The wisdom of flowers

James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds argues that across a large and diverse group, the average response will be better and smarter than individual experts. However, researcher Andrew King commented “We are bombarded by other people’s judgments – from our friends, colleagues, and the media. Such a flood of information can result in a convergence of opinion, creating overconfidence (and inaccuracy). What our work demonstrates is that for accurate collective decisions, you either aggregate completely independent opinions, or copy successful individuals; anything in-between seems doomed to failure.”

I’ve been thinking about this, and the fact that ultimately it is individuals that teach, and for the most part want to feel that the decisions they make are in the best interests of those being taught – their family and their community. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s more than that. There are plenty of reasons to crowd source and plenty more to argue why it’s a dumb idea. Two examples of the latter –  art isn’t made by committee; great design isn’t made by consensus. They can be influenced, but at some point something is made by someone – the individual.

I was thinking about Steve Collis’ metaphor of an airline time-lapse as ‘thoughts’ moving around the world as he asked “What is the word thinking?”.

I decided, after 4 days of pondering, aircraft are too mechanical and operate within controlled parameters and rather predictable (or at least you’d hope so). I liked the idea though, but think that all this TeachMeet, unConferencing is more organic, more like Flowers. Many of flowers are designed to attract pollinators, are the product of coevolution with insects (and other animals) resulting in an efficient means of uniting sperm and egg. Their fruits are often designed to aid in the dispersal of their seeds.

We don’t live in a utopia, and much of the ‘fruit of web2.0’ is link-bait, designed not for the individual per se, but more to attract people to some sort of commerce, or influence them toward being more loyal to a dominant group or personality. Leaders often make the worse Tweeps, RT-ing, pontificating but not really having a conversation (pollinating).

To be a successful eco-system, education needs many types of flowers (digital and non) who use many different methods to attract pollinators. These require multiple mediums and methods. Flowers, for example us colours, nectar, and fragrances; radial vs. bilateral symmetry; incomplete vs. complete flowers; perfect vs. imperfect flowers; single vs. composite flowers. If there is little variation, or variety the species eventually fails.

There are few individual decisions to be made to either follow or not to follow a set pattern or route (being busy isn’t one of them). Firstly, being part of the crowd takes advantage of new technologies and mediums helps prevent self fertilisation, reduces or minimises energy needs and potentially attracts new pollinators.

Secondly, those designing social-digital mechanisms are able to include or exclude any medium or idea that doesn’t suit their intention. This necessitates ‘user’ adaptation and in so doing so creates a multitude of variables making efforts towards external validity difficult. Ultimately there are more variable adaptations at the individual level than there are ‘crowd solutions’, so connecting that to educational methods that demand (and assume) stability is possible, is almost impossible.The crowd does not create the pathways, it just uses them in the main, yet you’d think that everyone on the planet is interested in joining massive social mission to reform education. That is clearly ridiculous, a questionable adaptation from more effective uses of social media designs. For example, reviewing a book on Amazon is an individual action which becomes collectively useful to everyone – Amazon, the reader and the author. On the other hand, attempting to write a book in the same manner would become increasingly problematic and unlikely to be as ‘good’ as someone for whom writing is their art and craft. Collective writing will teach some people some things, but it won’t make anyone Neil Stephenson.

We return to the individual, and indeed this is what I began with. Attempting to copy successful individuals is a winning strategy (if we can find them and IF they are willing to engage with us). That I think is really problematic in the crowd, as those with the largest influence often don’t bother to engage with newcomers, unless they are buying something, or useful in helping them get to where they want to be. We are pack-animals that find it hard to escape evolution with or without our iPhones.

While the crowd can be used effectively, I am unconvinced that many of the essential pollinators want to do this universally , resulting in some flower species being unaware of what is growing in the other field. “Oh look, here come’s our favourite bee!”. There are those who simply don’t want to let their people move past their authority, and those who are creating new authority online … it’s a titanic struggle.

Take games for example. These are clearly an ICT by any definition and therefore should be subject to no more or less scrutiny than blogs, wikis etc., yet they seem to have to prove something even more in order to cross-pollinate with more popular, acceptable notions of what Web2.0 is. The things that makes all this connect are the bees. We simply don’t have enough people like Stephen Heppell who genuinely get involved with individuals and make a sustained effort to move around the eco-system – and have been doing for a very long time.

What I think students appreciate is when their teacher acts as an individual, but uses technology to connect to them in ways that pollinate ideas. I doubt they care too much how many Twitter followers their teacher has, nor should they. However a savvy teacher who knows the value of being connected, and models this behavior everyday in direct and subtle ways, to me is massive plus for a generation growing up with a constellation of  technology and those involved in their education. My individual bottom line – be visible else I cannot see you – in a medium of your choice.

