Musings of a mum and a … teacher

Cowboy Breakers SketchI have a 4 and half year old son. The recent developments in his schooling  are making me think and re-think constantly about our education. When I was younger I had a passion for horses, and I used to go to an equestrian centre here in Malta for a couple of months. I used to do nothing much than take basic care of one horse there, and then be able to ride for a bit. However I did notice one practice in training which they used to do with the younger foals. It is called ‘breaking the horse‘. This is a lengthy process at the end of which the trainer would be able to ride the horse.

Now, I find it extremely like what is happening to my young son in his first year of formal schooling. Last year, he still attended a play school, which was completely different. I think that if I could summarise play school I would say, my son used to have extreme carefree fun. They used to go for short walks, have picnics, have some public speaking activities among themselves. They had the craft and the art and all the activities of course. They cooked, they painted and they made all sorts of stuff from recycled material (learning about recycling in the process). They of course were encouraged to sit down properly whilst eating, and during morning circle time but essentially that was all the sitting they had to do – and after all the activities I am sure even my energetic son would have wanted to sit down. However this year, the practice seems to be completely different. It feels like the school are ‘breaking’ the children so that they can be trained in the practice of class-based schooling where they have to sit down invariably for a period of time, with no chatting or talking, and listening to what the teacher has to say. Doing what the teacher says and doing it well, is, I would assume what many teachers would wish for. So the children are being ‘prepared’. Unfortunately it seems that my son, is not really accepting this ‘preparation’ without a fight, because he seems to be causing some kinds of stirs at school.

I think he still hasn’t adapted to the system. My mum part wants him to express himself and find knowledge and learning in freedom. But the teacher in me, can recognise that if any student does not conform to the present education system, then that student will be lost. It’s a survival of the fittest if you want to succeed in life (and don’t have family friends or resources which would give you a push in the right direction). And if you fail in education because you don’t adapt and let yourself be ‘broken’ then you stand little chance for achieving your dreams – unless you stumble across a spot of luck. As a mother, I don’t feel I should count on my son’s luck – so I feel torn between urging my son to follow all the rules of schools and the classrooms, and punishing him when he doesn’t follow them and the distinct feeling that I dislike that education is simply reproducing children who have to sit down and be told what to do and how to behave. I already feel the helplessness of a someone whose son may not be exactly academically oriented, and yet has to feel and share his pain of having to adhere to what someone thinks is in his best interest for learning – such as tracing alphabet letters, numbers and colouring in. I have hope that somehow the path to learning will be relatively easy going but maybe I might have to prepare myself that I might encounter a number of ‘hurricanes’ on the way…

Another wonderfully inspiring talk by @SirKenRobinson

“The dropout crisis is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Sir Ken Robinson. ” What it doesn’t count are all the kids who are in school, but being disengaged from it, who don’t enjoy it, who don’t get any real benefit from it”. Call me rhetorical but these are, in my opinion, words of wisdom that apply not just to America, but to many other countries, including Malta. All the problems we are seeing here, and all the problems that are yet to come can not be seen as the malady, or the sickness but a symptom of this “disengagement” that students are manifesting from school and worse still, from learning. Students are equating learning with schools and teaching, and are therefore simply shutting down to learning – learning is what ultimately would benefit the economy – learning is what ultimately contributes to a ‘knowledge society’. If a society, as a whole is a learned society, a knowledgeable society that can critically reflect upon problems, that has the ability to find solutions, and that has this wonderful sense of wishing to contribute by creating something new, then of course we certainly don’t need any standardised tests to tell us that we’re doing well. We would be doing well, as a whole country and we would certainly show it. Maybe I am being ‘utopic’ here, but unless we start shifting the way we think and rethink different directions in education, we will continue to wallow. As Sir Ken Robinson says, “Children are not, for the most part suffering from a psychological condition… they are suffering from childhood” !!! – and this really goes to say, that if we keep expecting all our kids to sit down for hour after hour, listening, and listening, then we should expect nothing else but disengagement – manifested in a variety of different ways.

Wonderfully inspiring and engaging as always – thank you Sir Ken Robinson.

