Returning to the task

amaranth seeds and chaff

Sowing the seeds of life-long learning. Amaranth seeds and chaff, by blurdom

It has clearly been far too long since I took up writing on this blog. The reasons are common, and the reasons are not worth belabouring to any great extent. Suffice it to say: new year, new school, new responsibilities and a lack of commitment on my part. So the next question to ask might be: well why are you writing again? A good question and one that I hope to answer over the next year or so as my colleagues in the social studies department and I embark on a new plan: creating an environment that supports and fosters inquiry-based learning for our students.

I began this adventure a few weeks ago when I had the chance to hear from a colleague who was working on implementing this process in his classes. He gave me the inspiration to undertake the project. I listened to what he talked about and I thought that he was giving his students the skills and talents necessary for the future. As many people have pointed out what we need is students to have the ability to access knowledge and learn how to make use of that knowledge as opposed to merely being the accumulators of knowledge (and it should be pointed out often knowledge that is only retained for a brief period).

So after being suitably inspired I asked my principal if I could invite him to come out and speak to us and if we could set up a day for our department to discuss these ideas. With her encouragement I invited my colleague and the discussion that he led inspired us in the morning and gave us more things to think about in the afternoon when we had time to consider it for ourselves. As a group we agreed that this is most definitely the way that we would like to teach and frankly we want to do something better than what we are currently doing. Having made this step we all had to consider what are some of the challenges that we may face. The challenges vary from the availability of technology, challenges to students who need extra help and the reaction of the school community to these ideas. There is much research to be done and much thinking to occur, but I am thrilled to be working with such a dynamic group of individuals. We believe that this might revolutionize not just our classes at the grade ten level (which is where we’re starting) but all of our social studies classes.

To begin with we decided that we needed to come up with something that outlines the skills that we want all students to learn. Whether that’s being able to ask good questions, looking for issues, proper referencing, different applications for working on projects or presentation these are some of the things that we think all students would benefit from exposure level. We will be developing those over the next few months.

So in the future this blog will be the home for our departmental work in developing this new approach. We know it will be a trip well worth it.

A sea of conversation

Ocean Closed Marty Desilets Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No Derivative Works

This is part of a phrase that one of my colleagues mentioned to me sometime ago and it has been floating in my mind ever since.  The whole phrase was actually: Learning occurs on a sea a conversation, and I think it totally encapsulates what we should be doing as teachers.  It’s really just an extension of the idea that all learning is really social.  It is however something that I think I have lost sight of in my desire to push ‘content’ I have lost this, and it is really beginning to bug me.  In my mind the ‘sea’ of conversation in my class has not been very open.   I am becoming more and more convinced that my students are leaving my class and with a quick brain dump are not long in possession of what I hope that they learn.  So I am resolving that I need to bring the conversation back into my social studies class.  It’s not like I’ve totally ignored asking questions, it’s just that I think I haven’t done a very good job ensuring that students (all of them) are learning something.  I know this seems like such an obvious statement, but I think it boils down a realization that there are things that I can do about this.  It especially hurts when I think of the fact that I am teaching one of the most resource rich subjects that exists.  I am literally teaching something which pretty much has a direct application from the real world almost every day.

So this means that I am on the hunt for new ways to engage my students in this conversation and also to try and make it more authentic for my students.  Of course I have tried to encourage my students to follow the news, and bring questions to class, but as I have mentioned I don’t think this has been effective.  This is where the idea of technology as a tool to achieve something great.  I want my students to engage in conversations within and outside of the class, but not just with people that they might know, but with people they might meet on Skype, or who would respond to a blog post.  It’s time, I no longer want my ‘ocean’ to be closed, I want my sea of conversation to flow easily.

Just a little tidbit

Nokia N97 and iPhone 3GS

via William Hook, flickr,, Creative Commons, attribution

A while back I wrote about filters and the way that they have been used in schools. I ended my rant with a comment about how maybe the whole filter things might be becoming irrelevant anyway. Today gave me an example of that. A colleague of mine had to forward some information to a group of students before he talked to them about it, so he forwarded it to their e-mail accounts. Within a short while (less than 15 minutes) he went to talk to them only to discover that most of them had already read the e-mail on their phones. No need to access the school’s network to get that information. Seems to me that if we don’t get these students more access through our systems soon they’ll just go around it and that leaves me wondering how some people are going to deal with that.  If you really want to see great insight into this idea you should go to David Truss’ presentation on PODs in the classroom that he did for BLC 09.  It’s one of my favourites.

