Tag Archives: learning

How do we ‘teach’ rhizomatically? Or, even… do we? #rhizo15 #week4

Photo source

I’ve been collecting and categorising (or at least naming) images on Pinterest for a while now. At times it’s been obsessive. Talk about content and non-content – I feel as I ‘own’ these images, that is, I have them in MY collection but actually I know that they are not mine, I don’t own them,  nor do I actually have them in my possession. Just like my playlists on Spotify. I have so much music! I can listen to it any time but it’s not actually mine; I have none of it in my hand.

Anyway, I digress from the topic. So for some reason I started collecting pictures that represented ‘looking out’, for example, an open window like the one above.  Some of these pictures featured a person looking out like this one.

Photo source

See how the next picture shows looking out from a different viewer position.

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Soon after creating this collection it seemed logical to collect images representing ‘looking in’.  Here’s an example.

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However this is my preferred representation of looking in.

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I think of this picture as ‘looking in’ because it feels like introspection. The woman only has a blank wall in front of her and yet she seems to be intent on something.  She is looking inward, don’t you think?

Here’s another ‘looking in’. The woman is concentrating inwardly to such an extent that she is no longer separate from her surroundings.

Photo source

Here’s one which could should perhaps be ‘looking out’ but feels like ‘looking in’. Do you agree?

Maybe it’s the direction the chair is facing – not out towards the window but inwards. The suggestion of a person having been on the chair, almost still sitting there in spirit, makes me think it’s an introspective picture.

But if we go back to this picture

I also think that the girl is looking inwards. She is simultaneously looking out and in.

Why am I talking about this? It’s the open window. It’s enticing.

Open is enticing and also a bit frightening. Looking through a window intensifies the longing, anticipation or fear because it contrasts with the contained space – the room.  Unlimited space contrasted with contained space. And yet there is no doubt that the space through and beyond the open window is more enticing than the contained space of the room. When our classroom becomes open – for example, open blogs revealing student writing to the world, near and far, or through open ended, unprescribed tasks, do students feel enticed, afraid, both? Does this help them reach out to an unknown audience or reach inside themselves because they have their own space for reflection and slow writing? Both.

Marc Chagall’s ‘The window’ (1924) plays with my perspective. What about you?

If you stare at the window frame and opened window frames long enough does your perspective shift from the way they’re drawn, that is, drawn in (and so the outside is almost coming in) to being pushed out with the energy reaching out into the outdoors, into the vast space.

Openness in learning. Opening the window so that learners have a space to reach out into. An undefined space, a space with limitless possibilities. Is this space too much? Could they drown in it?

As teachers facilitating this kind of learning  are we looking out or looking in? Or is it like the pictures in which both occur simultaneously? We want students to look out and imagine possibilities and also look in to reflect and make sense of what they’ve seen.

Rhizomatic learning is chaos. Delicious chaos for those who experience it so. Overwhelming, perhaps, for those who haven’t found their footing.  I’m writing this after reading clusters of conversations in different spaces – Facebook, Google +, blogs, Twitter. The rhizome bleeds into spontaneous spaces, following its cluster will. Underground it shoots off and off while the world above the surface wakes, eats, works, plays and sleeps again.

Where is the creator?

What creator? Space is. Within it life. Clustered stars, planets. Human reach goes out far, meets others in space, clustered lights illuminating the dark. Can the rhizome break through the ground and reach space? Are the underground and space co-existant?

Where is the artist creator in this picture?

Who knows? We know the artist painted the picture but he’s long gone; now the picture just is in the present.

How do we ‘teach’ rhizomatically?  Or, even… do we?

Are you still asking that same question? Am I teaching? Or am I just opening the window?

 

What is content? #rhizo15 #week3

Laura Gibbs’ says something heartwarming in her post for Week 3 which is about content. (Dave thinks of the word ‘content’ ‘lonely and disconnected… merging with the learning objective and the assessment to create a world where learning is about acquiring truth from the truth box.’  Laura talks about the #Rhizo15 course :

There are not assigned readings for Rhizo15 as there were in Connected Courses … and that is totally fine with me. It’s the blogs of the other participants that are really alive and important to me for the purposes of the (un)course experience. Yes, CONTENT IS PEOPLE:

Content for #rhizo15 is people and conversations happening, and learning/understanding being constructed in Twitter chats, blog posts, blog comments,etc.

It’s very rich and it draws its own path just as the unheld garden hose comes alive and is a bit wild.

Here’s an example in the form of a Facebook conversation arising from Simon Ensor’s post ‘Does content need a container?’

For #Rhizo15 the content really is the curriculum. But we are educators. No – we are educators who love to learn. No – we are educators who love to learn with each other. Content is people.

Is content people in secondary school? Definitely no. It is predominantly prescribed content delivered to the student by the teacher or assigned to the students through designated sections of a textbook, practised in homework and tested. It is graded, given a percentage, there is a volume that is known and that is assessed.

Is it created? No. Is it constructed? No. Is it shared? Not really, it is given to the teacher to check.

That is sad.

I tried to create an online community for my writing interest group. This is something the students choose to join. It’s not curriculum although the students can get diploma points.

Boys are like ‘how many blog posts do we need to do to get diploma points?’

I’m like ‘are you here for the diploma points?’

So the Facebook group is supposed to be a caring and sharing space far away from the bustle of the bright school lights. I’m thinking my students know how to be on Facebook.  In meetings I’m like ‘so feel free to share what you write, something you’ve read that resonates with you in the Facebook group’.

(On Facebook) They’re like: silence (invisible).

I try not to go on about it. I share stuff, all sorts of stuff, hoping to show them how to do it, trying to be unschooly.

Some of them will ‘like’ but many of those I can see have read (or visited) will not offer any response.

Yes, I know they’re busy but sheesh.

I don’t know what to do. I can’t say ‘every term you must share 3 somethings in the Facebook group or else you don’t get diploma points. You understand why I can’t, yes? But what can I do?

How can I transform content from something cold, solitary and unhuman to something which is embodied?

