Teaching Outside of Your Method

I was reading this article, discussing how many early years’ teachers are teaching outside of their teaching methods. It talks about the statistics around this, touching briefly on the need due to timetabling. It doesn’t really seem to get into the meat of the matter, as it is article based on a report which was looking at the numbers, not necessarily the reasons behind them.

I have been teaching 4 years, with a year off between my 3rd and 4th years to be a stay at home dad. I have taught outside my methods, almost every year until recently. When I started teaching I had English and Information Technology as official methods.  In my first 2 years of teaching I taught; English, History, Geography, Information Technology, Religious Education, Automotive, and VCAL. And these were across the range of 7 to 10, with the exception of VCAL and RE which were year 11 subjects.  I should note, these were not as a CRT, extras or short contracts, but subjects I had for at least a term or two.

I was happy to give them a go, as I was young and ready to take on any challenge. I may have been naive as a fresh faced graduate, but I wanted to teach and would have said yes to almost any subject that would of but me in the classroom. I was not in a position to say no to work, and felt that I could take on any challenge. Some of them were big asks; Auto especially, which was luckily for a term and all theory and design. It was hard work, I was lucky enough to be “old” (I was 32) by first year teaching standards, and had no desire to have a social life beyond watching some TV with my wife. I devoted myself happily to the preparation and work that I needed to do to deliver these subjects. I never felt pressured to teach anything, but could see how you could easily be pressured into doing that, especially as an early teacher, who is desperate to just have a job.

It is an easy thing to forget, that secondary teachers are trained as specialists. We know our methods; we know the content and the pedagogy that surrounds those methods. We know about classroom management and general pedagogy. We typically are pretty limited outside our methods though! For example, I myself have 5 teaching methods; Information Technology, English, Humanities, Food Technology and Business Management. I admit that this is unusual and due to having too much time on my hands playing stay at home dad for a year, combined with my circuitous route to teaching. I can confidently teach in my methods. I’m also pretty comfortable teaching junior media, religious education, economics or accounting. Beyond that, I have pretty much no clue; there are some areas I won’t know where to start teaching in. I won’t say that I could not learn the content and how to teach them, but if you dropped me in cold, into a class out of my method areas tomorrow, I would have countless hours of work to take on the challenge. And the truth is, I would not be the best person to be teaching the subject. Take math for example. I am ok at math. I work with business math and computer math fairly regularly. I still actually use algebra, but I am not mathematically minded. I don’t understand it at a level that lets me see the how things are done. I cannot explain it in different ways; I am not a math teacher. No matter how much time I spend training and studying, I don’t think I will ever be a good math teacher; it is not my specialty or within my personal capacities. On the other hand, I am an English teacher. I understand English; the structure and function; the complex rules; the different styles and methods of writing. I can explain them in many different ways, and if needed figure out new ways to help a specific student understand what I am on about.

At a junior level, 7-9, there is a valid argument for everyone teaching everything. At year 7, most of us will have enough general knowledge to teach most subjects, except maybe math and LOTE (and the new IT curriculum, but that I’m saving for another post all by it lonesome). Through in PE and Technology subjects and the list starts getting long, but that is why we have specialist teachers; secondary education is about developing mastery in subjects not general learning.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with teaching outside your area, but I for one have never said “yes” to teaching something that I could not really teach; I’m not a math or science teacher; nor a PE or art teacher; I can’t teach wood, metal or plastics; don’t even ask about a language other than English or textiles. I know I cannot teach in those areas, because they are so far out of my personal context and skill set that I would do students a disservice in attempting to teach them. But this is me, not you. Some of the best teachers I have ever worked with or had, were in fact teaching in an area that wasn’t their method, but something they loved anyhow.

Introducing Programming in Year 7

Here in Victoria, Australia, we have a new curriculum for the 2017 school year. Lots of fun stuff in it, but for me, the most significant portion was the separation of Information Technology from its “Design and Technology Family” (Food, Metal, Wood, Plastics, Textiles, Robotics and Electronics) into its own field; Digital Technologies. This separation was accompanied by new learning objectives; specifically IT went from being general computer use, to specifically and explicitly begin about coding and programming with a bit a collaborative project management and networking thrown in.  It is completely different than its old iteration, but I like it. Take a look at it here.

