Over the past week I've twice heard twenty-somethings ponder whether kids growing up today—kids who were practically born with iPhones in hand—will still have the capacity for wonder.
Yesterday as a present for his first day of second grade I brought home an erasable gel pen for my iPhone savvy six year old. After a brief demonstration, he spontaneously hugged me, "I've been waiting for this pen my entire life!"
I think the kids are alright.
Lovely post from Heading East, via Bobulate, which reminds me of the wonder Catriona had the first time she used Skype (and felt comfortable with it by about 90 seconds into the call), the desire she has to get on the iPad every day, but the total delight she gets when the craft kit comes out of its box on a rainy day (which, being Edinburgh in the autumn, is rather often).
Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times (UK) a few weeks ago touched on the supremacy of shaky mobile phone footage in deciding the pecking order of what we, generally, consider important and what we care less about (below). In this tree-falls-down-nobody-sees-it philosophy, have we become dependent on the loudest, clearest, best presented stories to make our decisions, at the expense of more valuable but less tangible ones we need to chew over for longer?
For me, this move towards talking about what we hear about loudest and clearest, rather than talking about the hard stuff that does not come in this "chicken nugget" form of information bundle, is absolutely reflected in the world of education discourse, particularly around discussions on what learning is for.
The echo chambers of the blogosphere, the political classes, the civil servants, parents... they - we - are all as guilty as each other for paying too much attention to the loudest, not necessarily the most vital, discussions for our children's future.
It's too easy to believe that you are collaborating and gaining some kind of otherness just because you've ticked the "collaboration box" of using Skype, a wiki, a blog, whatever medium you wish. Gary Stager picks this up nicely in this Will Richardson post. Will despairs at a teacher's 'inability' to grasp the value of a change to his methods, particularly the perceived value of collaboration to achieve the same goals that the teacher was gaining within his four classroom walls. Rightly, Gary calls into question whether collaboration is really all that worthwhile, all of the time. The answer is: most times not. Small active mixed ability and mixed interest teams, coming up quickly with their own ideas, is often just as effective (if not more so) than a more drawn out collaborative process through technology with teams from around the world, but where those teams consist of people who share the same values, aptitudes and interests as the home crew.
All too often, though, the accents of those with whom we are collaborating, in the broadest sense of the word 'accent', are merely reflections of the views with which we are most comfortable. In this way, we fall for the trap Jeremy Clarkson outlines in his column: "It used to be said if it bleeds, it leads. Now, though, if you want it to stick, you need a pic."
Map overlays Countries are not all given equal status in the learning we do/did at school. Map overlays show this. Examples: Take several of the world's richest and most prominent countries and see how many you can fit into an outline of Africa:
Take four of the world's four richest economies and see how many you can fit inside the richest of all: the United States. (Information is Beautiful, pp.61, 142-3, 202)
Everyone thinks their own country is bigger than it really is. The Brits are as guilty as anyone else. Just listen to the oohs and ahs at these proportionate maps, courtesy of Sheffield-based Alisdair Rae:
The BBC's How Big Really helps people understand the scale of issues around environmental disasters, the war on terror, disease and other global issues, but showing their extent atop the town or city where that person lives:
Real maps, abstract stories Take a map whose coloration or name markings tell a different story. The master of this was CS Lewis with the maps for the Chronicles of Narnia:
Proportionate Maps A wonderful collection of maps from the University of Sheffield, UK, show the world map through different lenses to explore global issues. For example, population density as a map is amongst other concepts on WorldMapper:
Mind maps / Organised Mind Maps Favoured by the Guardian for its coverage of large, complex economy issues, these give a lot of information and show how it relates:
Contrast image and (in words) story Images can be used to make us smile, while words portray the deep, shocking truth. Example: Murderous dictators by facial hair (Information is Beautiful, p.172)
Calligram Write a text that takes the shape of the thing you are describing, adding proportionality or geography to add another level of meaning. Example: The Great Chinese Firewall as shown through websites that are blocked from coming into China and searches that are forbidden within it, in the form of a verbal map.
