Why blog? Taking small steps towards classroom connectivism

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Danny Hennesey “Chaotic Connections”, 2009, abstract painting. https://www.artdoxa.com/MushroomBrain/large?page=15

21st century education is all about connections. As a teacher working within the 4 dimensions of the IB curriculum, I often find myself listening for that synaptic crackle created when students mentally flex and leap between content and concepts; subject and non-subject specific skills. Many lessons are crackle free because to connect is to transcend detail; to connect is to think critically and to indicate a state of real-world readiness. To connect is really hard. As IB teachers, we control and influence how connections are formed but how and how can we do a better job? I’ve been working on dialling up the role of blogging as it offers scope for students to make more authentic connections between learning experiences, whilst also encouraging the creation of an online network. Personally, writing a blog and having an on/off relationship with the twittersphere has by default increased my own sense and awareness of digital connectivity and put me in touch with a rich range of interesting ideas and examples of good practice.

Edtech thinkers and proponents of connectivism like George Siemens are labelling structured learning as ‘irrelevant’ (Siemens, 2010) and are instead flying the flag for a more ‘granular and nebulous networked learning experience’ (Siemens, 2010). Knowledge loses its value faster than ever before. In order to combat the developing chaos that accompanies the shrinking half-life of what is relevant, connectivism supports the use of connected networks designed to help evaluate and confirm the validity of what we need to know. As a learning theory, connectivism favours the ability to self-select what is learnt and through the development of individual learning networks, we learn to connect and evaluate concepts that transcend individual disciplines. Within our classrooms, staff and student blogs could be the simplest way to take a small step towards building personal networks and making stronger connections. Busting the myth that ‘asking google’ makes a learner connected and explicitly discussing the creation of an online network as an ATL skill are both important steps in this direction.

The project and inquiry based nature of MYP teaching has meant that students are regularly developing their own online learning networks. I can certainly do more to turn up student awareness of the networks they are creating but I think that responsibility for evaluating online sources and building a digital learning strategy should be school wide. However, I recognise that blog posts written in the English classroom have become ‘nodes’ through which cross-curricular links and connections can be made. They symbolise the creation of an original opinion and in turn reflect the varied nature of the learning landscape. Perhaps I could design more tasks that ask the students to evaluate and use each other’s blog content as source material – potentially a good way to raise the issues of different opinions and validity of information. A similar approach, although not one specifically centred on blogging is explored in this video on the ‘Networked student’.

Blogging has allowed me to up-skill and to feel that some of my classroom and professional practice is a bit more ‘contemporary’. It has also allowed me to encourage my students to enjoy the process of writing about something which they are interested in without always being held accountable to do so in a formal, academic style. As it continues to grow in my classroom, blogging has also been one area in which, I am surprised to feel ‘ahead’ of most students. It has allowed me the space to reflect and to clarify my thinking on key issues. The process of being online and of making occasional forays into Twitter has meant that I have, by default, become more connected. These platforms have enabled me to participate in some longer, slower online conversations, which have in turn stimulated shorter, faster real life discussions with colleagues I work with every day.

If, as Siemens suggests, we now ‘think in networks’ (Siemens, 2010), then it seems vital to ensure that teachers increase their stake in the 21st century knowledge market. After all, if we are asking our students to blog and connect, then shouldn’t we too have digital skin in the game.

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Works Cited

“Global Social Media Statistics Summary 2016.” Smart Insights. 09 Jan. 2017. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

“Stats.” WordPress.com. 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

UOC. “George Siemens – Connectivism: Socializing Open Learning.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 June 2010. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

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My Day Out: ATLs on the Waddenzee

In my last post, I looked ahead to my PDW trip to Holland with Grade 10 and I can now report that I survived my experiential learning adventure and am back on dry land. From a logistical perspective, the trip was undoubtedly a success; a credit to my colleague Jacqui who pulled it all together and to the staff and students who threw themselves into sailing and literally the North Sea during the week. As a group of staff, we generally felt that the trip had successfully offered students the chance to experience ‘controlled freedom’ and far greater real world autonomy than on previous trips. But how did the students feel and did the dreaded ATL skills help or hinder us in maximizing learning opportunities and planning with greater intentionality?

