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

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.

Becoming literate in a media rich world

I was fortunate enough to present at this year’s ICTEV conference and happened to be in one of the rooms they had chosen to film sessions in. I’m not sure I like being filmed and am probably more critical of my presentation with the ability to playback and dissect it but I thought this wouldn’t really be a complete picture of my journey as an educator and learner without it so here it is! If you’re interested, there is also the presentation that I delivered.

I really enjoyed the opportunity and the conversations it prompted with participants after the session as well as the chance it gave me to clarify and articulate my thinking on the topic. Now that I’m over the hurdle of my first presentation, I’m looking for opportunities for the next one. Hopefully without the nerves 🙂

ICTEV 2012 – Creativity, networking & inspiration

I’ve spent a thoroughly inspiring day at ICTEV 2012 and have come home with a head swirling with ideas, half formed plans and a list of things to explore. After such a full and thought provoking day, I’m not sure that I have the energy to write in detail about the fabulous presentations I attended but I’m going to try to summarise my ‘take home’ messages…

  • Despite a frequent cry amongst some in our profession that we’re overworked and unable to find any spare minutes, an assembly hall full of educators were willing to meet on a Saturday to talk, learn, share, question and ponder.
  • Kids learning from kids, either live or through screencasting/tutorials, is powerful. I thought I was already doing this but now realise I’m not doing it enough. ‘My teacher has no rewind button’ – screencasting and video tutorials provide that facility.
  • It’s not about the technology, it’s about the pedagogy. Think ‘why’ first then ‘what’ and ‘how’.
  • Multimodality is here but it doesn’t just happen and kids don’t just create it. Like every other form of literacy, they need support and guidance to get the most out of it and understand all it is capable of achieving.
  • Teaching teachers to use technology is easy, getting them to relinquish control is the challenge*.
That’s my day, in a nutshell. I promise to blog more as I explore some of the tools and ideas that I gathered today but just wanted to get my immediate thoughts out there before my head hits the pillow. Big thanks to ICTEV & to an active and motivated PLN for organising, presenting and tweeting such an amazing event.

My profuse apologies to whoever I quoted this from – it was in one of the fabulous presentations but I can’t remember which one. Poor form on my part, I admit. But too important a message not to add to this recap!

Making my own ‘creative connection’ at ICTEV

For a while now, I’ve attended professional learning sessions about ICT in education and been enthused, inspired and, often, blown away by the creativity and ingenuity of other educators. While I’ve delivered professional learning at my own school (daunting enough) to share ideas I’ve had, I haven’t previously had the confidence to take it further. Who would want to listen to me? Are my thoughts and knowledge really worth sharing?

So, in another fit of ‘resolution setting’, I decided this year would be different – I submitted an abstract to the ICTEV Creative Connections conference and, to my utter delight, it’s been accepted. We received the program at school yesterday and I proudly looked at my name in print. The session I’m presenting is a culmination of lots of ideas, many of them that came together during my literature review for my PhD as well as some things I’ve observed in the multitude of classrooms I’ve been part of. I’m really looking forward to sharing – now I’m just crossing my fingers that people find it interesting enough to come along!

ALEA conference day 3


My first session was a keynote by Maureen Morriss, an educator most recently working in New York, helping schools and teachers develop their teaching capabilities in Literacy. A key message I drew from this was the importance of thinking of the intention first before selecting the appropriate tool – Morriss noted that many educators use Interactive Whiteboards as plugged in blackboards, rather than using the capabilities of these boards to fundamentally alter their practice.  The other key message that really resonated was that the age of the teacher as all knowing wise owl is gone (thank goodness!) and that we need to amend our teaching accordingly. It gives us the perfect opportunity to model for our students the qualities of lifelong learning and what that looks like as an adult taking on new ideas and experiences.

Next was Maggie Garard of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, talking about multi-modal teaching and learning strategies and resources. While some were similar to those outlined in the session I attended on Friday, I liked some of the insights she gave about promoting digital citizenship. In particular, I liked the advice that we need to help students understand all facets of publishing online and not just the physical act of doing so. They need to be aware of the potential for feedback (both positive and negative) and other people using or remixing their work, with or without their permission. The clips of Noah and Saskia that she showed could be used to great effect as part of such a discussion.