Can there be too much of screen time? Too many computer games? I think not…

This afternoon I happened to be reading an article on the Sunday Times of Malta, in the Education page, where one particular author was describing how children’s healthy growth and development is attributed to their interactions with the “three dimensional first hand engagement”. In short the author was pushing for a more “healthy” physical environment expressing doubts and a certain perplexity about the time that our children spend in the virtual and online environment. Although everyone is entitled to their opinions and of course to publicize their school’s agendas, I always believe that an argument is healthy when it is viewed critically from both perspectives. I do suggest that the author and others who might find the subject of children, digital literacies and the virtual environment interesting, spruce up their reading habits to include works from authors such as Howard Rheingold, Henry Jenkins and Jaron Lanier amongst others.

I do admit and agree that many parents express a certain amount of worry when children seem to spend a lot of time in front of screens and interacting with seemingly ‘inhumane’ content – content that has nothing of the “human touch” we are so used to. The author in the article, looks back on the time when she was a kid  and she could play on the streets with other kids. This, I believe, reflects the thoughts of many, who like me and presumably the author as well, were kids two or three decades ago. However the world has come a long way in these two to three decades. The evolution that has happened in the way we, as humans communicate in these two decades, compares with more than at least two centuries since the birth of the first forms of telephone-based communication.

Quoting Howard Rheingold in NetSmart, “Digital Literacies can leverage the Web’s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic”. I find that this quote really summarizes my answers, when someone tries to push forward reasons why we shouldn’t include technologies and devices at school or when someone tries to stop the spread of social media in schools and in education. I was once shown a Facebook post, where a teacher, (more than one actually) were commenting on the use of games in the classroom. One particularly worrying update was this – “Games in schools!!! … what is education coming to? This is not the way we were taught and this is certainly not the way we should teach“. I find THIS post, more than anyone telling me that his son or daughter is spending time online, for two particular reasons. I would say that as a starting point, we cannot teach the way we were taught. The world has changed, the economy has changed, the society has changed, the community in which we are living has changed, and the expectations have changed. When I was a teenager, I remember that the job that was most popular amongst girls, was a job as a factory worker, a bank clerk or at most a teacher. I believe that the expectations, these days, in Malta and abroad are different; society’s needs are different, and in order to turn the wheel of our country’s economy it is important that the expectations change. So how can we, as teachers, affirm that we need to do things in the classroom the way things were done two or three decades ago?????

The second worrying issue is that these teachers, seem not to embrace the fact that change is not just important, but that preparing for change, is vital for the success of the individual and society in the 21st century. As Rheingold mentions, it is important that people acquire skills not just in terms of the content (from an academic perspective), but also in terms of how to best make use of those skills to work “in concert with others, in an effective way”. It is useless for teachers to say that the IWB is just a glitzy gimmick and keep refusing to integrate it in the classroom, just as it is useless for them to say that Facebook is “an unwanted distraction” in the classroom or that digital games are a “waste of time” and thus act as if these things do not exist. We, as educators, more than teachers, need to make sure that when our young people encounter these, beyond the classroom walls, they know how to deal with them, in a way that that they are empowered and not manipulated by the people behind the masses and overload of information that is thrown at us on a daily basis. My advice is this… let us not bury our heads in the sand. The reality is that we need to add a whole lot of skills which we need to help our young people acquire – and these are digital literacies, or rather the way in which our young people can start filtering and detecting the whole lot of crap that exists, and instead make critical use of it, in a way that is effective, efficient and that can lead us, as a whole community, forward. Let us embrace change in a way that can help us make the world a better place.

Time is short…connect the dots…(part of a speech given by Steve Jobs) #ocTEL

So I feel I am running a bit late on ocTEL activities and therefore I am still catching up with Week 1 activities here on this blog even though we are now well into Week 2. So I have just spent a very good portion of my morning, re-listening the talks that I had actually seen and heard before but had in the meantime, forgotten some of their essence. My title in-fact was taken from Helen Keegan‘s PELeCON talk last year.

However if I had to choose two particular talks and two particular speakers which I think I am finding as my kind of ‘virtual mentors’ at this stage in my life, I would say that I would pick Eric Mazur and Sugata Mitra. In fact I have blogged about Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment in an earlier blog post. Their talks are so inspiring because they, to me, have brought me closer to that “aha moment”, as described by Eric Mazur  - leading the way to the “connect the dots” process that Steve Jobs mentions [I do suggest viewing this commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005]. I think that one concept which both Eric Mazur and Sugata Mitra have in common is in fact, this sense of giving responsibility to the learner for his own learning. I believe that with all the interactive whiteboards that we have, and for all the tablets that we might get, we are still so far away from actually shifting our mindsets to that direction. I ask what good is a tablet when all you use it for, are drill and practice exercises in class? What good is an interactive whiteboard in class, when all the interaction it seems to stimulate is between itself and the teacher, as the teacher presses the forward button on the powerpoint presentation that is displayed to the students?

