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Sunday, 14 August 2016

Guest Blog - Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE)

This is a guest blog written by my Stage 3 Co-ordinator and year partner Richelle Hatton. This post first appeared on the Stage 3 Learning Journey on 10 August 2016. It is a wonderful reflection on the experience Richelle and I had with our class. I would strongly encourage any reader to explore the possibilities and see if there is a place for Self Organised Learning Environments within your own context.

Educational researcher Sugata Mitra claims to have discovered accidentally that students can teach themselves. He put a computer in a hole in the wall in a slum district in India and walked away. Eight hours later he returned to find local children browsing the internet and teaching each other how to use the computer having never seen one before! You can watch his TED talk and hear about it straight from him. Totally fascinating.

The concept of SOLE - self organised learning environment - came from Mitra's research. He suggests that "if you allow the educational process to self organise then learning emerges". He proposes there are three requirements for SOLE to be successful: broadband, collaboration and encouragement. He has also produced a toolkit explaining how to implement the process in the classroom.

This week we had half of our students away at Band Camp. The other half of them were at school and we couldn't just go on with our regular program. We decided to try SOLE. We are a BYOT school so each student has their own device to access the internet. That's condition one. We want our students to learn the skills of collaboration so we give them plenty of opportunities to work in teams. That's condition two. We would encourage the students to give this a try and encourage them no matter what the outcome. Whatever happened we knew we would learn something! That's condition three.

We began with an introductory session where we showed them some of Mitra's TED talk and another video of SOLE in action. We explained the origin of the concept of SOLE and got them excited to try it for themselves.

We gave students the question: "What is the greatest threat to the ocean?" and a time frame for presenting an answer. We ran the SOLE over two 40 minute periods split by lunch.

Students organised themselves into groups and went to work. As teachers we overheard comments such as:
"We have only 9 minutes until lunch. We'd better get moving!"
"I found a really great website. I'll share it with you."
This was directed to a student who was wasting time - "We really need to focus, to get this done!"
"What do you think is the best way to present this?"

Each group made their presentation to the class. We had a range of answers to our question of what is the greatest threat to the ocean - pollution, plastic, global warming, overfishing, humans!

We were amazed at the quality of the presentations given the short time frame. We do this a lot in our regular lessons so students have good skills in this area but we usually give them MUCH more time to prepare. Obviously, short deadlines can be helpful! We gave verbal feedback about what we liked about the presentations.

The depth of answers was also encouraging. Through questioning, we could determine how deep students' understanding was. Some students understood quite a lot. Since students could make their own groups we had a very large group of eight boys. We were unsure how well this group would work but they had very thoughtful answers to the question.

We ran another session the next day and then surveyed the students to seek their feedback on the SOLE experience. They indicated their experience of SOLE was overwhelmingly positive. 5 on the scale represented "strongly agree".

Quotes from student survey 

I like SOLE because:

·                I was able to be responsible for my own learning
·                It is a fun way to learn and makes work harder without slacking off
·                You get to choose who’s group your in and the time limit pushes you to work harder.
·                You did not get guided much by the teacher.
·                I was responsible for my learning and I was able to learn, present and collaborate with people in any way I want. I LOVE BEING ABLE TO CHOOSE MY GROUP. I liked it because I was free to learn how I want to learn.

I found SOLE difficult because:

·                You only get a short time.
·                They were hard and new questions that I wouldn’t expect.
·                We didn’t have enough time to look at every website or resource.
·                We had to find out everything ourselves and no teacher helped us along the way.
·                I didn’t find it difficult.

As teachers, we also reflected on the experience. We can see great benefit for student motivation, collaboration and time management skills. The deadline to present an answer was integral to the experience but it doesn't have to be the final answer.

We can see how this could be an iterative process where students generate an initial answer to the big question which is presented to the group. Students receive feedback on what's great and how to improve their presentations. We could then generate secondary questions that flow out of the first question and the given answers. For example, for our investigation secondary questions could include: what is global warming, why is high acidity in the ocean a problem; if humans are the greatest threat to the ocean what does this mean?

Students could then investigate these secondary questions and present their findings. This would be followed by a return to the original question where students revisit and deepen their initial answers to include new, relevant information. Thus the learning is being built upon and deepened as students respond to feedback and revisit their thinking.

