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Challenging established learning orthodoxies May 31, 2008

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I have just read the following post from David Warlick’s blog and it strikes more than a passing resonance with me! How do we teach and how do we learn when it comes to working with peers and colleagues?

One of the banes of my life is getting staff to update their web pages. At the start of every term we have a series of staff meetings dedicated to allow the staff time to update their pages. Several of the staff on the Supertanker diligently bring along pad and paper to each and every one of these sessions each term and write down the exact same set of instructions to update their web pages. They reassure me that they need to do this as this is how they learn. However they do not seem to see the irony in their actions. If this were a valid learning method for them, then logically the notes would be taken once and then used on subsequent occasions as a reference manual. This is clearly not the case, as each session, each term starts with a brand new sheet of paper and a shiny new pen. This learning orthodoxy is further challenged as there does not seem to be, on behalf of my colleagues, any improvement in knowledge retention, we always have to start at the begining. We never start at just a few clicks along the continuum.

I always wonder just what happened to the reams of identical instructions that they have taken from past sessions? I also wonder at the complete waste of time that these instructions represent! They are obviously some kind of crutch, a panacea to get through the session but are not actually an aid to learning. We are obviously, teacher and student, stuck in a behavioral cycle that benefits no one. My questions now are these?

  • How do I encourage staff to throw away their crutches, roll their sleeves up and just play with the software?
  • How should I adapt my teaching style to encourage my colleagues to discard their paper and pencil learning orthodoxy in order for them to become masters of and not slaves to the software they have to use?

I have created all manner of instructions in pdf format, html format and have stored them on our Intranet for future reference. I have worked 1:1 with these staff, I have created ‘how to videos’ but to no avail, we make no progress. The whole cycle is a negative self fulfilling prophecy. My own teaching behavioral pattern is a sequential one, I can not see how else to teach a necessary, defined series of steps in any other way, other than sequential, yet clearly I am failing my students. At the same time my students and their learning orthodoxy, when applied to learning how to use software, is clearly not helping them.

To answer my own earlier question about the missing written notes; I suspect that rather like Zaphod Beeblebox’s illicit trade in stolen biros, the reams of instructions written by colleagues like mine on the Supertanker and others like them all over the planet end up as drafts for Computing for Dummies!

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Countdown to Prague May 31, 2008

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I leave for Prague on 19 June and things are starting to hot up. Helen and I have been collaborating via Skype to put our presentation together since March 5th when we heard that our paper had been accepted. In that time we have been shuttling backwards and forwards various iterations of our slide show (yes PowerPoint!-in truth I have created it on the Mac using Open Office Presentation and then embedding the Flash videos in PowerPoint. I have spent some time using Blender to animate our school logo for the presentation ) At the moment we are on our 6th iteration and even that has been modified several times in the last week. There is nothing like a looming deadline to bring out the jitters.

In the last week in particular I have been burning the midnight oil working not only on the slide show but the script too. Not that we are going to read our paper, it is just that we are working out exactly what needs to be said in relation to each slide. This process is fiddly enough when preparing a presentation individually but in our case, working as remotely as we do, it has proved very time consuming. In this particular case we seem to dove tail very well and despite the long hours the show is looking very good; on three nights this week I have stopped working well past midnight, by Friday I was very jaded . We are finally starting to feel OK about our presentation. When we actually get to meet and work together on 21 June, we can then put the final touches to the show.

Part of our anxiety is knowing exactly how to pitch our paper. We are not sure yet how many people we will be presenting to and what the composition of the audience will be. We are hoping that our audience will comprise fellow classroom practitioners, however the conference is being held at the Charles University as part of its 660th anniversary celebrations. Therefore the conference could be more academic than practical or collaborative, if this turns out to be the case is our paper of sufficient rigour or of a standard that we can be proud to present to an audience not of our peers? Time will tell, but by the early hours of this morning I had completely re-written the script (again!) It is now time to draw a line in the sand, be satisfied with the quality of the story that we have to tell and as the Nike ads implore us, just “do it.”

I knew that when I wrote the last paragraph, I would not be able to resist making some changes…. Helen had re-read the script overnight and had sent her alterations back. Having had a good nights sleep and having read her alterations, all good, I have spent several hours again today tinkering, each editing pass makes the script tighter and more polished. When will we stop tinkering? I doubt that we will!

I am sure that I can squeeze a few more edits in between now and June 19!

It is all coming together… May 29, 2008

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I was on the phone today to the guys at Novell, letting them know of our open source plans, they were very keen to hear more and we discussed options for “…getting the word on the streets.” We are pushing ahead. After I put the phone down I ordered 22 HP small form factor workstations. 5 of these will go into our new library and will represent the first of our true open source machines in school. Our library software AccessIT is based on an open source database and so the OPAC machines will be swapped over to the new system one at at a time and then the two issues machines will follow. The remaining machines are all destined for our ICT suite and will be dual booted in the first instance. However on the Windows partition I will load up all the open source windows variants that will be on the other Linux partition.

