Monday, 25 May 2015

Six Myths about teaching and learning

On Friday I presented a mini-lecture at our #uowopenday and spoke about social media and modern learning. I’ve blogged previously about some of the social media content, so will turn attention in this post to the modern learning side of things. You see, the openday audience is largely comprised of school leavers searching for options for university study, and as such is a recruitment exercise and a chance to tell the students of 2016 a little about what they might be getting into when they choose their path of study and take the next steps toward a career.

In effect, I could have the initial teacher education students of 2016 in front of me, and the beginning teachers of 2019 potentially. It seems to me that one way to capture the imagination of candidates for teacher education is to raise and challenge some common myths about teaching and learning.

To that end, here is a summary of six myths about teaching and learning that I’d like to challenge…

1.     Learning only happens at school
I once read in a school newsletter a warning to parents that we needed to send our children to school every day because “any day your child is not at school is a day when they are not learning”.

Not only was I affronted by this bossy and patronising assertion, but I also have to disagree. Children (or actually people of any age) can and do learn outside of school. This seems completely self evident to me which is probably why I think nothing of taking my son out of school a week early at the end of this term to travel to the UK and Portugal. While his current school and teacher are entirely supportive, this hasn’t always been the case and I think schools and teachers are setting themselves up for a very big fall indeed if they promote themselves as the sole source of learning. Learning opportunities are all around and numerous commentators have written wisely on this matter. One of my favourites is George Couros. As for my 10-year old, he is already planning how to scrapbook his journey, contemplating exchange rates across three currencies and checking his globe.

The next myth is similarly limiting.

2. Turn off your cellphones
… because they are distracting and dangerous and you can’t learn anything with a cellphone.
Even though the cellphone is the computer in your pocket, connecting you to a world of knowledge, with built in calculator (including the scientific calculator), dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia and ready access to untold experts on every subject in the whole wide world. I don’t buy the recent reports that smartphones make students dumber, a most unfortunate headline and a ridiculous claim.
The economists behind the study are talking about test scores, a narrow view of student achievement. And the fact that higher achievers are less distracted by phone use indicates that they have learned to focus and prioritise tasks. All students can learn to focus and prioritise if they are engaged and guided, and if they experience some success. A smarter approach is to use the presence of cellphones as an opportunity to negotiate ground rules, establish expectations and set some parameters for acceptable use. I say “negotiate” because I don’t see this as yet another way for teachers to lay down the law in a controlling and unilateral manner. Hence the third myth.

3. Children should be seen and not heard.
If we don’t listen to kids how will we know what they think? How will we know what they need from us as teachers? How will we get to know them so that we can teach them? Teachers should listen to kids, actually everyone should listen to kids. If you don’t think children have anything worthwhile to say, please don’t become a teacher! Please don’t.
(It’s a good sign that no one left the lecture theatre when I said that at #uowopenday!)

4. Teaching is telling.
As I told the prospective students in the lecture theatre, I also told them that all this telling doesn’t sit well with me to be honest because I almost never stand in a lecture theatre and give this kind of presentation. I am a lecturer who doesn’t lecture (or hardly ever, and usually only to lend collegial support, by invitation, and to connect with students in blended courses).

All of my classes are online. We use Moodle as our Learning Management System, I create a website that is a classroom and a discussion forum that is a tutorial. Students learn by reading, by doing and reporting back online, by watching/listening and generating podcasts and video presentations, and by taking part in meetings in Adobe Connect and Tweetchats.

However, it is my observation that many student teachers in their first year believe that teaching is telling, and are very concerned that they get to know as much as possible so that when they become a teacher they can pass on what they know to their pupils.

5. Control those kids!
Another big concern first year students commonly have is that they are very afraid that the pupils won’t listen, that they’ll play up or misbehave and will be out of control!!
To challenge these myths – transmission and control - I have some expert partners who join in as guests in our online discussion for a couple of weeks. These experts teach the student teachers about: How to learn and teach through ICT – how using digital technologies to learn can be exciting, challenging and powerful learning practice.
The experts?
A group of 12 year olds from a local intermediate school.
We need to listen and learn from and with kids. Stop prioritising transmission and control, this belongs in the dark ages. Finally, I raised just one further myth for the student audience.

6. Good students make good teachers
To the student audience, I said: If you are worried that you might not make a good teacher because you haven’t always been the best student… If you think good teachers have to be top academics who do really well in exams and who love to study hard, who love school and who aim to please their teachers, it might surprise you that these students are not the best learners or the best teachers.

