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Category Archives: Critical thinking

Does The Great Onlining Offer Opportunities to move from Teaching Content to Teaching Thinking?

One often hears the view expressed that one of the benefits of the enforced move to teaching online is that it will entail a move away from teaching content, and open up opportunities for a new vision of teaching that foregrounds students’ problem-solving skills. One of the many educational trends that have been rained down on teachers like the ten plaques of Egypt, is the idea that content is outdated, and that what counts in the Twenty First Century is Problem-Solving or Thinking Skills. It is an idea that has become all pervasive. At every Educational Technology Conference I’ve ever attended, at some stage a keynote speaker will express this point of view. Especially if they come from industry. “What we need is not people with paper qualifications,” they say, “it is people who can think and problem-solve!”

But can thinking be distilled from all context and taught as something discrete? Knowledge is changing so fast, the argument goes, that it will become outdated as soon as you teach it, and therefore what we need to be doing is teaching students to think, rather than teaching them content. This idea is seductive because of course it appeals to a kernel of truth. Knowledge is changing really fast. What I learned about the structure of the atom in high school is certainly not what is taught today! And yet the notion that somehow education’s core business has suddenly changed is somewhat ludicrous. Did teachers not teach students how to think pre-millenium? What does thinking that is separated from content look like, anyway?

My own career as a teacher has been affected by this movement towards explicit teaching of thinking. I teach a class called Thinking Skills. In this class we use problem-based approaches together with introducing the Harvard Visible Thinking Routines and cognitive tools such as the De Bono Thinking Hats, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps and Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind. These thinking tools and strategies are embedded in every school subject, but the purpose of the Thinking Skills class we do in our grades 8-10 is to give importance to thinking itself, and to provide a platform for explicit teaching of the range of cognitive tools we use across the school. I am in two minds about how effective this is as an approach. Thinking, after all, is always about something. Thinking divorced of content makes no sense, and thinking always has a context. How you think as an historian, a musician or as a scientist is different. Learning to think in one context surely confers benefit, and surely fuels habits and dispositions which are transferable to other contexts. But how this happens is not easy to pin down, or easy to demonstrate. Nor is it automatic. We assume that it happens, but we cannot definitively demonstrate that it does. We hope that an awareness of different cognitive tools, and familiarity with using different thinking strategies will improve our students’ thinking skills. We try to teach them to notice when they need to reach into their cognitive tool kits, and develop their capacity to reflect on their own thinking, and to become better at choosing appropriate cognitive strategies. But all the documentation in the world does not add up to proof that this is effective. And as much as I think the Thinking class I teach is useful, I do not believe it supplants Maths or English classes in any way. Students still need to learn to think like a mathematician, or think like an artist!

There is some anecdotal evidence of course, that our approach to cognitive education does work. Visitors to the school express amazement at how well our students engage with problem-solving tasks. As encouraging as this feedback is, it does not amount to proof. The benefit of an explicit Thinking course is not really about improving performance in other subjects, the aim is to improve the ability to think in any context. I think what students enjoy about it is that they get to think about real-world problems without the pressure of assessment or swotting. I think it is also important in that it signals that what the school values is thinking, and the development of thinking dispositions. I believe that this approach has benefits because solving problems helps improve the ability to solve problems. Not least it builds confidence in the ability to solve problems. As anyone who has ever tackled problems like crossword puzzles, for example, will know, once you start to understand how the puzzles are set, and develop strategies for solving the clues, the easier it becomes to work through the clues. And even a difficult seven across will be tackled with a level of confidence that it can be solved given enough time. The ability to solve crosswords does not necessarily make one a better problem-solver in another context, such as Chess problems. One can be quite good at solving one type of problem, but quite bad at another. In our class we try to tackle different types of problems and help students develop strategies and tools for approaching problems. The hope is that each student will develop a sizable toolkit of cognitive tools, and an awareness of which tools are good in different situations.

So, whilst I believe that teaching Thinking has value, I do not believe it can be done divorced from the curriculum. At my school the explicit teaching of thinking is limited, we wish it to be embedded in our curriculum, rather than becoming the focus of the curriculum. It would be lovely to believe that the move online would allow teachers to throw off the yoke of curricula and standardized testing and teach students to think, to problem-solve. Sadly I do not think that it does. It is rather naive, to believe that students, simply by doing an online project rather than more formal classes, will develop thinking skills miraculously. Thinking skills need to be carefully scaffolded and nurtured. Even in a Thinking class tasks are contextualised and we seek to draw students’ attention to opportunities for transferring their skills across the curriculum. As any teacher who has ever set an open-ended project will know, the success of the project depends on how carefully it was scaffolded and supported. Remote learning will not suddenly unlock hidden abilities in our students. If we want those abilities to emerge we need to put in the pedagogical work to develop them. And remote teaching is hard, it is hard enough teaching the regular curriculum.

Doing the kind of work needed to foster advanced thinking skills over Zoom?

I don’t think so.

 

Why Online Teaching is so Taxing!

Teachers who have been doing remote teaching over the last month or so report complete exhaustion. Not just because they needed to take time to re-design their curricula for remote platforms. Not just because they needed to record videos or re-purpose learning resources for an online platform. Not just because online assessment is a nightmare. But chiefly because of the exhaustion involved in conducting online lessons. And all this at a time when many teachers have to look after their own children and families, when they themselves are experiencing all the stress that we are all going through at this time.

