There is no end in sight

Here it is, folks!

Goals

My Final Project finally took shape as a formative step towards preparing for presentations in my Y1 Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class. My students would ordinarily have picked a news story from digital or analogue sources, or a TED Talk or similar clip, that presents a “real life situation” that can be unpacked in TOK terms. As their teacher, I have been doing the same – and would have continued to do so – had it not been for my Course 3 project where I created my own digital narrative. In the process, I learned of the power of visuals, sound and words, and how they evoke strong emotions in much the same ways that film and media do in our everyday lives. This presented a teachable opportunity since, in TOK, Emotion as a Way of Knowing is a meta-cognitive understanding of ‘knowing how we know.’ After considering several options, I settled on a project that would require my students to create their own multimedia provocations for TOK. This was a feasible, scaled-to-context-and-purpose project whose goals were:

  • Students will learn the connection between Sense Perception and Emotion as a way of knowing through the use of images, sound and language
  • Students will use technology to create a short digital narrative as provocation for an extended TOK response

Standards

I chose to use following ISTE Standards for Students to drive this project:

Communication and collaboration

  • a. Students use digital media and environments to communicate ad work collaboratively including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.
  • b. Interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media
  • d. Communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats

Tools

Since we are a BYOD and DYOT school, conversations around video-editing apps did not take off as I would have liked since the class was unanimous in working with apps native to their laptops running Windows or Apple OS. We use Padlet a lot in my IB History classes, and so I made that suggestion. Again, they opted to brainstorm and plan on paper and document their process on Google Docs. Then I returned to an earlier discussion on copyright-free media search, Creative Commons, Google’s “labeled for reuse’ filter, Pixabay and Compfight. (Most images in the videos my students have produced have been sourced from Pixabay.)

Modelling

Modelling the process with my own Course 3 video, I had my students unpack how the narrative, with its use of visuals, soundtrack and lyrics, evoked powerful emotions in them. We then drew parallels to real-life experiences of everyday media and the films we watch. The focus was on the power to influence, and manipulate, emotional responses in large audiences, and investigate the bigger TOK knowledge questions of Ethics this generates as an area of knowledge.

Assessment

Three distinct components of this project were assessed and weighted 20:20:60 using separate instruments:

  • Teacher Assessment Instrument (20%) – How well does the video demonstrate technical skills of video-editing (the ‘techie bits’) for the purposes of the task
  • Peer Assessment Instrument (20%) – How successfully does the video evoke a powerful emotion through its narrative (the ‘message’)
  • IB TOK Presentation Assessment Criteria (60%) – The big TOK knowledge questions that each group unpacked from their videos were assessed using IB prescribed assessment criteria

Project instructions and assessment instruments were distributed as a digital Google Docs handout.

My final project video should give you a fair idea of how it all went.

YouTube Preview Image

Here is the UbD planning document for this project:

Reflection

I have learned more from what didn’t work than what did while working on this project. (This is true also of my entire COETAIL journey, in fact.) Scale and context are very important when you think of projects. Dreaming big did not go down too well in helping me decide on one that I could get my students to work on. It was a sharper understanding of the constraints and opportunities that defined the environment my students and I are in that did a better job of crafting a project that, in the end, did work. Limited contact time beyond TOK class time, workload from other subjects sometimes prioritised over TOK, my own PD calendar that kept me away during a critical time as my students were working on their final drafts after an initial peer and teacher feedback session – these presented learning opportunities for better planning in the future.

Did the project meet its goals? To an extent, yes. My students had not created original multimedia provocations for TOK before. Their reflections state that they learned new skills in using technology that at the same time enriched their understanding of the big TOK concepts that they were aiming for in their groups. I consider this a measure of success. Could their projects have been better? Yes, of course! That is the whole point of learning isn’t it?

As a teacher, I have also broken new ground here. I am not terribly fond of hearing my own voice in an audio recording, so doing a voice over for this project was a first (like so many other COETAIL firsts!). Using my own video as a teaching tool has made me want to create more, pushing me to go from consumer and curator to creator.

What next?

Not surprisingly then, my COETAIL journey has been a tremendous source of inspiration. Right from Course 1, I have been pushed beyond what I thought I was capable of as a learner, thanks to the focus of each module and, not insignificantly, to the warm community of COETAILers, past and present, whose work continues to set new benchmarks. I am looking forward to being a productive member of this tribe, connecting with future COETAIL aspirants as they begin their own exciting journeys, growing my PLN and pushing my own learning beyond where I am at this moment. I also have a new (non-COETAIL) blog now, called therefore, that I am looking forward to posting on more regularly. Imagine that!

Thank you, COETAIL gurus, and Chrissy in particular for being an amazing coach, for your direction and incredibly patient support! I would have been sad at this point to check out of COETAIL with this final post, but I am not.

There is no end in sight.

#unleashinglearning has only just begun!

