234 posts categorized "Collaborative Learning"

July 26, 2015

The weakness of the network to nurture curiosity

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While search technology made the process of seeking the answers to our questions easier and quicker, social technology and our networks have had a paradoxical effort. Has the ease of 'asking' numbed our curiosity to investigate unknown knowns for ourselves?

There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.

With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”...

Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.

Craig Blewitt. Thanks to Matt Esterman for the initial hat-tip to this.

It's not just our students who have become this Generation Ask - their teachers, in droves, sit on Twitter asking questions to the network, whose answers are waiting there to be found. The technology of our networks risks turning us into lazy researchers, for one.

But more worryingly, not doing our own homework, our own research, and relying instead on what others perceive to be 'right', means that we don't accidentally rub up against the interesting tangents that always come with one's own, personal, more time-consuming research.

The unknown unknowns remain untouched in this age of the network, and each individual's 'filter bubble' merely narrows down those chances further. The more our networks act as a magnifying glass on the loudest voices, the less likely we are to see the bigger picture, the whole context, and gain the depth of understanding we would ideally seek.

Pic by Kate Ter Haar

June 16, 2015

When a Snow Queen starts a school: the no-grades route to University

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No grades (ever), no sitting down at desks, and harnessing student boredom as a motivator to create and explore might seem an odd recipe for academic success and entry to university, but that is exactly what one of Scotland's newest schools is attempting to do.

Drumdruan Upper School was created a few years ago by Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, star of many a Hollywood blockbuster and forever in my mind the terrifying Witch in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The school extends a Steiner education beyond the age of 14, and takes students through to their University years. The Observer has published a fascinating and detailed account of some of the recipe that makes this a special place and, above all, has bowled over the traditionally conservative schools inspectorate:

That is not what happened: the inspectors sat in the classes and watched the students. And if you watch the students at Drumduan, you soon notice they are confident, articulate, highly motivated and respectful. These are, in fact, the words used by the inspectors in their subsequent report. You might even believe the students at Drumduan wanted to be there. The inspectors clearly felt so, but it was when they had retired to an office to confer that Krzysztof, a master of the spontaneous gesture, delivered the coup de grace. He sang to them.

Music is something of a hallmark at Drumduan, where children participate in regular workshops – often on instruments like a wheelie bin – and start each day singing in four-part harmonies. “We were rehearsing in another room, and I said: ‘This song is terrific, we have to show these inspectors,’” Krzysztof recalls. “So we burst into their office – they were a bit alarmed – and I said: ‘I’m sorry, we’ve just got to sing this song to you.’” The song was “Media Vita”, a medieval score of haunting beauty that reduced the inspectors to tears, according to Krzysztof. Bowled over by their praise – he is a man whose emotions are close to the surface – Krzysztof asked if he could give them a hug, probably a first for all of them.

 ...

“There’s no grading, no testing at all,” Tilda had explained to me earlier. “My children are now 17, and they will go through this school without any tests at any time, so it’s incredibly art-based, practical learning. For example, they learn their science by building a Canadian canoe, or making a knife, or caramelising onions. And they’re all happy 17-year-olds. I can’t believe it – happy and inspired.”

May 31, 2015

Why education needs more fuzzy thinking

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It’s been a decade since I first heard the education conference cliché that we are preparing our kids for a future we don’t even understand. I argue that since then we've done little about it, in this week's Editorial in the Times Educational Supplement.

Ten years ago, that wasn’t really true. In fact, the immediate future was pretty predictable between 2005 and 2010: the internet remained slow and some kids didn’t have it at home, most didn’t use Facebook, smartphones were still far too expensive and the iPad wasn’t launched until January 2010. Even terrorism was mostly still “over there”, and wars likewise, rather than recruiting from comprehensives in the Home Counties.

Since then the world has learned what “exponential” really means. The normal trajectory post-school is no longer a linear certainty but a struggle with what a new breed of thinker and doer embraces as “fuzzy goals”. This emergent group of young people, activists and senior industry leaders spends most of its days grappling with unknown unknowns – technologies, jobs, ways of thinking and, yes, even terrorist groups that we didn’t even know we didn’t know about.

At the same time, our understanding of “what matters” in education hasn’t budged beyond a few pockets of relative daring. We still operate within our hierarchy of subjects, overcharged curricula and an expectation that teachers will stand and deliver it. There is little room for fuzziness here.

In this week's Times Educational Supplement, I expand on how fuzzy problem-finding and -solving are some of the core skills that we've been ignoring too long in the search for standaradisation and content-heavy cramming. What do you think?

