Sunday, 28 August 2011

From the Tobacco Tin to Personalised Learning Environments

It is hard to believe but the first personalized learning environment that many of our older generation experienced came courtesy of a tobacco tin. Most children, back then there were no students, carried a tobacco tin filled with their sight words. These were written by the teacher for each child. They included the twenty basic sight words, the child’s name, their family, friends and favourite things. Children practiced these words, created sentences and copied them into their exercise books.

An early educator in New Zealand, Sylvia Ashton-Warner championed the rights of the child to have an education that was personalised for them as the learner. While teaching in Taranaki she recognized that Maori children failed to progress through the reading levels until she developed readers that related to their every day experiences. She believed that a child’s native imagery was the key to creating a powerful learning environment for that child. Without an understanding of the undermind of the child then education failed to meet the needs of the many, especially those who were not white, middle class, New Zealanders' of English descent.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner's story of the banana in the satchel is particularly relevant when considering personalising a students learning environment. When about to add a book to a satchel a student notices a banana lying at the bottom. The student can either remove the banana or stomp it down so that the book can be added. Too often, she lamented, education stomped on student’s prior knowledge until it was reduced to mush, then added what was considered important. Students’ experiences were considered irrelevant or a hindrance to the learning process.

The art of identifying and using students experiences can have powerful results. Dame Marie Clay’s work in the 1980’s focused on working with students strengths before adding new learning. The first task of reading recovery was to identify what a student knew. Armed with this knowledge the teacher spent the next three weeks consolidating the student’s prior knowledge and working only with what the student already knew. After this period students moved into developing new skills. With three weeks focused on what they could do as a reader the student’s approach was more likely to bring about success. Students often achieved in twelve weeks what had eluded them in twelve months, the ability to read at their chronological age.

When considering personalisation in this day and age educators must ensure that the starting point is not the capabilities of the technology but the experiences and the needs of the student.

Documentary: Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Building Capacity

If we keep doing what we have always done then it is obvious that we will get what we always got.

When I was a child we had a go-cart. It went rather too slow for our liking so we set about modifying it. First we worked to reduce weight and drag. The improvement was not to our liking. We shifted the focus from throwing things away to adding things on. We added a four stroke motor. We all hated mowing the lawns anyway. The result initially involved a hedge but with a few driver improvements was very much to our liking.

The third options for changing our behaviour in regard to making time is a shift in energy from reducing to a focus on building.

When seeking help for workload and time issues there are more books available than there is time to read them, let alone effectively implement the fabulous ideas they contain. These solutions often look at tasks and focus on; managing, organising, prioritising and eliminating distractions.
Another path to take is to increase capacity by focusing on that which is closest to the heart. Not the mechanics of how to do the job better but why do the job. Ask the big "why" question about your occupation and then go further. The real answer to creating capacity is in the many small tasks that eat up the twenty four hours in each day. Filtering the little tasks through the big “why”, critiquing them before acting or for that matter choosing not acting. Steve Jobs once said, “I am as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”
Although time is constant, knowledge is not. Until seventy years ago it was believed that there was only one galaxy. Plate tectonics became fact in 1968 when the observations that was published four hundred and fifty years earlier was proven scientifically. Knowledge is fluid and subject to change. In the guide Enquiring Minds produced by Microsoft and Future Labs the authors listed three types of knowledge; functional, cultural and critical.1 Critical knowledge is understanding and critiquing the forces that shape us and our world. Defining the “why” requires exploring this type of knowledge.  In developing critical knowledge, common practices and widely held assumptions need to be challenged. There is a requirement to research, to read, to watch, to ask, to discuss and to stay informed. Building critical knowledge allows a deeper understanding of the “why” that underpins each day. It builds cognitive capacity which impacts positively on how time is used.

Although it defies logic, to make time, we need to change our behaviour and spend more time researching and understanding “the why” in what drives us.

(Develop your Critical Knowledge)
Many Galaxies

Plate Tectonics:

Enquiring Minds

1. Three Types of Knowledge
This classification is derived from the work of Lankshear, c (1998) Meanings of ‘literacy’ in education reform discourse. Educational theory 48 (3).

