May 17, 2007

Getting down to some Extreme Learning


  NQTs getting down to some Extreme Learning 
  Originally uploaded by Edublogger.

This kind of working position summed up some exciting ideas coming from our Newly Qualified Teachers in East Lothian this morning, as they attempted to make sense of the ideas behind Extreme Learning and put what have been mostly concepts and ideas into some sort of practice.

You can see some of their work already, although the rest might take me some time to upload:

These teachers were incredibly challenged when they were asked to create a framework for a project which would relate to the four capacities of our Curriculum for Excellence, which would should some kind of intellectual challenge by virtue of doing the Extreme Learning project and which incorporated some kind of reflection.

And that was it. Really, it's quite a fluid set of guidelines that Don started the day with and this, it seemed, proved to be the main challenge: "What are we meant to do?", "What knowledge are we meant to cover?", "Is this too narrow - or if we add anything else is it too broad?", "How long would this take to 'cover'?" In brief: the way we have been taught throughout our lives colours - heavily - what we are capable of thinking about, or at least the ease with which we think about it.

In the end they came up with wonderful projects. I've taken the main overviews as pictures here, from which you can link off and follow their progression, exploring their projects in the way you want to (it might take me a wee while if you're reading this hot off the press.) There are also some nice snaps of the teachers in action in this set.

Here are the key observations from the group that were at Musselburgh this morning:

Different perceptions of primary and secondary teachers
This may be down to the feel of their working environments. Primary teachers, being, in the best sense of the words, the 'jack of all trades' have teaching practices which are far more akin to the Extreme Learning ideas (a secondary teacher talking here). There is some crossover, but perceptions get in the way. The opportunity here is that we have generalists in primary with specialists tapping in.

Secondary teachers may be struggling with the (cue huge generalisation) more restrictive, narrow style of learning and set questions which set learners off down certain paths.

Primary colleagues put a greater emphasis on breadth and also, interestingly, on the learning environment, whether that be physical, virtual or mental. Open spaces, time to think, opportunity to explore tangents, even if they are false leads.

We stand a massive advantage if we can learn from our primary colleagues. Asking in either sector "where this fits into the curriculum" has to stop. The curriculum (and technology, or the lack of it) should be no reason to preclude youngsters comparing, seeing others' work, judging their own level of practice and achieving better. Had our own NQTs seen the examples before they started perhaps they would have been able to do all this better.

Traditional learning expectations vs Freer thinking and frameworks
Depth was lost because of a lack of time perceived by one team, a team which felt they had gone down the wrong path due to a misunderstanding. Clear cut instructions from a teacher lead people down particular paths, though, so maybe we need some guidance and examples of how specific different ages of learners have to be.

The first research question is the hard part. Once that's nailed the follow up questions help form the mindmap in such a quick time to discover new leads.

Assessment
Our NQTs were asked not to apply a grade to other projects, but rather place themselves in relation to the other eight projects. What was fascinating is that only two groups out of the nine placed themselves first, with equal amounts going for third and fourth. One swayed between fourth and fifth. No-one went below fifth place. So does Extreme Learning lead to more confident individuals than kids who think they're "no good at school an' stuff"?


Technology as a means to share, collaborate
Plagiarism has come up as a potential issue. Don's answer is well founded. Extreme Learning projects like these are not about getting an Honours degree, a good grade (the end product); they are about the process, a means of getting somewhere else. David made a great point that echoes Ken Robinson's Out Of Our Minds thesis about the commoditisation of qualifications. Perhaps the process, the things learnt through it and the evidence that's there for all to see on the web will be the thing that sway uni entrance officers and employers when they are faced with 100 very similar CVs.

I don't think that plagiarism is possible, either, because the projects by their personal nature are individual for a start. But also, what will be 'plagiarised' are presentation ideas, methods of working, ways of planning. They won't be lifted directly, but rather translated into the context of that particular learner to make their learning better.

Above all, the advantages of sharing and collaborating online far outweigh the cost of dealing with those who think they even can attempt to plagiarise entire projects, as Don's setup post explains. In this type of learning you really are the only one to lose out if you plagiarise.

Problem solving approaches, extreme learning projects and evidence
The first two approaches work - that much we know. But what is the role of the third in either celebrating or stifling these approaches. Criterion-referencing is a myth - it's all norm-referencing to some degree. Running projects online is a great way (the only way?) to reinforce regular norm-referencing, self assessment in relation to others. It's also a great way to check that progress is, in fact, being made.

Who's leading the project?
We do learn more from doing a project like this than being teacher led the whole time. But what is the balance between the two. There is more control of the individual's learning by the individual.

The confidence factor
What about kids who lack the confidence to grade themselves, or who grade themselves low the whole time? Does differentiation through outcome alone, and not groupings of kids, provide enough support to coax these individuals before?

Conclusions
The fact is, that working in this way is probably taught, not caught. We'll need to take every kid through a dry run of a project to build that confidence in a safe environment.

Update: see it from a probationer's point of view over at Dave Cain's place.

Update: see Don's rundown of what happened, why and what we all gained from the day.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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