An Act of Heresy

Bless me father, for I’m about to commit an act of heresy. Whenever I say what I’m about to say, I get a reaction that ranges from raised eyebrows to outright hostility and arguments. But I’ll say it anyway.

I don’t like the hashtag chat format on Twitter. And I don’t like the timed presentation format used for Teachmeets. There. I said it.

Maybe I’m just becoming a cranky old man as I get older, but I don’t like either of these formats and for much the same reason. I find they dumb down the conversation.

I know that both of these formats are very popular at the moment, and I know that many people seem to like them. But I just can’t warm to them, and I wanted to write this post to explain why. Feel free to condemn me in the comments.

Let’s start with Twitter hashtag chats. That’s where you pick an abbreviation, slap a hashtag in front of it, set aside an hour or so, and off you go. Instant “conversation”. I know this form of conversation on Twitter is insanely popular right now, but I just can’t seem to work out why.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Twitter and think its impact on the world has been absolutely seismic. I joined it in early 2007 and have used it regularly since the very beginning. I’ve written a lot of very pro-Twitter posts about how wonderful Twitter is and how important it is that you should be using it too. Twitter is awesome. No argument there. It’s great as a backchannel at events, or as a way of distributing information quickly, or as a tool for building professional and personal connections. It’s a communications medium with self imposed limitations, but if you work within the bounds of those limitations, it’s absolutely brilliant in its simplicity. I like Twitter a lot.

But as a means for having deep, meaningful focussed conversations on specific topics, I struggle with it. It always feels to me like it’s being wrangled into doing something that it was never really designed to do, and consequently it feels like it does it poorly. Whenever I try to have a meaningful conversation broken up into 140 character chunks (less by the time you include the hashtag, the Q&A numbering and any @replies you might want to include), the “conversation” feels decidedly stilted, fragmented and superficial. I’ve participated in many of these hashtag chats over the years and I always find them frustratingly tedious. I can never say what I want to say in the space I have available to say it, so it ends up getting fragmented into disconnected chunks spread out over time, with no really functional way to reassemble those chunks into some semblance of a real conversation.

Hashtags chats usually start out with people saying hi, where they’re from, etc, which takes up the first 10 minutes or so, then the host/moderator throws a question into the ring (Q1, Q2, etc) and everyone has a go at responding with their own tweets (A1, A2, etc). As people respond, then respond to the responses, the conversation fragments even further until there is a confusing collection of truncated half-thoughts littering the timeline, waiting to be mentally reassembled into a thread that hopefully makes some degree of sense. For an hour or so, questions are added to the mix, replies are made, popular tweets are favourited and retweeted, and there always seem to be a whole lot of chatter that ends up in a confused, non-archivable mess. Which is a shame, because the actual ideas that were either poorly expressed, or hidden in that mess of messages, is potentially brilliant. But I think it’s far too much work and far too inefficient to be used like this.

I should point out that this hashtag chat idea is not the same thing (to me) as using a hashtag to aggregate tweets around a theme or meme. The latter is organic, and percolates naturally. People can contribute on the hashtag over time, and it is pulled together with a hashtag search query. This feels like a natural use of Twitter. The hashtag chat, on the other hand, where structured questions get sent out to a group for responses in a specific window of time, always feels contrived to me. It feels like a school project, where people are answering questions in response to the moderator, who artificially keeps the “conversation” moving. There’s nothing very organic or natural about it.

I’ve tried to give this form of “conversation” a go, but I just can’t warm to it. I know many people who love it, so hey, more power to them. If it works for you, knock yourself out. It just doesn’t work for me. I find I have to dumb down my contributions to stay under the character limit, or figure out how to say something so simply that it no longer conveys the meaning I intended. I end up writing in sound bites that become glib and superficial. And then I get frustrated because I wasn’t able to communicate what I wanted to communicate. I know, long form writing is not what the kids do these days, email is dead and Google+ is a ghost town.  Whatever. I’ve been told that anything worth saying should be able to be said in a Tweet-sized package, but I just don’t see it. Some ideas are worth more than that.

