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Category Archives: Teaching

Autonomy Tours in The Classroom

There is an essential dichotomy in education between knowledge for knowledge sake, and knowledge for other purposes, such as vocation. This division of purpose describes how knowledge in any field is positioned relative to other fields of knowledge. If I am studying Mathematics, for example, am I studying it to further my career as an engineer, or am I learning it for its own sake? This idea conveys a sense of the relative autonomy or heteronomity of knowledge. In the classroom students will often question why they are learning something. Will they really need to know trigonometry in their future lives? Why does the school not recognise their extensive and autonomous knowledge of Pokemon? Why study Shakespeare? Why study Latin?

I have written previously about semantic waves in the classroom. Semantic waves are an idea generated by Legitimation Code Theory – a perspective drawn from the ideas of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu, authored by Karl Maton, and describes how ideas range from abstract to concrete (semantic gravity) and from simple to complex (semantic density). Knowledge building depends upon the strengthening and weakening of semantic gravity and semantic density. In this article I would like to look at another idea taken from Legitimation Code Theory which I believe has relevance for classroom teachers – the idea of autonomy tours (Maton & Howard, 2018).

I apologize for the highly academic discussion which follows. It is necessary I am afraid. The discussion is somewhat complex, but the idea behind it makes instant sense, I think, to any teacher and speaks directly to how we teach. How do we tie together different types of knowledge students are exposed to or bring into the classroom from outside? We are tasked with teaching a curriculum, but we also know that we need to leverage what students already know, or what they are learning in other subjects, and that we need to prepare our students for using what we are teaching them to solve problems or get ahead in life. But to give students useful cognitive tools we need to give them access to the rigorous and fairly insulated positions within the disciplines we teach. If we teach Maths we need to teach Maths properly, not just as a tool to help kids balance their budgets. We need to teach our subjects for their own values and worth (autonomy) rather than just as slaves to other purposes (heteronomity). But we cannot be blind to other purposes either.

In Legitimation Code Theory the notion of autonomy is expressed as a matrix describing the relative Positional and Relational Autonomy of any constituent (idea, actor, etc). What does this mean?

Positional Autonomy (PA) (the vertical axis) refers to how a constituent is positioned relative to a field. For example if the field is the study of History and you are studying the Russian Revolution, looking at the railway networks in Russia, this constitutes knowledge that has weak PA because it is not strongly related to the discipline of History. Looking at reports of debates inside the Smolny Institute might be considered as having strong PA because it is directly positioned as historical knowledge.

Relational Autonomy (RA), (the horizontal axis) on the other hand refers to how constituents of a field are related to other contexts or fields. This speaks to the question of the aim or purpose. For example, if my aim for looking at railway networks is to further my understanding of how revolutionary ideas were carried across Russia then it has strong RA towards the field, but if it is to do some historical train spotting it has weak RA.

Both PA and RA form a spectrum with gradations, varying from Strong Positional Autonomy (PA+) to Weak Positional Autonomy (PA-) and strong Relational Autonomy (RA+) to weak Relational Autonomy (RA-) as seen in the table above.

Describing these polarities as a matrix allows us to describe four distinct autonomy codes.

The Sovereign Code (PA+, RA+) describes when status is given to strongly insulated positions and purposes. Eg. using Historical knowledge to teach History. This is teaching the curriculum to learn the curriculum.

The Exotic Code (PA-, RA-) describes weakly insulated positions and purposes. Knowledge outside a discipline is used for purposes other than pursuing that discipline. Eg. discussing the rugby in a History class. It has nothing to do with the curriculum and is not being used to illuminate what is being studied in any way. 

The Introjected Code (PA-, RA+) also called the Roman Code describes knowledge from other positions being used for the purpose of pursuing aims within that discipline. Eg. using Geographical knowledge to teach History. Although not directly part of the curriculum, it is being studied to help understand an aspect of that curriculum better.

The Projected Code (PA+, RA-) also called the Trojan Code describes using insulated knowledge for other purposes, Eg. using historical knowledge for another purpose, telling a joke or making a point about modern parallels. Curriculum is being used for another purpose which lies outside the curriculum.

