Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Networks of Committed Canadian Teachers

(Cross posted on the Canadian Education Association blog here.)

The Canadian Teachers Federation and the Canadian Education Association (CEA) recently published the  their joint research report Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach .  In focus groups across the country and from more than 4,700 online respondents, the CEA painted a picture that should give hope to everyone who cares about education in Canada.

 We, Canadian teachers, are not an embittered, alienated bunch but deeply compassionate and highly committed professionals who have their students’ growth as their first priority. 

 I was not surprised to read these findings. Nor was I dismayed by some of the real obstacles to aspirational teaching published in the report: insufficient resources, unsupportive school leadership, lack of collaboration with colleagues and the ever present challenge of finding time. Why not dismayed? I am not illogically optimistic but I am solidly hopeful for the future of teaching and learning in Canada. Why? One word - networks.

 Three books have changed the way I look at the art and science of teaching and learning (as well as numerous bloggers and Twitter friends). Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, Too Big to Know by David Weinberger and Linked by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi taught me about the nature and power of networks. In Connected, I learned about how ideas move across networks and how only three degrees separate me from anyone else. Attitudes, beliefs and even lifestyles of someone I do not know will have an impact on my life. In Too Big to Know, I learned how the web is changing the shape of knowledge itself. Information has been liberated from the prison of the page and answers are only a link away. In Linked, I learned about the properties of networks and came to see them as an evolutionary force shaping both biological and social systems.

 So what does any of this have to do with how Canadian teachers feel about their craft? The answer comes in the shape of another question. What would happen if teachers looked at the education system, failings and all, as a network and as themselves as nodes in that network? How would that change their daily routines, attitudes and beliefs about what is possible for their students in the classroom? I am guessing that the change would be nothing short of the proverbial paradigmatic shift. Of course this new self-image (“I am a network node”) would not be an answer to all of the obstacles that teachers face but it would be an important starting point from which to begin the change the ‘system’ needs.

2010 - August - 10 - NodeXL - Twitter BlogHer FR layout
Marc_Smith Flickr Stream

 Consider the following picture: Ms. Linkedin arrives at school by 7:30 for her 8:00 class. She is prepared to answer her students questions on last night’s lesson posted on the class wiki because their homework was to write their questions on a shared Google doc. This took no more than 10 minutes of her time and allowed her to adjust the morning’s lesson to accommodate for their questions. (The lesson was a video she flipped using the TED Ed site.) A departmental meeting is planned for her first spare of the day and as head, she has reduced the meeting time by half by collaborating asynchronistically on a Google doc. During lunch, Ms. Linkedin takes ten minutes to read a few tweets from her #edchat Twitter stream and to contribute a few of her own. The afternoon is smooth partly because of a great idea she gleaned from her PLN about assigning different roles in group work and now the class is humming with excitement. At the day’s end, Ms. Linkedin leaves deeply satisfied, partly because of her students’ enthusiasm and partly because of a parent’s compliment about the good work she is doing, evident by the open class wiki. I could go on but I think the point has been made. In this network in which we live and work, we are not invisible and we are not alone. Change and growth is inevitable and networks is the mechanism by which this happens. We are not alone nor are not powerless against an inflexible and outdated system. If we ‘grow’ our networks and connect to a like-minded learners, we will achieve more aspirational teaching than ever before. Become the node in the network and watch the change happen.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Journal, Track and Visualize Search

Last week at Alan November's very fabulous BLC12 conference in Boston, I listened to Mike Pennington and Garth Holman in a session about designing 21st century assignments.  They absolutely rocked!  When a 'false' fire alarm went off instructing patrons to leave the hotel, nobody moved and audible groans were heard not because of the inconvenience of the alarm but because session participants were so completely engaged, no one wanted to leave their seats.  We learned about how their students have collaborated on a wiki to write their own textbook.  (I had heard Alan November interview them two years earlier about this and since then, they have grown and become even more dynamic.)  The curious thing is that these incredible teachers are not in the same school.  They collaborate from a distance with an ever-present skype camera always turned on so that students in either class can see what is happening in the other class.  Thanks to their generosity and ethic of sharing,  you can look at their slide deck and resources here.

