Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century: The Sequel

Lots of sequels come out in the summer time (I think… Just go with it), and the OTF Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century conference was no exception. I was lucky to attend the conference last February as a panelist discussing my take on the use of social media in the classroom. Then I was doubly lucky to be able to hang out with Will Richardson (who’s played a huge role in influencing my philosophy about technology in the classroom) during the Minds on Media sessions the following day.

For the #OTF21C sequel (check that hashtag on twitter to see an archive of the tweets from the past three days), I got to repeat my panelist role but also became a Minds on Media facilitator (which meant less time picking Will’s brain but more time hanging with cool teachers eager to learn about blogging).

The panel discussion was essentially very similar to the one back in February. I noticed the same tension between those people (students, teachers, consultants) who are working with social media and those people (union representatives) tasked with protecting teachers from the potential dark side of social media. And I noticed Will biting his tongue at times (Excellent restraint, Will!). I just hope that down the road there will be teachers and students and administrators who shake their heads with amusement as they look back on the “old days” when we were all filled with angst about technology. There was one question toward the end of the panel from a teacher who was very concerned that students might be spending too much time in front of screens to the detriment of their physical and socio-emotional well-being. I’ve started to get a little tired and frustrated by questions like this, but I have to exercise a little more patience. I think I replied with something like, “Maybe, but people said the same thing about books, when books became more readily accessible. Same argument; different medium.” It is the same argument, but I have to remember that this is still a new and threatening area for some people so they may not see it as being the same.

After the panel Brian and I braved the record-breaking temperatures outside the hotel to visit Melanie McBride and Jason Nolan at the EDGE lab which is part of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone. Wow is this place ever mind blowing! Read more about it here. After a tour, we headed upstairs where all the different teams worked. It’s an eclectic group. There were teams working on everything from mobile health apps (VitalHub) to game development (HugeMonster Inc.). And then there were research teams including EDGE lab where my friend Melanie works. The EDGE lab itself was a pretty eclectic group made up of people who brought unique and often opposing perspectives. Noah and Jason demonstrated some soft circuit prototypes they had developed to help adorable little girl communicate in and interact with her peers in spite of her limited speech and motor skills. We had some great conversations (I can’t even begin to attempt to sum them up here) about school and learning (and how the two are quite often mutually exclusive!). It’s incredibly liberating to talk to people who are interested in education but are not constrained by the traditional education system. There are so many ideas we don’t even discuss in education because we know we “can’t do that” in our current system. We walked back to the hotel like zombies, although in fairness I think was 38 degrees in downtown Toronto with a breeze that felt like a gust from a convection oven.

Then there was some much-needed socializing, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Friday was devoted to Minds on Media. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Minds on Media process (brilliantly organized by Peter Skillen and Brenda Sherry), unlike traditional PD where one might sign up for a session, sit in a chair and listen to the presenter’s agenda, teachers are free to move from station to station and the agenda is that of the participants. I had a bunch of links and resources prepared but essentially my first question when people arrived was, “So, what do you want to talk about?” It was exhausting, but very rewarding and I loved it when a teacher ran over to me, beaming, saying “I just wrote my first blog post! And I embedded a video!”

I love these conferences because they provide me with a chance to learn as much as (or usually more) than I present, but I also love them because they are, as Melanie would say, affinity spaces. These are spaces where I get to learn how I want with the people who I want to learn with. Thanks to all my friends, old and new, for the great experience.

Doug Peterson, a friend and prolific blogger has posted a number of reflections on his own blog which you can read here.

Now what?


Photo credit

After TED and Saturday’s workshops, I asked myself the above question and then quickly remembered– Oh yeah! I’m bringing two students to the Board Office (insert angelic chorus and shaft of light beaming down from the heavens–just kidding. I’ve worked there. I know.) to share their experiences with Ning and bookclubs with some intermediate teachers.

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of class lately so I was feeling a little guilty but now as I sit at home at 3:30(!) sipping a caramel machiatto and eating some cookies and reflecting on the day–guilt be gone! I did–or rather–we did good today!

My super smart and talented friend Heather who I abandoned last year to return to the classroom asked me if I’d be willing to come and speak at the final sessions of a series of Creating Strategic Readers workshops. Now while I’m thrilled to be back in the classroom there are a number of things I really miss about being a learning coordinator:

  • having time to direct my own professional learning
  • being a part of important board initiatives
  • being in the loop
  • the salad bar in the cafeteria
  • being able to go to the washroom whenever I want (!)
  • But mostly — I miss working with all the cool people (particularly Heather–or H-Dawg as I like to call her. It’s her street name. It’s a thing. … never mind)

So when Heather asked me to come in I was really excited–also because I got to share things that I’d actually tried with students–unlike last year where I had to speak in theoretical terms which was often frustrating. Heather also asked me if I could bring some students.

I chose two girls from my 4C class last semester. They weren’t the highest achievers in my class and they weren’t the stereotypical “good students”, but they were really great kids–one very outgoing and confident, and one a little shy and quiet. We drove down to the board office and I explained to the girls that I would talk for a bit, but that the teachers would be way more interested in what they had to say.

The girls rocked! It was so awesome when a teacher asked me a question and I was able to redirect to the girls. eg/ Teacher: So did you find that the boys in the class were more engaged when using your class Ning?

Me: Girls?

Superstar student #1: Oh yeah!

Superstar student #2: Totally!

Superstar student #1: Like Andrew–he’d never read a book before!

Teacher: But what about bullying? How did you find the other students were when it came to saying inappropriate things?

