Tiny Bursts of Learning

Despite the fact that I know many teachers who would rank Twitter as the most valuable and powerful networking tool they have access to, there are still many more who simply don’t “get” the value of Twitter. I’ve been to lots of conferences over the last few years where the enormous value of belonging to a Personal Learning Network was being touted, and Twitter is nearly always being suggested as the ideal tool for building that network. At one recent conference I asked for a show of hands for who was not yet on Twitter, and many hands went up… my response was “Why not? What are you waiting for? How many times do you need to hear people say that Twitter is the most valuable tool they have, before you actually try it for yourself?”

I spoke to a group of preservice teachers recently who were basically told by their lecturers that they needed to join Twitter. Despite the fact that it was being promoted to them as a powerful way to learn and network with others, most of them seemed to join up simply because it was part of their assessment requirement.  Because they joined Twitter “under duress”, I don’t expect them to actually buy into it, use it well, or continue to use it past the mandated requirement to use it.  And that’s a bit of a shame.

In contrast to all this is the general sentiment among many teachers that “we need more PD!”, or the always-amusing “How can they expect us to learn new things if all we get is a few PD days a year?”

If you still believe that professional development is what happens on those two or three days each year when you sit in a classroom and have some expert “deliver” it to you, I have bad news. That model is no longer sustainable and the days of PD as something that is done “to you” by “experts” a couple of times a year are over.

Learning needs to be ongoing. The world is changing. There are new tools that can help students learn, new ideas about learning, new brain research, new emerging technologies, new social structures, and so on… to think that you can maintain a professional outlook by attending two or three PD workshops a year is almost laughable. To keep up with new learning, you really need to be plugged in to an ongoing source of professional discourse and resource sharing. It needs to be something that happens regularly, at least several times a week. Like so many other aspects of the 21st Century, some of the “ways we’ve always done things” don’t really cut it anymore.

So how can something at simple as Twitter possibly be used to stay professionally current?

How I use my Twitter PLN to learn

I’ve been keeping an eye on my Twitter stream for the past 10 minutes or so. Using the Twitter app for Mac, it sits in a narrow vertical window on the right side of my screen and as the people I follow add their tweets they flow by in a steady stream that updates every few moments. How fast this flow happens is obviously dependent on how many people you follow… I follow about 2600 people, so it tends to be a pretty steady stream of tweets, but yours might be more or less. Occasionally I glance at this “stream of (networked) consciousness” and spot little gems that look interesting.

For example in the last ten minutes I’ve spotted the following things…

…to name but a few.

In the same 10 minutes worth of tweets, I also responded to a couple of questions from other people that I felt I could help them with, saw a funny story about Moodle, watched an amusing exchange between some people I know, and ended up getting invited into an Elluminate session about developing Moodle courseware.

Just ten minutes. Even just skimming through that list of things would give me more relevant PD than most teachers get exposed to in a whole year. And those of us who use Twitter in this way are able to tap this stream of information any time we like.

(I hope you also noticed that I still don’t know what Ashton Kutcher had for lunch, or what crazy antics Charlie Sheen is up to. I don’t care about that stuff, so I don’t follow those people, so I don’t see those tweets. Twitter works because you get to make choices about who is part of your network.  You create relevance for yourself.)

Now, before you assume that I spend my whole day getting sidetracked by Twitter, let me assure you that’s not the case.  I’m telling you about this 10 minute slice of time to make the point that Twitter, when you build a network of relevant people, is an amazingly rich sources of ideas, inspiration and connections.

I don’t read every tweet. I don’t follow every link. I let most of the tweetstream just flow by me, only dipping into it if I get a moment. If I spot something interesting I hit the star to favorite it and come back to it later. If anything really good turns up in the stream and I miss it, it gets retweeted over and over so the chance of me seeing it is still pretty good.  But mostly it’s just there, flowing by, ready for me to dip into it and pull out a few gems whenever i have a moment. Do that every day and pretty soon you have a substantial body of PD building up.