[Cross-posted from therefore,]

International conferences for educators have three very distinct categories of people in them:

  • Either you are about to embark on a new course or role and need, or have been told by your admin that you need, to learn the philosophy, standards and practices that drive it. Sometimes, you return to an interaction of the same conference a few years later to upskill as you find yourself growing from a novice to a natural. Whatever your reasons, in the end your role is set to that of a learner.
  • Or you are an expert in your field. Perhaps you were one from the very beginning or have grown to be one over the years. You are invited to conferences to share what you know so others may learn from you. Your role, in short, is that of a teacher.
  • Or you may even be one of those who wait for your colleagues to return from such conference to share what they have learned. And if your colleague is a USB warrior who copied everything they could from any one they could on a thumb drive, you can sit back and sift through all the resources for ideas.

I have attended such conferences for several years now. At first I was there as a learner. Having earned my professional chops over the years, I now attend a few as a presenter: a teacher. In my earlier years, I would spend my breaks between sessions to network over coffee or sit eat a table with other learners to trade notes and name cards over lunch. Lately, I have sat in rooms full of other presenters as we decompressed from one session and prepped for the next. Without question there was a lot of learning and teaching that I did as I moved from common spaces for participants to designated ones for presenters. But I have found these  roles and the mould of these conferences rather fixed. And in that sense, participants and presenters land up to ‘do’ a conference.

It is true that in recent times some of the boundaries have been breached with the advent of Twitter. Participants and presenters are increasingly taking to sharing their experiences through hashtags that conferences create as part of their branding. These are the digital campfires around which much conversation take place. And if you did not or could not attend the conference itself, you can follow the conversations from where you find yourself – at home or at work, on your laptop or your personal device.

Which brings me to #unleashinglearning.

Disrupt L2 UnleashWhat began as a tiny seed of an idea between Edna, Jina, Lana, Stephanie and I, with Sam and Rebekah providing fertile ground for planting as part of the Disrupt Strand at Learning2 in Manila last year, saw the light of day in Melbourne earlier this month in Unleashing Learning – “a conference by educators for educators.”

Teachers are not without the powerful personal narratives that they bring to their calling. These are what lends an authenticity to that what they do in their classrooms. And so it was that both conference days were bookended by a series of 5-minute inspirational talks from teachers and students – each personal Unleash MNL to MELexperience resonated with those who listened. They were all powerful. Very.

Throughout the conference, purpose driven educators – some for the first time, others for the nth time – ran workshop sessions on a wide range of topics that all focused squarely on learning – and how to “unleash” it for our students and for ourselves and educators. There were no areas designated for participants or for presenters, for everyone at the conference was a learner learning to unleash learning.

It has been an unmitigated privilege to have been part of this experience. I am still ‘at the conference’ in my head.

campfireFor those who were there with me: hold on to #unleashinglearning for a while yet: document and tweet every instance in your classroom, at your school, among your students and your colleagues, when you find learning unleashed.

For those who could not be there: come, gather around because no one who left the conference put the fire out. It’s still raging. Take in its warmth. Add your own kindling, Keep in alive.

#unleashinglearning has only just begun.

A connected educator

I signed up on Twitter in 2011.Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 10.18.59 PM

And that was that.

Then 2014 happened

My PLN really took off from the time I attended Learning2 in 2014. Before that I knew what a PLN was but didn’t quite know how to build one for myself. There was also the big question of relevance – would what I say be of any importance to anyone out there? A lot of what I was picking up on my early Twitter feed came from experts and like most beginners, I lurked a lot and clicked on links that they were posting, learning quietly what was here to learn. I followed a few people I recognised from what I was reading, keeping my focus on what interested me as an educator: pedagogy, policies, practices and resources (a lot of them!). I still didn’t have the courage to go beyond liking (“heart-ing” now) them and RT-ing posts that I found interesting. That I live in China meant I needed to have VPN on whenever I wanted to check my Twitter feed.

It was also at Learning2 that I learned the power of connecting with educators I met in person or from afar – and I followed them religiously because what they posted interested me and drove my own professional growth in quiet but sure ways. The most I did after that was to tweet what I was curating around #ibtok an #ibhistory, the subjects that I teach.

hashtags ibtok ibhistory
I met Jeff, Kim, and other COETAIL wizards there who inspired me to enroll. My COETAIL journey taught me how to work Twitter to build my PLN. But I was still not confident enough to engage in long conversations with educators globally. After a few tentative posts and conversations on Twitter, I was surprised when Craig Kemp of #asiaEDchat invited me to host a week-long #asiaED slow-chat. asiaEdThe experience opened floodgates of confidence as educators from around the world joined in. I was finally, and confidently, connecting and communicating with a global community!

I connected with a few fellow COETAILers on coursework and other topics but I was also looking to connect with others on broader topics with those beyond COETAIL. And I did but sporadically, as and when I felt the need to push a conversation forward a bit. I also learned that many in my PLN responded more quickly to questions on Twitter than they did on email that can sometimes be intrusive.