I’ve written about this before. You can see I’m obsessed with it. Making the shift for these students to the kind of learning they construct together is important, more important than giving them content in a textbook-shaped container.

Content is a shifty word. It can mean different things to different people.

How can we measure learning? Week 2 #rhizo15

Data or it didn’t happen.

— Shit Academics Say (@AcademicsSay) April 18, 2015

How can we measure learning? Can we measure learning? Define learning. What did I learn today? I learned about the Australian Indigenous artist, Vernon Ah Kee.

Ah Kee is also part of the Proppa Now group and is one of the most political aboriginal artists of his time.

The above is from his 2002 collection titled “If I was White”. I was interested in reading the transcript.

6×5 A4 grids transcribed L-R, downwards:

If I was White
I could walk down the street
and people would pay no particular
attention to me.

It may not seem like much
but if you’ve ever had
a shopkeeper tell you to
Buy something or move on, or
simply follow you around the shop,
it’s significant.

If I was White
people would speak to me.

Wouldn’t you feel a little lonely
if you were the only White person
in a new school
and nobody including the teacher
understood you or your culture?

If I was White
I would think like a White Person.

If I was White
I would believe myself to be equal
to anyone.

If I was White
I would be more likely
to live longer.

If I was White
I would be less likely
to spend time behind bars.

If I was White
just think of all the names
I wouldn’t have been called.

If namecalling does not seem
all that serious to you
then you haven’t heard the names
I’ve been called.

If I was White
a lot of the fights I’ve been in
would not have been my fault.

If I was White
I wouldn’t have been in so many fights.

If I was White
I would not be part of the Stolen Generation.

If I was White
I would have been counted in the Census since 1901.

If I was White
I could live, shop, and socialise
wherever I want.

If you’ve walked into Real Estate
Agencies where houses and units
To Let suddenly become Taken,
and just as suddenly become
Available when you leave, then
you know what I’m talking about.

If I was White
I would be accepted.

If I was White
I could group together
all the people who don’t
look like me
into their own separate
communities.

If I was White
I could accept a life of privilege,
wealth, and power
that the exploitation of Black
People has brought me
without even blinking.

If I was White
I could stand back,
walk on by, sit on the fence,
and do nothing.

If I was White
I would think I have every right
to be here.

If I was White
I would fit in.

If I was White
I would not have to live in a country that hates me.

If I was White
I would have a country.

If I was White
I could say This land
has been in my family
for three generations.

If I was White
I could say My family
have lived on this land
for two hundred years.

If I was White
I could say My father worked hard
to buy this land.

If I was White
I could buy bandaids
the same colour as my skin.

What if all bandaids were black?

If I was White
and in an accident, I would be
wrapped in white bandages.

If I was White
I wouldn’t be asked if I was
Fullblood, Half-caste, or part White.

If I was White
I would not hear other White People
say to me You don’t look like you
have alot of White in you, or
You don’t look White.

If I was White
my fair skin
would not be such an issue
with other White People.

If I was White
it would be okay
to claim to be White.

If I was White
I wouldn’t have to claim to be White
just to get a job.

If I was White
I would be taken at my word.

Try accepting everything written
here as being true
simply because I say it is.

If I was White
I could really identify with
Australian TV Soaps.

If I was White
I could really identify with
Australian TV Advertising.

If I was White
popular Australian newspapers
would print what I want to read.

If you don’t think so
then count how many Black People
appear in the weekend social
pages.

If I was White
I could go to church
and Jesus Christ would
look like me.

Imagine Christ images all over the
world being black.

If I was White
I would not have to be smart
to keep a good job.

If I was White
I would have more chance
of getting a job.

If I was White
I could wear a suit and tie
and not look suspicious.

If I was White
I could own a luxury vehicle
and not look suspicious.

If I was White
I could shop in luxury stores
and not look suspicious.

If I was White
I could walk
in a white neighbourhood
and not look suspicious.

If I was White
I could dye my hair blonde
and it would not look strange.

If I was White
I could have blue eyes
and it would not look strange.

If I was White
I could marry another White person
and it would not look strange.

If I was White
I would have a better chance of becoming PM.

If I was White
I could write history any way I please.

If I was White
ignorance could be my excuse.

If I was White
I would have nothing to fear
from Police.

If I was White
I would not have to explain
the things I say.

If I was White
the world would make
more sense to me.

If I was White
I could make myself believe
that Black People were evil.

If I was White
I could shelter my children from
the evil that exists in the world.

If I was White
I could lie to my children about
the evil that exists in the world.

But I am Black
and I am as misunderstood as the next Blackfella

but I am beginning to understand the White Men.

What did you learn from that text art by Vernon Ah Kee? Does it make you curious to  know more? Does your understanding shift into another context? Are you thinking about this in a broader sense? How did you feel when you were reading this? How did you feel when you were thinking about it?  How would you assess the learning during all of that?

Give yourself a mark out of ten. Make sure you address the outcomes which sit neatly in lines next to their dot points. Don’t forget to ignore everything that is not neatly summarised by these points. Don’t go including the metacognition.  Make sure you toss all those airy fairy ‘what if…’ thoughts. Don’t even think about including the way you felt when you were reading the text; that’s not important and we can’t be getting all touchy feely when we’re assessing serious learning outcomes.

So, back to Dave.

Dave:

Learning is a non-counting noun.  It’s not something we should worry about counting, I don’t think measuring it makes any sense. Once that’s done, what can we measure? Dig into the possibilities of measurement. What can we use to send to administrators? Some way of talking about using all these numbers and  How can we map out the rhizome? a tool for people to map out their own rhizome.  I understand this conflicts with the freedom but work with that.

Really. This is hard. If I knew how to do that …

Taking a look at my own learning which has taken place in MOOCs lately – Connected Courses and now Rhizo15…

If we are talking about connected learning rather than the consumption of learning then counting is no longer useful. You can’t ‘count’ connected learning but connected learning does count. Turn it on its head. It counts. Show it, write about it, share it, discuss it – make it transparent. There it is; you can see it for yourself.

