Friday, January 31, 2014

22 Questions ...

I have been sent two separate challenges in regards to the 11 question meme, one from +Ian Guest and the other from +Steve Brophy. Although I have already engaged with this meme elsewhere, I just could not help but respond. So instead of choosing one set of questions over the other, I have decided to simply answer all 22 questions. Therefore, some of my answers may be shorter than you or I would like. However, I am always here to continue the conversation some other time ...

1. What teacher had the most influence on you and why?

I would have to say Karl Trsek, my Year 12 English/History teacher. Not only did he have a breadth of knowledge, about history and the world - demonstrated by the fact that he wrote his own texts - but he also challenged the way I thought.

2. During your career, which student (without naming them!) most sticks in your mind and for what reason?

I think that it is the student that doesn't necessarily fit in with the status quo, not necessarily academically, rather socially, those students who need a little extra help and support. Students at the margins. I think that I was much like that at school. I remember reading a quote a few years ago from Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. He basically said that some children are like gazelles running across the savannah, growing up is easy, no hassle, while on the flip side there are those students who find every day a struggle. In the end, it comes down to my belief that we are there to help make a difference and that is not just academically.

3. What was your most abiding memory of school dinners?

What is a 'school dinner'? Enough said.

4. Two Harry Potter inspired questions now. If you had Harry’s cloak of invisibility, what educational event would you like to unobtrusively observe and why?

I think that it would be a ministerial meeting involving the heads of the different regions and the minister for education. I would just love to know what they do and do not talk about. I always wonder whether such people are administrative or if they are truly driven and innovative.

5. What aspect of education or the classroom would you most like to wave your wand over and why? Educatio revisiorum!

I think that it would be the teacher at the heart of the classroom. With so many different means of providing instruction and giving feedback in today's day and age, I dream of the day when students become empowered and engaged in their own learning.

6. For any historical figure of your choice, what might they have tweeted at a significant moment for them?

Maybe Jesus tweeting "It is finished #crucified". Short and sharp. Geting his message out there. Other than that, maybe Moses looking out across the River Jordan before he died. Reckon that he would have had some interesting things to say. Maybe a few well wishes for Joshua and the rest of the tribes:
Also reckon @laotzu would have had some interesting stuff to say back in his day.

7. What’s your favourite online video (for any reason) and why? (A link would be good)

Any time I am asked about 'favourite' this or that, I feel that it is so subjective, often dictated by time. If I answer this question next year I will probably give a different answer. I am therefore going to go with my favourite video right now, which is an episode from Beat This where Four Tet creates a track from Michael Jackson's album Thriller in just 10 minutes. Both inspiring and intimidating at the same time.

8. In Horizon report style, which technology-enabled educational activity is likely to be becoming more mainstream in 3-ish years?

After reading +George Couros' post '5 Reasons Your Portfolio Should Be Online', I think maybe student digital portfolios that are sector blind and self-managed will be something that becomes more mainstream.

9. Which fictional character would you most like as a work colleague and why?

I think maybe Jay Gatsby, an eternal positivist who once he believes in an idea will let nothing get in his way. Need more of that passion in teaching sometimes.

10. What educational movement or initiative, currently in its infancy, will endure and why?

I think that one initiative that will endure is blended learning, especially as technology becomes more and more prevalent. Online mediums will be used to not only supplement 'in class' learning, but also add to it by providing additional resources to support students to go further.

11. Which educator (dead or alive, real or fictional, famous or not) would you most like to interview or enjoy the drink of your choice with and what would you be chatting about?

I think that I would have a chat with +Tony Richards. With a dearth of experiences, he always has that knack to some up a situation and provide a dearth of ideas and solutions to support the discussion. If Tony wasn't free then Sir Ken Robinson, +Alec Couros or +Peter DeWitt would do.

12. If you had the power to make one rule in your school that every teacher would follow, what would you your rule be and why?

I think that it would be to share everything. So often I have seen people answer this question by saying 'develop a PLN'. I think that we all already have a PLN, we just don't all recognise it. One of the important ingredients though of a PLN is sharing. I believe that if people learn to actively share 'good ideas' when they come upon them then PLNs will follow.

13. What is your learning process?

Although I have posted elsewhere about how I consume digital information, I think that it kind of misses the point to restrict learning to a simple 'process'. If anything I would say that my process is to follow up on thoughts and threads of inquiry that arise in day to day life.

14. Where do you see education in ten years?

Asking where education will be in ten years always makes me wonder how much it has changed in the last ten years. I think that we won't even question the use of technology, that it will be a given. Associated with this, learning will be more individualised. However, I still think that we will be dreaming of different and more flexible learning spaces. I just can't see governments around the world investing in new buildings and I am not yet convinced of private/public partnerships.

15. Why are you a teacher?

First and foremost I am a learner and that is why I am a teacher. In addition to this, I am passionate about making a difference to the lives of others, whether staff or students, and supporting them with their passions. I have spoken about this elsewhere in regards to leadership.

16. How should a technical team support teachers?

I think that the most important thing that a technical team can do is be active and transparent about what they are doing. Like so many rolls in a school, such as the timetabler and daily organiser, you often don't think about them until something goes wrong. Therefore, it is important to engage with staff when things are right.

17. If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be?

I am not exactly sure what I'd be, but it would probably be something that involves supporting others in an active roll. This would also most likely involve problem solving and technology.

18. What is the hardest learning experience you have ever had?

I think that hardest learning experience has been that no matter how passionate you are or how much energy you put in, real change involves a team. I actually think that this lesson is a bit of an ongoing experience. 

