3. Change?

Three shakes

scream

Scream

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dariuszka/374750916/

Shake one – Friday afternoon

A beer with “Michael”, a friend, teacher at (one of) the most ‘exclusive’, expensive, ‘high-achieving’ girls school in Perth. I have just explained what I do at Moodle these days and touched on my deep conviction against spoonfeeding students and instead giving them real responsibilities, real problems, real chances to fail and succeed.

Me: “I hate it when they look up to me to give them the answers as some kind of oracle. At 15! “Go away and don’t bother me because you can’t be bothered to figure it out  on your own, with your classmates or a person on the other side of the world – but wake me up in the middle of the night if you want to learn more or tell me I am wrong somewhere.” This is why quite a few kids, majority (wannabe) ‘high achievers’, never liked my teaching style and philosophy. But that’s life sunshine! What am I setting you up for?”

Michael: “Oh mate, you would struggle at our school. That’s exactly what I’ve been telling them for years. But… the school is all about academic results, that’s all they are really interested in. And the kids? “You are here to help us get the top marks so just tell us” It drives me mad sometimes, what are they going to do when they get the top marks, what are we really teaching them?”

Shake two – Sunday morning

A visit to another friend, another teacher and former colleague (yes, I do have non-teaching friends too :-) ) Let’s call her Dina.

Dina really wanted to do a bit of emerging curriculum with Year 8 kids new to school. They looked at a documentary, then a mockumentary to pick differences and the kids really ‘got’ the genre and the idea. Then it dawned on her that the kids could actually try and make one. They jumped at it! Kids were asking their teachers if they could they leave their class early so they could come to Dina’s class and work on their doco. The two AEO (Aboriginal Education Officers) assigned to her class as support remarked “you don’t need us, these kids are doing amazingly well!”

Me: “So, what happened?”

Dina: “Well, I came one day all excited to the office and told our Head of Department [a ladder-climbing tick-a-boxer, my note] about it, expecting a “great job, how can we help” sort of thing. Instead, I got questioned and told off : “…I am concerned about this, ”documentary” is not in the Education Department’s ‘Scope and Sequence’ document for Year 8, only for Year 9.”

Shake three – Sunday evening

I had a long phone call with my brother in Slovenia.

His 6 year old son (my nephew) started Grade 1 in September. He enjoys school and learning activities, plays basketball a little and is generally a happy, yet quite an observant and sensitive child. He also carries a bit of extra weight. Recently, he developed a severe tick. It works out he has been bullied at school (won’t go into details but quite heinous).

My brother: “… and to top it all off, he comes home the other day all in tears because he made, for the first time, two mistakes in the maths test (!!!!) He came apologising, as if he somehow let me down. My heart broke I tell you.”

Excuse the swearing but have we gone fucking mental? THIS is what happens when real people are reduced to educational numbers, syllabus documents and grades.

I could write rantily or eloquently (or bit of both) on us becoming the bastards of ‘reason’ and ‘progress’ (John Ralston Saul wrote an outstandingly scathing and well-argued trilogy on this last decade, highly recommend) – but I won’t, not tonight at least.

Kiss your kids and tell them you love them. Often.  (Those who follow me on Twitter will have seen that line before and times I said it…)

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By human on March 27, 2010 | 3. Change?, 4. Teaching | 2 comments
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Making Moodle boring

TL at Moodle HQ

Moodle Education Researcher Know this guy?

Since starting to work at Moodle HQ as Education Researcher, a number of people, including my family, have been curious about what is it like at Moodle HQ, what do I do in my role and so on. Well, here are the pictures, the rest are words…

In short, I borrow Martin’s words from the iMoot introduction, I am an “interface between educators and Moodle developers”. Moodle team does not want to build a static, shiny thing that nobody uses but a living, changing thing that people can use to achieve primarily pedagogical, not technological goals. And I am here to help them (ummm, us!) do just that.

While recognising the importance of the position, my role is NOT to be ‘the guru’ on everything educational but rather a highly collaborative and proactive creator and ‘curator’ of sound educational practices within and beyond the Moodle community.

I already have a full plate and I love it. I am currently working closely with Helen Foster, Moodle Community Manager, on redesigning the sections on teaching and pedagogy on Moodle.org and Moodle Docs, making it easier and clearer to access, understand, use and ‘get’ Moodle by ‘an average teacher’ (I know you are laughing at this label…me too :-)   ).  I also work on usability of tools and features, I chip in a teacher’s perspective in developers meeting, I am going through iMoot presentations mining ideas (yes, including our panel), then there is planning for a large worldwide survey of educational uses of Moodle, and more… But enough about me.

Even on the first day, I was struck by the enormity and complexity of Moodle project. There is a stunning volume of code, not to mention ideas, changes, fixes, meetings, bugs, checks, test etc behind what you see on Moodle screen every day. I won’t go in minute details but let me tell you that this is truly an amazing logistical and intellectual exercise.

The place looks like the United Nations. David and Petr drop in from Czech Republic in our working ‘chat’, Penny is live from New Zealand on big screen skyping with Martin and Andrew about something, Eloy is talking from Spain to Sam sitting next to me about some piece of code as if they were sitting next to each other, Anthony logs in from US during our regular meetings, Helen and I are looking forward to many of our meetings, me in Perth and her in Belgium… not to mention the active worldwide Moodle Partners network on top of that. All effortless, relaxed yet very focused on task at hand – listening to our community and making Moodle better.

