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No chatting, please!

This is a ‘hot’ topic of conversation at MPoW these days and throughout the country, I believe.  Again, the views expressed are my own, but as usual, I AM right!   (Hmm…)

With the introduction of the latest VLEs, the opportunities to introduce all sorts of  ‘bells and whistles’ abound.  Suddenly, new and complex issues raise their heads, placing leadership teams across the country in challenging, often difficult positions they haven’t found themselves in before.  This is particularly true of schools where the embracing of technology has been later rather than sooner and where there has not necessarily been a clear vision in place. 

As part of  the introduction of our new VLE (Frog if you are interested), we decided to open up a chat facility for our students.  And of course there have been concerns.  On both sides of the fence, these concerns have been understandable, although not all have been well- informed.   Below, I argue the case for allowing our students to use chat, rather than locking the facility down.  Lock down is so, so easy, but does it do our students justice?

Why did we introduce it?  After all we didn’t have to and it would have saved a lot of work and ‘grief’ to simply untick ‘that’ box in the VLE toolkit!

  1. Frog recommends the use of chat, as did other schools who hadalready implemented their VLEs.  They recommend it as a way of encouraging students to engage with the VLE.  Once logged on, the idea is that they will then visit other areas of Frog for more constructive purposes.
  2. More importantly, in my view, is that Chat offers an opportunity for students to make low level ‘mistakes’, within a safe environment.  This is an important element of their eSafety training.  They may not make these mistakes themselves, necessarily, but as they see and hear about other students being disciplined for infringements, they too will learn about boundaries.  It is important that they are educated to a degree that reduces the likelihood of them making mistakes with potentially more serious consequences, outside of school.
  3. It offers students an informal method of communicating with each other, for instance about what they missed in a lesson. This is in keeping with their preferred methods of communication such as MSN,or BBM,  but within a controlled facility.

What we have recognised from the outset – some, but not all of which has been confirmed in practice:

  1. Chatting amongst students may well include inane and time-wasting entries.
  2. Student behaviour on Chat may add to the pastoral ‘load’.
  3. Bullying and unpleasant language may appear on Chat.

Oh dear: aren’t these clear enough reasons to remove Chat? (Addressed by number, as above.)

  1. No: as long as the person responsible for monitoring Chat (and there does need to be an appointed person(s))  is content that the entries are happening in the girls’ own time, this should not be an issue. What is the difference between them wasting time orally and on Chat? There can indeed be useful benefits as far as the school is concerned. More of this later.
  2. The perception that this might add to the pastoral load is not necessarily the case.  There is some time involved in monitoring the Chat facility, but in my experience this can be done quickly, yet effectively.  If borderline activity is ‘nipped in the bud’, the word spreads amongst the students and that behaviour does stop. At the same time students are learning useful lessons about what is and is not acceptable.   Staff, too, can learn valuable lessons about individual students through the way in which they behave and interact in Chat situations.  (Is that really quiet girl in your lesson, quite so quiet when active in Chat?) Again this can help to draw attention to students who have the potential to behave badly – but before they do any real harm, saving pastoral time in the long run.
  3. It is true that Chat opens up the facility for these things to happen, however, my argument in favour of maintaining the facility is twofold.  By behaving like this on our network, we have the evidence to do something about it early and effectively before the behaviour gets out of hand. Those who behave like this are not going to change their behaviour simply because Frog Chat is removed.  They will do it elsewhere, where it is much more difficult for school to obtain any evidence of their behaviour.  The result is that dealing with these issues becomes more time-consuming for the pastoral team.

In schools, do we need extra documentation offering guidelines on the use of Chat?

  • I would argue not.  Students in our establishment are introduced to the AUP in their very first ICT lessons.  In form time, they are introduced to the School Care and Consideration Rules.  Misuse of Chat directly relates to key areas in each of these documents. I believe they are behavioural issues, not Chat issues and should be dealt with as such. An additional document complicates matters, unnecessarily and distracts from the fact that this is a behavioural issue.  The staff responsible for disciplining students can confidently refer to either of the above documents in the knowledge that the rules and regulations therein  have been clearly explained and discussed to students.

