School holidays – the perfect time to learn from other schools

“I don’t know why you would even think about going near any school while you’re on holidays”

This is what one teacher said to me when I told them that I was going to spend half a day visiting a school during the school holidays. At the moment it is the Term 3 school holidays in New South Wales, Australia. For me teaching isn’t something I can switch off. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my down time and I think this down time is important for all teachers’ wellbeing. But I personally like to take advantage of the school holidays and use the time to visit schools that are outside the NSW public education system. Especially schools that are drastically different to the one I currently teach in because what I’ve learnt is that almost every school faces a similar set of challenges whether it is student engagement, student wellbeing or finding ways to develop students higher-order thinking. I find that when I visit schools that have different circumstances than my own, I am exposed to different solutions that I can adapt to my own school and my own classes.

Over the past two years I have been able to visit schools outside of New South Wales and outside of Australia, and they have been some of the best professional learning I have ever had. While some of these visits were done during term time, most visits were done during school holidays. Here are some of the schools I’ve visited and what I’ve learnt from them.

During my time with Microsoft’s Partners in Learning team in 2012, I was able to travel to Auckland, New Zealand and visit Ferguson Intermediate School and Howick College. These two schools kick-started my journey and my faculty’s journey into using the Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) framework, learning intentions and success criteria to design learning for the new science syllabus for the Australian Curriculum. Howick College is also where I saw the fantastic Julia Breen and got ideas from her on how to use green screens in student-produced videos.

I took a week of without pay from school in December 2012 and travelled to London and visited ACS International School, Egham. I ‘met’ the Principal of ACS International School, Egham online via LinkedIn and he was kind enough to take time out to show me his school for half a day. I was also privileged enough to speak to their Head of Science and observed a part of a middle school science lesson. During this visit I learnt more about the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program and how technology was integrated into the school’s middle years science program.

Just last week I was able to visit two schools in Canberra – Brindabella Christian College and Dickson College. I was able to further connect with two passionate educators who are part of my online professional learning network on Twitter, Melanie Spencer and Betty Chau. From these schools I took away ideas for learning space design, how to drive change and how to further develop the digital leaders team at my own school.

Visiting other schools is one of the best professional learning that I undertake. If you’re a teacher and you have some spare time in the school holidays, ask another school if you can visit them and then return the favour to them 🙂

Incidentally I am planning to travel to Tokyo, Japan in the April school holidays in 2014. Would love any suggestions of schools in Tokyo that I can visit.

Lessons from #sologlobalchat

I became interested in structured observed learning outcomes (SOLO) late last year when I was contemplating how to approach learning design in the midst of implementing the new NSW syllabus for the Australian Curriculum. I want to lead my team in using this opportunity to do something that will shift the way our students learn. I don’t want to take the shortcut of cutting and pasting existing units of work and making it fit to the new syllabus.

I have always known about SOLO from my work with the Essential Secondary Science Assessment and the National Assessment Program for Science Literacy, but until last year I didn’t make the shift from using SOLO to assess student learning to using SOLO to design learning. So when I began exploring using the hashtag #SOLO on Twitter, I found quite a few teachers in New Zealand and the UK who are much ahead of me in their SOLO journey. From there I met Andy Knill. I have never met Andy in real life, nor have I even spoken to him via Skype or anything. My only interactions with Andy are from tweets and sharing ideas on a Google Document. But from using only Twitter and a Google Document, we organised the tweetup, #sologlobalchat where educators from Australia, New Zealand and the UK shared and learnt from each other in everything related to SOLO from what is SOLO to how can we drive authentic change on a whole school level. Click here for an archive of #sologlobalchat.

Helping Andy co-host #sologlobalchat (Yes, Andy did do most of the work. Hat tip to Andy) has made me realise 2 things:

(1)    Teachers are a generous and dedicated bunch of people – #sologlobalchat was held at 11am on a Saturday in the UK, 8pm on the Australian east coast and 10pm in New Zealand. I was tweeting from an iPad on a Saturday night. Andy was tweeting from a mobile device in his car and it was bed time in New Zealand.  I don’t think there are many professions that will be holding a virtual meeting in such circumstances. Also, not many of us knew who each other was until we got onto #sologlobalchat. Yet we were ready to hand over our ideas and resources to almost complete strangers. This is one of the best things I love about teaching and teachers. We are happy to share anything at anytime to anyone because it makes learning better for our students.