The ethics of Open Source projects like Moodle is something to aspire towards in any school. We don’t make something ‘perfect’ then ‘lock it down’ and claim superiority. We put our best effort out there, constantly and publicly, then invite people to pull it apart and change and improve it to fit a range of contexts and uses. Constructive critique, not platitudes, is seen not as a threat but music to our ears (yes, of course we get a warm and fuzzy from kind words too :-) , we are human after all and very much so). Transfer to school, when was the last time you met a teacher who invited you to genuinely ‘pull apart’ their professional practice (unless they were forced to), have a conversation about the underlying, possibly contentious philosophical (not just safe, technical) assumptions,  then change it together perhaps? You have? Great!!! I’d love to hear from you…

On a lighter note … I suck at foosball, love the coffee machine (you were right Tim :-) ), know where to find good Vietnamese rolls for lunch around us,  and how to trigger a very noisy security alarm in the morning. I am learning :-)

What about that ‘making Moodle boring’ title? Everything I wrote so far is shiny and good…

It actually refers to a comment I posted today on Ira Socol’s excellent post titled ‘What is Technology?’. Ira looks at how advances in technology, both as an enabler and disabler, become normalised and become seen as unremarkable, even essential over time (ever though that a pencil, desk or book was once a bleeding-edge technology?). Here is my comment:

“Ah, the fallacy of exceptionalism just never fades does it? We, as in (still) larger body of teachers, admins, parents, politicians & pundits, react with either fear or awe (hence the exceptionalism label) when it comes to the digital technology afforded to us today. And that’s not doing us much good, on so many levels…

Only yesterday I was sitting with colleagues (all software developers, passionate & veeery good at what they do) at my new work at Moodle HQ and joked: “You guys are trying to make this thing [Moodle] exciting, shiny, new and powerful, my job is to make it boring and ‘normal’. ” I got a few confused looks…

I explained:”The sooner educators move beyond the point of fear & awe of Moodle [or any other tech] and see it as a tool just like a pen, desk, whiteboard, book etc. the sooner they will be used better and more frequently to reach the pedagogical goals (add social, economic, environmental etc). Let’s stop fetishising tech, work out what it’s good for and then use it do get where we want with the people we teach, work with.”

So there you have it – my goal! What’s yours?

PS Big thanks to all the people who have congratulated and wished me well on my new role through Twitter, email or comments. Much appreciated.

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By human on February 17, 2010 | 1. Moodle, 3. Change? | 14 comments
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My f*#!%ing goosebump story (a reminder)

Now on the new site, I am re-posting something I wrote as a catharsis in 30 minutes, a year and a half ago. This is the post I am most fond and proud of, and has always reminded me of two things: why do we teachers (with an ed-tech bend) do the things we do and why is it a good idea for any teacher to keep a reflective blog to share. The wonderful original comments (link here) spurred me on to keep writing, nearly two years on.

Here is ‘My f*#!%ing goosebump story”. Enjoy …

//farm1.static.flickr.com/252/520905761_44867e4caa.jpg?v=0

Before reading this post a word of warning. If you are easily offended by expletives or graphic descriptions please avert your eyes. If not – welcome to my world.

Our school carries a wonderfully bureaucratic euphemism – it is a “difficult to staff” school. We operate in one of the poorest areas of town. Many parents who send kids to our school have not been rewarded by the system of education and they hardly instil the values of importance of education in their offspring.

Last week, one of our students got assaulted by a former student of ours at a bus stop waiting to go to an excursion at a neighbouring university. I stopped the assault only to be assaulted myself. This afternoon, on the way to the bus stop I was called, loudly and in my face, a “fucking cunt” by a Year 10 student after calmly disposing of a piece of plastic hurled at me few moments earlier. He had sat in my class just a few hours before. This school term alone, I have lost track of the times I was told either directly or indirectly (but clearly) to either ‘fuck off’ or ‘piss off’, or was simply and completely ignored as a person, let alone some sort of person invested with authority and responsibility to care for and (forbid!) teach, role-model or ‘inspire’ as the quote garden would have it. About half of my Year 11 Economics class openly say that they are ‘dumb and don’t care about the grades anyway’. My colleagues could recount dozens of stories just like this or worse as part of their ‘regular day’. Yes, we have a reputation of a ‘bad’ school and, depending what measure you look at, we have numbers to prove it (hello bean counters and ‘performance managers’ out there!)

YET…

More…

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By human on January 7, 2010 | 3. Change?, 4. Teaching | 3 comments
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Sacred cows

Miss Miller, Teacher of the Year.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34053291@N05/3953923181/

While thinking about my teaching plan and the challenge for 2010, I sent out a tweet this afternoon:

Conceiving & justifying a 2010 teaching plan… keywords: rhizome, Moodle, community, challenge, ’sacred cows’, ‘we’. Excited.

I will post details another time, but let’s just the say the “rhizome” part is informed by the original ideas of Deleuze, outlined a lot more eloquently by Dave Cormier (link) and Erica McWilliam (Meddler-in-the-middle, Unlearning How To Teach) and is something I am passionate about, read about, think about and which I have, in parts, tried already at my old school (how time flies :-) with encouraging success. ‘Moodle” – the plan involves students creating and managing their own Moodle course, knowing just a couple of Moodle-basics that my old classes learnt in an hour. “Community, we” – gist of the rhizome, above. “Sacred cows” – some below. Will post, promise.

Very soon, I got a reply from Olaf Elch (a fellow moodler :-) ) in Germany:

My t-plan is similar to yours. I left out the rhizome and changed the “we” to “I”. (It makes it more likely to actually happen. ;o)

But that kinda misses the crucial point of it Olaf… so we started a quick Twitter conversation. Two lines by Olaf particularly raised my eyebrows in further conversation:

1) McWilliam makes some VERY big assumptions. “A T[eacher] who doesn’t add value will be bypassed.” How can a pupil bypass a classteacher?

and

2) If you turn a teachers from an expert into a meddler or co-learner you are taking away the chief selling point of the teacher role.

Olaf then expands on the expert part, saying that as a teacher, he needs to be an expert, that his students (adult and young) expect it and ‘demand it‘, and that some of his colleagues are stimulating but have ‘faulty factual knowledge’, which makes them ‘just as useless’ as experts who can’t teach [probably meant as stimulate, since Olaf recognised the importance of teaching of how to learn and engaging students].

I opened Olaf’s question to the venerable Twittendom full of very intelligent and caring people and got a bunch of replies which Olaf no doubt read too. Another Twitter-sation success, thank you all who chipped in.