Which brings me to my second bugbear, the timed “Teachmeet style” presentation where each speaker gets a few minutes to speak and share a tool or idea. (The fact that there is even a “speaker” at what is essentially supposed to be an unconference style event should be the first clue that something is out of whack). For much the same reasons as I struggle with the idea of hashtag chats, I find this is yet another format with a self imposed artificial limitation that can easily ruin the potential value of the content. I don’t know if you recall the historical evolution of this format… the Teachmeet format was originally an unstructured get-together of teachers talking shop and sharing ideas over a few beers at a pub. Then it grew and spread and morphed into a range of formats, until every Teachmeet I go to now uses this same format where each speaker gets a short time limit to share an idea. Originally this time limit idea evolved from the Pucha Kucha style of presenting, but has now grown into being a standard Teachmeet thing.  It’s totally unnecessary. The Pecha Kucha style was designed originally to force presenters into a rigidly structured format – half the fun of giving a Pecha Kucha talk is about meeting the challenge of the format while giving an interesting talk. – but there’s really no reason that Teachmeets should continue to do the same. I agree that having some form of “lightning round” presentations, where you get a strictly timed few minutes to share an idea, can be a lot of fun. I think the 3 minutes Demo Slams at Google Summits can be a good example of this.

But when every Teachmeet becomes nothing but a series of rigid timeslots, it feels to me like we’ve jumped the shark. Making presenters squeeze their ideas into a few minutes might be good for keeping the program moving, but it can be counterproductive to real conversations and authentic sharing of ideas.

Some ideas cannot be distilled down into a soundbite sized presentation. Some ideas take more time, and need an opportunity for questions and deeper reflection. But when the only format for conveying ideas is this kind of short, sharp blast, the only ideas that get talked about are the ones that  fit the format. And I happen to think that there are many ideas worth sharing that need more time, more depth and more nuance than either a 4 minute talk or a 140 character tweet can do justice to. I think we are dumbing down the conversation far too much if this becomes the dominant means of sharing. If I’m going to spend time participating in real conversations with other human beings, I want to hear what they have to say, and not just to hear what they managed to squeeze into an artificially limited timeslot. I think we all deserve better than that.

I’m know I’m supposed to just agree with the status quo and go along with what’s popular. I’ve publicly stated my feelings about both these formats before and have been told all the reasons why I’m wrong. One of my favourite pushbacks is that sharing in this way is still better than not sharing at all. I think that’s a specious argument. Of course it’s better than nothing, but it’s still no replacement for rich, deep conversations or subtle, nuanced sharing of ideas. I’m tired of the shallowness and the superficiality of these formats. I think we can do better, and we can start by reminding ourselves that some ideas are bigger and bolder than a stopwatch or a character limit will allow.

Understand what I’m saying. There is still a place for this kind of rapid-fire sharing, but it should’t be the only place. Right now, every Teachmeet I go to uses this timed format, and the use of hashtag chats on Twitter is more common than ever. By all means, let’s use these formats, but let’s also be aware of their limitations and shortfalls and don’t fall into the dangerous trap of thinking they are the only formats in town.

Featured Public Domain Image – The Witch, No 3,
Wikimedia Commons

 

The Difficulty Differential

Yesterday, I ran an all day iPad workshop for the teachers at my school. There were two things that were a bit unusual about it. One is that it was an all day event. Usually in a school – or at least in my school – it’s hard finding time for staff professional learning that allows for any real immersion and play. The second unusual thing is that it was held on a Saturday.  (And not just any Saturday, but the Saturday of the first week back after the Summer break!)

No coincidentally, the fact that it was a Saturday was the whole reason we were able to get that extended period of time for learning. When I offered it to our staff (as an entirely optional event for anyone that was interested in coming along) I thought maybe we’d get 3 or 4 teachers show up. Surprisingly, we had 25. Some even brought their children and spouses along. They didn’t get paid for attending, and there was no pressure to be there. But 25 turned up. I was impressed.

photo

We had a fun day of learning what iPads could do, digging into the nooks and crannies of iOS, learning a bunch of tips and tricks to be more expert users, but then spending most of the day actually making things with the iPads. My goal for the day was to make it learner-centred, fun, hands-on and practical, and I think we achieved all that. I had the teachers looking for information, using maps, browsing the web, creating documents. making videos… all the sorts of things that they might typically ask students to do.