Other resources were also outlined that could be used as valuable tools in a range of classroom programs including Kahootz, the Learning Federation website and the Australian Screen collection. All have been around a while and you may already be familiar with them but I appreciated the refresher and will be rediscovering them as I tackle my planning for Term 3.

I followed this with a session with Michele Anstey and Geoff Bull on creating multimodal texts in a multiliterate classroom. This was a fantastic presentation which asked us to consider the different semiotic systems which are drawn upon in multimodal texts – linguistic, visual, audio, gestural and spatial. Their presentation gave practical suggestions about how to tackle teaching some of the various ‘grammars’ associated with each of the semiotic systems through the construction of a multimodal text. They stressed the importance of the ‘before’ in the process – considering a design brief, planning to ensure that appropriate aspects are used to meet the purpose, appeal to the audience and are relevant to the context of the piece. If you want to know more, check out their new book, Evolving Pedagogies – Reading and writing in a multimodal world and the supporting website to the text. I left this presentation wanting to immediately head back into my classroom to begin planning, excited by the possibilities for looking more deeply into ‘consuming and producing’ multimodal texts.

And on that positive note, I shall end my coverage of the conference. Overall, a fantastic experience and opportunity to network with other educators and sample the happenings from all corners of the globe. Probably my only real criticism was the lack of internet access for either participants or presenters which I think was both disappointing and ironic considering the topic of the conference. We are living in a multiliterate, multicultural and multifaceted world and acknowledging that by ensuring that the discussion could be carried on with others not present in the building would have been a small but important step. I look forward to next year’s conference in Sydney and hearing how this conversation about the evolution of Literacy in ‘new times’ develops in classrooms, staffrooms and research centres throughout Australia and the world. No one can deny that we are teaching in exciting times!

ALEA conference day 2

Day 2 of the Australian Literacy Educators Conference started with Gay Su Pinnell, a guru of Literacy and an inspirational speaker. The key point for me was that we need to help develop our students’ skills in thinking about what they read, rather than just decoding the print. I particularly liked the idea that comprehension of a text begins long before you begin to read – it’s about connections you can make to other texts/the world around you/your experiences, your understanding of genre and conclusions you might draw about the author’s intentions. All of this before you read a single word.

While digital technology rated only a cursory mention in the presentation, it struck me how much more this applies to reading or writing in more recently developed forms. Understanding why an author might write a blog and what they aim to get out of it is important to help gain meaning from their words. Reading an article on wikipedia requires a few supports that go well beyond just decoding – thinking about how it was created, how it links to other works on the topic, what the authors’ purpose was in creating it.

Another element that really resonated was that as well as reading appropriately levelled texts, they should also have the opportunity to read age/grade appropriate texts to allow them to participate in discussions with peers. It’s not always easy to facilitate this in the classroom but with flexible thinking, it can be done. Text to speech features on e-book readers, audio versions of books or other students/teacher recording a reading of the book can all help those students participate fully. As Pinnell said today, even if students can’t read at grade level, they are often thinking at grade level.

Another keynote I attended was by Associate Professor Susan Hill  who noted that multimodality is not something new, invented in a digital age but has been associated with storytelling for generations. This youtube clip she showed demonstrates how quickly a four month old baby recognises the multimodal nature of storytelling. Associate Professor Hill reported on some of the findings of teacher action research projects undertaken in oral language of pre-school students, comprehension in pre-schools and young children’s digital skills. An interesting finding in the study on comprehension was that, while exposing children to a range of language prior to school gave them a grounding for school literacy, being explicit about vocabulary and meanings in their formative years was more important to aid their comprehension. It sounds obvious but isn’t necessarily something we think about with younger children. Food for thought.

The final keynote for the day was Trevor Cairney who spoke eloquently about the power of words and the need for literature rich classrooms. In discussing this, he stressed that narratives are everywhere and aren’t just about printed forms but include oral storytelling, jokes, anecdotes and digital representations. However he distinguished literature as ‘the pinnacle of where narrative is seen.’ He shared some rich and beautiful picture story books with the audience and spoke of the potential affordances of e-books which, he believes, are as yet unrealised. He also questioned whether some students were distracted by the ‘play’ features of some of the gadgetry and not focused enough on the text. I think this can be a problem in whatever form a ‘text’ takes – how many times have you read a story with a young child and found them playing with the cover or overly concerned with the end papers? While there might be more avenues of potential distraction with a digital text, that also means there is more potential to hook in the reader. More food for thought.

