Year 10 Transition Activity at Gungahlin College

Welcome to our Year 10 transition day, and more specifically the IT Class we’ve got prepared for you.

One of the subjects we offer here at Gungahlin College is an introductory programming class that teaches you the fundamentals of how to program computers to do what you want them to do. We explore a number of different programming languages over the two years, and we’ll program a range of devices from desktop computers through to smartphones and embedded systems. The programming you do for each is a little bit different, and today we’re going to look at some of the intricacies of embedded systems programming using Arduino.

We’ve issued each pair an ed1 board, the details of which you can find here. It has been developed by National ICT Australian as a teaching tool for a couple of competitions and programs run by the National Computer Science School, and contains a whole heap of input sensors and output components that you can interact with directly. In today’s lesson, we’ll be exploring the:

To get started, you’ll need to open the Arduino IDE – you’ll find it in the Start menu under Arduino. It has been pre-installed for you and contains everything we need to program our boards. You’ll also need to collect a board and USB cable from the teacher.

When you get back to your computer, plug the board into the USB cable and the USB cable into the computer. It should light up and the board will start running the last program that was uploaded onto it. The way embedded systems work is that they store a single program that executes continuously once it has been loaded, so when the power is cycled to the board it simply restarts the program. There is a reset button on the board that also restarts the current program – find it now and press it to start the program again.

Back to the IDE – the first thing you need to do is use the Tools menu to select the:

  • Board -> Ardunio Duemilanovae w/ ATmega328
  • Serial Port -> COMX (where X is the highest number available in the list)

This ensures the computer knows how to communicate with the board, and does so over the right connection.

Now that’s done, we’re ready to start writing our first program. We’re going to start by loading a pre-written program that writes custom characters to the LCD screen – it allows us to draw whatever we want by lighting up the individual pixels on the screen. Delete everything in the Arduino IDE window, then copy and paste the code below into the window.

// include the library code:
#include <LiquidCrystal.h>

// initialize the library with the numbers of the interface pins
LiquidCrystal lcd(6, 7, 8, 2, 3, 4, 5);

// make some custom characters:
byte heart[8] = {
 0b00000,
 0b01010,
 0b11111,
 0b11111,
 0b11111,
 0b01110,
 0b00100,
 0b00000
};

byte smiley[8] = {
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b01010,
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b10001,
 0b01110,
 0b00000
};

byte frownie[8] = {
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b01010,
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b01110,
 0b10001
};

byte armsDown[8] = {
 0b00100,
 0b01010,
 0b00100,
 0b00100,
 0b01110,
 0b10101,
 0b00100,
 0b01010
};

byte armsUp[8] = {
 0b00100,
 0b01010,
 0b00100,
 0b10101,
 0b01110,
 0b00100,
 0b00100,
 0b01010
};
void setup() {

 // create the heart character
 lcd.createChar(1, heart);
 // create the smiley character
 lcd.createChar(2, smiley);
 // create the frownie character
 lcd.createChar(3, frownie);
 // create the armsDown character
 lcd.createChar(4, armsDown); 
 // create the armsUp character
 lcd.createChar(5, armsUp); 

 // set up the lcd's number of columns and rows: 
 lcd.begin(16, 2);

 // Print a message to the lcd.
 lcd.print("I "); 
 lcd.write(1);
 lcd.print(" Arduino! ");
 lcd.write(2);

}

void loop() {

 // read the potentiometer on A0:
 int sensorReading = analogRead(A3);

 // map the result to 200 - 1000:
 int delayTime = map(sensorReading, 0, 1023, 200, 1000);

 // set the cursor to the bottom row, 5th position:
 lcd.setCursor(4, 1);

 // draw the little man, arms down:
 lcd.write(4);
 delay(delayTime);
 lcd.setCursor(4, 1);

 // draw him arms up:
 lcd.write(5);
 delay(delayTime); 

}

Assuming you have now completed all of the above steps in the order specified, you should be able to click the Upload button (The little sideways arrow) and you’ll upload the program to the board. You’ll see when the program is uploading because you’ll see a progress bar on the IDE and you’ll see the little Tx/Rx lights (near where the USB cable plugs in) flicker to indicate data is being transferred and received.

When the program is finished, you should see a message on the LCD screen, and a few custom icons like a heart, smiley face and man. That’s what your program does!

But, you can also interact with it. The dial on the bottom left of the board (called the potentiometer) can be turned, and when you turn it you should see the speed with which the little man flap his arms up and down change.

Let’s take a look at the program in more detail:

// include the library code:
#include 

// initialize the library with the numbers of the interface pins
LiquidCrystal lcd(6, 7, 8, 2, 3, 4, 5);

The above code block does two things – it includes the library (the pre-written code that defines what the LCD can do) so that we can make use of it to manipulate the LCD screen more easily. Without this library, writing to the LCD can be very difficult to do. Once we’ve included it, we then initialise the LCD panel by connecting the pins on the board up correctly – this makes sure the computer knows which signals to send to which pins that connect the LCD to the rest of the ed1. The code above is only ever run once – and needs to be done first so that we can make use of the LCD throughout the rest of our program.

// make some custom characters:
byte heart[8] = {
 0b00000,
 0b01010,
 0b11111,
 0b11111,
 0b11111,
 0b01110,
 0b00100,
 0b00000
};

byte smiley[8] = {
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b01010,
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b10001,
 0b01110,
 0b00000
};

byte frownie[8] = {
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b01010,
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b00000,
 0b01110,
 0b10001
};

byte armsDown[8] = {
 0b00100,
 0b01010,
 0b00100,
 0b00100,
 0b01110,
 0b10101,
 0b00100,
 0b01010
};

byte armsUp[8] = {
 0b00100,
 0b01010,
 0b00100,
 0b10101,
 0b01110,
 0b00100,
 0b00100,
 0b01010
};

The code above creates all of our custom characters using arrays of bytes – groups of single bits of information that can take on the values of 1 and 0. Here, a value of 1 indicates that the display should show a black dot, and a value of 0 means the display should leave that pixel clear.

You’ll notice that all of the bytes in the arrays are made up of 5 bits, and that each array has 8 bytes in it. This means that each character is made up of 40 individual pixels in a box that is 5 wide by 8 high. If you look closely, you’ll see how the patterns of 1s and 0s create the shapes we’re after – the heart is probably the easiest one to see, but the other shapes are also visible now that you know what you’re looking for.

We create the custom characters at the top of the program so that they can be used everywhere we want them to be used.

void setup() {
...
}

The setup() function is run as soon as the board is turned on, and is only run once. We can put any code we want to inside the curly braces (where the … is above) and that code will be run in that order as soon as the board has power. Let’s see what we do inside our setup() function:

 // create the heart character
 lcd.createChar(1, heart);
 // create the smiley character
 lcd.createChar(2, smiley);
 // create the frownie character
 lcd.createChar(3, frownie);
 // create the armsDown character
 lcd.createChar(4, armsDown); 
 // create the armsUp character
 lcd.createChar(5, armsUp); 

First, we create the characters by assigning each of our patterns to a single integer value (a number). You’ll see that the lcd.createChar() function requires 2 parameters – the first is the number you want to use to represent that character, and the second is the character itself (so in our case, 1 will be for the heart we created earlier). We assign all 5 of our characters to a number.

 // set up the lcd's number of columns and rows: 
 lcd.begin(16, 2);

This code tells the program that the LCD has 16 columns and 2 rows.

 // Print a message to the lcd.
 lcd.print("I "); 
 lcd.write(1);
 lcd.print(" Arduino! ");
 lcd.write(2);

Using the lcd.print() command, we can write text to the LCD. The print command understands how to display each of the standard symbols on the keyboard (letters, numbers etc), so we can specify any words or phrases we might want directly to print(). Notice how we use quotes (“) around the words? That’s so the program knows we want to print those actual characters to the screen.

You’ll see that we then use the lcd.write() function, and that corresponds to our heart on the display. By specifying a number inside the brackets of the write() function, it tells the lcd to draw the custom character we set up earlier to be assigned to our number 1. Notice also that we don’t use quotes this time – the value 1 will be substituted instead of the array of bytes we made earlier.

