Totally Unorganised

I think I can safely say I’ve just been to one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended.  It was well run, well organised and I believe provided content that was highly relevant to all the participants.  The irony is that the day before it all started, it was completely unorganised and had virtually no content planned at all.  I’m talking about the Learning 2.010 Conference held last week at Concordia International School in Shanghai, China.

I think it’s really important to draw a clear distinction between being unorganised and being disorganised.  Disorganised is when things are a complete mess, no one has any idea of what’s happening, people are not getting their needs met and it leads to frustration for everyone involved.  This conference was definitely not disorganised.

Unorganised, on the other hand, implies a understanding that learning is messy and that when we need to learn something we learn it best if we can learn it just-in-time, not just-in-case.  When you put together a conference about learning, being unorganised means recognising that you can’t meet someones needs until you know what those needs are.  Being unorganised means that you don’t assume that you know what’s best for people, but rather, you ask them what they need.  Being unorganised implies flexibility, adaptability, and a willingness to listen to what people really want, at the point when they want it.

It also implies a huge risk, since you are inviting people to attend (and prepay for) an event that essentially does not yet exist. It would be far easier, far safer, far less risky, to run a conference the way they are traditionally organised… Bring in some smart people to speak, get them to stand on the stage and impart their wisdom to the assembled masses, and perhaps preplan some added workshops on what you think people need.  That’s the accepted way to run a conference, the safe way, the “normal” way, the organised way… doing it any other way is a risk and a challenge to the status quo, and potentially a threat to people’s expectations.

However, those with the goal of shifting and reshaping education know inherently that this traditional model of conference planning flies in the face of what we proclaim learning is truly about.  It’s ironic (and hypocritical) that conferences about contemporary learning should remain modeled on a structure that so blatantly contradicts the way we keep saying that learning should work in the 21st century.

The organisers of Learning 2.010 accepted this risk and, from what I could see, it paid off handsomely.  The event was run on the basis of having two quite different component parts… the first was based on a cohort (team) of learners that gathered around a key idea and worked together to explore that idea in depth over the two days, and the second component was an unconference that ran 90 minute workshops in whatever content emerged from the participants.

The cohorts were led by a team of international educators who were hand picked by the Learning 2.010 organisers (or should that be unorganisers?) and I felt extremely honoured to have been included in this group.  These are some of the smartest, most forward thinking, contemporary educators I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, many of whom I already felt I knew well from their blogs and online presence. There were many that I’ve wanted to meet in person for a very long time and others I hadn’t previously known of, but it quickly became pretty clear that this was an extraordinary group of talented educators.

As one of the invited cohort facilitators, I arrived into Shanghai the day before the conference started so I could be part of a brainstorming and planning session with the other facilitators about what and how we might make the cohort component of the conference best happen.  Although we did have general themes to guide us, the exact structure of how we’d run the sessions, what resources we’d include, how we’d manage our cohort groups, etc, was all fluid… essentially, we had four 90 minute sessions over the 2 days and we could do whatever we wanted in them. Most themes had two cohorts, each with its own facilitator, that could be run independently from each other, or could be combined together, or some combination of these.

I was lucky enough to be teamed up with Melinda Alford, a teacher at Concordia (the host school) on the topic of Creating a Culture of Learning and Creativity.  Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but having now worked in Shanghai for the past six years, I’d not met Melinda before… in fact she was one of those teachers that wasn’t even on my PLN radar. But after working with her for a few days I have to say she is one of the most talented natural teachers I’ve ever met and it was a real joy to be able to work with her. It’s so nice when you get to work with someone who is really on the same wavelength. who shares so many of the same ideals about learning and education and is so easy to work with.

As we started to plan how our cohorts would operate, we decided not to run in two groups, but rather to combine them into one.  Our general plan was to facilitate a guided conversation about the ideas of creativity and curiosity in learning, follow it up with some ideas and examples and strategies for developing creative opportunities for students, and then allow our group to organically break up into small teams based on interest and need, and produce something to share with the whole group in the final session.  The “something” was open-ended, but was basically a resource, an activity, a plan, something, that could be put to use the next week in their classroom.  We wanted to challenge the thinking of our cohort, but be practical and get them to actually create something they could use.  We were also very focused on the idea of creating a learning environment for our cohort participants that modeled the type of learning that we were expecting them to create for their students… open ended, flexible, learned centered, challenging, hard fun.  Our plan was to facilitate, not lecture. Share, not teach. Encourage, not demand.