I think it’s really important that teachers attempt to produce the same kind of tasks that they ask their kids to do. Often, we teachers come from a background of using a laptop or desktop computer and although we’ve all mostly used an iPad for our personal use, it’s a very different use-case when you have to actually be productive with an iPad as your only device. Assumptions about the iPad’s ease of use as a device quickly get a reality check when you try to use them yourself for real work. You soon hit the wall with workflow issues, data transfer issues, filesharing issues… none of which are insurmountable but it is amazing how many casual iPad users have never had to deal with some of these problems that become very real when the iPad is your only device. I needed my teachers to see that while the iPad might be “revolutionary and magical”, don’t expect it to be the same as your laptop computer. It isn’t. And you need to take that into account when you ask kids to live with one as their only device.

I gave this group of teachers an hour or so to work on making a video using either iMovie or iMotionHD. I know from experience that many teachers are intimidated by the idea of moviemaking because they think it’s too difficult. And some avoid using it with their students because they feel that they need to be really good at it themselves before they can do it with the kids. The classic case of “needing to know how it all works so I don’t look silly in front of the students” syndrome.

I gave this group a very quick demonstration of the main skills they need to shoot a movie – shooting footage, editing clips, adding transitions, adding sound and narration. That sounds like a lot, but it can be easily explained in less than 10 minutes with a simple demonstration, and everyone seemed pretty comfortable with the ideas even though most of them had ever done any video editing before.  So off they went to work on their movies.

When they came back about an hour later, many were totally engrossed in the editing process. One group shot an amazing stop frame movie and added a soundtrack to it. Others made mini documentaries about the school gardens. We exported the final films, and had a little film festival on the Apple TV so everyone could share what they made.

But here’s what I found interesting.  After they had made their first ever movie, I asked them “On a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult is it to make a movie?” This group (who remember had never made videos before) thought about it for a moment and agreed it was only about a 3. In other words, they thought the iMovie software was pretty easy to use and the skills required to make a video were straightforward enough to master.

Of course, just because it’s easy to use,does not mean that they all made amazingly professional looking videos. Most were, shall we say, “a good first attempt”. So then I asked them a second question. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult is it to make a good movie?” This time they agreed that it was more like a 9. Much harder.

The interesting thing about this is that they saw the “difficulty differential” between making just any old movie and making a really good movie is about a 6. In other words, more than half of what’s required to make a good movie is just polishing up the same basic skills that would be required to make a bad movie.

The really encouraging thing is that most the skills required to make a good movie are not technology skills. If you can make a bad movie, you already have the technology skills you need to make a really great movie. What you need to move from ordinary to good (and on to great) are things like a critical eye for lighting and sound, helpful advice on plot and story, and useful feedback on your visuals. None of which are technology skills.

I think this is really encouraging news for teachers, because all of those are things you can give your kids even if you don’t have strong technical skills yourself. You can say to a student “I like your opening scene but I think it’s about 10 seconds too long”. You can tell a student that “the soundtrack music you’ve chosen is not the right fit for the visuals you’re using”. You can let a student know that “your voiceover track is too soft and needs more volume”. You can give a student feedback that a “scene is too dark and needs to be fixed”.

You can give students good advice, wisdom, and adult perspective. You can help them be better by pointing out what can be improved. You can help them make great movies, even though your own technical skills in moviemaking might not be any better than theirs. And that is an incredibly important realisation. It means that we shouldn’t be intimidated about using technology in our classrooms. It means that we can feel ok about the idea that we don’t know all the answers. It means that we don’t need to know more than the students in order to give them opportunities to create.

I would love it if all teachers had my passion for what technology can bring to their classrooms. I love to see teachers pushing themselves forward to learn new technology tools and getting excited about what they might do with them. But I’m realistic enough to know that teachers have so many other demands upon them that technology is not always going to be their number one concern all the time.

I think as teachers we need to commit to at least knowing enough about technology to understand what things might be possible, even if we don’t have the high level skills required to do some of those things ourselves. And if we understand what’s possible with these technology tools, and we can get over being scared that the kids might know more than us, and instead of worrying about what we don’t know about technology and instead we fill the “difficulty differential” with our adult wisdom, advice and feedback, that’s a pretty good recipe for letting the kids unleash the potential of classroom technology for themselves.

We just need to be willing to get out of their way while providing them with some wise guidance.