We have had to wade through quite a technical explanation above, but I hope to show now how this speaks to classroom practice. Learning which stays in one code risks never having any relevance to building knowledge. One of the greatest weaknesses in our education system is that students can display knowledge of something they have learned, but never be able to use that knowledge in different contexts, or to see the relevance in one discipline of what they have learned in another. Worst of all it is utterly divorced from their real lives. There is no knowledge building between disciplines and so students are being robbed of the ability to apply their knowledge in different contexts and for different purposes.

An understanding of the autonomy codes, I believe, helps a teacher to understand how they need to shift between the codes to maximise knowledge building practices.  The Sovereign Code represents the target of knowledge, but if students already grasp the concepts then staying in the Sovereign Code represents boredom and monotony, and if they do not understand the concepts then there is little opportunity to grasp them being offered. Staying in one code represents severe limitations on any course of study.

For most students the only field available to help leverage academic knowledge comes from every day knowledge (the exotic code). Teachers who do not range out into other fields to help students understand are missing an opportunity. Most classrooms see frequent journeys into the exotic code as the teacher tries to make material accessible. As a schoolboy in the sixties and seventies much of my education reflected a one way trip out of the sovereign code and into the exotic code. We might have been sitting in a Maths class, but all someone had to do was say, “What did you think of the rugby on Saturday, sir?” and all thoughts of Maths went out the window and the rest of the lesson revolved around poor ball handling and who should be selected to play against the All Blacks! However, trips into the exotic code are vital for anchoring understanding. Teachers often, quite legitimately, use knowledge of unrelated things to help explain an idea or concept they are teaching. Let us say a teacher is teaching a topic around international trade. Because students have little or no knowledge of trade between nations, the teacher might well use an analogy of how kids trade Pokemon cards, and bring that idea back to the context of the lesson. Without this trip into the exotic the concept might never have been understood. The key of course is the ability of the teacher to bring the discussion back to the point of the lesson, rather than getting stuck on the exotic and never returning. A return trip is needed between the codes, bringing the lesson back on point.

Equally, the ability to tie knowledge across different disciplines is crucial to building worthwhile knowledge. Students will often use Mathematical knowledge in a Science class, graphing data, for example. This represents inter-disciplinary knowledge building. Geography often presents knowledge relevant for the study of History, and so on. These return trips run between the Introjected and Sovereign Codes. If students are given a sense of how they might be able to apply the knowledge they are learning in other contexts, then we have journeys between the Sovereign and Projected Codes.

Perhaps most powerfully of all, however, is the notion of an Autonomy Tour, in which the teacher will lead a class from one code, through another or more codes and return to where they began. What is powerful about this is the idea that knowledge is being linked and applied in different contexts and for different purposes. Modelling such a tour teaches students how to build knowledge across different contexts and how to apply what they have learned in new contexts. The idea of the Autonomy Tour offers a powerful way of analysing what goes on in the classroom, but also describes virtuous practice. As classroom teachers it is vital for us to think about how we use our pedagogical approaches to maximise the benefits of knowledge building and plan our lessons to help students make sense of what we are teaching them.

Bibliography

Maton, Karl & Howard, Sarah. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building. LCT Centre Occasional Paper. 1.

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Five Apps that Support Student Voice in the Classroom

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

1. Google Docs

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

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

2. Flipgrid

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

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

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

3. VideoPad

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

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

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

4. WordPress

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

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

5. PowerPoint

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

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

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

 

Five Apps that Support Group Work in the Classroom

Constructivist Learning Theory emphasises the value of Group Work in the Classroom. As Vygotsky has highlighted, learning is first social before it becomes internalised. In other words the more opportunities students have to discuss and work through any content, the greater the opportunity to internalise that content. And yet many students have a hatred of group work. Learning to work with other people is not easy. Those with a healthy work ethic often do not know how to handle interactions with those who have less of a motivation to finish a task. Those who are used to achieving high marks for their individual assignments often feel resentful towards those who who turn in work they consider drags them down. Should they just take over and do all the work themselves, or do they accept peer contributions which they consider sub-standard? Others in the group may be resentful of those who try to take over, or who come across as bossy or exacting. And yet, more than ever, learning to work together and think interdependently is considered a crucial and employable skill.

Are there any digital applications which can help quieten the choppy Group Work waters? Here are five suggestions.

