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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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…

Education is Broken … let’s fix it (not) with the technology glue …

This really good article written by Kentaro Toyama and published via The Chronicle of Higher Education. In his article Toyama, traces his own journey into his experience with the integration of technology for learning.This has been a conundrum which many policy makers have been faced with ever since technology started making its ways in education. The author clearly points out that the success of the use of technology, especially in education, doesn’t really depend on the technology or on the device, or any other tool. It really depends on the user – the teacher, the student, the parent. Education then starts to be perceived as a mesh of responsibility that needs to be carried by everyone who is involved. What we have instead is this… the policy maker decides on the use of a particular technology, the technology is implemented (fully or maybe not) in the classrooms, the teacher has to make use of it (even if he or she has to create makeshift activities to fit it in an existing structure. The end result seems to indicate that teachers become unhappy as they speak of technology that is foisted on them, the students are still pretty much disengaged, and lifelong learning becomes just rhetoric.

Last week I overheard a conversation between two teachers, as it inevitably turned to technology and how it’s affecting them. One teacher told the other that she doesn’t really use the Interactive Whiteboard because after all she sees no point in using it. The other told her that she’s lucky to have an Interactive Whiteboard “at least” because she had to move the portable projector around to be able to project something in her class. They were muttering that they couldn’t keep up with all the changes they were supposed to be doing in their classroom. They mentioned that the next upcoming change is a learning management system and after that – who knows? They just gave up because in the end, they said, the people who decide on all of these changes, leave them to cope with them. And without the right supporting structures, who would monitor them to see what they are doing?

Maybe I shouldn’t generalise from just one conversation, and maybe there are teachers who really are struggling to fix education as best as they can. However I think the educational structures in general are not helping at all. In education there is more lacking than just tools and devices. How long will we keep teaching that ICT is all about devices, or all about how to use office applications? How long will we take to realise that that the digital era we live in is so much more than the technology?

Education in the Digital Era #EdDigEra – The Opening Session (my thoughts)

Today I am attending the conference that is taking place in Brussels – Education in Digital Era.

IMG_2984I have been looking forward to attend this and I must say that if the opening session is anything to go by for today’s presentations, then this promises to be a very inspiring conference. The opening session saw a line up of Stefania GIANNINI as the Italian Minister of Education, Tibor NAVRACSICS, the Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Silvia COSTA the Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, Lord David PUTTNAM – Chair of Atticus Education. I must say that all of the speakers, gave us some thought-provoking challenges in their discussion, though I believe that Lord David Puttnam’s presentation was not only inspiring – it was a reflection of what we are doing and discussing here.

Some of the thoughts I grasped from what these speakers told us included the emphasis on skills more than just the technology fazes. Stefania Giannini spoke about the need for competitiveness achieved though collaboration. She shared a vision of a Europe seen as a singular campus, where all teachers, students and researchers are free and able to share their experiences, their expertise and their education. Tibor Navracsics spoke about the need of going beyond being connected to being competent. From my own experience with teachers, they are overwhelmed by their notions that young people ‘know’ how to manipulate technology. However we also know that accessing technology, or being able to tamper with the technology, does not make one competent in the skills that are needed for today’s digital practices. Silvia Costa spoke about some statistics…. she made a reference to a study, that shows that whilst 70% of teachers recognise the importance of digital learning, only 20% are taught by digitally competent teachers. Teachers play a fundamental role not only in facilitating online materials but also to impart digital skills. This brings us to an important aspect of education in and for the digital era: we need to invest heavily in high quality teacher education – that would impart the right digital skills to these people who will be facing young people.IMG_2987

Lord David Puttnam made reference to the challenges that are faced by these very young people today – the challenges of the world and the society they are growing up in.  One of the strongest emphasis Lord Puttnam makes is on the need for direction, to give focus to the young people about who they are, who they want to become. In another interesting, yet potentially dangerous statistic Lord Puttnam brings to light a recent study in higher education, where 96% of college principals believe that their institutions are successfully preparing young people for the world of work. In comparison, only 14% of recent college graduals agree whilst even lower, 12% of employers agree! This is, according to Lord Puttnam, not a gap, but a gulf that we need to close. One other inspiring thought coming from Lord Puttnam is the need for resilience – a life skill to be taught. Talent and imagination, commitment and belief are some of the factors that contribute to this resilience. Lord Puttnam described 5 different mind sets that influence the attitudes in Education (I only managed to get the first four!) : early adopters, open but constrained, struggling skeptics, passionate traditionalists. This really made me strike a comparison with some of the teachers and even colleagues I know who I would also classify with these categories. I think the ones who scare me the most, and who i feel I would need to work with the most are the passionate traditionalists who feel that the way they are teaching and the way they have been teaching for the last 20 years or so, is good, and has produced some good teachers or learners, and therefore they don’t feel the need for change. This is dangerous and scary. Lord Puttnam also reminded us about what happens when teachers start to talk, when they overcome the barrier they themselves erect when it comes to sharing their teaching – experience and expertise. As an example TES Connect boasts some 300million downloads with 2 million registered users and with a collection of shared TES resources of which 47% are created by teachers. As a final note to this short blog post I would like to include a wonderful reference of one example of a product of digital technology, and the power of the crowds… and sharing….this is Eric Whitaker’s virtual choir.