Due to such a busy schedule, I have only focused on the keynotes in this post but I also managed to attend a range of other presentations. Throughout these, one thing I did notice was a leaning towards traditional, printed forms when talking about literacy. While digital bits were included and some great examples given, more often than not they were an afterthought or talked about in a vaguely negative light. As if accessing a digital text was somehow less worthy than opening a printed, bound book. Perhaps it is because of my own generally defensive attitude towards educational technology or it was just the presentations I chose to attend. Either way, I’m looking forward to another day and seeing what insights it has to offer.

Roll on Day 3. . . .

Literacy in a digital age – Day 1 of ALEA conference 2011

The Australian Literacy Educators Association Conference kicked off today and I opted for the ‘Literacy in a digital age’ stream. In the fabulous and inspiring surrounds of ACMI, a small and varied group of educators came together to ponder the evolution of Literacy.

Brett McLennan of ACMI started off with a thought provoking keynote, ‘Towards a transformative Literacy’ which instantly resonated because he referred to the skills needed in a participatory culture originally identified by Henry Jenkins. He talked about learning as a 24 hour, 7 day a week activity, not something that should (or could) be restricted to school hours. Why are we making students turn off when they walk into the classroom? As proof of how much of his own life is lived and enjoyed online, he showcased a great tool in Intel’s Museum of Me, taking your facebook information and turning it into an impressive digital resume of your life online. Brett also touched on the ethics of living online and some of the dilemmas we face both as users and educators, citing a case demonstrating the greyness of the area – Virgin Mobile’s use of a teenager’s flickr photos under Creative Commons licensing. He ended with probably the key message for the conference – the fundamentals of literacy will always be there but the balance and the details are changing. And we need to keep up.

The next session was by Deborah Cohen of Australian Children’s Television Foundation on ‘Engaging Gen Y with digital learning strategies’. Unfortunately, not one that resonated so strongly as her references to our current students as ‘digital natives’ hit a nerve (read my recent blog post to understand why!) and I felt the presentation was aimed at an exclusive subset of the audience – those born pre-1965. However, as always, the ACTF’s resources are of top quality and it was great to be reminded of them – their YouTube channel has some gems and the My Place website is a good complement to an excellent book.

Session 3 was on Cloudstreet by Tim Winton and walked us through the extensive and well thought out website to support the mini-series. We were also treated to insights into how the book evolved into a screenplay from Producer Greg Haddrick. The book might be too old for the age group I teach but it has inspired me to wipe the dust off it and read it. It’s been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile next to my bed for over a year.

Project CLaim are an inspiring bunch of educators from Canberra who are working hard to re-engage Secondary school students who are struggling with Literacy. Through a multi-pronged approach with authentic experiences at its heart, they have experienced success, trialling Kindles to promote reading, having students publish a street magazine to promote writing and providing mentoring opportunities for both University students and Secondary school students to support their skills development and raise their self esteem.

Next was Vincent Trundle, also of ACMI who spoke passionately about video games and their role in literacy and education in general. He demonstrated that games can be beautiful (such as machinarium) and highly motivating (such as minecraft) as well as being fun. Vincent also stressed the importance of children as producers of content in terms of games, not just consumers. He noted that the process of thinking through how a user will experience your game is similar to telling a story albeit in an advanced, multi-threaded way.

Finally, Elise Hurst took to the stage and gave her take on the future of books from an author/illustrators point of view. She provided a thoughtful appraisal of the possibilities for and benefits of e-books including their ability to regenerate out of print books and provide an outlet for new authors unable to get a foot into the current, competitive market. Her artwork was a beautiful background to the Plenary and showed the power of the visual in conveying messages. A great way to end the day.

So that’s day one – looking forward to seeing what day 2 has to offer!

literacy in the 21st century – what does it look like?

