Enter the failure gap, honour your vomit to identify problems worth solving

I was asked a few days ago about whether students can, or should be able to set their own assessment tasks. It’s easy to think they can – but the number one activity of young people online isn‘t problem solving, it’s information-seeking. They are not alone, most adults want the answers – show me where, give a link to, how do I … and get upset if you don’t vomit up the answer.

So back up a little, put down you’re techno-back pack and look around the room that you’re in.

 Where are the problems to solve? How do student’s know what they look like? Are the problems projected or written in a rectangle and how is this different to looking at the world through a flat web-browser?

If a student was asked to set their own assessment – I’m pretty sure they’d set one that fits inside some sort of rectangle.

Before deciding yes or no, it makes sense to know how good they are at identifying problems worth assessing – and what the teachers role might be.

What happens if they solve a math problem using World of Warcraft, or find a passion for drawing by playing Animal Crossing, is that a rectangle too far?

It’s likely student identified problems won’t line up to with current scope and sequences or standards or pass through the scan-a-tron useful to mass cattle-grading systems. Likewise, large portions of syllabus’ concern themselves with content. The idea being that this is important stuff to know (and there are types of knowing). Students assume that as you’re teaching it, then to someone thought it was important, so it’s likely to be on the test. This makes students who are good at the test appear knowledgeable but strikes me as a big problem in a world bursting with information, and ever more complex problems that information itself can’t solve. At what point in the day does a child get to identify a problem, and work creatively to solve it. What is there in the classroom that might spur them to do it?

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told me…All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste…But there’s a gap – that for the first couple years you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…it’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game…is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you…A lot of people never get past this phase…they quit.”

Technology is growing, which is a big problem if it’s only maturing outside of formal education. In the classroom, it seems students can’t begin to learn to solve problems, without firstly learning how to identify them and then to develop strategies – which of course involves failing.

It therefore falls on leaders, to allow teachers to put students into places where they can identify problems and work on them creatively. Along the way, they will still need structure, information and skills, but I don’t think teachers would argue with that.

I have always had a dislike of the idea of ‘integrating ICT’ into classrooms as though it will create better or more meaningful work. Most of the people I’d list as being ‘great’ teachers using ICTs are learning that if their latest project fails it will spur new ideas and helps them gain necessary skills, and should view it as a success, as it may inspire something better down the line and is worth doing.

This idea was somewhat explained by, of all people – Lady Gaga who talked about ‘honoring your vomit’. This might sound strange to look to Lady GaGa over Sir Ken, but interesting people are often interesting because they are not talking about education, but about a process of learning, especially film makers, musicians and artists.

The creative process is approximately 15 minutes of vomiting my creative ideas…And then I spend days, weeks, months, years fine-tuning, but the idea is that you honor your vomit. You have to honor your vomit – you have to honor those 15 minutes.”

So if we mash this up in the classroom, what we might try is to kick off the day with 15 minutes of creativity, just trying ideas on for size and seeing what problems we can identify from it for another 15 minutes.

If you are fortunate enough to have an IWB in your primary classroom (my kids have no such access sadly), then go and buy a Nintendo Wii and a game called Animal Crossing. It won’t break the bank and doesn’t need a network engineer, just plug it in and let kids play on rotation for 15 minutes at the start of the day. Then let them spend 15 minutes doing something creative.

That’s it – you’ve just put yourself in the gap – now you (and your students) can start identifying some problems worth solving … and you can spend 30 mins a day working on it everyday.

5 ways to get into game based learning for under $5

Thinking about Game Based Learning? this is a collection of games you can use in the classroom for under USD$5. Great for the primary classroom! Just grab them from Steam, and start thinking of interesting ways to use them. I’ve played ’em all my friends, with my trusty team of home test pilots. You just download and go. Easy as.

1. Simplz Zoo. http://store.steampowered.com/app/7470/

Combining two types of games, simulation and puzzle into one unique adventure, Simplz: Zoo puts you in charge to decide what animals to add, and where to place them in your own zoo. Filled with more than 90 comical animals, fun and challenging game play, upbeat music, hidden secret codes, and lots of make-you-smile goodness, Simplz: Zoo is roaring.

2. Toki Tori. http://store.steampowered.com/app/38700/

The gameplay in Toki Tori is a blend of two genres. While it looks like a platform game, it’s a puzzle game at heart. To progress through the game, the player must pick up each egg in a level using a set number of tools. Players will have to look and plan ahead carefully.

