Category Archives: Problem Based Learning

Integrating Thinking & IT

There is a common assumption that IT somehow leads to better thinking. The assumption behind this is that IT promotes more independent thinking, more self-directed learning and greater opportunity for promoting critical thinking. I am not saying that this is not the case, but I do think that it is only the case if we as teachers consciously and deliberately find ways of making it so.

Sans obstacles, gliding ahead with personalized learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Maurice de Hond

CREDIT Steve Jobs School NetherlandsTwo points stood out at the recent ASU/GSV edtech summit in San Diego: there were three times more visitors than two years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the number of new businesses and products in the field of edtech has now grown strong. The majority of those companies and products focus on personalizing education, responding to the level and possibilities of the pupil.

So long as your students are organized into age-based groups as has always been done, the best technology will deliver little return with respect to a personalized approach. It’s like trying to ice skate on grass.

I’ve been active in this field since 2012, like Max Ventilla of AltSchool. I got involved because I have a young child who started using an iPhone and iPad at a very early age. However, when…

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Dragging the Classroom Kicking and Screaming into the 21st Century

The SAMR model for the integration of ICTs into the classroom is a typical example of the way in which the introduction of ICTs is seen as transformative. It shares with models such as the Apple Classrooms Of Tomorrow (Entry, Adoption, Adaptation, Appropriation, Invention) and the various models adopted by the United Nations, the notion that ICTs are a force for dragging the classroom kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

The model suggests that teachers will move from merely substituting traditional technology with ICTs, for example replacing a chalkboard with an Interactive White Board, to redefining what they do in the classroom, using the affordances of new technologies to re-conceive of their pedagogy. In other words technology will “disrupt” educational practice. This vision is often presented as one which will champion a movement away from Instructivist (teacher-centred) towards Constructivist (learner-centred) pedagogies.

While I am in agreement that ICTs can be a force for more learner-centred approaches, there are several problems with the way the debate has been framed.

Firstly, the relationship between teaching and learning is not a simple one-to-one mapping. While the balance of power between different learning theories has shifted over the last fifty years from the dominance of Behaviourism in the mid 1900s towards the triumph of Constructivism, and the emerging ideas around Connectivism. While, obviously, hopefully, there is a connection between what a teacher does, and how a student learns, this connection is not necessarily a direct or simple one. If a teacher delivers a lecture it does not invalidate the Constructivist notion that students construct knowledge in their own minds, and do not simply receive it into their heads from the mouth of the teacher: ie knowledge is constructed, not transferred. While Constructivism clearly favours notions of active learning, just because I am passively listening, does not mean that I am not actively constructing ideas within my brain! As any teacher knows, sometimes you need to tell. Instruction is often the most efficient way of getting an idea across, especially with older kids and adults! Discovery learning suffers from a central contradiction, the Scholars Dilemma, how do you discover something you don’t know exists! Sometimes, often actually, one does need to be told things!

A common way of framing the ICT debate is to argue that ICTs will shift the balance from the lecture towards problem-based, inquiry-based learning. While this is broadly valid, what it overlooks is that this is largely an argument for what learners ought to be doing. It doesn’t necessarily speak to what teachers ought to be doing. I totally agree that classrooms should become places for inquiry and active learning. However, I disagree that this means that the lecture is dead! The Guide on the Side is an argument for dereliction of duty, the teacher becomes a mere facilitator who stands back and watches from the sidelines. The teacher should be the meddler in the middle, intimately and closely involved in the learning of her students, sometimes being the sage, sometimes being the guide, but always involved. I find that most of my lessons involve short bursts of instruction followed by discovery and guided practice, or, of course the other way round.

One argument for ICTs that accords well with this conception is the Flipped Classroom Approach, which sees the teacher’s time as being maximised by actively assisting and engaging with students rather than in delivering content, something ICTs can do quite adequately.