So, why is online teaching itself so taxing? In the classroom you see your class for a set period of time, and you do what you can during the time you have with the class. Your energy goes into being present for your students, either in how you present content, or how you guide and shape their understanding of that content. You have to read the faces in front of you, notice who is beginning to goof off, who wants to ask a question, but needs encouragement, who has a puzzled look on their face, or who is clearly engaged in something else and needs re-directing. From the nods of understanding, or the expressions of sudden realization, you know when you can go on, or whether you need to try explaining something in a different way. You can judge whether or how long to wait after asking a question, or whether to rephrase it better. Face to face interactions require a great deal of work, and it can be exhausting in itself. Teachers suffer a great deal of cognitive overload. You have to keep not only the content you are teaching in mind, but also all the questions around how best to teach it. It is exhausting! But bells ring, and the day has an end. As exhausting as ordinary teaching may be, the week ends, and eventually the term ends. I have always thought that the length of a term is designed precisely to wring the most work out of students and teachers without completely destroying them in the process.

But online work demands a different level of presence. To be digitally present is to be available long beyond any scheduled lesson, worrying about those who never showed up to any online check-in, or who have missed a submission deadline. Teachers online don’t receive absence notes from parents explaining that a student is down with something, or will be away for a few days, but will catch up the work. Often all we have online is a silence that begins to prey on the mind. As emails expressing concern over a student missing in action go unanswered and days become weeks, the mind begins to invent all sorts of explanations, fears of all sorts and grieving for lost time and contact. Teachers are concerned about reaching all their students. But during a lock-down, if emails go unanswered, this concern can become all consuming!

Furthermore, students check-in at all hours of the day and night, with queries and concerns. I had one student ask a question at 2 am in the morning. There is far less of a switch-off point. If you are expecting students to work asynchronously, you more or less have to expect to maintain an asynchronous digital presence yourself. You may have announced that you will be keeping office hours, but if students have been missing in action, when they do pop up at an ungodly hour, it is hard not to respond immediately.

When you are teaching synchronously, reading the room is not easy, either. All the usual cues are largely missing. Facial expression and body language are harder to read, and a great deal more effort needs to go into understanding who wants, or needs to speak. Even managing conversations is more difficult with the false starts and technical glitches that bedevil meetings on Zoom, or whatever platform you are using. As someone who finds it difficult enough to read social cues under normal circumstances, learning how to do it all over again online is a nightmare!

All of these things make teaching remotely particularly taxing intellectually and emotionally. The cognitive load is much higher than in face to face teaching. It seems to me that the only way to cope with this added stress is firstly to recognise it, and secondly to begin to re-align our expectations and curriculum planning to accommodate this new reality. Most syllabi stress a relentless loading of content, breadth not depth has always been the name of the game. School administrators, districts and examination boards need to reassure teachers that the same coverage of content will not be expected during this period. Educational aims can still be met, but expectations around curriculum content needs revision. Is there really a need to study 18 set poems, perhaps covering 12 meets the same aims!? Perhaps one major piece of writing can be assessed rather than three? Perhaps some units of study can be left out, and more time spent on the remaining units?

We all need to go easier on ourselves, or teachers will be facing major burnout by the end of the school year!

 

 

The Importance of Teaching Media Creation Skills

There is an abiding myth that kids today are born digital natives. Anyone who has ever taught ICTs in any form will know that this is simply not the case. Digital skills very much have to be taught! Kay and Goldberg have described computers as a metamedium, a medium, in other words used in the creation of other media. As such it would seem axiomatic that computing should be taught to everyone. And yet this is far from the case. All over the world computing has to fight for a space in the curriculum. No doubt much of this contention stems from the expense of acquiring computing resources, and from securing adequately trained teachers. The great onlining of education has shown us the importance of computers as a medium of communication, but as a medium of creativity it can scarcely be less important. I have taught PhotoShop, Flash and Dreamweaver for many years, often in the context of web design, or game creation. I find that it is an excellent way to segue into coding for middle school students. Computers can be used to create all manner of digital content, but games are particularly alluring for students.

In this blog post I would like to walk through my thoughts about how the nature of remote teaching will have to change my curriculum and instructional design. I would like to cover the same basic concepts: namely photo-editing and game design introducing elementary programming procedures.

Starting with image manipulation in PhotoShop one can teach not only photo-editing skills, but also copyright issues. I usually teach students to use the Creative Commons Search Engine to find suitable images to use that are copyright free. There are many plarforms available for games creation. Up until last year I used Flash, despite the increasing difficulties as the platform becomes less and less supported. I have been considering using Scratch instead, but the seamless integration inside websites and the ability to run in a browser still made Flash a viable choice. My school had an Adobe licence, so justifying that expense was also a concern. I usually teach students how to create buttons in flash and use interactive behaviours. This requires starting to use ActionScript. We use existing scripts and learn how to tweak them. After a few tutorials I get the students to design their own games and then help them get it to work. The graphic shows one of the games created by students which depended upon drag and drop behaviours to work.

So, here’s my problem. I am due to start teaching this unit in May with my grade 8 class, and yet we are likely to be on lockdown, and I am wondering if it is a unit of work I can teach remotely. Certainly not with PhotoShop and Flash, as students are unlikely to have the Adobe Suite. But apart from the problem around access to the software and the necessary data or devices – most of my students use iPads if they do not have a laptop. This presents a number of problems. Firstly, I will be really sad not to have the linkage between image editing and games creation. Realizing that everything about remote teaching and learning takes longer, I will have to concentrate on the game design alone. For remote teaching an online Photo editor such as Photopea appears to work well. The crucial skill is removing a background and saving as a gif with transparency. I am not sure that I will be able to adequately support students through photo-editing online, and the games design, however. So I will have to play this aspect by ear.

