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Category Archives: Authentic Learning

What ICTs allow English teachers to do (which they can’t do with pen and paper)

IMG_20150909_105424Larry Cuban has famously observed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that when the computer meets the classroom, the classroom always wins. ICTs have often been touted as disruptive agents of change in an education system which clearly needs an overhaul, but change has been slow and classrooms today look much as they did when I was a child. And yet it is not true to assert that the influence of ICTs has not been felt, or that subtle changes have not taken place – they have. An Interactive Whiteboard may be used in the same way as the blackboard of old, but it may also be used in radically different ways as well, and increasingly teachers are finding ways of using technology effectively and innovatively.

My own feeling is that if technology helps us to do something more effectively and efficiently, or if it helps us to do something worthwhile that we could not do before, then it is worth using. Otherwise it is not worth it simply to do change for the sake of change. The question for me then becomes, can my students do this with pen and paper? If so, they probably should. If not, then does the technology allow me to do something that I can’t otherwise do as well?

English teachers have been amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of ICTs in the classroom. Take writing, for example. Teaching writing is one of the key areas of concern for any language teacher. Writing is concerned not just with form: the different formats of transactional writing, conventions such as spelling, punctuation, and of course grammatical correctness. It is also concerned with genre, tone, register, lexis and of course meaning. How do you structure an argument? How do you communicate effectively and develop your own style? How do you inject a certain flair into your writing? All of these are really questions of process rather than product. There are teachers who simply get students to write an essay and then grade it with allegedly helpful comments in the margins, but most language teachers see the need to address writing as a skill to be learned.

One of the problems with pen and paper is that it cannot readily be subjected to review during the process of writing, and is difficult to edit. Writing a draft, then editing multiple times until you have a final product is physically challenging with a permanent medium such as pen and paper. Some teachers used to duplicate a student’s first draft and give copies out to peers for editing, so that a piece of writing could be discussed in class and the editing process made visible. Other teachers would form students into writing circles, where peer editing could be more easily facilitated. But again the medium itself gave scant affordance to the process.

Google docs, on the other hand, allows student to share a piece of writing with peer editors, or a teacher synchronously or asynchronously. Editors can leave comments, or even do collaborative editing. The affordances of this technology not only assist the teaching of writing as a process, they make it possible in ways it was not conceivable previously. In tandem with an Interactive whiteboard, or a visualiser, and any text can be visibly dissected and discussed in a similar way. These technologies give a flexibility to the process that was absent before. If you wanted to discuss a poem it had to be available in book or handout form, both of which take planning. Now you can respond as a teacher to the cut and thrust of discussion and bring up any text onto the IWB for immediate discussion.

Another classroom routine in the language classroom, the analysis of text, is also revolutionised by technology. When you are discussing a text with a class, a poem say, one important didactic move is how to make difficult concepts or words accessible to students. I used to draw pictures on the blackboard often so students could see what a particular archaic object looked like, to help make it more concrete. Google images considerably aids this process, and youtube videos can be found which immediately demonstrate to students what a Dickensian poor-house might have looked like, or how a paddle-steamer works – or whatever it is that you need to make visual in order to bring a text alive and make it accessible.

As a teacher I have thus found ways of using ICTs in ways which considerably enhance what I could do before, but this is hardly revolutionary. To misuse Larry Cuban’s maxim then: when ICTs meet the classroom, the classroom slowly absorbs them and is in turn somewhat transformed.

 

Widening the Writing Circle – student writing online

Teen Ink and the rather more strident Power Poetry are sites where students can read and share their writing online. They afford secure spaces for teens to publish their own writing and engage in discussions around writing and receive feedback from peers. While the open nature of the site may worry teachers and parents, submissions are apparently vetted for content before they are published. The opportunity for young writers to write for an authentic audience is something worth its weight in gold and the Internet is awash with sites which can be used for this purpose. Click here or here for a useful list. It is, however, harder to find a more localized arena for the students in your class to publish their creative writing. Not all students are brave and fearless writers who are ready to publish their work for the world at large. If all you want to do is give a space for less accomplished students in your class or school to get their feet wet so to speak, what can you do?

acadaI’ve been pondering this for quite a while. I’ve tried Moodle and Edmodo as platforms, and used Kidblogs and WordPress with a degree of success. Students can set up a blog on which they can publish their writing and other students can leave comments. Kidblogs can be made totally secure, with registration  only available from within your own classroom or an emailed link should you wish. Google Docs is another approach, allowing small groups to collaborate on any writing project by sharing the document with other members of the writing group, who can be given comment or even editing rights.

