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When scrawling leads to learning July 24, 2015

Posted by ianinsheffield in Uncategorized.
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On opening a book borrowed from the library, I struggled to stifle the resigned exhalation reserved for those irritations caused by someone’s thoughtlessness.

flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/19355566994 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I have no problem at all with adding notes to a text that highlight significant sections, query your own understanding or indicate emerging themes. Quite the contrary in fact. So if you buy a book for your own personal use, then you have every right and very good reasons to annotate away until your pencil is no more than a stub. However, if that book comes from a library collection and will be borrowed by subsequent readers, then surely it is no more than considerate to erase your jottings before returning the book? Or am expecting too much and reverting to type as a ‘Grumpy Old Man?’ (and that’s rhetorical!)

As I inspected the notes to see why on earth the writer couldn’t be bothered to undo their misdeed, I found myself drawn into their comments and highlights, asking why had s/he underlined that sentence, what had that phrase been labelled as ‘important‘ for and why did they ‘disagree‘ with that section? In some sense I had begun to participate in a brief discourse with a fellow student on certain aspects of the text, albeit a uni-directional one. I found that I was interrogating their assertions, sometimes critically, often in agreement and occasionally wondering why they had (apparently) not noted an issue that seemed obvious to me. Perhaps there was value in not erasing sidenotes, but actually in adding to them? Sacrilege!

Unfortunately there’s a technical impediment here; that of space … there isn’t enough. For one student, sure; two perhaps or three at a push, but even with an overly generous typesetter, it’s unlikely to extend further than that. Unless of course we happen to be reading a digital version. Ebooks often have the facility to highlight and annotate text built in and if the ereader has Internet connectivity, then the highlights and annotations of the community of readers can be read by all … without fouling up the legibility of the page! Whilst it may not be the dialogue into which an online book club might enter, surely it constitutes some form of asynchronous discourse between readers which might assist one another’s understanding or challenge (mis?)interpretations.

The few instances I’ve seen in some ebooks have been less than helpful e.g. “9 people have highlighted this.” But perhaps that’s simply because we haven’t yet become sufficiently digitally literate with this new medium to exploit its potential … or the ebooks where I’ve witnessed that behaviour haven’t lent themselves to discussion. As a teacher working in financially limited circumstances and given their expense, I spent a lot of time endeavouring to ensure the longevity or our textbooks. Writing in them was … not an option! Had ebooks been available, I wonder if I’d have been brave enough to encourage my students to share their digital annotations, queries and opinions. Doubtless I’d have ended up with a few digital equivalents of hand-drawn male genitalia, but maybe that’s a price worth paying for the potential benefits, especially given how much easier it would be to identify the culprit … possibly!

Out of the classroom; into the …? July 12, 2015

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 jesshillView image | gettyimages.com

Noting that only half of an audience at a particular ISTE session were practising teachers, in a post on Learn Enabling, Matt Esterman asks ‘should #eNoobs be in the classroom?’ (For #eNoob, read technology integrator, learning technologist etc). My answer swings back and forth like a pendulum from yes to no through maybe.

Cards on the table; whilst an eNoob, I’ve never had a teaching commitment (I discount the timetabled enrichment sessions I provide as they’re neither formally assessed, nor have a requirement to produce progress reports). Despite having taught for twenty years, I don’t teach now, so lay myself open to the accusation Matt mentions – “you don’t teach, so you don’t get it.” That’s true … depending on what ‘it‘ is. If it‘s to do with pedagogy, learning, classroom management, relationships with students and so forth, I’d like to think I’ve still got them covered. In fact I’ll go one further and (drawing on one of the positives of being out of the classroom that Matt mentions) claim that the space I’ve been afforded has enabled me to think more deeply about many of the elements which constitute being a teacher.  Coupled with that is the capability to reconsider and reformulate practice to leverage the potential that technologies have to offer. However I’ll concede that what I definitely ‘don’t get‘ is the pressure; I did get it when I was teaching, but can no longer claim to. I remember in-service training days where ‘experts,’ invariably no longer in the classroom, spoke to us and I’m sure I felt that they ‘didn’t get it‘ either; that they were somehow no longer credible. Now I’m that person on the other side of the fence, left wondering whether I’ve lost my credibility. Maybe since I’m still in school, that I’m prepared to support or model lessons, that I do teacher duties, organise student activities and attend staff meetings carry some sway? Maybe my (ahem!) mature years work in my favour? But who am I kidding?

Here’s the thing though. In sport, whether rugby, swimming, football, athletics, cycling or boxing, the coaches/managers no longer participate, yet are still held in high regard … assuming they are successful! Having served their time and having been successful players/competitors, the sportspeople they subsequently coach have respect for their achievements, confidence in their capability and a desire to learn from them. I’m pretty sure Jess Ennis Hill doesn’t expect Tony Minichiello to be sprinting down the track or leaping bars. What Jess expects from him is to know what she needs and to be able to help her to achieve her aims. I wonder why then (some) teachers view those who have moved out of the classroom with suspicion … or even contempt?

