Category Archives: learning

Where have I been and what have I been doing

That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. To make me feel a little appeased in my guilt for blog abandonment.

A few things have been happening, and these things would normally require a detailed and possibly time consuming write-up. Hence my blog absence. This is, sadly, not going to happen at a time when too many other things need to be done.

So…

Monday night I was one of the lucky ones to find a seat in BMW Edge for the free talk by Bill Henson (The light and dark and the shades of grey) to open the Melbourne Art Fair. Notice I didn’t say ‘the controversial Bill Henson’, the reason being that his talk was not, as some may have expected, a political or moral justification for the (fairly) recent censorship of his art (not photography, which is merely the medium). Surprisingly, his extremely esoteric talk used broad brushstrokes to paint a picture of civilisation shaped by centuries-old art, architecture, literature and music. I won’t attempt to summarise his talk but I think that one of his main themes was the need to expose young people to the history of our civilisation, to the breadth of artistic expression, in order to open up thinking, questions and discussion, and maintain a fuller context for the formation of understandings. Some may have expected a bitter, insecure man, lashing out at critics, as claimed in The Age article (written, surely, during Bill’s talk – or even before) which I read when I got home from the talk. These people were disappointed, then, because Bill’s composure and lack of defensiveness was noticeable.

We should be wary of governments and interest groupswho try to impose restrictions on the free exercise of theartistic imagination. Our zeal to protect innocence should not come at the cost of violating artistic experience.

If we believe that art is a high form of education, thatits basis is moral and its goal truth, then we should resistthe impulse that would deny the artist the right to deal with what may sometimes be ambiguous, complex anddisturbing.

Artists can seem like holy fools, they can seem likedevils. They may exhibit the cunning of the insane orthe illumination of the saint. But genuine art is the greatbridge between the inner world in each of us and theordinary world in which we live. Art shows us the truthand it should never be the quarry of the witch-hunter orthe social engineer. Any attempt to make the world betterby destroying or shackling art represents a repudiationof the truth.

(Not all reviews of Henson’s talk were unreasonable; this one wasn’t.)

So, that was that. And since then, I’ve enjoyed many conversations with various people about censorship, art and the education of young people.

The recent School Library Association of Victoria PD is another potential essay in the making. But I’m tired, so suffice it to say, I was immensely satisfied with the line-up of speakers, particularly the guest speaker, Joyce Valenza, and our own Adrian Camm.

The Bright Ideas blog has covered the main information and links from this day. I would just like to say that Joyce  is a passionate educator who surely never sleeps because how else would she have managed to create such amazing resources. It wasn’t hard work at all listening to Joyce – she’s blessed with a vibrancy and creativity which makes everything look deceptively easy. Take a look at her wikis and look up the rest of her stuff too.

Adrian, I’m not a games person, but after your talk, I might consider conversion…

What else?

Well I’ve taken up the challenge at Kew High School of running a couple of PD sessions introducing Web 2.0 tools for authentic and connected learning and teaching. Since I’m new to Kew, it’s an entirely different experience presenting to people I don’t know, feeling uneasy about the fact that I can’t read their faces to ascertain their reaction to my assault on them. My Whitefriars experiences, on the other hand, were based on relationships and the gradual introduction and integration of Web 2.0 technology, often in context of a class which I taught collaboratively over a period of time. I much prefer ‘preaching’ to people I know, so that the conversation comes from a knowledge of how these people think and with respect for their individual styles as teachers.

Well, that’s enough for this post. Apologies for the rave.

Blogs, nings and wikis – taking learning out of the classroom

Photo via @jennyluca as part of an ebook Field Guide for Change Agents

At the end of last year our school committed to embracing Web 2.0 technologies, and some teachers have begun to explore the potential of blogs, wikis and other platforms for teaching and learning. Others are still either reluctant, don’t see the relevance for their teaching, or consider the challenges in supporting Web 2.0 technologies greater than the benefits.

More and more often I find myself wondering how it is that educators can have such a different view of what education is about, and which skills are more important to students for their future. And how can we talk about learning outcomes before we procure for ourselves a comprehensive and consistent picture of the kind of world in which our students will be working and living?  If we don’t inform ourselves, aren’t we way off the mark  and therefore failing our students?

Why should we use external blogs, wikis, flickr, and other cloud-based applications? Why is it important to connect students in their learning with each other and with those outside their school? In answering these questions for myself and for others, I thought I’d investigate research into future trends which affect education and the world of work.

