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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.

Projecting October 21, 2014

Posted by IaninSheffield in research, Teaching Idea.
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Our Year 11 students are drawing their AQA Level 2 Projects to a close, so as they write their reflections I thought it might be an opportune moment to ask them about their experiences.  I spent a few minutes with the eight or so who kindly volunteered their time; the audio interviews can be found on the SHS ‘Look Who’s Talking’ blog, but here I’ll try to provide a synopsis.

…after a short taster:

As might be expected, some settled on a topic quite quickly, already having an idea in mind. Others needed a little more prompting, but the sources from which they drew their inspiration were varied and included books; their supervisors; lessons and subjects; news and magazine articles and the arts.

During the course of their studies they enjoyed the sense of freedom the Project provided, whether in being able to follow a subject about which they were passionate, being able to work in a way and at a pace that suited them, being able to delve more deeply into a topic than was usually possible or having a choice about the way they could present what they had learned. Even writing an essay became more fulfilling since it was on a topic about which they cared and they had carte blanche in the contents and format. Although presenting to an audience caused some measure of stress and induced nervousness in some, having the chance to share your findings proved particularly rewarding, as did working with a teacher on a ‘more equal footing.’ Several reaching the end when the sense of achievement became palpable since it represented the culmination of so much effort over such a sustained period.

This was summed up succinctly by one interviewee as

…to be your own boss and learn what you wanted to learn freely and not have to stick with the curriculum.

Certain aspects of their study came to them less easily and proved tough to overcome, like time-management, the apparent mountain of work, making sense of an abundance of information and overcoming issues with lack of motivation. Yet the interviewees recognised that meeting these challenges provides benefits they would carry forward either into the next years of their education or across into other subjects they’re currently studying. They had become more committed to managing their time, working to deadlines and had become more self-disciplined. They noted how much better they had become at constructing an essay in other subjects and  that the strategies they used to form an argument had improved. Their self-confidence, patience and persistence had all been boosted, reassuring them of their capability to work independently.

Although no questions in the interview asked how technology had been employed in their Projects, several comments suggested how integral it had been to their success, yet made no song and dance about it. To the students, it was just one of the tools they used and so perhaps provides evidence for the degree to which technologies are increasingly embedded? The Internet clearly played a big part, providing access to information (and people!) they might otherwise not have been able to access so readily. However this was often done using more sophisticated techniques than are commonly employed e.g. Google Scholar, Google Books, using advanced search terms and searching YouTube. It’s all very well to bemoan the ease with which students have access to information through the Internet, but if that information is not available in their school or public libraries, then the Internet might indeed be the only option available.

In thinking what we might learn from these observations, I wonder to what extent the outcomes can be extrapolated to our other students and their studies? Those who signed up for the Project are largely well-motivated, capable learners who clearly rose to the challenges they faced; would all students be capable of doing so? Would they want to?

If there is sufficient value in what Project students learned and gained in terms of skill development, then perhaps it is worth relinquishing some of the time we spend on content coverage and give it over to extended project work and passion-based learning? However we need to know the costs as well as the benefits of learning in this way, so we’re better placed to be able to make those kinds of judgements. Although the Level 2 Project is not “Project-based Learning” in the strictest sense, some of the research emerging in this area might begin to inform our deliberations:

Using real-life problems to motivate students, challenging them to think deeply about meaningful content, and enabling them to work collaboratively are practices that yield benefits for all students.

TeachMeet Dinnington – Podcasting: A Game of Two Halves February 6, 2014

Posted by IaninSheffield in Teaching Idea, Technology.
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Just posting resources for those folk kind enough to sit through my preso.

