Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Creating a Learning Adventure for Teachers

"The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct..." Carl Jung
Our professional learning focus for this school year has been STRETCH; exploring how we can creatively differentiate teaching and learning to ensure all students reach their potential. We've spent much time discussing what this might look like in our inquiry-based programme and the role technology plays in the development of engaging, relevant and challenging learning experiences for our students. Throughout the year we have had opportunities to discuss these ideas, even arranging for all staff to take a week long course on gifted education and higher order thinking. As we began planning for our latest pedagogical development day, we knew we wanted to create learning experiences for our teachers that would put many of the ideas previously discussed into action.

I had recently read a post by Carl Hooker about Making Learning Fun Again - Even for Adults on Edutopia. In it he describes the concept of 'Interactive Learning Challenges' that he used at a learning festival (as opposed to a conference) to replace the traditional lecture driven sessions. These challenges promote collaborative problem solving, creative and critical thinking, as well as authentic integration of technology - a perfect fit for what we are striving to illustrate for our staff development day.

Using this model, we planned our day as a learning adventure. We created a series of open-ended challenges that staff teams would have a set amount of time to solve. Each challenge had an element of technology embedded, either as an optional extension or a core component. The week before the development day, we had all participants identify their comfort level with technology integration on a continuum and this information helped us with the creation of the teams. We wanted people to have an opportunity to collaborate with members of staff they do not normally have a chance to work with in order to continue building relationships and potential curricular connections.

On the big day we all came together to highlight the aims of the development day and share the logistics. We structured the time at each challenge to mimic our typical school day, asking teams to allow for group reflection at the conclusion of each task. The teams of 4 were unveiled, given a 'tool kit' with an iPad and a digital camera and set out to find their starting place by locating and scanning their unique QR code.

It was an exciting day and action-packed day. Teams had a great deal of fun, as well as moments of frustration, but the genuine problem-solving and authentic integration of technology was clearly evident. It was a day of learning. It was a day of Stretch - trying new things and leaving our comfort zones, as can be seen in the tweets shared during the challenges throughout the day.

When we asked the teachers for feedback about this new approach to staff development the responses were very positive.
"It was an enjoyable day.  The group I was put in allowed me to get to know two members of staff who I didn't know very well yet and had not worked with.
"...the Twitter idea was fun and it was interesting to see other group's photo and thoughts through the day.
"I think had we not been prompted by a guided reflection it would have been dropped all together and on least one occasion our reflection from the previous task help in the next.
"I liked the format of the day a lot. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with people I don't always get to collaborate with and to be challenged to think creatively. It was very intense!"
More importantly, the experience of our Interactive Learning Challenges has prompted teachers to consider their own practice and thus, will have an impact on students' learning.
"I will allow the students to spend more time reflecting and time to think."   
"[I have] more sympathy for students who are not in comfort zone but will actually insist more on them finding out for selves as very good for you if a little painful.
"I will think about the timing of activities and about the expectations we place on students to quickly switch from one activity to another.
"Try to use more technology, in more creative ways in my teaching."
If you are considering a new approach to your next professional development day, I would whole-heartedly encourage you to give this a try. It may have taken a great deal of time to create our learning adventure, but the rewards are well worth the effort.


Friday, March 06, 2015

The Third Teacher: Creating effective spaces for learning

"In brief, the environment consists of those conditions that promote or hinder, stimulate or inhibit, the characteristic activities of a living being." ~ John Dewey
I have always valued the creation learning spaces that best suit the needs of students and a community of learners. I remember when I first began teaching, sitting in my empty classroom in August and imagining what the room might become. In those early days, these decisions were usually made by me, but as I became more experienced, student voice became a critical piece of the design process for our classroom. I came to realise, however, that our conversations were still chained by the traditional reality of our space. Our classroom was still a single room filled with the stuff of schools - student desks, chairs, boards, bookshelves and so on. While much can be done within such a space - I know my students certainly felt good about the rooms we had created for learning and we all accomplished a great deal - I can't help but feel a bit stuck. How can we re-invent schools without changing (drastically) the structure of the building itself? How can we leave classrooms as they were 50 years ago and think that this arrangement still meets the needs of learners today?