The result of this, is that I have been doing a lot of thinking about the best way to introduce a class to computer programming. It is going to take years for this curriculum to be fully implemented; current students will not have the background skills that the curriculum assumes for years; they just have not been taught it. The reality is that it will probably take years to see this curriculum fully realized, skills will need to build upon skills that haven’t been taught yet.

Article: The Psychological Tricks of VR

Article: The Psychological Tricks of VR

A much better writer than me, explains the psychological tricks behind VR. I found it a really informative read, that explained most of the science behind VR.

My experiences with VR have been varied; some of the content is great, at times spectacular. Some of it is pretty crap. I have a Vive, which means much of my content comes from Steam. I have noticed 2 things;

  1. There are new games available every couple of days.
  2. There is not much content from well established studios; the majority seems to be coming from new or smaller studios. This is cool, but it means the games sometimes don’t have the polish you would expect when you pay for them.

Neither of these things are a bad thing, they are just something that is currently a trend.

Teachers and Social Media

Your either love, hate or fall somewhere in between when it comes to social media. In schools, it is an ever constant pain in the ass while at the same time presenting limitless potential; it is a devil and an angel. One thing is clear, that it cannot be ignored by schools any longer. Social media policies and popping up as separate entities to the standard ICT policies in an attempt to embrace and manage how schools interact with the social media landscape. Some schools are winning, some are losing and some are spinning their wheels making lots of smoke and noise, but going nowhere. Social media is hard; not for individuals but for schools. As an individual, you can ignore what you want and interact with it on your own terms. For a school it is far more complex. Schools have to both manage their social media carefully; they have to publish content that is in-line with a plethora of rules and policies (both internal and department) whilst creating policies intended manage the behaviours of teenagers.

Schools are social institutions; teachers and schools are held to different societal expectations and responsibilities than others because we interact with young people on a daily basis. Teachers are expected to maintain a “professional” public appearance at all times on social media. I’m not sure which side I fall onto in regards to this debate. On the one hand, teachers (like everyone else) have the right to a life outside of work. On the other hand, we have influence and are role models for young people in our charge. I really don’t know where I stand on this. I am a social media user. I have been for years. I just tend to live a very boring life, so this I don’t feel pressure to act one way or another; until this blog I have been a passive user of social media, especially outside of the small communities I am a member of, which are all pretty bland and geeky. My friends are typically people I actually know in the real world. I stay out of controversial debates, not because I am managing my profile, but because I don’t want to. I find the wars of words, when written, is not my cup of metaphorical tea.

Back on track, to me, the two arguments can actually be boiled down the same thing; are teachers public figures? Some say yes, others say no. We are not celebrities or politicians, but are known in the community due to the nature of our work. We are definitely not paid to be public figures, but we knew that when we got into the teaching game. In this day and age social media is part of our lives; it is not going to stop and is not going away. I think this issue is going to be debated endlessly, as both sides of the argument are equally valid. The only solution I see, is one where teachers are compensated and recognized for the incursion of their jobs into their daily lives; something will have to be given for something to be given up. It is about finding balance between our professional identities and our personal lives. I for one will keep using social media and keep working to help my school, my colleagues and my students become responsible users of it.

ICT Literacy: An Attempted Definition

If your reading this, you are most likely considered literate in the English language in the form of written literacy; you can read and probably write in the English language (If you are using a translator, or text to speech software, hat’s off to you, because that is awesome!). Furthermore, this is the characteristically used definition of the word “literacy”; the ability to read and write in your chosen language. It is in fact, the primary definition of the word in the dictionaries that I took a look at. This definition also applies in other languages too, but I’m writing in English, so I going to try and keep it simple and only talk about it in that context. Literacy also has a secondary definition, which often reads: knowledge or competence in a specific topic or content area.

This is where things get confusing in teaching; how do you differentiate about what definition of literacy your using, when you say literacy? Unlike some other words there is no case sensitive versions that differentiate between the two definitions (example Aboriginal vs aboriginal); using the term literacy often requires a lot of context. In an educational context we like to talk about literacy as literacy and other literacies, with the term other literacies refereeing to areas like computer literacy, media literacy, visual literacy and so on. Confused yet? Hopefully not.