19. What three books changed your life?

This is such a nostalgic questions. Three books which have had a significant influence on my perspective on things are Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in This Class? and Paul Carter's The Road to Botany Bay.

20. Who inspires you?

I think that inspiration is a mindset. I will therefore say that my PLN inspires me. Everyday I read something that challenges me, makes me thing differently, forces me to reflect upon my own practises.

21. What strategies do you use to bounce back from the tough days in teaching?

Whether it be spending time with family or connecting online, I make sure that I get out of that bad space.

22. What is right with education in 2014?

I think the push to place the student at the heart of the classroom is right. Whether this be about involving them in the planning or developing better strategies in regards to differentiating for each and every student, I think that this can only be a good thing.

Opening Up the Challenge

So there are my 22 questions answered. Some with more detail than others, but answered non the less. To build upon +Peter DeWitt's break with tradition, I have two questions for anyone who is willing answer: "What inspired you the most last year" and "What are you excited about this year?"

I look forward to your response.

Some Reflections on Uncertainty

So, it is Week 3 of 'Rhizomatic Learning' and the focus is embracing uncertainty. The questions posed are How do we make embrace uncertainty in learning? How do we keep people encouraged about learning if there is no finite achievable goal? How do we teach when there are no answers, but only more questions?

One of the many things that struck out from my first day back at school was the statement that, "a student's perception is their reality". The argument being made was that how you present yourself in the beginning has an effect on the rest of the year. This sort of thinking often leads to people donning a tie, graduate teachers trying to be sterner than they would like and teachers creating overly structured lessons all in the attempt to start the year off on the right foot.

The big problem with all of this is that we take such measures in the attempt to control everything around us. We presume that if we wear a tie, if we keep a few students in at lunchtime, if we develop some lessons where students are kept busy the whole time, that it will create the right perception, that school is about rules and power, with the teachers being their enforcer. However, what is overlooked in all of this is that it denies that the uncertainty involved in someone's perception. 

For example, a young female teacher who smiles a little too often happens to teach next to the rather strict and stern male teacher. This chance situation often leaves the young teacher being perceived as a pushover. Whereas, if that same teacher taught next to a similar such teacher to herself, then the perception of her would be totally different. Although we can do many things to influence how we are perceived, there are still many factors that are outside our grasp. The reality is that we cannot control someone else's perception and that is ok.

Associated with this effort to control perception is the effort to control learning. Seemingly dictated by the curriculum, it is so easy to structure learning for students, rather than with students. As +Richard Olsen pointed out on Twitter, "it is not commonly understood that curriculum is a compromise." A part of this 'compromise' is actually opening learning up to students, not simply 'compromising' as teachers. Sadly, a part of this compromise often leads to teachers sticking to areas where they feel comfortable - working to their strengths you may say - rather than opening learning up to the students. Even though so many claim to be life-long learners, this is too often merely lip service, rather than embraced. Classrooms are proclaimed to be student centred, however class agreements are often created as a token gesture, only to be never seen again.

This all reminds me of a post from +George Couros the other about everything happening for a reason. Couros talks about how he was feeling unhappy in his career, so he decided to change his mindset by wearing a tie to school. What was significant about George's change was that it was not about changing others, rather it was about changing himself. So often we try to lock down and control the world around us in the classroom, when the only thing that we can truly change and control is ourselves.

This year I have entered the classroom with a new vigour. Instead of starting with my curriculum fully planned, I have opened it up to the students. Although I had an idea of what we could do, it was only as a starting point to be refined by the contributions of the students. So instead of beginning the first lesson outlining what students will learn, I began the question, 'what do you want out of this subject?' After that I provided an outline of the areas that students would be assessed against and a suggestion of what I thought that we could do. After reflecting on the responses from the students and opening it up to the class, we then created an overview of the units of study of the semester. I must admit that one of the benefits that I have this year is that I am the only teacher of my subjects, therefore my class and I do not have fit in with somebody else. However, why is it that the need to 'fit in' means that differentiation is so often subdued.

I am not particularly sure that I have really addressed the questions at the beginning, but I would like to think that I have at least touched upon the heart of the problem, that how we deal with uncertainty often starts with the foundation for learning which we put in place in the classroom. That is the only reality worth talking about.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Real Non-Negotiable is ...

With the start of the year comes the routine pitch to staff and students about non-negotiable expectations. I understand that we need to have expectations. Those collective values that bind us together and put everyone on the same page. Those values that lay a foundation on which learning can occur. However, how these non-negotiables are presented to staff and students has a considerable impact on what sort of learning this is and how these expectations are taken up and carried out. This includes the reasons we provide for such expectations, the manner in which they are presented and most importantly, the length of the presentation. Sadly these speeches and spiels are given with little thought to convincing and instead focus on pulling everyone into line.

Towards the end of last year I attended the AEU's 'Active Training' Professional Development Session. During the discussion of the consultative committee and staff meetings, one of the union presenters suggested that these were prime opportunities for a principal to to sell his or her vision for the school. What is disappointing is that such forums are anything but a sell. They often become mechanistic and fail to provide the means for an open dialogue, an opportunity for leadership to not only provide feedback to staff, but also an opportunity for staff to provide feedback to leadership.

In a recent post on creating a class agreement, +Edna Sackson explores what sort of learning is promoted by the agreement created. Providing an array of positive and negative examples found online, she gives a short commentary on each. More interestingly though, Sackson ends with a list of activities to help create a meaningful class agreement. What she is pointing out is that although the class agreement itself is important, just as significant is environment in which they are created.