Proportionate Words The data cliché of Wordle stops being a cliché when it makes a point. Try Tagcrowd if you want to delimit the words and have a more accurate representation of the words that matter (i.e. by automatically getting rid of pronouns, articles etc). Example: Compare political bias in newspapers by TagCrowding the same story across tabloids, right and leftist papers. Copy and paste speeches by politicians who speak about the same issues, and see what really interests them: Obama's vision for education:
versus that of English Education Secretary, Michael Gove:
Listening to a presentation in Belfast from m'old colleague Andrew Brown from LTS, he reminds me of this quote from blogger, storyteller and, yes, content-creator Cory Doctorow, pictured:
Content isn't king. If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you'd choose your friends -- if you chose the movies, we'd call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.
One of the key points I've been driving in the past year has been the importance of schools providing places for conversations and exploration to take place, perhaps through a design thinking-based pedagogy and process. Such a process takes the onus off the teacher to be the one preparing resources for children, effectively doing the learning for the youngster. Instead, it forces interaction around content, rather than content to be consumed or 'learnt', to take centre stage.
In a four-part video series for GETideas I travelled the world in 24 hours and asked four educators I admire what their "two stars and a wish" for learning would be for 2011. I'll blog the films here over the next week.
"Social networking in our school has been vital in engaging students in seeing the connection between learning in school and learning at home.
"Persuading teachers to use Skype in the classroom has resulted in some interesting projects, although the first stage involved teaching them how to use it at home as a form of professional development.
"We need to use what the students have already much more: it might be skills, or it might be equipment that they can bring into the classroom. Handhelds, consoles, mobile phones, research skills, enquiry skills… We're getting there, but we're not quite there yet."
While we're thinking about attention, how often do schools and teachers assume the attention of youngsters, of parents, of our colleagues? My gut feel: nearly all the time.
We assume that learners want to learn because they chose subjects.
We assume that learners will want to learn because we like the way we do something.
We assume parents care about their child's education.
We assume that our colleagues want to learn how to do their jobs better/differently.
We assume that adults know how to learn on their own.
We assume that chuldren don't know how to learn on their own.
We need to work consistently at gaining attention, retaining attention and turning that attention into value, much in the same way as a tech startup like Facebook would do (check out Dave McClure's busy but genius presentation on attention and metrics if you want to delve more into how). I'm fairly convinced that somewhere in these tech startup metrics are the assessment tools for the new forms of learning that are emerging, but fighting against assessment structures of old that don't fit anymore.
And in using new metrics to measure success, we can engage in new learning with more confidence, new learning that is almost certainly more likely to get the attention of those around us.
And 70% have no access to information technology at all.
I'll be in South Africa all week, visiting schools in some of Cape Town's townships tomorrow, and on Wednesday meeting and interviewing the Vice Presidents at Microsoft responsible for making a truly global impact for their company, and for the country's 12million learners' futures in the years to come.
I'll wrap up the week with some of the most innovative technology stories emerging from around the globe as 400 educators converge on the Cape for a jamboree of teaching and learning as South Africa hosts Microsoft Partners in Learning's Worldwide Innovative Education Forum, the first time it's set foot on the continent, and 18 years after Microsoft set up its first office here.
This country does, without doubt, quickly present the digital divide in stark terms. Hotel internet is available at a good rate (about $15 a night), and it's fast. But only 70% of schools have access to any form of technology, and only a third of them have access to the web. Reza Bardien, the education lead at Microsoft South Africa sees the imperative to prepare the 12million learners here for the digital workplaces that await those who make there - everything from the restaurant to the shop where I bought my power adaptor runs of PCs with SQL databases.
But her admission that "it is a daunting task" is understatement to say the least.
