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Category Archives: 21st Century Skills

Five Apps that Support Student Voice in the Classroom

Essential to a healthy diaologism in the classroom is the need to foster student voice. Students need time to explore their ideas, formulate and reformulate thoughts and sharpen their understandings in their own words. Despite being perhaps the most crucial aspect of the educational process, it is often the least scaffolded and least supported. Student essays, for example are frequently corrected and handed back, but very little is done to offer students usable strategies to organize their thoughts better or focus their thinking. Digital technologies do, however, offer some affordances to help teachers scaffold student voice better.

1. Google Docs

One of the problems with paper is that teachers can only really see what students are writing after they have written it. Even if students hand in a draft version of their thoughts, the difference between a draft and a final version is often cosmetic at best. Unless time is spent on the revision process, and this time is usually not available in the classroom, thoughts and arguments are set in place by the end of an initial draft. At worst the final copy is frequently just a neat version of the draft! One of the key affordances of Google Docs, however, is that it allows the teacher, and other students, to read and comment while the document is in the process of being written. This represents unparalleled access to thoughts being formed during the process of writing, as immediate, almost, as discussion. I enjoy the ability to reflect before commenting on what a student is writing. Sometimes in a discussion moments are missed. Just a few moments of reflection allow more considered responses.

As a teacher you can also create documents which serve as templates scaffolding thinking, working towards a formulation of their thoughts, leading up to the final presentation of ideas. This offers very real opportunities for teachers to teach thinking and writing skills, beyond anything that paper can offer. Documents can be shared for class or group discussion.

2. Flipgrid

While Google Docs provide opportunities for scaffolding writing, Flipgrid provides ways for students to record brief messages using a web camera or mobile phone and posting them on a wall to exchange ideas, or reflect on a topic. Students can delete at any stage and recommence a recording. They can view what peers are posting and if you upgrade to a paid version, comment on others’ posts.

These posts are then available to further in-class discussion or as the basis for a piece of writing. Students can speak off the cuff, or prepare what they are going to say for more formal purposes. Teachers can also use the platform to introduce a topic, or to add comments at any stage of a discussion.

Flipgrid is thus a useful tool for monitoring students’ thoughts and using this to help scaffold their thinking.

3. VideoPad

VideoPad is powerful video editing software which can be freely downloaded and used by students to create and edit videos in a sharable format. Students can use footage captured on their devices or stills images. They can add narration, subtitles or animations. Even green-screen capability is included. Clips can be precisely edited to put together a presentation using dramatization or explanation.

Creating a short movie is an effective way for students to organise their thoughts and present their ideas in formats other than the essay or PowerPoint presentation. It allows students to respond to literary texts or present content in different ways. The process is engaging and fun. The ability to be creative around how narratives are structured and woven together makes this kind of digital authoring an excellent way of varying the diet in the classroom.

What I like about VideoPad in particular amongst the video-editing options available is its relatively sophisticated functionality alongside its fairly simple interface. Importing footage in different formats can be an issue, but the software is quite robust. The ability to easily add sub-titles and captions, and to overlay more than one audio track is a definite plus. Students will often spend a great deal of time creating movie projects so it is best to set time limits!

4. WordPress

WordPress is a blogging platform that provides students with an excellent platform for creating opportunities for students to write in authentic, or relatively authentic contexts, with a real public in mind. You can create an account for each student which allows them to author blog content and publish to the site. It is a great platform for a class magazine. Students will often write fairly telegraphically and you will probably need to scaffold their first contributions to ensure that they are meaty enough, and set the tone for the submissions that follow. You can create blog sites around particular themes, such as an historical period or literary work, where students will contribute pieces that appear as “newspaper” like entries exploring themes and topics being studied.

The genre of writing that can be done on a blog can vary from pure creative writing to perspective exploration or even factual discursive writing. This flexibility is useful and the same platform can be used. You can use a blog to collaborate between different classes, schools or continents, exploring a common theme, topic or problem. Students can leave comments on each other’s posts which can be very useful. Appointing moderators is a good idea.