Recently I  came across an article via Will Richardson in Twitter, Defining the big shift by John Hagel on his website Edge perspectives with John Hagel. John identifies trends which support a move away from teaching content and toward facilitating networked learning:

We are moving from a world where the source of strategic advantage was in protecting and efficiently extracting value from a given set of knowledge stocks – what we know at any point in time…  Finding ways to connect with people and institutions possessing new knowledge becomes increasingly important. Since there are far more smart people outside any one organization than inside, gaining access to the most useful knowledge flows requires reaching beyond the four walls of any enterprise.

The greatest economic value will come from finding ways to connecting relevant yet diverse people, both within the firm and outside it, to create new knowledge. They do this best by addressing challenging performance requirements that motivate them to get out of their comfort zone and come up with creative new approaches that generate more value with fewer resources.

From transactions to relationships

The transactional mindset undermines the ability to build long-term, trust based relationships. And in the absence of those relationships it becomes almost impossible to effectively participate in the knowledge flows that matter the most. It is very difficult to get diverse people to come together and constructively engage around challenging performance issues by sharing their tacit knowledge unless long-term trust-based relationships already exist. Once again, since the most valuable knowledge flows are distributed well beyond the boundaries of the firm, these trust based relationships must also extend into broad, scalable networks that literally span the globe.

And so, relationships and connections with a global network are recommended. Isn’t this the whole point of Web 2.0 technologies since they enable these connections and provide a community of learners?

The Horizon Report 2010 is a ‘qualitative research project established in 2002 that identifies and describes emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning, or creative inquiry on college and university campuses within the next five years’. It identifies key trends resulting from changes in technology:

People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want to. Life in an increasingly busy world where learners must balance demands from home, work, school, and family poses a host of logistical challenges with which today’s ever more mobile students must cope. A faster approach is often perceived as a better approach, and as such people want easy and timely access not only to the information on the network, but to their social networks that can help them to interpret it and maximize its value. The implications for informal learning are profound, as are the notions of “just-in-time” learning and “found” learning, both ways of maximizing the impact of learning by ensuring it is timely and efficient.

And further:

The work of students is increasingly seen as collaborative by nature, and there is more cross-campus collaboration between departments. While this trend is not as widespread as the others listed here, where schools have created a climate in which students, their peers, and their teachers are all working towards the same goals, where research is something open even to first year students, the results have shown tantalizing promise. Increasingly, both students and their professors see the challenges facing the world as multidisciplinary, and the need for collaboration great. Over the past few years, the emergence of a raft of new (and often free) tools has made collaboration easier than at any other point in history.

It concerns me that many of us are still functioning in the very old ways of teaching and learning. What percentage of teachers, principals and deputy principals, heads of faculty, heads of IT, have read The Horizon Report 2010?

One of the main arguments against Web 2.0 applications, such as blogs, nings, flickr, etc. is that resources can be more efficiently provided and shared on the school’s intranet, and that this way is safe and easier to control. However, according to the  Report:

A growing emphasis on collaboration in education — and an increasing recognition that collaboration is the norm in many modern workplaces — has led more teachers to seek tools to facilitate group interaction and teamwork in their classes. ..  Collaborative environments provide the means for students to work with peers both local and distant, practice creative teamwork, and develop peer relationships.

Last year I was involved in a pilot project for our school in the form of a ning which supported a year 7 English class. Instead of writing for their teacher alone, the ning provided transparency in discussion and the sharing of writing which sometimes took place in class or otherwise at home in the students’ own time. It also enabled a connection with two Australian authors, Allan Baillie (whose book we were studying) and Michael Gerard Bauer, who provided individual feedback to students’ questions and contributions specific to the class’s needs. This experience made real for us precisely what the research has shown:

The common features that unite collaborative environments are that multiple people can work within them at once; that users can leave evidence of their thoughts, and reflections on the thoughts of others; and that they can support users in any location at any time.

This year a few more teachers have expressed an interest in this new kind of learning, and so I’ve been happy to set up these Web 2.0 learning environments which not only enhance peer interaction but also provide opportunities to connect with people and classes outside the school, even in other countries. A ning I created for Year 12 Literature sparked hours of engaged and rich discussion amongst the students in their own time and going late into the night. Students obviously didn’t consider this ‘work’ and at one point a student remarked, ‘Hey, I just realised I’m doing homework!’