I understand why people find it hard to get their head around Twitter.  I understand why people are still skeptical when they hear others say things like “Twitter is the best PD you can get!”  It sounds like complete hyperbole… How on earth can a random collection of short messages from strangers possibly compete with professionally organised training and PD sessions?

It competes because it’s more relevant, more timely, ongoing, interactive, daily and personal. Traditional PD just can’t offer all that.

If you’re one of those people who resist Twitter because it just doesn’t seem logical, please just suspend your doubt and give it a go. Don’t just join and do nothing; give it a proper go. Follow a bunch of relevant people – at least 50 or 60 – get a decent Twitter client, and open yourself to the possibilities of what a network offers. You won’t regret it.

Redesigning Learning Tasks: Part 2

Our Year 2 classes do a project each year called Great Inventions.  The students learn about various inventions and how they have changed over time, and over the past few years they have demonstrated that learning by producing a PowerPoint file that summarises the history of these inventions.

As you may have read in my previous post, two of my pet hate phrases are “do research” and “make a PowerPoint”.  Whenever I see these two phrases in the same sentence I can almost guarantee that we’re looking at a fairly low level task that focuses more on recall and summary of facts than it does on authentic learning.  I’m also wary of any time I see students “making a PowerPoint” that simply gets handed into the teacher for marking, rather than being used as a presentation platform since it is usually a sign that it’s being used as a glorified note taking tool; a place to write text complete with the distractions of bright colours and annoying graphics.  Don’t get me wrong… It’s not that I’m against the use of PowerPoint as such, but unless you use it for what it’s designed to do – namely to providing a set of effective visuals that support a speaker as they present persuasive ideas – then I think it’s use is probably leading us down the wrong path.

In previous years, the PowerPoints made by the students displayed some good computer skills, but I had the feeling that the technology was there as an add-on rather than an integral tool for completing the task.  The teachers also felt that the students had trouble collecting and synthesising information from the web as the level of most information found online was simply too difficult for the students to deal with.  I also pointed out that taking information from the web and simply rewording it onto a PowerPoint slide was not a big benefit to the students and I questioned the value of such a task.

After a bit of group brainstorming we made a few subtle but important changes to what we asked the students to do.  Firstly, recognising that the language on most webpages were too difficult for kids of this age, we started a wikispaces wiki and created our own pages of information in language pitched at the right level for Year 2.  It was a bit of extra work to create these summaries and took us an hour or so to do, but it meant we now had a permanent set of pages that were exactly what we needed.  The use of a wiki was relatively new to the teachers but they picked it up very quickly, adding text and images. I had my laptop open and I was creating pages and helping cleanup pages if necessary, as the teachers worked on the IWB to brainstorm together what content needed to go on them.  It was actually quite an energizing experience, and in that planning session of an hour or so I think we all enjoyed the buzz of coming up with a better idea and taking immediate action to make it happen.

The nature of the PowerPoint that the students were being asked to create got an overhaul too.  Rather than just submit the PowerPoint file, I convinced the teachers to reallocate their class time to allow the students to get up in front of their peers and actually present their finished work.  I also suggested that we needed to somehow introduce an opportunity for the kids to create and invent, and to use their imagination rather than just retell facts that others have already provided.  To this end we decided to scaffold the PowerPoint into three slides only (I suppose four if you count the title slide).  Each child’s presentation was about a particular invention, and slide one would be about the past history of that invention, slide two about its present and slide three about its future.  We also agreed that the students would only be allowed to use pictures on the slides, no words.

So, slides one and two would tell the story of the invention’s past and present, and this information would come initially from the students looking at the summaries created by the teachers. Naturally, because the teachers had vetted those summaries for both content and language, it was reasonable to expect that the students would be able to identify and deal with the information appropriately. The visuals for these slides would come from images the students found online that captured the past and present of the various inventions.  All the other information about the inventions would have to be delivered verbally by the student when they stood up to give their presentation, since there were to be no words (and therefore no slabs of text and no bullet points!) on the slides themselves.

