Staying On Message

Over the last year or so, I’ve been invited to present at a number of conferences, including a couple of keynotes.  It’s been an enriching experience, and one I enjoy immensely, although I do always end up feeling like I’m “a mile wide and and inch deep”, to coin a well-worn phrase.  I feel like I know quite a bit about a lot, but not a lot about anything. Despite the fact that I like to dabble in lots of stuff, I’m not sure I’m really a master of any of it.

This afternoon, I was asked to run some workshops for another Sydney school, to talk with some of their staff as they prepare to launch on a journey of 1:1 student computing next year.  I took a workshop session with a small group for an hour, then presented a keynote to the whole staff for 45 minutes, followed by facilitating some planning and goal setting with a small group of teachers. I took an approach with today’s sessions that I rarely do… I prepared nothing in advance.  Normally when I present, I spend hours beforehand, collecting resources, planning what I want to say and figuring out the best way to say it. I assemble a presentation, set up a wiki page and so on, and go into the presentation fully prepared.

Today I didn’t.  I just rocked up, opened my Macbook and essentially asked, “what would you like to talk about?”  There were reasons for that… It was partly because I wasn’t given a lot of notice for these sessions, so I didn’t have any time to put together something super organised. The other reason is that the brief was pretty open-ended, without a really firm outline for what needed to be covered. But mostly, I went in there ready to fly by the seat of my pants because I’ve come to understand that I can. I do actually have a good enough overall knowledge of technology, of education, of what I think is important, what I believe matters in education, and a pretty good mental catalog of what resources I have at my disposal.  I find it relatively easy (and I quite prefer) to “make it up as I go along”, just me and a web browser.  Conversations can’t be planned in advance, and I wanted these sessions to be more of a conversation than a lecture.  In fact I started the workshop by opening a Google Doc, and asking the group “what do you want to talk about today?”  Their responses – the differences between Web 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, the use of blogs versus wikis versus discussion forums, and useful Web 2.0 tools for the classroom; these were not things I would have predicted in advance, but were apparently what this groups wanted or needed. We explored a number of other ratholes, including an exploration of Wikipedia and how it works, along with some simple ideas for developing a PLN. I thought the session went well, and the feedback was positive.

But it was during the keynote that I actually learned a lot about myself.  Again, I didn’t prepare anything in advance, but simply had the topic “ICT in my school: Lessons learned” as a starting point. My reasoning for not preparing was that I live this stuff every day… I shouldn’t need to “prepare a talk” to give this talk.

Having listened to a lot of presenters at a lot of conferences over the last few years, I’ve noticed that many of them have a consistent message. A theme. A common thread. Some, even almost a mantra. There are influential people within this ed-tech sphere that have their own important message to share, and they become almost synonymous with their message.  They talk about all sorts of stuff, but they manage to stay “on message” all the time.  I’d often wondered to myself, as I shotgunned around all sorts of interesting but largely unrelated ICT topics, “What’s Chris Betcher’s consistent message?”  What is the one thing that underpins all the other stuff I’m interested in?  It’s easy to be a dabbling dilettante and be interested in lots of different things, but it’s harder to have some sort of consistent structure that it all hangs off.  I had no idea what mine was…

And here’s what I learned about myself as I talked to this group today with no particular agenda. I do have a message. There were consistent themes I found myself coming back to over and over, themes that are really at the core of what I believe education is all about.

Trust in people. I honestly believe that, by and large, most people are good people with right intentions and will naturally do the right thing if given a choice. This belief has implications on how you treat those around you – colleagues, students and others. It affects how you manage your schools, how you build community, how you interact with your students, how you design learning tasks. My basic belief in people permeates every decision I make in every interaction with others. I was asked by a teacher today for strategies to help deal with kids in a 1:1 environment, and my answer, without even thinking about it, was “Build trust”. I don’t think it’s the answer she was looking for, but I honestly believe that it was the best answer I could possibly offer. Trust your students.  Trust that they will do the right thing because the work you give them is interesting enough and they want to do their best at it. Trust that they would much rather do the right thing than the wrong thing. I know that there are many who think this is a Pollyanna attitude; that you should plan for the worst rather than budget for the best, but that has never worked for me.

Have high expectations. I also believe that kids are far more capable than we usually give them credit for, and that by and large we present them with fairly small-minded tasks that require fairly small-minded efforts.  We ask them to write a few paragraphs when they are capable of writing a short novel. We give them tasks that are too uninteresting, too unchallenging, too mundane, and we too often short-change their potential to be great. We need to set the bar high, expecting greatness from them, pushing them to exceed the capacity they, and we, often mistakenly believe they have. Trust that they will meet your expectations.  I always expect the best, especially from kids, and I usually get it.