Pic by HB2

May 18, 2015

Do we actually want to close the achievement gap?

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I end this small run of blog posts with the question posed by Professor Brian Boyd at the beginning of our evening:

Do we want to close the achievement gap?

We know we can close the gap. It’s been done or almost been done before in Scottish education, but the answers have been ignored as they pass us by. The simple clue is this: poverty is single biggest predictor of achievement, and according to research (Hammonds sic, reference required), aged 10, a child living in poverty is 60% less likely to get to university.

Boyd borrowed from his own mother’s report card to ask us what kind of education we desire. Is it the academic success at all costs route, or is there another option we need to value as much, if not more? His mother’s report card, one that prevented her from becoming a secondary school pupil in Glasgow, is filled with G and FG, until the last point: Character and conduct - excellent.

What kind of pupils do we want to develop in Scotland? What do we value in our assessment system? Opening up opportunity for all is a tough game to play when the examination system rewards only certain types of behaviour, few of them related to what the Curriculum for Excellence says we stand for. In his own small community in East Kilbride, three secondary schools enter a period of meltdown as the local rag sets about creating its own local league table of performance, with those three ‘teams’ in competition for the top spot (or at least not the bottom one). Therefore, we must stop basing “the gap” largely on attainment.

First of all, Boyd would like us to remove the traditional, and non-sensical academic/vocational divide. Is the law or medicine degree we value not vocational? (Are all General Practitioners not Plumbers, as Dr Murray on the panel suggests?)

Second, we must start from the ground up, in the early years. It is with parental expectations from this youngest age that we can help prevent the gap becoming quite so large in the first place.

Third, there is no research that supports setting. So why do we continue? Telling students they’re not ‘top’ will certainly reinforce their expectation and aspirations to be anything other than top.

Fourthly, pedagogy doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Teachers must have opportunities to talk about learning and teaching, to hone their craft and learn from each other.

Finally, cooperation instead of competition between departments, school types, ages, stages, and sectors is the only way we can begin to crack this question. Scottish schools have never been comprehensive, really. People have flocked to what is perceived to be ‘the good school’, making them better schools as a result. And the rest of them?

but, collaboration with business… a step too far?
Collaboration with business might be the hardest step for Scottish school to take, in a system recognisable today as the one set up by socialist forefathers in the name of equality. For some in the education sphere there are, without a doubt, perceptions that business is anything but equality in action, but instead a position of privilege at the expense of others. This surely has to change.

Maybe it is telling, in fact, that NoTosh, a company I founded five years ago, with the explicit aim to bring creative approaches from creative enterprises into the classroom, sees less than 0.5% of its turnover generated in Scotland, and none of that comes from schools. The picture above, in fact, is of one project where we brought entrepreneurship skills to the vocational education system in Finland. In non-business speak: Scottish schools aren't as interested as nations all over the world, when it comes to seeing how learning, process and leadership from outside education might help us inside formal education. 

One thing is sure: the narrowing and closing of the achievement gap in its widest sense is not something schools and the school system will manage to do on its own. It is, perhaps, long time that conversations between business, creative enterprise and the public service begin to happen much more often, with much more drive to deliver for our children. 

Do schools ever want to partner with business?

 

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“Teachers like to agree with each other, when we talk about learning. It’s hard to change that, when the model we have wanted to make work has nonetheless been failing for 40 years.” Professor Brian Boyd

No area has remained up there in the contentiousness charts in Scotland as the notion of business and education working together to do something better for our young people.

Most schools do not ‘partner’ with colleges or universities. Instead, they are production facilities for undergraduates and college entrants. Fewer are set up to systematically provide apprenticeship opportunities as well as learning. At NoTosh, we’ve been working on a few, nascent projects to change the attitudes of schools from being these production facilities into something more of a life support - what metrics of success might we use if schools judged their success on the results of their alumni, five, ten or twenty years down the line, much like universities do?

City of Glasgow College have partnered with Newlands Junior College (NJC) to make the experience of a day in college more than what, in other circumstances, is too often perceived as a day off from school. The Junior College is called this, and not a school, for that very reason, to mark it out as a stepping stone between school and full-blown college. NoTosh helped last August to provoke the team around their thoughts of what 'unschool' might look like.

The College was backed and founded by Jim McColl, one of Scotland’s top business people. 

In the future, suggests, McColl, might be be possible to take funding of learning out of its pre-existing silos, particularly for this group of students, about 60 in every city at these ages, who just need a different approach to the traditional comprehensive approach? A crossover funding model that helps learning happen in both ‘school’ or Junior College and college or university might be interesting. In fact, some of the world’s top universities are thinking of such models for their own students: Stanford’s 2025 project talks about the Open Loop, where learning and work happen over far more than the usual four year degree, offering students a chance to grow through not just learning, but contributing to society through their work, too.

