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.

What can teachers bring to the classroom, that has increasing value?

For the past 12 months I’ve been asking this question to teachers and school leaders in various forums:

What do teachers bring to the classroom that is still scarce now that we have Google, YouTube and Wikipedia?

As expected, I’ve received numerous answers to that question, and with a nod to ‘Family Feud‘, the top ten answers are on the board:

top ten responses

You’ll notice that “Providing Knowledge” is not on the list.  Twenty years ago, knowledge was one of the most valuable things a teacher contributed to the learning experience of students.  Now it doesn’t even make the top ten.

I think an equally valid question to ask is this: What can teachers bring to the classroom that not only still has value, but which has increasing value?

What can teachers bring to the classroom that has increasing value?

I’d be interested in your answers to that question. I have a few of my own, (which i’ll develop further in future posts.)

  • Critical thinking.
  • Mindfulness.
  • Wisdom.
  • Honest and constructive feedback.

Here’s the point: You can cut the ‘Class-time Pie’ anyway you want.  But if the largest slice is being given to standing at the front of the room disseminating a commodity of falling value, then less time can be devoted to really building a precious classroom experience for students.

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What To Do With The Extra Class Time? – Teach Like a Pirate!

If you flip your classroom – what will you do with the extra class time you free up?

If a teacher’s answer to that is that kids will do the work that would previously have been assigned to them as ‘homework’, then I feel a bit sad (for their students). There are so many more valuable things we could be doing with that precious ‘together time’ – things that can’t be done any time or anywhere else.Teach Like a Pirate on Kindle app

Book recommendation: Teach Like a Pirate, by Dave Burgess. It’s not an EdTech book. It really has nothing to do with technology – but in a way, that’s why I’m recommending it. The promise of the flipped classroom model is that class time will be freed up for … whatever you want to use that time for! In my view, that time is best spent doing things that students can’t do anywhere else. Those things are scarce, and if scarce, then valuable. Many of Burgess’ classroom ideas and strategies are time-consuming, (which will be the major blocker in a traditional classroom). But that’s my point really: If you are considering flipping your class and wondering what you might do with all that extra class time, I think Teach Like a Pirate will expand your thinking, or at least give you some inspiration for time-consuming but valuable learning experiences you could be giving your students.

I especially love the thought-provoking questions Burgess has included in the book. Here are three that I found particularly thought-provoking:

  1. If your students didn’t have to be there, would you be teaching in an empty room?
  2. Do students wait to go to the bathroom until their next period, because they are afraid they will miss something unforgettable in your room?
  3. Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?

In a world with Google, Wikipedia and YouTube – a world where information has lost it’s scarcity, teachers need to be ever-asking ourselves what do I bring to the classroom that is scarce?, because if I am really doing something valuable in my classroom, my answer  to Dave’s three questions above will be “No”, “Yes” and “Yes”.

Schools are beginning to get it.

I’ve noticed more change in education in the past two years, than over the preceding two decades, especially regarding teachers’ enthusiasm for using technology. Hopefully that’s a harbinger of things to come. Maybe we’re finally beginning to get it.

The operative word in that sentence is ‘beginning’.

The extent of technological change that has taken place in the last two decades is self evident. What is less obvious, but perhaps more profound, is the the social change that has come with the technological change.

I think schools have responded to (or at least acknowledged) the technological change. I mean, in every school I visit I see computers, tablets, interactive whiteboards, AppleTVs, 3D printers and a range of other gizmos. But I don’t think we have responded to, nor for the most part, even acknowledged many of the social changes that have ridden in on technology’s coat-tails.

Most of our mental models about the nature, timing, location, responsibilities, format and assessment of education have really not changed much and what we need now is not so much a technological evolution but a pedagogical one. Moving forward; really moving forward will not just be about keeping up to date with technology, but about adjusting our mental models so that schools remain (or at this stage of the game – again become) socially relevant.

The Best School I’ve Seen Yet

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It is now one month to the day since I visited Northern Beaches Christian School, in Terrey Hills, about 30 km north of Sydney.  The fact that now, a month later, I still find myself thinking regularly about what I saw there makes me believe that NBCS could well be the best school I’ve ever visited.  In this post I want to simply share some of the things I saw which made an impression on me.

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I visited the school primarily because my friend,  Steven Collis teaches there.  I’d had dinner with Steve and his wife Rachel the night before, and he had invited me to see his school while I was there.

Much has been written about NBCS’s use of open learning spaces, and they really are terrific.  I have seen many other schools with open learning spaces but have generally been underwhelmed by what I saw.  Typically, two or three classes are running in different spaces in the open-plan centre.  But the classes are more or less the same as they would have been if there were walls between them – except with more noise.  Indeed a number of schools which built an open space, have later put up walls because it wasn’t working.  In dramatic contrast to that scenario, the open spaces I saw at NBCS not only worked but worked beautifully.  I don’t intend to dwell on the actual design of the spaces.  I simply want to describe some of what I saw that really made an impression on me – and made me think.