We're going to look for ways to include SOLE in our regular teaching and learning program.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Increasing Student Agency through the use of Awe

Do you remember the moment that you decided teaching was your career?

Some of us maybe still searching for that moment!

For me, it was in Year 6, as we did the time honoured “light” unit of work. My teacher was eccentric but in one moment helped to define the direction of my professional life. Wrapped in his white lab coat and armed with 4 D-cell batteries, alligator clips, a jar and one of my pacer leads, he made magic happen!

"Let there be light!"

In that moment he captivated all of us with awe. I cannot remember the exact details of what he was teaching but I remember the experience of seeing the light illuminate from the bottle.

There is a constant tension between what we need to teach and what we as professionals know our students need to know to apply this understanding. Frequently, these two don’t perfectly match and as a result, there is a tension. Teachers often try to find the links to draw correlations between the two but an essential and often overlooked element to this connection is awe.

AWE: Amazement + Wonder = Engagement

The more teachers I speak to the more I hear the desire to have student’s access deeper learning. This requires students to think, question, pursue, and create—to take agency and ownership of their learning. When they do, they acquire a rich understanding and the skills that they can apply to become more competent learners in and out of school.

This means we allow them the opportunity to show what they know and then take control of their learning, taking it to places we as teachers could not have even dreamed.

By allowing students to take control of their learning they begin to gain the space to wonder and confront the mysterious. They inquire, ponder and critically think with eyes wide open the beauty that surrounds them. When students stand in awe they experience the source of true Art and Science that generates wisdom and understanding.

When we experience awe it changes our mental models of thinking, filling us with sense of vastness and perspective.

As teachers, we have the privilege to help students understand and process the experience of mental growth at a deeper level. We can do this by finding ways to empower empathy, contextualizing on a personal level the encounter.

We must realize it is disruptive, we can choose to either embrace and encourage it or shut it down.

As with teaching 20th-century skills, we need to be deliberate and intentional. My intention is to create a hunger for learning so the tools I use must serve that purpose.

Tools such as:

  • Genius Hour/Passion Projects
  • Minecraft
  • Coding
  • Makerspaces
  • 3D Printing
  • Augmented Reality
  • Mystery Locations/Virtual Excursions
  • PBL
  • Blogging
  • Digital Portfolios
  • Social Media
  • BreakoutEDU
Too many of us get caught up in the glam before doing the diligence, chasing the next trend. I use these because they have demonstrated through research and evidence to enhance the engagement levels in my class. It is important to remember what works in one place may not work in another so a large 21st Century saddlebag for the learning journey is essential.

A sense of awe is important whether teaching English, Art, Humanities or STEM. However, there are no test that measures awe—or any curriculum, anywhere, that contains a section on wonder but history testifies that it is the greatest driving forces behind innovation and invention. As a result, we can only look at its product.

A Quick History Lesson
On a Stanwell Park beach, Lawrence Hargraves made aeronautic history when he strung together four box kites and hovered 5 meters above the ground in front of a group of skeptical spectators.

He had a sense of wonder, inquiring about the physical forces that allow birds to fly. Using this sense of awe the designed, prototyped and tested his theories and opened the door to other inventors and pioneers.

Building on the understanding of Hargrave and buoyant by the success of their 1902 glider, the Wright brothers recognized that much hard work lay ahead as they moved forward towards the creation of the propulsion system. They were not deterred by this but motivated.

There are countless examples of awe being the spark for curiosity from Thomas Edison with the light bulb, Ada Lovelace creating the written instructions for the first computer program in the mid-1800s, Steve Jobs with all of his “I” things, or Taj Pabaria a 15-year-old student made famous by a 60 Minutes segment, who is considered to be just one of the next generation of entrepreneurs. Their engagement and success derived itself from a sense of amazement and wonder.

Traditionally, subjects are taught separately. The notion of STEM/STEAM education places value on the real world integration and backward mapping. This emphasis puts them at the forefront of education and the new economy.

