Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Outdoor Learning

This year in Grade Three, my colleague and I decided that we wanted to head outside to engage in some activities, problems and inquiries. We took the inspiration from our Early Years department who have embraced outdoor learning as a daily part of their program. Recent educational research has indicated that outdoor learning programs can increase student achievement by almost 50% over the course of a year. One of our Vice-Principals is an authority on all things Early Years and she gave us some good ideas to start with. We were also aware that many schools in the UK already have outdoor learning programs. So we thought we'd give it a crack ourselves.

During the this first semester that we've held outdoor learning the students have:
  • Practiced their navigation skills to find their way around the school and crack codes.
  • Explored the pond area and made some fascinating discoveries.
  • Developed teamwork and communication skills by working together to solve problems.
  • Tested and re-tested theories in order to make conclusions.
  • Explored ways of building knowledge in group environments.
  • Reflected on shifts in thinking and understanding.
  • Created Andy Goldsworthy inspired art.
  • Predicted, collected, analysed and explained mathematical data.
We've been lucky to have some parent helpers each week and this has allowed us teachers to document the learning. This is another thing that has come from the Reggio-inspired program of our Early Years team. Individually, us two teachers have noticed some interesting things about each student during outdoor learning. But I report on my class and she reports on hers, so we need to find time to meet and discuss our findings. Plus the real power of documentation comes in the discussions held by the observers. It is the combination of these different viewpoints that helps build a complete picture about each child.

Being a new initiative, we're still perfecting the setup. We started off very open - playing in the sand and documenting research skills. Each week, however, we seemed to become a bit more focused with the tasks - measuring the perimeter of a playground area, for example. This may be because at our school we need to report on outcomes so we need to provide opportunities for the students to engage in tasks that allow us the chance to assess their understanding. Perhaps our mind has subconsciously been tracking back to this. 

A few weeks ago we gathered some feedback from the students about how they felt outdoor learning was going. From the start we wanted this to be about the student's learning so we felt it was important for them to be involved in the planning process. Some said that they felt everything was going fine. To our surprise, though, quite a few said they were becoming less interested in outdoor learning because they felt the tasks were becoming too regimented and organised. They preferred the freedom of greater choice and exploration. I'm glad the students felt comfortable enough to share these opinions - it really helped us. The teachers also shared their concerns about the students behaviour during outdoor learning. We felt that some were forgetting about the second word in the title. This feedback encouraged us to make a few changes to our setup. So far they've been well-received.

Some students just flourish outdoors. Maybe they find the classroom walls restrictive - I'm sure there's a number of reasons. It's been great to see these students come more alive with their learning. Others are equally as comfortable in the classroom and outside. Some only prefer the indoors. At least this way we're opening up the scope of access to more students and differentiating our approaches to the learning profile of our students. Most importantly, the students are participating in some interesting learning engagements. And I reckon they're having a bit of fun too.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Know thy impact

I wanted to share a couple of videos featuring John Hattie and Ben Levin. I'm reading Hattie's work right now so will write a post summarising my opinions and ideas once I'm finished. These videos touch on some of the points he raises in his work and can be quite provocative at times, particularly Hattie's video.

Ben Levin speaking at Seizing Success 2012: Annual Leadership Conference from The National College on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Question Quadrant - ideas into practice

Last year I blogged about the Question Quadrant as a way to develop the inquiry skills of my students. The aim was to make them better problem posers and this will have an obvious impact on their inquiries. Having read Phil Cam's book - 20 Thinking Tools - I decided that the Question Quadrant really was something that I wanted to have a go at in my classroom.

Last week I introduced it to my students and we explored what each section of the quadrant meant. I explained that we would use this tools to help us become better inquirers. We used the book 'Me and You', by Anthony Brown, as a way of introducing the tool. This fantastic book also served as a way to elaborate on one of our key concepts for this UOI - Perspective. I had previously developed some questions:

  • Who is dressed more colourfully?
  • Who wrote the story?
  • What is the main colour of the bear's furniture?
  • What are the names of the characters?
  • Where are the bears going on their walk?
  • Why isn't the girl dressed in more pretty clothes?
  • Is it ever ok to use someone else's things without their permission?
After first describing each of the sections, we discussed each question one by one and decided where they should be placed. 

I was happy to see that the students were able to recognise where each closed question should fit. The difficulties came for the students when they had to consider that there might be more than one answer. Open, textual questions took a little while to flesh out, but we arrived at a conclusion for where it should be placed reasonably quickly. The open, intellectual question took a lot longer to discuss. The majority of the children thought that there was a black and white answer to this and it took the opinions of two students in order to let the rest of the class see that there might be other possibilities - 'What if you're being chased by something dangerous and you need to use something that belongs to someone else to defend yourself?'