Monday, 6 June 2011

Teaching Multi-Tasking

Time is constant but a change in behaviour can effect what can be done in a given time period. This is the second blog in a series of three and explores the advantages of multi-tasking.

In 1992 I read a great little piece about time. The article has long gone from my life but the words “I’m tired of feeling tired of feeling tired in this non stop world of ours…” often bounces around in my head space particularly when I consider what I know and what I think I should know.

The non-stop world of 1992 was a data trickle compared to the digital avalanche of information that hits the web each day today. If you think you can keep pace then read the following Washington Post article or watch the USC clip and accept that in 2011 no one knows everything that needs to be known about any given topic. Information anxiety is an ever present companion for learners of today.

In Susan Scotts book “Fierce Conversations” she  talks about the loss of possibilities when a conversation stops or is muted. Multi-tasking is one such conversation which stops before dialogue begins. Amongst many in the teaching fraternity multi-tasking explains the demise of concentration and why the mental health of many are at risk as people lose the ability to tool down and contemplate. On the flip side the supporters can not imagine why anyone would choose to uni-task when multi-tasking provides so many opportunities.

Life long learners need to give attention to both concentration and contemplation to succeed throughout life. Knowing how to multi-task and when to take a break are important skills that need to be taught in our connected, digital world. Work published by the following authors; Norman Doidge, Small and Vorgan, and John Medina provides access to research on how the brain functions when faced with multiple tasking.

Four points filter to the top in regard to multi-tasking.
1. The brain processes different tasks in different regions. So two or more tasks can be processed at the same time as long as they use different regions of the brain. Students need to be able to identify the primary task and ensure that it is not competing with any other tasks in regard to brain function. This avoids the loss of performance caused by dual task interference.

2. The aptitude for multi-tasking is not fully developed in children and is one of the first aptitudes to decline in the aged. However, children who multi-task are aware of when they are not learning and they need the opportunity to change their learning conditions when necessary. They are capable of self-regulating.

3. Multi-tasking needs more time than uni-tasking. Focusing on one task reduces the time required to complete that task if the appeal, attractiveness and fun elements keep the student engaged. Often these elements are difficult to inject into the learning. Joining the primary task with low cost activities that improve motivation, completion rates and do not reduce overall performance reinvigorates the learner.

4. Students need to learn to identify the most effective time to switch or to interrupt a task. There are natural points for task switching or interrupting someone during a task that allow students to return to the task with the minimum of loss. Just randomly pulling the plug on a device is unwise, so to with learning.

With informed use multi-tasking can allow us to achieve more in a given time period. Multi-tasking should not be the only mode for living but when used as part of a balanced life it can enrich the time available.

Richard Saul Wurman (2002) information anxiety: "the gap between what you know and what you think you should know"

Washington Post: Rise of the digital information age.

USC Annenberg School: How Much Information Can the World Store and Communicate and Compute?

Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations
"If the conversation stops, is muted, becomes less authentic or if we add another topic to the things we are unable to talk about... Then all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and all of the possibilities for the people in the relationship become smaller until one day I overhear myself in mid-sentence making myself smaller in every encounter, behaving as if I am just the space around my shoes."

Norman Doidge, MD. The Brain that Changes Itself
CBC Documentary:

Dr. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, iBrain. Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind

John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

Sunday, 15 May 2011

An Idea Whose Time has Come

One of the mantras that can be used to reflect on teaching practice is, “What story am I telling and what do I get out of it”.

One of the stories often told is that there is not enough time to do what needs to be done.
For those that exercise on an excercycle the indisputable fact is that five minutes is always three hundred seconds no matter how fast you go or how fit you are. There is nothing to be gained by fighting the inevitable, time is constant. The only thing we can change is our behaviour in any given time period.

This and the next two blogs explore three stories on changing our behaviour to make time.

