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How often are you in your Element? April 27, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Musings.
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1 comment so far

Have just finished reading the “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” by Ken Robinson. If you’ve ever seen any of the thought-provoking (and often entertaining) online footage of Sir Ken, you’ll already be aware of his point of view, if not then this TED Talk is a good place to start and the recording of his visit to the RSA gave him the chance to talk specifically about this book.

So what is “The Element?” Well it’s the place where the things you love to do (personal passion) and the things you are good at (natural aptitude) come together. When someone discovers their talents and passions and enters their Element, they’re more likely to enjoy a more fulfilling life and contribute more fully to society. Robinson contends that all of us have an Element (or more than one!) yet the majority of adults fail to discover what it is. Yes there are indeed things we enjoy doing, but it is much more rare to find those things about which we are so passionate (and at which we excel) that when engaged in them we lose all sense of time, are energised rather than exhausted and find ourselves in what Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of flow. Finding your Element requires exposure to opportunities  where your aptitudes can be manifest, then seizing the moment and nurturing emerging talent. Sadly for many, that never happens.

An article in this week’s TES, “In Praise of Slow Starters,” features five high achievers of which only two reached their potential as a result of their school experience and more specifically, due to the encouragement and support of a particular teacher. The many individuals to which Robinson refers also suggests that most people find their Element in spite of, rather than because of school and that school, or more accurately, education seems to have little impact on helping young people find their Element. Whilst education may indeed be about much more than helping people find their passion, perhaps if it did serve that need, far more people would leave with a sense of purpose and achievement rather than resentment or apathy?

Even good schools probably don’t set out (overtly) to bring out the passion in each student, but by providing a broad and rich curriculum (formal and non-formal) they expose their charges to more opportunities through which nascent talents have the chance to emerge. Sadly recent trends and interventions by the Government have caused the (whole) curriculum to become restricted and narrow, rather than broadened and enriched. Schools and the people in them have become accountable by measuring student progress using crude baseline data generated by assessments which assume a rather narrow view of intelligence. Robinson charges us to recognise that intelligence is diverse, dynamic and distinctive and we need to generate conditions within which that diversity and dynamism can be nurtured and flourish. To find out what someone’s Element might be and help them to recognise it, we need to understand who they really are. Left to their own devices, what are they naturally drawn to? What kinds of activities do they engage in voluntarily? What absorbs them the most? what sorts of questions do they ask and what points do they make? Now seeking to do that whilst attempting to cram in a bucketload of content and raise someone’s grade from a D to a C (because that’s how we’ll be judged) may not be easy … or even possible? But if we continue to ignore what might be possible, will we simply continue to accept the student disengagement, disenchantment and disenfranchisement that often preoccupies teachers and schools?

You better, you better, you BETT February 3, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Inspiration.
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So the BETT Show shifted lock, stock and no smoking barrels from Olympia across to the Excel Exhibition Centre. How was it for you? On balance I have to say I preferred the new venue for a bunch of reasons which can be found here – , but as for the show itself, well it was a bit of a mixed bag. Somewhat unusually I gained more from the exhibitors I visited than from the presentations I attended.

bett presentation

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by ianguest: http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/8440925016/

As you become a more seasoned BETTer you develop strategies for maximising the most from your day. For me there are four aspects:

  • attending some of the presentations which chime with either personal interests or link with plans we have in school
  • visiting the exhibitors showcasing products which either we need or are considering back in school
  • wandering around and benefitting from those serendipitous moments where you might catch a product you’d not even thought about, but which might offer new possibilities.
  • catching up with friends both old and new.

