It never hurts to ask.

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I was reminded this week of a lesson I learned while getting my first undergrad degree: “It never hurts to ask for more when you are prepared to hear ‘no’ as the answer.”  The lesson was specifically in reference to asking for student discounts because most aren’t advertised.  I thought of this again because my wife, Heather,  and I took an overnight trip to Vancouver this week.  She went to the theatre with a friend while I went to UBC, where I’ll be starting my Masters of Educational Technology, and got my student card.

When we checked in to our room that we reserved on, Heather asked for a room high enough to see the new roof on BC place.  Not only did we get that, we got a complimentary upgrade  to a suite and a view that included BC Place and the Vancouver Public Library.  We were prepared to accept the room we had reserved, but were please with the result in asking for something more.

Image Source: Wendy Kohn

In the news this week there was a study that showed that “rude men” earned 18% higher wages and “rude women” earned 5% higher.  The thought is that these rude people demanded (not deserved) higher salaries, were persistent in asking for them and got what they asked for.

While I don’t condone this strategy, I do believe there is transference into schools.  In these times of budget cut-backs and layoffs, we need to know exactly what resources we need and want, be able to make a strong case for them and then be persistent in asking for them.  I’d add that success can be had without being rude, too.  There are more resources available than many of us know or are being told.  For example, I received a copy of MS Office Academic 2011 this week for $12 from my district’s work from home project.  I also heard that our international travel budget was far from used up.  I think I might have found a way to afford ISTE 2012 next year in San Diego!  So with a little exploring, we can find resources we weren’t aware of and with persistence, we might be able to get others we want and need.


On Fishing and Learning

I’ve had the good fortune to do a lot of fishing lately; sometimes I take my daughter and sometimes it’s just me in the early morning hours. In this quiet reflective time it’s struck me that I’d like to make learning like fishing.

Fishing is accessible to all. All you really need is a a stick and a line. Sure fancy equipment will help you get deeper and reel in something larger and some will want, even need that, but anyone can fish and catch something; learning should be the same way. Learning activities need to be set up such that every student can learn in a way meaningful to him or her.

Fishing provides appropriately levelled challenges. Whether it’s fishing with a stick and a line for bullheads or deep-sea fishing for marlin with heavy tackle, there’s always something attainable that’s just a little more challenging and a little more rewarding, but it’s all fishing.  Learning should be the same way.  Learning activities need to be setup in a way that there’s always something more to aspire to without doing something different.

Fishing is completely engaging, addicting even. Fishing has you eagerly awaiting the next bite. Constantly thinking questioning your choice of lures, location of cast, and just how long you wait before winding it in and casting again.  The metacognition is a huge part of fishing and the part that keeps you engaged when the bites are slow.  Learning should be the same way.  Learning activities need to constantly challenge the learners to think about their choices, evaluating whether or not they can make their project better and,  in doing so, improve their learning.

Fishing gives instant, meaningful feedback. If you’re doing it right, you’ll get a bite. Keep doing it right and that bite can turn into a hooked fish and a landed fish.  There’s no need to wait hours, days or more… if you do, that’s  some pretty clear and powerful feedback.  Learning should be the same way.  Granted, it is difficult to design learning activities that intrinsically give instant, meaningful feedback.  This is where the role of the teacher really comes in.  It is not difficult to give this type of feedback when the learning activities are challenging and engaging to all.  It can be as simple as a comment as you walk by; and I don’t mean, “good job” and, “that looks good.”  Kids need to hear, “I like the way you [X], it shows that you really thought about [Y].  Have you considered [Z]?”.

Diversely Engaging

While I attended a district planning meeting today for our first district-based PD day next year, I had a bit of an enlightenment.  The general plan for the PD day is that we’re going to meet as families of schools (high schools and their feeder elementary schools) to discuss the common needs of these families, access our local experts and then walk away with tools, strategies, plans, networks or whatever else might help address those needs.  Previous to today a survey was sent out to all the schools to try and identify the needs and these were correlated and presented at today’s planning session.  The top two concerns identified district wide seemed (to me) to be finding ways to teach to diversity and ways of using technology in the classroom.  That little light bulb came on when I thought about both of these.