My approach to writing in the English classroom has always been to try to set up Writing Circles, small groups which work as a unit when it comes to supporting each other’s writing – offering editing suggestions and helpful criticism. In the past these have always been paper based, but the affordances of online tools allow for the writing circle to act more effectively and efficiently, and to become scalable. Teachers can set up tasks in which writing is shared by an audience of two to infinity. The limitations of paper are always rooted in the difficulty of sharing editing around a table beyond about two people, and sharing with a class only really possible if you have a visualizer, or if you run off the piece of writing for everyone to have a copy. Using blogs, fan fiction sites or Google docs, however, allows for varying degrees of asynchronous or even synchronous editing or collaboration.

The online blog can be set up as a class e-zine, and used for various purposes, with sections for fiction, poetry and non-fiction. The glossy look of the site you produce is a considerable lure for students, along with the appellation published author!

There is one function of the paper-based writing circle, however, that is enormously valuable, and that is the chance to talk face-to-face about a piece of writing. While Google docs does provide an opportunity for synchronous comment on a piece of writing, I would strongly suggest that every time you use online writing, you also give students a chance to discuss it face-to-face in the classroom. I find that students still need that verbal feedback. While they are writing online, they often call me over to ask advice or seek feedback on what they are writing.

“Oo, I like that!” and “Yes, that works well!” or “I don’t get that! What were you trying to do here?” has no real digital equivalent!

 

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.

 

 

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs!

I am writing this in response to Jackie Gerstein’s excellent blog post Addressing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Technology. Gerstein writes that “Technology cannot address nor meet biological and physiological needs.” It is this claim that I wish, rather tongue-in-cheek, to take issue with. At one level, of course she is perfectly correct! Sitting at a computer, or being surgically attached to a tablet or smart phone is hardly taking care of anyone’s physiological needs. Indeed one could quite easily make a case that all that sitting, all that bad posture is positively deleterious.

And yet I can’t help thinking of the eSports men and women I have seen in action, their mouses flying, their eyes dancing across the screen, reaching incredible speeds in clicks-per-second! This level of hand-eye co-ordination is hardly unphysical, and therefore, to some extent satisfies physiological needs of a certain kind! I’m not sure how far one would like to take this claim, but it leaves, I think, a space for considering eSports as fulfilling physiological needs, and I would like to see it added to the infogram above.

Watching people play on the XBox Kinect demonstrates some ways in which human beings and machines can interface, and one can well imagine even enhance physical exercise. Why run on a track, when you can run through a virtual jungle dodging lions and tigers! It may even be that the digital layer enhances our ability to satisfy physiological needs.

And don’t get me started on teledildonics!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2015 in Authentic Learning, eSports

 

Writing On PowerPoint – Creating Interactive Books

sjcI am convinced that the way to turn boys on to writing is to play games. Research shows that boys who are judged in school to have reading ages well below their chronological ages are writing on games forums and fan sites at a level appropriate or even above where the school expects them to be. The message is clear – for the majority of boys schools are dysfunctional, whereas gaming offers a world which engages their intellectual interest and produces literacy practices their English teachers would envy!

I run a games club at my sons’ school, and the boys use the club’s website blog to write copiously about the games that they are playing. The level of literacy displayed on the club blog would appear to back up reasearch results.

I teach at an all girl school, and one of the more successful writing tasks that I have set girls is to use PowerPoint, and specifically the action buttons function, which allows you to establish clickable links from one slide to another, to create interactive “books.” You know the kind of interactive Role Play Game Books that were created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in the 1980s? You would read a passage and then be given a choice, each choice leading to a different outcome on a different page of the book. The reader could thus navigate different narratives with alternate endings, including, of course, the fateful – ‘you die!” Any combats were resolved with a roll of the die. This type of book has recently re-incarnated in the form of apps on your iPad or phone.

Using PowerPoint, and action buttons a student can write a similar book, using clickable links instead of turning to a particular page, and different slides instead of pages. The writing can be complemented with graphics in a way that engages screenagers. Within an hour most students can already write a story with 3 or more branches, and many take it on as a personal challenge.

I don’t teach boys at the moment, but I was assessing some of the PowerPoints that my students had written, and my 14-year-old son looked over my shoulder at the screen. I showed him how to use the action buttons and he was hooked, immediately starting one of his own. It seems to me that this task would go down quite well with boys, and might be something a teacher could use to try to close the gender literacy divide.

 

The Digitally Dialogic Classroom

The Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin has much to offer teachers who wish to transform their classrooms into places of lively debate where the voice of the student is heard rather than the monologue of the teacher. Despite a broad consensus that learning needs to be learner-centred and active, rather than authoritarian and passive, perhaps the majority of classrooms continue to reflect what Bakhtin called, an authoritative discourse. Teachers tend to give lectures, and students are treated as passive vessels being filled up with knowledge. As Irwin Edman once put it, teaching is the art of casting false pearls before real swine!

