My Grandmother's Country

Just wanted to share this Voicethread that some of my students did (there are still more kids to add their voices yet). In my Year 7 art class we were looking at the work of contemporary Australian aboriginal artist Sally Morgan, and the students had to examine a painting called My Grandmother’s Country. We had quite a long discussion about it in class and looked at some of the symbolism used in the painting. The students then had to write a response to the work.

In the past, this task is usually done purely as a text-only task… it gets discussed in class and they then do the writing at home. I thought I’d try using Voicethread instead, because it allowed them to access the artwork from home, to zoom in to see detail, and to hear me re-explain what they needed to do with it. (I know, I know, YOUR students never forget anything you tell them in class, but mine sometimes do).

They were a bit shy about leaving voice comments at first, so instead they wrote a written response as usual, but many said it was really useful being able to hear the task explained again from home. After they submitted the written task, which I thought they mostly did pretty well, I got them to record some of their responses as audio files which we uploaded to Voicethread along with their photo. This ability to upload audio to Voicethread instead of having to record it directly onto the page is a feature of a Voicethread Pro account, which is available to educators at no cost. I found it made it so much easier to collect the audio comments, especially since this class is not in a room with computers. I use my MacBook Pro to record their audio to QuickTime, convert it to MP3 using QuickTime Pro, snap a photo using Photobooth and then I do the uploading after class or whenever it’s convenient.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are some of their observations so far… if you want to leave an encouraging (moderated) comment for them that would be wonderful…

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It will be interesting to see if the quality of their speaking and recording changes once they realise that they have an audience…

PS: Thanks to @nzchrissy via @alannahk for pointing me to the solution to embedding these Voicethreads into the blog like this. Nice!

Thinking about Thinking

Blogging started for me as a way to document a year living overseas, and although many serious bloggers sneer at the idea of using a blog for something as lowly as a simple travel diary, I found it a wonderful jumpoff point into the wider world of blogging. Not only do I now have a permanent record of a wonderful year in Canada, but that blog got me into the habit of writing regularly. And really, getting into a habit is an important part of the whole blogging experience. I guess, I’m writing this now because I hadn’t written a post for a few days and I was starting to think that I needed to! Not for you. For me. This blogging thing has become an integral part of who I am, and when I go for a few days without writing it just doesn’t feel right.

But the habit is not just about writing, it’s about thinking. It’s about engaging with ideas that you read on other blogs, or through listening to podcasts, or even from trawling through Twitter posts. It’s about simply not being able to let that river of ideas flow past you without having to respond in some way. I can’t imagine being exposed to this rich smorgasbord of ideas without having some reaction to them, and responding via a blog seems like such a natural thing to do. It’s definitely about the thinking and not the writing… (in fact if you only knew what a lousy typist I am, you’d realise that the actual writing is a real pain!)

So I blog. I can’t help myself.

What’s become really interesting though is the environment that the blogging habit exposes you to. Without realising it, I look at my feedreader these days and it amazes me just who I have been inviting into my world, and even more amazingly, who has been inviting me into theirs. Browsing through my Skype contact list is like a who’s who of incredible educators from all around the world. My Twitter feed is a rich tapestry of deep thoughts, trivial chatter and personal relationships, but it’s engaging me with these constant ideas about learning, teaching and the relationships we form with kids in our classrooms.

Having just gone through the process of applying for another job, it really struck me just how much my online world has contributed to who I am as an educator. I don’t have a string of letters after my name, in fact I’m not even teaching in the same discipline as I was originally trained. I’ve occasionally considered going back to university, doing some further study and becoming a bit more learned, but I look at the idea factory surrounding me and can’t seem to justify the time and cost involved… and although I’m not sure how I’d ask the question, I suspect my new school saw enough of this world reflected in my interview that it played a big part in them offering me the position.

I did go back to university a few years ago to do part of a masters course in educational technology. It was a good experience, and forced me to start reading literature about learning that I wouldn’t have done otherwise – Negroponte, Papert, Stoll, Cuban, Spender, etc – all names that I had never even heard before despite having been a teacher for many years. It was this exposure to ideas that flipped switches in my head and caused me to rethink a few things about school and learning. And it made me realise that many teachers never do this sort of thing at all. Try going to work on Monday and when your colleagues ask what you did on the weekend, tell then you went to an education conference (in your own time!) or read a book about learning theory, or chatted with other teachers about how to make learning more relevant, and see the sorts of odd looks you get, or the sarcastic “gee that must have been fun!” comments.

The thing is, I don’t mind learning. In fact I can’t imagine not learning. And exposure to this stream of ideas and thoughts and opinions is quite possibly the best environment for learning I’ve ever come across.

So maybe that makes me dysfunctional or just plain boring, but I really do enjoy the feeling of being stretched by new ideas all the time. I don’t like to be the same today as I was yesterday, I want to be growing all the time. And one of the most rewarding and amazing ways of getting that constant stream of brain food is through the blogging and the writing and the reading and the podcasting and the sharing and the conversing with other people who I think are some of the smartest, brightest, cleverest people I know.

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Big Dreams, Big Opportunities

I had the good fortune to attend a talk this evening by Greg Whitby, the Executive Director of Education for the Catholic Education Parramatta Diocese. Greg was the special guest of the Australian College of Educators, and was speaking to a cosy little group of teachers at St Cath’s Waverly.

