Thursday, 3 October 2013

Inquiry learning, hacking iPads, and being safe online

You may be aware that there's been a bit of a kerfuffle lately about students in California 'hacking' their newly issued school iPads so they can access sites outside of the school-prescribed list, including the usual suspects Facebook, Pandora and YouTube. Audrey Watters summarised the issue nicely for The Atlantic. My initial response to this is surprise that a school district would be so naive as to expect that students wouldn't find a way to access the sites that they want to, and a little bit of disbelief that the districts are still trying to lock students out of these mainstream social media sites.

It's easy to leap to the response of "we just need to teach students how to manage themselves appropriately online" as the logical fix for this problem. However, on further reflection I'm left wondering if this is overly simplistic, and much harder in practice than it is to tweet.

Before I develop this idea further, let me take a little side track to a conversation I had with my Year 11 Photography and Design class (15 - 16 year olds, and one adult student) last Friday. We talked about the various forms of social media they use: Facebook continues to be big. Twitter is not. Pinterest has a couple of users. Some don't use social media at all. Tumblr was next to Facebook in popularity, and one member of the class had over 15,000 followers for her Tumblr. Yeah, I was blown away too.

We talked about their sense of safety online too, and their general response was that they protect themselves by having pretty high privacy settings on the social media that allow that, and they seem to be reasonably critical in their thinking about who they accept as online friends. On the other hand, several had had accounts hacked, and the idea of 'creepy guys' trying to interact with them online was something that most had experienced in one form or another.

In this context, what is a good approach for secondary school educators to take in terms of helping ensure the safety of our students online while at the same time facilitating the development of their powers of inquiry and critical engagement with the world? I'm not a big fan of a highly restrictive approach in the name of 'protecting' students because I think it seldom enables them to develop the skills that will enable them to look after themselves post-school (and outside of school hours). Obviously though, giving them free reign to go wherever they want and engage with whatever they like online is not reasonable either.

I keep starting to write sentences that propose one idea or another, but the bottom line is I'm not really sure what the best approach is, and I'd like to hear from others about what they're doing in this sphere. If I was to make one suggestion, it might be to hark back to the concept that 'it takes a village to raise a child' and suggest that we need to engage our whole communities in helping our young people develop the skills to be citizens online. This involves engaging with them in their various communities both online and offline so we can continue an authentic conversation about who and how they are in the various worlds they inhabit.

What do you reckon?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Tussling with ideas in front of students

Recently I came across Erin Quinn's blog post about the Creativity Assessment Wheel, and it lead to a really interesting discussions between several members of our arts faculty about whether creativity can be taught or not. The crux of the issue came down to whether analysis of art works is a skills that can be developed by providing/co-constructing with students clear criteria about what is a "successful" image/musical work/performance etc., of if this is an inherent ability that some people have and others lack. We tossed this idea backwards and forwards, primarily based on a Lorde's track Royals (it's not strictly conventional so if you were teaching a student what made a 'good' track you might recommend that it didn't meet the 'standard' criteria for composition, but clearly it's worked anyway!), and a Visual Art folio example.

The more significant outcome of this discussion though, was a conversation I had with students afterwards. While we were talking about the Creativity Assessment Wheel four students were in the classroom working away on their folios for external assessment. When the other two staff members left, one of the students said to me "That was pretty intense! Is that the kind of discussion you and Mr often have?" (I'd mentioned to them previously that I really enjoyed the discussions about approaches to learning that Jesse Te Weehi and I have from time to time), and we got to talking about what the students thought about the Wheel.

This all got me wondering about how often as teachers do we model for our students the process of intellectual engagement with an idea. I think our current school structure doesn't provide a lot of room for this, and it's pretty easy for us to come across as if we have firmly established ideas about how to 'deliver' education. That probably doesn't help so much if we're trying to develop our students as lifelong learners, and people who tussle with ideas.

What do you think?

Sunday, 4 August 2013

NCEA, Spoonfeeding and Blooms Taxonomy

Yesterday Fairfax published a story by Jo Moir about students using NCEA assessment resource exemplars as a source of much of what they need to know in order to pass school based assessments. The story suggests one of the key problems is that teachers frequently don't modify the exemplar assessments prior to using them with students, so students can access the 'answers' and memorise them.

Image from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
If this is the case, it seems to me that we have a massive problem with our entire education system. The issue isn't that students can access the 'answers', it goes much deeper than that. Recently I've ended up chatting with a number of people about Blooms Taxonomy and the categories from it that we tend to expect students to operate within. If students are working, and being assessed, at the lower end - remembering, and maybe understanding - then they can conceivably access an exemplar online, memorise it, and do well in the test. But if we are working with students in the evaluating and creating categories then the online exemplars provide nothing more than a structure to guide a learning experience, and there is no way to cheat because new understandings are being generated, rather than old knowledge being regurgitated.

