Sunday, 23 October 2016

How much should it matter what the kids like?

"Children like to use technology..."
"Add Kahoot to your class because the kids will like it..."
"The learners prefer to write their answers..."
"I asked the learners to research a topic, and they said they prefer that I teach it to them..."

I can go on and on. Comments like these are common in staffrooms and even more widespread at technology conferences. Both sides of the technology camp call on kids preference to prove their point. 

I used this image recently at a training session, and it was the start of an interesting conversation. But that is a post for another day. Today I am pondering why are we putting so much emphasis on what children like when it comes to technology. 

As teachers, we are educated professionals, with training and experience in both our subject and how kids learn, so why are we letting teenagers dictate what happens in class? 
As you know by now, I am a huge fan of using Kahoot. And yes part of it is because the kids enjoy it. But there are only a few topics in maths where I find it useful. So even though the kids often beg me to play Kahoot, we don't always, because there would be no educational purpose to it. 

But the opposite is also true. Recently I had a conversation with a fellow teacher where she told me that she does not make use of the available technology, because her students prefer her to teach them, instead of researching the topic themselves. 
Off course, the students prefer her to teach them. Not only are they familiar with her style of teaching, but it is the road of least resistance. But the more effort you put into acquiring knowledge, the better you retain it. The road of least resistance is seldom the best from an educational point of view. 

So can we please stop putting so much emphasis on what learners like and what they dislike and start basing our decisions on educationally sound principles. 

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Nobel prizes

The 2016 Nobel season has started, and during the last few days, I was fascinated by the impressive work that people are doing in the different fields of Science. But as I was reading through the news articles I realised that almost none of the prizes was awarded to one person alone. 

"The Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 was divided, one half awarded to David J. Thouless, the other half jointly to F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz "for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter".

And so was the Chemistry prize:
"The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 was awarded jointly to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa "for the design and synthesis of molecular machines".

The 2016 Nobel prize for medicine was an exception, as it was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi "for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy". But if you look back then you will find that this is the first time in 5 years that the medicine prize went to a single individual. 

Even the Peace prize has more often been awarded to organisations than individuals. The only exception to this trend is the Literature prize.

People often ask me why is collaboration such a buzz-word in education? Because, everywhere, everybody is collaborating. When you think about scientists, you might think about this person sitting on in their own lab doing research. The reality is far removed. Research fields are so vast that it is no longer possible for people to work alone. Collaboration is needed if new discoveries are to be made. 

But collaboration does not come naturally to everybody and our current school system put lots of emphasis on individual working, with collaboration left to group work projects in subjects like Creative Arts. So it comes as quite a shock when you enter the workplace, and suddenly you have to work with people. Teachers are actually the worst collaborators. So often you find three different teachers setting up three different worksheets on the same topic. And then I have not started on how often people refuse to share their work.

There is a old African proverb that says:

Tuesday, 4 October 2016


Wow, in less than 10 months I have manage 10 000 views.

Keeping this blog has been an amazing experience. Not only did it force me to reflect about the things I do in my own classroom, but I got to share those experiences with the rest of you.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Why should anything change?

When I talk to teachers about the ways in which technology can change your classroom, I often hear the unspoken question.
"Why should we change the way we teach just because technology has made tremendous strides over the last decade?"

Before I answer the question, I want you to imagine for a moment what your reaction would be if your doctor tells you. 
"There is technology that would allow us to save your limb, but I don't think it is necessary to change my methods just because medical technology is improving, so I am just going to amputate it."  

If it were me, I would be out the door before he has finished his sentence.  So why should teaching be any different? As a teacher you want your learners to learn as much as possible and prepare them as best as you can for the world out there. And that should include harnessing the best techniques out there, whether they are new or old. 

However, it is important to realise that teaching should not change just because technology is changing, that would be the tail wagging the dog. But on the other hand, we can not continue what we are doing just because we have always done it this way. Our current system has been in dire need of change for years.

Fifty to a hundred years ago all knowledge was contained in books and books were expensive and difficult to come by. In this context lecturing was the most efficient way of distributing knowledge.  

In this video clip by Ken Robertson, he explains how the context of the then world influenced the design of the 20th century classroom. 

But teachers have long since realised that standing in front of a class, lecturing, is no longer the most effective manner to get kids to learn, long before technology started to play a role.   Many teachers have started to reject the lecture-based model in favour of learners taking an active part in their learning.
Teachers have found they achieve more if they take the role of educational guide, instead of the fountain of all knowledge. However, there were logistical difficulties that made it difficult for teachers to change their teaching model. This is where technology comes in. With the advance, especially in personal devices, for the first time in the last century teachers are in a position where they can ask themselves, "How would the kids learn this best?" and then have the tools to make that happen. 

So getting back to original question, teaching does not need to change because we have some cool new tools to try or because the school management says so. Teaching has to change because the learners that leave our schools are no longer well prepared for the world they are going to face. The world has changed and so much we. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Fast finger catastrophe

My colleagues often comment on how quickly I can do something on a computer. And most of the time I have to admit knowing your way around a computer is useful. Using things like keyboard shortcuts can be very handy. But I can also tell you from personal experience that it is not always a good thing. 

Sometimes quick fingers can press send, when you should rather have read that email again. 

