4. Teaching

Panic button

Panic Button

Source: Panic Button http://www.flickr.com/photos/trancemist/361935363/

A story from this morning’s paper, in response to a recently publicised assault on a teacher by a student recorded on a mobile phone camera.

…”State School Teachers Union president Anne Gisborne said measures were needed to ensure an urgent response when teachers were in danger. “In circumstances such as that school, there might need to be phones in each classroom, that makes it easier to contact, there might be an emergency bell,” she said.

Education Minister Liz Constable said all options would be looked at. “But again you have to be in the place where that panic button is, don’t you, when the incident occurs,” she said.”

‘Hard to get to’? ‘Need to be in the place where the panic button is’? ‘Might need phones?’ (Another) ‘bell?’

I had to read the passage twice to check and thought: How about that device called mobile phone? You know, the most commonly used, instant, ubiqutous communication device, banned from most classrooms these days.

But mobiles are not a panacea. They are simply extension of human power to do wonderful and stupid things alike.

On the same day, I saw a former colleague bullied on YouTube (I won’t give you the link because I do not want to give this or similar clips any oxygen). It is cruel, ignorant bullying of a teacher out in plain view, recorded on a mobile. Good teacher or bad teacher – it doesn’t matter. It is a sad and disturbing case, bringing out what REALLY sometimes goes on in our classrooms. A person got hurt. Period.

Some would argue at least it’s in public and the perpetrators can be brought to account, some would be horrified at the prospect of having something like that aired publicly, to the pleasure or horror of Anonymous. Then again, I hear many pundits already saying “it’s those damn mobiles, ban the lot in class, they have nothing to do with learning”.

They do and they don’t. Why?

To me, three best things a teacher, parent, or a school can model and encourage are: a) resilient love of learning, b) sustained attention and immersion with a meaningful learning task, and c) ethical discernment when things are appropriate or not.

Apart from some amazing individuals I’ve worked with or heard of, your regular downtown school sucks at these: a) is quashed by grades, b) goes out the window when the bell goes, and c) is usually talked about AT students or staff, not WITH them, because everyone needs to “mind their own role (in the hierarchy) and do their job”.

When mobiles (mostly all sophisticated net devices these days anyway) help us find things, communicate, connect, understand and expand in a matter of seconds like never before (or perhaps help the safety of staff and students…) – use them (a). When mobiles become weapons of mass distraction – turn them off (b). But talk with (not AT) the kids honestly and challenge them when it comes to ethical use (c).

Kids know a lot more about the use of mobiles, appropriate and inappropriate, already than Education Minister or Union President (not hard that..) but they either have little say in things or they are, yes, plain immature. Now there’s a chance to give them a chance at real responsibility to mature.

Outside of school walls there are times we ignore mobiles – we discern, make choices.  I’ve sometimes joked with kids in class saying: “Would you respond to a call, txt, tweet or friend writing on your Facebook wall when you are about to kiss the guy or girl you have been wanting to kiss for months? Why not?”. There are times we multitask and we need to and so on… There are times for things and there are reasons for them.

So, mobiles (much as violence against teachers) are not a  technology issue or at least something technology will help us instantly solve. They are an opportunity to discuss ethical issues.

By knee-jerk banning mobiles, we may be eroding the very things we could do the kids and ourselves as educators and parents the biggest favour with – examining our own and each other’s ideas and change them if necessary, not just imposing the values and making sure that the ones carrying the biggest stick win, no matter how stupid they actually are.

Hard? Yes. Worth it? More than a lot of other stuff taught.

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By human on May 22, 2010 | 4. Teaching | 4 comments
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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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Provoke or inject

Smith Family Ad

Sounds familiar?

This image, scanned from The Weekend Australian magazine ‘hit the chord’ with me today. I heard the lines written many times at my (now ex) school, I have seen kids who have fallen into this spiral and also seen the kids who stood up and resisted it well. It’s a great reminder of what really goes on in that place called school, and which can be so wonderful and yet so brutal at the same time.

But this post isn’t so much about the vicious spiral of disadvantage that we so often avert the eyes from. It is about the similarities between great advertisers and great teachers. If you think that is a shocking comparison between a commercial, money-making enterprise and a noble, free, human endeavour of education…well, you may as well read the rest.

A good friend of mine is a copywriter and creative director of a reputable advertising agency here in Perth. He often tells me stories about how important it is to know the audience a particular ad is ‘pitched’ to. Cut the story short, he spends about as much time, if not more, on finding out about them (audience, target market) than the production of the ad itself. Why?

Because my adman friend knows, just like a good teacher, that information is only a provocation of meaning, not the meaning itself. Unless it strikes a chord, and the chord being the experience, belief, ability, aspiration, background etc of the receiver, information about anything is… meaningless. We pretend that (most of) what we write, tell, show will be ‘injected’ into people’s minds exactly as we wanted them, and get upset if they ‘don’t get it’ (enter politicans declaring “every child MUST” while, if you ask any half-decent teacher they’ll tell you that “every child MIGHT” would be far more accurate).

We are so preoccupied in producing information: static, lifeless documents, pixels and scribbles (including this post, yes!), increasingly easy to duplicate and disseminate. Yet lifeless information only becomes the coveted ‘learning’ or ‘knowledge’ we speak of so much at the point of always tacit (Polanyi), contextual human interpretation. It is very easy to share what you think these days but it is hard as ever to share thinking.