To be a good learner you need to be focused beyond what is in the test or exam, and be concerned about something bigger than a grade or earning credits. You need to be curious about finding out, be thirsty for discovery and knowledge, and want to make the world a better place starting with children.

If you have sometimes felt bored and cynical about school and wondered why you are doing this, what it is all for and whether there is a better way, teaching could be for you.
If you have struggled to learn something and have found a way to persevere and master something new and difficult, facing adversity and really knowing what it is like to find it tough, you may just be perfect for the job! It's people like you who can put yourselves in the shoes of the child who struggles, and work with them to help them to learn.

A great day at #uowopenday 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Part Two: Visiting some classrooms

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I've been hanging out in some secondary classrooms. I also mentioned that there was a great irony in the music class - there was silence! This silence, however, was all about concentration on the task at hand.

This class is a Year 12, Level 2 NCEA Music class. It is predicated on students reading music, composing and performing. This is a relatively small class (about 13) and its students represent as wide a range of musical knowledge as you could possibly think of. There was the student who already is a competent player of two instruments and the possessor of Grade 8 music accomplishment. A couple of other students are close behind. Then there is the guitarist, who plays well, but doesn't read music the way he needs to for this NCEA class and its achievement goals. There is also the singer - a belting voice, but who is disorganised, doesn't concentrate, doesn't read music but picks up the music instantly to sing it. Another group are those who are keen on music, but can't read it and haven't been playing an instrument for long.

So this is a tall order to work with. The teacher decided that all of these students would aim to do the external achievement standards, so there was work to do to get everyone to that level. To that end, he has been getting these students to use the iPads available. On these devices, are a range of Apps that mean students can attend to their specific learning needs (theory, composition, musical terms, revision). They also had access to a browser-based site that helped them. That's why you could hear a pin drop in this class. For an entire hour, this diverse group focused on the music knowledge they needed to progress. The most able music student had her headphones on, and concentrated on composing. At times, you see her fingers on the desk, miming the piano keys she would be playing. Another was checking how well he could identify correct rhythm, using a scaffolded, mastery-level app that provided feedback on how close he was to the expected rhythm modelled. This also reinforced music note/value knowledge for those who were still learning the basics.

So why am I talking about this? I thought this lesson demonstrated the following attributes:
  • students were engaged in learning pitched at their correct level 
  • the variety of tools (browser-based, Apps) meant each person could address their own learning needs
  • the teacher could spend much more time one-to-one, addressing individual questions and just-in-time, just-in-need learning. 
  • access to the digital technologies afforded greater differentiation for learning.
Not bad for a Thursday afternoon! 

Have you had experiences where the range of digital tools available to students meant that they could take control of their own learning in a really meaningful way? 

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Blended learning: Some constraints and enablers

Recently I was asked for my thoughts on what enables university lecturers to teach online and in a blended fashion, and what I consider to be the key issues that dissuade staff from teaching online. As always, I welcomed the opportunity to share my perspective. What follows are a few salient points from my perspective and as such is just my perspective, and not intended to be definitive or generalisable, or even particularly evidence-based in any rigorous way.

To begin with, a little clarification: by blended learning, I am referring to any combination of online classes and face-to-face tuition, including lectures, tutorials, labs, workshops, block courses, supervision meetings, practicum, papers in institutional learning management systems, asynchronous online discussion, pod/vodcasting, synchronous meetings and so on.

I base my perspective, as we all do, on my own experiences as an online teacher and on reading, reflecting, listening to students and colleagues, and gradually building up a picture of the way things are in my working context. In a nutshell, this context is bounded by:
  • 13 years of teaching online in a single faculty within a single university within teacher education programmes at undergraduate and masters level
  • Waikato’s Bachelor of Teaching Mixed Media Programme, (MMP) teaching geographically dispersed students who attend block courses on campus, base school placements, and work a/synchronously via Moodle
  • Coordinating online option papers focused on communication technologies
  • Taking part in mentoring schemes for online teachers with York and within Waikato
  • Building a body of research associated with online pedagogies, including a doctorate looking deeply at online discussion

Informed by this background, I see the following as among the key enablers and constraints:

Myths that constrain
1. That online study is not as good as face-to-face. It has seemingly been taken for granted that what happens online can never quite measure up to the ‘real’ experience of being face-to-face. Why would you choose to learn online if you could attend in person? 

