Writer, by Waldryano. CC0 licence.
This is a round-up of articles I've written recently. They cover a variety of topics in the ed tech sphere, not all of them on this website. Hopefully you'll find something of interest.
I half-jokingly (but only half jokingly) said to Lord Jim Knight at the EdTechX Europe conference last June that there was far too much innovation in education these days. What I was really getting at was the constant drive to 'improve' things even when they're working perfectly well.
But when you decide that innovation would be a good and healthy thing to do, then you might find this article useful:
Education technology: 7 crucial questions
Published on the Technology and Learning blog. Incidentally, if you would like to read an incredibly brief review of that conference, I published one in the Digital Education newsletter:
The EdTechX Europe Conference: a very brief review
Are parents' evenings anachronistic? That's the question I asked recently in an article. Considering the fact that you can send a text message to parents telling them how their son or daughter is doing, why spend hours in a hall after school when you could be at home watching tv?
Given the extremely unlikely idea that schools will get rid of parents' evenings any time soon, I suggested ways in which they could at least be even more useful and engaging.
Here's the article:
Are parents' evenings anachronistic?
Published on the Groupcall blog. The article also contains links to another article on parental engagement, and a free e-book on the subject. You may also find this article, written by Kieran Layer, useful too:
Alienated Parents and How to Improve Relationships
Finally, if you're going to email parents, it would be nice to think they will actually open them. This article contains a few ideas about how to encourage that to happen:
Getting Your Emails Opened
I think that there are three main ways of teaching kids how to program. In an article I wrote for a magazine, I explored these, drawing on my own experience and also research into teaching mathematics.
3 Ways To Teach Coding And Nurture Confident Programmers
Published in Teach Secondary magazine.
Teachers using education technology -- or not
Is it really acceptable, in this day and age, for some educators who are technologically challenged to almost boast about the fact? "Me? I can't work a digital camera. I just get my 5 year old son to transfer the photos." Really? Do you get your son to read to you as well, or to count the change when you go shopping?
Grab a coffee and sit down for a rant. Mind you, it's a well-considered rant I think, so perhaps not even a rant at all, just a plea for a different approach to digital illiteracy:
7 suggestions for how to treat willful digital illiteracy in education
Published on the ICT & Computing in Education website. On a related subject (sort of), I also wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about how to put colleagues off using any education technology in your school:
11 ways to deter colleagues from using education technology
I hope you found these articles interesting. Very soon my newsletter, Digital Education, will be back after the Easter break, with news, views and reviews as usual. Don't miss it! You can use the form below to sign up. Don't worry, it's free, and I won't spam you.
We should expect people in education be technologically literate.
Reading through people's blogs, especially those of educators, one thing that strikes me is what a nice bunch we are. Everything people say about barriers to implementing the use of educational technology across the school is correct, but I also believe that part of the problem is our willingness to make allowances.
It is usually at this point that people who know me call me a grumpy old man, but in my mind I am an angry young man! Surely there are some things which we must regard as simply unacceptable? Period?
Here is a personal example of what I find unacceptable. A teacher I know asked me last week if I could create a Word document for him so that he could type a list of dates. He has been teaching, I believe, for over 20 years, and is in a senior position in his school. Why has he been allowed to get away with such a basic lack of knowledge for so long?
In this particular instance it doesn't have any direct effect on the children he teaches, or the staff he manages. Or does it? I am a firm believer in what has been called the "hidden curriculum", in which what you teach and what the kids learn may be rather different. What are his children and staff learning from his behaviour? I would say the following:
1. Technology is relatively unimportant, otherwise he would have learnt how to use it to some extent (I even had to show him how to move the cursor from column one in the table to column two, and how to save his work).
2. That it's OK to let people know that you are technologically illiterate.Would you broadcast the fact that you are illiterate?
3. That, from the point of view of one's employer, it is OK to be technologically illiterate. When I was Head of ICT and Computing in a secondary (high) school, I refused to have anyone on my team who wasn't proficient in the use of basic information technology, ie word processing, using a spreadsheet (ideally), finding their way around the internet, handling a digital camera. Don't get me wrong: I wasn't insisting that teachers on my team could do programming or use a database, but I certainly expected them to be able to use what I call 'everyday' applications.
4. That if you appear helpless enough someone will help you.
I think that although that list is based on just one personal incident, we can extrapolate from it and reasonably conclude that it probably applies more generally. So here is my "wish" list for education, which I think we should adopt as a baseline set of standards.
Before I give my list, I should like to say this. The first step in establishing a standard is to state what that standard is, and/or what it is not. Just because you may not know how to go about achieving it is certainly no reason not to state it. For example, in my classes I always had expectations in terms of acceptable behaviour. It would sometimes take me three months to achieve them, despite teaching them every single day, but that's besides the point.
Here is my list:
1. All educators must achieve a basic level of technological capability.
2. People who do not meet the criterion of #1 should be embarrassed, not proud, to say so in public. I don't recommend public shaming, which would be nothing less than bullying. But I tink we should endeavour to establish an ethos in which people would be embarrased to announce to the world that they don't know how to use technology.