  • It takes its theoretical roots from Dr. Seymour Papert, founding professor of MIT Media Lab & the research colleague of Jean Piaget.
  • It integrates the design thinking pathway where the student - empathises, defines, ideates, prototypes and tests.
  • It empowers imagination and new ways of thinking about how things work.
  • STEAM embraces new technologies and applies them in novel situations, growing the sense of amazement, wonder and engagement with the world around them.
Dr. Seymour Papert (2016) states “Education has little to do with teacher explanation & more to do with student engagement with the material.”

So through STEM/STEAM we have students engaged with material to create a sense of amazement and wonder. As a result, we find:

  • They are problem-solvers, able to frame problems as puzzles.
  • They are innovators, with the power to pursue independent and original investigation.
  • They are inventors, meeting the world’s needs by creatively designing and implementing solutions.
  • They are self-reliant, able to set agendas and work within specified timeframes.
  • They are logical thinkers, able to apply mathematical concepts and make advanced connections to the real world.
  • They are collaborators, able to flourish in-group settings.

My questions:

  • If this was a leveling gauge where do we sit with student inquiry?
  • What is holding us back from empowering students to go after the moonshots?
  • Could we use a little bit more awe and inquiry to increase student agency?
The funny thing, when we let go, students will surprise us. Now the unit I mentioned earlier, I had the privilege to teach to my Year 6’s this year. Guess which free inquiry experiment appeared?

That’s right the pacer pen light.

To close, William Damon (2008) put it this way, "This is how all young people should feel about life. Idealism, high hopes, enthusiasm and a sense of awe and wonder in exploring the world around them."

Let’s work towards awakening a sense of passion, awe, and inquiry in all areas of the curriculum.

Damon W (2008). The Path to Purpose, Free Press, NY
Macinnis P (2016). Teaching children wonder and science
Mackenzie T (2016) Types of Student Inquiry via Anna Carswell
Pappert S (2016) Quote from Creating Modern Knowledge Conference via Zeina Chalich
Sheninger E (2016) Inspiring Students: Bringing Awe Back to Learning
Sherrington T (2013) Great Lessons 8: Awe
Zakrzewski V (2013). How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Is there a need for Social Justice in Schools? Part 2

