Important vs Urgent Skills

One Reason Flipped Learning Makes Sense in a STEM Classroom

This is the first generation of STEM teachers who must choose between teaching important skills and teaching urgent skills.  In previous generations, there was no difference. The important skills were the urgent skills. Now there is a fork in the road, which presents a threshold challenge to STEM teachers in 2017.

“Importance” is about how much something matters. “Urgency” is about how soon it matters. In previous generations, it was understood that the more knowledge students had when leaving school, the better their career prospects. The urgency of exam preparation incentivised students to learn the important skills that would later underpin their career success. But that is no longer true.

There is a growing, collective understanding among STEM teachers that the skills which prepared yesterday’s students to thrive in a knowledge economy are inadequate preparation for today’s students. As information continues to be commoditised and processes automated, retaining knowledge is less important than it once was. It is still helpful for a student to know the first 20 elements of the periodic table, but failing to know them is a much smaller handicap than it was 20 years ago. After all, you can ask Siri what the atomic mass of copper is, should you ever need that information.

I’m not saying (as some do) that knowledge has no value, nor that looking something up (no matter how efficiently) is as good as remembering it. If students are ignorant on a topic, they have no filter through which to sift new information. In a “post-truth” world, critical thinking is more valuable than ever and critical thinking is problematic for someone who lacks the context that knowledge affords. Nevertheless, YouTube is a pretty effective knowledge prosthesis.

Creativity, problem-solving, resourcefulness, computational thinking … these are skills that have always been valuable but are now at a premium! Teachers get this. Every time I mention it in a presentation I notice teachers nodding. But there seems to be a disconnect between that understanding and the way many teachers plan their classes. Many of us still spend a large portion of our class time teaching knowledge. Why? Because in November students will sit an exam to answer questions that in any other context would be googleable! If we have failed to prepare them for that we will have let them down. We’ll not have done any favours for our own reputation, either! Personally, I don’t think exams effectively measure student learning in any meaningful way in 2017. But as a science teacher I have no influence over the State’s assessment processes (“God grant me the serenity…”). For as long as exams are the gate through which students must enter to pursue a STEM career, we need to hold that gate open for them.

Therein lies the dilemma we face in 2017. Do we spend our valuable class time on the most important or the most urgent things? Do we equip our students with the skills that will matter to them most, or those that will matter to them first? Do we prepare them to thrive in the economy of the future, or to thrive in the exams of November?

I don’t think we can neglect either! But clearly there is insufficient time to do both.

Since we are unlikely to be given more time, we need to make more efficient use of the time we have.

A common criticism of the flipped classroom model is that it is still a fundamentally didactic, teacher-centred approach. I don’t disagree with that – although if done well, I do think that it is much more student-centred than it might seem. Nevertheless, it is not my aim in this article to discuss different approaches to the flipped classroom model, how to do it well, nor to explain how it can be student-focussed. The point I want to make in this article, rather, is that it is much more efficient than traditional approaches. By taking didactic learning out of the classroom, class time is reclaimed for more “important” learning tasks, those which prepare students for the economy of their future. At the same time, it allows students to cover the “urgent” content they need for exams much more efficiently. They can, for example, listen to a lesson at double speed, while multi-tasking it with washing the dishes (or some other mindless chore), thereby saving precious at-desk study hours for other tasks. It also makes that kind of learning demonstrably more effective.

In many ways, I think the term “flipped learning” does a disservice to the concept of flipped learning by implying that it is the wrong-way-round. On the contrary, I think it should be the new normal – at least until we do away with high-stakes standardised testing.

Nobody races down to the bank during lunchtime any more, to withdraw cash during bank hours. Instead, we enjoy lunch with our colleagues in the staffroom. Then we multi-task cash-withdrawal with our grocery shopping that evening when the bank is closed. We don’t call it “flipped banking” – but that is what we are doing! We are using technology to time-shift a necessary, “urgent” errand to make more efficient use of our time, while also reclaiming our lunch time to rest and cultivate rapport with colleagues – both of which, are important but not urgent.

Advertisements

Access to learning, then and now.

Last decade, most of us watched TV when the show was broadcast. Now most of us stream Netflix when it is convenient.

Last decade, most of us bought our music from Sanity when it was open. Now most of us listen to any music we want to, at any time, on Spotify or  Music.

Last decade, most of went to the bank in our lunch hour. Now most of us bank online from our smartphones, wherever, whenever.

Last decade, we expected students to attend a time-tabled class to participate in a lesson. Now …?

