From the campfire to the holodeck: Creating engaging and powerful 21st Century learning environments

As usual, I’m using my holidays to plough through my pile of books which I collected throughout 2015 and didn’t get time to read. This one – From the campfire to the holodeck – has been shouting at me to read it for a while and, having just finished it, I can officially say my mind is expanded.

In this book, David Thornburg takes us through some different ideas about spaces (both real and metaphorical) for learning – campfires, waterholes, caves and life.

Campfires are where learners gather around a more experienced person and learn from their stories. Sound familiar? It should – this has been the dominant educational paradigm forever. Or at least a really, really long time. In most classrooms you walk into around the world, this is how most students will be learning, for most of the time. And there are far too many ‘mosts’ in those sentences.

Waterholes are where peers gather and learn from each other through conversations, working together and general social interaction. The latest buzzword for this is ‘collaboration’ but how many times are we truly allowing our students to learn with and from each other? And how often is this valuable time cut short so we can move on to the next thing?

Caves are spaces for quiet reflection and contemplation – time to be alone and think. I think this is an area that needs to be worked on – how much time and space do we give to students to do this?

And life is the practical space where all of the skills and knowledge acquired in the other settings come together to be put to work. Taking the abstract and making it real, giving it purpose. Transfer the knowledge gained across disciplines and see how it all fits together.

Before you start imagining students running off to build caves under tables and setting fire to your carpet, these aren’t necessarily actual spaces, more ways of thinking about learning and the different ways it happens. However some people involved in classroom design have certainly gone down a more literal path and I can see how this could be quite successful.

Further chapters in the text talk about how these spaces can be seen and utilised in the virtual world and how technology can support such a framework.

Most mind-blowing of all is the section of Thornburg’s book about holodecks. These very game-like spaces allow learners to be immersed in real, captivating scenarios where learning is critical to the success of the mission (not just required to get a good score on NAPLAN). At first, I will confess to being a little sceptical but, by the end of the chapter, I was completely won over. I’ve now started reading a little more on the work of Woorana Park Primary in Melbourne – looks to be an amazing school doing truly groundbreaking things.

My mind is well and truly buzzing right now, full of possibilities and ideas. As well as a few potential walls (and people to convince). So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my cave for a while to contemplate. Catch up with you around the waterhole about it later…

105521304_e0f096f2a3_zimage ‘By the campfire‘ by Cape Cod Cyclist at https://www.flickr.com/photos/capecodcyclist

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Contemporary education – what it is and what it should be

I’ve been going through some boxes which have been gathering dust in my garage (as I’m prone to do over Summer holidays) and have stumbled upon something which has me a little sad, a little perplexed and, if truth be told, a little angry.

It’s an essay I wrote in the early stages of my Masters of Education (Educational Technology) which I started in my 2nd year of teaching, 8 years ago. The topic? What role should technology play in contemporary education. However, more than just a discussion of technology, it was a lot more a discussion about contemporary education itself – the role of education in the present day, how it manifested itself in classrooms around the world, what role teachers played in all of that and what educational researchers, commentators and futurists thought of it all.

My initial smiles as I reminisced turned into a haunting realisation that this essay contained all the ingredients of what education could and should be vs what it was. And that none of this has changed since 2007. Or, really, any time in the 1800s.

Now I feel a little disheartened as well as being a bit angry. At myself mostly. I remember the person who wrote this essay – full of idealism, enthusiasm and a solid and unshakeable belief that we could change the path of education in general. I remember being so excited at all the different ideas and possibilities I was exposed to during my Masters study and where such knowledge and innovation could take education into the future. So when exactly did I sell out and go along the with the flow?

This takes me back to a life-changing presentation from Misty Adoniou earlier this year encouraging us to stage a revolution (albeit without a t-shirt and untelevised) where teachers stand up for what we know is right in education and push back against trends that aren’t in the best interests of the students we have in front of us. Particularly trends which are started by politicians and those who have a vested commercial interest. And, for me, this does include researchers who are in the pockets of big education businesses. I understand that research needs an outlet for dissemination and financial backing but wonder about those who choose to go down strictly commercial pathways rather than allowing their research to reach the most students possible, without the massive price tags of the educational publishing marketplace.

Next year begins a new chapter for me – I’m returning to the classroom after 3 years of visiting them as a literacy coach. I think I owe it to myself, my students, my colleagues and the profession in general to spend the rest of my holidays stoking the fire of the teacher ‘I used to be’ and start the year full of idealism, enthusiasm and that solid and unshakeable belief that we can (and should) change the path of education. My apologies if I come across as a little bolshy – Misty started it 🙂

Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

The title of this blog post comes from another blog post I stumbled on via Linked In recently, which talks about James Dyson and his thoughts on the creativity process.

