Redesigning Learning Tasks: Part 1

In these next few posts, I’m going to try and describe some of the projects we’ve been doing at school lately.  My role at PLC Sydney is ICT Integrator, and I very much see it as a role where I support, advise and consult with our classroom teachers about ways to enrich their lessons with technology. It’s a hard line to walk sometimes, since it often forces me to cross that line between giving advice on how to use the technology and giving advice on how to teach. The nature of digital technology makes it a really good fit with the general principles of quality teaching practice… and sometimes that fit is so good that I find it difficult to suggest ways to use technology without also suggesting that the underlying pedagogy should shift to match it.  Fortunately, I work in a school where most of our teaching staff are willing to take such suggestions on board, be it simply just regarding the use of technology, or to actually shift they way they approach the job of teaching.

Our Year 9 Geography class work on a project each year about natural hazards (bushfires, floods, earthquakes, etc). Over the last few years the students have been given a task that requires them to do “research” on one of these phenomena and “create a PowerPoint” about it.  I tend to put those terms into quote marks because I find that “research tasks” presented “in Powerpoint” are usually just a formal excuse to get kids to plagiarise (especially when they just hand the PowerPoint file in… they don’t actually present it to the class). When I looked at the task as it stood I was struck by the fact that most of the questions being asked could easily be answered by simply going to Wikipedia and doing a cut and paste.

I tend to use Blooms Taxonomy as a means of getting a quick overview of the quality of the tasks we ask our students to do.  It’s not a perfect tool, but it’s nice and easy to apply and it gives a pretty good insight into the degree of higher level thinking that might be involved in a given task.  When I looked at the existing task I got the impression that it was made up of fairly low level recall skills.

As an ICT Integrator, one of the questions I always try to start with is “What can we get the students to actually MAKE?” If  the word “create” is at the top of the Blooms pyramid, then I reckon that starting with that question is a good way to begin pushing upwards into higher levels of thinking, since making things, by definition, is creating.  The term “doing research”, unless it is followed up with actually making something based on that research, rarely takes students much beyond simple cut and paste thinking.  To be fair, the other part of the task did involve creating in the sense that the students were “making a PowerPoint”, but it was really just a PowerPoint summary the “research”.  Is it any wonder our students tend to plagiarise when we give them tasks like this?

So when I got a request, as the ICT Integrator, to simply visit these classes to remind the kids “how to make a PowerPoint” I felt a little underwhelmed, and I tactfully tried to suggest that perhaps we needed to rethink what we were asking the kids to do, and to come up with something a little more challenging. That’s what I mean when I say I often have to cross the line between just offering ICT support to teachers versus helping them rethink their actual pedagogy.

Anyway, we did end up redesigning the task, and I think that in the end everyone agreed it was a better, more interesting task that made good use of ICT while also covering all the necessary learning outcomes.  The students were put into groups of three and their task was to produce a 3-5 minute audio news report about a natural hazard of their choice. (It wasn’t technically a podcast, since we didn’t wrap it in an RSS subscription enclosure, but the recording part was the same general idea as a podcast.)

I suggested that the three students should take on three different roles, each focusing on a different aspect of the natural disaster.  The first role was the newsreader, and her job was to announce and describe the key facts about the disaster – what it was, where it happened, and some information about the causes for it… the newsreader essentially set the scene and gave the background about this particular disaster.  The second role was that of on-the-scene reporter, and this person was responsible for giving the detailed information about the disaster – who was involved, describing what the scene looked like, how it was being handled by emergency crews and so on.  The reporter then conducted an interview with the student playing the third role, that of a victim.  The victim’s job was to talk about the human impact of the disaster, and how people were affected. They were to give an insight into the human cost of natural disasters.  Together, these three roles would cover all the important aspects of natural disasters.  I think it’s important to recognise that all of these aspects are outlined in the syllabus for this unit, and so doing it this way was not just a novelty but a way for students actually engage in the prescribed content in a more interesting, more engaging way.

