When thinking about outward-facing learning, what is your greatest ‘take-away’ in terms of your own professional development and personal practices?

Key Question 1:

If you know it [it = what ever you are creating] will be shared before you start, does it change how you approach the task?

Answer:

For me, yes.

Key Question 2:

Is that change positive, negative, or neutral?

Answer:

It’s a positive, mostly. To ensure an audience / reader could grasp what I’m saying in a blog post, I need to make sure my writing is clear and the ideas well articulated (as much as is in my power to do so). To do this I need to plan, synthesise, and draft all my posts. I combine ideas, I expand others, and I explore the topic of the post through the initial generative process then hone in on my main points through the drafting, cutting, and synthesizing phase.

This is a particular strength of written communication and why I assume assignments are still in (predominantly) written form: it allows a full exploration of a topic in a structured, guided, referenced manner.

But blogging is different from writing an assignment, as anyone with an internet connection could potentially stumble onto it. (Note: I still put all my assignments up online though after I get them back, just because).

Someone is able to leave a comment, to add their perspective to the issue, and therefore help take my own thinking into new directions. This means when publishing online, it’s never really publishing for good – the story is evolving and iterative. The knowledge is not static. There is rarely one right answer.

Even so, if I’m blogging, I take it seriously. Someone reading my blog (lol?) is able to get a sense of who I am professionally, what I stand for, and what I believe through each blog post. I don’t want a reader to think “he doesn’t know what he’s on about”, “this is rubbish”, or “he hasn’t done his research.” I take pride in my blogging, and I want it to show the kind of professional, reflective teacher I am.

To be honest, I also know future recruiters / schools may peruse my blog before an interview, so I want this digital reflection of my personal persona to be up to scratch.

But because of this, I’ve suffered from analysis paralysis on many occasions. The amount of blog posts I’ve thought up, planned, then shelved because I think they are not “good enough” ideas are many. Which is a shame – that many of my ideas and reflections are tucked away in an Evernote folder somewhere, not able to be shared, commented on, or connected to. Even if they are half-baked, or useless, they still should be out there – someone could stumble upon one of the thoughts or ideas I’ve published, and even though it might not resonate with them or they might think it sucks, it might propel them into other more interesting lines of inquiry.

Actually though, while my care levels are still high – I do care what people think – they seem to be diminishing with each consecutive year on this planet. You can’t please everyone, and even if you could, why should you. Perfect is the enemy of done etc. I don’t need to be a perfectionist – I need to give X task a good shot to the best of my ability in the timeframe I have allocated, then move on with life. To do otherwise is the road to stress and burnout.

So, my personal goal this year is to cultivate and practice this attitude more. Publishing my outward-facing learning need not be a big deal. I don’t need to agonise over it. I need to get it out there. Because the more teachers just “get it out there” the more nodes of knowledge there are in the world, the more connections become available, and the more transparency there is in our industry. It’s selfish to lock up ideas and reflections, wins and fails, within the four walls of your classroom.

This was my first shot.

I do not apologise for any spelling errors, run on sentences, or jumbled thinking.

 

CC0 image via unsplash.com

A compelling aspect of exploring digital literature is that, at its heart, lies the appeal of good old-fashioned storytelling. Humans are storytelling creatures. We have been for thousands upon thousands of years, predating the advent of writing. Stories helped our ancestors pass on knowledge, share history, and create meaning in a world of randomness and chaos (Delistraty, 2014). A human brain responds uniquely to a good story, the cortex lighting up as if the events or descriptions in a book were really happening. Stories are a fundamental human communication method (Widrich, 2012).

What is eminently exciting is that we are living in a time where the ways to tell a good story are expanding. Authors are no longer confined to the written word, on pages, tucked away in physical books. The rapid expansion and ongoing convergence of media forms has given us the tools to tell stories in new ways: transmedia mashups of sound, word, and video, interactive reading experiences, nonlinear pathways through texts, hyperlinking, participatory and social reading experiences, and emergent narratives shaped by the user. Although many offer suggestions (Unsworth, 2006; Lamb, 2011), these digital stories are becoming increasingly hard to categorise as forms intertwine in creative and unique ways (as discussed in this reflective blog post).