3.Fluttabyes. http://store.steampowered.com/app/23150/

Create matches of 4 or more butterflies of the same color to help them to freedom. The more you match the higher you score (It’s possible to create matches of up to 13 butterflies!). Increase your score by making matches in quick succession.

5. The Misadventures of P.B Winterbottom – http://store.steampowered.com/app/40930/

Create your own paradox… for the love of pie Enter a macabre and comical silent world filled with mischief, time travel and delicious pie. Record yourself and harness your time bending abilities to cooperate, compete against, and disrupt your past present and future selves. Winterbottom’s debut misadventures present a whimsical spin on the notions of time, space.

Reflective Writing 1-2-3

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‘REFLECTION’ is a word closely associated with 21st Century Learning. I thought I’d write a post on how to improve critical literacy though a 3 step adjustment to read/write activities in the classroom.

Watson (1997) says “Reflection encourages students to – self examine, self-asses and evaluate their own practice. Without reflecting, the student is at risk of practicing in a manner if unquestioned routines, accepted directives and/or rote learning.”

This short observation highlights the need for students to question, not simply to recount or answer declarative questions with read/write tools. There is bountiful research that suggests talking about what they are doing, not just what they or others have done, encourages the conscious practice of discussing the consequences of their findings and actions.

We need to ensure that testing for prior knowledge is more than asking declarative questions at the beginning of a (lesson or tutorial) learning instance. The facilitator should be conscious of three stages of reflection and also consider selecting different tools to achieve this. For example: Use a combination of micro-blog, game and video. This also encourages students to explore a more diverse media landscape.

1. Reflecting before acting – preventing unnecessary errors. Making sure the student is aware of the outcomes being sought. Asking students to predict the activity, talk about their expectations and possible fears as the activity is revealed to them. What can they do already and show you? What skills are they missing that will help them? This can be though a series of microblog posts for example – as the teacher begins to reveal the activity though providing readings or given them mini-tasks to complete – not just delivering content.

2. Reflect during the activity – use methods to monitor their actions during the event in order to maintain contextually appropriate performance and effort. This is often though feedback from the software itself – such as sound, images, scores etc. In a game this is in-built, but in a MUVE it has to be designed. Teachers need to pay close attention to this phase, to ensure the learner is challenged but not frustrated by poor feedback, or not understanding the importance of it in the learning sequence/pattern – from the teacher or the software.

3. Critically review their actions and experience after. This last action is dependent on recall. Technology often allows recall to occur as events are recorded in some manner such as a blog post, or screen shot. Self and peer assessment to deconstruct the learning process should be combined with encouraging the student to record that event and use that evidence to support their critical reflection.

The outcome,  activity and the assessment should not be limited to a predicted performance. “I think they’ll be able to do it” or “I think I can teach using that”. Design the task so that the student can modify it (up or down), to negotiate their curriculum and perhaps explore incidental or peripheral ideas outside core curriculum content. This might mean making a video, interviewing people, performing a role pay together with text based activities.  Pacing the activity also helps, changing the emphasis from one activity to another to allow you to uncover more about the learner. Keep the tools VERY simple, look for ready-to-learn solutions, so that students learn to select their own tools to demonstrate their learning. Consider that when you first start using read/write media – you students will have little idea what to do and the social dynamics are all over the place. Most games will train you to operate effectively individually rather than in a group -which is much more complex. By default you have ‘groups’ of learners … but initially, this is a good way to learn more about them as individuals, which you can use later in wider approaches.


Ref: Watson S. (1997) ‘An analysis of concept experience”. Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol.16 pp 1117-1121.

The captain has turn on the seat belt sign

While gaming environments may provide experiential learning spaces, they do not necessarily provide students with scope for reflection and application of their learned knowledge and skills to the real world. Activities such as debriefing and structured reflection are essential to ensure appropriate mastery of specified learning outcomes, and these activities can be structured outside the virtual world.

Targetware develop a range of flight simulators for both Mac and PC, which you can download and find more about from their wiki. There are a range of classroom activities you can devise following a quick scramble and dropping some bad guys into the drink. Google, of course has a flight simulator – mashing up Google Maps, so rather than looking at maps – how about creating an air race, or a recon mission game?

Looking for something fast and simple or have younger kids – try Matica, a flash-game that will allow little kids to navigate a plan around a race track – and then use the game editor to make a better track. (My 3 year old loved it). The game you choose may not be ‘the’ best graphics and AI, however look for games that are mod-able; and has a community interested in developing a simulation based activities rather than arcade-style shoot them up. This again is an opportunity to draw students into a comparison; commercial verses community development etc., or explore related concepts such as mathematics.

