One Door Closes, Another One Opens

Well, I think this is exciting news…

After 8 years I’ve officially resigned from my tech integration role at PLC Sydney and, starting on January 1 next year, will be embarking on a whole new career adventure. I have taken up a fulltime position with EdTechTeam as their Director of Professional Development for Australia & New Zealand.

EdTechTeam is a California based company but has just started a local subsidiary here in Australia. As “a global network of educational technologists” with a mission of “improving the world’s education systems using the best learning principles and technology”, I’ve always been really impressed with what EdTechTeam are about. If you’ve ever been to a Google Apps for Education Summit, you’ve already had a small glimpse into the kinds of things EdTechTeam does, but there’s a whole lot of other things going on as well! Basically, imagine if you assembled a team of the most talented teachers in the world, who are all doing amazing things with technology in the classroom, and then ask them to go change the world. That’s what EdTechTeam is.

I’ve been doing work with EdTechTeam on a part time basis for the last few years, so I have a pretty good idea of what they are about; helping teachers understand and embrace the power of using digital technologies to improve student learning.

I’ve been teaching in schools for nearly 30 years now. I’ve taught both boys and girls, in public, catholic and independent schools, in Australia and Canada. I’ve left teaching twice already to try other things, but always managed to find my way back to it. I love teaching. I love working with kids. I don’t know of any other career that lets one make a dent in the future in quite the same way that teaching does. The thing I love about teaching is that it puts you in a position where you can make a difference.

That said, I think the work EdTechTeam is doing is impacting education on a much bigger scale. I think we are poised at an exciting moment in educational history, approaching a grand confluence of ideas, technologies and social change. I’ve been banging on about the need for change in schools and education for years now (as have many others) and I feel we are nearing a real tipping point in being able to create that positive change in education. If I can impact teachers – at scale – in helping drive that change, then that seems like a great place to direct my energy. As much as I will genuinely miss not being in classrooms with kids every day, the chance to have an impact on tens of thousands of educators each year, who then take that impact back into their own classrooms and apply it, seemed like an irresistible idea to me. In a school I might be able to influence 30 teachers. Last year EdTechTeam worked with over 30,000 teachers from around the globe. Many of those teachers went back to their schools and applied what we shared with them to dozens, or even hundreds, or kids. That’s what I find exciting!

As I cleaned out my desk at PLC last week, I was finding documents and items from the past eight years. It really struck me just how much change has happened in those eight years. When I arrived at PLC in 2008 the tools, technologies and ideas about teaching were quite different to how they look now. When I started at PLC we did not have Google Apps. There were no Chromebooks or iPads. The App Store was in its infancy. Google Drive had not been invented. Streaming music and video was almost unheard of. Working productively on a mobile device was not possible. The idea of storing files in “the Cloud” was not even in the public consciousness. Yet all of these technologies and ideas have completely redefined the day to day experience of a contemporary classroom.

Eight. Short. Years.

There’s no doubt that stepping away from something you’ve always done is scary. Teaching is what I’ve done for a very long time and I’m comfortable with it. I even think I’m reasonably good at it. It’s so easy to just keep doing what you’ve always done. It’s much harder to step out of your comfort zone and try something new.

So here I go. Starting in January I’ll be working with many more teachers here in Australia and New Zealand, as well as other parts of the world too. I know I’ll probably see way too much of the inside of airplanes and I know I’ll miss the daily contact with students like crazy. But as Helen Keller once said, life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

The good part is that, along with my new colleagues, I’ll have the chance to work with teachers all over the world to create positive educational change and to help them see just how powerful learning can be with the right tools and ideas. I hope I get a chance to work with some of you over the next few years too.  Let’s change the world together.

I’m a Horribly Inefficient Teacher

I’m a horribly inefficient teacher. Honestly. I look around at what other teachers do, and I’m amazed at their productivity and efficiency. They get so much more done than me. It makes me embarrassed at just how inefficient I am as a teacher. I hate to have to admit it but it takes me literally hours to plan courseware, projects and assessments.

I’d be a whole lot better if I just resisted the temptation to reinvent everything each year. Can you believe that I’ve been teaching now for over 25 years and I still haven’t really latched onto the idea that I could simply teach the same thing, in the same way, using the same resources that I used the year before. I see so many other do that, and it makes perfect sense. I mean, you’d think that sort of efficiency should be obvious to any reasonably intelligent person, right? Why am I so thick?