When 2015 arrived

Jina 2I found myself at Learning2 again, in Manila. I met many in my PLN in person, or, as the trend was at the conference, “away from keyboard”, including my COETAIL tutor, Chrissy. I had signed up for the Disrupt Strand that Sam and Rebekah ran at the conference. Here I met and worked together on an idea that saw fruition in Unleashing Learning Conference in Melbourne last month. Not only did I meet and work with such forward thinking educators like Edna, Jina, Lana and Stephanie but I also learned from them how not to overthink communicating across physical distances. So when Lana invited my students in Shanghai  into her classroom in Melbourne for a Skype chat, I did not hesitate.

Now and beyond

Last month, it all came together at Unleashing Learning where I had the privilege of speaking about my journey, from starting out twenty years ago as a lone teacher with a classroom that was my kingdom  growing into an educator with global connections, and how this has been possible due to my professional learning network powered by Twitter.

YouTube Preview Image
If you go through my Twitter feed, my PLN, you you will see my growth, my learning. I am far more connected than I was in 2011 when I signed up on Twitter without the faintest clue as to why. Toady I am glad that I did, because I am a better educator for being

a connected educator.

Onward and upward!

Head in the clouds

CC0 Public Domain
CC0 Public Domain

When my students come to me with ideas for a project that they have to do, my first instinct is to let them speak freely of how big they want their projects to turn out in the end.  As educators we all know how endless such possibilities can be when children have freedom to be creative. It is sometimes in the process of trimming expectations, of failing even, when true learning takes place. And I have seen in my students’ works better products as a result of learning from hard ground realities than would have been possible from overly grand visions.

As I got on with my COETAIL journey, I, too, began with grand visions of a brilliant final project that would take its place among the best there is – like the ones I have seen in the exemplars out there. Many of the projects documented by fellow COEAILers, past and present, have been inspiring for their breadth and depth, for the technical skills that they display and, not insignificantly, for the contexts of the supportive environment in which they have been deployed. And like the students who come to me with unbridled creativity and vision, I envisioned one project after another bigger and brighter than the last, till practical considerations did their thing to pare them down, bit by bit, and I settled on but two ideas scratched on napkins.

Feet on the ground

CC0 Public Domain
CC0 Public Domain

The great denominator for my final project will have to be the context in which it will be deployed, for the ground realities for me are different and unique to my own. The use of technology in teaching is somewhat like open season where I work. There is no unifying vision that ties it all together; there is a certain ad hoc-ness to how students and teachers at my school use technology in teaching and learning. To some extent, I have earned the trust of the students I teach . They have been patient with me as I have tried new things without an institution-wide compass for an overall direction. Other realities like a split campus, a schedule that haemorrhages productivity with impunity for almost two hours most days of the week, being hogtied to traditional methods of teaching due to the temporal confines of an icetray timetable and the physical layout of classrooms, and the challenges that students and teachers face in meeting after scheduled teaching slots due to all of the above reasons have led me to be mindful of the possibilities and cognisant of limitations.

Limitations by definition are just that: limitations. With resourceful use of technology, I strove to surmount these challenges as I sliced off the fat from my grand vision. In the end, I settled for what would work: Paper napkin 2.

The task at hand 

As a TOK teacher I have been teaching about knowing how we know: a course in metacognition, if you will. One of the things we tackle in class is the way emotion works as a way of knowing:

  • How does emotion lead is to knowledge that is personal and how does it interact with knowledge that is shared?
  • How do visual and auditory cues in films and advertisements evoke emotion how that influences how we know what we know?
  • How do emotions cloud or enhance our understanding of the message behind the medium?
  • Can emotions be manipulated, wilfully?

Back in Course 3 I created a slideshow, a piece of digital narration aimed at evoking a powerful emotion. I want my students to create one of their own as provocation to unpack a knowledge question that they could respond freely to in their formative journeys to the big exit assessment tasks at the end of their two-year Diploma Programme. In the past, I showed them slide shows of advertisements or seminal clips of films that evoke strong emotions. I was in charge and my students were passive learners. This time round, I want them to create their own provocation.

I want to redesign part of this unit by infusing technology that I know they had not used before. Using the ISTE Standards for Students,  I want them to create an original short video that uses visuals and images to tells a story and evokes a strong emotion. Most of the students in my current cohort are non-native English speakers and I think the project will give them a voice other than in the written script to express themselves.

The soil

CC0 Public Domain
CC0 Public Domain

Asking them to buy software is out of the question, although most have their own VPN accounts to access YouTube and the Google suite. A lot of the software does not work for them (“This is Chinaaaa!”) and I don’t see a point in giving them a long list of online resources (keeping the scale of the project in mind) for them to struggle with. Bandwidth, too, is a real issue here.

I am hopeful, though, that in the short three weeks that I can afford for this and with guidance from me, they will be able to pull off making a short video that will be effective provocation for the free response that is part of their regular TOK course.

