Being connected

Thank you

There are many who may disagree, but one of the things that I have really liked this year has been then ease with which my students have been e-mailing me. There are some I believe that would say that they appreciate their privacy and while I understand that, I also know that the 10 seconds to two minutes that it may take me to answer an e-mail can be the difference between a student who is very concerned about something, and a student who feels that they can now tackle a problem. This weekend has been especially busy as a large number of my students have a very large assignment due Monday, and so I have answered over 20 questions already today from them. Was this an interruption to my day? Not really, I answered at all times, when I had a few minutes or a few seconds to give them, but never when I was spending time with the people that matter in my life or doing the things I like. So while I know there are more to come today and tomorrow, I was happy to receive this message from one of my students on her e-mails, it also reminded me that while I may be e-mailing them, they are all on Facebook behind the scenes talking about everything that’s going on.

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Don’t try and hide!

'Hidden Intersection' photo (c) 2010, Hugh Lee - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/I had a really interesting conversation with a student today. I had my students working in groups and as I was discussing with one group how useful Twitter was for staying up with current events one student looked at me and said : “You know Mr. MacCollum, I Googled you before the year began. I found your Twitter feed. I Googled all my teachers before the year began.”

One of the other students said: “That’s creepy.”

The first student responded with: “No it’s not, I wanted to know about who was teaching me this year.” Then they explained how they knew a lot about me before hand and how that made them really excited about starting class.

So who’s right here? Is it creepy? Or does it help relieve stress for some by knowing who’s going to be their teacher?

I think the second one. I built up my Google profile in part with this in mind, although admittedly I didn’t expect this to happen. It reminded me though that you can either control what is out there about you, or you can leave it up to the rest of the ‘net to decide. I’m glad I chose to define myself, for at least this one student (and maybe more) it made helped them more comfortable coming into my class. For those who haven’t considered writing a Google profile, consider that you control the content, not somebody else. This is the reality of the students that we are now teaching.

Guilty as charged – now what?

Cucciolo colpevole- Guilty puppyphoto © 2008 Mauro | more info (via: Wylio)
A couple of days ago I wrote about my questions about what we are trying to do as an education collective. Then I started reflecting on what I know, and what I’ve been doing. Then I read The Innovative Educator – Lisa Nielsen’s wonderful entry on engaging students. And I have something to confess: I am guilty, guilty of everything that she suggests in her blog. The only thing I can say to mitigate it I am not guilty of everything all at once, but I am certainly guilty of all of them at some time or another.

I have been guilty of these in the past, and I am guilty of some of them still today. I hope that I will not be guilty of them in the future, but I have to admit it is hard to let go.

It is hard to let go of everything that I have been, and have learned. It is hard to see new ways of doing things when the things I used in the past kind of worked.

So what do I do? Well I take into account that I do have some skills when it comes to teaching. I keep up my efforts at trying to integrate technology into my classroom, and I will continue to work with what the kids bring as opposed to an outright ban on things, which as Lisa points out in her blog, is the easy way out.

A few days ago I wrote about some of the problems that I see as an education collective, I have to also say that there are a lot of failings that I am working on as an individual.

Blown hard against the rocks…

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post for the last couple of days.  We had a school professional development day on Friday.  It was, I thought, a very good day and one that included some wonderful elements.  Even my presentation on web 2.0 went well, although I wish it would have been better attended, but it’s a difficult concept for some to wrap their heads around, and the way it was set up, everyone could really only make one choice.  Much of what interested me however, was what happened in our morning session where we were looking at what we need to do to tackle reform in education.  I am continually encouraged when it comes to the way we are approaching education reform in my world (understanding that there may be some rose-coloured glasses involved because it’s what I earnestly hope for).  First off we watched Sir Ken Robinson’s wonderful RSAnimate video on shifting education paradigms.  A video which, even though it’s been made available in plethora of locations I think it’s worth embedding here, again.

What heartened me was the general reaction of so many who saw the video that really Sir Ken brings forward some awesomely powerful arguments.  That so many really want to buy into what he has to say.  It reminded me of how much more powerfully change can be affected with the use of things like YouTube.  Sir Ken certainly brings vitality to the education ‘reform’ debate, and the web allows us to be affected by what he says much more immediately than we might have been in the past.  Certainly there is no need for schools or other institutions to go spend thousands (tens of thousands?) of dollars to be powerfully impacted by people like him.  I also noted that even our province’s website that is advocating a discussion in education reform has Sir Ken’s speech embedded in it.

Not everything is rosy however, I guess nothing ever is.  It was driven home for me again today when I read Dr. Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant post from Thursday.  The points that Dr. McLeod enumerated for why we are not changing included this one comment about teachers who feel they cannot change:

believe they can’t because of “the tests” (a claim for which I’m skeptical for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that we already did low-level instruction with kids before “the tests”)

This point of view was of course in evidence although certainly with many variations of the theme.  So what to do?  Do we just keep going around and around in a circle chasing our tail or do we actually try and make a difference?