In teaching much time can be saved by choosing the right time. In the days of old one was reminded that a stitch in time saved nine and one was encouraged to strike while the iron was hot. A version of Victor Hugo's quote says it best though, "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come." 
Over the last few years there has been a challenge issued to classroom teachers to move from the idea of the "just in case approach" to the "just in time approach” to the delivery of content, skills and process. In 2006 a keynote at a New Zealand conference shared this concept and created a ripple effect in classrooms around the country. I was faced with the challenge to embrace "just in time" to better meet my students needs or defend my practice in light of this approach. I researched all I could on the Internet, talked with colleagues and grappled with developing a workable model that improved student learning within my classes. My trials left both myself and my students dissatisfied. My experimentation had robbed students of valuable learning time that I could not replace. 

Five years on and the landscape has changed drastically. A growing number of students and staff have inexpensive mobile devices. Many schools and homes are wireless and mobile networks deliver internet to the places in between. It is time to tell a different story. The computer in your pocket, the iPod/iPhone/android/cellphone or the iPad, the netbook or the laptop give people access to a world of information.

Already teachers use YouTube for delivery of content and skills using a variety of entertaining and informative video clips. The access to information through online encyclopaedias, Google and sites like Wolfram grows daily. Social networking sites are creating opportunities for learning conversations between people separated by time and place. The creation and sharing of content has never been easier.

Today people  are living just in time lives in their homes. Watching MySky or TV on-demand, finding tonight’s dinner recipe on the net and watching YouTube for instructions to change the brake pads on the car. GPS is the new map book of choice. Today’s first call when sick is not Mum. The internet is the new medical expert giving that first diagnosis or the reassurance that the doctor might just be right.

Students can rightly ask, “Can school give me anything that I can’t get on the internet quicker.” Teachers need to design learning within a digital environment and students need access to content and skills that are relevant to their learning when they need them. Teachers play a pivotal role in guiding students along their learning journey. Using their skills and knowledge as educators, teachers make the learning easier for the students and give the learning context. Just in case can no longer keep up with identifying and delivering what students need to know from all the information available today.

The answer to making time is constructing the learning in the digital world. The time for “just in time” has arrived.

The last word must go to my iPhone. Recently while I enjoyed a coffee at the Kakaramea Hotel, I checked my iphone for the time. From the screen of the iPhone the following wisdom was shared, “There is no time available when there is no cellular connection”.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Making Connections

During lunchtime the social challenged child sits beside the popular kid in the school computer space. They chat about how to modify the cheat codes in marble blast. The positive online interaction spills over into real life, creating a positive connection between individuals that would otherwise have at best avoided eachother. One of the four vision statements is "connected". What authentic opportunities do you provide for today's digital students to connect authentically with eachother within their learning environment. 

Technology is a powerful enabler. 

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

ePortfolio or Web Portal

In the early 1990's parents were parents and teachers were teachers. Few institution other than Parent Centre paid much heed to parents as teachers or developing a home school partnership in learning. The concept of life long learners was more of a threat to the masses in a time of growing redundancies and unemployment.
At this time New Zealand schools began sending students home from primary schools with portfolios. These large scrapbooks contained annotated examples of their work that documented their learning during the year. They came home with the mid and end of year reports and provided teachers and parents with real examples to discuss when they met for the parent interviews.
The portfolio was designed for a particular purpose at a time when multimedia was technical and the internet ran at 14k on dial-up. 
Jumping forward to 2011, there have been incremental changes to the portfolio. The greatest of these for some schools has been the digitising of the content. The challenge has been to bring the students learning together in one place on the internet and to have it accessible all year round and beyond.
Travelling along the developmental timeline with the eportfolio has been the online learning environment. Often these two concepts blur into a single task that has many teachers suffering from techno brain burnout even before anyone mentions social media and digital citizenship.
The eportfolio lies just beyond the grasp of many classroom teachers. A promised land perceived to be inhabited by the truly dedicated and skilled teachers of the future. The failure to produce an eportfolio that works for all students and teachers lies not in the dedication of teachers, the design of the software or the implementation but in the basic concept. The portfolio has been part of the learning landscape for less than twenty years. It is time to create a model that meets today's needs. A model that takes advantage of today's technology but is not driven by a need to be an expert in that technology. It needs to be as simple as the introduction of the ball point pen was to the school room. It has to be easy to implement and the advantages must be immediately obvious. 
A web portal to student learning is one solution I am exploring this term. It can be best described as a starting point people can pass through to travel into the student's personal learning world. This model creates one place for students, teachers and family to go to in order to enter the student's learning space anytime, anywhere. Today's tools easily allow areas to be open to the public or closed to all but a selected few. Templates can be developed to allow schools to define minimum content but not limit the enthusiasm and creativity of individual teachers and students.
The best place for a teacher to start is with their own web portal. The Virtual Learning Network offers a place to start. Why not sign up and create your own space now.
Remember the golden rule as stated by Confucius:
Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.
Create your own web portal before you ask your students to do the same.