We got there in the end and then it was time for the big understanding to be revealed. What sorts of questions should we be asking if we want to be good inquirers? 

Their answer? Closed, intellectual questions.

After I picked myself up from the floor from the shock of their answer, I tried to regain my composure. After such a lively discussion I was sure that the students had realised that open, intellectual questions were best suited to inquiry. There were obvious lessons for me out of this experience. First and foremost is the fact that this tool needs to be built upon and revisited throughout the year in order for my students to develop their understanding and skills in questioning. Secondly, I found it very interesting to see that nearly all of the students think that knowing clear cut answers is the best indicator of successful inquiry. The uncomfortable feeling of being in the 'area of unknown' when investigating something clearly doesn't sit well with them yet and they prefer to be able to reach the end point of something efficiently and accurately and then be done with it.

So I see my role now as being one of helping the students to feel safe and comfortable in the murky waters of not having quite reached an indisputable answer. I need to help them be risk-takers to explore new and unknown things and also develop persistence so when they do reach an answer they can consider alternatives and dig deeper. These are broad habits that will apply across the entire curriculum.  In terms of the Question Quadrant, we'll be relating our thinking back to this whenever we get the opportunity and use the chart to refine our questions as we come up with them.

As is usually the case with anything worth doing - there's no quick fix.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What is Learning?

I've been following a string of blog posts that have asked the question: What is learning? These have really sparked my thinking and over the past week I've tried a few things out in my classroom. Sam's post quotes the statistic that close to 100% of schools fail to have a shared, common understanding of what they believe valuable learning is. Without this, he goes on to say, parents can't decide if it's the right school for their child, teachers can't decide if this school is right one for them to teach at, leadership can't decide if they're doing a good job and, most importantly, students can't decide if they are being successful. 

When I read this post we were just at the end of our first week of school. There is always a lot going on at this time and, in order to foster a collaborative environment, one thing I wanted to do was to establish our class essential agreements. This year I tried a different approach to the creation of these agreements. I spent the first week having the class engage in a couple of different scenarios that addressed concepts such as communication, inclusivity and decision making. I attended an interesting workshop with Bill Powell and Steve Dare over the Summer break and was keen to translate a few of their ideas into practice in the classroom. So we worked through and reflected on those few engagements. I wanted the students to consider the feelings and thoughts that they experienced during the exercises when they made their agreements. The night before I was planning to get the students to decide on the agreements I read Sam's post and thought that this was something that simply had to be included in the build up. In one minute I had changed all of my plans! 

I wanted to ask the students to consider what learning was for them. My plan was to spend some time reflecting on what learning was and then share each other's responses. I predicted that this would help everyone see that (i) we all have different needs, values and perspectives and (ii) that there are some core attributes of learning that apply to everyone (or at least most people). I adapted the ISB model that I saw in another of Sam's posts to read as three categories: Sound, Feel, Look. So each student was asked to find a quiet place and think about what it felt like for them when they were in the moment of learning something; what someone would see if they looked at them when they were learning; and what someone would hear if they were listening when they were learning something (there's a lot of they's there, does it make sense?!). I also asked them to consider what someone wouldn't see and hear if they were watching them learn; and what learning doesn't feel like for them. The answers were interesting and pleasing:

After I scribed all of the students' ideas down we saw that a lot of the answers given for 'sounds like' were reflected in the 'looks like' answers, so decided to condense that category into one. There were clearly some clashes of ideas: 'learning doesn't look like wandering around' vs 'learning does look like experimenting and asking other people'. When talking about the 'sounds like' ideas, there were a lot of different opinions. One student said 'learning sounds like jazz'; another said 'learning sounds like silence'; and yet another said 'learning sounds like rock music and lots of noise'. Obviously some different learning styles there!

This was a great way to allow the students to see that they all had similarities and differences in their learning. It was also good because it bought to the forefront of our decision making the single most important thing about school - student learning.

Photo credit: I Learn

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Every week, day and hour.

Over the past week I've had several discussions about collaboration with my colleagues. On one occasion this was at a workshop about documentation, lead by our Early Years Vice-Principal. I attended this workshop in the hope that it would give me some fresh ideas about how to collect and evaluate data in my own classroom. We talked about the processes that the Early Years teachers go through and engaged in some nice discussions about the mechanics of their documentation.

One of the key elements of documentation in Reggio-inspired approaches is the need for follow up discussion about the evidence that has been collected. This enables educators to flesh out their ideas and helps to create clearer understandings about what has been observed. Of course, this isn't only evident in Early Years teaching. Any teacher worth their salt collects evidence through observations, individual and group discussion, work samples and any other effective means. One of the big differences, though, is that there are less ways to collect evidence from students who cannot write competently yet, or perhaps speak fluently in the language of instruction. As this occurs more frequently in the Early Years, observing the students is a popular way to document development and perceived understandings. Advocates for this approach to education, such as our VP, do their best, then, to ensure that specific structures are in place to allow this to happen. Extended blocks of inquiry time are common and more than one adult per group of children is a frequent sight. Unfortunately, for several complicated reasons, this doesn't translate to the Gr. 1-5 classes at my school. So we've been looking for ways to enhance our ability to collaborate. 