The flowering 

Not all is lost, though. I have confidence that my students will rise to the challenge, as I have sen them do on countless other occasions. With clear objectives and a sharp focused objective, I believe that they will produce respectable pieces of work despite the challenges of time and space that they have to deal with. With that hope, I will now move and execute my Final Project.

Onward and forward!

At least a whisper (thoughts on a final project)

Photo Credit: Sharon Drummond via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Sharon Drummond via Compfight cc

My initial cloudy ideas about a final project were so grand, they were almost of Wagnerian proportions! I wanted to incorporate all that I had learned in COETAIL into one multiphased, multifaceted and multimedia’d globally collaborative and connectivistically integrated adjective-riddled thingamabob of a project. I wanted to showcase the best of my students’ work and, perhaps and not too modestly, to show my own fresh-from-the-store techie skills off to my Instructor. And to the world.

But when I finally put my grand ideas on paper, even the adjectives stopped making sense. I took a good long look at where I was, and what I was working with in terms of time and support, and realised that I had to scale back a lot for any part of my ideas to work.

And so it is that heady aspirations gave way to clearheaded practicality. I was going for big plans on walls full of butcher paper; instead, I’m settling for what I have scratched together on precisely two paper napkins.

Paper napkin 1

I have featured a unit I teach, “Genocide And Choice” more than once over the course of my COETAIL journey. In its 1.0 version it has been effective in eliciting deep responses from my grade 10 students. I am considering taking this unit up a notch – make it version 2.0. In its new form, I hope to be guided by ISTE standards that will allow my students and I to infuse it with technology. I want this to be a problem-driven project – with a provocation about choice that will lead students to conclusions they can then present in a product of their choice between, say, a  presentation, documentary, or role play. My concern here is about scale, though – how big can this get before it falls apart. I do not have any flexibility in the timetable to accommodate more than the bare minimum. It’s not exactly a terrible situation but constraining nevertheless. I will need to think hard about the time and scale of this project if it is to be a meaningful and fun experience for my students.

Paper napkin 2

Photo Credit: johnkoetsier via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: johnkoetsier via Compfight cc

Keeping with safe and practical projects, I want to consider getting my Theory Of Knowledge students to create their own digital stories, just as I had done, using words, images and sound to demonstrate a key aspect of the course: personal knowledge. Once again, if I do pursue this project, I will lean on ISTE standards to set some goals that will help integrate technology for learners and instructor. The course expects presentations as one of two assessment tasks; I am excited at the idea of my students being able to express themselves in a medium that they are not overly familiar with for the purpose of formative but high stake assessments. My aim is also to get my students to understand the creative possibilities as well as the constraints of the medium – in itself a TOK teaching point about ways of knowing. My concerns at this point, once again, is about scale – it will have to be kept small enough to be workable within the constraints of the ice tray of a timetable that is available.

I wish I really could come up with a project that is grand in scale as well as realistic, one that will allow me to use far more of the skills that I have picked up in the last few months. This course has instilled so much confidence in me, pumped me up with so much enthusiasm that I would have loved to have been able to end big. A part of me is throwing a tantrum at the fact that I have to let go of my adjective-riddled thingamabob of project, the big ideas, the grand finish. And yet, another part of me – the quiet part – nods its head, knowing that the practical thing would be to go for one of the two paper napkin ideas. This second, quiet part of me knows that with my Final Project, I will end COETAIL well. If not with a bang, then

at least a whisper.

I like meetings

By Marus (Marus) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Marus (Marus) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I like meetings. I sit through several. In silence.

Those discussing the use of technology in the classroom, I like the most.

“Should we or shouldn’t we allow students to use their mobile phones in the classroom.” “But they are always on Facebook and WeChat, or whatever newfangled thing they’re on these days!” “What about electronic dictionaries? I want them to look up vocabulary on their phones. We have no paper dictionaries for them.” “What about laptops? I want them to do research. We have WiFi, don’t we?” “Ban it all, I say! It will only create more discipline problems. I don’t want to deal with them while I teach.” “They’ll cheat, that’s what they’ll do. Mark my words!”

And in silence I have observed tech personalities that I classify into two types – in various degrees of anxiety and fear:

Tentative Adopters – those who understand technology, or think they do, and are willing to run wth it. They know there are risks involved, though not always what those risks are exactly. They want to learn about it. They usually have some form of advanced technology on them – a not-too-old laptop and smartphone, perhaps even an iPad or a Kindle; at best a tablet.

Righteous Avoiders – those who use school-issue desktops or laptops. Their phones are usually just that – phones. Often they are good teachers but do not use technology beyond taking attendance online, posting lesson plans or creating worksheets in Word. They are sure of their tried-and-tested methods and are rather risk-averse. And loud.