My Student Web Portal (Under Construction)

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Creating Connections

Watch this 5 min video then read on.
(Remember iGen students prefer processing pictures, sounds, colour, and video before text)

Historia de un letrero. (Story of a Sign)

The context in which we experience an event, regardless of whether we are passive views or active participants shapes our connection to that event and those in it. As teachers of the iGen student the challenge is to create a context that takes students beyond the zombie zone where they are desensitised by digital media.

Alonso Álvarez Barreda uses the sign to create different connections to the man and his limitations. "Have compassion, I am blind" gives the viewer permission to distance themselves from the man. To be desensitised. Consider that the word compassion comes from an old french word meaning "suffer with".  It is difficult as an adult to develop a real connection with someone whose suffering is outside our experience. Brain research shows that the tween-agers and teenagers of today are still developing the ability to understand or share the feelings of another. It is even more challenging for students to relate to the man and his limitations than adults who should by adulthood have developed their prefrontal cortex for processing decisions that affect others.

The second sign, "It's a beautiful day and I can't see it" moves the focus from the man's disability to the viewer's ability. To be able to understand and share the feelings of someone who can not enjoy the beauty of the day depicted in the film is within the experience of all those who are viewing the film.  The beginning of the short film, showing the rich tapestry of life in which the man sits creates the context where the viewer connects with the reality of the man's suffering. The viewer is able to suffer with him when they consider what they can see but the man is unable to experience. The context created by the second sign provides the connection that moves the viewer from the zombie zone to empathy.

The vision statement in the New Zealand Curriculum states that young people need to be connected. They need to be able to relate well to others, to have empathy. Digital media is a powerful medium to build connections, to create empathy. The challenge is to carefully craft the context in which digital media is used and not de-sensitise students by bombarding them with digital content.

Give credit where credit is due. Use the original film "Historia de un letrero"
A shortened English version is available as an advert for Purple Feather. Much of the complexity of the five minute short film is lost in this version.

To view the tsunami in Japan from a context that creates empathy to go the following youtube clip. The clip is shot from a school.

Note: If you are over 18 (iGran) you probably read the blog to decide whether you would watch the clip. If you are under 18 (iGen)  you probably watched the clip to decide whether you would read the blog.

Related Resources:
iBrain - Small and Vorgan
Understanding the Digital Generation - Jukes, McCain, Crockett. 2010
NZ Curriculum Document.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Subtleties of Human Interaction

When I lived in Fiji my house girl would often baffle me. When I asked if she would like a cup of tea she would reply, "Vinaka".
Vinaka means both yes thank you and no thank you. Nancy explained that it was the manner in which you said vinaka that indicated what you meant. After three years I could still not pick the difference and Nancy had no doubt drank enough tea to last her a lifetime.
The subtleties of body language and facial expression is something we learn over time from face to face interaction with real people. It is widely believed and backed up by current research that if you don't use neural pathways you lose them. Teenagers need to spend face to face time with real people to develop an understanding of the emotional experiences of others. They need to be able to understand and share the feelings of another. This takes practice and can not be learnt without real interactions with real people, in real settings. Constant use of digital devices for entertainment and communication threatens to weaken the neural pathways and development of areas of the brain that recent brain research shows are set down during childhood and the teenage years. Areas and pathways that relate to social and reasoning abilities.
I never developed the correct neural pathways to identify the difference between vinaka and vinaka and as a result Nancy drank far too much tea. One hopes that we do not fail in allowing our students of today to develop an understand of the subtilise of another. Such a failure could have devastating results if those students become the negotiators of the future.
So what does this mean to the school of today. Consider ensuring students have time to learn together from each other. Break times need to be a time to tool down and learn to interact with real people. Don't close the computer labs where students have to share and interact but do put away students' personal devices.
The one to one computer environment needs to be mixed with a one to one people environment.