I’ve just finished reading a report by Henry Jenkins and others titled ‘Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century‘. As you would notice, I haven’t blogged much recently and the fact that this has moved me to do so should be testament to the effect it’s had.

The report shifts thinking about literacy from being an individual skill that we acquire in isolation to being something we gain and use through involvement with others. It discusses the ‘participatory culture’ that many youth are involved in through media and technology but which is lacking from many of our classrooms. The report also highlights a number of important skills – a set of ‘new literacy skills’ which participants need to be part of this culture.

I won’t go into great detail about the contents of the report other than to implore you to read it. Some of the ideas in it were ones I already had floating around as something I was conscious of in the classroom – the importance of promoting play and how to develop skills in multitasking.

However there were other ideas that I had never thought of before but that suddenly sound like absolutely perfect sense – distributed cognition and collective intelligence. I love this idea that intelligence is not something an individual has alone but is shared across their environment, artefacts they have access to and people they connect with. Looking at knowledge through that lens changes how we see students and their interactions with technological tools. A student accessing Google or using a calculator is not ‘cheating’ but using another part of their network of resources to complete their task. Why do we have to have all our knowledge in our head for it to be deemed valuable? Can’t it be considered equally valuable that we know where to get resources, how to use them and when they’re appropriate?

The list of potential literacy skills required to work effectively with new media is exceptionally valuable and would be a good one for all teachers to consider. I particularly liked a comment later in the report about how teachers shouldn’t see teaching these skills as an ‘add-on’ in what many see as already a bursting school day. We should see them as an integral part of how we teach literacy. Of how we teach in general.

I do understand the larger constraints that classroom teachers are subject to and how it can feel we have limited control over the day to day teaching that goes on in our classrooms. In Australian classrooms at the moment, the focus will, unfortunately, probably be on persuasive writing in a very narrow form thanks to NAPLAN testing which is due shortly. However I don’t believe this is an excuse to ignore reports such as these. It’s not about adding more into the teaching day, it’s about rethinking how we teach.

I think I’ve said enough for now although I’m sure this will be an ongoing train of thought…..

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Too dumb for complex texts – my thoughts

I’m catching up with my reading and came across an article in Educational Leadership titled ‘Too dumb for complex texts?‘ written by Mark Bauerlein. The article talks about the failure of graduating high school students in the US to adapt the academic rigours of University and blames this on the lack of study of ‘complex texts’ in high school.

My first reaction to this was a strong ‘ouch’. It sounded like so many opinions I’ve been hearing/reading about of late about the dangers of technology and how detrimental it is to students’ futures. Having thought a little more about it, I’m willing to agree on some of his points. There probably is less of a focus on the study of complex texts in schools than there previously was. I’m also willing to concur that this may be having an impact on students undertaking higher education as they are unfamiliar with the expectations of the academics teaching them. Do I think this is necessarily a bad thing? No. Perhaps we are pushing students into that form of higher education who aren’t really interested/equipped to deal with it. Do I think University is the life solution for everyone? Absolutely not. ‘Higher education’ comes in lots of forms, shapes and sizes and each type suits a different type of learner with different intended outcomes. If some students are finding it hard to engage with texts at a University level, perhaps it’s because the path they’ve chosen (or been encouraged to choose) is not right for them. Some students will thrive in these environments, despite being brought up on a diet of ‘digital diversions’ and will adapt their reading, comprehension and analysis skills to a variety of situations and text types.

I’m not suggesting that students do not benefit from a well rounded diet throughout their schooling and would hope that they continue to experience a variety of texts, ranging from timeless classics to modern digital feasts. However I’m wary of pushing a concept of schooling with the sole intention of preparing students for University. It’s not just this article that I’m reacting to with that statement, it’s a general feeling that I’m developing from Government policies in Australia as well. The purpose of education is a huge and contested topic but, in my classroom, I like to think I’m trying to prepare students for life. That ‘life’ might include further study at University, TAFE or an apprenticeship but it will also include relationships with others, managing and enjoying leisure time and finding meaningful pursuits to help them develop their self worth and place in society. Understanding and negotiating digital texts plays a huge role in all of that and, therefore, has an equally large part in the school curriculum.