Choosing the (digital) pedagogical tool fit for the learning

source: pixabay.com @byrev

The list of digital technologies that might be used for teaching and learning is extensive. It includes: LMSs (Learning Management Systems); MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses); BYOD (bring your own device); BYOT (bring your own technology); BYOC (bring your own connectivity); makerspaces; robotics; digital portfolios; online discussion forums; blogging platforms; wikis, microblogging; back channels; audio recording and music making; image and video editing; creation of infographics, slideshows, and presentations; digital storytelling; social media; collaboration tools; mobile apps; game-based learning and environments; coding and computer programming; augmented and virtual realities; technologies for creating physical or virtual 3D models; gesture-based computing; learning analytics and statistical analysis software; online authoring tools; wearable technology; affective computing; rubric generators; quizzes; online response systems such as polls and surveys; video conferencing; cloud computing; and student feedback tools such as Turnitin, GradeMark, and PeerMark.

E-learning technologies are sometimes defined as asynchronous (any-time) or synchronous (real-time). Flipped learning is that in which traditional teacher instruction is delivered between classes via online video or presentation technologies, and class time is used for application and collaboration. Blended learning melds traditional classroom pedagogies with online learning tools and environments. Rhizomatic learning, a loose appropriation of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome in an educational context, is non-linear and not predetermined (Cormier, 2008; Koutropoulos, 2017) and heutagogical learning is self-determined (Hase & Kenyon, 2000, 2007; Netolicky, 2016). Beetham (2013a) describes e-learning as learner-centred experience that allows learners more control over the time, place, and pace of their learning and the opportunity to connect with learning communities worldwide, much like the experience of many teachers who use social media for networking and learning.

I’ve been doing some reading since I recently posted my initial thoughts about digital pedagogy and I am reassured that scholars tend to agree that pedagogy should drive the use of technologies, rather than technologies driving the way teaching and learning happens, or as an end in themselves. Digital technologies and methods are mostly seen as part of a teacher’s arsenal of tools for teaching curriculum content, skills, and understandings.

Laurillard (2013) states that, while the scope and style of pedagogy changes as technology changes, no one has yet shown that we need to change our understanding of how students learn. Higgins (2014), however, argues that technology has changed what we learn and how we learn.

The changing digital technology landscape has led to educators attempting to personalise and gamify learning, to construct open online learning environments and self-directed learning opportunities, to leverage students’ personal mobile devices for learning, and to utilise technologies to facilitate processes such as analysis, collaboration, communication, and creation. Dichev and Dicheva (2017), however, found that even though gamification in education is a growing phenomenon, practice has outpaced research and we do not know enough about how to effectively gamify education or even whether gamifying education is beneficial. Additionally, online learning such as that via MOOCs can be overwhelming and confusing to those without highly-evolved skills in managing their connectivity (Beetham, 2013b). This brings into question the equity of technologies. Who has access? Who dominates? Who becomes lost in the system or excluded from it?

Many authors note that teachers should not assume that because students are surrounded by technology they are savvy, confident, ethical, or safe users of it. Safe, ethical use of technology needs to be guided and explicitly taught, as do skills such as online collaboration and evaluating the quality of available information. Students need the skills and aptitudes to sustain engagement with digital learning, especially if it is self-directed and self-paced.

Most proponents of digital learning base their use of technologies on traditional pedagogy. Good pedagogical design, traditional or digital, ensures that there is alignment between the curriculum we teach, the teaching methods we use, the learning environment we choose, and the assessment procedures we adopt (Biggs, 1999). Importantly, a role remains for teachers as expert designers of learning (Laurillard, 2013; Selwyn, 2016) who establish learning tasks, supportive environments for learning, and conducive forms of social classroom relations. Hunter (2015) suggests the following questions to teachers:

  • Where is the pedagogy?
  • What is the content?
  • How is your choice or the students’ choice of particular technology tools going to enhance learning?