Secondly, the model assumes that Education needs disrupting! I do not necessarily disagree with this point, but the model, with its insistence that ICTs will, at its most advanced levels, transform education, frames itself as a challenge to teachers to do things differently: not just in terms of using ICTs, but also in terms of pedagogy. This assumes that teachers are not doing things properly at the moment, and this alone may explain why teachers feel threatened, and reluctant to adopt ICTs. My reading of teachers is that most teachers adopt different strategies and deploy their pedagogical understandings on a more or less opportunistic and ad hoc basis. There are times when I need to mediate content or concepts for students, and times when I want them to use their knowledge and skills to explore problems or learn how to research issues and frame their new understandings in ways which increasingly resemble the academic language and ways of thinking demanded by the discipline they are studying. The core business of education is the same today as it was, well, thousands of years ago!

When Socrates guided his students towards understanding through dialogue, the pedagogy he pursued was no less valid than problem-based learning for example. One of the great strengths that teachers deploy is their ability to select strategies and activities that will best support learning in their own contexts from the multiple approaches and theories on display. Models such as ACOT and SAMR tend to assume a linear movement in which, over time, a teacher will come to appreciate that one method, or technology is best! This idea is deeply flawed, and downright dangerous!

The SAMR model uses the metaphor of a swimming pool. One implication is that some uses of technology are shallow, and others deep. This is somewhat misleading. What if I am substituting collaborative writing in groups to Google Docs? My pedagogical purposes are not shallow or trite even though I am merely substituting one technology (paper-based editing) for another. On the other hand I could be using a new technology (skype) for an entirely trivial task. My task would be seen as being in the deep end because it would be impossible to achieve without the new technology, and yet my pedagogical purpose might be negligible


Clearly what is meant is that teachers should be challenged to map the affordances of technology to meaningful pedagogical practices, and encourage Higher Order Thinking, not that we should be trying to get so creative with technology that we lose sight of what we are trying to do in the classroom. If technology does provide new and exciting ways of achieving what could not be achieved without it, then well and good, but clearly teachers should be encouraged to seek out good educational practice first and foremost, rather than innovating for the sake of innovating.

My third reservation with the model is a related point that the process of integration is not linear. One does not start at one end of the swimming pool and as one gets better at it, end up in the deep end. Perhaps the metaphor still holds if one visualizes teachers swimming laps, going up and down, being at different stages at different times. And yet even this formulation is less than helpful because it does not help to explain why a teacher would choose one solution above another. Teachers choices of technology surely cannot be determined crudely by a linear progression based on whatever criteria are used?

Surely teachers make the choices they do because they can see a benefit to how they teach a particular unit of work.

imagesA better metaphor would then be that of a craftsman reaching for a particular tool depending on what it is that they are doing at the time. Experience will have shown the craftsman what tool works best in what context. The model shown on the right was developed by Angeli and Valanides to describe how teachers map the affordances of technologies to content they wish to deliver using pedagogical approaches which will work with particular students in particular contexts.

The diagram may not be as pretty or as catchy as the others out there, but it describes far better what happens with real teachers in real classrooms. In the interplay of Knowledge, Pedagogy and Technology, somehow teachers are muddling through!




ICTs & The Jigsaw Exercise

Jigsaw exercises are a staple ingredient in any constructivist pedagogy. They are exercises designed to foster collaboration. The basic exercise is as follows. Imagine a group which is researching, say, their city. In each group one student is responsible for looking at sanitation, another at transport, a third at entertainment, and so forth. Each student, in other words becomes an expert in a particular aspect of the overall topic. This pattern is mirrored in other groups, and at a certain stage students go out of their own groups to meet in expert groups: all the sanitation people will meet and discuss their findings, for example. The expert will then report back to their own group armed with a much greater understanding of their own sub-topic.

IMG_9717There are many variations of course, but that is the basic idea. It is a commonplace remark that ICTs can help promote collaborative learning, and I believe that’s true, but you very seldom find any discussion of exactly how to go about it. What tools can you use, and how do you go about using them?

I believe there are three crucial moments in any jigsaw exercise routine where ICTs can really help out. In a hybrid situation I would certainly make sure that I did not do all of these stages digitally. You will want the bulk of the discussion process to be face-to-face. However, devices can be used at any stage even when students are talking to each other in the same room. If you are using a Flipped Classroom model, you will need to decide which stage or stages of the task will be done in the classroom, and which outside the classroom.