In this context, I am going to be talking about information/computer technology literacy, which I will just call ICT literacy for the sake of ease of typing. I have been thing about ICT literacy a lot recently, as at my school we have been looking at classic literacy across the whole school recently, as a PD focus. English is also one of my teaching methods, though I am not teaching it at the moment, so my brain has been in “expert” mode during these sessions and this has really got the metaphorical wheels turning. ICT literacy and literacy are very connected; they are not the same thing, but have an interesting relationship.

I have begun to examine the necessity of basic literacy skills to even access a computer. I realized that computers are built around the assumption of a user having a basic level of literacy; the ability to read (at a really basic level) is an essential skill for computer use. Computer interfaces are built around text and the ability to respond to that text. Think about the first thing you have to do after the thing is turned on; enter a password. We think of computer interfaces as being completely graphical, but they in fact are not. Text (and words) are integrated into the graphics to such an extent that we no longer realize they are actively present and being interacted with. Think about your desktop for a second. Every icon has a name. We use the visual cues provided by the icons to be efficient, but we typically read the name when we focus on one. And this is just on a surface level; think about what you do on a computer. Email, social media and browsing the web, are all text based interactions; we communicate with written language when using most computer technology. ICT literacy is built upon a foundation of literacy.

At this stage, I will concede that people can rote learn to use a computer, if illiterate, but find it very difficult to do anything beyond simple tasks. There are also alternative interfaces to assist the blind, but this is not the same as being illiterate, as to use them you need a different form of literacy that is far more complex and nuanced. But with this said, it does not take away from what has been presented so far.

This leads me on to a more complex question; what then is ICT literacy?

Within my education paradigm, many define it as the ability to use a computer and associated programs effectively. I think this definition is quite limited. For me, ICT literacy is more complex than that. I tend to expand the definition. For me ICT literacy is “the ability to use computer technology in an effective manner in order to communicate and express oneself. It is the ability to learn new software and adapt to the ever changing face of computer technology. It is about thinking critically and imaginatively about information. It is about meaningful communications using technology. ICT literacy is an extension of literacy into the multimodal world of information technology”.

I’m the first to admit it, but I am still not happy with this definition. It still seems too small, for such a big concept, but I will keep working on it. Some same ICT Literacy is one the “most important 21st century skills”. I tend to agree, but have begun to think of it as more of an extension of classic literacy than a entire field of its own.

VR as Immersive Story Telling

It is amazing how different people see the different potential in any given technology. The perspectives and approaches are so varied that you could almost mistake them for being related to something else.

One of these approaches, that has intrigued me, is the idea of creating immersive films. I came across if via an this article from the Tribeca Film Festival, which discussed how VR is changing film.

The article discussed how there are two forms of storytelling emerging using VR technology; immersive and interactive. From my perspective interactive storytelling is an extension of the existing game based storytelling that is already exists and is already moving into the VR realm. The idea of immersive storytelling has fascinated me.

Immersive storytelling has the potential to connect a reader/viewer with the story in a way that we have never been able to truly achieve before VR. The idea of truly being in a story is both appealing and frightening at the same time. I imagine that the emotional connection you will make with this form of media will be quite deep.

Some Thoughts on STEM in Aus

I was reading this post by EdTech and the first line really jumped out at me.

“Many high-demand occupations require a solid grounding in science, technology, engineering and math.”  EdTech

Despite this article being about America, I believe that their statement applies to education here in Australia. We are living in a technological society, and our education system is struggling to catch up with it. After years of funding cuts, we have become very disconnected from “Industry Standards”. Education has been about literacy, numeracy, and developing thinking skils for the last half century or so (give or take).

We really wanted people to be able to read and think, giving them the skills to be productive members of society and chase their dreams. This is as true today as it ever was. It is a fundamental purpose of education and that should never change. BUT society has changed. We need new additional skills and ways of thinking. Technology has experience exponential grow in the last 30 years and the way we interact with information has changed. We are quickly moving away from an industrial society, transitioning into a knowledge based economy, where what we know how to do and how we know how we think are becoming more important than our physical capabilities. This social /economic shift is already happening, and our education system is trying to adapt and grow with it, providing students with new skills and knowledge to empower them in the future.