For example, I spent many hours today designing a new project for one of my classes. I thought my idea for this project was a really good one, but I’d never done it before so it meant creating a whole new bunch of digital resources, thinking through all the new workflows and how they might be implemented, pondering the best way to assess the work that the students would do, and just generally wasting a whole lot of time trying to come up with something that, let’s face it, is untried and untested. It would have been so much simpler just to reuse the same old projects that I’ve used previously. If I was really smart, I wouldn’t just use them once… no, I would be making sure I reused those same projects over and over for several years… that would be the be truly efficient and smart thing to do. Think of how much time I would save! I’ve seen people teach the same thing in the same way for 20 years! I’m just in awe of that kind of efficiency!

I think my problem is that I keep imagining that there must be better ways to teach, better ways to help my students learn, better ways to make connections between the content I need to teach and the interests and motivations of this year’s group of students. I foolishly let myself get distracted by all the new things that happen in the world from year to year, and I allow my mind to wander aimlessly into new and untested territory; trying new tools, new approaches and new content. Its so damn wasteful. There are just too many shiny objects out there, that’s my problem. I should learn to focus and not keep reinventing the wheel.

But I’m too old to change now. Unfortunately, I think I’m just destined to remain a horribly inefficient teacher.

Be Better

I want our schools to be better.

I believe that the biggest improvement we can make to our schools is to be fussier about who we allow to teach in them.

I look forward to the day where the teaching profession is non-unionised, and underperforming teachers who have lost the passion and spark that our students so deserve are able to be relieved of their duty.

I hope we find ways to identify those teachers who cannot teach, or have lost interest in doing it well, or who see what they do as a paycheck rather than a calling, and find ways to respectfully but firmly move them on, as they have no place in today’s classrooms.

I want to be a part of a teaching profession where you need to reinvent yourself every year, where having interests and skills outside “the system” make you better at what you do, and where we don’t confuse “20 years of experience” with “1 year of experience, repeated 20 times”.

I want an educational system where students experience the joy of learning from teachers who are still themselves joyful about learning.

I want my own children to be taught by passionate, caring teachers who lose sleep at night wondering how to be better at what they do. And I want to be one of those teachers for other people’s children.

I think we owe these things to the next generation.

Push Me, Pull Me

It’s an interesting sign of how this connected world we live in actually works when I see people coming back to revisit an idea that was floated months earlier, still mulling it over and willing to come back and re-clarify things again in their own head, which in turn helps others (like me) to re-clarify things in mine. I’m referring to a post called Unlearning, Relearning, Learning by Graham Wegner, who was in turn responding to an earlier post written on this blog back in May this year.

The conversation had basically turned to the idea of how people learn. Graham referred to another post from Dean Groom, where Dean talked about the idea of people being able to learn on demand, when they need it, by accessing the wealth of available online resources that are scattered across the Internet, produced by the millions of members of the online community. This mass-sharing has produced what Dean referred to as “the scattered manual”, where the instructions for doing pretty much anything can be found and reassembled in order to learn, if only you have the skills to do so. I hadn’t heard that idea of the “scattered manual” before, but I really like it because that’s pretty much exactly what it is… a collective knowledge of many people scattered right across the network. When one has the skills and ability to decode, reassemble, aggregate the parts of the “manual”, then that elusive “independent learning” becomes a real possibility for anyone who wants (and knows how) to get it.

I think there are two very different and distinct aspects of learning something… one is obviously the learning, and that seems to be a “pull” activity initiated by the learner. Learners need to assume responsibility to pull information to themselves when they feel they need it.

The other aspect is teaching, and that seems more like a “push” activity, where information is pushed towards the learner, usually by a “teacher”, or someone who already has the knowledge, skills or understandings that the learner does not yet have.

As much as we talk about reinventing education by doing away with “teaching” in favour of “learning” (usually as a reaction against the industrial model of education where teachers taught and students were supposed to just absorb it, and in doing so restore learning to its rightful place) I think we need to be careful that we don’t push the pendulum too far the other way and marginalise the act of teaching altogether.

My feeling is that good teachers know when to actively teach, and when to allow students to independently learn. Good teachers know when to push and when to allow pull. They know when to say to a student “this is how you do it”, versus saying “you need to go away and think about this for yourself”. It’s not that Teaching should take precedence over Learning, or that Learning is somehow less tainted with the stink of the 20th Century than Teaching, but rather, we need to know where the balance point is, in various situations, for different students, and apply that balance dynamically so that every student is always right there on the edge of their Zone of Proximal Development. A learner’s reach should always exceed their grasp, but only by the appropriate amount, and perhaps the teacher’s role is to keep that gap at the appropriate amount.

As a teacher, I want to have the wisdom to know when to say to my learners (including when these learners happen to be other adults), “You seem to be struggling, let me help you”, and conversely when to say “I will not do this for you, as it only deprives you of the opportunity to learn it for yourself.”