The Research Stage

Most jigsaw exercises inherently involve an information gathering stage, although sometimes this is telescoped into a pre-provided information pack in which different students or different groups receive different information. One excellent idea is to use QR codes strategically posted around a classroom highlighting different information. This mirrors the “could all Group As meet in that corner” instruction! Or you can give each student a different printed QR code on a sheet of paper.

UntitledFirstly there are enormous possibilities for using technology during the research, information-gathering stage. I like the mix of technology and old fashioned pen and paper – for example using the Cornell note taking strategy, captured on pre-printed note-taking sheets (each sheet with the relevant QR code on it – if appropriate). These can be used while researching off an iPad or laptop. There seems to be some research suggesting that pen and paper summarising skills are more effective than any form of digital note-taking, and when it comes to reading and writing I am always more inclined to be more conservative in approach. Reading and writing is just too important cognitively to mess with! One thing I like to do is get students to tweet search terms that have been useful, or the links to useful websites they have found, using the class hashtag. If you are using QR codes, you can get students to create and share QR codes as well!

It is useful, I think, for research to be done in the expert group, and for students to work in the same space, but using devices to scour the Internet for information.

An alternative idea is to use your Moodle, Google Classroom or Edmodo platform to post different input materials, such as video or document files for each group – as Flipped Learning , before you come to class homework. This material can be used to guide the subsequent research process.

The Collaborative Discussion Stage

Secondly at the collaborative discussion stage (expert or general group)  you can use a range of tools to facilitate the move from research to discussion itself and in to the creation and publication of any report-back or product. You can use a platform to allow the experts to share research and discuss their discoveries, or for the expert to feed their specialist knowledge back into the group. I would not do both as too much of the same thing destroys the freshness of the task, and one reason for using ICTs is to vary the type of task students are doing.

If you are flipping your classroom, this part can be done outside of classroom contact time, and be the homework component of the task.

Pinterest, for example allows users to set up a board with a list of collaborators who are also allowed to pin items to the board. Comments and links can be posted, allowing for ways in which the experts can share the information they find. If you want the expert collaboration to be more formal, you will probably want to set up a dedicated forum for them to talk to each other. If you want more general discussion a dedicated forum for high school students is available at Collaborize Classroom for free. You can set up different discussion topics for each group, and then allow the experts to use the forum to share research and ideas. Alternatively you can use Google Groups to set up either an online forum or email based listserv. You can create many groups each with their own discussion topics.

The Presentation (Product) Stage

Finally, at the reporting stage when the general group produces their final product or report back, you can use Google Docs so that students can collaborate on putting together a shared document, or any software designed to allow for presentation or publishing, PowerPoint, Prezi, Voicethread or movie-making software are all good options.

An excellent strategy is to ensure that the final product requires a summary of the research process and not just a re-hashing of it. If students have been collecting data on Pinterest you can get them to use Google Docs to produce a report, because the information is in a different form, and therefore requires synthesis and discussion, but if they have been collaborating on Google Docs during the research phase, the final product should be something different, again so that discussion is necessary to convert the information into a usable form.

One good idea is to turn words into numerical data. If you are getting students to research the lives of historical or literary figures, the final product can be a spreadsheet of data collected on their average age, etc. If you are getting students to collect numerical data, then a written report will guarantee that the information needs to be synthesised.




It’s never about the tech – it’s all about the teaching!

I’ve seen a few lessons recently which seemed to me to confirm the worst that can happen when teachers try to bring technology into their lessons. I taught one of them, so it would be churlish to pick on others when the fault lies so close to home. It is a common thread, though, in many classrooms. I am not the only offender.

In my defence, I was tired and rushed off my feet producing reports – a task I get laden with as an IT teacher! It was just after exams, and I needed to start film study, wearing my English teacher hat, with my grade 8s. I also had report layouts to check and a report printing deadline looming! I found a wonderful PowerPoint presentation on mise-en-scène analysis, and I embedded it on the class Moodle page so that I could display it on the Interactive Whiteboard to form the basis of class discussion. The presentation was excellent! But I forgot to check that it could be enlarged, and I lost the original file. Suddenly there I was with a tiny presentation nobody could read, an IWB whose sound was broken, and on a computer where I could not load any of the wonderful film clips I’d saved to discuss because the machine did not have the right software.