In an attempt to blend the principles of SMART target setting with the aims and objectives of the ATLs, we gave the students the following pre-trip goal and success criteria:

Goal: to build a team that can function and flourish with a degree of independence.

Success indicators for a functioning boat:

  • Life on board runs smoothly. Students complete their allocated tasks without needing to be reminded.
  • Meals are prepared and served on time.
  • Cooking, dining, washing and communal spaces are left clean and tidy.
  • Respect is shown at all times. If someone isn’t pulling their weight, they are encouraged to do so politely.
  • Timings and curfews are observed.
  • Everyone looks for opportunities to help each other and the crew to fulfil all required tasks e.g. sailing/production of the media product.

Success indicators for a flourishing boat:

  • Students help each other to complete tasks on time.
  • Students go out of their way to include others in group activities.
  • Students develop new friendships.
  • The atmosphere on board is respectful and encouraging; students praise each other.
  • Students execute a creative, inclusive and carefully planned media product.

We also provided a short list of ATL skills that we felt were going to be most applicable to the circumstances of the trip. Students were asked to consider how they:

  • Negotiate ideas and knowledge with peers and teachers
  • Delegate and share responsibility for decision-making
  • Help others to succeed
  • Take responsibility for one’s own actions
  • Exercise leadership and take on a variety of roles within groups

 

During the week, boats approached the ATL skills differently, with some teacher chaperones holding daily ATL focused debriefs and others preferring to wait until the end of the week for a look back at the role that they may have played. In hindsight, our student goal statement was reasonable but could have been SMARTER. Boats staying afloat, no-one starving and an absence of conflict, injury or disappearance would seem to confirm that all boat crews successfully managed to function; but did they flourish? This term was chosen in conversation with my colleague Phil for its Artistotlean connotation of well-being and socio-emotional accord but its measurability will forever be up for debate.

In an attempt to counter this concern, the MYP has provided the following scale for ATL assessment:

Screen Shot 2016-10-23 at 17.37.18.pngOn board ship, students were tolerant of our conversations about ATL goals without ever seeming to take ownership of them. From a ‘measurement’ perspective, we didn’t give them a clear rubric instead asking them to refer to the skills in a post-trip blog post and its in these reflections that the most meaning can be found. After all – to exceed in the table above, students must ‘assess their own effectiveness’ and ‘use a skill with unfamiliar content’. The most authentic recognition of this success can be found in their own words.

“Our trip was the perfect combination between fun and work, balls and apples in fresh water, dancing and singing, and just a little bit of crazy.” – Liya

“Students on our PDW trip where encouraged to work collaboratively and communicate in a group to actually sail a boat; to be open-minded to new experiences and cultures as we lived and worked together over that week.” – Sam

“We flourished by not complaining, and being happy to step in and help each other with tasks or with planning. It was different from last year’s PDW in that way.” – Sophia

Whilst it might be naive to say that explicit references to the IB learner profile and our favoured term flourishing would have appeared without our goal and ATL focus, these quotes still help to capture the value of our intentionality. Looking ahead to how we could get the most out of this privileged experience, albeit through the imperfect lens of the ATLs, appeared to allow teachers to highlight a wider range of teachable moments.

Next year, more time could be spent on producing a pre-trip blog post and on asking boat crews to devise their own personal and collective skill goals for the week. Similarly, enabling staff to read and respond to what students have written will help to develop a more authentic impression of what students really take from this experience. Daily challenges could also be set to break up longer blocks of time and these could focus on testing more specific skills. Reviewing what is clearly a successful trip will only help to make it stronger but we must also ensure that over planning doesn’t undermine what experiential learning does best: combines authentic learning experiences, spontaneity and fun.

 

Our Day Out: are we getting the most from extra-curricular excursions?

Why school trips demand to be planned with more intentionality.