I’m also collaborating with a teacher at school and two overseas educators and their students, one from Florida, USA, and the other from Finland, in a project which operates entirely in Flickr. I’m excited about the global connections and conversations which will be created through this project.

Collaborative environments of all kinds extend the classroom, eroding geographic and time limitations that used to constrain academic interactions. Students can work on group homework assignments with their peers whether or not they are able to get together physically, and can receive feedback and coaching from teachers outside of school hours, if both parties wish.

Collaborative environments foster teamwork and collaboration, but students can also develop individual skills in such spaces. By practising critical thinking in a more or less public forum, students can benefit from seeing what their peers have to say and from critiquing each other’s work. In a world where factual information exists side by side with incorrect or misleading statements and opinions stated as facts, students must learn to critically examine what they see and hear. Collaborative environments provide workspaces in which such activities may take place in an open, constructive way, linked to classroom content.

The Year 12 Literature ning, although in its early stages, provides evidence of such a collaborative environment which becomes the space where knowledge and understanding is constructed in an open, collaborative way. The students develop an understanding through the conversation which is supported by the teacher but which also takes off as a result of students’ own interaction.

Collaboration in an in-class setting presents teachers with the challenge of capturing and managing ideas that often come and go in student discussions at a very fast pace. Such dialog is beneficial to students and supports constructivist learning goals, but assessment can be difficult in real time. Collaborative environments can be used to record such conversations in various ways, so that both teachers and students can revisit and review discussions throughout the school year. Blogs and wikis are ideal means for this.

What better way to revise or collect material for an essay than referring to the conversation archived in the relevant space on the ning? And how much richer is this discussion if it includes people outside the walls of the classroom, even across the other side of the world?

Online collaborative environments invite global initiatives… Students working in collaborative environments also have opportunities to connect with experts, professionals, researchers, and others beyond their classroom walls.

It’s not just students but teachers who benefit from these new ways of learning. My own online experiences convince me of the unparalled advantages of collaborative environments.

The benefits of collaborative environments extend to professional interactions for teachers as well. Shared professional spaces create opportunities for teachers to dig deeper, ask questions of their colleagues, explore projects that others are doing, and engage in ongoing professional development wherever they happen to be. Classroom 2.0 is a community of nearly 20,000 teachers that is supported by the Ning environment; the teachers can join interest groups within the larger community, post and respond to questions, share links, and take part in deep discussions about integrating emerging web technologies into the practice of teaching.

And if you think that Facebook or similar social networks are just for superficial chat, then think again:

The value of online communication tools goes well beyond social interaction. Access to these tools gives students an opportunity to experience learning in multiple ways, to develop a public voice, to make connections with others around the world, and to compare their own ideas with those of their peers.

Having moved to Web 2.0 platforms such as Twitter, nings, Facebook, etc., for my own professional learning and networking, I realise that learning is not something that can be limited to a designated space or time; it often happens when you least expect it.

The best moment to teach a student something is the moment they are curious about it — but what about when that moment happens outside of classroom hours? Online communication tools create opportunities for “the teachable moment” even if students are at home, at the mall, on a field trip, or anywhere else.

Anytime communication also helps make students available to teachers when needed. Teachers can manage classroom activities even outside of classroom hours through synchronous, two-way online communication that can provide time-sensitive information about projects and assignments and reach multiple students at once.

The challenges which face schools today are not only relevant to teachers and principals, but also to those who support the IT infrastructure.

The technologies we use are increasingly cloud-based, and our notions of IT support are decentralized. The continuing acceptance and adoption of cloud-based applications and services is changing not only the ways we configure and use software and file storage, but even how we conceptualize those functions. It does not matter where our work is stored; what matters is that our information is accessible no matter where we are or what device we choose to use.

Just this weekend our school server has been down, and teachers have been unable to access resources on the school intranet. This is where cloud-based applications are advantageous.

I apologize for the lengthy post, but it’s difficult to be selective. I’ve written this out for my own benefit, to have a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the value of Web 2.0 applications. Perhaps someone else will also find this useful.

The Horizon Report 2010 can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Learning: that’s how we live

Learning is not something that can be captured, predicted or assumed. It doesn’t fit neatly in a table, it’s not defined accurately in a chart, a survey, it doesn’t happen the same way for you as it does for me.

We try to prove that we understand it, control it by conducting research, analysing results, following assessment rubrics, but we should just keep our eyes open and watch. It’s happening around us, at breakfast, in the classroom, the playground, during the holidays, on the bus, and even as we sleep.