For example, a visiting speaker from a government agency said to a roomful of teachers and local authority officers that she wasn't really familiar with using the internet, and that she always asked her 12 year old daughter to look stuff up for her. I daresay she would not have said that she is not very good at reading and so always asks her daughter to read reports etc for her,. I wish people in her position would apply the same standard to using technology.
3. We should finally drop the myth of digital natives and digital immigrants. As I said in my blog, in the context of issuing guidance to parents about e-safety:
"I'm sorry, but I don't go for all this digital natives and immigrants stuff when it comes to this: I don't know anything about the internal combustion engine, but I know it's pretty dangerous to wander about on the road, so I've learnt to handle myself safely when I need to get from one side of the road to the other."
The phrase may have been useful to start with, but it's been over-used for a long time now. In any case, after immigrants have been in a country for a while, they become natives. We've had personal computers for 30 years, and I was using computers in my teaching back in 1975. How long does it take for someone to wake up to the fact that technology is part of life, not an add-on?
I think most people who eat and breathe education technology know this. But I find it annoying that many conference speakers continue to use such terms. If you're going to give a talk to teachers who use education technology every day, at least take the time and trouble to find out what their current concerns are, and the terminology they employ to express them.
4. Headteachers and Principals who have staff who are technologically-illiterate should be held to account.
5. School inspectors who are technologically illiterate should be encouraged to find alternative employment.
6. Schools, Universities and Teacher training courses who turn out students who are technologically illiterate should have their right to a licence and/or funding questioned.
7. We should stop being so nice. After all, we've got our qualifications and jobs, and we don't have the moral right to sit placidly on the sidelines whilst some educators are potentially jeopardising the chances of our youngsters.
This article is an updated version of one that appeared in 2009.
The bare essentials: coffee, water, notebook, computer -- and a good book!
If you happen to teach Science and would like to show your students the second law of thermodynamics (everything tends towards entropy or disorder if left to itself) in action, then contact me to arrange a visit to my desk. Over time it gets worse and worse, until I can no longer see what's there, find anything, or even think. I'd show you a photo but I'm too ashamed to be honest.
And so it was that a couple of days ago I had a massive clear-out -- and by 'massive' I mean 8 black dustbin bags of recycling and rubbish. I now have just the bare essentials, as shown in the photo.
Interestingly, and perhaps inexplicably, as soon as I'd finished my computer worked, and is still working, much faster than it has been for ages. I suppose I could assume that it has something to do with a deep level of connectedness and synchronicity between all things in the universe. However, I tend towards the more pragmatic assumption that clearing the desk and the room as a whole has improved the air flow around the computer.
But the experience reminded me of the maintenance tasks I used to undertake (or organise the undertaking of) every holiday when I was head of ICT and Computing. I always found that a day spent doing the following was time well-spent. And if you don't much like the idea of spending time in the holiday doing them (if you don't have a technical support team), another option is to take the computers out of use for the last day or two of term. I always found that as long as you gave people a lot of notice, and made sure there were alternatives they could use if necessary, nobody minded too much.
Anyway, here are the tasks (edit according to job function):
- Check (unlocked down) computers for 'rogue' programs, ie programs that may be ok but which you haven't authorised. You may think this is terribly undemocratic, but I think some kind of change request system needs to be in place.
(For a start, you need to make sure that new applications won't cause problems on the system, and also that there is a proper licence for its use.)
- Run a full anti-virus scan.
- Do a complete backup, especially of children's work.
- Run a 'spring-cleaning' program, like Ccleaner.
- Carry out an inventory: are all the laptops/tablets/computers where they should be?
- Make sure all equipment is sparkling clean.
- Make sure everything that needs to be charged is charged.
- Fill printers with new paper.
- Check the ink/toner levels of printers.
- Have a good tidy up.
- Replace or remove tattered posters and manuals.
- Rearrange books and other resources if necessary.
- Make sure all your teaching resources are in place and to hand, ready for next term.
If you can ask technical support staff to carry out the computer-related tasks, so much the better obviously.
As for the other (classroom) tasks, if you're lucky you will be able to prevail on someone (like a classroom assistant, if you have one) to give you a hand. Alternatively, you can do as I say rather than what I do, and adopt a 'clean as you go' approach.
It's worth doing all this, because apart from the obvious benefits, there is also the universally acknowledged fact that kids tend to look after things that appear to be looked after. The corollary is that you appear to not care, why should they?
Guest article by Derek Blunt.
Just because everyone says something is good, doesn't mean it is.
One of the biggest growth areas in educational Computing at the moment is what may broadly be called “making”. Whether it’s constructing objects using Lego bricks, experimenting with the BBC Micro:bit or experimenting with an Arduino, the so-called “Maker Movement” has now entered the classroom.
But does it actually work? And by “work”, I mean: does constructing a robot or making a bulb light up on an Arduino board help students to learn coding? If the answer to that question is “yes”, then the next question has to be: do the benefits of making, in terms of its impact on learning to code, outweigh the costs?