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Our Day Out is a classic British play written in 1976 by Willy Russell. The action surrounds a group of under achieving inner-city school children who embark on a school excursion from Liverpool to rural Wales. During the trip, the barely literate students of the ‘Progress Class’ break the rules, fight, steal and discover a wonderful world away from the urban cityscape they call home. They are accompanied on the trip by their kindly class teacher, two inexperienced young teachers and the authoritarian Deputy Head. Russell’s work can be seen as a clear critique of the educational opportunities available for England’s urban poor in the 1970s and at the same time a celebration of experiential learning opportunities and the institution that is the school trip. Returning to Liverpool at the end of an emotional day it is possible to say that nothing and yet everything has changed. The students still return to the same dispiriting and under-resourced learning environment but with new friendships, self-knowledge and perspectives on what else the world has to offer. The teachers who accompany them have been able to see the impact that the real world has had on their students and thus go through that invaluable process of evaluating how ready they are for life beyond the classroom. Stronger teacher – pupil relationships are perhaps the clearest winner in Russell’s play although, amidst the chaos and enthusiasm of the events described ,further benefits are hard to discern.

A state-school comprehensive in Liverpool in the 1970s could not be further removed from the privileged forum of twenty-first century international school education. And yet school trips, experiential learning opportunities or classrooms without walls continue to form a significant part of the holistic education that many schools now offer; the legacy of Our Day Out remains. My current school offers all students an annual Personal Development Week trip to destinations as far afield as Iceland, Nepal and Ghana. Throughout the year, students can also elect to join numerous sports tours and cultural excursions or to participate in events like the Model United Nations. This last event demands that a full week of school be spent representing the interests of a sovereign state in either Paris or the Hague. A colleague recently calculated that for those students participating in the average number of extra-curricular events, at least 14% of teaching time was lost. This raises the question, that if so much time is to be spent outside the classroom, to what extent do we need to approach these opportunities with more intentionality and adopt the view that everything is a teachable moment?

I recently reconnected with this John Hattie video on what really makes a positive impact on student achievement. In the second part of his presentation, Hattie highlights the strategies that have the greatest ‘effect size’ on student progress.

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What’s the connection to school trips? During the middle of his presentation, Hattie devotes significant coverage to the benefits he sees in outdoor ed or experiential learning programs. Using his experience of teaching students how to abseil, Hattie celebrates the value of the kind of instruction that students see as clear, relevant and engaging, whilst also offering immediate opportunities for feedback – you either get down the cliff or you don’t. Looking again at the table above, whilst Hattie doesn’t explicitly make these connections in his presentation, it’s clear to see that experiential learning opportunities facilitate the development of many other positive factors. Teacher-student relationships and real world problem solving teaching are obvious stand outs.

The IB’s Approaches to Learning (ATL) skills are the important connection here. An increase in focus on transferable, ‘real world’ or future ready skills can help teachers to look at activities outside the classroom through a more intentional lens. In doing so, we can also add another value dimension to these experiences by focusing more on simply the content or direct activity that the students are involved in. It’s not rocket science but there is huge value in asking learners to plan their route to the museum rather than just making notes on what’s inside. My own PDW experience next year involves taking 100 Grade 10 students sailing on the Waddenzee in Holland. Although the trip won’t take place until next September, the staff involved have already met several times to begin breaking the trip down into authentic, teachable moments. Bringing in a core of key ATL skills is going to further enable us to increase the value for students of this time spent away from the classroom. I’m hoping that in making much of the planning, organisation and leadership of the trip more transparent, students will themselves take ownership of a range of authentic learning opportunities. Having a short list of either group or ideally personalised skills to focus on should also help to facilitate the meaningful post-trip reflection that is so important to experiential learning.

The success criteria for the trip to Wales in Our Day Out seems to be to ensure that the bus arrives back at school with the same number of students on it that left in the morning. Trips today have far more specific and far reaching objectives than this but we could do even more to raise the intentionality of our planning. Encouraging students to know, master and adapt ATL skills could empower them to plan, organise and lead activities away from school on a more regular basis. Surely these trip would find themselves ranked higher on Hattie’s scale.

Would PR referendum have helped to avoid Brexit?

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https://rosshendrick.co.uk/home/farage-on-toilet-colour/

An armchair reflection on a terrible week for Britain in Europe.

