Finding the Voice

 

Catch the wind

Catch the Wind” by Ian Sane (Flickr) 

One week on from leaving my job as a classroom teacher with nearly a decade of experience, I’m sitting down at the computer to once again find a creative angle on my life as an educator. As those who write infrequently know, it can be very difficult finding the voice after lengthy periods of silence – and all too often, the fear of “talking loud and saying nothing” can easily take hold and stop you from working out so many ideas in the head. The whole decision to hold off writing can become a non-virtuous circle very quickly. 

As a teacher, writer, researcher and blogger, I’ve often grappled with so many different ideas about technology, learning, creativity and thinking – ideas that are challenging, disarming, enlightening, scary, productive, useless, half-baked or life-changing. Most of the good ones belong to others; occasionally I’m lucky enough to have one of my own, whether it comes seemingly from out of nowhere or takes its time to germinate while I do something related or unrelated. At the best of times, I’m bubbling with ideas – so many that I find it hard to shut down and sleep. At the worst of times, the creative urges aren’t there; I can see there are plenty of ideas and I take my time chewing through as many as I can, but somehow my mind doesn’t seem to respond with its own take on things in order to form a perspective that can find a way through it all. So I accept my own confusion and form a sense of learned helplessness. 

I suppose thinking about creativity in Education is one way of making that blog post finally happen and there is something magical in the decision to sit down and write about some of the ideas – however small – that have made up my world in the past few months. Writing as a process of formation is perhaps a bit like catching something in the wind – if you’re lucky and skilful enough, you manage to take hold of it. However, the refusal to write, for me at any rate, so often means that the ideas end up never being fully formed, shared, scrutinised and allowed to breathe. On a personal note, this means that I never get around to writing that one post that could become an idea to change my practice or at least make me think a little more about what I’m doing. On a broader note, I think about so many people that work so hard, only to go home every night and de-stress in front of a DVD. How many good ideas are lost in the ether? How much wasted creativity do we risk by not continually exploring our own ideas and finding ways to share these with like-minded individuals? 

Of course, there’s really no easy answers to these questions. Perhaps asking them is more important than answering them?

 

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Warts and All

Earlier today, I finished a literature review that I’ve been working on as part of a project at the Macquarie University ICT Innovations Centre. As a working title, I eventually decided on “Warts and all: a review of C.21st learning,” figuring that it would be good for a chuckle when my supervisors copy edit the draft later this week. 

In the article, I did my best to look at some of the big game changers in technology education and how they play out through badly designed curricula, poor change management and a misplacement of focus on technology over pedagogy. As the title suggests, there really seems to be plenty of warts – but beauty isn’t always skin deep and it’s exciting to be able to sit and research some of the really exciting approaches out there – I’m certainly hoping that some of them rub off on me. My top five list ended up being:

  1. Personal learning networks
  2. Pedagogy first
  3. Atomization
  4. Design and computational thinking
  5. Real-time online collaboration

I’ve often thought about the problem with literature reviews – by their very nature, they tend to focus on justifying both the present and the future in the context of the past. In technology education, that kind of perspective can be somewhat limiting, given that so much of what happens in the future may have relatively little bearing on anything that’s gone before it. History has shown us that many of the great innovations didn’t always signpost themselves before they happened. Some might say that what happens, even at the best of times, can be quite chaotic and there’s excitement in the unpredictability of it all:

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Arenamontanus’ “Chaos” 

After reviewing nearly sixty articles about technology in education, I’m starting to feel like everything’s been said and done and I’m going to struggle to find anything new. But just like the Lorenz system, even when we’re on a relatively set course and we think that nothing new can come of our thinking, new ideas – often tangential, disruptive, chaotic and exciting – will emerge. If we’re open to possibilities, our own ideas can surprise us. Was that what I was expecting? 

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Wheels of Change

I’ve just emerged from a tumultuous term, culminating in a farewell to my beautiful Year 12 English class, my own Masters graduation and, just a few days ago, notice of resignation from my current teaching position. All in all, you could call it a busy but very emotional time for me – and it will probably take the school holidays to process it all.

As a gift, my graduating English class presented me with a decorated book of letters, each one written from a student, about how I’d touched their lives. Even now, after several readings, the words really get to me and my eyes mist over. Of course, most teachers always work hard for every class, but as many will tell you, some classes are a little different and sometimes we just find ourselves connecting a bit more.   