We spent part of that first planning day tossing ideas around and creating some visual prompts. One of my big beliefs about the notion of creativity is that it should come from both sides of your brain. We were both very keen to encourage the idea that creativity is not something that just applies to “the arts”, not something that you only find in strange “arty” types who dress in strange clothes, not something that is applied to problems occasionally in a superficial way… we wanted to get the idea across that creativity is a critical thinking skill that applies to all disciplines, in all sorts of ways, all of the time.  Melinda and I both had backgrounds in the creative arts as well as science and engineering, so we found it easy to weave this into our planning.  To make the point, at the social event held the evening before the conference officially started, we got up on stage to promote our cohort sessions, me dressed in Elmo pyjama pants and a set of large donkey ears, and Melinda in a giant chicken outfit.  At least we got noticed!

So, in a 24 hour period, we went from having a cohort session with no structure, no content and no ideas, to having a session which was highly personalised, based on meeting the needs of the participants and built on the strengths of the facilitators.  I might write more about the cohort sessions later, but I felt like it was a great success.

The other component of the conference was the unconference. Again, the problem with traditional conferences is that you sometimes don’t learn what you’d really like to learn, and it treats the “presenters” and the “audience” as two groups.  If you believe that learners and teachers can have a much flatter relationship that that, the unconference model makes a lot of sense.  At the first social event of the conference, participants were encouraged to write on a large sheet of paper a topic that they’d like to learn about.  Equally, they were also encouraged to write down a topic they’d like to share about.  These pieces of paper were then sticky-tacked to the wall and people could add a vote to the ones they were interested in the most.  The ones that had enough votes then ran in the next unconference session time.

So, for example, I offered to run a session on teaching kids to think using Scratch, since I’ve been doing a lot of work on this back at school.  So, I offered the topic, volunteered to be a presenter for it, people selected it, and it ran successfully.  Conversely, someone else added a request for a session about Photoshop. They were not willing or able to run it themselves, but they were very interested in learning about it.  Because I’m a bit of a Photoshop guy, I was happy to add my name to that as the presenter, and the session went ahead.This is really the spirit of an unconference.  It’s about flexibly and dynamically connecting learners together to learn about the things that interest them.  You can’t plan that sort of thing in advance because you have no advance idea of what those interests will be.  An unconference only works if you place your trust in the wisdom of the crowds, if you believe that none of us is as good as “all of us”.  If you believe that someone in the crowd will have the expertise to share with others, and the humility to accept that that expertise can come from anywhere, then learners become teachers and teachers become learners and our learning environment becomes flatter and less hierarchical.  It goes from being about teacher and student, moving away from being about “us and them” to just being about “us”.  And this is so much more reflective of the way true learning actually works.

Of course, you can see why this is risky.  If participants turn up as empty vessels waiting to be filled, who see professional development as something that is done “to them” by someone else, then this is all destined to fail miserably. What I like about the unconference model is not just that it’s a far superior way to learn – because it is – but that it works on the underlying assumption that people are inherently good.  It’s based on the fundamental ideals of sharing and teamwork, and the belief that most people are just as eager to give as to take.

It assumes the best from people, and that’s always a better environment to work in.

Redesigning Learning Tasks: Part 3

My role at school is all about trying to helping teachers leverage technology to come up with more interesting and engaging ways to help their students learn.  Some of our older students are in laptop programs which gives them fulltime 1:1 access to their own computer but many still do not, especially in the junior years. Which is a bit of a shame since there is, I think, so much scope in the younger grades to use technology in interesting ways that support the curriculum.  Unfortunately, with the way things are structured at the moment, our primary kids get scheduled into a single one hour lesson in the computer lab each week.  That’s not really my preferred option, as it’s hard to get technology integration working in an ongoing, embedded way when it involves trotting off to the computer room once a week.

Ironically, all our primary classrooms do actually have a small pod of four desktop machines in them, but unfortunately I don’t really see them getting used in any consistent, meaningful way.  Technology integration is still, by and large, reliant on that one hour a week of “computer time” in the lab.  However, whether I like it or not, it is what it is, and until the system changes it’s a limitation I have to work with.

Ludus - our school Blog ServerOur Year 4 students are doing a unit of work on Australia at the moment, so I started the term by having a planning session with the Year 4 teachers to look at how we might weave ICT into the unit.  A couple of years ago, the ICT component was – you guessed it – making a PowerPoint about Australia, but thankfully we’ve tried a some new approaches over the last few years. For the past two years we’ve been using blogs to get the kids writing about Australia, in fact I think we’ve come up with some good ideas for structuring the writing process when blogging.  We started off using Edublogs, but after having a particularly frustrating series of outages, the school decided to set up our own WordPress MU server and gave every student their own blog on that system. It took a bit of fiddling to get the feeds on the front page working the way we wanted, but that internal WPMU site worked quite well for us.  Because we run Moodle, we recently installed Mahara as well, which also provides blogs for students and so I guess we’re a bit spoiled for choice at the moment when in comes to school blogging.

Although the blogs had worked quite well for us in the past, for the unit of work on Australia the Year 4 teachers felt that they wanted to try something a bit different, so we brainstormed some ideas and came up with an idea that I think has worked very well.