As a Team Leader, I try my very best to ensure that our meeting times are focussed on student learning and not the other 'stuff' that fills up our day. One thing I try to do at the start of our meetings is engage in different protocols that allow us to freely discuss what's been happening in our classes - both successes and failures. A second point to consider is the focus of discussions that the team engages in. While our discussions might be about student learning, it is important to guide team members to discuss the right sorts of things. This is a skill I'm still developing. In their article about collaboration, So they can fly - Building a community of inquirers (2007), Linda Gibson-Langford and Di Laycock refer to a term called coblaboration, which was first coined by David Perkins in his book - King Arthur's Round Table - How collaborative conversations create smart organisations. Coblaboration is characterised by chaotic conversation patterns, repetition, group think and dialogue with no action. How many 'collaborative' meetings have you been a part of where these arise? I know I've been in plenty. So keeping precious meeting time focussed is essential.

Another point raised by one of my colleagues is that we need to question our mindset about collaboration. She said that most of the time when we meet to collaborate we come with the idea that we're going to talk about things that are going to happen. This is great, but we also need to consider the value in collaborating about things that have already happened. This doesn't just mean in UOI reflections every 6 or so weeks either, it means discussing and debating ideas based on what's happened with your class that week or day or hour. I think there's a lot of merit in that.

Everyone always talks about collaboration and how great it would be to collaborate more. However, a lot of the time we get caught up in other things that require our immediate attention, but may not be all that important. Last year, when I was in Gr. 4, I tried to encourage the practice of getting into each other's classrooms more often. We discussed this - how we felt about it, what we thought the benefits were, what we thought the barriers were. We also talked about our feelings when someone was in our room - some people shared feelings about this being like an appraisal, but that's another discussion. We agreed on a goal that we would try to engage in one collaborative teaching experience per fortnight. We reflected on this in our meetings and although everyone said they valued the process, finding the time to meet with people in order to discuss and plan lessons was another 'thing' to do in our already packed day. I haven't yet been able to get over to Gr. 4 and see if they're carrying on with the process this year.

This year I've moved to Gr. 3 and our classrooms are set up a little differently. In Gr. 4 we worked in portable classes that, while being roomy, were essentially boxes and to get to another class you had to go right out of your room. In Gr. 3 the classes are alongside each other and have doors that connect each room. One of the first things my neighbour and I did this year was contact the custodians and get them to remove the door. Having an open passageway through the two classrooms forces us to collaborate more - although I must say that I'm lucky that I work next to a teacher that doesn't need too much encouragement with this. We also sat down and looked at the times during the week where we have opportunities for more collaborative learning between the classes. This also involves our Learning Support and EAL teachers. For this to work effectively we'll need to talk over things (that have happened and will happen) in order to plan appropriately. If everything aligns, hopefully it will extend to include all of the 5 classes in Gr. 3.

Photo credit: Shunting

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Trending students

Our current UOI in Grade Three falls under the TD Theme - How We Organise Ourselves. The central idea is 'Digital media influences the way we access information and connect with each other'. Through the first two weeks of the unit each class has inquired into what we understand digital media to be, what our responsibilities are in virtual environments, how we can evaluate information on-line and how we use & organise digital media.

Over the past week in my class we've been exploring some of the different types of digital media that the students might choose to use for their process assessment task. The students will have to create a presentation to educate their parents on the responsible use of technology. They will have to find and evaluate information about responsible use in order to decide which is essential for their presentation, and also think about what will be the best tool in order to connect with their parents. Maybe their parents will come to school to see their presentation, maybe they won't be able to and would prefer to view it on-line, maybe they like to see videos, photos, text - there's a lot for the students to consider.

This week we've explored a couple of web 2.0 tools that might be useful for the students - Photo Peach and Prezi. Next week we'll look at a few more so the students can have the freedom of choosing which one will be most appropriate for them to use. For each tool we first run through a demonstration of the tool and then discuss the advantages and disadvantages of it. You can see the students' analysis of each tool on our grade level blog here and here.

One of the most interesting things I've noticed from the students' feedback is that they've highlighted as being a disadvantage the fact that you can't create a game that could be played on any of these sites. This is something that I hadn't really considered as even being an option. Obviously it is to the students, though, and I can't wait to unpack their thinking with this. I'm now looking for a good tool to show the students how to use in order for them to create a game to help explain digital responsibility.