Finding this blog post came at the perfect time, as I have been thinking a lot about creativity, innovation and how they work. This is partly from a teaching standpoint – how can I teach my students to think more creatively and be innovators? How do I help them see that they aren’t just ‘ping’ moments that happen to Einstein but are things you can plan for and work towards?

I’ve also been thinking about it from my own perspective – how can I be more creative and innovative as an educator? In the post linked above, Matthew Syed wrote about how to be creative, you first need a problem. As an educator working in a system which still has many remnants of 100 year old schooling, problems are definitely not in short supply. I’m in a very fortunate position to be working somewhere that is giving me opportunities to look at some of these problems and think creatively; to reconsider and adapt some of the supposed ‘givens’ of school life. Hence why I’ve become so interested in the process.

I’m at the start of this journey and I know this blog post is necessarily sketchy as I grapple with all of this. I’m sure there’ll be a lot more posts brewing – these are a great way to get out my ideas and thoughts and reflect on what I’m learning, doing and seeing. It’s kind of like Dumbledore’s pensieve – taking the strands of thought out of my head and putting them here for safe keeping so that I can view them when needed and make sense.

Stay tuned 🙂

5276887620_f4d6e10e22_zPhoto by Eric C Castro (adapted from an image by Alec Couros) via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Stop dumbing it down – a message to authors of children’s fiction

One of the lovely roles I have is as an occasional book reviewer for ALEA and it’s a job I love. Every now and then, I get sent some books to read and the pile is very diverse in age range, topic and genre.

Sometimes, I get some absolute gems. Picture books that are well crafted with rich language and evocative illustrations, holding you on the page. Short stories which artfully build up in a limited amount of words and often leave you wanting more. Novels with great characters (and not so noble characters) which you can identify with and walk alongside.

However I have noticed, both in this role and in my general obsession of reading young people’s literature, that the diet being served up for children is not always rich and high quality. In particular, I’ve recently read quite a few shorter novels, pitched at the grade 2-6 market which are the literary equivalent of burger and fries – quick to produce, quicker to read but with no substance. Stories without quality storylines or themes. Characters who are shallow and 2 dimensional. Even worse, Australian authors who feel the need to write as if they are American, borrowing colloquialisms and stereotypes from their culture. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that books embracing American culture are bad or that I don’t enjoy them, just that I’d rather see Australian culture celebrated and reflected in books that purport to be Australian).

Most importantly, what I’m seeing is books completely bereft of the rich language of literature. For some reason, it appears that many authors feel the need to ‘dumb it down’, particularly for this age group and I don’t understand why. Picture books generally have a fantastic array of language – why, as children get older, should this disappear? I vividly remember reading all sorts of literature as a child – The Railway Children, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Heidi (read to me as a 4 year old), even Les Miserables when I was in Year 7 (thanks to my older sister studying it at University). I didn’t always understand all of the words or sentiments but that was part of the mystery, challenge and, dare I say it, fun of reading. It became a problem to solve, a secret to uncover and a world to explore. It also gave me a plethora of new words to try to fit into dinner time conversation (usually incorrectly) and surprise my parents with.

So, authors, I implore you. Don’t be tempted to turn your ability to craft rich and amazing tales into a mass produced, assembly line of fast food books. Young people need to be surrounded by quality literature which lets them explore and experience their world in all its richness and diversity, from the safety of a comfortable reading spot.

How to grow your own word detective

I haven’t always been passionately interested in spelling. During my first year or two of teaching, I will admit to being similar to so many teachers – frustrated with my student’s attempts, reaching for commercial spelling programs and over-reliant on the ‘look cover write check’ method.

Initially, I put it down to the fact that I had been one of those children who ‘just got it’ when it came to spelling. And reading and writing for that matter. But it wasn’t something I was born with – it was a product of the environment I came from.

From a very young age, I saw the power that words held. They mesmerised my Mum when she relaxed on the couch and read, ignoring whatever yells and screams were coming from me and my sisters as we fought over something petty on rainy afternoons. They earned praise for my sister when she brought home writing from school to show my parents – those words on the page made them smile and say how proud they were of her. And they earned a lot less praise for my other sister when she brought home her school report. I didn’t know what the words said but Mum & Dad clearly did and it wasn’t good. Powerful things, those words.

