November 30, 2005

Family roots



Because of reading this and this, I've been thinking about my roots, where I come from, in as many different senses as I can think of. Well, this is one: where my uncle and aunt live in Paris. A tip of the hat to Lesley for this neat, completely non-frivolous gizmo. There are a wealth of memories associated with this place for me. Too many to put into a blog posting.

Are we doing anything today?: BTSA - Beginning Teacher Stress and Aggravation

Are we doing anything today?: BTSA - Beginning Teacher Stress and Aggravation
Another young teacher being ground down by the system:
In practice, however, BTSA continues to be an enormous frustration. The assignments feel like busy work. The concept of BTSA, which really stands for Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment, is undermined by the cynicism of senior teachers who found it useless in the past.

Remote Access: End of term reflections

Clarence Fisher blogs about Term One Ends, and includes this idea, which I think is cool as I'm always looking for themes to invite students to blog about:
I always have my kids write an end - of - term reflection asking them to think about the most challenging / difficult aspects of our classroom and about the most interesting things in our room. I was definitely encouraged by the number of positive comments about blogging and the connection the kids are feeling with kids in other communities. A lot of them mentioned that they are learning something (shockingly!) about the world through my having them post about current events in our country and about the world.

Who controls the teachers?

First, I read this post by Dave Warlick:
I visited the conference registration desk to try to get a completed event program. The woman, whom I know from a dozen previous conferences, told me that a teacher just walked away, having learned that he did not have seats in the pre-conferences workshops he had signed up for (one of which was one of mine). His central office had not submitted the registration forms.

This teacher is not feeling very good about the leadership of his school district. But I want to be completely fair. At the same time that this teacher is enormously busy with escalating expectations, dwindling resources, and more and more of the joy of teaching being sucked out of the job almost every day, his central office leadership is even busier.


Then I read this one:
In his most recent post Dave Warlick discusses the need for our schools to have teachers that are understanding of the fact that students need to learn to learn not learn to be taught. I felt it fit to share my story so far with him, his readers and mine. I feel it is an interesting insight into why teachers are leaving the classroom disheartened or are simply allowing their passion for innovative classroom teaching to diminish. So here is my story and some thoughts on my move out of the classroom only after 4 years of teaching.


Then I came across this:
Education sees itself in the teaching business, not the learning business. Think about it. ...The quicker we can unlearn that we are in the teaching business and realize that we are in the learning business, the better we will be at adapting to the changes that are happening around us. To stay focused on teaching is like the railroads striving to be the best in the rail business. Technology will bring with it better ways to learn, just as it brought better ways to transport. Are we ready?


All these posts assume that teachers are the ones in the driving seat when it comes to education. It's "how can we get teachers to drink from the blogging Kool-Aid?" (I hated kool-aid, sickly coloured water, never understand what people saw in it) and so on. But Brett's and Dave's posts both strongly suggest a different scenario: teachers are not in charge of what happens in schools. Perhaps this needs to be addressed first, otherwise what difference will it make if all the teachers in the country drink the Kool-aid?

EFL Geek: ESL Dice

EFL Geek posts about dice and games.

At the beginning of the semester I purchased a pound of dice off of ebay for my classes. The pound of dice is supposed to be for role-playing games, such as AD&D, and thus contains all types of die; D4, D6, D8, D10, D12, D20 and one D100. The purpose for me was to make some interesting games that didn't only rely on regular six sided die. I've got a couple of games and boards on the drawing board right now which I plan on designing in photoshop over the upcoming vacation period.

November 28, 2005

Teach and Learn Online: Die LMS die! You too PLE!

Teach and Learn Online: Die LMS die! You too PLE!

Having listened to Aaron often enough about the limitations of LMS, I was interested to read this. Who needs a Personalized Learning Environment?

It reminded me of the "about" section of a blogger I just discovered, Botts:
as an educator i wish to continue to subvert the notion that all approved learning must take place within the walls of established institutions, with the blessing of incumbent governments, delivered by professionally trained teachers. Instead, encouraging students to explore the spaces around them, developing networks of sustainable learning environments, from any available sources. Bringing with them to the conversation that is their classroom, the collective experience and knowledge of the vast world around them, to be recognised for the wisdom they have gained on their journey.