And here’s the LiveBinder with a bunch more resources and links to the ones mentioned in the presentation above:

TM Dinnington 2014

Over to you … January 26, 2014

Posted by IaninSheffield in Reading, Teaching Idea.
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cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by clive darra: http://flickr.com/photos/fsse-info/6333531699/

I’ve been ‘tagged.’ No, not in the folksonomic sense, but by my good buddy Nick Jackson as part of the ‘11 Questions’ meme. 11 people are each asked 11 questions and having provided their answers are exhorted to do the same for 11 further people. This being the community of connected educators that it is, the questions in this thread tend to be related (even if only loosely!) to education. You can follow the thread back through Nick’s post, then onwards through my answers to his questions as follows:

1. Why are you a teacher?

It wasn’t and isn’t a mission. It’s not a calling from on high. I guess I almost fell into it when, nearing graduation, I began looking in earnest for the means to earn a crust. Rather than drift into the scientific community the breeze was blowing me towards, I decided instead to pursue my interest of working with younger people; something I’d been doing on a voluntary basis for a number of years. I guess the real reason I’m a teacher is for selfish motives. I simply love the naches you get from helping someone to do, see or experience something they hadn’t before and to see the delight in their face as they revel in knowing they’vemoved forward .

2. How do you/would you answer people when they ask to prove that much of education needs to change?

‘Prove?’ I’m not sure that it is possible to prove that education needs to change. We can take a long hard look around at other aspects of our lives – finance, retail, health care, travel, media and see how those sectors are being disrupted and changed by new technologies. Yet there are other areas which maintain their traditional forms: religion, politics? We need to ask whether the system in which we work is still fit for purpose. Does it still serve the needs of our students, given the unprecedented rate of change in society in general, the way we live our lives and the lives they’ll experience as they grow. My own feeling is that historically, the intent of the education system was to prepare students to be ready for the next stage of their lives, whether that be secondary school, further or higher education or work. Perhaps now we should be preparing students to be able to change and to cope with change, to be adaptable and resilient? I’m not sure that’s currently a sufficiently high priority.

3. If you had the power to make one rule in your school that every teacher would follow, what would you your rule be and why?

A ‘rule?’ That suggests something handed down from on high, rather than a commonly accepted and shared understanding. Whilst the former is indeed sometimes necessary (safety of yourself, colleagues and students), the latter is invariably more effective at moving people forward. If I had the powers of a deity, then the rule I would impose would be one of punctuality; being on time to lessons, for meetings and in meeting deadlines. It’s simple common decency in working with others, but something not fully appreciated by all. However if instead a genie had granted me a wish, I’d like it to become universally accepted that as part of the role of being a teacher, you cultivate a professional learning network, through which you’re connected with other educators with similar responsibilities, but also with others from as wide a range of disciplines and fields as possible. I know how powerful that’s proved to be for me and I’d simply like others to enjoy those benefits.

4. What is the important thing you do as a teacher with your students and why is it important?

Help them to learn? Well of course, but perhaps there’s a prerequisite? I’d argue that forging a solid, meaningful and trusting relationship forms the foundation to build an effective environment within which learning can take place. You don’t have to love each other, but you do have to develop respect so that when things get tough and the learning’s hard, you’re sufficiently trusting of each other to be able to work through it to achieve your shared learning goals.

5. If you could set up a dream team of people in charge of education in your state, country, district, etc, who would they be?

Do we have to have people ‘in charge?’ Well for an education ‘system’ I guess we do, but I suspect that the few people I would really trust to do that wouldn’t want the role. I’d much rather think of flipping that around and working towards a time where the learners themselves become sufficiently empowered and capable to be in charge of their own learning. Try as we might, the top-down approach produces a vanilla system which attempts to cater for the student population as a whole, but struggles to really serve the needs of any individual. It’s simply too inflexible. It’s a bit like school dinners where there’s a minimal choice, with perhaps a single option for those with different dietary needs, as opposed to a classy restaurant with a wide selection of delicious dishes. Or ideally being able to cook for yourself and choosing exactly the right ingredients to make precisely what you want. Yes that’s tougher and requires more effort,  but the rewards are worth it. And yes I do see the flip side where some might gorge on fries and ice cream, or be unable for various reasons to access the ingredients they want … but the original question did mention ‘dream.’

6. What do you think the value of ‘celebrity’ keynote speakers at educational conference is?

I suppose the role is to inspire; not necessarily to give practical solutions or ideas, but to set the mental cogs whirring. Keynotes are sometimes wasted where a celebducator is parachuted in, gives their schtick about their latest book or research, then jets off to enjoy the spoils. But where it can and does work is where the topic is closely tied to the theme of the conference and the person speaking has clear interests and expertise in that area. Being able to hold an audience should be a given.