When I reflected on teaching to diversity I realized that I’ve moved beyond the diversity stumbling block.  Diversity is a reality of modern teaching; it’s here to stay and we need to move away from inefficiently differentiating instruction to the point that we’re teaching separately to different ability levels in the class.  We need to teach in a way that everyone can get something from the learning activities at their own level.  Call it what you want: UDL, SMART Learning, multiple access points, etc, it’s simply good teaching. Pair this with student collaboration and solid formative feedback (assessment for learning and assessment as learning)  the learning becomes personalized, student-centred and powerful.

My impression of the technology needs teachers were identifying was a desire to use technology because it engages students.  At the risk of alienating some of my colleagues, I think that they may not have differentiated between engaging and entertaining the learners.  Using technology for technology’s sake is entertaining, but there is no long term engagement after the wow factor wears off.  At that point we are left looking for the next bigger and brighter thing to come along.  To illustrate this point, just think about how effectively the Interactive white boards in your school are being used and how much money was spent on them.

There are many truly engaging uses of technology that come at low cost, and student blogs are the first thing that come to mind.  Blogs are more than simply a different modality for writing because they are interactive in that students can comment on other blogs and receive comments on theirs.  Of course, learning how to write helpful and effective comments is a learned skill, but it engages students because they are contributing to something real (ie real-world and relevant), reflecting and thinking critically about their own and others’ work.

I’m looking forward to this district PD day and hope that what my fellow teachers get out of it can be framed in the light of simply good teaching for the 21st century learner.

Moving forward

Those of you who know me, know that that by traditional measures, this has not been an outwardly successful year in my career.  I have faced numerous professional obstacles that have led me to a lot of reflection and soul-searching.  Without focussing on the negative, here’s how I’m moving forward.

I’m embracing technology for the power it offers in revolutionizing my teaching practise.  I grew up at the cusp between Generation X and the Millenials and while I find myself a moderate technology user and digital native, my classes and I got very little use out of the computer labs at school and the couple of archaic machines in my classroom;  I wasn’t going to use technology for technology’s sake.  Then I got a smartphone.

I started downloading all the apps that I could find and came across  a few useful ones.  Gradually I started pulling the phone out in class to access those apps and found the students didn’t cry foul (too much) when I used my phone professionally to aid their learning, even though we have a no-technology-at-school policy.  A few students began following my lead and using their phones for school work too.  I didn’t cry foul either, and now the sound of that policy is rather abhorrent to me.

It’s unlikely that I’ll return to that same school in the fall but I will be pushing toward a BYOD policy (bring your own device) in my new school.  At least I’ll have one in my class, and don’t think I’ll have a difficult time convincing an administrator that this is a beneficial educational tactic considering the following:

  • zero cost to the school
  • faster internet access than our strained district network
  • ability to back channel and communicate meaningfully
  • natural and pervasive communication tool for digital natives

I have seriously engaged in Twitter and I am building a PLN (professional learning network) on it. Every year I endeavour to engage in a professional learning community within the school I am teaching at and this year was no exception.  I worked explicitly and implicitly with some incredible people and saw growth in myself and my school community.  Further to that, when I got a smartphone, I dipped my toe in the Twitter pool and found the water just right.  Now I’ve dived right in and daily I get to learn from powerful learner-educators and put my two-cents in where I can.   The power of this Twitter network astounds me and I can no longer fathom why any teacher dedicated to their profession wouldn’t wand to tap into this type of international powerhouse of educational goodness.

I have discovered what it means (to me) to be a 21st Century Learner/Educator.  A recent symposium I attended opened with the question, “What is 21st Century Education?”  And it was suggested that nobody should have an answer to that question.  I agree that this is something that we should all struggle with, but I have to disagree that we can’t come to any conclusions.  I believe that 21st century education is about collaborative problem solving using any of the tools necessary–technological and traditional–and that communication is the key process.  This communication comes between students in the classroom and around the world as they collaborate on projects that address meaningful problems.  It also comes between students and teachers as teachers give formative feedback that helps to deepen the students’ learning.  Evaluation is outcome-driven and explains to what depth the learning has occurred.  It does not reflect behaviour, or the length of time required or taken for the learning to occur.

I could go on at length, but this is neither the time or place.  Right now I am grateful for the time I’ve recently had to deeply reflect on teaching and look forward to moving on and better implementing positive changes into my practise.