A lesson based on technological resources, and none of them worked!

The first rule of Ed Tech is always to check that it works before the class! Let’s be frank about this – technology obeys Murphy’s Law, and its rider that the likelihood of something going wrong is in direct proportion to its importance! If you are going to use technology in the classroom, you always need a Plan B! There’s nothing more pathetic than a teacher struggling to get a computer or video recorder to work while the class watches on, sniggering and making paper aeroplanes! If it doesn’t work I always go to Plan B immediately and as soon as the class is engaged in the first exercise, I go and wrestle with the technology. Very often you can get it going in time to reverse a lesson plan order and still use that fantastic Youtube clip or Prezi you spent all night looking for, or creating!

I actually believe, though, that there should be a minimum of technology in the classroom. Obviously, topics such as film study do require film, and there are many opportunities to introduce wonderful applications of technology into any lesson, but it should never be done just for the sake of doing it. I’ve seen too many lessons in which spurious Youtube videos seem to have been used simply to appear “trendy”. In my view teachers should always look at opportunities to get their students to use technology rather than using it themselves. Why should teachers be creating Prezis? Isn’t it better to ask students to make presentations and use these to “teach” a topic?

I also believe that teachers should not be proscriptive about what technology students use, or what applications they use to put together their assignments. Technology is like the air we breathe, it shouldn’t be the focus of anything.  When I ask students to make a presentation on the novel they’ve been studying, I don’t mind if they do it as a PowerPoint, a Prezi, a video, a blog, wiki or a website. All I ask is that they meet the requirements of the topic. Have they dealt with theme, character, plot? I do, however, give a mark for appropriate use of technology. If no marks are awarded for things which might take a great deal of time and effort to produce, we are teaching that presentation, perfecting and polishing doesn’t matter, and it surely does.

IMG_9707Many teachers shy away from technology because they feel they do not have adequate skills to cope. And yet, surely, we should be giving students the responsibility to learn how to use technology. As an ICT teacher I see it as my responsibility to teach students skills they can then apply in all their classes – not just my own.

To take it even further, I believe that we should be doing the same with content, giving students the responsibility for deciding what they want to learn – but that’s another story! I do believe, however, that technology is a significant affordance in enabling problem based learning. Schools need to create adequate technological infrastructure, and then get on with the job of enabling learning, rather than trying to micro-manage how technology is used in the classroom day to day, lesson to lesson. We should be posing broad problems, asking big questions, and then helping students try to solve these problems, allowing them to use whatever technology they find appropriate to the task. Sometimes we can’t see the curriculum for all the scaffolding!


Reflections on Flipping the Curriculum!

I have spent the last two days in a workshop with James Anderson at Roedean School, Johannesburg, learning how to go about designing units of work to embed Habits of Mind into the curriculum. It was an engaging, empowering and inspiring process: not always easy, but always fun! Habits of Mind is a set of 16 thinking dispositions which successful thinkers employ when they are faced with problems which they don’t immediately know how to solve. While good teachers have always taught these skills or dispositions in some form or another, usually by modelling them: often they have not been taught explicitly enough. Because there has not been a common language to describe them, often they have been lost in the day to day grind at the chalk face!

What made the workshop exciting for me in particular was that it gave me a time to reflect on my practice and wrestle with ways of embedding cognitive education in my units of work. As an ICT teacher, I felt the additional call to think about ways in which the affordances offered by 21st century technologies could be employed in this initiative. In this blog and elsewhere I have discussed the need to go beyond Flipping the Classroom (doing what used to be done in school at home, and doing at school what used to be done for homework) and spoken about Flipping the Curriculum, an idea which is starting to gain traction. I have a slightly different take on what this means, than Salman Khan, for example. I see it as reversing the traditional conecption that the curriculum consists of a range of content outcomes, facts that children need to know, to which good teachers tacked on the critical thinking bits. We need to conceive of the curriculum as being the teaching of critical thinking, and the content as the bits that are added on as needs be. In an Industrial Age children needed to be taught a set of basic facts and skills to prepare them for a world of work. But in the Information Age, where information is accessible anywhere, anytime, it no longer seems so necessary to teach facts, and it seems far more important to teach the critical thinking skills that allow us to evaluate those facts.