1. Google Docs

Google Docs provide unparalleled functionality for facilitating collaborative text authoring. A document can be shared with all members of the group, and the teacher, and then all who have been given editing rights can simultaneously work on the document. All changes are saved automatically. There is an online chat facility, and authors can leave comments and suggest edits. One of the greatest limitations on collaboration has always been the difficulties around sharing a document and writing one up. One member of the group often had to volunteer to do the “write up”. Google docs allows for this workload to be shared.

Teachers can carefully scaffold tasks within a Google doc and then share the document with a group so that the steps to be taken are highlighted, and strategies which might be deployed to afford collaborative thinking are suggested. In the graphic, the teacher is suggesting that de Bono Thinking Hats might help the group explore explore the topic though parallel thinking. Teachers can comment at any stage during the authoring process much as teachers circulating in a classroom can eavesdrop and intervene where necessary to get a group back on track. This allows teachers to  continue scaffolding learning in class, and outside class while students are authoring their write up.

These affordances for collaborative authoring and scaffolding make Google docs one of the most valuable educational tools to emerge in recent years. Students are able to use Google docs both while in group discussion, and for after-school homework.

2. Bubbl.us

Bubbl.us is a web-based tool, with limited free and paid options. It allows users to set up a mind-map board which groups discussing a topic can use to create mind maps and save these as a jpeg, png or even html, which can be downloaded and shared. Upgrading to paid versions allows users to share a mind-map which can then be used for follow-up tasks.

One of the limitations of any paper based mind-map is how to share it, if the ideas are needed for follow-up action. To my mind, mind mapping tools offer the key affordance of guiding discussion around how ideas fit together. It forces students to address issues such as where does this idea fit? This helps sharpen an argument.

Bubbl.us allows grid, tree and bubble layouts. You can insert files only with an upgraded paid version, but the free version does allow links, so students can use the mind map to record useful links.

Some way of recording a discussion in a form which can later be shared is invaluable, but mind maps are especially valuable because they force students to simultaneously organise their thoughts.

3. Padlet

Padlet is a web-based tool which has free and paid options. The free version allows up to four walls. On a wall you can add files, voice and video recordings, links searched from within Google, text and doodles. You can share the wall with other users, each with authoring rights, or share a link, or wall saved as pdf or image.

The chief affordance to my mind is the facility for co-authors to add voice or video messages to the wall. This provides a superb tool for a group to collect resources and leave commentary both while planning a project, and when leaving a report back, with group members recording commentary on different aspects of a topic.

A teacher can set up a topic and invite students to co-author a document, thus setting up a group, and providing impetus sources if required, or groups can set up their own walls and share with each other informally, or with the teacher, formally. Walls have different themes and templates which can be applied. A wall can be deleted when it is no longer needed.

4. Kahoot!

Kahoot! is a tool which allows students to create quizzes or games or discussion boards which they can then share with the rest of the class. This is a great end product which encourages a group to research a topic, master the content and share with the class in the form of a quiz. Students find Kahoots engaging to create and to consume. This provides one means a teacher can use to ensure that the end product is itself engaging and encourages the group to take care in its creation.

Thinking of suitable questions to ask the rest of the class is a great way to get students to dig down deeper into a topic than they might otherwise have done so. The competitive nature of the quizzes also seems to encourage students to put in greater effort.

5. Lino

Lino is a sticky note web-based application which allows multiple users to post sticky notes on a topic. Users can post files, links to videos or images on an electronic cork-board. This allows for group-based brainstorming. It is a very versatile tool in that it can be used by a group or whole class and used for multiple purposes from group discussion through to presentation and feedback or reflection.

I like to use it as a reflection tool for students to post final comments on a topic after group-based feedback presentations have been made. It is quick and visual  and allows for a rapid round-up of reflections or comments and makes for a good way to sign off on a topic.

For a teacher it is a good way to spot any comments which reveal need for further action. Maybe some aspect of the topic needs to be picked up on at a later stage, or could do with further exploration.