In my experience getting students to the point where they can design their own games requires a good few basic tutorials teaching base skills, and then a great deal of scaffolding the process of discovery, especially where it requires coding beyond my own capacity! Tackling this online presents problems. It is difficult to help students debug their code when you can’t see their screen, or where you have to reconstruct it to test it on your own screen! It also needs to be something that can be done on an iPad if a student does not have access to a laptop or pc. It should also not involve any downloading of software or purchase of an app.

So I have decided to use Scratch on the MIT platform which works inside a browser, and apparently works fairly well on an iPad and allows students to use a free account. Students can also share their projects with others. This is crucial because I would like students to work in small groups. I usually get students to do a few tutorials online and then set the project as a group project. Working with groups might prove tricky during remote teaching and learning, but might also help overcome some of the isolation of working from home.

To test the versatility of the platform I created a quick pong game and a tamigotchi game, and it seems to me that Scratch works very well at enabling game creation. The platform also has tutorials which allow for students to work on their own, and develop capacity beyond any tutorials and tasks I create for the class. It also has an extension for the BBC micro:bit controller, which I use for robotics. I have not been able to explore this, but it seems to me that it creates some potential tie-ins, which is important. I also use the MIT platform for mobile app design with my grade 9s, so using Scratch on the MIT platform to introduce coding seems a good fit all round.

To my mind the key to instructional design in a case like this is to have a programme in mind which can be cut short, or can be extended, depending upon the time available and the capacity of the students. In this case the vagaries of remote teaching becomes a particular concern. I will write a follow up post after completing the unit.

Bibliography

A. Kay and A. Goldberg, “Personal dynamic media,” Computer, 1977, pp. 31-41.

 

The Great Onlining – What we have learned about Remote Learning

While questions of giving teachers and students technological access has been important, as Morrow (2007) has pointed out, the majority of students have formal access to school, but lack epistemological access – access to adequate knowledge. When schools were closed and the country went into lock-down shortly afterwards, the twin tiers of our unequal education system became terrifying visible. State schools and universities by and large went on early holiday, and little remote education was possible given the huge deficit in access to suitable devices, data or even electricity. As the lock-down continues, there seems to be little wriggle room around onlining education rather than keeping the schools closed and making up time later in the year by cancelling further holidays. On the other hand more privileged state and private schools went online, with varying degrees of success and were able to keep the school calendar intact. While there were challenges in getting devices and/or data to all teachers and students, much of the focus was on technical questions around which platforms to use to teach online rather than on access alone. This was a sine qua non. I am not convinced that all families had sufficient technological capital to cope with teaching and learning online. Parents and children often had to share devices and data. Internet connectivity was often slow and sites crashed, especially in the beginning when the large tech companies had to rapidly roll out resources to service the massive increases in demand. Many students had access to personal devices, but quickly discovered that an iPad or smart phone, while OK for completing tasks in the hybrid environment at school, were inadequate for the range of tasks expected of them when learning went online.

I honestly have no solution to the problem of giving adequate technological access to all students and teachers. This requires massive infrastructure investment by the government. While service providers have zero-rated certain educational sites, much of the country lacks the tech resources necessary to support online education and data costs are prohibitive. The teachers on the #ZAEdu twitter community have undertaken a number of initiatives to try and get zero-rated data costs on educational platforms and set up advice and assistance for teachers. Government and industry has been lobbied to take steps to enable greater access. This is vital work. But we also need to start to pivot towards thinking not just about how we get teachers and students online, but how we teach online in such a way that we can do something about reversing the trajectory towards increasing inequality. In other words we need to start moving beyond questions of formal access (to schooling, or internet infrastructure) to questions of epistemological access. If we do this right, we might be able to salvage something from the fire. It seems to me that those teachers who were able to teach remotely over this last three week period, or are starting now, have a huge role to play in terms of reflecting on effective pedagogies so that questions around the effectiveness of remote teaching and learning do not get ignored.

At the beginning of the year when teachers drew up their year plans, the assumption would very much have been that teaching would have been conducted face-to-face in the classroom. As these plans melt away, and teachers re-draw their plans, it becomes increasingly important to think very deeply about instructional design and pedagogy. If government and industry listens to teachers and starts enabling massive online access in South Africa, we as teachers need to be sure that we have figured things out so that the digital divide does not just shift from being about physical access to being about access to quality teaching online.

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I use Legitimation Code Theory (LCT)  as a lens for my research, and for understanding my own pedagogic practice. The LCT research Group at Wits University, led by Prof. Lee Rusznyak, this week held an online discussion around what LCT Theory has to tell us about remote learning generally and how we should be re-tailoring our curricula in the light of the Great Onlining. I would like to share some of this thinking, because I believe it is a useful intervention in the conversation right now. Having a theoretical perspective is important because it allows for a common language and tool-set for thinking about the problem at hand. LCT is particularly powerful in this respect because it looks at knowledge and knowing itself and allows us to use a common approach to thinking about how the nature of knowledge and of knowing impacts on education at every level, and across all fields.

But before getting into theory, I would like to frame this in terms of what I see to be the problem. As an overall comment, it is obvious that remote teaching, classroom teaching and specially designed online courses are three different animals. Each of these modes of pedagogical delivery has different sets of affordances and constraints. Put simply, there are clearly things you can do online that you can’t do in a classroom, and vice versa! Understanding these affordances and constraints is something that is largely dependent upon the subject matter being taught, and the context of each situation. One cannot make sweeping claims; the devil really is in the details.

Here’s an example.

