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.