How to avoid becoming a caveman!

In this day and age, how has it come to a point where we have children whose skills and understanding of the digital realm far outstrip the people they are supposed to be learning from?

I guess that the obvious answer to this question is that this has always been the case and that when we were younger we also began to access areas of understanding that our own parents never had access to. So what’s all the fuss about then? Hey, let’s just let the kids sort it out themselves and we will keep teaching them what we know works well for us. We will be safe, sticking with our tried and trusted methods, until the Earth finally turns cold and we are buried with our pencils, papers and wooden desks with a small inkwell in the corner!

Now this is exactly the sort of attitude that does nothing to help anyone-students or teachers! What we need to do, as educators and parents, is provide a learning platform that allows our children to become more proficient in the current digital realm. If you like, we need to become their guides on the journeys they will take through their time with us. I think this line from an article by Shane Gower on ‘living and learning with New Media’ sums it up nicely:

Teachers need to evolve to become Connectors or expert participants.

We have to become guides for our student’s journeys

How do we do this when the introduction of new technologies to help teachers guide students on their journeys has become a real issue for many educators though? Quite simply many teachers are unsure of how to use these new technologies and fear that they will have to rewrite their own internal teaching manuels in order to participate. Of course, not every educator feels this way!

There are many other educators who want to experiment and investigate the digital ‘New World’ and then adapt and implement what they find there. I have noticed that this educational fork in the learning highway is already starting to cause quite a dilemma for schools, teachers and parents. I have also become aware of the feelings of disatisfaction and irritation that many teachers have when confronted with the use of technology in the classroom. So what do we do when we have those who want to go forward yet we also have those who wish to remain stationary?

Well over the last year, I have done a great deal of soul-searching over this very question. On the one hand, my answer would very definitely be “Move forward and don’t look back!” But on the other hand, I also like a lot of what the children learn (and how they learn it) in my class, and I’m not sure that I want to give that up. Perhaps though, it could be said, that therein lies the beginnings of an answer to the question.

I think that there is definitely a case for using what we already have in our current units of work and lesson plans and tweaking them to get the best of both worlds. This seems to be the safest option and the course that many schools would logically move towards. In fact, this strategy could be likened to ‘dabbling’ and ‘doing old things in old ways’ as Marc Prensky mentions in his article on shaping tech for the classroom.

However will this strategy ultimately be the best cause of action for a school to take? Surely if you really want the students, your working with, to maximise their learning opportunities then you will have to take option four; which means ‘doing new things in new ways’. In my mind there is no doubt that option four would lead to more of an emphasis on digital tools being more fully integrated into a school’s curriculum. This in turn would lead to a larger focus on PBL.

Peer Based Learning-where learning is characterized by a context of reciprocity, where participants feel they can both produce and evaluate knowledge and culture-Living with new Media, The MacArthur Foundation, page 39

However, in order for us to give our children the best opportunities to learn, then we can’t let our own feelings about the digital realm and it’s new technologies get in the way of our responsibilities as educators. Those teachers who actively resist the new technologies and tools that are available to us are ultimately going to fall further and further out of touch with the realities of being a global citizen of the modern world. It is no good saying that I can make do with what I already have or that I don’t need to worry  about learning to operate a new application or program because the students don’t need to use it until later in life. NO! That is unfairly disadvantaging the students we are teaching. We are responsible for making sure that we understand which tools are the best for us to provide the best learning experience possible. We also have a responsibility to know how to use those tools in a way which benefits the students otherwise we will become no better than  cave dwellers trying to work out what the big round thing is for!

Is this where teaching could end up if we are not careful?



Out with the Old! In with the New!

Me  versus  Me

Date: This time last year (part 1)
At this time, I was still relatively new to my year group and was currently in the middle of my second term. Being part of a new year group, I was less willing to take risks with the structure of my lessons. Although, as a year group, we were adapting and changing the planning I wasn't really comfortable moving beyond the parameters of the planning that we had agreed on-TOO RISKY!


Date: This year, current time (part 1)

Wehay! I am no longer new to my year group and feel more comfortable with the subjects I am teaching. I have also started the COETAIL course and feel more empowered to adapt and change the lessons that I teach. Ultimately, I feel more able to experiment with different technologies and teaching styles.

Date: This time last year (part 2)
I am teaching the first lesson of our Religious Education Unit on Sikhism. I decide to follow the lesson plan exactly. The first part of the lesson involves the children sitting together on the carpet and watching a PowerPoint of photographs showing different aspects of Sikh  life. The children then work in pairs to discuss what they have watched while deciding what questions they would like to find the answers to. Meanwhile, I act as the question coordinator for student feedback while the rest of the children listen to the responses of their peers-PLAY IT SAFE! MAKE SURE THE CHILDREN ASK THE QUESTIONS I WANT THEM TO ASK!


