Thursday, 21 March 2013

Fostering independent learning through mobile technology

Today's blog post was inspired by a talk I was asked to give at #SSATeachMeet on how mobile technology can foster independent learning in our students. It wasn't a great talk to be fair. The speaker was knackered from an observation by the Head in the morning, a full day and a break and after school duty, had tried to cram in too much to his 7 minutes, and then garbled his way through most of it when the tech gave out (the irony is lost on nobody), and consequently, had anyone tried to get a question in edgeways, they would have been greeted by the old Queen song "Don't Stop Me Now" (though the second line would have been omitted for obvious "bricking it"reasons). Well, that's the last time anyone asks me to do anything like that again.

I've already written about how to use some of the apps I talked about here, so the purpose of the talk wasn't to re-hash old ground. Rather, I wanted to try to pick apart some of the key aspects of independent learning that mobile technologies can help us with, to provide a solid founding rationale for anyone wanting to move in that direction. It's a huge step, and long before you start thinking about when, how or what you're going to do, you need to ask yourself why you think mobile learning is the answer: What is the problem you are trying to solve?

In my case, I tend to get a lot of students come to my A level Film and Media classes who have ever studied the subject before. We never turn them away, but it has come to my attention that they have often scraped through their 5 A*-C grades, and been heavily supported especially in their English. Which is great to get them through the GCSE hoop, but unfortunately now I need them to start thinking for themselves, and very few of them are capable of doing that. So my original rationale for looking at mobile technology in learning, the "gap" I'd identified (to use the jargon), was student independence. I looked at many solutions, including SOLO taxonomy and flipped learning, as well as mobile technology, and ended up using a combination of all three to get my students thinking independently of me. These are my conclusions...

Mobile Learning Gets Students To Take Responsibility For Their Learning

In itself this is a huge step. A student who has a list of excuses for why they can't do something is a student who spends more time thinking up the excuses than doing the work. Mobile learning turns the onus onto them to get themselves organised. At the start of their courses, my students get a Google mail account so they can create and share Google Docs, and they create an Evernote account, so they can make their notes. I've blogged elsewhere about these apps (here and here, if you must), and I've even put tutorials online for how to use them on our Youtube Channel, so forgive me if I don't dwell on the "how to's" too much. Suffice it to say that an Evernote account allows my students to access learning in several new ways:

  1. By allowing them to supplement written notes with pictures (often of what I've drawn on the board), audio notes and attachments;
  2. By allowing them to organise these into subject files, and topic sub-folders;
  3. By allowing them to tag their files, and cross-reference them
  4. By allowing them to be stored on the cloud
There was an understandable sound of "whoop-di-doo" as I was talking about this, until I pointed to the  fact that a student who arrives at his terminal exams two years down the line with a full set of notes intact and cross-referenced was already at an advantage to probably well over two-thirds of the cohort. We seem to take loss of learning material as an occupational hazard in Sixth Form, but it's tantamount to prolonged absence in some cases, so I felt that this was a great starting point when discussing the advantages of mobile technology in developing independent learners.

The Big Picture

The second area in which students benefit from the use of mobile technology is in the ability to simply and quickly create permanent mind-maps and brainstorms which allow them to think about the bigger learning picture. Right from the start, students will use Popplet or one of many other mind-map apps to think about what they know about the topic before we start, to think about what they want to know, and to think about knowledge and skills from other subjects which they might be able to use in the one they are about to tackle. These types of connections are crucial, as they encourage students to think outside of the usual boundaries of subject areas, and to see how the world really works in an inter-connected way. Moreover, they can start to explicitly think about the big picture, and get a sense of how the topic they are about to embark upon affects the real world. In itself, this one change in outlook can provide students who are used to learning topics because "it's on the syllabus" with a much better notion of why it is important to study them, and what use they will be to them later on.

Applied Learning

The next benefit I've found in using mobile technology is in the way it facilitates flipped learning. I've talked about what flipped learning is before, and in many ways the idea isn't revolutionary (last century  it was simply called "prep", but I like the fancy new pseudo-pedagogibabble!). But the world of homework research is made immeasurably easier and more interesting when combined with mobile learning. Not only can we set learning from a variety of different sources and source types, matched to the students' ability levels and the types of material they access most easily, from videos to online powerpoints to audio podcasts, but we can also use some great online tools to set associated quizzes for our students to try at the same time as the learning, in order to allow them to judge just how good their understanding or mastery of a concept is. I talked last night about TED-Ed as one such resource. It has allowed me to find some great videos, and flip them by creating quizzes for each one, as well as flipping some of my own Youtube tutorials: Here is an example of one I got my A level students to do, with initial quick-fire recollection and deduction questions (to make sure they'd watched it and learnt the facts!), and other more open-ended questions which prepared them for the sorts of issues we'd be talking about in the classroom.