Making these developments even more revolutionary is the fact that these tools of authorship and creation are available to anyone with a device or internet connection. Authorship is democratising – anyone can be a storyteller, have an authentic audience and a meaningful voice on a world stage (Richards, 2010). This is particularly useful when considering narrative creation as a teacher; putting digital authorship tools in the hands of students, letting them create rather than only consume, is a powerful pedagogical imperative (Tapscott & Williams, 2008). The value of leveraging digital storytelling in education is strong, as it allows students to explore their inner voice, create meaning for themselves, and then share their experiences and perspectives with a wider community (Rosenthal, 2015). This can be a platform for transformative, meaningful learning allowing students multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression.

It’s important for teachers and other stakeholders to understand though, that digital literature and the tools to create digital literature should not be considered as the only option – that all reading and story creation needs to be solely digital. It’s not a case of digital OR physical, it’s a case of digital AND physical. Students need a balanced mix of media and mediums, one which a skilled teacher can traverse and draw out the unique intricacies, the pros and cons, of each (Sadokierski, 2013). The role of the teacher is to manage this pedagogical mix (as discussed in this reflective blog post).

Because there are differences here. While the message remains the same (“a good story is a good story”, as I mentioned in the Module 1.2 discussion forum) the medium it comes wrapped in requires proficiency with different literacies in order to unpack the semiotic resources entangled within the artefact (Walsh, 2013). Traditional reading literacy revolved around the decoding of text, but if we expand our notions of what reading is (and should be): “Reading is the process of constructing meaning from symbols”, we can expand reading literacy to the comprehension of visual elements, layout, sound, navigation, interactive elements, participatory networks, and even gameplay design and mechanics (Leu et al, 2011; Walsh, 2013).

Many have claimed that the partial move to digital-based stories are diluting the experience of reading – that there are too many distractions and so children (in particular) lose the hermeneutic immersion required for deep reading (James & de Kock, 2013). They are not wrong. There are many examples of digital stories which are low-quality, don’t offer the opportunity for adaptation or feedback, accessibility or usability restrictions, or contain a poor “goodness of fit” between their designed elements (Roskos et al, 2014). It’s important to also consider physical issues such as eye-strain on longer stretches of screen-based reading (Huang, 2012) and the technical limitations of going digital such as battery, internet connection, licensing, purchasing, and equitable access.

These are not reasons to avoid digital literature, though. They are considerations for teachers to face, to understand the variables, and to plan and implement carefully and with a pedagogical purpose (“complexity and all”, as I mentioned in the Module 2.3 discussion forum). Quality digital literature needs to be selected and evaluated and aligned with learning outcomes. This is often tricky in the overly curated app stores and when considering budget, DRM, and licensing issues. Alternative means of sourcing digital texts exist however via public domain, creative commons, and free for personal use literature. 

In summation, literature in digital environments contains much potential – both in the reading and the creating – for students: the amplification of voice, the connection of readers to one another, sharing perspectives and opinions, creation over consumption, developing skills and transmedia literacies, and simply enjoying the eternal joy of reading a good story. Knowledgeable teachers will be able to evaluate digital literature with a “teacherly eye”, consider it’s uniqueness, and embed it within units and learning at school effectively (an example of this can be seen in this blog post).

 


References

Delistraty, C. 2014. The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-psychological-comforts-of-storytelling/381964/

Huang, H. (2012). E-reading and e-discussion: EFL learners’ perceptions of an e-book reading program. Computer assisted language learning, 26(3).

James, R. & de Kock, L. (2013). The digital David and the Gutenberg Goliath: The rise of the ‘enhanced’ e-book, English Academy Review: Southern African Journal of English Studies, 30(1).

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.

Leu, D.J. et al (2011). The new literacies of online reading comprehension: Expanding the literacy and learning curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1).

Richards, R. (2010). Digital citizenship and Web 2.0 tools. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(2), 516-522.

