Monday, February 20, 2017

Claire Victoria Amos: NZ Educators casualties of flawed opinion piece

At the end of last week, Bernadine Oliver-Kerby published an "opinion piece". It has prompted me to pen a letter (sorry it ain't handwritten...).

Dear Bernadine,

Your article started, innocently enough, by voicing a very valid concern, that I am sure would be shared by many parents - "I was simply asking why the children at school were practising handwriting while lying sprawled on the floor." Hey, I believe parents and educators absolutely should be encouraged to question what is going on in the classroom. I applaud your positioning of yourself as nothing more than inquisitive caring parent. If you had genuinely asked this question and then explored and investigated what is actually going on in Modern Learning Environments, I would be here cheering you on. But unfortunately you did not do that. Instead you followed up a seemingly caring and rational question with a whole raft of assumptions and generalisations that quite frankly do more damage than good.

I too share your concerns and have challenged the whole concept of Modern Learning Environments:

Modern Learning Environments is a term that seems to be bandied around a lot lately. But interestingly it is rarely defined. The (NZ) Ministry of Education has a whole section on their website dedicated to them, lots of info and tools but no actual definition. More online research and still little in the way of a definition can be found. So what is a Modern Learning Environment or MLE? It would seem (from what I have gleaned from a number of school visits and indeed our own school plans), that this is a generic term that describes a space which may include many things: open and/or flexible learning spaces, breakout spaces, small spaces often referred to as "caves", multi-purpose spaces, technology rich spaces and spaces that house "modern learning furniture" such as bean bags, camp fire seats and a variety of high, mid-height and low groovy shaped tables...on wheels. Interestingly MLEs don't actually seem that modern at all. In fact there is something rather retro and even commune-like about them and if I am honest they sort of remind me of a daycare...on steroids.

So what exactly makes these learning environments "modern"? I guess what makes them modern is the fact that they are different from the old ones (i.e. single cell rooms) and for many, rather unsettling. Historically speaking, different and unsettling seems to mean "modern" doesn't it? I guess "unsettling learning environment" was a bit of a hard sell, so "modern" it is then.

But hang on a minute, who said that modern equals good?


I, like you, questioned the whole concept. But what I know, and what you fail to acknowledge is that the success of any space, modern or otherwise, rests on the ability of a teacher to connect with the learner, know the learner and engage in thoughtfully designed acts of teaching and learning.

As I stated in an earlier blogpost about this very topic:

The reality is, good (and bad) teaching can take place anywhere. I am guessing (and I am hoping) that the MLE will not simply make the teaching and learning better because it is a MLE, but that it will encourage a more open and flexible approach to teaching and learning because as a space it is exactly that, open and flexible. I hope it will encourage all those things we refer to as "effective pedagogy" in the NZC. I also hope it might discourage too much teacher led instruction and encourage a more facilitation style of teaching and learning.

Then you threw in the highly emotive and (to use your word) ludicrous statement - "Kids, once in caged confines now roam free-range and feral."

Firstly let's look at your use of imagery. I take it that "caged" equals good, since "free-range" seems to equate to "feral"? So by this do we assume you think children should be caged? Controlled? Disciplined? Forced to sit up straight, behind singular desks and maybe focus on some good old rote learning and regurgitation? I have no doubt that this worked for you and hey, if ain't broke, why fix it!! Newsflash - that system is broken. Young people are heading into a very different society and workforce. No longer can we presume an Industrial model of reading, (hand) writing and arithmetic will equip them for their multiple careers and the increasing likelihood that they will most likely experience contract work and/or be self-employed. These kiddos are going to have to be able to self-manage and self-motivate. They will have to be able to learn, unlearn and re-learn for themselves. You might not think 'self-management' and 'self-motivation' is something that needs to be taught, and that students working independently on computers is something that we shouldn't need to prioritise at school, then I say that you might need to check your 'middle-class privilege' at the door. Schools have a responsibility to work responsively to meet the need of ALL of our young people and to most importantly close an increasingly wide economic and digital divide. 

This brings me to your next cheap shot - "It's a concept tried and failed in the 70s." 

Oh yeah baby, that is just hitting it where it hurts. You are so right, a concept and strategy that is trialled in one context or period will never work in another context or period in the future. Those early planes that didn't successfully fly, you are so right, completely proves the whole concept of flight is doomed. And those cars that stalled, in early trials, completely summed up what a failure our future vehicles would be. This makes one thing clear - Elon Musk you are not. 

Luckily I have been teaching long enough to see developments in classroom design and learning technologies, that have proven they have the power to amplify best practice, time and time again. 

Firstly let's consider the actual design of Modern Learning Environments. I am lucky enough to be Deputy Principal of a particularly kick-ass one. It has been architecturally designed to ensure the acoustics work with the open/flexible spaces. Surprisingly little noise flows from one space to the next. Secondly, the pedagogy and teaching practice that supports effective learning in these spaces is less about direct instruction and teachers shouting over students and more about facilitation of learning activities that require students to work collaboratively or independently on a range of tasks and inquiries.