I ask, why is it so hard for us teachers to accept that maybe, just maybe we don’t really know everything, and we therefore let go. As Mazur, rightly described – this is so easy… it is so easy to go for an information transfer approach. Me, the teacher, have the information – the content. You, the student, are there to get that information –  the content. Content in, content out on the exam paper. Easy yes? But no… the outcome is disastrous. It might certainly be less easy for the teacher to help students reach the hard assimilation process. It is so hard to watch learners try to understand, and let them explore, inquire, reach their own conclusions and be there to guide them along the way. Certain people I know, would say I am speaking in theory. In practice, this can never be done. Well in practice, it is what my young 3 year old son does. And he’s not a genius either. It’s what and how every child learns – through exploration – constructing and deconstructing knowledge. Yet when it comes to the classroom, and to the application of technology, a certain fervor seems to grab us by the throat and we decide that we are not able to handle seeing our students learn by themselves. So we instruct them. We have to be the ones to tell them how to open a Microsoft Word document. We have to be the ones to tell them that Facebook shouldn’t be used. We have to be the ones to tell them, to fill them up with something, whatever that might be.

What I have been trying to point out all along, even in previous posts is this. Technology, any technology or device or tool, if used for mere information transfer is absolutely nothing more special than a pen and paper – for what it’s worth. Information transfer is what we have been used to, what we have been taught. But today it is different. Today’s world is different, today’s economy is different, today’s society is different – their needs, our needs are different. We’re no longer secluded objects living on separate lands. So a student cannot just live on information transfer. People are showing they have very little engagement with schools and especially with the content taught at schools. I ask: why would that be? Sugata Mitra describes how in the traditional teaching setting a teacher spends his time trying to give content to the student, and the student spends his entire lifetime trying to forget it! It’s true. I have experienced this myself when I taught using the traditional information transfer, ‘sage on the stage’, kind of approach. And even if my powerpoint had an amazing design, and even if I had so many videos showing throughout the lecture, and even if I almost did acrobatics to engage my students, in the end, after the lecture, they could hardly remember one single thing which I talked about. None of them were talking, none of them were on Facebook or Twitter, none of them slept – yet none of them got any souvenirs back from my lecture.

This particular instance had started to make me realize that technology without the right approach and methodology is really quite glitzy and shiny, but it’s as shallow as cheap costume jewellery. There is no depth there. What Sugata Mitra was talking about, and what always impresses me when I watch this talk, is that the kids, during his many experiments, and wherever in the world they were (be it in the slum areas of a tiny village in India, or in the UK) managed to reach a depth in their level of understanding that could not even start to compare with what any teacher can ‘pour’ into them. And this is not to say that teachers are useless. We, as teachers, have to stop feeling scared of letting go. Both of the speakers focus on an approach that sees a major involvement of students, to solve problems that might be more complex than we think people of that age can handle. And yet, using the technology as a “conduit for connections” – (taken from the interview with George Siemens) they both manage to create learning experiences that are not only fascinating and engaging for the learners, but that manage to run deep in the learner’s minds.

I think that in essence technology is not just about the tools or the devices. I think it’s about the pedagogy, the art and science of teaching – and this centers around the teacher. I think that the technology is all about the use and application and how the teacher/mentor manages to apply this as  the “catalyst that fosters connections” (another quote by George Siemens) and as Steve Jobs says, something that “helps us connect the dots”.  Whether or not, technology has to be used everytime, everywhere is a debatable issue. I think that as with everything, there isn’t a clearcut black/white line… there are different shades that most often depend heavily on the context in which the learning experience is set.

The war against mobile devices…can we really say we’re moving towards digital literacies?

I have just read this really interesting blog article from a public school teacher, as she describes how despite the age gap, and despite all the myths which surround young people and their digital know-how, she managed to introduce her son to a Google tool (Google Forms) to be able to collect data for one of his school projects. The article shows how in this one instance, the teacher (and the mother) had much to contribute to the digital education of one youth. One can only imagine what one can do for many other youths.

