From One Carousel to Another… Things to take away from ACEC 2010

It’s all a bit ho-hum, standing at the carousel, waiting for the bag to arrive – especially when you’ve just spent 3 days on an almost out of control carousel spinning in Jeff’s Shed.   Before the ACEC conference, I had written two blog posts and barely 100 tweets.  Suddenly being possessed to tot up nearly 300 tweets and two blogs during the conference seems to have grabbed me, like a water slide and thrown me into a whole new pool.  But, as I find myself surrounded by the humdrum of a Blue Mountains train carriage, I am seized with the question – what did it all mean?

As I attended the keynotes and many of the workshops and presentations, it was immediately apparent that here was a tribe of the idealists with the beliefs and passions I have encountered at the infrequent ICT inservice days, forums and displays over the past few years.  The passion and frustration possessed by many in this field was neatly summarised by Gary Stager – a man driven by the belief that children are all possessed by a desire to create and that technology can help to foster that desire; a man who despairs at the realpolitik and conservatism that creates the boundaries within and without education.  This is a man who would cause Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine to go into a lambasting frenzy about “politically correct baby boomers spouting educational jargon to their fellow travellers, ignoring the need for a back to basics education.”  I can see the reason for his passion and his lashing of the National Curriculum, telling the crowd that we need to stop it.  I did think then and I do think now, though, it’s easy to decry where we are and where we haven’t been, but where do we go from here?

Possible ways forward (as opposed to “going forward”) was the stuff of the rest of the conference.  The best sessions, I believe, were the ones that articulated a vision of using ICT that incorporated an understanding of the limitations inherent in education systems and showing ways to either work within the limitations or how to take school executives and systems with them into rethinking current systems.  It was intriguing to see two Christian Parent Controlled schools with driven, innovative technology co-ordinators encouraging their executives and school boards to allow Facebook and other Web 2.0 tools to enter their school domain, ones banned in the larger systems.  I don’t know if that kind of attitude pervades all of the Christian school sector, it would be interesting if it does do that in the future – especially in the type of schools that ban Harry Potter from their libraries.  It is difficult, however, to see that larger school systems will adopt these approaches to social networking and online video sites.  This is not necessarily because educators will oppose such moves – I can see the public, driven by public “opinion makers” in the media – doing that kind of job.

Alan November articulated a vision that can be seen as possible in our systems – the idea that students can be trained as peer educators.  It is true that students do learn from each other and will be more prepared to ask their peers questions they would not dare ask their teacher.  That is because the brighter peers can articulate what has been said in a lesson in the language that can be better understood by the peer asking the question.  I have experienced this as a teacher of Advanced English in NSW – one of my most successful students in past years made a point of peppering me with questions but also peppering one of the top performing students in the class with questions.  The role of Web 2.0 tools in this kind of peer education is obvious.  Facebook, Twitter and MSN are frequently used by students outside school hours, discussing what is needed to be done in assessment tasks.  If only those conversations could happen when the students outside assessment creation periods, we’d be laughing.  An extension to this idea would be the creation of podcasts by certain groups of students that explain key concepts in a course to the others.

There are inherent problems with this approach, however.  It assumed that there are student/s that can understand the complexity of material dealt with in a course who would be able to explain concepts to the others.  I have experienced many top performing students who can’t explain their ideas to others in a readily digestible fashion.  They just know.  I was a student a bit like that at high school, so I understand their position.  It also assumes that these top students have the time and desire to become a second teacher.  It can be a big ask for students to spend time helping others when they have such big demands on their mental and physical time and energy.  The peer teaching model depends on the volunteering good spirit of students – I think it would unfair to ask or set up “systems” that require students to participate.  I know I am talking here about an institutionalised approach to what is, essentially, an idealistic expression by November.