Understand what a teacher is supposed to do. I don’t, and have never, believed that the role of a teacher is simply to “teach” students by imparting a fixed body of knowledge. We are so much more than that. Our job is to know our students well enough that we can find interesting things for them to do, things that help them see their world in ways that they have never thought about, then provide them access to the resources, tools and ideas they need to explore those interesting things, getting out of their way enough that we don’t impede their own natural progress, yet available enough to help them when they require it. I truly believe this is my job.  I’m not there to do it for them. I’m not there to watch them fail.  I’m there to connect them and their interests to a world of possibilities they have not yet discovered for themselves.

I don’t think teaching is all that difficult, and I suspect we usually overcomplicate it with a whole lot of stuff that just clouds the issue. There are standards and outcomes and requirements for graduating, sure. But the real focus of education is pretty simple. Help your kids find their passions. Trust that they can. Believe that they will. And get out of their way while they do it.

That’s my mantra. That’s my message.

Image: ‘Slide

K12 Online Conference starts today

Of all the conferences and professional development events I’ve taken part in over the last few years, the K12 Online Conference is the one that I think has had the most impact.  Not surprisingly, because unlike many “one-hit” conferences that are over at the end of the weekend, K12 Online rolls out over an extended two week period, releasing several presentations each day on a wide range of topics.  These presentations are all in some multimedia format, usually a video, but they could be in whatever format the presenter chooses, and they live on permanently beyond the actual conference itself.  It really is, as they say, the conference that never ends.

The K12 Online Conference started in 2006 as the brainchild of a couple of North American teachers.  If you want the full story of the conference and how it started, you might like to listen to episode 16 of the Virtual Staffroom podcast where I got to interview those who started it.  Ever since that first year, I’ve looked forward to K12 Online each year.  There’s an incredible effort behind it… I can vouch for that, as I volunteered to be on one of the organising subcommittees in 2007 and 2008, and I’ve also contributed presentations in 2008 and 2009.  So I can tell you from first hand experience that there is a huge amount of work that takes place behind the scenes, from many passionate and committed educators, to make this all happen.

Anyway, the 2009 conference, with the theme “Bridging the Divide” was officially opened today with a pre conference keynote from the fabulous Kim Cofino.  Like everything Kim does, it’s full of passion and insight into what it means to be an effective teacher in the 21st century.  I’ll embed it here, but you should probably head over to the K12 Online site and check out all the other stuff going on there.

Once you’ve watched it, go check out the schedule of stuff that will be released over the next few weeks. There’s something for everyone.

Then once you have seen the schedule, make sure you grab some of the presentations for this year’s conference. Heck, why not subscribe to one of the RSS feeds and get them as they are released.  You won’t regret it.

This is Not Amazing

Amazing (adjective) astonishing, astounding, surprising, stunning, staggering, shocking, startling, stupefying, breathtaking; awesome, awe-inspiring, sensational, remarkable, spectacular, stupendous, phenomenal, extraordinary, incredible, unbelievable; informal mind-blowing, jaw-dropping

Sometimes I find myself dealing with people in circumstances that are completely unconnected, but which seem to have some kind of bizarre synchronicity that causes them to mirror each other.

The other day, I found myself in one of these situations…

Firstly, I was asked by a colleague to help edit some video footage from a recent school trip.  I don’t mind helping with such requests because I quite enjoy the process of video editing, so I attached the camera to my MacBook Pro, sucked the footage onto the hard drive and began dragging clips together in iMovie. My colleague looked on as I dragged clips around the timeline, clearly never having seen non-linear video editing before, and, with a little gasp of wonder in her voice, she remarked “That’s amazing the way you can do that with video!”

Later that day, I got a call from another colleague who needed help with a mail merge of some spreadsheet data into a letter she was writing.  She was aware that such mail merges were possible, but wasn’t sure exactly how to do it.  So I dropped by her office to lend a hand, and in the process of trying to sort it out I noticed that some of the data formatting in the spreadsheet was a little inconsistent. One of the columns had data with stray spaces in the text… no problem, I hit ctrl-F to call up the Search and Replace command, typed a few characters into the search field, replaced them with the characters I needed to fix the problem, clicked OK, and the changes rippled through the sheet fixing the problem in less than a second. As my colleague looked on, she remarked “That’s amazing the way you can do that with a spreadsheet!”