So often we get caught up in the definition or expectations when it is the creation and presentation of such ideas is just as, if not more, important. As +Doug Belshaw suggests in regards to digital literacies, the most important thing is often the actual process of coming up with a definition of what constitutes ‘digital literacies’, rather than the actual definition itself. As I have stated elsewhere, what often matters is not what message is sold, rather how that message is presented. In the end, the real non-negotiable is not whether staff and students wear the right uniform or the way they use technology, rather the real non-negotiable is the positive means in which we present ourselves to others and whether we are willing to provide a legitimate reason for people to follow.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Minor Education, Towards a More Independent Learning

There has been a lot of debate in Week Two of Rhizomatic Learning revolving around 'enforcing independence'. Although some of the debate has been about the choice of words and other such technicalities, a lot of the discussion has emanated from the contradictory nature of forcing something that focuses on freedom and choice. I myself have already posted about the matter, in which I suggested that the only way that this could be possible is within a situation where the learning is their own servant and master. After some great feedback from those in the course, it was pointed out to me that education is full of impossible ideals that we never quite meet. Something I myself have posted about elsewhere. What our focus should really be is about using such prompts as the mantra that guides us, rather than the hard and fast rule that drives us. So instead I have changed tack. Here then are a list of thoughts and ideas that may not achieve 'enforced independence', but definitely work towards that goal:

  • Students must make a choice and live with the consequences, with ambivalence not an option. I have written a bit about choice. I think that instead of being forced towards a particular style or method, it is better to look at each option and make the best choice that we can, aware of the consequences of such decisions.
  • Everyone is learning something. Joe Mazza uses the term 'Lead Learner' to replace teacher and although there is a bit of conjecture about whether that means principal or all staff, I think that it is important to get rid of the term 'teacher', as in my eyes, it rarely achieves much good.
  • Students and learning are at the centre, not the teacher and instruction. In a fantastic little book by +Mark Barnes called '5-minute Teacher'. He suggests in his closing remarks that if you simply start seeing students at the centre then you are already on the right track.
  • Creativity must not be assessed, rather it is should be reflected upon. In a fantastic post by +Amy Burvall, she outlines how we should approach creativitiy. Rather than assessing it with a rubric and putting constraints on the task, Burvall asks for five 'tions' from her students: attribtion, explanation, reflection, no hesitation and no self-deprecation.
  • Rubrics are best co-created. This is a fantastic task for getting student emmersed in a task and taking more ownership over their learning. A fantastic resource that I have found to support this is BIE's 'Rubric for Rubrics'.
  • Feedback should be a two way process. Too often when we talk about feedback, it is about what feedback is being provided a the students. However, if everyone is seen as a learner, than feedback from the students is just as, if not more, important. Feedback, then, should always be an open dialogue.
  • Subjects should be the mediator, not the motivator, of learning. Although many schools are structured around 'subjects' and pushing thought a certain content, we should always have an eye on how each skill or tool may be utilised across the board and even more importantly, the world outside of the school.
  • Be open to change. The worst classes I have administered have been when I have decided prior to learning what we will do and being unwilling to adjust to each and every situation. It is so important to adjust to the needs of each and every learner, whether this be in the form of instruction, support or simply what is offered. Although you may have a plan attached to an intention, it is also just as important to go with the flow and respond to the moment, for that is what you are in.
  • Start with a space. In a great post from +Luis López-Cano, he outlines the importance of space on controlling the learning that is even possible. Just as it is important to recognise the choices that we make, it is also just as important to recognise the constraints that may restrict us. In recognising such things, we are better able to stretch them to get the most out of them or even break them.

It is important to remember that these are guides not rules - suggestions, thoughts, beginnings, a starting point to a more independent form of learning. To treat such ideas as rules can miss the point and as John Spencer and Tom Panarese pointed out in their post '12 Half-Truths Pundits Say to Teachers', it is easy to get caught up in the fervour of change and the realities and restraints of the everyday classroom. 

In the end, this list is best understood as a list of ideals to spur me forward, each and every day, to be the best that I can be and support those under my care. Do I embody them each of them everyday, no. Not because I don't want to, but rather because life has its own way of things at times. However, such ideals are what help me continually break free from what John Goh describes, as our 'default value'. That idea laid as a foundation during our formative years.

Are there any suggestions that you would add to my list? Any tools and strategies to add to a learner's toolbox? Would love your thoughts and ideas.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Digital Publishing - My Foray into Project Based Learning


One thing that I have learnt over time is that there is no silver bullet in education. However, there are some things that work better than others. The problem with this though is that you do not always know what the ideal solution is until you are in the midst of learning and teaching. 

I have taken a range of ICT-based electives for a few years now. From Pulp Publishing to Multimedia. One of the biggest changes that has occurred during this time has been a transition from teaching ICT to teaching through ICT. One of the consequences of this change has been the search for the best way to teach technology without actually teaching the technology. One of the answers that I have found is the notion of Project Based Learning. 

I first stumbled upon Project Based Learning via a post from +Rich Lambert looking at the difference between Project Based Learning and Challenge Based Learning. After exploring a range of free resources provided by BIE, such as Rubric for Rubrics, and incorporating some of these into my teaching, I got to a point where if I really wanted to see its worth, that I really needed to enter into it in a more whole hearted manner. I had already seen some of the issues associated with Inquiry Based Learning as the school actually prided itself on being an inquiry school with various 'critical' friends, such as Jen Wilson and Kath Murdoch. 