Why students still need knowledge when anything can be Googled

In my enthusiasm to explain why teachers should be spending more time with their students working at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, I have often pointed out the fact that knowledge has falling value. I stand by that statement. Google is a pretty good knowledge prosthesis. A head full of knowledge is unlikely to get you a job any more. The skills that make a person valuable now are the so called “soft skills” – problem-solving skills, entrepreneurship, computational thinking skills, presentation skills, communication skills, an eye for design and leadership skills. Those skills are hard to automate and you can’t easily google them. In 2017 a head full of facts is only valuable at trivia nights. Oh! – and in exams.

But in my effort to point out that the value of knowledge is falling, I have sometimes been misunderstood to be saying that the importance of knowledge is falling. On the contrary. In many ways the importance of knowledge is rising!

Every year the Oxford Dictionary announces their word of the year; a word that has entered the public vocabulary in a profound way. In 2013, for example, the word of the year was “Selfie”. Can you guess what the word of the year was in 2016?

“Post-truth”.

“You can’t believe everything you read in the papers” is a saying that long predates the internet. But the saying is doubly true now. You definitely can’t believe everything you read on the internet. As the value of knowledge has fallen over the past two decades, it has taken trustworthiness down with it. That’s the downside of the internet giving everyone a voice. There are now lots of unedited voices being exercised.

A student without knowledge in a subject, has no filter through which to sift new information. In a post-truth world, knowledge is more important than ever – it’s just not what employers will be basing their hiring decisions on.

Learned or Learner: Do you learn more than your students do?

A big part of the teacher’s role has always been to serve as an example to their students, of what it looks like to be educated.

When knowledge was the key to future success, a teacher was the living, breathing example of a learned person. Students could look up to their teachers and aspire to gain as much knowledge as they had. To be educated as they were.

But the world is changing profoundly and permanently and knowledge just isn’t the key to future success that it once was.

Now the keys to success are the ability to access information quickly on demand, the ability to learn concepts as needed, to see new connections between ideas, to recognise patterns. The ability to learn is now FAR more important than the knowledge itself.

So now teachers need to be living, breathing examples of dynamic learners. Students should be able to look up to their teachers and aspire to learn as effectively and prolifically as they do.

Of course if teachers are to be that kind of example to follow, they need to be visibly learning more than their students. It’s hard to do that if you are standing in front of a whiteboard, talking about the knowledge you accumulated when you were at university.

Are you learning faster than your students are? Or are you resting on the laurels of stuff you learned when you yourself were a student?

Learned or learner?

The “Retro-Classroom Model” or Why “Flipped Classroom” is a Silly Term

In the olden days you’d leave work at lunchtime, rush down to the bank and stand in a queue to withdraw some cash, then you’d rush back to work in time for period 5. Now you use your lunchtime productively or relax and enjoy staffroom conversation and instead, stop at the ATM on the way home. You don’t call it ‘flipped banking’! In fact it’s the new normal! Going inside the bank (in banking hours) to withdraw cash is inefficient; a waste of time. If you told your colleagues you were going to the bank at lunchtime to withdraw cash – they would think you were crazy!

There are similar parallels in watching a TV series on Netflix, booking flights on Webjet – and in many other areas of life, where once, you had to be in a particular place at a specific time but now it is normal to take advantage of technology that lets us operate more contextually.

None of these situations gets a special name – we don’t talk of “flipped banking”, “flipped entertainment”, “flipped booking” – they are just the natural, expected behaviours that result from freeing technologies. It would be rather silly not to take advantage of them.

I think that using the term “flipped learning” conveys a misleading impression, which is that using technology intelligently, to make the most of our time, somehow represents a special, fringe teaching strategy. I don’t think it is – or at least I don’t think it should be. In fact, let me go further. If anything is ‘flipped’ (up-side-down or back-to-front) in 2016, it’s continuing to enter the classroom, intending to waste precious class time, doing something that can be done much more efficiently.

Perhaps it would be better to call teaching from the front of the room “the Retro Classroom Model” and to stop implying that teachers working in a way consistent with the rest of modern life, have got it back-to-front.

“He makes you look like an ass, is what he does, Ed.”

Today is the 30th anniversary of one of my all-time favourite movies. As a somewhat artful student myself in the 80s, the appeal of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was its portrayal of a teenagers’ ability to outwit, with panache, a principal hell-bent on collaring wrongdoers.

Ed Rooney: What is so dangerous about a character like Ferris Bueller is he gives good kids bad ideas. Last thing I need at this point in my career is 1,500 Ferris Bueller disciples running around these halls. He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body.
School Secretary: He makes you look like an ass, is what he does, Ed.
Ed Rooney: Thank you, Grace, but I think you’re wrong.