The last seven days have been a Septimana horribilis for those within the UK who wanted to remain in the EU and for those who thought that their football team could triumph against an island the size of Coventry. Roy Hodgson seems to have been the only public figure with a clear plan for taking England out of Europe whilst ironically ensuring that his team maintained the free movement of other Europeans within and around their own penalty area. Fiscal instability and civil division appear to be the only certain consequences of decisions that have exposed a gaping chasm in British society. Electoral polls indicate conflicting opinions between: young and old, those with degrees and those without and those in London and the devolved regions of the UK versus the hinterlands in-between. We may never know accurate polling figures for last week’s election but despite Nigel Farage’s pea-cocking in Brussels, it is unlikely that UKIP will have 16 million supporters when the nation next goes to the polls. Those who roared against membership of the EU were doing so for many different reasons, suggesting that a disparate electorate deserves a more devolved parliamentary system. An election that was about membership of an imperfect but honourable institution was eventually fought over mass-immigration and false financial claims. The great British public has spoken but what could have been done to avoid Brexit becoming the proxy stick with which so many chose to beat the government?

We can’t be shocked when democracy doesn’t give us the answers we want and should instead recognise the dangers of disenfranchisement. In 2011, the UK was given another referendum opportunity – to reform the electoral system by moving to an Alternative Vote system. Over 65% of the 42% turnout voted against this change but would this have been the case if real reform in the form of Proportional Representation had been on the table and if the campaign hadn’t fallen victim to coalition infighting? If Britain had really wanted to stay in the European Union, perhaps it should have recognised earlier the discontent felt by so many of its people and done more to give them a voice. Farage may well be a spitting image puppet on tour but he has succeeded in rallying a significant number of supporters under the UKIP banner. 3.8 million people or 12.6% of the voter turnout voted for UKIP in 2015 but only Douglas Carswell kept his Clacton seat. Compare these figures to Scotland, where a total population of 4 million are represented by 59 members of parliament. It can be no surprise that the villagers came marching with their pitchforks the next time the village hall opened its doors.

The majority of the UK’s European neighbours have in place a form of proportional representation. Rather than thwarting decision making and giving extreme minorities overwhelming influence over political decision making, this more egalitarian system ensures a greater sense of representation. The Brexit irony is that so many who voted leave seem to have done so out of some sepia tinged nostalgia for an imperial England. On Friday morning, Nigel Farage proudly exclaimed that he had ‘got his country back’ as though it was a football he’d booted over the neighbours fence. However, neither Farage, nor those echoing his victory cry really seem to know what this means. Giving political voice to the confused ideals propagated by the Leavers is not an easy solution but it is a democratic one and a PR system could have helped to include these voters in a dialogue that may have helped to avoid Brexit. Many Leavers seemed blind to the risks attached to such a significant step into the unknown but had they had earlier political opportunities to lobby against poor domestic decision making, this vote may not have been seen as the solution to all their problems.

If Boris Johnson is deemed worthy of the punishment of premiership, he will be faced with a country shorn in half by the recent election result. Many people who voted to leave have publicly stated that they regret their decision and never actually believed that their side would win. This fantastic naivety belies the deception and spin at the heart of a campaign that sought to exploit immigration fears and harness antipathy towards the Westminster elite. Brexit is a decision rooted in confusion and riddled with irony. In his address to the European Parliament and one that is ripe for ‘historical comparison’, Farage claimed Brexit as a victory for the ‘little people’, the anti-establishment, anti big-business. However, with a tanking pound and rumours about corporate withdrawals from the UK rife, one wonders how the ‘little people’ will fare if the UK enters the kind of recession that many are now predicting. The result also begs the question: when the facts are laid bare, how can the government unite such a disparate group of supporters without the amplified soundtrack of ‘Project Fear’?

The European Union is an imperfect organisation but it does embody a peaceful ideology and provide strength in numbers. On a global scale; international terrorism, climate change, dwindling resources and refugee displacement are problems best addressed together. Domestically, the current housing crisis, falling wages and fear of asylum seekers and mass immigration are not issues that Brexit will fix. Furthermore, the kind of special EU relationship that the UK hopes to share with Switzerland and Norway does not mean immunity from accepting those seeking refuge and in 2015, the UK accepted fewer than both nations above.

