Child’s play

Browsing through my Facebook feed, I noticed that a colleague posted this article which caught my eye – The Joyful Illiterate Kindergarteners of Finland. What prompted me to actually read the article more than the title, was the fact that I have a 6-year old son. Since children start school late in Finland, I got this mental image of my son, school and the word joyful… and I knew that in Malta, and for my son, joyful is not how he would describe his scholarly experience.

Let me first start by reflecting a bit on the article. Even though the author compares Finland to the US, I find that in Malta we can compare ourselves with the type of instruction he describes as being characteristic of US schools. Just yesterday I was discussing with another parent about the extent of ‘literacy’ that our children are being subjected to. In Finland, according to the author, the concept of literacy, whether this is numerical or language-related, is integrated into daily playful activities. Even dragging sticks in the mud, and pretending that the children are building dams, can lead to various literacy skills if the teacher intervenes at the right moment. Children at that level are not only exposed to physical activities, but they carry out serious play that can affect (in a positive way of course) the children’s cognitive, emotional and social development. Some children cannot communicate with others, not because they are not able to but simply because they haven’t been given the necessary space for them to develop this.

Now let’s flip back to Malta, and to our children’s current instruction. My son is a 6 year old attending a primary school. Never mind the hours that the article refers to where the children have to sit and write (so that they can improve their literacy skills!!!). It seems that in Malta we are driven by this ever increasing need of getting children flowing down the academic avenue right from when they are born. I don’t know whether this is our ingrained culture or whether we truly believe that we are indeed helping achieve higher levels of education by starting the infamous writing and reading early on in life. But just one look at our number of graduates, or maybe at our levels of early school leavers, or those who opt out of certification-led examinations at the age of 16 or 18, is for me enough to get me thinking whether the way we are approaching early and primary education is the right way. I have heard teachers (at all levels of education) complain that there is nothing they can do if the syllabi they are given are rigid and require the traditional, teacher-driven approach (to manage to “teach” all the syllabus on time), leaving the children in a state of passivity as they read and write (I ask – where’s the play?) …. so whilst the Finnish counterparts of my son’s age category are out there playing, building dams and going on outings, singing and being joyful, our children are doing written homework (after school) only to go back to school, to write more and then sit and do more written and reading exercises.

Now I have to admit it has been a long time since I’ve actually sat inside a primary classroom and observed what goes on. What I know is what I gather from colleagues, and also from what my son tells me. However I do find myself rather baffled. Are our policy makers, and decision takers – or maybe those people who draw up syllabi, aware that when they speak about increasing literacy standards, there are other ways of improving literacy? Are these people aware that people do learn from play and fun and that these are  ultimately not just buzz words but that is quite real? How can we expect to change cultures at a higher education level, when the moment our children start going to school we start telling them that play is not and cannot equate to learning?

I heard a story recently by a colleague – where a school administrator was talking about decreasing (the already severely dwindled) school outings, as these were evidently not useful to increase the benchmark test assessment (similar to PISA) results in a subject (he was referring to 9-10 year olds). According to this person, traditional teaching using workbooks is what would raise literacy levels and not outings. My 2 cents worth is that whilst in academia and research we speak at a certain frequency, those people out there who are in contact with or who are responsible for whoever is in contact with our children, are really not tuned in on the same frequency. We’re talking two completely different languages, and we’re both convinced that each is saying (and doing) the right thing.

What is right? What do parents want? What do policy makers want? What do teachers and school administrators want?

I sincerely don’t know at this point. What I do know is what my child wants … he wants to play. Last time he looked at me and very solemnly he told me : Ma, are you a teacher? I said yes… His reply was … so I deserve more of a rest than you because guess what? it is us children who spend all day working hard at school. I didn’t reply.

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Help! My parents are millennials (A title borrowed from the Time magazine cover story!)

So I just came across this cover story as I was morning browsing through my Facebook newsfeed… and it sort of got me thinking. How different are the new millennials to people of my generation or that of my parents? How differently will they raise their kids?

The cover story describes the lives of two parents, one of whom is the stay at home one (he happens to be the dad) whilst the other works (that’s the mum), and their two children. The parents had earlier on (since the pregnancy) decided to document day by day, their children’s lives as vegans using social media (Instagram and blogs). Now some might object – saying ‘oh come on – they’re only kids, they don’t seem to have a say about being in the public eye’, but then I dare anyone who’s holier than thou, to prove that they have never ever shared anything about themselves on social media.