You can mix write() and print() statements together to print a combination of custom and regular characters to the screen. It will print them in order from left to right.

void loop() {
...
}

In addition to our setup() function, we also need a loop() function to be written. The loop() function runs as soon as the setup() function finishes, but unlike the setup() function, the loop() function repeats forever, so when it it finishes it starts itself again.

Let’s see what happens in the loop function:

 // read the potentiometer on A0:
 int sensorReading = analogRead(A3);

 // map the result to 200 - 1000:
 int delayTime = map(sensorReading, 0, 1023, 200, 1000);

The first two lines of code read from the potentiometer (it is on pin A3) and map the result of the reading from a number between 0 and 1023 to a number between 200 and 1000. What this means is that when you turn the potentiometer to a zero value, the program sets the delayTime to a value of 200 (instead of 0), and when the potentiometer is at 1023 it sets delayTime to 1000. This makes it easy for us to convert one range of numbers to a more useful one. The computer automatically works out what values the numbers between 0 and 1023 take on by breaking the range up into equal parts.

 // set the cursor to the bottom row, 5th position:
 lcd.setCursor(4, 1);

 // draw the little man, arms down:
 lcd.write(4);
 delay(delayTime);
 lcd.setCursor(4, 1);

 // draw him arms up:
 lcd.write(5);
 delay(delayTime); 

}

By writing the above code into the loop() function, the program will repeatedly perform the following code:

  1. It will set the cursor to the fifth position on the second row (we count the first row/column as number 0, so the second is 1, third is 2 and so on…)
  2. It will then draw the armsDown character (character number 4)
  3. It will then wait for the delayTime worked out by the potentiometer (i.e. it will do nothing for between 200 and 1000 milliseconds)
  4. It will then set the cursor back to the fifth position on the second row, and…
  5. Overwrite the armsDown character with the armsUp character (5)
  6. Then wait for another 200-1000 milliseconds

Since the reading is taken each time that block of code starts, every time the loop gets run a different value can be read from the potentiometer, which is what allows you to alter the time that it takes for the man to wave his arms up and down.

So, thats what our code does – cool, huh? Now its your turn to do something of your own using the bit of knowledge we’ve given you today. Here are some tasks you can try for yourself, and don’t forget, ask for help if you need it:

  1. Write your own message to the LCD screen, and try centring your top and bottom rows;
  2. Make up your own set of custom characters, and write them to different locations around the board;
  3. Use the potentiometer to change between different custom characters/numbers on the screen;
  4. See if you can make the potentiometer move a character across/around the screen; and
  5. If you finish the above, ask what other activities you might be able to do.

Online platforms for personalisation, analytics and immediate feedback #fliptm #TMACT

Last week I presented at the Gungahlin College Flipped TeachMeet on the topic of personalisation, feedback and analytics. The format of the TeachMeet was a bit different to the usual – presenters recorded their presentation via video and posted it online prior to the event, so the focus of the sessions was on discussion around the ideas. My video is embedded below and explains some of the tools I’m using to personalise learning, provide automated feedback to students and analyse data about student achievement to help identify where additional support is needed.

In the video I talk about a few platforms I’ve used extensively in class:

  • Grok Learning – Learn to program in Python, and get instant feedback every time you attempt a problem. For teachers, the dashboard really is an excellent tool that gives you an overview of student progress and helps you identify what topics students need extra support with.
  • Treehouse – This platform contains guided lessons and activities that help you learn a range of topics. For us our focus is on Web Design/Development, and it allows students to pick and choose individual paths to help them learn the skills and knowledge that is most suitable for where they’re at. Like Grok, feedback is given in browser so you can quickly see if you understand the material being presented.
  • Schoology – Our LMS provides us with automated quiz/test tools that give us a way of quizzing students and checking that they are grasping the material. Since students are provided with feedback on their progress, they can use this to identify their areas of strength and weakness and seek targeted assistance from teachers.
  • Oppia – A new open-source platform that allows users to create “explorations” that provide guided, personalised paths through the learning of material. Explorations can direct students to different activities depending on their answers to previous questions, which better targets the individual needs of each student.

There was a lot of enthusiasm on the night from teachers of many disciplines and school levels for Oppia in particular due to its flexibility, and I’m looking forward to working with some teachers at my school to see just how powerful it can be as a platform. I’m even thinking I’d be interested in contributing to the codebase as the group of us identify features we see as integral to it becoming a useful tool.

The K-12 Horizon Report 2013 lists learning analytics as a trend we’re likely to see having an impact in schools in the next 2-3 years, and its clear based on tools like Oppia and some of the third-party proprietary tools I’ve seen recently that data is becoming increasingly important in education circles. Being able to harness that data to better meet the needs of our students won’t put us out of a job – what it will do, though, is allow us to utilise our time better and focus on the things that are important to our students, rather than what might be important from our curriculum authorities.

Thoughts from the 2014 FutureSchools conference #FutureSKL

I’m currently sitting at the Gate Lounge 33 at Sydney Domestic Airport (well that’s where I was when I started writing the article, but it’s now the weekend and I’m at home finishing it up) after spending the last 2 days at the 2014 FutureSchools conference. If I was to sum up my thoughts in a few words, they’d probably be Good things are happening in schools, but there’s so much more to do.

As a general rule, the presentations were pretty good. I felt there were some that focussed a bit too much on the technology and/or the learning spaces themselves rather than the pedagogy that goes along with it, but some of that I believe comes back to not all of the presenters being “professional” presenters in a sense. My only criticism of the event overall would be that it was very much a “sit and listen” type of event – interaction with presenters was pretty low (with the exception of Eric Mazur who did a great job involving us in his presentation – see the section on Peer Instruction below), and that made the later sessions difficult to stay completely focused on. What we really needed were some opportunities to work with smaller groups of delegates to explore interesting ideas and talk about the details of what was being presented – much of it was big picture, and didn’t address some of the more pressing issues like how to bring staff along and/or break down preconceptions or negativity about change.

Learning Spaces: an enabler, not an answer

Presenters from a few different schools gave us some insight into the way they are using some of their learning spaces. Presenters from Brisbane Boys College, Scotch Oakburn College in Launceston, Stonefields School in Auckland, Mordialloc College in Victoria and Anglican Church Grammar School among others all demoed their learning spaces and talked about the ways they’re re-thinking how they’re used to keep kids engaged with school.

We’re very lucky at my school that, as a newly built school that is only a few years old, the learning spaces that have been set up throughout the building have a lot of variation and scope for being very flexible. What has tended to occur, though, is that each of the spaces in the building has become setup and used in a relatively static and permanent way – although there is scope for flexibility and dynamism, in many cases very little is done to change how each is space is used throughout the year. The result is that the methods used to teach in those spaces are very typical of what would be observed in regular classrooms – evidence that having flexible spaces alone is insufficient to change teaching.

That doesn’t really come as a surprise – technology works in much the same way. Replacing books with laptops doesn’t automatically create classrooms that aren’t teacher-driven (and in fact, I’ve seen many examples where the only difference is that students type notes from the board rather than writing them), nor does swapping out blackboards and chalk for IWBs. Like technology, learning spaces are an enabler – both provide us with new capabilities that wouldn’t have been available otherwise.

Think of it this way – if all students have at their disposal is books and pens, then every task they do will involve writing, drawing and/or conversation with content provided by the teacher. However, with technology, not only can they also do things like make movies, record their discussions and collaborate in real-time on the same documents, they can also access an unlimited amount of information to help consolidate their learning, and use a range of different resources that might be more appropriate for their learning styles (opting for a video or podcast series rather than text-heavy web sites or articles).

Many teachers are unfamiliar with the technology and unsure of how to use it to teach in new and interesting ways. The same can be said for learning spaces – if all you’ve ever known is rows of desks and a board at the front of the room, how then can you be expected to take advantage of the options provided by highly flexible learning spaces?