7. What do you think should be taught to young people to make them digitally literate?

Ah you don’t catch me out with this trick question Mr J. Being ‘literate’ isn’t of course a state i.e. there’s isn’t some sort of threshold through which you pass to become literate. What we can do however is help to move students along the continuum that is digital literacy. I’d argue however that you can’t do that in isolation and whilst you might spend some time putting in the fundamentals, continued development  can be achieved in a much more powerful way if it is undertaken in context. To that end, just like it’s the responsibility of all teachers to help students improve their literacy and numeracy, we are all obliged to support and guide students to become increasingly digitally literate. Here we face a problem; whilst most teachers have good levels of literacy and many are numerate, sadly the levels of digital literacy remain quite low amongst many. Resolving that …. well it may take some time!

8. What do you think would happen if students in your school were given power over technology integration in your school for the next five years with only advice from adults and a budget to work with?

I thought the best way to answer this question might be to actually ask them, so I did!

They certainly have a different perspective and and different set of priorities,  though to be fair, I did rather drop the discussion on them with no time to gather their thoughts. Although a couple of things they mentioned about our current provision are factually inaccurate , it matters not because that’s actually their perception and we need to be aware of that and consider carefully how we should act on that information. (Come what may, I definitely intend to do more of these focus groups!)

9. Do you think young people have changed since you were a child?

They got older! But I guess the question is, is the youth of today different from when I was young? I feel that young people are generally more wordly-wise than they were when I was their age; or is that simply because I now come across the spectrum of youth, whereas as a young person I only ever saw the narrow community of which I was a member. I suppose it might be fairest to say yes they are different; neither more nor less intelligent, more nor less aggressive, more nor less sullen and uncommunicative, but given the nature of the world now compared with then, perhaps that’s inevitable.

10. How best can we address the disconnect between different levels of education (primary to secondary, secondary to university)

Another tough one and a concern we’ve been battling for some while. Hard-coded into the very naming of our system (at least in the UK), there are three distinct phases: primary, secondary and tertiary. The term ‘lifelong learning’ is rightly becoming increasingly significant and understood, so perhaps when we in each sector see ourselves as part of the whole, rather than as individual phases within a student’s learning journey, we might begin to address that disconnect. Sadly, concluding each phase with a formal examination on which the performances of the individual, her teachers and their school are judged, does little to help. One small step might be to pursue with far more rigour the notion of young people starting and maintaining a digital portfolio of their learning progress and achievements as early as possible, one which they continue to develop right through life. In their minds at least, the notion of stopping and restarting their education at various ages might begin to blur. Maybe we need to take a(nother?) leaf out of the book of our cousins north of the border and their aspirations for Glow.

<scratches head>I wonder what part the long summer break plays in contributing to the discontinuity?</scratches head>

11. What is the most influential book/article/post you have ever read on education?

I’m going to take the meaning of influential to mean which book has influenced my thinking most. Whilst ‘Punished by Rewards’ (Alfie Kohn, 1999), ‘The Element’ (Ken Robinson, 2010) and ‘Bounce’ (Matthew Syed, 2007) all recently gave me pause for thought, the one which really made me confront my preconceptions was Jane McGonigal’s ‘Reality is Broken (2011).’ Although not specifically about education,  it challenged me to rethink my views about games and gaming. I’m intrigued by the way in which the best games energize their participants to become engrossed, develop mastery, maintain resilience in the face of adversity, behave altruistically and co-operatively and achieve so much … and for those participants to do so voluntarily and repeatedly. What can we in education learn from the research into games and how can we leverage the potential that they might offer? Don’t we all want our learners to be continually enjoying fiero moments?

