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.

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Why your school needs clearly defined social media policies

pinnacleIt’s not to stop teachers from doing the wrong thing with social media; It’s to give them confidence to use social media well, knowing there is no appearance of impropriety.

If there were no balustrade on the ‘Pinnacle’ lookout in the Grampians, very few people would venture to the edge to take in the arresting view.  The barrier gives hikers confidence to go further than they would otherwise dare, because their safety is assured.  The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

Is it appropriate for a teacher to reply to a student’s electronic message at 9:00 pm? 11:00 pm? I don’t think there is a universal answer to that question, but I do think there should be a school policy about it.  If a student sends a text at 9:45 pm, and the school policy says 10 pm, a teacher can confidently reply, leaning against the balustrade of that policy.

I meet a lot of teachers who are reluctant to use “this website” or “that web 2.0 service” with their students for fear that doing so might make them the star of a story on 7’s Today Tonight (and not in a good way).  That fear can be soothed by creating well publicised, unambiguous and clearly defined policies.

Turn your Class into a Game Show: Triptico (new version today)

Screen Shot 2013-01-03 at 2.06.05 PMI have used Triptico for many years and have always found it to be excellent. Essentially, it’s a collection of spinners, timers, quiz-templates and name-pickers for use in the classroom.  It’s particularly great for randomly selecting students to answer questions, or to perform tasks.

I’ve often hosted Year 12 “Biology study parties”; evenings when my students and I would get together and spend a few hours eating pizza and playing biology games, you know:  ”Pass the Par-Cell”, “The Wheel of Immune”, “Who Wants to Be a Biologist Hotseat”, and various games involving eggs, balloons, whipped cream, vegemite and ping-pong balls, where the most coveted prize was a custom-made Biology T Shirt.   I increasingly found some of the tools in Triptico (such as the name picker and scoreboard) augmented those fun evenings beautifully.Screen Shot 2013-01-03 at 1.05.46 PM

But they are also really  useful in the classroom – even on more serious occasions.  Even the simple circle timer is fantastic to have displayed at the front of the room while students are working in groups so they know exactly how long they have to finish the current task.  Likewise, I’ve also found name pickers are helpful for assigning students to groups when I want to mix things up a bit.  You can even have multiple tools open simultaneously.

Today, a new version of Triptico is available.  It’s free to download and use.  The free version contains lots of great tools.  If you want even more tools, you can get them too,  by paying $23 for a “Triptico Plus” account (in app).  Triptico Plus also gives you the ability to save your triptico apps in the cloud (so you don’t have to re-enter student names or images again next time, for example, and can open them on more than one computer).  Volume licensing for schools is available, too.

Triptico is an Adobe Air  application – so you can install it on a Mac or PC (needs to have Adobe Air installed), but you can’t install it on an iPad.

My advice: If you are a teacher, do yourself a favour and check it out at http://www.triptico.co.uk

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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.

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.