So, we need to start with the desired learning outcomes. Curriculum design comes before pedagogy, which comes before technology. Then we choose the pedagogical tool fit for the learning purpose.

It cannot be assumed, however, that teachers, even those who are tech-savvy, know how to best use technologies for pedagogical purposes. Lei (2009) found that although pre-service teachers are often digital natives who use technology extensively for themselves, they lack the knowledge, skills, and experiences to integrate technology into classrooms to help them teach and to help their students learn, even when they recognise the importance of doing so. Teachers can leverage digital technologies within a pedagogical frame, but only when we have the knowledge and understanding of available technologies and their pedagogical potential.

References

Beetham, H. (2013a). Designing for active learning in technology-rich contexts. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.31-48. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Beetham, H. (2013b). Designing for learning in an uncertain future. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.258-281. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University Press.

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum. Innovate 4(5).

Dichev, C., & Dicheva, D. (2017). Gamifying education: what is known, what is believed and what remains uncertain: a critical review. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education14(1).

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogyultiBASE In-Site, 5(3), 1-10.

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: A child of complexity theory. Complicity: An international journal of complexity and education4(1).

Higgins, S. (2014). Critical thinking for 21st-century education: A cyber-tooth curriculum? Prospects44(4), 559-574.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology integration and high possibility classrooms: Building from TPACK. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Koutropoulos, A. (2017). Rhizomes of the classroom: Enabling the learners to become curriculum. In S. P. Ferris & H. Wilder (Eds.), Unplugging the classroom: Teaching with technologies to promote students’ lifelong learning, pp.103-118. Cambridge, MA: Chandos Publishing.

Laurillard, D. (2013). Forward to the second edition. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.xvi-xviii. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Lei, J. (2009). Digital natives as preservice teachers: What technology preparation is needed? Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, 25(3), 87-97.

Netolicky, D. M. (2016). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 1(4), 270-285.

Selwyn, N. (2016). Education and technology: Key issues and debates. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Taking time to take stock

seeing the wood from the trees (source: pixabay.com)

It is the last day of term. The last day of first semester in Australia. And for me the last day of the first semester of full-time work in seven years, since the birth of my first child.

I spent much of the day pondering a couple of coaching style questions:

  1. As you reflect on the last six months in your role at work, what are some celebrations?; and
  2. Fast forward to the end of the year. What are the things you ideally see as having been achieved, and of what might you need to be mindful in order to get there?

Today I posed these to a couple of people with whom I work closely, and also to myself. These questions are a deliberate tool for looking back and looking forward. They use the aspects of mediative questions recommended by Cognitive Coaching:

  • Plural forms (What are some celebrations …?);
  • Positive presuppositions – the assumption that the person has been successful and has the capacity to reflect on their success (As you reflect …);
  • Tentative language (Of what might you need to be mindful …?); and
  • Open-ended (What are the …?, rather than, Have you …?).

Asking these questions on the last day of first semester was a mechanism for pausing to take stock. Schools move at a cracking pace, and those working in schools are often racing to keep up. Stopping to look back over our shoulder at how far we have come, and in what direction, can help us to realise what we have (or perhaps haven’t) achieved. It can help to anchor us in reality, to consider possibilities, and to re-orient us as we move into the future. I remember doing this from time to time during my PhD: looking back, wondering how I’d come so far, and remembering that it was just by taking one little step at a time.

My own reflections were around a shift in perceptions of my role between the beginning of the year and now. Mine is a new role to the school—Dean of Research and Pedagogy—and in January it felt a bit nebulous. A fuzzy outline of a role. A job description yet to come to life.

I initially spent a lot of time teasing out the crux of what this role was about; its strategy, its deliverables, and how I might gauge my progress in fulfilling its mandate. Looking back at my initial strategic and operational planning is gratifying; most of it has come to life, becoming breath in my work and in the life of the school, on which I can now build.