One of the hardest things for me as a teacher of computer coding in middle school, large generalist classes, has been finding a way to help students debug their code. The initial teaching transferred quite nicely online via videos of live-coding on the interface. I used screen-cast-omatic to record my screen, with an inset of my talking head in one corner. The ability of students to pause and rewind and see my screen up close may even have been more effective than the same thing in the classroom via an interactive whiteboard. But pause and rewind is not the same as being able to ask a question or hear questions from peers that you hadn’t thought of. So I also had meeting check-ins on Teams in which I was available to answer questions and share my screen in response to queries. I recorded these so that students working asynchronously could also view this form of content delivery. But accessing student code to help them de-bug it was problematic. Most of my students use iPads and find the coding itself difficult on these devices. In class they use desktops. Sharing screens is awkward in Teams and helping students debug mistakes via email or the chat stream is definitely not the same as being able to see a student’s screen and help them notice where the error lies.

On the other hand, my colleague, who teaches programming to specialist, smaller high school classes has found it relatively easy to tackle these issues. Her students all have laptops rather than iPads, and see her every day rather than once a week! She has found that screen-sharing is much easier with a handful of students and makes debugging code easier! The devil is in the detail! Context is everything. Sweeping generalisations are not really that helpful. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere.

What MOOCs have to tell us about remote teaching!

Massive online learning initiatives have a relatively long history now, and what they show us quite clearly, I think, is that the standard format of short videos delivering content knowledge with quizzes checking understanding works fairly well.  Lectures can be enlivened with graphics and visuals far more engaging than the normal chalkboard. Knowledge can certainly be presented comprehensibly, but possibly only if the students already have a good basic knowledge to build upon. The drop-out rate for non post-graduate students on MOOCs is massive. Modular stackable instructional design may work well if you have a knowledge base to stack upon, but may not work well for those seeking to build that base of knowledge. It seems to me that MOOCs are pretty good at extending knowledge, but not that effective at building knowledge. Those who believe that massive online content delivery to high school students can be built on expert teacher videos streamed across cell-phones are not thinking about the pedagogical work that needs to go with this. I have taken quite a few MOOCs over the years, of varying quality. To my mind what appears absolutely crucial is the digital presence of the teacher. The presence of the lecturer and/or Teaching Assistants is what really makes or breaks a MOOC. The use of online Google hangouts, social media chats or more formal check-in times allows teachers to help students navigate the content effectively. To build knowledge, students need to make connections and links between ideas, between abstractions and real-world examples, between simple building blocks and larger theoretical approaches. Students need help doing this, and unless the teacher invests a huge amount of pedagogical work in terms of being present digitally, MOOCs tend to fall short. As a general rule, though, there appears to be no reason why online delivery of content knowledge cannot be done effectively, albeit with caveats around difficulties in linking ideas.

What Classrooms have to tell us about remote teaching!

I think we also need to understand what classrooms do well, and where they fall short. Classroom interactions allow teachers to monitor students much more effectively than online platforms do. A teacher can literally see where students are engaged, and when they goof off, can monitor their progress on a task first-hand and intervene with much greater flexibility. They can not only respond to questions, but can also often sense when a student wants to ask a question, or can sense when something has not been understood. Teachers can gauge when to wait for a student response, and when to step in an answer the question, or when to rephrase it. In other words classrooms are pretty good at affording the reading of social cues, much more difficult, if not impossible online.

However, delivery of content knowledge is often compromised face-to-face by any number of factors. It is difficult for a teacher to compete with the graphic capacity of digital media, or to repeat content endlessly. There comes a point where the lesson ends, and it cannot be rewound or paused. If a teacher makes mistakes in presenting material, the moment can be lost. Videos can be more carefully scripted, rehearsed, edited or re-shot. While teachers can compensate for these mis-firings and interruptions, students often leave a class uncertain about what they have heard and no chance of a replay. There is a possible case to be made that classrooms are better at the social than the knowledge bits.

The following sections look at three key concepts within LCT. If you are feeling brave, or are familiar with LCT from previous blogs, then I would suggest reading what follows closely. If you are feeling less up to the task of difficult or new theory, I would suggest skipping the explanations and reading only the bits in italics.

What LCT has to tell us about remote learning!

I believe that the devil is always in the detail, and in the particular context, but I think it would be fair to say that the observations above about the forces at work online and in the classroom largely hold, or at least set out parameters that are useful in thinking about how to approach remote teaching. We need to recognize that the major strengths of online instruction revolve around effective delivery of content knowledge, but that social relations are severely constrained, while the major strengths of the classroom lie in affording social relations, but that content delivery may sometimes be constrained. Perhaps this is why research suggests that while classroom teaching beats online teaching, hybrid delivery equates with face-to-face in efficacy. In my normal practice I upload videos of all my lesson content which students can consult if they are absent, or if they need to: offering the best of both worlds?

LCT has a number of dimensions and each of them informs educational practice in useful ways, and I believe helps us to navigate the maze that is remote learning.

Specialization

A key concept within LCT, an approach developed by Karl Maton (2013) from the work of Pierre Bourdieu on Knowers and Basil Bernstein on Knowedge, is that of specialization, that different fields have different codes which represent what makes for legitimate knowledge in that field. Maton argues that all knowledge is made up of both knowledge (epistemic relations) and knower (social relations), but in different fields the emphasis is different.

  • In Science, for example, the knowledge is foregrounded. Who you are is relatively unimportant, having the knowledge is what legitimizes you as an expert in the field. It is a Knowledge Code.
  • In the field of English Literature, however, the rules of the game are different. What you know is far less important than having the right gaze, being the right kind of knower, having the right feel, the right eye for it makes you a legitimate knower. It is a Knower Code.
  • Relativist Codes are where neither epistemic or social relations are foregrounded, personal opinion is what counts in everyday discourse, for example.
  • Elite Codes are where both the knowledge and the ways of knowing are crucial: Music or Architecture.