This list of tools is by no means exhaustive. There may be better examples of applications with improved functionality. All of these tools, however, represent different ways in which collaborative group-based work can be usefully supported and enhanced. Please use the comments to suggest other tools, or share how you are using these tools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Strategies to Avoid Digital Distraction in the Classroom

Students will often have several devices about their persons on any given day. Smartphones are almost de rigueur, but if your school has a BYOD policy, many will also have a tablet or laptop. This opens up some great learning opportunities, allowing students to search for information and use digital authoring tools to create content of different kinds. But these devices can often lead to distractions. Some teachers are so concerned they are arguing for devices to be banned from the classroom entirely. Many students are seemingly surgically attached to their phones, and struggle to overcome addictive behaviours. I have some sympathy with the notion of creating device-free zones or periods of time, but believe that the benefits of digital devices far outweighs the dangers they present, not least because as teachers we have a duty to help students learn to manage and control their digital consumption.

Here are five strategies which can be implemented in the classroom and in homework/study routines to address this issue.

1. The Digital Traffic Light

If you are going to allow students to use devices during a lesson, you need some protocol for signalling to students when they are, and when they are not expected to use their devices. The digital traffic light signals what state a classroom is in at any stage.

When the light is red, no devices are allowed. Phones and tablets must be off or on silent and put away.

When the light is amber, students have an option. They may use their devices for note-taking or to answer questions, but it does not form part of the task at hand directly. For example a class is reading and discussing the English set-work in class. Some are taking notes on paper, others on their iPads. Some are reading the text on paper, others from as eTexts. The class then needs to break into groups and answer some questions. In the group the meaning of a word is queried. Students do a Google search to find out what it means.

When the light is green, the teacher is signalling that students must use their devices. The task depends on the use of a device.

This strategy has the benefit of removing doubt from students’ minds as to whether or not they should have their devices on or at hand. It also forces teachers to think about the issue up front.

2. Work First – Reward Second

When students are working on homework, many procrastinate, and so seductive are web platforms like YouTube, that work can quickly become a distant memory. A useful work ethic to develop is to reward yourself for any work done by giving yourself digital entertainment time upon completion of a block of work. If I study for an hour, I can have a break and fifteen minutes screen-time! This strategy is difficult to implement, but once it becomes habitual it can offer huge benefits.

3. Do One Thing At A Time!

As I write this I have several tabs open, a few devices at hand, and several applications running simultaneously. My email is running on my second screen so that I can deal with any issues that arise. I am listening to some music and checking my whatsapp messages regularly. Many screenagers like to multi-task and are very good at minimising their screens whenever an adult passes by! The injunction not to run multiple apps, multiple tabs or multiple devices is hard to follow, but should be a strategy one tries to adhere to. Of course there are occasions where running more than one application is beneficial. If I am writing an essay in Google docs and using another tab to research a quote I can use, for example. Or I am using PhotoShop to create an image for a project, watching a YouTube tutorial on PhotoShop on my iPad, pausing and rewinding as I go to help me work on the image I am making. But striving to do one thing at a time can really help students focus on what they are doing.

4. Monitor Your Distraction

Trying to implement the strategies above will only work if you are able to monitor your distraction. This sounds obvious, but is actually very hard to implement if you do not have a strategy for ensuring that you do it! A simple log of what you are doing can help.

16h00: studying Biology
16h48: Watching YouTube music videos
17h02: English essay
17h45: Rick & Morty!

Keeping a log can help you see where the problem lies and start to address it. In a classroom the teacher can help students monitor how focused on a task they are by reminding students what they should be doing and noticing distractions.

5. If All Else Fails, Go Cold Turkey!

Sometimes the only solution may be for a student to have their parents keep their phone in safe-keeping while they work or study.

In a classroom sometimes the distraction is so seductive that only a temporary ban will work! When the Matric Dance photos were released, even students with iron wills were covertly scrolling through the pictures when they should have been working on their spreadsheets. At first I tried a work first – reward second approach and promised them five minutes at the end of the lesson to view the photos, but when that didn’t work I had to become a policeman, imposing a ban on all devices and open tabs!

I believe that helping students manage their digital distraction is far more worthwhile than imposing blanket bans on digital devices or cracking down on all digital entertainment by blocking sites on the school firewall. Trust me, kids will find a way to circumvent the bans and then you as a teacher have absolutely no traction to help them deal with the curse of digital distraction.