Learning is complex. Yes, we could map it. But… there’s so much to take into account. It’s giving me a headache. Big data.  That term gets bandied about a bit lately. Looking it up on Wikipedia gives me a bigger headache. (Not sure where I saw this image; someone shared it on Twitter?)

And don’t forget –

As I’ve said in a previous blog post, Einstein, Newton, Edison, Tolstoy, Pasteur, Lincoln – these are only some of the notable gifted people throughout history who were assessed as failures in school.

How could that happen? Is it happening now? How reliable are our methods of assessment? One thing I know – we should definitely assess assessment.

Dave Cormier, I can’t answer your question. Fail me.

 

Learning subjectives. Mr X loses his battle for objectivity.

Good afternoon. Please take a seat. Mr X will be with you shortly.

Thank you.  (I take a seat and settle into the chair which is terribly uncomfortable. I am too large for the chair and always have been but I’ve accepted it with the appropriate …

So, Mr X will see you now. I assume you’ve brought your papers.

Er – papers?

Yes, your CV, your references, your learning objectives.

My…

Never mind. Please go down the corridor. It’s the first door to your right.

Er – thank you. (I walk until I find the door. I knock twice.)

Come in, please.

I enter the room. Mr X is sitting behind a large wooden desk, studying me.

Please, sit down.

I do.

So, you’re applying for the rest of your life, are you?

Yes.

You realise that you’re one of many millions of applicants – all wanting to keep learning for the rest of their lives, don’t you?

Yes. I understand.

Show me your learning objectives, please.

Well…I – um…

You do have learning objectives, don’t you? I hope you are not wasting my time.

N-not exactly.

Well how exactly do you intend to get through life without objectives? (His brow is seriously furrowed.)

Actually – I don’t have objectives but –

You realise that we are talking about the rest of your life, don’t you? This is no laughing matter.

Well – if I could explain. I don’t, as you’ve said, have learning objectives for the rest of my life but what I do have is learning subjectives.

Silence.

Silence.

I’m not sure what you’re playing at, but as I’ve already said, there are milliions of people applying for this privilege.

If I could just explain – I think you will understand that it’s possible to continue learning through life with learning subjectives in place of objectives.

Mr X lowered his thick rimmed glasses and peered intensely and unpleasantly at me.

I continued.

You see, subjectives are a type of objective … only seen from a different perspective.

A different perspective! Please explain. (eye rolling)

Well, with objectives you start from the end and work backwards whereas with subjectives you are free to move any which way and even simultaneously.

His look of contempt did not deter me.

You see, I’ve developed an allergy to things which support objectives. Things like preconceived ideas, data entered carefully into spreadsheets, dot points, the narrowness of finite theories, that sort of thing. I have an aversion to these things and I become so ill that I am unable to function.

Go on…

I swallowed.

I need to approach life in a less organised, predetermined way. I need to include the way I feel, for example, in the way I understand life. I need to include questions and doubts in the way I make sense of things, I need mood changes and I also need to be able to synthesize seemingly illogical things into a new way of seeing. I need to follow – what I refer to as learning subjectives.

Preposterous! His outburst moved the large desk forward and his family photos fell down.

What you are telling me is that you are rejecting good common sense and traditional values and insisting on this groundless faith in what can only be described as blasphemous nonsense. This is a NON-SENSE! Do you hear me?! You will not be able to go through lifelong learning clinging to these asinine beliefs. Get out!

There was only one thing to do. I wasted no time. In my mind I drew a cage around this dreadful man and locked him in.  His ranting and raving were repulsive. I transformed it into the sound of crashing waves. I left him there in his salt water turbulence, thrashing at the iron bars. I had more important things to do. I had a subjective life to lead.

P.S. I had trouble keeping a straight face while writing this. Just didn’t know how to approach the first #rhizo15 task set by Dave Cormier  – “Learning subjectives”. Decided to be a bit silly. I think I need a good gif or two. Any suggestions?

I do like a course that admits to not knowing where it’s going. A course with a history, however. The history of Rhizo14 which has crept into conversations in Connected Courses, on Twitter and other spaces where people gather to do what keeps them fascinated in a collaborative way as they teach, put their children to bed and scribble out course outlines. And so I begin the much awaited Rhizo15, knowing that we go where others have gone before us but we get lost intentionally so we can go our own way.

I might need someone to hold my hand.

 

 

 

Teaching a highly able (possibly gifted) cohort – Dr Toni Meath on differentiation and personalised learning

The final session I attended on our first day back to term 2 – a Select Entry Schools Professional Learning Day – was presented by Dr Toni Meath, principal of The Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, on ‘differentiation and personalising learning for the unique cohort of academic select entry schools’.

Brief: This presentation will provide a perspective on understanding the needs of gifted learners. Meath will put forward that to meet the wellbeing, curriculum and pedagogical needs of gifted learners educators must reflect upon how they personalise and differentiate the learning within a culture of trust present in both the school and the classroom.

Two things jumped out for me in this brief – wellbeing and trust. A focus on wellbeing is obviously an important one  when we consider students and their learning holistically.  Trust is an essential component of a healthy and happy cohort. Both are necessary for academic success.

Dr Meath started by saying that we needed to first believe that there is such a thing as a gifted/highly able child. I’m not sure about the choice of word, ‘believe’, which sounds a bit like blind faith, but I agree that we need to do the research to understand and be convinced that gifted/highly able students exist and have specific learning needs just as, at the other end of the spectrum, students need appropriate support.  In my experience of giftedness an understanding of the affective development is also important.  Dr Meath explained that  our intervention as teachers is based on contemporary knowledge of the brain which proves that although giftedness is recognisable in very young children, it is not fixed from birth. It’s important we understand how our students learn best so that we can support and enhance their learning and allow them to develop their potential.