It turns out that the school secretary wasn’t wrong – Ferris Bueller does make Ed look like an ass. By the end of the movie, a defeated Principal Rooney, covered in dirt, missing a shoe, and with torn clothes, boards a school bus, under the humiliating gaze of its passengers.

In many ways that is how schools look when they go down the path of trying to prevent students doing the wrong thing (by censoring the internet) instead of working with students, educating them and helping them to understand why it’s to their benefit to do the right thing. Blocking is a fool’s errand. We need to win students’ loyalty and cooperation, not corral them into compliance.

3 things school leaders can do to advance ICT in their school

As I visit schools, it is obvious to me that some schools are way ahead of others in their use of technology for learning and teaching. I’m sure there are many things that contribute to that diversity, but one of the biggest, it seems to me, is the approach taken by the leadership. When I look at the schools that seem to be doing things very well, there are a number of common threads – things the leaders in those schools do, which make all the difference. I offer the follwoing three as perhaps the most important.

1. Remove frustrations

It’s amazing to me how many fantastic, game-changing tools are blocked on some school networks. I’m not saying we should remove all filters – they do help to prevent us from accidentally stumbling onto things we don’t want to see and can’t unsee. But in 2016, our filters do almost nothing to prevent students from intentionally accessing inappropriate material. Blocking content is ineffectual for four reasons: (1) Most students have smartphones with a direct connection to the internet. (2) Most students have unfiltered internet at home. (3) Any student who walks home past McDonalds has unfiltered access to the internet. (4) Students know about VPN services which bypasses our filters.

Over-strict filters just thwart our best teachers’ efforts to make learning more meaningful. Our failed attempts to keep a few miscreant students from doing the wrong thing just hampers the majority of students who want to use the internet for the right thing.

If we think for a moment that filters will protect students from anything more than inadvertent stumbling onto inappropriate content then we need to open our eyes! If we want to protect students – really protect students – from the potential, and very real evils on the web, then we need to educate them. Blocking just invites students to an us-vs-them, cat-and-mouse game in which the cat comes off as annoying but embarassingly incompetent.

2. Ensure policies are clearly defined and well known

I meet a lot of teachers who are hesitant to use various, wonderful tools – because they are unsure about whether using such a tool is appropriate and permissible. They are not sure whether it ticks all the boxes in terms of safety, privacy and age appropriateness. Moreover they are fearful that if they use it, they might end up in hot water. No teacher ends up in hot water for being boring and staying to the path, but when a teachers starts exploring new ways to make learning exciting, more powerful and relevant to modern life, she has left the path and is cutting new paths. That comes with the fear that one is doing something that might be seen to be inappropriate. School leaders can support that teacher by making sure that school policies about the use of ICT are explicit, clear and well known by everyone in the school community. Then, teachers can confidently explore the new, within those clear boundaries. More on this here.

3. Empower the innovators

Often, as teachers gain the authority to influence and effect change in a school, their openness to change diminishes. Teachers enter the teaching profession wide-eyed and keen to try lots of different things and experiment with new pedagogies. They don’t have much power though because they are seen as “green” by older, wiser, more seasoned teachers who hold the decision-making power. I’ve seen young teachers silenced, gossiped about and even bullied because more experienced teachers took offence at these young, upstarts thinking they know a better way to do things. Eventually these new teachers learn to tone it down and conform to ‘the way things are done around here’. The most effective school leaders I have seen, identify innovators (irrespective of their seniority or experience) and invest them with the ability to influence.

Use 3D Touch on iPhone 6s to Save Anything to PDF

3D Touch on the iPhone 6s has become increasingly useful since its launch last year. It makes lots of things easier (selecting text using 3D touch on the keyboard is a great example) but there are now some things you can do with it, that you can’t actually achieve at all without it (at least not without jumping through hoops).

For example, let’s say you are reading an email in Apple’s Mail app, you can easily save it as a PDF using 3D touch.  The process is really simple – though not at all obvious to the uninitiated. Choose to print the email but when the phone shows you a preview of the document with some printing options, 3D-press on the preview image and it peaks and pops open as a PDF, with a share button that lets you save it wherever you want – Dropbox, Evernote, Notes, Pages, anywhere.

without this 3D Touch trick, there is no easy way to save an email from Mail to another app at all!

