Friday, December 5, 2014

Goodbye Blogger ... Hello Domain

creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by Andrew Huff:

For the last few weeks I've been living in two spaces, this space and my new home at I've been doing a bit of renovating, touching up a few things, but the time has come to say goodbye. Blogger was a great space in which to start. I loved the simplicity. However, asking to borrow the keys each time kind of had its limits. Instead I've gone and reclaimed my own domain. So if you want to continue the conversation, you can catch me over there. If your interested in setting up your own space, speak with +Jim Groom and the team at or check out the original Blog Talk episode ...

Friday, October 31, 2014

Three Things Learnt from a Finnish Lesson

There are so many ideas and arguments that seem to get bandied around online and at conferences that sometimes feel as if they lack any evidence and elaboration to explain them. These are the things that are thrown around during keynotes and chats as support for whatever is being argued. The two most common for me seem to be John Hattie's effect size and the phenomenal success of the Finnish education system. Some of the things commonly attributed to Finland are that teachers are allocated a lot of timhe to prepare and that they do not do a lot of explicit testing. The problem with these ideas is that they lack perspective and speak of Finland as if it were some sort of ahistorical commodity, rather than an organic system continuing to grow and evolve. Continuing with my recent love of audio books, I therefore decided to listen to Pasi Salsberg's Finnish Lesson. For I knew that there had to be more to Finnish education than a few titbits. As I have worked my way through the book, three clear themes have stuck out:

1. There is Another Way

This may seem silly, for of course there is always another way. However, in the midst of conducting tests and writing  reports, stuck in the humdrum of the present, the wider world can easily be forgotten. The book paints a picture of one such alternative. From the structure of school, to the provision of support, Sahlberg provides hope that things can be done differently and in many ways should be. For there are many avenues to success, not just the mantra of fear and testing.

2. Change Takes Time

I remember reading a discussion about Gonski reforms. What stood out was that many of the suggestions made by David Gonski and his team were similar in spirit to what was put forward through the Karmel report in the 70's. This was no different in Finland. It is easy to celebrate where Finland is today, but as Sahlberg's account describes, such change take decades to bring about and a strong political conviction. Interestingly, in an interview with the +TER Podcast Sahlberg feared that with the current Global Education Reform Movement that such a wholesale change is made so much more challenging.

3. Every Context is Unique

The message that stands out the most in Sahlberg's book is that every context is different. Although Finland may be similar in size to Victoria and like many countries have had a move towards multiculturalism, this does not simply mean that they offer a recipe for success. There are two clear reasons why. Firstly, to apply the 'Finnish' model is to remove it from its time and place. For even now the system is evolving, particularly in regards to the reduction in government funding and other such issues. Secondly, there is the danger of implementing the Finnish model, applying some elements but not others, only to then blame the Fins rafter than a lack of true conviction. For example, there is a growing trend in Australia to make Masters the standard level of entry into teaching. However, unlike Finland, tertiary education comes at a cost, meaning that the two systems are not on par. 


So, have you read The Finnish Lessons? I would love to hear your thoughts?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

It's Been That Way and It Always Will Be

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by mrkrndvs:

We got talking the other day at school about our NAPLAN reading results. Again, the reading results were below the state average. It was therefore raised that maybe this needed to be a focus and that maybe we should investigate bringing in a coach from outside of the school. So even though we have several great coaches already working within in the area of literacy and we had a focus on reading a couple of years ago, it was believed that the answer was to get a new perspective on the problem. As long as you are seen doing something then that's alright.

Having been a part of the push across the region a few years ago in regards to literacy I posed the question as to whether anyone had carried out any sort of audit of the current practises to identify any areas of improvement. For I was told that to bring about deep and meaningful change takes between three to five years. The comment that I got in response really startled me. I was told that it wasn't anything that we were doing or not doing, that what I needed to understand was that reading standards in the region have always been poor, a consequence of our clientele. Maybe I'm too much of a dreamer or just naive, but I think that before you go chasing the silver bulletin maybe you stop and reflect on your own practise and back your own staff.

This subsequently got me thinking of some simple things we could introduce tomorrow to improve reading and responding within the school. Here then are three changes that I would make:

Share the Conferences

A few years ago I investigated the idea of digital workbooks as an alternative to the usual exercise book. Going beyond the cliché of 'saving paper', I wanted something that I could check in at any time without having to go through the rigmarole of collecting books at the end of the lesson. After moving to Google Apps, I then realised that there were benefits far beyond the workbook. One change I brought in was making reading conferences collaborative.