5. PowerPoint

PowerPoints Presentations can be the worst things ever. But if done well, nothing beats a PowerPoint for supporting a well-delivered presentation. It is available on most people’s computers, has a host of functionalities and is portable and so ubiquitous as to provide few technical challenges. Students enjoy using the software and if you take the time to help them create presentations that complement their verbal presentations, for example using only keywords and images, students learn a very valuable and marketable life skill.

Most classrooms at some stage or another will call on students to make a verbal presentation, and the use of a PowerPoint can not only help a student through what for many is a nerve-wracking experience, it can also add to the presentation greatly.

Giving students an opportunity to organise and voice their ideas and receive feedback, preferably as early and as often as possible is at the heart of education. technology can help make that thinking more visible to the teacher and to peers, and thus invite a dialog between teacher and students over how best to communicate one’s ideas.

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The Power Of Voice – Reflective Collaboration

I recently came across a site called Flipgrid, which allows teachers to set up a grid which can be shared with the students in your class, or with other classes inside the school or globally. It offers a great opportunity to give students the capability of recording themselves and sharing ideas with other students. The free account allows a teacher to set up one grid. You can delete this to set up a second. Each grid does allow for multiple topics, however. This means that you can set a topic for discussion or for feedback after a project and students can record themselves (90 seconds on a free account) and post it to the topic grid. Other students with a link to the grid can then view that contribution. You end up with a grid of speaking heads which anyone with access to the grid can view.

Students can create their video using a QR Code and mobile phone, or from a PC or laptop using a web camera. They can listen to their recording and re-record multiple times before publishing to the grid. The interface is simple to use and clean. This makes it a perfect platform on which teachers can create different kinds of projects.

I used it for a mini Poetry Slam. My students wrote a short poem and then recorded themselves performing the poem, publishing it to the grid. By sharing the access with other classes you can achieve an inter-school poetry slam with absolute ease. It was highly motivating for students to be able to publish their performance in this way, and to view others. It also allowed me to easily set up a panel of judges to award certificates in different categories!

This platform also allows teachers to easily flip the feedback. Many classroom tasks and assignments end with a report back, feedback session of some kind. But there is often not enough time in class to do justice to this. If students are able to record their feedback report, it can be viewed by the class before the next session and used as the basis for further work, or viewed in class to form the basis for in-class discussion. If it is being used between schools, perhaps in different time zones, many of the difficulties associated with downloading or formatting video files disappears! As a teacher you can record a brief synopsis of what is required as the first recording in the grid.

The 90 second limitation should be seen as an asset! Brevity is usually a good thing, and enough substance can certainly be condensed into 90 seconds! Students are not limited to the number of contributions they can make either! They could use a mobile device to record a group report back, or record individual contributions to a group effort as they see fit.

Because students are able to view others, and listen to what they have said before they record their own and delete and restart their own recordings if necessary, the video contains some of the immediacy of a quick response with some ability to reflect on what others have said. This offers a very valuable space for both reflection and collaboration. The platform has been set up to encourage discussion and debate, to spark controversy, but it can easily be used for more traditional pedagogical aims such as exploring different points of view in History or Literature, or reflecting on a Science experiment, or for a quick research summary.

Some teachers may feel that the simplicity of the interface restricts possibilities. You cannot upload files or assignments alongside the video, for example, but I believe the simplicity makes the platform more accessible and flexible.

 

 

Why should I Remember it, if I can Google it?

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I remembered the quote, of course, but had to Google who said it. It was Alphonse Karr, the nineteenth century French critic, journalist and novelist. That just about sums up my relationship with Google. As one who was born before the Internet, I tend to rely on my memory, but I use Google to double-check, and find out the bits I don’t know, or have forgotten. My sons, digital natives, born in the Internet Age, seem to have a different approach entirely. When my eldest came home and announced that he had to learn a list of a thousand words for his Latin exam, I was horrified that his teacher could have given them such a list just before the exams and expected them to learn it virtually overnight! Then I found out he’d been given the list eighteen months previously!

latinWhy hadn’t he bothered to learn the words when they were given to him? Well, it appears that you can use Google translate to meet all your Latin vocabulary needs, so there’s no pressure  to memorize long lists to do your homework! His marks had always been good so he never felt the need to commit the words to memory

And then I found out that in his Physics exam they are given the formulae, given the periodic table, given everything that back in my day we had to learn off by heart!