Every flower has knows how to attract it’s most successful pollinators and pollinators are attracted to those flowers. Not all kids want it, not all teachers want it. However that doesn’t make it an absolute rule – and clearly subject to personal experience. To say “I would not use a game” simply because it’s a video game is like saying “I don’t like black ink, only blue” in another medium.

It’s more often individual rules that become supported by popular consensus, rather than knowing though experience. Pedagogy doesn’t not come before tools as an absolute rule, as some tools have embedded cultural meaning, uniqueness of themselves which creates an interplay all of their own – well beyond the classroom or gradebook.

The planet might not be thinking, but I suspect Mother Nature is which is a lot more magical.

There is room for all kinds of technologies in learning, but let’s not fall into the honey-trap that any top 10 list of link-bait is actually useful to the species or that any field represents a viable eco-system. It takes a lot of individual time and courage to deliver something and I take my hat off to anyone who makes the choice to do that – and not always follow the crowd.

Changing minds, changing tools

I’ve been using WordPress for a good number of years. Before that I used a now ‘dead’ service.

All up I’ve been ‘blogging’ for about a decade – but didn’t really call it that for five or six years until Judy set me straight. In fact in the first half of the naughties, I wasn’t in education — and in the future, who knows …

Times obviously change, and I seem to spend more time ‘encountering’ things than I once did and spend a great deal of time reaping information from networks, that often I just flick back to the network. Judy’s written about her changing use of media — so once again, I’m late to the party.

I’ve been looking for something to suit. I use Posterous, but mostly it’s a digital-dumpster for me. I fire things from Twitter and Facebook to it that I might (and don’t always) want to go back to. I use a few gadgets on Twitter to fire RT links to Diigo and Delicious, which is more like a teenager’s bedroom floor. In productivity, I’m a massive user of Evernote which is a collection of cave-wall scratchings of ideas and half-finished notes. When I want to get more serious I use Mendeley and Open Office – simply because it’s really easy to store, organise and obligingly cite research in an attempt to support my suppositions.

The new kid on the block is Amplify. I’m told people have to join to comment – but I’m finding it a great light weight way to actually write a weblog of thoughts, ideas and encounters. I like that I can harvest from it, so fire posts to secret-gardens that I have intention of sharing – but use as a sort of archive – just in case Amplify disappears. That is a bit like never backing up your hard drive to me, having lost much of what I was thinking in the early part of 2000s, I’m conscious of the fragility of Web2.0ism.

I’ve added a link over to the right – and guess it will probably contain more unfinished thoughts and observations than the trusty WordPress blog which I’ll continue to write – but perhaps less frequently.

I find it – and so I imagine others do – really hard to put borders around writing. I totally get that may über blogs are positioning pieces or revenue generators — and are written in that way. I don’t think I’m there yet, and still enjoy writing things down, that later I revisit and have another subconscious argument with myself. I may have caught myself trying to do/be something I’m not that good at recently, so the voices in my head are telling me to try something new.

If the shoe fits #1

DUTY OF CARE, the age old topic that is rolled out whenever the conversation about changing a culture of learning starts to get a little uncomfortable – when something new might disrupt the status-quo once again floated to the top of the turd bowl this week.

Private education has to comply with the same legal duty. Yet public policy sees Bob the Builder banned. More seriously, this potentially creates a second class experience for public schools using technology – some 70% of our children.

Yes we are critical – we have to be because the system is in a nice safe orbit. Failure to adequately address local policy adaptation and provide local school autonomy in ICT over a long period of time, though successive governments has resulted in a lock-stepped public system that is unable to cope.

Its a cultural problem! – bureaucrats unwilling and unable to create effective public policy, waving the ‘duty of care’ banner on any occasion that feels uncomfortable. The internet brings a macro level of scrutiny that has simply got out of hand. School leaders do not check every book or resource that a teacher brings to class or get it ratified by some faceless womble in head office. Yet the internet does.
I think I might move to Sweden – where I could either choose a school that will work for my kids (not against them), or I could set up my own, with 100% government funding. Could I do that here – absolutely – would I need to talk to DET, probably not – I need to talk to DET teachers – as our school would be different and better.
Now there’s an idea – a Free Virtual School for all Australian Kids online. Jeez why didn’t I think of that and tell someone earlier this year. Oh wait … you get the point – DET is not the only scenario on offer – and there is global research and evidence to suggest that the patriarchal model we have – is not guaranteed to continue. *Puts hand up for Virtual School! A school needs community – and that does not mean locking kids in a room day in and day out for several years anymore.

Capacity through intervention strategy

What do we mean by capacity building in Educational Technology. Perhaps right up front, it is advisable to remind people that you are working with that you don’t mean ‘learning computer skills’.

