Wednesday, April 21, 2010


This post is about my wiki with EFL students. Actually it's a post about my EFL students after using the wiki for a month.

After a month using it, I would say we have just dipped our fingers into the wiki pool. The real time of wiki exposure in class has been 6 hours at the school lab. Our lessons are twice a week, 2 hours each.

So far I have been focusing on and hoping they learn three things:
1) They can publish their work. (Although there is a shyness to press the save button as if they could not edit again ever).
2) Tags bind same tasks together and allow them to quickly access a classmate struggling with the same writing problem. (Mind you, to edit tags, to understand the need to use a comma or hit enter to teach the machine exactly which tag they mean is taking... well, a month. The wiki even gained a "wicked wiki" fame because of mis-tagging/not-finding frustration).
3) The wiki is a heritage project. They can read what my students have been writing since 2007. They can find real models from the past and among present classmates easily. They have just tried opening discussions to chat about what they read and find worth mentioning in others work.

I consider this simply basics. A simple socialization of students writings. With a bit more work, it could have been done on paper. This is not yet close to my expectations of wiki use.

And yet, yesterday I learnt something. We went to the lab to listen to a manager who introduced the students to the LMS they will be using. This is basically going to replace practice tests and the use of past papers for exam preparation.

To begin with the talk, the presenter asked my students if they knew what a campus is. One of them answered very confidently:
"Yes, it's a place where we get in, we share and help each other learn".

That simple.

After the presentation, students understood that within the LMS they will be working individually, becoming responsible for their own performance, results and follow-up of the process. They liked it. Back in the classroom, though, they wanted to make sure the wiki was still going to be used as well as the LMS. I heard them detailing how much they valued 1 and 3 above (in spite of 2).

For the last two weeks I had believed we were being slow to adapt to the wiki. I felt the overwhelming sensation that more creative uses of the tool would have us all stuck at a misunderstood tag. I wondered how much more time would have to be spent on publish/tag/link basics. When will they get to explore the notify-me tab? How to strike up a meaningful conversation about RSS?

However, all of those are surface structure observations.

Deep inside they have been changing a mindset of individual learning to a socialized one. They have tasted enough to value it. They have been taking it slowly indeed. But they haven't done anything they were not believing in yet. Mindset before toolset. This is the important lesson I learnt yesterday. I need to be more patient for my wiki-fied dreams.

This is a post about my wiki. Wait, no. Our wiki. This is a story of how I learnt because they learnt.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

IWBs and the Fallacy of Integration

This is a reflection that started as a comment in Miguel Guhlin's blog.

Miguel asks, If teachers can't integrate computers into daily instruction, do you honestly expect them to embrace a complex interactive whiteboard?

I find a paradox there. At first sight, IWBs or LMSs are, in my opinion, the traditional teacher's promised land. How can a standard blackboard compete in motivating your students? IWBs are such a heads-up approach.

Take LMSs. You can administrate materials and check students actual use of them like never before. You can even tell the time spent on the platform. Look at how much they study outside class hours. Super. Let's buy that.

I can hear you Miguel. You have evidence of the contrary. You know that there is another use of the same technology. Far more meaningful uses. But that's a difference in ideology, not technology.

These two technologies have based their marketing strategies catering for traditional teacher's needs. Namely, two things: motivation and control. One seems to need the other, apparently. Keep the students motivated and you are a great teacher in control of the learning process.

But we miss the point. Motivation has a short-term effect. New things will be old again. If we equal motivation with learning we will cling too much to it and direct our best efforts (and school budget) to gaining back control. A useless cycle that can lead us to consider extremely double-edged ideas like paying students to keep them learning.

The point is learning, unlike motivation, has a long-term consequence. We need students who are not seduced by classroom procedures which act like motivational fireworks. We need students who develop a genuine love of discovering, gathering data and discussing it with their classmates, teachers and real field experts that might join them via Skype, for example. We need autonomous, self-motivated students in love with the process of how humanity has learnt.

So far, for the classroom level. But the classroom is inside a school. The tree is not the forest. And yet.. What happens when the school decides to spend money in technology?

If there is anything to gain from the acquisition of technology on the part of schools is the revelation that success is not tied to budget. Success awaits in the adoption of the new. And I mean far and wide adoption.

Last week, teachers at my workplace were introduced for the first time to an LMS the school has bought and expects them to use. My manager told me the questions at the end of the session were mainly concerned with a sensation of losing control by going paperless. I was puzzled. I asked my manager: Can you imagine if you had introduced them to blogs or any other open technology where the world can know how you teach and post unexpected comments to it? That is more like losing the control comfort zone, don't you think?

I find your question, Miguel, is fairly similar to mine last Wednesday. Now, after reading your thoughtful post, I see we are both wrong.

There is a underlying idea in the framing of our questions that needs unlearning. The belief that there are "levels", layers of complexity, hierarchies that we can detect and... well, control. But wait! Isn't that the very old way we want to truly change with new technologies?

We already know it's about shifting power. Tight teacher control is a hindrance to foster empowered students who own their learning paths. We need to be aware of the old way finding its way to surface in what we question.

There are no levels, but purposes or procedures which are valid or not. Tech is tech no matter what it does. It's innovative in its nature. We can tell by the huge resistance to it. If there is no resistance in the process, we are probably facing improvements and weighing their gains in efficiency points. Good enough, only it is not an innovation. Innovation is not about "more or better", it's about "different".

Innovations need more company than just a pioneer teacher adopting it. I've learnt a lot with blogging in the last four years. However, I must accept that there is a limit to how much I can continue growing as a teacher if my school context at large bases decisions exclusively with top-down approaches. Success to me looks like a constant flow of ideas and implementations that do not need the red-tape approval process required in pyramidal structures.