Interestingly, in the case of flexible learning spaces, many of the benefits they offer are only really available if they are coupled with technology. While we can configure learning spaces to provide students with areas for group discussion and collaboration, individual learning, large-group presentation of information and one-on-one support, if we’re relying on a single source of information or content delivery then the flexibility is of no value. To really take advantage of flexibility of space, we need to have lots of content options and activities that students can be engaged in that will allow them to learn and reflect in ways that make sense to them.

So how do we make better use of the spaces at our disposal? We need to invest a lot of time into teaching teachers how to teach in that environment. Notice I didn’t say “show teachers how to facilitate learning in that environment”? That was intentional. In many cases, students learn in spite of what their teachers do – the learning can often happen no matter what is going on. However, when teachers are effective teachers (i.e. they “teach” well, for a given interpretation of “teach”), then the learning that is possible for students is far greater than it would be otherwise.

My plan for this year is therefore twofold – by developing a strategic plan for the growth, use and implementation of technology for teaching and learning at the school, I’ll be seriously considering the role of professional development to not only address the technical and pedagogical needs of staff with respect to technology, but with respect to the learning spaces as well.

Changing Culture: Consultation, Community Involvement and Nurturing Innovation

What was really clear from early presentations where schools had successfully changed the culture was that in every case, without exception, students and the general community were involved in the process. Presenters made it very clear that a large part of what kept students interested in the school was the building of relationships with their teachers and school leaders, and that empowering them to drive aspects of the decision-making process was the easiest way to get buy in from the student body. We’re currently in the process of investigating a new timetable structure to cope with the increasing enrolment numbers at our school, and it gave me the idea – why don’t we have the students organise a community forum to collect ideas and present options about what this might look like? It is one of the things I’m going to suggest as part of our strategy over the next few months, and I’m hoping that other members of the leadership team will see the value in such a move. Does it mean that the student voice will be the only determinant of any change? No. But it will mean that their voices will be heard and can be considered as a part of the change process.

The other barrier to change that was discussed at length was the perception of what school should look like that came from parents – it was interesting to hear how principals who had only recently taken up their positions were contacted by families to find out if they were prepared to “stop the madness” that was going on in the school. As previous participants in the education process, many parents “know” what school is and are afraid of any departure from that picture. Successful schools that have managed to shift their pedagogical approaches away from teacher-centric, content-focused delivery practices to student-directed, teacher-guided, personalised learning unanimously had parents heavily involved in the transition. There was a significant investment in parent education; bringing teachers, students and parents together to openly share what it was each stakeholder group thought education should look like and what tools and environments would facilitate it. The greatest allies for schools in these conversations were the students themselves – it turns out that kids are much better at convincing their parents something is a good idea than the school is, and when all parties agree the transition is smoother and much quicker than it might otherwise be.

Stephen Harris, Principal of Northern Beaches Christian School, presented his “steps” for successful cultural change:

  1. Observe the situation, and involve everyone in the process;
  2. Have a clear vision about where you’re headed;
  3. Develop the vision with others – build it and it allow it to grow;
  4. Encourage ideas that support the vision through space and collaboration;
  5. Act on those ideas; and
  6. Evaluate progress regularly and adapt the vision based on what is working.

It’s a relatively simple idea, but for me I think the key is definitely defining the vision and having others buy-in to it – making it a shared vision so that everyone is working towards the same goal. I think of it a bit like a soccer team – everyone plays a very specific role, with  each working towards getting the ball in the opponent’s goal while not giving up their own. Without the goals at either end, we’d have a lot less structure and nothing concrete to work towards, and there’d also be no way of determining the success of any unplanned moments of brilliance that might come along.

Structures that encourage innovation

Another thread throughout many of the presentations was that innovation and change comes about only when supported by appropriate structures. Some of these are organisational, others physical. I’ve extracted the ones that struck a chord with me below.

Leadership Structures

A couple of schools talked about the way they’ve structured their leadership teams to both take advantage of the skills and expertise of their staff and to encourage creative thinking and innovation. NBCS and the Australian Science and Mathematics School both threw out the traditional, faculty-based organisational structure and instead have adopted more fluid and dynamic approaches that encourage experimentation and collaboration rather than reporting up and down the chain of command. This primarily achieves two things:

  • it eliminates the expectation of management that a hierarchical, top-to-bottom structure creates, encouraging every person in the organisation to take on leadership roles and innovate, and shifting the emphasis of senior members of the organisation towards visionary thinking and innovation; and
  • it breaks down the barriers that are naturally created by the independent business units common in hierarchies – typically in high schools, this is the faculty unit.

I love the idea that teachers should spend more time working with colleagues from other disciplines and sharing their thoughts more widely, and that leaders are given greater opportunity to define what the important aspects of their roles are.

What was really evident, however, was that for this approach to work, everyone must be invested in the vision and strategic direction of the school. There’s a significant amount of groundwork necessary to put that in place before you can just flip the organisation on its head.

Personal Learning Time

At our school, students are not timetabled on every class which provides them with their own Personal Learning Time. The idea is that by providing students with some flexible time they can use to focus on their study in a way that best suits them, and can seek out extra assistance from teachers and peers outside of regular class times. It’s a good idea, but it isn’t always utilised by students as well as it could be.

Many of the schools that presented talked about the way they have adopted “20% time” similar to organisations such as Google and 3M. The idea being that students can choose something to work on – absolutely anything, with no restrictions or limitations – and use 20% of the timetable at school to explore their interest. There is an expectation that they will present what they learn back to their teachers and peers, then move on to another topic or interest.

Across the board, the schools that have adopted it have said it is one of the most popular initiatives amongst the student body. It got me thinking – we’ve got that space in the timetable (which in our case works out to be about “16% time”), what if we could recognise anything a student did that sat outside of the regular curriculum during that time? I think there’s merit in the idea, and I also believe that there’s a good chance that the learning that takes place would flow on to better results in other subjects too. I’m going to investigate how we might be able to get that happening – providing some kind of framework for students to better utilise their non-timetabled school time, but still crediting them with some formal recognition of the learning that takes place. I’m sure it’s possible.

The Staffroom

I’ve never been a fan of staff rooms. Personally, I find that while they’re great for developing collegiality amongst the people that share a space, what they also tend to do is create separation between different staff rooms as a result of people not being challenged or exposed to alternative ideas on a regular basis. When there is little need to relocate yourself, busy days often mean you just don’t bother to do so. I’ve always made it my mission to try and get around to other staff rooms regularly so that staff know who I am and I get a chance to hear a bit about what they’re doing. I haven’t been as successful this year as I have previously (moving to a new school no doubt being a factor), but it’s something I’m working on.

To counter the negative effects of the staff room, some schools have begun the process of eliminating them altogether, or at the very least blurring the line between what defines a staff room “space”. Instead, staff are encouraged to work in locations that make the most sense at the time for their work – if it is collaborative planning, moving to a space with a round table and plenty of whiteboard space is going to be much more conducive than a standard staff room space might be. Equally, if what you’re working on requires uninterrupted attention, finding a private area where you can shut yourself away for a short period of time to finish something up is equally important.

I don’t believe that you can just get rid of the staff room altogether – I think there’s a need in any school environment for teachers to be able to separate themselves from the students at times, especially when you consider the many situations where privacy is important (for the students and the staff). But I do believe that you can minimise the amount of staff room space in a school. A large space or two with options for lots of people to work in different ways strikes me as the ideal – just like we want to create dynamic, fluid spaces for learning in different ways, so too should we be looking at these options for staff. Besides, there will always be the occasional empty space at various times of the day where classes aren’t happening, and that could be useful too.

The biggest blocker here would no doubt be staff themselves – many staff have become comfortable working in the current paradigm, and to change would be a fairly significant shift. We’re also used to many procedures in schools that tend to work on the assumption that teachers reside in staff rooms and that those places aren’t fluid – there’d be a lot of work that needs to be done to alter administrative processes and implement solutions that would allow us to operate in a different environment.

Information and technology

The Library

Without a doubt, one of the most contentious spaces when any suggestion for change is made is the library. I love books – I’ve got a decent sized collection of my own at home, but the reality is that when I go looking for information nowadays often books are not my first point of reference. There are some situations where books are absolutely fantastic – one of the most challenging things I find at the moment when teaching accounting is that while there is plenty of information online for techniques and processes that apply to accounting generally, finding information about things that are specifically Australian that are accessible to students can be really tough. There are books that do this well, and their value cannot be understated.