OK, but let’s clear the air a bit here and shoot some sacred cows…

  • I am not against content knowledge. It helps to know the stuff we are talking about, have depth to it, see where it fits. I can’t ‘teach’ French if I don’t know how to say ‘Bonjour!’ and what it means (although Stephen Downes has something interesting to say on that). I am also not throwing the didactic baby completely out with the bathwater. But content knowledge to then ‘fill the vessel’ of those who don’t have it (oh, the deficit, the poor darlingsl!) – that alone is inadequate and unfair to millions and is depriving many creative, smart kids. Not to mention the implicit value of knowledge by “those who know’ (and those who don’t)…
  • A teacher who doesn’t add value SHOULD be bypassed. Let’s take a look around us… Isn’t that what networks of people do and have done for ever (just the range, speed and volume of networks has exploded in the last decade and we’re just beginning to used to it)? They do so sometimes foolishly too and it’s not always wise but … why not? Alternative? Interestingly, Olaf makes a point of people who are ‘stimulating but light on content’. Well, as far as I know, given a chance, kids would bypass those as much as the experts who drone. For now, kids resort to mischief or withdrawal, bypass of a kind.
  • On meddling. My most treasured memories of teaching were exactly the ones I was “the meddler in the middle”. We produced things that mattered to us. See our Web 2.0 Expo for the latest example. Knowledge transmission versus value creation. Chain versus network. Stable versus dynamic. Learning just-in-case versus learning-on-demand. Routine and known versus inventive and unknown. Error-avoiding versus error-welcoming. “I” versus “Us-ness”. I know where the world is heading, social, economic, educational (?) …
  • Having ‘an expert’ breeds dependency, the ‘just tell us’ attitude to learning (hm, learning?). Dean Shareski hits the nail on the head. I love the moments (much like Tony Searl, according to his tweets) where I am not the expert but the kids let fly, challenge me, teach me. I mentioned one such ‘incident’ of a colleague in my farewell speech. There were many!

Quick quiz: Which of these best describes the verb ‘to learn’: a) to be clear, certain, never fail,  b) to be confused, uncertain, fail frequently

A  breeds false self-esteem, steeped in extrinsic rewards, B is an increasingly common discomfort in our societies.  As McWilliam states “let’s take ‘lifelong learning’ seriously (or stop using it)” and not just as a nice gimmick.

And in that mess, ‘teacher’, valuable as we are, may become a placeholder for a name of a role that needs to and will change. And that’s OK with me.

Have something to say? (I) missed a/the point… Click ‘Comment’ and go for it

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By human on December 30, 2009 | 3. Change?, 4. Teaching | 5 comments
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Catch-A-Teacher Day

Welcome!

Welcome!

It’s over! Our four day school Web 2.0 Expo extravaganza over the last few days of school year was largely (and I don’t use the word lightly) adjudged as ‘a success’, ‘eye opening’, ‘interesting’, ‘informative’, ‘fun’, ‘enjoyable’, ‘a bit crazy’, ‘unusual’ by a range of people around the school (eclectic and funky as our cover clip :-) )

For four days, three teachers (Simon Carabetta, Jaeik Jeong & myself) and about a dozen student-helpers (13 to 15 years old), put on a ‘23 things’ of a kind for our school community to inform, teach and stir about ‘Web 2.0′ and its culture-changing potential that is starting to be realised in our societies yet (still) largely outside school walls.

To ‘walk the talk’, we not only set up stations, but also created the event’s wiki (largely student work!), even a Ning (well, sort of … :-) ), got a bunch of students to start up their blogs, Twitter, set up RSS readers, fooled around with Skype, Etherpad, Twiddla, Moodle etc.. We had a number of educators from around the world dropping in virtually via Etherpad (copy of excellent contributions here, thank you SO MUCH to all who have contributed), we had encouraging tweets from around the world … all in all, we were ‘doing’ Web 2.0.

But out of the four days of messing up, playing, teaching, learning, succeeding, working together, guessing and generally having a ball, the last day will remain seared in my mind forever.

Until the last day, we had very few staff that came to the expo. They would bring groups of students down but then (most of them) didn’t quite engage with the expo in any way. “That’s for the kids, not for us…” was the general sentiment, with few notable exceptions. With the whole thing PRIMARILY for staff, we weren’t making the dent. The matter was raised at our regular morning ‘war briefing’. We made the decision that the last day was going to be ‘catch-a-teacher’ day.

It was pretty simple really. Student-helpers were encouraged to approach a teacher, invite them to the expo, try to work out and ask what the teacher might be interested in to learn…then demonstrate, teach and help them learn (about) a particular Web 2.0 tool and how it could be useful to them (the teacher). We also asked our student-helpers to note down on the central ‘tally’ board what teachers they taught what.

Students took up the challenge very seriously and we had them literally chasing teachers down the halls to invite, talk to, teach the teachers. With most teachers agreeing to come (even if out of courtesy if not curiosity) it was an incredible sight.

Catch-a-teacher ... live

Catch-a-teacher ... live

Catch-a-teacher ... come in

Catch-a-teacher ... come in

And this is what the tally board looked like after only a few hours!

21 teachers, 10 different tools, 4 hours - ALL by students!

21 teachers, 10 different tools, 4 hours - ALL by students!

Yes, I repeat: teachers are far less likely to say no to a student than a ‘tech integrator’ with a resonable (tech) proposition for teacher’s problem/idea in class. It just works!

Another highlight of the day was the technically so damn easy yet so profoundly different (to ‘regular school’) Skype conference of our ‘helpers’ with a good friend Ira Socol. I saw Ira tweeting, hooked up over Skype and within seconds the whole class said ‘Hello” to Ira and his dog (“with a weird name Sir…”) in Michigan. We soon shared a screen with Google Earth on it where Ira literally showed us around his neighbourhood, place he works, we zoomed out to see and learn a bit about the Great Lakes (some of the kids watching have not been further than a few blocks from their place in their life!), cracked a joke or two and after a few minutes thanked Ira for his time. After the event Ira tweeted:

Damn right!

I read the tweet aloud to claps, cheers and hollers of approval at our post-expo ice cream ‘debrief’ (yes, we did treat the awesome crew :-)

Yum! Well deserved.

Yum! Well deserved.