2. Not for my subject! How do you study ‘hands-on’ subjects like fine arts, dance, drama, physical education and practical science online?

3. From a student’s point of view, if a course is online does this mean I will be ‘teaching myself’ and therefore missing out? Students based on a satellite campus may well believe that the lecturer cares more if they travel and show up in person rather than ‘putting a course online’.

My brief response (because this is a blog post not a book) to those myths follows:

1.     Teaching and learning online offers a myriad of advantages, including the ability to time-shift and work at the teacher/learner’s convenience, which is also a good exercise in building time management capacities. Avoiding a commute, working around other responsibilities, and maintaining an electronic record of course materials (lectures, podcasts, tutorial discussions, etc) are just a few other practical advantages. Other learning advantages include the depth of thinking that is afforded by asynchronous online discussion in particular, where there is time to think, compose and revisit a discussion topic over a period of days.

2.     Teaching and learning online needn’t involve being ‘hands-on’ the computer the whole time, and can promote learning that is as actively engaged as any other format. For example, I favour a ‘do and report’ style, whereby students are challenged to go and try out a particular practical challenge before sharing it in an online forum via written reports and video footage. Many a science experiment has been carried out in a kitchen after all.  I recall one student in particular telling me that she wanted to try out some basic circuitry so sent her husband out to Dick Smith for equipment, and then the whole family got invoved in home-based electronics. You see, the MMP students study at home so they use what they have to experiment. Lecturers in the Mixed Media Programme have taught every learning area in the New Zealand Curriculum, via on campus blocks, school placements and online tuition.

3.     As an online teacher, I work hard to be there for students, to provide instruction, guidance and feedback in a timely fashion, and I care deeply. I don’t need to drive across the region several times a week to prove it. While our on campus blocks are a special time to get together, build rapport and set the tone for our work online, we sustain effective learning and teaching online and students build a strong network of peer support.

Of course it follows that one way to encourage staff to teach online is to remove the constraints and dispel the myths – by raising awareness of how blended teaching and learning can be used in any subject of study and can be better than the status quo, particularly if the status quo is a 50 minute lecture followed by a weekly tutorial.

A key enabler for online teachers is: Advocacy and mentoring
There are several aspects to this:

1.     Leadership - including the expectation from line managers that staff will teach online and that this is normalized and part of the job, along with provision of support needed to make it happen

2.     eLearning advocates – people you can go to when you want to talk over a concern or find out how to do something online. People who lend a supportive ear, and who say ‘let me help, let me show you’

3.     Mentoring – very much like the elearning advocates, but mentors can be more formally involved, and may be from outside of the institution. For example, Waikato has a mentoring partnership with the University of York where online teachers give peer support and guidance.

4.     Team teaching – I teach alongside talented colleagues who teach me something new every semester. We share responsibility for the students’ learning, and split teaching tasks, while collaborating to teach and assess in innovative ways. I am forever grateful that I learned to teach online by working alongside the late Nola Campbell, who balanced support and challenge as she showed me the ropes. These days, I work with a couple of esteemed colleagues who are more than happy to experiment with different approaches to teaching and assessment. Two examples are eportfolios with Jenny and provocative prompts with Bill

5.     Case studies of effective practice. There is nothing better than a ‘show ‘n’ tell’ session where a colleague opens up their practice to share what they did and why, what worked, what did not, and how they know. Within our faculty, sharing practice is helpful (e.g., at elearning brown bag lunches), and outside our faculty there are often excellent takeaway teaching ideas from the likes of WCELFest 

6.     Student success stories bring the possibilities to life. This is how we know we are on the right track. I’ve spoken to graduates of MMP who are grateful for the opportunities that the distance programme afforded them, and who are assets to the teaching profession. You see, some of the MMP students are former teacher aides living in rural areas with family responsibilities. It is very difficult indeed to leave home to go to university as a mature adult with multiple responsibilities, and for some a city-based campus experience is not practical in reality. Being able to study online from home, with support from a base school in the local community, with regular visits from a university liaison lecturer, is a way forward. MMP has a successful track record spanning 18 years at this point. Long may it continue! If any graduates of MMP are reading this, please do get in touch to share your success stories :-)

In conclusion, what I’m saying is that there are myths about online/blended learning that prevent university staff from trying it out. On the other hand, there are ways of advocating for effective online pedagogy and mentoring staff as they take the plunge.

What enables or constrains you as an online teacher and learner?