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.

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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.

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Publishing a podcast just got simple!

If you make a podcast for your students, you really should create an RSS feed for it – so they can subscribe using their Podcast app of choice.  There are lots of advantages in this:

  • New episodes are downloaded automatically in the background when the student is connected to Wi-Fi.
  • Students have control over playback speed.
  • The app remembers where they are up to if they don’t finish listening in one go.
  • They can create playlists for continuous play

The Problem

I’ve found lots of teachers who make ‘podcasts’ for their students don’t do this; instead, they simply upload the podcast to a folder on their school LMS and instruct students to go there and download it.  Even though services like PodOmatic make it simpler than it once was to create an RSS feed, I think a lot of teachers still just think there are too many hoops to jump through.

The Solution

I’ve just discovered a super-cool, and drop-dead simple service called JustCast.  Go to the JustCast website, click a button to allow access to Dropbox.  They then create a JustCast folder inside your Dropbox folder, and give you an RSS feed for that folder!

Any audio file you drag into that folder within Dropbox, gets pushed to the apps of anyone subscribed to that RSS feed. it’s so simple I’m stunned that it works – but, incredibly, it does!

The free service allows you to have three episodes in the RSS feed at any time. Adding a fourth episode will make the oldest episode unavailable to subscribers. Upgrade pricing allows unlimited episodes in the feed. (But three might be enough?)

I’ve discovered another really convenient use for JustCast – I’ve set this up for my own personal use. I’ve subscribed to my own RSS feed! Now any random audio file I want to listen to while driving, when dragged into my JustCast folder in Dropbox, appears in my podcast app along with all the other podcast I listen to. Sensational!

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Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the Whiteboard…” (Are you serious?)

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 8.49.07 pmOn the heels of my previous post about why some teachers fail to realise the efficiency gains of technology, Today I had a conversation with a teenager that went like this:

Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the whiteboard with my iPad.”
Me: “Are you telling me, they make you copy off the whiteboard with pen and paper?”
Student: “Yes”
Me: “How many of your teachers do this?”
Student: “All of them!”
Me: “Are you serious?”
Student: “They tell us that copying the board will help us remember and understand the information better”
Me: “And do you think it does?”
Student: “No, I’m usually not even thinking about what I’m writing; I’m just copying down the words”

I don’t buy for a moment that students will remember or understand information significantly better by copying! Telling that to students is as disingenuous as it is absurd! When I read the morning newspaper I don’t need to copy out the news stories in order to comprehend them! When researching a topic of interest I read relevant articles, maybe make a few notes and save them to Evernote for future reference but I don’t transcribe the articles in full onto loose leaf! What makes anyone think that copying paragraphs of text from the board will make students remember or understand? As you began reading this blog post, did the thought even cross your mind to start copying it out with pen and paper to aid your understanding? Of course it didn’t! That would be a prodigious waste of your time and would make little to no difference to your comprehension.

Let’s be honest. The real reasons teachers make students copy information from the board are:
(a) It pads out the lesson with busywork, so a very small amount of learning will use up an entire period (It reduces the teacher’s preparation time : class time ratio).
(b) It is the easiest way to “wing it” when a teacher hasn’t prepared a genuine and engaging learning activity.
(c) It keeps students seated, quiet and under control.

In 1989 copying information from the board was a practical way for students to collect a body of examinable subject knowledge to learn (i.e. memorise / encode), because schools didn’t have photocopiers, students didn’t have cameras, and nobody had Google.

In 2015, valid reasons for using a whiteboard might include sketching a diagram to answer an extemporaneous student question, teaching basic literacy skills (character formation, perhaps spelling) or to capture a group brainstorming session. A whiteboard is useful for that kind of thing. (And don’t be ridiculous – if your students have smartphones, let them take a photo, if it helps them!). But I can’t think of any good reason for entering class, with the intention of writing screeds of informational text on the board for students to copy like it were still 1989.

It’s a squandering of class time – a great example of wheeling technology, instead of riding it (to borrow the metaphor from my previous post).

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Teacher: “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”

A teacher said to me “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”.

What a strange thing to say! – I can’t think of any other professional occupation in which people feel that computer technology slows them down, gets in the way and makes their work less efficient? In other professions it reduces friction, increases productivity and saves time (and money).  That is why those industries least forgiving of inefficiency, are most invested in computer technology.

I don’t think the teacher I spoke to is alone, either (I think her feelings are quite common among teachers, actually). And what’s more, I don’t doubt that she is right! Technology probably does make her work less efficient. But that is because she’s doing it wrong.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 5.37.57 pmSteve Jobs said that a computer is like “a bicycle for our minds” meaning that it magnifies the efficiency of our thinking the way a bicycle improves the efficiency of our locomotion. I love that analogy – and I think it’s very true, but it does, of course, assume that you actually ride the bike (rather than wheeling it alongside while walking). In order to ride a bike, you have got to stop walking. You can’t do both. If you’re not prepared to give up walking, then the bicycle is a hindrance.

When teachers describe technology as a hindrance to their work, I say that’s because they are unprepared to let go of their old methodologies. Instead of “riding” technology, they’re “wheeling” it alongside their old teaching practices.

What Teachers Can Learn From Air New Zealand

If you have flown Air New Zealand recently you will be familiar with their latest air safety video. If you haven’t, watch it here.