Sometimes, as educators, we think that we haven’t influenced the learning process in any of our students (or even our colleagues). We may have been too impatient, too hasty in making that assumption. Evidence of learning can surprise you at the most unexpected times.

I have to admit I wasn’t thrilled to return to school after many weeks of holiday, but it had to happen. Last year I was very happy to join forces with a dear friend, teacher of English, who was brave enough to weather the uncertainties and hazards of ning learning. We tested the Web 2.0 waters together, and made learning interactive with real-life connections and conversation for our students. It seemed that this kind of teaching and learning was not going to catch on fast.

In the first couple of days at school this year, to my delight, several teachers have approached me to help them create a ning, blog or wiki for their class. I’m stoked. I hope that this year will be as fulfilling for them and their students as it has been for me in my own participation in learning communities online: learning from each other wherever we are.

One (or even two) of our classes will be participating in a photo blog project with Marie Coleman in Florida, USA, and Sinikka Laakio-Whybrow. Inspired by our own experiences in the Flickr 365 day photo challenge (and similar projects) – and this is how we met – we wanted to try this out in the classroom. With a weekly theme for photos, we hope that students will enjoy learning from each other,, and that literacy development will naturally spring from curiosity and an exchange of cultures.

A seemingly simple task, posting a photo and writing about it, can actually be a higher order exercise. Marie’s and Sinikka’s posts attest to the depth of thought which can be achieved.

Sinikka’s post:

Today’s Daily Shoot also became the theme of my 365 photo:

“Let’s have some fun on a Friday. Make a photo that goes with the title (or lyrics) of a song. Interpret away!”

Another ordinary day at school, in the familiar red-brick environment. I am thinking what is the state and purpose of education today. I’m sure many students would still sign Pink Floyd’s message of not needing any education from back in 1979. At least not the same old, numbing and repetitive, factory style.

Aren’t schools still too often working like the meat grinder in the brilliant Gerald Scarfe animation of the song where kids are dropped only to spew out uniform minced meat at the other end? Is there any space for individual thinking, learning methods and goals, or chances for each individual to realize their full potential? Why does it seem that the spark, the passion, the joy and creativity are all buried and forgotten inside these walls? Can our students, in their bright pink and red coats, be themselves, and not just other bricks in the wall?

By the way, there is a Finnish expression ‘counting the ends of bricks’, meaning to serve a prison sentence. Sometimes, for me as a teacher, the brick school seems prison-like, too. There are too many outside pressures, constrictions, national assessments and rigid attitudes, which tie my hands.

Marie’s post:

While keeping an eye out for right angles (today’s @dailyshoot assignment), it became apparent that there were a large number of examples in ‘man-made’ structures. On the other hand, there were fewer (or perhaps less obvious) instances in nature and humankind.

Though there is an expectation of support from the angled structures, this cobweb’s network may exemplify the ‘real world’ much more accurately! It certainly reflects the ‘hyperlinked’ nature of today’s youth in their learning and in the interconnectivity of the Internet and all of its tendrils. The web is also much more appealing to the eye, but where would it be without the support and structure of the foundational right angles – guess we need the synergistic relationship of both!

I think these examples illustrate the depth of thinking and fluency of writing which can result from a single image selected to address criteria which still allows choice.

One more thing…

The learning that springs from passion is a wonderful thing. My elder son, who has never studied photography or even art (as an elective) at school, has recently discovered a love of photography, and is learning on the fly. He has joined Flickr groups, and has challenged himself to a daily photo blog. Just last week, he was approached by Zulya and the Children of the Underground for a photo shoot for their next album!

I’m holding onto these examples of learning in the hope of making a difference to student engagement with learning, not for grades, but for life.

Who needs to learn first?

Amanda Marrinan shared this video on Facebook today – Kevin Honeycutt’s song I need my teacher to learn 3.0.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CIh7FWv4UA]

Yes, I think the learning needs to start with us. Thanks, Kevin, you’re amazing – doing so much to make real learning happen and sharing it with all of us. Not sure how he manages to find enough hours in the day. And thanks, Amanda, for finding the video.

How do we learn from people? Do we trust people? What do people know?

Photo courtesy of Okinawa Soba on Flickr

If I’m going to convince others about the whole point of Web 2.0 technologies, not just teach them how to use the technologies (what for? being the pivotal question), then I’m going to have to sort through for myself what it means to learn from and with other people (as opposed to the traditional learning from books, teachers).