A flight sim can be used as the backdrop to driving questions such as “Do pilots make better leaders“. And when I say ‘pilot’, the distance between between real and virtual is shrinking. Virtual pilots from around the world will have the opportunity to compete, using Flight Simulator X, to win a spot on a TV reality show code-named “American Topgun Challenge” – acording to internet radio station Blue Sky (a Flight Similator orientated radio station)

Simulators are great ways to engage students and lead them to deeper and wider interest. There are plenty of opportunities to make a wide range of products based on outcomes – but also to allow students to be engaged in something playful.

Uncover some hidden treasure in learning

GAMES are part of the mash-up, and effective, motivating, accessible resources for the classroom. Many are free to try or peanuts to buy – saving the teacher a great deal of time and giving them a motivation power-up that ignites learning.

While many continue to explore ‘web2.0’, they are often not exploring the diverse and rich media being produced for playful learning.

Picture yourself as a student – about start using this game to learn.

“Fresh from a successful exploration of the wreck of the Titanic, the Hidden Expedition Club will pit one of its stellar members against a formidable group of opponents in a race to the summit of Everest. Other groups will battle you to be the first to summit Mount Everest. Expert Everest climber Ed Viesturs will assist you along the way. Explore mysteries of the world as you find hidden clues. Race to the Roof of the World!”

Sound exciting? – Maybe exciting enough to do a couple of hours work deconstructing this text? Using Google Earth, History sites maybe drawing the character; writing a story even. My point here is that games often have an instant narrative, instant motivation to which teachers can subtly add outcomes. It almost doesn’t have to feel like learning at all.

Hidden Treasure is a very slick example of hundreds of games that are available to teachers online.  The demo alone has been downloaded over 8 million times. The game itself allows for a lot of classroom fun, but also allows wider exploration of some of the under pinning themes and concepts that a skilled teacher can weave around it. For under ten dollars; there are numerous puzzle, adventure and discovery games to explore online – allowing playful learning. Just like Web2.0, we have to adapt games into learning as a mash-up. We don’t need to use an instructional CD-Rom, just go online.

Games online have perhaps made leaps forward than ‘websites’ yet are often still viewed with a prejudicial 1990’s lens – where games were predicated violent behaviour and arcades were for drop outs and gangsters. Games, like the rest of the web have come a long way and await discovery in the classroom.

FaceBook – the ICT Student Support Line

2453408678_9de02512b4I met with an ex-student, now at a University recently. We talked about how informal networks influence his study patterns. I had to re-assure him about why I was interested. “Why are you looking to ban them at your place?” he said jokingly … but went on to explain how he uses about ten FaceBook networks –primary to for ’ immediate help – ‘There’s always someone on”.

He wasn’t using FaceBook for learning, but just to operate effectively inside a large system which has ‘glitches’ as he put it. Navigating the process and protocols of student life … “you can see Student ICT Services and wait for hours in a line – or just go on FaceBook and ask people there who’ve stood in the line already’.

He also said that Facebook gave students “advice on which subjects to choose, as some don’t fit that well” with getting a job.

“You can go on FaceBook and ask people who are graduating, or left already, which units we’re useful, or find someone who has”.

He was using it for social and study purposes – using his mobile phone to do that. He laughed when I asked if he used in it lectures. He clearly felt that his personal technology was there to help him navigate the institution and found efficiencies to be more strategic in study. He used online study to in balancing the “rest of his life”.

He didn’t connect that with learning directly, saying “we have a online learning portal, but it just for the course information mostly, but some academics do a lot of that stuff, just not in my course. We just use forums to answer questions, is that what you mean”.

I asked if he thought it would be good for him if they did … “yeah, but those guys are so busy, they can’t get back to you as fast as you need”.

He felt that there his access to FaceBook made University life easier to manage and didn’t expect that the institution could provide this support network.

We use the food places, if we can’t get into the library – that place is often packed, people camp there all day with their friends”.

I not sure I drew any ‘ideas’ in this conversation, but really enjoyed being able to talk about how he’s drawing on his friend-network skills to solve ‘glitches’ in the system. I wonder how different ‘adult learners’ as teachers are from students? Navigating the system seems to a universal problem

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A fresh approach to Higher Ed Course Design

There are times when you hear someone talk and you think, bloody hell! – that is going to change everything. Now it seems you only need to read 140 characters, and get the same reaction.