There were three observations that particularly stuck in my mind as I travelled home. The first was how disappointed I felt having attended the four presentations I did. This wasn’t because they were poor, in fact quite the contrary – they were interesting, well delivered and contained useful pointers to resources and ideas. My disappointment stemmed from the fact that I didn’t actually learn anything new; these were all areas in which I currently have an interest so I’ve already made it my business to find out what the current state of knowledge is and what the issues are. So maybe next year I need to seek out themes with which I’m less familiar (makes note to self). The second thing was just a wonderfully pleasant little moment as I was walking past the ‘Learning Together – heppell.net’ stand and a young chap of about 10 stopped me and boldly asked if I’d like to see the game they’d created. With that he sat me down next to his partner working at a computer, a Year 5 girl who then took me through how she’d created a simple little controllable animation in Scratch. She’d never used it before, hadn’t been shown what to do, but just followed some of the inbuilt help, experimented a little and in an hour produced a ‘game’ with which she was justifiably delighted. She could also tell me that she thought any of my year 5 students back at school would be able to pick it up as easily and year 6’s would find it a doddle.

writeable surface

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by ianguest: http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/8440923952/

It was whilst I was here the third thing caught my eye; the worksurfaces here were writeable and had been written on using dry-wipe markers. Jottings, notes and ideas of people as they’d be exploring some of the exhibits. Yes you’d have to be brave in certain circumstances to treat the desks or walls with this paint, but what a great idea? Brainstorming, group work and capturing discussions could all be done on work desks or walls and be available for classmates to ponder – learning made visible?

Who’d’ve thought my biggest takeaway from a technology show would be something as low-tech as a new paint?! It just goes to show what a show can show you.

The Art of Explanation … or is there some Science in there? January 1, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Reading, Teaching Idea.
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the art of explanation

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by ianguest: http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/8335216680/

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently acquired the book “The Art of Explanation” by Lee LeFever. Impressed by the clarity and economy of explanation in CommonCraft videos, I wondered what lessons there might be for those of us who work in the classroom. I guess the first step is to isolate that part of our teaching and learning environments to which ‘The Art …’ applies and here the early chapters provide a signpost. Specifically the book is about explanations, so defining the term makes sense and for Lee explanation is about making facts more understandable; about ‘lowering the cost of figuring out an idea and inviting people to become customers of it in the future.’ Explanations help people beyond the ‘how’ questions through to the ‘why’ to the point where they are sufficiently confident and care enough to want to find out more for themselves. With teachers I’m sure that will have a certain resonance.

And some fell on stony ground

We’ve all at some time or another looked out over a sea of blank stares, a time when our attempt at explanation was … less than optimal! Lee provides some pointers here and argues that it all begins with confidence; when someone loses confidence that they can grasp the idea that you’re communicating, you’ve lost them. One problem which might lead to this is making assumptions about that level of confidence when working with a group. One-on-one, it’s easier to spot the tell-tale signs when you’re losing someone; with thirty (or more), that’s much tougher and can lead to false assumptions. One cause is the curse of knowledge, that we as ‘experts’ in our fields sometimes suffer from, where we misplace our ability to see the world from another person’s perspective. Again as experts, we’re sometimes guilty of using terminology to which our audience (or some within it) may not be party and as a consequence they lose confidence. One more factor of crucial importance in helping someone to understanding is in setting a context with which they can relate; if an explanation is provided in splendid isolation, people are far less likely to care.

Put a bow on it

To make your ideas easier for other people to understand, they need to be packaged in such a way that they address the audience’s needs. There are six important elements:

  • Agreement – build confidence from the outset by using big-picture statements which will have resonance for all.
  • Context – takes the points on which we can agree, to a new place; one which also lets the audience know why it should matter to them.
  • Story – a narrative woven around a character which experiences the aforementioned journey and resulting benefits.
    • Connections – analogies and metaphors used to support the story by connecting new ideas with something people already understand. The spices added to accentuate the flavour of a dish!
    • Descriptions – provide concrete examples of the desirable outcomes for the character and how they have been achieved
  • Conclusion – summarises what has been learned and provides a ‘call to action’ for the audience to put that into practice.

