported his ideas with references from Bladerunner to Vygotsky, from Dewey on education to Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, he led us learnedly from the past to the future of learning and I was completely enthralled.
What distinguished Luke from so many other educationalists that I have met or heard speak was his blend of the progressive with the pragmatic, his respect for the traditions in pedagogy and the desperate need to disrupt them. He returned again and again to the need for teachers to ‘weave’ and switch between different modes of teaching, to blend direct teaching with more observational and responsive constructivist practice. More importantly was that there were clearly core values and principles about the role of the educator in society, about social justice and equality that led him to be standing in front of another group of teachers, hanging on his every word.
Luke helped to galvanise my thinking and also bring out the radical in me. In the plenary session at the end of the workshops for example he reminded the assembled faculty that the most significant factor in the education of a child is the economic background of the family they are born into. Therefore, he asked as educators in a fee paying schools how much of what happens to our students is down to us? Should we not be wary to rely on exam results and successful university applications as our stamp of success? I paraphrase here slightly, and you could perhaps accuse Luke here of being on slightly shaky ground as he was happy to take a sizeable fee from the “private school” he was lecturing within but I enjoyed his mischievousness, his willingness to challenge and provoke his hosts with one of those difficult and troubling questions. His point was not to undermine his audience but to push us to reflect on what the real test of the effectiveness of an educational institution really is.
Main points I wanted to make
Our roles as educators is to ask difficult and troubling questions both of ourselves and of our students
We should be wary of lecturers with ponytails unless they make self-depricating remarks about said ponytail
Thoughts you might want to respond to?
Who or what has made you rethink your approach to what you do and why?
How do we judge our effectiveness as educators?
It is about 6 weeks now since I left my job as a curriculum coordinator in an international school in Japan and moved with my family back to Ha Noi. So what now? What is the grand plan? What is it that I want to do?
Well, after a period of decompression and reflection I have been able to give this some fairly serious thought and while I am a long way from the nuts and bolts of a specific project a personal manifesto for what I want to do is taking shape.
(a) I will attempt to design, nurture and sustain transformative learning environments.
Not moderately better than before educational contexts, not chipping away at old models but learning projects that are bold enough to make no assumptions about what learning should be and if necessary start from the beginning.
(b) I will ensure that the foundation and mission of a project’s goals be reflected in every level of the project itself.
There should be consistency in the pedagogical and ideological outlook of the project with the way the project is structured and organised. If the mission is to support openness and equality then that must be a feature of the project itself.
(c) I will encourage all members of the educational project to be engaged in the experience of learning as an end in itself.
Of course we need skills and qualifications to get places, although often this element and its perceived importance crushes any of the more useful aspects of learning but the act of learning should be a rich and valuable experience in and of itself. Life is never a rehearsal, all experiences are important.
(d) I will work respectfully and constructively within the cultural context of the project.
Projects should equip students with practical and applicable tools and competencies to support them within any cultural setting.
(e) The learning environment, real or virtual, should be a well designed place of wonder and curiosity.
Learning spaces should be places where we can relax and reflect; challenge and be challenged. Light, sound, colour and texture matter enormously.
(f) Learning projects need to be open to learners from all cultural, ethnic, economic backgrounds.
I think people can only fully commit to projects, jobs and ideas in general when they feel that they are open and they benefit society as a whole.
This is what I have so far but I reserve the right to add, edit or delete as I see fit, I am after all on my own now.
I read Heather and Marie’s post conference reflections with great interest and agree with their views that despite the practical challenges and in some cases even because of them, virtual participation in the flat classroom workshop in Mumbai was a rich and valuable experience.
In our post-conference discussion my students expressed views similar to Heather’s when she said that the experience changed once she worked out that ‘lurking around the edges’ was not the way to approach the event. As complete newcomers it took us a while to get to grips with the shape and nature of the workshop and to settle into our roles. We spent time navigating our way through the different channels and tools that had been carefully set up and the students also spoke about being slightly cautious as they are all middle schoolers and would be working as peers with high school students and teachers.