What is the school picture today? What does my working context look like?
I see an illusion that technology is to be bought, taught, used in class and then we can expect everyone to be happy. This false assumption seems to be guiding managerial decisions. This is the same old story behind the idea of technology "integration".

The technology integration fallacy goes hand in hand with that of digital natives. It's hard to believe in one and not the other. If technology is to be integrated you don't need to ask teachers, you just buy it. Then you decide that training people is necessary. They need to catch up or they will be ashamed or powerless in the classroom unable to speak the language of their digital savvy students.

As regards training, I doubt formal courses can make people adopt informal ways of learning. Courses could change teacher behaviour and leave their mindset untouched. If people are not convinced, the model is not sustainable. So courses are just a piece in the puzzle. Courses cater more for the toolset, not necessarily the mindset.

What are students in my classroom really like? To begin with, students are not digital natives. They know very little about educational uses of the technology they have been using for entertainment purposes only. They are quite ready to resist thoughtful, time consuming uses of the same technology. Particularly if they have had no part in choosing or deciding together with the teacher how we would use it. On top of that, they love a traditional class, classroom friends and a teacher they can admire and trust. Good teachers who have never used technology know this.

Achieving meaningful uses of technology in education will take more than school investment followed by leveling or catching-up-with-the-hype courses. Yet this is what most schools do. Now money has already been invested. There we have the LMS and the IWBs used as bigger screens. So? What's next?

First things first. Stay out of the tug-of-war. It is not a moment to think if the school is wrong in imposing it and teachers are right in resisting it. It's probably the moment to get together and go ahead purposefully. This is short-term thinking, though. Somehow teachers need to communicate to managers that the buy-don't-ask is an unhealthy approach from now on. Managers jobs also need to learn from these experiences.

Ideally, we should envision a future where authorities engage teachers in conversations before buying. In top-down approaches, school leaders tend to ask editors and companies first. The quality of the decision-making process can and should be improved in order to save money in adoption courses as well as saving school manager's time and energy justifying investments.

Innovative teaching practices require innovative management practices. Let's think of adoption models that rely on having one-to-one conversations with teachers, experimenting together, asking them how far they feel they need mentoring, identifying what makes teachers happy at work. Although time consuming, in my opinion, these are more long-term effective adoption models than countless courses for each new gadget so as to keep up. To materialize this vision, we need managers who are committed to an idea of success that translates to people learning, not just tools working. It takes a deep understanding that these people are professionals whose current competences count.

I prefer to keep away from the idea of levels as we know it. People who have dedicated years to a teaching profession are committed to something. Let's find out what that is. They want to learn. They have a unique viewpoint towards whatever disrupts their teaching. Resistance is to be expected. Wouldn't it help if they had a say in the decision to buy new technologies? Sure. Just help, not solve. I imagine that implementing those conversations in a school context would unveil deeper conflict and resistances we cannot foresee today. Worth trying, though.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Classroom Evolution

Back then...
Ten years ago this classroom situation was normal in my English as a foreign language lessons.
Student question: -How do you say "osteoporosis" in English?
My answer: -I don't know.
Student: -Sorry.

Sorry? Why?
Students found it hard to explain why they apologised for asking something I didn't know. I think it had to do with respect for the teacher being some kind of authority in their subject resulting from hard work . By spotting the language gap, they were exposing my not knowing (perhaps not being good enough?). They liked the idea of learning with a good teacher. They were demystifying the classroom hero they admired. They felt genuinely sorry for it.

I always made it part of my job to explain there was nothing to be sorry about. I would explain that medical terms tend to be similar in English, but I would look it up in my dictionaries and bring the answer next time. I thank them for their questions because they made me curious and helped me to learn more than I could on my own.

Silence in the classroom. They looked puzzled. The "Sorry" died hard.

In later years, I was happy to find surprised faces at asking something I could not answer immediately. I think they felt thrilled, perhaps powerful, at seeing they could make the teacher learn with their questions. They could even take it as a game: "Let's ask more difficult questions" or"Let's ask questions at the level of the teacher". I enjoyed this change. This is the classroom atmosphere I am most comfortable with, I thought. More vibrant.

Back to the present...
Yesterday something completely different happened in my class. I corrected a student who was using two words as synonyms when they are not.
-Are you sure? -he asked.
-(Why ever would I correct him if I wasn't? -I thought.) Positive. -I answered.
Next, he produces his Blackberry from his pocket and goes to an online dictionary to check.

At this point I saw the two roads diverging in the woods... and I determined to take it easy while I sensed my authority as a teacher being put to the Internet test.

Silence in the classroom.

I decided to join his efforts and look it up in my netbook as well. We ended up exchanging what we had found out.
He looked at me with a smile of satisfaction and admitted: -You're right.

That moment was a turning point in my lessons. I had read before I am no longer the most authoritative person in a connected classroom. Reading it is one thing. Going through it is quite another. The more travelled by road is soothing. New paths are challenging for the teacher not in academic terms, or new technology literacy, but in human terms. To flow in the current teaching context, you need to give your ego a sanity check.

Authority is not a given. It is earned. A student at a time. Everything you have studied for is not enough. The best tools used for the right purposes will not give you that either. Authority in today's classroom is a humble attitude towards the student and the subject being taught. It is about sharing how you get there as opposed to how you once got there. Authority is the result of transparent processes unhindered by the knowledge possession illusions of a distant educational past.

Do I like this new scenario? Frankly, I'm getting used to it. For starters, reading my two reactions to the previous situations makes me feel amused now. Clearly, I didn't get it back then. I barely hinted at it. You need your students to evolve enough for you to experience a comfort zone stretch. Then, we can talk about authentic, timely learning.

Image credit

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