Here’s an example. I’ve been reading the photo blogs which are part of a 2010 flickr challenge. Many of the blogs I follow are written by those living in the northern hemisphere. It’s interesting observing opposite weather patterns, for example, of those celebrating Christmas and the new year in snowy winter while I’m experiencing sweltering heat with temperatures in the high 30s in Melbourne today. Not only is the blog reading informative but the conversation is satisfying, and underpins the joy of learning from people who are real, who have a sense of humour and can answer your questions.

I’ve been enjoying sinikka’s blog. Sinikka writes from Finland so, for example, I learned about Finnish Christmas and post-Christmas customs. Not only that, but I could tell her about our Russian customs. Again, learning through conversation. Not static, dynamic learning.

Some blogs are very specialised. The library history buff blog is very impressive in its range and detail of information about the history of American libraries. You’d be surprised how esoteric some blogs are.

Photo from Library History Buff Blog.

Recently I’ve been mesmorised by the Flickr photostream of priest Maxim Massalitin who shares photos and information about Russian Orthodox churches. He’s from Kiev, and currently lives in France. He seems to have done his research about the churches and monasteries he photographs. In this way, writing blogs and posting photos on Flickr becomes a learning experience for the author too; information is retrieved and provided at point of need. It’s a great way to learn for me, like virtual travel. This photostream contains beautiful iconography, and I love the Byzantine tradition. It’s interesting to see so many different churches and monasteries and to read about their history.

Photo courtesy of H.Maxim on Flickr

I think it’s good to think about what learning means. Does it only happen at school? Obviously not. But we may not realise how much of it happens outside of traditional environments. Think back to when you finished school or university – did you think the main part of your learning had been completed? Well, sure you didn’t. But did you realise that you’d barely begun?

Maybe we don’t think that way but kids sure do – at least younger teens. If you don’t give them a written assignment to complete and hand in for correction, they don’t consider themselves working. Spend the lesson having a discussion which peels away at layers of understanding, and you’ll still be the only one considering this work. The kids won’t think they’ve learned much unless it’s on paper and with a percentage or grade.

My elder son has recently discovered a passion for photography. Now that he’s on University holidays, he has been able to spend a lot of time taking photos, learning how to play around with them, and reading books and manuals about photography. He has spent many, many hours of his time voluntarily researching and learning. And he is loving it.  The best example of out-of-school learning. I note that it takes time, and unlimited, but focused learning can be very, very productive. He also commits to daily posts in a blog celebrating his final year as a teenager. Self-initiated and passion-based learning.

Photo courtesy of phillipsandwich on flickr

Every day I learn so much that is interesting from people online – people who share their expertise and special interests, and who are willing to communicate with others. So much more engaging than learning facts from a static page. We can learn a lot from each other.

What if you do it differently…

Photo courtesy of neloqua on Flickr.

Personally, I have much to be grateful for this year. One of the best things to happen is my younger son being accepted into Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School to specialise in music during his final 3 years of school. It gives me enormous pleasure to know that he will be following his passion for playing and composing music, and doing this in the company of equally passionate students and teachers.

The first newsletter arrived in the mail today, and I so loved reading the end-of-year reports by the principal, the heads of the music and dance departments. Even second-hand, I’m going to enjoy my involvement in this school as a parent. For example, in the principal’s commitment to the students is very inspiring:

If I have been a good role model, offered you good advice and created a good environment for you, that is a pleasing year’s work and one I am proud of. To my students, please have a well earned break, enjoy some family and social time. Read the letter I have written to each of you carefully when it arrives in your mailbox, think about it, but beyond some new year’s reflection, forget VCASS for a little. Well done everyone, I am, as always, proud of you!

I think you can guess where this kind of approach will lead. How will the students react when they feel appreciated, understood, supported and spoken to as individuals? I’m guessing they will want to do their best.

As I said in my last post, I’m reflecting and rethinking now that our long break has arrived. This can appear to be a lazy time, as we understandably try to relax and spend time with family and friends, but this is also potentially the most fertile time, when output diminishes and input increases. By input I mean reflecting and evaluating what we’re doing and what we want to do next year. You need space for that. And patience.

I hope to return to school with a renewed vigour and commitment to the students, and with a refined focus which has come from the distance from the everyday school routine which we all need more than we realise.

I’d like to finish this post with a quote from the same VCASS newsletter. This has been written by Steven McTaggart, Head of Contemporary Dance. Although it speaks to dancers, I think it has metaphorical significance for all of us.