Creating a culture of trust in the classroom is the first step to supporting students’ learning, and I liked Dr Meath’s point that good teachers remove their ego in order to allow their students to fly. She reminded us that some of our students would no doubt surpass us in our knowledge and understanding of the subject content. It makes sense – and not just in a gifted school. In my opinion, there is no place for insecurity in teachers or an insistence on hierarchy which only results in a power struggle in the classroom. I’m not saying that I’ve achieved this but I continue to remind myself that respect is the preferred attitude to students; wielding power will make students defensive and resentful.

Fixed and growth mindset were discussed by Dr Meath as well as by keynote speaker, Dan Haesler.  Dr Meath identified Carol Dweck, psychologist and a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, in terms of her work around growth mindset. I found the TED talk:

Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet?

It’s an interesting idea to replace the fail or N with ‘not yet’, and I like Carol’s reasoning:

if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade “Not Yet”you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.

This is important information (from the transcript):

Scientists measured the electrical activity from the brain as students confronted an error. On the left, you see the fixed mindset students. There’s hardly any activity. They run from the error. They don’t engage with it. But on the right, you have the students with the growth mindset, the idea that abilities can be developed. They engage deeply. Their brain is on fire with yet. They engage deeply. They process the error. They learn from it and they correct it.

Just the words “yet” or “not yet,” we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence. And we can actually change students’ mindsets. In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time they can get smarter.

Dan Haesler spoke about this experiment with the 2 groups of students that Carol talks about here:

Look what happened: in this study, students who were not taught this growth mindset continued to show declining grades over this difficult school transition, but those who were taught this lesson showed a sharp rebound in their grades. We have shown this now, this kind of improvement, with thousands and thousands of kids, especially struggling students.

High achieving students deserve the same amount of support and encouragement to push out of their comfort zone as any other students. Sadly this doesn’t always happen in mixed ability schools because they might be perceived as already ‘being there’ with nowhere to go. How annoying it must be to be judged with a fixed mindset as being ‘smart’ and therefore not deserving of teaching or stretching. It’s also offensive not to recognise the effort put in by ‘smart’ students and instead to assume that everything they achieve is without effort.

Dr Meath asked ‘how often are students just marking time?’ I’m hoping that this happens much less in selective schools but who knows? I still remember how agonising it was for me in early primary school (and must have been equally for others) when I could already read, and had to sit silently and still while the teacher chose struggling readers to read aloud from our annual prescribed reader. Maybe it was easier for me to sit still and daydream the time away than others and of course I was determined to ‘be good’ but how boring it was! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had read the whole reader within the first few days and had nowhere to go after that. This was in the 1960s and in my school at least we were not offered library books although I did go to the public library with my mother. Things have improved a great deal since then in terms of differentiation for early reading and let’s hope schools hold onto their libraries, teacher librarians and library staff.

Dr Meath also talked about Flow Theory (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) in relation to learning at school and emphasized the combination of high challenge, high support and high success . I’ve included the TED talk and a link to the transcript.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, being in the flow is the ultimate in focused intrinsic motivation.

Dr Meath gave a good overview of what teachers should look into more deeply when thinking about how best to teach a gifted and talented cohort. I enjoyed her positive approach and confidence in teaching success based on a good knowledge of educational theories. It was refreshing for me because her view was crystal clear and her faith in what could be done for our select student cohort was absolute. Her students and school are testament to her success in putting theories into practice.

Anyone who has read my posts knows that I have more questions than assured answers but I suppose that’s the way I work through things. I have criticised the VCE as a system that sometimes seems to churn out test-taking students with a focus is on the final ATAR if they want to succeed and move on to their chosen careers. That isn’t to say that I can’t see the wonderful learning environments created by teachers but I also see how teachers’ passion is dissipated by increasing numbers of professional requirements and data charts to prove they are teaching properly. In my work as teacher librarian I’m not fighting the system but in small ways I ‘rebel’ by quietly colouring outside the lines – by taking student writing out of the classroom through blogging, encouraging the development of personal voice in writing rather than focusing on grammar and spelling (and believe me, I am a big fan of grammar and spelling), even by trying to take students out of their comfort zone through exposure to articles or images that make them stop and think.

I came across an old post written by Sean Michael Morris entitled ‘Schools needn’t fail’ (2007) and he talks about how over time he changed the way he ‘ignored’ the system in order to teach honestly.

When I originally started this blog, I started with a pretty self-important diatribe against the systemization of education, especially in the form of standardized testing, rubrics, and the like. I find myself wanting to return to that discussion again.

On the other hand, I feel the urge to exactly ignore that discussion, because ultimately it leads to an us-against-the-administration discussion, or a persistent feeling of hopelessness, futility, and desperation. Because I did not get into teaching to feel desperate, nor to feel oppressed by or to battle the administration (hey, I am the administration), I hesitate to the point of intentional inertia to enter that discussion.

Spot on. What is the point of fighting the system if it makes us feel hopeless, oppressed, and if it leads to inertia?  Morris goes on to talk about ‘any centre of power’.

Regardless of a subject’s posture, though, the center is reaffirmed: slide toward it and you acknowledge its power, rebel against it and you do the same thing. Protesting the government reaffirms the power of the federal administration; leaving in frustration a teaching post does nothing to dismantle the school.

So how does one ignore the power of the school?

Morris provides an example of how one of his favourite teachers did this very thing:

One of my favorite high school teachers was a certain Mrs. Meyerle, who taught me the five-paragraph essay. She used a couple of class days to explain the reasoning behind the form, told us we’d rarely actually write in it, and then moved quickly on to helping us discover what it was we wanted to write about. She fulfilled the expectations of the curriculum in as little time as possible, trusting entirely in our ability to master it quickly, and then, almost without missing a beat, kept the actual learning happening.

Morris describes how he teaches English/Composition:

I refuse to give tests (and now, as chair of my program, have removed them from all our online templates), and deny fervently and repeatedly that there is a correct way to write. Instead, I lead students through a process of ideation, creation, and revision. I let them explore their own authorities (both over their ideas and their words), and give them lots and lots of room to make mistakes.