Before that moment, the conference notes were kept by the teacher, with students writing their goals in their reading journal. Other than being owned by the teacher, rather than the student, the process of a literacy coach checking how students were progressing was rather tedious. In moving the notes to a collaborative document, sharing with all the various stakeholders was just a click of the button. This provides a means for teachers to possibly touch base with students on a more regular basis, even if they are not able to literally conference them. It also allowed the process, which was done by Session Five teachers, whoever that maybe, to be shared with English teachers in order to gain a better perspective as to where students are at.

Recognising Digital Literacy Too

One of the things that has always confused me in regards to reading and comprehension is the dominance of the written text to the digital text. Although there are differences between the two, I feel that the ability to be critical is pertinent to both. As I have spoken about elsewhere, I wonder how we are modelling the way we read online within today's curriculum.

Personally, a majority of what I read is online now. One of the reasons is that I feel it supports my comprehension, allowing me to annotate texts, as well as is interact with others in a way that was not possible before. In the past such sharing was often stunted by whether they too had read or were interested in what I was reading. Now online I can find my niche community, those who are also interested in the same topics as me and connect with them whenever I like.

Fluency and Authenticity

Another interesting idea in regards to working on areas such as fluency and accuracy (see the CAFE menu) is the ability to record yourself and become your own critique. Usually when working with Secondary students I suggest reading to sibling or finding someone else. However, the challenge associated with this that not everyone has a sibling and for many it feels contrived. An alternative to this, that I came upon, via +Corrie Barclay, is to video yourself reading. Not only does this make learning visible, but it also allows students to watch themselves back and be their own critique.

A way of building upon simply recording yourself is to create an audio book. For example, I had some split kids in my class the other day and they had finished all their work, so I asked them to get a picture book and record themselves reading it for a Prep class using Adobe Voice. Not only does this then bring in visualization, as they need to choose the appropriate images to support the text, but I have found that the authenticity of the task brings something out in the students. Instead of recording a one take performance, they would read over each line, play it back and then often rerecord it until they felt they had perfected it.


In the end, the problem to me is that the search for a silver bullet is a facet of the fixed mindset. A belief that if we just get the right teachers or brought in the right coach that somehow everything will magically click and we will get the results. The only silver bullet for success is hard work. No outside coach can bring that in my view, this sadly needs to start at the top with the question why do you want to change and what is the desired outcome. So let's start there.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Should Big Brother Always Be Watching?

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by ell brown:

Obviously I am just too nice, because Derrick rang back on Friday. I brushed him off last week, telling him I was too busy, but clearly he wasn't going to accept the same excuse twice. So today I decided to listen. Basically, he was trying to sell me an audio visual set-up where two cameras and a microphone would be installed in a classroom. The premise behind this was that it would take out the requirement for another teacher to sit in and interrupt the learning experience by physically recording the lesson. This would also transfer the ownership of the experience to the teacher, rather than the responsibility of a coach, to support the improvement of teaching and instruction. We all have ideals, but in my opinion they are always something different in reality.

My first concern is with the notion that installing cameras gives some sort of objectivity. Here I am reminded of Clifford Geertz' work in regards to anthropology and the notion of 'thick description'. His premise was that no matter how hard you try to remove yourself from the situation you are trying to observe, you are always a part of it. Therefore, all that we can ever hope for is a thick description, which tries to account for as many  variables and differences as possible, where there is never the promise of completeness. Coming back to Derrick's AV equipment, not only would you always be conscious of its presence, but it is only ever one part of the puzzle associated with reflection and improvement.

To me, there is little point recording and reviewing a lesson if a culture of reflection does not already exist. I was really taken by a recent post from +Dean Shareski where he states, "Being a connected educator is important but I think being a reflective educator trumps that." More so than purchasing 
permanant AV equipment, we need to foster reflection as a habit, both in and outside the classroom. Instead of wondering where people get the time to go back over a lesson or write a reflective blogpost, these habits need to become a part of our practise. For as Seth Godin suggests, "I didn't have time, actually means, it wasn't important enough." We therefore need to make reflection important. Just as it is unfair to expect the introduction of 1:1 devices into the classroom to magically make students collaborative, the same thing can be said about videoing lessons. It all needs to start with reflection.

A part of the problem with creating a reflective mindset though is how success is often measured in schools. With the Global Educational Reform Movement influencing many policies and decisions in education at the moment the focus of processes such as the annual Performance and Development review become about supporting a fixed mindset, where there is a supposed magic bullet for success and all else is failure. Although the intention of the AV equipment maybe to improve the standards of all teachers and create a repository of best practise, placed in the wrong hands I can imagine it becoming a vehicle for pushing an agenda of pay performance. In this environment, all that ever gets celebrated is the status quo, but is it the status quo that brings about change and improvement?