STEM is the hot topic in education at the moment, but we are playing catch up to the needs of industry. We need students to understand the concepts and thinking skills the STEM disciplines need. In all honesty though it, might be too late for many of them; some students don’t have enough time left in their secondary education for this shift to have more than a small impact on their skills. They are not a lost cause or anything like that, but they might not have the same opportunities that will be presented to the secondary school generation that follows them.

I love how STEM, and with it Computer Technology, has become a driving idea of education. There is lots of talk, but from what I have seen and heard, very little action. The government has been talking big about STEM; promising to allocate millions to education. So far this money has not eventuated, with vast sums going to “development initiatives” which seem to exclude actual schools. I hope they will deliver, but odds are it will be too little too late and complicated by the usual bureaucracy which will waste the majority of funds.

On a plus, the action around STEM seems to be happening at the school and teacher level; teachers are doing what they; making use of what limited resources they have to shoot for the best learning outcomes they can conceive. It is what we do (imagine that I have inserted a winky smiley face here). I love the energy that the push of STEM has caused; the recognition that science, technology, engineering and math are key areas for the future, has breathed energy into the subjects. If the chips fall right, the funding materializes, there is a potential of a paradigm shift in education; one that will align our educational goals with what is needed in our technological society.

I now have a Vive of my own.

Big news from my little corner of the internet. I have got my hands on an HTC Vive. Luckily for me, I am an avid PC gamer, so my computer is already at spec, with no upgrades needed to get that Steam VR ready test to max out into the green. (If you know what I mean, then you understand my joy; If you don’t it does not really matter anyhow). With some quick ebaying, I have acquired a pair of tripods and some ball mount; found a cheap protective case filled with pluck foam at Bunnings (very similar to a pelican, but only $60) which together which makes my VR setup nice and portable.

After a good few days of playing around with it, I have taken it to my school and run a few demo sessions for other staff members. The reactions have been fantastic! Lots of people are familiar with the headset VR and have been expecting something akin to it, and when it blows the headset VR experience out the water people are gob-smacked. I highly suggest that if you are curious, go to the effort of finding a place to try it. The experience cannot be put into words that do it justice. Room Scale VR is one of those things where you “have to be there” and try it for yourself.

Besides the level of fun and coolness of it, there has also been really good discussion. The talk has been around how this technology will be changing the future; in education and social interaction. We are in the first iteration of the technology; imagine what it will bring as it goes mainstream over the next 5 to 10 years? Everyone who I have spoken with, in a post demo debrief, has asked two questions; 2) how can we get this into the classroom? 2) where do I get one?

The second question is easy, as I just tell them to google the HTC Vibe and go to their website, as it is the only retailer. I then offer to help them setup a computer to spec. The first question, usually leads to some good discussion, as I don’t have an answer that is easy. I don’t believe that room scale, will be classroom ready for years (Take up of Classroom VR), but the discussion about what we could do with it as teachers is fantastic.

The debrief typically follows the standard pattern, usually found in most discussions of VR and education. The idea of virtual field trips is almost always talking point one. I can’t think of a teacher who won’t love to be able to take a class to an immersive experience of ________ (insert location here) without having to leave the school. The discussion then typically moves onto creating things and experiencing things in VR. Virtual dissections, modeling projects, art, etc. We then start talking about VR as social space and how it will change the way we interact with each other. It is amazing, how diverse the thoughts on these topics are; there is so much diversity of ideas.

I’m going to leave it here for now. Over the coming weeks I am going to be running more demos for staff and friends. Not sure where or who, as I have to give it some thought. I might need to reach out to colleagues at other schools and see who would be interested. I want to hear what people think about VR and how it relates to the classroom.

Why Code?

I’m referring to computer programming, not creating complex unsolvable codes (which are cool in their own right). Teaching IT, I get asked a version of this question quit often. Why do we need to learn to do this; Why are we learning to program; How come I have to learn to program, I don’t want to be a programmer. Occasionally I answer, because it is what your being taught, but that is only after they have asked far too many times, and never once listened to my answer.

The truth is, I teach coding, because I believe it is an important to learn. Not as important as basic literacy and numeracy, but nipping at their educational heals. I believe this for a number of reasons. First, it develops problem solving skills and complex thinking skills. Secondly, it pushes students understanding of how the world works into new places. Thirdly, it is 21st century skill that is becoming more important every day. Fourthly, it is engaging and allows students to be creative in ways that are unique as they are. Finally, I personally think it is fun and enjoy teaching it.