This is not about the sharing per se. It’s about the how and the why of sharing. Sharing is about passing on a message but what some people fail to understand, is that it is ok to share snippets of lives if this can be of benefit to someone else. In this case these parents seem to be passing the message about sustainable living through continuously documenting the growth of their children.

In these past couple of years, we have seen a huge increase in Facebook use amongst the Maltese population. According to the site We are Social “Malta puts in an impressive showing at 58% (social media) penetration, with Scandinavian countries rounding out the rest of the top 5”. Social media places Facebook as the most popular platform chosen in Western European states. What we have also seen is the massive growth of people putting on all sorts of useless banter (for want of a better word), that can incite or provoke all sorts of reactions. We have also seen people committing gaffes responsible for either losing jobs, or getting to be in the eye of the proverbial storm. The reason has nothing to do with digital natives, millennials, boomers or whatever definition we might give. This all has to do with the good old-fashioned common sense and with a level of education that goes beyond the mere acquisition of grades and degrees and more into the ability to think about the consequences of one’s actions and words in a critical manner. I can also see that what our young people are getting from the messages of some of the elders who are also present on Facebook (not generalising here – but trying to give an overall image of the feelings I get when browsing the web) is that 1. every little thing that you do (whether or not it might make sense to have it) has to be documented on FB, and 2. Gather your pack of wolves (try having as many likes as you can to your posts) so that you can collectively attack anyone who either takes your fancy or else does not agree with what you say.

My 2cents thoughts about this is that social media can be made to work differently – it can be used (as it can sometimes be seen) to pass on messages to help improve people’s quality of life. We have to understand that it is not the social media that are causing the problems. It is the people who are using the social media, that are causing all kinds of mess and confusion. How we use social media is pretty much determined by our good sense, but also by our level of humanity and education. If schools had worked more with millennials to help them understand this, then maybe we might have a more civilised democratic and useful presence on social media. However there is still hope. Will schools rise up to the challenge and help young people understand digital citizenship or will we still persist in teaching ECDL skills and thinking that we are doing our part?

My #TwistedPair challenge: it’s all about Spiderman & Paolo Freire

No intro needed!

No intro needed! Source: http://tinyurl.com/on8jxal

I have recently been invited by Prof. Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) to take up the twisted pair challenge, and as I was thinking about it, my 6-year old son walked in wearing his spiderman costume (despite the fact that carnival is far away) 🙂 My son loves super heroes… he is always changing his future plans, from wanting to become Spiderman to Batman to the Flash – and he has the costumes to morph into any one of them as befits the occasion. Seeing him always makes me wonder about his future and wondering about his future makes me think about teachers, not only those who I teach, guide and follow, but also about the future generations.

“Not everyone is meant to make a difference. But for me, the choice to lead an ordinary life is no longer an option.” – do you know who said this? Spiderman aka Peter Parker of course – way back in 2002.

I think this quote very much applies to teachers. Not everybody is born to make a difference in the world – but teachers have no choice – their profession demands it. Does this sound rhetorical? Cheesy? The matter of fact is that teachers count. One aspect of my job is that I get to meet and listen to the voices of those who will become teachers in the near future. And sometimes these voices don’t sound so convinced that they can really make a difference in the lives of the people they will encounter and teach on the way. And I feel that most of this arises from the fear of making changes or of embracing those restless, dissonant souls who are searching for much more than becoming merely passive recipients.

Paolo Freire

Paolo Freire
Source: http://tinyurl.com/pspjqc5

And here comes in Paolo Freire, whose own restless soul wanted to bring education to the poor, by empowering them with critical thought through literacy. These words – critical thought, literacy, empowerment – they seem to slide off certain tongues. Sometimes colleagues, researchers, administrators, policy makers seem to use them as buzz words – could it be that maybe they use them to show that they know such words exist? But to implement them in practice – ah now that is the real challenge – is left up to the teacher as she inhabits her classroom space. And invariably I have seen those same teachers who write wonderful words about these words, fail to rise up to the challenge – most often as they are driven by syllabus restrictions, and administrators or heads breathing hotly down their necks but also because it’s easy to reproduce the kind of teaching that they were taught by. It is this that they know and are familiar with – I’ve been there myself – this approach can give you assurances that you can retain control – control of the class, control over what goes on in the minds of the learners, control that then reaches its apex when the students sit for their exam, and obtain a passmark, through all the effort that you (not them) have put in. One quote by Freire which really hits the mark here, and which I usually share with my own students as future teachers is this (from the Pedagogy of the Oppressed) :

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other…”

Knowledge is not achieved by transfer no matter which tools are used for that transfer. We need to change our actions to match our words and truly work towards becoming more critical – starting with ourselves and our perspectives.

