Why not teach in Madagascar? No, really, why not?

Timezone issues aside, we now do have the technology to make teaching in other countries possible. Why think about this?

According to UNICEF, like many countries Madagascar needs to improve educational opportunities for children. The country faces many challenges including “dilapidated and overcrowded classrooms with few learning materials” with regular cyclone damage hindering improvement and causing loss of already inadequate school materials. There are limited funds available for rebuilding.

What about qualified teachers? Over half of all “primary school teachers are recruited by parents’ associations and have limited or no training” and there is a “lack of money to pay teachers recruited by the community.

Technology makes it possible for us to change this or at least to ameliorate it. I am not suggesting teaching  a class via Skype, although that would be possible in many circumstances. I am not suggesting a lot of time be involved either, but imagine if most teachers volunteered for 1 hour a week to share their expertise. What could be achieved?

Sure there are problems. What about access to technology for those in poorer areas? This doesn’t just mean having a computer, but reliable Internet access is required.  In some places reliable electricity will be required! What about technical support? There could be a language barrier, time zone challenges, political and religious mistrust etc. etc. etc. So does this mean too bad for these children? Does this mean we shouldn’t try to work this out?

What about setting up a mentoring program? As a qualified teacher, could we provide support for a local person recruited by parent groups as mentioned previously?

However it might work, my point is this: technology today makes collaboration between educators, including mentoring and coaching, possible. Imagine the impact such collaboration could have upon the world! Imagine the impact it could have upon the lives of countless children?

Mongolia, Indonesia, Philipines, Borneo, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, Lebanon, Turkey, Brasil, Greece, Sudan, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Qatar, Mexico, El Salvador, India, Afghanistan, Japan, Namibia, Congo, Angola, Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda

“The status quo sucks!” -George Carlin

We like to cling to the status quo! Sure, we love to complain about it, but if it’s challenged or threatened, things can get ugly very quickly. Dramatic language is hurled in the general direction of anyone who dares to question the way things have “always” been done. History is packed with examples of people strongly reacting when long established institutions are “threatened” by change.

Years ago my wife and I went on a trip to the UK. In our travels we visited Tideswell, in Derbyshire, and came across The Cathedral of the Peak. Inside this ancient building was an alabaster tomb of Sir Thurstan (died c1423) and Lady Margaret de Bouwer. When I was taking the picture below, a clergyman of some sort approached and asked if he could be of assistance. I commented to him on the damage to the tomb – Lady Margaret was missing both her arms and poor old Thurstan was missing his lower left leg and, even worse, someone has souvenired his manhood! Ouch! This clergyman told us that the damaged was done by Oliver Cromwell’s followers as they rampaged throughout England during the civil war in the 17th century. I have tried, without success, to confirm his story. Now I am unclear whether he was just pulling the leg of some Aussie tourists for a laugh or if the story is a local myth. In any case, at the time we believed him and we were astonished!

On the surface the story was a believable one as we were aware that Cromwell’s “soldiers often desecrated Churches by removing any signs of what they regarded as ‘Popish’ idolatry, ornaments, statues, or destroying stained-glass depictions of saints.” (ref New World Encyclopedia – Oliver Cromwell) Whether the damage below was caused by Cromwell or not, the apparently mythical story serves to illustrate the point – it is conflict that almost always characterises change, rarely cooperation or collaboration.

Cathedral of the Peak built 1340-90
See A Guide to Tideswell and its Church for some quirky history around this couple.

When it comes to education, mooted change, as always, generates conflict. There is a rising tide of educators who see change as essential to meet the needs of our 21st century global society. There are many though who have not yet realised that the 20th century, and its ways of working, ended a decade and a half ago. We hear their cries for ‘back to basics’ traditional education.

While those promoting change are unlikely to follow Cromwell’s change strategy of rampaging throughout the countryside ripping whiteboards from classroom walls and burning piles of text books, the idolatrous symbols of traditional education, we do see the same old characteristics of change – conflict and resistance. Those wanting change (I do) have to expect a battle.

For those who do not want change, the message is clear: Don’t mess with the status quo even if the status quo sucks!

I was reading a blog post by Matt Mesterman (@mesterman) Undermining education. In it Matt speaks of “a positive movement of people who are striving – sometimes without realising it – to overturn and open up the way education happens.