I don’t think you should ever do for someone what they can and should be able to do for themselves. The “scattered manual” exists so readily that to deprive learners from the opportunity, and in doing so absolve them from the responsibility, to learn for themselves just shortchanges everybody in the long run.

The Right Direction

As a technology integration specialist my job is to help other teachers learn more about technology, but the real spillover is that I get to help other teachers to learn more about all sorts of stuff. Because of this I’ve come to a much better understanding of what it means to be a lifelong learner, to find true joy in learning for learning’s sake, and to be curious about pretty much everything. I love learning, and I find it difficult to understand why others sometimes appear not to.

Many schools espouse the values of lifelong learning, but not all have teachers who live those values on a daily basis. We have a new principal in our school this year, and like all management changes it often comes with a great deal of conjecture about what might change, what new ideas will be put in place. Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to get an insight into our new boss and what’s important to him, and to get a feel for where our school might be heading over the next few years. And for many reasons, I’m excited about it.

In particular, I was pleased to discover that I’m working for a guy who openly states that…

  1. ‎Learning to be a teacher is like all learning: it doesn’t occur in an easy linear fashion. All of us ‎are in the business of continual improvement.
  2. Teachers are responsible to take charge of their professional learning.‎

You’d think that such statements are obvious, but so few leaders will actually say it. What a breath of fresh air.

Beautiful Growth

Pat's CactusI was pottering about in the garden tonight and thought about a little story that I wanted to share.

If you teach long enough you eventually collect a whole lot of really lovely stories about the kids you teach. Every teacher can probably tell you about those lovely moments where a student has said or done something that makes everything worthwhile. A little note at the end of the year, a quiet word about how you’ve made a difference to them, or just doing something that reminds you of why you became a teacher.

Quite a few years ago I worked in a catholic boys school in Sydney where I was the head of IT.  I happened to have my own office (in the same room as the servers of course) but I tried to make it a bit homely by bringing in a few plants to brighten it up.  Not being the greenest of thumbs, I killed most of them.  I’d replace them, but then kill the replacements as well.  As a gardener, I really don’t have the knack of it.

Like many teachers, I had a group of kids who liked to hang around me. Because of my role as the geeky IT guy, the kids that liked to hang around always seemed to be the slightly geeky, slightly eccentric kids that have lots of personality, and I really enjoyed their company. Many of them would just come to my office at lunchtimes and hang out.  One of them, a boy named Patrick, often remarked on my appallingly bad gardening skills and noted how I seemed to kill every plant I had. I had to agree and we had a good laugh about it.

One day, Pat came to my office and presented me with an unexpected gift.  It was a small plastic punnet of baby cactus plants, small enough to fit in my hand. He jokingly told me that he wanted to give me a cactus because they require almost no attention and they were probably the only thing I wouldn’t kill.  We had a laugh about it and it sat on my desk in pride of place, right next to my computer monitor.

Well, time marches on, and Pat eventually graduated and left the school. I eventually left the school too and moved on to other jobs, other schools.  I took my cactus with me though, and put it in the garden at home where it actually started to flourish and do ok.

That was many years ago.  Here I am, 10 years, 4 schools, 3 houses and 1 divorce later, and I still have my little “Pat Cactus”.  Except it’s not so little anymore.  It’s grown.  Like we all do.  I’ve grown. I’m sure Pat’s grown.  The “little cactus” has grown and split and been repotted many times now.  It now fills several large pots and a few small ones. It gets stronger and greener and every time I look at it I think about how special it was to be given something like that by a student and how special it is that it still grows stonger every day.  I hope that’s symbolic of many things.

In what I think is a rather nice twist to the story, I discovered recently that Pat lives in the same area as me, in fact only a few streets away.  So, a little while ago, I took some of the smaller offshoots of the now-large cactus, planted them in a small pot and took them down to Pat’s house as a gift for him, along with a note that said “I told you I wouldn’t kill it!”.  It was my way of closing the loop, and, symbolically at least, keeping that wonderful circle of life going.

The story means a lot to me, because as teachers we start lots of ripples that we might never get to see build to waves and break on distant shores.  As the cactus continues to flourish, I think about the hundreds of kids I’ve had the great joy to teach over the years and hope that they are flourishing just as well.  Even if I’ve only ever had one student give me the gift of a plant that has grown and flourished, I’d like to think that the many students I’ve taught over the years have all given me the gift of knowing they’ve grown and flourished.

Thanks kids.