PS: If you want the notes from the workshop session, you can get them here.

Making Thinking Visible

Yesterday at PLC Sydney we held a whole-staff PD workshop with American educator Mark Church.  Mark is a co-author of the book Making Thinking Visible, as well as a contributor to the Project Zero team. I found myself really resonating with much of what he had to say. I liked the fact that his focus was on really good pedagogy, and although I could see many connections to the sorts of thinking that I find myself constantly exposed to in the edtech world, his message had very little to do with the use of technology. It was really just all about good teaching.

PLC brought Mark out from the US especially for this workshop after members of our senior leadership heard him speak at another event. They were really impressed with his message and felt it was just what our staff needed. I tend to agree. In schools like ours, where we are essentially teaching to a largely compliant, affluent and  literate demographic, it’s doesn’t seem to be too difficult to have our students achieve significant levels of success without teachers needing a big “bag of teaching tricks”. We provide kids with content at a sophisticated level, and they generally perform very well in the traditional ways of measuring school success. Based on our HSC results, we certainly manage to create a disproportionate number of highly successful students, although I certainly don’t always agree with the conventional way we measure that “success”. Mark’s message was that we can do much more to really expose the thinking of our students, to help them develop greater understanding of what they learn and to make the learning more authentic and meaningful. To all of that I certainly found myself in much greater agreement.

The first part of the day was spent on some big picture stuff, ideas about education and the ways in which we build a culture in our schools. Enculturation, or the way we create a culture over time, is a critically important aspect of education and schooling and something I feel quite passionately about so I very much resonated with this part of the discussion. The second half of the day was spent looking at a number of pedagogical ideas – Mark called them “routines” – that provided some terrific examples of ways in which we can be better at what we do. I found the day insightful and refreshing, and felt quite energised by the ideas we covered.

Along with some other members of our staff, I used Twitter (and the hashtag #plcpdday) to capture some of the key ideas and thoughts during the day, and I thought I’d just recap a couple of my more salient tweets here, and expand them beyond Twitter’s sometimes frustrating 140 character limit.

Unless a teacher takes time to understand the culture of students, the students will never care about the culture of the teacher

This idea has always been a big one for me. It’s kind of a rephrase of the old “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” line, but I’ve always found it so incredibly true in schools. It drives me crazy that most educators seem to think that “their stuff” is so intrinsically interesting and valuable that students will just automatically be interested in it. They won’t. Students are people, and people want to feel valued before they will buy into what you want. In every school I’ve been in where there’s tension between teachers and students, it is nearly always because of an overly militant, authoritarian approach that says to kids “just shut up and do it my way”. A highly disciplinary approach might win the battle, but it’s never going to win the war. Respect, care, and dare I say, even love, are the basis of a good relationship between teacher and student, and until there is a good relationship it’s going to be an uphill battle.  I suppose this idea particularly struck a chord with me because it something I’ve also talked about a fair bit elsewhere.

Dispositions are developed through enculturation in thoughtful settings over time. OVER TIME. time to uncrowd our curriculums?

The notion of a learning culture is also something that is central in the way I think about schooling.  Too often we think that we can “teach” kids something by giving them a lesson or two in it, and that’s enough. We run sessions about cyberbullying or plagiarism or creativity or digital citizenship, and we act as though by pouring this information into our students’ heads that we have done our job. “We taught it, so we now expect them to know it”. It’s all nonsense of course. We don’t create enduring dispositions by running a session or two on a particular idea and then ticking it off our todo list as done.  Building a disposition is about creating a culture based on the values of that disposition. And that culture needs to permeate everything. It needs to become part of the way we think, the way we act, the “way we do things around here”.  You don’t teach creativity by running a couple of workshops about it.  You teach it by having the values of creativity become an ingrained part of the way you think. You don’t learn it, you become it.  And the key thing is that it takes time. Lot of time. Lots of repetition, iteration, example-setting. You model the big ideas, all the time, over a period of time.  In a teaching sense, this makes it even more imperative that we find ways to uncrowd our curriculum to make space for  this to happen. We need to create the space to have the time to build worthwhile cultural dispositions.

Focusing on the average in education is like looking at the average of a mountain range. All the peaks and valleys disappear.