What that means is that I could come into the classroom, look at the test results, and straight away split my students into differentiated groups on the basis of how well they dealt with the material: Groups needing more support get extra scaffolding, groups who clearly dealt with it easily get stretch material, and off we go. Tick the OFSTED boxes about personalised learning at the same time. If that's your cup of tea.

Inter-Dependent Learning and Collaboration

If mobile technology does one thing, it allows students to share and work together in a much more meaningful way than ever before. Apps like GoogleDocs and Evernote are great for sharing over a variety of platforms, including Twitter, e-mail download etc. With GoogleDocs, students can even work simultaneously in real time on the same document from different locations, whether that be classrooms in school or from home. Not only that, but they can comment on each other's work. While at first one area of mobile learning I struggled with was showing evidence of self, peer and teacher assessment, this kind of sharing makes that easy and permanently recorded for them to refer to, unlike the sticky notes I used to find lying around my classroom after an über-fruitful peer assessment session, where the fruits had clearly fallen on stony ground!

Recently, however, I have seen others extend this idea even further by publishing essays and research online via Twitter or other forums, and asking the outside world for feedback. As I mentioned in my talk, a couple of weeks back some students of mine had been researching, discussing and writing about the problems facing the UK film industry. When we put their essays out for public critique, can you imagine the level of motivation they got when they received two comments from two British film producers? "Quite chuffed" doesn't really do it justice! But this invitation to outside experts to scrutinise our work grounds the students in the real-world context of their learning, and gets them already engaging with the issues and the people they aspire to work with in the future. Do they really need me any more?

The Meta-Cognitive Dimension

The real benefits for me of using mobile technology to foster independence are about the meta-cognitive skills the students develop. A mobile device, with an array of apps which do similar but not identical things, gets students really thinking about learning itself, and selecting the tools by which they learnt best*. They have to think about how they will research, assimilate, learn, remember and revise their work. They have to think about a way of presenting their learning to me which most clearly demonstrates their understanding and their progress. So I could end up marking an interactive book with videos and full glossary in it (Creative Book Builder), or an animated walk-through of a process or timeline (Videoscribe), or an interactive whiteboard presentation which is narrated (Explain Everything), or even a simple collaborative pin-board where all the students have collated their ideas (Linoit). To be honest, as long as the focus remains on the learning and not the tools, then I don't mind what they present to me. But the very fact that students have to think carefully about this aspect of their learning clearly leads them towards greater autonomy.

A Changing Role For Teachers

Finally, I ended with the contention that this direction I had been talking about necessitated a change in the way we as educators view our role in the whole process. I think everyone on Twitter would agree that the idea of teachers as the sole repository of knowledge within a classroom is bunk. We have to get away from that notion of "sage on stage" and move towards being the "guide by the side", no matter how much this might threaten our little egos. "Grow a pair and get on with it!", as my mother would never have said to me, ever. It is in fact much easier to play the role of guide given the time freed up by students not needing us any more thanks to mobile learning devices! It allows us to get stuck in to some seriously timely and highly effective personalised interventions (OFSTED box-tickers: Fire away again!). But we can only do that if our interventions are informed by a system of diagnostics which is highly accurate, targeted and instant in its feedback. I've used simple apps like Traffic Lights for a quick RED/AMBER/GREEN response from students (this often tells me more about their confidence levels than their levels of understanding), as well as Socrative, an instant quick-quiz app which allows you to set multiple choice or open-ended questions, single or multiple question quizzes, starters or plenaries and even hinge questions. Each one an opportunity to change the direction of the lesson for any individual who looks like they need a bit more guidance.

The results for me have been really good, if anecdotal as yet. My Year 10 class now moan that I don't test them enough to check their understanding, or if I tell them a particular way to do a task. "Can't I do it this way?" they will ask, before justifying their request with a perfectly cogent reason why they would present their learning more effectively a different way.

It's enough to make a bloke of my age need a long lie down. Which is easily done now that I've got all this spare time...