Then there is a third type: Quiet Embracers. They do not contribute much to these meetings; often they catch the eye of a kindred soul and nod in silent camaraderie because they know. They know that in their own classrooms, they use technology effectively to the extent that they are able to, without making a noise about it. They are learning as they go along, blindsided at times wth things going awry but picking up the pieces and doing things better the next time.

By Blake Patterson (Flickr: the iOS family pile (2012)) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Blake Patterson (Flickr: the iOS family pile (2012)) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And so it is that I will now use my ham-fisted poetic licence to describe my own classroom:

Mine is a technology “un-rich” classroom.

Not poor, but un-rich, for I teach digital natives, who have the latest laptops and tablets, state-of-the-art smartphones and now, the iWatch. This is not a poor classroom. It is un-rich in that there is no system-wide vision of technology that holds it all together. Students and teachers are literally left to their own devices. (Now, there’s a pun!) This also means that there is no cogent constraint on ‘quiet embracers’ to use technology as they see fit.

What does my own typical technology un-rich classroom look like?

Let’s begin at dawn. I wake up, brew my pot of coffee and check my phone. Sam sent me a message on WeChat late last night seeking clarification about a citing convention for an essay due in class after lunch today. I point him in the right direction and get to reading the news on my Flipboard. As I leave home to get to work, Kim sends me a message on our class group, on WeChat again, that she is not feeling well and so may arrive late to class. (Her parents will inform the school through ‘official’ channels.) I take attendance on my school’s ManageBac account – on my iPhone – as my students walk in for their first class. They have watched and responded to a documentary I posted on EdPuzzle the evening before and are now brainstorming on Padlet on a project that will lead to a report they will fill out on Google Docs that I have posted in their Doctopus folders. This has a rubric attached to it that I have shared on Google Drive and attached to the project, thanks to Goobric. They work in silence as I move around the class, “listening for learning,” as I heard Dylan Wiliam put it once at a conference. The bell rings as they finish the task, and leave.

The next class begins with a preassigned multiple-choice quiz. They have been reviewing for it on Quizlet, using its flashcard function and playing games with each other the previous night, at home. This task is part of their formative assessment, and they do it in class within an allotted time on Google Forms. Their quiz is marked by Flubaroo that lets them, and me, know how they did in an instant. Those who did well are happy with their marks, those who did not, go to  SetMore to check when I am free over the week and request a meeting to discuss ways in which they may improve.

The next class is more of a lecture. As my students walk in, they use a passcode to enter the Zaption Presentation that I have created. As I go through my presentation, they respond to prompts I have embedded into it, or raise their ‘digital hands’ to ask a question that I answer as we go along. Their responses and ‘raised hands’ provide evidence of learning that I can build on in my next lesson.

Image courtesy: Pixabay [CC0 Public Domain]
Image courtesy: Pixabay [CC0 Public Domain]

I could go on about my technology un-rich classroom, but you get the idea. The only policy I work on is free access to WiFi in school.

I will end this post by swinging back to how I began:

I like meetings.

I’m younger than that now

I began this journey I am on as a teacher twenty years ago. I was so much older then.

Photo Credit: Demmer S via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Demmer S via Compfight cc

With a quiver full of high ideals, optimism for a shield and newly minted teaching degree for a sword, I was ready to change the world. Sequestered in traditions more than a century old, I was comfortable in the chalk, talk, brick and mortar school that I worked in. I was something of an authoritarian – a sage on the stage – like the teachers who had inspired me, decreeing what and how students should learn what they had to to become captains of the industries that were then available as career choices. Personal irony aside, I had, in Dylan’s words, A self-ordained professor’s tongue / Too serious to fool / [who] Spouted out that liberty / Is just equality in school / “Equality,” I spoke the word / As if a wedding vow.’

And then shift happened. The future came and left, before I had the chance to say hello. Equality gave way to equity in my classroom, to fairness that demanded that I step aside and let my students take the stage to decide for themselves what they wanted needed to learn in a world exponentially changing. No longer are career choices finite entities today. They are fluid, demanding skills more than content as industrial age careers dry up and new ones emerge, demanding transference of critical thinking skills for my students to thrive in, not just survive.

Technology has brought new hardware into the classroom in the form of devices, devices that breed faster operating systems that spawned more intuitive software for all ages and kinds of learning. Riding this surging wave are reams of research on brainware – on how cognition has changed in this new landscape of learning that calls on teachers to rethink their old ways and adapt. Or atrophy.

I have grown from chalk and talk to student-led inquiry. My learning space has moved from brick and mortar spaces to digital ones. I have shed the mantle of the authoritarian and donned the one my students wear – that of a learner. And like them, I am no longer sequestered in traditions but breaking new ground as we, together, wander and wonder.

In twenty years, I have seen education go from books, MOOCS, to gadzooks! Khan Academy and School In The Cloud are but two examples of how far we have come. I have moved from parochial purposes of teaching to personalised professional development that focuses on student-centred learning. And I have thrived, not just survived; for I sip from the hydrant that is my PLN – a tribe of teachers who are also prosumers of best practices, passionate educators who don’t think twice before engaging in conversations in this community and doing what they must to make the experience of learners beyond their own classrooms richer.