Seeking ways to redesign my current learning space, I began to investigate possibilities. I am most impressed by the Maker Movement (a blog post for another day!) and believe that such an approach best supports inquiry-based learning.
Exploring how we might create this type of learning environment for our Primary students led me to the book, The Third Teacher: 79 Ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning. The opening quote spoke to me:
The child starting kindergarten this fall will graduate in the third decade of the 21st century. All we can know about the world she will step into is that it will have challenges and opportunities beyond what we can imagine today, problems and possibilities that will demand creativity and ingenuity, responsibility and compassion. Whether this year's kindergarten student will merely survive or positively thrive in the decades to come depends in large measure in the experiences she has in school. Those experiences will be shaped by adults, by peers, and ultimately by places, by the physical environments where she does her learning. United in the conviction that environment is our children's third teacher, we can begin anew a vital mission: designing today's schools for tomorrow's world.
After reading this book I am firmly committed to making a change to the space I have some control over - the primary computer room. I am setting out on a journey to transform this room; to build a safe place that will promote student innovation, allow for tinkering and time for reflective design thinking. As I enlist the support of colleagues, I will be sharing the ideas from The Third Teacher and The Maker Movement Manifesto. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Modelling a Mindset: An essential element of technology literacy

"Whether you think you can, or think you can't - you're right." ~ Henry Ford
Technology provides new opportunities for teaching and learning that were previously not possible and are just downright 'cool'. I love exploring possibilities and seeing how my students might utilise new technologies to enhance their learning. I've come to realise however that my own enthusiasm can, at times, be a double-edged sword.

Image: Ideas, Forte Comunicacio by Magnoroi on Deviant Art 
In my previous blog post I was thinking about what it means to be technologically literate. One of my big 'take aways' was the notion that we must have a growth mindset, one that embraces design thinking where testing, failing and perseverance are critical components of learning and achieving the goals we set for ourselves. I believe that it is important to model this mindset for our students, ensuring that the learning environment we foster encourages this type of exploration and problem solving. I believe this, I say it, I want it, but in the harsh light of day, do I really do it.

I came to this rather startling realisation at about two in the morning one school night as I was learning how to use a new virtual space that I wanted to use with a particular class. Earlier that day, during a collaborative planning session, a teaching team was discussing how students might hold an art exhibit as a part of the summative assessment for an inquiry into how we express ourselves. Of course, I piped up and thought out loud, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could have a virtual exhibit for the students to share their digital creations as well? We could also film or photograph their other pieces (dance, music, paintings, sculptures, etc) and share them in this space so family and friends in other places could view their work!" Very keen to see what might be available and how it might work, I set about my explorations as soon as I got home from work. When I finally looked up and saw the time, I had to seriously ask myself, why am I doing this?

Image: No Frustration by SFoerster on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0
Time. In a traditional classroom time can be quite rigid - you may have a 40 minute class once or twice a week. Perhaps you are fortunate to find yourself in a more flexible environment that allows for the 'dropping of a timetable' occasionally, or even in a school that embraces flexible block scheduling. As a single subject teacher I often feel I do not have enough time to spend with all of the classes. I was so concerned that my students would not have time to prepare a virtual gallery that I solved the problem myself. I spent hours trying to figure it out so my students wouldn't have any difficulty sharing their work. While I may have modelled design thinking in solving this problem, there was no one there to see it. But worse than that, I feel I have robbed my students of an authentic opportunity to tackle a real problem, one that was important and open to being solved in a variety of creative ways.

So often I hear teachers say things like, 'I'd like to use technology, but so often it doesn't work and I end up wasting a whole lesson. We just don't have that kind of time.' Or, during a lesson when something doesn't work, throwing up their hands in frustration and abandoning the lesson. I've balked at this in the past, becoming frustrated myself with the attitude of helplessness that is being demonstrated, often in front of students. And yet, when I look in the mirror, I've just done the same thing myself. While I might have a growth mindset when it comes to integrating technology in teaching and learning, I don't think I am doing a very good job in sharing this with others. Or more importantly, talking about why it is such a critical element of being a technologically literate person.