I've been wondering how a student could cheat at producing work for Passionfruit Magazine (Volume Two of which, by the way, is now available), or any similar project based learning, and I think it would be pretty hard to do. Yes, a student could conceivably find an article about an artist and try and pass it off as theirs, but they'd have to set up a fake interview that appeared to give them source material, and then provide multiple drafts that incrementally developed towards the final piece of writing. And then they'd have to do the same with a DPS design, etc, etc. Why would they bother?!

I guess what I'm saying is that if the system is based on students engaging authentically with the world outside of school, and the motivation driving them is to make connections and learn more about how and why the world works like it does, the issue of them giving answers they've copied from elsewhere tends to be nonexistent.

Most of the predictions I've read about the world we're trying to prepare students for suggests that the skills they need come from the 'top' of Blooms Taxonomy, not the lower regions. If we focus on that, the likelihood is that we won't really need to worry about cheating because we'll be generating something new, rather than repeating the old.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Semi-Permanent Auckland 2013

Wow, it's been a while since I posted anything. That probably gives a good indication of the busyness of school lately, with an Education Review Office visit at the start of term, and the ongoing action packed life that is the development of Passionfruit magazine!

One of our major excitements for the last week has been a trip to design industry conference Semi-Permanent Auckland to carry out some interviews, gather some inspiration, and, most importantly, to give students a chance to see some of the options for making a life in the arts. We ended up taking nine students for the two days, seven of them from Passionfruit Magazine and two others who were keen to join us. This was a really positive improvement on the three who came last year. This was aided by Semi-Permanent giving us two tickets to give away (and an extra free one - thanks heaps SP!), which has helped build the profile of the magazine through social media.

Here's a short video of some of what we got up to over the two days. The three people being interviewed are (in order of appearance): Askew One (Graffiti artist); Matt Boulder (Art Director of Digital Kitchen); and Kelly Thompson (Illustrator).

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Mission Hill

Just after posting the last entry I watched the first five episodes of 'A Year at Mission Hill', a documentary about Mission Hill school in Boston. The collaborative (and extensive) planning their staff take part in, and the sharing of food at meetings and with the school community seem like they're approaches worth pursuing.

A Year at Mission Hill. Chapter 5: The Eye of the Dragon. What is the relationship between points of entry into a study and engagement?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Manaakitanga - kindness, respect and humanity

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of manaakitanga recently, as it applies in the classroom, and in the wider context of staff leadership. For those of you unfamiliar with this Māori term, it's a concept that embodies the ideas of reciprocal caring for others and the environment, showing kindness and hospitality, treating people with respect and establishing nurturing relationships. The Kōrero Māori website provides an additional explanation of the concept if you're interested.

What's interested me lately is how vital the establishment of an environment that embodies manaakitanga is for authentic risk taking and learning to take place. In the case of the magazine project one of the changes I've noticed this year is that those of us (yes, I include myself) who are in their second year have a much better understanding of the need to care for and support each other's learning if we are to collaborate effectively than we did when we were fresh into the project. While the day to day experience is definitely not all rainbows and light and happiness (just like any other working environment, although this one is staffed mainly with adolescents!) there have been several times when the group has noticeably drawn together to support each other when needed. As a result of this there seems to be a stronger sense of cohesion, and more students are going to a deeper level with the research and investigations they're carrying out.

In the context of staff leadership I've been reflecting on manaakitanga as it relates to change management and raising performance. As a school (and let's face it, as educators in general, particularly those of us working in public education at the moment) there's a fair amount of pressure to raise student academic outcomes. In abstract terms this is pretty hard to argue with, and I think most individuals would agree that as educators we should be doing what we can to improve our students' achievement. 

However, in practice there seems to be quite a fine line between encouraging staff to review and reflect on their practice with an eye to improving it and leaving staff feeling overwhelmed or resistant to the changes required to see students do better. Once again manaakitanga seems vital to the process: without the experience of being respected and nurtured through the process it's much less likely that we will take the risks necessary to make meaningful and lasting changes to our practice.

I read recently that from the word go Google set themselves up to provide a version of this kind of support (although I'm not sure what the Silicon Valley term for manaakitanga is!). However, I'd be interested to hear from others of you who are working in a public school environment about how you ensure there is an abundance of manaakitanga for both your students and your staff.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Educating Entrepreneurs?

Yesterday I got into an extended discussion on Twitter with Tom Peters, Mark Bradford, Jeni Little and a few others about how teacher training needs to be modified so that it is in step with the world that our students are graduating into. The discussion was sparked by this blog post by Tom Peters, which I recommend you read.