Part of the problem with the change that is taking place is that how things might work in the future is uncertain. What will happen to schools? Does it matter as long as whatever replaces their current structure is better – more appropriate for the time we now live in? As long as it is best for our students? Isn’t that what really matters, or do we just resist because schools have supposedly always been the way they are now?

Big car companies, book publishers and Ye Olde Knights in armour like Sir Thurstan de Bouwer and his missus, have all become part of history because they chose to ignore change and resist those who promoted it, rather than engaging in a dialogue with change agents and being part of the process. Change is coming in education. It is already happening as Matt Mesterman’s blog post identifies. Change is needed in education. Why would any educator not engage, I mean authentically engage, with ideas around changing how education works, in an effort to bringing it in line with the way the world is changing?

The status quo does indeed suck; so let’s get on with changing it!

School leaders who just sit in their “trees”

At dusk I have taken my grandchildren to the camps of Melbourne’s grey-headed fruit bats. I wanted them to experience the exhilaration of standing underneath more than 30,000 bats as they circled above preparing to head out for the night’s feeding; a truly awesome sight and sound!

Here is a question though: Out of the 30,000 how do they decide which bat goes first?

I found out, and in doing so discovered that there is a dark side to grey-headed fruit bats!

Mature fruit bats, (let’s be blunt … those who have survived longer), take a seemingly well mannered “after you” position towards younger inexperienced bats. What the mature bats know is that there are predators waiting for them to leave and it doesn’t pay to be the first to head out! Eager for a feed, the younger bats take the lead and … the older, more experienced bats get to live another day.

Now some may not like me saying this, but I am going to say it anyway. I think that some school leaders are just like those older bats! How so?

When it comes to leadership around digital technology, there are those school leaders who just sit in their “trees” letting less experienced teachers ‘go first’. These less experienced teachers then either struggle along without much support or, even worse, are devoured by that predatory species that lurks in many a staff room, the Great-crested Naysayer.

How then do school leaders drive change, create and maintain a learning organisation? One way is to make sure we know how to lead in the digital age. This is where networking, connecting with other school leaders, is critical for Principals, others in school leadership, teachers, students and parents.

Effective leaders need to develop certain characteristics. If we were to observe a leader who successfully drives change, what BEHAVIOURS would characterise them? Would one of those behaviours be to characteristically say “you first” to their school community when it comes to digital technologies?

If you are a school leader and you are not taking the lead by, at the very least, role modelling the use of digital technologies yourself, aren’t you effectively saying, “you first”?

Fog in print! Fog in pedagogy!

I have kept fish since I was a teenager. I took it very seriously and would research each fish, each aquatic plant, the water quality requirements and so on. When I was about 16 years old I was reading an article in Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine (which surprisingly is still going strong today). The article discussed issues with aquarium plant health. One plant was identified as being particularly robust, suffering only from “piscatorial mastication“. Que? I had no idea what “piscatorial mastication” meant!

In those pre-Internet days research options were limited. I couldn’t find “piscatorial” in my school dictionary and my teenage brain did not connect the word with pisces. I asked my parents. I went to the library and searched the encyclopedia. Nothing! Frustrated, I took the magazine to school and showed the article to a biology teacher. He smiled when he read aloud “piscatorial mastication“. “It means fish eat it,” he said and passed the magazine back to me.

This was my first encounter with fog in print. I wish I could say it was my last, but fog in print is everywhere. Mathematics text books are full of it. Other subjects too. Find the value of the obtuse angle …, a question asks. Do you remember what obtuse angle means? Perhaps you do, perhaps you have forgotten, but as teachers we should never assume students know or remember the esoteric terminology and ideas that we splash about in the classroom. How do we sound to students? Do we use good judgement and balance in our choice of words? We do want to increase the vocabulary of students of course, we do want them to develop expertise, but we also want to be sure they understand what they are learning.

Perhaps we also need to be humble enough to recognise if we are guilty of manufacturing fog in pedagogy? Are were allowing children to learn in ways that fit with who they are and how they operate? When they come into our class do we strip them of the technology they routinely use to enable them to research, communicate, showcase and collaborate? Is learning in our class a dialogue for students or is it the traditional four step process of 1) Question, 2) Answer, 3) Pass/Fail and 4) Next topic? Is learning iterative, sensitive to the individual student or is it linear at a set pace (we would lay the blame for the pace at the door of the curriculum of course).