In another article which I also happened upon today, I was reading about the war that many school administrators and educators seem to wage upon mobile devices and their usage in class and on the school premises. It reminded me of an observation session I recently experienced in one of the local secondary schools here in Malta. As I waited in the school’s headmistress’ office, I noticed a box lying on one of the tables. Students seemed to be pouring in at 7.45am in the morning to leave their mobile phones in this shoebox, before they started their school day. Another school, a private independent school, which I also happened to walk into a few months ago, had clear instructions above the entrance that stated that no mobile devices should be allowed on the school premises.

Yet, recently during our last election campaign, many of our politicians, were promising the use of tablets in the classroom. Couple this to the fact that most of the Internet access in the schools is controlled solely by a single agency dedicated to the Information and Communications Technology. I find it very strange that many teachers at schools, do not have access to a number of social media sites, as well as a number of sites, that may not be considered as ‘strictly educational’ – whatever that means. I also very much wonder, who holds the power to allow for sites to be accessed in schools, or otherwise. To my mind, the person or persons responsible for schools should be working hand in hand with teachers and higher education researchers to be able to define what should be kept out of schools.

So back to the article discussing the war waging against mobile devices, I found it very interesting that the author focused on school administrators and leaders calling upon solutions to be found to the behavioral issues that many seem to have with allowing mobile device usage in schools. I think that we have this tendency of rather than addressing problems, we try to ignore them, hoping that eventually we wouldn’t have to deal with them. In the case of mobile device usage, technology use and applications in schools, the consequence we’re facing is that of having a society that is not considered as a digitally literate society. Despite the records showing how more than half the population of Malta seems to have an active Facebook profile, I believe that we’re still a long way from being called digitally literate. It takes more than the ability of updating personal status, to be effectively digitally literate. And the problem is that inside schools, and even universities, rather than embracing change, and finding solutions to problems, we keep ignoring 21st century practices in the hope that eventually everything will sort itself out. I have a bad feeling that unless we really get our acts together in Education, we will have to sort out very bad consequences ourselves.

 

What most schools don’t teach

See on Scoop.ittech to learn

Subscribe Please http://www.youtube.com/user/TheHollywoodClip What most schools don’t teach Watch Zuck, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, & Others In Short Film To In…

Vanessa Camilleri‘s insight:

What most people should be aware of …. this video really shows why pushing tools into the classroom may not work. We need people who know the how and why of these tools. We need people with computational thinking skills! We need people who think! because the glitz of gadgets may be short lived. But creating your own gadgets is EPIC!

See on www.youtube.com

My first day at #BETT_show 2013 at London Excel

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London Excel – BETT 2013

This was a great day! It’s a bit difficult to  summarize my views and thoughts about this first day at the BETT Show 2013 but I will try to anyway. In the first place, I think that the venue is just great. It’s awesome, and huge…

BETT Show 2013 - main exhibitor area

BETT Show 2013 – main exhibitor area

During the first day, especially during the first part of the day, it was very easy to get lost. Secondly the place is so huge, the exhibitors so many, that no amount of maps will help in trying to focus on where to go, who to talk to and what to see. It’s like a huge feeling of helplessness as you’re continuously bombarded with information.

It took me a while to find where I had to go for the conference I had registered for which was Technology in Higher Education, and the first session I attended was the one by Richard Watson: The Architecture of Uncertainty. I thought it was a pretty good talk, albeit some of Mr Watson’s remarks, were in my opinion rather bold. I did agree with quite a lot that he said though. Some interesting remarks he passed concerned the use of iPads by adolescents. In Malta, right now, there is quite an amount of debate going on, as both political parties, in their race to win the upcoming elections, are throwing off promises of huge amounts of technological gizmos and gadgets, as if there is no tomorrow. Both are, in my opinion, far off the mark and have very little idea of the implications and consequences of what they are saying. Mr. Watson in fact, during this first talk, gave some insights into the dangers associated with literally throwing in technology tools in the classroom. First of all he started with a bold statement that iPads given to 10-14 year olds is killing off the teachers’ ability to engage students. Although certain technology devices, provide a variety of sources of information, one has to depart from the premise that creativity needs fostering from a variety of sources. He described how many applications are heavily formatted and this can cause an issue when it comes to creativity because most of the things that can be done within these applications, are standardized in a way that students cannot go beyond the set parameters of the same technology.  Future cannot be predicted – the future is rather uncertain with more than one possible outcome. Although once again, in Malta, many are saying, books will be changed to e-books, Mr. Watson says “Forget that all books will be e-books”. All predictions have hidden assumptions. They fail to take into account desires and wishes of users. Analysts look at data from recent past experience – but the way things are changing we cannot. The way our society is changing cannot be predicted.
So we have to ask ourselves: “What is education for?” I wish to ask politicians in Malta these questions: How would you define education? Do you think the role of education, TODAY, is to pass exams? Or to instil a sense of belonging or create a sense of initiative? Because answers to these two questions, by necessity demands a completely different strategy in the adoption of technology.