November 27, 2005

Finding Needles in Haystacks | connect.educause.edu

Finding Needles in Haystacks | connect.educause.edu
I think we ask a lot of our students in terms of computer skills and tacit knowledge. I've previously blogged about some of the reasons why I don't like the term "Net Generation": my main gripe is a lack of awareness of the ways in which e-learning can actively promote social exclusion and aspiration raising among the "cognitively excluded". (For more, see Joe Cullen's essential paper, "The Learning Underworld: How Technology Supports Bad Education" -- Joe hails from the Tavistock Institute in London and he wields some impressive data to back up his claims).

Cullen's article is worth reading. The link contains a summary and links to his Powerpoint slides and the actual paper.

The Open Classroom

The Open Classroom
Jo McLeay posts about her students writing their family histories, interviewing their parents and grandparents, and blogging about it. Interesting stuff:
The family stories that my writing classes have been working on have turned out to be really interesting. With some students the learning was able to be integrated with the history subject they were taking concurrently, as they were doing family histories. It led to some rich learning opportunities. Because the stories were from the generation of the students’ grandparents or even further back, we had lots of cultures represented: Armenia, Ireland, Afghanistan, China, England, Wales, Holland, and Scotland to name some. In their reflection the students commented that they had learnt so much from their parents and grandparents in finding out about the earlier generations.

Prompted by reading that self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge, and that one iportant way to come to know yourself is to closely study your own family, I have started interviewing my students individually.

Before I could do this, though, I had to set up the classes so that students are working independently. This has taken a while, but in most of my classes it is now happening.

I blend into the interviews functions and vocabulary that students have been learning in class, but the main focus is on helping them to talk about themselves and their families, and me getting to know them through their family and personal history.

These interviews have been some of the most satisfying work I have done with students for a while. I only wish I had started sooner!

Some examples: I discovered one girl (who had been barely participating in class, always arriving late, and being often absent) was of Korean descent, that her father had passed away a few years previously, and that her grandmother had set up a craft shop soon after arriving in Japan. Both her parents are Korean, and she has quite an extended family here. She has been to Seoul many times to visit relatives, but speaks no Hangul.

Sarolta's recent posting reminded me of the possibly unsettling effects this can have on one's sense of identity. I told this girl about my own bilingual/bicultural upbringing and how grateful I was for it, despite the odd bullying at school.

A boy I interviewed told me he hoped to get a job using English after graduating, but has taken no steps towards realizing his goal (he's still a freshman). I will make inquiries amongst local people and try to get him an internship or at least a chance to talk to some Japanese people who do or have used English in their work.

One girl I interviewed who had always been very quiet, and not particularly studious, told me she wanted to become a translator!

Another thing I discovered amongst many students was a lack of self-knowledge. Many of them are quite incapable of answering the question, "What are you good at?" Some think they are not good at anything, but mostly they just don't know. Why is that? Limited experience? They have never been really tested?

These interviews have helped me consider the matter of education from a wider angle. I have been reminded of things of importance, some of which AJ blogged about a few months ago.

November 26, 2005

Cool tool: GMiF: Google Maps in Flickr...

 Not sure what I’d use this for, but it sounds cool

 GMiF: Google Maps in Flickr...

GMif is a set of Firefox scripts/extenstions that allows you to embed Google Maps into the Flickr interface. With GMiF, you can...

add geo-tags to your photos,
add geo-tags to others photos,
locate others geotagged photos,
or look up other photos taken nearby....

All within the Flickr web page.

Education/Technology - Tim Lauer: Pondering the PSP and the Video iPod...

Tons of fascinating ideas for using video iPods and more: 

Dave Winer points to a post by Mark Pilgrim which details how to use a program called Handbrake to rip a DVD to a video iPod. This and the recent announcement that TivoToGo will export content to the iPod and the PlayStation Portable makes a portable video player look more interesting. These announcements, and a recent visit to an electronics store have me thinking of devices such as the iPod and the Sony PSP and how I could be use them in my work at Lewis Elementary.

EduBlog Insights : Blog for staff development

EduBlog Insights : EduBlog Insights
Some good solid suggestions here, tho I have some questions (see below). First, Anne starts with a quote from an article:
"It's no longer about individuals making choices about whether they want to grow and learn," said Ms. Hirsh of the National Staff Development Council." We have to narrow the scope of what we offer to teachers and use it in a more deliberate way."
Anne comments,
Something is really wrong with staff development in our schools when articles like this continue to flourish....So, how about this scenario? Brainstorm. List strengths and weaknesses of your school. Then proceed with a question, explore, change mindset. It could be as simple as what is working in your school and what is not? What do we need to learn more about so our students will benefit? What are our school needs, what are our personal learning needs? Are we preparing our students for the twenty-first century? Do we need to redefine our definition of literacy? Are we learning and growing or are we just content with the status quo? If we're just content, what do we need to do to change? It's about posing questions that are pressing and relevant to learning and your unique school's needs.