One of the indicators of how my role has evolved in this short time is the increasing list of those from across the school—from the classroom to the boardroom—who are approaching me for support in their area. I’m especially pleased at some of the unexpected impacts of my work.

Reflecting takes time, but it’s time worth carving out. I was recently reminded that my one word for 2017 was meant to be ‘nourish’. I have lost track of that along the way this year, but am hoping to regain some capacity for nourishment in this coming week when I’m with my family on a South-East Asian island for some time together and some time out.

Being bold, but for what change? #IWD17 #BeBoldForChange

Ms Marvel / Kamala Khan, Muslim-American superhero; source: dailydot.com

Ms Marvel / Kamala Khan, Muslim-American superhero; source: dailydot.com

Wednesday is International Women’s Day, with the theme #BeBoldForChange. While some might argue that there isn’t a need for an IWD, and men’s rights activists might cry, “Where is International Men’s Day?”, there is plenty of evidence that there remains a gender parity problem. Global events such as Brexit and the voting in of the Trump administration suggest that there are a multitude who do not value or champion diversity in gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or ability.

Pay gaps, inflexible working arrangements, and representation of gender in media, film and the toy aisle, all point towards persistent social beliefs about gender. The wife drought, by Australian political reporter Annabel Crabb, is an excellent read on the ingrained gender disparities in Western society and the ways in which they disadvantage both women and men. Gender inequity is an issue for everyone, as evidenced by the around 2 million people – women, men, girls, boys – who marched around the world in the January Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration.

We live in a world where in the same month (February 2017) the US President can comment that he likes White House female staff to ‘dress like a woman’ and LEGO can release a Women of NASA series of figures to counter the highly gendered representations of girls and women in stores (to join LEGO’s female Legal Justice Team and Bioneers). The Gender Pay Equity Insights report can reveal ongoing gender pay gaps in Australia, and Australian Rules Football can introduce a Women’s League competition. The gender equity dance seems to be one of some steps backward, some inertia, some steps forward, and then a step to the side.

Hidden Figures screen shot source: huffingtonpost.com

Hidden Figures screen shot; source: huffingtonpost.com

The teaching profession is dominated by women, but school leadership globally remains a male-dominated field associated with masculine qualities (Cunneen & Harford, 2016). I work at a school that is co-educational to Year 6, and single-sex boys to Year 12. We have gender balance in our leadership team, but like most schools in Australia with boys in the high school, the title of the principal is ‘Headmaster’, implying that only a man can hold that position.

In my career I have benefited from the generosity of women colleagues who supported me and women leaders who gave of their time and expertise to support me in my growth. Equally, I have profited from the collegiality and support of men who have played pivotal roles in my work and my career. In more recent years, my nerd herd, Twitteratti and Voxer squad have provided diverse global colleagues, coaches and accountability partners. My mentors, coaches, advocates, professional friends and cheerleaders have been so because of their capacity for empathy and their willingness to give of themsleves to others, to pay forward and to reach back. Each has offered me something unique.

Rogue One film still; source: blastr.com

Rogue One film still; source: blastr.com

I have made deliberate choices in my life, reflecting the IWD theme this year of being bold for change. For me, being bold has been to be true to my own intuition about what makes a good parent, a good educator, a good leader and a fulfilled individual capable of being present with her children, present in her work, and occasionally present in her relationship and present with herself. Of course this tenuous balance is not so easily enacted.

For my male high school students, I aim to be an example of empathy, teaching and leadership. For my male children, I aim to be a present, engaged parent who is also engaged in her own pursuit of personal excellence and contribution to a good greater than myself. By modelling an equitable partnership in concert with my husband, I hope our boys will grow up accepting notions of gender parity at home and feeling comfortable to choose paths that suit them as individuals. Teaching, modelling and leading social justice, diversity and equity, at home and at school, can help our students and our children accept these as given.