From what we said about the affordances and constraints of online and classroom spaces above it would seem that different fields will experience code matches and code clashes when moving into an online space. Knowledge Code fields might find online environments offer more matches because knowledge is what is foregrounded. Knower code fields may find more obstacles because social relations are constrained. The devil will always be in the detail, and I am not saying that resourceful teachers will not be able to navigate these difficulties successfully and inventively. But they seem to me to represent underlying forces which inform online practice.

Teachers might be well-advised then when planning what to do during what might be an extended period of online teaching to take those bits of their syllabus which sit better with knowledge transmission than with knower building. An English teacher may plan to use Zoom meetings to read a text with their class, but then find half the class has not been able to get online, and the whole experience may become a nightmare. Perhaps it might be better to choose the more knowledge-heavy bits of the syllabus which can be tackled asynchronously if needs be.

Semantics

Another key concept within LCT is the dimension of semantics. The key idea here is that meaning can be analysed in terms of semantic gravity, how abstract or generalized an idea is or how concrete and contextualized an idea is and semantic density, how complex or simple an idea is. Research in LCT seems to suggest that cumulative knowledge building is predicated on movements over time between abstract and complex and concrete and simple called semantic waves. These waves could describe the course of a lesson, of a semester course plan, or a worksheet or student essay. Teachers need to make sure that these connections are being made regularly and in both directions.

For example, when a teacher explains a concept they will unpack the idea by explaining it in everyday language, giving concrete examples, using metaphors so that students can understand it. This movement between abstract and complex and concrete and simple represents what is called a down escalator. Essentially the teacher is mediating difficult concepts and helping students understand the concept by reformulating it in language and ways that are easier to understand. But cumulative knowledge building depends upon ideas being connected and understood as part of a larger whole. And upon students being able to take their raw understandings and repackage them in more academic language and understandings, in other words making up escalators.

Successful curricula describe semantic waves connecting the theoretical with the practical, the abstract with the concrete, the complex with the simple. Common semantic profiles are shown here. Often understanding remains at a theoretical level ( a high semantic flatline) or at a simple and practical level ( a low semantic flatline). Successive down escalators represents knowledge that is understood, but remains segmental, unconnected with new understandings built by students over time.

Any curriculum design would clearly aim at building semantic waves over time, connecting and consolidating knowledge, grounding theory in practice, grounding abstract ideas and concrete examples to further understanding. But online coursework may not offer affordances for this kind of cumulative knowledge building. While short videos unpacking single ideas are certainly do-able, the kind of pedagogical work necessary to sustain extensive cumulative knowledge building is heavily constrained online.

As Rusznyak has pointed out in the discussions around this held online at Wits, it may well be necessary to re-plan curriculum design to maximise the affordances of that portion of the year spent on remote teaching, and do the connecting of the semantic waves later in the year when classes resume in person. Alternatively some subjects may find it best to describe high or low semantic flatlines, and build semantic range later in class.

Since some portions of the syllabus might lend themselves better to different semantic profiles, teachers need to think carefully about how best to sequence and pace their syllabi.

Autonomy

The last dimension to be unpacked by LCT scholars has been the dimension of autonomy. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because the discussion so far has been quite dense. But essentially autonomy looks at  the extent to which practices are inside or outside a field (strong or weak positional autonomy) and the purpose to which they are put (strong or weak relational autonomy). For example, in a Science class, the class might be doing Maths (which falls outside the field of Science), but it is being turned to the purpose of doing Science. Or in a Maths class the teacher might be talking about cricket (outside Maths) but using it for the purpose of understanding a parabola (for the purpose of Maths).

Several codes are described:

  • the sovereign code – for example doing Maths for the sake of Maths
  • the exotic code – content clearly outside the syllabus for purposes that have nothing to do with the curriculum
  • the introjected code – in which non-curriculum content is turned to the purpose of doing the curriculum
  • the projected code – in which curriculum content is turned to other purposes, eg. for the world of work

LCT research has indicated that good educational practice involves tours through different codes. For example using exotic material for sovereign purposes by introjecting, or projecting sovereign content, showing how it is useful in other purposes.

A concern has been raised that as teachers race to put material online for remote instruction, material will be positioned far too much in the sovereign code. This represents an all work and no play approach which has proven the kiss of death to much of the drill-and-kill type of digital content that has been produced for educational consumption. Teachers need to make sure that their online offerings retain the same kinds of introjection and projection that they employ in their normal classrooms.

Conclusion

This blog post has presented a great deal of dense theory, but I hope that the theory has been turned to the purpose of illuminating the kinds of instructional design decisions that teachers will need to make and the kinds of things they need to be thinking of as we move from thinking about the technology of teaching, and thinking more about how our pedagogical decisions can give students greater epistemological access.

Bibliography

Maton, Karl. (2013). Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education.

Morrow, W. 2007. Learning to teach in South Africa. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

 

 

The Great Onlining – From Digital Natives to Digital Aliens – Reflections after Week Two!

After two weeks of remote teaching, I have to say that mental exhaustion is starting to set in. I can only imagine how challenging it is for students as well. In last week’s blog I highlighted the problem of reaching students online who might not be able to be reached, or might not want to be reached. Technological problems aside, the very constraints of online platforms may make it more difficult for students to focus, find relevant instructions and resources or manage their time effectively enough to be able to complete much work.