Growing up, I began to understand how certain words could achieve different things, depending on where they were used and who you gave them to. If I used certain words or phrases at school, teachers listened to me more (for positive and not so positive reasons) and different words and phrases would get me attention at home. A whole other set worked with my peers. As a teenager, I realised that using a certain tone in my speaking and writing made others see me differently and allowed me to build a picture of who I wanted to be, no longer limited by socio-economic or geographic limitations. I saw the power of words take my sister through Year 12 and into University.

Wanting to use and play with that power, I chose to become a journalist where words were my only tool and the product that I spent so long crafting each day.

So I didn’t just ‘get’ reading, writing and spelling. I was raised in a literacy rich household where I had daily demonstrations of the power and wonder of language, almost guaranteed to make me curious. And my reflections on my journey through word curiosity is why I now am so passionate about spelling and words and literacy in general. Ultimately, language has power, whatever age you are and whatever your postcode is. Some children are fortunate enough to be born into environments swimming with rich examples, while others get demonstrations of how limiting it can be when you hold an incomplete set of tools or the wrong ones to do the tasks that you need. Getting children excited about words helps them fill their own toolbox and unlock that magical power that language holds. How can you not be passionate about that?

ALEA conference – Day 3

The final day at the ALEA conference was shorter but just as rich as the previous 2 with a large range of keynotes and workshops available – too many good ones to choose from!

Deepening comprehension through digital inquiry, collaboration & participation – Julie Coiro

Julie started the day with a focus on comprehension of digital, specifically online, texts. I was very interested in some of the research she quoted which stated that, while 35% of the reading comprehension required for online texts could be predicted by a student’s offline comprehension, 15% required a different skillset unique to the online environment. Worryingly, 18% of student’s assessed in one study couldn’t name the author of a website while a staggering 73% of them couldn’t offer any evaluation of the author’s expertise. These insights present us with a challenge – how to teach the broad range of comprehension skills needed for both online and offline texts?

Julie walked us through how to use the familiar gradual release of responsibility model when teaching students about online inquiry. Using scaffolds such as Google custom searches and initial use of more structured, authentic tasks to guide students through the process both support the development of important skills and can be used at all levels.

I was also lucky enough to attend Julie’s workshop session in the afternoon which stepped in more detail through the process of guiding an online inquiry. Various resources demonstrating this can be found at this site, as well as some great support materials here and here.

Importantly, it’s the fact that there is so much ‘more’ when reading online that makes it challenging and we need to help our students learn how to successfully navigate, evaluate and filter the information and resources they need.

For the love of words: Fostering curiosity about spelling in the primary classroom – Sami Wansink

This was a workshop being run by an early career teacher with a incredible passion and clearly a very sound understanding of both content and pedagogy. Most of this workshop was already familiar but I’m really glad I attended anyway – it reminded me how important it is to get students excited about words and to do all we can to wash away the stigma of spelling which so often lingers.

CAFE: Empower students to take an active role in setting goals for literacy improvement – Joan Moser and Gail Boushey

I had been really looking forward to this keynote and wasn’t disappointed – I was very lucky to get a seat as it was clearly a very popular session.

I’m not particularly familiar with the CAFE model, other than that I’ve heard teachers talk about, usually in glowing terms. I suppose my biggest reason to attend this session was curiosity – both about the model and about ways I can support my staff with conferencing.

Joan and Gail spoke about the CAFE model generally but were specifically focused on what conferences with students looked like within this. What appealed most was that their advice was firmly grounded in both more formal research and in searching for solutions to problems they have experience in the classroom.

They talked through the whole process – from assessing individual, through discussing and setting goals with students to reviewing goals and modifying instruction. They talked about their own experiences in setting goals but not getting anywhere, only to realise the goals were too large and the strategies not specific enough. This led to their guiding question – what are the 2 strategies that the student needs in the next 2 weeks that would make the biggest difference in their reading?

Another key point for was about how voracious our readers need to be. While I’ve certainly moved students forward and set goals in their reading, I don’t know that I’ve been specific about page numbers and quantity however research from Richard Allington shows that the amount and the speed that students read both have an impact on their reading skills.

And so ends the ALEA conference for another year. As usual, it has been a rich and thought provoking few days which have reinforced some of my beliefs and practices and challenged others. I’ve also really valued the networking opportunities with colleagues across a diverse range of settings. Well done ALEA & I hope to see you in Adelaide next year!