Greg is one of those larger-than-life characters that has some fairly strong ideas about how education should look for the 21st Century, and I was pretty keen to hear him talk since I’d read quite a few articles about him. His views on school reform and his somewhat radical ideas on redesigning schools are aligned with a lot of my own thinking.

The talk focussed around a few key areas, among them the need for schools to reinvent themselves or to become dangerously irrelevant to our students, the need for teachers to engage in ongoing professional learning for themselves in order to truly embrace the notion of being a lifelong learner, and the way in which technology is simply an amplifier. Too often, says Whitby, the technology is seen in isolation as the “solution” to a school system’s problems, whereas in truth it does little except to amplify what is already happening. His talk was peppered with examples of schools who have done a lot to put the technology in place but very little else to change the underlying paradigm of learning in order to leverage the effectiveness of that investment.  What a waste.
There’s no doubt that Greg is an idealist and an optimist, but maybe we need more of them in the senior levels of educational administration. He can certainly lay claim to putting the talk into action, and taking a really holistic approach to school reform. It’s not about just the technology, it’s about the pedagogy, the PD, the architecture, the social design, etc… rethinking school really does mean RETHINKING school. That means taking a clean piece of paper and asking the hard questions about redesigning the process and every aspect of supporting that process, in order to better answer the fundamental question of “How to we improve the learning outcomes for every student?” That is a worthwhile goal, and really comes down to the heart of what education should be about… it’s not about remembering lots of stuff, not about getting better test scores, not about meeting some arbitrary standard… it’s just about improving the learning for every kid that goes through the process. And the first step in making that happen is to deconstruct the entire process from ground level, accepting no preconceived notions about what already exists, and to question every assumption about what we mean by “school”.

And it’s a hard process. We had the chance at my school a couple of years ago to rethink what we were on about when we rewrote our strategic plan. We had consultants come in and try to help us work through that rethinking process, and they really did try to push us to question every paradigm, challenge every assumption. They kept pushing us to reinvent what “school” might mean for the future, but it seemed to have fallen on largely deaf ears, with very little substantive change taking place, and – I think – large gaps in our long term strategy simply because we were unable to step back and disassociate ourselves from our idea of “school” enough to blue sky about what it could really be like if we let ourselves dream a bit. Instead, we just reworded the Mission Statement, created some new levels of hierarchy, and produced a fancy brochure to proclaim our success. Such a missed opportunity.

I’m glad that people like Greg are in there, giving it a go. I’m sure that great success will ultimately emerge from the process, even if it is just through his sheer force of will. I just hope there is enough people who share his vision, and most importantly his determination to actually make it happen, that these initiatives continue to take hold in a big way.

Thanks for the inspiration Greg.

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We are the Robots

While trolling through some old files today I happened upon this video of some Lego robotics projects done by my Year 10 students about five years ago. I recall that their task was to build a sort of merry-go-round device that conformed to a few specific requirements. From memory it had to have provision for two “seats”, and when a start button was pressed it had to rotate around align the first of these seats with a loading platform, pause, and then rotate to align the second seat. Once both seats were “loaded”, it had to pause, then start rotating slowly, then get faster, until it reached top speed and did a specified number of rotations. Once these were complete if had to slow down again to a stop, aligning the first seat, then pausing again and finally aligning the second seat.

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It was an interesting exercise. The girls (it was an all girls class) initially struggled with the idea of gears and motors, and it took them a while, and a bit of guidance, to figure out just how a motor would be able to make something turn like a merry-go-round. I had come from an all-boys school the year before and was really struck by just how much more easily the boys seemed to find the mechanical part of this task. I don’t mean to sound sexist, but there really does seem to be a huge difference in the innate mechanical abilities between boys and girls. The boys didn’t hesitate to grab the motors, gears and cogs, and within minutes, most of them had rudimentary vehicles constructed. The girls, on the other hand, seemed to vacillate for ages before even wanting to pick up the Lego, and when they did, they took quite a lot longer to build any sort of device, much less one that was at all mechanically “correct” or usable.

However, once the girls got started, I found they came up with a much more interesting and creative approach to problem solving than most of the boys I’d taught. Perhaps this comes from a naiveté and a less developed understanding of what was “right”. Whereas the boys seemed to know that certain combinations of blocks and gears would not work, the girls seemed to be more able to just try things whether they worked or not.

Thinking about this now, some years hence from when that video was made, it reminds me of a book I read called Paradigms, by Joel Arthur Barker. In this book, Barker contends that some of the best problem solvers are those who are outside the prevailing paradigm… outsiders who, to the experts, “don’t really understand the question”. But it’s this not really understanding the question that leads to some of the most creative solutions to many previously “unsolvable” problems.

If you think about it, many of the best thinkers, the most inspiring leaders, and the people changing the world the most, are those who least fit our conception of who we expect them to be. Look at the Albert Einsteins, the Pablo Picassos, the Steve Jobs’s, the Richard Bransons of the world… the square pegs in round holes. People who challenge the status quo because they don’t know that what they are proposing is completely unrealistic. Most of the innovation and creative flow in our society comes from those who don’t know that what they don’t know doesn’t matter. So they invent the future anyway.

As educators, we have to make sure we don’t educate the creativity out of kids. I’ll finish with a link to a TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson, who expresses this notion far better than I could ever hope to. Every teacher – no, every person –  should watch this video…

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