Being online – Dinosaur poo? June 20, 2015

Posted by ianinsheffield in PhD, Twitter.
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I’ve begun preparing for starting my PhD in October later this year. Whilst scouring the Web for articles, papers and other resources I’m keen to explore, a video on virtual ethnography bubbled to the surface. (Writing the research proposal and application, preparing for interview, then the initial forays into the field following confirmation that I had been successful have all contributed to me being less prolific on here than I might have preferred. Apologies.)

During the presentation, a suggestion by Jen Ross, brought me up short; that nowadays, it’s unlikely that we can ever truly be considered to be offline. After my initial reaction of what a ridiculous notion, I began to wonder if that could possibly be true, yet swiftly acknowledged that of course it was.

From the moment we first interact with the Web, as opposed to simply browsing it, we commit ourselves to a perpetual online presence. That might be making our first online purchase, opening a bank account, creating a social media profile or beginning communicating using email. We then become one tiny node in this vast network of people, devices and interconnections. But are we present? One might argue that unless you are at your keyboard or holding your smartphone/tablet and actively engaged in online activity, then how can you possibly be online? I’m not online whilst having a shower, enjoying a meal with friends or out on the bike, and yet … I could be streaming audio from Spotify whilst shampooing my grey hairs, snapping and posting to Tumbler a shot of our group at the table or sending my current performance directly to Strava. But since my smartphone is rarely even turned on, I don’t actually do those things.

The more I pondered, the more it became apparent that whilst at any particular instant, I might not be consciously engaged in online activity, I am still nevertheless online. As a blogger, podcaster, tweeter etc, my digital tracks mean that others have continual access to my thoughts and jottings. They can comment on that alluvium, provide feedback or enter into dialogue, if not in real time, then asynchronously. When I come across the online trails of other people, I feel I am offered a window into their thinking and a glimpse of who they are … or at least, who they portray.

‘Being online’ then perhaps brings into question the notion of presence; if we set to one side our analogue thinking and issues of temporality, it’s more about visibility, connectedness and what we leave for others to find. Whilst temporal displacement means no scientist has observed a dinosaur, we can still hypothesise about their diet by examining their fossilised droppings. Our online ‘droppings’ (an apt term if you’re a regular reader of In the pICTure!) mean we are indeed continually online and because of temporal proximity, available to exchange ideas and information and discuss issues.

These ideas were cemented home for me when I came across this post by Terry Heick, celebrating the life and work of Grant Wiggins who passed recently. Terry noted:

His work remains. His writing is always available–here, in his books, on his own blog, his twitter account, and more. When your work is thought and you leave a record of that thought, then your work never stops. Even when you ultimately have to.

Lazy writing … or pressures of deadlines? May 3, 2015

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flickr photo by Patty Marvel http://flickr.com/photos/pattymarvel/16304315951 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

I’m not sure when I started becoming a much more critical reader/consumer of information delivered through the Internet, or whether being ‘picky’ is just a personality trait, but recently one particular stream of information has become an itch I need to scratch.

For some while I’ve found Edudemic to be a helpful source of inspiration and information; its RSS feed has always found a regular place in my reader. From interesting and helpful ideas, emerging educational technologies and provocative articles, I’ve regularly found something to stimulate my thinking. Recently though, my spidey-sense has started to tingle when reading some of the articles. If someone writes

Although 80% of K-12 teachers do have social media accounts, such as Twitter for personal or professional use, most of them don’t integrate them into classroom lessons.

that figure makes me sit up and take notice. 80%? As much as that?! I don’t get the impression from colleagues that it’s as high as that, but maybe I’m missing something. First thing then is to check the source of that figure; the link was, as you can see, helpfully provided.

The survey from which the data arose was undertaken by the University of Phoenix and the article helpfully provided a brief overview of its survey methodology. As an ‘online survey’ wouldn’t it be fair to say that it drew from a skewed population? So rather than 80% of teachers, we’re already at 80% of teachers who would complete an online survey. What we don’t know is how the survey respondents were recruited; it could have been through social media sites and if it was, then how is the 80% figure now looking in terms of being reflective of the whole teaching profession? (The University of Phoenix article did provide contact details for anyone who wanted more details on the methodology, so we could doubtless find our answers)

Having spotted one instance of data perhaps not telling the whole story, other examples started to become apparent. In “Teachers Guide to Polling in the Classroom” we’re told that

Research has shown that students absorb new information into chunks, with 20 minutes being the limit for that information to go from short-term to long-term memory.

Which seems somewhat familiar, but rather than take it on face value, we can follow the helpful link. This take us to a brief article on “Use It, or Lose It! Retaining New Knowledge with E-Polling” within the Colorado State University website. This actually cites what sounds like an academic article (Orlando, 2010) and in the references provides a link … to another brief article on polling technologies. This casually mentions

… it’s been proven that most people can only retain about 20 minutes of content in our short-term memory before we have to reflect on it in order to move it to our long-term memory …

yet fails to tell us where the evidence for this claim can be found. So research may indeed have shown that ‘students absorb new information into chunks,’ but at least do us the courtesy of providing a specific citation for the actual source, rather than bouncing us around a couple of other articles, neither of which provide a foundation for the claim.

