does having a degree make you a better teacher?

Today I read in the Strait Times newspaper that Singapore is planning to have only graduates as teachers in the Primary schools by 2015. This is the online article I found which covers that story partially: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/378325/1/.html

It made me wonder why this would be necessary? Though I tend to agree that teachers should always try to upgrade themselves and continue learning both content and teaching/learning methods, I don’t think a degree is a necessity for this. I’m sure that there are good teacher who are not degree-holders and degree-holders who are not good teachers.

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Facebook in the classroom?

Came across this blog post: http://scottishwebfolk.wordpress.com/2007/07/29/teaching-learning-with-facebook-group/ which refers to a facebook group on “Teaching and learning with Facebook”.

Another site http://blog.larkin.net.au/2008/01/17/social-network-sites-in-the-classroom/ is discussing the use of social network sites in the classroom, citing MySpace and Facebook.

It would be interesting to see how Facebook could be used in education, but I feel that at this moment, it is difficult to shield of private life and classroom life on such social networking sites. They are not really meant to use for teaching purposes. Of course you could set up a group that doesn’t appear in people’s profiles, and have discussions within that group. Events can be created etc. But then what is the difference with setting up a normal discussion forum?

I believe that blogs and group blogs would be great to use in classrooms for reflection / group reflection, discussion forums, knowledge forums, wikispaces etc, but not really a social networking site. However, this could change in the future, as the technology evolves! I have signed up for the group anyway and hope to see if there are some interesting ideas there…

From lunch boxes to laptops – 1:1 project

On Wed 7 Nov 07 I attended a talk by Mr. Angus King, the ex-governor of Maine, at the SCGS. Thanks to Amanda who was so kind to invite me.

Mr. King made a bold move, to introduce a laptop for each 7th grader in Maine, a project that was initiated in the late nineties and got realised in 2000. Over lunch with Seymour Papert, one of the gurus in Artificial Intelligence (he set up MIT with Marvin Minsky) and education (he worked with Piaget in Switzerland for a while), Papert suggested him that he should go for a student / laptop ratio of 1:1. At that time it was around 5 students per computer, whereby the computers were used in the school ground only. Papert said that even a 2:1 ratio of students vs. computers would not make a huge difference.

The reasons for the idea to spend state money on computers for students was with the goal to improve the economy of the state:

  1. more education and technology –> necessity for the future
  2. all state governors were chasing after the same goal –> need to make a difference to have impact
  3. improvements were incremental so far and not keeping up with speed & scale of changes taking place in the world

A good write up of the reasons why, can also be found here.

Papert’s influence on the plans are written up here.

The idea for the project was not met with too much enthusiasm at first for various reasons:

  • controversial
  • fear of change
  • lack of understanding of power of IT/internet

When the project was announced and King got the first questions on it, “Who is going to own the computers?” his immediate intuitive response was: the kids. He had empowerment in mind and the laptops should be taken home, that way the parents would be introduced to them as well. This however was met with great resistance, to have kids owning such an expensive device, expecting they would be careless with it.

One school decided not to wait for the state of Maine to launch the project, and got a local company to sponsor them and they bought laptops for all their students. This became a model school to convince people that the idea actually worked.

Apple won the tender to provide laptops for all 7th graders in Maine. What was interesting is that the tender did not specify any technical details on the equipment. Instead it specified what they wanted to do with the technology, word processing, internet, email, maths, etc. In the end it was left up to the schools whether they wanted the students to take the laptops home with them. About 50% of the schools allowed this. However, the laptops remained property of the school.

Professional development was equally important and time was spent as well to introduce the technology and the new ways of teaching to the teachers first. The teacher’s role is more of coach / facilitator and the students are finding their own information. Each school appointed a lead teacher, and for every 7 schools regular meetings are/were held amongst the lead teachers. A webportal was introduced too. Surveys held amongst teachers showed that 70-80% of the teacher are very positive about the program.