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Normally while taxiing to the runway, a bored flight attendant stands in the aisle and mimes a robotic demonstration of seatbelt fastening, and life vest inflation. This scheduled interruption to my reading, is only made tolerable because I can amuse myself looking at the faces of fellow passengers. Very few are really watching. Some, out of a sense of obedience/courtesy, are gazing in the general direction of the hostess – but they are not really watching. They are judging her hair style and guessing her age. Many passengers just ignore her and continue reading.  (I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the similarities between this and some classrooms).

Things are quite different on Air New Zealand flights. There, the cabin crew don’t perform the safety mime. Instead, safety information is delivered as preflight entertainment. The safety video is so creative and well made that passengers really want to watch. It’s far, far more effective than the live demonstration perpetrated on passengers by other airlines. Air New Zealand’s most recent safety video features characters from The Hobbit: elves, orcs, dwarves and wizards. Brilliant! It’s safety demontainment. By putting the safety message into a recording, they have presented it in a style that would be impracticable as a live safety demontration. In doing so, they have made it watch-worthy; memorable.

A second, but equally significant advantage is that the actual, human flight attendants are no longer tied up performing a dehumanised, routine act during those precious pre-flight minutes. Instead, they are able to move freely through the cabin, interating with passengers, asking if they are comfortable, and ensuring their seat belts are fitted and their baggage is stowed safely.

A recorded safety message has not degraded the Air New Zealand passenger experience at all. Quite the contrary, by automating the routine components of a traditional air hostess’ role, and freeing her to focus on the rest, the airline has made passengers’ experience at once more fun and more personal.

I think there is much we as teachers can learn from that. If a concept needs to be explained at all (a matter for a furture blog post), and if you find yourself explaining that same concept, in the same way, over and over, year after year. Maybe it’s better to record it once, really well, and thereafter instead, focus your attention and time in class on the things that can’t be automated because they are interpersonal.

Aside: If you live in Victoria, and are interested in attending a workshop on doing exactly that – recording your best explanations in ways that are more effective than if you presented them live in class –  I have several such workshops coming up.  Each has sufficient numbers to run already (Ie. this is not a sales pitch ;-)).   If you’d like to attend, contact me and I will furnish you with the details.

The Story of the Christmas Ham

Challenging Assumptions About Schooling that are based on technological limitations of the past.

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The story is told of a woman who brought home a leg of ham and was preparing it for Christmas Dinner. She proceded to cut it in half, before placing it in the oven to cook it. Her husband, watching on, asked “Why do you cut it in half? Is that so it cooks better in the middle?” His wife paused a moment and then answered “I don’t really know, that’s just what I’ve always done. I saw my mother doing that when I was a girl”. Later the in-laws arrived for Christmas dinner and the question was brought up: “Mum – why did you cut the leg of ham in half before placing it in the oven to cook?”  “I don’t really know”, her mother replied. “Your grandma used to do that – so it’s just something I’ve always done – there must be a reason for it!” Later the family all travelled to Grandma’s house to share Christmas tea. During a lul in the conversation, the wife asked her grandmother, “Grandma, why did you teach Mum to cut the leg of ham in half before cooking it?”  “Well“, replied the grandmother, “when your mother was a girl, my oven was very small and I couldn’t fit the whole leg in without cutting it in half.”

I’m not sure if the oven story is true, but I like it regardless, because I see a parallel between the story and a number of school assumptions we continue to hold because our teachers did, and they did because their teachers did. The technological reasons for these practices are now gone, yet we still continue to do them without questioning whether they still make sense.

Here are four examples of 20th Century assumptions I think are still common, but are based on yesterday’s technological limitations, now gone.

  • Teachers explain the most important lessons to their students when they are all together in the classroom. A decade ago that was perfectly reasonable. When else could a teacher communicate with her students but when they were together in class? Now there are hundreds of ways of communicating with students sychronously and asynchronously, at any time of day, in or out of school. That ought to make us reconsider when and how we share our thoughts with our students.
  • Teachers need to ‘know their stuff’ before teaching it. In the past, it was necessary for teachers to be expert in everything the students were learning because classrooms were isolated from the rest of the world. Once the door was closed, the rest of the world was shut out – leaving students with just the teacher’s knowledge (and whatever books were in the room). So if the teacher didn’t ‘know his stuff’ the students wouldn’t be able to learn the subject! But now, students have access to the same pool as knowledge as their teachers – right at their fingertips! That ought to make us reconsider what the role of a teacher is in the learning process.
  • Students all progress through a course at the same pace. In the past it really made sense to be that way.  When the teacher was the students’ primary source of knowledge, and that knowledge could only be shared by talking in class time, we needed all the students to be there all the time, hearing every word the teacher speaks. But now, why do students need to progress at the same pace, or even learn the same things at all? Now that students have access to knowledge from a thousand sources, the practice of keeping them all together is ripe to be challenged.
  • Students must record their learning and ideas in writing. How else, in the past, could they have recorded their thoughts and understandings? There really were no other convenient or practical ways to do it! Now there are many socially current ways. Yet, I think if we are honest, we still value writing as somehow more academically valid. But is that assumption based on anything more than tradition?

I’m sure there are other examples. If you can think of any, please leave them in the comments!

Am I saying we should discontinue any practice based on bygone technological limitiations? Not necessarily. There may now be other (new) reasons for wanting to uphold some practices. But I think, if there are such reasons, we should be able to articulate them.  When someone asks why we cut the leg of ham in half we should at least know why we choose to do it.