So there we go, all of us who are teachers but who are first and foremost, educators who are passionate about diffusing positive energies for creating inquiring, inquisitive minds, that can deal with innovation and invention we need to follow in the steps of our super heroes to be able to bring about a change in the world we live in, for today but also for tomorrow. And for the sake of all the 6-year olds out there who still believe in super heroes, let’s all act like one – and as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker  – “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility!”.

#PASCAL2015 – Some thoughts and reflections …

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The view of the sea in Catania

This is the second day of the PASCAL conference 2015 which is being held in Catania.

First of all a few words (or sentences) about Catania – it’s Mediterranean! very very Mediterranean with its wonderful climate
and the beautiful surrounding sea, cultural richness, and crazy crazy driving.

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The courtyard seen from the Aula Magna of the University of Catania

The Universita’ degli Studi di Catania, has been a very gracious host, providing a very nice setting for a great kick off to the first day of the conference yesterday.

I have to say that this is the first conference I am attending in a long time, where education is really at the focus of the discussions. Usually the conferences I attend, tend to be more on the computer science with a side of education. But here education is being discussed from all its multiple facets and perspectives and this is fresh! Technology is being granted ubiquitous credit as its use is subtly implied and definitely visible in many aspects of the research being presented. Technology becomes the underlying foundation for the research practices impinging on the real societal issues being discussed here.

On the first day, we had two very good keynote sessions, the first one being delivered by Professor Piyushimita Thakuriah, from the University of Glasgow, focusing on big data and its impact on the urban economy. In essence big data can be defined as that data which is being continuously generated by humans but which has not really been designed for research purposes. Most often we are designing research processes so that we collect specific data which we need to analyse to answer a specific research question or address a problem. Big data starts from the data. The data is out there – being generated. The question is: how can we harness it and use it to help society grow and overcome its many rising challenges? Professor Thakuriah, describes this process as the Big Data process, a pyramid structure where urban infrastructure can feed the data analytics for knowledge discovery to ultimately lead to an impact on the urban economy itself. So as an example – in Malta we have this huge traffic problem – did I say huge? let’s make it massive. Weather predictions, Twitter or Facebook data, can be used to predict traffic conditions identifying the areas that would suffer the most, thus finding strategies to overcome the challenges. Of course one actually does need to get down and tackle the problems in a pragmatic tangible way once these have been identified but the use of this lurking data, can certainly help to that extent.

The keynote that followed was from Professor Ronsisvalle from the University of Catania. His keynote that was about the Future of the University was just brilliant. It was sharp, witty and funny in the right measure – and it struck some chords. Professor Ronsivalle started his keynote by questioning the realistic nature of the universities’ objectives and targets for their professors and their students. The reality is that some of these expectations are not really realistic IF we want academia to work and function according to its true spirit. Unfortunately speaking from the perspective of the Maltese experience the pressures on University and Higher Education from society are huge – and these are in my opinion partly due to the fact that there is ignorance about the roles of the academics. Such enlightenment can only come through the dissemination of what universities actually do. Again speaking from my own experience at the University in Malta, I would say that the university tries quite hard to push its message across society through a variety of initiatives and events. But my concern really is that this message is still not coming across as it should be, at times giving more rise to polemics. Of course I am not saying that there is no room for improvement and that we can’t be criticised but the issue here is that community outreach needs to be more pragmatic – more tangible.

On the matter of communities – I think that my take home key word for this conference has been Communities. Most of the presentations I have sat through yesterday afternoon and this morning focused on the following keywords: Communities, Collaboration, Engagement. It is possible that one of the ways, in which to really get the message across is that of actively involving and engaging specific sections of communities to tangibly reach solutions to problems and challenges that are affecting the local society.

Sometimes, we have to come off our high horses and remember that our primary role as academics, is to research ways on how to improve the quality of life in society and to inform, guide and help the implementation process for this.

On this subject, tomorrow I will be speaking about the possibility of using MOOCs and alternate reality games to engage citizens more actively in societal issues. More to come in the coming days…