We build our education systems for the average student. Too often we pitch to the perceived middle.  Sure, we try to come up with strategies to differentiate, but when it’s all boiled down, the structure of most schools is built on the idea that we can process students in groups of 25+, and that by designing for the needs of the whole group we hope to be able to meet the needs of most of the people within it. And as the mountain metaphor shows so well, if you focus on the average high of a mountain range the peaks and valleys disappear. By catering to the needs of the group, we often fail to meet the needs of the individuals within that group. It hard to do well, but so important that we keep trying to be better at it.

It’s far too easy for kids to have the “right answer” and still have no idea about what they supposedly learned.

As a teacher, how many times have you thought you taught students something, only to realise that they still really don’t get it.  You explained it, demonstrated it, they tried it themselves, the practised it, the seemed to master it… and then when they really needed to demonstrate that knowledge or skill, you realise that they still don’t get it. Or worse, the can demonstrate the skills you want them to have – the can pass the test, do the activity, get the right answer – but you can see that there just isn’t any deep, real understanding there. It can be quite demoralising, but it happens a lot. The idea of Making Thinking Visible is to get to the root causes of misunderstandings so that true understanding can be reached.

Mindset change: what if what I teach today shows up on a test 3 years from now? How would I teach it differently?

I liked this idea. We often teach things to our students on the basis that they will need to pass a test on it at the end of the lesson, or the end of the week, or end of the unit. But what if we taught in ways that presumed the information we taught today would not appear on a test for another three years. Would we do it differently? How? What would we change?

The big picture… What are the residuals of education? What does education leave kids with long after they have finished school?

I guess this is the same kind of idea as the last one, but I liked Mark’s idea about the “residuals of education”. A residual is the stuff you’re left with when everything else is gone. So after the homework is forgotten, after the tests and exams ar done and the reports are handed out, what are we left with? What is the truly important stuff that sticks with kids when the ephemeral nature of “school” has passed? And if what we have left over is not the same stuff that we usually give so much importance to, why do we keep giving that other stuff so much importance in the first place?

Let’s change the language… Let’s stop using the word “work” in our classrooms and start calling it “learning”.

Homework. Classwork. Schoolwork. “Get your work done .” “Where is your work?” “What are you working on?” What if we stopped calling it “work” and started calling it what it’s supposed to be… learning. Better yet, what if we stopped giving kids “work” to do, because so often it’s just pointless busy-work that does little more than just keep them busy. It’s colouring in. It’s making titlepages. It’s making a PowerPoint. It’s doing “research” into things that they already know about. Why do we do that? Why don’t we make more effort to ensure that the precious time we have with our students is spent doing real stuff, real learning? We could start shifting this mindset by at least not referring to what we get kids to do as “work”, and start calling it “learning”. Because we’d soon feel pretty stupid referring to their colouring-in and titlepage-making as “learning”.

Looking at how time gets used in your classroom sends a big message about what you value in your classroom.
How does the environment in which we teach say a lot about what we value about learning?
what does the language and style of communication we use in our classroom say about what we value about learning?
If a classroom is set up with rows of desks all facing the front, what does that say about what we value about learning?

These tweets were all focused on the same core idea… how does what we say is really important manifest itself in what we actually do on a daily basis?  If we say we value teamwork and collaboration but our classroom desks are set up in forward-facing rows, what does that tell us? If we say we want our classrooms to be student-centric places, and the teacher still does most of the talking, what does that tell us? If we say we want independent, self motivated learners, and we still infantilise our students by spoonfeeding them with content, what does that tell us?  If we say we want to meet the needs of every child, but we don’t allow for their choices and preferences and learning styles, what does that tell us? The bottom line is that we need to ensure that our beliefs about what and how we teach are in alignment with what we actually DO every day, or things will always be out of whack.

Routines for building understanding… See-Think-Wonder, Connect-Extend-Challenge, What makes you say that?, 3-2-1 Bridge.

Mark wove many of these techniques (he called them “routines”) into his presentation during the day. You can find a more complete list of these routines on the Visible Thinking website. Some people might just call them common sense or good teaching, but they are still a useful collection of teaching techniques that I will certainly be trying to build into my repertoire of classroom skills. It’s far too easy to fall into familiar patterns of teaching, and I think especially so in a school like ours where, let’s face it, the kids are easy to teach, generally compliant and focused on passing the test.