K12Horizon is a project that focuses on emerging technology and their applications for K-12 education. One of the trends they identified this year in their annual report was game-based learning. A friend of mine blogged about some of the findings earlier this year and here is what she wrote about game based learning:

Game-Based Learning - there is a lot of interest in exploring the potential of game-based learning and the Horizon Report identifies several areas where these will be used in schools, for example developing students' team building skills, teaching cross-curricular content in engaging ways and simulations that allow students to try out different creative solutions to problems.

My students seem to have their finger on the trend pulse more than me with this and I think this example highlights the importance of making sure that the curriculum is student-centred. I can't wait to explore this further with my students and see what they create.

Photo credit: Toca Boca

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


A short while ago I came across an interesting article about neuroscience and the debunking of some common ideas. As we are able to learn more about how the brain learns, neuroscience in education is becoming more important so I thought it would be interesting to share some of these myths. The list was compiled by Ulrike Rimmele, who is just down the road from me at the University of Zurich. For the complete article, plus references, visit here.

A neuromyth is a statement of misconception about brain mechanisms and/or how it functions. Neuromyths develop for a number of reasons - from misunderstandings to deliberate manipulation of information. Due to the perceived importance of brain research to education these myths have rapidly developed and include the benefit of enriched environments, right- and left-brained dominance and critical periods of learning. The danger of these are that the eager adoption by teachers and parents can mean that people are following teaching and rearing strategies that are not based on evidence.

Here is a brief run-down of 6 common neuromyths:

1. The brain is only plastic for certain kinds of information during specific 'critical periods', with the first three years of a child being decisive for later development and success in life.
There is a large body of research based around vision, audition and language which shows that different brain systems display different amounts and types of changes with experience (ie. plasticity). Some of these systems appear to retain the ability to change with experience throughout life and therefore do no rely on a 'sensitive period'. I found it interesting to read in regards to language development, the optimal development stage for phonology and grammar seems to be the early and middle childhood years - not just in the initial years. Researchers are now investigating the possibility of plasticity and sensitive periods for learning math, music, social and emotional skills etc. This is important as it will provide input to the design of educational programs.

2. 'Enriched environments' enhance the brain's capacity for learning.
This myth refers to the idea that children should be exposed to rich and diverse stimuli during the time that they are most receptive to learning. A common belief about this myth is that if a child is not exposed to an enriched environment the it will not recuperate later on in life and has lost capacities early in life. This most probably developed from research on early learning in rats. This research showed that rats that were reared in an enriched and stimulating environment displayed a better capability to learn and solve complex maze problems compared to rats that were raised in a deprived environment. Conclusions have been drawn explaining that the experience of being raised in a rich environment tunes the wiring between neurons of the brain (allows more connections to form). The reason that this is still considered a myth is because more research is required that explores the transfer of these insights from animal research to human learning. It is also important to remember myth 1 - the brain shows plasticity throughout the whole life, not just in the first three years, which is the suggested 'enriched environment' stage.

3. There is a visual, auditive and a haptic type of learning.
When we talk about types of learning we are referring to the different channels of perception that learning occurs through. When the right channel of perception is enhanced then individual learning ability can be improved. Frederic Vester created this theory and he recognised four types of learners: visual, auditive, haptic and intellectual. Many teachers apply this theory in their classrooms by paying attention to which students use certain channels of perception in order to provide the student with the best fitted input. There has been two main criticisms of this theory. The first is based on the classification of learner types. Vester's first three classifications are based on perceptions (seeing, hearing and touching) but the fourth is not - intellectual learners learn through understanding itself. How do these learners gain their learning material? Do they not need channels of perception at all? This also seems to imply that learners in the other three modes do not use their intellect at all to learn, only their channel of perception. This can lead to problems if teachers assume that if someone sees, hears or touches something then they automatically understand it. In order to understand something a learner first has to receive it and then process and interpret it. Only through this second step can understanding and learning be achieved. In order to optimise learning an approach of 'learning through understanding'  should be employed.