Like the students as a ‘virtual expert’ I also needed to adjust to my role especially as I started to contribute to the team wikis as their ideas started to flow. To be effective as educators we always need to carefully balance support and encouragement with our ability to provoke and challenge by asking the right questions. This balance is made harder when working at a distance with strangers of different ages and backgrounds. As I thought about this balance I thought back to a blog post by Konrad Glogowski on the evolving role of educators in the digital age,
“I believe that it demands that we get involved as co-investigators who assist students with their independent research and who also, through personal engagement as online learners and collaborators, model what it means to be successful as a learner. We have to become “co-conspirators” or, to use Vygotsky’s famous term, “more capable peers,” whose job is not to measure and evaluate but, primarily, to promote and support reflection and analysis in our students. As educators, we need to work on our role in the classroom as “passionate hobbyists and creators,” we need to engage in learning in our classrooms, and in doing so we need to move towards a different model of assessment and evaluation.”
The structure set up by Vicki and Julie made co-creation the default position for everyone involved in this conference. Experienced educators were learning and creating alongside the students, this was something that I think one of the YIS student participants was referring to when he said “teachers normally try to take control too much and organise it all for you, this was different and that was the best thing about the project, not so much the technology stuff but the fact that there was a lot of freedom in how we could do things.” Watching the YIS students seemingly floundering early in the conference as they jumped from site to site, skimming and clicking looked to some of the teachers that came by to observe like the learning and interaction while clearly enjoyable was perhaps superficial. However as the students moved on it was clear that this experimentation and the wrong turns were a crucial part of the learning that came from this event.
Indeed when the real time participation and interaction started to take hold the students were clearly being pushed in their learning. They each kept two or sometimes three communication tools open. Some were skyping, some using the chatzy, all were watching and listening to the ustream as they typed and started to get involved in the team projects. One girl noted, “I had to keep using google to look up some of the words and terms the older students were using, there was a lot I didn’t understand”. Despite this none of the students thought the teams should be divided up by age as they also found it interesting to see how the older students approached the tasks. They were getting a lot from their ‘more capable peers’.
The students also found the structure and organisation challenging, “There were times when the ‘real’ participants seemed to disappear” said one of the grade 7 girl adding “They were were so busy with their challenge that you felt outside the conversation”. Another student said he spent a long time “looking for his group members in the different places, there was a lot of discussion and confusion about which of the resources to use to communicate.” However as our discussion then went to the possibility that the event could be more structured or even simplified in terms of the tools that need to be used to avoid these problems they did not think that was the way to go. “I like the openness said one boy”, “I liked the challenge of trying to influence the group and to try to take the lead at times, to try to make things happen”. I agree with the students conclusions, the openness of the structure and the flexibility meant that there were multiple pathways in terms of both communication and organisation for the teams and this supported self-direction and pushed the teams to consider different courses of action.
I thought the inclusion and timing of the visit to the local NGO projects brought the “opening up education” theme in at the ideal moment in the workshop. Having established the framework and mode of learning this then added a whole new context to the notion of flattening that the web and technology can offer. Obviously the virtual participants had to find other ways to explore this theme and that was where I did convene a discussion with the YIS students. As a group we then discussed the implications and possibilities of projects like the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ initiative that is bringing the internet to rural areas parts of India and Cambodia. The groups were clearly enthused by this element of the weekend and the discussions around their own projects seemed to lead into new areas after the visits.
I was watching the BBC series the “The Virtual Revolution” last week and this interview made me think of the flat classroom workshop approach and why it works.
The focus on communication, problem solving and collective intelligence ran through the workshop and I think gives us reason to be optimistic about where this type of project might take learning. Thank you so much to Vicki, Julie and the other organisers for all your hard work, skill and creativity in setting up and designing the workshop. I am moving back to Hanoi later this year to set up a new educational project which I hope will lead to further collaboration. I know the Yokohama tech team students are also very keen to be involved again next year.
Today was a good day of virtual participation for both the students and educators here at Yokohama International School. The students gathered from mid-morning in our IT lab, excited to be missing classes but still not exactly sure what they had signed up for. We are three and a half hours ahead of Mumbai which is a strange time difference, not half a day but enough to be out of kilter. It did though help to build anticipation and there was clear excitement when the livestream came on from the ASB unplugged conference opening and we heard Julie talking and then disappointment when it dropped out. However the students were already well engaged in the backchannel and starting to meet other virtual participants.