There is another inherent problem – that of what information is being conveyed, especially in relation to senior courses.  As we in NSW know with the Bored of Studies site, there is the danger of students being sent down garden paths.  I remember having students from a materially affluent area demanding why I hadn’t taught them the Marxist approach to Cloudstreet when there was one on the Bored site.  When they were articulating a deeply flawed, simplistic form of “Marxism”, I knew why I instead encouraged them to read the literary criticisms I had given to them, written about the actual text.  As we do know this peer teaching is happening – we as teachers may need to gently steer the “peer teachers” in refining their understanding of the course – but not force them nor even tell them what to teach others.  That way, we aren’t trampling on their own interpretation of texts – that’s the point of the course, to have their own take on things – but we are helping them to refine their learning, according to the requirements of courses and examinations.  Yes, that dirty word, examinations.  They are a narrowed, flawed form of assessment, but they are there.

Of course, this is narrowing the focus on just senior school and just on the final examination.  November’s ideas are about so much more than that.  In those years when the focus is not so much on exams and more on development of a student’s understanding of the world, the idea of peer sharing and peer teaching through the use of Web 2.0 tools provides teachers with a challenge and great possibilities.  It will be a hard sell, though, for some – the idea that students learn more outside a classroom than in one challenges a host of assumptions and philosophies of schools.

There are also the possibilities offered in Sylvia Martinez’s GenYES program.  There are great possibilities in having students being part of an ICT “Team” or club, helping staff to learn about the use of ICT tools.  The way to implement the ideas, though, needs to be considered carefully.  I will say I am entirely against the idea of students being asked to repair broken technology and using them to do the job of a system administrator, as is what is happening in some of the schools mentioned.  I think that raises all kinds of issues around students doing a job without pay, which is not fair.

In High Schools, I think there needs to be a certain “hand picking” of students who show an aptitude towards the use technology – they will often be the students who are caught fiddling with settings and trying to get around blocks and firewalls.  They can then be asked to be part of a project that would have them spend time out of class to participate in that project – but then having to give up certain other times, such as lunchtimes, after school times, “pupil free days”, etc.  They would then be encouraged to learn how to use a particular tool, play with it and then create a presentation to staff about how to use it.  Get enough of these students, you could have a far more useful workshop where the students show individual staff members how to use the tool.

The vital point about this idea is to make it attractive and enticing to the students.  They would be intrigued to learn how to be a teacher and they would be freed from the period-to-period grind that is the nature of a school day.  However, I think it would be very good for whole systems to come on board – or at least regions.  To work on an even more profound level, education systems, such as Catholic Education Offices, Departments of School Education, etc, could organise workshop days where students learn tools, use them and share ideas with students from other schools.  There would be, on these days, sessions about how to deliver lessons and help to staff.

I have seen, in my own school, a positive culture developed in the past few years around Mathematics – it is seen by many to cool to be a “Mafnrd”.  I can see where the same thing could happen with Information Communication groups (I can’t think of a “cool” term for such a group).

Ultimately, students teaching staff would give them a sense of empowerment and self-worth – especially for those students who can feel isolated because they know how to use computers really well.  It would also help staff formulate a healthy bond with students, accompanied with the development of mutual learning and respect.  It would also help staff realise exactly the worth to students of Web 2.0 tools and the best way to teach with them.

There.  Ways to go ahead.  What else have I learnt?  How to use twitter properly.  That was fun – as has been the meeting of a whole tribe of educators who want to use Web 2.0 to change the world, one classroom at a time.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent summary of the key themes of the conference. As a senior years teacher (as opposed to a teacher who is senior in years!!) I find it so frustrating that I am ruled by the content driven exam. One day maybe there will be slightly less emphasis on the final exam and more emphasis on learning in the final year of schooling. As one of my former year 12’s said….”In year 11 we had so much fun and learnt so much year 12 is so boring!”

  2. Excellent post. Keep them coming!

    The idea of student experts driving technology appeals to me. I teach upper primary school, and even at that level we are finding that there are kids happy to take the lead, support their peers and in particular the teacher. It’s not formalised, it just happens. Those teachers willing to hand over the reigns are benefiting greatly. The ones who feel they have to control all learning, yet aren’t comfortable with technology are falling behind. And there’s so much more that’s possible at secondary level, as you point out…

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