Just say Yes!

I wonder how many times I’ve had a good idea (or a bad one) and managed to talk myself out of it. It’ll just make more work, I’ll look stupid when it falls through, I won’t pull it off, someone else would do it better than me.

I remember, some years ago, being invited down to the Emirates to do a 15 minute talk on collaborative technology. I think it was because I started a shared slideshow on Google Docs to collect and share ideas for non-techie teachers but I’m really not sure.

I’d never stood up in front of other teachers before, I was on sage or role model, I’d never even been to a conference. I read the email, read it again, thought for about 30 seconds and replied yes and hit send. I did it quick because I knew that if I thought about it I’d say no.

I didn’t know what I would say, what I would recommend or how it might be perceived. And I’d have to wangle the day out of work. But if I said yes quickly then what the hell, I’d just have to make it work. And I did.

15 tools in 15 minutes turned into a 10 minute rush through as they were running late by the time it was my turn, but it went down very well. It led to my first Teachmeet (where I further compressed it to a 7 minute version – mostly by skipping all the pauses to breathe I put into the original), a further series of sessions (including a visit to BAFTA) and ultimately, gave me the confidence to run all kinds of CPD sessions that have kept me sane.

At the same time, I’ve had lots of ideas for after school activities. I’ve bought sewable, wearable Lilypad kit, PicAXE robots, Arduino kits, Raspberry Pis and more. But my Y11s need coursework catchup time. It means more work when I am flooded with marking. It doesn’t provide ‘measurable impact’ for my appraisal. I’m tired!

However. In the same way that my CPD sessions, my CAS work and my other ‘extra’ stuff keeps me sane, running this kind of stuff is a big part of why I became a teacher in the first place. Not to get people through exams, or controlled assessment. Not to make sure my PP, SEND, Level 4, Most Able and other cohorts make the requisite demonstrations of progress according to their KS2 data. Not to convince students who ‘don’t like IT’ that they should engage for 60 minutes a week because I want them to. Those things are important, but the thing that really gets the blood flowing is working with enthusiastic people who want to know more about something.

I did that in passing before I was a teacher, and it was what made me look into a PGCE. It’s why I like running CPD for teachers. And it’s why, when I saw a tweet showing a wind speed graph at the Forth Bridge during a storm I decided I was buying a weather station, talking to the science department and doing something with students.

It’s early days, and I’m not sure I have a clear end goal – but then the end goal isn’t really the point. I’ll find some interested students, we’ll do some stuff, get lost along the way and we’ll all learn something. I don’t really know what I’m doing – so it may all go horribly wrong. It will undoubtedly cause more work for me. And I’m sure there are others (@tecoed) who could do it better. But if I don’t say yes quickly then it won’t happen. And that would be a great shame.

TMNE10: Depressing your tongue

Context: Teachmeet Northeast took place on Thursday 9th December. Each day I’m blogging about one thing I learned at the event.

The excellent Dominic McGladdery presented a series of random ways to get pupils talking – some bits specifically aimed at MFL, but many that can be used in a variety of ways.

There were various kinds of dice and other equipment and the classic classtools.net random name picker, but there were two particular ideas that I really liked.

One was to take your computerised random name generators and turn them into random QUESTION generators, and my favourite idea is to write students’ names on lolly sticks, put them in a mug and you have an instant, low maintenance, low tech random name generator to improve your questioning. And best of all, this way it’s easier to cheat.

Image attribution: Summer of 69 Originally uploaded by Caro’s Lines

Teachmeet Northeast

Last night was my third Teachmeet, TMNE10-2. For those who haven’t come across the phenomenon that is Teachmeet, they are a simply fantastic event. Imagine teachers from all over the region that want to get together in their own time to share ideas, tips, stories, thoughts and more. Imagine that no-one is allowed more than 7 minutes. Imagine that you are discouraged from using PowerPoint. Imagine there are no tables in the room, certainly no desks, just comfy sofas. Imagine there is free food. And wine. Awesome.

I know how easy it is to get overloaded with brilliant ideas at Teachmeets, and trying to implement too much makes it difficult to succeed. I’ve tried taking a laptop and writing everything down – but you risk losing the moment – so this time I went with nothing but my wits and a cunning plan.

What plan? Three things. Aim to leave with 3 things. Darren Mead (@dkmead) describes any form of learning simple as ‘change’. So try to leave with 3 changes. That way I can take away what I think is most important to me and my classroom practice without drowning in the flood of ideas.

To quote one of my Year 10s… “Epic fail”.

There is no way on this Earth that I could leave let night’s Teachmeet with 3 changes. No way I could leave with 5, or even 10. There were jut so many great presentations from so many inspiring colleagues that I couldn’t help but to soak up much more than that. So the new plan? Every day (give or take) between now and the end of term I’m going to write 1 blog post about 1 change – whether it be some piece of knowledge, a new skill, growing confidence in my own knowledge or a loss of confidence in knowledge that might be false (did I get that right Darren?).

And that’s the first one…

I’m formulating a plan

Try A Lot of Stuff

Originally uploaded by klmontgomery

Warning: The main audience for this post is me. I’m trying to plan something and this blog post is me thinking about it aloud. The resulting “stuff” maybe genius, drivel or (most likely) somewhere between the two. I refuse to speculate which end of the spectrum I’ll end up at.