The sense of community, appreciation, working together, problem solving, the JOY of learning, particularly on the last day of our Expo was palpable. Many of our student-helpers ‘got off’ on it, dare say far, far more than many a lesson in the year just finished. There it was, a working rhizome of education I dream of, where roles/status/label/credit did not matter, only what we can learn, share, help, improve. Sure, it was quite an intense day, but one where the students saw the potential of what many of us have been banging on about for … years now.

Before we took our parting group photo, I asked the student-helpers is they would like to attend a school organised and run a bit like our expo – passionate, hard-working, following people’s interests, funny, a bit messy and unexpected, unclear at times but always valuing learning of all kinds: “Yes, sure, we’d love to…” I replied with just a line: “Demand it for your own kids.”

Just imagine! Or as a colleague quoted in his farewell speech yesterday: Logic will get you from A to B, imagination will get you anywhere.

And since I mentioned farewell speeches – I delivered mine yesterday too (copy here). I will miss the people of Belmont City College (and my first Moodle, my baby :-) ). They matter.

Thank you!

Thank you!

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Through Web 2.0

Today, we kicked off a Web 2.0 Expo at our school with two main aims. The first one is to make staff and students see and reflect on the changes in online world that are rapidly transforming and building communities on and offline…and all with a slightly pointy educational bend (see clip below). The second aim is to go hands on and start to dabble in or improve on ‘Web 2.0’ with a helping hand nearby – a modified “23 things” of a kind.

While the expo is the brainchild and organisational baby of ‘three amigos’ (Simon Carabetta, Jaeik Jeong & yours truly), it is the students as volunteer helpers that are the real drivers and superstars.

During the first day, we had a bunch of kids creating blogs, wikis, even a newly born Ning dedicated to the expo. We had a wonderful but usually very withdrawn student, who doesn’t have Internet access at home, absolutely flourishing after setting up his Gmail account (first ever) and within 45 minutes TEACHING (!!!) five other kids how to set up RSS through iGoogle (very “hole-in-the-wall”-ish). We had teachers saying things like “wow, this Skype is really neat!”, or “do you think we could set up a Ning with our pen pals in Hawaii?” (OK, we had our share of stuff-ups too :-P )

When asked about Ning, I simply pointed my colleague who asked the question to a self-appointed ‘Ning specialist’ among our student helper crew and 30 minutes later I saw them in deep conversation about “settings and updates”.

I said it before and I repeat – magic happens when students help teachers. I have not seen a teacher who refused help with tech when a kid says “did you know Miss there’s a really good way to do … Do you want me to show you?”

If I said it, it would not stick nearly as much (if at all).

For the occasion, I made an ‘introduction’ clip about Web 2.0, based on a fantastically funky YouTube clip by Kutiman (Thru-You-01 Mother of All Funk Chords) . The wording is appropriate because it is through the changing web (shhh, don’t mention Web 3.0 yet) and through the people that I for one hope to see the changes happen. Real ones.

I hope you enjoy the re-mix, feel free to share (see CC licence). I knew we were onto a good thing with it when a Year 10 student clapped when he saw it first. Students – the yardstick that matters by far the most in things ‘educational’. (if YouTube blocked, version here)

PS. We are hoping to bumble through our next few days just as well :-P A message to people who were happy to ‘drop in’ – look out (& pass onward if you like) for tweet(s) with a drop-in link. Sorry, but it’s a little “crazy good as we go”. Any line, sound, tweet, comment from ‘the outside world’ will be read and appreciated, thank you.

(If you see an ad on top of the post… not my idea(l) :-( Sorry)

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No Child Left Blind

This week, I showed the series of classic clips ‘A Class Divided‘ in my Philosophy & Ethics class. At certain points I paused the clips and asked questions like: Does this sound familiar? Is this you? Anyone you know? And pennies dropped…

I wanted to show that fighting any form of discrimination (in this case racism) is not just a matter of throwing more information and exposing the fallacy of harmful, deeply prejudiced and logically flawed ways of seeing things. It is a matter of bravely ‘touching the soul’ too.

Watch the little kids turn nasty, watch them lose faith in their abilities while others flourish when seemingly better, then ask yourself: Is this what we (are asked to) do, overtly and covertly, in our educational system? Broader society?

Take a few minutes to watch the first two parts of  Jane Elliot’s classic ‘Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” exercise in its original version with her 3rd grade class and share what I’ve shared with my class today. Jane, thank you!

Build your own custom video playlist at embedr.com

Sorry dear American friends, I couldn’t resist the calamitous pun.

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By Tomaz Lasic on November 12, 2009 | 3. Change?, 4. Teaching | 6 comments
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Rolling up the odd sleeves

Pray to Play

‘Pray to Play’ Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dannynorton/228708030/in/photostream/)

This is the second post with a particular theme in the series “Why is everyone an expert of education?“. The series is written collaboratively by Ira Socol, Dr Greg Thompson and Tomaz Lasic.

In the previous post, we have looked at the seductive, yet problematic, empirical, scientific ‘breaking down’ of actors in education. The primacy of belief that we can measure humans and then improve in a steady march of progress generates not only volumes of data, interpretations and ‘solutions’ but also has a more pernicious side to it in schools. The perceived ‘scientific’ certainty limits what students and other actors in the process of schooling are and become, it locks them into roles that are hard to escape and make meaningful change very difficult.

This time, we are looking at another major generator of much educational chatter. It is the idea of education as production. Here production is not meant narrowly and only as vocational preparation. There has been much excellent critique of education as an ‘industrial production line’ and its historical roots, here is but one example. We contend that there is nothing wrong with education as production, without production schools actually – do nothing!

Whether it is organisational skills or the learner’s recognition of their place in the world, schools are inextricably linked to producing ‘good citizens’. The problem is that some attributes of the ‘good citizen’ aspired to through education are becoming increasingly problematic in a changing world. No longer can we expect that the same types of good citizens historically valued in periods such as the Industrial Revolution will necessarily meet the unique challenges of the new millenia. Hence, we declare that the problem of education is not the idea of effort and production itself but rather what is valued in schools and, as a result of these values, what education is producing. Better world?

