Sunday, 26 April 2015

Chalk talk? inquiry? technology? what really matters?

In our #INF530 course we are exposed to a wide range of thoughts and ideas. Some Facebook groups, twitter feeds, paperli, google alerts yadayada throw even more at me.  One that is currently doing the rounds is whether chalk and talk is better than all this new fangled (from the 70's no less) participatory and inquiry learning stuff.  After all, look at the Chinese! Look at the Pisa results.

One of the most significant videos I have watched in the last few years was "The classroom experiment" I don't like learning through watching videos generally, as I can read way faster than I can watch and listen, so I get bored and distracted, so it's quite something when I say it really is worth two hours of your time.

In the last 7 years, my children and I have gone through various extremes of educations. They've had liberal PYP type inquiry learning, and chalk and talk rigorous structured learning with continuous high stakes assessment in the Chinese system.  I've spent 2 years full time studying Chinese at university and I've spent nearly 3 years doing two masters degrees by distance learning. 

I spend a lot of time talking to teachers and students and my own children, and reflecting on my own learning.

On Friday one of my teacher friends was telling me about the debriefing she'd had with her Grade 12 students on their final day of school before study weeks and exams.  She'd asked them what was really important in a teacher, in the classroom setting. What really mattered.  Was it inquiry, was it content, was it technology, was it the way the space was organised. Was it giving everyone a voice, was it content or thought or frequent testing or never testing or something inbetween?

Without fail she said, every single student said none of that really mattered. The only thing that really mattered was whether the teacher really cared about you and your learning or not.  Knowledge and passion for the subject came next.  And they then went to name teachers with widely different teaching philosophies and personalities that embodied that caring they were talking about.  And the fact that they really really wanted to work hard and succeed to show the teacher that the caring was mutual.

We were then talking about how to make sure you reach each and every student in your classes, particularly if they classes are big and some students are naturally more dominant than others. She was saying she teaches nearly 80 students directly and more than 100 indirectly, and she keeps a list of each and every one, and each week goest through the list and makes notes on conversations she's had with each and if she's not had a personal conversation with one of them, makes sure she does so the next week.  She said how easy it was for students to slip through the cracks. Especially if they were shy or unassuming or didn't participate easily due to language or cultural barriers.

When I was studying Chinese I had a lot of struggles.  It was difficult.  It was really really really hard. I had a lot of smart alecks in my class (watch those videos above!), I became quieter and quieter and lost my voice. And because I wasn't speaking, I couldn't speak and it became more and more difficult to speak. Then in my second year I got a really old teacher.  He was well into his 70's. He'd been doing this for years.  He lined us up into the traditional classroom, all facing forward.  And we went through the material methodically.  If we had to read, it wasn't on a voluntary basis. He started in the front and each and everyone had to read one sentence and then we'd move on to the next student. If our pronunciation was not up to scratch he's say "ting bu dong" (I hear but I don't understand" and gently but relentlessly correct us until we got it right. Same would happen with working through questions and assignments. If someone tried to jump in or interject or interrupt or mock or any of the other crap that had been going on up to then he'd look up fiercely and out stare them and we'd go on. 

I passed chinese. It was never easy for me no matter how easy studying had been to me before. I learnt first hand what it was to struggle as a student. I learnt how shame and fear could negatively impact on learning.  And it changed my views completely on who deserved to be heard and to participate in a classroom.  You know that cartoon about privilege?  It's not just about class or race or financial privilege.  Is also about learning and knowing how to learn. About whether you as a child were cultivated or left to nature (see JP Gee).  

I think about it often.  The right of every child to learn content and learn to think. About how are assessments, or teaching, our scaffolding our assumptions shape how far they will go. The explicit and the implicit things that stand in their way and our way of making the way clear. And how we don't even know sometimes that or what we are doing wrong. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

How I used to write

A little while back I did a review of Easybib as an assignment for one of my courses. It's a tool we recommend to our students.  For a while I was impressed by it's notetaking tool and I've tried using it a few times because it kind of makes intuitive sense. But it just doesn't work for me.  And I'm beginning to realise why.

After writing my last assignment I started thinking about this.  When I started out with my studies, it had been nearly 20 years since I'd done any studying.  It was a huge shock to the system. Tons of reading to do, an entirely new field / discipline / subject matter / jargon to master. Unknown demands and expectations and in addition doing it online where you had no eyeballing of your lecturer or fellow students, no way of seeing the nuances of what was being said or not said or left hanging.