Read the following books to find out more about current brain research:
iBrain - Small and Vorgan
Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, - John J. Medina
iPhone App: 3D Brain

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Social Networking

The iGen student described in "Understanding the Digital Generation" Juke, McCain, Crockett (2010) prefers to "network simultaneously with many others."
Blocking of social networking sites creates an environment where students use unprotected mobile networks to maintain their social networks at school. I do not advocate the use of FaceBook for students of Primary or Intermediate age students. It has little merit as a communication tool for this age but can provide easy access to images that are relevant to the student. 
Schools today need to create an environment that allows students to choose the correct tool to network for learning and for social interaction within school. Learning to use the right vehicle for getting the message across, along with adapting the content to the audience have always been important skills for both students and adults.
Education needs to realise that social networking sites such as Facebook are used by a large cross-section of society to maintain both social and business networks. More than 500 million Facebook users makes it a mainstream communication tool. Teachers need access to social networking sites. They need to be one of the 500 million so they can engage in those powerful conversations with students around appropriate use of the internet for learning and for participating in society. I need to state again that blocking of social networking sites creates an environment where students will use unprotected mobile networks to maintain their social networks at school.
Explore Facebook for your own development. If you want a social networking solution for your classroom try Twiducate.

In April the staff watched an iGen Presentation that introduced the seven preferences explored in the book mentioned above. A great read. Watch the presentation here. 

Mobile Networks in Schools

When I think back to 2003 and the dangers of searching Bill Clinton on the internet I still break out in a cold sweat. I do not support free access to the internet within schools. A combination of web filtering using such agencies as watchdog and self managing which sites are unblocked has provided an opportunity for schools to teach students digital citizenship within a safe environment and creates many rich learning opportunities. Up until 2009 I was confident that our internet security at school protected students and staff from objectionable material including reducing the number of emails of questionable origins. 
However the network landscape has changed over the last 12 months. A significant number of students have their own mobile phones and now also have internet via the mobile network. The telecom stick, vodafone's mobile modems and 3G enabled computers and iDevices are giving students affordable access anytime, anywhere.  All our security at the network gateway to the school offers no protection to these students and their peers that share their devices.
With this development the focus on digital citizenship gains more importance for the students and teachers of today. 

The Arrival of the iDevice

There is a tipping point with the introduction of any device and the iPad is no exception. For education the tipping point is when the focus changes from how it works to what it can create. From that point on it becomes a natural part of the learning ecosystem. 
Today we do not spend time marvelling at the construction of the ball point pen, we simple use it to create. The cleanliness, easy of use and relative in-expense have faded into the background.   
In "Everything Bad is Good for You", Stephen Johnson talks about the time it takes for a technology to reach 50 million people.  The tv took some 50 years. How long will the iPad or tablet device take and what are the implications of this ever increasing speed of change to the field of teaching. 
To view the Apple Bus Tour Presentation go to my eLearning site

The Blogging Challenge

As a six year old I remember staring at a blank page and not wanting to make that first mark. There is nothing wrong with a blank page. No miss-formed letters that are not sitting on the line. Dutch is not spelt incorrectly. Nothing is crossed out, scribbled out, rubbed out through to the next page. It is a page full of potential, unrestrained by the abilities or lack there of, of the author. 
The moment the idea is carbonised on the page it is set. Closed. It becomes open to public scrutiny, to interrogation, to challenge. As an adult my fingers hover above the keys waiting for the courage to make that first mark on a blog post. A blog that will be full of the insights and ponderings of a learner from a little country school who has been around this world for awhile.