But slide three was about the future, which clearly hasn’t happened yet. For this, we would ask the students to create a drawing of what they thought their invention might look like in the future. They were free to be as imaginative and creative as they liked (and it was amazing what they came up with!)  Their drawings were scanned or photographed and added as the picture on slide three.

Remember, we are talking about 7 year olds here.  I think what we did to improve this task was to effectively scaffold it, stripping it down into the really important components and providing a guide for the students to work with, while giving them opportunities for creative, imaginative thought as well as researching existing knowledge.  We simplified the technology requirements and realigned the task around the content we wanted them to learn.  The technology became the environment for what they produced, and not the focus for it.  I was quite please with what we did.

I then suggested that, if the students were going to get up in front of the class and present their work, it would be a shame to not share their presentations with a wider audience. To this end, I suggested that we use UStream to create a live broadcast to the web so that parents and relatives could watch the children present live over the Internet.  The Year 2 teachers were really receptive and excited about this idea.  I told them I’d do a bit of testing for them to make sure UStream would work smoothly through our network, and I’d investigate how we could control the broadcast and perhaps just limit it to parents and invited viewers.

That’s often the other big part of my job, to not only come up with ideas that push the teachers’ use of technology, but to do the leg work to make sure the technical aspects of those ideas are actually feasible. After a few days of trying various configurations and running a few live tests, it was clear that it was very feasible and would in fact work really well.  I then worked with the Year 2 teachers to draft up a letter to parents explaining what we were doing, when we would be streaming and the passwords required to watch it. (Let me know if you’d like me to email you a copy of that letter)

The finished results were really very pleasing.  The work that the students did to create their presentations was very good (and importantly, we were now referring to what they were doing as “presentations”, and not “PowerPoints”… I thought this was a great sign to indicate that the focus was off the technology, and instead was on what the technology was enabling)

The final live broadcasts, which ran over several days, were a lot of fun!  I rigged up my Macbook Pro so the webcam was broadcasting the video, and we hooked up a very nice Rode Podcaster mic on a stand in front of the students so the audio was actually pretty good too. Although the actual media stream was quite good, we unfortunately had trouble getting UStream’s backchannel chat to work through our proxy.  But UStream does at least tell you how many people are watching at any given moment, and after each presentation the kids would all turn around and ask “How many people are watching now?!”  There’s nothing quite like an audience to spur kids’ enthusiasm and willingness to do their very best!  We did the presentations in a number of sessions over the course of the week, and I eventually started tweeting out to my PLN before we started broadcasting… this added to the parent watchers and raised the audience numbers considerably, and it also provided a sort of backchannel as well. At one point, we had more almost 50 people watching the stream… that was more than double the number of people in the actual classroom! The kids were really excited by it all, and as we got encouraging tweets back from schools in other parts of the world, the raised level of commitment to doing a good job with their presentations was a joy to watch (some even insisted on doing theirs a second time because they felt they could do better!)

The Year 2 teachers were really quite amazed at how it all came together, and especially to think that there were more people watching from outside their classroom than there were inside the classroom!  We also had an unexpected visit from the principal, who had heard about the project and dropped in to watch a few of the presentations, It was really cool to have him there, sitting on the floor being king of the kids.  Overall, I have to say it was a much better experience than simply submitting a Powerpoint file to the teacher for marking!

From my perspective, I was really pleased with what we’d done.  We took a task that I thought was a little mundane, a little dull, and quite frankly lacking in higher order thinking, and with a few simple tweaks we redesigned it into something that everyone felt was a much better, richer, authentic and more meaningful experience. I felt we shifted the use of technology away from being an end in itself, to being an enabler of richer learning.  I thought the quality of the presentations was really good. Again, was it all perfect?  No, there are things that we can improve next time, but that’s what it’s all about… learning and getting better.

Here’s a video of one of the presentations…

People sometimes ask me whether all this effort to integrate technology into our classrooms is worth it, and whether it really makes any difference.  To answer that, let me share part of an email I received from one of the Year 2 parents the next day…

“It was such an enjoyable experience for my husband and I to be able to watch our daughter in action from the comfort of our office and home respectively. Extended family members logged on later that evening to view  the recorded event, which sent a ripple of excitement through the family.  Our daughter was thrilled.