I am hoping to actually link Open Office Writer to the MS word icon and see if anyone notices the difference! I will simply package the new software as the latest update and see who squeals. I suspect that not many will. The biggest issue will be the actual swap from a Windows interface to the SUSE desktop environment and getting these Windows users to stop thinking like a Windows user to get things to work.

Today we got our first server built with SUSE server 10, early days yet and it has no function on the domain other than to be a Linux machine! We have also dual booted another couple of legacy laptops without any bother. We would have done one of the AP’s machines, but she was out on a course. She will be our first advocate in the field to run with our dual boot platforms.

Today has also been good for other reasons to. I have been hatching a plan to share our wonderful gully online for a while now. You can see it from Google Earth and in this video I made last year to let the students at Woodford know where we are in the world. It is my intention and has been for a long time to get a wireless gimbaled web cam set up at a bird feeding station somewhere in the gully so that we can share our wonderful resource online. I will stream live to the web and record the feed of Tuis feeding or whatever aspect we decide to record. The live stuff will be played via Mogulus and the recorded stuff will be played while we are offline and asleep, again via Mogulus so that the Northern hemisphere and other time zones can share in our bounty. Today I hope to have convinced one of the teachers on the supertanker to design a G+T course to create feed stations to attract the birds to the camera and in addition to investigate the potential to create a solar panel array to keep the camera charged all the times without the need for cables everywhere.

Finally today marked the start of this year’s robotics challenge. The students are excited and I am raring to go. This years challenge is designed to be a display at the art exhibition at the end of term three. The students have to build a standard NXT out of the box robot and then design an arm that can carry a whiteboard marker pen. The pen has to be able to be lifted and dropped so that they can control where the pen makes contact with the drawing surface. They will then have to write a program or programmes that create art, watch this space as I upload videos of their progress. Thursday afternoons have never been such fun, that is since the robotics programme on Friday mornings last year!

Voicethread – collaborative questioning May 15, 2008

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It has taken a bit of effort to organise, but I think that the end result is worth it. The latest buzz tool to go around the blogsphere is Voicethread. For those of you who have yet to discover the delights of this programme, you need to see my tutorial on the ‘How to…‘ page of this blog.

Today I decided that it was time that my blog practiced what I preach and have decided to make this space my own Grand Central Station (personally I would prefer to call it Paddington, for obvious reasons but that is not the location of the well known metaphor) for all of my initiatives, including the video tutorials that I create for my cluster. I digress.

Over the last few weeks i have been setting up with two classes here on the Supertanker and with two classes at Woodford Junior School in Plymouth, a questioning initiative. It works like this. We have sent head and shoulder photos of each other and they are now displays on our respective class walls. We have exchanged names but the names and the photos do not correlate. Each child has been paired with a random student from the other school. Their job now, through careful observation of all the photographs and careful questioning, is to work out who their partner is. The questions posed have to be answered by the partner and the word picture built up will then help, through reasoning, the students to identify each other. As this process continues the students will glean additional information and this additional information will be included into a combined Inkscape artwork that the children will shuttle backwards and forwards to each other as they work on the same work in opposite time zones.

On Tuesday I worked with both sets of students in New Zealand and in England. Already the project is highlighting all kinds of assumptions that students make about those around them. As the students in the UK were recording their questions to us and listening to their own partners questions to them a whole raft of challenges to the accepted norm arose. The first was names and how to pronounce some of them, the second was accent or dialect, more and more of these little issues will arrive. We started to explore these issues last year with our “My world through your eyes” initiative. Trying to explain to Kiwi kids what a pastie was or what or where Bodmin was, was an interesting exercise as was Tip Top Corner and Te Kuiti to the UK students! We all make assumptions about our immediate environs and those that are not privvy to that local knowledge listen to what might as well be gibberish as it has no connections to their own collective consciousness.

Helen and I are quite excited about this latest collaborative project. The questions and responses are being collated on our voicethread, check out the initial efforts of the students this week:

Meadowbank / Woodford Voicethread

Just like a London bus… May 14, 2008

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…you wait and two come at once!

I have had two fantastic events happen this week. The programme for Prague has been released, I now know when and on what day I am presenting with Helen. It is all coming together and almost daily Helen and I are working on our presentation. When we finally meet at Gatwick airport in June we will then have the opportunity to polish the presentation further.

