One Door Closes, Another One Opens

Well, I think this is exciting news…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight. Short. Years.

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

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

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

Lipstick on a Pig

I was looking at school websites tonight trying to find some information I needed and I stumbled across a school that I won’t name, but on the front page of their website they had these two rather ironic images on display in a slider…

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I’m fairly sure that neither of these images qualifies for the claim they make of “Best Practices in Education” or “Advanced Learning Environment”.

Is it that schools simply don’t get what those terms mean? Or are they just marketing to parents who don’t understand what those terms mean? I’m not sure, but I do know that images like these completely devalue any real sense of best practise or advanced learning environments because the school clearly doesn’t know what those terms actually mean.

A school is not innovative or modern or advanced or “best practice” because it says so in their marketing brochures. It needs to actually BE those things it claims to be.

Adding phrases like that to images like this is simply just putting lipstick on a pig.

I’m a Horribly Inefficient Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

Be Better

I want our schools to be better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we owe these things to the next generation.

Lessons from the Yamanote Line

Last weekend, I was in Yokohama doing some workshops with Kim Cofino for various groups of teachers in the Tokyo/Yokohama area, including the current COETAIL cohort. It was a heap of fun, and I’ll write more about that later.

On Monday, I spent the day running PD for staff of Yokohama International School, and I was asked to do a short presentation to get things started. The brief was just to present “something inspirational”, whatever that meant. To be honest, my mind was drawing a complete blank and was quite lost for an idea. I went back to the hotel room on Sunday night – my last night before returning home to Australia – and started working on my presentation. I was really quite stuck for an idea, but I was also keen to get it done so I could go out exploring some of the Japanese sights on my last night there.

I got to the point where if I stayed in the hotel room working I knew I wouldn’t see anything so I just decided to go out exploring anyway and hopefully something would come to me before tomorrow morning.

This slideshow is what I came up with. As I stood there at a Japanese railway ticket machine with absolutely no idea how to use it, unable to read the instructions, feeling quite anxious about heading off to explore a strange city I didn’t understand, it occurred to me that this is what all learners must feel like as they launch into unknown territory. I reasoned that I would be talking to many teachers the next day who perhaps felt equally anxious and unsure about exploring the world of technology. Maybe there were lessons I could learn from my night out on the trains of Tokyo that might serve as a useful metaphor for my talk the next morning.

I took a collection of photos from my travels on my iPhone, and then used Keynote on my phone to put this slideshow together whilst on the train. By the time I got back to the hotel (an adventure in itself!) the slideshow was 95% done. I did end up importing it to my Mac to add the finishing touches, but it was essentially produced almost entirely on the iPhone.

I don’t claim it’s a perfect metaphor, but hopefully there are a few lessons in here that might be useful to anyone moving into a world where they feel strange and uncomfortable.

Push Me, Pull Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!