Rosenthal, S.T. (2015). Digital storytelling: What it is… and… what it is NOT. Retrieved from http://langwitches.org/blog/2015/08/18/digital-storytelling-what-it-is-and-what-it-is-not

Roskos, K., Burstein, K., Yi Shang, Gray, E. (2014). Young children’s engagement with e-books at school: Does device matter? SAGE Open, 4(1).

Sadokierski, Z. (2013, November 12). What is a book in the digital age? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/what-is-a-book-in-the-digital-age-19071

Tapscott, D., & Williams, A. D. (2008). Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything. Penguin.

Unsworth, L. (2006). E-literature for children: Enhancing digital literacy learning. Taylor & Francis.

Walsh, M. (2013). Literature in a digital environment (Ch. 13). In L. McDonald (Ed.), A literature companion for teachers. Marrickville, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA).

Widrich, 7. 2012. The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains. Retrieved from http://lifehacker.com/5965703/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains

Modern Learning. What is it? Is it even a thing? Are we to say all learning that’s not happening now is not modern and therefore not as good?

Rubbish.

Here’s something: modern learning ain’t the furniture. It ain’t the devices. It’s ain’t the amount of 20% time you give your students.

It’s much more than the environment, the apps, the beanbags, the 3D printer, the interactive books, the e-newsletter, and the paperless records.

It’s about the learning. Good old learning. Good old solid old learning. Good old solid old hard-yakka learning.

It’s about maximising the learning opportunities that a student encounters. It’s about developing understandings of the world. It revels in holistic, authentic, complex contexts. It is dispositional and reflective. It’s collaborative. It’s worldwide and connected. It prepares students for their future – and yip, you know what – that means learning how to get by in our education system as well as the world they are growing up in, digital and otherwise. Modern learning is in the moments – those times when the teacher / student relationship is challenging yet supportive, providing guidance when the times get tough. It’s about providing students the chance to play and tinker and find their talents. It’s based on research as well as hunches. It’s hugely personal. It’s hard work for all involved.

It’s about heaps of other stuff I haven’t even thought of / come across / do yet.

Why then is the acronym ‘MLE’ so pervasive? The environment is a piece of the puzzle, for sure, but it’s not the whole puzzle. You can have a stunningly new environment, but not be a place where great teaching and learning happens and likewise, you can be in an old-school building and still provide those students with a meaningful, effective, freakin’ fantastic education.

In saying that, when an environment as well as a teaching and learning approach are running in tandem, good things can happen. Spaces can have an impact, but only when they are used critically and purposefully to enhance effective pedagogy, relationships, and student agency. The spaces and the things in those spaces and the things those spaces allow become tools in a battery of ways that learning experiences find fertile ground to emerge from.

What follows is a few lessons we’ve stumbled upon in our four years exploring what learning can be like in one of these ‘Modern Learning Environments’. It’s always changing though, and always up for discussion, so they’ll probably be different next month. That’s OK though – it’s part of the game: always changing, always based upon the students, the current research, and the current passions of the teachers. I’m not saying these things are universal, or they will work for you, or even if they are really working for us – just things which feel right and that seem to be going well lately. They are probably more structural than pedagogical, but they’re something, at the very least. Many of you will be doing this stuff already too – I’m not claiming any unique knowledge.

So, some current rules of thumb:

1) Integrate reading, writing, and inquiry

Reading and writing and inquiry flow in and through each other. They are so interrelated and can build on and support each other. This grows strengthens understanding across all sectors. We have termly inquiries where big ideas frame students’ personal investigations, and our literacy falls out of these – we don’t even call it reading or writing, just the name of the big understanding for that term. Integrating maths is on our to-do list, but this is slightly more complex – a work in progress.

2) Only work with groups of students / individual students whom need that particular learning experience

This means knowing your students at a fine-grained level, across a range of skills, knowledge and competencies. We use a web-based tracking system called the Amesbury Learning Framework which breaks down the core learning areas across the years. Teachers and more importantly students upload evidence to show they are meeting specific criteria. A student can be both a traditional Year 8 in one area, a Year 6 in another, and a Year 3 in another. This also helps us form targeted groups from a wide range of students. Students can “use their feet” if they feel they already know the material.