Once a question (or questions) is set that is perceived by the majority to be worthy of answering in depth, the whole school begins to seek knowledge. Blogs could be used to share what you are learning and thinking. Everyone has a stake in the discussion. You could start small in the beginning and ask faculty members to respond to one co-worker's blog. Then meet and discuss findings. Ask your students for answers to the questions you posed. Share their thinking or better yet, provide blogs for students and get them in on the process. Build your learning community. Have your staff pursue learning based on their own individual needs but have a school-wide focus on identified concerns by a majority of the faculty. Along the way, introduce some helpful tools like Bloglines, Furl, del.icio.us, etc. to help school members manage the information they are exploring. Create a wiki to record ideas and use as a guidepost in making decisions about teaching and learning in your school.

Now this journey might be messy and be a lot of "trial and error" but it's essential. We educators have to be the change agents and we need to have our voices heard.

So what a strange situation: Staff Development Council people pitting themselves against teachers. Listen to the tone of Ms Hirsch's statement: the tone of the professional expert telling the little people what is what. Isn't this the tone of the eternal manager? "Narrowing the scope of what we offer to teachers". Isn't this another way of saying controlling them?

We educators have to be the change agents says Anne. How odd that this statement has to be made at all. How else could it be? One might be forgiven for thinking that teachers had been marginalized in the carrying out of their own jobs! Ridiculous, I know, eh? I mean, this is the land of the free, home of the brave.

November 25, 2005

More on professional development

More on professional development
Anne Davis quotes Clarence Fisher on blogging for professional development. Hear, hear!
In the year + that I have been blogging, I have consistently and constantly found it to be the best learning space I have ever encountered. We write, we read, we listen, we consider, and we respond to what each other writes or speaks about. I find myself during the day in my classroom thinking about blogging a certain event, or watching an event unfold in my classroom and running through a post from someone else I have recently read at the same time.

As other's have said, the value is in the conversation that we hold. Blogging helps me to clarify events, think through responses, and plan for the future of my classroom.
She adds
I'd really like to see blogs used for professional development but I don't believe it will happen anytime soon. It really could put us in charge of our own learning. It allows conversations among educators themselves. This takes me back to a post I wrote a while back, Blog for staff development. I wish we could try something like this in our schools.
I didn't really understand the first sentence: I'd really like to see blogs used for professional development
Well, what's stopping you? It seems that for Anne, professional development is something organized by other people. Does it need to be like that? Why can't professional development refer to individual initiatives?
That is how I have always thought of this blog - my own personal initiative for professional development.
A sentence later clarifies Anne's thinking on this: Clarence caused me to keep thinking about my professional development over the years though. Choices were made more for me than by me. I guess there are many like her. Des oeufs non couves.

I was reminded me of this quote in one of John Taylor Gatto's books:
Teachers teach who they are. If they are incomplete people, they reproduce their incompleteness in their students.... Teaching who you are leads to wholeness - in yourself as well as your student. And if we don’t strain toward wholeness, what is the point of teaching at all besides a paycheck?
All that I worked for throughout my 30year teaching career was to make myself whole.

November 23, 2005

Connectivism Blog

Connectivism Blog
This is cool:
Instead of designing instruction (which we assume will lead to learning), we should be focusing on designing ecologies in which learners can forage for knowledge, information, and derive meaning. What's the difference between a course and an ecology? A course, as mentioned is static - a frozen representation of knowledge at a certain time. An ecology is dynamic, rich, and continually evolving. The entire system reacts to changes - internal or external. An ecology gives the learner control - allowing her to acquire and explore areas based on self-selected objectives. The designer of the ecology may still include learning objectives, but they will be implicit rather than explicit.

Perhaps this is where we're trying to go with our mobile sef-access, perhaps one day to be a real self-access room. Or rather than trying to build an actual room, perhaps we should be striving to let our little chicks fly the coop (sounds more appropriate than "nest") and let them out to explore and find stuff on their own, rather than trying to bring materials into a room, then try and get our students to spend time in it. Do we really need more cells?