I suppose all I am saying here is this: If we do our best to see the way we instruct through the eyes of our students and hear how we sound through our the ears of our students, then and only then will we be able to clear away any fog in our “print” or that permeates our pedagogy.

To conclude this post, I’d like to share with you my favourite nursery rhyme: “Diminutive Jack Horner reclined in a mural intersection, masticating some yuletide pastry. He inserted his pollex dexterous, extracting a delectable fruit, and exclaimed: ‘Oh! How I am prodigiously precocious.”

Keeping alive the ghost of computer rooms past!

DanielPDThe entire schooling experience of any child born in or after 1995 has, or will have, occurred in the 21st century. Many of those who began school in the year 2000 are now in their third year of university. Others are now in the work force spread across the whole gamut of employment options. It’s not just computers, but NETWORKED devices that have ALWAYS been a normal part of their everyday lives. That’s worth emphasising: NETWORKED devices have been a NORMAL part of the life of the children of today forever, from their perspective.

Even so, it’s only now that schools are commonly opening to the idea of students being permitted to bring these devices to school. Finally students no longer have to leave the devices that they are so thoroughly familiar with at home. At last BYOD has arrived … but wait a minute! There are disturbing problems; heaps of them!

  • What if students bring iPads to school and we don’t know how iPads work or we don’t know how to connect them to the network? No, we’d better exclude Apple gadgets (personally I prefer PCs anyway).
  • What if students want to connect their iPhones or Android phones to the network? They might be texting their friends in class time instead of working! We can’t risk that, so we had better exclude phones, even though they would allow students to access the Internet anywhere anytime. If only we could trust students. Just imagine the learning possibilities today’s mobile phones would open up!
  • What about if they don’t bring their devices to school fully charged? What will happen then? Disastrous! That situation never arose with text books did it? I can’t put this responsibility onto students can I?
  • What if students rely on “Apps” instead of real software like MS Word and Excel? What are “Apps” anyway?
  • How can I be expected to know how to use all the different devices that are available? Teachers have to be the ones to impart new knowledge to students … it’s always been that way! If students choose to use a device I am not familiar with then we can’t expect students to take on the responsibility to learn how to use it can we? That’s my job!

As the teacher, I must take full responsibility for all of this. I need to control what device students bring to school. I need to keep the ghost of computer rooms past and laptop trolleys alive! Pure BYOD is too risky, too hard. I need to tell students which device they have to buy and only let them bring that device to school. That will be practical, comfortable and keep everything under control. We’ll still call it BYOD, but what it will really be is BBYOSSSD (Buy & Bring Your Own Strictly School Specified Device).

There is no question that allowing students to bring any device they they have at home is more challenging, but really is it too challenging? Why can’t they bring to school the Android tablet that Uncle Bob bought them? What would happen if we just let them bring the devices they already have to school? What would happen if we just let them use these devices while we just get on with the learning?

Students already have these devices along with the skills to work out how to use them. What they lack is the opportunity to explore, themselves, how they can best support their learning using their devices. We can give them that opportunity if we choose to do so.

Instead of debating which devices we will allow students to bring to school, what if we just got out of the way and let them really B.Y.O.D.?

What about if the main questions schools felt they need to be addressing are about whether their network is sufficiently robust to support the connections of many students devices? Questions about bandwidth. Questions about supporting those students who, for whatever reason, do not have their own device.

If we leave behind our 20th century computer room and laptop trolleys thinking and just let students bring the devices they are using everyday at home to school, what would happen then? What could happen then?

I taught my children about tax by eating 32.5% of their ice cream: seizing teachable moments

Just so you don’t hate me, I didn’t really eat my children’s ice cream, but imagine how thoroughly they would have grasped the concept of taxation!

Teachers do well to consider how children learn from adults outside school, particularly how they learn from their parents. While there are times that parents use formal, pre-arranged sessions to teach something to their children, primarily they instruct by seizing teachable moments. As parents, we teach our children ‘in the moment’ far more often than in those occasional sit down talks we have with them around the kitchen table, usually after some sort of ‘incident’.

We use everyday things, tasks, interactions and encounters to teach our children. When they are little we show them how to put away their toys by helping them to do it when they have finished playing. If they protest at having to do their share we discuss notions of justice. We might ask them if they think it is fair that someone else has to clean up their mess or ask how they would feel if they had to clean up someone else’s mess. We instruct in the moment because it is effective.