Habits of Mind is one of the most coherent expressions of what critical thinking skills could usefully be taught in schools to help prepare students for the 21st Century and beyond. At Roedean we have just begun this process, and I was one of the teachers who volunteered to help teach in the introductory programme, teaching about the Habits of Mind explicitly. The next phase is to embed these Habits of Mind in every lesson so that it becomes part of every day teaching. The workshop given by James Anderson was intended to set us on our way.

The basic approach that James taught us was to start by identifying what Habits of Mind our students needed development in, and seek a match between that set and what set of habits could usefully match the content outcomes of our unit of work. There is no point in trying to teach “striving for accuracy”, for example in a unit of work which does not demand accuracy, or teaching “creativity” in a unit on measurement! But equally, it does not make sense to teach a class “working interdendently” if they are already very good at co-operation and collaboration. You need to match the needs of the class with the suitability of the content. These thinking outcomes together with the traditional content outcomes become the outcomes for the unit of work.

The hardest part, for me, was learning a new vocabulary to express my learning outcomes. Strangely enough it was not the Habits of Mind outcomes that I found tricky, I was learning the vocabulary from James. It was the content outcomes. I guess I have always balked against Outcomes Based Education, certainly in the form it was adopted in South Africa, and its alien vocabularies. In my lesson plans I have always used a much more traditional vocabulary. I prefer the word aims to outcomes. In a training context outcomes are achieved in a given space of time. In an educational context, progress never ceases, and the journey is never ending. Reaching one milestone means setting a new target, and some get there sooner than others. As an English teacher, I was only too aware of the fact that I would never see the outcomes of my work because, to be blunt, anything trivial enough to be achieved in a single lesson was, well, trivial! At the end of this lesson the student will be able to write! I don’t think so! To my mind the aim of improving writing is not trivial, and I spent much time teaching strategies to help, but there is not a single day when suddenly your class can write. Their writing gets better, sure, but even Shakesperae could improve! So I used the term aims in all my lesson plans.

But I digress! James has a very useful way of expressing the Cognitive outcomes in ways which get around the problems I have detailed above. He uses several categories: meaning, capacity, alertness, value and commitment to speak about different aspects of each cognitive skill. By using these categories to analyse the coutcomes, a far richer, and more focused approach is possible. I have a feeling that what I need to do, as a teacher of ICTs is to use similar approaches in breaking down the content aims and objectives. I have a gut feeling that Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy is a tool that will help me achieve that, and this workshop feels like the first steps on that journey for me as a teacher.

After identifying Cognitive and Content outcomes, James had us identify Assessment Tasks which would test for these outcomes, and then finally work on lesson activities that would “teach to the test”. I have to say that this makes perfect sense to me, as a way of designing a unit of work. Teachers are very good at designing activities, but not that focused when it comes to defining clear goals. As I say, I really struggled with the content goals. What should an ICT teacher be teaching in 2011? Word? Spreadsheets? PhotoShop? Blogging? Twitter? What about Information Literacy generally? I don’t have a syllabus handed down from curriculum committees, ICTs are not in our core curriculum! By comparison to the muddled thinking in what documents are available, James’s Outcomes made perfect sense!

My challenge then is to re-design the ICT curriculum to incorporate the Habits of Mind, and use this opportunity to make sense of the changing face of computer skills training to re-think the content as well. This is both a challenging and tremendously exciting task, and one that I take on with relish!

Bring it on!