So when I suggest the following, don’t interpret it as me being a book-burner or anything – libraries need to change in a BIG way. We don’t need anywhere near the amount of books that is typical in a conventional, established library. We also don’t need the library to contain classrooms, labs of computers or tables set up only for individual study. The library has the potential to become an energising hub of information, research and thinking, but libraries with older designs don’t conjure up those images anymore.

I see libraries now as being much more multi-modal, and there are many librarians out there that completely understand it. Our TLs are regularly recording and sourcing video for students that they make available through our media servers, and this supplements our book collection. They do a great job and I value the TL role immensely.

However the spaces in libraries need to reflect this. More small study areas, lots of variety in the spaces available, collections of resources such as podcasts, videos, lectures and media from educational institutions across the world – that’s what is relevant to our students today. And, best of all, a lot of this material is actually free. The problem is the quantity and quality of what is out there, but that’s where the real value of the Teacher Librarian is – they know how to curate and catalogue amazing content.

To be able to do this effectively, TLs need the time and technology to support this move, and some input to help design library spaces that are attractive and inviting to students of all ages.

Communication

Communication is never the best it can be – it just isn’t possible. It’s a multi-faceted problem that gets so complex with new forms of communication that keeping up is a job in itself. But one of the things that always frustrates me is the amount of time spent on communicating administrative information when instead, what inspires learning and excites people is hearing about interesting developments in a range of areas.

We’ve got large screen TVs hooked up across the college that are capable of streaming all types of media from a content server. What exactly are they used for? Right now, RSS feeds of news, the school Twitter feeds and similar, but most of what goes up there is administrative – this event is coming up, don’t forget exam week etc. None of the content is designed to challenge thinking – it’s used to disseminate information.

That information shouldn’t dominate those screens. Sure, it’s important and it needs to be shared, but surely there are better ways to make use of significant amounts of display time. I’ve been thinking – what if the administrative announcements were up during certain times of the day, while during others the screens were showing streams of what was happening in the performing arts, or video of some interesting science experiments, or a major cosmological event, or a public lecture from a local university on a human rights issue? One of the ways I think we can better engage students with that kind of information is to make it easily accessible, and to give them a reason to go back and look at the screens on a regular basis. If all we’re doing is feeding them information they are getting from other sources (such as their smartphones), it’s an opportunity that’s going to waste.

I’m not completely sure of the capabilities of our systems, but I understand that the server and software is quite powerful. I’m going to incorporate better use of our existing systems into the strategic plan for technology.

The power of Peer Instruction

For me, the best session of the conference was the second day keynote presented by Eric Mazur from Harvard University. I mentioned it earlier because of all of the sessions that were held, it struck me as being the most interactive. While others attempted to involve us, the enthusiasm Eric generated as a result of the use of peer instruction in a restrictive lecture space was enlightening. What was surprising wasn’t that it worked – it’s something I’m sure all teachers have used before – but that it made me feel like a student that wanted to learn again. By the end of his lecture, I’m sure that every single person present was excited about thermal expansion in solids, or at least was hooked enough to need to know the answer to his question.

Mazur has delivered other lectures on this same topic in the past – his Confessions of a Converted Lecturer video is available on YouTube (this version is 80 minutes long, but there is also an 18 minute summary) – but ultimately, what he showed us was that students, when involved in each other’s learning, are able to teach others and convince them of a correct answer if they’re given the time to do so. Using real-time feedback and response systems, he was able to demonstrate how once a critical mass of students in a large group had understood the concept, he could have the group collectively find the correct answer to a problem very quickly. Even in a lecture, where the teacher remains at the front and direct access to them by the students isn’t possible, it is enough to have students speak with the people around them.

He’s known as the “Pioneer” of Peer Instruction and Flipped Learning, and he spoke about both of these topics in his presentation, but the clear contrast with his presentation compared to many others was that in his case, his focus was on the change in pedagogy that was necessary for student improvement. Not once did he discuss the flipped classroom beyond the idea that the video became the tool for delivery of content and the classroom experience the change to engage with the material through problems and practice – once that had ben established, all of his time was spent emphasising that the classroom environment and teacher actions had to change to ensure that opportunity was provided to the students.

I’ve taken a lot of what he modelled on board and I’m going to endeavour to do a lot more to provide my students with as many opportunities as possible to practice and share their learning experiences. I’m convinced that it needs to be a fundamental part of what learning should look like in all classrooms. That too will be a factor in the development of our technology plan.

Ultimately, a LOT to think about and share with the leadership team at school on my return. Was it a worthwhile two days – for me, absolutely. For the school? That’s dependent on the willingness of everyone to experiment a little and enact elements of what has been successful in other places. I think there’s a lot there that has the power to improve what we do.

Digital Technologies: Now a Subject in the Australian Curriculum

I was thrilled to see that the Australian Curriculum: Technologies has finally been made available online for all teachers to see and begin using in their schools. Sure, it is currently marked as “awaiting endorsement”, but that’s largely due to the Curriculum Review that has been instigated by our current federal minister Christopher Pyne. We’re now at a point where educators can get moving on implementation of the F-10 curriculum.

What excited me about the Digital Technologies curriculum in particular is the way that it has embraced the Digital Technologies as a way of thinking and a tool for creativity. The problem I’ve always had with the teaching of ICT in schools is that it has largely been seen as a tool that should be integrated to assist the teaching of other subjects – that’s fine, but that’s captured in the ICT General Capability in the Australian Curriculum and is very different to the study of ICT as a discipline, sometimes branded as Computer Science, Informatics, Computing or similar. Given the ubiquitous nature of ICT in our world today, it has always struck me as odd that we’ve relegated the understanding of ICT to being all about its use, rather than how it manages to achieve the “magic” that many people mistake it to be.

So finally we have some guidance for teachers, especially in the primary years, about what to teach to impress upon students the fundamental knowledge and skills required to be a developer of ICT solutions. This doesn’t mean we have to make students in Kindergarten write code in Java or anything – in fact, the Digital Technologies curriculum for Foundation to Year 2 instead focuses on pattern recognition and the classification of data in contexts that kids can understand. A significant amount of time was spent during the writing of the curriculum looking at how what students need to know to develop a strong conceptual understanding of the Digital Technologies could be integrated with what they are learning in other subjects. That’s important – it validates what teachers are currently doing to teach these ideas, or provides explicit advice to teachers about what they need to address when they design new lessons.

I accept that not everyone agrees with me – here’s a post from the Conversation written by an academic from the University of Newcastle – but on reading the article (which was forwarded to me by someone I know who has an interest in the DT curriculum), I felt the need to respond to some of the statements being made.

You can see my post in the comment thread at the link above, but I feel so passionate about what I had to say I felt the need to post it here, since I believe it stands on its own.

As an IT teacher who has the skills and knowledge to deliver this curriculum, I get a little bit frustrated about some of the ongoing concerns people keep expressing with the curriculum, largely because I feel like many of the criticisms are being made with underlying assumptions in place that need to be challenged.

The Digital Technologies curriculum does not insist that students become programmers – at least no more so that the English curriculum insists they become authors, the Mathematics curriculum insists they become mathematicians or the Science curriculum insists they become Scientists.

Many of the same arguments and/or questions about the relevance of some of the content included can be asked about other learning areas – such as the need for students to understand stem-and-leaf plots in Mathematics, or the structure of multi-cellular organisms. Look at all of the curriculum documents (and it is important we differentiate the curriculum from a syllabus – they are different things) and you’ll find that if it really came down to it, you could question the inclusion of many of the skills and/or understandings that the writers in each area have decided to focus on.

That aside, the other major consternation people have about it all is the time / crowded nature of the curriculum, however this all comes about because many commentators still insist on looking at the subjects as being independent of one another. We look at the Science curriculum and then, at school, we teach kids Science. We do the same with Maths, English… Why? How many times in the real world do we look at a problem and say “oh, that’s a problem that can only be solved by mathematics, I’m not going to consider any of my scientific or social understanding to come up with an answer”?