Upon reflection, it’s been made apparent to me that our daughter is not just being taught basic skills, but that talking and listening, reading and writing can have a purpose and an audience far greater than their teachers and peers. What an amazing learning experience.  How wonderful it was for mothers and fathers to at last be the fly-on-the-wall in our daughter’s classroom and to see the girls use technology so innately and with such confidence.”

Lifelong Learners?

I got interested in computers and their potential uses in teaching and learning way back in 1982 when I was at Art School/Teachers’ College. I met a guy named Colin who worked in the media center at the art school who had taught himself how to program in AppleBasic on the original Apple IIe machines. He was doing all sort of really interesting stuff with these machines, writing his own programs for randomised poetry, creating graphics, creating maths problems, etc. Colin and I became good friends and I asked him to teach me how to program too. It was INSTANTLY obvious to me that computers and technology generally could be used to support, assist, extend and just generally make learning a whole lot more interesting, and even as a preservice teacher in the early 80s I was always trying to come up with interesting ways that computers could be used to make school more interesting.

Like most colleges at the time, the college I attended didn’t offer any computer-based courses. I went and had a chat to the Dean and asked why. I still remember the conversation… he didn’t know why, he just assumed that a computer was used for administrative stuff, keeping lists of students and managing who paid fees, etc, but hadn’t really thought about their use in education. After some fast talking, I managed to convince him to let me vary my course units for the next semester to do an off-site computer programming course and have it count towards my regular course credits. And so once a week for the semester I traveled across town to a different college to do a three hour programming course.

The following year, I managed to convince the Dean that such a course should be a standard offering for everyone planning to be a teacher. To cut a long story short, the college did start to offer a course called “The Computer and the Art Educator” held offsite at another nearby university, and counting towards our regular course credits. This course used primitive graphics tablets, graphic software and programming skills to explore how computers could extend themselves into classroom use. It was 1983. I was rather pleased that I was able to play a part in helping other people see what appeared so obvious to me.

Funnily enough, there were many of my college friends who could not see the point of computers at all, and would argue with me that they had nothing to do with what happens in a classroom. They just weren’t interested in learning about something that didn’t interest them.

Since that time, I’ve worked with a lot of teachers to help them see how much better learning can be with the wise use of technology. I’ve tried every approach I can think of, and at the end of the day, I still don’t know why some people just “get it” and some just don’t. To me, it’s so darn obvious! Having taught in a technology rich environment for over 20 years now, I have seen over and over how the use of technology can motivate, engage and inspire students to learn better and to be better. I’ve seen kids just “switch on” when they learn with computers. More than that, I’ve seen how the use of technology for learning can actually change a teacher’s practice and pedagogy for the better. I’ve seen the effects of increased student motivation and engagement, and I’ve experienced the evolution of my own teaching to take a more student focused, more choice-driven, more differentiated approach to my teaching.

Ok, so having said all that, it drives me crazy when I see other teachers who simply don’t “get it”. I’ve experienced the frustration of working with supposedly-intelligent adults who appear to be unable to move beyond the ability to cut-and-paste. I even had one colleague at a previous school admit that she had been avoiding technology for years, and I found out that she did not even know how to use basic mouse functions. How do you even function in a school these days without these skills! The frustrating thing about these situations, for me, is that part of my role in this particular school was doing technology support for the staff and despite every effort to provide support for these sorts of people, they always managed to avoid any help that was offered to them. No matter what model of technology support we tried they managed to avoid taking advantage of it.

They remind me of the people in this video clip… as soon as the external forces stop, they stop too and then seem incapable of moving forward for themselves.

So that’s at one end of the spectrum. At the other is people like you and I who probably just need a bit of guidance to get started and then we assume some responsibility for our own learning. We accept that if we want to learn something new, then taking on the task of learning it is actually up to us, not someone else.  Any assistance we get from others is seen as a bonus, not a requirement.