Me: Girls?

Superstar Student #1: Well, like Ms. Barker was monitoring everything so we know we couldn’t say bad stuff–not that we would–

Superstar Student #2: Yeah, and actually I felt like the opposite happened. Like even if you didn’t really like someone, you were still writing positive comments. It’s like were a big team and we all want to help each other out.

Me: I paid them to say that.

So cool. The girls were great. I think the coolest part was what we talked about when on the way home. The girls talked about how teachers needed to be open-minded and try new things and they liked it when teachers tried to value the things they did outside of class. I know they were only two of my students, but it was so nice to feel like all of my hunches about what made good teaching were true at least for them. Plus they were so much more credible as experts than I ever could be.

No, the coolest part was when I overheard a teacher say to another teacher “They’re awesome!”

And sure, some of the teachers were resistant, or they felt like they couldn’t do this with their students, or that it must take way too much time, but now that I’m a classroom teacher, my response is simple: Yes it takes time. Yes there are challenges. But it’s worth it to me because I see the difference it makes in my students’ learning. If you feel like you’ve got enough challenges right now, or you don’t think it’s worth the time, don’t do it. I’m just sharing.

So liberating. Seriously. Last year when teachers would push back or come up with excuses I would get really defensive. Now I smile and nod and say, “Then this may not be the right choice for you.” And I can say that because I know what works for me and it’s totally worth it–especially when I hear Superstar Student # 2 say “Wow I think we really rocked that, don’t you?”

Yep. We rocked that.

Student Engagement and Self Reflection

I’d like to share this video created by a really dynamic York region teacher, Royan Lee. http://www.charleshowitt.ps.yrdsb.edu.on.ca/WritingInThe21stCenturysmall.mov

Royan is working on an action research project along with some other teachers (one from Peel and one from Thames Valley) on digital story-telling. Royan’s portion of the project looks at podcasting and student engagement.

What really impresses me about this video is how well the students are able to articulate not only what they learned, but HOW they learned it. They discuss the process of looking at exemplars and determining criteria and then evaluating their own work. I’m so impressed by the metacognitive skills displayed by these students. This is all a result, I believe, of their level of engagement with the task, and their teacher’s ability to structure the tasks in a meaningful and authentic way.

These students definitely know their content material, but what’s more, I think they’ve learned valuable lessons about how they think, how they create, and how they can set goals and plans to reach those goals.

Well done, Mr. Lee and students!

Preparing our students for Yesterday Today!

My brain is full. That’s a good thing though. I think.

At the conference today, the two keynote speakers really stressed the fact that we are preparing our students for a future that we can’t even imagine using technology, strategies, and pedagogy that really hasn’t evolved much since the 19th century.

Public education as we know it today grew to develop a population of literate workers for the industrial revolution. But what did that actually mean? 

It meant that workers needed to be able to read print (maybe), do simple arithmetic, and follow instructions. So we told students to sit in rows, be quiet, do the same thing as everyone else, and not ask too many questions.

Well, jobs that require workers who can do that are rapidly declining.

And yet, the majority of classrooms still bear a striking resemblance to those 19th century classrooms. 

And I can’t TELL you how tired I am of the response, “Well that’s what they’re going to get in university so we might as well prepare them for it.”

First of all, if we acknowledge that something qualifies as “bad teaching” then doing more “bad teaching” to prepare them for “bad teaching” seems ludicrous to me!

Secondly, we as teachers have this mindset that we need to prepare the majority of our students for university (because we did, and probably most of our friends did), when the fact is that very few of them are GOING to university–and not because they’re not smart enough, but because many of them realize that having a degree behind their name isn’t a guarantee of anything anymore.

 Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity

I strongly believe that the world they encounter within school at least needs to acknowledge the richness of the world that exists for these students outside of school. They’re doing all kinds of learning without us. Think of the potential for learning that could happen if we saw ourselves as facilitators. We don’t need to teach the kids how to use the technology, but we need to give them opportunities to use it to demonstrate to us what they know.

Now, I have to figure out how to do that in my classroom. 


The Mouse Potatoes are LEARNING

And you thought they were just checking out inappropriate pictures of each other on Facebook.

A new study out of the US shows that all that time kids spend on social networking sites is actually helping them learn. The study’s researcher says, “spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”

The way that teens socialize and learn from each other online raises questions and possiblities about the way in which we teach.

Some of the key findings in the study are:

  • There is a generation gap in how youth and adults view the value of online activity.
    • Adults tend to be in the dark about what youth are doing online, and often view online activity as risky or an unproductive distraction.
    • Youth understand the social value of online activity and are generally highly motivated to participate.
  • Youth are navigating complex social and technical worlds by participating online.
    • Young people are learning basic social and technical skills that they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
    • The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.
  • Young people are motivated to learn from their peers online.
    • The Internet provides new kinds of public spaces for youth to interact and receive feedback from one another.
    • Young people respect each other’s authority online and are more motivated to learn from each other than from adults.
  • Most youth are not taking full advantage of the learning opportunities of the Internet.
    • Most youth use the Internet socially, but other learning opportunities exist.
    • Youth can connect with people in different locations and of different ages who share their interests, making it possible to pursue interests that might not be popular or valued with their local peer groups.
    • “Geeked-out” learning opportunities are abundant – subjects like astronomy, creative writing, and foreign languages.

    I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that teens prefer learning from each other. Maybe we should be looking for ways to use this to our benefit rather than search for ways to block sites from our school networks.