One reason I could see a benefit in such a setup is where, instead of being focused on reflection, the purpose is to share the learning on. That is, make instruction available for all to access at a later date. A great exponent of this is +Eddie Woo. Unlike the idea of the flipped classroom, where students gain access to information before the lesson, Woo records his instruction as he teaches and posts them on Youtube. He describes this practise as the 'not quite flipped classroom'. In addition to posting later, there are also many smaller rural schools who stream lessons to provide students with a wider variety of subjects to choose from, particularly in the senior years. Although most schools seem to use Polycom devices for this.

At the end of the day, my biggest concern is the belief that the best form of reflection can occur in isolation. That is, one teacher sitting at a computer watching their own learning. The best form of reflection, in my view, occurs where there is a dialogue. Two examples of such a practise are Jason Borton's learning walk or +Amy Burvall's PD Walkabouts. Another great tool for reflection is the Modern Learning Canvas. What is interesting about the Canvas is that it provides a platform for teachers to collaboratively reflect upon their learning and together identify possible areas for innovation.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe there is a benefit to installing AV equipment. Maybe it could act as a repository of best practise. However, maybe it could be used as a way of monitoring teachers, making sure that they are sticking to the script. I can imagine both possibilities, what about you?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Crowded Curriculum or a Wrong Mindset - The Challenge of Incorperating Interdisciplinary Strands

creative commons licensed (BY-NC-ND) flickr photo by Let Ideas Compete:

The big announcement that came out of the recent review into the Australian Curriculum was that it was crowded. There is nothing new about this perspective. People have been making noise for a long time, particularly in regards to the primary curriculum, since the introduction of subjects such as science and history in the Early Years. However, is this really the case or is there something else at play?

One of the areas that people often get caught up with is the interdisciplinary learning. These strands span the areas of: 
  • Communication
  • Design, Creativity and Technology
  • Information and Communication Technology 
  • Thinking Processes

I have been in many different settings and I have yet to see these strands implemented effectively. I remember sitting in a session nearly ten years ago where the presenter explained that the purpose of the strands is not about adding to the curriculum, but about intermingling them through all area of learning. Coming from an inquiry pedagogical point of view, she suggested that it is about making learning more explicit. Although it may be inherent within good teaching, by making it clearer in the curriculum, this removes some of the ambiguity.

There is a view that acknowledges the development of these capabilities as an important role of schooling but regards them either as forms of pedagogy or as attributes that students acquire through a process of osmosis. That is, if the right conditions of learning are put in place and the right learning experiences provided, students will naturally pick up, acquire and develop these attributes. And of course for many students this is the case.
But this same argument was used for many years in relation to the acquisition of literacy skills, that is, that if the right learning conditions were put in place, all children would learn to read. That view has been almost universally rejected in favour of one that recognizes the importance of explicit instruction within a context of rich, meaningful learning conditions.
Sadly, this desire to create a rich and meaningful context is often lost on many educators who begrudgingly worry about who is assessing what, missing the point that the students are more often than not already doing the skills within their learning whether they choose to realise this or not.

I was again faced with this connundrum this week as we were put in a team to write the 'ICT' comment bank. Returning to the VCAA guidelines, there is reference made to electives. However, from my reading there was no reference to making ICT an explicit subject. I know I should be glad that students have the opportunity to 'study' ICT, but really they should be doing many of these things within their own learning. As +George Couros points out, "Technology should be at the point of instruction and be as accessible in learning as a pencil; it shouldn’t be an event. How many pencil labs do you have in your school?" The problem is that ICT is often confused with computer science. I have subsequently spent the last two years trying to shake the moniker of the 'ICT' teacher, instead focusing on topics such as media, publishing and robotics as the drivers for deeper learning and investigation.

The question that I have then is whether it is the curriculum really is over-crowded or do we just need to think more creatively about how we cover the different domains? How are you combating the crowd and covering all facets of learning, I would love to know.

Friday, October 10, 2014

#whyiteach and the answer is not technology

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by mrkrndvs:

This is my belated response to the Connected Courses question: Why do you teach? What gets you up in the morning? What’s your core reason for doing what you do? It may not necessarily be a direct answer, but it at least addresses one thing, I don't teach to the technology.


Yesterday in the midst of my battle with Compass and reports, I received a call from the office that someone wanted to speak to me. I took the call only to discover that it was from a technology company making a cold call. The guy on the other end, lets call him Derrick, was ringing to spruik a product that his company was developing around feedback. Sadly, he got the wrong guy. After telling him that I didn't have time, I then explained to him that +Steve Brophy and I had actually presented at the recent DLTV Conference on dearth of options available surrounding listening to voices in and out of the classroom. We therefore already have all the tools that we needed to make a difference. 