1.  All the students were on-task, all the time.  If I didn’t know better I’d have thought that the students were actors – and I was in some kind of Truman Show experience.  I spent several hours there, and in all that time I saw just one or two student who appeared to be off-task.

It seemed to me that there is very little attempt for teachers to keep their class all working at the same pace.  Instead students come into the space and start to work on wherever they are up to.  When they need help there are teachers circulating around ready to help.  In many cases the students were working on long-term, real-world, collaborative projects that were inherently interesting.

All students (across multiple year levels) were doing geography/science at the same time.  So it was quite difficult to tell which students “belonged” to which class or teacher.  They were allowed to take any position in the room and work there.  For many students that position was on the floor, despite there being lots of available chairs, couches, bean-bags and other places that to me – a 45 year old man – seemed more practical and comfortable.

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Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 3.25.42 PM2. Despite a large number of students working in the space, it was surprising just how quiet and peaceful the rooms were.  It’s not that there was no conversation – there was lots of conversation – the room was a hive of activity, but somehow there was not even a hint of clattering.  The ceilings had been designed by a sound engineer – I’m not sure if that was the reason. All I know is that unlike many open learning spaces I’ve seen – these spaces were not only spatially functional but were acoustically functional.

3.  The school had an established BYOD program.  It worked very well.  Many (most?) students had Mac laptops, many had PC laptops, some had iPads.  What I saw was a lot of sharing of devices and groups of students working using three different devices between them.   It convinced me that BYOD is the right approach as we head into this second decade.

4. The school’s innovative approach to space-use had not just stopped with classrooms.  They had looked at a number of other spaces innovatively:

  • Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 3.23.51 PMThe girls toilet block was something to behold! Not just a bland room of cubicles – it doubled as an art gallery!  On the walls and even the ceiling hung works of art works produced by students.  It was really rather beautiful, and something I’d not seen before.  It made the space something to be proud of and to enjoy.  Needless to say, they had no issue of graffiti in there.  You don’t vandalise what you love. 
  • The staff room was also the senior students’ study  centre.  I had never seen this before!  It makes sense though! In most schools, the staff room’s peak usage time is recess, and off-peak is during class time. Reverse that for the use of the Senior students’ study centre!  By combining these two spaces into one, they had freed up one large space to be used as another open-space learning area.  Supervision is built-in to the plan.  I think it also conveys a level of respect and trust to senior students that is quite remarkable.
  • Another confronting thing about NBCS: there was no library.  There were no librarians.  There were books housed in all the spaces – but no large central repository that would be recognisable as a library.  This made available yet another large space for an open learning area.  I’d never seen a school before which had purposefully chosen to decommission the library for space that can be used differently.  I’ve seen some small schools which can’t afford a library in the first place – but to repurpose the library space is courageous, or at least bold!  It makes you think though, doesn’t it? Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 3.24.05 PM
  • The large spaces did not typically have a whiteboard at the front of the room.  In fact, in many spaces, you could not really say where the front might be!  The whiteboards that had been taken off the walls had been repurposed as bench tops.  How fantastic.  Benches that invited collaborative discussions in groups – rather than teacher-centred delivery from the front!

One of the things I’d heard about and really wanted to see at NBCS was books that have been written by students in Steve Collis’ class and published on lulu.com.  I love this!  What better way to promote excellence in student writing than to give students an authentic audience for their writing.  What better way to do that than to have them write books that are then sold in online bookshops like Amazon and Barns & Noble, printed and shipped only when purchased.  The quality of the student work that I saw did not let me down.Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 3.23.30 PM

NBCS is by no means perfect. Every school has strengths and weaknesses – and NBCS was no exception to that.  But taken as a whole, Northern Beaches is really something remarkable.  The pride that staff and students have for their school is clearly perceptible.  It is deservedly so.

I have visited literally hundreds of schools.  Were I to rank them from highest to lowest in terms of how they match up to my vision of “an Ideal school”, Northern Beaches Christian School would be atop that list.

Lastly, I want to say thank you to Principal Stephen Harris, for allowing me to tour freely through the school and a big, big thank you to Steven Collis (and colleagues) for so generously sharing both time and insight with me.

A Privilege Teachers Take for Granted

Nobody wants their pilot to be creative.

Imagine being an airline passenger and hearing the announcement:

“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the Fasten Seat Belt sign.  If you haven’t already done so, please stow your carry-on luggage underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment.  Please take your seat and fasten your seat belt low and tight around your hips.  The captain has thought up a new technique for landing that no one has ever tried before and he wants to give it a go …”

No, we want our surgeons, financiers, and engineers to follow their training with precision.  Deviation is called “negligence”.  Experimentation has no place in the work of a dentist or paramedic.  I’m sure these high-status careers have many draw-cards, but the opportunity to innovate isn’t one of them.  In contrast, nothing prevents a teacher from experimenting with a new approach, except her own lack of initiative, imagination or perhaps time.

There is an old saying that “Ten years in teaching is one year repeated ten times”.  That is sad if true – given the procedural latitude we have in our classrooms.  That latitude is an under-rated privilege of our profession that many other professions don’t share.

What’s stopping you from doing something completely different and experimental in your next class?