Teachers' Roles in Learning

Teachers' Roles in Learning & Problem-solving
After reading Gatto's suggestions for taking the schooling out of the student by taking the student out of school, I was interested to this posting:
Stephen Downes recently referred to a paper written by Kelvin Tan and Cynthia Lim Ai Ming, entitled No Subjects, No teachers, No Schools, No Peers – Just problems: Arguments for a minimalist approach for maximising the scope of problem-based learning (PDF). This paper is a good review of why the process of learning, especially problem solving, should be separated from subject-based curricula, teacher-assessors and peer pressure in education.


which reminded me of Will Richardson's posting about the end of learning and storing information we might need in the future, and the beginning of "just in time" learning, where the information is available all the time, so you "pull" it when you need it, rather than having it "pushed" at you.

Creating Passionate Users: Subvert from Within: a user-focused employee guide

Creating Passionate Users: Subvert from Within: a user-focused employee guide

Well, having overcome my resistance to Kathy Sierra (mainly due to a certain person's continually over-the-top hyperventilating), I followed Doug's link and found some great stuff. Here's my pick. What are yours?
Capture user stories.
Keep a notebook or hipster PDA with you always and whenever another employee, blogger, (or user) tells you something good or bad about a real user's experience, write it down. Build up a collection, and make sure these stories are spread. Be the user's advocate in your group and keep putting real users in front of employees (especially managers). Imagine that you are the designated representative (like the public defender) of specific users, and represent them. Speak for them....

Never underestimate the power of paper.
Print out little signs that say things like, "How does this help the user kick ass?" and leave them lying on the copier, or the fax machine, or taped on a bulletin board and your cube/office wall. Keep changing them! (Remember, once your brain expects to see it, it stops being effective.)

Get your hands on a video camera, and record some users.

Start a subversive club. Right there on campus, recruit and organize your fellow ULA guerillas.


Blog about it
People are listening.

Challenge user-unfriendly assumptions every day.
When someone says, "We can't do that" or "We must do it this way" question it. Every time. Don't let anything go unchallenged. And when the answer is "because customers don't like it that way" or "customers want..." or something like that, always ask, "How do we know this?" (just act curious).

Gather facts. Build a rational, logical case that maps a user-centric approach to real business issues.
You don't want to get into an opinion war. You want facts and stats on your side. If you can point to a specific plan for a feature change, for example, and say, "Well, when we did something similar over here in this area, we had a complaint ratio of..." The more "emotional" and touchy-feely someone perceives the emphasis on users to be, the less likely they are to take it seriously as a business case. There are always going to be a lot of people in the company who refuse to care about the real people, but they will care about numbers, so you should always be trying to prove that the user-kicks-ass approach has a compelling benefit for the business (beyond the obvious one that you and any other system thinker would see). We learned the hard way that we should never take it for granted that other people in the company will even think about this idea of the user being passionate and in flow.

Look for first-person language from users about their own experience. Challenge others to solicit first-person, user-as-subject language.

Don't give up.

Borderland » Blog Archive » Subsversive Educator Cookbook

Borderland » Blog Archive » Subsversive Educator Cookbook
What does a subversive educator do? This question came to mind after reading Kathy Sierra's article the other day. I was impressed by the synchronicity of her vision for corporate change with my own thinking about school culture. In fact, as I was reading her piece, I began inserting the word ’student’ for ‘user’ in each instance and the whole thing made perfect sense.

I've seen AJ rave about Kathy Sierra, but wasn't too impressed with what I read there the first time. Pop on over and see what Doug was so excited about.

Also check out Doug's own list. Here's the bits I liked. How about you?
Value students.-
When it’s all over they'll remember how you treated them, not what you taught them. Teaching isn't about the curriculum, the standards, your lesson plans, grades, or the school rules. It's about students. Any time you feel the need to exercise authority to get someone to do something, ask yourself, “Is this demand necessary?”

I was reminded of one of Gatto's "lessons": that school essentially teaches (and is intended to teach) obedience and docility.
Be open to “flow.”
I have plans every day. But the things that get done are frequently inspired by the demands of the time. I've learned to trust my intuition more than the teacher’s manual. Make it interesting. Make it fun. Keep things upbeat. Mess around with their imaginations. How can you put that in the lesson plan?
[my emphasis]
Self preservation is the prime directive.
You gotta’ be there to get the job done, so try to not get fired or burned-out....
Good manners succeed with even difficult people.
Maintain your composure when you’re dealing with people who don’t know what they are talking about.

Mind the discourse.

The way people use language tells you a lot about whose voice is privileged and whose isn’t. You can the hear ideology dripping from every official pronouncement. The power to control definitions is the power to influence behavior. Don’t buy anybody’s bullshit - including mine, or even your own.