But at the moment, much of that is abstract. In order to better understand the degree to which ‘The Art…’ can inform our teaching, I perhaps need to consider a more concrete example. Can I apply these observations to a teaching/learning situation? And that’s for the next post …

The best things in life are(n’t always) free December 24, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Inspiration, Resources, Tools.
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money sign

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by 401(K) 2012: http://flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/6870882811/

Since viewing the first one, I’ve always been impressed with the simplicity and clarity of Commoncraft videos, so when I became aware that the originator, Lee Le Fever, had released a book, I thought I’d check out how he approached their production. I also wondered whether the contents might have something to say about teaching … but that’s for a future post. Having thought about the tools and techniques that Lee suggests, I just needed a reason to put what I’d learned into practice. Fortunately I had just such an excuse which arose from the resources I’ve produced to support our forthcoming RiskIT professional development programme. In attempt to provide some background and history I included the video available on the RiskIT site, but got a little pushback from colleagues who said it was rather long to watch in its entirety. At atound 40 minutes I guess they had a point, but there didn’t appear to be anything snappier … so there was my opportunity to attempt a Commoncraft-style production, given that one of the primary goals is brevity.

Following Lee’s helpful advice, my starting point was to establish my intentions and decide the nature of the problem the video would solve; in this case it was to provide an introduction to RiskIT. From there I had to flesh out what would be the crucial points to convey, then write a script to cover them. The text has primacy, but given the constraint of an upper limit of 4 minutes length for the video, it was then a matter of editing the script until that criterion was achieved whilst still retaining the essence of the message. My ‘recording studio’ was Audacity which allowed me to record the narration and export it in mp3 format. Next it was on to the imagery which would be used to support and enhance that message and in the Commoncraft spirit, it needed to be simple, accessible and free from background noise. Although Lee advises the use of hand-drawn, expression-free characters, that was a little beyond my artistic skills, so I chose to draw a little help from DoppelMe, an avatar creation tool. The remainder of the images were then either screenshots or photos which were traced in order to extract the meaning and leave behind the noise.

With all my cut-outs ready to go and script by my side, I used a video camera (Kodak Playsport Zx5) mounted on a tripod and began shooting. A couple of hours later, everything I needed was in the can and I could begin editing. MovieMaker was the tool of choice, mainly because I had no other option … but it proved to be a costly mistake. To cut and fit the footage to the recorded narration took about four hours, after which I attempted to finalise the movie. Oh dear! Despite repeated attempts and in defiance of the fact that there was more than ample space on the hard drive, MovieMaker kept telling me that either there was insufficient space to store the video, or that one of the clips I’d used was corrupt (though naturally not which of the 30+ clips was at fault!). So I converted the source files from mp4 to avi, Googled a way to swap them without starting from scratch, then tried once more to finalise the movie. Still no joy. OK, one more try; resample the avi’s into wmv’s. Nope. Next it was onto another computer running Windows XP and the older version of MoveMaker and go right back to square one. Three hours later and I still couldn’t render the movie, so I wondered if I could produce it smaller parts, then stitch them together to produce the whole. Aha! MM would allow me to finalise the first 45 seconds, so I did that and then moved on to the next section. Nope. I trimmed it and trimmed it, even down to a single 5 second clip, but it still wouldn’t render.

Retrieving my dummy after spitting it out, I knew I had to ditch MM and look for something more robust but inexpensive, and came across Serif MoviePlus SE which is free to use for a limited period. Duly downloaded said item, installed it and another couple of hours later was relieved to have a finished movie. Woohoo! I was more than happy with the features and capability that MoviePlus offered and when the 14 day period expires, will happily shell out the princely sum of £4.99 to download the codecs pack to keep it working.

And the final product? Here ’tis:

Look out for further musings on how RiskIT develops as we get closer to our programme becoming ‘live’.

‘Free’ textbooks? Why not? December 4, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Musings.
Tags: , , ,

Listening to recent Hack Education podcasts by Steve Hargadon and Audrey Waters, one theme which keeps popping up is that of educational book publishing. I guess the burgeoning ebook market linked with the proliferation of ebook readers makes this a timely topic.


