Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Grades - good or evil?

Recently, I had the chance to drop by an education blog where the topic of discussion was whether grades can ever be good or, at least, what was our perspective on grades.

To be honest, I went into a bit of a tie-raid about grades and rubrics but in the end, I think I summed it up retty well. I will admit to having trouble with the blog's comment window in that it didn't seem to want me to use paragraphs but, meh!

Not wanting my well-earned high blood pressure to go to waste, I decided to repost the comment here. Of course, please feel free to comment and give me your perspective...

"Well, this is certainly going to be an interesting discussion!

I believe, that the only useful assessment is formative assessment by teachers during a unit of work, and indeed, diagnostic formative assessment before a unit. In our school, we are in the process of eliminating grades.

This does not mean that parents and children have not been conditioned to feel a need to determine a child's position vis-à-vis their classmates. At least, that is their view of it. Grades, whether we like it or not, determine a "pecking" order in the class which some need to see because it gives them comfort.

In my mind, the reality is such that, no two teachers, despite hours of moderation, will assign grades which mean the same thing across the board and across all classes and units of work. We are human after all, and as a result, variation is bound to exist. One problem is, that parents and those who seek "objective" results, fail to see the degree of subjectivity involved when any grade is assigned.

Therefore, for a whole host of reasons our school has moved to using rubrics which clearly define what is required in any particular piece of work. Each column clearly identifies what the pupils have done correctly and what they need to improve on. Contrary to what many may expect, the rubrics have absolutely no numerical or letter grades attached to them. One of the other benefits of having rubrics is that it gives the teacher the opportunity to clearly define, throughout the task, with the children - either individually or in small groups - the exact requirements of the task. The rubric, then becomes a roadmap for the children to help them remember and identify what they have to do to self-assess and metacognitively determine their progress toward the stated learning objective and success criteria.

So, my feeling on grading is that, the belief that grades indicate an unequivocal statement of a child's progress is deeply flawed because of the huge numbers of variables which can tend to influence the result and those who seek specific grades often do not recognise the variables involved or underestimate their importance.

Thankfully, some people I deal with tend to be more concerned with knowing what their child can and can not do and want to know how to help them meet those challenges rather than being overly concerned with numerical labels and where their child is in a class.

Finally, we need to keep in mind the fact that context plays a huge role in the importance of grades to students and their parents. When I use the rubrics, there is no need for grades because the student knows how they are doing and so do I because they have been formatively assessed throughout the task.

Monday, 21 December 2009

A Powerpoint Alternative - Prezi

I have to admit that over the years, I have used a lot of powerpoint presentations or variations of them. However, over the last year or so I found myself wondering what alternatives to powerpoint were there? I'm not talking about programs which essentially show slides but with a slightly different user interface, but something really "different" which not only presented the information in new ways but allowed for more creativity, was relatively easy for 10 and 11 year olds to learn and did a better job at showing connections between ideas.

Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of uses for a good powerpoint presentation and there are hundreds of websites which give pointers on how to create the "ultimate presentation." What I wanted, was a format which was somehow less linear.

That is, a format which allowed the audience to participate by seeing the big picture and its component parts and more easily discuss each of the factors involved. Luckily, I discovered Prezi which does just that.

Prezi is a non-linear presentation tool which allows you to start at the top of a concept (a top-down perspective) and allows the audience to see all the component parts of the concept or topic. The presenter or the audience can then explore randomly, or along a fixed path, and identify and discuss the various components.

This tool has been very helpful and I've created several. The children who have had the opportunity to try it out have found it has a bit of a learning curve, so I've always guided them through their first two or three (as I do with all the tools I introduce). Once they get the hang of it, and lose the Powerpoint linear model way of thinking, they love it.

It has been a great help with children who have difficulty sorting concepts into individual ideas or identifying connections. In other words, it is a great help for children who have trouble seeing the forest for the trees or who have Inquiry topics which have several different important aspects contributing to a main idea.

For example, a Prezi was done on global warming. Some of the contributing factors were collected together in seperate frames but still clearly visible within a whole concept, thus showing its connection to other factors of global warming.

As I suggested above, Prezi has been very helpful in showing connections between concepts or ideas which Powerpoint simply cannot, in a fluid random access sense. Hence, the children, while still enjoying Powperpoint because it is one of their "comfort zone technologies" have increasingly started turning to Prezis for their project ideas and class discussions.

The facts:

Who used it?: Year 6 (aged 10-11 years old)
Where can I find it?:
Cost: Free (but with limits - no education package that I'm aware of)
What is it?: Alternative Presentation Tool
Why would I use it?: When concepts have several connected ideas that need a "top-down" view which does not come across well in Powerpoint.

How do you use Prezis? Perhaps you've found an even better tool for presentations. If so, please let me know in the comments!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Our Teaching and Learning Environment (TLE)

Early last academic year, I approached our school’s Principal and discussed with him at length how I could extend our learning environment beyond the walls of the school. It was, and remains, one of my core beliefs that as a 21st Century Educator, I need to help children see that learning does not only occur in a classroom setting. And, as such, I felt the need to open up access by the children to a learning environment that they had more control over which they could more actively and meaningfully contribute to. It would be a community where their ideas were shared with their classmates and they could collaborate, extend, inquire and build on their passion to investigate and explore regardless of their physical location or time of day.