Date: This year, current time (part 2)

Again, it is time to teach the first lesson of the RE unit but this time I am going to combine the lesson with a recent unit on ‘Staying Safe’. It may work! It may not! But I am going to have a go and see what happens. So, this time the children work on laptops with access to a locally networked version of the same PowerPoint. As before, they are creating different questions based on what they observe about Sikh life from the PowerPoint. They can choose to work individually, with partners or in groups-it is entirely up to them! I am still unsure about their ability to use Google Docs or Microsoft Word so I get them to write their questions in their books! STILL PLAYING IT SAFE, AS I AM NOT COMFORTABLE WITH USING GOOGLE DOCS IN CLASS YET!

Date: This time last year (part 3)
The Children go off to quietly write their questions in books. After they have finished, we come back to the carpet and share some more of the questions they have come up with. We then talk about some of the answers to the questions that they are interested in-to be honest I actually provide some of the answers, but not all, as I simply don't know most of the answers to the questions-MUST MAKE SURE THEY HAVE BEEN GIVEN SOME OF THE ANSWERS BECAUSE THEN I KNOW THEY HAVE LEARNED SOMETHING ABOUT SIKHISM!


Date: This year, current time (part 3)

So, they have finished writing out their questions about the PowerPoint on Sikh life. Now I ask them if they would like to find some of the answers to their own questions. The class feedback suggests that they are keen to find the answers to the original questions they were interested in asking. So this is where we add our cross-curricular link to a previous safety lesson on search engines. The children are given a choice of four different search engines, that they have previously evaluated, to find the answers to their questions. As they attempt to use the search engines to find the answers to their questions they are also asked to think about the usefulness of each of the search engines they are using.

The children now switch to searching for the answers to their questions while also deciding which search engine is the safest, most appropriate and most effective. At the end of the lesson the children feedback any facts about Sikhism that they think their peers might be interested in as well as providing information on the functionality of the search engines they have used.

Has technology been effectively embedded within the curriculum?

For this reworked lesson, I would say that the answer has to be ‘Yes!’

I took a chance with this lesson and decided to combine technology with a flipped lesson approach. The use of the laptops to create questions worked quite well but I think it would have worked much better with some form of online or desktop word processor e.g. Google Docs or Microsoft Word. The only problem with this would have been the time factor; you see, my current class tend to take five times longer typing than they do writing.

It also has to be said that the cross curricular link with the ‘Safety unit’ worked really well and actually got many of the children thinking not only about the different facets of Sihkism but also the importance of using the right search engine.

What does this mean?

It means that technology can be embedded within any curriculum area; it may only be applied in a single lesson; it may become an integral part of the whole unit; it may be used as a homelearning task. The point is that it can be used on any level, and at any level, within any curriculum format. While looking at the NETS standards for students, I was pretty certain that the children had met the following standards:

1c.Use models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues
3b.Locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media
3c. Evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks
4c. Collect and analyze data to identify solutions and/or make informed decisions
6b. Select and use applications effectively and productively

Remember- all you need are the resources and the willingness to take a chance!




Of course you can always stack the deck:


The People Collector!


“Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people.”

Karen Stephenson quote taken from Connectivism a learning theory for the digital age  

I couldn’t agree more! This quote should be used as a mantra for educators everywhere! When I first became a teacher, I found it hard to decide on a particular format for teaching. At the time, I thought this was an inherent weakness that would ultimately lead to me failing as a facilitator of learning. However, I now believe that this period of  trialling different teaching strategies is something that all teachers should be doing; not only at the start of their teaching journey but throughout their lives as an educator.

By storing and sharing knowledge with others, people begin to create a learning repostitory. This deposit box of shared information empowers them by allowing them to choose when, where or how they use and apply what they have learned from others. I remember a lecturer from my days as a trainee teacher explaining that teaching, using only your own experiences, was like turning up to an orchestra and trying to play all the instruments at the same time! If a teacher was to educate using only their own thoughts and ideas they might well succeed but I am guessing there would be more failure than success. By collecting and using other people’s knowledge we begin to build a better profile for our own lives in education; so here is my question-why shouldn’t this also be the case with the children we teach?

Do we gain knowledge through experiences? Is it innate (present at birth)? Do we acquire it through thinking and reasoning? Collectivism-A learning theory for the digital age-George Siemens

Although some knowledge may well be innate, I really don’t think that all knowledge is. I actually believe that knowledge is nurtured through the experience of sharing. In my own class of Year Three students, I would like to think that the children are growing their knowledge base by learning from those around them.

How are they collecting? Who are they collecting?

The people they are beginning to collect could be: their classmates-in the form of peer interactions in speaking and listening activities: it could come from carpet time when they are listening to a teacher’s first-hand experiences and ideas on a particular topic: it could also come from interacting with other children or teachers via email, TWITTER or some other digital medium. I really do believe that it is vitally important that children develop this habit of collecting other people in order to expand their knowledge base. I also think it is  important to be aware that all three of these collection methods are of equal status when it comes to students learning  to acquire and share knowledge.