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I’ve always very much considered myself an introvert and it can be hard doing six period days, working with over a hundred young people, keeping track of my thoughts, communicating openly and finding the energy to do it all over again the next day. Most days I feel that just get by – all students need some kind of help, so I just do my best to offer what I can. Most of my students are really appreciative and I rarely have issues with behaviour or disengagement these days (lucky as I am to have been working where I have). 

Even so, sometimes students will tell you things about yourself that you’re not always prepared to admit.  I’m starting to realise that I overcompensate for my own negativity by being as resoundingly positive as I can when working with others. Naive? a little – but given that I’ve taken over thirty years to work things out and come to some point where I’m relatively realistic about my abilities, I’d rather my students go out into the world full of confidence, prepared to make and learn from mistakes without the crippling sense of self-doubt. A comment from one student in my book makes me think I might have managed that in a small way:

“Your warmth – every time I walk into the classroom – has given me strength to strive for my best. I hope to make you proud in my HSC exam, but even if I do not get the top band, I know that you know I have tried my best.” 

I found myself at Macquarie University last Friday collecting my degree, my own graduation as I move on into the world. Having forced myself to go along for the ride, I posted a Facebook update: “four years of this and I’m finally a Jack of all trades and a master of ONE.”

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I’ve never felt really good at any one pursuit – possibly the source of my insatiable urge to learn new things and forever be the “expert novice.” I suppose that makes me a good teacher in some ways: I’m always excited about sharing new discoveries with kids and excited when they do too. I love research for the same reason – when I wade through a series of articles, I’m stupefied as to how little I know about the topic I’m supposed to already understand. Most steps feel like I’m at Square One again and that can be as liberating as it is daunting. At this stage, I have four degrees – and there’s a billion things that I’m no good at – but there’s only one direction to go when you’re focused on what you don’t know, and that seems like a good thing.  

A few days ago, I resigned my position as a secondary teacher, deciding to go ahead with my PhD full-time at Macquarie next year. I’ve been overwhelmed by the reactions of my compassionate and professional colleagues – dedicated teachers from whom I have much more to learn than to give. My nine years has nearly been a third of my life and I owe every success I’ve had to the support, mentoring and opportunities I’ve had there. Now seems like a good time to start something new and learn to see the world in a different way. 

I guess many things happen in threes – so now I’m catapulted into the unknown, on a journey that won’t necessarily make me wiser, but one that will maybe help me empathise with and learn from others. When farewelling my Year 12 class, I gave them a short speech about my three rules to living life:

1. Avoid harm.

2. Be the person you want to be.

3. Use the person that you are to help those around you.

I said, “if you can put these three things together, you’ve cracked it – life is yours and you’ll be happy.”

I think these three rules can work for me, but I’m still trying to work them out. I don’t really know who I want to be, so I’m just trying to work from 3-1, the other way around. At least I’ve got some time and am blessed with teachers from all ages who care enough about me to help me on the path. 

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Thought of the Week – We’re going mobile

I would imagine that I’d have to have lived under a rock for the past five years not to notice the enormous shift away from desktop-centric computing towards mass mobility. Anecdotally, for those of us with smartphones and 3G tablets, we now find ourselves connected to the internet in one way or another most of the time – which brings new horizons, perspectives and uses that were previously never possible.
As we’ve also seen, the rise of “apps” and social media also reflects the growth of the mobile-driven internet. Very often, when out and about and pulling out phones from pockets or handbags, we need a simple app to fulfil a function such as checking a currency exchange, looking for that email we’ve been waiting on, Googling a fact and, increasingly, updating our status and telling the world what we ate for dinner!
This week’s post comes courtesy of Kim Davis and Mary Meeker, who put the shift to mobile within the enterprise/corporate world under the spotlight. While many educators have looked at what this shift means for education, it’s good to consider the corporate context too – after all, that’s where many of our students are headed, and “money makes the world go round.” :)
Interestingly, Davis asserts that “rapid mobile adoption is still in the early stages.” As we move into the hurricane, so to speak, developers, analysts, educators and business people alike will be looking at how our relationship with computing devices evolves. Mary Meeker’s main point is that mobility represents a largely untapped cash-cow; when there is money to be made, software and hardware development follows and, if we’re savvy, the consumer (teachers and students) can win. Mobility also presents some caveats and conditions though – and isn’t some kind of panacea for the world’s problems. As educators, I believe we need to understand some of the biggest differences between computing on a mobile device as compared with computing on a traditional desktop or laptop. As always, it’s a case of finding the right tool for the right job.