Of course, in order to play these roles the students needed to write a script.  For this, we used GoogleDocs and I taught the students how to write collaboratively using the shared writing tools in GoogleDocs.  I should point out that our Year 9 and 10 students are now 1:1 and every student has their own laptop.  This is a fairly new thing for our school as the 1:1 program just started this year, so I wanted to ensure we build authentic technology skills into these tasks.  Most of the students had never used GoogleDocs before and had never seen the collaborative, shared writing function. I spent a lesson with each class teaching them how to share a document and work on it together, something that they picked up very quickly. That’s the thing about our alleged “Digital Natives”… they actually don’t know a lot of this stuff, but once shown, they tend to pick it up pretty quickly.  Once they got the hang of how it worked, they used GoogleDocs as a shared writing space to work on a script together.  It worked really well and the students worked in groups of three, all collaborating on the same document, adding, editing and creating together.  I think they found it a very valuable tool.

I also spent some time teaching the students the basics of recording sound using Audacity. Once they were shown the core skills of recording a track, then overlaying it with other tracks, music and sound effects, they were ready to get on with producing their radio news reports.  Again, it was a skill that most of them had never seen or used before, but after a half hour of training they were all quite proficient at it.

Of course, behind all of this the students DID have to do considerable research.  They needed to find out how bushfires spread, what causes cyclones, where droughts are most likely and so on.  It’s not that they don’t need to do research – they certainly do. It’s just that once they did the research the task required them to actually use that information to produce something else.  The focus was not on the research, but what could be done with the research. Importantly, they were given some room to be creative, admittedly within a reasonably scaffolded framework, but there was still room to be creative… it wasn’t all about just regurgitating the facts they had researched.  They needed to take those facts and understand, manipulate and create with them. They were given an opportunity to engage with a range of new technology tools they’d never used before, and ones that will hopefully be of use to them in the future. They were being asked to use the media production capabilities of their shiny new laptops to collaborate and make something original, and not just use it as a glorified typewriter.

As we designed the task, I also made sure it offered the teachers a chance to learn new skills as well. We are really pushing the use of Moodle at the moment, and although most of our teachers are very good at posting resources like Word and PDF documents, the activities part of Moodle is still quite underused. I insisted that the final products of the students – namely a text document with the script and an MP3 file with the finished recording – be submitted as an Assignment in Moodle.  There was initially some resistance to this idea, but it forced the teachers to engage with the assignment submission workflow that Moodle offers and exposed them to a number of Moodle features they were not aware of, like the gradebook and the ability to manage student results electronically.

Overall, I have to say the task was a great success.  The students seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to work in groups, to make good use of their laptops, to be able to inject a bit of their own personality into the final product.  They told me that they liked the opportunity to be a bit more creative and not just hand in yet another boring PowerPoint file or essay.  The teachers told me they were impressed with just how engaged the kids were during the task, and that the quality of the finished products was generally quite high.

I’ll put some more posts up in the next few days about some other projects we are working on at school, but at the heart of them I hope there is a common theme.  That is, I hope we are getting better at rethinking what we ask our students to produce so they can show us not only what they know, but what they can do with what they know.  I’d like to think that we’re working harder to build creativity, choice, authenticity, collaboration and engagement into what we ask of them.  I’m pleased to see their laptops being used in ways that leverage the things that digital technology can do, and not to just treat them as a fancy way to take class notes.

Can this task be improved in the future?  Sure, but it was a nice step up from the previous task. I’d like to think that the ICT in this case was there as the appropriate tool for supporting a richer learning task, and not just there for the sake of using computers.

Below is a playable sample from one of the groups.  I don’t know if it was the best one, since I haven’t actually had a chance to listen to them all, but I picked it more or less and random and thought it was pretty good.  I liked the way they used sound effects and mashups recorded from the TV – it shows that they made a special effort.  And I like the creative (and slightly humorous) way they introduce the story at the start of their bulletin.

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/

Where does cheating begin?