If you're interested, the original prezi from TMBrum2 is here, in glorious techni-thingy. I'm sure you'll agree from above that I did astonishingly well to get it under the 6-minute limit, even though I do say so myself. @Danielharvey9 may have a video that tells a different story...

* If that sentence sounds wrong, check it again. It's right, I promise: The plural "do" refers to the multiple apps, while the singular "gets" accords with the "mobile device". But it took me three read-throughs (should that be reads-through?) to see why it was right!

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Making Learning Irresistible

Mick Waters
Making learning Irresistible

Last  weekend was my first experience of the Coventry Learning Partnership Plus conference, and unfortunately I didn't really get the full flavour of all the excellent workshops going on because my school volunteered me to run one! What I did have was the privilege of hearing Professor Mick Waters talk to us on the Friday night about making learning irresistible. He talked for 90 minutes. It barely felt like 10.

I talked to several people afterwards about what they'd taken from the speech. We were all inspired, but could we put our finger on what exactly the thrust of the talk had been? Could we hell! This blog is my attempt to try and draw some conclusions from what I heard, and summarise where Professor Waters thinks we should be heading in education, a direction I have to say from the outset that I whole-heartedly agree with.

By way of personal context, there has been a lot of talk in our leadership team at school about the role of character in a child's education, about teaching more than simply content, "subjects", and even learning skills. Our current education system seems intent on reducing the really important things we teach our children to lip-service, as it is perhaps not deemed to be measurable, valuable or, dare I use the jargon du jour, "rigorous". This isn't a party political point, as I think the last government's focus on targets, attainment etc are equally blame-worthy in this respect. And nor am I saying we shouldn't be accountable for our results. I am simply arguing that our present focus on what can be measured has created an unhealthy obsession with those things over the other important areas of our educational remit, namely to help students to discover who they are, what they can do, to foster their curiosity, to nurture their talents and interests, and to get them to understand how to accomplish their goals meaningfully in a way which is as beneficial to society as it is to them. Children who care, rather than children who spend, perhaps. Though I'm told this is bad for the economy. By which of course we mean the rich folk at the top of it. Moving on...

Professor Waters' starter for the ten is the contention that, in order to prepare for and learn about the outside world, the UK for some reason corrals students behind a fence, in institutions where we actually ignore and fall behind the real world all the time. We are obsessed by the need to get on, get through the content, and miss out on the chance to make things come alive. In our efforts to have our students undertake "meaningful" activities all the time, while taking the register for example (we make them do planner checks, numeracy activities, give them tonnes of information etc), we fail to realise that the real world is always there to be tapped into.

Our focus on results has another very negative effect on students: We label them. And we label them in a way which stigmatises them deeply, despite the fact that what we are labelling is transient. One child can't do equations yet. Another has difficulties focusing at a certain time of day. Another can't get to grips with a couple of particular subjects, so we label them "Not achieving 5 A*-C grades"! Here's the thing though: If you were to grade yourself in different subjects at different times, how would you fair? On a scale of Outstanding to Unsatisfactory, how would you rate your own abilities in relation to gardening, decorating, writing, taking photographs, playing an instrument or learning a language? I imagine few of us would be excellent all-rounders, but that's not to say we don't have serious talents in one or more areas: Just look at Einstein. Bit of a failure in school by all accounts. Likewise, students are at different levels in different subjects at different times, but our need to measure things makes it easy for us to focus on the numbers and not the child in front of us. Do the numbers really tell the story? Oddly enough I was listening to a Radio Four business programme the other day where several chief execs were agreeing on this very point, and saying that the data they got on their desks every day was a deeply inferior diagnostic tool compared to direct contact with their people on the ground floor and their customers. A lesson for us all perhaps...

So back to the students: Most of us start out positively in school, but even with the best of intentions, because we can't invest sufficient time to master a skill to the outcome level we want, we end up as "disillusioned triers" who give up on our ability to learn it. Waters does a great experiment with kids: He asks them how they would rate themselves in all of their school subjects. Apparently you never get more than 40% say they're any good at something. But if you ask them about how good they will be at driving and learning to drive, and whether they'll be any good as drivers, they respond overwhelmingly positively. About something they've never tried before. Is it the learning experience which puts us down, or the labeling which occurs along the way?