Such continuums of learning, from school to college to work, are the most rare in the world - we’re lucky in Scotland to have one in the form of Newlands Junior College. If we struggle to collaborate between educational institutions, then collaboration between those not in the world of formal education - namely businesses - feels far fetched. 

McColl is frank on his views of the traditional ‘comprenhensive’ education he received: he couldn’t get out of secondary school fast enough. In his small primary school “people cared”. He was the Dux of his class, even if, he jokes, the class only had seven pupils. Aged 16, he gained his Weir pumps apprenticeship, the choice grounded in nothing other than the fact it was the closest bus stop to his house. But, once there, the trainer told him: “Just work hard and we’ll give you all the support you need. If you want to get to the top, you just have to work hard.” He did. And in 2007 he bought the company. One might say he was successful, but not by any metrics of today’s academic race to nowhere. What he did have was a strong sense of self-efficacy, that sense that he could change the world around him, his own circumstances, through his own efforts. This is what is behind most powerful learning.

He saw that, particularly in Glasgow, poverty and deprivation were holding back too many youngsters. He held Focus Dinners with all the heads of Glasgow schools. They confirmed what he had believed: aspiration from the family was a key differentiating factor.

“Aged 14”, they said, “we can tell who is waiting to check out when they’re sixteen.”

Comprehensive is not comprehensive, he says: “We force kids who are just naturally more vocational into an academic system that doesn’t cater with them.”

The curriculum is made up one around a third in traditional core subjects of maths, science, English and technology, a third of College-based learning and the rest is Life Skills, led by Skillsforce, another partner from the world of non-formal education led by former military personnel. Each week has a theme related to doing better in life. “This week is eye contact week” explains McColl. “It’s funny at first, because they all over-emphasise things, but by the third or fourth day they’ve grown in confidence and hold conversations.”

The culture of obstacles lives on

The culture of obstacles referred to by Dr Murray, in her work engaging young people in the world of medicine, is what must be defeated, though, and it has to include the public sector. But the public sector has to do a better job not to hold back potentially useful ideas from outside its parameters. It has taken six years to get Newlands Junior College where it is today. Had the team waited for every funder and ‘stakeholder’ to give their accord, it would still be a sketch on paper. A third of local schools in Glasgow still refuse to engage with the model at all. There are also people who are too focussed on their own power games, and students are suffering in the meantime.

Compare this slow pace with the measured but impassioned ambition of McColl, who sees NJC and its future cousin schools around the country as always remaining a small family of schools, maybe 10-12 of them, and very much part of the system, an additional resource rather than an outside bolt-on to the system. 

We've got high hopes, hi-i-i-i-gh hopes...

Key to businesses’ success is their sense of high expectation - businesses with incremental improvements in mind barely get past their first tax return. This sense of high expectations is visible in everything NJC does, from its physical decor to the time and effort put into excelling at life, not just subjects. There was an almost disapproving ripple of excitement when the audience were told every youngster at NJC has an iPad. Frankly, it was the statement of entitlement to whatever it takes that was the point, not whether the kids got an iPad or an A4 pad on entry to the school.

All things being equal, are opportunities for all young people there, and are aspirations from all of those around them there? Making sure schools provide that aspiration is the key.

May 17, 2015

Whole-school language of learning, or everyone for themselves?

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A large part of NoTosh's time with schools is spent helping leaders and teachers decide upon common languages of learning. Having a shared vocabulary to describe what we're doing means we spend less time working out what we mean, and more time talking through the nuances of what makes one piece of practice exceptional and another less so - and we can all then improve together, based on what works best.

Feedback is arguably the one element that everyone says "we do that well already, and we do a lot of it!". We have trouble sometimes even engaging teachers to want to think about this more than 10 minutes, because everyone feels they're "feedbacking to death" already. It is seen as a given that feedback is the element that, when done well, can improve the quality of learning more than anything else.

But it's not that feedback is important that is worth exploring. The interesting part is seeing how to engage students in peer- and self-assessment much more, and to make any teacher-led assessment worthwhile. Recently, I've been working with schools where the main battle is getting students to see peer- and self-assessment as being just as important as teacher feedback.

Alex Quigley's school have been exploring how to seam quality feedback throughout the institution, through a whole-school approach to feedback. And this feedback policy has, in fact, replaced their marking policy. His latest blog post is a rich example of how to go about a whole-school language of learning around one element - feedback - and reap the benefits of a coordinated approach in the way that each department then adapts this for their own context.