It’s the questions our students ask, not the answers they give, that really let us see what ideas they are grappling with.

In most schools we seem insanely focused on getting our kids to provide answers. We test them with quizzes and exams. We get them to write factual essays. We ask them to solve math problems using the correct formula. We get them to do science experiments where we already know the end result. We seem to always want our students to be finding “the answer”, and the correct one at that. Instead, maybe we should restructure things a little to allow them to ask more questions. More wondering. More curiosity. If we can know what questions they have, we might have a far better insight into what’s actually going on in their heads. We’d get to see their thinking, to observe their understandings (and their misunderstandings). We would be able to see their thinking. Getting kids to give us “the answer” might seem like the obvious thing to do, but it doesn’t really let us see what they understand.

As I hope you can tell, there was lots of great stuff presented during the day, and most of our staff seemed very receptive and enthusiastic about it all. Something that I’ve felt has been missing at our school for a while now has been this common educational language or direction, and I’m glad to see that we finally seem to have found a focus we can all latch on to as we move forward. It’s really refreshing to have a whole staff focus on a shared pedagogical idea – visible thinking –  and one of the things I would like to see happen is the creation of some Visible Thinking study groups where keen staff members could openly explore some of these ideas with each other, sharing suggestions and best practice, and pushing themselves forward to become even better teachers.

I definitely want to be part of that.

The Connective Writing Project

I’ve been keen to get more of our staff blogging, since I know from first hand experience what a powerfully reflective process it can be. I’ve always found that taking the time to write causes me to think more deeply about what I do, it makes me more aware of the ideas and approaches that I’m using with those I teach, and it’s also made me a much better writer than I once was. I’d argue that blogging really helps improve your communication skills on many levels while building a stronger foundation for understanding your own beliefs and convictions. There is something both magical and affirming about putting your thoughts down in words, and even moreso when you decide to publicly share those words with others. As you can probably tell, I’m a bit of a fan of blogging (or connective writing, to borrow a phrase from Will Richardson)

During 2011, our school had the opportunity to apply for an AGQTP grant. This grant program is funded by the Australian government’s DEEWR as part of the NSW Quality Teaching Program and, in the case of our school, administered by the AIS. Its goal is to help teachers develop their own professional learning through the creation of action research projects. Our principal asked me to put a proposal together, which turned out to be about creating a blogging project for our Year 6 teachers and students.  It was quite successful, and as well as a complete written report, we also produced this 7 minute video to summarise what we learned.

I remember tweeting about the fact that we were applying for a grant to get our teachers blogging, and getting a reply back from my kiwi mate Allanah King asking why on earth you’d need a grant for that. Allanah, who is not just a fabulous blogger herself but a real pioneer in the ways she has used blogs and other social technologies with her students, found it difficult to understand why blogging had to be a complicated and beaurocratic process. She quite rightly pointed out that you don’t need a government grant to blog, you just need to open one of the many free blogging tools available and start writing!  And she is correct. But what the AGQTP grant process bought us was the time to do that. By providing the funding to get our Year 6 teachers released from class, we could set aside the time to learn this new skill in a far more focused and somewhat systematic and committed way. While it would be nice to think that teachers would just go and learn new skills in their own time for their own motivations, sometimes that just isn’t realistic, so getting some financial assistance to help build teacher capacity was seen as a very welcome thing.

As a follow up, I was also interviewed about this by Selena Woodward from CEGSA in Adelaide after she saw the video. Selena was intrigued by the deliberately open and public nature of our blogging project, a feature that I was insistent was critically important to the project. Blogging behind closed doors, without the potential for writing to an authentic audience, seems completely pointless to me. The South Australian DECS attitude to blogging is somewhat less open-minded. Some people refer to this reluctance as “the Upton effect” because of the shitstorm that DECS created a few years ago when they very publicly  showed their cyber-ignorance by closing down teacher Al Upton’s very popular class blog, the MiniLegends. The regrettable fallout from what happened to Al seems to have caused many South Australian teachers to be overly gun-shy of any online use that might be vaguely interpreted as “social”.  It’s such a shame.