 

Using Algorithmic Thinking to Teach Writing

The gains being made by Artificial Intelligence are truly impressive, but we may not be at the stage where a robot can out-write Shakespeare. And yet I do believe that we can use algorithmic thinking to teach students to become better writers. One of the bug-bears for many students over the years has undoubtedly been the lack of explicit instruction in how to write. The dominant pedagogy has been to give students plenty of opportunity to practice creative writing, and to attempt to mold improvement through feedback – often woefully inadequate feedback.

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Scoboco at https://www.flickr.com/photos/62159569@N08/10546981384. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

And yet writing can clearly be taught. At the very least students should be made aware of the overall structure of any piece of writing: how to set out a clear thesis statement and develop ideas in successive paragraphs which develop topic sentences, fleshing each idea out with anecdote, fact or quotation. If they are practising these skills quite explicitly their practice is focused and directed, it is far more likely to bear fruit.

I have found, over the years, however, that no amount of scaffolding will make this process easy to implement in whole class instruction. Most students can use conceptual maps to plan a sequence of ideas which support a thesis, but really struggle when it comes to developing these ideas in individual paragraphs. For some this process appears to come naturally. They effortlessly weave together anecdotes and observations to illuminate their ideas. Others appear incapable of marrying abstract ideas to concrete details, which is really what is at stake here.

I had a brain-wave the other day in a coding class. Could the kind of thinking used in coding (algorithmic thinking) not be employed to help bridge the seeming chasm between abstract and concrete? Algorithms, after all are sets of instructions which a machine can follow – a blue-print for successful practice. Maybe, for those who seemed to lack a muse, a blue-print was exactly what was required. And maybe, after following an algorithm for a while, the patterns and habits might stick.

I started by getting the whole class to generate a set of ideas and sub-points using a graphic organiser. We then organised these ideas into a logical sequence so that an argument was constructed. I put these ideas on a Google doc which I then shared with the class on Google Classroom so that each student had their own copy. The class then broke into groups and had to find anecdotes, facts, details or quotations. These were written out on cards and shuffled into a pile. Students were then told to start writing, using the logically sequenced outline we had developed. As they wrote each paragraph they had to come to the front of the class, dig in the pile and try to find at least one anecdote, fact or quote to use in that paragraph. When they had finished they returned it to the pile.

Individual essays were thus unique. The same anecdote could be used to support or refute an idea. We then shared some of these sequences in essays and discussed how they had been used to support the thesis statement. My follow-up, next term, will be to get students to select ideas from a pile and match these to the developing details so that each essay has a different sequencing structure.

 

Mentoring – The Killer App? Using Game Mechanics to achieve Differentiated Learning Opportunities.

One of the great conundrums facing education is that while we as teachers know that students only learn effectively when they are in their proximal zones of development, ie. learning something just a little above their current competence, we sit with classes of twenty to forty students, each one with different learning needs! How to personalise learning when economics determines larger class sizes remains the burning issue of our times. In an ideal world all classes might be one-on-one, or relatively small group sessions when preferred. In that way all instruction could be tailored towards the precise needs of each individual student. Those promoting the use of computers have long touted the machine as an answer. BF Skinner’s teaching machines promised the panacea of an infinitely patient machine providing students with individualised content and appropriate feedback, using branching procedures to make sure that each student received exactly what they needed to maximise learning. These machines did not work, however, and were quickly labelled drill and kill!

Now it might be that advances in Artificial Intelligence will deliver machines more capable of the subtlety and empathy required for effective content delivery and feedback, but we are not there yet. In my experience computer driven instructional software tends to be rejected by students overwhelmingly. The classroom still sits with the problem of one teacher and multiple students, and no clear way to offer personalization efficiently and effectively. Dan Buckley’s Personalisation By Pieces approach offers perhaps the best solution yet. Students create pieces of work which demonstrate mastery of skills. This work is uploaded electronically and assessed by a peer mentor who has passed the skill level being demonstrated. This provides the student with accreditation at that level and enables them to mentor and assess others. There is more to the system than this, but in a nutshell this is what is used to establish a cycle of virtuous practice designed to create independent learners.