I just needed a little bit of encouragement and that came in the form of a post 'PBL: Managing the Mushy Middle' from +Bianca Hewes. I always felt comfortable with structuring an inquiry unit. However, some of my early experiences with inquiry had petered out in the middle section and dragged at the end. Hewes' post provided a wide array of resources and was the impetus for throwing myself into the wolves once again. To relinquish control in the hope of empowering students in their learning. I decided that the best place put PBL to the test was in my Year 9 Elective entitled Digital Publishing.

Context & Background

Small businesses, home office workers and social organisations often find it necessary to prepare their own advertising flyers, promotional pamphlets, menus, display notices, catalogues, timetables, tickets, letterheads, business cards and web pages. However, the question that people often ask themselves, how can it be done easier and quicker? Students in Digital Publishing will explore different information and communication technologies and reflect upon their potential. This elective will culminate in the creation of the Year 9 Yearbook.
Blurb from the Year 9 Elective Handbook
If you ask anyone, Digital Publishing is the subject where the students make the Yearbook. What that actually means, no-one really cared too much. So, Just as +Anne Mirtschin describes trialling gaming because she wanted to see their potential, I wanted to trial getting the students to produce real and authentic publications from scratch to see what would happen if students were given control over an authentic task. So other than creating the yearbook, I really had a blank slate on which to work upon. Spurred by +Jim Sill's call during his keynote at the Melbourne Google Education Summit 2013 to allow creativity in the classroom and let go, I let go - a bit.

Publishing with Purpose

I started the class off with a focus on publishing with purpose. One of the challenges that I had spent hours racking my brain trying to come up with an authentic task for students to complete in order to learn and explore the different ways we can publish digital content. A few years ago, when the focus was on the tool, not the task, I had methodically gone through a range of applications and programs with the students. Although some students got something out of this, surprisingly, there was little engagement overall. I therefore came up with the idea of creating a publication for students and staff focusing on programs and applications to use when programming.

In unpacking this task, students grappled with a number of challenges and issues, such as:
  • What programs should be reviewed
  • What should the structure of each of the reviews be
  • What program should be used to create the publication
  • How would the publication be organisation
Each of these questions was discussed by the class in a communal manner. Once this was done, each of the students chose their own program and went about exploring.

There were quite a few issues that arose out of the process, such as some students taking more responsibility than others, as well as a lack of care and consistency for the end product. In addition to that, some students took the task as being able to find other examples of tutorials and 'borrow' from them. 

Some of the reasons for this were that students did not believe that anyone would actually use the document, even if it were shared with staff and students, because if people really wanted to find such information then they could look it up themselves. Another issues was that I took on the responsibility of being the project manager and bringing the end product together. I think that this was the biggest mistake, because many students showed little care for what they submitted, believing that I would fix up any mistakes.


After my mixed experiences with exploring different types of publishing, I took a different tact with the Yearbook. Instead of controlling the structure of the project, I stepped back. I handed control over to the class and instead of being the focus of the lesson, I stepped aside and simply added comment as a kind of devil's advocate, querying decisions and posing questions when students stopped talking.

Initially, I had thought that the yearbook would simply be a digital publication, a PDF publication, that students would get access to. With little money in the budget, I was unconvinced as to how we would get the yearbook published. However, the students had a different idea. They did some research, surveyed the staff and students in Year 9 and even made some calls to some companies. Next minute, they had teed up a trial and demonstration from Fusion Yearbook Australia.

Associated with this, the students had looked at some examples of yearbooks and brainstormed a list of things that they thought should be included. Once they had refined this list, they then divvied up the list amongst themselves, with students working in pairs. In addition to the various jobs, such as student profiles, elective reviews and organising photographs, two students were chosen to oversee the whole project, helping out where needed and making sure that everyone knows what needs to be done.

The students then proceeded through what Hewes' describes as the 'mushy middle'. One of the biggest difficulties faced was in gathering together all of the content and information. A part of the problem was that the photographs and reviews had to be gathered. In addition to this, just as with the first project, some students put in more effort than others. This led to a tight situation in regards to submitting the yearbook online on time, which meant that instead of having a few weeks to thoroughly edit and proofread the finished product as a class, this process was left to a group of dedicated few, who gave up their own time to make sure everything was as it should be. 

Although I had always intended to implement many of Hewes' initiatives, such as developing a comprehensive project calendar, creating a contract and constructing a self-assessment rubric, once I had relinquished much of the control to the students, they were sometimes hard to implement. Often, the class leaders thought that some of these things were a waste of time and were really about me taking back control. 

Although running a class on passion led to some great initiative on behalf of some, it still had the problem of everyone being being passionate about the task, which was not always the way. I guess though that this is sometimes the risk, if you are not willing to fail, then sometimes you cannot really succeed. My only concern is that sometimes I felt that the class failed more than it succeeded.

Once the yearbook had been submitted to the publishers, the class came up with a list of suggestions for future students and this is what they came up with:
  • Maybe use Microsoft Word, instead of Fusion, unless the Internet is improved.
  • Spend less time planning what needs to be done and more time doing it. 
  • Find an 'alternative' to student laptops, as they are too slow and crash all the time 
  • Collect images from the start of the year, rather than wait until the end.
  • Have people should take more ownership over editing of their own work.
  • Be clear and consistent about the fonts, layouts and backgrounds used.
  • Split tasks so that each individual knows what to do to help with accountability. 
  • Develop a 'cheat sheet' for students, which include jobs, layout and timeline. 
  • Have a weekly update as to where things are at and a list of any new jobs.
  • Create clear descriptions and expectations for the different roles 
Although I did not agree with all of their points of reflection, it was interesting what the students identified in their sometimes scathing review.