Here's what I'm hoping to find: in a rapidly growing city in the global region fastest recovering from the global financial crisis with a population of whom 40% are under 18 years old, we will find creative approaches to engaging learners on their terms, looking at content that really matters to them, learning that is going to help them survive in the world they have around them. It will be a learning that we recognise in some ways - much in the same way as we recognise Chinese food in Chinese restaurants we've never been to before - but it certainly won't be in consistent and unwavering praise of that education heaven, Finland, and it won't be promoting the ideal model of learning as a North American one, the vision which, for the past month of charter school mayhem, assessment and standards groaning and Education Nation soundbites, one might feel is the only system worth discussing on the most common "international education" blogs and magazine sites.
I'm thinking that learning at these kind of extremes, as Charles Leadbeater has shown this past year in his report for Cisco (pdf) and subsequent TED Talk, offers some direction to those of us in Europe, North America and well-off Middle East and Far East countries. Seeing how learning has adapted here to be productive, I hope to be able to better envision what Scotland's learning might look like if we were to strip it back to its students' real, authentic needs, the needs that we might see pulling on us if we seek it hard enough, and not those that are pushed to them by curriculum, strategy and policy.
I can't wait to share my video (on my Vimeo channel and YouTube channel), photographs, tweets (#mseif) and reflections here on the blog and on the Huffington Post, about how learning from the extremes might offer some inspiration for troubled education systems on the other side of the equator.
If you have questions of your own that you'd like me to ask students, teachers or education leaders in the townships, or Microsoft's most senior education VPs, let me know straightaway, and I'll post their answers.
Discussions about how attention, finance and effort get spent on educational technology at a national level in any country all too often get drawn into a "We're right, they're wrong" play-off. It's been hard trying to formulate some thoughts after a meeting I was invited to last week by the Scottish Government. In Scotland, on the back of one day, at least, I felt the beginnings of a crack of enlightenment in some frank, sometimes painful discussions about where Scotland's educational technology line of vision might head in the future.
The discussion was conducted under Chatham House Twitter rules, in that the points from the discussion could be made public, but the person from whom they emaninated not. It meant that we were able to call it as it was, challenge and question each other for more detail. It does, though, make blogging about the experience tricky. I've been stung too often in the past from people with agendas, journalists who want to just make stuff up and those who oh-so-wisely but oh-so-naively believe it, by those who hear but do not listen.
There are some good roundups of the content of the day, and some of the discussions:
Instead of duplicating those points, I think I'd like to dump some perhaps unrelated thoughts that came up through the afternoon discussion I was part of, looking at learning from a student's perspective and thinking about what that might mean for a national technology for learning strategy.
1. Do we need Big IT doing stuff for us, can we just do it ourselves, or is there a sweet spot somewhere inbetween? With me on the day was Andrea Reid, a Quality Improvement Officer from the south of Scotland, and in her summary of the day she quotes one of her students, summing up a latent tension any centralised or national technology initiatives hold:
I was with a group of P7s and part of their group getting over a high wooden wall, with no footholds ( about 12 feet). It was one of those team efforts where everyone had to get to a platform on the top, and I promptly interfered and gave advice. One boy took himself out of the group and wandered off to the side – completely adamant he wasn’t getting involved. Eventually he came over and said to me – “Look when you stop helping us I’ll get involved.” Point duly taken I backed off and he worked with the others to get everyone over in a really fast time. His leadership and collaboration with the others was outstanding. At feedback later his comment to me was "When you learn to trust us to solve our own problems, you’ll find we can do it and even if we can’t we’ll have tried our best". Clever boy, who had been really hard going in class previously – disengaged and hard work. Big lesson for me…
The assumption that Government knows the problems that need solved and then goes in to sort it all out is one that has blossomed in the last dozen years or so. But, as we hit these times of austerity, it's the lack of cash to go around that's forcing (or allowing us to take advantage of) an attitude of "it's not what your country can do for you, it's what you can do for your country".