Back in 2008, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote address at the CEGSA conference, where my topic focused on how important it is to be a connected educator, to form PLNs, to get both ourselves and our students connected and functioning safely in this highly networked world we live in. I blogged my thoughts about that keynote at the time, and looking back at that post now, and hearing that so many educators  are still just as wary and frightened of the online world as they were in 2008, makes me sad and disappointed for the kids in their care. It is disappointing that in the last 3 years, during which I believe we are finally starting to see far more educators beginning to understand the really significant shifts in the way technology is affecting the process of education, that there are still such outdated attitudes to learning online.

Overall though, I’m happy with the progress we made with our own blogging this year. It was progress. It wasn’t perfect, and there is lots that I’d change next year, but it’s a good start.

Catching up (and some slides)

It’s been a while since I blogged here, basically since I got back from ISTE about 2 months ago.  Not sure why, just been super busy. I’ve got a heap of things happening at work, exciting things that I’ll be writing about here soon, but it’s just been hard finding the time lately to sit and write.  I need to change that. I miss doing it.

I presented the keynote at the IWBNet conference in Sydney this morning, which was fun. The topic I was asked to present on was “Why Interactive Whiteboards”, and a few people asked for a copy of the slides so I’ve included them below.

Gotta fly, I need to be at the airport in an hour or so to catch a plane to Japan where I’m spending the weekend with Kim Cofino running a workshop for EARCOS called The Networked Educator.  I guess I’ll have more to write about that later!

The Interactive Teaching and Learning Masterclass Conference

I’m writing this from the Novotel Twin Waters Resort on Queensland’s beautiful Sunshine Coast.  It’s a hard life, I know, but someone has to do it. It’s been a spectacular day here, and I’ve managed to fill it with a bike ride along the beach, drinks at the bar, and lazing around the poolside area, so it hasn’t really been too hard to take. No need to feel sorry for me. I’ll be ok.

But it hasn’t all been just lazing around the pool and soaking up sunshine… The real reason I’m here was to take part in the first Interactive Teaching and Learning Masterclass conference, run by the good folk at IWB Net. I had the privilege of being involved as a presenter, leading one of the Cohort sessions and doing the keynote on the  Saturday.

The ITL Masterclass conference attempted to be different to a typical conference. Most traditional conferences have a pretty standard format… There is a keynote address in the morning, followed by a series of workshops or breakout sessions that are all organised well in advance. At these traditional conferences, delegates typically register, turn up, and hope that some of the breakout sessions will be useful, which, often, they aren’t. Despite the best intentions of conference organisers, making sure that delegates get what they need from a conference event is difficult, since a) most times, the delegates don’t really know what they need, and b) once a conference schedule is in place it’s hard to have the flexibility to adapt it to people’s needs on the fly.

If you’ve been to many conferences before, you’ll know that, often, many of the best conversations and networking happens in places and at times that have nothing to do with the organised part of the event.  Conversations over breakfast and dinner, at the bar, in the lift, during the breaks… often this is where the best stuff happens. It’s as though the “conference” stuff is the reason to get the people together, while the “un-conference” stuff is where they do the real connecting and learning.

This idea of the “un-conference” has grown in popularity in recent years, with the rise of Teachmeets and other un-conference style gatherings. A true un-conference event is highly un-organised, very much made up as it happens. The point of these is to not make it too organised or too rigid, and to try to find ways to make all the “incidental learning” the main focus of the conference and not just a valuable byproduct. Proper un-conferences can be quite chaotic to anyone not used to them.

It’s a double-edged sword of course. If you have too much structure in a conference it becomes inflexible and may not be able to meet the needs of the attendees.  But if you make them too unstructured they can easily degenerate into a mess where attendees get frustrated.  Some people like, and need, structure. Others prefer a more open and agile approach. What would be ideal is a conference that had the best of both worlds – enough flexibility so that attendees could make sure it met their needs, diverting and exploring into areas of interest to them, but still with enough structure so that it didn’t just feel like a bunch of people making stuff up as they went along.