3) Talk less, way less

Let the students work the hard parts. Stop waffling. Be succinct (but this requires you know your stuff). Delineate your instruction – is it a nugget of knowledge you want students to learn, is it practising the application of the knowledge, or is it self-directed / independent learning time?

4) Team teach

Team teaching allows a number of things. It means not every teacher needs to be teaching – a teacher can be “roaming” supervising independent students. It allows flexible, needs-based grouping regardless of year level. It allows students to work with a wide range of students and be challenged or supported as necessary. It allows teachers to work together as a unit and learn from each other. It lets you be efficient with planning. It models effective (mostly!) adult relationships for students. It lets you have close, deep learning discussions with one particular student or massive collaborative discussions with 100 of them.

5) Independent Time

What are students doing when they are not with you? Cutting down on instructional / waffle time means students have more time for independent / collaborative time. When students are not in a workshop with a teacher they can be following a Must Do / Can Do set of tasks targeted personally to them by their particular subject teachers. Students have the ability to choose how long to concentrate on a certain task, and which ones to do and in what order. They have time, too, to follow their own passions. Because we team teach, these students can be supervised and supported as necessary. And yip – students will make the wrong choices all the time, but this is a rich opportunity for learning and if that’s not what school is for then what is? Reflective conversations abound in this environment.

6) Keep the doors open

Be open and transparent. It’s confronting at first, as a teacher, but there is so much learning to be had. Students can then choose the best places and spaces which work for them as learners too.

7) Go online and offline

Be critical about the whole IT thing. Don’t force it. Know when offline beats online (hint: it’s quite often).

8) Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water

Education isn’t new. Being a “21st Century School” means taking what we have learned from the past and moulding it with what we know now, not completely reinventing the wheel. Much of what worked 40 years ago still works today (albeit slightly more quickly, personalised, and connected!).

 

So, a nonexhaustive list of a few lessons we’ve learned along the way.

School should be a place to maximise the learning experiences students encounter (whether teacher led or student led). It’s about the teaching / learning relationship. It’s about being open and transparent and helping each other. It’s about growing dispositions as much as knowledge and skills.

A ‘Modern Learning Environment’ isn’t just about the environment.

Heck, it isn’t the modern part either.

It’s about the learning.

Good old solid old hard-yakka learning.

 

1st February, 2015 || Day One || 2:45pm

A premortem is a “what might go wrong” thinking prompt for teams at the very start of a project. Teams can use it to air out all their grievances and issues and reservations in a safe, structured way. It helps teams identify risks at the outset of an undertaking instead of getting deep within a project, investing time and money, and then having to confront the issues / attitudes.

So,

This is my #28daysofwriting premortem

Reservation: Time. Resolution: Make time. I’ve got a weekday time to blog – right after I put my 2 year old to bed. I’m sorry 7:00pm current affairs show – you’re just going to have to be on mute for a bit.

Reservation: Ideas. Resolution: Think ahead. I’ve been noting down interesting bits and bob, half-hunches, and scribbles of ideas over the last few days. I’m going to make a regular “segments” (if that is the right word) – for example I’m going to reanimate an idea I had a while back called “Friday Takeaways” where I reflect on the week. Kiwis love our Friday takeaways.

Reservation: Perfectionism. Resolution: Just Do It. I’ve probably ummed and ahhed over ideas and never actually removed them from the space between my ears and into reality too many times. I’m going to write stuff down, get it out there in the wild, and care less about crafting the perfect paragraph. Good start with that today.

Those are probably my top three worries about this month, however, even in writing them down and thinking about solutions in the last 16 minutes, I’m feeling confident and excited about the month to come.

28 Days Later…

I’m going to have doubled the amount of posts I’ve ever written (I’ve only ever done 27! Eeek!)

I’m going to have developed a writing habit – something I’ve always wanted but never quite had

I’m going to be a more reflective educator

I’m going to have shared more – what works, what doesn’t, and what’s challenging in education in 2015

I’m going to have connected and learned with / from a whole gaggle of other legendary teacher-types

 

And those are all good things.

Thanks muchly to Tom Barrett for the prompt into this month. I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into the challenge.

1st February, 2015 || Day One || 3:13pm

CC Image by WarfyrdauzwaR

This is the second half of a design thinking process I’ve been grappling with recently.