Given the fact that we are in a primary school, and the children are 10 or 11 years old I recognised and, identified my perceptions about the alternatives open to me. I support wholeheartedly the views of commentators such as Martin Weller (2008) who tend to support the idea that PLEs and VLEs are actually part of a continuum of environments. Thus, our learning environment would be called (as Martin Weller points out) a Teacher learner environment (TLE). But I call ours a Blended Teaching and Learning Environment(BTLE). According to Weller, a TLE can be seen as a step, moving along the continuum towards a full-fledged PLE.

These are a few of the reasons I felt it was necessary to implement the BTLE in our school’s particular circumstances:
1. A BTLE would be preferable to an ad hoc solution because of the security concerns of parents and teachers. Given the varying degrees of IT experience the children possessed, it was felt that a BTLE would be the safest option and a would provide a good grounding for later.
2. A BTLE would likely provide a more efficient means for parents to monitor their children's progress versus a system which would be less centralized and would potentially require a large number of logins and passwords. Although use of OpenID is becoming quite widespread, I felt that it was still too limited to give us access to tools we may need to use.
3. The BTLE would allow teachers to more easily assess student progress rather than having to monitor multiple websites which may be difficult to obtain data from.
4. The BTLE would allow a more structured environment for the children where standards for content and etiquette could be carried over from the classroom.

On the other hand, there were several concerns which had to be either addressed or at least kept in mind:
• Human and hardware resources needs. The demands on our already over extended IT department had to be limited as far as possible. Moreover, the hardware currently in use in the school was considered at a point where upgrades were essential even without any additional demands of implementing a BTLE.
• Parental reluctance in terms of the cultural belief that if “it” wasn’t happening in a classroom and out of a textbook then, whatever one called it, it would not be education. In other words, there was a (in some cases strongly held) reluctance on the part of parents to deviate from a system of teaching which did not mirror their own past experiences.
• Security. Whatever environment I created, it had to be straightforward to administer and keep secure. Moreover, it needed to be seen to be secure where children were free to interact with their colleagues in a safe, educationally appropriate and meaningful environment.

So, with those perspectives firmly in place, I set about creating my game plan. I determined the needs of the children in terms of IT experience and attitudes towards technology. Then I began creating a road map of what I hoped to achieve at various "checkpoints" by the end of the academic year.

Over the year our class “tested” four possible learning environments and reflected on how they fit. It was clear from the outset that no “off the rack” environment would be perfect but given the cost and resources constraints we were under we had to be more creative. What we, as a class, needed to work out was which one was the most accessible and appropriate for our learning.

In the end, we ended up creating our BTLE, which consists of:
• – one of the two main facets of the TLE. It took me quite a while, but I eventually set up the class and the school environments, loaded all the student accounts, uploaded resources, created resources and lessons, which in some cases included recordings, video demonstrations, screen demonstrations and of course assessment strategies using rubrics for assignments and then linking the resources to the lessons.

Other facets of the BTLE are:
• Class Blog
• Shelfari
• Google Wave
• Wikispaces
• Voicethread

While there are a number of logins to recall and passwords for students to remember, “experience is a great teacher” and there have been relatively few password or login problems.

So, in the end, we never really created a VLE/LMS but a BTLE in which we have a completely online (does not use any extra school hardware beyond a network connection) Moodle-type of environment which is complemented by a class blog and a few external websites. We have, over the last year and half, also developed the practice of adding and removing bits from our BTLE as we need them. So, a month from now, who knows, the list may look completely different.

Some of the many benefits of having created the BTLE is student online access to relevant assessment and standards of content, authentic reflection opportunities, collaboration, rethinking and changing ideas, investigation, inquiring, discovery and digital storytelling to name a few. In other words, 21st Century skills.

Have you created a VLE, LMS, or BTLE? Perhaps you have a hardware strapped school as well. How have you implemented your learning environment? Tell me about it in the comments!

Works Cited
Weller, Martin. The Ed Techie. March 6, 2008. (accessed 18 December, 2009).

Monday, 14 December 2009

Professional Reflections

Welcome to my professional reflections page.

In this context, professional reflections means that I take the opportunity, as often as possible to review what actions I've taken to implement IT in the classroom in a meaningful and authentic way. Reflecting also means, identifying which things have been implemented but need improving and how or why they need that improvement. Not everything works the first time around, but I also believe that few things worth doing come easily. Finally, I see reflecting as looking back and making connections not only with what I already know, but what I have discovered. I also make a conscious effort to use those connections to guide my "road ahead".

It is my very strong belief that we, as elementary/primary school teachers should not be implementing technology for technology's sake, nor should we see technology as simply "a tool". I believe, that both of these positions sells the profound implications of today's technology, to the educational welfare and future of our children, short. It does our children a disservice by belittling the importance of read/write/web (RRW) technology to little more than that of an overhead projector or, on the other hand, a silver bullet which will cure all ills. Both are, in my opinion, a falsehood.

I will however, use the word "tool" in the sense of a telescope, microscope or other instrument which is a bridge to greater understanding, collaboration, sharing and creating.

I believe that the RRW is an incredible tool which opens up a vast amount of opportunity to allow students to actively create, remix and share their knowledge and understanding with others. I further believe that Constructivist theories and Connectivism and the RRW go hand in hand and allow children the opportunity to inquire and investigate like never before.

Hopefully, over time,as I fill more of this space, you will find a resource, or an idea which you find helpful. If so, please feel free to add a comment!