27 October 2016

Reflecting Through Writing

If April is the cruellest month, then November must certainly be a month of reflection, of balancing the past year and slowly making those New Year resolutions to express in January.

Finding time to reflect is not always easy. In our busy lives, this is what seems to characterise us most today:

James & Evander – “Living the Dream” from Dissolve on Vimeo.

To reflect, one needs to give learners time and purpose. November is the month of writing, either fiction or non-fiction. Why not encourage learners to stop, to break away from the perpetual liking of digital chatter and actually write a reflection of their year?

Maria Popova wrote a beautiful reflection on her seven years of reading and writing - Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living and has this video about it, which is great to share with students:

7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living from Dissolve on Vimeo.

Even if you do not keep a class blog, there are options with other tools to share students' work digitally.

Atavist  is simple to use, with a choice of themes/layouts, and with its drag and drop, quite simple to add images, videos, sounds, maps and most anything learners wish to include in their reflection. 

Their reflection becomes their story, their personalised digital trace of another year which has gone by so quickly. 

And perhaps, through their writing, they may also reflect
on how essential it is to be in the moment, to find inspiration in their future plans and reflect on how best to achieve their goals for this academic year. 

Further Suggestions:

Writing - The Space Between

Life, Light, Action! Videos for Storytelling

Animating Stories

Blogging Platforms Around the Block

Learning Fractals with Stories and Video

Celebrating Writing in November

The Seven Most Important Things I Learned in Seven Years of Reading, Writing, and Living: A Cinematic Adaptation

The Art of Giving, the Craft of Thinking

Late October, and Halloween will soon be here. A few more weeks and the season of giving will descend with a thud of consumerism that has now become practically the norm. My thoughts sway between classrooms and realities that I witness. My thoughts circle this notion of education, which drives learners to only focus on exam results, for schools to push the agenda of grades and academic success, regardless whether learning actually happens or not nor whether students are learning what it means to be human and responsibly social participants in their societies.  

A few days ago I watched in silence as a teenager rejected his father's birthday gift, flatly saying that he had no interest nor use for it. 

I watched in silence as this same teen paid no attention to the efforts that had been made for his birthday meal, as he left the table without bothering to push his chair back to the table. 

I watched in silence, wondering what has happened to the values which children should receive at home and at schools. 

It takes more than good grades to speak about "education". It takes more than good results at school to become a well balanced human. 

Throughout travels in Nepal, I went west, where the government's state school books rarely arrive,  to distribute school books to children. In the Omo Valley, I realised that children did not particularly want my water bottles with water to drink - they wanted the empty bottle, preferably smaller, so that they could fill it with sorghum to take to school with them - their portable lunch. In Myanmar, I learnt how there are not so many beggars in public - everyone is welcomed and taken care of in the temples and by neighbours; there is a quiet consensus that leaves no one out in the gutter.  In the industrialised world, I watch in painful silence how children can take what they have so for granted, without a whisper of gratitude nor consideration towards their elders. 

I remember too how when I began teaching, the staffroom was often filled with frustration of how parents did not give time to their children, did not bring them  up at home and how now teachers were burdened with this extra responsibility of teaching civil attitudes for social purposes.

That was many, many years ago. And in my silence, I wonder what those same teachers would say today. 

What has happened to the art of giving thanks, of showing kindness, thoughtfulness? What has happened to the art of empathy?

I am not pointing the finger at anyone; I am neither blaming parents nor educators. It is a seriously huge effort bringing up children. It is a seriously huge effort being an educator today as well. 

Nevertheless I need to ask, where are these values of kindness, thoughtfulness, empathy and thanking others? Where are these values in the hectic days of meeting national standards, completing national curriculums and pushing learners to pass one exam after the other?

There are choices. 

Even in education. 

Learning the importance of empathy, of kindness towards others, the value of thanking others and being thoughtful to others are not in vain nor a waste of time. They are part of what makes us human. They are part of what makes us social.

Just like stories. 

Just like writing. For it is in writing that one often makes sense of ourselves and our world. It is in stories that one discovers what it means to be a social human.