To put it bluntly, if "their challenge is to not only gain, but retain attention", they're doing it wrong. 

Then you go on to incite a bit of good old fashioned parental panic about students on devices - "Oh, they'll look busy, but I know the difference between Mathletics and Mindcraft. And that is NOT HOMEWORK Missy.. put it away!"

You know I wouldn't be so upset, if this kind of comment didn't absolutely undermine the capacity of our fine educators we have in this country. Educators are working bloody hard to refine and develop their practices to ensure devices are used meaningfully. Many schools are still struggling to convince their communities just what an important investment a personal device is for our students. Throw away comments like this do so much damage.

As I have stated in another blogpost, of course introducing devices means a different approach:

Note - If your behaviour management is poor, if your lessons are poorly planned and your contexts less than engaging (and if you don't get of your bottom throughout each and every lesson) your BYOD will stand for Bring Your Own Distraction.

As the quote states below, technology can help education where it's already doing well!

Rather than finding a digital educational cure, he came to understand what he calls technology’s “Law of Amplification”: technology could help education where it’s already doing well, but it does little for mediocre educational systems. Worse, in dysfunctional schools, it “can cause outright harm.” He added: “Unfortunately, there is no technological fix…more technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is non-technological.”

- Dr. Kentaro Toyama in Time Magazine

You know I agree, we need to (celebrate and) support these educators to continue to grow their practice, particularly when using technology. 

And remember, Learning Technologies and one-to-one devices are the absolute key difference between the 70s and now. Learning Technologies have the power to amplify best practice, they also have the power to enable educators to personalise and differentiate learning to meet the needs of the individual learner.

This is not something that you or any observer would be able to appreciate when you see a sea of students "lying sprawled on the floor". 

Our educators are working harder than ever to evolve their practice, I believe each and every one of them deserves a cheerleader. They certainly do not deserve a throw away opinion piece that undermines the change that they are courageous enough to be engaged in. You might scoff at the term "courageous", but believe me, those leading the way are exactly that. They move forward, working hard to evolve what is already hard work. They do so in the face of nervous communities, relentless criticism and assumptions that change is somehow bad. I suspect if your dentist, doctor or even the media industry in which you are employed had evolved as little as schools have in the last 50 years, you would be horrified. 

If anything you should be asking why so little has changed. 

You yourself said "I don't deflect change. I'll happily embrace it - when it's for the better. But when it comes to our new "modern learning" open-plan schools, the Emperor is wearing new clothes."

Finally. You are on to something here! I too am concerned about this very issue. I am concerned that the development of MLEs and the introduction of Learning Technologies can become a bit of a smoke screen and can actually create an illusion of modernity when little has actually changed. I worry that the introduction of these physically, palpable and measurable objects will be seen as making a change for the better, when the one thing that that really needs to be "introduced" is still lacking - the teacher's and the communities (aka your) belief that the student is capable of leading their own learning. How do we ensure that MLEs and Learning Technologies don't actually create the educational equivalent of "mutton dressed as lamb" or as you say "the Emperor wearing new clothes"?

MLEs are pointless if the teacher still leads from the front of classrooms (albeit classrooms with invisible walls). Learning Technologies are pointless when the students have the use of their technology controlled and limited to little more than word processing and the odd google search. The challenge is to be supported to explore how the MLEs and Learning Technologies can be used to genuinely change how and what we have been doing.

As you infer. Changing the environment and introducing tools is easy. Genuinely changing our thinking and letting our "caged" students go "free-range" - now that's going to be a challenge.

Wouldn't it have been awesome if your opinion piece was actually framed differently. Taking that simple question and very valid question you started with and using it to challenge and support what educators are trying to do. 

In the meantime, let me just go ahead and do that on your behalf.

To the teachers of New Zealand, going above and beyond to evolve education and improve outcomes for our learners - I salute you! Whether it be through leading the way in a Modern Learning Environments or by rattling the cages of your single cell classroom, I recognise and celebrate how hard you are working to do things differently. Don't let daft opinion pieces detract from your efforts, instead take a moment to print them off, screw them up and use it to stoke the flames of awesomeness.

In closing, I would love to extend an invite to you, Bernadine, to come and see our MLE in action, I would love to take the time to explain to you exactly how we are working to use these flexible spaces to design powerful and engaging learning.

I genuinely look forward to hearing from you. 

Your sincerely,

Claire Amos

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Amplifying best practice with BYOD and Google Classroom (or any online platform)

Video - Google Classrooms, Learner Agency & Universal Design for Learning

In this day and age it blows me away that there are still high schools debating whether to introduce Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and then it frustrates me further than when they do go BYOD and they choose to make it optional or drip feed it in level by level.