If we want students to be creative and critical thinkers, capable of solving complex and challenging problems, we need to actually provide them opportunities to do this. We need to shift our perspective when things do not work as we had planned and seize these moments as opportunities for learning - real learning, not only for ourselves, but for our students. The next time I feel compelled to solve a technology 'problem' I am going to stop myself and hand it over to the students.

At the end of the day, it is true we might not cover all of the material we intended to with our students, but we need to value what they will learn instead. I'm quite confident that the content of the lesson I had planned is not nearly as important to my students as having them understand they are capable problem solvers and with perseverance can solve the challenges they encounter. It's those times when the technology doesn't work that you have the greatest opportunity for learning. Yes, it was super cool to have our art displayed in a virtual gallery, but at what cost.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Technology Integration: Are we speaking the same language?

"The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs." John Dewey, 1933
I have had the great privilege this past week to meet with an amazing group of educators to discuss how we might best plan for seamless integration of technology in the IB programmes. At first glance this appears a straight-forward task, and among a group of like-minded educators it might be, but we quickly learned that there are still some obstacles that stand in our way.

The first, and in my view the most critical, is developing a shared understanding of what technology integration means. Too often when we (teachers, students, administrators, parents) discuss this term we are thinking about devices, apps or the implementation of a 1:1 programme. Focusing on how to use things moves us away from the conversation we should be having, that is to say, how will we best support and enhance learning? Living in 2015, this conversation will of course embrace a range of technologies, including digital technologies, for this is the world in which we live. As educators, seeking to provide relevant and challenging learning experiences for all of our students, how can we possibly discuss learning without considering our context? Moving toward a shared vision will allow us to define technological literacy1 rather than being bogged down in the current confusion of technology integration and implementation issues. In other words, this shared understanding will allow us to consider how to best foster technology literacy within in our curriculum - the written, taught and assessed.

If we agree that technology literacy is integral to a contemporary education, then we must also establish a shared understanding of what this actually means in practice. During the course of our discussions this week it is clear that there are some critical elements that need to be in place to enable schools to move forward.

The first of these essential elements is a mindset to engender technology literacy. Why are some people more naturally comfortable when confronting issues arising from technology in education? Carol Dweck's work on mindsets may explain why this is so. As educators we need to foster a growth mindset not only in our students, but in ourselves as well. It is crucial that we model the types of behaviours that will enable learners to try new things, take risks and think creatively as well as critically. Successful learners understand that when things don't work, they have made a discovery that will bring them closer to solving a problem. They seek feedback and are reflective, appreciating that the good ideas and successes of others' can inform their own work. With a growth mindset, learners are focused on how to solve problems and select tools to support and enhance their thinking. If the tools are inadequate or do not serve this purpose, learners develop a certain agility, an ability to reflect on their learning and select a different tool. It's all about the learning - not the technology.

Image: Everyone's Connected by Satish Krishnamurthy 
on Flickr CC-BY-2.0
Another element that we must acknowledge is that there are a set of competencies that learners must have in order to be considered technologically literate. Many of the transdisciplinary skills we identified during our meeting are already a part of our IB programmes, but their connection to supporting technological literacy is not always made explicit. We would all agree that the ability to think creatively, critically and reflectively are essential to learning, but it is important to take this further and provide learners opportunities to develop systems thinking and design thinking. Communicative skills are also an integral part of learning, but we need to expand upon our notion of self-expression, form and audience when considering the possibilities provided by technology. There are also many new skills that contemporary learners must develop, from managing online relationships and networking, to self-regulation and intercultural competence. Of course, research skills must also adapt to the readily available large data sets that students now have at their fingertips. Learners today must develop information processing strategies to enable them to evaluate, manage and use this information responsibly and effectively. Contemporary learners need to be discerning, curating content as well as contributing to the growth of ideas.

Finally, we can plan for the development of conceptual understandings that will foster technology literacy. Too often, technology integration becomes an add-on in curriculum planning, seen as a tool to help students understand the central idea of a unit. When we think of technology literacy conceptually, there is a shift, a need to bring these ideas into the initial planning stages. As PYP educators we plan backward, by design. We identify what we want our students to know, understand, be able to do, and which attitudes we hope they will demonstrate. We then think about how we might know what students have learned, what evidence will we be able to see. It is only when this is in place that we begin to plan for learning provocations and engagements, as well as accompanying formative assessments. Unfortunately, technology integration tends to happen only in this third stage which reinforces the notion of technology as simply a tool. If we consider technology literacy in the first stage of planning, we are empowered to seamlessly infuse the development of the mindset and competencies needed to become a technology literate person.

Having the opportunity to clarify my thinking in the company of other IB educators has been a great experience. I didn't fully appreciate the complexity of the task - the need for a paradigm shift (again!). Educators can no longer wait to see what will happen as policy makers and curriculum developers discuss technology integration issues. We have waited so long that the term no longer has any significant meaning. We must act now to develop relevant educational practices for the sake of our students - and teachers.

There are a number of organisations working to develop a definition of technology literacy as a concept much wider than digital literacy. The International Technology and Engineering Educators Association first stressed the importance of technological literacy in 2000 stating:

"In order to be a technologically literate citizen, a person should understand what technology is, how it works, how it shapes society and in turn how society shapes it. Moreover, a technologically literate person has some abilities to “do” technology that enables them to use their inventiveness to design and build things and to solve practical problems that are technological in nature. A characteristic of a technologically literate person is that they are comfortable with and objective about the use of technology, neither scared of it nor infatuated with it. Technological literacy is much more that just knowledge about computers and their application. It involves a vision where every person has a degree of knowledge about the nature, behavior, power and consequences of many aspects of technology from a real world perspective."
More recently, The National Academy of Engineering has worked to develop the conceptualisation of technological literacy and view it as a continuum of understanding the 'designed world' that are a domain of humans' existence. They have identified three interdependent and inseparable dimensions to technological literacy: knowledge, capabilities, and critical thinking and decision making.

Works Cited
Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. "Why Backward Is Best." Backward Design (n.d.): n. pag. Edutopia. George Lucas Educational Foundation. Web.

International Technology and Engineering Educators Association. "Technologically Literate Citizens.ITEA's Technology for All Americans Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

Committee on Assessing Technological Literacy, National Academy of Engineering, and National Research Council. "Defining Technological Literacy." Tech Tally: Approaches to Assessing Technological Literacy. Ed. Elsa Gamire and Greg Pearson. Washington, DC: National Academies, 2006. 29-40. Print.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Rethinking Digital Citizenship

"Kids are growing up on a digital playground and no one is on recess duty." ~ @Kevin Honeycutt on Twitter
I've been thinking a great deal about digital citizenship recently, not unusual considering my role as the Technology for Learning Coordinator for our school's primary section. One of my responsibilities is to map the technology integration that is taking place in our school. While this is quite straight forward for certain aspects of the curriculum, I've been struggling a bit with the digital citizenship piece.

I recently had the privilege of facilitating a PYP digital citizenship workshop and thus an opportunity to examine this concept at some length. As we explored and discussed issues related to digital citizenship, some questions emerged. How is digital citizenship different than citizenship? How is digital identity different than identity? How is our digital life different than our life? And it's here where my struggle lies.

The term digital citizenship implies a duality that in reality does not (or should not) exist. We want to help our students to become good citizens - period. Working in an IB school we strive, "to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect."1 We help students to become responsible and foster a school environment that encourages empathy and independence. We guide them to attain the skills of evaluation and promote innovation and action. These qualities will enable them to become ethical leaders equipped to tackle the challenges they will most certainly face in the future. But the demonstration of these qualities should not be confined to our classrooms, schools and physical communities - they must be exhibited online and in virtual spaces as well.