Similarly we could ask as professionals whether a teacher whose lesson is described as "satisfactory" is actually a satisfactory teacher? Or is this just a label? A snapshot. Under pressure too. Like a terminal exam even. Strikes me as a bit unfair to judge us this way on an annual basis, never mind judging a whole school every four years using that method. But boy do we bust a gut to get the "Outstanding" label! Professor Waters' conclusion was that the Outstanding teacher teaches good lessons consistently, but more than that: He or she also looks after the lonely child in the corridor. Is the latter any less important that the former? Are the teacher who have left a life-long impression on your lives the ones who taught tight formulaic "Outstanding" lessons every day? Or the ones who cared? Who took the time to listen to you? Who took a genuine interest in you as a person?

Many Outstanding schools are outstanding because they follow "the trudge", and they do it well, and have hit the right formula. The relentless focus on "5 A*-C grades", "RAISEOnline", CVA, the systematic monitoring, the countless interventions: All of these serve to get as many students as possible over that finish line which the data says they should cross, based on mathematical probabilities and algorithms we shouldn't question because they're far too complex for us to understand. And then they suspend the timetable for a day occasionally so that they can do a whole-school activity which will provide the rounding out of their characters (!) which society also requires. Are we really delivering that? Not according to Mick Waters', industry, the government, the parents or the Daily Mail!

A futures learning outlook

What we really need is to focus on what we hope for our students. The government is more focused on the core of knowledge, but we should be producing rounded human beings, and enthusiastic, curious learners. An outstanding teacher's role is to raise the spirits and self-esteem of their students, and to raise their gaze so that they look up at the world around them and see themselves as part of it. Our role is to help them find out who they are, and how they can make a positive difference to the world, and find a sense of their own happiness within the roles they choose for themselves. Our curriculum should be based on the big questions, with students clear about how the small matters fit into the bigger picture. It should prepare them to tackle big questions, and connect to the real world every lesson. Every child should be able to see the relevance of lessons for life in the big wide world as it is today. But I would suggest that this is just one aim. The second, and more important one as far as I am concerned, is this: If we start by showing students how their learning connects to the real world as it is, we should also be fostering the kind of curiosity and thinking which will help them shape the society that we could have. Because demonstrating to students how they could fit into modern society means we implicitly accept everything about that society, including its values and priorities. And I for one think that this demonstrates a real paucity of ambition. I would hope that our children can do a better job of society than we have. But it's unlikely to happen if we persist in telling them that what we have now is the only way it can be done.

The best summary of this perspective I've ever seen was written by a man named Kahlil Gibran, in a brilliant book full of wisdom call The Prophet. Given the daily vacillations in education policy and debate in this country, these thoughts help to anchor me as a teacher and a parent.

Your children are not your children. 
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. 
They come through you but not from you, 
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. 
You may give them your love but not your thoughts. 
For they have their own thoughts. 
You may house their bodies but not their souls, 
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. 
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. 
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. 
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. 
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 

And He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. 
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness; 
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable. 

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Leadership - A different perspective

I remember a while back posting something (undoubtedly trivial - I can't remember what it was at any rate!) on Twitter which caused my first ever Twitter argument. It came as a bit of a shock because, while I know there must be good and bad on Twitter as anywhere else, my experience for the first few months had been entirely positive and incredibly helpful! PLN, best CPD in the world, all the clichés people use about Twitter had been true. And yet here was a full-blown argument, conducted in less than 140 characters. Its brevity made it no less ferocious. It was the ninja one-inch punch of rhetoric.

What was more stunning was the topic of the argument. My transgression had been to quote "The Art Of War", an ancient Chinese text by Sun Tzu, in an educational discussion. This was deemed "wholly inappropriate" amongst other things. I was told firmly that this had "no place in a discussion on pedagogy or education at all for that matter". Oh well. That's me told.

Two things I should make clear in response to this:

1) I think you can learn from anyone or any event. What a bad one looks like is as instructive as what a good one looks like. The amount you learn is dictated by your attitude as a learner.
2) I don't think this blog is being written to justify my position or opinion, in response to someone having a go at me. I'm not that insecure.

On the contrary, I'm writing this out of a genuine sense of wanting to explore what the ancient taoists can teach us now, about life, about teaching, and about leadership (my new hobby, apparently, as one of my team informed me today!). I've been interested in Oriental philosophies for a long time, so this will be the first of many posts (I'll get back to normal education-based posts soon enough, don't worry, and you'll still get cartoons at the end: Fret not.  But if @KevBartle can digress into poetry, then I can bloomin' well go East. So to speak. Anyway, here are my first findings...