Ghostbusters promotional image; source: blastr.com

Ghostbusters promotional image; source: blastr.com

Annabel Crabb’s words still ring true for me, even though I read her book three years ago:

The obligation that evolves for working mothers, in particular, is a very precise one; the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.

There is the constant tension between the obligations of work and home. My inner primal mama bear feels the umbilical tug of my children no matter how far from them I am. Yet there is also the underlying and constant hum of hunger for intellectual stimulation, professional exhilaration and personal challenge. It is the hunger that propelled me back to work after having each of my children, and that led to my doctorate. My PhD—submitted within three years of enrolling and completed while working and parenting two young children—is my most visceral example of being bold for change. As a sustained challenging endeavor, in which life events intervened along the way to make things at times crushingly difficult, it shaped me and made me feel stronger in the struggle and via the conquering.

LEGO's new Women of NASA figures; source: sciencealert.com

LEGO’s new Women of NASA figures; source: sciencealert.com

One of the great challenges for me is, to use an airplane analogy, fitting my own oxygen mask before I can help others. I have learned to prioritise exercise, yoga and self-care as non-negotiables, rather than the first thing to go when life gets busy or an optional add-on. My children, my husband, my students and my colleagues all benefit when I am in one piece physically, emotionally and mentally.

For girls and boys, men and women, being bold for change can mean apologising less or demanding more from ourselves and those around us. It can mean calling out casual sexism at school, work or at social gatherings. It can mean sharing unpopular opinions or having uncomfortable conversations. It can mean advocating for your child’s, your friend’s or your own non-stereotypical choices. It can mean putting yourself first, or making a sacrifice for someone else. It can mean saying ‘no’, or saying ‘yes’.

International Women’s Day provides us all with the opportunity to bring mindfulness to issues of gender, diversity and privelege.

Shepard Fairey's protest posters for the Trump inauguration; source: theverge.com

Shepard Fairey’s protest posters for the Trump inauguration; source: theverge.com

References

Crabb, A. (2014). The wife drought: Why women need wives, and men need lives. Ebury Australia.

Cunneen, M., & Harford, J. (2016). Gender matters: Women’s experiences of the route to principalship in Ireland. In K. Fuller and J. Harford (eds.). Gender and leadership: Women achieving against the odds. Peter Lang.

On the emotional, human dimension of teaching

A world map for World Teachers’ Day (photo by me)

On today, World Teachers’ Day*, I‘m going to reflect on my experience of teachers as a school student. I’ve written about what research indicates about ‘good teaching’, but this post shares my personal story of the teachers I remember, and how they shaped me as a teacher.

Growing up, but especially during high school, I didn’t want to be a teacher. I think partly this was because of my dislike for those in authority who saw their role as to uphold what I saw as petty rules. While on the one hand I was a geek who diligently completed my school work and strove for academic success, I did not want to fit into norms set by others. I skipped some classes. I didn’t see the point in wearing the school uniform, unless it was to shackle me to conformity as part of a homogenous group. One year in high school I called the State Education Department and checked their rules on wearing uniform, and then asked that they contact my school to explain that uniform was not legally enforceable. It turned out that the only enforceable guideline at the time was that students in government schools be neat and tidy in appearance. (Yes, I was that student.)

In Year 8, my English teacher insisted that I rewrite a creative story entitled ‘Stop, thief!’ Although I had worked hard and long to craft the story, she told me that a thief should not be good looking with a “chiseled jaw,” and that I was to rewrite him as ugly with a hooked nose and hunched back if I wanted to pass. This felt to me to be an unjust response, one that not only supported what I considered to be an unrealistic and one-dimensional stereotype, but one which failed to acknowledge my effort and deliberate authorial decisions. I wanted my villain to be good looking!

In Year 10, after approaching a teacher to transfer into his higher Mathematics class, I did not pursue the subject change after he told me he wouldn’t speak to me unless I tucked my shirt in.

These experiences contributed to my view of the identity of ‘teacher’ as authority figure and stickler for petty rules, an identity I had no desire to emulate.