Among the great resources they shared was this gem: Instagrok - a search engine that records your search, provides interactive multi-media content and a visual interface so students can see what  ideas are connected to their search query, much like Google's extinct Wonder Wheel.

Students can adjust the level of difficult of the search by adjusting this small scale. 

Teachers can choose from a variety of multi-media resources and use the quizzes Instagrok offers to check prior knowledge before beginning research.  

I can hardly wait to try it out with my students!  From an initial encounter, I think the journal feature is what I will value most.  Instagrok keep a journal of the search and students can share their search results with classmates, archive it for themselves or even present it as evidence of learning for the teacher.  This looks like a keeper to me.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dawdlers or Doers? Reflections on the First Five Days

Even though it seems too early to be thinking about returning to classes, (like hated Christmas retailing in  July), there were many interesting conversations about the importance of the first five days at BLC this summer (Building Learning Communities conference with Alan November's team in Boston) in the new academic year. Students return after a long summer break anxious and excited about the beginning of new challenges.  Who will be their teachers?  Will they like them? Who will be in their classroom groups?  What challenges will they face? 

Alan November encouraged BLC participants to think about how we planned to use this precious time.  First impressions are crucial in setting the tone for the rest of the year.  Both teachers and students can have some preconceived notions of each other and the first five days is a perfect opportunity to challenge those assumptions.  One of my favorite "1st 5 days" activities is to ask four questions of students:

 1- What kind of learner are you?
 2- What do you expect from this course?
 3- What do you expect from yourself?
 4- What do you expect from me?

 I love to read what they expect from me; typically they want me to be fair, encourage them and be understanding.  What they want from themselves is also revealing; to try my best, not procrastinate and always be learning.  

But I need add, change, scrap that list of questions and replace it with their questions.  What if they asked (and answered) their own questions about their new course?  What would happen if I stepped out of the way and let them design the questions?  We will need to revisit the answers several times before the end of the course to see if their needs are being met and if we need to ask completely different questions.  

In this video Greg Whitby and Ewan McIntosh remind teachers and administrators that the time to get serious about change has arrived and it is NOW.  We need to think about this as we prepare to meet our new students  at the beginning of the year.  Ewan McIntosh says it succinctly; don't wait for permission to do it differently.  Listen to the video and see how you will answer Ewan's question about being the 'dawdler or the doer'.

First Five Days: Day 3 from Alas Media on Vimeo.

 (Find more great ideas about the "1st 5 days" on twitter with the hashtag #1st5days.)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Pens for the 21st Century

Teachers have a natural 'reflection' impulse at the end of the school year.  We look back over the road traveled in the academic calendar, reflect on our practices and begin to make an inventory of sorts.  What were you most proud of this year?  (Chances are it was something you helped and inspired your students to create.)  What really rocked and what needs improvement for next year?

This year I began using the Smartpen from Livescribe.  This cool pen records everything it hears and writes.  It uses a special paper with teeny dots.  There is a camera at the tip of the pen that takes continuous pictures of the dots (only .3mm apart) and a microphone that records what it hears.  So the audio is linked to the writing.  (Read here to learn more about how it works.)  Once the document is uploaded to the desktop application on your computer, it can be shared easily by email, to Google docs, to Facebook or embedded on a web page.

Initially, I used the pen to take notes and record lectures at conferences.  This enabled me to share the recorded keynote with my colleagues as I archived the documents (pdf files with audio) on our wiki.  But it wasn't until later on in the year that I really discovered the power of the pen!  I recorded my students' oral presentation (as I took notes) and their debates.  This allowed me to listen to their presentation again (and again!) as I finalized and confirmed my initial evaluation.  There are so many variables to juggle when assessing oral presentations that the Smartpen gave me the freedom to give full attention to one or two criteria (development of argument for example) and then return to the recording later to pay more attention to a minor criteria.

The Smartpen lets you jump to any part of the recording by simply tapping on the text.  Imagine using this as you evaluate a debate!  Set up your evaluation page in the Smartpen notebook so as to represent the order of the speakers and listen again to that rebuttal!

I encourage students about to embark on their Cegep careers and university programs to buy Livescribe's Smartpen.  The Echo pen has 8 gigabytes of memory and that should be more than enough.  Parents, this is a must by graduation gift for your kids!