(2)    Learning anywhere anytime – The massive increase in technology in our lives have always been discussed in the context of student learning. How can we flip learning for students? How can students use mobile phones to learn? How can learning be transformed in a 1:1 device program? However, the impact of technology isn’t just limited to students. Technology has also transformed the way teachers learn and collaborate. #sologlobalchat used technology to connect teachers from 3 countries in different timezones to synchronously share their expertise with each other. Professional learning for teachers is now breaking through the walls of schools. Teachers are no longer having conversations with teachers in their own staffroom or school only; we now also have conversations across the globe. Sharing of resources is no longer confined to photocopying a sheet and placing it on someone’s desk; resources are now uploaded online for anyone to download.

All teachers can greatly benefit from using online professional learning networks to improve their practice. And teachers are a generous bunch. We will share anything with anyone because we want to improve all students’ learning. So if you are not part of an online professional learning network (PLN), join one. If you haven’t participated in a Twitter chat or Tweetmeet, just lurk around one and have a look if it’s for you. If you are doing all of these things, tap on the shoulder of a teacher who haven’t yet discovered this and show them how the benefits of an online PLN. The more teachers we have collaborating and sharing online, the better the learning will be for our students.

Note – #sologlobalchat now has an Edmodo to share. Click here to submit a request to join the group.

Andy Knill has also compiled a list of teachers who participated in sologlobalchat

Working, sharing & collaborating as 21C teachers

When we talk about student learning in the 21st century, we often talk about learning (and sharing that learning) anytime, anywhere. Social media and online collaborative spaces have allowed all of us to connect and collaborate 24/7 on our desktop computers, laptops and mobile devices. This shouldn’t just be student learning. It should also be how teachers work.

When I stepped into the role of Head Teacher Science two years ago, I wanted to initiate a structure and process to allow my faculty to collaborate more effectively. One of these ways is to be able to collaborate anytime, anywhere. I wanted to start with the way we accessed and modified our teaching and learning programs. Instead of having these programs trapped on the school network, this year our faculty uploaded them on a wiki via Wikispaces (I was inspired by how Ben Jones, benpaddlejones, set up an online space for the Integrated Curriculum team through a wiki). The obvious advantage is the anywhere anytime access. We can now access our programs on our mobile phones when we’re waiting for a bus if we wanted to. Having the programs on a wiki also allows resources such as worksheets and online videos to be linked in the online document. Instead teachers trying to find a worksheet in a folder in the staffroom, teachers can now click on the worksheet name in Wikispaces, download the worksheet as a Microsoft Word document and modify it to suit their class’ needs. The main benefit of this has been collaboration. Teachers who are leading programs for a particular year group gather the feedback from other teachers and change the program as we teach it. This has now transformed our programs from a relatively static document to a living document that constantly revises itself.

a screenshot of our faculty's wiki

We have a resources page on our faculty wiki where teachers upload websites, videos, worksheets and other resources to share with the faculty. Previously, teachers would photocopy the resource and place it on everyone’s desks. Sadly the worksheet sometimes get lost or filed incorrectly. If you wanted to modify it, you’d have to ask for the electronic version to be emailed to you. Even if the resource was emailed originally, the email can easily become lost in a mass of other emails. We are finding that uploading resources onto a wiki helps keep everything in one place. Sharing has definitely become easier. When things become easier, it gets done more often. 🙂

We also communicate via the wiki. A lot of our intra-faculty communication and faculty organisation are now done through the wiki rather than email. Not only has this decreased our need to constantly delete emails to keep our email storage space in check, but it has kept messages more organised because they are stored in one space. This has also reduced the need to trawl through emails to find, for example, an important message sent two weeks ago.

So this is our faculty’s journey so far in using an online collaborative space to enhance how our processes. My next goal for the faculty will be to use the discussion function to further enhance communication and collaboration.

The first five years of teaching … (Part 1 of reflections of 2011)

There are milestones in teaching. The first, most obvious milestone is the getting through the first year of teaching. The next milestone is getting through your first five years of teaching. As more and more research shows, five years is the time when a large number of teachers choose to leave the profession (25% to 40%).

There is a global shortage of teachers. There are newspaper reports after newspaper reports about the looming massive retirement of the teaching force and the need to recruit more teachers. However, there are signs that it is just as important to work out what is keeping teachers in the profession because a lot of teachers leave within five years. There is no educational benefit to students of recruiting lots of teachers just to have them leave within five years.

Well, this is my fifth year of teaching and I have no plans of leaving the profession. There are numerous articles (eg. Sydney Morning HeardThe AgeThe Herald Sun) that tell you why teachers are leaving. But I’m going to go through why I choose to stay:

  • I love my job. Yes, teaching is stressful. Yes, teaching is hard work. Yes, teaching involves long hours. Yes, teaching means you never stop working (this could just be me not knowing how to switch off). But I don’t mind because I honestly love what I do.
  • I had a fantastic teacher mentor, head teacher and principal in my first school. We had a teacher mentor who didn’t have a teaching load. She was an experienced teacher who had a wide range of teaching repertoire, who just mentored us. She’d come into the classroom to team teach and was always there when you needed support. She wasn’t there to “judge”. She gathered all the beginning teachers at our school together every fortnight so we can share our positive and not-so-positive experiences in the classroom. If it wasn’t for her, my attitude and enthusiasm for teaching would’ve probably been very different.
  • I had a fantastic colleague, who was also a beginning teacher, when I first started. We shared resources and supported each other through the good times and the bad times. I continue to have fantastic colleagues who work together as a team and share our resources and ideas with the aim of enhancing of our students.
  • I was provided with leadership opportunities very early on in my teaching career. Both my head teacher and principal actively encouraged me to take on leadership opportunism. My current principal and school executive continues to do so.
  • When I had an idea that would benefit student learning, I was allowed to run with it. The school leadership at all the schools I’ve worked at, were very supportive. This is particularly true at my current school,
  • I do other things while I am teaching. I have done a range of freelance work with UNSW and UTS, mostly in the school holidays. While this was hard work at times, it provided me opportunities to work with people who in industries outside the high school system. This offered me something different to work with.

I hope that all beginning teachers have the same positive experiences I’ve had. Or perhaps I’ve just been lucky?

Part 2 of my reflections of 2011 will be on my journey as an educational leader. Watch this space.

The fun theory – making technology fun for teachers

Why aren’t more teachers adopting technology? That’s a question that is constantly raised in educational circles. There are loads of literature on the barriers of technology integration – time constraints, lack of knowledge, lack of confidence, the crowded curriculum, external exam pressures, etc, etc, etc. But for a moment, let’s look at the teachers who DO integrate technology. They still teach to a crowded curriculum. They still need to prepare students for high stakes exam. They too have 24 hours in their day. They too have experienced lessons where the technology failed. So what’s the difference?

I’ve been testing Mouse Mischief this week. Mouse Mischief is a Microsoft add-on software to PowerPoint that allows multiple mice to connect to a PowerPoint presentation. Essentially it is a clicker system. This week was the first time I tried to connect 28 wireless mice. (I’ve had many previous successes with 15 mice) I had a class of extremely excited Year 10 students, each holding their own wireless mouse and …. it didn’t work. All of the mice refused to connect to the PowerPoint when the same mice connected with no problems just two days before. But instead of quitting Mouse Mischief for good, I investigated the problem over the weekend and will try again next week. Mouse Mischief isn’t the first technology that has failed on me. There have been many other cases. But each time I investigated the problem, came up with a solution and tried it again.

However, this takes time. A lot of time. Sometimes I feel like I’m a first-year out teacher again as I would spend hours each school night and the weekend exploring web tools and other software and solving technical issues. I could have easily stuck with my existing resources and strategies that I have tried out before and know it works for my students.  Giving students a worksheet is easier. Changing the activity so that it is enhanced by technology is hard work. Why do I take the hard way?

Because it’s fun.

I love technology. I love video games. I love computers. I always have. I don’t see those long hours at night exploring web tools as work. Going by the Twitter and Yammer conversations, many other teachers who are confident integrators of technology find it fun as well. But for other teachers technology is not fun. For them continuing what they already do without technology (and are successful with their students) is like taking the escalator and integrating technology is like walking up a long flight of stairs. So what will make them try the hard way and walk up a long flight of stairs?

Going by the fun theory as shown in the videos, other teachers who are not regular technology integrators may also take the harder path if it’s fun. If we can make technology fun for teachers who are not as confident, they will be more likely to explore things on their own, take risks and trial-an-error with technology and spend time modifying their own existing strategies and resources to integrate technology. Making things fun can change people’s attitude and behaviour. The hard part is how.

Good professional learning – what is it like?