Things to Think About is a free app (iOS) which offers writing prompts aimed at young learners. 

From thinking and writing prompts related to classrooms, family environments, personal safety and even topics such as receiving gifts, there is a choice for both teachers and learners to choose from. 

Besides prompts, there are challenges too - challenges to think about the future, making decisions and justifying choices. Below are two examples:

Perhaps the art of showing gratitude,  the art of being empathetic and kind towards others is more of a craft. 

If so, then it should also have place in classrooms, where skills and crafts are touched upon through learning tasks.

Giving is not only an act for a particular social/religious event/celebration. Giving thanks, consideration towards others, being able to be empathetic is part of everyday life. 

Do you think these are important values to embed in classrooms?

26 October 2016

Are You Listening?


Using podcasts in lessons is not a new activity and is often part of language classrooms where listening activities are an integral part of lessons. The challenge for teachers is often where to find appropriate listening materials which may be suitable for learners. 

Listenwise is a great site to dip into for lessons where listening activities are linked to other skills and tasks. The majority of lessons are geared towards Social Studies, Science and ELA/ELL (English Language Arts/English Language Learning), but you may also find specific topics by searching for tags. Themes are also arranged under Current Events , which is one way of bringing issues of the real world outside the classroom into lessons for discussion and reflection, especially for foreign language classes. 

Here you can see how each listening comes with an image and then a short recording which can be shared with students with a link (assign). 

Following the listening (which students can listen to in slow mode if it's a premium account), there are listening comprehension questions, classroom discussion themes and even a link to Socrative if the teacher wants to have a quick quiz on the listening. 

The premium account does offer features 
of interest, as you can see, but even without it, it is still possible to test drive Listenwise and see whether it would be of interest to one's institution before purchasing.

For individual teachers, it's a great resource for listening tasks which can be easily shared with students, whether F2F or teaching online. 

Further Suggestions:

24 October 2016

Elements of Leadership in Education


It's no secret that educational institutions often struggle with innovation. Often innovation is outsourced to consultants from outside the institution, and sometimes, even from outside the country. In many instances, collaboration and models of success are an inspiration for the receivers. Other times, teachers are left in a quagmire of demands, high, stressful expectations and more disappointment regarding educational change. Cultural differences are often to blame for these less successful experiences of transplanting educational practices.

Culture, though, is a fuzzy word at times. Too often I have seen how, with the excuse of local cultural norms, educational innovation cannot be implemented.

In many cases, it is not simply a case of the local culture but yes, a clear case of leadership - or, rather, in other words the  lack of  leadership of/for change.  There are river of books written on leadership and educational leadership - one merely has to look at what is available on Amazon. Although I do not regard myself in any way as an "expert" on transformational leadership, there is one thing I do know - and that is that effective leadership in education is not an individual endeavour but one that is collective. Educational leadership can not achieve change if it is pursued by an individual only; effective leadership in implementing change needs to have the consensus and support of a collective team.

Today I had the privilege of visiting Aki Puustinen's school in Muurame, Finland, where he is the headmaster of Muurame Senior High School. Although the purpose of my visit was not connected  to observations of leadership, I could not help but notice Aki's energy and commitment to his staff, students and professional network around the world. The 3 key words that Guy Kawasaki points out (below) - empathy, honesty, humility - are visible in Aki Puustinen's daily leadership practices.

Rather than isolating himself in his office, Aki actively participates in staff rituals  - every day one teacher has the responsibility of arriving earlier and preparing coffee for all the staff, for example. Today happened to be his turn and we duly arrived at the school earlier to ensure that coffee for all the staff would be ready for when they arrived.

As the school's headmaster and an agent of educational change, Aki does not act alone either, but with the support of his teaching staff.

In the staff room, there are sheets where individual teachers can write their names and mini projects which they are carrying out with their students. They share this information in a common area for teachers, in a way that others may see what is being done in one subject area, for example, and then, if they wish,  try to adopt/adapt the same or similar approach to their subject. It is an informal way of sharing approaches, commenting on what went well or not so well; it is an approach to informal learning among teachers in their immediate teaching context. Honesty (if a project did not go as successfully as initially planned) is not penalised - nor is introducing change. Teachers are empowered to contribute, share and comment. Teachers are openly encouraged and supported in their professional learning. Curiosity is fostered, sharing is valued.

