Threshold adventurers, my reflections on #SLF11

On Wednesday this week I attended my first Scottish Learning Festival at the SECC in Glasgow.

The first seminar was entitled Literacy Through Technology. HT of Dalmarnock Primary Nancy Clunie explained how the school first used blogs, wikis, then a dedicated website to engage the entire school in an international exchange through the Comenius programme offered by the British Council. I was particularly interested in attending this seminar as blogging has not yet been embedded in my current school and I was keen find out as much as I could about proven benefits to learning and potential technical issues to aid future whole school dialogue. Nancy showed how her school used eTwinning to improve pupil literacy in their email and blog exchanges with students in other schools in the European Union. Nancy explained that her pupils were struck by how few spelling errors were in posts made by Polish students. They decided that they should be extra careful with their own communications because of this, but Nancy did point out that although their electronic literacy improved it did not translate to their written work! Other projects and events mentioned included a multi-lingual book club and a Eurovision Song Contest-esque competition to choose a logo for their See The Sea project but Nancy was most proud of the direct communication between her pupils and those from other schools using Flashmeeting software.

After a morning negotiating the stands I was really looking forward to Tim Laver’s (@laverminded) seminar on how he has used Little Big Planet 2 as a teaching aid in his History classes. Tim began using PS3 and LBP2 after a pupil suggested he take a look at the game. He was hooked on the potential of its application in History. Although most of the levels have been created by Tim, he took time to explain that it was not educationally viable to have each pupil creating a level with the rest of the class passively watching and waiting their turn (after using the PS3 and Little Big Planet with classes in the past I can completely understand this point!!). Tim realised that the process of designing the levels were more challenging and engaging for the pupils and required a deep understanding of the topic and how these facts or concepts could be presented as a game so he created a series of worksheets to focus pupils on thinking carefully about their proposed learning outcomes. The pupils were later involved in selecting three of the level designs for creation through peer evaluation and these levels were created by Tim – who admitted this was a time consuming process – but he then showed us these games in action to highlight the high quality of level design shown by the pupils and the high impact presentation possible within Little Big Planet 2. Tim is adding video walkthroughs of these games to the littlebighistory channel on YouTube and plans to continue adding to this extremely creative resource.

I feel I scored with my choice of keynote. Sir John Jones was captivating as he explained to a packed house why he thinks The Future Is Not What It Was. How positive language can have such a beneficial effect on a child and how it can be used effectively in shaping responsible behaviour and how negative language, delivered off-the-cuff can “shred” a child’s confidence. How inspirational, emotional, caring teachings make a difference through RINGing education (making it relevant, interesting, naughty and having a giggle).

Click here to watch his SLF11 keynote

He regularly had the audience in stitches, especially when he used images of increasingly bigger cranes to highlight the benefits of double-loop thinking rather than brute-force repetition. He asked teachers to become threshold adventurers (I prefer this label to his magic weavers alternative), to allow the positive active kids to thrive: (they) “are in your face – is that not what we want?”. We all want engaged minds, not passive viewers and through personalisation of learning, a good relationship with your pupils and by teaching a love of the subject rather than a capacity to recall facts for an exam we will ensure that “they will be smart enough”… if we are good enough.

On the train home I reflected on the messages I took from each of the seminars and from exploring the stands at SLF11:

  1. All three talks promoted collaboration, passion and going the extra mile to help pupils achieve their potential.
  2. Blogs, websites and wikis are not new technologies and pupils should be using them to make learning relevant, accessible 24/7, interesting and to develop their skills as digital citizens.
  3. Well planned use of games consoles can inspire a class as well as providing teachers with a useful revision tool (passive and interactive)
  4. YouTube or other suitable video sharing services are of great benefit to educators in engaging pupils and creating the right conditions for a flipped classroom.
The only slight negative to my experience of SLF11 was the comments from other educators that it “wasn’t as good as previous years”. I heard this a lot – in the queue for coffee, in the main foyer, on the low-level train back from the SECC, even on Twitter. I can’t comment as this was my first year and I personally got a lot of great CPD from the event – CPD which would not have been as effective if I had simply watched the videos online. I hope that SLF continues to be a real-life event and that as many educators as possible benefit from the community and collaboration that these kinds of events offer.

Helping to elicit the stories…

A Wild Question

I love first thing Monday morning. Does that make me weird? Since starting my new job I have been fortunate to be able to teach primary school classes as well as secondary pupils. The role of an ICT specialist as opposed to that of a secondary classroom teacher is quite different: to begin with the class sizes are larger but the main difference is that ICT is taught to enhance the project work primary pupils are undertaking in their current term – the aim of curriculum for excellence in secondary school. This has a number of benefits: extrinsic motivation, longer learning periods (comparatively – perhaps not true for all schools), deeper learning. Also as the ICT needs to help pupils progress toward completion of their termly topics, it requires more in depth knowledge/experience from the teacher.