Picture: origin unknown

May 08, 2015

Making isn't as important as the design thinking dispositions that come with it

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In the Designing Spaces for Learning Masters subject I wrote and teach at Charles Sturt University, there is one week spent on Experimental Spaces. Part of that module is on making and maker culture. I purposefully didn't dote an entire one of my sixteen weeks on making, but write about it as a type of activity requiring a type of space that many treat as 'experimental':

...Making, and the attitudes outlined here, are nothing new. The oldest record of technology, engineering and craft being made a core area of learning goes back to 1868, and the first Chair of Engineering in any university was in 1959, at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Until the 1990s, it is fair to say that the emphasis was on building skills, not mindset, that would lend themselves to industry.

"In the 1990s, though, we see a change in Scotland towards state secondary and primary schools introducing craft, technology and design courses, with an emphasis on enquiry, problem-framing and making to learn. It might be argued that many of the criteria for a successful maker space and for the Maker Movement itself have been nurtured, developed and finely honed over at least 25 years in those countries like Scotland where, rather than pushing such subjects to the fringes of school life - or out of school life altogether - "maker" type school subjects have morphed with the times, to maintain their relevance (Dakers, 2005; Scottish Government, 2006).

This might explain the recent powerful growth of makerspaces in some environments (American and academics-focussed international schools) versus a lack of financing and marketing for such spaces in others (thanks to the long-standing provision of maker technologies in state schools in the United Kingdom, for example).

Some new research emerging from the Harvard Project Zero team is also pointing to the fact that making itself is nothing new, and nor is making itself anything particularly unique in what it offers students, either. However, the new interest in making is helping education institutions and systems remember something that they had forgotten, lost when they originally got rid of stalwart craft subjects in the interest of 'academic rigor':

Students learn a tremendous amount through maker-centered learning experiences, whether these experiences take place inside or outside of makerspaces and tinkering studios. There is no doubt that students learn new skills and technologies as they build, tinker, re/design, and hack, especially when they do these things together. However, the most important benefits of maker education are neither STEM skills nor technical preparation for the next industrial revolution. Though these benefits may accrue along the way, the most salient benefits of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world. (Emphasis added)

That sense of self, community and self-efficacy - "I can change the world around me" - are the same results my NoTosh team have seen in learners who undertake more student-led, immersive, complex learning, where they find the problems they wish to solve. The same effect can be found in the nascent research on design thinking for learning coming from Swinburne University, Australia (Melles 2010; Melles, G., Howard, Z. & Thompson-Whiteside, S. 2012). The benefit is visible where  the problem itself is academic and not practical, even if the problem itself offers no opportunity for physical construction, even if the problem is not related to science, technology, engineering or maths. It appears to be the very process of working on something you have chosen to work on offers that very sense of 'real' and ownership that are so much at the core of sharing learning objectives, success criteria and being in a position to act meaningfully on feedback.

Picture from Russell Davies

References:

Dakers, J (2013) Technology Education in Scotland: an Investigation of the past twenty years. Conference proceedings from Pupils Attitudes Towards Technology (PATT 15). Retrieved from: http://www.iteaconnect.org/Conference/PATT/PATT15/Dakers.pdf

Melles, G. (2010). Curriculum design thinking: a new name for old ways of thinking and practice? Sydney: Proceedings of the DTRS8 Conference 299-308. http://www.academia.edu/392724/Curriculum_Design_Thinking_A_New_Name_for_Old_Ways_of_Thinking_and_Practice

Melles, G., Howard, Z. & Thompson-Whiteside, S. (2012). Teaching design thinking: Expanding horizons in design education. Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences 31 162 – 166

Scottish Government (2006), Experiences and outcomes: Technologies. Retrieved from: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/learningteachingandassessment/curriculumareas/technologies/index.asp

April 24, 2015

Keeping students at school 24/7 through the Seven Spaces of Learning

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Imagine designing a school where the bell never rings, the day never ends, that keeps students in for as long as possible, in the same way as Google has designed its campuses to keep employees happy, but working.

That's what we explored during a fun field trip visit this week to Singapore Management University's SMU-X with the Facilities team and some great educators from Singapore American School (above), as they consider how they might create a more agile process for teachers to propose learning space innovations.

The space's project manager and initiator is Gan Hup Tan, Associate Director of Strategic Planning at the University, below. He's used design thinking principles to attempt the creation of a 'sticky space', where students choose to spend their time. But also visible were a large number of different type of space, and their type dictated, without signage, how it might be used. They fell fairly close to what I've come to call the seven spaces of learning.