4. We only use 10% of our brains
This is one of the most persistent and widely spread brain myths. While it may be exciting to think of our potential if we can unlock the dormant 90% of our brain, the reality is that all existing data shows that we use 100% of our brain. It is not known where this myth originated but possible options include: 19th century brochures for self-help (the self-help track still widely abuses this today); Albert Einstein allegedly once quoted that he only used 10% of his brain; research from the 1930's explored the function of certain brain areas with electric shocks - many areas showed up as 'no effect', hence leading to conclusions that they weren't used; another possible explanation is the rate of glia cells to neurons in the brain, which is 10:1 - however glia cells only support the function of neurons, it is the neurons themselves that are responsible for information processing. Rimmele provides three further reasons to explain why we use 100% of our brain instead of only 10%: 
(i) Evolution won't allow for it: like all other organs, our brain has been shaped by natural selection. While the brain only weighs 2% of the total body weight, it uses 20% of the whole energy. It is improbable that evolution would have permitted the wasting of resources on a scale necessary to build such an efficient and only partially used organ. If it did then humans with large brains would have already been excluded from the gene pool.
(ii) Clinical neurology examples show that losing far less than 90% of the brain tissue has serious consequences. You wouldn't risk the injury of having someone shoot a bullet into your head with the knowledge that it probably wouldn't hit the 10% of your brain that you actually use. Interestingly, some people have lived with injuries such as this, or similar conditions (e.g. like those experienced after a stroke) for many years. This is because of the plasticity of the brain and it's ability to compensate for damaged cells, much in the same way a soccer team would compensate for a player who is sent off. It might look as though the part of the damaged brain was not used at all but it would unwise to conclude from a compensated function that we only need 10% of our brain.
(iii) Special functions of the brain region are known and it is possible to make a map of the brain that shows that there is not an inactive 90%. So far, neurosurgery has failed to identify any areas of the brain where there is total inactivity (of perception, emotion and movement), even during sleep. If there were then this would be indicative of a serious malfunction.

5. Myths about bilingualism
This section highlights three bilingualism neuromyths (and a brief counter argument). For a more detailed overview of these then please refer to the article.
(i) Two languages compete for resources - if two languages compete for resources then there should be no-one who can speak several languages proficiently because the brain would run out of space. There are, however, many examples that show that this is not true. Also, if you learn a new language you do not become drastically less proficient in a previous one.

(ii) Knowledge acquired in one language is not accessible in another - Studies have shown that the more knowledge that is acquired in different languages, the more it is 'unhitched' from language. The knowledge is not stored in the format of language, but in other forms (e.g. pictures, for example). Also, when someone understands something (for example, democracy), they will be able to explain it equally in each language. If they cannot, then this is a signal of vocabulary deficiency, not the transfer of knowledge.

(iii) The first language must be spoken well before the second language is learned - Studies have shown that children who master two languages are better in understanding the structures of language and apply it more consciously. Multi language education and multilingualism do not retard the development of language. However, it is important to note that if a child has a language deficiency then the effects of this may be enhanced by a multi language education.

6. The left brain/right brain myth
This popular myth refers to the assertion that information is processed in different ways, depending on the hemisphere used. The right hemisphere is associated with an intuitive, emotional, holistic, synthesising, non-verbal, visuo-spatial mode of processing, resulting in a creative or inductive way of thinking. In contrast, the left hemisphere is the rational, intellectual, logical, analytical and verbal hemisphere. It is the hemisphere that specialises in processing verbal and numerical information based on a deductive or logical way of thinking. In education this has implications because the idea follows that the dominate hemisphere determines the ways of processing for a student - and that learning can be enhanced when both sides of the brain participate in a balanced manner. The danger in using hemispheric approaches to education are that it is based on an incorrect idea: each brain hemisphere is specialised and therefore each must function independently with a different thinking style. While research has shown that there are some functional differences in either side of the brain, these do not relate to cognitive thinking. Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence supporting the idea that different thinking styles lie within each hemisphere. Finally, there is also no evidence that supports a correlation between creativity and the activity of the right hemisphere, or the degree of creativity versus use of the right hemisphere. Recent scientific findings suggest that in cognitive activities the two brain hemispheres work collaboratively.

Photo credit: The Lime Jello Brain by hurleygurley

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Moving Forward

People who know me well know that I'm a big fan of Australian Football - AFL. My suffering wife is, thankfully, supportive of the must-see 6 to 7 games per week that I usually try and watch. It works well for us at the moment that we live in Switzerland because the games are usually started and finished by mid-morning so we still have the rest of the day to devote to 'regular' weekend activities. Anyway, the team that I support has had a recent surge up the ladder and is looking like having a successful year. This has come after 3 years of dismal performances that made me glad to be away from Australia! There was a lot of pressure on the coach to resign during these dark years but he stuck to his beliefs and the results are now beginning to show. He is regularly questioned about the (relatively) quick improvement that his team has made over the past year (they went from dead last to 3rd last season). As they are sitting second on the ladder halfway through this season, the questions arise about how the coach is now guiding the team. The general feeling is that there should be some period of 'resting on one's laurels' seeing as they've put in a lot of hard work risen so quickly. The answer that the coach has been giving throughout this year is that he is always looking for continual improvement from himself and his players.

This got me thinking about my own improvement. Over the past two years at my school here in Switzerland I think I've improved in a lot of areas in a relatively short period of time. This has been due to my own initiative and being involved in as many development projects as possible, and also due to the support of my Principal and colleagues. During my first year I developed a much better understanding of curriculum and worked on improving my leadership skills. This is has served me well in my role as Team Leader as I am regularly called upon to chair grade and subject specialist meetings that involve discussions about all aspects of the curriculum. This has been an interesting area to explore and I find that the more I delve into it the more there is to discover.

