building our learning environment, one brick at a time

Six months into the academic year and I’m still on the journey to create the right learning space. Actually, 11 years into this teaching lark and I’m still on the journey however I’ve figured out a lot in that time as I move toward that perfect learning space (that I know I’ll never reach!). I’m definitely not a ‘sit in rows’ kind of teacher – completely pointless as I rarely have students do any task that requires them to look at the whiteboard or screen from their seats. I tried clusters of tables but found noise levels a little high as students called out across the space to those on the opposite side.

Here is my current layout which has served us well over the last term. The pods of tables are nested around central storage areas which also give a bit of flexibility for students to move chairs to the middle if they need to work collaboratively (but quietly!). It has also, somehow, given us the illusion of more space. We still have a carpet area which allows the class to sit in a circle when needed and a few hiding spots for those in need of quiet working nooks.

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However we still have further to go. The space we have is quite small and very boxy which is a bit of a challenge, albeit a common one faced in schools. We have a lovely outdoor area beyond our door with tables and seats which we have started to refer to as ‘our outdoor classroom’ which is in operation whenever the door is open. We’ve also adopted a shoes optional policy when inside the classroom which is making our carpet more sitting/lying friendly as well as having a positive ‘grounding’ effect on many of the students (and myself!)

Next, I’m on the lookout for a wider range of seating options – tall tables for those who prefer to stand as they work, a round coffee table for those casual meeting times, some blankets for cozy reading time. As a class, we’re getting better at noticing the way we like to work and making suggestions to change what we do or what we have to suit that. In the back of my mind, I’ve always got the amazing work of Stephen Heppell and others floating around, making me question, probe and push the boundaries of my current learning space and wonder what is possible. And I’m loving this journey 🙂

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

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)

leading schools in a digital age

I’m sitting on the train on my way home from the final session in this Bastow course which has taken me on a journey over the last 15 weeks, so this seems a fitting time to sum up what I’ve got out of it.

It’s quite simple and quite profound – I’ve gained a renewed passion for teaching. That sounds like a big statement but it’s definitely true. Prior to this course, I was certainly doing my job, and doing it as well as I could, but I felt like I was missing something. I thought it was student contact – I’ve been out of the classroom for over 2 years and thought that could be the missing piece. I love what I do and get a buzz from helping and learning with my colleagues, just like I did with my students so I didn’t think that was it. However re-exploring lots of the ideas about learning and what it should look like have made realise what was missing – I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong not with my setting or even my system but with education itself and didn’t feel like I had much power to do anything about it.

So, most of all, I’m finishing the course feeling empowered. And I am very much looking forward to seeing where that feeling takes me.

what is learning for?

I attended an event at Bastow this week titled ‘What is learning for?’ with Valerie Hannon of the UK-based Innovation unit. It was another great opportunity to have my brain stretched in different ways, with some aspects resonating and others making me question my own thoughts and beliefs.

Valerie spoke about the sort of future our learners will face – one with environmental challenges, diverse populations and change in concept about employment being amongst the issues. And how well are educational systems and society as a whole preparing learners for life in this world?

These are all things I think about a lot, particularly doing the Bastow course ‘Leading Schools in the Digital Age’. However I’ve never thought about a very large idea Valerie introduced – that the future will not just be of a different degree to change we’ve experienced in the past but of a completely different kind. This is an idea referred to in Al Gore’s ‘The Future‘ which is very much on my reading list after attending this event.

Valerie presented 4 levels of learning challenges for our educational systems and, indeed, for society:

  • planetary/global: with obvious implications around access to and management of resources as well as global citizenship
  • national/local: reinventing democracy, lifelong learning for all & sharing workplaces with robot workers
  • interpersonal: developing empathy, caring for those beyond our families, developing positive sexual identities
  • intrapersonal: responsibility for self including our health, fitness, mental wellbeing and self-knowledge

As part of our final Bastow assignment, a team from our school are considering change that we can implement in our school and I really like the framework of these 4 levels to help guide some of our thinking.

I’m sure I’ll have more blog posts to follow on this – just wanted to get out my initial thoughts before it got lost in the general fog!

leading. digitally.

I was fortunate enough today to hear Eric Sheninger, author of Digital Leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times. While I think I would have enjoyed hearing Eric at any stage in my career, coming towards the end of my Bastow ‘Leading schools in the digital age’ course, the timing is perfect. As I listened to his journey in leadership at New Milford High School, pieces I had been pondering over for a long time fell into place and questions that had been simmering were answered.

So what were my key take away messages?

If you want others to live it, live it yourself.
This seems pretty obvious but it’s something that I’ve been reminded of and how powerful and motivating it is. Particularly in leadership, what you do is so much more powerful than what you say, especially if the two don’t match. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the last few months of this course – I always try to be a positive role model to other staff (and students) but can I do more? Think differently? Am I modelling taking risks? Being innovative? My own personal and professional life is embedded in the richness that the digital world has to offer but do I model this enough for staff and students, letting them in to see the view from my window?