I will go so far as to say that those teachers who actively avoid learning about (and teaching with) technology are abdicating their basic responsibility as teachers because they are failing to model and live out the basic quality that every teacher should have – curiosity and a sense of lifelong learning.

Every school’s prospectus I’ve ever seen talks about how they aim to produce students who are “independent, lifelong learners”, but so many teachers continue to display an embarrassingly low level of responsibility for their own ongoing learning, and are therefore poor models of what they expect from their students. I find it frustrating that so many teachers willingly accept that there are certain unavoidable parts of their job, and yet they steadfastly resist adopting the use of digital technologies and act as though they are free to pick and choose what parts of their job they are willing to enact. Why is the embracing of technology for learning still seen as so optional by so many?

The answer is probably that they don’t yet see the benefits. They haven’t seen the kids’ eyes light up when they do something truly interesting with computers or technology. They still see it as another optional add-on to their already busy day. They see technology as something that has to be “bolted on” to what they are already doing, instead of something that can help them do what they already do even better. They might have experienced failure in the past because of something that went wrong, something that didn’t work, and they don’t want to look foolish again. Perhaps they just think that if they can hold out for a few more years, this will all go away, or they might make it to retirement. (although I think age has very little to do with it)

Of course, this is not true of all teachers, and there are many, many excellent educators that embody and model all of the traits of lifelong learning that they expect from their students. A lot of teachers are very good at this, but there are still far too many that don’t.  And frankly, I think that’s unacceptable.

Image: ‘I am still learning
http://www.flickr.com/photos/47244805@N00/303567279

Five Simple Skills

There always seems to be a lot of talk about the need for more teachers to embrace “21st Century skills”. Of course, there’s a lot of discussion about what these “21st Century skills” actually are. Many people have debated and discussed this issue, asking the question of what exactly should today’s learners know in order to function in the “21st Century”.

I’m sure there are a whole lot of really good answers to these questions that dig deeply into effective pedagogy and the deeper philosophy of education. This post is not about those things.

Instead, here is a list of simple, easily-learnable skills that I think would make life as a teacher in the 21st Century simpler and much more productive. While they’re not exactly earth-shatteringly profound in terms of the big issues of education, they are greatly useful skills to have… and in my experience they are also skills that all too few teachers seem to actually possess. I find that possession of these skills is often a reasonable indicator of a teacher’s progress along the “21st Century teaching” pathway – if they can do these things, they often “get” the bigger picture about technology and its role in modern learning.

Actually, I think I’d go beyond just calling them just “skills”… I’d tend to see these as entirely new types of literacies, because the ability to do these things is beginning to define our ability to function with fluency in these times we live in.

  • Learn to search. It’s amazing how many people cannot do even a moderately complex search, using some sort of boolean thinking to narrow search results. What’s even more surprising is the number of people who do not even think to use a web-based search engine to find answers to questions that puzzle them. I find it astounding that so many people wonder about the answers to questions that are just a quick Google search away, but they never think to do it. Learn to use a search engine to find a simple answer, a fact, a quote, a statistic, a song lyric, a recipe, a price, or any other useful snippet of information. The time taken to learn this simple skill will pay for itself many times over.
  • Learn to resize and crop a digital photo. Being able to crop and resize a digital photo is an incredibly useful skill that has applications in so many areas. There’s not a lot to it, and it doesn’t require any particularly exotic or expensive software. It’s useful to understand issues like how to make an image suitable for use in print versus the web. We live in a very visual world and once you know how do simple image manipulation you will find uses for this skill everywhere.
  • Learn how to edit video. I once heard Hall Davidson say, given the right 2 minutes of video footage, you can teach anybody anything. Video really is shaping up to be the next important literacy, and for a teacher, the ability to manipulate short chunks of moving images is extremely valuable. Video editing is quick and easy to learn these days, and has many, many applications. Spend a little time with free tools like iMovie or Movie Maker and work out how to edit and remix video footage. You won’t regret it.
  • Learn to use a HTML Editor. If you want to participate in the 21st Century you need to know how to create content for the web. And while there’s no real need to know how to write raw HTML code, it’s hugely valuable to be able to competently use a web-based HTML editor. Every web-based environment has one, whether it’s WordPress, Moodle, Wikispaces or something else, and every time you add content to a site you need to interact with the rows of buttons above the text input field called the HTML Editor. Beyond just making things bold and italic, it’s really worth understanding the function of other tools for adding tables, embedding web media, adding images and so on. If you believe that the web has an important role to play in our future, then learn how to create simple content for it with a HTML Editor.
  • Learn to think in hyperlinks. I was going to include this in the previous item, since a HTML Editor is where you’d normally create hyperlinks, but I think this skill is important enough to have its own category. Hyperlinks ARE the web. In a world that is becoming more and more reliant on the web for every aspect of our lives, you really do need to know how to create these links that help us tie ideas together. For teachers, connecting students to ideas is what we do, and the ability to create a hyperlink should be a fundamental skill. Hyperlinking totally changes the way a reader interacts with text and is therefore an important new literacy, yet so many teachers have still not come to terms with the importance of explicitly teaching their students to read using hypertext. Hyperlinking is easy to do, but it requires a different mindset to constantly think in terms of hypertext. Learn to link!