Anyway, it's got me thinking about how as an educator one can develop an entrepreneurial spirit in young people. The reason I think this is so important is because, as far as I can tell, the world that our students are going into is full of uncertainty and unpredictability. If they are to thrive in this environment they will need to be highly adaptable, and able to make the most of any new situation they find themselves in. In this context I'm defining an 'entrepreneur' as someone who is able to use their networks and practical and intellectual abilities to make the most of a situation, rather than just someone who launches new business ventures. I'm thinking social and educational start ups, not just money making.

So, that leads me to considering the role that this project is playing (or perhaps is not playing?) in developing entrepreneurs.

There is a school of thought that says that students will learn better if they are aware of what they are learning (eg having a written learning intention on the board for each lesson). We are not explicitly teaching entrepreneurial approaches through the project, and I don't think I've ever talked with the students about what they're learning in terms of them becoming entrepreneurs. But I do hope that the attitudes they're developing in relation to learning (perseverance; seeing challenges as problems to solve, not walls; making connections with others out in 'the world') are setting them up for the lives they're going to live.

Is this enough though?

I'd love to read your thoughts.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

UPT Digital

On Thursday four members of our teaching team had a Skype hui with Renea and Rachel from UPT Digital in Christchurch. UPT Digital is part of Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti, a very student focused state high school in Christchurch, NZ.

UPT Digital began four years ago as an ICT class that was looking for a more inspiring name and way of operating, and now operates with a flexible structure that allows students to spend 3 or more hours a week working on self-directed IT projects in small teams with input from local and international mentors.

It was fantastic to meet with some others who are using a similarly project based approach to us, and we were simultaneously affirmed and challenged by the approach they are taking. We covered a lot of ground in the 30 or so minutes we talked, but two of the things that stood out to me are:
  • UPT Digital is tailored very well to the particular context they are working in, both in regard to the students at the school and the commercial environment (IT industry) they are working with. Their projects are student-passion driven. They collaborate with industry, and are building a direct route for students to move from the school to the workplace. This lead to some interesting discussion with our teaching team after the Skype session as we considered how this approach could be applied in the context of visual arts and music, which are in some ways quite different to the IT industry.
  • Renea Mackie (the project director) takes an admirably up-front approach (I hope you don't mind me writing this Renea!) to making contact directly with industry for the benefit of her students. "We were Skyping the other day with Rod Drury about Pacific Fiber"; "We were working on an event, and school wasn't open, so we talked to Vodafone and used their offices". These industry contacts act as both mentors and collaborators, and are a central part of the UPT Digital approach. This has provided great encouragement for us to strengthen the our current contacts with people in the commercial world, and work to develop many more relationships.
If you are interested in what UPT Digital are doing, and think it might be something you'd like to bring into your own school there are already a number of 'pods' operating in New Zealand and overseas. 

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Students stepping up

One of the student leadership roles we have as part of Passionfruit Magazine is the Social Media Manager. This is a key role in terms of building our audience engagement within the target group. It's interesting to note that although the role might be viewed from the outside as a chance for the student in charge to play on Facebook all day, the task of engaging an audience is actually a really complex challenge. We've had a number of discussions over the past couple of weeks about the type and frequency or posts, and have tried out various approaches.

On the weekend of 2/3 March Ezra, our Social Media Manager, hit a good balance of engaging content and frequency of sharing. It's been impressive to watch how her engagement with the role has increased, and how she's becoming increasingly savvy and analytical about how she goes about the role. This was confirmed this evening by several posts she spontaneously made in our project Facebook group sharing and commenting on data from the 'Insights' section of the project page, and relating the current Facebook audience to our magazine's overall target.

It's so rewarding to see students taking control of and responsibility for their own learning!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Teachers collaborating

As I've mentioned previously, in addition to the 'Art Project' (which produces Passionfruit Magazine), this year we're also running the 'Music Project'. This project is designed to work with students who are musically very able, but who have struggled to gain the literacy and numeracy qualifications necessary for them to move into tertiary study. This group have a couple of timetable lines allocated to music and integrated curriculum learning, as well as being in an English class on their own. Most are also in an NCEA Level 1 Photography and Design class that I teach.

Because of the dense nature of many Visual Arts texts (often written in International Art English, as it has sometimes been termed!), I put quite a bit of effort into building the students' capacity for unpacking complex written texts. As you might imagine, this has brought up a few challenges for a group of students who aren't exactly lovers of written texts, let alone complex ones!

One of the major benefits of having a group of teachers focused on working with the same students is that we've been able to tackle the same challenges from different angles. A recent case in point was the English specialist (Laura Green) being able to use some English class time working with a text unpacking exercise that I'd set the students for homework. As a result, five of the of the six students who had barely attempted their initial text unpacking assessment handed the most recent one in complete, in most cases the day after they'd been given it, despite the deadline being a week away!