After deciding eventually, and almost accidentally, to pursue teaching as a profession, my “I don’t want to be a teacher” sentiment morphed into “I never want to be a teacher like that but I do want to be this kind of teacher.”  As a teacher I am often an advocator for looser rules (such as encouraging mobile technology in class, rather than banning mobile devices) and am guilty of ignoring those rules which I think are there for control and assertion of authority, rather than for learning and developing students into self-regulating, autonomous, responsible, thinking individuals.

At school I connected with teachers who I thought cared about me and my learning, who gave me some scope to try alternative methods and pathways of learning, and who did unexpected things: the Literature teacher who helped the class read a difficult novel by providing coffee and breakfast while we listened to the audio book; the Mathematics teacher who differentiated to allow her students to feel success; the English teacher who would surprise the class by wearing elements of costume while enacting scenes from texts. 

I try to emulate these things in my own teaching, thinking of little ways to surprise and inspire. I began one lesson while standing on a chair, conducting with a pair of drumsticks I had confiscated. I take students to the river or the high street to write. I surprised a very serious class of International Baccalaureate Diploma students, with whom I had been doing difficult laborious text analysis work, by providing them with textas, pencils, reams of paper, and chocolate biscuits (Arnott’s Tim Tams and Mint Slices for my Australian readers). At the end of all our hard work trying to understand 800-plus page Anna Karenina, they were to spend a couple of hours creating a visual representation of the novel. The result was a thoughtful and inspired creation, a train driven by Tolstoy, in which each carriage visually represented a key moment in the novel, with a lit candle at the front of the train and a burnt-out candle at its end, representing Anna’s journey.

A later experience, as a postgraduate student in a class during my Graduate Diploma of Education, supported and developed these earlier experiences of the emotional dimension of being a student and of the impact of teachers and classrooms on student confidence. There I was, in a class of mature age Graduate Diploma of Education students. I was the youngest, at 20 years old, and the oldest among us was 62. We were asked to share our memories of the best and then the worst teacher we had ever had. What I noticed as my fellow students, themselves almost-teachers, responded to this question, was the emotions they seemed to experience as they recalled their memories of teachers who either inspired and encouraged them, or who made them feel small, exposed, and uncared about. I was reminded of the famous quotation, attributed to a number of people including Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It occurred to me during that Grad. Dip. Ed. class that the impact of a teacher, and their behaviour, on a student, each student, can be powerful and lifelong. That what for the teacher may be a throwaway line on a bad day, may for the student be a criticism which cuts deep and lasts a lifetime. It reminded me of the vulnerability of students and the turbulence of finding a sense of self throughout childhood and adolescence. This led me to continually reflect upon the effect I am having on students, my building of relationships, and my self-monitoring of things which may be seen by students as hurtful.

So while I often take an intellectual approach to teaching, looking to evidence, research and impacts, I think we also need to remember and recognise the deeply emotional, human experience of being both student and teacher. Happy World Teachers’ Day!

* World Teachers’ Day is held internationally on 5 October, but as this usually falls in the Australian school holidays, Australia celebrates it on the last Friday of October.

Balance, not division. Compassion, not attack. Conversation, not war.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. ~ Pema Chödrön

by @debsnet

Often I am struck by argumentative battles in traditional media, on social media and around the blogosphere. I appreciate those writers, commentators and educators who share their musings, experiences, readings, and perspectives, without using divisive loaded language or attack. I think the rantiest I have gotten was this post on the APPR reforms in New York and this one around whether teachers can be researchers, but I attempted to frame my criticism through making transparent my perspective and asking clarifying questions. Balance.