It’s all about the movement not just the shapes you make.

Could you be more flexible, fluid, smooth, sustained, controlled, dynamic, exultant, extended, continuous or explosive?

How can we improve our actions?

What can we do from here?

Where does our body want to fall or move to next?

Could you do it slower, faster, backwards, upside down or in reverse?

What if you do it differently…

What if…

What if…

Web 2.0 is like a dinner party – Steve Hargadon at VITTA09

Yesterday I attended the VITTA annual conference 2009. There were many highlights, and one of them was the keynote speaker, Steve Hargadon.

Steve has an interesting quietness about him when talking about dramatic things. His message of the revolutionary changes taking place in the world of work, education and play was presented without any eschatological overtones. All the more effective.

Instead of summarising the entire content of my notes, I’ve pulled out a small selection which is playing around in my mind.

Web2.0 has reshaped our life.

We’re about to go through the biggest change in education in centuries, maybe ever.

It’s going to feel like a tidal wave. How are people reacting to this? Some have their back to the wave, a few are out surfing the wave, but to most of us that wave looks impossible.

I still don’t get how people – intelligent, dedicated educators – do not see the wave. I just don’t get it.

We go to Web 2.0 applications to see peer content, to have peer relationships. We are taking off attributing, collaborating, and creating.

We are changing the nature of communicating; there is a significant cultural change with advent of the internet.

Yes, a cultural change. Notice Steve doesn’t say ‘technological’. Technology is the platform, it is becoming ubiquitous, absorbing the new culture of sharing and co-creating.

The web is a conversation. Many feel it’s a tidal wave.

Yes, the sheer size of what’s there is overwhelming.

It’s changing us into becoming a conversation, not unlike going to a dinner party, engaging in conversation and leaving the party,  fulfilled by conversation. To understand what’s happening in Web 2.0 platforms, we must shift our view of web content as being a conversation.

We don’t follow everything, we choose what we follow, just as we would at a dinner party, selecting conversations that interest us.

We are living in an era of increased openness. Here’s an example: Mitopencourseware, a world-class university, offering all the course content free. This is an enormous historic change. Massachusetts Institute of Technology are intent on being in the forefront of a new way of delivering information.

Amazon.com is another example of the interest people have in peer information; we read what other readers have said about book, not published reviews.

Social networking will become the foundation structure of our educational experience.

Hmmm…. I wonder how, given that most people, even leaders, have their backs to the wave.

Here’s the all-important question for educators:

How well are we preparing our students for this world?

We don’t know how, we’re not really sure ourselves. But we do know that eduction will change. It will feel like tidal wave.

There are all kinds of ways that schools resist change. What can we do? Breathe deeply, turn toward wave and figure it out. The best way to predict future is create it.

Be a learner first. Get back into learner mode. Learn about these technologies.

And here’s an interesting example of innovative use of social networking for marketing purposes. Ikea has used Facebook to get users to willingly promote their merchandise.

Does this have anything to do with education? No, but why can’t we as educators be as innovative?

What have I learned from VCE?

This article in The Age resounded with me – Surely there’s a better test was written by Alexandra Adornetto, Year 12 VCE student at Eltham College and, at 17, already an author of a popular children’s trilogy starting with The shadow thief.

Of Alexandra’s initial questions,

How have I been shaped by my learning experiences? What skills have I developed that are valuable and transferable in the workplace? What lessons have I learned about the value of education?

– I wonder most about the last one: What lessons have I learned about the value of education? Or even, what have I learned about learning?

Alexandra’s answer is negative; she sees students having to work

within a system that reduces achievement to a game where strategies are more important than ideas.

Her cynicism flows from the fact that

the sum total of my education will soon amount to nothing more than a figure — an ENTER score that will determine which percentile I fall into statewide and which courses I will be eligible to apply for.

I agree with Alexandra when she says that

the system fails to recognise the diversity of skills and most subjects do not allow students to demonstrate skills in a form other than a written exam.

I’ve started reading Rethinking rubrics in writing assessment by Maja Wilson, which, at one point, talks about decontextualised teaching of literacy through ‘separate literature, speech, and composition courses’. In the past ‘Reading, speaking, and writing were simply a means to dialogue with professors, peers, and the community at large about matters of public interest.’

Andrea Lunsford (1986) describes an integrated, language-rich environment that supported powerful literacy.