Learning is about Lessons Learnt

Some of the lessons that I learnt from the whole unit include:
  • Be more stringent with timelines. That means not only providing the due date, but breaking projects up into its part and providing each of these a due date too. I had encouraged students to set both short and long term goals in regards to the project and was hoping that managing deadlines would be a part of this. However, some students are better at setting goals than others.
  • Plant the seeds for the task earlier on in the year. That means that people need to be aware from the very start where to save photographs or submit reviews to.
  • Be clearer with descriptions of the different roles and the project as a whole. It is funny reading back through Hewes' post now, especially when she says things like, "I thought team contracts were completely naff. I didn't use them for years. Now, I think they’re really important documents for my students." I could not agree more. I did not implement them because I thought that the students would laugh at them, telling me that they were for primary classes. Whereas now I think that they were exactly what was needed, something that they could refer back to, a reference point, a set of expectations that everyone agrees to.
  • Support the People, not the Project. I really did not know where to step in and when to stay out. I was so worried about it being the students work that I don't think that I got involved enough. Although I helped a few groups solve some of their problems, I think that I could have done more equipping the leaders in the class by sitting down with them and not just discussing the project, but also helping them to better facilitate the project. Although they did a fantastic job, they still needed prompts and guidance and I could have done this better.

In the end, I am not sure that this is the best representation of Project Based Learning or if it really constitutes Project Based Learning at all, for the end goal/product was decided upon prior to starting. However, I learnt a lot about how students learn and look forward to running the class again this year.

Would love your thoughts and comments below, especially about how you think that the whole process could be improved.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Year, New Beginnings

Sadly, one of the first things that teachers often do is get their class lists at the start of the new year and start critiquing it, looking at who they do and don't have, making judgements about what the class will be like, long before the class has even had a chance to take shape. The question though is what impact does this have for students and their potential to prosper? I understand that it is important to be prepared, to know who is walking through the door, but when does being prepared come at the sack of the child? I believe that with the new year comes the opportunity to provide students with a new beginning, to start again, to break out of the mould.

Although it can be a good thing to have long term relationships with the students, reinforced through interactions in and out of the classroom, this can also sometimes be a constraint. In developing rapport, we often create an understanding of who the student is - sporty, reader, gamer, social and the list goes on. Added to this is a judgement of their academic credentials. This mould lays a foundation on which to develop conversations and personalise the learning experience. However, on the flip side of the coin - whether we mean to or not - these informal assessments have the potential to lock students down to a particular ideal.

Some times the worst thing we can do is hold onto our memories. As time passes, some parts are lost, others are emphasised, but more often than not, our memories becomes heavily tainted by nostalgia. Last year, we had a student at school in Year 9 who was awarded a regional leadership award. To my understanding, the recognition came from outside of the school and had little input from the school itself, other than that someone believed in the student enough to put his name forward for the program. Many were surprised, a lot spoke about the student they remembered being a lot different. However, what is important about this example is that it demonstrated what was possible when given a new opportunity. Clearly someone believed in him to put him forward for the program, but the shock confirmed that the it was not necessarily the consensus.

The reality is that holding onto the idea of the past does not always allow students to grow, to change and to mature. It can have a negative consequence, whether intended or not. However, this opportunity to start again is not only needed for students, it also exists for staff and colleagues.

In Episode 7 of the +TER Podcast on 'Engagement', John Goh spoke about the 'default' value that we all have as teachers. Formed during our training to become teachers, it lays the foundation for the way we teach. He suggested that the challenge is to make sure that we continually move away from that starting point. 

Associated with this, it is so important to allow colleagues (and ourselves) the opportunity to change and evolve. A part of this is actually supporting their development, not hindering it, a topic I have written about before. Really, unless we are willing to give others the opportunity once again to take up an initiative, to develop as professionals, then they will automatically fall back into the age old image we have of them, if that is the only reality that we allow for them.

I remember being told when I was at University to only stay at your first school for four years. The reason for this is that so often the new, fresh, green teacher, who is still finding their way, is not afforded the opportunity to blossom, to make mistakes and learn from them. In many respects, I think that this indulgence of simply moving schools is becoming a thing of the past and what really needs to change is how we respond to such situations.

In John Hattie's Ted Talk on Why are so Many of our Teachers and Schools so Successful? One of the key reasons he provides for success is that teachers know every lesson and every day where a student starts. I feel that associated with this, we need to make sure that this knowledge is continually being re-modified and rebooted. Associated with this is goldilocks principle in the classroom, where the challenge provided is not too easy but also not too hard. For this to really happen, our knowledge of others (staff and students) needs to continually change, needs to be regularly reassessed, started afresh, and not simply built upon like building on the ruins of some old building.

How will you be providing teachers with a new opportunity to succeed where in the past they may have failed? How will you make sure that your knowledge and understanding of a student was not formed five years ago? What will you do to make sure that you are continually starting again?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Grades and Limits, It Just Ain't Life-Long Learning

So, it is Week 2 of 'Rhizomatic Learning' and the focus is enforcing independence. The questions posed are how do we create a learning environment where people must be responsible? How do we assure ourselves that learners will self-assess and self-remediate?

Whenever we talk about student-centred learning this discussion usually revolves around creating authentic situations through which students can take responsibility of their actions. However, what is not often spoken about is how to enforce this learning. It is usually assumed that if you provide the right situation to grow - fertilized garden bed with plenty of sun and water - then growth is guaranteed. What is significant about words like 'enforce', 'must' and 'assure' is that the choice to not participate, to refuse, is taken out of the equation. The very term 'enforce independence' seems antithetical, contradictory.