This year I have been extremely lucky to have the guidance of one of the best mentors I've ever had. While I was never really a slouch at IT, our IT Co-ordinator has helped me to discover the real power behind the ways that we can use technology today and I feel like my teaching has improved dramatically as a result. Part of this rapid improvement has been due to the fact that I knew she would be leaving our school early on this year so wanted to make as best use of the remaining time as I could. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to teach with Maggie and am sure that I'll be contacting her next year at her new school with many more questions!

Recently I have been thinking about my improvement focus for next year. I have a couple of things in mind that I will address and am narrowing these down as I prepare to write my goals for next year. Earlier on this year I blogged about inquiry and analysed the facets in relation to my own teaching. Encouraging my students to problem-pose was an element that I felt I needed to improve at. With that in mind, I was happy to discover a nice graphic organiser about questioning not so long ago. I think this will be a great tool for me to enhance the questioning skills of my students next year and my prediction is that it will lead to greater problem-posing. I discovered the Question Quadrant through Twitter and also found that the author - Phil Cam - has written some books that look interesting. I created an adapted version of the Question Quadrant to trial with my current students this year and so far the results have been positive. I need to use it more in order to help the students guide, improve and answer their thinking about each type of question they pose. I'm looking forward to seeing how this will work out next year.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I-Pads for learning

This was recently released by the Victorian Education Dept. in Australia. Seeing as my grade will be piloting 1 to 1 i-pads next year I found it an interesting read.
iPads for Learning Getting Started

Friday, May 25, 2012

Maths in the Mountains

For the past three days the Grade Four students have been up in Wengen in the Bernese Oberland. We are lucky to have use of a chalet up there, which our school owns, and it is a fantastic place to visit. The trip was classed 'Mountain Maths' and the purpose was for the students to experience two and a bit days of fun and challenging maths activities that would give them the chance to showcase their problem solving and logic skills.

The goals of the trip were that:
  • ·      Everyone is challenged.
  • ·      Students return with a good experience of Chalet Bergheim.
  • ·      Students work collaboratively in different groups.

The students and teachers participated in a variety of activities and problems, including: A Knight’s Journey, Pentominoes Problem, The Giant of Wengen, Float the Boat, Code Breaking, Magic Squares, Triangle Pattern, Buy Your Lunch, Chess, Sudoku – plus many more. These were planned collaboratively by our Vice-Principle, one of our IT teachers, the class homeroom teachers and our Maths Coach. It was great to be able to call on the expertise of many different perspectives in this planning process and the result was that we were able to deliver an interesting and differentiated program for the students.

While there are improvements that could be made, overall the trip was an amazing success. We were very impressed with the students’ persistence towards the maths problems they faced, the friendship extended to the peers that they worked with and the respect shown to the Chalet Bergheim facilities. The students' interest was highlighted by the fact that many of them carried on trying to crack the problems during their free time. Another bonus of this experience was that many of the skills that the students were refining during the trip, such as collaboration, time management, dialectical thought and metacognition are transferrable across the scope of the school curriculum.

Personally, one of the best things for me (apart from the students' enjoyment) was that success in this maths experience didn't rely on a person's ability to calculate equations or complete a list of algorithms in the fastest time - although these skills are still important and helped many of the students when generating their answers. It came down to being able to think creatively, with persistence. Many students who aren't always recognised amongst their peers as being 'the good kids' at maths, or who perhaps didn't even consider themselves talented in the discipline, were able to demonstrate their knowledge. It also showed the importance of being able to apply higher level thinking skills to problems that related more closely to real life situations instead of just being able to regurgitate something that had recently been taught in class.

I'm moving to a different grade next year but, given the success of Mountain Maths this year, I hope we have an opportunity to develop something similar in my new year group. The experience for both the students and the teachers was well worth the time and effort that went into planning it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Education 2.0

I was recently shown this clever animation by Alice Acosta - summarising some key issues in education today.

An Oasis of Creativity

Over the past two weeks I've been trialling a learning experience with my students which I call Oasis Time. I've borrowed the term from John Cleese, who coined it during a lecture on creativity. You can watch a short section of it below or for the full version click here. Before I go on, however, lets be frank, Oasis Time isn't exactly a ground-breaking idea and I'm certain something similar been arranged in many classrooms around the world. I'm simply sharing a process that I have found to be effective for me. Hopefully it can also work for someone else - or they can adapt it to suit their needs.

The idea: The two goals that I based this class time on were (i) Increased motivation for my students to learn and (ii) Greater opportunities to develop and display creativity

Oasis Time essentially only has two agreements that need to be followed. 