With 24/7 access to Google, it seems that memory is dead!

Except that it isn’t! To use Google at all you need something inside your own head, something to guide your searches, and to assess the validity of what comes out at the other end! To evaluate any search engine query implies a scaffold of knowledge upon which you can hang the new knowledge. While the Internet presents an enormous potential for expanding, and holding our knowledge, it cannot replace knowledge itself. It cannot replace the thought processes and thinking that went into creating it, or the thinking that goes into recreating it in our own heads.

This puts me in mind of Daniel Kahneman’s notion of Fast and Slow Thinking. He characterises two types of thought – System 1 thought, which is fast, subconscious, stereotypical thought. We reach conclusions based on recognised patterns and deeply ingrained metaphorical categories. System 2 thought, on the other hand is slow, effortful, consciously arrived at: logically thought out thought. It is far less frequent than system 1! With the same inputs, the conclusions reached by these two types of thought may be entirely different.

Both these types of thought are necessary, or at least unavoidable. Sometimes we need to act quickly, and reach conclusions rapidly. We cannot always retire to a barrel like Diogenes to think things out thoroughly. The main purpose of a sound education, framed this way, is to create deeply ingrained habits of thought which will render our fast thinking more efficacious and sound. If we are used to thinking issues through, our initial intuitions should be more thoughtful. Hopefully. If we have spent time learning how to think things through logically and thoroughly, our basic instincts should be more sound.

I have a suspicion that our relationship to memory needs a similar division into what we have committed to memory,and what we have available to us stored in our network! We cannot possibly remember everything! We have at our fingertips an almost instantly available resource allowing us to find out just about anything, anywhere, any time. This may include facts and information that we have not previously processed in our minds. We need this type of information often to make quick decisions about whether to sell our shares in South American zinc, or to determine what snake has just bitten us, and what action to take. A quick Google search revealed that indeed researchers talk about two types of memory. Memory which is external, stored on paper, in group knowledge or, increasingly on computers or networks is called transactive memory.

We also need, however, a wide range of information committed to memory which allows us to assess and evaluate other information. I have a feeling that anyone who tries to use Google translate, for example, to read Cicero in Latin will come completely awry unless they already have a large number of Latin words in their memory already. According to research (Sparrow, et al, 2011), we apparently remember far less when we know we will be able to Google the answer when we need to. We are growing more dependent upon remembering where we can find the information that we need, than in actually remembering the information. We are in short, becoming symbiotic with our machines.

This is a somewhat disturbing thought, but the growing importance of transactive memory indicates the increasing degree to which our cognition is social. It is easy, though, to draw the conclusion from this that we do not need to memorize anything anymore. I suspect it simply means we will have to remember more, so that all that extra information we can access, makes sense!

References

Betsy Sparrow, et al. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, Science 333, 776 (2011); DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745

 

In Search Of The Holy Grail – How do ICTs foster Critical Thinking?

DSC00161The Holy Grail of ICT integration in the classroom is that almost mythical quest for the application of ICTs to foster critical thinking. The assumption that the introduction of ICTs would somehow magically transform teaching practice, leading to more learner-centred, problem-based, cognitively rich classrooms has not borne fruit. I am not saying that ICTs have not had an impact, or that they have not been used properly. There are many excellent examples of good practice, and yet the effective use of ICTs to uniquely engender critical thinking is far rarer. Critical thinking is extremely hard to define, and happens far less frequently than we would like to think in any case. Kahneman’s notion of fast and slow thinking: system 1 thinking which is based on intuition and emotion rather than system 2 thinking which is more deliberate and logical, illuminates the problem. Most of our thinking is rooted in fast, quick reliance on assumptions and pre-digested opinions rather than consciously working through an argument and examining evidence.