Where and how will I be teaching in the next twenty years? Truth be told, I haven’t a clue! Just as I didn’t have a clue then about how I would be teaching today. But looking back on the beginning of my own journey as a teacher twenty years ago, I know this:

I’m younger than that now.

Flippin’ mad!

Photo Credit: dullhunk via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: dullhunk via Compfight cc

As Shakespeare may well have put it:

Providing free WiFi access

Does not twenty-first century learning make.

I do not teach in a technology-rich environment. But the students I teach learn in a technology-rich one. The only way I can explain this anomaly is that despite the Wifi access because of free access to WiFi, I have been able to use technology to enrich learning for my digital-native students.

Before I learned about Flipped Learning – or that it was even a thing – I used to show authoritative documentaries (remember VCRs and VHS cassettes?) to complement my History lessons. My students grew to love these experiences; for some, they  helped with recall, but the more able in class demonstrated deeper understanding of the content and concepts that I was trying to get across. I grew to love showing documentaries because they raised the level of engagement among students, took my lessons beyond the drab lecture or analyses of (textual) sources that I subjected them to.

But they ate into class time way too much and, so, with the advent of digital formats and YouTube, I began assigning documentaries to be watched at home – usually over weekends and holidays – either before I began a new unit or after I finished one.

Over time I took what I could from what I learned, piecemeal, of Flipped Learning as a pedagogic approach. It is not until I studied it as part of COETAIL did my understanding of what it entails formed fully.

While I have not yet uploaded my own lectures for students to watch, I have used Zaption and EdPuzzle for documentaries available on YouTube and the like. Both these tools allow teachers to embed comments and questions that help to

Infographic courtesy University of Texas at Austin, TX
Infographic courtesy University of Texas at Austin, TX
  • Take a ‘pulse-check’ – who got it and who did not
  • Assign formative assessment tasks – short low-stakes multiple-choice quizzes that check for understanding content and skills
  • Assign a summative assessment task – open-ended essay questions that demand higher order critical thinking skills of synthesis
  • Keep a record of student responses – evidence of learning that informs intervention if required, and downloaded in digital portfolios to be shared with parents

All of this can take place outside of formal teaching time, mind you. And here’s the beauty of it: ‘The students can watch it outside of class, pause it, replay it, view it several times …,’  quotes Karl Fisch (of Shift Happens fame).

Daniel Pink calls this ‘the Fish Flip, where ‘Lectures at night, “homework” during the day.’ While I do some “homework” in class, the time that is now freed up during formal contact time with students has helped me focus on those who need individual attention, or to teach deeper as a result of the responses I have received from these flipped tasks.

My students, particularly those in my IB classes, will testify to the gains they have made, and continue to make, with me as we flip more. I know that they love it and want more. They know that I love it and want more. I wonder if Shakespeare would go so far as to call me

Flippin’ mad!

Bring it on, I say!

I love projects.

I do them all the time. My students do, too. Very much.

Photo Credit: Ida Myrvold via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ida Myrvold via Compfight cc

So, what is it about them that leaves me now with a sense that something was not quite right about them? I mean, the projects were great! My students loved doing them and I got a break from the relentless pressure of the content that must be taught in the time that it must. (Coverage, I believe, it is called.) The products were often of  standards far beyond what most students reached in traditional paper-based assignments or quizzes. Individual or group investigations leading to presentations, not always PowerpPoints, but role play, videos, song and dance. Joyful stuff, and yet.

You may enter now, PBL.

Seymour Papert’s views on Problem-Based Learning gave me some pause about the purpose behind the projects that I loved dishing out to my students. I realised that through them, I was ‘measuring what kids can do with the knowledge [I was giving them], not how many right answers they can give to questions’ that I was posing. And I wasn’t learning very much either. I’ve been assessing projects ‘by what the kids learn … [not] by what the whole system learns, and that includes the teacher.’

I should really be having ‘students pursue solutions to nontrivial problems by asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, designing plans and/or experiments, collecting and analysing data, drawing conclusions, communicating there ideas and findings to others, asking new, questions and creating artefacts.’ (Blumenfeld, et al, 1991)

Of the four courses that I am teaching this year, two are content-heavy while the others are concept and skills rich. IB TOK and our homegrown Grade 10 Global Perspectives are more amenable to the teaching of concepts and skills than IB History and Grade 9 History. But this is not to say that the latter cannot cope with some exciting project-based learning. What I need is a framework and objectives – justifications, if you will – to design and deploy.