The curriculum has been written with the interdependence and relationships between the learning areas in mind – or at least that is my understanding. We talk about falling levels of literacy and numeracy, and then argue that this is a case for eliminating non-critical subjects from the learning of students? Surely the reason they are not engaging with school has to do with the fact that the way they are being taught isn’t working for them? It is possible to teach many numeracy and literacy concepts using much of what has been included in the Digital Technologies curriculum. Similarly, you can teach programming within the context of mathematics, algorithms as recipes in a kitchen, and data representation as an exploration of pattern recognition and language translation.

To simply look at the fact that programming has been included in the curriculum and then dismiss it due to the fact that not every kid needs to be a programmer completely fails to recognise the importance of logical reasoning and the methodical development of algorithmic solutions when faced with complex problems – a critical skill that can be developed through learning computational thinking. Not every student will end up being a mathematician, so why do they need to know about polynomials and parabolas?

And I also don’t think it is sufficient to argue that a lack of trained teachers is reason enough for the subject to be relegated to a position of less importance. The curriculum should be both aspirational and intended – it is up to schools, society and teacher-training programs to find reasons to encourage people with the skills and knowledge required to teach the curriculum to consider joining the profession. The same argument would not be applied to any other learning area – we would never say that not having enough English teachers would be reason enough to stop teaching English, would we?

The use of technology for the “thrill” of using it is fine – I’ve got no problem with people making use of the great technology available to better their lives etc. But accepting technology as “magic” is not acceptable in the longer-term if we want to continue to develop as a society. Would we be where we are today if we had simply accepted the idea that rain just happened and didn’t instead seek out a reason for it? We have the technology that we have today because people who found the passion and excitement to learn more about it did so through curiosity and interest.

We can make the Digital Technologies curriculum interesting for all students, just like we can for every other learning area. The first step in making that a reality is to stop artificially segregating the subjects and to emphasise the interdependence that exists across every discipline of knowledge. When designing a lesson or unit of work, what we need to do is look across multiple learning areas and find ways to engage students with lots of different interests – to connect what they are learning to their world.

Does this mean every child will like learning every aspect of the DT curriculum? No, just like not every child will enjoy Maths, Science or other subjects. But we can at least develop in them an appreciation of the value each discipline has, and the impact of each on their way of life now and in the future.

Oh – and on the last point re: not including Scratch (or anything else) in high school – the curriculum doesn’t do that. There is nothing that precludes the use of visual programming to teach concepts from any learning area. What has been expressly mentioned is that students learn about general purpose programming languages. These languages are different when compared to drag-and-drop type visual languages because they allow us to perform significantly more computation than is possible otherwise. They are important, but that doesn’t mean that other, more familiar platforms or languages can’t be used to address other aspects of the curriculum. I use a similar technique to explore recursion with my students, producing fantastic looking artwork using Context-Free grammars and exploring randomness as well (which is a nice way of visualising genetic mutation).

We need to stop looking at movement through the bands as discrete periods of learning – it is a continuum and the learning that takes place in earlier bands should be used as the foundation for learning in later ones.

I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of other educators of all disciplines on this issue and those like it. Please join the conversation and post your comments below – this is one of those topics I’d love to see start a very interesting, ongoing dialogue.

Why communication is hard

I’ve spent this weekend and the week leading up to it thinking about the various ways we, as a school, can improve our communication methods. I went through this process at my last school as well, and after consideration of the problem again I’ve come to this conclusion – setting up the channels with the technology available is easy, but making sure it is both sustained and valued by the community is hard. We’re constantly fighting the battle of content that dates quickly, and the increasing demands on teacher time that ultimately mean a reluctance to write-up content, especially if it needs to be done multiple times for multiple publications.

To combat this, we’re going to be using a set up that I’ve had in place in the past and ties everything we use together very nicely. The school has a number of tools at its disposal*:

  • The school website
  • Schoology (our LMS platform)
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google +
  • A mobile App (for both iOS and Android)
  • An online calendar (powered by Google calendar and Outlook)
  • A WordPress installation
  • Digital displays throughout the school buildings
  • Regular pastoral care sessions with students

* I should point out that for the purposes of this discussion I’m leaving out direct teacher-parent or school-parent communications over student-specific issues – that still tends to occur via email and phone calls and can’t be beaten when there is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed.

Interestingly enough, of all of the above tools the one that is the least flexible for us is the website, and yet for many prospective families looking to enrol their kids it is the website that is likely going to be their first point of contact. So I feel that whatever the strategy, what we need to ensure is that the website doesn’t get neglected – it is the one place where content is most likely to date quickly and become less relevant for our school community.

As we redesign the website, we’ll be making sure that those parts that don’t tend to change often (such as our Principal’s greeting or the rundown of our timetable structure) are kept to a minimum, and instead aim to feed as much of the regular activity that takes place in the school through to a regularly updating news feed that is front and centre of the user’s view.

To integrate all of the above into a single communications channel, here’s how I intend to set everything up:

How the various channels are linked together
How the various channels are linked together

As you can see, when the tools are all linked together data only has to be entered into one of two locations, either the calendar (for dates and events) or the WordPress blog (for news articles/information). The information is then fed, via various plugins, application integration tools or RSS feeds, into our other communication channels, many of which families can then subscribe to in their favourite social application.

Right now there is no easy way to push the updates from WordPress to Schoology, nor is there an integrated solution that I like for a calendar/news solution (although I will be looking into that – a single point of data entry would be fantastic). However, one of the great things the Schoology developers have done is they have made an App API available for other developers to use to integrate their applications into Schoology. I haven’t investigated it in detail yet, but I’m thinking there may be an opportunity to at least bridge one of those gaps in the chain.

So now that everything is linked up, the next step is ensuring regular content is published to keep our community engaged. We’re tackling this by providing every teacher with an account to the WordPress blog with authoring privileges, and providing some professional learning to hep those for whom blogging is new to learn the ropes. Since we need to ensure we’re publishing accurate and quality articles, teachers will submit their items for review, and identified staff in the school will then become our sub-editors, reviewing the posts for any errors, omissions or anything else that may need to be fixed up before publishing.

We want the articles to be both reflective and forward-looking – we want celebrations of the great things the school has done in the past (posted within a day or two of the event), and posts about upcoming events and activities we want the community to engage in. In that way we give everyone a reason to visit, whether it be hearing about an event they were unable to attend or finding out about an activity that is approaching and needs their involvement to be successful.

However one of the criticisms of this kind of approach that I have had directed at me at the past is that there are many families that don’t want to have to visit the website every day, or to subscribe to the site and get a barrage of emails or posts on their feeds each time a new article is posted. Some people still prefer the good old newsletter – either an email or printed copy. Thankfully, there’s a WordPress plugin for that, and we’ll be ensuring that for those people who prefer the good-old-fashioned fortnightly email everything that gets posted to the blog (it’ll do tweets as well!) in the previous two week period is bundled up and sent to their inboxes.

So that’s a run down of our strategy from a technical standpoint – to eliminate the need for extra work required to draft additional items for a newsletter and reformat existing content into a different publication. The idea is that a write-once, publish everywhere strategy will mean staff are more willing to contribute regularly. With the number of staff we have and the number of events that happen at the school, I’m thinking that if each staff member posted one article every month, we’d have a vibrant, regularly changing online presence that will keep all of our parents and community partners interested and engaged in our activities at the school.

Hopefully, and I’m feeling pretty optimistic, we’ll be able to overcome the hard point of communication – the regular updates and ongoing engagement – and take advantage of the power this technical setup provides.

Professional Learning: The Big Picture

Without a doubt one of the most difficult things anyone can be expected to do is come up with an event that is going to be an effective learning experience for around 500 people, and yet that’s what happens every year at the All Colleges PD Day here in the ACT – when every teacher in one of our senior secondary colleges is brought together to the one location for a professional development event. I attended as a participant for the first time since 2008, and I have to start by giving massive kudos to the organisers of the day – it ran well, participants seemed to be generally engaged, and from what I could see most people were pretty positive about the whole thing.