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LT Thought of the Week – How Education Fails Technology (And What to Do About It)

I often argue that a useful analogy for technology is the toolshed: a place filled with a bunch of different tools that do different things for the right teaching/learning situation at the right time. Following this analogy, sometimes we need to spend a little time sharpening our tools and checking to make sure we know what each them is capable of doing. With this knowledge and understanding, we can usually take the right tool out of the shed and use it when needed.

Or can we? I think things get a lot more complex when we think about the “toolshed” housing the tools. Is it a place where everything is labelled correctly? Does a collapsed shelf or overturned table get in the way? Is the roof leaking? Does the light work? All of these things can stop us from reaching for the tool we need – and of course you could consider the “overturned table” to be a metaphor for something – the network, a software application or laptop battery – not working when we need it most. In any case, the analogy sticks.

This week’s post from Mark Weston via the Fluency Project explores the toolshed in more breadth and depth. “How Education Fails Technology (And What to Do About It)” investigates some of the underlying problems in the support structures for teachers trying to achieve good outcomes – the “2 sigma” – for all their students. Weston’s belief is that the 2-sigma (the highest possible learning outcome) are simply not achievable given the load that is placed on most teachers in most schools:

Despite Bloom’s work and thousands of subsequent studies by other researchers (e.g., John Hattie, Robert Marzano) that demonstrate the positive effect that specific practices and conditions have on classroom learning, 2-sigma remains a rare attainment for teachers. This is largely because in the current educational paradigm individual teachers must shoulder a disproportionate share of the pedagogical load for making 2-sigma happen.

In drawing our attention to the burden of trying to do the best for all of our students all of the time, Weston suggests that “education is failing technology” – that, in spite of the tools and infrastructure we have, there are underlying problems in terms of “organisational designs and decisions” with the system that need to be addressed.

Weston sees the solution as “putting technologies in place that enable teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to generate emergent feedback about the school-level support they receive and guide further refinement of their efforts.” Inherent in this argument is the importance of recognition of professionalism and agency over compliance and a repeated set way of doing things that isn’t questioned, revised or built upon. I think we all have so much to offer – and it’s our collective efforts that make the “toolshed” that is our school a well-designed, pleasant place to visit and find the right tool with the right support behind it.

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LT Thought of the Week – “Too Quiet in the Walled Garden”

All of us no doubt remember “Long Live the Open Web,” in which web founder Tim Berners-Lee presents a compelling argument on many of the threats to net neutrality and the open Internet. I think that engaging with ideas like these are a fundamental part of online citizenship and our role as teachers educating students to be good “netizens,” so to speak. 

This week’s article (no author indicated) comes courtesy from colleague who sent it my way today when he saw it on SMH. As fans of Berners-Lee and readers of articles like these, Greg and I often enjoy talking about some of the broader philosophical ideas on where technology is headed and what this means for education. “Too Quiet in the Walled Garden” presents what is really a very interesting and challenging perspective on our experiences with technology: that they are becoming more limited and restricted the more we “funnel” these experiences through hardware devices like smartphones and tablets and the walled gardens of software platforms like Facebook. Most critically, the author suggests that while tablets and mobiles may be good appliances, other computers are more generative: “they can be programmed to do more than they were set up to do.”

If we look at this a bit further, the idea of the “walled community” outlined in the article is rather a tempting option in education, isn’t it? Often, we want (or even need) control, parameters, predictability and safety. None of these things are bad, of course – but it’s a question of balance. On the other side, I think, you have a lack of control (less teacher control = more student autonomy), movement outside of the parameters (often through creativity that moves beyond the specified task), unpredictability (more of a learning partnership between teachers and students where, ideally, we learn with them) and less safety (i.e. more risk taking and more getting to know “the real world”). Of course, there are negative aspects of relinquishing control as teachers, but if we balance things well we can pretty much take the good and deal effectively with the bad. 