Common sense is one of the basics.
It isn’t rocket science.

Speak up.
If you’re going to be a change-agent working to transform the culture of education, you can’t expect to do it all by yourself. At the end of the day it’s sometimes hard to find words to synthesize our experience. The act of writing for a real audience is a personal expression of power. A blog can help with this. Being outspoken in professional meetings is another way to get the attention of many people who might enjoy seeing things from another point of view. Discovering that others value your ideas is incentive to keep working for change.

Doug adds:
If anyone has more ideas on this subject, I'd like to hear them. Educational change is cultural work, and requires the efforts of many.
Well? What are you waiting for? Pop over and add your comment! Here's mine:
Teachers teach who they are. So who are you? Where are you from (metaphorically as well as geographically)? What antecedents, personal history and experiences have made you? Knowing who and what you are is a crucial element in honest teaching, relieves stress and makes teaching more real and fun. I've started sharing more of who I am with students, and starting learner profiles of some of them, and hoping my questions (about who they are, where they come from and where they have come from) will stimulate them to a deeper sense of their own identity.

Gatto wrote, Teachers teach who they are. If they are incomplete people, they reproduce incompleteness in their students. ... Teaching who you are leads to wholeness - in yourself as well as your student. And if we don't strain towards wholeness, what is the point of teaching at all besides a paycheck?
And
Where do you start First you have to find yourself. There isn't any other way. If you wait on that you'll be buried even deeper in the artificial programs of others.

And speaking of Learner Profiles, here's an interesting warning-off on them, altho it seems more of a repudiation of learning styles than profiles per se. It reminded me of this devil's advocate position on learning styles. This page also makes me even more suspicious of what some of the motivations behind learner profiles might be (more control and supervision of learners, based on the "we know what's best for you", Big Brother, Brave New World utopian vision).

2 Cents Worth � More on Corporate Education

2 Cents Worth � More on Corporate Education
Dave Warlick writes:
To be fair, after our second day at Duke CE, I learned that even at the corporate level, project-based education is not always an easy sell. Our image of education remains hardened by years of classrooms designed to prepare people for a workplace characterized by working in a straight row, performing repetitive tasks, under close supervision. Even though the workplace has certainly changed, our image of teaching and learning hasn’t.

How do we tell a new story about education that will compel people to reject the old image in place of a new and more relevant one? This is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

This is rich: considering the corporate world is largely responsible for the kind of schooling that Warlick derides: working in a straight row, performing repetitive tasks, under close supervision.
The workplace has changed, but will that be incentive enough for the powers that be to make the necessary changes? Or is, as Gatto suggests, the whole system so systematized that it is beyond the power of anyone or even any group of people to change it?
This of course begs the question, is the purpose of education to prepare people for employment? Which begs another question, is schooling the same as education? What are the different vested interests in education and schooling?

November 21, 2005

Schumann's Piano Concerto

Via Yahoo! Music (but skipping the horrible ads), I'm now enjoying Leif Ove Andsnes playing one of my favourite pieces of music - Schumann's Piano Concerto.

It reminds me of a time in my life when I was intensely into music, especially piano. I remember lying awake in bed at night while my parents were downstairs, and listening intently to the record player downstairs playing this piece, and feverishly committing the whole thing to memory. God knows why! It seemed terribly important to try to do. And being unable to reconcile this divine melody with the fact that the author of it went mad. Was he mad when he wrote it? I wondered. Did writing it make him go mad?
Don't you miss the wonderful days of childhood?

Unpleasant advertising

This has nothing to do with autonomous language learning, but I wanted to blog it anyway.
I'm listening to Yahoo! Music. Every few minutes there's a break for an ad. It's always the same ad - for BT mobile phone rates - and while the ads are slightly different from each other, they are all cut from the same cloth: two or three young people are talking about absent "friends". One ad is a dialogue between two boys, one of whom tells the other he just saw his (the other's) girl-friend down the pub; she was with... someone else. "She's not worth it. Plenty of fish in the sea..." he advises as his friend rages. Another is between two girls talking about a third who was sluttily dressed and yet who had the audacity to criticize one of them for being ugly. Little did she know that one of the two "friends" is going out with her boyfriend...

A few words are blanked out in all the dialogues, leaving the imagination to fill in, e.g. "she was wearing a (beep) that barely covered her (beep)".