The school has its own mascot - with a smile!

Placed strategically, throughout the school, Keke unites both teachers and students, as well as Aki's professional network of educational innovators and practitioners. Leadership in Aki's practices, includes the role of sustainability, and Keke means sustainable development in Finish (kestava kehitys).

Colleagues and educators are welcomed here by the staff and students; both teachers and students do not hesitate in pointing out the positive features of education in Finland,  but  they equally open to learning from others, to collaborate and to pursue projects of sustainable development which benefit everyone.

These traits of humility, honesty and empathy are not an isolated feature of one individual. They are values which are shared, fostered and encouraged among all, making Aki's leadership approach a collective success. Being an active leader, and not a boss who hides behind closed doors sending out emails with orders and deadlines, demands that one participates with equality in the educational setting. This equal participation with staff and colleagues contributes to a culture of cooperation, trust and professional satisfaction among all.

To lead, one needs followers.

To be a leader, one needs to connect with others.

To be a successful leader in education, one needs to engage others in one's vision of change, foster a collective culture of trust, respect and professional support among those a leader works for and with.

Transformation in education may happen slowly.

The need for change does not slow down because of that.

More educational leaders like Aki Puustinen are needed around the world, making educational change a reality and not merely a byword to justify an administrative position.

How do you perceive effective educational leadership?

Further Suggestions:

The Flight of Leadership in Education

Change by Leading

Digital Delights - Digital Tribes - Leadership 

20 October 2016

Assessment with Digital Badges

Among the many changes that are happening now in the educational world, there is one that I would really like to see being implemented more widely - the use of digital badges. 

Evaluation is part of formal education, and increasingly, of informal learning as well (for example, some MOOCs and conferences offer badges for participation). In his reflection on the Role of the Educator,   Stephen Downes points out:

"The evaluator in a digital world is more than a marker of tests and assigner of grades; modern technology makes it possible to assess not merely declarative knowledge or compositional ability, but instinct and reactions, sociability, habits and attitudes."

These are elements which do not always fit neatly in a number or ticked box. There are so many learning moments in classrooms which can neither be summarised with a number nor should they go unacknowledged. And it is not only within classrooms - the learning process itself, whether in a F2F context or on an online course. 

This is where awarding badges is so relevant. When training professionals, for example, digital badges are often more credible than a mere number. When working with students, badges can be motivating and rewarding. 

Yesterday I attended a webinar with Grainne Hamilton who spoke about the different features involved when designing and awarding digital badges. Here you can listen to another recorded webinar with Grainne Hamilton  to know more about Open Badges.

In Hamilton's talk yesterday, two elements of quality assurance were referred to: badges should indicate levels of competency and should be aligned to a competency framework - elements which resonate with how assessment and evaluation of learners is commonly carried out. Another feature was in terms of what drives the awarding of badges - again, the need to give recognition to non-formal learning but also for differentiating and building a talent pipeline.

Digital badges offer challenges and opportunities which educators and trainers may wish to address and award to learners. Here are some possible suggestions for creating your own personalised badges for learners.

Create your own Animation
Makewaves is free and has a badge library reflecting a wide range of activities and learning outcomes in different topics and subject areas. Badges also contain a series of tasks which students need to complete, which teachers can share with students and then track their progress.

Makewaves also  offers video tutorials for creating badges ,  a newsletter for educators, and also a free app.

If you would like to look at another app for badges, there is also Open Badge Academy  which is also free.

A last suggestion for creating badges is the 3D Online Badge Maker, which creates badges, hearts and awareness ribbons.

Further Suggestions:

Appreciation - With a Badge

Running through Rubrics

Awarding Achievements

Clipping the Art - a possible source for finding images for badges

The Role of the Educator

 Effective Assessment in a Digital Age

Effective Assessment in a Digital Age - A guide to technology-enhanced assessment and feedback

Digital Delights - Open Badges

(taken from: What's inside an Open Badge)

19 October 2016

Learning to Learn with Notecards and Games

Learning never comes easy, regardless of all the spins we may want to wrap around it. Learning is not something that is done to others either - it is something the individual engages in. It something that one does to oneself and the more practice, the better one does things.