I think the key point we need to recognise is that the kinds of technologies we choose in the classroom need to suit the purpose of the task and the sorts of learning experiences we want to engender in our students. Mobiles are all well and good for some purposes, but I wouldn’t like to think of the kinds of restriction they would place on a student’s creativity were that student required to do everything through apps (all of which are subject to the approval of the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft). Extensibility and this authors ideas on the generative potential of technology are hard to ignore. At the end of the day, I want to know that my kids are capable of doing more – much more – than I ever imagined they could.
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LT Thought of the Week – When it comes to Technology, teachers need as much scaffolding as students

Technology a funny beast. In recent years, the rate of change leaves many of us spellbound and, at the best of times, feeling like we’re on some colossal treadmill running as fast as we can and only barely managing to keep up with the change. While I like to pride myself on being more up-to-date than many, even I get to the weekend feeling like there’s so much more I need to know to be an effective practitioner in the C.21st.

This week’s post comes from Mark Gleeson, a primary teacher who uses his practical experience with technology in the classroom to inform his own research and regularly reflects on his work. In the post “When it comes to Technology, teachers need as much scaffolding as students,” Gleeson argues that one of the biggest shortcomings of the education system is “the lack of a systematic framework for developing teacher capacity and competency in teaching with technology.” In arguing that, more often than not, “technology is just thrown at us and expected to magically stick to us and develop,” Gleeson highlights a fundamental problem in his own system that clearly needs addressing. When we think about it, he has a point: how many of us have been in the situation where we’ve felt out of our depth when a brand new technology is just pushed out? In the sessions that I’ve run over the years, I know that I’m as guilty as the next LT leader in the next school or system of spruking something new and hoping that it catches on. Of course, it often does – and this is a testament to the awesome teachers that we are – but I’ve often had another reaction to the effect: “this is really great, Michael, but when can I get the time to properly figure it out and work with it?”

Gleeson suggests that the key to solving this problem is the following:

  1. PLTs dedicated to Technology integration into our teaching practices
  2. A constant focus on Technology throughout lesson and unit planning
  3. A restructuring of the role of ICT Leaders/teachers in schools
  4. A greater focus on Technology in Teacher Training programs
  5. A commitment to Technology Professional Development courses on an equal footing with Literacy and Numeracy Projects.

I recommend reading the post, which goes into some detail on each of these points and offers some tips for schools to tweak existing structures and practices to support teachers more effectively. In saying that, I think we all need to acknowledge that the teacher has enormous value in terms of the investment made when it comes to technology professional development. When we invest in really empowering a teacher to use technology, that has a net effect on the lives of hundreds – and thousands – of students over many years. Of course, I remain committed to doing what I can to support those around me. .

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On the Shoulders of Giants?

Ask anyone who happens, say, to be a jazz musician, neuroscientist, marine biologist or anthropologist to big-note themselves. “It’s hard,” they’ll probably tell you. Why? because like anyone in a well-established field, it’s impossible to really set your achievements aside from those highly respected experts that have gone before you. As R.E.M singer Michael Stipe puts it, this is the perennial challenge of coming up with “a main idea to call my own” while “standing on the shoulders of giants…”

It’s often said that we can’t properly understand the present without acknowledging – and properly learning from – the past. At the same time, institutionalised education seems to frequently suffer from a collective form of amnesia. This is no truer than in my field, Education Technology, where both teachers and students are continually bombarded with buzzwords, flashy new gadgets and supposedly “best practice” approaches that will “revolutionise education” – and all too often, the people pushing are not trained educators but represent the interests of big business. Pop catch-phrases taken out of context from the research do further damage: while students are still hailed as the “digital natives,” teachers are badged the “immigrants,” whose classrooms “resemble those of the 1950s.” Technology is often touted as the best way to transform staid and uninspiring teaching, with many teachers told to simply “get with the times.”

So what of the technology? Most of it comes from factories in China where millions of underpaid workers work in abdominal conditions to keep prices down and maximise profit for the people who will probably never set foot in such factories. When there’s profit to be made by deploying technology in schools, you can believe that this represents real value to big players in big business. Further, when you consider the money motivating the decisions, the deals done and the agendas being pushed, quite often the supposedly educational “excitement of the moment” is used as justification to ignore how things have been done in the past. The approach that seems to apply here is – “let’s push the technology and we’ll work out the teaching and learning later,” and there’s plenty of situations where schools, systems and even governments have done just that; witness the thousands of relatively useless laptops rolled out over the past four years by the NSW Department of Education. Of course, when technology is pushed out – sometimes with very little foresight – it falls onto the shoulders the teachers and students that end up using it. When the same technology falls short of really making a difference to our learning? It’s our fault for not being “open to change.”