Classroom activity… was built around “oral disputation.” One  student chose and presented a thesis, often taken from reading or class discussion, and defended it against counterarguments offered by other students and the teacher. In addition, students regularly gave public speeches on matters of importance to society, in forums open to the entire college and the surrounding community… the students learned more from their peers than from their teachers … this model of oral evaluation and the form of student speaking societies provided an audience, a full rhetorical context, and motivation for discourse, features woefully lacking in later “set” essays and written examinations.

Maja Wilson goes on to imagine how ideal this kind of learning would be. This would be the antithesis of the VCE as we know it, and as described by Alexandra. Instead of receiving ‘a static score from faceless evaluators’, a student could receive a type of assessment ‘not to rank’ the written content, but purely as feedback to aid learning and develop abilities.

Assessment would be free to interact positively with learning since ranking … was not its main objective.

In her article, Alexandra goes on to point out the many skills students possess in activities they do outside of school which are not taken into consideration in the VCE assessment.

Life skills, innovative ideas and community involvement — what intelligent nation needs these? It’s obviously much safer to work towards the goal of conformity. Here is just the beginning of a list of skills that exam results cannot possibly hope to reflect: interpersonal skills, the ability to entertain, how articulate we are as speakers, our ability to work as part of a team, the ability to deal with challenges and invention.

I’ve often thought the same, and when I see the curriculum packed to bursting with content that teachers struggle to cover, I’m not surprised that they often lament the lack of time to develop important skills.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that our current system does not reward creativity or cater to the diversity of skills and abilities possessed by students. What it does reward are formulaic learners and those with a good memory.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I noticed a difference between, for example, the Psychology course offered within the VCE  and that within the International Baccalaureate. VCE Psychology seemed to be largely a matter of content memorisation, whereas IB Psychology involved higher order thinking.

Alexandra comments:

Other knowledge-based subjects such as legal studies, psychology and history ask us not to apply knowledge but simply to recall and regurgitate the contents of our hefty textbooks.

It’s interesting how Alexandra’s suggested solutions harken back to the older system of assessment described by Wilson in her book:

Clearly an overhaul of the current system with a review of its goals and objectives is in order. Until universities take a radical look at their selection procedures, nothing is likely to change. How much more sensible would it be to include an oral exam (where you might talk through your ideas or your achievements) as a percentage of our final assessment?

I like the way Alexandra thinks, I like her suggested alternatives:

Perhaps the presentation of a folio of achievements would go a long way in presenting us as individuals with a unique contribution to make. Perhaps a hands-on project in a preferred area of study should be a compulsory assessment task.

Yes, Alexandra is cynical about the merits of VCE, and grim in her description of the final exams:

As for us, we will be writing furiously for three hours, surfacing only to check the clock and take periodic sips from our water bottles from which we have assiduously removed the labels in compliance with yet another inane regulation, designed to eliminate cheating.

What do you think? Is she being too harsh?

As for me, I hope that this year’s VCE students will at least be able to demonstrate the extent of their study efforts, not like the poor girl during this year’s English exam whose watch stopped, freakishly, at the same time as the wall clock, and was caught out at the end with only two thirds of her examination paper completed. So much frustration and upset – two years of effort spoiled by a fateful turn of events.

I recommend The English Companion ning which has a rich discussion between Maja Wilson and educators of her book.

Should teachers be more like conductors? TED tells

Orchestra conductor Itay Talgam has discovered that the secrets of good conducting shed light on leadership in general. I found the messages in this TED talk to be very relevant to teaching.

[ted id=663]

Itay Talgam’s TED biography observes that Talgam

finds metaphors for organizational behavior  — and models for inspired leadership — within the workings of the symphony orchestra. Imagining music as a model for all spheres of human creativity, from the classroom to the boardroom, Talgam created the Maestro Program of seminars and workshops.

Talgam’s workshops aim to help everyday people develop a musician’s sense of collaboration, and a conductor’s sense of leadership: that inner sense of being intuitively, even subconsciously connected to your fellow players, giving what they need and getting what you need. It’s this art of listening and reacting in the moment that makes for a swinging jazz combo, a sublime string quartet, a brilliant orchestra — and great teams at work.

Talgam talks about the conductor’s ability to use a small gesture to suddenly create order out of the chaos. When he asks who we should thank for the success of the performance, he is asking what the role of the conductor really is. In the same way as the teacher, the conductor is the single leader responsible for the success of his people. The question is – how does he create music out of the chaos?