This may seem a small step in some ways, but considering the academic histories of these students it's a success I'm more than willing to celebrate!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Permission to screw up

When we focus too much on doing things perfectly, we don't engage in the kind of exploratory thinking and behavior that creates new knowledge and innovation - Halvorson

Recently I came across Heidi Grant Halvorson's piece about our attitude to making mistakes and how this effects out ability to be innovative: 'Why You Should Give Yourself Permission to Screw Up'. Given that we're at the start of a major project with Passionfruit Magazine (ie beginning production of Volume 2!) and that many of the students were feeling the pressure of the first deadline (for article concepts to pitch to the editor) approaching, it seemed a good idea to sit down with the crew and pull the article apart to see what we could learn from it.

In essence, Heidi's argument is that people approach any new task with one of two mindsets: the 'Be-Good' or the 'Get-Better'. The former mindset dictates that they must be good at any task they try, and consequently can be limiting in terms of approaching unfamiliar territory. The latter mindset approaches an unfamiliar situation as a chance to learn and tends to be much more resilient in the face of unexpected challenges.

Further to this, because the 'Be-Good' mindset makes us see mistakes as something to avoid it tends to result in increased levels of anxiety when approaching a problem, which reduces our working memory and gives us less ability to think creatively and analytically.

So . . . the big lesson for our students (and their teachers, who admitted that they all deal with their fair share of 'Be-Good' tendencies!) as the project gets underway is to acknowledge that what we've taken on is challenging and won't always turn out the way we hope or expect, and to agree to do our best to communicate and seek help rather than hiding from the problems that will inevitably crop up.

I guess you'll see from later blog entries this year how this has all turned out! is Behance's education arm. It's well worth checking out, if you're not already familiar with it.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Unsolicited positive feedback

Earlier is week I received an email alert that my teacher Facebook profile had been tagged in a student post. What a pleasant surprise it was to find that the post was the lovely affirmation shown above! The student who posted it is one of the Year 12s who have joined the team this year.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

2013 begins!

A new year. A new group of students. A new volume of Passionfruit Magazine. A revised approach to making it.

School started back for our seniors on Friday 1 February, so it's been just over a week since we started working with the second group of 'ArtProject' students. We've got four new Year 12 students, three new Year 13's and six Year 13's coming back for a second year of the project. That's a total of 13 students: a beautifully small class and a good number to work with, but not really sustainable in the long (multiple years) term. More about that some other time.

We're trying a few different approaches this year with regard to the structuring of learning. To begin with, rather than last year's 'Hack your learning space' exercise, which gained a lot of interest from parties outside of the project, but was not entirely successful in terms of student buy in and long term working relationships, we're sticking with the physical classroom space pretty much as it was. We'll re-arrange it according to the needs of specific phases of the project, but there will not be a major 'building phase' to begin the project.

We're also taking a more structured approach to the presentation of individual parts of the project - units of work one might call them in a more traditional classroom. While the 'We'll make authentic work for a magazine, and this will provide evidence for assessment' approach was good in theory, in practice many (probably all, to be truthful) of the students found it really challenging to work in this mode. On one hand it could be argued that this is because the school system has trained them to require spoon feeding in terms of 'do this task, then this task, then this task, then hand it in to your teacher and you'll get credits'. On another hand it could be argued that students at secondary level need some degree of breaking down of a big task into smaller, more achievable components if they are to experience success. On yet another hand, moderation requirements currently demand a fair degree of structure in assignments if a school is to retain freedom to offer all achievement standards.

The outcome of all of this is that we are presenting students with a series of open ended assignments that will (hopefully) give them the flexibility to produce the work they want to for the magazine, while at the same time giving them more structure than last year. I (Sam) am still in two minds about this, because I suspect that ultimately we need to produce learners who can break a major task down into parts they can manage, but maybe my expectations are a bit high . . .

We've also changed the teaching team, bringing a different English specialist on board, and replacing one of the Visual Arts specialists with a Music/Technology specialist. So the teaching team is now Sam Cunnane (Visual Arts/Project Leader), Anna Dowthwaite (English) and Jesse Te Weehi (Music/Technology). Jesse's role will be largely in relation to the web-based components of the magazine, but he is also leading a second integrated curriculum project in the school ('MusicPro', but more about that another time).
Chris Hadfield
The Earth has problem skin; one popped, the other didn't.
Finally, we finished the week on a bit of a high, in the middle of making arrangements to do an interview with an astronaut (Chris Hadfield) who takes photographs from the international space station. He's well worth following on Twitter - @Cmdr_Hadfield