So there you have it. Five simple, easy-to-learn skills (or literacies) that will help you function better in “the 21st Century”. How many do you possess? And are there any others that you think should be on the list?

CC Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/3196112134/

Human Tetris

Found this rather funny video on Edublogs TV.  As a Tetris fan from way back, this just made me giggle…

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Speaking of Tetris, I take a class of kids with some pretty severe learning difficulties once a week to do some computer stuff with them.  A few weeks ago, one of the girls finished her work early and since there was only a few minutes till the bell she asked if she could play Tetris online.  A moment later when I walked by she was playing the game and she was totally awesome at it!  I mean, I was blown away at just how fast and accurate she was…  this is from a student that usually really struggles with many other intellectual tasks. Tetris, although based on a simple concept, is a game that requires a good sense of spatial awareness, timing and multitasking to play well… and this girl was playing really well!

I called her regular teacher over and pointed out how good this girl was at the game.  Her teacher had never actually played Tetris before and wasn’t quite sure how the game worked, so I asked the student to give her teacher a lesson in how to play it.  It was great to watch this student, who normally struggles so much with even relatively simple learning tasks, showing this teacher how to play the game… and being quite the master at it in the process.  The teacher was hopeless at it, the student was awesome.

I wonder what sort of places our classrooms would be, and how it would affect our students’ attitude, morale and performance, if teachers were hopeless at stuff more often while allowing their students to be more awesome at the things they are good at.  Often in schools we judge our students performance based on the things that we deem to be important to us, rather than what is important to them.  I’m not suggesting that everything should always be a game, but  I suspect we should always be actively looking for opportunities to let our kids be “smarter” than us.

When The Wings Fall Off

One gem of wisdom I’ve quoted a number of times on this blog is from a speech given by professor Seymour Papert, and it goes like this…

“The model that says learn while you’re at school, while you’re young, the skills that you will apply during your lifetime is no longer tenable. The skills that you can learn when you’re at school will not be applicable. They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace and need them, except for one skill. The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”

What I really like about that quote is the idea that it’s not the specific content of what we teach that really matters, but rather the ability to apply general principles to solve entirely new problems.

So when I saw this video it occurred to me that it was an interesting example of how we can never be fully prepared for when the unexpected happens.

I know that the training required to be a pilot is an incredibly rigourous process.  It means learning about aerodynamics, weather, instrument training, plenty of takeoffs and landings and lots of instruction on how to deal with emergencies, but I’m not sure that it includes what to do if your wing falls off! (I don’t know, maybe it does… perhaps if you’re a pilot you can leave a comment and let me know)

So you’re flying along, relying on all those habits you developed back in flight school and the many years of practice you’ve done since then, and suddenly one of the wings comes off and all those things that have always worked for you no longer apply.  The plane plummets towards the ground.  Your mind immediately runs through all the stuff you learned in flight school to find the right response to this situation, but there isn’t one.  The controls no longer responds the way they used to.  The big question now is, can you unlearn what you’ve always known and relearn what you need right now? Can you apply the right general principles to this new situation and respond to this situation for which you were never trained?