The TL;DR of Phase 1 is: I noticed our students were struggling to find places and spaces with which to get some peace and quiet for focused independent work. I introduced “Flow Signs” and “Quiet Tents” into our learning spaces.

See the post on Phase 1 for more details.


So, the tents were up and the signs were out. It was show time!

The first day was all go – we had students sitting around outside the tents waiting for their turn, chatting, not getting much work done, disturbing those within. We had clashes and arguments as students ran to secure a flow sign. We had flow signs mysteriously go walk-about if someone dared to let it out of their sight. It was all on!

Gradually though as the shininess of the new toys wore off, the students began to use them more appropriately.

During the first few weeks, anecdotally, we noticed some small changes. Perhaps the most stand-out effect was that certain students – a few of those students who would normally be surrounded by their peers, were choosing to use the signs. This was interesting – these students were beginning to make better decisions for their learning, instead of just reverting to a style which didn’t always suit the task.

Perhaps it’s important at this stage to note that I’m not saying that group work / collaborative work is less desired than independent work. What is important (I think) is that students can choose where, who with, and when they do their work flexibly – that they have the mindset to be able to tell themselves “Righto – I wonder what strategy my friend is using for this maths problem” V “Righto – I just need a bit of quiet time to finish off this email.” It’s my position (and I’ll attempt to back it up via some research in my next blog) that there are tasks that are better suited to independent work and tasks that are better suited to collaborative work. There will be many grey areas, sure, but I think a case could be made for this. We’ll see!

Anyway – the signs and tents were popular. They were in use throughout the day. A range of students were using them, although to be fair, probably more from Year 3 – 5 than Year 6. Whether or not it was related, the hub started feeling calmer than it had been. Teachers reported a downturn in off-task behaviour, resulting in more time available for 1:1 conferencing. Some students who were regularly missing deadlines began to hand in their work more often.

There were some unexpected uses of the signs too. Pairs or small groups of students were using one sign for their group (begging the question, can groups of people be “in flow”) and pairs, not individuals, were using the tents as quiet discussion areas.

As a side note here, this led me to consider the nature of Thornburg’s “Cave” space. A cave is a secluded, isolated place that enables deep, reflective learning to occur. What seemed to be happening was that students were making their own caves, without any actual cave. It was more a ‘cave mindset’ they were pulling into being. I wonder then, if a cave can be something more than an actual space, but more a state of mind one puts themselves into to enable cave-type thinking and learning.

In addition, the Flow Signs were being used not only to signal others that they were not to be distracted, but as prompts for the users themselves that it was time to get down to some serious work. A student would make a conscious decision to pick up and use a Flow Sign, therefore choosing to do work. This then put themselves in the right frame of mind to focus, recall information and instructions, and produce new work.

As a hub, we had a couple of conversations about how to use the signs and the tents – what they were for, and when to use them. We pitched the signs as “bubbles” around you, your own little cave where you can focus and get some work done. We talked about flow and what it feels like to be in that state. We had 1:1 conversations with students about how they were finding the signs and tents, and they popped up quite frequently in the students’ weekly reflections. This communication, we felt, was needed in order to help guide the students to get the maximum potential out of the signs and tents, and in order for the ones that were not particularly interested in them to understand it was important to respect those for whom they were important.

From a teachers perspective, they seemed to be doing the trick, or at least contributing towards doing the trick.

It was at this stage I progressed the project in two further ways. I started gathering hard data using a hub-wide survey and interviews, and I began iterating on my first prototype of the signs.

I’ll start with the data gathering. It was an attempt to move from my anecdotal, gut feelings – the heuristics of the situation – into a more algorithmic approach to gauging the impact. You can only go so far on anecdote and personal observations – at some stage you need objective, honest feedback in order to move forward.

Here are some of the results:

Some statements:

  • Approximately 80% of the hub were using the tents and signs in an average week
  • 60% though still reported being interrupted by others when using them
  • 18% reported getting “HEAPS more” work completed when using the sings and tents
  • 85% reported getting more work done in general
  • 69% reported there were now an “OK amount of places” with which to find some peace and quiet
  • 23% said there were still not enough focus zones

In addition, the written feedback portion of the survey produced some illuminating statements:

What is one thing about the Flow Signs or Quiet Tents that is good for your learning?