Looking ahead:

  • Students could be appointed and trained to take a more active role in monitoring the Chat facility and reporting back to staff, acting as extra ‘eyes’ on the system.
  • The BCS is offering a new eSafety qualification.  Comments are welcome from anyone who knows more about this!

Starters: I know I shouldn’t laugh…

October 12, 2011 1 comment

Honestly, I do know I shouldn’t laugh, but a colleague passed me a link to Philip Beadle’s comments on starters and I couldn’t help it.  In fact, I found it so amusing that I just had to pass it on here, instead of doing what I should be doing and checking my daughter’s CV – sorry L, maybe tomorrow!  (Anyway, it’s your CV, not mine!)  Please note, that these views are mine and do not necessarily represent those of MPoW!

“Two starters to last you for life | Philip Beadle

I don’t really hold with starters. In fact, I think they may well be the very worst of the many bad ideas the DfES have inflicted on teachers, who were quite busy enough before the advent of this fresh new torment.

The initial reaction that teachers had when this idea was first introduced remains true: where’s the time to write, design and implement a whole new additional six lessons per day on top of the lessons I am already teaching? The answer is, ‘There is no additional time you spineless drone,’ and so my advice would be, don’t do ’em. Ignore the four part lesson plan until such point as you are being observed, and then slap out a perfunctory starter or, better still, do a lesson without a starter that is so good nobody will notice that it doesn’t follow the government’s strictures.

A decent ten-minute start to a lesson can take a decent hour to prepare. And those who are too scared to call it for what it is end up either getting the Scrabble out and letting the children play with squares of ivory for ten minutes, or plunging helplessly in the direction of the wordsearch.

However, you may be working in one of those schools where obedience, from both staff and from pupils, is perceived to be a sign of quality; and for you, here are a couple of starters guaranteed to get senior staff off your back.

Bring in a small ghetto blaster and play them some music: something lyrical; something that excites a response: Tupac, Bob Dylan, MC Paul Barman, Sparks, The Silver Jews; anything which is of interest linguistically, and get your class to transcribe the lyrics. This is not only a really buzzy way to start a lesson, but it gets students quiet, developing their ability to listen pointedly, and allows them a brief moment bathing in language; which may just be a reasonable definition of the service we are employed to provide for them.

Ask them to read their transcriptions back after the exercise. You will find yourself in an interesting debate about how language creates meaning.

The only other starter I have ever used employs – whisper it – PowerPoint. If you are lucky enough to have a stock of mini whiteboards and a surfeit of marker pens, then all the better. Otherwise pieces of blank, unlined paper will do well enough. Ask your students to write the words ‘possessive’ and ‘abbreviation’ on either side of a piece of paper or mini whiteboard, then show them a series of phrases on a Powerpoint which could be one or the other. When they are shown the legend, ‘The Teacher’s shoes look like Cornish pasties,’ they should raise the side to you which says ‘possessive’: when they are shown the sentence ‘The teacher’s a fool who wears Cornish pasty shoes,’ the ‘abbreviation’ side should be on display.

When observed, it makes sense to pretend to take some note of their answers.

Two starters should be enough to see you through a whole teaching career. You will rarely be observed more than twice by the same person. And the whole nonsensical idea will probably have been dropped by the point that the third one is booked.”

I’ve got to confess, I’m probably guilty of rolling the really formal and obvious version of a starter out for ‘The Observation Lesson.’  I haven’t tried either of the above, however; I just need to work out how to adapt them for ICT lessons!

Seriously, though, what do I think of lesson starters?    Is a starter, not something any teachers worth their salt already do as part of  their lessons?  Isn’t it obvious that a decent lesson needs a beginning as well as a middle and an end of some kind?  Whatever happened to common sense?  Actually don’t answer that – we could be here all day! Perhaps in attempting to provide scaffolding for trainee or struggling teachers, the focus has become much more about the starter(and all that other ‘stuff’) itself – and anally having one – rather than the point of it.  For instance, does displaying lesson objectives on the board make them successful? 

Rather, I think if every teacher approaches his or her lessons in the same way, structuring them in exactly the same linear fashion, we’re back to boring our students rigid!  What do you remember most about being at school?  For me, it is those lessons that were different to everyone else’s.  It is those facts and details that were conveyed in an engaging and interesting way by teachers who did not necessarily conform to the accepted ways of delivery.