Now I am not sure how to 'enforce' such independence, but I will at least plant the seed as to what I feel that it isn't. Independent learning is not: structured around word counts, based on grades and dictated by due dates. What it is though is: supported, driven by interests, responding to what needs to be responded to and feed by ideas of the wider learning community.

What is interesting about ideas of self-assessing and self-remediating is that they call for some sort of measuring stick, some prior model of success. Maybe the answer to enforcing independence is that students create and assess their own learning. In this scenario, the learner is facilitator and assessor. Where they create their own narratives, their own successes, their own continual feedback. What might be termed, 'education without teachers'. 

Not exactly sure what this would exactly look like, but maybe giving it all too much detail misses the point.

Monday, January 20, 2014

What Came First, the Movie or the Book?

I recently started my first MOOC focusing on Rhizomatic Learning and the topic for Week 1 was 'Cheating as Learning'. After seeing Michael Petroni's film adaptation of Markus Zuzak's The Book Thief today and it got me wondering, is seeing the film before reading the book cheating? Does the book come first or are they both completely different?

It is usually argued that the book has primacy. Why else would the film be described as an 'adaptation'? The very term suggests that the book has some sort of pride of place, that it is the thing that is changed for a new medium. However, what is often denied is the place of the adapted text to be a text-in-itself. For example, can you watch the film Tomb Raider without having played the game? Can you listen to Cedric Gervais' remix of Lana Del Rey's "Summertime Sadness", without listening to the original album version? What is the place of the adapted when considering adaptations?

After discussing the film and Zuzak's text with my wife, I got wondering about the notion of historical fiction. The film included many significant historical events, such as Kristallnacht, the burning of the books and the bombing of Germany. This got me thinking, is history itself the 'original' text in all of this? Should the film really say "Based on Markus Zuzak's novel The Book Thief, which in turn was adapted from history". The problem with this is that it then prioritises history, but whose history is it? Whose perspective is it from? What evidence is this understanding based upon?

In the end, it may well be cheating to see an adaptation before reading the print version, however it is better to consider such texts as merely a collection of traces whose true origins are forever lost. Although we may feel that we know or understand a text the more we look into it, really we just get more and more caught up in the mire.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

PLN, a Verb or a Noun?

When we think back through our learning, there are always those aha moments, those situations, that have a lasting impact. Such moments come in many shapes and sizes, maybe an odd passage in a book or a random video seen online. So often though they have an impact that is far beyond their intended purpose. A recent moment that has had such an effect on me was +Alec Couros' simple suggestion made during an interview with the +Ed Tech Crew that everything can be a resource online. By approaching resources in this way, our understanding moves away from being an actual object, lets say a textbook, to a resource as being a way of seeing something. In this sense, a resource stops being a noun, something named, ordered and categorised, and instead becomes a verb, a way of approaching something, interpreting it, questioning it. In much the same way, PLNs can be thought of in much the same way. 

So often we limit ourselves by seeing PLN's as something made - contained and organised - rather than something continually evolving, changing growing and adapting. As I have suggested previously
PLN's often form themselves organically. PLN's are rhizomic. There is no central root system. There is only one connection leading to another. Whitby best sums it up by calling it a 'mindset', a way of being.
This 'way of being' also goes far beyond the usual digital connections. Just as Couros suggests that everything can be a resource, we can say the same about all the different links in our lives. I believe that everyone in our lives has a point of knowledge to share, if recognised.

Listening to ALL Voices

The other day my wife and I went and visited her grandparents. As is the usual, I ended up chatting with her grandfather about anything and everything. I love these conversations as no matter how many chats we have, there is not a time when I learn something new from him about such topics as farming, fire fighting and the family history. Whether it be about communicating during a fire or the way that the various properties were divided. Although many of these situations do not impact me directly, the problem solving and reasoning behind them does. Solutions for today can so often be found in adapting and extending ideas from the past.

A part of this is limiting ourselves by failing to recognise the connections in our lives and what they may have to offer. One way in which we restrict these connections is by deciding what it is we want to know, before we have even asked the question. With this comes a decision who will best provide this answer. Fine that if we have a question about how to create a character for a story, the best person to ask may be an author. This does not really give voice to those divergent thinkers, those may not be professional writers, but people with a passion for writing and creativity. Sometimes the best answers I get from my PLN are from those who I didn't expect. Is their opinion any less valuable?

Another good example where perspective and divergent thinking is so important is in education. Christopher Pyne, the Australian Minister for Education, recently made the statement that "everyone has been to school, everyone is an expert on education in one way or another." Now I'm not sure that I agree that everyone is an 'expert', however, I do think that Pyne is on to something. Although not everyone is an expert, everyone does have an opinion and something to add to the discussion. In my view, education is much better from incorporating wider range of voices and perspectives.

+Miguel Guhlin sums up this problem in a great post about mandated technology in schools. Guhlin calls for a infinite plurality. That is, rather than collective uniformity, where everyone does this or uses that, it is about developing common practises from a range of diverse perspectives. In closing, he moves his discussion from technology to PLN's.
I'd hate for my PLN to all be the same person with one message. Better than strict adherence to one technology over another, a plurality of diversity that builds relationships among diverse partners to achieve common goals.
When Guhlin talks about plurality in regards to PLN, it is about capturing a range of perspectives with the focus being the goals that we may share. I think that it sometimes misses the point to base your PLN upon people that we like or those who we get along with. To build upon +Tom Whitbys point that "PLN's accept people for their ideas, not the titles." I think that PLN's accept ideas, not people or personalities. The bigger challenge is how we actually recognise such differences in a meaningful way.