2. National technology for learning projects that are about connecting learners, parents and schools seem to have forgotten something: Facebook has all the mechanics required to do this, and the critical mass to make discovery of others easier. Facebook might only be useful for the adults and older students amongst our learners, but where it fails, Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin etc come to fill in the gap. Could we not harness the open market better, rather than trying to compete against them?
3. "Safe" is the (wrong) key word of most national learning technology initiatives. In Scotland, the 'safety' of Glow has been over-stated, and has been used as a crux by some to avoid delving into the issues that Facebook and other social networks and virtual worlds bring in the real world, both for adults and for children.
4. No online service should ever be so unintuitive and hard to use that it requires training to learn how to open it, let alone how to harness it for deeper or more collaborative learning. Design is vital, and has been ignored - is still ignored - in national education technology projects. Get BERG to do it right.
5. The underlying problem for national education technology has nothing to do with technology. We're solving the wrong problem by throwing money at training and code, when the real problem lies in collaboration itself. Collaboration across age, stage and school subject gets more difficult from nursery onwards. Nursery is the fragile balance between schooling, play and life-learning that we should struggle to maintain throughout formal education. Until we get to grips with how to better plan learning, particularly in secondary education, then the vast majority of "collaborative" technology is a wasted effort. We should be looking at how we can have more schools consider their curriculum through the lens of a learning wall, how they can generate truly student-led learning.
6. National collaborative technology projects assumed that the gatekeepers - parents and teachers - think sharing is a good, worthwhile activity. Sharing is a good thing, and is the lifeblood of great creative ideas (no hyperlink to prove it - there's a ton of literature and evidence out there; start off with my delicious links if you like). But vast swathes of teachers don't think so. If there are still relatively few teachers sharing on weblogs, for example, it has nothing to do with the weblogs or other choice of sharing tool, and everything to do with their perception that spending some time thinking, reflecting, committing to (e)paper and sharing that with as wide an audience as possible is a futile, useless, time-consuming activity that competes with many others of greater perceived importance. It would be worth £35m working out how to crack that one first.
7. National technology projects have largely failed to delight. The reason games-based learning is so popular in the past four years more than any four year period prior to this is down principally to the exponentially improving field of video game narrative, graphic, motion controllers, augmented reality and storyline. The second key ingredient in helping this culture spread is a committed (but tiny) team of individuals who can help empower teachers to weave their own stories around those video games, and in turn inspire learners to do the same. Had the Consolarium team been peddling ZX Spectrum text adventures in 2010 I doubt there would have been the same excitement and tremendous uptake of a new set of contexts for learning.
Great technology and national condoning and pushing of it have combined to delight.
While social networks, virtual worlds and social media have been delighting growing numbers since 2005, national technology projects have tended to not only fail to condone their use for learning, but to distract potential users - publish here, not there, they try to persuade us. "Facebook is used by teachers for their personal lives, not for learning" I've been told. But I don't play video games to learn, either, yet I and many others are happy to harness them for learning in a different context.
8. National technology projects tend to see decisions made on beliefs and passions, not on transparent data. I want Glow's homepage to tell me:
monthly unique visitors
segementation of visitor types: teachers, learners, parents, admins, LTS staff etc.
number of pages served
number of unsuccessful log-ins
percentage of returning visitors each month
peak user access times
key pages served
I then would love to see data-driven decisions taken as to whether certain elements of Glow are working or not, and a weekly or monthly trial of new ideas to see if the public bite. If data is made public then we can see the rationale for decisions, rather than seeing them being made on gut insinct, the legacy of the project's history or who has been involved at any one point. I could ask for that information monthly on a Freedom of Information request. Or we could just see the decision-making process as transparently as it should be.
9. In Scotland we tend to be happy with being the first in the world, not the best in the world. Glow was the first national schools intranet. It might be the last, too. The implication is that an intranet is the best medium through which to connect learners, teachers and parents on a learning journey. Why is it? It may not be.