Ultimately, we have been the architects of our own confusion and must find a way to consolidate and reconcile ourselves with the new status quo. Earlier electoral reform may have facilitated greater political enfranchisement and thus prevented such a visceral leap into the unknown.

 

Searching for Vygotsky’s sweet spot.

How does authentic assessment challenge the relationship between skills content?

It’s no secret that planning quality curriculum is hard. It was hard when I worked within the 2D confines of the UK system and it’s even more challenging within the 4D spaces of the MYP. Skills, content, concepts and approaches to learning (ATL) all need to co-exist within a progressive curriculum that allows students to own their learning journey. We need units that allow collaboration but also enough space for students to grow as individual learners. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, as i’ve found on several occasions this year, this Vygotsky-esque sweet spot can be tricky to find.

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However, locate it we should and as the end of the year looms large, our collaborative teaching teams start to think about completing a SWOT or 4D driven curriculum review; a vital process in ensuring that our programs continue to offer students quality learning opportunities. This year, my colleague Phil helped our department to develop a really useful approach to ensuring that what we teach contains the right balance between subject specific content and opportunities to develop those more transcendent ATL skills. It was decided that quality curriculum should include:

  1. Essential content
  2. Authentic assessment
  3. Learning-to-learn opportunities

These agreements were designed to ensure that we can deliver a more progressive learning experience with student ownership at the heart of everything we do. Sounds simple right? Well, in theory it is but as I think back on some of my units this year and ahead to how I want them to look during next, I’m well aware that I need to do more to genuinely embed these 3 elements in my curriculum. One strategy that I hope is going to help with this challenge is using the GRASPS mnemonic to support the inclusion of real-world learning opportunities.

In February this year, I attended an Inthinking workshop in Prague on developing authentic assessment in the MYP. One session that I really connected with centered on using the GRASPS acronym to facilitate a closer relationship between the 3 steps mentioned above. In the spirit of remixing and getting visual – I’ve put this together as a (very simple) tool that might help to catalyse the process of bringing together steps 2 and 3.

GRASPS

Although a useful way of opening up the planning process, I’m finding myself questioning the impact that authentic assessment is having on the relationship between skills and content. Colleagues in other faculties certainly feel that certain subjects lend themselves to this approach better than others and I have found myself re-evaluating the role exam specific skills and teaching should play within the MYP program. I am confident that this issue will remain as an outstanding challenge – for my digital design skills in the short term and my teaching beyond. Any tips or ideas gratefully received!

Jonny come lately…

 

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http://www.stageoflife.com/blogging/CartoonsaboutBlogging.aspx

Everyone is blogging! This seems to be a fact or if not a fact then at least a not-too-serious over exaggeration of the fact that a lot of teachers and educators are using online portals to collaborate, create and share their vision for a ‘city on a hill’, an edutopia of the future or at least the next great lesson. This is my 6th year in education and as I look to develop my career, taking a belated step into the blogosphere seems to be an excellent way to give legs to many of the educational thoughts that I don’t always have the chance to air.

I hope to use this site as a canvas onto which ideas can be cast, theories tested and problems or issues shared and in doing so, I aim to clarify and crystallise my own thinking. Along the way, I plan to ‘steal like an artist’ as Austin Kleon would say but also to try and create more than I have done before (new blog posts and discussions count!) and to engage with colleagues both near and far in edu-related discussion.

At the start of this journey, as with any new project, establishing the rules of the game is an important step towards guaranteeing longevity and success in whatever form that may take.

With this in mind, I’m making the following pledges:

  • Imperfection is preferable to inertia. Producing something is better than nothing.
  • There’s not always something new to say. Education is complex and sometimes we need to spend time reevaluating and remixing pre-existing ideas before we can generate new ones.
  • Posts should be positive. Frustrations should be looked on as learning opportunities and no situation criticised unless a solution can be offered.
  • Opinions can change and that’s OK. This journey is as much about accepting new visions and principles as it is about justifying existing ones.

However, as General McArthur said, “You are remembered for the rules you break.” Let’s see how I get on…