We explore this broader view in two ways. First, we look at ‘production of a better world’ through different, yet historically intertwined ideals we have inherited. These two ideals both want the same thing (better world) yet they grate against each other, frame much of the chatter and stunt deep(er) change. Secondly, we interrogate some ‘common sense’ statements we hope you will recognise as well, to demonstrate just how disconnected the endless debate is with the real problems and changes we face in the (future) world our students will grow up in.

Two fundamental views

Schools didn’t just happen. They were historically produced, and as a result, can be considered as artefacts of the distant past. In his excellent work Rethinking the School , Ian Hunter makes the case that the mass, compulsory schooling as experienced by most in the Western world (and certainly in Australia & USA) is a curious mixture of two discordant views on education – the liberal and the vocational (dialectic). While they are not reducible to the following, it may be best to think of the liberal view as the upward-looking, Christian imperative of salvation through the glory of good deeds. The vocational view is a downward-looking need to occupy the (otherwise) idle hands and minds of the ‘great unwashed’ to keep them healthy, productive and in check with industrial demands. They both genuinely aim to create a better world and they have both been occurring since the 1700s England.

One of England’s successes was the transportation, not of (so much of :-) ) convicts, but of schools absorbed by these competing ideals. As a result, we have inherited a schooling system that is full of paradoxes and contradictions. For example, we discipline the child as if they were an autonomous chooser (“choose your actions and their consequences”) yet we deny them much real choice in the ways they are educated. We see schools and education as the way to arrest poverty and disadvantage, yet we work within a school system that actively encourages secondary schools in lower socioeconomic status (SES) areas to offer vocational courses that deny young people the opportunity to be educated as their peers in wealthier areas. In short, the system operates on the notion of saving young people, either from their circumstances (if they are poor [vocational]), or from their hubris (if they are rich [liberal]), yet is organised in such a way as to enshrine privilege and maintain disadvantage. This is not new, it is a particularly persistent hangover of the past that will not seem to go away.

Schools invented childhood (maybe an exaggeration, but they are certainly the chief protagonists) and then imbued childhood with the paradoxes and contradictions of salvation versus vocation. Ever seen a teacher, parent, administrator, even a student (again, particularly in low SES areas) who wants to ‘save the kids’ and ‘open their eyes’ but also want and teach them how to comply and work hard? Ever heard a dispute between a teacher who thinks students should be treated gently as respected, autonomous individuals, allowing for them to flourish, and the rule-worshipping, no-bull, ’school-nazi’ teacher who gets the kids to work and ‘gets the work done’? Ever read about a dispute between teacher unions and curricular bodies about grading practices or reasons for (not) publishing league tables? Then you know what this paradox sounds like…

The trouble is that over the years, the alignment of schools along the salvation/vocation ideals has gotten out of whack. As a result, schools, particularly those in the lower SES areas, now present these paradoxes as the same thing – saving children through jobs. Religious-like morality through economic utility. The “future will be peachy if we just roll up our sleeves and go harder at it”. Seductive at first, this has some particularly unpleasant implications.

Rather than going too theoretical at this point, let’s look answer some of the common questions and statements about ‘education as production’ we often hear around the place. This is to demonstrate how and why so many educators remain largely trapped in the increasingly irrelevant, inequitable and unhelpful ideals of the past, despite the enormous good will and effort of thousands.

“Education is the great leveller, the kids have the same chance and learn the same stuff, so if they work hard they’ll reap the rewards, won’t they?”

Let’s get back to the salvation/vocation (mis)alignment. Interestingly, it does not seem to happen at the elite schools, dominated by the Christian liberal tradition of ‘salvation’. If asked why they go to school, students at elite schools are probably more likely to say things like “to make a better world”. Majority of them then all trot off to uni to become (powerful) lawyers, doctors, politicians, executives etc. They do so while enshrining their privilege and ‘saving’ themselves and those below (many of whom may not exactly appreciate being ‘saved’!).

However, when students in non-elite, working-class, lower socio-economic status (SES) schools are asked the same question, their most frequent response is “to get a job (many of them add  “so I’m not a bum and live on the dole”). In these schools, we are seeing the rise and rise of the vocational imperative. Consider a comment by a principal of a working-class, vocational-oriented school about offering a particular course with a non-vocational, liberal bend: “Our kids wouldn’t be suited for it.

Both of these ideals are failing the needs of our society at an alarming rate, particularly among the lower SES students.

But just why is this a failure? Doesn’t someone have to sweep the streets? You gotta have top and bottom, right? After all, they do have the same opportunity!

Volumes of educational critical literature from the 1970s onwards stress (and disagree with) the idea that schools existed as a form of social role selection – that they sorted young people into vocational streams that led to them assuming life opportunities commensurate with their roles. In this sense, schools sorted menial labourers from scientists, laywers from tradespeople, and artists from the “no-hopers”.

This stratified society was easier to manage, and it perpetuated itself many times over. In fact, it is still doing the same today. In Australia, the 1970s were a halcyon day for alternative schooling, but the impetus quickly stalled, to be replaced by neo-conservative imperatives. The shift went from “de-schooling” to “re-schooling” in less that a decade, till we end up in the current situation where schools are businesses, they are managed, teachers are technicians and students are commodities. The backlash of the 1970s is an uberconservative schooling structure that has reestablished its control. In some ways, we are now more traditional than the past!

Schools are working well at social role selection. For all those that claim otherwise and tout ‘better opportunity’, we would invite them to spend some time in traditionally structured schools in lower SES areas. If these schools have changed so much, why is it that children from low SES still tend to be denied educational opportunities, philosophies and structural access of the elite? It follows that if schools are not involved in deep change, they simply reinforce disadvantage. If nothing changes, nothing changes… but we do talk about it a lot. Changes in curriculum, grading practices etc are simply superficial.

So just what is wrong then with a compliant, obedient, uncritical workforce?

Nothing. It’s just that they are unemployed or lowly paid at best…

“Look, in the past education served the society better. It produced kids who were more mature and responsible than these guys today.”

Through their historically valued policies and practices, informed by the (mixture of) the two aforementioned ideals, mainstream schooling has been producing certain types of individuals. The trouble is, these types are increasingly shaky, untenable, even damaging in the contemporary world.

One such type is a quiet, conforming individual. “Nothing wrong” you may think, we want our “trains to run on time” don’t we? Consider the (very real!) case of a principal who came into a tough, inner city school that was having money thrown at it from various government agencies to ‘fix’ the problem of low student retention and ‘poor’ academic achievement. You know the story – short term, limited funding that does little to address deep problems but does a lot of rearranging of deckchairs. He said:

I dismantled some programmes that were meant to be for academic extension and when we looked at them the kind of kids who were in there – it was all wrong! The kids were not being chosen for the real capacity to achieve. But those kids were predominantly female, white, quiet, conformist.

So, in this sense, the school is valuing those students because of primarily how they behave and comply, never mind their creative and other potential. That OK with you? Entirely or just a little bit?

Another prized type is a highly individualised, competitive student who is great at amassing personal rewards and benefits (wealth!?). The capacity to identify with realities beyond their personal ambitions, needs and wants is secondary or even further down the track of priorities. Don’t believe so? Ask for a choice between being ‘top of the class’ and being kind, thoughtful, willing to share, think critically and differently … you know those slippery things you can’t really test and don’t REALLY matter . How do we rank on those internationally again?

The lofty school mottos, various graduate or vision statements are often couched in the liberal imperative terms (Bold, Caring, Creative or For Others and the likes). Paradoxically, the reality is so often the opposite of what is espoused – highly individualistic programs and policies that communicate the ideas of individual, competitive success and hierarchy very early on. These idea(l)s of schooling stick and stay with young people long after they leave school and, if nothing else, continue to frame and with it perpetuate the understanding of ‘school’. Just ask a parent of your student next time: “What was the most important thing by the school for you to do”?

“Why don’t we just go back to basics? We used to do stuff that kids these days would not have a clue today!”

This is the ‘back in the good old days’, halcyon view of education, usually followed by the phrases like ‘dumbing down’ and the likes. Whenever I hear people who hark back I wonder: Is our current situation really that bad or were the past times really that good? And then the old, wobbly straw man comes out.

Consider this classic, peddled around by the ‘dumbing down’ brigade. The useful commentary merely begins to break down their weak yet dangerous argument.

Is this ‘1895 exam type’ the sort of thing we want to go back to? Isn’t this largely where we are now at too, we have just changed the content and sophisticated a method of delivery (eg. regurgitation online is still regurgitation)? We now argue about some minor technical point like ‘cut off scores’ instead of asking ourselves larger, fundamental questions about what do students of tomorrow, not perhaps teachers of yesterday, really need. Is it ethical to ask first what systems of yesterday need before asking what students of tomorrow need?

Consider a quip by a colleague: “Never ask a question you can google up.” Back in say 1940s there was hardly a need for a rigorous ‘filter’ of information. These days, not having a solid, critical, informed personal filter  and foregoing development of thinking, questioning, collaboration and creativity at the expense of remembering easily searchable data and performing to a narrow, pre-established, systemic set of ‘indicators’ to reach a reward is becoming increasingly untenable. Before it was points and right answers, now it is increasingly about seeing the patterns and dealing with change.

And on the skills front, I wonder how the 1895 students would go with a basic internet search these days, perhaps sending a text message. In 1895, students had to know about the environment for their exam, kids today are working out how to stop ourselves from killing it for themselves and their children. For starters…

Beware well-meaning people in their 25+ years starting a sentence with “When I was at school…”

“But look at the ways schools, methods and curriculum(s) are constantly changing! We haven’t exactly stood still…”

They may have new buildings, better equipment, better teaching practices and so on but schools have not really deeply changed in any meaningful way over more than 250 years. This is mainly because they have taught us and controlled the ways that we see and understand the school.

The chief tool of maintaining and controlling this paradoxical, yet historically incredibly persistent understanding of the school (again, see the mix of liberal/vocational imperatives) has been the incessant debate dominated by mere variations on the theme.

For example, in Australia at the moment we are experiencing a debate on education particularly through the issue of literacy. On the one hand, many stakeholders in education are up in arms at the perceived lack of literacy in our schools. The answer often generated requires a return to the 3Rs, or a vision of literacy as a functional, transactional set of processes that employees need to get jobs (and through this employment, to lead a successful life) – the vocational imperative. On the other side of the debate, many educationalists advocate for lifelong learning and rich, deep understandings of texts as a means to create individuals who are able to critically ‘read’ their worlds – the liberal view of the empowerment of the individual as a means to lead a successful life. This debate is becoming increasingly vitriolic and is becoming (mis)managed in the guise of state versus federal approaches to curriculum, phonics versus whole language, standards and grades versus outcomes and the likes. This fervour is dominated by individuals and organisations maintaining and vigorously defending their ‘take’ on education – the experts we spoke about in our first post and throughout the series.

The real problem with this is that change, when it occurs, is focused at the what of teaching (the curriculum), even sometimes the how (methods) but not the why. And it is at that ‘why’ level that the deep change has a chance to occur. Continuing in the present see-sawing debate will solve none of the problems, but will enhance the status of the “educrats” who justify their exstence through creating conflict that is not resolved. (For a scathing critique of the bureaucratisation of our world check out John Raulston Saul’s works The Unconscious Civilisation or Voltaire’s Bastards.)

Final words…

At the end, we repeat that we are not against effort and production in schools. But we argue that as a society, we need to think more carefully and clearly about what schools produce and why. The question we want to keep in mind is whether the historically valued types of citizens, no matter how useful in the particular past periods, will be capable of meeting the pressing shifts and problems of the future, near and far. You know the obvious ones – environmental destruction, terrorism, eruption of technology and social media, changing roles of women in societies, shifting employment practices, crossing and changing old class divides, global trade and crises of all kinds…the list is long. Dealing with any of these effectively and justly does not really call for the type of student a ‘traditional’ school has been producing. A range of declining environmental, economic, social and other indicators paint the picture so let’s not pretend that ‘schooling as usual’ (oops, just ‘harder’!) is going to somehow reverse the trends.

Do you want to live in a world full of docile, easily managed consumers, uncritically bent on amassing wealth and lacking the capacity to perceive reality beyond the personal ambition “as long as they are OK”, the kind produced by schooling and rewards of (primarily) individual effort? We can’t value highly individualised effort and rewards (hey, the government wants me to rank students!) then, confusingly, expect the kids to be highly ‘collaborative’. Sadly, the latter begins to sound like a buzzword! For now, schools largely still want students (AND teachers) to cooperate rather than collaborate. There is an important difference between the two. Cooperation means working together to achieve what you are required or told to do. Collaboration is a shared effort of a group of people working towards shared goals and using method they choose and agree on.

Today’s kids will have (to start) to give a damn about the issues that affect us across the geographical, cultural, racial, class, gender and other divides. But because we are so mired in the thinking and answers of the schools in 1700 England (one or the other or the mixture of the two types mentioned), we can’t move education beyond the superficial chatter while the world around us changes fundamentally and much faster than before in our shared history.

Education can be productive in good ways but it’s not being used in good ways to change the society. Yet?

PS Just as I finished typing these words I came across a very recent speech (5 Nov 2009) on education reform by Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education The Hon. Julia Gillard. I invite you to crack a beer or have a cup of tea and read what she said, then go and make a few circles around the points we have collectively worked hard to get across to you today (we may not be celebrities like Sir Ken Robinson, but it is interesting to read what he says too in his remarks after his signature TED talk too).

As always, YOUR comments are most welcome! :-)

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By Tomaz Lasic on November 7, 2009 | 3. Change? | 4 comments
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Social notwork

Source: http://www.personalizemedia.com/garys-social-media-count/

There is a frivolous and a serious side to this title.

A few days ago, I came across the story titled “Teachers banned from contacting students on social networking sites“. It was an unnerving read about a knee-jerk reaction by Education Queensland over several incidents involving contacts between teachers and students by way of online social networking (SN). Unnerving because I have been successfully using social networking tools to connect with a number of current and former students over the past year.

My first reaction was – this stinks! The reaction of several of my (ex)students on Twitter and in class was – this stinks! The fury of fellow ed-tech folk was palpable on Twitter and in the blogosphere, the phrase “21st century” got mentioned a lot. The comments on the story’s website were an expectedly polarised mixture of “about bloody time” (mostly from people who don’t REALLY understand the methods, let alone the principles of social networking online) and “outrage” by people who have actually used social networking with students and benefited from it.

I didn’t leave a comment on the story but chose to sit on it for a few days, thinking.

Firstly, while the ban and particularly the lunacy of keeping teachers websites “private and appropriate” is unenlightened at best, I am sure that Education Queensland had the best interest of kids in mind, no matter how misguided the edu-crats may be. There clearly had been some breaches of trust and some inappropriate behaviour (I don’t condone it but then the number is relatively low considering probably tens of thousands of such ‘communications’).

As I reflect on this debate, I think this matter goes beyond the domain of education and a “few bad apples” causing others who use SN responsibly to suffer. It is a matter of divorcing education from the culture and society in which it is embedded into a kind of narrow technical pursuit by ‘experts who know’ (more on that in our ‘Why is everyone an expert on education?’ series, next installment close to publishing).

For better or worse, we are swimming in social media (see the stats above), it is a growing part of our cultural, social, political, economic and with it (why not?) educational life. Unless we make some enlightened and wise choices, decisions on such awesome tools of (ab)use will continue to be made by educators who have increasingly little power in the broader culture but fear losing their modest power in the educational establishment. To put it simply with a question: Ban it? Until when exactly?

How about leave it to the teachers and students? By all means, provide guidelines and warnings on content with sexualised nature, innuendo and stupidities like that. Social networking tools do make abuse easier to commit and distribute in time and space by people bent on abusing children or plain idiots. They can also be a wonderful way to connect, extend, humanise our teaching and learning in ways consistent with the century we live in. On the abuse prevention flipside, because these networks ARE social, they can quickly spot, even track and police (potential) offences. After all, friends are still one of the best weapons against bullying and abuse, aren’t they? Let’s talk with the kids (not AT them) and become wise TOGETHER about online behaviour, what is appropriate and why so. The idea that you control the mouse but don’t control the signal still needs to be bedded down in minds of kids, parents and educators (and politicians, obviously).

So is student-teacher social networking all good then? Not so fast, not just yet …

Online predators and abusers are a real problem. But let’s not make a leap that every teacher online is a predator or at least has stupid, if at least unsavoury intentions. If anything, it is the students that are probably more likely to be predatory and abusive. Don’t believe it? Just wait till a disgruntled teenager unleashes an MSN fury about you being a ‘crap teacher’ because she failed that test by 2%, and which you marked with utmost professional integrity.

Another issue is one of time. For all its benefits, social networking can become quite taxing on teachers’ time. Teaching is a caring profession, one where  relationships do and should matter. Caring for too many students online, usually as a supplement to face-to-face contact, could spread one’s teaching resources thinly. It could even breed misguided resentment “he doesn’t ever reply to our posts, he doesn’t care” or “he doesn’t want to be friends on Facebook, he is not friendly” etc. There is also a danger that because of the ‘always on call’ attitude, students will come and ask questions and seek help for problems they could be better off solving and struggling with themselves. And they will do that at often inappropriate, inconvenient times. Being a node, to use connectivist lingo, is OK but being a hub with the approval switch for all traffic would probably often work against the independent learning of students, something social networking tools have such a wonderful potential to support and sustain when used wisely.

And let’s not forget that old nut… While privacy is a button to click and filter to turn on in this hyper-connected world, it should not be dismissed lightly either. Invoking the platinum rule (“Treat others the way they want to be treated”) could be increasingly important or the SN tools may deliver disappointment and, at worst, abuse.

Final thoughts

This reflection began with the question “should teachers be allowed to connect with students over SN?” This is an edu-technical issue – ban or not ban. At a much deeper level, SN is about the potential to rock the boat of the restrictive, binary teacher – student divide we are so comfortable with and used to. For now, we (can) run projects and tinker on the edges with SN occasionally bridging that divide. However, it can be very taxing and quite possibly (un)helpful in many ways to be a (traditional) teacher, connector, assessor, judge, evaluator, crying shoulder, confidante, ‘buddy’ and many other things to cohorts of students 24/7 online and face-to-face. Context rules – let’s have a mature conversation about it.