At the same time, I do not wish to be dismissive.  There are some excellent and creative lesson starters out there which can be used to do exactly what it says on the ‘Starter Tin’ – they can consolidate earlier learning and understanding, create a challenge and an expectation that all students should be thinking and participating in the lesson right from the outset.  And, I’ve got to confess (hrmph) that my colleague and I have just been responsible for uploading the TES’ starter and plenary ideas to our VLE. 

Doesn’t mean I can’t have a laugh about them, though!  And I did. (Sorry about the CV, again, L!)

PowerPoint is dead: long live Prezi!

October 10, 2011 1 comment

I disagree.  There seems to be a pervasive snobbery about the use of PowerPoint and, indeed, Microsoft could do more to ‘freshen’ it up: add a few more modern design templates and features, but it is not dead – YET.  When used effectively, it can be an excellent support to a well delivered presentation.  Emphasis, however, is on the qualifying When. 

In my view, it is not the tool which is the problem; it is the user!

The problem is that just about anyone can use PowerPoint.  How many of us has seen it used effectively, however?  I know I can probably count on just about one hand the number of good presentations I’ve seen over the years.  The answer is not to ‘kill it off’ and replace it entirely with applications like Prezi.  I enjoy watching a Prezi presentation, but if I’m honest, I can’t quite get my head around putting one together – my brain simply doesn’t work that way and I don’t think I’m the only one.  Prezi is great, but it is not for everyone.

No, in my view, as educators, what we need to do includes:

  • teaching PowerPoint properly – not teaching the skills in isolation from the idea of audience, purpose and delivery.  Lesson objectives should place equal weight on each of these.  What is the point of being able to embed a video, if the presenter stands in front of the screen and at no point engages with the audience or its needs?
  • spelling out to our students that it is the presentation that is important, not the application itself – the skills we teach using PowerPoint need to be transferable and this is where an introduction to something like Prezi at the same time can help;
  • finding out what students already know and ensuring we are moving their knowledge and understanding forwards, not sideways, or even worse, backwards. A brief conversation with a feeder school colleague, this morning, allowed us to compare notes in this respect.  It doesn’t take long to get a sense of what they have already been taught and to discuss progression!
  • As staff, weaning ourselves off using it for non-presentation purposes!  It sends out the wrong message.  Yes, it can be really handy for structuring lesson material and I’ve got to say, I’m reluctant to give that aspect of it up, but let’s look at alternatives.  (Ideas welcome!) Just because it is easy doesn’t mean it’s right – which returns us to my main criticism of PowerPoint! (User, rather than tool, error.)
  • Discourage staff  from allowing their students to submit work which should be on Word, or a similar application, via PowerPoint.  Why are they doing this?  Surely, this is the equivalent of trying to open a bottle with a knife, instead of a bottle-opener!  It makes no sense.
  • Too much of anything is boring and does not engage.  Avoiding the overuse of PowerPoint is another area we must aim to address.
  • Being more critical of students when they present using PowerPoint in forums such as assemblies. Just because they have spent a lot of time on it doesn’t mean it’s good and they shouldn’t be led to believe it is: these students have to go into the real world to pitch and sell – they need to be told it how it is!

Digital immigrants continued…

I’m liking what James Shackley is blogging about the transparency of  technology:  http://franticbuttonbashing.wordpress.com/  I could not agree more with his assertion that “technology has to be reliable… if equipment cannot be trusted and staff have no confidence in it, it is destined to fail.”  We can have all the equipment we like in our classrooms and other spaces, but if it is not reliable and, equally, if staff are not trained and confident in its use and benefits, then what is the point? – staff end up frustrated and with a growing aversion to and fear of technology, whilst students are short-changed!  None of this helps towards the end goal – learning! (Well, staff learn to hate technology, more!)