Of course, as Chair, Morris has more autonomy than the classroom teacher in a school but I have no doubt his teaching is very similar to that of many teachers whose focus is generating passion and engagement in their students which goes beyond ticking the boxes of what is required by the department.

And so, in highlighting the passion of the teacher in creating a stimulating learning environment, I’m back to trust which is surely one of the first, most important, things to be established between teacher and students as well as between the students themselves, so that students feel free to be themselves and challenge themselves at school. Morris quotes Jonathan Kozol:

“Establishing a chemistry of trust between the children and ourselves is a great deal more important than to charge into the next three chapters of the social studies text … Entrap them first in fascination. Entrap them in a sense of merriment and hopeful expectations” (from Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 15).

I know I’m over-quoting Morris but let me finish this long, rambling post with his words:

There is no standardization around merriment and hopeful expectations. There is no rubric for fascination. But these are human things, removed from the power struggle of “schooliness” (thank you, Clay), and they are more important than measurable skills to a life spent learning.

 

Our recent focus on giftedness and differentiation. So many unanswered questions.

This was retweeted by Maha Bali (@Bali_Maha) by keesa v (@keesav) on Twitter.

At school we’ve been looking at giftedness and differentiation. Our leading teachers (Curriculum and Professional Development) have spoken about giftedness in a staff meeting and we have met in our faculty teams with the other inner city schools (‘City Edge’) – namely, Mac.Robertson Girls’, University High School, Melbourne Girls’, Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, Princes Hill Secondary College and Albert Park College – to discuss differentiation.

Being locked into differentiation within the library context has left me with a sense of dissatisfaction and many questions about the definition of giftedness and differentiation. I often feel that, coming from teaching to the library, I still think like a teacher and not so much like a librarian but I know also that there is no universal ‘teacher’ or ‘teacher librarian’ so I try to acknowledge my individual perspective as a positive thing.

The most basic question about giftedness – What is giftedness – remains a mystery to me. As Melbourne High School has been identified as a school with some experience of teaching the gifted – since we have a high achieving cohort – we are apparently somehow authoritative in this area of pedagogy. I find this problematic since we typically have what I would describe as hard working students (on the whole), certainly with many intelligent and talented amongst the cohort.  Are they gifted? Some present as gifted – which means we recognise giftedness in them without having tested them. Our school attracts students who want to achieve a high score in their final VCE year and typically work hard towards this before entering the school in year 9 and throughout years 9-12.  Does this mean we cast a wide net and catch the gifted kids amongst the hard working ones? Perhaps. Do we miss gifted kids for various reasons eg. they don’t do well in tests, they are not interested in perfecting their testing skills, they are not interested in going to a highly competitive school? Perhaps. Do traditional IQ tests miss giftedness in the Arts: visual art, music, performing; creativity across disciplines?

Many students are trained early to do well in selective entry examinations. As Alice Pung states in her article The secret life of them: What it takes to shift class in Australia,  

There are now hundreds of such colleges around Australia, dedicated to drilling students in the skills needed to win scholarships to private schools, to get into selective state schools like MacRobertson or North Sydney Boys High, or to gain admission to state schools’ SEAL programs. These coaching colleges do not require any form of certification from state educational departments and are free to set their own curricula.

When my sons were very young I taught in one of these coaching colleges so that I could work weekends. Like Tina of Pung’s article, I found it ‘soul-crushing’.

“The scholarship classes I took were soul-crushing,” says Tina. “A coaching college! Dude, there are five-year-olds walking around that place. What are you possibly coaching them?” Still, Tina muses: “I am yet to meet an Asian child who doesn’t do some form of consistent tutoring.”

Less about learning (curiosity, inquiry, experimentation, collaboration…) and more about cramming disconnected fragments of information, I admit doing it for the money only. I taught primary and secondary English and Maths according to a strict script and at a frantic pace. I still remember a gorgeous Indian girl in my grade 2 class, after an hour of maths work, asking me if it was time to go home yet. I had to tell her that it wasn’t even half time.

Of course we don’t teach like that at our school but we do have students (and parents) whose concept of education is narrowly shaped by the cramming model, and whose learning resides in practice, practice and more practice.  So if we are a school known for ‘producing’ high ATARs, if we are locked into the VCE system where the focus is not on the process of learning but the final numerical position of the student in comparison to the rest of the state, do we have the time or opportunity to evaluate our teaching programs and our pedagogy?

From the outside I see how much time teachers spend on marking and reporting, and how they struggle to fit what will be tested at the end into the term – especially when so many things disrupt classes. From my privileged position as a teacher librarian who is not responsible for classes’ assessment, I try to persuade teachers to do things differently, eg to create learning communities through shared blogging and to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning supported by their peers – but I fail so many times. I don’t blame the teachers but I’m frustrated by the system.

Student empowerment is surely our focus and not the transfer of information or even skills.  As Ann writes in her post:

As an educator my main aim is creating/maintaining a space for individual empowerment and more importantly giving participants in the learning space the confidence to find the skills, information, and tools they need to feel empowered in society. It is not about imparting one specific nugget of information, a date, a theory, it is about supporting and nurturing that confidence so they can approach society, issues, and questions critically.

I think that teachers need the opportunity to unlearn – stop and reflect on how they are teaching and ask the most basic questions about teaching and learning to evaluate their pedagogy. But stopping to think is not part of the timetable. I’m not sure that times set aside in staff meetings or curriculum days will provide the opportunity for each of us to honestly say what we think. The structured meetings and student-free days have possibly not managed to provide a safe environment or created trust amongst teacher cohorts where they feel they can say what they really think.  Our inner city curriculum day for library staff was enjoyable and a great opportunity to catch up with other school library staff but for me it was still firmly planted in traditional library concerns. Differentiation is a broad term. We shared ways in which the library provided differentiation but it was all about what we do. For me, the basic questions – what is giftedness? what is differentiation? – remain untouched. I think we explored what we already know, what we already do, but we didn’t unpack the concepts to explore further.