I can’t even begin to fathom the composure that must have been required to put that aircraft into knife edge flight, start using the rudder as an elevator and vice versa, and manouvre the thing towards the ground in such a way that it stalls a few metres of the ground and then drop it safely onto the runway. But more importantly, the only way that such a stunt could even be attempted is by a pilot who was able to relearn and instantly adapt to the aircraft’s new behaviours.  To me, this is a perfect example of the sorts of things that Papert was talking about when he said, ” We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”

PS: There is a bit of discussion in the comment thread on this video as to whether it was real or not… some say it was faked, some say not.  Lots of accusations of it being a model plane, being done with CGI, although some even said they were there and actually saw it happen. I did some more research and I’m still not convinced it’s fake. This video of a model plane suggests that such a manouvre is feasible.  Either way, the point remains that if it did actually happen, there is no way that a conventional response would have given the pilot a hope in hell.

The Truth is Out There

The school at which I teach, PLC Sydney, was in the news this morning regarding a recent assessment task conducted by one of our Year 9 English classes. The article from the Sydney Morning Herald talks about how this class is pushing the “open book exam” concept into allowing students to use resources that take them beyond the boundaries of the classroom and enable them to draw on outside sources – the web, other books, their own personal networks – using whatever tools they choose – mobile phones, computers, iPods, PDAs, etc – in order to be assessed on their learning.

I actually had a meeting with their teacher, Deirdre Coleman, about this idea the other day and we discussed at length some of the pros and cons, what sort of tasks were best suited to this approach, where the boundaries lay between cheating and resourcefulness and so on. While the SMH article is mostly accurate in its reporting, some of the value judgments that appear from reading between the lines are a little off-target, as are many of the comments from readers that have flowed on as a result of the article. Unfortunately, the article almost suggests that at PLC we are not actually teaching these students but rather just setting them loose with a cellphone and a phone-a-friend and seeing what happens. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whether you think that allowing students to use tools like computers and mobile phones during an exam is a good idea or a bad idea is somewhat dependent on what you see the purpose of school to be. It also depends on your world view and whether you see information as scarce or abundant.

It ought to be obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense that the model of school we all know so well – the model in which students come to school as essentially empty vessels waiting to be filled by the teacher – is hopelessly flawed and outdated in this day and age. Sure, there was a time many years ago when most students did not have access to large quantities of information. When I was a kid, the sign that your parents were really interested in giving you the very best educational opportunity was that they bought an encyclopedia for the home. In our house we got the World Book. It still sits on the bookshelf at my mother’s house, outdated and gathering dust, far too expensive to be thrown away despite its expired use-by date.

The idea of buying your kid an expensive encyclopedia was based on the notion that information was scarce… if you didn’t have an encyclopedia then where on earth would you get information from? Those students who did not have an encyclopedia at home were limited to going to the local library. Of course, the other major source of knowledge was the teacher at school, who could teach you all about the things that the curriculum deemed as important. Wonderful things like Euclidian Geometry. Quadratic Equations. Shakespearean Sonnets. The Periodic Table.

The thing is, at 45 years old, I cannot remember the last time I needed to use the Quadratic Equation. Or recite a Shakespearean sonnet. And although I did recently get asked a question about an element on the Periodic Table, I still had to look up the answer anyway.

For the record, I was actually a pretty good student in school. I was mostly bored by school, but I did do ok at it thanks to the fact that I’m relatively smart and was good at remembering stuff in order to pass tests. There was a time when I really did understand and could apply the Quadratic Equation, I knew how a sonnet was structured and I could rattle off at least the first 25 or so elements of the Periodic Table. It’s not like I never learned this stuff… I did actually learn it and passed tests on it with good results.

But so what?