According to Talgam, it’s not all about complete control of the orchestra. It’s about the joy of enabling other people’s stories to be heard at the same time – the story of the orchestra, that of the audience, unseen stories of people who made the concert hall and even those who made the instruments.

Talgam shows examples of different styles of conducting. There is the example of the conductor who is so clear about what he wants that he becomes overclear. Talgam describes this type of conductor as having a strong sense of responsibility. This type of conductor insists that there’s only one story to be told, only one interpretation of the music, and that’s his interpretation. In this case, the musicians feel they are not allowed to develop, but are only used as instruments. 

Talgam insists that leadership of the orchestra can be achieved with less control, or with a different kind of control.

One of the conductors is shown conducting with his eyes shut, confusing the onlooker with his apparent withdrawal from control. Talgam explains that, in this case, the musicians get their cues by looking  at the conductor’s face and gestures, and then looking at each other, with the first players of each section leading. This conductor claims that the worst damage he could do to  his orchestra would be to give them an overly clear instruction which would prevent them from listening to each other.

In another example, the conductor explains that by not telling the musicians exactly what to do, he’s opening a space for them to put in another layer of interpretation, another story. Talgam explains that this method without clear instructions works because it’s as if the musicians are on a rollercoaster, whereby the forces of that process put the action into place. You know what to do and you become a partner. This experience is exciting for the players. 

And what happens when there’s a mistake? The conductor’s body language is enough. When it’s needed, the authority is there  but authority is not enough to make people partners. This kind of conductor is there 100 percent but not commanding, not telling them what to do, instead enjoying the whole experience with them. In this case the conductor creates process but he also creates the conditions in the world in which this process takes place. The soloist is allowed to be autonomous and is consequently proud of his work. Developing a partnership brings about the best music.

I think we can take a fair bit out of this talk and apply it to teaching. Teaching is like conducting or leading. What resounds with me is the fact that overly explicit instructions and tight control can be at best limiting, and quite possibly suffocating. Setting up the process and allowing room to move seems like a good way to teach. Realising that your interpretation is not necessarily that of everyone else opens up rich possibilities for learners. Understanding that members of the orchestra or class learn from each other. Getting to the point where you know the students so well that they can read your every nuance, and standing back and smiling, just enjoying the process unfolding before you, is possibly every teacher’s dream.

When, as a teacher or leader, you create the environment, give support, and then step back – you get to the wonderful point of ‘doing without doing’. As Itay Talgam says,

if you love something give it away.

Random facts I learned from Flickr today

They may be random, but I’m still learning.

Flickr is fun to browse, but more and more, I’m discovering Flickr to be an interesting way to learn. The photos take me into places I’ve never been, to things I normally wouldn’t see, often providing interesting background information.

Here are a few random things I learned from Flickr photos today

This photo was taken in Russia by seriykotik1970

russianbuilding

An art nouveau building near my office that was gutted by fire last week. Sadly it’ll now probably be demolished and ‘rebuilt’. In Moscow fires of this sort are often started deliberately by unscrupulous developers.
Designed by Lev Kekushev in about 1910.
Photographed in 2007

Turkish roosters are very colourful

turkishcock1

turkishcock2

Smarthistory is a group on Flickr which complements the website smarthistory.org. The purpose of this website and Flickr group is to enhance or replace the traditional art history textbook.

For example, you can learn about Matisse’s Red Studio from a short video using Flickr pictures of art collected by group members. 

Redstudiomatisse

If you read About Smarthistory, you will understand the motive behind the creation of this website and Flickr group:  

We are dissatisfied with the large expensive art history textbook. We find that they are difficult for many students, contain too many images, and just are not particularly engaging. In addition, we find the web resources developed by publishers to be woefully uncreative. We had developed quite a bit of content for our online Western art history courses and we had also created many podcasts, and a few screencasts for our Smarthistory blog. So, it finally occurred to us, why not use the personal voice that we use when we teach online, along with the multimedia we had already created for our blog and for our courses, to create a more engaging “web-book” that could be used in conjunction with art history survey courses. We also realized that this content would be useful to museum visitors and other informal learners. We are committed to joining the growing number of teachers who make their content freely available on the web.

Smarthistory is an excellent example of what can be done to create high-quality, free educational resources through collaboration. You’ll understand the scope of this project when you look at the site map which provides a hyperlinked timeline of art history. I also like to check out the discussion in groups.

The best thing about learning on Flickr is that you don’t expect to.  That’s why it’s so enjoyable.