Marc Prensky popularised the idea of the Digital Native, one who appears to have the natural, in-born disposition for digital applications. Prensky defined this as a set of dispositions stemming from age alone. Anyone born after a certain date was somehow imbued with technology in their bloodstream, so to speak. The rest of us, born before this date were digital immigrants, we would have to learn how to use technology through pain and sweat. This idea has been thoroughly debunked. Anyone who has ever taught children ICTs will attest to this. Children are not born with the habits, behaviours and dispositions neatly in place to make them natural born users of technology. And many older people take to technology like a duck to water. Nevertheless the concept of digital nativity, of dispositions, a gaze which predisposes the person towards digital use does seem to hold some merit. We all know people who seem to get it naturally, and others who will probably never cope with anything digital. Perhaps digital nativity is an acquired, cultivated or trained gaze – a way of looking at things which makes some people better at dealing with the new technologies than others. This disposition is not dependent upon age, but describes a spectrum from digital nativity to digital alienation.

When teaching online this becomes absolutely crucial because the medium of delivery is so dependent upon the technology. In my experience with hybrid classrooms, any class follows a law of thirds, although the quantification of that fraction changes from year to year, class to class and lesson to lesson. Students have different digital dispositions. One third I shall call the Digital Natives with apologies to Marc Prensky. This group is quite capable of working independently online. They can find and follow instructions, manage the resources left by the teacher and manage to ask questions where needed to complete tasks totally online. They don’t really need a teacher to tell them what to do, they have a capacity and disposition for discovery and an ability to figure things out quite quickly on a digital platform. This group tends to submit assignments without prompting on time, often well before the due date.

A second third, the Digital Immigrants need instructions to be in-the-flesh, so to speak. They struggle to locate resources or instructions online, but can cope with whole class instructions. If a teacher tells them what to do, and where to look, they can then work on their own. This group needs someone to foreground what they need to notice. But once this is done, they are happy to work on the task, although they do ask more questions, and need more scaffolding generally. A quick online check-in meeting may be all they need to get working.

A third group, the Digital Aliens struggle online, but also need any instructions given to the whole class to be repeated individually. Something said to the group only seems to be processed effectively when repeated once they are ready to process the information. This group may not respond well to instructions given in a group check-in meeting for example. They need to be taken aside individually and carefully guided through every single step. This is extremely difficult on an online platform. You really need a one-on-one meeting. This can be done in class more easily whilst circulating, but for a student struggling with the technology anyway, setting up an individual tutoring session can be well nigh impossible.

If this perception is correct, it has important implications for remote (and online) instructional design. It suggests that students from each of these groups really needs different strategies. In a face-to-face classroom teachers are able to manage these differences much more seamlessly, although it is never easy. Online, differentiating teaching is much more difficult. In the last two weeks I think I have started to get the hang of managing the Digital Natives and Immigrants. By posting instructional videos online ahead of a class the Digital Natives have a head start. Then I have check-in meetings at scheduled times where I can answer questions, share my screen and show students how to do things. I record these as well as some students seem to need the question and answer to make sense of it all. What is extremely difficult is trying to reach the Digital Aliens, most of whom do not check-in during scheduled times, or probably even watch the videos. Often reaching this group involves long tortuous emails in which I try to make sense of the difficulties they are experiencing and coax them onto the platform.

Sometimes this results in a eureka moment, but often it results in radio silence. I have sent out a number of emails in the last week which basically said something like, send me what you’ve got so I can have a look. Many of tehse remain unanswered, but I live in hope that week three will bring my break-through moment with the Digital Aliens!

 

The Great Onlining – Reflections after Day 10

At the end of the first full week of teaching online it seems appropriate to pause for a moment and reflect on what has been a whirl-wind ten days or so! About two weeks ago we met as a staff and were told to prepare ourselves for the possibility of teaching online during any possible closure of the schools because of the corona-virus pandemic. Over the weekend it became obvious that schools would in fact be closing, and in the event we had just two days to prepare ourselves. Now I am an IT teacher and was kept very busy trying to help staff learn new skills, very rapidly. My school was using Microsoft Teams, but not all teachers had set up classrooms yet, so that was the first task. My colleague, who teaches IT to Matric bore the brunt of this first onslaught because Teams is her responsibility, but very quickly we had teachers finding out how to record video lessons, set up assignments in Teams, use Flipgrid or EdPuzzle, record meetings in Teams, use Zoom … the list of demands was endless. I’m not sure I remember much of those two days, except the feeling of exhaustion. It was almost a relief when the school closed. I realized then I hadn’t thought much about my own classes!

I have been using Teams in my normal teaching as a place where students could find resources, download files, submit assignments and watch videos of lesson content. I have found it useful to record short five minutes videos of the work that I cover in class so that students can review it at their leisure, or catch up on missed work if they are absent. When teaching coding I like to start each lesson, or punctuate a lesson with a “live coding” session where we go over possible approaches to a problem, and I can introduce programming concepts such as variables, loops, or functions. So, as luck would have it, I had very few videos to prepare from scratch. I am currently teaching mobile app design on the MIT App Inventor platform with my grade 9s and web design using HTML & CSS with my grade 8s.

I was worried about how it would go, because so much of my time in the classroom is spent walking around helping students, and I knew that many of my students do struggle with managing digital work. It seems to me that the law of thirds operates here. About a third of students are very capable following digital instructions and using my video flipped content to work independently. About a third cope quite well, but they do need to hear instructions and ask questions about what they are doing face to face, although they are happy enough with whole class instruction. The last third needs individual instruction to be able to cope.

I knew that about a third of my students would cope well – bandwidth and data willing! I also knew that another third would probably be able to get buy with a lot of hand-holding! What really concerned me was that group that needs one-on-one help even face-to-face.