I have written a lot about my school’s coaching model, as it is kind of my baby and it’s something which I think is worth sharing; others might gain from hearing our story. Yet this coaching model is not stand alone. It is not as though teachers at my school are only coached by teacher-coaches in a non-evaluative, non-hierarchical model. In their first year at the school, teachers participate in a rigorous evaluative permanency process. Every year they have a conversation with their line manager, who touches base with them on their work, goals and classroom practice. Every third year, teachers have their coaching cycle with their manager. This is more evaluative and performative by its nature, and by the nature of the relationship. Teachers additionally work with instructional consultants. Leaders work with coaches. Professional learning community teams and action research projects work alongside. Growth and evaluation. Balance.

I have written about the creative things I trial in my classroom like a term without grades and genius hour for students and teachers. These are things at the experimental end of the spectrum of what happens in my lessons, so I share them as stories of experience and part of a conversation. I do these things to develop engagement of my often-reluctant high school English students, to build their self-efficacy and to help them learn to rely on themselves as drivers of learning, rather than entirely on me as Teacher with a capital T.

Does that mean I don’t use explicit instruction? Of course not! I explicitly teach concepts, skills and texts, although I temper this with encouraging students to do their own thinking and to trust their own thinking, rather than expecting that I can fill them, as vessels, with the answers. What are the ideas of the text? What interpretations might be drawn? Answers can come from me or from Spark Notes, but if I do my job properly, students will have the skills, understandings, language and cognitive capacity to draw their own interpretations, from their own contexts, and justify these using logic and evidence. The best student responses comprise original thinking, not regurgitated knowledge. The best teachers focus not just on effective learning (our core business, of course!) but developing learners and passion for consuming, curating and creating knowledge.

In my Head of English roles at three schools I have ensured a balance between explicit instruction and those strategies which propel love of reading, power in writing and deep intellectual engagement in ideas and discussion. Interestingly, Charlotte Danielson’s heavily-researched Framework for Teaching has its ‘proficient’ descriptors describing teaching which is expertly directed by the teacher, and its ‘distinguished’ teaching descriptors outlining lessons in which students are taking responsibility for their own learning and behaviour. Creative and explicit. Balance.

I have written about lyrical metaphors for PhD study, and only occasionally about the unsexy logistics of what the graft actually looks like. My conceptual framework draws in part from fictional literature. Does this mean my PhD is devoid of hard, critical, scientific work? No. My PhD is of course the result of the logical, systematic working through of literature, data and research problems. When writing the Limitations section in the conclusion of my thesis I was highly aware that all research has its limitations. Extensive quantitative data can show us patterns and effects, but these may be faceless. Qualitative data can drill down deep into the messy humanness of lived experience which may be unrepresentative of wider groups and therefore not generalizable. Yet each study adds its tiny piece of understanding to the layers of what is known. Research is conversation. Imaginative and systematic. Broad and deep. Balance.

I would love to use the line ‘I’m a lover not a fighter’ but I think I’m both. I believe in sharing and celebrating our stories, but I will advocate fiercely for my students, fight for what I believe is right and argue for my research. Balance.

From a history of my posts, it is probably clear that I am seduced by the lyrical, by storytelling, by creative approaches and by metaphor. Yet I am not one dimensional. Nor is my teaching, my thinking, my researching or my living. Balance.

I came across this excellent recent TED talk from Jon Ronson on the way social media has moved from giving voices to the voiceless, to an angry mob mentality of shaming and abuse, in which people seem to forget compassion and morality.

While I love robust discussions which take us out of the echo chamber of we-all-agree-high-fiving, I also think we need to approach these with compassion, thoughtfulness and a view of each other as human beings. We can disrupt with respect. We can disagree gracefully. We can advocate with civility. (And if you throw in a metaphor, you’ll totally have me!)

by @debsnet

For wellbeing & productivity: breathe. pause. be.

Come forth into the light of things, let Nature be your teacher. ~ William Wordsworth

Shark Bay, by @debsnet

Like many educators, I love my work and I love to work. Not only that, as a PhD researcher I love my PhD, treating it like a luxury, a privilege and precious ‘me time’.