Over the past two weeks I have provided professional learning to teachers, received professional learning myself and worked with a group of very talented educators in discussing what good professional learning is. So I thought I should reflect upon professional learning further …

I’m currently enrolled in a Graduate Certificate of ICT Education. At the moment I’m doing a subject that focuses on electronic print media production (using Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign). At the last lecture I was extremely bored. I didn’t find the activities relevant or engaging. Basically I didn’t see the point of what we were doing.

But I’ve also delivered professional learning where the participants were bored and disengaged. Over February and March I have presented hands-on workshops on integrating Adobe Flash in classroom practice. One session was highly successful and one session was dismal.

The successful session had teachers buzzing with excitement. They couldn’t believe how easy it was to use Adobe Flash to make animations and amicably discussed how they would integrate this in their classrooms. The teachers who picked up the skills faster went off to make animations of their choice while other teachers continued to follow my instructions step-by-step. The two hours flew by and evaluations were positive.

The dismal session had bored teachers. They still actively participated but they were doing it so they wouldn’t appear rude. Most of the evaluations revealed the teachers were disengaged and didn’t see the workshop as worth their while.

So what did I do in the two sessions that gave such different outcomes?

According to a report by Education Services Australia for the Australian Government on ICT professional learning, there are several elements to good ICT professional learning, including a focus on student learning and relevance to classroom context.

In the successful session I ran the workshop for science teachers. Being a science teacher myself I have already explored ways of integrating Adobe Flash animations into the curriculum. I focused on using Adobe Flash as a tool for students to represent their understanding. I began with a discussion of students having difficulty conceptualising dynamic scientific processes such as chemical reactions and presented Adobe Flash animations as a strategy to help students to conceptualise these processes. Teachers then worked together to make an animation showing a neutralisation chemical reaction or an animation on a scientific process they were interested in. So in the third session there was a focus on student learning and it was relevant to the teachers’  classroom contexts. More importantly the software was taught not for the software’s sake, but as a way to enhance student learning.

This is where I went wrong in the dismal session, which was with teachers of technology and applied sciences. While I did mention that the teachers could use animations to show processes in recipes, I didn’t place enough focus on student learning or its relevance to the teachers’ classroom context. In other words I taught Adobe Flash for the sake of Adobe Flash.

This is where my uni course falls over as well. At the moment I’m learning Photoshop for the sake of Photoshop. However I wasn’t as polite as the teachers in the second session. I left the lecture and went to the bottle shop.

Mucking around

My current attempt to integrate Xbox racing games into science is generating interest amongst a fair few teachers. My class loves it. As one student said today “All classes should have an Xbox”.

So why aren’t more classes using the Xbox?

A few weeks ago I ran a professional learning session for science teachers on how they can integrate Xbox games into teaching Newton’s laws of motion. I suggested an array of activities to cater for students of a range of abilities. Yet the Xbox booking sheet only holds my initials as no other teacher has requested it for their classes. As the faculty’s head teacher and the school’s technology coordinator, I want to reflect on how to encourage teachers to implement what they learn in professional learning sessions, particularly with technology.

There are many reasons why teachers may not implement what they learn in professional development courses. However, I want to focus on the need to ‘muck around’. With technology in particular, it’s essential to muck around and spend time to explore the software before deciding how to use it to enhance learning. In a reading I had to do for uni Richardson (2009) highlighted that teachers need to make a personal connection with the technology before being able to consider the pedagogical implications of the technology for their classroom practice. IMHO, to make this personal connection, you need to muck around.

With the Xbox, I spent a lot of time mucking around (playing three different racing games to decide on the best game for my class, which game mode to use, which race track, difficulty level and how much freedom students had in choosing players and racing tracks to ensure time efficiency). Then there was mucking around with hardware. Which data projector was best? What cables did I need? Overall it involved two weekends of playing Xbox at home, several visits to video game shops and several hours of playing the Xbox at school. And I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it! 🙂

In contrast, the other teachers didn’t have this opportunity.  All they had was a half hour session of me showing them how to set up the Xbox, how to play Formula 1 2010 and the various activities they can implement for their classes. They didn’t have the chance to discover for themselves how the Xbox worked and the potential it can have on their students’ learning. They didn’t have the chance to muck around for hours playing different types of games and reflecting how the games can be used in their teaching.

The hard part now is how do I create these opportunities where teachers can muck around, self explore and reflect? How do I create opportunities for teachers to want to muck around?

Note: The school’s teachers have been fantastic at adopting other technologies such as IWBs and 1:1 laptop initiatives. Perhaps the Xbox takes relatively longer to get used to.