  • As long as you try your best to follow the five conditions of creativity (outlined below), you can work on anything you wish to inquire into. 
  • At the end of the week you have to be willing to share with the rest of the class whatever it is you're currently working on. This doesn't mean you have to be finished, just willing to share your progress.

I've observed that when students have the opportunity to explore personal inquiries then they have the best chance to problem-pose, which is a common missing link in many inquiry classrooms. I also find, that for whatever reason, this is one of the most difficult skills for students to master. By exploring personal inquiries, the students are practicing problem-posing and other useful skills of inquiry (such as making connections and patterns in learning, going beyond factual information and exploring things in conceptual way and collaborating) in an authentic way. 

Throughout my teaching career I have always had the best intentions to allow my students the time to explore their own inquiries. Unfortunately these sorts of initiatives tend to be the first abandoned when time becomes limited. This is frustrating because it makes it seem like these learning experiences aren't valued as much as they probably are. By specifying a name for this time and sharing it with my students I have set up structures that everyone has a certain level of control over, and this helps ensure that Oasis Time regularly takes place. 

The 5 Conditions Of Creativity: So, in order to encourage creativity amongst my students I decided to follow five conditions outlined by Cleese in this section of his speech. As he says, these conditions won't guarantee creativity, but they can certainly help encourage it.

Space: Cleese explains that you need to create a personal space where you will be undisturbed. If you are surrounded by the everyday pressures and constraints that inevitably occur then you will most probably find it difficult to use your mind in a creative way. When managing these pressures your mind operates in a closed, systematic way. Although it can sometimes be difficult in the classroom, especially when the weather isn't suitable for making use of the outside learning environment, my students are encouraged to find a place where they can work undisturbed. This doesn't necessarily mean that they have to work independently, but they are encouraged to position themselves away from elements of the classroom that have a distracting effect on them.

Time: The first aspect of time that needs to be followed is that which refers to the amount of time spent on your creative work. Cleese recommends specifying a distinct start and finish time for your work. He says that this needs to be an extended period of time (up to an hour and a half), not just a 20 minute filler before lunch break. When you have a sustained period of uninterrupted time, in a space that we feel comfortable working in, then you're giving yourself the best opportunity to spark your creative mind into action. However, once you've set aside an extended period of time in a place that you feel comfortable working in, your mind will generally begin to think about all of the mundane things that you 'need' to do - most of which require low level cognitive processing and are things that you're familiar with. Cleese states: 

'It's easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, and it's also easier to do little things that we know we can do than to start on big things that we're not so sure about.' 

By spending the required time to push through this phase of your brain activity, you allow your brain to enter what Cleese calls the 'open-mode'. It is in this mode where creative thinking can really take effect.

Time #2: The second aspect of time refers to the amount of time that you spend allowing your mind to consider solutions to your problem or idea. It is easy to accept the first solution that presents itself when a problem is posed. However, creative people spend the time required to push through the feelings of anxiety, caused by not having 'the answer', in order to come up with an original solution to a problem. There is a powerful lesson here for students (and teachers!) in letting go of 'the known' and being prepared to remain in a state of 'unknown' in order to develop creative solutions. When we are in a state of unknown then there is generally a feeling of agitation that encompasses us and the easiest thing to do is to accept a solution, therefore removing the feeling. Many times, however, the solution you accept may not be the best one available - it is simply a means to an end. So, if you're prepared to spend the time feeling uncomfortable then you're more likely to be able to discover creative solutions to your problems or questions. Cleese mentions that he finds the most frustrating people to work with are those who feel that they need to be decisive and confident - hence accepting the first (and sometimes easiest) solutions that present themselves.

Confidence: This condition refers to the ability to be open to the possibility of being wrong - and be confident that your experimenting will lead to something creative. Cleese states that it is important to develop a mindset that ensures that, whenever you are in the creative mode, nothing is wrong. Any idea can be put on the table and explored and it is possible that by taking one of these risks it may lead to a breakthrough. In my experience, this can be one of the most difficult aspects for students to grasp. I regularly notice that the feeling of 'being wrong' or in 'the unknown' is something that many students feel uncomfortable with. This then can restrict them from taking the risks that are essential for discovering creative solutions. Developing a class environment that encourages risk-taking and where students feel at ease with the idea that there may be alternative solutions to the obvious one jumping out at them is paramount for this condition to be met.

Humour: For this condition Cleese points out that humour brings relaxation and he believes it is the single most effective factor in moving our minds from the closed mode to the open mode. He also states that humour is an essential part of spontaneity, playfulness and, therefore, creativity. He goes onto suggest that people often confuse seriousness with solemnity, and that anyone can be discussing or working on serious inquiries while still laughing - it doesn't make them any less serious.