Ultimately I believe that Sir Ken argues that the structure criticized by Dr. McLeod is not necessarily our fault it has just happened over a period of time much longer than any of us have been alive.  That our system was originally designed for some very different purpose than what it is now being used for.  I am now convinced more than ever that we, the teachers, who are in the front line need to follow the pathfinders we already have in our midst and figure out how we can move in a direction of more engagement and a more diverse approach to education.

  • Will it be easy? – Not by a long shot.
  • Will it be messy? – Absolutely!
  • Do we have a choice? – I believe we do not!

We can try and wait for those in charge to lead us, but we could be waiting a long time.  Let’s not let these winds of reform get blown hard against the rocks like so many attempts before have been. With modern technology and people like Sir Ken Robinson advocating for change, we might just have a chance.

Just as long as no one mentions money (uggh).

Daniel Pink and the Science of Motivation

In my post from two weeks ago I talked a little bit about what would make a difference for teachers and their use of technology, after I was done I went back to one of my favourite TED talks, where Daniel Pink talks about the science of motivation.  I believe that what he has to say applies not only to us as the professionals, but also to our classrooms.

I keep on coming back to this because it makes me think about my classroom.  Am I not rewarding my students with simple rewards like grades in a very complex environment?  I cannot help but coming back with an affirmative answer.  Is this limiting what my students are willing to do to learn things, because they have been conditioned that it is only the mark that matters at the end?  This definitely dovetails with what Alfie Kohn was writing about on January 28th where he was discussing the brave educators who had eliminated grades from their schools or classes.  It seems to make sense that when people are faced with more complex ideas, and certainly learning in any manner beyond rote learning, is very complex, they are motivated to do better when the rewards are less tangible.

It also applies to us as professionals.  I have been doing a lot of reading recently about the plans among some jurisdictions in the United States to tie teacher’s evaluations with test results either to reward or punish them.  After watching Pink’s video one would have to wonder if this is the right approach.  I think that Pink’s assessment that for industrial style work, the kind of learning that we’ve been practicing in our schools for the better part of its existence it may indeed provide that push.  But, is that really what we want for our students?  I would argue that if we really want to better our students and ourselves over the long-term the use of standardized tests in this fashion is the last thing we should be doing.  Ultimately we need to do better in a lot of ways, but there has to be something better than this simplistic approach.

Technology and teachers

I would like to make a correction from my last post, and I think it is an important point.  Teachers are really not techno-phobic, many of us have been very good at accepting and using computers in our own lives and even to do some of the record keeping at school.  The problem as has been pointed out, has been the transference of that technology into our teaching.  Today I read Bill Ferriter’s post on the Tempered Radical, and it is a brilliant post about what happens to teachers when faced with trying to adapt to something new.  Apparently he stirred some feathers with his brilliant attack on the way interactive whiteboards (IWB) are used in the classroom, and one of the responses was from someone who accused him of not being willing to adapt.  Beyond this person totally missing the point about IWBs in the classroom, it obviously got Bill’s back up and he wrote a brilliant piece about why teachers, and anyone for that matter, approach things cautiously.  He argues that teachers simply don’t see enough benefits from changing: “…they weigh the perceived benefits of new interactions against the perceived mental and physical demands before changing….”  I think this really encapsulates what anyone does.  One of the things that I have just experienced is the realization that with a standardized test at the end of a course it becomes increasingly impossible to vary dramatically from the themes therein.  There is no place on our final exams for students to show how they can use their research skills, so even though it might be written into our curricula, it seems hard to be motivated to teach it.  What will happen at the end of the year when students in different classes compare ‘notes’ and discover that one of them was in a class where all they did was drill for the exam and another was in a class where time was ‘wasted’ on doing a research project?  I understand that it is not that simple, but is it seen that way by those around us, our administrators, parents, and other forces demanding accountability and ‘back to basics’?  Nonetheless I am going to stick to my plan to be more adventurous with my course that I start teaching on Monday, because if I don’t try, who will?  I understand what the end of the course will bring, but I need to hope that my efforts will do more than help prepare my students for ‘the exam’ but that they will also prepare them for life.  By introducing them to web 2.0 tools and other approaches to learning maybe I can have a longer lasting effect.  As Bill notes near the end of his piece, he was ready to give up on collaboration because it was so difficult, yet he persevered and discovered that often initial change comes at low cost.  This is where I am today, I looking to try and bring that sort of low-cost change to my school.  If you have never read the Tempered Radical, I highly recommend it, it has been one of my best discoveries of the last month.