The model presented is of two possible routes for Personalisation, one teacher lead (T-Route) and the other student driven (P-Route). The uses of ICT are accordingly different, specifically being used to monitor and record progress, and link peer mentors and mentees and provide them with channels of communication rather than to prepare teacher resources and instructional materials. Crucially learning becomes student-directed, with multiple pathways available and students able to choose which direction they wish to pursue. The key difference between the Personalisation By Pieces approach and Skinner’s Teaching Machines lies in the key insight that mentorship works to the benefit of both parties! Students who have completed a level are more than capable and benefit from helping explain, mentor and assess the work of their peers.

As Vygotsky noted, learning is social in the first instance, and we need the assistance of a more experienced other to help us bridge the gap between what we already know or can do, and what it is that we are learning. A system which uses peer mentor assessment could be crucial in providing the kind of individualised feedback that promotes personalised learning pathways. In my view this does not down-play the role of the teacher, whose whole class instruction and oversight of progress remains crucial.

Now the PbyP approach obviously crosses the borders of individual classrooms and schools in linking mentors and mentees, but it would be interesting to see what could be done even within individual classrooms and without the benefit of a custom-built ICT platform like PbyP.

Computer Gaming is often seen as the enemy of education, but as James Paul Gee has pointed out in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, computer games demonstrate principles of learning in remarkably efficient ways! Players are kept in their proximal zones of development and learning is artfully scaffolded. Players do not feel daunted by failure, they simply try and try and try again. Ample time is given for these re-takes, and the rewards are epic! No player seems to resent someone who is a level or two ahead of them, they simply strive to get their themselves. Players are also generous in their assistance, mentoring newbies and sharing strategies and tactics. We could do a lot worse than getting our classrooms to emulate games.

I am not arguing that every lesson should be gamified, or that the syllabus should be rewritten as a game. There is a great deal of knowledge which cannot be gamified. But I am suggesting that game mechanics should be used as exemplars of classroom management practice. In a game, players take on urgent tasks, but not necessarily in any given order. They tend to tackle that task and keep working at it until a solution is found. They may suffer spectacular failure, but bounce back until they succeed. Players collaborate to help each other out. This is exactly what we would like to see in the classroom. But how do we get the same effects without trivializing the tasks involved?

As a teacher of English Second Language, I often found a great deal of differentiation in level amongst the students in my class. But with classes of 35 plus, addressing everyone’s specific needs was difficult without creating a variety of tasks graded for ability. This is not really very difficult to do. Take comprehension skills, for example. I still did whole class instruction when tackling skills, strategies and approaches to comprehension. But when it came to selecting practice tasks for students to tackle, it is easy enough to have a box full of differentiated tasks, colour-coded for reading ability. These can be used across age cohorts. When tackling language skills, I would direct those students struggling with concord, for example, towards exercises around this, and those needing more work with vocabulary towards these tasks. I kept a file with a page per student to record what tasks had been completed, and what needed further work. While not very game-like, this did mean that students were tackling mastery across parallel, overlapping, but differentiated paths. One can easily imagine overlaying game mechanics to create a more engaging experience. Students loved the individual attention they were getting. I was usually able to sit down with about a third of my class in any session and I used to assess work in front of them and give feedback and follow-up tasks at the same time. I have never believed in taking marking home with me!

As a Computer Skills teacher I have a gamified my syllabus completely in that all the tasks revolve around a narrative – see The Mobius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom. But while these tasks allow for different speeds of progress they are not differentiated according to learning needs. This is partly because a computer skills syllabus does not really involve much work that is really complicated. There are only so many spreadsheet skills, for example. Something more complicated and nuanced, such as comprehension skills provides far more need for branching. Many students struggle with idiomatic expressions. There appears to be something of a generation gap between the authors of pieces used in comprehension passages, magazine or newspaper articles, and school-aged readers. But others may be misconstruing the connotations of words and therefore missing the purpose of the writing. Differentiated learning paths would greatly benefit students in this instance. But simply adding a games layer to your English classroom may seem forced and artificial. Simply awarding badges and posting leaderboards does not seem to me to be the answer either.

The idea of using peer mentorship and assessment using more experienced peers to be found in Personalisation By Pieces, however, seems to me to offer a real alternative. To take our example of Comprehension Skills, having a student who is struggling with idiomatic language usage receive help and have a task based on idioms assessed by someone who has recently “passed” a unit of work based on idioms would deliver a useful and authentic context for games-like level based achievement. This could be achieved across grades and ages using online piece submission platforms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams for Education. Analog work could be scanned for submission purposes if need be. This would provide a paper trail and record of what was covered.