Apart from some psychology as a dual major in my business degree and a bit of global politics and society during my MBA, I'd pretty much kept away from the humanities so this truly was a new ball game for me.  I tried to tackle it in what I thought was a logical way. I'd read something and then highlight the sections I found important. I'd read more of other stuff, highlighting highlighting and printing away a forest. And then when it came to the assignment, I'd try and string all those highlights of what all these famous and revered authors in the subject had to say, and weave it with some inter-leading words and paragraphs to make it some kind of coherent summary of the matter and assignment question at hand and submit it. And I got a pass or a credit. For which I was very grateful, because I knew, through the social network that was building up around me on FaceBook, that others were barely passing or failing the same assignments. I guess the ones with distinctions and higher distinctions didn't need to wallow in mutual sympathy and support, or they just weren't mentioning their relative success.

As time went by I became somewhat more experienced in the digital environment and finally had a breakthrough when a fellow student introduced me to Evernote and I could save a rainforest by saving all my notes and readings digitally.  It has a highlighting and annotating tool, but it wasn't ever comfortable to me, so I stopped highlighting.  Instead I started taking notes. With my own funny little colour coding and mind-mapping.  And then I would let things lie for a little bit. And go for long dog walks and talk to my colleagues and friends. Because the universe is big. And this is only one field. And they're specialists, so perhaps they don't really see the bigger picture. And slowly I'd start to form my own ideas about the topic at hand and the assignment question.  And then I'd see if I could find some kind of a structure and flow to my thoughts.  And only then would I start writing and as I came to a claim or assertion I'd revert back to Evernote and type in the keyword and see who else in the readings I'd done agreed with me, or disagreed with me and what they had to say. I could then check in my handwritten notes a summary of their ideas. And in that way I could back up my thoughts or criticise what they'd said.  In a sense that is exactly the opposite to what I'd been doing all my life.  And I think too, the opposite to the formulaic ways that teach notetaking and scaffolding and paraphrasing etc. And the opposite to how tools such as Easybib could lead to perfectly acceptable and passable assignment submissions, without any plagiarism in sight but ones where the students voice and thoughts and originality do not shine through.

My grades have improved in the interim. But I must admit I have also taken some risks, calculated risks whereby what I've written could be considered a little audacious or off the trodden path, and the it could have gone either way.  Funnily enough, the student who introduced me to Evernote remarked to me that she's gone the same way, as we sat for a lunch, nail biting waiting for the results from two different assignments in different courses where we'd both taken a bit of a risk.

Is this a sign of academic maturity? Daring to say what you think and believe? Is it what we should be teaching our students, or do they necessarily need the training wheels and scaffolding to get them there? Should we expect them to get to this point for everything, or just the subjects they're passionate about and topics they care about. Is it just another teachable trick that we could teach instead of the traditional read, note-take, paraphrase, cite, string together?  When in our academic lives are we just hitting the ball across the net and when are we playing the games to win the tournament?

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

INF530 Assignment Book Review: Language and Learning in the Digital Age

Language and Learning in the Digital Age by James Paul Gee and Elisabeth R. Hayes, Routledge, New York, USA, 2011, 168 pp., US $29.95, ISBN: 978-0-203-83091-8 (ebk)
The idea that language has a profound effect on learning is gaining traction in the world of education – particularly as schools and tertiary institutions grapple with literacy, learning and related socio-psychological issues in an increasingly diverse cultural and linguistic student population. The contribution of James Paul Gee in this field is substantial, particularly through his work in literacy, socio- and psycho- linguistics and discourse analysis. In this book he partners up with fellow Arizona State University professor, educator Elisabeth Hayes in a grand tour de force around the themes of language, linguistics, learning and literacy and their related institutions and power structures condensing the history and understanding of millennia, culminating at the digital age, into a volume that makes conceptual and intuitive sense to both the professional and lay reader. The emphasis is on how language and learning are transformed by literacy in all its manifestations, and how they in turn transform the societies in which they are embedded.... read more

Whose history would you like to see?