Shell Beach, by @debsnet

While I’ve acknowledged before that we need to give ourselves permission to take a break, I’m often not very good at it. Sometimes I have to force myself to take a break.

long shadows in red dirt, by @debsnet

After an eleven week term, at the end of which I spent an entire weekend slogging away at my thesis, I was obsessed. Obsessed because all my waking and teeth-grinding-sleeping moments were taken up with work or PhD. My thoughts about my doctoral research were permeating every crevice of my mind and each nook of my time.

Hamelin Pool Stromatolites, by @debsnet

I was delighting in this immersion. I was happy to be thinking about the thesis on my walks, in the car, in the shower, in my sleep. I felt like it was a super-productive push-to-the-end mindset. My mind was on all the time. PhD-wise, I was excited about my findings, my conclusions, my writing. But I was also exhausted.

Monkey Mia, by @debsnet

And then school holidays were upon me, and with them a pre-planned outback road trip with my husband and my two-under-five. I considered taking my doctoral work with me. I have so much to do, I thought. A thesis to revise, a conference paper to write. Just imagine how much reading and editing I could get done in long car trips or at the campsite.

Shell Beach, by @debsnet

As someone who considers blogging or participating in education Twitter chats as ‘down time’ (I know – how relaxing!), how could I contemplate a complete break? How could I go from an escape dedicated to working on my PhD ~ my recent PhD writing and revision retreat ~ to a trip taking an enforced break from it?

Monkey Mia dolphin, by @debsnet

I knew it was healthier to take a rest. Pause. Cut the cord for six days of just being, exploring and adventuring. Breathe.

fiction pile on Shell Beach, by @debsnet

Thinking back to my 3 words which set my intentions for this year, taking an outdoor-family-faraway break fits best with presence. Embodying human being rather than human doing. It was about being with my husband and kids, and being in nature.

green turtle, Shark Bay, by @debsnet

There are some studies, like this and this, which explore how and why being in nature makes us feel better, improves wellbeing and enhances mental health. Anecdotally, most of us would attest to feeling ourselves melting into a more relaxed state when we spend time grounding ourselves outdoors. Curling our toes in soil, sand or snow.

Straya animals, by @debsnet

I’ve written before about spaces and places that make me feel grounded, inspired or joyful, but this trip was to somewhere I hadn’t been before: Shark Bay, a UNESCO World-Heritage listed peninsula on the most westerly point of Australia.

iron corrugations, by @debsnet

I allowed myself to luxuriate in this time out and time away. I read fiction (not academic texts or student papers!). We hand fed dolphins, visited a beach covered in pristine white shells as far as the eye could see, stomped through red dirt, went star gazing, saw the world’s oldest living fossils. The pictures in this post give you a sense of what I experienced.

Ocean Park, Shark Bay, by @debsnet

And so I have returned feeling intellectually and physically invigorated. Ready for the next round of PhD and school work, including teaching and leading my school’s new coaching model. I’ve stepped out of my obsessive space for enough time to allow for some recovery, but I’m aware that I need to nestle back into a place of productivity.

wire against blue sky, by @debsnet

As when I returned from Bali earlier this year, I’m hoping I can hold onto my present feeling of increased clarity and renewed wellbeing, channelling this into self-care as well as productivity.

Thong Shack, Denham, by @debsnet

Choose your own Edventure: Letting genius blossom

Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius. ~ Mozart

letting genius blossom

letting genius blossom

Yesterday, first semester ended at my Australian school (ah!). As I settle in for a break, my reflections keep bringing me back to the idea of immersive, meaningful and transformative learning for all: students, educators, academics. This is learning which privileges the intellectual freedom of the individual and trusts in each person’s capacity for self-directed growth.

In a school sense, I have been using variations of Genius Hour (a version of Google’s now-defunct 20% time) in my senior English classrooms. I found that in a high school context when I have four lessons per week, the idea of 20% time didn’t work as well as less-frequent, longer-lasting ‘genius’ projects. So instead I build ‘choose your own way to explore your understandings and inspirations’ time into units of work.

