What’s phones got to do with it?

Okay, I admit I teach in a pretty privileged environment where I don’t face the threat of violence from students on an everyday basis. That some teachers do face threats and intimidation in the classroom and that they can still go and make a difference to their students is an enormous credit to them.

So, I can understand how it makes good sense, especially in political terms, for a new Minister to be rolling out the ‘law and order’ argument, as happened this week from new Victorian Education Minister, Martin Dixon, as reported in the little paper.

And, studies do show that an ‘orderly’ classroom, a classroom without violence, for example, is one of the key pre-determinants for learning to occur (Hattie).

BUT, what’s with the mobile phone connection? Why is this article headlined with a peaceful looking student engaged in a phone conversation? And, doesn’t it really imply that, along with knives, bad language and ‘sloppy dress’ the mobile phone is a weapon of disorder and unruliness?

So, instead of looking to the potential in the enormous number of young people coming into our schools with a powerful mini-computer in their pockets, we see it instead as a distraction, a negative, even some kind of weapon.  At the same time as educational commentators bemoan the ‘digital divide’, disengagement in schools, and the need for 21st Century skills, our political betters are trotting out ‘back to basics’ truisms backed up by a compliant media.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of the potential for the mobile phone as a tool for learning in our schools. But, maybe one of the reasons we haven’t is because that really would be a possible shake-up to the ‘order’ of things in schools.

[Screenshot captured in my newest Chrome extension: Awesome Screenshot]

Demand for larger classes rejected!

I hadn’t seen the report arguing in favour or larger classes before I read Geoff Maslen’s articulate repudiation of it in the AGE:

ONLY an academic, safe in his book-lined office on La Trobe University’s green campus, could argue that class sizes in schools should be enlarged almost 50 per cent and that teachers should confront 35 hormone-charged and often obstreperous teenagers for six or more hours every day.

You have to wonder whether Dr John Hirst (as reported in The Age, 23/4) has ever taught in a school or been in a classroom since he left one 50 or more years ago. To suggest that children’s education would be improved by cramming 35 big or even little children into a room, just to increase teachers’ salaries, ignores the effect this over-crowding has on teacher and taught.

I also liked this a lot:

But no adults, outside the military or prison, would tolerate being forced to squeeze behind a desk and told to be quiet and get on with their work for hour after hour each day. Only because children are not grown-ups and have no rights can society condone them being incarcerated in school for 40 weeks a year for 13 long years.

That more young Australians don’t rebel against the restrictions school places on them – the demand that they wear uniforms, to line up before going into class, to sit in not always quiet, ordered rows, to accept the knowledge meted out to them in steady doses by their teachers – is because they have been taught passivity. They have come to accept that being there is part of the business of stepping across childhood’s threshold, even if the relevance of school to their present needs or their future aspirations remains obscure.

Let’s hope that idea is back in the box for a while!

Main Creek

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/F9ZD80_Z0FY" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Nice to be away from work and doing some walking on the Mornington Peninsula yesterday. This little stretch of Main Creek, above Flinders, took my fancy. Put it on continual loop if you’re feeling stressed!

Resources: virtual and real

I spent some time tonight doing a presentation at Coburg Senior High to a group of English teachers on a Virtual Resource Centre I’ve been working on with my co-author of The EnglishBoook. The EnglishBook is a senior English resource book aimed at students undertaking their final year in the VCE, published by Cengage Learning. The Virutal Resource Centre is an attempt to bring some of the tools and interactivity of the web 2.0 world: a blog, a page del.ico.us links, video and podcasts to extend the traditional text book. It’s been interesting to have those conversations with an established academic publisher and good to see them moving towards an understanding of the power of these tools.

It’s always a little threatening to present to your peers I find, and English teachers are a tough audience. However, it seemed to go well.

One bonus of the evening was getting chance to look at the remodelled Coburg Senior High, one of the newest state schools built on open planning and access to technology. I was lucky enough to get a personal guided tour by the Principal Don Collins (below) where he talked about some of his vision for the place, which is exciting. It’s a very different looking school, open plan, lots of macs and bean-bags and a library of targetted fiction and no reference collection; that’s online.

So, there I was talking to a group of English teachers from a range of schools about a virtual resource we’d been building, while we were hosted in a brand new physical resource that was also acutely aware of the virtual world. It’s all connected, but I’m too tired now to explain how!

Melbourne City School

One of the first things on the desk on day 1, a press release announcing a new school, Melbourne City School, an offshoot of Eltham College, beginning with Prep in 2009 and developing after that. Whether it will work or not, I did like some of the sentiments in the media release, including:

This school will be about young people in the 21st century. Young people and their world have changed. Schools can no longer be built on the past – but must be built on the world of young people and that is the world of the global knowledge economy.

The Melbourne City School program will set new standards in learning, across traditional literacy and numeracy areas and in the fundamental 21st century skills of creativity, self management and problem solving, emotional intelligence and self esteem. The school will foster exploration and teamwork in learning, and promote a truly global focus in its pursuit of important subject areas such as science and language learning, including bilingualism. It will provide an unprecedented seamless transition from early childhood learning through schooling, preparing young people to manage their living, learning and working to emerge as the new leaders of the complex, ever transforming 21st century global knowledge economy.

Fine sentiments, and a good start for any school.

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Writer in Residence

Teaching a Year 11 English class at MLC

We were lucky enough recently to have novelist Angela Savage working as a ‘writer in residence’ at our school for a week or so, giving some writing classes as well as working with individual students.

Angela Savage was terrific in the way she was able to work with groups of students and individuals and some promising writing emerged.  It’s one skill being able to write a really good novel; quite another to work with a group of forty + senior students and engage them in a writing activity and Angela could do both.