There are many frameworks available online these days, but the one on Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia!) offers me one that I can work with:

Comprehensive Project-based Learning:

  • is organised around an open-ended driving question or challenge.
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills.
  • requires inquiry to learn and/or create something new.
  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication, often “21st Century Skills
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice.
  • incorporates feedback and revision.
  • results in a publicly presented product or performance.
Photo Credit: Chauncer via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Chauncer via Compfight cc

I realise that I have hashed “project-’ and “problem-based” learning together, but the distinction matters little. At this point, I am happy to run with what I have and start messy. Messy learning is good. As John Rinker taught me at a Learning2 conference last year, “True learning begins when we fail, not when we get it right!”

Therefore, this is where I hope to take my projects:

Start messy but dream big, knowing that failure is but a corner away so that true learning can begin. I can anticipate all the roadblocks I know I will come up against when making the shift from the projects I am used to the ones I now want to, but unless I fail while doing them, I won’t truly learn. Despite the literature that is out there.

I’d like to do what Suzie Ross says she is doing, ‘… utterly and totally handing over the reins, come what may. The project is theirs.’ It will be a challenge, I know, but

Bring it on, already!

This is not a statement. It is a question.

Disclaimer 

I am going to break with tradition and place a disclaimer at the very top of this post.

This final project was a nerve-wracking experience. Not because I didn’t know which of the options on offer I would go for. No. It is true that I considered redesigning my online CV; I even considered reworking one of my boring presentations after learning of design principles that I has written about in a previous post. Learning about digital storytelling, I decided quite early (note the emphasis) that I will create a digital story to use in one of my lessons.  I was already behind the rest of my cohort in getting started, but once I had competed storyboarding it, I was convinced that I would finish it soon.

Then it all came crashing down!

Literally. My laptop began to behave like an ill-tempered camel and finally froze. An all too familiar chill down my spine stayed with me for weeks as I scurried from Apple Store to Apple Store in the city to find out why my iMovies wouldn’t work – or any other graphics-heavy app that I tried. Turns out I had exhausted the battery on my mid-2010 MacBookPro and RAM. I replaced the battery but the problem persisted. Getting the right kind of RAM chips to upgrade posed a problem. I sourced them online and tried to instal them, but without success. Desperate, I spent hours cleaning out my hard drive and reinstalling the latest version of iMovies. While my laptop still freezes when I use iMovies, I was able, in fits and starts, to get back to my final project. It has taken me weeks of reboots to finally complete what would have been a late, but not so late, post.

The project: a context

As an educator, I have grown used to celebrating success in the fledgling young men and women that I have taught over twenty years. I have revelled in Peter’s success as he came out of the exam room confident that he had passed after months of struggling with poor grades. Or Pam’s, as she informed me with pride that the last of her university choices finally accepted her after every one else on her list had turned her down. Even Palan’s, whose reflective essay about his time spent in an old age home finally found space in a school publication, and that his unkind friends finally acknowledged  him despite giving him a hard time because he was different.

A large part of the process, as all good educators know, is about building confidence in students, telling them about universal values of honesty and hard work, of being true to themselves. It is also about telling them of a just world that is theirs to inherit and make even better.

But here’s the rub: we rarely touch upon the more difficult questions around the events that take place in the world that they are going to inherit – the hypocrisy of generations of adults who messed up the world with their politics and their beliefs, their religions and their rhetoric. Then they hand it over to the young with high sounding platitudes to fix what they have broken wth their reasons. Always their reasons.

My project, finally

Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ is a beautiful song, and a personal favourite. I chose this song as the soundtrack of my final project because of sentiments underscoring the lyrics – they tell of a world that is beautiful and promising. And safe.

The images that I have used in the first movement of the song play upon expectations of the listener. They satisfy them, reinforcing their belief that indeed the world we live in is a wonderful one.

It is in the second movement that I have used images that juxtapose the positive sentiments with the reality that we know only too well today: that it is not quite a wonderful world.

If you know the song, it will have an effect that will stop in your tracks a while. If you don’t, it will give you pause, nevertheless.

What this means for my students

As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, I teach my students to know how they know. We look at how language as a way of knowing evokes emotions, how reason justifies the ethics that evoke emotions, and how sense perception uses language to justify the ethics that evoke emotions. All of this helps build our personal knowledge that we then pit against the shared knowledge of a world that we navigate through to find our own place. A world that we, the adults, will hand over to future generations to deal with.

I want my students to feel the conflict between the words and images in the first movement of the song and the second, to make sense of the bone-naked honesty of the question that I pose at the very end and arrive at their own personal answers. I am hopeful that the message will stick hard and long enough to make a difference.

This is not a statement. It is a question.

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From Gutenberg to selfies, and beyond!

In my first year as a teacher twenty years ago, I went on a field trip with two colleagues and some forty students. We stayed in a government ‘forest bungalow’ as it is called in India, that overlooked a point where three rivers met at the foothills of the western Himalayas. We woke the students up before dawn so that we could have breakfast on the terrace, bathed in the cold wash of the magnificent sunrise each day – a calm reflective start to misty mornings before we went fishing or walking though pine forests. I remember that we required students to reflect on their experience in their journals at the end of each day so that they could dip into them for material to write an essay with – that was assessed. The best pieces were printed in the school newsletter to share with the larger community. (Compared to today, this was so Gutenberg!)