ALEA conference – day 2

Another huge day of wondering and questioning which reminds me why I love to blog – this is my reflection time, when I try to distill the essence of the messages I’ve heard and consider what the implications are for the world/s I inhabit.

Ignorance killed the cat: What’s left out of literacy research & policy, and the implications for teachers’ knowledge and practice – Peter Freebody

Peter Freebody spoke about the need for educators to be ‘research savvy’ and not just blindly dismiss or accept research and this was something that instantly resonated with me. There has been such a push over the last few years about ‘research led practice’ however few stop to consider whether they have the knowledge or experience in this area to really make sense of and evaluate the research in question.

To demonstrate this, Peter spoke about both PISA and PIAAC and highlighted some of the results that the media don’t focus on – that girls consistently outperform boys in reading on PISA but that the situation is flipped when adults are tested, with men outperforming women. More than asking a simple ‘why?’, he encouraged a deeper ‘what’s going on here?’ to look into it from all angles and beyond just the results.

Considering what’s included in research and what’s missing is an important step towards evaluating its value. National/International level reading data, for example, rarely breaks reading down into the different skills of readers (and frequently isn’t even testing all of those skills in the first place). Knowing this, it makes sense that, as reading isn’t a single entity which an individual can be graded on, there can be no silver bullet which will fix/move/change/extend all learners. As a complex set of skills which even more complex humans acquire at different rates, both our data and our responses need to be tailored to individuals and their needs.

Key message – Literacy is complex and data often tries to make it look easy and neat. Don’t be sucked in and make sure you understand the story behind it before you start believing and acting on it.

New media & new learning – Mary Kalantzis & Bill Cope

During my Masters and PhD studies, I spent a lot of time quoting these two but it was the first time I’ve actually seen them in person. Mary’s comment about Australia’s general reluctance to mandate when it comes to education, instead leaving the door open to creativity instantly struck a chord. And, like Peter Freebody before her, she reiterated the diversity in our students and their needs and, therefore, how it was inevitable that there wouldn’t be one right way to teach them all (as much as politicians may try to convince us otherwise).

Bill Cope then took up the narrative, reminding us that

the classroom is a 19th century invention to pass knowledge from the teacher to the student

and that many new technologies and trends (such as flipping classrooms, e-textbooks and electronic whiteboards) simply repeated old pedagogies rather than replacing or reinventing them. Instead, he proposed using the affordances of technology to build the classroom as a knowledge community and change what learning environments could be.

An example of this is Scholar, an online creation and collaboration tool which allows learners to create multimodal texts, seek and provide others with feedback and contribute to a purposeful learning community. I only got the opportunity to look briefly at it today but am keen to explore further. Equally in need of further exploration are the amazing range of resources on Bill & Mary’s website.

Key message – Learning is at the heart of what we do, as teachers & as human beings. Schools and classrooms are social constructs that meet/met specific purposes but aren’t immovable, prerequisites for learning. Technology is pedagogically neutral yet can be a great enabler through the affordances it provides.

What do teachers of literacy do? The importance of speaking up, speaking out and speaking loudly – Misty Adoniou

Misty unapologetically told us her session would be ‘bolshy’ & it really was the perfect tone for her message – teachers need to speak up, speak out and speak loudly.

Why?

  • because our work is important: We don’t always know it but we have a huge impact on children’s and, later, adult’s lives, within classrooms and long after they leave them
  • because others get it wrong: Misty gave some great examples of this from politicians and those appointed to positions of power over education (but rarely educators themselves). My favourite was Christopher Pyne who claimed that:

    Everyone’s been to school; everyone’s an expert in education one way or the other

  • because if we don’t speak for those who need us most, who will?: Misty challenged us to think of who our curriculum represented and whether all of our learners would be able to see themselves represented in it. It’s not hard to see the answer when you consider who wrote it and reviewed it.
  • because we need to for our own happiness: Misty shared a quote from a first year educator she visited, who summed up what so many of us feel after being dragged through the wheels of education for a few years. She said to her:

    Don’t let me forget the teacher I wanted to become

Most importantly, Misty encouraged us to find our ‘desire path’ through the curriculum to keep our spirits alive and to make sure we speak out – in our classrooms, our staffrooms and wherever we can. Because it matters. She described it as a revolution, albeit one which will not be televised or have a theme song or a t-shirt. But be part of it anyway.

Key message: One of Misty’s comments summed it up nicely – if you don’t engage in the politics of teaching, others will run it for you. So speak up. Speak out. And loud.