I’ve organised some smaller scale professional learning events myself, and whilst the logistics can be tricky and complications about in terms of venues, marketing, catering etc., the hardest part in my view is coming up with sessions and activities that everyone will benefit from. I’ve spent many days trying to work out what kinds of things are going to be of interest to the participants, and whilst I think I’ve got a pretty good track record, looking at the survey feedback shows that every time there is always a small percentage of people who don’t get as much out of the event as I would have liked. Sure, some of it probably comes down to people who may not want to engage in the first place, but the counter argument to that is the same we can use in our classrooms – if the session(s) had been engaging, they may have participated anyway.

However this post is less about my experiences on the day (in a nutshell, I felt the sessions were pitched at the school leadership teams and in particular Principals and Deputies more so that the classroom teachers, which was fine for me but I know some colleagues would have liked more targeted PD that related more directly to their classroom practice), and more about the approach to professional learning we take as a profession in general.

It’s a recent phenomenon in the ACT (and relatively recent across Australia, generally speaking) that teacher registration is now a part of our profession, and to maintain or get your accreditation requires completion of 20 hours (in our case) of professional learning. The complete details of teacher registration in the ACT can be found at the ACT Teacher Quality Institute website (and there are other bodies in other jurisdictions) and although this could easily turn into an argument about the merits (or lack thereof depending on your perspective) of registration, I’m going to try to minimise that and instead focus on how professional learning is recorded. Our hours need to be made up of 10 hours of accredited learning (i.e. certified by the TQI as addressing the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and delivered by registered training providers) and the remaining hours comprised of “teacher-identified” PD. There is quite a lot of flexibility in the teacher-identified learning – it may be comprised of reading, research, participation in online seminars – the range and variety is quite broad.

Unfortunately, I hear many teachers complaining about the TQI or equivalent in their respective states and territories. These arguments often take the form of “I get nothing for my money” and “why should I pay for the privilege of being a teacher” and similar grumblings about a lack of value for our registration. However, professions generally all require registration with a national standards body to be able to practice. Over time these organisations have filled a significant role in ensuring the quality of each profession, and I think we have to keep in mind that this is all still very young in education. There is little money, no history and a struggle against a status quo that in my view isn’t acceptable, so the fact that it is causing some disruption is probably a good thing.

It was emphasised during presentations by the TQI that they acknowledge that the majority of teachers engage in more than 20 hours of PD a year, and that this isn’t meant to be particularly onerous in terms of recording the PD we do undertake. The role of the TQI portal is to give us a means of capturing the professional learning we do engage with, and provide us with an easy way to reflect on the event/activity and refer to it again at a later date. The reflection is important – it encourages us to go back and revisit what it was we got out of the event, and I believe that has value because this is what often triggers experimentation or revision of something you’re already doing.

And yet, even though there is an acknowledgement of the variety of professional learning opportunities that teachers engage in, and an admission that what is being mandated is only a very small part of what would generally be considered normal for a teacher, the way PD is delivered remains largely the same. At big events such as this one, the topics are generally chosen to be relatively broad and not directly applicable to any one learning are or discipline. What this means is that over a teaching career, the topics available at these kinds of events become quite limited – student engagement, pedagogy, curriculum development – since these can all be seen as applicable to all teachers regardless of subject area.

When you ask teachers which PD they have found the most valuable in their teaching lives, they rarely respond with a big event where the presentations are generic. You get responses like “I went to an absolutely amazing Shakespeare workshop that changed the way I teach Shakespeare” or “I spent a few days at a programming event where I learned so many new ways of engaging kids with computer science concepts it has changed the way I work in the classroom” – the responses all tend to be very closely aligned to the curriculum content as well as the broader topics mentioned earlier.

The big events provide opportunities for face-to-face contact that can create connections and generate conversations that just aren’t possible in virtual/online/video-conference events, or through individual research or reading, but that alone shouldn’t be the reason we attend them. One of the great things about ACEC (Australian Computers in Education Conference) and other learning area equivalent events is that when you go along to them you’re likely to find something that you can directly apply to your classroom, and to have conversations with other teachers who are teaching the same kinds of things you are. However, they carry with them the additional expenses of travel and accommodation (except for when the event takes place in your home town), and this can make them difficult to attend on a regular basis.

Ultimately, when we look to what PD we want to attend in a given year, the decision is going to come down to what will best address our individual needs at that particular time. This is going to be different for each one of us, and we can’t expect that any single event is going to tick all the boxes for everyone who attends.

But, doesn’t this sound like our classrooms? If we are expected to design activities and classroom materials that cater to the individual needs of our students, why is it that so much of our PD doesn’t do the same for us? And if the PD doesn’t do that for us, are we vocal enough about it to help drive the change necessary to make it better?

If all we do is complain about how boring or ineffective PD is, it will never change – just like the kid who does nothing but whinge about how boring school is and is given no reason to think otherwise will never get involved in class.

So over time, my hope is that the TQI will be able to help us with that – that the accreditation, evaluation and reflection process involved in all of the professional learning activities that take place will provide a means for identifying the types of learning people find most enjoyable, engaging and effective. That the programs being accredited align with the teaching standards in a way that we find truly useful, so that when we are looking for PD we’ll have a reliable place to source it. And that by going back and looking over our reflections and evaluations we’ll be able to identify those elements of teaching that excite us, engage us and keep us passionate.

If it gets to that, then from my perspective the fee I pay for teacher registration will be money well spent.

Differentiating the Curriculum for senior students

Today was my first official day at my new school, and as is typical here in the ACT it was a whole school professional learning day. The topic that the school decided on last year was differentiation – ensuring that all students can access the curriculum and have opportunities to show their learning regardless of any disabilities or learning difficulties that may create barriers for them to succeed. It is a topic I’ve done many PL sessions on in the past, so whilst I think the day itself was well organised and run, I didn’t feel like there was much “new” information presented for me to take in.

That said, one thing I was really impressed with was the way staff conducted themselves during the day – it is clearly something that the school has identified as an area that needs to be improved on this year. While these events tend to be a lot of information presenting, there were opportunities to get details that were specific to the needs of students in my classes so it wasn’t so general as to be of limited use.

We were provided with some resources to look at before attending, exploring differentiation and/or diversity from a range of perspective. Websites, presentations, videos, policy documents – it was a pretty good collection of readings that addressed many of the aspects that are important to understand the issues and complexities of differentiating successfully. Of course, Gardner and Bloom’s came up, as did the work of Maker and others known for their differentiation research, but it was interesting to see where the emphasis on differentiation is placed by various educational jurisdictions. Some tend to focus on the gifted and talented end of the spectrum, while others look very much as disability and severe learning difficulties. Our interpretation was much broader, and tries to capture students who, for any reason, may hit a barrier to learning. These could include the above, but may also be as simple as moving around a lot due to a parent working for Defence, being a non-native speaker, being independent and needing to balance work as well as school or in more extreme cases being a primary carer for a relative at home, among others.

The video below is just one of the resources – I’ve provided links to everything at the end of this post if you want to explore some of them on your own. This one provides a good starting point for thinking about the importance of keeping students engaged with their learning through variety, and ensuring that school doesn’t just end up being a waste of time (for all involved).

One of our sessions consisted of us choosing from 8 different activities and working in small groups to either consider some of the issues surrounding differentiation or to work through a differentiation activity. I found a few of these interesting for a couple of reasons:

  1. Differentiation strategies abound on the net for primary school teachers. Adapt one of more to a college setting.
  2. To what extent does differentiation differ from simply good teaching?
  3. Choose a model of differentiation (or make up your own) and use it to develop a differentiated lesson or unit of work.
  4. Write a soliloquy/sonnet/dramatic monologue from the learning environment to the teachers of the college.
  5. Evaluate a differentiation strategy of model of differentiation.
  6. Why do some of our most gifted students get bored in class?
  7. To what extent is differentiation a ‘machine-gun’ approach to the teaching of students with diverse needs? Aim, pull the trigger and hope for the best!
  8. Choose any content. Fill out the boxes in the Blooms-Gardner’s matrix.