This is particularly true when learning languages (or anything else for that matter). Learning, failing and picking oneself up again where one failed is an inherent part of learning.

So how can educators help learners in this process of learning? By involving them in their learning process. Among the many different ways to achieve that, one can resort to the old fashioned use of note cards - but today, with a twist.

Easy Notecards is free, can be used on different kinds of digital devices, may be embedded in a website, offers game options (Bingo rooms which can be set to multiple or individual players)  as well as quizzes and matching activities. Sets of books may be public or private (requiring a password to share), you can include images and card sets can be printed.

Easy Notecards , which can be used in any subject, is especially great to use in areas of ESP such as Medical English and Business English, for example, where specific vocabulary needs to be revised and takes time to learn. It can be used in lessons, giving students the opportunity to work in pairs or with online/distant learners. This kind of activity  gives students the opportunity to test themselves, to challenge their own learning and revision practices, and to decide what needs further revision or clarification.

Using digital tools doesn't need to be all bells and whistles and things going pop in the middle of the night. Offering learners digital tools which can be easily accessed on a variation of digital devices is modelling how digital tools can be used for learning, how learning and revising can be done anywhere, and most of all, how students can become autonomous learners, choosing when and where to revise/learn. This is an approach of empowering learners, helping them to become autonomous, active and responsible for their own learning.

Learning, like any element of change,  takes time. Perhaps, learning too, also includes somewhat, painful moments (revising means making a choice to be pro-active in one's learning).

Lessons remembered, however,  are often the ones where one invests more time and effort.

How else can educators help students do revisions?

Apocalyptos from Apocalyptos Team on Vimeo.

Further Suggestions:

Revision with Games

That Time of Year Again - Testing and Revisions

Digital Bridges for Learners

A vision for PERSONalized learning

18 October 2016

Trekking the Mind with VR, Drones and Cyborgs


Today I had the opportunity to attend the opening of  Mindtrek 2016  held in Tampere, Finland. The opening plenary talk was presented by Neil Harbisson, who was born colour blind and today is a well known
artist, cyborgist and colorologist. Pushing boundaries of what it means to be a cyborg, Harbisson amazed and even shocked some members of the audience. 

Among talks ranging from Game Vaporware as Design Fictions  (by Joseph Lindley and Paul Coulton), to Future visions concerning cities and city networks as innovation ( by Gilles Betis) and Petteri Järvinen who gave a keynote on Cybersecurity and Privacy in 2020, touching on the new challenges in data security in modern, everyday life and the loss of privacy, there was a special talk on the uses of Virtual Reality and using drones in education

Aki Puustinen and Jukka Sormunen, both part of the dynamic team made up with Timo Ilomaki, of FinEduVR, presented on the use of VR and drones in secondary schools.

This group is pushing boundaries of innovative educational practices in Finland by using VR for physical education, teaching history and learning biology. The implementation of drones is not forgotten either, as they are used for students to learn technology, becoming prepared for their futures where drones may happen to be more common than used today. This involves careful planning of activities as safety for learners is obviously a priority (e.g. no student may be outside when drones are being used, in case there is a glitch and drone falls).

Here below are two short clips of their talk:

Throughout the day, key words were collaboration and cooperation - whether for finding smart solutions for urban spaces or investigating the nature of creativity among game developers. FinEduVR  was founded on the principles of constructive collaboration, transparent cooperation and a fearless energy to innovate, bringing the future to the hands of learners. 

If you are keen to know more about VR and drones in education, why not get in touch with the three members of FinEduVR to find out  how they are driving innovation in secondary schools in Finland. 

Further Suggestions:

Wearable Sensor Turns Color-Blind Man Into 'Cyborg'

7 Ways to Use Drones in the Classroom

Digital Delights - Avatars, Virtual Worlds, Gamification - A selection of articles and media on Virtual Reality