By the way, I prefer the language of ‘what we learn’ and ‘what we know’ over ‘learning’ and ‘knowledge’ – the latter terms sound like what we learn and what we know (the always tacit subtleties of our thoughts, feelings, experiences etc) can be somehow captured and treated as ‘objective’ and explicit, a thing. Say, whose ‘knowledge’ is better: yours, since you got 15% more on the test about cancer, or mine, whose beloved grandma died from cancer ? Ridiculous isn’t it?

And what does the preoccupation with injecting information look like in schools? Well, in mainstream classes at least, how much time do we spend learning about the kids we have in front of us at the start of the school year (or any other time for that matter)? What are we forced to know more about – content, syllabus and admin procedures OR whom of the kids may have certain learning disabilities, who might have been severely bullied recently, or who might have overcome a major obstacle in life and now aspires to become a writer or something… How are we going to provoke meaning well, instead of trying to inject it, in the people we work with if we don’t know a darn thing about them?

Teachers are being increasingly told to ‘personalise, individualise, customise teaching to each student’ (with same or less resources that is, while technology is seen as the panacea for that…yeah right). At the same time, teachers are now being increasingly told to cut any ’socialising’ with their students online (the world they increasingly populate), where they could really sometimes unearth kids interests, passions, aspirations, fears, concerns. It’s not all peachy, I agree (see my position on the issue written earlier this year) but aren’t we cutting off an important line to provoke, not inject meaning?

Finally, what could my adman friend learn from teachers? We are in a similar boat as far as provoking meaning goes. But …  our employer, parents, and every pundit out there wants us to get to ALL the people to ‘get’ what we say, teach, explain – not just the “15% of the market”.

And that’s tough. And worth it.

PS I may be out of class this year (working for Moodle) but you can’t get a teacher out of me :-)

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By human on January 24, 2010 | 4. Teaching | 4 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
Tags: , ,

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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Moodle Monopolife

Monopoly

Source: ‘Lucky Roll’ http://www.flickr.com/photos/chaehbom/2246451899/

It’s been a while since I wrote anything ‘moodling’ but after this morning’s class I can’t help but quickly share this little gem.

In my Year 9 and 10 classes (both deemed ‘lower end’, damned labels…), I am trying to teach research skills, critical thinking skills and a bit of critical pedagogy to boot this term. It’s my last term at this school so I thought I’d go out with a bang :-)

Last night, I created a monopoly board in a Moodle wiki. Nothing fancy, just a simple table in wiki’s HTML editor (no HTML knowledge required, just a bit of tinkering with 13 x 13 table in the enlarged editor). I entered the correct colour fields, nominal values of fields, utilities and stations. I then created a wiki page for each student by enclosing their names with hard brackets on the main wiki page (eg. [Matthew] ) and  copied the table with instructions into each personal page. This way, students simply click their name of the main wiki page, click ‘Edit’ and go for it. If you are not so handy with Moodle wikis, here is a “2 Minute Moodle” on it.

At the most basic level of the task, students have to find median house prices in Perth suburbs and enter them accordingly on the board, as well as find names of train stations and utilities. Basic internet search demonstrated – easily, but not for all.

They have to create 10 of their own Chance and Community Chest cards that need to reflect the realities of life in our city – more digging around and seeing what kids know, value (and not).

If they choose to do so (commensurate with higher achievement too), kids can come up with their own monopoly topic/theme – eg. Swan River (main river in Perth) and write their own ‘values’, cards and rules. But they need to ‘keep it real’ and back what they write with info they find.

Because this whole thing is in a wiki, kids can share and help each other out at any time. All boards are easily printable, exportable and of course – ultimately playable.

We had our first run this morning and I sent out a tweet: I wish I could bottle this engagement & open it on a bad day.

While the kids are beavering on their own game, I’m creating my own version – but with a twist. The idea came from a passing comment by a student, while brainstorming for open ended questions about Monopoly a few days ago:

“What if Monopoly was like real life. You sort of get your chance card when you are born, don’t you?” (who says kids aren’t great philosophers)

We have done a little bit of work of chances and choices in life and the difference between them. In light of that, my Chance card will have a theme “chances” in life, Community Chest will be “choices” in life. The cards will have statements with NO assigned further action (eg. none of the ‘Get $100). A Community Chest card may be “You fail to graduate from high school”. I will design a few sample cards, the rest will be decided by class before we settle and design our ‘Monopolife’.

The statements will (I hope!) lead to an open ended discussion and negotiation between players how far should the player go forward, backward, penalties, advances etc. And it is this discussion I am most interested in, to see how kids reason, argue, feel, value on their own terms.

I am hoping for a discussion with questions like: What can we do with choices in life? What about chances? Should we simply give up? Why are choices and chances (not) the same? What if you were really rich/poor and had different chances? etc.

Those are in no textbook I have seen but they are life. A life where chances of those with the most are often presented as universal choices, breeding resentment, stress and, so often misery. And vice versa. And all in between in all its messiness, through lack (and oversupply) of understanding and care.

We may not ’succeed’ in everything planned with this game, but if we enjoy next week or two in class, develop some valuable life skills, and see each other as fellow, struggling, hoping human beings – our work will be done.

Pass’n'Go ! :-)

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By Tomaz Lasic on November 17, 2009 | 1. Moodle, 4. Teaching | 6 comments
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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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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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