A final example (The Four Negative Sides of Technology) offered up plenty of threads at which to pick, including

More than a third of children under the age of two use mobile media.

Whereas what the report actually said was “38% of all children under 2 have ever used a smartphone, tablet, or similar device.” ‘Use’ as opposed to ‘have ever used’ might seem to matter little, but I’d argue there is quite a significant shift in emphasis by changing the phrasing slightly. In the same article there’s

A report from the United Kingdom revealed that kids who use computer games …

where the link doesn’t actually go to a report, but to a Telegraph article about the report, which inevitably includes journalistic license. Why not simply link directly to, and quote from the report itself?

I suppose I’m simply being pedantic, expecting authors who are trying to convey a particular message and who might be on tight deadlines, to be completely rigorous and accurate in their referencing. Or with the impending election here in the UK, perhaps my cynicism filter needs recalibrating. And yet with the ease with which headlines can be quickly bounced around the Internet these days, if people don’t take the time to verify for themselves the claims that are being made within an article and simply take a headline Tweeted out at face value, groupspeak and the echo chamber become the norm. That’s beginning to bother me.

21st Century Learners – Myth or Reality? April 26, 2015

Posted by ianinsheffield in Musings, Teaching Idea.
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Earlier this week I was working with a colleague and her Year 6 group (10 year olds), introducing Google Maps – how to create your own customised map and add your own content. The group is shortly to visit Eyam on a field trip and we were exploring an alternative way to synthesise their learning from the trip, which has both a History and Geography focus. Rather than presenting the findings in a conventional way, using a customised map enables them to be rooted it in the geographical context from which they arose. Although familiar with Google docs, slides and sheets, creating a Google map constituted progression in their digital skills. This lesson then was about laying the foundational skills to enable them to work in the new environment, so the aims included creating a blank map, sharing it with their partner so both could edit, locating a specific point and adding a placemarker, editing the placemarker, adding text and an image, adding a line to represent a route from school to Eyam (then finding a shorter one). An extension task involved exporting the map to Google Earth and ‘flying’ along their route(s). If you’ve never used Google maps for anything other than searching for a place, then all of the above is likely to be quite new and (other than the notion of sharing) involves a different set of features than the ones commonly found in other applications. So in addition to teacher-led demonstrations of the tasks they were to undertake, I also produced a set of instructions to follow; a recipe book if you will. What happened next was quite interesting.

When the class began the activity (working in pairs), few bothered to refer to the instructions I provided and dived straight in, trying different parts of the available interface until they made headway. Those adopting the ‘trial and error’ method made faster progress than those following the instructions, up to the point where they got completely stuck then they floundered, trying to find the relevant point in the instructions (perhaps I need to rethink the way the instructions are compiled?). Once back on track, they raced ahead once more. They also made more mistakes, but seemed comfortable with that, happy to retry an attempt which had gone awry. Fascinating and delightful to see such resilience.

What intrigued and surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have, was how different these ten-year-olds were when compared with the teacher groups with whom I often work. If I’d undertaken a similar activity with colleagues, I’m fairly sure (albeit anecdotally) that the proportions of those who begin with the instructions and those who would open with experimentation would be reversed. Which then begs the question, do young people these days approach a new task with more abandon than their older counterparts? Is this evidence for 21st Century Learners being somehow different i.e. that the digital era into which they were born is affecting their attitude? Or perhaps younger people are more experimental and happier to take risks, where time-poor teachers would rather adopt the low-risk strategy in order to ensure successful completion? If the two groups are not fundamentally different and all I’m seeing is age-related, developmental differences, I wonder where the transition from one approach to the other takes place and if it’s an incremental change, stretched out over time? As ten-year-olds, they’ve little experience of high-stakes testing; perhaps that’s the point when a trial-and-error approach becomes more of a liability and has to be dropped in favour of the safer, low-risk option? Sadly I don’t have the data to provide answers to these questions, but that one lesson prompted an awful lot of pondering!

Footnote. Two days later I was working with another class when a couple of students came by and said they couldn’t find the Google maps they had created last lesson. I couldn’t immediately leave the class I was supporting to help, but suggested they look in the instructions. They had; without joy. Fifteen minutes later when I could pop across to their class, they were all back on track, maps open and immersed in their activities. It transpired that my instructions had lapsed owing to the update to the new version of Google Maps. Although initially flummoxed, their ‘Try. Fail. Fail better.’ approach helped them to get up and running independently … and to be able to explain to me how my instructions needed amending!. I wonder if … more mature learners would have shown such persistence and adaptability?

In this TED Talk, Tim Harford talks about using a trial and error approach, which others discuss in more detail here.