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Posted by on September 10, 2011 in Habits Of Mind, Pedagogy, Problem Based Learning


The Fourth Revolution

Stevan Harnad, the cognitive psychologist, has argued that we are seeing in the advent of the Internet the Fourth Cognitive Revolution. The First Revolution was the development of language way back in the Paleolithic. This Oral Revolution was characterized by the power of interactivity. The Invention of Literacy was the next revolution, and was characterized by reflection. With words written down, the thoughts expressed could be more easily reflected upon, long after they were penned.

The Third Revolution, the invention of the printing press, was a revolution in scale, bringing the power of literacy within the reach of all humanity.

Harnad argues that the Internet brings about a Fourth Cognitive Revolution, and that it is characterized by the bringing together of the power of Oracy and the power of Literacy in a unique way. E-mail, for example is interactive and immediate in ways similar to speech, but also has many of the characteristics of reflection common to other literacies. If we think about the changes wrought by a world which very soon will be always on, always connected, and what this means for knowledge production, and the wiring of the brain, few can doubt now that Harnad is right.

But what does it mean for teachers? There are a number of implications that follow directly from what Harnad is saying. Firstly, there is the notion that the chief cognitive affordance of the screen, as opposed to the page, is that it allows for interaction & reflection. We need to ensure that our pedagogical approaches maximise this benefit, and exploit this possibility, or we run the risk, for example, of ending up with a screen culture which is immediate, but not reflective.

There are two things I think we can do which will help promote reflection. On the one hand we need to ensure that we set searching, divergent questions which challenge students to order and structure their responses. Too often we ask questions which simply set the stage for students to do a quick, and superficial Internet search, followed by a desultory cut and paste job. The question needs to force students to re-order information, analyse, synthesise and evaluate (the full panoply of Bloom’s taxonomy). What are the causes of the French Revolution? This invites a Google search and cut & paste – the scrap-booking approach to education. The French Revolution was the first Modern Revolution. Discuss. This invites students to reflect on what they are reading and requires them to draft a response with a great deal more care and attention to ordering their own thoughts. This amounts to a focus on Problem Based Learning.

On the other hand, we also need to ensure that we give adequate opportunity for reflection within a collaborative working environment. Too often we set up collaborative tasks, but we do not teach students how to deal with them. We need to actively teach students explicitly how to deal with each stage of the collaborative process, including reflection. This amounts to a focus on Collaborative Learning,

My argument is, then, that we need a pedagogical focus on Problem based Collaborative Learning, and we need to be very clear about the fact that we will need to teach students, quite explicitly, about how to use the new digital literacies to develop their cognitive and critical thinking skills. We cannot rely on it happening en passant. It doesn’t, not for everyone anyway. There is a great deal spoken about the need for teachers to be facilitators, guides on the side. Rubbish! We need to be that at times, of course, but we sometimes need to be the sage on the stage. As Proudhon noted, the only natural authority in the world is that of the adult over the child, and anyone who says that teachers never need to teach, has never spent any time with a child! Mainly, as teachers, we need to be meddlers in the middle, we need to model cognitive and collaborative behaviours and routines for our students. We need to work alongside them and show, by example, how to collaborate, how to solve problems, and how to reflect on our work.

The traditional classroom focused on presenting content to students in ways which students could digest. The 21st Century classroom needs to stand education on its head. Focusing on Problem Based Collaborative Learning means zeroing in on the processing part of it, in other words what used to be done as homework, and actually helping students deal with the content in meaningful ways. In a world where content is available 24/7, digesting the content should be the homework, and there is a great deal to be said for using vodcasts and podcasts for this rather than class time.

All this impacts on the design of the classroom of the 21st Century. The classroom of the future, which starts today, needs to be connected 24 hours a day, during weekends and holidays. It needs to be able to access anything at any time. To my mind the starting point then is a basic platform which allows Internet access, and access to course materials from school and from home, which supports a range of mobile devices across all classrooms in the school, and is flexible. With good bandwidth, interactive whiteboards and wireless access across the school there is scope for individual teachers to use whatever resources they can find to do what they need to do. Above all the basic IT infrastructure needs to enable communication and collaboration. we don’t need fancy presentations and expensive software. We need to enable students to talk meaningfully with each other, with other students, with experts and with their teachers.

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