In the classroom much of what passes for critical thinking is actually firmly rooted in the rehearsal of handed-down opinions and prejudices. I would contend that the prime characteristic of critical thinking is that student’s assumptions are questioned, the reasons for believing something are examined, and that arguments are unpacked and critiqued. I’m not convinced that this happens as often as we would wish, and sometimes it is not happening even when we think it is.

Actually this is very rare in life as well. Most of us live inside a universe of comfortably held views which are seldom questioned, and outside of which we seldom step. The problem is not really that ICTs have been ineffective. The problem is that we just don’t think enough! We never have.

Can ICTs be used within a classroom to change any of this?

I would argue that just as the Holy Grail is chimerical, so is the search for any single tool or application that will uniquely foster critical thinking. Just as a piece of paper and a pencil can be used to write meaningless doggerel or a thought-provoking essay, the tools themselves are not guarantees of any result. You can use Skype, for example to talk to your granny or to Stephen Hawking, and the likelihood of any serious critical thinking emerging is based more on the content than the tool. And yet tools do have affordances, properties which enable certain types of interactions. Because Skype enables communication, it can certainly enable critical thinking. Because Google docs enables synchronous collaborative writing, the likelihood of greater reflection in the writing process is increased. Tools may not guarantee any result, but they are not neutral, as is often claimed. ICTs do have a role to play in transforming our classrooms into thinking spaces.And yet no single tool can be claimed as the holy grail of critical thinking!

The greatest exemplar of critical thinking that we have is probably the Socratic method, a pedagogical methodology in which the teacher challenges a student through dialogue, to question their own thought and develop more rigorous and robust arguments. The teacher will help the student expose weaknesses and contradictions in their thought, highlight contrary evidence and scaffold the process by probing and questioning, as well as modelling thinking. The key feature of the Socratic method is dialogue, that the student develops their ideas under the mentorship of a teacher who teases out the student’s thought, and offers input from a more experienced standpoint. Dialogue is essentially the bringing together of interactivity, of communication, with collaboration, the joint development of an argument or idea.

Socrates had the luxury of a one-on-one engagement with his students, and was free from the need to pursue an imposed syllabus or common core standards, or to produce a battery of continuous assessments. He didn’t even have to coach soccer to the Lower Vs! I’m not saying that the Socratic method cannot work in a whole class situation, but it’s application is constrained, and often truncated by the annoying ringing of bells or the intervention of another student. Our schools are simply not set up for prolonged interrogation of thought. Our schools are predicated on system 1 thinking, the acquisition and memorization of second-hand ideas presented in bite-sized chunks called lessons.

Some have argued that a key affordance of ICTs is that they might enable greater personalization of learning, that students could progress on their own individually tailored learning paths. This idea, while seductive, is tantalizingly out of reach currently. The Personalisation by Pieces approach offers insight into some of the ways it might work – through skills ladders and peer mentorship, and we should be vigorously trying to find ways to make this work. But for a classroom teacher in 2015, it appears as far away as it was when the idea first came out. Students are kept so busy in any given school day that the kinds of solutions teachers can apply such as using technology to add remediation and enrichment tasks are difficult to apply in the face of a relentless syllabus. Unless the entire system swings over to a personalised approach, individual teachers’ hands are tied.

Nevertheless this does open up the question of the centrality of infrastructure and architecture. Perhaps we should look at the role of ICT infrastructure and the types of classroom interactions that can be supported through this architecture. Perhaps the unique contribution ICTs can make to thinking lies not in individual properties, but in the aggregation of their affordances. Put another way, perhaps it is the ability to bring together communication and collaborative tools which uniquely affords critical thinking in the classroom? Stevan Harnad’s notion of a fourth cognitive revolution brought about by the bringing together of the immediacy and interactivity of oracy with the reflective power of literacy in the nearly synchronous world enabled by the Internet is an idea which is pregnant with possibility. The unique enabling of communication and collaboration through a networked society is a powerful notion which has inspired many classroom interventions. But the mere addition of near simultaneous communication and collaborative tools does not guarantee critical thinking. And most classrooms are not routinely connected in this way. If it is to happen it must be through the provision of an adequate architecture.