So what might be the theoretical basis for learning to code through making? The obvious answer would be to cite Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage of learning. This is the proposition that at a certain stage of development, children can understand and apply logic, but only to physical objects rather than in abstract thinking.
But building a crane or a robot or connecting up a glorified circuit board is the concrete operational stage of construction, engineering and electronics respectively, not coding. If you want a concrete object for coding, you don’t have to look far. It’s called a Roamer or a Beebot. Unfortunately, they look too childish to appeal to teenagers, but there are almost-concrete alternatives, like LOGO, Scratch and Flowol.
What does the research say?
Good question. Searches turned up no hard data whatsoever. There seems to be no academic research which reports that as a result of “making”, pupils have learnt to code, much less learnt to code more quickly or better. The closest any reports come to stating anything remotely tangible is that "making" is potentially a way of getting them interested in STEM subjects.
What the research does say is that the kind of step-by-step instructional activity that seems to accompany making in classrooms is really not what the maker movement is all about. They emphasise bricolage (OU Innovating Pedagogy 2014 ) and tinkering (MIT). These terms denote experimenting, seeing what happens, without necessarily even having a concrete goal in mind at the outset — a far cry from the plodding, step-by-step instructions that seem of necessity to be a feature of using kits in the classroom. Indeed, Resnick and Rosenblaum say themselves that one of the biggest challenges is the time it takes to get started on the actual work you wanted to do – in this case, the programming.
That leads us on to the practice. What does a making-for-coding lesson actually look like?
In the mid-90s, I myself, as Head of ICT, bought a maker kit for the purpose of getting my students to things that could then be wired up and programmed from the computer. As soon as I took delivery of the kit I realised that I’d made a very costly mistake. It was obvious that the amount of time and organisation required simply to build a bridge or whatever would be too much. This brings us back to the question of cost.
The main cost is time, which, at an hour a week for the subject, has a premium value.
Another cost is the expense of replacing bits of kit that get lost, stolen or used as catapult fodder.
In the last year I’ve taken part in two workshops, once concerning the Arduino and the other concerning building something with bricks and then programming the result.
In the first, I spent half an hour watching my colleague fiddle with bits of wire, at the end of which process a bulb lit up.
In the second workshop, we were divided into groups of three or four. In my group there was a chap whose job it was to find the next brick or widget for the construction, a lady whose role was to do the building, and myself, whose task was to press an arrow on a screen to show the next step in the instructions. At the end of 25 minutes we had constructed a robot, which the “teacher” then programmed by clicking on an arrow on the screen.
I wonder how an Ofsted inspector with even the most rudimentary knowledge of Computing would regard a lesson in which, arguably, everyone in the class was engaged in a completely irrelevant pursuit for half the lesson.
If you really do want to take advantage of young people’s perceived desire to build things out of bricks or fiddle with wires, there are a number of ways you can do so without wasting lesson time.
● Work with the Design and Technology department (if your school still has one).
● Buy ready-made robots, bridges etc, and get the students programming from the word “go”.
● Start a Bring Your Own Robot scheme.
● Start an after-school Maker club.
Or better still, stop trying to pander to the latest fad, and do something radical. Like teaching computer programming.
Derek Blunt: Blunt by name, blunt by nature
2 Designing for tinkerability, by Resnick and Rosenbaum, in Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators edited by Margaret Honey, David E. Kanter
Planning is useful, but is it effective?
I attended the conference of the National Conference of University Professors recently. One of the speakers at the event, which was titled Research Excellence and Publishing Seminar, was Professor Marilyn Leask.
She asked: "Where is the research on lesson planning?"
We may do things without knowing if there is any research about that approach, or what the research says. Perhaps we may even justify that by taking the view that if we get it wrong, ie it turns out that what we're doing is ineffective or worse, at least nobody is going to die.
No, said Professor Leask. But if schooling is poor, pupils could go on to lead impoverished lives.
All very well, and all very true, but as Professor Leask said, teachers don't want to read academic research papers that boast 20 pages of methodology. They want practical solutions. As I always ask when I am evaluating a talk at a conference for teachers: how will this help me with class 3B next Friday afternoon?
Her solution has been to take a leaf out of the medical establishment, where they have an approach known as 'translation research'. Basically, the findings are set out in very simple terms, but doctors can drill down very quickly to obtain more detail -- ideal when you need to provide a diagnosis and a possible solution for a patient who's sitting in front of you!
To create an education equivalent, a network of universities, professional associations and individual researchers set up Mesh Guides, and formed the Education Futures Collaboration charity to take it forward. See www.meshguides.org. The co-chairs of the charity are Dr Sarah Younie and Professor Marilyn Leask.
Here are a couple of screenshots from the one on Neuroscience, to give you a better idea of how they work:
This is the top level.
Click on a box in order to get more detail:
As you can see, further references are listed.
Go there now and have a look at the Mesh guides, and maybe even get involved yourself. In the meantime, you may wish to consider this question before you implement a new approach: is there any research that says this actually works?
If the answer is 'no', or you're not sure, perhaps you could set up a small classroom-based research project yourself. If so, there is plenty of information about practice-based research on the Mirandanet website.
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