Motivation: The second element to Oasis Time that I wanted to achieve is that of increased motivation for learning. I borrowed the idea of working-on-anything-provided-you're-willing-to-share-it from an edited speech that Dan Pink once gave. In an effort to raise the intrinsic motivation to learn amongst my students to a whole new level, I employed some of the principles that he addresses in his talk. The idea is that the students are still using the key inquiry and transdisciplinary skills that I want them to develop, but  they are using them for things that they are truly passionate about about and this will help them to see their usefulness.

Results: Although this is still a relatively new initiative in my classroom I have already seen some fantastic results. In terms of motivation to learn, Oasis Time has been a major success. My students can't wait to not only get the chance to work on their inquiries (and many have taken their learning home to continue developing), but they are also extremely enthusiastic to share their work with the class. This has been a very pleasing aspect of Oasis Time. 

There have been some creative solutions and ideas developed by the students. Some found it difficult to accept that they had totally free choice to decide what to do and needed a lot longer to get started. Initially, I saw this as a sign that they weren't prepared to take risks as much as some of the other students. However, upon reflection I considered that these particular students were putting into practice one of the key conditions - time. They weren't accepting the first idea that came into their head because they didn't think it was the right one for them. They were prepared to designate their Oasis Time to coming up with an inquiry that they felt would be interesting and meaningful for them.

As this school year sadly draws to a close, I will definitely use Oasis Time with my students next year. I'll be teaching students of a different age then so it will be interesting to see if there are any differences between the two groups. Some improvements that I'd like to make is to make sure the inquiry skills are clearly explained and discussed with the students. I would also like to develop some form of planning or reflection sheet for the students to use when they conference with me. This would give us the opportunity to consider all of the elements of inquiry that the students are using. I think it would also be interesting to set up a network of schools that are timetabling something similar to this so we could all share our ideas and successes with a wider audience.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Transforming learning

Today we are having Student-Led Conferences at my school. For those who are unsure what this process involves, the conference involves students leading their parents through evidence of their learning. The students are responsible for discussing and demonstrating their work and progress with their parents and it is an opportunity for them to report to their parents the skills and attributes they have learnt over the school year. I really enjoy this process as it allows the parents who don't always get the opportunity to get into the classroom a chance to see what has been happening. It also allows the students to demonstrate some of the understanding they've developed by taking an active role in the process. Although this isn't a time for parent meetings with the teachers, there is an expectation that the teacher will be available to welcome and acknowledge the families when they arrive.

One of the things that the students could share was the work they had been doing during Literature Circles. After discussing and reading their books over a period of 3-4 weeks, the students created a book report style presentation using an on-line tool called Wevideo. The students were introduced to the Wevideo tool as a way to contribute to the school community through the recommendation and review of the different literature they have read. As the tool is collaborative and hosted on-line, it has benefits over other movie making programs that are only hosted on a singular computer. With Wevideo the students can share resources and ideas as they create their responses. All of the groups first discussed the elements of a book review and highlighted specific aspects that would relate to their audience. One example that they came up with was that in order to keep the viewer engaged the project shouldn't be longer than 2-3 minutes. Each group then planned out what their project would consist of and the order that it would follow on storyboards. Once they were satisfied that they had identified exactly what they needed to include, and why, they were able to begin the process of creating their movie review. The movie making process involves the students selecting text, images, music and other effects to create a review of the book they had read. These movies are then going to be displayed in the Library as advertisements for the other students in the school.

During a discussion I had with one of the parents, they were referring to the Wevideo part of the process when they said 'this is really just the icing on top, wouldn't you agree?'. I had to answer that I definitely disagreed with that statement and was grateful for the opportunity to explain why I didn't hold the same perspective. If I think back to when I was in Primary School, a book review meant that I had to read a book and write a description about what the storyline consisted of, whether or not I enjoyed it and if I could choose to read any other books by the same author. This was handed into the teacher who marked it and gave it back to me. By completing the Wevideo version of this the students are still required to add their personal thoughts and opinions on their book. Additionally, they are required to consider which music, images and text best represents the book. There is a whole new layer of meta-cognitive processes being asked of them in order to produce a good book review.

Not only does this learning experience require more from the students at the cognitive level, it also provides them with an authentic audience that will be viewing their products. Recent research into neuroscience has uncovered a wealth of evidence supporting the notion that the brain learns best in context. By making the purpose of this task clear for the students, they were able to better understand the work that they were required to do.

The idea that we use Wevideo, or any form of technology, for these things simply as a way to 'prettify' students' work is misguided. Clearly there are additional and sometimes new skills and processes that are introduced with the use of technology. It is not simply enhancing the products of student learning, in many cases it is totally transforming the entire learning process. The viewpoint of technology as a 'distractor to learning' is rooted in the past. Students are responsive to technology, and learning the appropriate skills required to use it effectively are no longer a choice, they are life skills.