The problem though wasn't the technology, instead it was constraints of system. For example, the Performance and Development Process fosters a fixed mindset, with the focus on passing and failing, rather than lifelong learning. I think that Cathy Davidson captured this problem best recently when, as a part of the Connected Courses course,  she suggested that, "Once you put a failure in education, you skew the whole system to avoiding failure" I think after I'd finished outlining what I thought was the real challenge with feedback, poor Derrick was a little flabbergasted. I don't think he was expecting me on a Friday afternoon.

There is something else going on here though. Having spent quite a bit of time with tools over the last few weeks, attending a range of conferences and courses, what has become more and more apparent is that it isn't a tool that will magically solve all of educations ills. No, it is people. I was really taken by a comment that +Dean Shareski recently made in regards to Connected Educator month that, "being a connected educator is important but I think being a reflective educator trumps that." What is significant about this is that more than creating a Twitter handle or developing Diigo community, we need to first and fore-mostly focus on people. Adding technology to anything, no matter how fantastic it may be, will only amplify what is already there. If people don't share ideas and resources in person they certainly aren't going to share online. It was so interesting that at the recent Google Teachers Academy in Sydney that for their moonshots many people focused on learning, teaching and people, rather than the actual use of technology. Whether it be about fostering disruptive pedagogies, supporting lone nuts or encouraging curiosity and creativity.  

It is easy to look back and say that the Ultranet failed because it was a poor product. However, I still believe that where things went wrong was the focus being on the program, rather than the pedagogy. I think that this all comes back to the why. In the end, we can have all the tools in the world, but if at the heart of it all is not people, connections, communities and relationships, then something is wrong. Although technology may help strengthen and support such things, if we don't have them prior to adding in technology to the mix, then don't be surprised if technology flops.

Below is a great presentation from Mike Wesch addressing the question of why.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Things Are Not Always As They Seem

creative commons licensed (BY-SA) flickr photo by Orin Zebest:

This year, I have taken to audiobooks. Unsatisfied by my consumption of podcasts and frustrated with all the books that I just don't have time to read, I have taken to listening while I'm walking, driving, working, gardening - basically, whenever allows. During this time I have gone through quite a few books:
At the heart of Gladwell's book is the myth of power and strength. What he sets out to uncover is that so often strengths are at same time weakness and with that supposed weaknesses can often be our greatest strengths. His archetypal example is David and Goliath. So often it is a story told of an underdog getting lucky, but really when you break the story down David was meant to win. For so often success comes through subverting the expectations of others, going against all expectations. In the case of David, his refusal to fight hand to hand, as well as his speed and agility, were really why he won. Gladwell provides example after example of successful people who have failed because they have not perceived their own inherent weakness, as well as those who have looked at situations and seen a different possibility than that often expected by others.

Too Big To Know by +David Weinberger

Weinberger sets out to unpack the crisis of knowledge that has been brought about with the move from scarcity to abundance. Whereas in the past we managed the hose by setting our standards high, associating truth and knowledge with experts and supposed universals. With the increase in technology and the rise of algorithmic and social networks, such fallacies are put to rest. For as has oft been quoted, "the smartest person in the room is the room." The challenge then today isn't necessarily about becoming an expert in a particular area or being the font of all knowledge, instead it is how to create smart rooms which value diversity and allow for the emergence of ideas. The inherent irony of Weinberger's book is that there was always too much to know, it is just now there is no hiding from the fact.

Mindsets by Carol Dweck

Mindsets is not necessarily a book about success and failure, but rather a book about how we perceive success and failure. For Dweck there are two mindsets which govern pretty much everything that we do. They are the fixed and growth mindsets. Those with a fixed mindset see things as black or white, either good or bad. They feel the need to always prove themselves and consider setbacks as failure. In opposition to this, from the perspective of the growth mindset, failure is embraced as an area for improvement, effort is rewarded and setbacks are seen as an opportunity for future learning. What was interesting was that we are not necessarily always one or the other. We can actually have different mindsets for different problems, as well as fluctuate between the two.

Continuing on from where Weinberger finished, Thompson sets out to dispel many myths associated with technology, about it being a panacea to all our ills, to it being the start of the apocalypse. The book is as much about how technology can extend us as it is about how it already is. Unpacking our lived digital lives, not everything that we have today is new. Some fears, some forms of innovation, have been around for hundreds of years. On the flip side of this, history shows that we often refine and improve the tools we have, Thompson therefore offers a glimpse into a possible future. One debunked myth that really stood out to me was the notion that because of technology we read and write less, subsequently leading to a decline in literacy standards. Instead, Thompson points out that with the aid of technology we actually read and write far more than we ever did before. Challenge is being critical.


It is interesting reflecting on all of the books. Although they are all somewhat different, the one thing that ties them all together is that things are not always as they seem and even more importantly, we have the power to make a difference.