FastCo had an interesting post yesterday about how you can download your browsing history on google (Twitter also lets you download your tweeting history) and how you could then see what marketeers and google knows about you.  I don't think that's nearly as interesting as the potential if you could see the browsing history of really interesting people. Or people who are making an impact on thought or research in a particular field.

I was reading "The Open Research Web" yesterday, and while reading it was thinking, wow this is wonderful combined with, but some of this is already happening with Google scholar (book is dated 2006, which is light-years ago in tech terms), but at the same time we could do more. And that more could be incorporating the searching of the experts.

I was just thinking of whose search history I'd like to be able to interrogate.  I like interrogating things like people's bibliographies/references in their articles / books anyway, but by it's very nature the references are only the stuff they used. What about the stuff they discarded but may be just the thing to complete your curiosity and research puzzle?

Right now at this moment I guess it would be people like Jane McGonigal, Stephen Downes (who kind of shares bits of what he curates after his searches and feeds), Carol Kuhlthau, David Weinberger, Esther Duflo, Jim Cummins just to name a few off the top of my head.  Next week it would be a different subset.

I'm not much into day-to-day politics, but wouldn't it be fascinating for the historians of the future to have access to the search histories of the leaders of today?

It's almost a pity all this information and raw data is just being sold to the highest bidder and grossed up and anonymised as it is personalised just for the sake of one-on-one grubby commercial marketing.  Sure, maybe google say the want to "do no evil" but what potential for good are they leaving on the table?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Free voluntary (math) homework

I engaged in an act of (semi) academic dishonesty again last night.  It was a case of more of the "busy work" type math homework that resulted in repetitive plotting of co-ordinates on an x-y plane and then only on the positive parts of the plane in order to end up with a snoopy dog that then could be coloured. I'm not a cut and paste and colour type of mother. I also hate board games, Monopoly being my worst, so I don't play them (and it turns out I'm right about that type of board games - great graphic by the way). So after my child had done the first 50 or so of the points, I told him to go and have a shower and get to bed to read his FVR (free voluntary reading) book. And I finished off the last 10 points and coloured it in.

I then tipped out the schoolbag and its assorted jumble of loose bits of paper. Yes ditch the textbook(s) (great blog by the way) but the result is a godawful bunch of loose bits of paper torn and tattered at the bottom of a schoolbag - if they make their way home at all ever. Scratching through my archeological dig of the last 2 weeks since term commenced yielded two interesting pieces.  The first was a reflection on a test.  The question "How could you have performed better?"  The answer "Make less careless mistakes and reduce stress as I was stressed out" (sic).  The response: "less" corrected to "fewer" and "you should refer to the work you did not your feelings"

Ah, learning and stress. Despite what the rats did or didn't do in their maze, I can attest for the fact that when it comes to mathematics and stress, a certain young human in my life tends to shut down all cortical matter in order to be able to just breathe. So yes, his observation was right on the point, and the teacher was either naive or misguided or both. Small moment of positive affirmation that stress did not enhance the output during a test and that we needed to work on the emotional control as much as the preparation of the work to be assessed.

Next piece of paper, a "check-up" on co-ordinate planes. Except for the first quadrant, things didn't bode well for the understanding, particularly when it progressed to manipulating co-ordinates (i.e. plot a triangle and then move it 5 spaces on the y axis and -3 spaces on the x axis type of thing).  Why the freakingflowers were we drawing snoopy for 30 minutes when there was more interesting stuff at stake?

All this detail goes to my thought now on math homework. Actually it's thought that's long time coming starting when a certain child was failing miserably in a Chinese school and we had all this homework to do that kept us incredibly busy but never got us one step closer to helping him learn what he needed to learn to be able to participate at all. I think the academic term is "self paced learning"  but I wouldn't go so far, since I don't think that's really necessary anymore. And the self-paced thing is more geared to adult learning anyway.

I'd advocate for FV(M)H (free voluntary (math) homework). Within the context of a certain topic or module, there should be the option to do homework (or not) according to your needs and difficulties, rather than whatever has been set.  We are on one end of the continuum on math, and I know enough kids on the other end of the continuum.  But math is a wonderful thing that way - within any topic there is a huge variation and potential of what someone could spend 30 minutes working on!  (By the way, has anyone been following this discussion - it's absolutely wonderful - the comments being as excellent as the post itself). So this evening that is what we did.  We actually took 2 steps back, since before co-ordinates was substitution, and substitution was still a rather confused mess.  We spent more than 30 minutes on it, and I wrote a note to that effect. I hope it will be positively received...
Small steps.  I'm wondering how far one can take ownership and control over learning in the school setting despite all the talk of differentiation etc. before the system feels threatened gets mad at you.