A Learning Management System is a must for any teacher seriously engaged in integrating digital tools within their classroom. Digital tools mean digital output, and imply the need for some interface for pulling it all together. That interface is effectively your LMS. Teachers who simply ask students to email them their digital assignments and then record assessments on a spreadsheet are using Outlook and Excel as their LMS. Those who use Moodle, Edmodo or Google Classroom will have custom-built tools to achieve classroom routines such as instruction, assessment, feedback or discussion. Most LMSes are pretty good at hosting digital SCORMs, podcasts or videos to supplement instruction, and of enabling assessment of digitally submitted assignments using rubrics or online annotation. Feedback is also a common-place function, but discussion is currently a weakness in most LMSes. Chat and forum modules are usually built-in, but do not generally commonly foster genuine discussion.

Much the same could be said of classroom discussions as well.How much of it is on topic? How much of it is insightful rather than trivial? The problem is not with the tools – it’s with how we use them. The average classroom already enables communication and collaboration. Put the chairs in a circle and students can discuss and collaborate. What is lacking though is the ability to delay and reflect. Immediate synchronous discussion has huge power, but students quickly move on to the next task, and seldom revisit a discussion, and lack the means to do so because oral discussion is ephemeral. An LMS which is able to record and store discussion for future reflection would go a long way towards enabling critical thinking.

I would like to argue then, that a necessary first step in creating a situation where ICTs can meaningfully foster critical thinking, is to focus on how we can bring together communication and collaboration. A focus on individual tools and applications is fine, but it needs to go beyond that to look at infrastructural issues. None of the major LMSes truly achieves this key affordance effortlessly and fluently. I would argue that the infrastructure really requires a space which allows students to effortlessly upload recordings of face to face discussions for future reference, to discuss in writing collaboratively and to edit and update files at any time. Currently all the major LMSes view the assignment space as a single upload without any linked discussion space. Google docs offer the ability to mutually edit, to comment and to chat! But then Google Classroom does not incorporate this feature in the assignment module. And You cannot set up groups. Moodle allows groups, even peer assessment, but does not allow for mutual editing and commenting on a document. Edmodo allows for groups, but similarly misses out on any collaborative features.

It may not bring the Grail Quest any closer, but for me the sine qua non of any LMS needs to be the enabling of a space where students can work in flexible groups, able to edit, comment and chat about any kind of file or files they are working on, seamlessly and synchronously or asynchronously.

 

 

 

When to Use IT and When not to use IT!

DSC00181I get really worried when I see teachers putting too much faith in IT! I’ve been a teacher long enough to know that while fads come and go, there are some universal truths that remain. For me the largest factor in any lesson’s success revolves around presence, that indefinable quality that speaks to the investment teachers make in being there for their students, and that students make in investing in their studies. I’m not saying IT has no place in the modern classroom, it clearly has! But I am saying that IT is only one part of a much bigger picture. I believe that when IT is introduced into the lesson, it needs to be there for a reason and not just because teachers think it will provide a magic bullet.

As a teacher I am considered a champion of ICT integration, and that’s true, I believe that many lessons can benefit from the judicious introduction of IT. Instead of writing on lined paper, many students can receive huge benefits from writing online, for real audiences. Instead of imagining the effects of actions on an electrical circuit, students can experiment with a simulation inside a browser. Instead of listening to a teacher in class, students can listen to input online, and spend class time receiving one on one assistance. IT has its place, but what I see happening all too often is that IT is used for IT’s sake, when there might be better, non-technological solutions. As teachers our major task is to fathom out when to use IT and when not to use IT. Unfortunately that usually involves using it a bit too much at first!