 

 

 

 

Why Fix the Classroom When Society is Broken?

Research shows that societal factors weigh far more heavily than school-based factors in determining outcomes in education. Our society is characterized by massive and growing inequality. We have a two-tiered education system in which the vast majority receive a schooling designed to keep them in their place, cannon fodder for the workplace, schooled enough to function in menial tasks, but not prepared with the problem-solving and critical thinking skills that characterize the education of the small elite. It is not that schools are broken, they are doing exactly what they are designed to do! They accurately reproduce the inequality in society and perpetuate it.

This leaves teachers with a dilemma. If we improve the classroom are we not merely making it more efficient at reproducing inequality? Many kinds of efficiencies clearly fall into this category. Efficient assessments create the kinds of perfect bell curves that separate people out into those who excel, those who pass and those who fail. If a teacher makes do with limited resources and creatively adapts to make the best of a bad situation, is she not simply keeping a rotten system afloat? Might she not serve humanity better by throwing in the towel and forcing society at large to see that the schooling is predicated on inequality by letting it fail more?

As seductive as this idea might seem, it is not a path most teachers will consciously take to. Teachers tend to see their primary responsibility as being the care and nurturing of their students. To deliberately fail their students by letting the contradictions inherent in the system bubble to the surface in the vague hopes of effecting change is not really an option I can see anyone adopting. We need to try to change the system from within so as to subvert its function in society. I believe this can be done. Or at any rate, it is surely worth the effort. Most of us will have read Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) by Neil Postman at some point, and while many of us fall short in the militancy department, I truly believe that the majority of teachers do a good job of eating away at the rotten idea that education is about closing doors rather than opening them up!

Nowhere is inequality more stark than in the whole question of assessment. Exam boards and final exit examinations ensure that teachers do the bidding of the system. I may disagree with the emphasis on marks, but I am not going to disadvantage any of my students by failing to prepare them for the exam! I can use my professional autonomy to teach in different and hopefully subversive ways, but the final assessment is a hurdle difficult to avoid. All the things that teachers hate about examinations as they are set, the insistence on breadth rather than depth, leading to impossibly long syllabi, the focus on recall rather than critical thinking, the inflexibility and finality of the result and its life-changing importance, create an unhealthy pressure on all concerned.

If you re-imagined educational assessment such that all students achieved mastery, something not outside our reach, we would clearly then be creating a different kind of school, one dysfunctional to the society around us. It seems to me axiomatic that if people are engaged in something that motivates them, they normally succeed at a very high level. A student who might be failing in school, might well be an expert in video gaming. By changing the curriculum so that it it reflects what people want to learn rather than what we think they ought to learn, we might find far more equality in educational outcomes.

The last thirty years has seen a steady advance down the road of Neo-Liberal, Taylorist efficiency. Schools have been urged to run more like businesses, and sacrifice broad liberal education for approaches designed to articulate with the needs of the work-place. Budgets have been tightened, teachers have been deskilled by a drive for greater uniformity and the power of educational publishers to impose syllabi and learning materials in the name of common standards. If it’s week three we should be doing fractions, regardless of the needs of the individual student or the professionalism of the teacher to address those needs. The Fourth Year Slump is an excellent example of a system gone mad. By the fourth year of schooling literacy skills are no longer explicitly taught. Any student who has missed the boat, whose reading or writing skills are not up to scratch, finds themselves condemned to learning coping skills to cover lack of adequate comprehension, rather than simply taking the time to continue teaching literacy, where needed, just that bit longer. The fourth year slump suits a system predicated on reproducing inequality, does it not?

The system is not going to change without quietly eating away at its innards. Subversion that is too overt will be crushed ruthlessly. Teachers are powerless to change the key elements that shape the system and make it functional to inequality, curriculum, syllabi and exams. But we do have one crucial advantage. We can control our own classrooms. We can use that space to push the boundaries of curriculum, syllabus and assessment and to try to foster the kinds of critical thinking and growth mindsets which will feed the humanity of our students and leave them, and us, in a better position to thrive.

 

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2018 in Assessment, Pedagogy, Teaching

 
 
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