Yesterday was a snow day. And during the day I did nothing. Some Christmas shopping, lunch with the wife, bit of housework… then I came across a blog by Shelley Wright. In recent posts Shelley has been documenting her attempt at encouraging learning (as opposed to ‘teaching’) with group work, wikis and Google Docs. What interested me most is the group work bit (the rest is just facilitation).

Actually, no. What interested me most is the students taking charge of their own learning. It’s not about group work as much as it is about collaborative learning. Vicarious learning. Independent learning. Heck, just plain LEARNING.

For the first time in my career I’m doing a lot of teaching of ‘stuff’, particularly with the new GCSE Computing course. Whereas most ICT courses have been very skills based in recent years, actually teaching some content that has to be remembered and understood is fairly new to me. Yes, we cram in a bit of stuff at the end of the GCSE ICT course (once we have spent 90% of the time flogging the students through coursework to achieve 60% of the marks), but it’s never really felt like ‘teaching’ so much as ‘quickly getting them through the stuff they’ll need for the exam’.

My interest was first piqued in this general direction last year, when Fergus Hegarty presented at TeachMeet NorthEast on his work with a significantly mixed ability sixth form Chemistry group and getting them to work in a very independent manner in order to meet the specific needs of that group’s dynamic.

Fast forward 18 months and here I am being inspired, awed and (frankly) shamed by the brilliant work of others, I really do feel that I’m letting my students down by not allowing them this kind of opportunity. The kind of opportunity I had in the second year of my degree, where teams from different disciplines were put together, we all shared one client and we had a fixed deadline to get everything done that was needed – and the best piece of work would be judged the winner. It was a great experience and while not everyone pulled their weight and while we were, of course, much more mature and practised at working (I can’t quite work out if I’m being sarcastic there or not), I really feel that there is no reason why I shouldn’t be giving my students similar opportunities – and lots of reasons why I should.

So, quite a long introduction, but where do I go now?

Well, the proving ground for me seems like it’s going to be my GCSE Computing students. We’re covering a lot of theory, I’m finding myself doing a lot of ‘chalk and talk’ and with a class size of 11 there are enough students to get some reasonably sized groups and not so many that it’s going to be unmanageable (I hope). Perhaps 3 groups of around 4.

At the moment we are looking at the binary representation of data in a computer system. Next week they are looking specifically at the representation of images and of sounds. That seems like a topic that I can set them off with, but do I want to rush in without a little planning and mess it up? After Christmas we’re moving on to Software, which is a somewhat broader topic and it’ll give me a little more time to prepare – so that seems reasonable.

Next – what do I want them to learn? Well, the stuff in the syllabus as a starting point. I can break that down into 3 strands quite easily, each one having a bit of depth.

So – how do I want them to learn it? How about we get them into 3 teams, and each team takes 1 strand, investigates it, and produces some materials to demonstrate what they have learned? Then, how about they each split apart and reform 3 new groups, each with one person who is now conversant in one of the strands (so each group can be said to have a working knowledge of each strand). Then, in their new groups the students have to produce some outcome? Maybe a website, comic strip, wiki, video, whatever.

My problem is that is Tom, Dick and Harry all learn about operating systems, and then Tom ends up working with Peter and Paul, Tom would end up doing the bit of the wiki associated with operating systems and Peter and Paul would not necessarily learn what they need to learn.

I’m not so keen on the whole ‘stand up and give a presentation on…’ model, largely because for students the emphasis ends up (at least in my experience) being on who can avoid embarrassment most effectively, not on who can demonstrate the most understanding and skill.

I could get Tom to teach Peter and Paul before putting everyone back in their own groups. Peter, Jane and Freddy could then compare what they have learned about operating systems while Tom, Dick and Harry discuss their newfound knowledge of applications software. Peter, Jane and Freddy could then write a scathing evaluation of the work produced by Tom, Dick and Harry with the ‘winner’ being that group that gets the least Gordon Ramsey-esque review.

It needs a little work and a little thought, but I think there *is* the nugget of a good idea in there somewhere.

Thoughts and feedback most welcome…

Not quite a Masters

A couple of events have occurred recently that seem to have steered me to this point.

  1. The wife wants me to do a Masters degree.
  2. Several inspirational colleagues have done/are starting a Masters degree (including the awesome @daibarnes).
  3. I’ve been involved in some research with a colleague for LSIS (although he did the researching and writing up, I did some technical gubbins to do with a contextual UI for VLEs).
  4. A tweet a couple of weeks ago talked about the advantages of giving feedback via screencasts.
  5. Graeme Boxwell of City of Sunderland College presented some of his research on giving audio feedback (also undertaken for LSIS) at a recent event for North Eastern HE & FE learning technologists.

I’m thinking that I don’t really have the time/energy/money/urge to do a full on Masters right now (although I do like the idea of getting one done eventually), but this idea of giving formative feedback using multimedia seems an intriguing one.

The plan then, at this point, is to have a go and see if it’s a reasonable idea. Try to convince some colleagues to try it out, do some questionnaires with staff and students and see how things go next academic year. As a buy-in for my colleagues I’m hoping somebody like JISC will be prepared to fund the research, and that way I can offer some financial incentive for the time spent training, reviewing and filling in questionnaires.

And if I write it down publicly, I’ll be much more inclined to get it done!