Is there something less compelling about the International School Bangkok's portal of learning that Jeff Utecht has kicked off, connecting to the world, where every student and teacher regularly contributes their learning to each other (and anyone else who wants to listen in) through freely available and free platforms?
Or what about the part automated, part teacher-produced feedback mechanisms of the Indian Mindsparks platform, letting students learn new concepts and reinforce their classroom learning on their own terms?
By limiting ourselves to promoting so heavily what we were the first to produce we limit ourselves away from harnessing the great new platforms and communities that others have forged and which are quietly thriving.
10. In 2005 there was little truly great content on the web. In 2010 we're spoiled for choice. Having great content was one of the things Glow was sold on - successfully - in the early days. Like so many other things, the world changed faster than we could have imagined. TED Talks alone prove the huge value we place on world class content but, unlike much of its education content provider cousins, TED found a business model that allows it to make this learning material free, joining its closer cousins MIT Open Courseware et al. As YouTube seeks out new ways to let us rent or borrow content as and when we need it, what role is there left for a tiny national schools intranet as the curator of 'quality' content? Can one group of curators, however greatly qualified and localised in viewpoint, beat the cream of the world's global curators?
11. We don't want to consume content. We want to learn through experiences whose context is relevant and meaninful to me. Too many have told me about their Glow training sessions with this phrase: "We were told that 'this is how you put up your PowerPoints or class notes for everyone to see." The fact is, this is not the kind of learning we want. If someone feels that their learning can be swiftly and easily uploaded to a site in the form of a PowerPoint or worksheet then something is wrong. How can an online experience back up and augment the real world experiential learning we see in some of our best schools? How can that experience each child experiences differently be represented, shared and developed after the fact? It's certainly not through document stores and half-empty forums.
12. We want a sense of audience - sometimes that's beyond our class, school or country. The biggest challenge with any national platform is going to be that word - national. Our students are already empowered to go international every time.
Project-based learning, or PBL, that happens in schools nearly always seems to be based around fake problems. I don't know how we manage it as educators, but if we can find a lame problem that needs solving, we'll give it to the students. In turn, we largely end up with students who are happy to play the game of working our fake problems, and even proposing more fake problems themselves.
Design Thinking, the immersion, synthesis, ideation and prototyping process of creative thinking that I've witnessed in the creative industries for the past three years and have, for the past eight months tried to bring to more schools around the world, is about solving real problems. The type that affect real people's lives.
Part of this is to do with the physical space of the learning environment, something we can work on in small steps or in revolutionary renovations and rebuilds, as I described last week. Some of this we can do, though, through our aspirations and subsequent actions.
From the Stanford d.school site comes this story, showing how something as 'traditional' as "studying a book for English class" can be given the Design Thinking treatment and come out a far richer, far more educational and far more useful experience for all concerned:
Her students were reading the novel Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, and their design challenge was to "create a way for inmates to feel more comfortable in their cells." They used details from the book and pictures from the Internet to immerse themselves in imagining what living in a small cell would be like. Melissa gave her students cameras and Andy asked if he could take the camera to the jail where his father was currently serving time and bring back pictures to add to the class observation chart. Andy had not visited his father for quite some time.
At the facility, he was not allowed to take pictures. Instead, he took detailed notes. He also brought the book with him and read to his dad for over an hour. In recounting this story, Melissa said that she believed that Andy just needed a reason to visit his father and felt that he could contribute in some way to him though this project.
Soon after, she noticed that the book began traveling with Andy everywhere. It was always in his hand as he walked through the hallways, replacing his ever-present football. She believed that it became symbolic to Andy, representing a bonding moment between him and his dad, and a connection that he had been he yearning for. The following week, Melissa brought the class to the Elmwood Detention Center to prototype their designs. While there, Andy met Sergeant Liddle ,who tested their prototypes. After his positive experience at the prison, Andy has set a goal to become a police officer. Since that challenge, Andy has not yet been back to see his father and his football has returned to his hand. However, the design challenge became the hub of a wheel for Andy that brought together family, literacy and community.
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.