So back to assessment.  Some of these ‘theses that work to re-imagine moocs’ are questions we might like to consider in schools also:

  • A course is a conversation, not a static reservoir or receptacle for content. Dave Cormier argues that “curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process.” A course is a starting point, a space in which learners can experiment with their agency, discover the complexity of their oppression, and begin to work toward more liberated action.
  • Outcomes should give way to epiphanies -Outcomes tell learners what is important in advance, making the act of learning neat and tidy, while deterring the unexpected and unruly epiphanies that arise organically from within a learning environment. Invention arises from self-governance.
  • Learning should not be structured to conform to assessment mechanisms.

    In truth, learning is not a process that can be structured in advance without first hobbling it, like fitting a body to box by chopping off its limbs. Much goes missing when we remove learning from learners’ hands, and manicure it for ease of instruction. When we ask students to conform their learning to the mechanisms by which we measure it, we are not permitting students to learn, we are asking them to pull the right lever at the right time to the right effect — automatons.

    Assessment is too often the enemy of innovation. Our inability to quantitatively assess something is often in direct proportion to its pedagogical value. The best work confounds us. Because of the rampant culture of assessment that devalues students and their work, we’ve internalized grading as compulsory in education; however, grading is done in many more situations than it is actually demanded.

See the rest of the article here.

So, back to the subject of giftedness. If we confuse giftedness with high achievement, we are in trouble. It might be worth revising the characteristics of giftedness before we start guessing who is gifted and who isn’t. Einstein, Newton, Edison, Tolstoy, Pasteur, Lincoln – these are only some of the notable gifted people throughout history who were not high achievers in school.

Differentiation is an aspect of pedagogy. It’s not just providing extra work or more difficult work for advanced students. I think we should start our conversation about differentiation by looking at learning itself to remind us that our teaching should be built on our understanding of learning. Let’s bring the student to the focus, not the content, the outcome or even teaching itself.

Critical pedagogy meets Year 9 library orientation (Week 2 #MOOCMOOC)

I write this post in the second week of MOOCMOOC which focuses on Chapter 1 of bell hooksTeaching to Transgress and two short videos from Anita Sarkeesian. As Jesse Stommel and Maha Bali write in their introductory post, bell hooks is writing about something more than just feminist or antiracist pedagogy. Maha and Jesse  talk about the way that bell hooks is influenced by Buddhist philosophy, believing that the whole person of the teacher and of the student should be part of the pedagogical process.

Showing vulnerability to our students is not part of our professional conversations at school. It is something some teachers might do instinctively while others might find it confronting and even wrong. Maha and Jesse quote Danielle Paradis who wrote about this in“The Pleasures, the Perils, and the Pursuit of Pedagogical Intimacy,”: Learning is uncomfortable, and the trouble with letting someone teach you is that it leaves a mark — an impression.”

Since we’ve just started the new school year, I’m keeping these thoughts foremost in my mind when thinking about my teaching goals for the year, and generally in terms of how to prepare my attitude to my classes and library supervision.  Teaching is easier to direct in terms of intimacy,  acknowledging  our responsibility to care for our students – and let’s face it, that’s easy to do with a new intake of students who are still well behaved and wide-eyed.

Library supervision is harder. Firstly, you don’t know all the students since there are too many of them. I’m really bad with names, and if I miss their name in the beginning of the year, I’m too embarrassed to ask later on.  A non-teaching relationship with students is both easier and more difficult. Easier because we can be more casual with them and we have the opportunity to chat informally without the pressure of teaching content, but more difficult because I think it’s the teaching/learning relationship which develops the intimacy through caring for the development of the student, and in the visible transformation of students over time.  We are also not supposed to be talking to students when they come to the library to study in their free periods, and that’s because we try to maintain a quiet study environment in one part of the library which we, as teacher librarians, supervise.

And: “teaching and learning ARE inevitably intimate.” Maha and Jesse talk about the importance of bringing our full selves to our teaching, and point out that teaching and learning are inevitably  intimate.

I guess that means that we would let the overly professional persona fall away when teaching, but it doesn’t mean we act unprofessionally. If we keep the students as our focus and care about the students’ welfare, remembering that we leave an impression whatever we do, then we surely transfer our focus from conveying content to interacting with our students.

I’m not sure if I’ve understood bell hooks’ feeling of estrangement from education but I know that there have been school or school library environments which made me feel uncomfortable, repressed and unhappy. I didn’t feel I was teaching well or relating properly to students. It didn’t have as much to do with the students themselves as the tone that was set by the head of faculty/library or other library staff. If I didn’t feel comfortable with that tone, that approach to the students, I felt as if I had to squeeze everything out of me, and put on a thin facade, copying the external behaviour and speech of others in an attempt to emulate them. It didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for the students. It made me feel bad.

On the other hand, when the attitude to students and approach to teaching is compatible with my own, then I’m happy to be vulnerable, to expose my imperfections, as well as my personality. You have to be comfortable within yourself to be willing to expose vulnerability. Some people might, by their nature, do this seemingly without effort, but for others it takes practice, reflection and time, while others still will not do this at all.

It took me a very long time to expose my vulnerability in my role as a priest’s wife in the Russian Orthodox Church. Possibly because I took on this role at the age of 26 – too young actually. And also because I was not ‘groomed’ for the role, and did not grow up in a particularly devout family – sure, we went to church but not every week. I was not educated in Orthodox dogma and no doubt had unformed ideas which needed time to mature. In a way, I interrupted that opportunity for growth because I suddenly had to take on a role that was associated with high ideals and pressure from the members of the church community. I ‘took on’ a persona but one which was dangerously superficial, ungrounded, and somehow managed to keep going in that way for many years. Having children only resulted in a more passionate stance on what I’d become because I felt it was my duty to educate them in the way I had perceived they ought to be educated – from the outside. Of course, eventually, the cracks start to show, and I was faced with a choice: to continue as I had been or decide to do it my way, true to myself. This took time, as you can imagine, because I had almost lost who I was, or at least, lost the confidence in my own instincts and understanding of things. Doing this meant I had to grow a thick skin so that I wouldn’t care about what people thought about me as much as I care about my own survival, and my honesty. Not going this way would have been destructive. I believe that you can’t have any kind of faith unless you stay true to yourself. Taking on something externally doesn’t work. Understanding it from the inside (of yourself) is the only way.