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by herzogbr: http://flickr.com/photos/herzogbr/3955153817/

In recent years, changes to our National Curriculum and Exam Board specifications seem to come around more regularly than the number 120 bus. The textbooks we have in school struggle to keep up with that frequency of refinement of content and given their cost (a GCSE Physics textbook will be anything between £15 and £20), even if they could, the majority of schools couldn’t afford to replace them with any degree of regularity. I remember it being tough as a Head of Physics when it came to the point where we needed to replace our standard textbook; it involved me and my colleagues spending a considerable time reviewing what was on offer from the various publishers to find the one which best suited the course we were delivering … and hopefully future iterations of it! With 500+ students studying GCSE, the cost was and still is phenomenal.

Maybe ebooks offer a route forward since their content can (in theory!) be updated more swiftly, though I suspect that will be at a cost. However, this newly emerging market is not without its problems: distribution platform, file type, digital rights management, cost recuperation when the student leaves the course. Suffice it to say there’s still some way to go.

But maybe there’s a third way? Given the blossoming notion of crowdsourcing and the increasing comfort and confidence with information from sites like Wikipedia, perhaps there’s an opportunity to be seized here. With over 3000 secondary schools in the UK, there must be around 10 000 Physics teachers. Even allowing for some who might lack experience and others who lack the will, with a page count in a textbook at around the 300 mark, it’s surely not beyond the realm of possibility that there would be enough willing contributors to ‘pen’ a single page each? Yes, for most teachers the time or inclination to write an entire textbook simply isn’t there … but if it was possible to collaborate with a group of like-minded individuals … Surely the Web has now provided us with both the communication channels and the tools to create the product?

Once we accept the possibility, the advantages of crowdsourcing an online Physics textbook start to appear:

  • from start to finish the process should be more rapid than a traditional publishing route
  • any alterations and additions can be made instantly
  • living online enables ‘live’ linking out to other resources
  • the digital format means rich media are easily incorporated
  • end of section questions (if appropriate) could have auto-response/auto-marking included to provide rapid feedback for students
  • social features could be included to enable commenting and discussion on each topic, section or paragraph
  • through the right choice of platform(s), the ‘book’ could be distributed in a variety of different ways – printed, mobile-enabled, ebook, etc.

If an open platform was chosen with storage or distribution in open formats, users would still be able to  amend any aspects of the ‘book’ to better suit the needs of their students or local circumstances, rather than choose a textbook which meets the average needs of an average student. Perhaps we might even have students authoring sections?!

There are also other potential wider benefits. Teachers and schools in developing nations invariably lack the financial resources to buy textbooks at the price we in more developed economies are able to afford. Worthy organisations like Book Aid repurpose the books which have reached the end of one life, for a new one in another land. Without any experience of how the recipients actually feel, I can only imagine that they have equal degrees of gratitude, tinged with regret that they have to rely on cast-offs? But given the increased connectivity that many peoples are now beginning to benefit from, an open textbook model would mean they too could enjoy the latest version of any book, perhaps in a format and with content that lend themselves to their local circumstances. And needless to say, it need not be one more handout since they would hopefully be in a position to be co-authors. To return to my comfort zone of Physics, the textbooks we use have content which (hopefully) reflects our everyday experience, so in a section on motion, there might be exemplars which draw on a passenger jet or an Olympic swimmer. I wonder how the same section might be written for a learner on the savannah in Africa or tropical rainforest of Borneo? And how might sections written to reflect those peoples’ experiences be used here to help our students better understand and appreciate the lives of friends around the world?

Free textbooks could be ‘free’ in so many ways.

free the textbook

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by opensourceway: http://flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/5538035556/

And it appears things are already under way.

What do you think? A flight of fancy or exciting opportunity? What have I missed?