The last example was from yet another colleague who wanted to assemble a short end-of-year slideshow of her students to send home to their parents.  She was envisioning a PowerPoint full of pictures set to music.  Because I know how much work that can be to create, I suggested a better solution. I asked her to give me all the photos she wanted to include and I uploaded them to, selected a piece of royalty-free music from their online collection and pressed the Make Video button.  A few minutes later I downloaded the finished video, an impressive little piece that took me about three clicks and near-zero talent to actually produce.  Her response to the final slideshow was, you guessed it… “That’s amazing the way you can do that with digital photos!”

Can we get something straight here?  NONE of these things were “amazing”.

Having these three events happen back to back like that made me stop and think about how often I hear the “that’s amazing the way you can do XYZ!” comment.  (And just to be clear, it wasn’t that they thought it was amazing because I was the one doing it, they thought it was amazing simply because it could be done). They were amazed at what computers make possible…  editing video, fixing numbers, manipulating sound and pictures, etc… these things are still amazing to many people and I got to thinking about how often I hear the “That’s amazing!” line from people who observe technology doing things they didn’t know were possible.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that it’s good to be completely blasé about the things that technology can do.  There are plenty of totally amazing things that technology enables these days.  Separating conjoined twins at the brain with complete success is amazing. Ditching a passenger jet in the Hudson and getting all the passengers off safely is amazing.  Crashing a rocket into the moon to stir up dust and rocks to discover water there is amazing. And the fact that the law allows a Japanese man to marry an Anime cartoon character is, well, kind of freaky, but I guess still amazing.

The point is that, yes, there are plenty of amazing things that happen in our world, and its important to retain our sense of wonder and amazement at them.  No question about that.

But seriously people… editing video, fixing some numbers in a spreadsheet, or making a slideshow from some photos is NOT “amazing”. We, and by we I am particularly talking about the teaching profession in general, need to stop being so “amazed” at things that really are quite mundane. We need to stop seeing the most trivial, mundane tasks as being “amazing” simply because they were done on a computer. Being amazed that a spreadsheet can work with numbers just makes you look a bit silly.  Worse than that, being clueless about what technology can really do just sets the bar of expectation ridiculously low for students, letting them believe that they can produce any old rubbish and yet still impress their teacher, who thinks that the PowerPoint their student made is simply “amazing”.  I haven’t even seen that kid’s PowerPoint, but trust me, it’s probably not amazing.

The reason this irks me so much is that personal computers have been around for over 30 years now, and have been a significant part of most schools now for over 20 years.  Most schools and school systems have been trying to provide some level of professional development, training and support for teachers for most of these 20 years.  Even if a teacher resisted technology back in the early days of the PC, there’s absolutely no excuse for not having embedded the use of a personal computer into their daily work over the past 10 years.

It’s time to stop being so “amazed” at things that are just part of the technological and cultural landscape of life in the 21st century.  It’s not “amazing” that computers can edit video, manage numbers or manipulate digital images. It’s not “amazing” that mobile phones can stream live video or GPS your current position.  It’s not “amazing” that you can make phone calls to the other side of the planet at no cost. None of these things are really “amazing” any more… they just “are”. To be “amazed” at this sort of stuff is to fail to recognise the invisible role that technology plays in all our lives these days. To anyone working in education, working with young people, you need to realise that simple tasks performed with technology are not something to be “amazed” at, marveled at and gushed over.  For our students, the use of technology as the enabler for such tasks seems as natural as breathing air.

I was in another meeting with some students and a teacher the other day, and the teacher was trying to show the kids about a Ning they’d had set up for a class project.  The teacher was all effusive, gushed about the Ning’s “amazing” features and wanting to show the students all the “amazing” things it could do… “Look! You can use it to leave messages for each other!”, she said excitedly.  One of the students confided to me later “I can’t believe how worked up she was getting about that Ning… it’s just a blog. It’s like Facebook. Of course we know how to use it.”  It reminded me of that wonderful line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, where the people of Earth were considered a bit of a joke for being “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

Don’t get me wrong, technology provides as with some incredibly useful tools. The rise of Web 2.0 and the read/write web has changed the world forever. Mobile technologies just keep getting more and more impressive.  But let’s keep things in perspective.

Save the “amazement” for things that truly ARE amazing, and realise that technology is not some kind of unexplainable black magic voodoo… it just “is”.

Image: ‘iPhone Glee
iPhone Glee