However, I was also interested in Angela’s own blog posting reflecting on that experience. (and heartened to see a writer with a blog!) When you’ve been working in schools for a long time sometimes you forget the unique strangeness of that environment. Angela’s post talks honestly about the sometimes confronting demands of the school environment.

Angela Savage is the author of Behind the Night Bazaar (Text Publishing). You can read her post here

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Digital students in analog schools

A teacher I met at the ICTEV Conference put me on to this video from TeacherTube. Isn’t that the best thing about those conferences?

Download: Posted by marottam at TeacherTube.com.

They say: I attended a BLC06 conference last summer and keynote Marco Torres, was a keynote. In one of his smaller sessions he showed a great movie clipped and asked the audience to promote and share it. Movie: Digital Students @ Analog Schools Students today are native to technology and schools seem to be stuck in the past. They are not accommodating to todays digital learners. Here is a video where students speak out on what it means to be a digital student at a analog school.

Cafés Are Not Just for Grown-Ups


For quite a while I worked with an educator who was passionate about the potential for educational spaces, and even better, was in a position to do something about it. Noel Thomas was Deputy-Principal of Toorak College and was instrumental in a couple of major building projects there; both of which were based around a profound  understanding and respect for students, the physical environment and it’s impact on learning.

His first project was a Senior Student Centre, moving the Year 11 and 12 students out of an ancient old weather board common room into a state of the art student centre complete with student lounge, break-out rooms and a lecture theatre where every seat had an individual wireless network point (this was just before wireless became common and effective. It was a transformational space, pointing students towards a university style learning environment; microwaves, bean-bags, internet connections everywhere.  I remember some older staff saying that the lecture theatre would be a ‘white elephant’ and under-used. Within six months it was so heavily used you had to book it weeks ahead.

His second project was a total rebuilding of the old ‘tuck-shop’ into an indoor-out cafe where students and teachers (yes both together) could sit for coffee or lunch. Open before school and after school as well as during the day, the new cafe signalled something other than the fact that smartie cookies taste good; it also said that students had the right and responsibility to join teachers and parents daily, and that the school took their comfort seriously. 

I think Noel’s original vision was something more akin to the Borders shops; moving the cafe into the library and transforming that space, but that might have been a bit too radical!

I thought of all this tonight when I was reading the edutopia blog A Comfortable Truth (kids don’t have to squirm to learn’)  It’s a great post, and one along the design lines I was thinking about earlier in the week. Their 8 ‘truths’ include: ‘comfort matters’, ‘cozy and cheerful wins hearts and minds’ and ‘cafes are not just for grown ups’.

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Some US schools ditch notebook computers

A longish article from the NY Times today talking about how some US schools are dropping notebook computer programs for students, mainly it seems because they haven’t visibly improved results in standardised testing as well (it seems if you read the fine print) for various ‘technical’ reasons’

Such fuzzy logic (what are the tests testing for example?) reminds me of a comment I heard once at a seminar to the effect of “if you’re looking for improved tests results as a result of a notebook computer program, you’re asking the wrong questions’.

I tend to agree. Layering notebook computers on top of existing standardised curriculum, often with stretched and stressed under-prepared teachers is not likely to do much but create angst in teachers who can’t keep up, and students who have to slow down to accommodate them. I’ve taught in schools with notebook programs for 12 years now; would I happily got back to ‘chalk n talk’? No way.

Some excerpts from the article include:

The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

In other words, the school hasn’t got its security or its firewalls right yet. And, since the kids are all doing the same tests, some of them are exchanging answers, which they used to do on paper? And what genius with a tiny internet pipe thought it was great scheduling to give the entire school study time at once, and then wonder when the kids actually use that time to research and the internet connection can’t cope?

The classic line here is about the students ‘roaming’ the internet (perhaps the word ‘research’ could have been used here) rather than doing what they should be doing: ‘getting help from the teachers’. Coz the teachers have all the knowledge don’t they? And you need to come to me for help.

The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”

And that education process is, presumably, ‘look at moi!!’

Yet school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

I guess you can’t blame teachers who have been placed in situations where judgement about their performance comes down to standardised test score results (look out national curriculum fans!) for neglecting anything other than things that directly link to standardised test score results, but ‘did not fit into lesson plans’ is a giveaway too isnt it? Old lesson plans don’t work any more with new tools. The failure to prepare adequately and resource properly is reflected in the ‘maintenance’ etc etc stuff.

Such disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums.

What gorgeous fodder for language analysis work with my year 11 English class. Consider the language here: ‘philanthropists’ (well-meaning idiots?) ‘quick fix’, ‘flummoxed’ (naturally confused by these new and unrealistic expecations that they’ll actually engage students with contemporary tools) and, my personal favourite, ‘gadgets’. If only we could get ride of these new fangled gadgets we could on with some good ol’ fashioned rote learning!

But in many other classrooms, there was nary a laptop in sight as teachers read from textbooks and scribbled on chalkboards. (ah, how refresshing!) Some teachers said they had felt compelled to teach with laptops in the beginning, but stopped because they found they were spending so much time coping with technical glitches that they were unable to finish their lessons.

Yes, I couldn’t finish my lesson. It was a fine lesson, and it’s worked very well for centuries now. But today, I couldn’t finish it.

There is a semblance of balance towards the end of the article, and perhaps I’ve got to acknowledge that I’m not working with many students struggling with basic literacy and numeracy issues, but even so, it seems it’s the teaching to testing and the planning and resourcing that’s the issue, not the technology

“Where laptops and Internet use make a difference are in innovation, creativity, autonomy and independent research,” he said. “If the goal is to get kids up to basic standard levels, then maybe laptops are not the tool.

Disappointing stuff from the NY Times, but there you go. That’s what journalism is mostly these days; knock ’em down and chuck a bit of balance in towards the end.

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