It’s the same with any relationship, and teaching must be intimate, surely, and must be vulnerable, if you are to connect honestly with students, if learning is more than a transmission of content knowledge. Obviously that doesn’t mean you expose every part of yourself which would be inappropriate, but it means that you don’t shut off who you are so that students see you relating to them honestly. And I think that’s the only way you get real satisfaction from teaching. A lot of this is unspoken in schools but you can tell when there is that kind of relationship between teachers and students.

So when I first started as a teacher librarian, having ‘forsaken’ the classroom (English, French and German), my library orientation was all about where the printers were,  the cost of fines, how to use the library catalogue, how to use databases. It was so boring, I was bored and unhappy about it myself. I was following the procedure of others because I was inexperienced.  In not showing my full self was really like not showing up at all. Presenting my authentic non-neutral self in the classroom has made me very happy.

Today was the first day we had students at school – just the Year 9s, all brand spanking new. In my ‘library orientation’ sessions I wanted to connect to my students first foremost, and convey information to them as the second priority. I was aware that they didn’t know each other on their first day and spent some time asking questions and encouraging responses to start that ball rolling. How could I possibly waste my first time with these young men talking about rules and regulations only? I wanted to make a much deeper impression than that.  I wanted to challenge their perception of the library, talk about information (the fire hydrant), the dangerous ideas, freedom of speech and expression, respect for others and their ideas – but most of all I wanted to be myself and get to know them a little. I wanted to start the process of getting them to know each other in their classroom community. I definitely wanted them to challenge their perception of the library as being just a space with books and bookshelves – which was the standard answer when I asked them.

Perhaps, to not show up as our full selves to the act of learning is not to show up at all. This means placing our authentic non-neutral selves fully in the classroom — with all the risks and challenges that brings. (Maha and Jesse)

My focus today was not on the listing of rules or information but on engaging them with me and each other, to give them the chance to consider important questions before they were sucked up into the wave which would push them through the year at a pace that might not have time for reflection because they were intent on survival.

Here’s the slideshow I created which serves as a prompt for discussion with the students. Some slides resulted in long and deep discussions and others just covered some necessary facts. Of course every session was different depending on the dynamics of the group and the response I received from them

It so happened that just minutes before my session, amidst the predictable technology failings and panic, I read Maha Bali’s post and was reminded about the aspect of vulnerability in critical pedagogy.

Now, I find a lot of difficulty talking to people without knowing anything about them.

Yes, and I imagine that students feel a lot better meeting a teacher who says a little about herself.

Maha:

So since they don’t all know each other that well, I asked them to do a round of “Name+something no one here knows about you”

… so the person on my left, he felt really uncomfortable sharing something about himself. He said his name. I said, “and something about yourself?” and he was like “no”.

I became aware of vulnerable beginnings. I shared something about myself first. I told them I had 2 sons and that one of them was completing a Masters degree in Urban Planning and the other was doing third year Music – both at Melbourne Uni. Suddenly they see me as a parent.  A little peek through the ‘teacher librarian’ exterior. I told them that, contrary to popular belief that librarians spent all their time reading fiction, I had not read much fiction in the last few years, that I felt like I wanted to learn and keep learning about things, and so I read information (non-fiction). Suddenly I’ve broken the librarian stereotype. It’s a start towards bell hooks’ holistic education, her ‘engaged pedagogy’.

Many of them shared things about each other, some being funny, and that’s all good. Their body language started to change. They were facing the front looking at me and the screen, and now they started turning to each other to exchange responses. The shift had begun. We talked about banned books, (burned books even), Charlie Hebdo, and many other things. I had added an extra slide to the end of my existing presentation.

I added Maha’s great questions: Why am I here, what are my goals, and what do I have to offer others here?

Photo source: http://gifopera.tumblr.com/

Thank you to Maha and Jesse for orchestrating this week’s #moocmooc goodness. So much more to learn – and now to read the Twitter chat retrospectively.

 

 

 

Co-learning – our students are doing it now

We have just moved into Unit 5 of Connected Courses:   About co-learning. I’m thinking about it as I sit in the school library during exams.

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Photo source

The library is the playground for study before exams. Classes have been cancelled and the signs of playground are all over the library – noise, noisy groups, grouped learners, learning clusters, clustered distractions, distracted discussions, discursive learners…

Many students have chosen not to stay home because they predict being distracted. (They know themselves. They have acted.) Wouldn’t the noisy playground be a distraction in itself? How do you remained focused in such an environment? (They are alert. They are engaged. It is social. They interact. There is laughter.)

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We sometimes talk about study habits to students. Of course, there are students who need help, lots of help, learning how to study. We talk about study habits. Do we study? How long ago have we studied? Do we watch our students studying? I see study habits in action now. The library space has become a learning space with energy – not from us, but from our students. They have taken over. It’s how it should be.

Do you have an exam today?

No, I just came in to help a friend. Now I’m going to get onto my own study.

The technology is being used. Apple TVs, screens are being used for small group presentations. (Nobody told them how to do it.) Whiteboards are being filled with mathematics and diagrams. One student standing and teaching (yes, teaching) and others sitting attentively, listening, putting up their hands to ask a question (Yes, really). Have we modeled this?

We step back. We observe. They are learners and teachers. It’s uplifting.

Visibility and trust – glue for teacher librarians

Glue no.1

Photo by J. Down on Flickr

In his blog post,  Connecting trust to information literacy: class coordinated instruction,  Charles Greenburg, University Library Director at Wenzhou-Kean University, China, has written:

Librarians must be visible and trusted partners in the future of their institutions, if we are to ensure information literacy and management skills maintain their connection to life-long learning outcomes we expect and desire in student-centered higher education.