I thought that the IWB Net team did a great job of trying to get the balance right for this event. There were five main aspects to the conference:

  1. a keynote address each morning to set the theme for the event
  2. a series of “cohort sessions” where a group of attendees could spend time doing a 6 hour “deep dive” into an area that interested them,
  3. a series of pre-prepared workshops on a range of topics,
  4. a series of un-conference workshops based on topics suggested by, and voted for, by the delegates during the event
  5. breakfasts and dinners (and the bar afterwards!) where conversations flowed freely

I’ve been to regular conferences where everything is prepared in advance and have sometimes found them frustrating because they don’t always cover what I want. And I’ve been to un-conferences where nothing is prepared in advance and have sometimes found them equally frustrating because they can be just too disorganised. As a hybrid conference model that sits somewhere between these two extremes, I must say I really enjoyed the format for the ITL Masterclass event.

I arrived at the event on Thursday night and went straight into a meeting where we discussed the possible topics for the un-conference sessions. A list was made, groups were organised, and volunteers stepped up to facilitate the sessions.

Friday morning kicked off with a keynote address from Steven Bradbury, Australia’s first Winter Olympic Gold medalist, talking about the idea of peak performance in sports. Steve is best know for his controversial win at the Salt Lake City Winter Games where he won gold after a massive crash that took out all the other competitors in the final. It was wonderful to hear him talk about his “12 years to become an overnight success”. His passion for the sport, his determination to succeed, the stories of his own setbacks and disappointments, all made for a really engaging and interesting talk. We got to hold both his Gold and Bronze Olympic medals, and I found the story of his journey to be very inspiring. The common theme in his story was passion, perseverance, persistence, never giving up, and realising that the gold medal was not a reward for the 30 seconds of the race, but for the decade of hard work that led up to it.

After Steven’s talk, we then started through the various workshop sessions. Some were pre-prepared, some were un-conference style, and we also began the cohort sessions.  I enjoyed the cohort idea… A group of people gathered around a central theme, working over 4 x 90 minute sessions to explore a topic in greater depth.

My cohort theme was Lessons from Leonardo: Dealing with Little DaVincis, and was predicated on the notion of imagining how we might teach differently if our classrooms were full of kids that were as curious, inquisitive, inventive, talented and productive as Leonardo DaVinci. Obviously, you’re not likely to have a whole class full of kids that just happen to be as bright and clever as one of history’s greatest geniuses, but I think if we went into our classrooms with an expectation that our students actually were like that, we might approach what we do a little differently. Over the four sessions I tried to facilitate my group through some deeper discussions about their own school, sharing insights and comparing notes. Then we looked at some of the tasks and assessments we ask our students to do, and tried to measure them against the Seven DaVinci Principles, as found in the book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci.

On Saturday, the day kicked off with my own keynote to the group, a talk called Passion, Purpose, Perspective and a Pirate Attitude. In this keynote, I tried to follow on from Steve Bradbury’s talk about what it takes to be a champion sportsperson, and explore a few ideas about what it might take to be a champion educator. It’s always difficult to speak to a group of your peers, especially ones that are clearly already good teachers, but I hope I did the idea justice.

Here’s a copy of the keynote, along with an audio recording I made and then synced up using SlideShare.

The rest of the day was spent mainly with my cohort group, as they worked to create a product or develop skills that they could take back to school and use. Some worked on creating their very own multimedia Credo for Teaching, as a statement of what matters to them as a teacher. Some took the opportunity to develop an assessment task for use with their students to incorporate some of the Da Vinci principles, and some chose to learn Scratch as a way of taking a cross curricula, whole brain, approach to learning. At the end of it all, they were a great bunch of people to work with and they produced some terrific end results.

Between those sessions, I also ran an impromptu Scratch/Picoboard workshop in the hotel foyer (or would that be an un-workshop) and also managed to get around and drop into a few of the un-conference sessions.  There was lots to see and do.

Overall, it was a great conference event, and I thought the hybrid format worked really well. Having the structure, but also the flexibility, was a nice balance, and I hope they continue to explore this new format.  A special thanks to the team at IWB Net for inviting me to be part of it.

I didn’t leave right away, and instead stayed another night before catching a late flight home. On Sunday I got to hang out with a few other folk who stayed on for the extra day, and after a late breakfast, Jan Clarke from WA suggested we rent a couple of pushbikes from the resort and ride up the beach to Mount Coolum and back. (OK, so riding along the beach was my idea… I’m not sure we were supposed to do that, but it sure was fun.)

I’m off to Canada tomorrow to spend time with Linda’s family and friends, then down to Philadelphia the following week for the ISTE conference. I just love being a connected educator! 🙂

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.