Sometimes my quick fingers can send the wrong document on Classroom, and cause lots of embarrassment. 

So rather take a extra moment and be sure that what you are sending is really what you want to send. Because once it is out there, it is out there and not everything has an undo button. 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Learning from each other (1) - Youtube channels

Yesterday we had the first in our series of chats with other people who are also using technology to teach. 

Dr Gareth Arnott is a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Stellenbosch. Over the last few years, he has started to use video clips to augment his courses. He made it very clear at the beginning of our conversation that the purpose of the videos is not to replace the lectures or even be the primary form of instruction. He creates them to add value to his courses. 

Gareth started his own channel on Youtube because did not want to just give students the memos to tests, but there was no contact time to discuss the test with them. Especially in chemistry, the process of answering a question is just as important as the final answer.  A printed memo can only give students the final answer. So he started to create memo videos, using only a webcam, a tripod (borrowed from the lab) and some free editing software. He placed these videos on Youtube (at first using a private setting) and shared the links with the students. 

After 3 years he is incorporate videos in his courses in a variety of ways. 

There were a few things that I took back from this conversation:

  • You don't need a big budget to do something. Start small, use what you have and see how it works. 
  • Do not attempt to recreate things that work, but use technology to fill gaps. Gareth explained how first-year students have very little contact with the professors in the department, so he started to film the professors doing the pre-pracs (which was usually done by post-grad students) and adding a little introduction and a bit about their research to the video. Not only could students watch the pre-pracs as many times as they need. But they also got some exposure to the senior faculty and the work they are doing.  
  • Video should not replace contact time. Using a video during a lesson is not a very effective way of going about things. 
  • Making videos does take time, even if you do not attempt to be a professional editor. You also should not attempt to create universal videos that will work for everybody. There are lots of those already on the internet. The point of creating your own videos is to show your students, how you want them to do something. 
  • You are never finished. Every year he re-do some of the videos, either because there are changes in the course, the research or because he thought of a better way to do it. 
  • Youtube is very easy to use and it even includes some editing tools now. 
  • There is always a place for a little bit of fun. 

Video was never a medium that I have considered. Mostly because I hate watching myself on video. But after listening to Gareth, I am inspired to short instructional videos. Just imagine, if I create a database of examples that learners can refer to whenever they can't remember something we did in the previous year. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

How much is too much?

Eric Krieckhaus recently commented the following on my post about Kahoot! 
"I taught until this year at a school that uses Kahoot quite a lot. So much, in fact, that the students experienced a form of "Kahoot-exhaustion". They started answering questions as quickly as possible and at random. They weaker students, especially, would do this. It became less fun for them and more a vehicle for play. 
So...I would caution teachers to use this lesson plan sparingly. The benefits listed above of context and active involvement are predicated on Kahoots being used sparingly."

Eric raised such an important point that I thought it warrant a blog post by itself. 

Whenever I find a new tool, I get so excited about it, that the temptation to use it in every lesson is huge. But overusing it, not only lower the level of your teaching, but it also decreases the effectiveness of the tool. 

Let's leave Kahoot for a moment and look at using Google for research. Sending kids to Google to find some information is an excellent idea. They get to do independent research and not only get familiar with online searches but also realise that they do not need to depend on the teacher as the source of all information. But if used indiscriminately in every lesson, it is more likely that the teacher is too lazy to prepare a lesson and now expect Google to be the teacher. The same can be said about Youtube videos. Videos can add a lot of value to a lesson, but if all they are going to do is watch videos, why even come to school? 

Youtube, Google, Kahoot are just three examples of online tools that can add value to your lessons if they form part of a well-designed lesson plan. But the activity must be designed to guide learners through the learning process in the most efficient and effective way. Otherwise, it just distracts from the learning experience instead of enhancing it. 

Eric also touched on the idea of Kahoot-exhaustion, which is also very true. I think we get all kinds of exhaustion, worksheet-exhaustion, lecture-exhaustion, test-exhaustion. While there is something to be said for routine and predictability, if every lesson looks exactly the same, learners quickly become bored. Today even more so than 20-30 years ago. There is nothing wrong with a worksheet, but if that is all you ever do, you have a very one-sided education. The same happens when every lesson consists of a Kahoot

So how much is too much? How do you determine if you are using a tool optimum or over using it? 
I have set a few rules for myself:

  • I try not to do a Kahoot more than once in a two-week cycle. 
  • I only use Kahoot if there is a specific point that I think Kahoot will illustrate best.
  • I only use an activity when it fits into to the flow of the lesson. A few times I planned on a Kahoot, only to find the learners are so involved in their individual work that I decide not to disrupt them. 
  • I try to alternate online activities, with traditional teaching. The post about BlindKahooting explains how you can do that within one lesson. Other times they will consolidate what they learned in the Kahoot by making notes in the next lesson like we did with classifying quadrilaterals. 

These rules differ from tool to tool. Desmos, which the maths teachers will be familiar with, is very suitable in two chapters. So during that time we will use Desmos in about every second lesson. (I still alternate online activities with traditional ones.) But then weeks will go by without us every using it. 

The point of all of this is that there is no golden bullet in education. There is no single type of activity that suits all topics and all learners. Or maybe there is, a good teacher facilitating a well-planned lesson, utilising a variety of tools to bring their point across.