“One thing I like about the signs and tents is that you can move away and get into your own space if needed.I get more work done this way with hardly any distractions.”

“One good thing for my learning is the flow signs because you can go and get one when you need it and don’t have to go and ask a teacher every single time.”

“They show the person on the outside that they need to give you your space.”

“It will get people to not ask you anything because you’re in the flow, and we get more work finished than normal so you are 2x as fast as you normally work.”

“So why I like this is because you get quick sometimes and you don’t really get distracted so you just look at your computer so you don’t really care about anything when you go into the tent or the magical bubble that’s invisible.”

“One thing is that it creates a bubble around you and nobody can pop it.”

Are people using them properly? How could we make them better?

“I think people are using them properly. Maybe we could have more?”

“You could make them better by having a couple of pillows in the tent because the ground is quite hard especially on the lino.”

“I think people are using them properly.But a lot of people go in corners because they still think someone is going to bother them.”

“People talk while using them and I think there is no point of having sitting next to a buddy and talking because you ain’t actually using it probably”

“Yes. We can make them better by saying “please give me some time.”

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about the Flow Signs, Quiet Tents or finding quiet places to work?

“The flow signs don’t create bubbles because people ignore it and just talk OR They don’t see the signs because they are on the ground so they just talk.”

“The tents people keep asking you what are you doing whose in there and that’s annoying.”

“Some people just lean on the tent or hit the tent and tents are LOUD when that happens.”

“When I try to concentrate my friends start to talk then I forget all about everything.”

Some excellent student feedback for making the signs and tents even better! Here are some summary next steps / thoughts:

*It seems that while the signs and tents are being used, there are still substantial issues with other students not respecting the fact that others want some “alone time”.

*Perhaps increasing the amount of tents (there are only two) would provide just those few more spaces which students are requesting

*Pillows / blankets in the tents is a great idea, and would lead to them becoming more inviting and comfortable

*Ongoing education / chats are needed to so students are clear they can’t disturb others using the signs / tents

*Continued thinking / observation around groups using the signs and tents

Iterations

At the same time as I gathered the above feedback, I made some small changes to the signs.

1) I realised the back of the signs – the side facing the students – were blank. A missed opportunity for further communication! I added a blue side to the back saying “It’s up to you now! Focus, think, problem solve” and changed the wording of the front a little bit for clarification. I also moved up the text a few centimetres as the metal of the cafe number holder obscured the view of the words at the bottom.

Prototype 2

2) I added some posters around the hub showing a student using a sign, with a bubble drawn around them, stating that when you see someone with a sign, don’t pop their bubble.

3) Another teacher in the hub came up with some further ideas to extend the quiet zones into other areas. We stipulated the staffroom and board room, in particular, as places where you could go for quiet work. Because it’s not in the direct 24/7 observation path of teachers, we needed to rely on students using these spaces properly and independently. To help with this, we laminated up cards to place on the wall in these spaces – the cards acting like the yellow and red cards a football referee has. If a student was to start chatting with friends in one of these spaces, another student could show them the card (as a first warning) and then show it again if the talking continues, at which point they would go back into the main hub. The cards have only been used a few times in three weeks so far!

So that is where the project currently stands. My next steps are more rounds of feedback and iterations to improve the system, and some more professional research and reading to answer some of the questions which have been raised as a result of going through this process.

Further critical questions I’ll look into:

Does “quietness” necessarily mean good learning? Does a “learning hum” necessarily mean there is collaboration happening?

Is the level of noise or distraction the big influence at play here, or rather the ability to filter that noise or distraction? Is the space or the mindset?

What effect does the routine of using a sign or a tent have on the learning one can accomplish? Does just the simple act of stepping into a tent or putting up a sign trigger some kind of creative / focused state of mind?

Are there certain tasks that are done “better” when alone or “better” together?

How much guidance do children need when introducing something like this? Is it a case of set-and-forget?

Resources

Link to Flow Sign printable