Photo Credit: -RobW- via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: -RobW- via Compfight cc

Between us, we had two analogue cameras to tell our stories with – one that belonged to a teacher, the other to a student. Between them, photographs were processed after the trip at a local printshop (sometime this took a week or more!) and those that were clear enough were included in the newsletter.

Twelve years ago. I chaperoned another field trip – the first international one for the school I worked at then – to Beijing. There were two in the group who did not have cameras – a colleague and a  student. The rest had an assortment of digital cameras and ‘video cams’ – and the early models of mobile phones with cameras. It was a fabulous trip and we had far too many pictures to choose from to include in our school newsletter, and for students to include in their post-trip reflections. These were also assessed.

‘When technology shifts, it bends the culture,’ writes Kevin Kelly.

These days no one I work with or teach is without the means to record their experiences digitally. In fact, there is a veritable glut. Selfies aside, visual images are an expected component of digital storytelling either in my teaching or in the work that my students produce in their several electives.

We’ve gone from being consumers of visual digital stories from authorities like Hollywood to producers with handy and cheap tools like ‘YouTube, TeacherTube, SchoolTube, DNATube or StartYourTube’. (DSJ)

My own practice today is not without the powerful medium of visuals: images and videos are embedded in my lesson plans, either live or flipped. My resources lean more towards the visual than bland text.

Looking back on my own journey as a teacher – from all but two in the group without cameras to none today – I cannot but wonder how I have gone from

Gutenberg to selfies, and beyond.

Those Who Can’t, Teach.

An anecdote

Up until my first year in high school I used to ace all my tests in Mathematics. I was a regular Asian whiz kid with numbers; addition, subtraction, multiplication and division came easy to me. Back then we were not allowed to use calculators. As a result, we were forced to rely on our mental faculties for speed and accuracy for computations of all sorts. We were made to take an aptitude/IQ test at some point to project what kind of careers we were best suited for. The results came back and I was handed a two-line verdict:

Least suitable career option — politician.

Most suitable career option — rock star.

(The jury may still be out on this one! Guess what I do for a living now.)

What was interesting, though, was that of all the components, I scored highest on Mathematical Ability.

We must have had some sort of human resources crisis at school shortly after this point, for over a matter of months, several Mathematics teachers came and left in quick succession. During this period we were subjected to vastly different teaching styles and unconnected topics. In short, there was no plan, no progression anymore. And that did it for me. I barely passed my final examination that year. Mathematics was no longer a compulsory subject the following year; so, I dropped it.

Since then I have had a lifelong fear of numbers. As an adult and a professional, I cringe whenever I see tables and spreadsheets full of numbers. This is true even for moments when I have to deal with numbers while teaching History.

And now, the context

For my Final Project in Course 1, I featured a unit that I teach every year, called Genocide and Choice, where we look at the stages of genocide and the role choice plays for perpetrators, victims and bystanders. In it we often parse through reams of data on weapons and victims, for example, and I expect my students to deal with them in ways that I am afraid to. (See above.)

My students are tasked with interpreting tables full of numbers to make sense of the scale of heinous mass murders in the Third Reich, in Nanjing, in Cambodia and in Rwanda. I teach the Rwandan Genocide as a model for my students before they choose one other as a case study. Over the years I have observed that they ‘get’ the debate surrounding the role of choice at each stage of these genocides. Dry, clinical numbers in a table, however, often deter a true understanding of the scale of these horrors.

Enter Infographics

I googled ‘genocide infographic’ and settled on two that I feel I can use in the next iteration of the unit.

The first is Signs of Genocide in Burma from United to End Genocide. It summarises the eight dangerous warning signs in easy to understand the themes at work through visual literacy elements.

Image source: United to End Genocide (https://tinyurl.com/natgd8m)
Image source: United to End Genocide (https://tinyurl.com/natgd8m)

The second, Lauren Polchies’ Rwandan Infographic, ties directly to the case study that I use as a model. This is relevant because of the simplicity with which it represents complex statistics – the timeline, ’killing rate’ and consequences tell a grim tale of the scale of murder in a composite and effective infographic.

Image source: Behance (https://tinyurl.com/q8thgn2)
Image source: Behance (https://tinyurl.com/q8thgn2)

Implications for learning, not teaching

When I do teach this unit, I will have my students look at Signs of Genocide as an example of condensing and synthesising their research thematically. This will address not only Language Arts but also the skills of presenting their research in an effective and visual medium.

I aim to use Rwandan Infographic as an exemplar for my students to represent relevant data in their case studies in a visually effective way so that anyone without in-depth knowledge of these genocides may understand their scale and long term consequences.

Whoever said this had a point:

Those who can’t, teach.