Then the voice-over comes on saying "make sure you know what your mates are saying. BT blah-blah-blah".

Nice, eh? Who wants "mates" like these?
These ads so spoil my listening pleasure, I switch off immediately when they come on.

Bribing students

Is it ethical to bribe students? Are some bribes more ethical than others?

These questions crossed my mind when I read of a university that offers scholarships to students who get in the top 5% of grades in the entrance exams. The publicity says the scholarship is only for students who are serious about studying. Which kind of lets the cat out of the bag as to what they think of the other 95%.

I mean, whatever happened to the idea that learning is its own reward? Why should you have to bribe students to study?

Should university teachers be preparing students for the job market?

A while back, Brian posted a comment about the role of teachers in regard to preparing students for employment:
I believe that education needs to subscribe to something significantly higher than merely preparing students for the world of work.

As a teacher, I remember reading through checklists of skills that were purported to be designed to prepare students for the workfroce of tomorrow. Nothing useful came from these checklists, and frankly the lists represented an exercise in creative fiction. At the same time, the marketing propaganda around these "preparing for the workforce" initiatives was quite significant.

I remember hearing Neil Postman say that there are hardly any skills in the world of work that would require an education to prepare for. Perhaps he is right.

Not sure what to make of that last paragraph. But I've been thinking about this: what if the idea that education (meaning schooling) was not really a preparation for work? I can think of many, many times when I was at school when I questioned the practical value of what I was being asked to do. Although the most fun things (for me; not everyone enjoyed them) were things that were definitely of no practical value, but brought great richness to my experience of life.

What do you think of this, then? - "We corruptly make jobs [I think what is meant here is the possibility of employment] depend on school time and course work when we are absolutely certain they have no demonstrable connection with such things."

I am reminded me of the student I blogged recently, who is totally bored out of his mind at school, yet hangs in there, waiting to graduate because he needs the credits and the "degree". If anyone is a student just marking time until he can graduate, this one is. It's like being in jail: "put in your 4 years, and you get a qualification. Without this qualification, employment will be hard or next to impossible, at least for the kinds of work that you have been trained to want to do, so that you can buy the kind of lifestyle you've been programmed to want."

Grades. Do they mean anything?

Many years ago, at the first university I worked at, the Oral English class teachers were not required to provide a numerical grade for each student, only to indicate whether the student passed or not. Then that changed.
Most of the universities I have worked at recently all require teachers to assign a numerical grade out of a hundred. One school requires only a letter grade (A = 80-100, B= 70-79, C=60-69, etc).

When I was just giving pass/fail grades, I felt that was unfair, and frequently commented on it to colleagues.

Recently, tho, I must admit to asking myself, as I "grade" one student with 74 and another with 72, whether these differences really reflect anything real? Not only that, but does the 72 really measure anything of value? Anything meaningful? I could probably take the tallest student as 100, and "grade" everyone with a number that reflected their height compared to this student, and the grades would look perfectly respectable and probably not even students would complain. A teacher has such authority.

I recently read about the air traffic controllers strike in the US a couple of decades ago now, and how they were replaced by managers and fill-in staff hastily trained, and how there were no more accidents than usual!

No idea if that's true, but it made me wonder what would happen if we replaced the Oral English teaching staff with completely untrained and inexperienced folk, done in such a way that no-one would notice. As long as these folk showed up, no students complained, and assigned grades that looked normal, would anyone ever know? And what would that say about the value of the grades?

November 20, 2005

Another question

A friend of mine, a teacher working in a university, put up some posters in the classroom. The classroom is comletely bare of any kind of decoration. Perhaps my friend wanted to make the room a little more welcoming, perhaps try to create an English atmosphere, an attempt to bring some colour, some stimulation to the senses and the imagination.
The posters lasted two weeks. Then they disappeared. By office staff. Why was that, do you think?

More questions

If a young person of 20 is bored in school, whose fault is it? And what, if anything, should be done about this? And by whom?

Bruce - vineyard in Japan

I'm watching a TV documentary on Mainichi TV (Sunday, 6.30 pm, Nov 20th) about an American named Bruce who started a vineyard in Japan, and also houses and takes care of handicapped people. They work on the vineyard. Looks like a cool project. Bruce has been there since 1992. I'm still watching the program and hoping to catch where "there" is.
The program's website has not been updated since last week. Guess I'll have to wait a day or so...