These days, if you ask me to tell you what a sonnet is, I would still need to look it up. I would no longer be able to describe the Quadratic Equation to you with any certainty, and as I mentioned, I’d probably want to double check the Periodic Table before I relied on my own recollections about it. The fact that I did actually once learn this stuff now has little to do with it. The real skill now is not whether I can remember it exactly, but rather, do I have the ability to find, process, use and apply the relevant information in order to solve a problem at hand.

Which brings us to the idea of information abundance. We have to get past the idea that learning is about clinging to the handful of facts and ideas that fill our curriculum. For every concept and idea deemed worthy of inclusion in our curriculum, there are hundreds of others that don’t get included. Why do we learn about the language used by Shakespeare in his sonnets, but not how to write a good press release? Why do we have students who can complete a quadratic equation, but haven’t the faintest idea about how to get a good deal on their first car loan? Why do we learn about volcanos in Science, but not hydrodynamics? Why do we focus on the history of WW2, but not the history of the Central American drug wars? It’s not that any of these things are more virtuous or more important than the other, it’s just that we have only so much time in the school day, and we can’t fit everything in so we choose a more-or-less random selection of ideas and concepts and call that our curriculum. Everything else, regardless of whether students might find it interesting or not, does not make the cut and is therefore deemed as unimportant for learning.

Meanwhile, new knowledge grows at an unprecedented pace. The human race discovers new things almost daily. Thousands of new ideas are patented every year. Billions of webpages hold information and opinions on every conceivable topic you could imagine. Huge networks of people constantly build knowledge and understanding about our world. Information is no longer scarce. We are swimming in it, sometimes even drowning in it.

The real skill, to again quote Seymour Papert, is not that our students should be able to respond correctly to the things they were specifically taught in school. The real skill is that they should be able to respond appropriately to things that they were NOT specifically taught at school. We need to prepare them not to know answers, but to solve problems. And in a world where many of the problems to be solved have not yet even been identified as problems, how do we prepare children for this future that does not yet exist?

I’d suggest that we DON’T do it by presenting them with a narrow body of information dictated by some arbitrary curriculum, and then “test” them on their understanding of it by isolating them and asking hypothetical questions aimed at seeing how much they can remember about it. I’d challenge you to provide a single example, outside of schools and universities, where this type of method is used to determine a person’s real understanding or knowledge.

In any other profession, the idea that you are limited only to what someone has already taught you is absurd. The thought of a doctor only operating within the bounds of her own memory and being forbidden from “looking things up” is ridiculous. I don’t want to go to a doctor who cannot find the information I need when I need it. I don’t want to go to a doctor that is unable to extend their thinking beyond what they were taught in medical school. I need a doctor who can think holistically, use intuition effectively, connect seemingly unrelated ideas, find current research and communicate with other expert practitioners to get the answers I need.

It doesn’t matter what field of endeavour you think about, from archeologists to zoologists the real measure is not how many marks they got in a test of rote memory, but in how well they are able to use the resources at their disposal to solve the problems in front of them. If that means they need to Google for an answer, call someone for a second opinion, or grab the manual to look something up, then that ought to be ok. It’s about getting the problem solved and if they need to use their resourcefulness or contacts or tools to solve the problem then so be it.

The class at PLC is trying to offer students the opportunity to do the same kind of thing. We want our students to think. We’d like them to be creative and resourceful, using the tools at their disposal to find effective answers to the problems they are being asked to solve.

The people in the SMH comments feed who keep referring to this as cheating don’t really get it. Of course, everyone is an expert when it comes to school – after all, we all went to one at some point, so of course we understand how they work. I keep reading comments in the feed that talk about how it was not like this when they were a kid, about how the system of rote learning worked for them (as though the world is still the same), about how we need to teach kids to pass exams because that what universities expect (and the rest of the world?)

Even if I didn’t actually work at PLC, I’d still applaud them for taking these small steps towards something that ought to be so plainly obvious to everyone involved in education… that we need to recognise our students as real learners, doing real tasks in the real world using real tools. We need to stop thinking about how school always was in the past and start getting our students to think about how they should operate in a world that rewards results.

Good on you PLC!

Image: ‘“Studying for class”
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