Imagine this scenario… you are suddenly diagnosed with a life threatening disease, something very dangerous but quite curable if you have the right information about how to do so.  Your doctor knows that there is an answer to your serious problem, but cannot recall what drug is required to treat it.  He remembers reading something about it a long time ago, but can no longer recall the exact name of the drug.

He reaches towards the mouse on his computer, and begins to click a link that will take him to the online medical directory where he will find the answer he needs to cure your condition.

“Stop!”, you declare.  “That’s cheating!  If you can’t remember the name of that drug without looking it up, then what sort of doctor are you?  I want you to just remember it without looking it up.”

Of course, I imagine that if this situation were real you would be only too happy for the doctor to do whatever was required to find the cure for your disease.  You wouldn’t think twice about whether it might be considered “cheating” to look up the information needed to save your life… in fact you’d better hope that you have a doctor who a) knows there is an answer out there somewhere, and b) knows how to find it quickly.

I pondered this scenario today because I went to a dinner party with about 40 other people and we were presented with a trivia quiz on the table, something to keep us busy and entertained between food courses.  Being a celebration of Canadian Thanksgiving, the questions were all about Canada.  Now, I actually know quite a bit about Canada… I lived there for a year, travelled quite extensively through the historic eastern provinces, read a few books about Canadian history, and I have a Canadian girlfriend.  So I did know the answer to quite a few of the questions.

Of course, there were also questions I didn’t know the answer to.  And being the curious type who likes a challenge and to always learn more, I reached for my Nokia N95, pointed it to Google, and started looking for the answers to the questions I didn’t know.  If you have reasonable information literacy skills and can come up with good search keywords, finding answers to simple recall-style questions with Google is pretty easy.  In fact, you can usually find the answers just from the Google search results page without even going to the websites they link to.  It was not long before I had the elusive answers… in fact, I actually stumbled across the exact quiz that the questions were lifted from. Whoever put the quiz together had not changed anything, just used it directly from this website.  I casually copied down all the unknown answers onto the sheet and waited until it needed to be submitted.

Of course, when the sheets were finally collected and tallied, there was general astonishment that someone could have actually gotten all the questions 100% correct! A few people who knew what I’d done bandied about words like “cheating” and “unfair”.

For the record, I did not accept the prize – a lovely bottle of red wine – because I willingly admitted I had some help from my friends Mr Google and Mr Wikipedia, and I figured it would not have been fair to accept the prize.  I guess I just like to be a bit of a stirrer sometimes in order to make a point, even if only to myself.

But seriously, why do we build entire education systems based on rewarding people who can respond with the correct answers to questions, but then assume that any use of a tool to help them do this is cheating?   Why would a doctor in the scenario above get applauded for doing whatever was necessary to find an answer to the problem, but a student who does the same thing is considered a cheat.

If basic recall of facts is all that matters, a tool like Google can make you the smartest person in the room.  Today’s trivia quiz proved that.  If finding answers anywhere at anytime is a valuable thing to be able to do, then a mobile phone should be a standard tool you carry everywhere.

What I think people were really saying was that, if I was allowed to use my phone to find answers and everyone else wasn’t, then that would give me an unfair advantage.  And that may be true if I was the only person with access to Google, but the fact is that I didn’t do anything that every other person in that room could have done if they’d have chosen to.  The fact is, I was the only one in the room who used a tool that we all potentially had access to, but because I used that tool it made me a “cheat”.

And here’s the real point… mostly we ban these tools in our classrooms.  And we generally consider any student that uses such tools to find answers to our narrow questions to be a cheat.  And we drill into kids that when we ask them questions, when we set up those “exam conditions”, they better not even think about being “enterprising” or “creative” or “problem solvers”… Just know the answers to the questions, and show all your working too, dammit.

And you’d better hope that if one of those students ever grows up to be your doctor, the rigid thinking we may have instilled in them about “knowing the answers” has been replaced with a far more flexible skill for “finding the answers”.   Let’s hope that our kids don’t have too much trouble unlearning all the bizarre thinking that schools spend so much time drilling into them.

What do you think?  At what point does the ability to find answers cross the line and become cheating?