This is part two of the Need for Social Justice in Schools series.
Headlines such as “PISA shows Indigenous students continue to struggle” (ACER, 2007) reflect areas of real inequity in Australia’s education system. Reports (Thomson, 2008) indicate that Australia's lowest-performing students are most likely to come from Indigenous communities, geographically remote areas and poor socioeconomic backgrounds. These results indicate that in Australia issues of inequity need to be addressed to ensure access to quality education for all students (Thomson, 2008).
It is important in terms of equity to consider the choice of knowledge and skills selected for the assessments. To achieve equity the curriculum must include valued knowledge and skills consisting of different kinds of cultural knowledge and experience, reflective of all groups, not privileging one group to the exclusion of others.
The goal of assessment must be that students of all groups have equal opportunity to demonstrate best performance, thus ensuring equitable, if not equal, outcomes (Gray & Sharp, 2001). Wolf et al., (1991) contend that education systems increase equality by the employing performance assessments as they allow for the integration of instruction and assessment in authentic, situated or localised means. This form of assessment is compatible with constructivist theories of learning within and across cultures (Garcia & Pearson, 1994).
The multi-dimensionality and flexibility of performance assessment form the bases of its suitability as an assessment system for a culturally diverse society. Aboriginal society is itself highly diverse with a wide range of linguistic and social patterns and aspirations, from rural, traditionally-oriented bilingual children to urban, English-speaking upwardly-mobile students and a host of variations in between (Warren and de Vries, 2008).
Traditional Aboriginal learning focuses on acquisition of real-life skills by observation and imitation (Folds, 1987). As a result, significant errors in the acquisition of these skills were rare.  The implications for culturally sensitive assessments bring to light the need for assessments to be embedded in whole, real-life tasks, not imposed as isolated, decontextualised tests. Collaborative effort should also be valued in recognition that knowledge acquisition is a social process (Wolf et al., 1991).
In a culturally diverse society, flexible performance assessments are more likely to maximise fairness than standardised testing (Garcia & Pearson, 1994). Through the acknowledgement of the socio-political nature of educational assessment and the elimination of performance deficit theories among minorities the issue of equity begin to disseminate (Habibis and Walter, 2009).
Equity or fairness in assessment is a complex issue. Attention to whether all students have access to learning, how the curriculum and standards are defined and taught and how achievement in the curriculum is interpreted are equally important considerations. As facilitators of learning, the desire is to create a learning environment in which students would question, discuss, gain new insights, and collectively solve problems. In essence the education system requires teachers to equip children with strategies for rigorous intellectual activity (Wiggins, 1993) in culturally relevant contexts and using assessments that reflect and commend each child's progress. In taking this stand, teachers challenge practices that contribute to inequities and make curriculum decision that promote inclusion and participate of all children. This commitment to expertise and professional practice is central to improving student learning outcomes. In supporting current learning theory, honouring diversity and encouraging equitable assessment, situated performance assessments appear to show the way forward to educational justice for all children.
Australian Council for Educational Research (2007) PISA shows Indigenous students continue to struggle, Media Release, Camberwell: ACER.
Folds, R. (1987) Whitefella school. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Garcia, G. E. & Pearson, P. D. (1994). Assessment and diversity. Review of Research in Education, 20, 337-391.
Gray & Sharp (2001) Mode of Assessment and its Effect on Children's Performance in Science. Evaluation & Research in Education, Volume 15, Issue 2, October 2001, 55 – 68.
Habibis, D. & Walter, M.M. (2009), Social Inequality in Australia, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.
Warren, E. & de Vries, E. (2007) Australian Indigenous students: The role of oral language and representations in the negotiation of mathematical understanding. In J. Watson & K. Beswick (Eds) Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Mathematics Educational Research Group of Australia, Victoria: MERGA Inc.
Wiggins, G. (1993). Assessing student performance: Exploring the purpose and limits of testing. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Wolf, D., Bixby, J., Glenn, J. & Gardner, H. (1991). To use their minds well: Investigating new forms of student assessment. In G. Grant (Ed.), Review of Research in Education, 17, (pp. 31-125). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Is there a need for Social Justice in Schools? Part 1

It should be a reasonable expectation that all children entering school do so with equal opportunity of success which will be reflected in essentially equivalent outcomes of assessment of a diversity of groups irrespective of class, ethnicity or gender. This paper examines academic inequalities created by the use of standardised testing and some contributing factors including utilisation and the interrelated sociological elements such as language, socioeconomic status and ideological bases.

For the context of this paper, equity is defined as resources, such as services, funds, understanding, context and knowledge are made available to everyone to provide opportunities to participate and succeed, not just certain groups of people; Equality provides all people the right to receive appropriate quality services. Diversity requires educators to reflect the array of differences evident not only in our children and families but in the community. Social Justice sequentially requires educators to challenge discrimination and inequity within our systems of education, community and class (Acedo, 2008). The principles of justice and fairness can be thought of as rules of fair play for issues of social justice. Social justice requires both that the rules be fair, and also that people play by the rules (Saunders, 2004).

Australians overwhelmingly believe in equality of opportunity as a social norm. It is a common belief that Australians’ life chances are less dependent on their circumstances of birth and less hampered by rigid class structure, debilitating snobberies, or lack of social networks, than are the life chances of many people in comparable nations (Crooks, 2006).

When politicians pontificate about equality of opportunity and ‘a fair go for everyone’, they often mean little more than equality under the law. Their concern is to ensure that the legal, regulatory and institutional framework does not impede Australians from competing on equal terms. Many Australians have something far more ambitious in mind than this classical liberal vision. Their norm is substantive equality of opportunity which refers to a situation where everyone is able to develop their full potential irrespective of the original circumstances of their birth and childhood and where a person’s economic prospects are determined overwhelmingly by their own ability and character (Saunders, 2004).

It is possible to gauge the extent of equality of opportunity in society and education by measuring social mobility (Breen, 2010). This reflects the ease and frequency by which people move up the social hierarchy during their lifetime and between generations, irrespective of their different backgrounds and starting opportunities (Habibis and Walter, 2009). Its aim is to discern to what degree individuals can succeed utilising the virtue, talents or motivation (Beenstock, 2004).