No excuse or barrier is insurmountable.
I’m not someone who easily gives up but the combination of Eric’s talk and the Bastow interactions have made me think differently and push the bar higher. There were things that I wasn’t thinking as barriers, just as ‘givens’ – timetables, subject boundaries – that I had to work with. I’m starting to see that, as long as your purpose is clear, the path can be creatively managed around an array of obstacles, regardless of who put them there or how long they’ve been in residence.

We have to blur the lines.
This definitely isn’t new – I’ve felt for a long time that the lines between ‘school’ and ‘other life’ were far too straight and solid. That many students, who have spent their weekends teaching themselves to weave loombands or play Minecraft via YouTube experts, turn their brains off at 9am on a Monday when school starts. If I’ve known that for a long time, what’s new? I feel like the momentum is there for change, from all directions and it’s time that we all agree that the lines have to blur. Or, preferably, disappear completely. School doesn’t have to involve students sitting in straight lines listening to an all-knowing teacher. Because learning certainly doesn’t involve that.

Just right texts…..digitally

There’ll be a different tone to this blog this year as I’ve taken on a new role which comes with a whole new set of hats to wear, metaphorically speaking. As of 2 weeks ago, I am a Leading Teacher – 21st Century Learning/Literacy. To say I’m excited would be a huge understatement – what an amazing opportunity to combine my two absolute teaching passions in a school that I love and with a leadership team I respect. There are certainly some nerves in there as well at the steep learning curve I face but I’m really grateful to have the opportunity.

One of my first roles has been supporting teachers in setting up their Literacy rich classrooms and planning for their Literacy time. Within that, there is a very big focus at our school (and throughout our Region) on ‘just right’ texts. Even though our school has intentionally chosen to call these ‘texts’ and not ‘books’, there is still the inevitable lean towards printed material and a small part of my job is to make sure teachers and students consider other options.

On Friday, I had the chance to do a lesson on ‘just right’ texts in a digital sense after being asked by one of our fantastic graduates how to introduce this. I started with an online text from British Council which we used for Shared Reading. At the end of the first page, we talked about whether this was ‘just right’ and one of the students said of course it was because it was read to us so we didn’t have to figure out any of the words. That lead to a great discussion about not only being able to read the words but also to understand what they meant and what was happening in this text – a quick check revealed that not all students understood what was happening in the first page so some other students jumped in to retell it in their own words. By the end of the story, students were very much attuned to what was happening, predicting future events and making inferences about how the characters might have been feeling. In the discussion that followed, one student offered that he sometimes knew all the words on the page but didn’t understand the story so perhaps that meant that his book wasn’t ‘just right’ for him after all. Breakthrough!

Students then worked in pairs to read/view/interact with texts on the iPads, focusing on whether they were ‘just right’ and ensuring this by asking each other questions and retelling what was happening. We explored The Numberlys, The fantastic flying books of Morris Lessmore, Barefoot Atlas and Dandelion and the classroom was abuzz with really rich discussions of stories, characters, motivations and predictions.

To conclude, we talked about how the digital texts were different or the same as the ‘just right’ texts in their book boxes and whether there were features that had helped or hindered their understanding. I had originally thought some of the features in the interactive books might be distracting but one student said he used them to act out what had happened up to that point and get it clear in his mind before moving forward. Another student said she did find the features distracting and couldn’t remember the story – she’d decided in the end it was because that text was too hard for her so had closed it and tried something else.

I’m certainly not suggesting that students constantly be fed a digital diet but this lesson opened these students and their teacher up to the rich possibilities for comprehension in digital texts and, I hope, added it as an important ‘food group’ when considering their reading and viewing needs in the future.

VITTA conference day 2

Day 2 of the VITTA conference was another inspiring mix of practical and thought provoking presentations that have me eager to get back into the classroom to try out new ideas and share some gems with my colleagues. As well as presentations from educators, there were lively and interesting keynotes from Mark Pesce and Suelette Dreyfus, contemplating digital citizenship, what it means and how it continues to evolve as the technology and our society do. However I’m mentally worn out after 2 days of intense contemplation and am going to keep this brief(ish!). Instead of the ‘running commentary’ I gave about Day 1, today I want to share a couple of highlights.

One of the sessions I attended was on games-based learning, the result of a DEECD initiative to support innovative practice in schools.

  • Meredith and Boneo Primary Schools presented on creating digital games using Gamemaker and the rich literacy practices that this supported. Encouraging students to build their back story, focusing on the verbs and nouns of game play, developing characters and providing structure through a design brief all take students beyond just ‘playing’ into a more critical approach that helps develop their skills as active digital citizens. Powerful stuff.
  • Fitzroy North Primary School presented on using SimCity as part of a civics unit. The aim of this was to provide Grade 5/6 students with a more meaningful experience and understanding of decisions and consequences when building civic infrastructure and planning for the needs of present and future citizens. Hearing about this, I could instantly imagine the excitement of students in such an environment, being given opportunities to not just learn about adult concepts but test, re-test and succeed at them, all in a supported yet challenging environment.
  • Pentland Primary School presented on Lure of the Labyrinth – this blog post summarises it much better than I could and gives yet more examples of engaged and motivated students being inspired and challenged with technology.
  • Balwyn Primary School presented on Quest Atlantis – an online, multi-user game where students can explore, extend and build collaborative skills with other ‘Questers’ from around the world.