Finding the Right Model for ICT PD

I guess many readers of this blog would know that I work as an ICT Integrator at a large independent girls’ school in Sydney.  Large chunks of my day are spent working with our teachers and our students to help them understand a little more about technology and how it might be used to make teaching and learning more engaging and effective.  Of course, teachers always seem to be very busy, and one of the difficulties in trying to deliver some form of ongoing PD is simply getting them to find the time to do so.  I’ve tried a number of different models for delivering PD; some work quite well, others not so much. It usually comes down to finding time, and making it meaningful.

In case it’s of any use to you, I thought I’d share an email that I sent to all the teachers in our junior school (R-6) yesterday.  It’s an outline of how I plan to be delivering ICT professional development to them next term.  I’ve found that this model seems to work best for our staff, and it seems to give the most effective results.  I think this is because it’s delivered in a real situation that is authentic to them and also places a good deal of responsibility onto the staff to embrace the use of ICTs for themselves.  (one of my beliefs is that you should never do for somebody what they can, and should, be able to do for themselves) Perhaps most importantly, our teachers seem to like  this PD model and they seem quite enthusiastic about what we’re doing together… so this is what I said to them…

Dear teachers,

Although the focus of what I do here at PLC is technology integration,  it has always worked so much better when you allow me to help you link this technology integration directly into the things you plan to teach as part of your day to day activities… in this way, the use of technology can richly support and extend the learning for the students.  Over the past couple of years I feel that we have all worked together to make technology less of an “add-on” to the curriculum, and it has become more of an embedded tool for helping engage and enrich our students. Together, some of the techniques and strategies we have tried in the Junior School over the past few years includes podcasting, blogging, live webcasting, digital mapping, digital storytelling, web 2.0 tools, video news reports, social networking, manipulating digital images, and so on.  In the process, your students have come into contact with a wide range of technology tools that are an increasingly important part of the world in which they live.

In working with the Junior School staff, I have tried a number of different models for providing professional development in these tools, from offering before and after school workshops, holding lunchtime sharing sessions, shared planning time, and so on.  With the incredibly hectic schedules that most of you have, some of these PD models have been more successful than others.

Starting in Semester 2, all staff will be required to undertake specific ICT professional development each semester.  In the Junior School, we all agree that the best way to deliver this PD to you is in your actual classroom situation.

The most successful PD model for our teachers seems to be when we create time for collaborative planning time with the ICT Integrator. Under this PD model, I meet with each year group three times per term in order to plan and facilitate the integration of ICT into a classroom project.  We meet early in the term to plan a unit of work together, meet again midterm to monitor the progress of that work, and again at the end to evaluate and assess the work.  Of course, if you need extra assistance with delivering an ICT project then I am more than happy to come into your classes and assist, or to help out with computer class time, but I feel that the core of my ICT integration support is best done by assisting you to develop the skills and knowledge you need to deliver your own classwork with a rich ICT component.  The recent Year 2 “Great Inventions” project is a good example of how I see this working.

Starting in Term 3, we will resume this PD planning model that we’ve used before as it seems to prove the most successful with Junior School teachers.  After looking at the Junior School timetable, I’ve listed some suggested dates below that we could use for meetings in weeks 2B, 5A and 8B of next term.  These all take advantage of times when specialist teachers have your students. Please take a look and let me know ASAP if there are problems with any of these dates and offer some alternate dates that  are more suitable for you in these weeks.

(I’ve removed the actual dates listed here, as they aren’t relevant to anyone reading this post…)

Ideally, in our first meeting (Week 2B) we will look at a task or theme or topic you plan to teach that ICT might lend itself to, and then we can come up with a plan for how we might integrate ICT into that unit.  We will look at modifying or creating activities for the students that leverage ICT skills, and if necessary learn those skills ourselves.  I would encourage you to think about how we can make the tasks we design highly student centric, providing your students with higher order thinking skills and open ended opportunities for creative thinking.

Our second meeting (Week 5A) will be to follow through on how the project is going, what can be improved, what can be tweaked, and also to ensure that any ICT skills are being delivered to both you and the students.

Our final meeting (Week 8B) will be used to evaluate and wrap up the project.  We can evaluate it, look at what worked well, and work out how we might modify it to use (or not use) next year.

Hope these dates suit you.  Looking forward to working closely with you all next term.

We’ve used this PD delivery model in the past and it seems to work quite well.  I start by checking out the teachers’ timetables and working out when they are free (mostly when their students are with specialist teachers for Music/PE/Languages/etc) and then I propose a list of times to meet, asking them to check and confirm that these times work for them.

Anyway, just thought I’d share that in case you can make use of it.  My next few posts will be sharing some examples of how we have made this work in various classes.