Tagged: learning

Technologies of delight

Yesterday, I took our two boys (aged 6 and 3) to a place where they could be their best. Not the only such place but a great one nevertheless. The place is called Naturescape, free and right in the heart of Perth’s Kings Park. It is an impressive place with a particularly impressive (if not obvious) feature – its design was based on extensive survey of kids. What did the kids want? Dirt, water, sticks, rocks, stuff to climb, stuff to build, to craft and move.

Our boys dreamt up games, challenges and scenarios. They hung on and drew their breath while crossing creeks on tricky logs, climbing tall ladders, hanging off ropes or waiting if the structure they built with sticks is going to hold out. They built a dam, a bark boat, a ‘rock harbour’, read the map to find the way around, pretended to be Lorax standing on a chopped trunk (spot them on the pics below :-), spotted different rocks, plants and bushes, ran around a maze, fell off ropes, got wet, sandy, dirty, tired … a great few hours spent. It has also triggered a stack of stories and (no doubt) upcoming pictures, annotated cartoons, Lego creations on the theme and more.

As stated in the opening sentence – they were at their creative, acting, learning best.

When our 6 year old goes back to school this week, he will be expected to sit in a chair pretty still and ‘behave’ from 8.45am to 3pm. His teacher will be expected to ‘show progress’ with our kiddo on some pretty narrow parameters that dominate newspapers and societal DNA on ‘what schools should do’.

Likely results? Mr 6 will not be bouncy, creative self as much for sure and his teacher might feel guilty for not bringing the best out of him. Do I feel sorry for both of them? I do. Because a chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day are not necessarily the things, the spaces, no wait … the technologies (!) that bring out the best in people. Every day I watch ‘at risk’ teenagers who turn into zombies when they walk through the school gate but they are brilliant mechanics, traders (just don’t ask what they trade…), bike riders, carers, navigators, budding chefs and lawyers (judging by their ability to argue finer points :-)) out there.

A chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day (with a teacher who ‘knows’ and students who ‘don’t’) are simply historical accidents that we have found comforting to fund and support.

Now please, I would not just ‘get rid of schools’ but I would like us all in a society to think deeply and carefully about the lessons we can learn from watching the kids in places like Naturescape. And don’t for one minute think adults are hugely different and don’t want to play and learn.

Change by delight, not by fright. An old line we could heed a bit more.

And as I got home I came across this post by an old friend…

Mad or what?

The heart of it all. Questions !
The heart of it all. Questions, glorious questions !

This isn’t a ‘flipped classroom’. This isn’t ‘disruptive’ pedagogy or ‘disruptive technology’. This isn’t (just) about what is often understood as ‘critical thinking skills’.

I had tinkered with it and applied it in pieces in a mainstream school. Only in dosaged pieces because at the heart of it, this thing goes against the purpose embedded in the very (classroomed, corridored, square) building, let alone the way a ‘school’ is organised and thought of by most people who come in contact with. And this time, I’m going for it full throttle at our awesome … school.

About 45 years ago, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote an eloquently genial and provocative book about it. Even that cranky old Greek called Socrates would probably like it (he just wouldn’t like it for being written down, for fear of de-personalising and de-contextualising).

After such a bombastic opening you are probably expecting to read about something terribly clever, innovative, creative and so on. But it isn’t, it is so damn simple and quite old really but with a contemporary e-twist.

This is what we are up to, a factual account.

At our first individual, in-person meeting for the term, the student (six so far, half my group), myself and often another person (a colleague, friend, support staff, parent, carer …) sit around the table with a big sheet of paper. In the middle of the paper sits the topic of student’s interest with words What? Where? Who? Why? When? How? What if? as visual reminders under it.

Together, we come up with as many questions about the topic as we can. We go for about 30 – 40 minutes and we are only interested in questions, answers not permitted. We ensure that the student contributes a healthy chunk of questions (least we’ve had is about a third, most about 80%, usually around 60%). The student can veto ANY generated question at any time but has to explain the reasons for the veto.