Back in the early days of the introduction of computers in the classroom, the computer was used as a teaching machine, and drill and kill practice was over-used. I can see some of that still going on, with students being required to spend hours on repetitive and largely meaningless tasks. All the teacher needs to do is post a link and the mind-numbingly-boring work is managed and assessed by computer. It’s very handy for an over-worked teacher, but represents the kiss of death for education.

IT needs to enhance teacher presence, not reduce it, and I think if all ICT integration followed this simple criterion, it would ensure that IT becomes a positive force in the classroom.  If a simulation, for example, frees up the teacher to engage more one-on-one with her students, or an application opens up channels of communication which allow for deeper interchanges between teacher and student, we can speak of IT benefiting education. If not, then it should be ditched in favour of something which can do that job. IT can and does do this. When, as an English teacher, I am able to comment on a student’s writing in a  Google doc -in real time – I am doing something I could not do using traditional pen and paper technology. Technology often allows teachers to gain greater insight and access to work in progress, and this is of a huge benefit.

The key to when to use IT and when not to use IT lies in whether it will enhance teacher presence or not. In online teaching this is a key notion, how to establish presence, but in hybrid classes it is equally important, and cannot be taken for granted.

 

Thinking Skills & The DigiTeacher

There is a commonly held view that teaching Thinking Skills and Technology go hand in hand. Somehow the use of digital media will transform educational practice and the critical thinking skills we so desperately need in the twenty-first century will fall into place. I would like to believe this is so, and indeed I do believe that digital technologies do offer key affordances for developing critical thinking, but I fear there is nothing automatic in this process. The argument advanced by the Apple Classrooms Of Tomorrow programme was that the introduction of computers would lead to greater student-centered learning practices and hence gains in encouraging thinking skills, but this has not really panned out as planned.

Very often the use of technology has simply reinforced the ways teachers were teaching, and left little changed. Interactive Whiteboards have replaced chalk-boards, but the way they are deployed in the classroom left pretty much the same. The ready availability of information in the form of the Internet was going to change education from a process of learning facts, to learning skills. Again, this is clearly true, but how far have we come in implementing this approach? Not very far!

IMG_9743I think that teachers who encourage thinking generally do so independently of any move to introduce technology. And yet technology is clearly here to stay. Despite what I said previously, the ubiquitous presence of information available more or less anytime, more or less anywhere has made a difference to education. Technological innovations such as Interactive Whiteboards are nothing like the old chalkboard even where the pedagogy is largely the same. Even the case of an Instructivist teacher, putting up a YouTube video instead of text represents a difference of some order. The fact that a teacher can ask a question to which nobody knows the answer and can have students use their mobile phones to Google the answer is significant. It is not trivial.

The moment you introduce a computer into the classroom, the teacher, even if a dyed-in-the-wool instructivist, will be sidelined to some extent, no matter what the nature of the task set. I get the sense, not of a full-blown revolution in progress, but of one of those evolutionary changes that ends up changing everything once some perspective has been gained by the virtue of hindsight! What teachers are doing is quietly getting on with the business of experimenting with technology, finding out what works and what doesn’t work, and slowly but surely altering their practice to incorporate those elements of new technologies they find useful.

The same is true for the explicit teaching of thinking skills. Whether using De Bono’s Thinking Hats, David Heyrle’s Thinking Maps, Thinker’s Keys, Visible Thinking, CoRT, Habits Of Mind, and many other programmes, teachers all over the world are making concerted efforts to shift from content-based teaching to Thinking-based teaching. Again, trial & error and slow incorporation into existing teaching practices is the order of the day! As a teacher who has been grappling with both these movements, I have often puzzled over the connections. Can digital technologies really enhance Thinking? Or put another way, can we teach kids to think better by using technology?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, or a one-size-fits-all solution: it’s not about the technology, it’s not even about the pedagogy. It’s really about individual teaching moments in different contexts, and what it means to the participants. I think the question teachers need to ask when evaluating any piece of technology or application is whether it will help their students think more like a mathematician, scientist, historian, or writer, or whatever subject you are teaching. There are undoubtedly so many instances where the answer is yes that we can begin to discern some common features around why it is that technology can indeed address the urgent imperative to  foster better thinking skills.