I hope I haven’t missed anyone on the list – all presentations were packed with sound reasons that games are a great way to engage students and don’t have to be an ‘add-on’ to learning. Games are learning! I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic in future posts – it’s something I’ve been trying to incorporate effectively into the ICT lab for a while and, thanks to the presenters today, I’m hoping to be able to enthuse others at my school to extend that into classrooms.

My other highlight was meeting up with fellow educators who I have been talking to, sharing with and, most importantly, learning from for ages. The difference is, this is the first time I’ve met most of them in person. Fostering a PLN through twitter has made a huge difference to my development as a teacher and has made what can be a very lonely and isolated journey feel a lot more supported and encouraged. Catching up with like-minded people today was, therefore, definitely a bonus of such an event and was the icing on the cake.

Thanks again to the organisers, presenters and attendees who all added to the buzz of such a vibrant event. Now to get back into the classroom and see if I can take that buzz with me…

Leading and learning from the edge – VITTA conference 2011

Another conference, another blog post. This time it’s the VITTA conference with 2 days of ICT bliss at Caulfield Racecourse.

Managing in a constantly changing world – Roger Larson
The keynote by Roger Larson (Senior Vice President, Strategy and Market development, Pearson Platforms) was actually interesting and not the blatant pushing of product that I was expecting. It resonated as a lot of the points he was making are ones I’m grappling with as part of my PhD literature review – the nature of education, the fact we haven’t moved on much in the last century of schooling and the role ICT can play in personalising and evolving what it means to be a learner (or a teacher, for that matter).

Roger referred to some of the work being done in different places on 21st Century skills including those of the Partnership for 21st century skills, The New Learning Institute and Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century skills. In probably my favourite point of the session, he noted the power of technology – it can provide higher quality and personalised learning for all, if used effectively. He then gave an example of schools in London who were now connected to a Managed Learning Environment, bringing together a number of services, learning tools and resources and providing an array of options for learning.

The next part of the keynote was a promising but, as it turned out, over ambitious attempt at using technology to bring together legendary ICT thinkers from around the planet. Yong Zhao and Stephen Heppell were to be hooked up with questions fed to them from participants via the twitter feed however the technology was not up to the task on this occasion. The brief insights we managed to get from Zhao were definitely worth the wait and it would have been a great session had the technology worked.

Copyright in the digital world – Sylvie Saab

Sylvie Saab of the National Copyright Unit ran a very informative session on copyright as it applies to schools – not an easy or straightforward topic to deliver but she achieved a level of clarity that was refreshing. Copyright is definitely an area that many teachers shy away from due to its complicated requirements. However it is both a topic important for us to consider and vital to pass on an awareness of it to our students.

The most important resource is the Smartcopying website with a plethora of information about how the regulations apply to different types of media. There’s not much more I can say on the topic other than to urge you to take a look and be informed – ignorance is no excuse!

Are we there yet? – Lynn Davie & Christian Enkelmann

Another thought provoking session showcasing some of the work that schools are doing around the state to use technology to enhance student learning and provide a range of options for students and teachers. The work of Ringwood North Primary School in using technology to help students connect and contribute to their community and Silverton Primary School integrating technology across their school were both great examples.

The presentation finished with a list of challenges to using technology which would have actually made a good starting point for a ‘think tank’ type segment (had time allowed!). Challenges such as defining what we mean by digital literacy, balancing the need for a standard operating environment with room for individual school innovation and how curriculum and assessment fits in with opportunities for innovation all added extra ‘food for thought’ and are deserving of a discussion in their own right. Save that one for another day!

Education first: Using technology to accelerate learning – Nathan Bailey

This keynote stressed the overriding theme of not just the conference but of any time when ‘technology’ and ‘education’ are used in the same sentence – pedagogy first. Nathan spoke of the changing nature of society from a factory model back to a ‘global village’ and how this is being explored through social classrooms at Monash University. He presented interesting research including a great finding that students prefer lecture style presentations when delivered with PowerPoint, despite further findings that these were actually less effective in terms of student learning! Nathan noted that content was ‘no longer king’ and that community had usurped it’s place and that, if teachers were still focused on content, they needed to prepare to compete with the internet….and lose.

Multimedia making learning real – Lois Smethurst

My final session was a hands on exploration, ably guided by Lois Smethurst of Berwick Lodge Primary. An inspiring session full of practical ideas and different ways to use a range of tools – voki, voicethread, blabberize and tux paint to name a few. They’re all tools that I’ve come across before but Lois gave lots of examples for their use that I just hadn’t thought of and I’m now eager to get back into the classroom to try them out. If you need some inspiration, check out her blog.

Sorry for the long post, particularly after such an absence. Obviously an inspiring day and I’m looking forward to seeing what Day 2 has to offer!