When done, the student is given options on the format they would like to use to work on these questions, keep them organised, interact with others and so on. So far, all of them have chosen a website over other formats (eg. portolfio, folder, poster …) for this purpose. A unique Google Site takes about a minute to set up with all the capacity needed to gather, curate and interact.

The student and I share the editing rights for the site. I am the tech hand, (s)he is the content manager and vice versa. We collaborate. I’m not a ‘sage on the stage’, nor a ‘guide on the side’ – I’m a ‘meddler in the middle’ (thank you Erica McWilliam for the phrase, seminal paper). We (will) involve others too as we go along, locally and (inter)nationally.

And the questions, some still in their raw, ungrouped, un-critiqued, un-pulled apart state are the term’s curriculum. That’s it! What is worth learning to this person, right there.

Here are a couple of examples about becoming a visual artist, joining the Navy, online gaming and an earlier effort about drugs. All are in their embryonic stage but with questions there.

If you look at the questions, some contain a dozen PhDs in them if explored to extraordinary lengths. And they can! They are there to trigger that wonderfully humbling paradox of learning: “the more you know the more you realise what you don’t know yet.”

As the advisor (umm, ‘teacher’) I question, praise, challenge, argue, poke and prod, interpret, scaffold if need be. I encourage the student to do the same. I educate in the sense of the original Latin word educare – drawing out the potential, the latent from a person. These kids are not passive ‘recipients’ of knowledge – they produce it. The job is not that easy as it may sound but I have not been this energised about my own profession for many, many years.

Now … where will we end up with all this? Frankly, I don’t really know (probably THE most frightening aspect to many of my colleagues in education and students too). But I DO know that these kids will have a much deeper, meaningful, contextualised understanding not just of the topic they are looking at but ways of learning, thinking, interacting, reflecting, and – acting!

Some of you reading this might see this as great for all sorts of reasons – pedagogical, technological, social and so on. Some of you may be indifferent: “Meh…” Some of you may be truly horrified and you may be right: “How can you track this to syllabus? How can you test this? How can you make sure they are covering areas other than just what they are interested in?” Valid questions. But if you ask them, go beyond the superficial and ‘common sense’, ask the odd ‘why so’ along the way then wrestle with it honestly.

Yes, students starting the term with about 50 of own questions rather than a set course in something their teacher is probably good at is probably an anathema to what society considers as ‘school’. But if I have the engagement of these ‘hard-to-engage-in-schooling’ young people after the first few days to go by – we are onto something.

These kids CAN question. They CAN lead. They CAN learn. They CAN see themselves in a light a school would rarely (or never!) have them before.

Mad, courageous, awful, irresponsible … ? You decide.

Can scootering save schools?

I have shamelessly re-purposed the title from what has to be one of my new favourite TED talks, alerted to by @malynmawby (Thanks Malyn!). See it below …

Did you catch those points?

  • Failure is normal.
  • Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything.
  • Work your ass off until you figure it out.
  • Learning in NOT fun. (‘Flow’ and  the ‘Goldilocks challenge’)
  • No grades.
  • No cheating.
  • No teachers. (well, optional…)
  • Real-time meaningful feedback.

OK, on the surface of it, like many TED talks – inspirational, catchy, memorable. Don’t get me wrong – I love the clip but it does beg a few questions.

The clip is  is not ‘universal’ in all of its points all the time. Not everything you learn in life is by trial and error on your own, sometimes it is mighty valuable for someone (a ‘teacher’?) to show what (not) to do and for different reasons  – the notion of real-time meaningful feedback Dr. Tae mentions. Sometimes performance is more important than learning, sometimes the other way around and for different reasons (more on that dichotomy here), and so on …

We could start nitpicking here – and miss the good bits!

But here’s a story. A true one.

There is a bunch of very talented scooter riders in my class (scooters or skateboards – same diff in terms of Dr. Tae’s clip). For their first ever Big Picture project, they decided to complement and extend their passion and interest in scootering and learn how to (better) edit a video clip of themselves.

It has required some gentle manouvering of teens who run away from anything smelling remotely like ‘school work’ as they put it. But last week and today, we went to two different local skate parks and filmed them in action.Today, we even took our school media enthusiasts to do the filming!