But if we genuinely open up spaces where these roles are re-defined, re-imagined, in some cases even completely reversed, social networking could be an incredibly useful, perhaps essential tool in fundamentally re-shaping education towards a (post-industrial) model of cross-generational mentorship. I am passionate about working towards it but I’d continue to wisen up on social networks and by all means use them with students and colleagues … judiciously.

‘Judiciously’ not because I don’t use, like or trust my social networks (I love them!) but because the ‘bleeding edge’ we are at sometimes requires its pint of blood I’d rather donate than have it drawn without my approval.

And the punsy title?

What else is education other than a social network, seemingly supressed, blocked and banned in its 21st century incarnation. Not work? You be the judge…

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By Tomaz Lasic on October 28, 2009 | 3. Change?, 4. Teaching | 10 comments
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Ask the kids

My Listening Ears

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niclindh/1389750548/

I have grown a pretty thick skin over the past few years dealing with questions like “What difference can digital technology REALLY make in schools?” For the record, I loathe ‘electronic worksheets’ and my mantra has long been “if you can do it better, simpler, faster in pen and paper then…use pen and paper.” But try to come close to this without digital technology:

Earlier this term our school Moodle site got a nice new design. But things did not just look nicer. The aim was to make Moodle more ‘owned’ and used by students. To my delight, the biggest change has proved to be participation in the student ‘Have Your Say’ forum, now made prominent by a big clickable picture right on the top of front page.

From the very first day, students have jumped on it. Within two months, our forum is sporting over 60 conversations (another dozen already deleted as they lost currency or were clearly spam). They range from the inane, “lolz-full” to very serious, thoughtful stuff in many of the forum’s conversation threads, some with 40 posts or more.

A number of staff have actively joined in some of the conversations questioning, explaining, supporting or sometimes challenging the kids as equals. I have heard a number of comments along the lines “I love checking the kids forum when I get a spare minute, it’s addictive.”

Through the forum, the school community has had a chance to safely bring out in the open and many times incredibly thoughtfully discuss the issues that were considered ‘off the table’. Our forum is in an environment that is open (in mind and method) and very egalitarian. Yes, there are some ranty posts, immature responses and all, but to actually see the kids write and speak out in public, then be prepared to have their views scrutinised, confirmed or challenged is something that is not cultivated in many (formal) classes or so often gets the ‘educational’ label that suffocates the real and raw. This is huge for a school that is (still) suffering from the mentality of fear of standing out, amplified of course by teenagehood itself.

There is no other physical or virtual space like it at our school to bring together students of all ages and year cohorts to speak to each other. There is no other space like this where kids have time, space and (to many) a very familiar method to respond. There is no other space to bring students and staff together to share their ideas safely, and with the reasonable choice of (non)participation that breeds real maturity and responsibility. There is no hiding behind fake names – everyone stands behind their words, for good or bad. There is no shouting, interjecting, excluding, bullying … we are equal.

Technically, the forum is just your stock-standard garden variety of a Moodle Standard Forum, set up in a couple of minutes. The forum rules consist of one line: Keep spam and swearing to yourself. Now, let me remind you that we (our school) are not exactly stereotyped as ‘well behaved’ but rather the other way around. So one would think there’d be lots of trouble?

I moderate the forum with the help of four students (two junior, two senior) and so far, we have only had to intervene twice (spamming) as moderators. At all other times, it has been the students themselves who reminded each other about what the forum is for and what is (not)appropriate. Guess what sticks more – being told by a teacher or told by a bunch of your peers?

The forum has given our administration, teachers, Student Council and all the students indeed enough material to think about for months! And more …

One could ask “What has all that got to do with education?” My response: “Everything!”

It is touching what we, teachers are there for and we should be listening to every day – student voice. It is a crazy, young, hormonal, loyal, moody, clever, honest voice of people we are trusted to spend so much time and achieve so much with. Slowly, things like this are changing the kids from mere cooperators to true collaborators (Cooperate= work together to achieve the requested/ordered. Collaborate= work together to achieve shared goals & agreed methods of achieving them). It moves them from compliance to consideration, from being told to telling, from sharing what they think to shared thinking.

I know that some of my colleagues would knee-jerk at this point: “So you want the kids to be always right and run the show?” If/when it ever comes to that I’d just post the statement in the Have Your Say student forum for the kids themselves to answer probably with far greater maturity, passion and eloquence than expected.

And if by any chance think I am making this up, here’s one of the posts from the forum:

“Keep your opinion to yourself” is a phrase I see constantly repeated in this forum. Have your say is here for the purpose of having one’s say in matters.

Yes, one may say something others may find offensive but I’m sure a lot of which is just poorly worded. It happens, especially when so many people abbreviate and don’t proofread their writings. Anyway, telling someone to keep their opinions to themselves defeats the purpose of this very liberating setup, I could go so far as to say it undermines our democratic state and rights of “free speech” – it’s somewhat over exaggerating, but it’s the truth in a sense.

With people keeping their opinions to themselves mankind would not have gotten anywhere, if Charles Darwin had not observed animal variation and voiced his opinions we would not know of evolution now. If Karl Benz didn’t share his idea of getting from point A to B faster and more efficiently we would not have the ever-popular automobile. If Mr. Lasic had not been so in-touch with our generation and modern learning we would not have moodle and intern this forum to voice our opinions.

Some opinions are somewhat ridiculous (look at mein kampf!), but I am sure we are all mature enough to dismiss such frivolous propositions without the need of jumping on the “keep your opinions to yourself” bandwagon.

Feel free to elaborate on this.

Thank you.

And they did! 20 posts later, the thread is still going. I have used it in my Philosophy & Ethics class too (excuse the gratuitous flattery of my name there :-P )

What has that got do with education? Can digital technology REALLY make a difference in schools?

Just ask the kids. And listen. Carefully.

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By Tomaz Lasic on October 23, 2009 | 1. Moodle, 3. Change?, 4. Teaching | 1 comment
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