For me, ICT integration becomes far more interesting when it involves lots of little skills used in a lot of different ways that student have to piece together into a finished product.  I like it that way because it give them a broader understanding of the way that technology tools fit together, and I think helps their understanding of how technology can assist them cross over into many areas.  I also like the idea of providing a structure, a scaffold, so that even our struggling students have a clear framework to work within.  However, surrounding that scaffold should be flexibility, options, choices, and a way for more able students to scale their work up and allow for that important differentiation.

What we came up with was a project called 25 Moods of Australia.  We brainstormed a collection of words (it started as 25 words, but grew to 50) that described various moods – haunting, hostile, creepy, effervescent, etc. Using a free wiki (where every student and teacher was given their own login) we published a list of all the words.  Working in pairs, the students then adopted a word from that list. There are 50 students in the two Year 4 classes, so working in pairs required 25 words.  The reason we came up with 50 was to give them a choice of what word they wanted to select, and to provide some extra words in case any students wanted to do a second one.

Armed with their chosen words, each student pair started by creating a new blank page on the wiki for that word. Then they had to find a clear, concise definition for the word (so that they understood it) and they then added that definition to the wiki page.  They used both regular paper dictionaries as well as online dictionaries. It was useful to compare the two.

The next job was to use Flickr to find a photograph taken somewhere in Australia that they felt captured the meaning of that word.  This was quite tricky… the Flickr search engine is not as sophisticated as Google’s and so to find a photo that both described their word and was taken in Australia required some thinking.  It involved looking carefully at the images, at the tags, at the captions, and using a bit of detective thinking to find photographs that met all the criteria.  To make it even trickier, we had a talk about copyright and the use of other people’s photographs without permission, which led to an interesting discussion about Creative Commons.  The students picked up on this idea very easily, and now know how to use the Advanced Search feature in Flickr to find photographs that are free of traditional copyright restrictions.  (I was feeling very encouraged to hear from their teachers that they are also now being much more mindful of copyright in other areas of their school work, and they’ve been observed looking for Creative Commons images for other projects as well! I consider that a major win!)

Once they found an image they like, they then used the All Sizes selector in Flickr to find the 500 pixel, medium-sized version of the photo and they copy it to their desktop. They also copy the URL of where they got the image so it can by pasted into the photo caption as an attribution, required by all CC licenses.  Once the photo is copied to their computer, they then upload it into the wiki (we used Wikispaces) and insert it into their page.

The next job is to go to Google Maps and find the location of where that photograph was taken on the map. This is also tricky, since not every photo makes this clear.  Some photos are geotagged with the exact location of where they were taken, but many are not.  We talked about geolocation.  We learnt to look at the tags, the keywords, the captions, the other photos in the Flickrstream, and to look for clues that might give us an idea about where the photo was taken.  And sometimes, when their were no clues, we had to make educated guesses about where the photo could have been taken.  Once we decided on a location – either a definite location based on real clues, or an imagined location based on common sense, the students found that place in Australia on the map.

Using the Link option, they then generated the embed code for the map, copied it, went back to the wiki and created a widget. They pasted the embed code into the widget and saved the page to reveal the embedded Google Map of their best estimate for the location of the photograph.

The last step is for the students to then write a couple of paragraphs talking about their photograph and why they think it represents their focus word. This can be quite a challenge, as they have to think very carefully about how exactly they will justify their selection, describing the photo and linking it back to the key ideas in the definition of their word. They also need to write about the map location and explain how they knew (or guessed) that the photo was taken in that place.

As you can see, it’s a task that contains a LOT of small pieces.  It contains lot of ICT skills and techniques and understandings in a number of areas. It is a task of small pieces loosely joined.  It’s also not a task that can be plagiarised.  It’s not a task where there is a “right answer”, as any answer could be right if it was justified well enough.

Remind yourself, these kids are 9 and 10 years old. And they have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of moving information around, remixing, repurposing and restructuring it in fairly sophisticated ways.  They quickly pick up the ideas of bringing all the pieces together to make something new. I think they are using some reasonably advanced information skills, as they learn to search, evaluate, synthesize and create with the information they find, and then add value to that information by interpreting and summarising and justifying it.  In short, I’ve been really impressed with what they can do. And even more impressed with what they can’t do, but can learn to do.

You can visit the wiki at http://ausmoods.wikispaces.com, although at the time of writing it is still a work in progress.  The final stage, when everything is complete, will be for them to use the discussion tabs on the individual pages to leave comments and feedback for each other.

I think it’s been a really good task, with plenty of really worthwhile ICT skills built in, as well as an integrated use of literacy, writing, geography, thinking and reasoning, collaboration, and so on.

If only we had more than an hour a week to do this stuff…