At first, the four boys almost didn’t believe me we would go and do such a ‘non-school’ thing but signed up enthusiastically. There’s a whole blog post and beyond about what trips and opportunities like these do for building relationships with kids for whom the staff at our school may be just about the only stable adults in their lives but more on that another time.

We had a lot of fun (read meaningful effort!).  The boys scooted their butts off and we got a bunch of still images and video and some of it is simply awesome, judged so even by the kids’ standards themselves!  Over the next three weeks, these four guys will learn how to edit and put together a great mashup of video, stills, audio and special effects, then present the finished product AND the story of their learning to myself, their parents and whoever else they invite to their exhibition (central item in Big Picture approach – what you do is public and you need to ‘stand behind it’).

Here is a small taste of their talent just off my phone, I will feature their finished products (with their permission, of course).

Now, don’t tell me these kids are ‘poor learners’ or carry a learning disability. They must have failed hundreds of times, worked hard and kept going until they landed these tricks … in short, they embodied exactly the points Dr Tae was talking about! They embodied, purposefully and dare say joyfully, not just learning but, more importantly, the power of wanting to learn, even love for learning in their lives.

The words of my wise mentor water polo coach in former Yugoslavia still ring in my ears, now decades past: “Tomaz, your most important job with these juniors is not how to pass the ball and shoot well – your main job is to get them to fall in love with the game.”

Over the coming weeks, we will hopefully use their efforts in scootering to extrapolate and transfer things about the power of ‘love for  learning’ from scootering to other areas in life they come across.

Now, if you think ‘well, scootering isn’t going to get them a job’ or ‘get them to uni’ or ‘teach them geography’ and things like that, you may, but only MAY be right and even so, horribly myopically. Because what I, as a mentor to these kids, know is that these sorts of things have a chance of giving them the confidence, opportunity, resilience, love of learning that no textbook or teacher can teach.

And THAT is what our school is about. And that is what I am about. And that is what so often, so many of our schools, unwillingly, kill off, for the sake of things that simply … don’t matter.

So … can scootering save schools?

Well, that’s a long shot but if joy of learning is something to nourish and stimulate, it has a thing or two to offer, for sure.

PS Inspired in part by Dean Shareski’s piece ‘Why Joy Matters‘, alerted to by Pam Moran. Thank you both!

Performance vs Learning

Balancing Act

I am getting a little tired of unreflective grade-and-test-bashers, silver-tongued and ‘inspirational’ gurus on the educational speaking circuit peddling a rosy picture of learning and lame ‘garden-like’ analogies.

I am getting even more tired of assessment-standard-accountability-statistically-crazed literacy-with-funding, 3Rs, ‘core knowledge’, test and merit pay, bean counters, vote counters and ‘good old days’ pundits.

Well, the former lot is waxing lyrical about ‘learning’, the latter about ‘performance’.  Let’s put ‘learning’ in one side of the continuum and ‘performance’ on the opposite side and ask three questions:

Is there a difference between learning and performing?

Definitions abound. I loosely borrow from Dweck’s that makes a lot of sense to me.

Performance is about doing well when required and expected. The ability to deliver  generates reputation, often hierarchical when in relation, compared to others.  Performance has standards and is data-driven (data as ends, not means), quantifiable, measurable. It is efficient, gets things done. ‘Facilitating  performance’ is about removing the obstacles to overcome. Similarly, risk, error, uncertainty are to be avoided or at least minimised so one can stay in the zone of competence.

Performance is extrinsic. It is about winning positive judgement and avoiding negative ones. Since error is likely to produce condemnation (poor results, diminished status etc), one needs to look smart, competent and avoid looking dumb, oft at all cost. Errors are also likely to produce low self-efficacy (a ‘belief in our ability to succeed in specific situations’; Bandura), and trigger blame on self (“I’m useless …”) and others (“it’s teachers’ fault I failed the unit…”), even  giving up.

Do we need performance in our lives? Sure do, with all its good and bad sides. We all like  doctors to prescribe the right treatment, train drivers to drive safely, athletes in our team to win … you name it (next time you see a politician, remember the above paragraph).