This is valid for school librarians too.

Visible. Yes, we must be seen in the library, that is, we should be doing something that makes people coming in or through (as is often the case) stop and notice.  Although, I think that’s not exactly practical, but I think that the school community should know what it is we are doing – often not the case, sadly. Out of the library, we can still be invisible. Waving our hands around, jumping on the spot and calling out doesn’t work.  Playing a meaningful part in the everyday teaching and learning is a challenge when we are often not seen as teachers and requires behaviour which convinces teachers we play an important role.

… it is not about merely going into classes as an agent of information literacy, but having a broad institutionally-connected visibility as an agent of institutional excellence, connected to the learning process at the broadest levels of concern.

I might just sit on these words for a long while. Thank you,  Charles Greenburg.  As I think about trust (prompted by the unit on Trust and Network Fluency in Connected Courses, it seems to me that trust is the glue without which nothing we (teacher librarians) say to teachers or students will be effective. I’m happy that it comes back to relationships and will remember this when I feel like I’m not doing enough. It’s not about ‘me doing’, ‘not about merely going into classes as an agent of information literacy’ (so funny, the image of a faceless/genderless agent barging into classes with a scroll of info lit.) – it’s about ‘having a broad institutionally-connected visibility as an agent of institutional excellence (wow, where do I get that?), connected to the learning process at the broadest levels of concern‘.

How?

Teachers trust that we will respect what they are doing. We listen to teachers and work with them, following their direction. They trust that we have a sound knowledge of curriculum. They trust that our research is sound, and that we do not take short cuts in preparing what is needed. They trust that we respect their teaching style, and that we are respectful of their students.

We are about to sink our teeth into our strategic plan this week. Where will ‘having a broad institutionally-connected visibility as an agent of institutional excellence, connected to the learning process’ sit? Hopefully right at the top as a powerful reminder that we must connect meaningfully across the school and be representative of excellence – and be trusted for it.

Like I said, I’m sitting on this for a long time. Elucidations welcome.

How many years does it take to change a light bulb? What about schooling?

Alec Couros shared this video. It’s a clever advertisement about lighting. Main message:

Our homes have changed radically over the past century. So why do we still use lighting that’s based on 19th century technology? Well, that’s all about to change.

Isn’t this an apt metaphor for education, specifically schooling? I really think so. So many aspects of life have changed  but the way we view learning and teaching in most schools and many tertiary institutions has changed very little since the Industrial Age.

I know that some educators reading this post will disagree, even be offended. It’s not that we don’t have expert, committed teachers. It’s not that students learn nothing; of course they do.  It’s just that the internet has opened up access to information, and the new opportunities to connect to information and people, the ability to create something online, to collaborate, to ask questions, to learn outside the classroom/course, to follow your passion, to drive the learning, to make a difference – all these things have changed the game. We can teach content well, we can also teach specific skills, but what are we doing to teach students how to learn what they will need when they leave school – because that is unknown to all of us. Learning how to learn – we’ve heard it all before, but what does it mean? If teachers were forced to be learners in an unknown learning environment, would it make any difference to their perception of their role?  When we’re used to teaching what we know and have known for years, are we out of touch with what it’s like to be bewildered learners?

We don’t know what our students will need to know throughout their working lives but we should recognise that the learning will be continual, and they won’t be in cosy classrooms with dedicated teachers. The curriculum is unknown. The only thing we know for certain is that being able to navigate the learning journey is imperative.  Will our students feel lost or will they know how to find the people they need to help them? Will they know what questions to ask, and will they feel comfortable developing their learning networks, or will they feel they have failed because they are not used to initiating their own learning journey?

There isn’t a simple solution to this but there is the possibility of changing the game.  Right now I’m enjoying the personal interactions in Connected Courses. I’m learning so much from other people through conversations, sharing of information and projects, of digital tools and research methods. Many blogging their way through this course have said what I’m about to say. Much of the learning is not explicitly related to a task. The incidental learning is getting me going – motivated, that is, to go in for more. Yes, there’s a structure, recommended readings, topics and videos to watch, but there is a choice of what, how much and when we do something. There’s company – that’s the best part. There are platforms like Twitter (#ccourses), Google+ (#ccourses), Facebook and others, where we can go. So as soon as we read something, as soon as we watch a webinar (in real-time or archived), in which we meet the facilitating people – and these people are contactable through social media – we have the opportunity to jump into one of the many platforms and say what we think, ask questions, benefit from other viewpoints, gather further information from our network, initiate or join projects or create things (eg #dailyconnect).

Why can’t learning be like this for our students? Why don’t all teachers enjoy a professional community like this one?

(Why can’t I stop asking rhetorical questions?)

I’d like to finish with a slab of transcript text from Anant Agarwal’s TED talk: Why massive open online courses (still) matter. (Thanks to Yin Wah Kreher’s post).

Here he is talking about peer learning.

Let me tell you a story. When we did our circuits course for the 155,000 students, I didn’t sleep for three nights leading up to the launch of the course. I told my TAs, okay, 24/7, we’re going to be up monitoring the forum, answering questions. They had answered questions for 100 students. How do you do that for 150,000? So one night I’m sitting up there, at 2 a.m. at night, and I think there’s this question from a student from Pakistan, and he asked a question, and I said, okay, let me go and type up an answer, I don’t type all that fast, and I begin typing up the answer, and before I can finish, another student from Egypt popped in with an answer, not quite right, so I’m fixing the answer, and before I can finish, a student from the U.S. had popped in with a different answer. And then I sat back, fascinated. Boom, boom, boom, boom, the students were discussing and interacting with each other, and by 4 a.m. that night, I’m totally fascinated, having this epiphany, and by 4 a.m. in the morning, they had discovered the right answer. And all I had to do was go and bless it, “Good answer.” So this is absolutely amazing, where students are learning from each other, and they’re telling us that they are learning by teaching.

Students learn really well with a great teacher and a finely tuned class but they can also take a more active part, and the collective whole can become better than the one-to-many model.