I was also concerned about how much work to expect students to be able to do. The school had decided to follow the normal timetable to keep a sense of routine. I knew that this might become problematic so I left instructions on Teams and sent out an email for the week, setting out expectations. I told students I would be online during timetabled lessons to answer questions and hold check-in meetings, but all the instruction had been posted in videos, and they could do the work at any time they found convenient. Very much a Flipped Classroom model.

So, with some trepidation, on the first morning I logged on at 7:30 am and within a few moments a few students joined the meeting in Teams and asked a few questions. Half an hour later a handful of the girls had finished the assignment ( a short tutorial on mobile app design using a bit of block-coding). By the end of the hour more students had submitted the assignment, but many had submitted work that had been due before the close of school. I had answered a handful of queries, mainly procedural, and marked all the work submitted. I don’t even know if more than a third had actually logged onto Teams that first morning. Over the next few days I got more submissions of the work asynchronously and more queries on Teams or via email. I had started to get into the second third, the ones who need hand-holding! A week later the missing third does not even appear to have logged onto Teams.

I know that in many cases families are not able to support the levels of data required, and there are probably many private tales of squabbling over the family laptop or desperate attempts to top up data caps. Or even families without adequate devices or connectivity. I also know that my colleagues have been piling work on the students. We have had anxious letters from parents telling us this. I know that their computer skills work will be one of the first to be sacrificed to Maths or English homework, but I am really concerned that the missing third is truly missing during this period. It is the same group of students who need constant individual attention in class, who are simply not able to get that attention online.

As teachers we desperately need to examine what is pedagogically different about online teaching and learning. We cannot just expect to port our normal methodologies online and carry on as if nothing has changed.

So my big take-away from the first 10 days is that now most teachers are fairly comfortable with the technology necessary for teaching online, that we need to start zeroing in on the pedagogy, and in particular the problem of how to teach inclusively when the technology itself is necessarily something of a barrier.

Lower Technological Barriers to Inclusion

There is not an awful lot we can do about the problem of lack of technology access in many households. We have supplied dongles with data to our bursary students, but I know of even very well-off families struggling for a variety of reasons. But we can make sure that we set the technological barriers as low as possible. As an IT teacher this is difficult for me, but I have made sure that they don’t need specific software downloads, that we use only browser-based platforms. Many staff are using as much paper-based work as possible. Some staff are using email rather than flashy video-lessons, and I’m sure students are extremely grateful for that. Just because a platform has bells and whistles, doesn’t mean you have to use them!

Establish your Digital Presence

However, I believe that central to the success of any online pedagogy is the question of online presence. Being able to talk to the teacher, check-in and ask a question, have queries answered on the spot, is all crucial to students. But, unlike a classroom, where a teacher can be present even for students who are zoning out, what do you do about students who do not log on to the platform, or who ignore emails? In a sense there is not much to do beyond contacting those students directly and trying to draw them then, much as one does in class. But if they are ignoring emails? Some teachers have set up whatsapp groups for their classes, and this might be the best way of ensuring digital presence by using a platform used by the students more widely than official school platforms. No doubt Tik-Tok would do the trick!

Create Back Channels

Apart from trying to lower the technological barriers to inclusion and promoting your digital presence – being there for students, I think one of the most crucial differences between offline and online teaching is the absence of social cohesion online. I think it is important to try to promote social cohesion and collaboration. If students feel isolated and alone, they may simply give up. Many will be communicating with each other in back-channels, but some will not be, and establishing back channels for your class is vital. I tried to do this by having check-in meetings during my allotted timetable slots, during which students could log on at the same time and see and talk to each other. That was my plan, but so few have logged in at the same time that this has not really worked. I know other teachers have had better success with this sort of thing. Coding is fairly individualistic, but I do plan to try to establish a share ideas check-in to try to get students talking to each other about the work!

As the week draws to a close, I have to say online teaching is really exhausting!

 

 

 

 

Making Semantic Waves with Robots

Semantic Waves has emerged as an explicit pedagogical approach in Computer Science Education. For example The National Centre For Computing Education in the UK has released a Pedagogy Quick Read on Semantic Waves. In this blog post I would like to look at how I have been using semantic waves in my robotics classes. Semantic waves track the relative abstraction and complexity of ideas within a lesson. Much of educational practice is geared towards helping students understand relatively complex, abstract ideas in terms they can understand: making it simpler and putting it in context. We also need to help students take their understandings and express them in ways which are more complex and abstract, more academic. When students are trying to code robots to perform particular tasks they need to be able to move between the abstract and complex and the simple and concrete. Making this process explicit can help students understand what they need to do, and helps teachers understand what to do to scaffold students’ understandings.

Semantics is a dimension within Legitimation Code Theory (Maton, 2014), and looks at the relative level of contextulaization (semantic gravity) and condensation (semantic density) of knowledge. Knowledge can be viewed as either highly de-contextualized and abstract (Weak Semantic Gravity SG-) or as strongly contextulaized and concrete (Strong Semantic Gravity SG+). It can also be seen as highly complex, with meaning heavily condensed (Strong Semantic Density SD+) or as simple (Weak Semantic Density SD-). By tracking this movement between abstract and complex (SG- SD+) and concrete and simple (SG+ SD-) we can see how meaning is changing over time within a classroom. This can help teachers see when they need to help students either strengthen or weaken their semantic gravity or density.

Commonly meaning either remains at a fairly abstract/complex level – the high semantic flatline (A), or tends to remain at a low semantic flatline (B). What we  want to see  is  a much wider semantic range,with movement up and down the  semantic axis (C).The ability to link  theory and practice is what is being aimed at.