And then there is learning.

Learning is about mastering a new skill, understanding, growing. It cannot be pulled up on demand nor shut down when not needed. It is not a goal but a process, a strateg(ising) to deal with. Whether it’s maths, kissing, football or philosophy, ‘facilitating learning’ is about creating meaningful, challenging obstacles to overcome. Risk is welcome, errors are something to learn from.  Learning is data-informed (data is means to ends). It is intrinsic. It is about being smart, not just looking like it at all cost. Learning breeds high self-efficacy.

Learning is also messy, un-predictable, un-measurable (at least in ways many performance fans would have us believe). It requires going out of zone of competence, which can often be a very uncomfortable and a brave thing to do, especially if others, public are involved. Learning can be very inefficient, wasteful even.

Do we need learning in our lives? Silly question really… Ask a scientist about  discovering a cure for a disease, a parent working out what makes their child eat vegetables, a footballer practising a better way to kick … another endless list.

In short: Performance = doing and not screwing up. Learning = screwing up and doing it better.

Is learning better than performing?

I have never liked telling people what to do, but I do love watching them coming up with their own answers. So, no silver bullet from me today (and run away from anyone who tells you they have one, fast !). But for the record – we need a smart, local, contextual, holistic balance between the two.

‘Learning’ with no ends, consequences, checks, expectations while magically holding-hands-and-singing-Kumbaya shields us from the realities. It does not make resilient learners that sometimes need to stand up and deliver, decide, make a tough call, lead when needed. I have nothing against assessment for example, I just don’t think it’s a great way to motivate, stimulate, nourish interest in something.

Contrary, overemphasis on performance, the seductive simplicity of ‘objective’ standards derived from de-contextualised data and delirious joy of thinking things are repeatable and replicable with people, abnormal focus on winning positive judgement from external others (hello ‘tiger mums’ out there …) leads human flourishing to a ‘performative trap’ – seeing oneself and others in terms of standards, points, wins, data collected. The obsession to ‘look good and be right’ is filling an ocean of human sorrow and anxiety around you and me right now.

Why are these questions important to ask?

The ‘performative trap’ is encroaching our societal, shared mental modes which frame our experiences, shape the view of reality and with it priorities. We are increasingly calling it up to simplify complex reality around us. And because we are social animals, we tend to share it and reinforce it with choices we make.

And just why is it a trap? Take this example from McWilliam:

[W]here error results in painful condemnation from external others who are marking, grading and measuring each move, then it is more likely that a student will avoid uncertainty at all costs, not embrace it for what it might conceivably offer to fresh understanding. So too an institution’s performance, dependent as it is on the judgment of external others, is vulnerable if and when its ‘mistakes’ (ie, a less than dignified place on league tables) are out in the open. When the price of failure is a lack of enrolments, diminished reputation, and/or a funding cut, it is to be anticipated that ‘best foot forward’ can become not simply an important imperative but the dominant imperative that renders all others to marginal status.

So, I answer the above question with a set of further questions (all first-pass, top of the head stuff) that you may recognise, ask, expand upon in your own context. Then work with the push and pull …

To a student:How important are school grades to you? Why? Do you think you would learn as much if there were no grades, tests? What does that tell you about the way you learn? What will you do in situations where there will be no grades and ranks? What do you think of people who don’t get good grades? If/when you have children, what will you encourage them to do at school? Why so? …

To a teacher: How important is to you to ‘get the marking right’? Do you think Bell curve is a necessary thing? Is assessment a good motivator? Why (not)? Are there better ways to stimulate learning? Are students you teach primarily an economic resource to be classified and passed on? Why (not)? What have you learned today? How important is it to you to have the answer students ask for? …

To a parent: If your child seems ‘behind’ in one area but ‘ahead’ in another, what do you do? What should the teachers do? Why so? Is it OK for your child to be happy learning something but not reaching what you think is their full potential in it? How much do your school grades matter now? Why (not)? …

To a school administrator, to the Prime Minister, to the radio pundit, to your P&C council, to your Twitter followers … you get the drift, surely 😉

I acknowledge that all this ‘performance vs learning’ may be a bit chicken-or-eggish, even a false comparison to some, but sure is a good way to get your bullshit detectors working.