As a teacher, I can honestly say that every other teacher I know does use technology in the classroom and is open to change. Quite simply, they do the best with what they’ve got, in the time that they have, for the students they teach. In the eyes of people that really matter, this work has enormous value. But in light of a profession that has been steadily de-professionalised in recent years, the average teacher in the eyes of big business has very little value (especially when control is in the hands of the system) and that translates into what may end up as badly-made decisions that have far-reaching consequences.

So are teachers and students helpless in all of this? It’s hard to see economic, political and power structures which play such a huge part in the work we do and not feel helpless. But we can change the rules, and the key to that is properly understanding the past. As Philosopher George Santayana put it, “those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” Technology is a tool in the toolshed, so to speak – one that we use to support us as professionals. Teachers and students need to be the ones in the drivers’ seats, deciding what has value, while learning from, and supporting, each other through what we understand best: people and how they learn. To that end, learning from the past is as much about recognising and keeping the good things that other educators and students have achieved as it is about learning from the mistakes made.

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LT Thought of the Week: Global Digital Citizen —The Role of the Teacher

In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing focus on the concept of digital citizenship. As many of our life experiences are now shaped by our relationship with others online – and the fact that the online world is one that transcends traditional geo-political boundaries – it’s wise to really give this concept due credit and understand where we fit in as teachers.
This week’s LT thought comes courtesy of Andrew Churches who describes the digital citizen as follows:

They are respectful and protective of themselves and other people as well as intellectual property. They are proactive and intolerant of abuse, standing up for the rights of freedom of expression and communication while condemning excesses and bullying. They communicate fluently in different mediums and operate in a world without borders or censors. They understand and celebrate the cultural differences and subtleties that flavour the diverse world they live. It is a world potentially without restrictions except for the moral and ethical values that underpin their immersion, shape their interactions, and guide their decisions.


What these kinds of descriptions and discussions often point out is the central idea that this kind of citizenship isn’t really about technology per se – it’s about navigating the world in which we live through ethical and moral principles that embody the best qualities of humanity. I also think that being a global citizen is about really trying to understand the kind of connectedness that the internet offers and making the most of that connectedness to better ourselves and others around us.
So what role does the teacher play? Churches suggests several areas where we can play our part in guiding students towards becoming effective digital citizens: (1) mentoring; (2) monitoring; (3) mediating; (4) teaching skills and knowledge beyond the subject; and (5) by being skilful practitioners. The article explains each of these areas and offers some insights on how teachers can work with them.
At the end of the day, I would suggest that we’re all global, digital citizens regardless of how we interact online or use technology.

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Ideas that Matter?

Stuck at home this weekend while sick, I’ve been further exploring the extent that learners engage with their ideas and one another in online spaces. As the academic meat in the sandwich, I’ve been mentoring my Year 12 students in the writing of their Hamlet essays while emailing back and forth revisions of my latest Education Masters thesis to my supervisor (and mentor). Being a learner in the middle has its own unique advantages – and I think I’m well-positioned to understand the way that online interactions enhance learning on a number of levels.

The tools I’ve been using include:

  • pen/paper
  • my scanner
  • comments features in both Google Docs, Open Office and Word
  • track changes
  • integrated email accounts on Mac mail
  • revision history snapshots
  • my mobile (for those rare occasions I’ve been out)

What’s emerged from my dependency on these tools is a better understanding of how ideas evolve through web-mediated dialogue and, most importantly, that education rarely has to involve either/or relationships with different communication media. What’s more important is generating meaningful connections and being open-minded about the form that these take. There shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach but all too often the face-to-face classroom coupled with the necessity of performing well in high-stakes tests seems to encourage the “sheep dip,” where students are treated as exam numbers and it’s our job to churn them through the system.

At the end of it all, what do we remember? We remember the ideas that mattered and how others allowed (and even encouraged) us to connect them with the world.

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