It is interesting that many people here at BETT are speaking about the Tsunami of technologies hitting the classroom. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that this is leading towards better literacies or better people emerging from the formal education system. This view was also echoed in a separate talk delivered at the BETT Arena – Global Voices in Education. Bette Chambers, revealed in a very insightful talk, that studies and research are showing that the increased use of technology does not necessarily improve learning. Now here I cannot afford to be misunderstood. I, an advocate of the use of technology

approaches in the classroom, am not saying, let’s go back to the 20th century classroom.

Better Chambers - Global Voices in Education "What evidence is there that this will improve learning?"

Better Chambers – Global Voices in Education “What evidence is there that this will improve learning?

I am totally against the ‘sage on the stage’. I am totally against mass standardisation. I am totally against preparing our students to become factory production workers. I firmly believe that education has so much more to give. Bette Chambers says: Technology is a tool. Would you use a hammer to paint?  The same applies to iPads in the classroom! She says: Technologies will only have an impact on student learning if they are used appropriately. If we really want to include tools and approaches in the classroom the one important question we have to ask our politicians is: if you want to tamper with education, and start adding stuff to the classroom, what evidence is there that this will improve learning?

The keynote by Anthony Salcito, the VP of Microsoft, was also quite insightful. He spoke a lot about technology and also about what we are doing with technology. Technology is NOT the issue of our education failures. It’s all about changes and attitudes.
He asks: how technology can be best served? It is all about the PEDAGOGY. And in Malta, right now, pedagogy is the one word which is the most overlooked and under-rated.

Another interesting talk was delivered by Dave White, on the use of Social media at Higher Education. Social Media is all about presence. We don’t need to make a distinction between the real and the virtual when it comes to social media. The university setting has changed: geography is no longer the key marker for where you are. WiFi is the students’ favorite technology. Of course students cannot engage unless they get online. The second favorite technology is Google. Now I ask, in Malta, we have placed the interactive whiteboard in the classroom, we are going to provide tablets, etc. BUT what about the Internet infrastructure? Some schools still lack WiFi connectivity. How can you employ a technology if the technology doesn’t exist. What about the Internet sites? Why is it that in Malta sites that teachers and students can access are still controlled by a civil servant at MITA? Why is it that when I ask my student teacher trainees to access a variety of educational sites from a classroom in a school they are told that all the sites are by default blacklisted and teachers don’t have the full rights to actually manage what goes on in the online classroom? What are we expecting to emerge from such a system. We are trying to put out the fires of creativity and innovation, rather than spark them off by standardizing everything and by making sure to remove any decision making power teachers may have.

I think that the majority of speakers during this first day of BETT have emphasised that teachers and educators really hold the key to the best education we can give to the learners, of all ages, and coming from all directions of life. It is not just about technologies or tools, it’s all about empowerment, empowerment of teachers, empowerment of students, empowerment of the community. I listened to a really nice talk, delivered by 10 year old kids, who were describing the way they used technologies during one typical day at school here. They had no fancy gadgets or gizmos, they simply used Google. But rather than just Google, it was the way they were using it, how they were using the apps, what they were getting from them that was the key.

I think that we really need to get our acts together when it comes to Education. There are too many people out there taking decisions for us educators without proper knowledge of what is really going on out there, and without proper reference to studies that have been academically validated. We, as Educators, have a great lot of tools at our disposal. Many are free, accessible, open and even flashy. But it’s up to us, to tell decision makers what we need, and what we require to make Education good!