November 19, 2005

EducationGuardian.co.uk | Schools special reports | Labour goes back to school

EducationGuardian.co.uk | Schools special reports | Labour goes back to school
Tony Blair has once again been defeated over one of his initiatives: this time education.
Been reading John Taylor Gatto write about his ideal school, one which is responsive to the local community instead of being supervised and controlled by Central Office. On the face of it, then, Blair's new proposal seems to be going in the right direction:
Less than a month ago Labour's education white paper was promoted as one of the most radical changes ever to secondary education, introducing "independent state schools" that would be self-governing, independent of local education authorities, and with greater freedoms over admissions, curriculum, staff and finance. Parents were to be given new powers to drive improvements that included triggering a process to get rid of headteachers.

But if you scroll down, you read this:
As we noted at the time the white paper was published, for all the radical rhetoric it was difficult to see why large numbers of secondary schools would seek to become independent. Headteachers already have considerable controls over their budgets and were not being promised more money. Why would they want business people, livery companies and faith groups having more say in how their schools were run? Particularly unsatisfactory was, in the name of autonomy, to move accountability from the local to the centre, stripping responsibility from LEAs in favour of unelected bodies, and making cooperation between schools less likely and a two-tier system more likely.

So who is really being handed the power to decide, here? One of Gatto's big complaints is the degree to which corporate interests dictate school content, educational design and organization. Huge foundations such as the Carnegie Foundation

Pedablogue here examines the NCLB act in the US, and some similarities with Blair's initiative leap out at you, such as giving outside organizations more say in what goes on in schools; which sounds dandy till you consider that one such organization is the military!
Pedablogue's post also highlights another fascinating issue, one which Gatto returns to again and again: that of teacher certification. In Pedablogue's post we can see the instinctive reaction from teachers who feel their jobs and job security are being threatened. Gatto points out how certification agencies basically are a way for organizations to remove parents and the local community from the decision as to who can and cannot teach in school. The people who decide such things are not even democratically elected, again part of the control of society by removing the voters from the decision-making process.

That said, Pedablogue has a point: is someone who merely is an expert in their field therefore a "highly qualified" teacher? I have sometimes suggested to colleagues that we might do better to hire teachers who are good at teaching, who get on well with young people and know how to talk to them, not necessarily someone who's published a string of papers on their subject of expertise (unless that expertise is teaching, which it never is). My opinion is met with silence (if I'm lucky), then eyes down, shuffle papers, "erm, the next item on the agenda is...". Or I get asked if I am really suggesting a school should hire teachers who know nothing about their subject?

It's not a black-or-white issue. Gatto does not suggest that allowing parents and local communities a larger say in who teaches their kids will automatically or always result in higher quality teaching.

I think this issue is a fascinating one, one that demands debate and discussion. What do you think?


November 15, 2005

Questions

A few weeks ago, I posted about rhetoric and its effects on understanding. I'm fascinated by this - that belief can actually be so strong that it can prevent a person from seeing what is actually happening in front of them.

A related phenomenon is how the mind refuses to process information that doesn't seem to fit. "It does not compute" as the robot in Lost in Space used to say.

What do you make of this? That academic levels have been declining in Japan is beyond dispute, although it is only relatively recently that it has been permitted to speak openly of the most obvious cause, namely the Japanese Ministry of Education's yutori kyouiku plan. What are your reactions to this?
"Typical bureaucratic ballsup"?
"Incompetence"?
"Insufficient funding"?
"Too many underqualified/undertrained teachers"?
"Nanny state: let private enterprise handle it"?
"Government gift to the cram school industry"?

The idea that this might be quite simply deliberate boggles the mind so much it refuses to compute. That this might be a very logical extension of the existing system, a way of dealing with overproduction? Ludicrous! Who on earth would want to hold back children's education? That simply doesn't make any sense! It benefits no-one! So it can't be true!

Today I went to class to find just one student. While waiting for others to arrive, we just chatted. I asked him about school. He said he was bored, all the classes are boring. So why don't you leave, I asked him? He said he just needed the credits, just wants to graduate. He's a smart kid in many ways. Why is this kid, in university bored? Why has he given up? This is a well-respected private university, one of the few in the area (in the country?) where applications are going up.

At a different school, a student whose English is well above the average, applied for a "Level 3" English class, and was told she had to start with Level 1, because that's the rule. You can't skip levels. Some teachers on the full-time staff there were ready to make an exception in her case, bend the rules (she's a 3rd-year transfer student, so she only has 2 years left, not enough time to take Levels 1, 2 and 3). The student herself, however, after privately expressing strong frustration and disappointment and disbelief, decided to accept her fate: she asked the teachers not to intervene on her behalf, not to push for her to be allowed to take the class.