I worked with one of the science teachers on the last activity, mainly because I have done quite a bit in the past on this topic and I thought I’d go to the smallest group and contribute there. We only had about 25 minutes to work on our matrix, but the result of that (which we’ll probably go back to and refine at some point – some of the notes are a bit rough right now) is visible here.

The statements that I found the most interesting, though, were 2 and 7. One of the biggest gripes I have with the discussion around many of these topics and issues is that they are often discussed independently of what it means to actually be a teacher. If I didn’t differentiate within my classroom, I wouldn’t feel as if I was actually performing my duty as a teacher. My role is to instil in all of my students a passion for learning – what they learn in my class is, to a degree, secondary. And the only way I can do that is to engage them, which means taking into account their individual circumstances and making sure that they have every opportunity to tie their own experiences in with the material and activities I present to them.

The best way to do that, of course, is to know your students – relationships are in my mind the most important part of being a successful teacher. What each relationship looks like may be different – teachers and students all have their own unique personalities; some are built on respect while others may use a shared passion as the underlying foundation. Either way, getting to know your students is the number one priority, especially early in the teaching period.

Which brings me to the machine gun analogy – I don’t believe it works for effective differentiated instruction. The image I conjure up in my mind when I think machine gun is of a general target (understanding a concept) that is simply delivered in multiple ways in the hope that something clicks for each student. It doesn’t imply any considered thought about what those strategies would be, just that there are a lot of them.

Using the strong, positive relationships your build with your students allows you to make informed choices about which strategies are going to be effective for your classroom – there’s no need to just spray bullets, because each bullet has already been carefully selected to meet an identified need.

Then, there’s the question of assessment. Ultimately, my view is that this can be done well – even when working within imposed constraints such as the HSC, VCE or (in our case in the ACT) the BSSS courses that dictate what should be taught and when. If, when we design our assessment tasks and learning activities, we keep in mind that what the students need to understand can be considered independently from the opportunities we create for them to learn, share and explore it, we can then introduce flexibility into how that learning is demonstrated to us. Where an external exam forces us to test concepts in a written form that can be hard (thankfully, we don’t have external testing), but for the assessment that occurs at the school level ensuring that how students present their learning is not restricted ensures the maximum success when it comes to marks and grading.

Resources:

NSWDET Policy and Implementation Strategies for the education of gifted and talented students
A fairly comprehensive overview of the contemporary approaches to differentiation (60 pages)

NTDET Curriculum Differentiation and Education Adjustment Plans
Focus on individual needs and reasonable adjustments (23 pages)

UNESCO – Changing Teaching Practices: using curriculum differentiation to respond to students’ diversity
A vast consideration of the topic of differentiation notable for the international perspective it brings and the breadth of disadvantage that forms its context. (109 pages)

Basics of Differentiation
A fairly thorough example of how student choice boards can be applied.  The example considered is on figures of speech. (26 pages including some irrelevant ‘water cycle’ material)

NSWDET Developing Differentiated Units of Work
A range of practical charts, lists and templates that enable differentiation in a range of different and sophisticated ways (28 pages)

Videos

Are your lessons fun? (3m 20s)

Special Ed Differentiation – Some Ideas (Tiered Activities, Tic-Tac-Toe, RAFT) (5m 14s)

Why Differentiate? – Carol Tomlinson (3m 47s)

Learning Stations – Tiered Activity, Speech Bubbles, Memory, Choice (2m 55s)

Websites

Queensland Managing Learning for Diversity – Teaching
A range of adjustments suggested alongside some movements in curriculum design that are compatible with differentiation i.e. Productive Pedagogies, Universal Learning by Design (1 webpage + links)

WA Schools Plus – Helpful hints for differentiating the curriculum for all students
A comprehensive list of tips for teachers (1 webpage)

A Different Place – Examples of products
A list of different ‘products’ of learning categorized somewhat dubiously according to their potential to elicit more or less sophisticated performance. Most usefully used as an ideas source for products. (1 webpage + links)

Presentations

Strategies for Differentiation: Curriculum Compacting, Tiered Assignments, Independent Projects
Very practical in nature but focusing significantly on curriculum compacting (50 slides)

Reaching all children in the classroom: an overview of differentiation strategies
Powerpoint presentation that is well pitched in terms of dealing with complicated ideas in an accessible way. Some good examples included. (32 slides)

Extending Gifted Students
An authoritative presentation on the extension of gifted students with an emphasis on creativity as well as some local research on the way gifted students prefer to learn (36 slides)

Tools

Maker and Williams Model Template
Curriculum design templates for differentiation based on the works of Maker and Williams respectively (5 pages)

Bloom-Gardner Matrix
Tool for developing activities that cater for both Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive difficulty as well as Gardner’s multiple inteligences (2 pages)

Scholarly Articles

Integrating the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy with Multiple Intelligences
Scholarly article by Toni Noble addressing planning for both differentiation on the level of academic rigour alongside also addressing multiple intelligences (21 pages)

Effective strategies for implementing differentiated instruction
Scholarly article arguing for inclusive strategies for meeting the needs of gifted and talented students in mainstream classrooms as opposed to structural solutions (13 pages)

Newsletters

SERUpdate June 2010
Newsletter of the South Australian Special Education Resource Unit (SERU) containing a range of articles from educators in SA schools focusing on the successes and challenges of differentiation in the classroom. (40 pages)

My TEDxCanberra Audition: Learning for the Real World

I’ve spent the last few days putting together a brief audition video for TEDxCanberra – it was suggested by another teacher that I give it a shot, and I figure I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve been doing a lot of investigation and work recently around a model of education that has students working directly with the community through projects that are interdisciplinary – an approach similar to Challenge-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning and similar models.

The audition video is on YouTube, and a quick search for TEDxCanberra will show you other potential speakers and topics.

While it’s not the greatest piece of video I’ve ever done, I think it gives a good enough picture of the message I’m sharing. I’ve seen too often in classrooms and schools activities and lessons that just don’t engage kids, but if you talk to these same kids about what they do outside of school and why they enjoy it, each time one of the key things they mention is the fact that they are involved in something. That aspect of being a part of something bigger is severely lacking in most classrooms, and there’s no excuse for that anymore. With near ubiquitous Internet access, mobile computing and information at everyone’s fingertips, we should be challenging our students to be solving big problems, and helping them make sense of the world around them to formulate answers that consider their values and ideas.

To do this effectively, we need to stop working within the artificial boundaries created by subject disciplines, learning areas or year groups. I hear colleagues saying that the Australian Curriculum prevents us from being able to do that, but that’s a narrow view of what schools can do. We have significant flexibility when it comes to implementation of the Australian Curriculum, and nothing published by ACARA suggests that subjects need to be taught in isolation. In fact, reading the curriculum documents, it is fair to say that there is an expectation that teachers look for links across subject areas to create richer educational experiences for our students.

So, it’s my hope that I get the opportunity to expand on my audition further, and to share that message with as many people out there who’ll listen. The research supporting more collaborative and holistic approaches to education is everywhere, yet high schools on the whole are reluctant to consider structures or models that vary from the existing rigid, timetabled structure of single subject courses. No one learns like that in any real world situation I can think of.

I challenge you, the next time you’re reading, watching videos or anything else, to switch off after an hour and do something else, and not return to any thought-provoking ideas that may have been stimulated previously. You’ll realise pretty quickly that sometimes you need more than an hour to really engage on any sort of real level with that topic, and in other situations, 15 minutes might be all you need.

Our students know this, yet we force them to work with a system that is older than most of our grandparents. It’s time to change – it’s been talked about for years, but talk without action may as well be silence. We do a disservice to the youth of today and the future of civilisation by refusing to consider alternative approaches to “school”.

MOOCs: How good are they from a learning perspective?

I’m currently working through my 3rd course no a MOOC – a Massively Open Online Course. This one is hosted on the Venture Lab platform and is called “Designing a New Learning Environment“. Prior to this one, I’ve completed two on the Coursera platform – one on Cryptography and the other on Gamification. Based on these experiences so far, I thought it was time to reflect on the effectiveness of these environments as learning tools.