That is often the assumption that people attending workshops make as that has largely their prior experience. PD + Computers = Mastery Challenge.

Capacity should be addressing critical areas such as participatory planning, curriculum, units of work, lesson design, implementation, evaluation, research, information, advocacy, networking and financial planning.

Building capacity in yourself is far easier than attempting to do this at the whole school level. All that knowledge and connectedness that comes with the acquisition of capacity in yourself – is not easily replicated.

Often in our eagerness to see reflections of our own advocacy and practice in others, it is easy to forget just how confusing, frustrating and massive it was to climb out of the 20th Century teaching norms and look towards the horizons of what could be possible.

Flash was easier to learn when it was version 1, Photoshop was far less complicated in version 7, and RSS was far easier to deal with when there was less information flooding in. The capacity of all of us to generate information that we think helps the rest of ‘them’ – means that early adopters are critical to any educational institution to interpret and lead.

To me, it is an ongoing tragedy that these people are often not empowered to ‘lead’ – hence the perpetual question ‘how do we effect sustainable change’ that senior educational leaders orbit. It is hard to plan your future, if your point of reference is the past – specifically, time served is preferable over capacity to lead change.

Friere (1973) Pedagogy of the Oppressed argues

“the process of learning to read and the act of reading are deeply political: our reading of the word is shaped by our reading of the world”

Student’s own experience of technology combined with teacher interventions are mutually reinforcing in building capacity – for change. We simply don’t need to know ‘everything’ anymore. Mastery ICT skills are less important that understanding how technology changes learning.

“We are going to blog” or ”We are using Web2.0 tools in the classroom” and other statements are unlikely to improve learning outcomes for students.

I say unlikely, unless they are seen as interventions essential in strengthening teaching practice. To say you are working to build capacity is

“Meaningless unless you insist on using language and terms that have precise meanings.” (Moore, 1995).

While we are talking about promoting change, the interventions that teachers are doing right now in their solo-classrooms are part of a wider social transformation.

“We are going to blog” – is an output of increased capacity not mastery skills – writing a blog is no harder than writing an email in that regard.

Capacity comes through understanding how using blogs is an intervention within wider social change. In education it directly relevant to renewing pedagogical approaches, developing media literacy skills, reflective learning over passive learning etc.,

In fact web2.0 is part of the digital-soup of Learning Objects within curriculum.

Chiappe defined Learning Objects as:

“A digital self-contained and reusable entity, with a clear educational purpose, with at least three internal and editable components: content, learning activities and elements of context. The learning objects must have an external structure of information to facilitate their identification, storage and retrieval: the metadata. ” (Chiappe, Segovia, & Rincon, 2007).

Any professional development seminar, workshop or in-service – that promotes ‘learning about Web2.0’ – has to address ‘capacity.

It must clearly explain the wide reaching implications that it has to have to become sustainable, and that on their own, Web2.0 applications – such as blogging are unlikely to improve learning outcomes for students.

Once you done that, you are in a much better position to understand which Web2.0 tools could be used in ‘capacity building’. And it may be that you shortlist a relatively short, but considered list.

What are the interventions? What are the learning objects? What are your criteria for capacity building? – The tools are easy in comparison.

Has your curriculum expired?

4576395_e360bb5439_oOne of the projects I am undertaking at Macquarie Univeristy is ‘curriculum renewal’. It taken me a week to read all the planning and research into this – and I’m not done yet.

In K12 speak, this is looking at ’21st Century Skills’, those things that have previously fallen outside summative performance testing, yet recognised as critical skills to be a lifelong learner. Having the ability to collaborate, participate etc., to act out a role in society as an ethical, productive and reflective individual.

At Macquarie, student capabilities are an embeded part of the curriculum, with the ‘curriculum renewal’ project – specifically addressing the wider issues in the 21C discourses.

The questions being asked are very similar to those that K12 is asking (or perhaps those which I’ve been focusing on before last week).

How do we teach institution-wide graduate attributes?  How can we measure the capabilities of our graduates?   How can universities bridge the gap between institutional rhetoric and the reality of the student learning experiences?

The process of beginning to do this involves, as we know, mapping the curriculum to these capabilities.This I think is where K12 Curriculum Leaders need to, well, lead.

Identifying and being clear about these in a school – and articulating that to parents and staff providing the opportunity to explore and select technology tools with pedagogical approaches towards change.

It is not going to be something that can be done quickly, but then since when have schools worried about ‘speed’ in relation to adoption of technology. It has been a long, slow process in schools – not a revolution, but a consistent evolution since the 1980s.

The last few years have seen change like never before – and perhaps as technology has become cheaper and easier to access – we notice it more than once we did – when Computing was a Science – not a fact of life.