This time isn’t a total free-for-all but uses as its basis an essential question from a unit of work (like ‘Who is responsible for our actions?’ from a Macbeth unit) or a text we are studying. In this way, students use the course content as a springboard from which they can grow their ideas and design their works of genius. While this vies away from students choosing entirely their own passions, it reflects Google’s move to only focus on projects which align with its core mission and purpose. I have found that some focus helps as a starting point and that parameters can push creativity. And it means I can articulate its purpose in my English courses.

my Genius Hour poster

my Genius Hour poster

This Genius Hour work is much like things I’ve done before, with a new name attached. I like the name because it assumes that students are capable of ‘genius’. It says, “I believe you have the capacity for brilliance.” And in giving learners freedom, Genius Hour says, “I know you are capable of independence of learning, thought and creation.” It is this assumption of the awesomeness inside everyone which I like the most.

It reminds me of when I use BloomGard task options like the example below. This approach allows students to have ownership over their learning while encouraging creativity and creation (especially as I only offer the three highest levels of Blooms).

a BloomGard example

a BloomGard example

One of my favourite Genius Hour type moments was in 2004 when I was teaching the rigorous and relentless IB Diploma course. My class had spent three weeks smashing through the 800+ pages of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in analytic fury. At the end of it we had a two and a half hour class (which we always had each fortnight). I brought in paper, art materials, plus iconic Australian biscuits: Tim Tams and Mint Slices. I told my class they had that time to create a visual representation of the novel. What they produced was beyond amazing. A class of heavily science-maths-leaning students was abuzz with collaboration and coloured-pencil creativity. They chose key scenes from the novel and illustrated these in a series of train carriages, with Tolstoy driving the train. The artwork, which spanned the entire length of a classroom wall when it was done, started with a lit candle and ended with a snuffed out candle, symbolising Anna’s journey. The mood was electric and the class protected that work and talked about it for a long time afterwards as a defining moment in their year.

Monet's Nymphéas

Monet’s Nymphéas: painterly genius of floating blossoms

The other school-based experience propelling my reflections on immersive independent learning is my work in coaching some of the early learning teachers at my school. Watching a class of four or five year olds being given extensive reign to develop and interact with their learning environments, choose their own work (often play-based) and collaborate on self-chosen ideas, had me wondering: What does it say when the students at a school with the most ownership over their learning are the youngest ones? What happens as classrooms and curricula trust in students less and less?

I’ve also been thinking about adult learning. As adult learners, we should be following our own passions and directing our own learning. Some of my most transformative learning has been immersive and driven by me, especially my PhD study and the professional learning trip I took to New York last year.

Researching my PhD has allowed me to totally immerse myself in my educational passions, driving my own learning with the support of my supervisors, my school and others. It has thrown me into and through my discomfort zone in the most brain-bending and delicious ways. My trip to New York last year, in which I organised meetings with school leaders, professors and world-renowned edu-experts, allowed me the time and away-from-home-ness to really immerse myself in my learning. This blog was a way to track my experiences and reflections. Andrea Stringer is currently on her own self-directed professional gauntlet, and has been using her blog, Periscope and the Twitter hashtag #EdVentures to track her learning and share it with others. My recent PhD writing retreat was another example of immersive self-directed passion-driven learning, with a blog post reflection allowing me to think more deeply about my writing processes.

Surely our core business as educators is to nurture our students to be innovative, efficacious ever-learners who trust in their own capacities for growth and follow their own dreams? Surely it is the job of school leaders to provide the same opportunities for their staff? We want for students and educators to balance persistence with creativity. To pursue design thinking and moonshot-bluesky-rainbowunicorn thinking.

How else can we promote and enact immersive, choose-your-own-edventure learning? What might be more ways we can trust our students and ourselves to follow passions and drive own learning?

thrive, flourish, grow

thrive, flourish, grow