When choosing which platform to use for teaching robotics, there were a number of considerations. The financial cost of introducing robotics into our grade 8 and 9 year groups was one consideration, but the decision to plump for physical computing was partly driven by the need to strengthen and weaken semantic gravity. Computing is often seen by students as being highly abstract and complex. Particularly they struggle with transferring programming solutions from one context to another, in other words, they struggle with applying programming concepts to different contexts, or the weakening of semantic gravity. This presupposes the ability to understand those programming concepts, requiring the strengthening of semantic gravity. The decision to frame coding within a robotics context was taken because we felt it would help strengthen semantic gravity and increase semantic range by allowing students to “see” the results of their code in more tangible ways. We felt it would help if students could test their code in a very practical way and that it would help them understand programming principles better if they could see the results of their coding.

We decided to use the BBC micro:bit chip as a platform for robotics because it has a huge amount of resources available and an online programming platform using both text-based and block-based coding, giving us options for strengthening and weakening semantic gravity and density. The online coding platform allows students to use block-based, or text-based coding simply by toggling between Blocks and JavaScript. It also has a visualizer which displays the results of the program on the chip. The program below rolls a six-sided die. Students can test the program online by clicking Button A on the visualizer. They can then download the program onto the actual chip and test it.

In terms of robotics, students program the chip, which can then be inserted into a robot to drive it.

An AlphaBot2 with a BBC micro:bit chip

 

In designing the syllabus for robotics in grade 8 & 9 we were also concerned with creating opportunities to strengthen and weaken semantic gravity and density. In the semantic profiles shown above, semantic gravity and density were tracked in unison (between abstract/complex and concrete/simple). But Legitimation Code Theory offers a more nuanced picture of semantics. If we set out the axes of semantic gravity and density on a cartesian plane, as shown in the diagram, each quadrant represents a semantic code, as follows:

The Rhizomatic Code: Meaning here is abstract (SG-) and complex (SD+). This is the world of abstract, complex theorizing. In many ways this is where students need to operate when coding a more complex program. They need to be able to decide which variables or functions to use in their code, whether to use “for loops” or nested loops. Decisions are largely abstract and complex.

The Rarefied Code: Meaning is abstract (SG-), but simple (SD-). This quadrant is where the concepts used may be fairly abstract, but are simple. So, for example a single variable is used, rather than a variable inside a function call.

The Prosaic Code: Meaning is concrete (SG+) and simple (SD-). In terms of programming, instructions may be straight-forward and operational, such as move forward 5 seconds.

The Worldly Code: Here meaning is concrete (SG+) but complex (SD+). In other words, although practical, tasks are complex. A great deal of professional programming takes place at this level.

By the way, the word code here refers to the rules which legitimate practice rather than to computer programming. In a rhizomatic code, theory is valued, and practice is not. In a Worldly code, on the other hand, practice is valued above theory.

What becomes apparent from this is that teachers need to lead students on journeys between these codes to help make programming accessible. In other words semantic waves need to be created so that abstract and complex problems can be broken down into do-able, more concrete or simple tasks, and then reassembled into larger projects. To manage this a series of tasks were created, designed to introduce several programming concepts such as loops, variables or functions. Tasks were also organised in complexity. A basic pattern was to have a concrete, simple task (prosaic code), followed by introducing an abstraction (eg. a loop), but keeping the task simple (rarefied code), then introducing more complexity (worldly code) such as setting distance or speed though a variable. Concluding tasks would put together more than one principle, together with complexity (rhizomatic code).

Here are some examples of each code in the unit on robotics. Each of these solutions makes the robot move in a square. All of these solutions are technically correct if we see the problem as making a  robot move in a square,  but some solutions are more concise (condensed) or applicable across multiple contexts (decontextualized).

 

Rarefied Code

Rhizomatic Code

Prosaic Code

Worldly Code

Whereas in the Prosaic code quadrant, the task has been completed using forward and turn moves alone, abstraction has been introduced in the rarefied code by controlling the distance travelled by using variables for distance and speed. This allows a change in the values assigned to the variables to alter the size of the square – re-contextulaizing the problem. In the worldly code, we have condensed the movements within a repeat loop. Semantic density has been increased. In the rhizomatic code, a function has been created using the repeat loop (increased condensation) and variables (increased abstraction). Semantic Density has been strengthened, and Semantic Gravity weakened.

Students had been introduced to the use of loops, variables and functions in earlier tasks, but were given the prosaic code shown in the table above as a starter code, and asked to adjust speed and time to make the robot move in a square formation by testing it on the robots, further strengthening semantic gravity. They were then asked to try to use a loop, a variable, and a function to improve on the code. What became evident in the tasks submitted was that some students were able to incorporate variables or loops, and a few were able to incorporate functions, but only a minority could accomplish all three. Some students got stuck at various points in the prosaic, rarefied or worldly code. In a busy and productive classroom, students were encouraged to ask for help, and a “Live Code” session was held demonstrating the use of variables, loops and functions together to make a different shape.

What was plain to me was the need to find pedagogical approaches to help strengthen Semantic Density or weaken Semantic Gravity in a more deliberate fashion. Reading code and tracing through it to see what it does, testing it out, really helps to strengthen Semantic Gravity, but complexifying and abstracting out is far trickier to achieve. Live Code, in which the teacher models solutions and thought processes takes some of the class all the way, but leaves some behind. Mopping up the rest, one-on-one is a bit hit and miss with a large class.

Bibliography

Maton, K. (2014). Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education. London, UK: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

 
 
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