Nurturing the PLN

I think that something that is often overlooked in regards to a PLN is that it is not something that we build, rather a PLN is something that we grow and nurture. Being something organic, its success often depends upon the way we treat it. For example, if you simply plant something and leave it to the elements, then you cannot be surprised if it does not take. However, if you choose where to setup your garden bed, lay some straw, water regularly and add some nutrients, then you are providing more opportunity for things to grow and prosper, to flower and  reproduce. I think that a PLN is much the same.

One of the difficult problems with any discussion about PLN's is that people are often encouraged to connect with others. What is often overlooked though is that connections are not a one way transaction. They are reciprocal in nature. Too often connecting is seen as a way of getting an answer, an resource, a piece of information.  However, if no one is willing to offer an answer, then the whole system falls apart. 

There are a number of ways in which a PLN can be nurtured. This includes engaging in dialogue, posting comments, as well as sharing ideas and resources. But the most important thing that we can do, whether it be in person or online, is to listen and simply be there.

Connecting is a Mindset, not just a Thing Done

I have read quite a few people who have suggested blogging as their 'goal' for 2014. This sums up the greatest conundrum associated with being connected. Often people associate being connected with doing this or that. Creating a twitter account, joining a Google+ group or blogging more. I am not saying that these things are not important, but they in part miss the point. In the end, you don't measure the success of a blog by the amount of hits it gets, nor do you measure a PLN by the number of followers someone has on Twitter. Being connected is a mindset, a way of being and a way of doing, not something static, that is a thing done and complete.

What are the areas that you are passionate about, have an expertise in, have an opinion on, know something about? How are you sharing this with others? In what ways are you nurturing your PLN?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cheating, Survival and New Beginnings

This is my response to the task for Week One of the Rhizomatic Learning Course on P2PU focusing on the topic of 'cheating on learning'...

There is a call from a certain group at the moment in Australian education about better recognising Western traditions in Australia's history and society. A certain bias that is being brought to bare by the new Liberal Government. See for example Tony Taylor's article in The Age. One of the things that this got me thinking about is the forgotten history, the voices denied air, subordinated, all in the attempt to create a stable tradition. In Kevin Donnelly's case, this Anglo tradition is based on place of Christianity in our culture. Yet when you dig deep it could be argued that it was not 'Christianity' that laid the foundations of much of this great nations, rather it was those who had to resort to doing whatever it was they needed to do to survive, whether it be stealing a loaf of bread or pinching a pocket watch. The consequence of which was to be sent to a place the other side of the world.

Having just finished reading Kate Grenville's The Secret River, a novel which provides a frank portrayal of life in the new colony and out in the frontier country, I can't help but be reminded about cheating as an essential weapon for survival. When all is at stake, stealing is a way of carving out a new beginning. Whether it be syphoning wood from rich merchants to sell to provide for others or claiming land to plant crops and clear land, stealing is often the basis for getting by. What is fascinating is that over time such acts as the appropriation of land become common place. What was once 'stealing' is eventually seen as 'normal', whether that be because the power structures evolve or simply because those who suffered the ill-deed can only be stolen from once.

What is interesting is that on top of these often forgotten histories are a set of traditions created seemingly in denial of the past. I am currently reading James Boyce's book 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia. The book explores all the different influences associated with the development of Melbourne, from the founding of the project to the treaty with the local native people. One of the things that struck me was that many of the founding fathers actually sent in ex-convicts to clear the land, to establish some sort of settlement, before actually going in themselves. In this situation, those who initially squatted and settled had little respect for the rules of the colony. Often it was the rules dictated by the empire that brought them to the place that they were, a long way from 'home'. Such settlers cared more about doing what needed to be done to survive, rather than what was right and appropriate. Eventually the investors of the Port Phillip Association came in and took control, moving from a focus on settlement and survival to one of gain and investment. 

The irony about all of this is that stealing comes first, while traditions follow afterwards. Like an artist who roughly sketches the inital drawing with pencil, only to go over it at a later date with something more defined and set. However, even if these first lines are erased, a trace often remains. An indent in the surface. A reminder of the first beginning.

To come back to education, this all leaves me thinking about those learners who are using stealing in the classroom today - collaborating, sharing, hacking - what foundation are they laying? What are the new traditions that will emerge from these seemingly humble beginnings? What legacy are they creating?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The 5-Minute Teacher, One Step at a Time

I was led to +Mark Barnes' book The 5-Minute Teacher by +Peter DeWitt in post in which he talks about letting go of control and trusting students in the classroom. Barnes' book outlines a way of teaching where instead of lessons being consumed by long, elongated lectures, they are led by brief, interactive instruction. Barnes states in the blurb that it is all about maximising learning in the classroom. This is a a bit of a misnomer though, in my view, because although shortening the length of instruction in very important to the book, the real premise behind it is a change in philosophy from a teacher-centred to a student-centred classroom, revolving around 100% engagement of each and every student. Some of the wider changes that Barnes grapples with include a focus on observation, rather than more structured assessment, the use of technology to engage, rather than more traditional methods of communication, providing students an avenue for self-discover, rather than simply handing information to them on a plate. This is all founded on the belief that teaching is an art, rather than a science. 

Now rather than simply reproducing Barnes' book, which I have already started to do, I instead wish to offer my own inquiry into his ideas and arguments in the form of a SWOT analysis. This is not necessarily a summary of my own personal thoughts, rather it is a reflection into the different ideas and arguments found in education, for we often miss something by denying a breadth of voices. For every choice has a series of consequences, both for and against. As Barnes' suggests in his book, quoting Rachel Ong:
Reflection forms the important link between processing the new information and integrating it with the existing understanding of the world around.
In many respect I feel this reflection fits within the wider discussion about inquiry in schools. Having worked in a school that had inquiry at its heart and then replaced it with a more 'rigid' curriculum planning, I always find it an interesting topic to come back to and explore.