I'm still thinking a partnership is possible, that triangle of child, teacher and parent/tutor. My husband did say - "Isn't that what Kahn academy is for", but I think not. Kahn can help once you know what you don't know. There is a meta-cognitive step necessary, a diagnosis, either through self-insight or observation. Who assumes that role?

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Relevance and Visuals

For my book review, I'm looking at Gee and Haye's "Language and Learning in the Digital Age" (2011) and one of the things I'm looking at, is whether the book has longevity.  Anything with "digital" in the title published more than 3 nanoseconds ago, begs the question of whether it will have legs. So I've been playing around with looking at the evolution of the web, the "big" things that happened since 2011, like Minecraft (literally a game changer in the gaming world), things like Wikileaks, Web 2.0/3.0, digital storytelling etc. 

But what is most interesting is how this type of thing can be represented visually.  Because of course what defines the "digital" age from the "oral" or "literate" age, is the use of visual.  Ironically of course, the book did not have one single graphic. Not one.

Here are a few cool things I found, the first from The evolution of the Web (unfortunately stops at 2012 - darn, that's when things start to get even more interesting, please visit the link as it is one cool interactive graphic), and from Proquest.

Source: screenshot of:

Why was a Proquest search so interesting?  Well, they have this little graph on the side which you can use to refine your search according to time. I wanted to compare the book's emphasis on WoW (World of Warcraft) and The Sims (the game, not the sports team - refining searches help!) with Minecraft and Wikileaks and Web 2.0.

This is what I got:
World of Warcraft

The  Sims



Web 2.0
And this is what the web does to you ... 2016 ... had to investigate further!

The 2016 in the Web 2.0 graph is an epic fail on the part of International Journal of Informaiton and Education technology who are taking the future a little too seriously!

I also had a look at something I was playing around with a lot a while ago, but I've not for a while: In this day and age, looking at what is trending in twitter is problably more relevant than what's being written about by journalists and researchers.  Here are some shots:

Ok so the point is, in writing a book, about the digital age, and impacts on education and society, it is so incredibly easy to miss something that is happening right under your nose as you focus deeply on something else. And that's the problem with specific examples.  I still need to see how I write about this. Because I am aware that these are the themes of now, or even the fact that I'm writing about them may mean that they're already passé. How do we ensure relevance, generalisability, scalability, and longevity? Or are those the criteria of the past?

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Writing in order to write

After a hiatus of over a month due to moving house, school holidays, visitors etc. I'm having to pick up on writing again.  I've done a lot of reading in the interim - for my course and around my course and for an article I'm co-authoring for the IASL conference. I'm finding if I don't put my thoughts down I tend to dream about them way too much. And believe me, dreaming about virtual networks, new literacies and various multi-player online games that I don't play myself and only read about is no fun.

I did encounter an interesting blog post on the value of blogging as an academic (Not that I'd pretend to be an academic - even as the conceptualisation of what an academic is shifts). It is a really good article and I'd recommend you have a look at it. I agree completely with the points. When I write, I'm forced to think more deeply about what I've read. I have to link it to other things, I need to bring things together that were bouncing around at the edge of my consciousness into focus.  I do miss the days when blogging was more social and posts would get many comments and communities would spring up around them. There is a bit of that going on, but not nearly as much as before. I think discourse has moved onto other social media platforms and I think that blogging as a pseudo academic tool may have flogged itself to death - if everyone is blogging, who is reading the blogs?

My son, the reluctant reader and even more reluctant writer has started reading Zoe Sugg's Girl Online and is thinking about starting a blog. He already has an avid Instagram following from the days that he was passionate about photography, and I'm sure would blog in an equally competitive way (is this type of competition a social media thing or a boy thing or just a thing?). I said I'd support him and that it was probably a good idea, given that blogs were more traditionally a "girl" thing, and he'd probably find an audience in kids like him.

Writing, longer writing, beyond 140 characters or passing on liked posts on social media is something valuable, as it is transformational and productive, not just consumptive, which is the easy part of our digital world.  And now my focus needs to shift to my assignment.