Filters and other annoyances (well actually only filters)

This idea has been rolling around in my head for the last few weeks.  I have been trying to figure out how to write this with a feeling of anything less than sheer and utter frustration.  It is mainly because my friend Cynthia wrote me an e-mail on Friday asking me to describe what our filtering system is like that I’ve been provoked into action.  Clearly filters are an issue about which many of us in the blogosphere have written long and sometimes distressing entries.  I have no intention of rehashing that although I think that you should visit the following blogs from David Truss’ entries here and here to get an idea, although there are many more!  Beyond the fact that they are a reactive approach to controlling students web activities, rather than a proactive approach to the problem, I’m frustrated because ours really don’t seem to work all that well, and if we’re going to use them (as some educational directors resolutely maintain), shouldn’t they actually work?

They’re not very accurate.

First off let me say that I do understand that sometime and for some things there is a need to put in some form of restriction.  What I can’t figure out is why we don’t think about the sites that we block.  Maybe there should be some considered thought put into the reasons why something gets blocked rather than why they should be unblocked.

One reason why I would argue this is because I have seen a few sites blocked by the masters of the filters (whomever these people are) that simply have no reason being blocked.  Earlier this year one of my colleagues was doing a project that he had been doing for a couple of years on the topic of dictatorships.  He had his students use a website ‘the Dictator of the Month‘ which suddenly and inexplicably this year came up as inaccessible.  When I looked into it, it said that it was because it was obscene/tasteless.  What I would like to know is who decided this?  I mean I understand that it isn’t exactly the greatest website (in fact it has not been updated recently), but really obscene/tasteless?  I was able to get it unblocked, but when I asked why it was blocked, I was told that it was probably because of a mathematical algorithm.  I really didn’t get it, and still while I sit here looking at it I don’t get it.  It is my shining example of why the people who are doing the filtering are not doing the right job.  Some might say that this is a rare occurrence but I can remember a couple of times in the past few years where I had students working on World War II projects and the sites would come up inexplicably blocked.

Another reason why our particular filter bothers me is the fact that it has a strange aversion to feeds.  I have been trying to use Edmodo for my social studies class, but one of the things that I wanted to do was build up a collection of feeds, but whenever I have set one up I have found them blocked.  There is a note about advertising/banner ads, but I’m not sure how that applies to my feed.

I have been told by some colleagues that teach mathematics that the filters have an itchy trigger finger for sites even remotely related to probability, apparently they are freaked out by gambling.  Is this a good thing for our students?

Exactly how much time we have spent trying to correct this idiocies is not clear, but it makes me wonder if these are good value for the money.

Students get around them too easily

If they were effective students wouldn’t be able to get around them.  Only they do on a very regular basis.  I have seen all sorts of students on websites that they shouldn’t be.  Students shouldn’t be on Facebook (that’s a debate for another entry), but there they are.  They shouldn’t be on shooter games, yet I found one student playing a game called ‘Sniper Assassin’ apparently without even having to bother with trying to find a proxy to bypass the filter.  They also shouldn’t be on proxies but they are there as well.  I don’t know how many people in schools that have 3G phones, but I would say a lot of students do.  How effective is a filter at blocking 3G cell phone towers?  If I tell a student they can’t do something on one of the school computers, well that’s why they have a mini-computer in their pocket that doubles as a phone.

What’s worse is that these often block the teachers from accessing the most up-to-date or most useful information.  I had a colleague who was regaling me with how the filters ‘worked’ at his school, finally one day after expressing this frustration to a class, a student volunteered to help him access what he wanted.  This one time he agreed, and the student leaped over the filter and had the information inside of ten seconds.  While I may question the speed reported in the story, I have no doubt as to its general validity.  Again how is it that filters are supposed to work again?

Lastly I would point out that the Chinese government has tried desperately to erect an Internet filter, and with all the resources of the state behind it, it apparently doesn’t work well.

A final rant

This whole rant leaves aside the most important problems with filters that they are the wrong approach to the problem.  I guess what I have been dealing with is the fact that if you are a supporter of filters then they should work and work properly.  But the fact is they don’t, and that as technology marches forward they will become increasingly useless (there’s that 3G or 4G or whatever).  What frustrates me probably more than anything is the fact that no one in a position of power seems willing to have a frank and open discussion about this.  This last week the Calgary Board of Education announced that students would be able to use their cell phones in class, but they said that they would still control the websites the students had access to (make sure to read the corrections at the bottom).  Seems a trifle over-optimistic if you ask me.