When my daughter was about four years old we were feeding some ducks at a pond. She loved ducks. When the food pellets were gone she scrunched up the bag and dropped it to the ground. Rather than chastising her for littering, I wondered out loud what will happen to the bag after we leave. I asked her what she thought. She said she didn’t know. I told her to kick the scrunched up with her foot to see what happens. We watched it roll towards the pond and I asked again what will happen to the bag. She got the point. I next asked if the ducks would happy if people threw their rubbish into their home. She said it would make them sad and picked up the bag. I never had to discuss littering with her again.

This is authentic personalised learning. Teaching children, learning with children, in the moment of engagement; seizing those teachable moments! Such is life and learning without a school timetable and with a student to teacher ratio of 1:1. For teachers, we do have a timetable, with a prescribed curriculum attached, and a student to teacher ratio of 25:1 or so. Teachers don’t have the luxury of waiting until teachable moments spontaneously arise; we have to create them. Does this mean that most teaching in the classroom has to be contrived?

Teachable moments will spontaneously arise if students are mentally and emotionally engaged with curriculum. This is where our skill comes in as professional educators. We can look at the curriculum as a checklist and dish it up piece by piece to our students. This is easiest and safest for teachers. Unfortunately, it’s also encouraged by the current teacher performance review procedures. You want evidence? I’ll just whip out my test scores and show you my list of ticked off progression points! More challenging, but doable, is to blend those learning progression points with truly engaging contexts.

Can we blend required content with the events and interests our students are immersed in? Do we know what they care about? Can we tap into those things?

We need to gauge for age appropriate contexts of course, but as children get older we can escalate what we present them with, heading towards complete candor about the world we live in, the world we and our students live in, by the time they reach their senior school years. We might have ducks that are sad about us littering at age four to conservation, hunting, habitat destruction/preservation, cost, politics and so on as they get older.

Here are just a few ideas and examples:

  • Challenge students to come up with an invention that would solve an issue relevant to them. What would be involved in actually making it available for use. Eg. How could you stop people stealing other people’s lunches (Here is one solution for protecting your lunch!) The end result doesn’t matter. The learning is in the dialogue – the calculations, the ethics, the practicalities and so on. What learning progression points could you embed?
  • Ask a question that will provoke emotion. For example, why should we bother about saving koalas? I mean, what commercial value do they have anyway? Students will leap to the defense of our cute koalas and it will help them understand the clash between business and environmental issues and the different lenses people use to evaluate different situations.
  • Education in Emergencies (Yrs 7 to 10 students)
  • Meeting an F1 driver (Yr 11 & 12 Maths students)
  • International Rescue – Afghanistan comes to Alkira Secondary College (Yr 10 English students)

I have no doubt you can think of many contexts you could use to generate teachable moments. The point I want to make here is that this is what teachers must do. Don’t start with the Standards, start will contexts that are relevant to students and teach the Standards within those contexts. If teachers do this, there will always be plenty of teachable moments to seize!

What do you get when you cross Iridium 33 with Cosmos 2251? A great context for learning!

On February 10, 2009, the first hypervelocity (very high speed) collision occurred between two satellites. An operational satellite named Iridium 33, (owned by American Iridium Communications Inc.), and Cosmos 2251, which had been “dead” since 1995, (owned by the Russian Space Forces), collided at a relative speed of 42,000 km/hr. Both were completely shattered into 2000 individual pieces of debris, 1000 of which are greater than 10cm in size.

On February 13, 2009, sonic booms were heard in Kentucky, USA. This was confirmed as being debris from the two satellites falling to earth. (Ref: 2009 satellite collision) On March 24, 2012, the six crew members on board the orbiting International Space Station took the precaution of evacuating to some docked spacecraft until a piece of Kosmos 2251 satellite debris hurtled passed just missing the station.

There are many little known events like this that teachers can use to provide a real context for learning. Curiosity and creativity can be stimulated with questions that prompt students to think beyond the event itself. For example, what does this collision mean for our increasingly satellite dependent society? What can be done about this debris? How do our actions today impact (pun intended!) upon the future of others? Teachers can routinely package learning goals within such contexts, giving these goals meaning, purpose for students. Our classrooms should be fascinating places full of interest and stimulating conversation. There is no reason at all why they shouldn’t be exactly that!