Which is sadder, that such as system is in place, or that she acquiesced to it?

At yet another school, I discovered 2 students in a class of over 30 whose English ability levels were more than 3 times higher than those of their classmates. Feeling that it was a waste of their time to do what everyone else was doing, I offered them an alternative study plan. They gave it a try for one week, working together as a pair. The following week, one of them was absent, and her partner opted not to use the materials I had prepared, but to do what everyone else was doing. The week after that, she returned, but they both decided to just sit with the rest of the class and do what the rest was doing.

Of course, there may be lots of reasons for that: they didn't like my alternative study plan, didn't like the materials, they felt embarrassed about sitting together and doing something completely different from the others. Still, I felt disappointed, like they'd given up; like they'd yielded to group pressure to conform, not to stand out, and accepted to be bored out of their minds. Because I can see that they are not in fact working very hard. But then, neither is the rest of the class.

What is in fact going on in my (and so many similar) classrooms? Is any meaningful learning taking place? Or do we assume it must be because the alternative is too painful or too ludicrous to contemplate seriously?

November 03, 2005

Blogsavvy: How you should use blogs for education

Bee points me to an excellent short list of DO's for blogging in education, or rather for using blogs with students. Posted by the amazing James Farmer.

In particular, these 2 points caught my attention as they nicely capture something that I've been thinking about here and here.
You must incorporate blogs as key, task driven, elements of your course - This may sound obvious but simply providing blogs to learners and saying ‘Hey, use them however you want’ is an absolute guarantee of failure as all but 1 or 2 people will take you up on it. Significantly here that I’m not saying assessment… you can provide non-assessable but socially motivating tasks, as long as they form part of class activities (i.e. competition for best designed blog with each participant presenting for 3 minutes) but they don’t have to be parts of assessment, and talking of assessment…

You should use assessment tasks that incorporate subversion - One of the worst things you can do is mandate posting on particular topics with particularly rigid frequency… you’ll over-assess & kill off exactly what blogs are good for: personal expression & exploration. By all means say that you’re expecting a post a week… or ever more, but let people approach this in ways that fit them and set tasks that allow for deviation and subversion. Never, ever, mention number of words!

James neatly captures a combination of giving learners their head, letting them off the reins ("let people approach this in ways that fit them") and recognizing that no direction is worse than useless ("simply providing blogs to learners and saying ‘Hey, use them however you want’ is an absolute guarantee of failure").

Stalled cars

David Warlick kindly replied to my comment, and I'm adding my response here, too. (Read the exchange here).

But is it better to push a stalled car, or steer one that has someplace to go. Well, of course I’d rather steer one that has someplace to go. But here’s my situation as I see it: I’m faced with a garage-full of stalled cars in various states of disrepair. And I’m expected to do something about them!

I like this: Perhaps our challenge, as teachers, is to compellingly define and describe that next level, create a place where the players want to be

If that is my challenge, then I have no idea how to do that.

November 01, 2005

A little drifting in order?

Seminar Gang Head comments:
Why can't we just expore the world and maybe have some fun doing it. Where is authority? Shouldn't we, as individuals, keep our own interests at heart and the rest will take care of itself? Maybe there has been too much authority and we have forgotten how to look at 'the big picture' or the 'little picture' and make our own decisions.

Would a little drifting be in order? What can come of the chaos?

I agree! So there you are, facing 30-40 young people who have NOT kept their own interests at heart and have had perhaps too much "authority" (of the wrong sort). What do you do? If you give them directions they will follow them desultorily but only for a few minutes, then chat or stare out the window till you give them the next direction. But they don't want to stand out either, so they do pretty much what others around them are doing. If you give no directions, they will (except for the loners) happily chat for 90 minutes totally ignoring you. If you cancel class or don't show up, they will happily leave. What do you do?

One of the things I admired about a colleague who teaches the teaching-qualification course, was his ability to wait. Should I be more patient? Can I afford to wait a whole semester and then either have to fail the whole class for not doing any work worth speaking of, or pass them all and feel like a whore?

My colleague's and my classes (the ones we collaborate on) are very chaotic! (One visitor asked in a pointed manner "how do you control the students?", another shook her head in disbelief and walked out of the room). This chaos has been going on for over a year, and I think the results suggest that this approach, for the majority of students, is not bearing fruit (though there are some who are ready and they flourish).