What Taoist Philosophy can teach us about leadership

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter Three - Strategy

There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune to his army:
If he orders the army to retreat or advance when it cannot effectively do so, this is called “hobbling the army”;
If he attempts to administer the army when he does not know how, its warriors will become frustrated;
If he commands the officers without proper insight into how they function, this will undermine their confidence.

Okay, so let's forget the military metaphors for a start, and focus on the essence of what's being said here, and how we can apply it to our work as leaders of schools. "If he orders the army to retreat or advance when it cannot effectively do so, this is called “hobbling the army”." Leaders have to have a strong sense of vision. Without it, it's difficult to know where you're going. And someone who doesn't know where they're going is either static or going round in circles ineffectually or, worse still, following every prevailing wind. But a leader with vision is only half the story. A leader with a vision has a plan. But he must also have the means to execute the plan, the tools for the job. A leader cannot do anything without the right tools, the tools to do the job effectively. That means getting the right team around you, the right mix of skills, the right structures and systems for effective action, the right staff, the right attitudes, the right environment and resources, the right attitudes from students, and a level of support from parents. Don't get me wrong: I'm certainly not saying that you replace people who disagree with you, but you certainly need to explain your plan, your rationale and your methods openly if you want to take them with you on the journey. You can't skip that step. Attempting to move a school wholesale in a given direction without laying the groundwork first just doesn't work.

"If he attempts to administer the army when he does not know how, its warriors will become frustrated."
There are a couple of things which strike me about this line. The first is the word "administers". As school leaders we might object to it, because it implies that we are more or less pen-pushers. Me, I like it. It's not saying that school leaders do nothing, but it's a useful reminder that impact in schools comes from the contact with the students, and that's down to the huge number of teachers and other staff we have at the coal-face. If we as leaders made most impact, surely we'd have more leaders than teachers. But that's not the case. The war is fought on the front-line by the soldiers, not the generals, and while it is entirely wrong to think of educating young people as a war, the metaphor still speaks to us about the relative importance of teachers and leaders.

The second thing the passage raises is the issue of competence: An incompetent leader will often put obstacles in the way of effective teaching and learning across a school. Sometimes teachers with integrity will try to point this out, but leaders can be less than receptive about criticism, and so sometimes these same teachers will simply circumvent these inadequate systems. As a result they'll be labelled as undermining the system. Fine line, isn't it? The onus is on us as leaders to be really reflective about how much more effective each of our systems is actually making the school.

In addition, that line raises a further issue, which is whether or not you as the leader need to be competent in all areas. I would argue not (if you've ever met me and are aware of my numerous flaws, you'll understand why I come down on this side!), but I do think you need to have people in your team who are good at the things you're not good at if that's the case. If you're a big picture person, make sure you have a details person in your team. And ultimately, all of this comes down to whether or not the leader is humble enough to recognise their own short-comings and either deal with them (good) or turn them to his advantage by helping others to advance themselves through their skills (excellent).

"If he commands the officers without proper insight into how they function, this will undermine their confidence."

You need to know your team, and their strengths and weaknesses, and you need to know their roles, the complexity of their roles, and what they do every day. One senior manager I used to know had a habit of responding to problems by saying that staff "just had to... (Insert small extra task here)". All very well, but you sometimes got the impression she'd forgotten everything else the staff were doing already, or how much had been added gradually through time to their roles and responsibilities without taking anything out of the mix. A good leader still appreciates where their staff are coming from, what they do daily, and thinks about how their own actions impact on the effectiveness of their staff. If they don't, the staff will often grow resentful, lose confidence, and lose their confidence in their leader. "Are my ideas making us more effective?" should be a mantra pinned to our desks, if not tattooed on our foreheads (though I can understand the argument that the kids find tattoos like that uncool and your kudos with them might go down the toilet!).

By the way, as I write this, it strikes me that I may be entering an egg-sucking granny style scenario, and I appreciate it's not rocket science. I think I'm just saying that we need to systematically step back from time to time to look at how what we do impacts on the students, their progress, their character development, and the staff and their work-life balance too.

OK, time to stop rambling. If this is useful, I've only really scratched the surface of one taoist tome so far: There is plenty more where that came from, but if it's not useful, please let me know and I'll stop cluttering your bandwidth with this rubbish.
(If it is useful, please let me know too: I'm not insecure, but a little approval is always a nice thing. Ahem...)