Later this week I will be participating, along with eight of our tech team students, in an educational conference called “The Flat Classroom Workshop“. Influenced by Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” educators Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis initiated this series of conferences/ workshops with a view to take Friedman’s notion of a flat world and apply it to an educational context. They are, as far as I can see, essentially exploring the extent to which they can create a ‘flat’ classroom. A classroom that uses digital tools to support collaborative learning with no boundaries.
I am drawn to this conference both by the structure and the premise. My understanding is that the teachers learn alongside, with and from the students in small teams as they work together on tasks. I like the fluidity of this set-up, the idea that the experienced educator can both lead and be led. The concept of ‘flattening’ that Friedman highlighted has been rightly debated but I think to take what was a descriptive observational understanding about global trends and turn it into an intentional and ambitiously transformative event is brave and I look forward to making a contribution and supporting this endevour.
I am further encouraged as by the “Opening Up Education” theme for the event. I am interested to see where conversations around increased access to technology and literacy will go and the ideas we can generate about this. The pre-conference reading included links to projects like the “hole in the wall” initiative that brought computers into rural villages in India and observed how the communities used the internet and other digital tools to develop new skills and opportunities. I look forward to exploring with students and teachers the implications and possibilities of Friedman’s assertion that events have transpired to “empower more individuals to reach farther, faster, deeper…by giving so many more people the tools and ability to connect, compete and collaborate.” International schools are, generally, culturally diverse and open places to learn. However, the large fees and the distinctiveness of the established norms of these schools can leave them as islands not completely engaged with their local contexts, and therefore, to some extent, not fully in the real and complex world we live in. I will be interested to see the impact this conference has on the students from my own international school, to see if the they are drawn into new areas, understandings and conversations.
I wrote the post below for my students. We are going to persevere with our student blog project although we are conscious that ‘teacher assigned’ blogging is potentially problematic in the sense that it conflicts with the important notion that the motivation to write a blog is intrinsic. I am in two minds on this.
From the outset I presented the blogs to our students as ‘school’ connected spaces and therefore have been a gatekeeper, setting the guidelines for their use. The students instinctively want to tatoo their spaces with their own icons and influences but we have asked them to conform to a different design brief. I think for some this is demotivating as the project then uses the tools they are familiar with from social networking sites but they do not get to use them as they would like. Others get the notion that this is different, for a potentially different audience and start to develop a different tone and style on their blogs. This advice is fairly obvious but covers areas that students often overlook when they create a post.
Six ways to write better blog posts Six ways to improve your writing
If you, as the writer, are not motivated by the topic then you are not going to capture the attention of your readers. Choose subjects that you care about. Follow your interests, respond to ideas, issues, films and books that made an impact on you. You can constructively criticise or you might have a new and original angle on a familiar topic. A few links to get you thinking: Opinion: Looking For Meaning In Games, The Joy of Failure
2. Think about your audience as a community
Good writers think about their audience as they write. This helps them to make good decisions about what to share.
3. Try to hook your readers with a catchy title or subheading
Your title should try to grab people as they skim through your blog. Mention the topic but try to add something pulls the audience in. Here is an example that mentions the film’s name but also gives an idea of what will follow with some clever use of language. Coraline film review: Sparklingly spookish stop motion
4. Make comparisons and do not be afraid to bring in other people’s ideas
Show that you have read and listened to other people writing about the same topic. If you review a science fiction film, show that you understand some of the common features of this type of film. Evidence that you are knowledgeable about a topic or genre will help your reader trust you and make them want to come back and read more of your posts.
5. Keep people reading
Avoid giving everything away in your opening paragraph. Use structure, humour and planning to keep people reading. Avoid lists, endless plot descriptions and repetition to stop people leaving your post.
Typing at a computer can lead to writing that lacks thought, shape and reflection. Use an old-school paper and pencil approach to plan your ideas. This also works well for presentations or, in fact, any complex task you are working on. The internet is great for research but also pretty good for distractions.