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In a fascinating visit we witnessed that very concept, with many students even opting for a quick nap in the "Quiet Room", on inflatable mattresses and soft furnishings, so that they could rejoin their learning, with peers, in one of the many collaborative spaces nearby:

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 Ownership of the space is a challenge: it is open 24/7 with very much 'background' security staff, and no librarians or permanent 'assistors' on hand. And yet the only room with instructions on its use is the White Room, head-to-toe-to-floor idea-painted, with glass walls and door, so that students can map out big ideas:

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Interestingly, both here and on smaller whiteboards along the lines of workstations, there was plenty evidence that students claimed these spaces for personal expression, personal ownership. Cartoons, sketches and fun 'tags' felt like their principal purpose was to make students feel more at home, give more of a sense of belonging in an otherwise transient space.

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While most space was purposefully ambiguous in purpose, there was the one-button recording studio:

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Students insert their USB memory stick to start the system. Television lights switch on and the system is instantly ready to record, as soon as the big silver button is pressed:

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As soon as the recording is complete, press the button again, and the whole movie is saved, instantly, to your USB. Remove the USB, the lights go out automatically, and you can leave with your movie ready to upload. It's a lovely example of technology reducing the barrier to achieving a prototype of thinking, good enough to get feedback if not quite Hollywood in terms of editing. 

Does it work? Well, as I headed back to my hotel after dinner, a paused by the building. At the junction were six student-looking youth, takeaway food in their hands, heading towards the door. One swipe of their cards and they were in. 11pm learning - it’s certainly when many of us did our best work back in the day, no?

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February 20, 2015

Learning about the unknown unknowns #28daysofwriting

Designing the unknown | Long Version (25min) from CGS Mines ParisTech on Vimeo.

Sometimes the 28 days of writing is really the 25 minutes of watching.

My question: when a teacher uses Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's backwards design or understanding by design type methodology for learning, and nothing else, will your students ever experience the more real-world feeling of trying to fathom the fuzzy, ambiguous unknowns that lie ahead?

February 05, 2015

"I like doing it that way" is not good enough #28daysofwriting

This morning in Edmonton I'll be giving a keynote made up almost entirely of musical metaphors for educators. I've only given the talk once, but it proved particularly powerful with my group of Swedish educators at the time, because you don't need to speak great English to understand the lessons we can learn for our own classrooms.

In the excerpt above, young pianist David Kadouch gets pushed by  pianist Daniel Baremboim. In fact, he gets a pretty hard time when he changes the dynamic - when he plays an E flat note louder than the pianissimo (super quiet) the composer asked for. When asked why he was doing it the young Kadouch replies: "Because I like it". Baremboim is not impressed:

"I'm very sorry, with all due respect, it's not good enough.

"If you had thought of a good reason... I would have said 'chapeau'. But "I like it" is not good enough.

I'm not trying to compare what you're trying to do with the way I think it should go. I'm trying to help you achieve more of what you want to achieve yourself, so that's why it's important that I know why."

Baremboim points out that, because the student has not thought of the reason he is playing something in a certain way, he cannot justify playing it that way.

When I think of teachers' practice, I hit the same kind of conversation daily. I'm no Baremboim of teaching, but I can ask "Why" to find out why a teacher thinks that planning or teaching in a certain way is the best way of achieving what they want to achieve. Knowing the why, we can then both work together to ascertain if, from the world of teaching and learning savvy that we can access, the chosen path is really the best one at all.

This is the essence of design thinking. We design (take time to consider each element of) our thinking (we actually think through for ourselves; don't just assume that the first answer is the right one). 

Alas, most days the initial response is more or less what Kadouch says: "Because I like doing it that way; Because I've always done it that way; Because I saw someone else do it that way." None of these answers is good enough.

There's no care, no design, no thinking.

Here are some simple "Whys" where "because I like it" isn't good enough. And the resultant conversation might help open up some better learning in any classroom:

  • Why do you start a lesson with a teacher's voice?
  • When people are talking why do you keep going?
  • When students are clearly producing pretty but shallow work, why do you let them give the presentation?
  • When that kid wants to make a movie again, why do you let them?
  • Why do you, and not your students, choose the resources and activities that they will undertake each and every hour they're with you?
  • Why do you assume that student-led learning of content will lead to students 'getting through' less content than if you stand and deliver it?
  • Why do you think maths students cannot undertake student-led projects as effectively as in social studies?

The full masterclass can be viewed on YouTube.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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