For example, I am preparing my primary 7 pupils to record and edit an interview. The ICT part is teaching Audacity skills but I also have to frame it within good interview and audio production techniques. This means lots of question and answer sessions with the class, quickly building a good relationship with the pupils is important when they are going to be recording their voice and receiving honest, constructive feedback. So I made sure that I exemplified bad interview technique during the first week and then referred to it in the second. This shows that I am comfortable making mistakes in their presence, hopefully building trust for future lessons where I hope they can make mistakes without fear!

Anyway Monday’s lesson focussed on questioning skills. I wanted them to realise that they needed to think carefully about their questions and try to get the interviewee to share their story instead of give a short response. The pupils combined audio clips to match a text transcript of selected closed questions I had asked them during last week’s lesson and then the responses the pupils gave me. We then listened to the restructured audio and discussed how to adapt these closed questions to elicit a story – or at least more detail! There was some great discussion at this point about what could be classed as an open and closed question – I just sat back and let it happen around me. Learning was clearly in progress and I would just interrupt it if I butted in!

The pupils then worked on their own examples of open questions and we finished the class with the pupils interviewing me using a few of their questions. They really did themselves proud by eliciting a few stories from me and by listening carefully to inform their follow-up questions. I can’t wait until next Monday morning!

Photograph courtesy of [F]oxymoron – A Wild Question: http://www.flickr.com/photos/f-oxymoron/5005673112/ (creative commons)

When you’re not on a cloud you fall a long way

This will be a quick post.

I’m having to re-jig my work processes. It really is a bit of an unfortunate pain, and would be entirely unnecessary except for more strict work ICT policies. Anyway, to summarise these policies bar any kind of social networking or cloud file sharing and insist that files are transferred via USB pen drive or email. Ok then…

2010 and early 2011 were an extremely productive time for me thanks mainly to services such as Dropbox, Twitter, Google Mail, Google Calendar, Google Sites, Google Docs, Prezi and WordPress. I love them all and heartily recommend you sign up for accounts today! These sites were openly available to staff at my previous school and not a single virus or malicious piece of code was launched via the above sites in the time we used them. Whether this was luck or good network management I do not know but being given the autonomy to leverage these services improved the development work I completed as well as making the day-to-day learning and teaching more high impact through extremely up-to-date information related to the course which I could access with a simple Twitter search or Dropbox click; more accountable through constant use of Google Forms for unit evaluations; more accessible through use of Google Sites and Google Documents to distribute course notes, tasks and homework to the pupils and through issuing of a teacher GMail address through which pupils could ask questions and get quick, individual feedback. These were all fantastic successes in improving pupil motivation and results. I was also in the process of extending the use of Google Calendar to provide pupils with catchup notes on lessons missed as well as remove the need for me to carry a teacher planner.

Tonight I sat down to complete some planning for two of my five lessons tomorrow. One was a Primary 7 task which will require them to re-order some interview audio clips after reading a text transcript and participate in a discussion about a bad interview example to highlight good interview technique. The other was an Advanced Higher Computing lesson on the system investigation part of the Software Development Process. Both required Word documents and the Advanced Higher lesson needed a PowerPoint.

In the past it would not have mattered where I was and what machine I was using – I would be able to access the files and applications I needed. As Dropbox synchronises between your computer file system and the cloud you can ensure you always have the most up-to-date file version. My USB pen drive collective were banished to a desk drawer. They’re back in my bag now and let me tell you, finding the most up-to-date file is now a royal pain. I also am in the process of waiting for software4students to issue replacement Office 2010 DVDs so am using the Starter edition (limited to Word and Excel) in the meantime. So to update PowerPoints I had to upload to Google Docs and then convert (usually losing a lot of formatting in the process), make the changes then download the updated file and save to the USB again. I remembered tonight that you can edit PowerPoint documents using http://office.live.com but the upload / download process still interferes with the smooth organisation of files previously enjoyed.

I realise that this blog post is a bit of a rant against something that I cannot – at the moment – change but I felt this experience was worth sharing for the benefit of those who had not yet attempted to work using cloud file services and who had not yet experienced the huge benefits of leveraging the myriad Google applications that exist. Once you enjoy background synchronisation of files, shared calendars, high impact presentations, highly motivated and helpful educators on tap and can begin to remove some of the barriers to personal and professonal organisation, you don’t really want to go back. And when you’re forced to for no reason other than another person’s fear, it hurts.