The questions I’d like to ask of the next wave of potential tagees are:

  1. What teacher had the most influence on you and why?
  2. During your career, which student (without naming them!) most sticks in your mind and for what reason?
  3. What was your most abiding memory of school dinners?
  4. Two Harry Potter inspired questions now. If you had Harry’s cloak of invisibility, what educational event would you like to unobtrusively observe and why?
  5. What aspect of education or the classroom would you most like to wave your wand over and why? Educatio revisiorum!
  6. For any historical figure of your choice, what might they have tweeted at a significant moment for them?
  7. What’s your favourite online video (for any reason) and why? (A link would be good)
  8. In Horizon report style, which technology-enabled educational activity is likely to be becoming more mainstream in 3-ish years?
  9. Which fictional character would you most like as a work colleague and why?
  10. What educational movement or initiative, currently in its infancy, will endure and why?
  11. Which educator (dead or alive, real or fictional, famous or not) would you most like to interview or enjoy the drink of your choice with and what would you be chatting about?

With many apologies to those on whom I’ve inflicted this, I’ve tried to draw as eclectically as possible from educators around the globe that I follow on Twitter and who I’d be interested to hear a little more about. If they’re able to spare the time, I’d be delighted to hear from:

Keri-Lee Beasley @klbeasley

Aaron Davis @mrkrndvs

Jen Deyenberg @jdeyenberg

Michael Fawcett @teachernz

John Johnstone @johnjohnston

Kathleen Morris @kathleen_morris

Lisa Parisi @LParisi

Julia Skinner @TheHeadsOffice

Russell Tarr @russeltarr

Nikki Teasdale @KnikiTea

David Wees @davidwees

And all this has got me thinking about how we might use an ’11 Questions’ style activity with our pupils. Maybe ‘Three Questions about …’ as a way of revising or recapping a topic. Hmm, more to ponder …

Start with the WHY December 8, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Teaching Idea.
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In this Ted Talk, Simon Sinek uses what he calls the ‘Golden Circle’ to illustrate how companies often market their products, the majority choosing to describe WHAT it is, HOW it works and WHY you should choose to buy it. The really successful ones however pitch in the opposite direction, explaining WHY first; this encourages you to buy into their core purpose. He argues that this is why Apple for example has become so successful and why their devotees queue up for hours to be the first to own new products. Even those who worship slightly less fervently, having bought one Apple device will go on to buy a second or third. It’s all about creating a cause or set of values around which people can rally; a set of beliefs with which they want to be associated. They don’t just want to use their iPad, they want to be seen to be using it because it says something about who they are and what their beliefs are.

Although it’s a fine line between pursuing an idea with almost religious fervour and becoming a zealot, I wonder if we as teachers can learn from Simon’s contention? As a physicist, it made sense to me to explain WHAT we were going to be doing, HOW we would do that and perhaps almost as an afterthought WHY we were doing that. Isn’t it simply good practice to make lesson objectives visible to our classes at the start of a lesson? David Didau and Phil Beadle argue the cases for and against respectively. I guess I’d aim for the middle ground in that helping students become aware of what they should be aiming for makes sense, but sometimes it’s important to encourage them to explore, to discover, for them to enjoy the ‘Reveal,’ with the objectives perhaps being made concrete at the close.

Learning ‘Objectives are statements that describe what a learner will be able to do as a result of learning.1

An objective statement itself should answer what students will be able to do by the end of the lesson.2

As you begin the lesson, outline the objectives with the students so they clearly know what it is that they are supposed to be able to do as a result of having gone through the lesson.3

And what is common to all these descriptions of lesson objectives. No that’s not a question, but a statement. ‘WHAT’ is common to all of them.

If we take an example – learning about renewable energies. Here’s a typical set of resources. Once upon a time I might have used them as a reference source or for ideas. They identify lesson objectives:
“After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Describe sources and uses of energy.
  • Define renewable and non-renewable energy.
  • …”


Suggested activities include:

  • “Students … build a model anemometer to better understand and measure wind speed.”

The HOW.

But the WHY is noticeably absent; perhaps I too would have been guilty of its omission?

If we follow Simon’s lead the lesson might have started with “Why are they building wind turbines on the nearby farmland and why should we care?” Or maybe there’s an even bigger picture; one where we begin the year/course by explaining the WHY. If we can’t passionately describe WHY our subject is so important and why students should care, how likely are they to buy into the learning which follows? If on the other hand, convinced by our message they become ‘followers,’ their learning is far more likely to be enthusiastically pursued and the learning objectives which follow achieved.

Start with the WHY.