This works in any app that allows printing but I’m using Mail as an example because for some reason Mail doesn’t even have a share button, so without this 3D Touch trick, there is no easy way to save an email from Mail to another app at all!  To my knowledge, Apple has not even documented this feature. (I can’t imagine why).finp6s

 

 

 

Five of My Favourite Audio Services for Teachers

1. JustCast
A while ago I published this post, sharing one of my favourite new web services: JustCast which lets you publish any audio file on your computer as a podcast, simply by dragging it to a Dropbox folder.  Give your students your JustCast RSS feed URL and they can subscribe to it in their favourite podcast player app or subscribe to it yourself, then drop any audio file in there and listen to it on your commute!

2. Huffduffer
Huffduffer is another great tool, which is similar in purpose to JustCast. The end result is the same – a personal podcast feed for you or one to share with your students. The difference is that Huffduffer adds audio on the web to a personal podcast feed. If you visit a web page and there is an audio file embedded there, you can “huffduff it” using the browser plugin for your favourite browser. It’s as easy as bookmarking it.

3. Narro
Narro is similar in concept to Huffduffer, but whereas Huffduffer adds audio files to a podcast feed, Narro adds written text to a podcast feed.  Let’s say you find a really interesting but rather long blog post that you want to read. You can bookmark it using the Narro bookmarklet (available from the Narro website) and it shows up in your podcast feed as a spoken podcast.  Sure, it’s a computer voice but it’s surprisingly realistic. It even adds emphasis to key words. It is a great way to digest written content on the go.

4. TapeACall Pro
TapeACall Pro is an app (and service) that allows you to record phone calls made or received on your iPhone. There are obvious ethical (and depending on where you live, legal) considerations here. You should ask the other person for consent to record the call but it’s really useful for important phone calls discussing details that you need to remember – and so much easier than trying to scribble notes while talking. If you make a podcast for your students it’s also the simplest way I know to record an interview with an expert which you can then insert to your podcast.

5. SpeakPipe
SpeakPipe allows you to place a button, widget or link on your own website, blog or wiki. Your students (or anyone else who visits the site from any device) can click the link and record an audio comment or question – which is delivered to your email! If you like you can also reply, by voice, to their email. Again if you make a podcast for your class it’s a convenient, and very simple way to gather your students’ contributions together. If you’d like to see how this looks, check out the orange SpeakPipe button on the biology page of my website. You will need a SpeakPipe account to place the button on your site, but your students won’t need an account to use it.

The Threshold Challenge for Teachers in 2016

 

My favourite definition of education is this:

“Education is a conversation between one generation and the next, about what is important” ~ Sir John Jones.

The quote does, however, invite the question – “What is important?”

At a secondary school recently, I asked that very question of staff, who discussed it in small groups, and together we make a list of what they thought was important. Here’s what was listed (in no particular order):

  • Learning how to learn
  • Creativity
  • Resourcefulness
  • Resilience / Willingness to risk failing
  • Teamwork
  • Communication and presentation skills
  • Problem solving skills
  • Independence
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Tolerance and understanding of others
  • A growth mindset
  • Research skills
  • Digital citizenship
  • Self-awareness / Self-assessment.

What interested me is that nobody mentioned “memorising important historic dates” or “knowing the first 20 elements of the periodic table”.  Nobody even mentioned “learning times tables”. That’s not to say that those things are no longer useful, but that nobody mentioned them, shows me that teachers know, tacitly, that some things, while still useful, are now less valuable, and other things which have always been valuable are now even more so.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 12.13.51 PM

The threshold challenge for teachers in 2016, is how to spend more time teaching the things which, in our heart of hearts, we know have increasing value, while still preparing our students for assessment systems that primarily measure the things that have falling value.  Do you see what I mean? If we spend all our class time teaching creativity, communication skills and resourcefulness – we are doing them a disservice if they face an exam testing their knowledge recall in a room where communication is banned and resourcefulness is called ‘cheating’.

The threshold challenge for teachers in 2016, is how to spend more time teaching the things which have increasing value, while still preparing our students for assessment systems that primarily measure the things that have falling value.

We have to do both, not either/or. That is one reason (of many) that the flipped learning model makes so much sense. It allows us to make sure we are covering the knowledge they will need for the exam, while freeing up significant class time for “…what is important”.  Flipped learning is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end – which end is the freedom to teach the things that matter most, in engaging ways, whether or not they are assessed on an exam.  (Until the yoke of exams is lifted off our shoulders).


 

If you are interested in flipping your class, or if you have already done so, but are looking for easier, cooler and more effective tools, workflows and strategies, I’ll be running a workshop in Melbourne on 19th February.  You can find the information about that workshop here.

Or if you would like me to present to your staff on this, or any other topic related to the use of ICT in education, please don’t hesitate to contact me.