Those yet to introduce BYOD are doing their students a massive disservice, potentially widening the gap between the "haves and have-nots". Young people need these skills, and considering your school probably has something in the vision or mission statement about preparing young people, you're really not delivering the goods.

And as for those who are doing the slowly, slowly drip feed of BYOD, bravo for taking the first step, but you need to recognise that you are increasing your teacher's workload, not reducing it, and the chances are you are not getting anywhere near the benefits that a one to one BYOD programme can offer.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you are saying, change is hard for teachers, but dipping your toes takes just as much work, on top of still doing traditional prep and the chances are the efforts are half-arsed as a result and the students are frustrated because it's bloody unclear how they should be learning. This also allows for the nervous and reticent amongst your teaching staff to pretty much opt out and to lean on the offline they strategies they are confident in. And remember universal BYOD or one to one does not mean that you forgo that fabulous face to face offline practice, it just means that you can invest time and energy to do the online strategies well.

And yeah, yeah, yeah I hear others saying their learners just can't afford it. Well personally, I think those learners are the ones that need and deserve it more than any. Get your retailers/ICT suppliers to put together a weekly payment plan for a naked chromebook or laptop, ie. simply a chromebook or laptop. Not one that comes with case, insurance, steak knives and kitchen sink. You should be able to get these down to a few dollars a week. If your school budget or some kind school supporters can stretch to it, bulk buy and let families pay back at $3-4 a week. Yes, these strategies take time, and some financial risk,  but quite frankly if this means we are going to close the digital divide for our students and possibly their families, it is time bloody time and money well spent!

But I digress, this blogpost is supposed to about how BYOD can and amplify best practice.

Note - If your behaviour management is poor, if your lessons are poorly planned and your contexts less than engaging (and if you don't get of your bottom throughout each and every lesson) your BYOD will stand for Bring Your Own Distraction.

As the quote states below, technology can help education where it's already doing well!

Rather than finding a digital educational cure, he came to understand what he calls technology’s “Law of Amplification”: technology could help education where it’s already doing well, but it does little for mediocre educational systems. Worse, in dysfunctional schools, it “can cause outright harm.” He added: “Unfortunately, there is no technological fix…more technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is non-technological.”

Therefore it is key that when you bring in devices and start using an online learning platform you need to ensure it works to reinforce best practice. At Hobsonville Point Secondary School we have three principles that we believe underpins powerful learning: innovate through personalising learning, engage through powerful partnerships and inspire through deep challenge and inquiry. So when we looked at developing a best practice guide for e-learning our fabulous E-learning Specialist Classroom leader Danielle Myburgh used these principles to organise and construct a guide that outlined expectations for our teachers.

E-learning Best Practice Guide developed by Danielle Myburgh as E-SCT

One of the key ways we support learning at HPSS is through the development of a Learning Design Model that underpins a shared learning taxonomy that all staff use to formulate learning objectives for each and every module and lesson.

Learning Design Model - designed and supported by Di Cavallo and our awesome Learning Design Leaders

To ensure these learning objectives are visible I ensure I publish them at the beginning of each lesson, along with clear instructions as to what we are doing, so if any students are away or need to review their learning, they can do so with ease. 

A typical Google Classroom announcement

The quotes below are taken from our end of module feedback form where students were asked to comment on my use of Google Classroom.

Student Voice about visible learning strategies in my module

As well as ensuring learning is visible I am also keen to ensure that learning is as inclusive as possible. To this end I try to use a fairly simplistic approach to try and ensure that the principles of Universal Design for Learning is also underpinning how I use my online platforms (and how the students get to use their devices).

Image from CAST

This means that I try to use a range of modes for students learning about any one topic or developing any skill.

Offering a range of modes through Google Classroom 

I also let students, where appropriate, use a range of modes for evidencing their learning. For example, rather than demanding an essay, I would always let them present their learning as a podcast, video, infographic or essay/blogpost. Of course if I am assessing writing, I get them to write! But if I ain't, why the hell would I limit their chances of presenting in the way they do best. Note - it does pay to spend a little time teaching/letting them learn how present effectively through each mode. Don't worry, YouTube more than makes up for any teacher inexperience!

Offering a range of modes for evidencing learning (is easy)

The quotes below are taken from our end of module feedback form where students were asked to comment on my use of UDL through Google Classroom.

MoStudent Voice about UDL strategies in my module

Finally, BYOD has to be about developing Learner Agency! You can read more about that here. I believe BYOD and online learning platforms really come into their own when they are used to support learner agency and carefully curated choice! And as well as giving them choice, look at your direct teaching to learning ratio. See if you can do only 10-15 minutes direct instruction (if it's needed at all) and then let THEM learn! Just make sure you don't then sit back and do your sudoku/emails/Pinterest (okay that last one is a reminder for me ;). Use this time to sit amongst your students and question, challenge as support as needed. If you are take advantage of this time to do some quick admin, do it at the back of the class. Learners with screens need your support and your vigilance!

Let's got free-range!

More blogposts on this topic: