Monday, 29 September 2014

Why I Connect

So right now I am playing in the spaces of #ccourses and #olcmooc and both are dealing with the 'why' of connected learning. Of course, the glib response would be 'why not?' but this is a serious, serious question that deserves a considered, reflective answer.

I wasn't always a connected learner. I haven't been a formal classroom teacher for years but I remember well the isolation of the elementary classroom, the one adult in a room full of students. I was the "font of all knowledge," the "guru of learning through play," but essentially I was alone. When I ran into a student I could not reach, I turned to colleagues for help, my principal or a specialist. Sometimes that was not enough. I did not have all answers, but I felt like a failure when I did not. When a student slipped through my fingers like water and I could not catch them as they fell. Some had been falling for a long time. Some had just started to fall. But the responsibility rested on me to catch them and sometimes I missed.

So why am I such a big rah-rah fan of connected learning? Because teachers/educators no longer have to be isolated in the classroom. They have a bigger pond to cast their net into now as they fish for answers. I can ask fellow educators, K-12 or higher ed, professors of education, social workers, informal educators, designers, techies, "What would you do in this situation?" or "What resources should I access?" or just a simple one "Help!" And lo! I actually receive answers, helpful answers, potential ideas or requests for more information. Educators want to help each other. Now it's not just you, alone in your classroom, it's you and everyone you're connected to, working together to help others learn.

Since I've become connected I've learned that I can contact designers of  programs when I have issues with the program they've just rolled out (and they listen!), written collaborative stories, poems, games, had someone teach me the basics of programming, learned to create a radio show, worked with others to create learning solutions for problems and met, online, some amazingly talented and creative people. I've vlogged, blogged and tweeted my way through this journey. This has been wonderful for me as I play and learn my way through new experiences but it has had the effect, I believe, of making me a better teacher. Because who doesn't learn when they brush up against greatness? When they are presented with differing viewpoints? When learning opportunities are offered like a never ending smorgasbord?

So how do you take advantage of this? Open your mind, open your heart and discard your prejudices of being exposed on the web. Yes, there will be bumps along the way, but it was the same when you learned a new language or a new talent in a face to face classroom. It never does come effortlessly. There is always work involved, frustration to feel, anger at something not quite working or feeling like you're stupid, stupid, stupid! Until of course, something clicks, someone offers a different perspective and then your feel like your brain has been just hit by a ray of sunshine and you've got it!

So jump in, don't be fearful, people are kind and open minded in this learning space.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Why I teach

So #ccourses this week has asked the question why do I teach? And the answer is: Do I still teach? I am an instructional designer now rather than a face to face classroom educator. And I've never taught at a university, though I do teach adults. Now I create self contained online lessons that have both a knowledge portion, "This is how you do this.", and a testing function, "Show that you understand the skills that were just demonstrated and can apply them." The adults who view my offering have no choice in whether they wish to receive them as it is part of their job to watch and learn the tasks as instructed. So is that still teaching? Or is it skills training? Or an amalgam of both?

Why do I teach? Why do I still identify myself always as an educator? My 'why' is that to explore with others is integral to who I am as a person. Yes I explore ideas by myself constantly. But for me and this held true even when I was an elementary teacher, the learning journey is so much richer when it is a shared journey. Because it is a journey of asking questions and exploring the answers together. Because my perspective is narrow and comes from only my experiences and the knowledge I've garnered through study. Only when I open myself up to other perspectives do I really soar as a thinker and a learner. I always think better when discussing ideas.

So for me connecting is an entrenched learning style. And I am also at the point in my learning where I decide my level of engagement. By that I mean, does the learning opportunity actually ask me to be engaged and creative and produce something that brings meaning to my life and the lives of others? Or does is only ask that I absorb and judge?

I've been to a lot of universities. I am an older woman after all. And I've learned to play the university game- shut up, listen, discuss in the approved manner (deferring ever to the professor's biases), regurgitate, write, test. First time round, I was a miserable failure at this. I was young and had been told that university was where I would really learn things. And I did, but I also learned that what I thought really didn't matter. And I rebelled. And when I did, my marks suffered. In this way university was a repeat of high school. Only when I went back to university in my thirties and forties did I understand how to play the game and play I did. I needed the degrees for work (that's a big why!) I still got my hand slapped when I fell off the wagon and actually wrote or spoke what I really thought and once again it would show up in my grades. I call it the 'how dare you contradict me' problem. I do contradict. I do question. Why is this so and this not so?

Just like a K-12 classroom educator, the professor is the final adjudicator of a student's capability. But if you thought the power relationship is one sided in K-12, it is even more uneven in higher ed. Because in K-12, there is more monitoring of the teachers, an approved curriculum that must be followed, there are parent teacher interviews to be conducted, constant student and teacher assessment, follow ups, no fail policies, etc. In university, it is very different. I've been in courses where there have been three assignments in total to judge if a student is successful. And what happens to the student who disagrees with their professor? Or who is not a great writer but a great speaker? Bad marks, the opportunity of advancement denied, a career change, a path not taken.

I'm ok with student mutiny. I am ok with exploring areas that were not planned. So for me, the sooner professors learn to be a guide at the side of their students (an old elementary teacher strategy from the late 90's) instead of the sage on the stage the better off I think all higher education institutions will be.

Friday, 12 September 2014

So let's Compare and Contrast

So here's the thing. This appeared on my Facebook feed today. A Grade 6 Washington D.C. teacher assigned her class a compare and contrast assignment and there has been major back lash because she was using a Scholastic text about Hitler and WWII to contrast with an article written about George W. Bush and the Iraq War, a text the school board admits was used the previous year in a separate unit.

So where is the issue? What is the fuss about? Have we not been using compare and contrast as a tool to promote higher order thinking skills for a while now in classrooms? Or was it because politics have gotten in the way? Or because the president in question is still living? Has American society (and perhaps Canadian as well) become so polarized that even a classroom discussion contrasting events cannot be envisioned? Or was the furor over the idea that behaviour we consider most extreme, like that of Hitler, should be compared to anyone at all? Then how do we talk about Stalin, Mao or Genghis Khan? The teacher has been reprimanded for using poor judgement even though both texts have been approved by the board.

So was this an exercise that should have been left for a higher grade level? Or was it the idea that questioning past historical events is not acceptable? Would a compare and contrast between Andrew Jackson, he of the Trail of Tears and Hitler have been acceptable? Or between Sir John A. MacDonald and his policy of starving the natives and Hitler been ok? When do we discuss eugenics? The cleansing of people with developmental delays through sterilization in Canada? Residential schools? Using aboriginals in starvation experiments? The internment of the Japanese in World War II and the internment of Germans in the Great War in Canada and the US? How do we discuss war, genocide, hate literature and the general ugly side of human behaviour in class and at what grade if this simple compare and contrast exercise is abjured?

Are not we, as teachers, required to look under the rocks of history and peer at subjects that are difficult to discuss? Because if we don't discuss them, challenge enshrined beliefs and ask our students to look objectively at issues of the day, what will we discuss with them? And if part of our role is to encourage citizenship, critical analysis and critical thought how do we do that when we can't even ask the questions?

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Kingston CoderDojo and Connected Courses

So I've been offline for a while for various reasons, the main one being I am of that age when parents need more care and support and this has been a support summer, from that perspective. Thank goodness my parents' health is now good and they have moved onto the next stage of their lives without too many problems.

In the meantime, in 2013, I approached the Kingston Frontenac Public Library about creating a CoderDojo and this fall we will be launching the pilot project for students ages 11-17 in October! Volunteers are always welcome! It is the first small city in Canada to set up a CoderDojo so I would love for this project to become a template for other small cities throughout Canada.

As well, many thanks to Mariana Funes for suggesting Connected Courses for the fall. Time to jump back into postETMOOC as well. I admit my creative juices are a little depleted and I need an injection of connected learning! So I am looking forward to being creative and engaged.