One key feature is that of Authenticity. Technology offers opportunities for real world collaboration, publication and engagement which makes tasks authentic, or rather, more authentic. Thinking is context based, and the more real, the more relevant a problem is perceived to be, the better the thinking is likely to be. As an English teacher I know that many students do well on discrete, grammar type questions, but can’t use that language knowledge when composing their own writing. Many students can solve discrete Mathematical problems, but can’t use these Maths skills to solve real world problems. Students need to learn how to think like a writer, for example, in real-world contexts. Authentic publication offers an exciting route.

I have just managed to get a class signed up on WordPress, and given them an opportunity to publish their Flash fiction online on the class magazine. They get real views, and real comments from the general public. Suddenly spelling seems to matter to them, and they began to agonise over writing decisions!  Not something you see in a for-the-teacher’s-eyes-only exercises!

The Internet also offers opportunities for students to grapple with real world problems and engage directly in their community. For example, when teaching IT skills I like to get my students to design an eSafety campaign for the junior school, producing posters and a video. I believe that by producing a product which will actually be used within the wider community of the school, students are more focused in their thinking.

The second key feature is Metacognition. Making thinking visible, and making students aware of their thinking helps them to self-monitor. I believe that technology has key affordances for metacognition in a number of ways. Technology stands at a remove from reality. It is quite clearly not the real world, and yet it can be used to mediate or model the real world. In doing so it encourages one to think about the real world and how one is interacting with it. An interactive Flash animation which allows a student to play with electrical circuits and see the results of decisions, for example, enables students to do things easily which would be hard to set up in the real world, and also encourages students to form and test hypotheses very rapidly. One of the best examples of this sort of thing is the bridge-building software which allows students to design bridges, and then test them with various loads. Games are good at this sort of thing.

A third feature is Engagement, although this is often over-stated. Students will spend hours of concentrated effort on a game, for example, but quickly tire of class-based pen and paper exercises. You can create neat, professional looking results using technology, which pen and paper tasks just cannot compete with. Getting students to offer feedback on their discussions by creating a vine, or recording their feedback on a webcam to embed on a PowerPoint is simply so much more fun than standing up and repeating what other groups are saying! An essay typed, or delivered using a Prezi or VoiceThread is much more engaging to create than a hand-written paper. Drill-and-kill practice is sometimes unavoidable, but can be less painful on computer.

How does engagement stimulate thinking? I asked a question in class an hour ago and saw two different responses in a range of my students. Some eyes were dead! It was half-term, the last period of the day and I was probing students about validity and truth in logic! I could see a lack of engagement in many eyes. Some eyes, however, were shining bright. This was new stuff – unlike anything normally studied in school, and it was clearly engaging a percentage of the class. When the lights are on thinking is going on!  When they’re off, they’re well and truly off! Engagement is a sine qua non for thinking.

Digital media also engage by  allowing for Inclusivity, another key feature. Face to face a teacher can often only hear from a fraction of the class at any one time. Even in a no hands up classroom, many students park off and wait for the bright ones to answer the question. Digital technologies, such as polling, twitter feeds and back-channels can help involve more students more of the time.

And finally, Precision. Thinking is nothing if not rigorous, and yet humans are extremely tolerant of imprecision. We get tired and accept second best for the sake of moving on. Yeah, that’s close enough! Computers, on the other hand, take some drudgery away, produce slick-looking results and therefore make space for transferring the attention to the content and to accuracy. The ability to edit a second draft, and move towards a final draft with minimum effort enhances this striving for perfection, and I think this is very good for developing thinking skills.

core competenciesThe devil, however, is always in the detail. I believe that teachers need to ask themselves how they intend to use technology to teach students to think better in the subject discipline they are teaching.