As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses. Collectivism-A learning theory for the digital age-George Siemens

Although I previously mentioned that all three methods of collecting and sharing knowledge are equally important, I have to say that the one area that has pushed my students knowledge acquisition the furthest (in the shortest time) is the ability to share via a digital medium. And by digital sharing, I mean building an email community within the class, year group and school. I have included an example of an email conversation that I think highlights this third example of using a digital medium to share and acquire knowledge.

Neil Willis wrote: Ok guys, Two competitions to anybody checking their email. Competition one! Worth 4 Dojo points-Can anybody build a better snowman than this? 
imageCompetition two-worth six Dojo points. Write a fantastic poem about the snow. Good luck Mr Willis
D(A student from my class)wrote: When is the dead line?
Neil Willis wrote: Let’s say next Tuesday!
D wrote:Snow   Cold hands, numb nose. You might think my toes are froze. But, no. Boots of[2]
Neil Willis wrote: Fantastic! Very clever!

After I shared this poem with the rest of the class, many of them immediately started to talk about the reasons why they thought the poem was so effective and whether their own boots would in fact be boots of justice! So, by sharing this poem, they have collected another student’s experiences and added them to their depositories of knowledge. As mentioned in a previous post, we can use Jeff Utecht’s formula for networking to better demonstrate the connections being made:

Activity = Visibility = Connection opportunity

Or in this case

Connection opportunity = Activity = Visibility

Finally it has to be said that I am very much a people collector! I am happy to say that I have learned more about my job, my life and the world around me from my shared experiences with others than I have from any book, manuel or download. I can only hope that the students I have the good fortune to work with, will also learn to become  collectors and distributors of knowledge…

Courage to make connections!

Like any organism, a school needs to evolve in order to become a successful institution of education that provides students, parents and teachers with a positive learning experience. If schools remain stationary in their roles as places of education, then they risk becoming archaic institutions that serve no other purpose than becoming glorified creches for children and teenagers.

How does a school remain stationary in a world which has never been so dynamic? 

Well, I believe there are numerous reasons for this. It could be any of the following: a lack of vision from the school’s senior management: poor teaching and learning: an outdated curriculum that no longer challenges and engages the students: a lack of connectivity with the school’s parent community. In fairness, these are but a few of the many reasons for a school to fail.

So, what can I do about it?

Well, as a class teacher, I have  limited influence over many of the administrative issues facing the modern school. However, sometime ago, I came to realise that I did have the power to affect change at a classroom level. And so I gradually began to move away from the more structured safety of the curriculum we were teaching. Now let me be clear here-I didn’t instigate a one-man educational revolution and start teaching the children Zen Buddhist meditation techniques instead of maths. No, I just started to adapt and tweak the, already excellent, planning which had been in place since I had been at the school. However, I soon realised that I was starting to run out of ideas and that my creativity was becoming stifled due to a complete lack of ideas. In essence, I had nowhere to go to find ideas for new activities, lesson tasks and projects!

Is there anybody out there who can help me?

As it turned out, there were many like-minded individuals within my own school who were already creating and innovating on a scale I couldn’t even begin to think about (in fact some of these people are recent members of the COETAIL community and are the reason for my entry into the course). The problem was – “How do I approach these people for help?” And this is where I felt an almost empathic understanding of Jeff Utecht’s words regarding growing a PLN (Personal Learning Network).

Growing your network to the size you want is not very difficult, it is the self promotion part of the job that most people have issue with. Jeff Utecht-Reach

In all honesty I have never been the most confident of people. I  find it really difficult to promote my ideas and have always worried about the inevitable judgements that people make. However, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the school’s new Twitter feed by my year leader(a fellow COETAILER). She suggested that I join the school’s TWITTER community. So I decided to test the water!

And it has to be said, with regards to being a more active member of the school community, that it was the best thing I ever did! After creating a TWITTER account for my class I finally feel like I have a growing PLN within the school’s TWITTER community.

What is the next step?

Even though I have taken the first small step to creating a PLN, I am still terrified(as Jeff has written)of the following:

It’s much like opening the door to your classroom and having a “Anyone’s welcome sign”. Only now you are opening the door to your professional life online. Jeff Utecht-Reach

Personally, I find it very hard to imagine a more terrifying prospect than everybody being free to judge me! However, after joining the COETAIL course I am starting to realise that without taking the plunge and opening up a dialogue with other educators and teachers I too will become a part of the stationary school.

I would just like to add that I have no doubt that once I become even more connected and confident, and that may take some time, I do believe that my teaching practice will benefit greatly from the connections that are made.

Finally I leave you with my own small addition to Jeff’s formula for Network building:

Activity = Visibility = Connection opportunity = Many ideas = Creative curriculum = Engaged students = Positive learning environment = Everybody happy!