100% Participation

The whole focus of the '5-minute' classroom is to involve every students in learning. Barnes puts forward the argument that in a traditional classroom, discussions are either controlled by the teacher or the more dominant and confident students. Through the use of collaboration, reflection and teacher guided, rather than directed, discussions, all students are brought into the learning.

Choice and Collaboration

Rather than dictating what topic a task might be on or which group students are going to work in, the control is handed back to the students. For example, Barnes suggests that instead of giving students a project focussing on Greek civilisation, give them a project on civilisations and let them drive their learning. Associated with all this is proving students with the opportunity to reflect and learn from any failures that they may have along the way, such as choosing to work with the wrong group or not properly participating in collaborative tasks.

Student at the Centre

Coupled with engagement and choice, the whole aim of the 5-minute classroom is to both empower students. This is done by placing their interests, passions and concerns at the heart of the classroom and making them responsible for their learning. This though, as Barnes outlines throughout, should not solely be thought of as an individual process, but instead as something that all students have responsibility for. Students are not only responsible for their own learning in the classroom, but also each others.



Moving the heart of a lesson away from a clearly stipulated learning intention, to an open-ended question, means that sometimes what is learnt can be unclear to the teacher. The catch I think, that Barnes would suggest, is that just because you state your intention, doesn't mean that students are necessarily going to follow.


In having a question that drives the learning, the lesson is opened up to a wide range of responses. The key then isn't necessarily the idea of ticking off a success criteria, rather it is about making regular observations, clearly supported with feedback to and from the student. The benefit of which is that students are able to do more and therefore demonstrate more than is usually allowed in a traditional classroom. The challenge for some teachers is maintaining this culture in the classroom week in, week out.

Engaging Everyone

I have heard this said again and again over the years by different teachers from different surrounds, that student led learning is not for all students. Some students don't get engaged in their own learning and really need more rigid lessons that are directed by the teacher. I think that this is a bit of a misnomer though, because, like with learning intentions, by controlling the classroom, you are really limiting the opportunity for failure and error, and subsequently, the opportunity for learning. The problem with engaging students is actually making them aware that they actually have a voice and that it means something.


Reflecting on Current Practises

At the very least, one of the benefits of books like Barnes' is that even if you do not agree with everything that he says, through the process of reading, you are forced to reflect upon why you do not agree and what it is you believe in. I think that reflecting on how you teach and the various associated consequences is a priceless activity and is something that is too often overlooked.

One Change at a Time

In the short question and answer section that follows the main text, Barnes addresses some of the frequently asked questions, with one of them being from a teacher of 25 years who states that teaching using the lecture style is difficult to replace. Barnes' suggestion to this is to identify all the different strategies and persevere with them. Importantly, he argues that in asking the question that you are already on your way. I think that books like Barnes' can be intimidating to some, but sometimes the best thing that we can do is to evolve as teachers one change at a time. For me, what called me to the book is my personal goal this year to provide more time for student learning. I am not sure that I will incorporate every element right away into my classroom. However, it has given me plenty of ideas about where to start.


Remixing and Copyright

Barnes' speaks a lot about using video and technology to engage students with a range of resources. My concern with this is that such practises do not always fit into copyright laws. Although many of us have the tools to digitally capture digital content and subsequently manipulate it, this does not mean that it is always legal. In today's day and age of digital citizenship, it can be dangerous to model such practises, no matter how much they may aide instruction in the classroom.

Undermines Teams

Being a philosophical change, I think that it can undermine both cohesion and unity amongst teams. Whether this is a group of science teachers or an actual team associated with a home group. Unless the directive comes from the top, then it can create both outliers, those teachers who so often work against the status quo, as well as confusion about what is and isn't acceptable in the classroom. The danger though with this approach is that the needed change may never arrive, so you are therefore in catch-22, where your damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Fear of Failure

Associated with the question of team cohesion, there is a fear amongst some that the whole inquiry process does not work. As I have already stated early in regards to engagement, that although it may work really well for some students, there are others who fail to ever buy in and their results go lower and lower. With the ever growing culture of teacher accountability, having some students supposedly drop even further behind is not a risk that some teachers and administrators are willing to take. The problem is that such a mindset refuses to ever really develop in fear that they may fail.

Halfway to Nowhere

There is a danger that if the various changes are only partly adopted, it can create the wrong perception that the strategies don't work. One of the biggest difficulties, in my view, in moving from a teacher driven classroom to a student led classroom is both stepping back and handing over control. So many set themselves up for failure by suggesting that they are student-centred, when it is really a facade, that deep down the teacher still has the power in the classroom. It is important to reflect upon such situations to try and identify why something didn't work. This is often just as, if not more important, than the actual strategy itself and will often lead to its own solution.

Where to Now?

In closing, Barnes' other book, Role Reversal, unpacks the notion of a student-centred classroom further and I may discuss that another day. In addition to that, two other really important resources that you might find useful are his Learn It in 5 website, which provides a dearth of videos to support the 5-minute classroom, as well as his blog, Brilliant or Insane, which is a constant source for ideas and reflection, in and out of the classroom.

So what are your thoughts? Have you read The 5-Minute Teacher? Is there anything that you would add, remove or change with my analysis? Are there other such books and resources that you would also recommend in making the change to a student led classroom. Would love your thoughts and feedback in the comments or on Twitter.