For Bakhtin all language and thought is a dialogic process. All language, and thought is social. Meaning is made, constructed by a process of interaction. The very words we use are formed under the pressures of centripetal unifying forces (something like the dictionary definition of a word) where the meaning of that word is socially agreed, and centrifugal forces, for all utterances have an individual flavour shaped by our unique experiences in this world. The meaning I invest in the word horse is similar, but different to yours. We both mean four-legged creatures you can ride, but what I mean is coloured by the fact that I was savaged as a boy by a Shetland pony anxious to wrench a sugar-cube from my hand, and your meaning may be largely shaped by more pleasant experiences of money won off the backs of Arabian stallions at the race-track.
If we wish to get away from an educational system centred on the lecture and passivity, we need to be able to introduce the voice of the student into the conversation. Not that I am against the lecture. It is often necessary and beneficial. It is an efficient way to introduce new material to students. I have argued elsewhere in this blog, that in the sage-on-the-stage vs the guide-on-the-side debate I am very much in favour of the meddler-in-the-middle! Teachers need to transmit knowledge from time to time and provide students with the knowledge and skills they need, they need to work with students’ voices as well, work collaboratively and in communities of practice. Most of all they need to roll up their sleeves and engage with student learning, constructing meaning with students, side by side. Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism is a useful theoretical underpinning for any teacher trying to explain to administrators or parents what they are doing.

One of the critical thinking approaches that I find works best in my classroom is the Philosophy For Children approach (P4C) where a lesson becomes an enquiry, and all voices are heard in the conversation that develops. I use it most often for the discussion of poetry, both in the face to face classroom, and on a forum. The question is always, what does the poem mean? I see my role as a teacher in this enquiry as being to introduce key ideas that might help sharpen the discussion, to focus attention when it is wandering and to try to draw in those who are not participating. A follow-up to an enquiry is usually an explicit lesson on some formal aspect of the discussion such as unpacking narrative voice or what irony means. As a pedagogy then, for me, dialogic pedagogy means that balance between the authoritative monologic teacher voice and the dialogic student chorus where meaning is made socially.

harnadI believe that forums, either on Moodle or another platform, are an excellent way of encouraging student voices and valorizing students’ opinions, and in terms of the Flipped Classroom represent an ideal way of flipping discussion. It allows students to continue the debate once the class is over, and provides an opportunity to maximise discussion time in class if you hold some discussion online ahead of the class. Student comments on the forum are a great way to kick off in-class discussion, for example. I love the fact that a forum post also involves more reflection. Students, because they are writing out a response rather than speaking, are able to think an reflect just that little bit more. Their response is still immediate and often in reaction to what others have said, but it is also considered, more crafted. Stevan Harnad suggests that this power of reflection and immediacy is what characterises the power of the new digital technologies to unleash a fourth cognitive revolution.

Students are often reticent about posting discussion online, just as they may be in a face to face situation, but often it is different children who are drawn into the discussion, so I would always recommend running both discussions, face to face and on forums simultaneously – get the one to feed or continue the other. Being active on the forum helps draw students in. And make it compulsory! Don’t be afraid to assess participation both quantitatively and qualitatively. When students realise that it counts they will post!

 

Turning your students into movie directors with Plotagon

plotagon

There can be very few things in life as satisfying as seeing your ideas come to fruition before your eyes, and what I like about Plotagon is that it produces an animated movie from text dialogues.

OK the actors don’t deliver Oscar-winning performances – they look as if they’ve just walked off the set of Second Life The Movie, and their voices are obviously computer generated. But they do respond to the actions you select for them, and they speak the lines you write.

The applications of this in the classroom, it strikes me, are practically endless. Students can use it to write short scripts which then get rendered as movies. It could be used for just about any report back situation, for creative writing, or for creative ways of adding to presentations. Teachers of course could also use it to add content to their presentations, or flipped-learning content.

The application requires a download to your computer, and for you to register a free account. You can then link this to a Youtube account, or share your movies to Facebook or Twitter.

The interface itself is fairly simple to master, so you would not have to “teach” students to use it. You simply choose a scene and add actors, actions, movement, sound tracks and dialogue in sequence. You can preview the movie as you create it, and add sequences in any order.

When you are ready, you render the movie by sharing it to your account.

A down-side is that you cannot download the movie directly to your computer, but you can still add it to presentations via Youtube, or even download it from Youtube using KeepVid.

What I think is quite valuable, pedagogically is that it produces a very graphic output from a text-based input, which is great for the second or foreign language classroom in particular. It also allows students to spend time reflecting on their work, which is not always the case when they are filming using a camera.

Here’s one I made in about ten minutes, which I hope demonstrates the possibilities, and whets your appetite to try it out for yourself!.

 

 
 
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