I should start by saying that as far as motivation for learning is concerned, I’m pretty driven. I don’t need a structured course to get me interested in learning about something – just an interest or desire to want to know more about it. The problem is that its easy to want to know a lot about lots of things, and you tend to get distracted by others as you’re trawling through the wealth (?) of information available to us now via the the Internet. So I jumped into these as a way of providing some focus for my learning – in that regard, they’ve been pretty successful.

I’ve managed to make the time in my already full schedule to spend a few hours a week working through the materials. I’ve identified topics of interest to me, and devoted the time necessary to get my head around the concepts. Some have been pretty challenging (it had been a while since I’d done any real mathematics, and while the Crypto stuff wasn’t overly complicated, it required getting my head back into the notation peculiarities of the discipline), others pretty cruisy (I never really felt “challenged” by the Gamification course, even though it was interesting). It’s my feeling that there’s something available through these MOOCs that will be of interest to everyone.

The big plus of these platforms is the access it gives you to world class academics. They allow leaders in their fields to present materials to anyone from anywhere, and that’s great for everyone who gets involved. It’s also great marketing for the Universities involved. Actual interaction with the professors is virtually non existent, but given these courses can upwards of tens of thousands of participants, what more can you really expect.

And while there are capabilities in the platforms for people to engage with others (the usual forums, peer assessment tools and the capacity to comment on other people’s work) I have to admit that I haven’t felt the urge to engage beyond what I’m required to do. Perhaps I’m just too busy to do so, but I can’t help but feel that ultimately it comes down to the way the content is being delivered.

You see, it is still based on the lecture-task-evaluation paradigm – sure, evaluation may be by peers, but once something is submitted and assessed, there’s no real reason to go back to it. And given the assessment tasks are primarily individual (there are group tasks coming in DNLE, but we’re not there yet), there’s no motivation to collaborate on them in the lead up to submission either. It is essentially about watching/listening to the lecture, applying that to a problem, then moving on to the next one. All pretty low on the Bloom’s taxonomy classification scale.

The DNLE course is attempting to go beyond that with an emphasis on teams creating a design for a new type of learning. The goal is admirable, but so far I’m not feeling it. I don’t want to be too critical given there’s still a while to go yet, but so far I haven’t really felt the mechanisms for true collaboration have existed in the platform or the method of delivery.

I’ve formed a team with colleagues I know through other means (the OzTeachers mailing list), and we set up a Google+ hangout to throw around some ideas for a team-based project initially. Apart from that though, there has been little collaboration. There is a video-chat capability in the Venture Lab platform, but because of the way we’ve built our team up, I just haven’t had the desire to use it.

For someone like me who is happy to work alone on things and doesn’t require a stack of extrinsic motivation, the existing MOOC structure is fine – it provides a scaffold for me to keep my learning on track, and that’s what I need to keep from getting distracted. However, for people who want to engage with others in meaningful ways (and I enjoy doing this too), these platforms seem to be a bit too disconnected from the networks we already engage in heavily.

MOOCs in general, and platforms like Venture Lab in particular, are still very much in their infancy. But My attitude towards them so far is that if they don’t evolve quickly to offer more than online courses have since early LMSs launched in Universities and Schools in the early 2000s, their appeal for may people won’t last. As a cost cutting measure for universities they’re a great tool, but as they currently exist they use the same methods of teaching that have always existed, and that’s not advancing learning like it needs to.

We know that models of learning and teaching have to change. Moving what we do now into the online space is hardly sufficient to advance things further. We need to see some truly transformative education platforms and tools – MOOCs (at least for now) do not fit that profile.

 

#ACTvotes – but why does it take so long?

For those of you from outside of the ACT, you may not be aware that we’ve just had our ACT Election for our next term of government. The election coverage can be followed in a few places:

Of course, there are a myriad of other places for information too, but these tend to be the ones I use each time there is an election on I’m interested in following. This post hasn’t happened as a result of me wanting to talk about the results (although another minority government in the ACT isn’t anything new), but about the length of time it takes to get a result after each poll.

You see, the ACT has only one house of parliament (most States and the Federal government in Australia are bicameral and have a lower and upper house), and the Legislative Assembly is made up of 17 members spread across 3 electorates. As such, the election uses a quota-based system known as Hare-Clark, combined with a Robson Rotation for listing candidates on the ballot paper. As Antony points out on his blog and in the coverage on the ABC last night, the results can take a long time to finalise because:

  1. A single transferable vote method means that until all votes are distributed to lower preferences, candidates may not meet the required quota and therefore it cannot be determined who has won a seat;
  2. Robson rotation means there are a LOT of different ballot papers (since candidates are in a different order) so the scrutineering process takes longer since you cannot use the position of the preference on the ballot as an indication of who the vote is for; and
  3. Historically, the ACT always ends up with minority governments, so the cross bench needs time to negotiate with the major parties to determine who will be supported to form government.

It amazes me that we still rely on a manual count of votes to determine our winner given what computers are capable of today. Security is often raised as the reason why voting cannot occur over the Internet or via electronic means, and although the ACT has electronic voting facilities available, these are only installed in about 6 or so polling places and are used predominantly for pre-polling. So, although about 20% of the vote is entered electronically, the greater majority of votes are done by filling out ballot papers.

We’ll put the costs of printing and the environmental impact of the campaigns aside for the time being – I want to focus on the actual counting process. I’ve thought about this a lot, and one of the most frustrating things about the whole thing is that any voting system, including Hare-Clark, can be easily represented algorithmically. So, this would mean it would be trivial to write a computer program that could use the voting data to automatically determine the winner of the election in a small amount of time. In fact, one of the tasks I’m setting for some students involves writing a program to do just this, and I’m pretty confident that these Year 10 students with about a year of programming experience will be able to do just that. So, that clearly isn’t a deal breaker in terms of improving the efficiency of the process.

The biggest hurdle, then, would appear to be taking the votes themselves and converting them into an electronic format that could be used by the computer program to generate the result. If electronic voting and/or Internet voting are still a way off, then with the advances in OCR I can’t see why the paper ballots couldn’t be processed using a workflow like:

  1. Ballot papers are scanned into a computer;
  2. The OCR reads the vote to determine:
    1. The position of each candidate on the ballot paper; and
    2. The preference, if any, awarded to each candidate on that particular vote;
  3. The OCR-generated data is then displayed on a screen next to the scanned copy of the ballot paper, and is checked by 2 or more scrutineers for accuracy (this step currently takes place with paper ballots, but this approach could allow the workload to be distributed much more easily):
    1. If accurate, the scrutineers approve the result;
    2. If OCR has generated an error, the scrutineers manually correct the error, then approve the result;
  4. The accurate data is then formatted and stored in a database so that it can be read by the ccounting program/algorithm;
  5. At any stage, the votes that have been entered can be analysed using the algorithm, and this could generate not just first preference votes, but the final result of the Hare-Clark allocation based on the votes that have been collected.

Given the manual process still required to transfer the votes from paper form into an appropriate digital format, it would probably still take an evening to have all of the votes entered into the computer and processed. However, at any time during the evening, a full analysis of the outcome of the vote could be determined (based on a partial vote count) and this would make it easier for analysts like Antony Green to predict not just the parties that would win the seats, but the candidates as well. By 11pm that night, I dare say that everyone would know which candidates had achieved a quota, and by Monday morning negotiations could begin between the cross-benches and major parties with the result of the election known and confirmed.

It seems absurd to me that this kind of process isn’t already in place – not only does it make sense economically, but it’d also mean that our pollies could get on with running the place rather than being forced to wait for two weeks to determine what the composition of the parliament would actually look like.

I’d be interested to hear from people who have either been involved in the scrutineering or counting process, or from one of the analysts like Antony Green himself, to try to determine why we haven’t got a system like the one I’ve described in place already. Given it could be used for any voting system currently in use in Australia (since they all need to have defined algorithms that can easily be programmed into a computer), there has to be an incentive for the AEC to implement such a solution.