I have altered the popular TPACK model to integrate Thinking Skills in a previous blog, Since writing that piece, I have become increasingly convinced that we need to consistently ask ourselves not only what we are teaching (Content Knowledge), and how we are teaching it (Pedagogical Knowledge), but also how we will do that using technology (Technological Knowledge) to enhance thinking skills (Thinking Skills Knowledge).

For example, as an English teacher I might design a lesson which aims at teaching students to use Thinking maps in order to analyse a character in a novel in order to produce a blog post which describes the plot of that novel from the point of view of that character. In this case the thinking skills and digital skills operate in parallel with each other rather than work in tandem. I could equally well design a lesson in which students use Skype to collaborate with other students at another school in another country to  produce a fictitious TV panel discussion between characters in a novel. This uses the digital media directly to facilitate and enable collaborative thinking.

Just as we need to think about how we teach particular content using technology, we need to think about how we teach thinking skills in that subject using technology.

 

 

 

The Multi-Layered Classroom

DSC01927When you are using ICTs in your classroom, the classroom automatically acquires a few extra layers. There is of course the physical layer with the teacher and students, the desks and tables, pens, paper, books and scissors. This layer is the most important layer, and sometimes it gets forgotten in the rush to adopt digital practices. Computers cannot replace teachers, at least not until they pass a great deal more than just the Turing Test! But increasingly other layers are added to this.

The second layer consists of the World Wide Web, which is now accessible via smartphones if the classroom has WiFi, and even if it has not, if the students have data bundles. Gone are the days when you needed to ask students to look something up after the class. Now you just say, “Can someone look that up!” This layer adds almost instant access to information of all kinds and is a complete game changer as the focus moves from learning content to learning what to do with all that content.

A third layer consists of your Learning Management System, which is being deployed by an increasing number of teachers. In my school Moodle, Edmodo and Google Classrooms are all used. Using an Interactive Whiteboard, or through students’ devices this layer is increasingly accessible to all students at all times. Both Moodle and Edmodo have apps for smartphones, and with iPads or laptops work can be accessed readily off the LMS. This allows for paperless submission of work from within the classroom, and for discussions and content to be available at all times. The interesting thing about the LMS layer is that it extends the physical classroom into virtual time as well as virtual space, leaving the classroom open 24/7.

A fourth layer is the Communication layer. When I was a student most classrooms had intercoms and lessons would be interrupted for announcements. These days many teachers send notifications via email or whatsapp groups! This layer runs like a vein through the life of the school. Being able to email parents straight away when there is a problem also extends the classroom into the home. I just received a whatsapp from my son at school when he got locked in a music room when the handle came off in his hand on the inside! My wife telephoned the Music Department secretary and he was liberated from his sound-proofed cell! This anecdote illustrates quite well how vital this layer can be!

The fifth layer is the back channel.While many students raise their hands in class, many do not, and yet still have questions or comments they would like to make.Back channels from useful ways of including these in the cut and thrust of classroom discussion. For example I use twitter to encourage students to ask questions or post interesting links, answer questions or polls before, during, or after a lesson. The twitter feed is available on my Moodle page, and if this is up on the Interactive White Board, using a hashtag these tweeted responses become available to the whole class effortlessly.

There is also, I believe, a sixth layer, an ill-defined entity, which will become increasingly important as time goes by, and that is the virtual reality layer, or games layer. There are some times when students are playing an educational game, or using Second Life for a pedagogical purpose where the classroom itself may host a virtual classroom environment, where students may interact with each other and the teacher via their avatars. This may sound all a bit Science Fiction, and little of the software exists currently outside of environments like Second Life, but gamification, even at a low tech level, involves the creation of a virtual games world where students and teachers role play.

What fascinates me is the ways in which these layers increasingly interconnect, through QR codes, augmented reality, in class research tasks or back channels. One of the core skills of a 21st Century teacher will surely be the ability to integrate the layers within the classroom seamlessly and meaningfully. It is going to need to become one of the core criteria in teacher pre-service and in-service education.

 

 
 
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