Those 5 reasons are my answer to “why code? ”. I can expand on them, but I’m not going to. I think they are pretty easy to understand. Instead I’m going to share something with you that happened to me this week.

Three of my Year 7 classes are working on a project in Scratch. They have finished the basic tutorials, and before being set free to their own ideas, they are making a game that I have specified. The game they are making is a simple racing car game; a car goes around the track. It has to be able to turn, accelerate and stop based on a player controls. Pretty simple, everything they need to do is within the tutorials found in Scratch itself (thank you MIT!). Students were progressing along quietly, when suddenly someone called out, “how do I get it to turn smoothly?”.

The reaction of the class was amazing. Everyone, started talking to everyone else. They moved around the room. Everyone was working with everyone. Small groups formed, then broke up and reformed with new members. It was true open and honest collaboration and teamwork. There was no negativity. It was all positive. I was speechless as I watched it happen. I know this sounds like an exaggeration, but it is how it happened. Watching Year 7 solve the problem of how to make a car turn smoothly has been the highlight of my week, maybe my year. I watch a class transform before my eyes. The different solutions that they came up with were remarkable.

In the end, they figured out about 4 different ways to do it. Some of them are still working on alternatives methods too. The collaboration and sharing was electric. It was a good week to be a teacher. I got to experience one of “those” moments that validate everything you have worked for.

For me, it was the embodiment why code and that is why I believe we should be teahcing it. Also it is now  part of the curriculum here in Victoria, but I just think of that as a win, not as reason, since I would be teaching coding anyway without it.


Revisiting The Digital Divide

Someone I follow on twitter, re-tweeted a post by @LeungAsh which brought up this topic the other day and got me thinking about it again. Back in 2009 while studying to be a teacher, I ran across the idea of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants (Prensky 2001). This then lead me to Dave White’s (@daveowhite) concept of Digital Visitors and  Digital Residents (University of Oxford 2009).

In 2009, he presented his ideas in a video on the Tall Blog for Oxford University. In 2011 when I stumbled upon Dave White’s ideas, I had already drunk the metaphorical cool-aide and wore my badge as a Digital Native, despite being born in 1979 (I was an IT teacher, damn it!). I proudly adopted adopted the badge of Digital Resident and continued on my way, thinking (and probably writing ) about it. I about to graduate from being student teacher to teacher and was intent on teaching Information Technology and changing the world (well a little tiny section of it, as my wife had already been a teacher for the last 4 years, and I knew what the reality of it was, or so I thought).

Then life got in the way; I jumped into the trenches of teaching, which was the followed by having a child. I became focused on developing my teaching in a hands on, why are they not listening to me way. I finally got a handle on that (on good days) when parenthood shook up my universe. 5 years on in 2016, I find myself once again exploring the education theory landscape. Ash Leung’s twitter post (@leungAsh) yesterday really got me asking myself “how has this idea evolved in the last 5 years?”

So as any resident or visitor would do, I did a google search. Dave White seemed to of answered my question;

In 2015 Aaron Davis  wrote a great piece called Mapping the Divide: Visitors and Residents on the Web. I found the above video there. He (Aaron Davis) summed up movement from the idea of Natives and Immigrant to Resident and Visitors elegantly.

I did notice something though, much of the information and discussion on this topic seems to have changed little in the last few years. I actually don’t feel like I have missed the last 5 years of this idea evolving and growing. I think that, my growth as a teacher and digital resident has kept me in the loop somehow.

Our technology has evolved and has become more integrated than ever before, but as people there actually hasn’t been much change in how we engage with the web. Yes social media is everywhere, but it it does not feel anymore prevalent now than it did five years ago, there is just more variety.

And this got me thinking. In fact it has triggered a whole lot of thinking. For me thinking leads to googling, which leads to reading, which leads again to thinking and so on, until I decide to write some of thoughts on this blog. I want to know how this idea fits into my school and how others approach integration of technology into the classroom. For me, it is seamless and without thought; I choose what will engage my students and achieve my desired learning outcomes. For others, it is a burden and makes things more work than before. The idea of Residents and Visitors, is very applicable to teachers; we quite literally can fall into these categories; there are those who use it when they have to and those who use it as an extension of what they are doing.