We can’t ignore or deny that social networks and our ability to create, share and publish – is something that students can do – easily.

What skills and capabilities do we need to provide learners beyond content related learning?

The challenges in doing this in such a large institution as Macquarie, with thousands of staff and distributed students are very similar to school systems. There is a need to develop capacity in both teachers and learners to develop these skills – over time.

In a discussion today, the Ed Development team could identify lots of opportunities to introduce blogs, wikis, second life, virtual classrooms etc., but the challenge remains – how to develop ‘teacher’ technology-savvyness to see where in a unit of work, or classroom that these are best deployed. We accept that we will need to help, support and probably ‘do’ it for a while – but the goal is independency.

We can’t expect to ‘sit’ on skill levels as we once could – new ideas, new tools and new opportiunities appear daily. We can’t know everything … but at the same time, we do know we can’t sit still as we have done in the past.

I wonder if in the rush to see read/write, collaboration in K12, spearheaded by innovative teachers – how many ‘curriculum co-ordinators’ are actively seeking to define and build school policy around these student capabilities? Do teachers find curriculum leaders a barrier or a gateway to what they are trying to provide students?

Given we are in ‘exam’ and ‘A to E’ reporting, how do we convince parents that these skills are just as important as exam grades. How many schools have clearly identified them in the current curriculum and mapped them against outcomes – so that teachers know exactly what they need to learn in order to meet these using ICTs. Curriculum and Technology are not exclusive anymore, one needs the other to survive and remain relevant to learning into the immediate future.

Change starts with curriculum leadership by identifying 21C capabilities and making firm committments to staff and students that if the process is started, then it will be supported and maintained.

Will the curriculum you have simply expire and become less and less relevant to what students really need – be that K12, TAFE or University. How long is the expiry date on it? 1 year, 5 years a decade?

Graphic-a-day #2 of 30

Dan Mayer asks ‘How easy would it be to take short cuts’. I read this a while ago, tracked back from Chris Lehmann, and its something that during a discussion today, that kept ringing in my head as the conversation was laced with conflicting pressures over loyalty and responsibility.

I work at an extraordinary school, doing extraordinary things with learning – in extraordinary times.

I think that the choices I’ve made in being part of that have been the right ones – most of the time. Anyone making hard choices knows self-doubt, trepidation and fear – yet you make them anyway.

There is a huge personal, spiritual and emotional cost involved, from the first time you question yourself as a teacher and realise that we are actually at the beginning of learning again.

The challenges kids face today are infinately more complex than even 5 years ago, trying to identify these, and find solutions – in a system that isn’t intended to allow you to do that is hard.

Seeing the efforts of others – is a constant ‘energy recharge’ – that those making the easy choices are unaware. There is a spirit of co-operation that transcends culture, geography, religion and wealth. From the most underfunded comes advice to the most affluent and visa versa. Conversation is the currency, and students are the investment houses. The recharge outlet is called Twitter, Skype, Gtalk, Google Reader and Second Life. We hear and see things that makes us believe that it is possible through the fractured conversations in the metaverse – despite our localised reality.

Within the confusion of our present culture, we are faced with opportunities the like of which we haven’t known. And I believe that our present ‘crisis’ has a lot to do with the fire and water through which we must go if we are to grasp those opportunities and make the most of them. This is of course just one of many situations where the global community is struggling with the question of the local option – and where, of course, multiple ambiguities can be found which muddle up the moral dilemmas.

One of the phrases and tactics used in advertising to get the maximum out of workers used to be – “if we don’t get this done, then we’ll loose the client”. That mentality still strikes me as ridiculous. Firstly, the was rarely a ‘we’ – as they mean ‘you’, and secondly, the client was never ‘yours’ but theres. There was never an ‘all for one and one for all’ bargain between us.

There are multiple reasons that something could or could not get done – and often quite beyond the control of the poor sap that was being told it. I heard it a hundred times, but never saw a client walk because some designer didn’t knock out that logo colour variant by 4pm.

I think its the same is schools. School will go on regardless of one person. Its not one persons school – but the sum of all the passion, effort (or lack of) between all the participants. If there’s one thing that I feel administrators need to do – above everything else – if find out who is making the hard choices – like Dan Mayer – and if what he’s doing, is something that you want – then for goodness sake – also look at how he’s doing it and don’t try to apply 20th Century Management Strategies to demand or retain that. That won’t build the capacity needed to get from ‘storming’ to ‘norming’.

Time served is is not the most essential criteria to make judgements on teachers pay or conditions – if you are talking about 21C schools, and I think one of the biggest challenges to the way school systems are operated. If time served was the secret to success, then how come all those experienced, institutional executives just wiped out trillions of dollars of the world economy. Anything is possible it seems, but change starts with a choice. I made mine.