Going back to Gatwick for the first time in many years will be rather nostalgic as I used to pass through Gatwick airport every day on my commute to work. I used to live in north London and commute to Gatwick, to where our large photographic studio was in one of the warehouses at the edge of the runway. We were right next door to the Virgin Airlines training facility, complete with a mock up of a 747 cabin for passenger refreshment delivery training…

It has been an interesting exercise in professional collaboration with Helen not only to get the entire tohatoha project off the ground, but putting this paper and presentation together. It has taken a lot of effort on beahalf of both of us, but the results have been more than worth it. There has been a spin off, I will be visiting Helen’s class on 30 June and the school has asked me to make a presentation to them at a staff meeting that day, before I get the train back to London and my flight to Athens (long story). Now I am working on that presentation too.

The second bus of the metaphor is that I have been approached in the last week by ICT learning in Kuala Lumpur to run some workshops and speak at one of their conferences in August. This connection was made through Greg Adams at Interface magazine, thanks Greg. This is exactly the kind of thing that I want to do, reach out and share to the greater teaching world, the potential of ICT and especially the raft of online web2.0 tools to enhance the conditions of learning for our students.

Of course I said yes, now I have another set of presentations and workshops to prepare. How good is that?!

Full steam ahead May 7, 2008

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image ref: http://www.ssmaritime.com/ss.oriana-telegraph.jpg

Term two is starting the way that I had wanted term 1 to begin. I have finally got the timetable that I want so that I can now work closely with the digital classrooms. I spent yesterday in 6 of the ten classes and will get to the other four later this week. What we will be doing in these classes with regard to ICT is really exciting and indicates a further shift in heading on the Supertanker, long may that continue. The term is panning out like this:

Several classes are investigating the potential of Voicethread, one in particular is investigating it as an assessment and feedback tool for teacher and student alike, this looks particularly interesting as what we have planned seems to really be smart way of using an ICT tool to enhance the conditions of learning. One of the classes is using Voicethread, a wiki, a blog and Inkscape to work collaboratively with the students at Woodford Junior school in the UK.

Our Podcast radio station will be relaunched this week, one class has taken on the challenge of being the station managers, researchers, anchors, reporters and show producers. We have set the challenge to produce a five minute show every week… the first production meeting is this Friday.

Another class is still working on its TV studio and is doing a visual version of the radio station. Yet another class is working on creating podcasts to embed into an enviornmental blog. The list just goes on and I have yet to get to all of the classes. Wikis are proliferating, the digital cameras are being booked out more regularly and earlier in the term, the video cameras have already got a regular block booking for Thursday mornings.

I shall be starting, at long last, my lunchtime activities and like last year I will be running Game Maker sessions on Tuesdays and on Mondays there will be lessons in Inkscape. On Thursdays I will be running a photography class and we shall be entering a competition. Finally there will be my robotics programme on Thursday afternoons.

So a full on term. Watch this space for developments and sharing of what has been produced. It will be a challenge, it will be exhausting some weeks, but setting high standards means that we make great leaps forward all the time. Never settling for second best, brings out the best in all of us, students and teachers alike. All this innovation and interest in all things ICT is a very positive indicator of changing attitudes towards integration and has a lot to do with the Cluster momentum that is gathering. Long may this be maintained and built upon.

Using You Tube to learn May 1, 2008

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I have just had one of those completely unscripted ‘aha!’ moments that affirm exactly what you think and are trying to achieve. I am at home with my children as it is the tail end of the school holidays here and we have been inside today because of the rain, although the sun is shining now and so it is time to go out and get some fresh air, but before we do I need to share this.

As you will have read in earlier posts I am convinced of the importance of using You Tube as a teaching tool. Well crafted, well paced video lessons have a place on You Tube and by extension in our classrooms, to aid teachers and students alike. The video tutorial can not replace the teacher, but the 10 minute gobbet sized format can assist in learning and re-enforcing skills learning. My Excel lesson enabling someone in the US to gain a job should be proof enough of the potential of You Tube to help learners to learn new skills.

On the Supertanker I have seen teachers use the screen record function in Smart Notebook to record letter formation for new entrant students. This video was then put on loop cycle and repeated to the class as a whole lesson, via the data projector and Smart Board. However, if a video were submitted to You Tube of the same lesson, students could watch this same skill lesson over and over again and not just in one class but many. Not only that, individual work or group work around a workstation could use the same video to enable students to re-visit the same set of skills, freeing the teacher to work with another group.

So do students use You Tube to learn of their own volition? Well I discovered one of my daughters doing just that a few moments ago. Not a very scientific study, but evidence none the less that students regard You Tube content as being a legitimate source for learning materials. I believe that the visual nature of the video and its repeatability are the key factors. Making learning relevant and making the sources of learning relevant to students is one of the major impediments to student engagement n C21 classrooms. By simply repackaging a learning format into one that is seen as relevant to students seems to me to be one more way of maintaining engagement in the classroom. The video tutorial is one strand in a new armoury that we as teachers need to equip ourselves with to engage the C21 learners in our classes.

And, yes that is a Mac she is using, we have pc’s, Macs and open source machines at home, no favourites, just tools.