Habibis and Walter (2009) surveyed research on social inequality in Australia and highlighted the research that children from low socio-economic, indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds have considerably less chance of achieving large amounts of social mobility over their lifetime than those who come from a high socioeconomic background. For example In Australia, about forty-five percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary school children are deemed to have lower than average literacy and numeracy performance levels, compared with sixteen percent of non-indigenous Australians, a disadvantage carried over into their secondary education (Australia 2020 Summit, 2008) and often beyond.

Habibis and Walter (2009) express how educators unknowingly perpetuated social hierarchies through subject requirements, class activities, teaching methods and communication with students in and outside of the classroom. It was found that many in the past did not accept that the education system is one of the education structures that historically generate social inequalities (Burnheim, 2004). Instead, it was believed that poverty was the basis for educational disadvantage, sequentially the educational system simply registers the effects (Horgan, 2009). The links between poverty and educational processes in the above belief are an over-simplification of the issue. Low income has material effects, such as lack of books and equipment; adding to this is a complex of environmental and psychological pressures, ranging from damaged self-esteem to racism (AARE, 1994). There is an intricate cultural dynamic around education that leads to families in poverty feeling excluded from decision-making process. This paradigm can produce misconceptions about their skills being undervalued and their children being seen as innately less intelligent.

Based on initial readings and examining classroom experiences, teachers desired students to become critical thinkers about social issues, who would review and expand knowledge about oppression, advocacy, and marginalized groups (Groundwater-Smith, Ewin and Cornu, 1998). Carrington and Elkins (2002), research demonstrated teachers desired the classroom experience to be relevant and students to be engaged and empowered by their learning, in an environment that was inclusive; leaving no student marginalized or without a voice in their learning.

Paulo Friere (1970, 2007), the Brazilian educator strongly believed in democracy in the classroom. His pedagogical theory was labelled critical pedagogy and focused on eliminating hierarchy by filling classrooms with teachers who learn and learners who teach. Friere advocated classroom activities that encourage empowerment supporting students to initiate change and take action. Ira Shor (1987, 1992) spoke of the importance of educators maintaining hope and also respecting and caring for students in order for learning to take place. In very similar ways, Carl Rogers (Rogers & Freiberg, 1994) expresses the components needed to structure an atmosphere conducive to learning and change. The work of Rogers reminds educators that the contribution of the relationship to successful outcomes for teaching cannot be minimized.

Overwhelmingly the research indicates that, of the factors that schools can control, quality teaching is the greatest single factor in students’ achievement and that; in fact, quality teaching makes the difference (Rowe, 2002).

There is an argument that teachers have the desire and ability to facilitate change and promote social mobility, it is contended that by using standardised test that do not take into consideration cultural, socio-economic, language and gender the classroom teachers unintentionally perpetuates social injustice. The cultural gap described by Thaman (2003) refers to the distance between the culture of the classroom and the home. It is the process of exclusion of the culture and the non-schooling lives of the students from the happenings and assessment in school. Thurman contends that assessments that have no relationship to the students cultural context intensify the deficit view within the schooling system, this opinion is supported by Connell (1993) and Sturman (1997).

Original standardised tests were created for the purpose of advancement and recognition based on individual merit rather than inheritance or corrupt means (Symes and Preston, 1997). The goal was to provide objectivity and fairness but positioned various populations on unequally grounds as tests were norm-referenced on mainstream children. Wheatley (2006) suggest, the subjective biases reflecting assumptions of the day were built into tests, disadvantaging groups along lines of culture, class and gender.

Broadfoot, (1996) indicated that western presuppositions of intelligence were fixed, measurable and an innate capacity, this notion consequently predisposition certain groups within the student population to become to successful or failures. According to Bourdieu (1974) inequality begins with attitudes and values that originate in the family unit, these are then reinforced by the school through tests that examine presumed acquired knowledge. Often this form of assessment does not draw on the student’s funds of knowledge and cultural capital which they bring with them; this subsequently confirms the low expectations and aspirations of the student who did not inherit the appropriate linguistic and cultural capital (Klenowski, 2009).

This paper is part one of a two-part series on social justice within the Australian education system.

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