Howard Rheingold posted a link to his ‘social media’ wiki on Twitter.

It’s not the fact it is a wiki and not a course in Moodle, WebCT or Black Board that is impressive though.  HR has built a very sophisticated information architecture that is simple to get around (a massive step forward in itself) and packed it with language that leaves students in little doubt as to the how exciting, challenging and rewarding the course will be.

It’s not there to ‘inform’ in the way most online courses do. It’s not some kind of digital point of reference (though it does that superbly) either. It’s language advocates adoption, adaption and infusion of technology, as a transformational experience that will deliver life long benefits. In just a few pages – HR clarifies, engages and sets up his course as being something you just want to sink your teeth into.

For example: students will have practiced mindful self-observation of the ways they use their own attention. Increased facility at inquiry and collaboration are other meta-skills diligent students should expect to gain: the methodology of collaborative inquiry used in this course is expected to generalize beyond the classroom.

Another significant element of the site is the ‘How To’. He’s immediately set out his expectations, guidelines and criteria for success. He talks clearly about how that success will come about using a range of ‘un-passive’ technologies … but then immediately scaffolds them out of ‘entry’ level uses of technology with a self help guide on how to blog, make a wiki page etc.,

He’s not treating the method of evidencing learning as a separate ‘training manual’. The learning method for evidence is using the tools themselves.

This is the best and most influential ‘course design’ example I’ve seen – but I’m not surprised – as HR is just inspirational.

Graphic-A-Day#8 – Printers

Give a teacher a printer and make a friend for life. Todays poster is for all those teachers who love a printed worksheet. Some just love to print out ‘content’. Last year I did a study with year 12 students in the lead up to the HSC. Most said they were getting well over 100 sheets of paper a week. Most also said that they didn’t read it. The sheets they read were the ones that had ‘work’ on them, and even so, the majority said that it was easier to use the internet to get the answer than it was the paper.

Some teachers love the printer so much that they will come into school during the holidays just to get print outs ready.

To these people, that is what computers are for: Preparing CONTENT or TESTING for content retention.

If you want a rebellion, pull the toner drum out for a day. Teachers will chase the IT department with pitch-forks and torches. If they cannot use the printer – then a computer is like a car without wheels.

The reality is that it takes less effort to save a document and share it via the internet, than it does to print it and get a class set photocopied. Trying to explain the benefits to them – and the students is not something that goes down well. The notion of being parted from their printer it too unthinkable.

It is maybe ironic however, that the paper-pushers also claim Google and Wikipedia use as one of the ‘yeah but’ arguements against using computers in the classroom. The most common other one being lack of time (well printing and photocopying is very time consuming). These teachers do that themselves with technology. When going beyond the class text book, they can be seen preparing ‘content’ sheets. Its almost a cottage industry in some schools. The above poster really tries to sum that activity up – as a satire on process driven learning.

Create the document, and share it with not just your class, but other teachers is more efficient and consistent. Posting that online where kids can get it, is more effective. It saves time and paper. How many paper pushing teachers hear from students ‘I didn’t get the worksheet or I don’t have it here’. This 20C activity is easily improved.

Put that content or worksheet in an online space where students can discuss it, creates conversational learning. Developing a GoogleDoc with collegues, and then sharing that with students is even better. Working on a GoogleDoc with students is engaging and promotes one to one learning.

“Yeah but” … I don’t have that much access to computer classrooms, so I need to print!

Well, yes and no. It’s all about rethinking how you use the time you have. As a teacher, it is possible to take the time you will be in and ICT classroom, and create an activity which promotes improved classroom practice and professional development. In short, it’s not so much about access as it is about building your own capacity to begin changing how you use technology with students.

If you are designing lessons, that are essentially question driven – based on students seeking similar information that you yourself ‘found’, then that is BORING. It is also low level activity, and is not building capacity in the students.

If your printed worksheet contains instructions such as ‘go to http://www.somewebsite.com and answer the following questions … then that is fairly basic and boring. If you say go to Google and do it, then the kids will be struggle – as you are not teaching the most critical skill – how to select and justify quality information.

A better way would be to ‘tag’ several sources in delicious – and ask why one is more applicable or more authoritative than the other. They will still learn the ‘content’ but the need for learning is to compare and justify it, not just use or identify it. Delicious is the ‘worksheet’. All you had to do was create one ‘tag’ for the students, which is less work that stripping out content and re-packing it for paper delivery.