I was interested to read what Brian Lockwood, Director of IT at Egglescliffe School has to say about empowering staff to use IT effectively.  The approach at his school is for individual departments to choose their use of technology, rather than chasing it at a whole school level. “There is no sense of wanting to keep control of IT from the centre; instead the IT service at the school is based within teachers’ own specialisms.  Individual teachers are the experts in how IT can be used within their subject, not the people in the IT Department.”  This sounds like a model to aspire to, however, how realistic is it for most schools of the present? Lockwood believes that, “the days of seeing a division between staff who are competent and those in the dark ages has gone.  Now the generation who were talked about for their computer skills are coming into schools as teachers and they are encouraged to be the main contributors to development.” 

But is this representative of the experience of most schools, today, and if not, what then? 

In my experience, there remain staff, in large enough proportions, who neither see, nor understand the benefits of using technology,  and are resistant to developing their skills in this area because, ‘Our results are excellent, why would we change the way we do things?’  Should this be of concern?   I believe if our aim is to prepare young people for the modern world, then yes, it is.

At the same time, technology must never be the master of education, but the servant.  Returning to my initial point – technology MUST be reliable.  It MUST do what it is intended to do.  Otherwise, it simply will not be used by teachers.  Obviously, there will be occasions when technology by its very nature fails, but this should be the exception rather than the norm. Time is precious in the classroom and there is no room for ‘messing about’ with teaching tools that do not work.  We have been taught to recognise, and research demonstrates, that young people are used to receiving information very, very fast and they have relatively short attention spans.  They thrive on instant gratification.  They are no longer the young people I, and people like me, were designed to teach.  Neither are they being prepared for the world we were trained to embrace: something I recognise and attempt to address in my teaching. But what hope  for the teacher who, right at the start of the lesson, cannot open  her electronic register as the connection has failed again, or she who has taken the class to the IT suite for her ‘once that term’ IT lesson, only to find that the network is down or a number of students cannot log in?  Here we fail to engage and, more likely, enrage our students.  For them, the whole process and procedure of our teaching is TOO SLOW!  Whilst trying to powerup the pcs, our students are in the process of powering down! In these instances, the lesson WOULD be better without the access to technology.  This is where IT targets being forced on individual teachers often does not work, failing both staff and students.

In my view, engaging our students on a level that they understand,  enjoy and learn from, involves a number of  considerations:

  1. A reliable infrastructure, reliably maintained and supported – this is an absolute key and unless it is in place, forget the rest!
  2. A clear vision supported by an Action Plan, neither of which should be a ‘box-ticking’ exercise, but living, breathing documents, subject to regular review – daily, weekly if required!  These should work equally, whether approached top-down or bottom up!
  3. Staff choosing, even to an individual level, within departments, what technology they will use and the systems being in place for them to download and trial software on their own school laptops.  Avoiding over investment in one tool for learning avoids being left high and dry when this tool is superseded by another.  This level of flexibility also gives greater opportunity for students to develop adaptable skills and to work and think creatively.  It means they are not doing the same thing in the same ways across the curriculum.
  4. For the above to work, the school must consider cross platform support; some individuals may prefer Macs and others Pcs, some netbooks and others ipads.  Acceptable Use and Esafety measures (more of this is a later post) for staff and students need to be in place and, at department level, annual proposals need to be submitted to the IT Department so they can plan the support required.
  5. The school needs to be able to respond to training needs beyond what an inset day can provide.  And training is of no use unless it can and will be followed up by opportunities to try things out in a relevant – often departmental way.
  6. Where all staff are not on board, this is the time for management to look at the whole student experience.  Will  the range of  subjects and staff encountered by an individual student permit her / him to gain the teaching and learning opportunities and experiences  that will  develop and instil the digital literacy skills required for progression in today’s world? If so, then isn’t this sufficient?  If not, then what can be changed?

If we have individual staff who resist employing technology in the classroom, what then?  If they are about to retire and their teaching is sound, well get off their backs!  If they are 22 years old and new to teaching, then they must be persuaded of the benefits.  Why has this ‘gap’ not been picked up at interview?!  Is it because the school does not value these skills, in which case need I say more about why these things fail at classroom level?

We are living in a world of change and that can be  frightening, challenging, but so, so exciting.  No-one has all the answers, but I take reasurance from what Hoffer said in 1973, “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”  It is not WRONG not to have all the answers.  It is wrong, however, to bury our heads in the sand, adopting an ‘everything was so much better in my day’ attitude which ignores the changing needs of our students!

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