Use them.

PS If intrigued by the ‘seductiveness of figures’, head over to these couple of recent posts by Ira Socol  (Measurement and overpromise and Art of seeing ) or an older series of co-writing right here on Human. Good stuff that may get you angry, or thinking … or both.

References:

Dweck, C. (1999) Self-theories: Their role in motivation, Personality and Development. Ann Arbor, MI: Psychology Press.

McWilliam, E., Taylor, G., & Perry, L. (2007). Learning or performance: What
should educational leaders pay attention to? Paper presented at the The 13th International Conference on Thinking Norrkoping, Sweden.

Top 5 myths about teaching with Moodle

5 MythsIf you are trying to introduce Moodle to teachers or staff at your school or a similar organisation, you have or you will probably hear at least some, if not all, of the five statements below in some shape of form. I deliberately called these ‘myths’ because they simply do not stack up when compared not only to my own experience and that of my colleagues at our school, but to the experience of literally millions of teachers around the world using Moodle in their daily work.

These five myths deal exclusively with teaching and learning with Moodle. I have distilled these after experiences at our school and reading about experiences of fellow Moodlers over the last year or so. For more myths about the technical aspects of Moodle (Top 10) you can visit the Moodle forums at Moodle.org.

So, here are my top five … with replies.

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Giving all students a voice – Moodle forum

flyAfter an amazingly insight-rich, highly enjoyable and very well-received online forum across four senior classes at our school on the theme ‘What would you improve at our school?” this week, I simply had to put in a big plug for forums in Moodle. I write this as a combination of teaching and tech tips and strategies for using forums in Moodle. Most of all, I write this with my students, their voice and their learning in mind.

Like many teachers, I often run class discussion. A problem or a question is presented with individuals invited to call out with answers. Sometimes students are in groups for all or part of the discussion with more than one topic to discuss.

What I have ideally wanted is for each student to contribute in some way to either the group or class discussion. In reality, I often get a few regular contributors to call out with some quality answers, a few attention seekers with not such high quality answers and the rest of the class likely to switch off.

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How can Moodle change a school

Before starting to work as a part-time technology integrator at our school this year, the principal asked me to come up with one ‘thing’, one key strategy for staff and students to ICT to improve their teaching and learning. After seeing the flexibility, robustness and ‘organic’ nature of Moodle the choice was pretty simple to make.

The video, shown here in two separate clips, is not so much about the technical features of Moodle but about people using it. I am forever indebted to our wonderful network administrator Russell Clarke, my colleagues from Moodle champions to Moodle beginners, and the students, who have taken to it so well (well, a healthy majority of them at least). Without them, none of the things shown in the clip would happen.

The focus of the first clip (9:58 min) is on the ways different, mostly standard features of Moodle have been used by various teachers and students at our school. If you can’t see this video (Part 1) please click here.

The second clip (5:43 min) shows the positive and in some cases very significant changes the establishment of Moodle has brought to our school in terms of using ICT to improve our core business – teaching and learning while modelling, establishing and maintaining healthy human relationships. If you can’t see the clip (Part 2) please click here.

I end this post with an anecdote from a teacher at our school. Over the last couple of weeks of holidays, my colleague Kim Bebbington built a fantastic course on Australian History, now shared by four other Year 8 classes. The course includes an assignment, due in week 3 of the upcoming term.

Deliberately or not, Kim left the course open to students to enrol and look at as he was building it. Imagine his (pleasant) surprise when he received a fully completed assignment (due in week 3) by one of the students in his class two days before the start of term.

But as wonderful and useful as Moodle has been, it is the people who are making the difference. It is not the technology itself – it is what we do with it.

If you are a ‘moodling’ teacher yourself, looking into it, or a person responsible for getting (particularly) teachers up to speed with Moodle and ICT in general I would love to hear from you – there is much to share and learn from each other.