What does this mean for our classroom practice?
As PYP teachers, firmly rooted in constructivism and committed to inquiry-based learning, we would never teach a lesson about respect then tick a box on a planner and say, 'Well, that's done.' We understand that students need multiple experiences uncovering what respect means in different contexts and that this understanding will develop and become more nuanced over time. And yet, when it comes to concepts related to digital citizenship, 'box ticking' rears its traditional head. While our hearts may be in the right place when we start the year off by having students sign an Acceptable Use Policy and engage in a few lessons about digital citizenship, if this is where the conversation ends, we are doing a disservice to our students. Why are we struggling to integrate these essential skills and attributes into our learning engagements?

I think one of the biggest obstacles to authentic integration of digital citizenship into the curriculum is the notion that it needs to be taught by a technology teacher. Students need to practice becoming responsible digital citizens as an integral part of their learning and this needs to take place when and where their learning is happening - not as a separate specialist lesson. When students are using digital tools to conduct research, this is when we might best learn about evaluating online sources, or explore the ethics of using online content, or how to appropriately cite sources. If students are collaborating with others using online forums such as Google Docs, Skype or Edmodo, we have a perfect opportunity to discuss how to contribute constructively and respectfully in an online environment. When students are creating digital media, why not explore copyright and creative commons licenses.

I think Howard Gardner best describes some of the challenges educators face in light of the digital media at our disposal as he shares ideas from the Good Play Project on this Edutopia video.

I am not suggesting that teachers need to become experts in all areas of technology integration; that's not only unreasonable, it may very well be an impossible task. I would, however, hope that all teachers strive to be knowledgeable about the world in which their students inhabit and try to understand what it means to be a learner in that world and in doing so model effective (as well as responsible and ethical) learning behaviours in all of their classes. 

1 "Mission." International Baccalaureate®., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2015.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Striving for balance: Be careful what you wish for

In the end, the quest for balance is bogus. Love your burdens. Love them hard. And when your loves knock you down or your weak ankles trip you up, stop worrying about balancing - 'cuz you're not - and bounce.
~ Kelly Diels, Cleavage

I'm not sure how it happened, but nearly a year has gone by and I have not written one post. No excuses, no explanations, just a new determination to not let this happen again. So...

January is a reflective month for many and I have used this time to think about how I best learn and how a blog might support this and keep me on track. So often, as I strive for balance, things that are important to me (like this blog) get moved to the side to make room for being a good <   > (insert various roles: mother, teacher, wife, friend and so on). What's getting in the way?

Image: MacBook Air 2012, Ian Dick on Flickr CC-BY-2.0
I tend to suffer from an "all or nothing" type of disposition and so when time is tight, I let things go, rather than make a small attempt. Over time, this inaction grows and eventually becomes overwhelming. I once had a close friend tell me that it was okay if I only sent her a one line email - she would rather I send the short note more often, than lengthy letters once in a blue moon. So this is my first insight into potential stumbling blocks to blogging and has become my first 'resolution'. I will set aside time once a week and write something - it might be one line, but I'll post it.

Another obstacle I must face is the fact that I'm really not much of a writer. I struggle to find the right words and am a bit of a perfectionist and so I am never really satisfied with anything I compose. I work with some amazing people (eloquent people!) and the blogs I read as a part of my PLN are not only informative, but moving, witty and well crafted. Trying to write in a way that is 'worthy' of being a member of such a network is exhausting (and not that much fun). And so - I will let that go (okay - I know that sounds easy, but it is hard for me!). My blog is written for me. It is a space to reflect on what I am learning, to sort out ideas, to share and record my wonderings. It helps me to become a better teacher and colleague. This brings me to my second resolution: I will write for myself.

My last resolution is actually something that I have always strived to do as an inquiry - model learner behaviour for my students. When I had my own class this happened quite naturally and I was able to write about our shared experiences more consistently. Now, working with so many different classes and teachers, this natural modelling doesn't happen as easily. There is a need to be more mindful. By returning to weekly writing in a blog, I will have authentic experiences to share with students (and colleagues) about the writing process, about reflection and struggling and commitment. And so, through this blog I will model my personal inquiries - my questions, my explorations, my reflections.

Letting go of this idea of being balanced is empowering. I feel more free to make thoughtful decisions about how I spend my time. I feel better equipped to bounce.
Image: Ball, Riley Kaminer on Flickr, CC-BY-2.0