If you can’t give up paper – then this activity can be done with paper. Students can use the tags and the content in the ICT lesson, make paper notes and then do some offline activity. That is a better use of the time you have – and you are teaching critical literacy.

So thats the rant for today – make the most of the time you have in ICT, and don’t simply make it an electronic search of the classic text book chaper task. Kids can find millions of pages about anything you ask them to look for … there is TOO much information now. A decade ago there was less. It was easier to find it and much more obvious if Site A is better than Site B. That is no longer the case. Think before you print! Finding ‘the’ answer is not as important as choosing the ‘most relevant’ in a context.

Shakespeare’s Second Life

A quick flip-video of students working collaboratively to design and build their ‘sets’ for their current Machinima project, based on modern interpretation of a Shakespeare play. Students also document their design and build here in a blogging community. For teachers who are generally interested in using MUVEs and Video Games in Education you might want to check the educator Ning group here. I’m in the last phase of our intranet being moved to a virtual world, so the kids are going to be the architects and engineers. They have had 1 hour a week this year in Teen Second Life – but at least it is on the time table and in the curriculum!

Where did the work go?

What do parents think when their kids school really starts delivering on the promise of 21st Century Pedagogy? Not the end result, when they sit the exams, but right here right now. There is a possible issue if we don’t effectively communicate what happened to their work. As parents, we soon learn from primary years, that our kids get homework. We are keen to see them doing it, and keen to help them if we can. That homework used to come in a familiar book. In our school, kids also write their homework in an official diary. Parents are instructed to sign it, so they know that we’re giving them work to do.

This, to parents, is what learning looks like. A physical book, a record and observable activity somewhere between getting home and bed time. If you then start getting kids to work online, then the line becomes really blurred. There is less observable evidence, and therefore parents become concerned that their child is ‘doing less’ and therefore may be ‘learning less’.

Communicating a radical shift in the process we’ve been insisting on for a long time, must lead to some concern. For example : I have a project running with 156 kids all working online in their current project.

This is a massive shift, and we’re working hard to embed reflective, critical literacy inside the project. Writing in a community, reflecting on their learning is a critical 21st century skill, and doing it on this scale poses teachers with a very different pedagogical challenge. How do we co-ordinate feedback ‘visibly’, so that parents can ‘see’ what their kids are doing, and how their teachers are supporting this.

One way is to ensure that parents get the URL and get to observe, not just the work, but the collaboration, success, frustration and creativity that as teachers, we see, but couldn’t before give parents a value added shared experience.

Secondly, we encourage teachers to reflect on the week, using the same scaffold that we are modeling to students. It also helps with the comment challenge. If we comment too much, we are overtly interfering with the very ethos of project based learning. If we don’t comment enough, then we are seen as apathetic – doing little more than ticking off the event of posting a journal entry.

I am encouraging, and modeling, the idea of teachers using a weekly post in their page of ‘Ning’. It is an opportunity to show kids that we are learners too, and that we are listening to them. It is also a powerful way to ‘weave’ the learning scaffold – by referencing the work of kids using hyperlinks. Rather than say ‘It been great to see students understanding the project’ – we can hyperlink a few words to a few examples of what we are talking about – so we are evidencing teaching success and student support.

In a class this week I gave an example of how blogging communities give students more opportunity to demonstrate their learning than can be done in our normal mode of operation.

I asked the class a question. Immediately, a dozen hands went up, and kids all started pulling the usual faces to catch my attention – in the hope they would be selected to answer it. So I asked the teacher – “what happens to the other 11 kids, how do they feel at the very moment we make our selection”.

We empower one student and de-motive 11, that seems like a stupid thing to do. But thats how classroom questioning works. But in a classroom blogging community – every kid gets to answer it. Not only that, the kids are asking the questions, and teaching each other.

So I really think that teachers need to consider the effects of moving their classrooms online. Sure the parents like the idea that their kids are online-savvy – but they don’t really know what that means or looks like. Its critical to consider the implications to parent confidence when the ‘books’ and ‘worksheets’ suddenly stop being the normal method of evidencing activity. As kids don’t communicate what they are doing on the computer much of the time, there is a real risk that we loose some degree of confidence.

Giving parents the URL, allowing them to see the work in the community and being able to see what the teacher is thinking about, what they are doing reflectively – significantly changes the communication channels and the relationship that parents have with teachers. I think it is a great move away from the passive nature of parent-teacher relations – but equally some teachers are not going to be too happy about being ‘outed’.

Just an observation following a parent comment this week – “I am not sure he is studying as much as he used to”.