A comparison was done on writing proficiency between a group of students being taught by a teacher who was amongst the high computer use group and a teacher who stuck to the traditional teaching methods. The high use computer group class scored twice as high in the test as the group who did writing in the traditional way.

Student engagement is heightened with the introduction of the laptops. They are more engaged in the learning and being engaged helps them to learn better.

Security: schools have filtered wireless access on the campus, and a remote desktop feature available for teachers plus a history log to check which websites the students have visited.

Next step is to introduce the laptops into the high schools and to facilitate this, all teachers have received a free laptop.

Home internet access is a problem for low income groups or remote areas. There is a private fund that will help the lower income groups to apply for dial up access.

What are the benefits of the project?

  • students learn how to discover and use information (in this world of information overflow)
  • teamwork
  • creativity is stimulated
  • better student engagement

What it doesn’t necessarily do is generate better test results, because the tests are still based on rote learning.

A very insightful and inspirational talk!

First encounter with PowerPoint

The learners in our Computer Class on Sunday had their first encounter with PowerPoint last week. Rather than telling them what to do, which button to press and giving them an assignment, we gave them the task to open PowerPoint and just try out any of the buttons on the screen. 

It was interesting to see that each of them was trying different things. Some were a bit confused though, they managed to open PowerPoint and then asked me “What should I do now?”. Some were happily clicking and trying different things.

The majority started off with typing some text in the Title page. A few of them didn’t want the title to be centre aligned and asked me how to get it left aligned. I showed them the align buttons and their function. Others were adventurous and found out how to insert ClipArt pictures, or WordArt. Some were applying slide designs. Upon seeing their peers having interesting colours and pictures, they started asking them how they did that. 

Last Sunday was their second session with PowerPoint. This time we did a short instruction on what they can find on the interface, how to view the different toolbars, and going through some basic functions. For the practical session we asked them to try out the viewing of toolbars and applying a slide layout with title, text & clipart by using the task pane. We reinforced the saving of file to be important. Everyone is doing is very well in both of the groups.

There is one lady whoever who is only able to come alternate weeks and she also has a problem with understanding English. We are not sure what to do with her, she is lagging behind and we have now asked her to come for both group sessions on the days that she is able to come. At least we can give her more time to practice and individual attention that way.

I’m also installing LAMS on the server, hope to finish it by this week, so that we can start trying it out! That way we can monitor individual student’s progress and give extra assignments to those who are faster. Some students really pick up very fast and they need extra attention as well – otherwise they’ll get bored. The group dynamics are quite good this year, students are willing to help each other and even the cleaning of the room at the end of the class is being arranged without us needing to interfere.

The decision to split the class in 2 groups has worked out well too. Although that way we need to conduct instruction sessions twice, we are already cutting down on instruction time and giving more practical time. The practical time is now about 45 – 60 mins per lesson and gives each student a 1-to-1 time on the computer.  Previous years we always had a few people sharing computers and then we had to monitor that each of them had equal chance of trying out the exercises.

action research rojak

A summary of a book I have just finished reading on Action Research. The summary is a rojak of different passages in the book that are interesting to me and the research I intend to do.

Action research – a methodology for change and development
By: Bridget Somekh [Open University Press – McGraw-Hill Education, 2006]

I picked up this book in the NIE library when I was looking for some books on Action Research and Design Research. I’m still not quite sure what exactly the difference is between the two, or perhaps there is an overlap of some sort, whereby Design Research focuses on the instructional design more than its implementation, whereby Action Research more focuses on the implementation? Still a question to be further explored.

Back to the book, it’s very insightful, as Somekh uses her personal experiences in doing action research, which she started doing in the 1980s and explores different fields and uses of action research. It’s interesting to read how a practitioner does research as most of the articles or book chapters I have read so far explaining about action research approach it more theoretically.

Some common threads keep reappearing, throughout the book. I will just randomly summarise some of the points she made that I found interesting and think I can use in my own research.

1. action research in ‘developing countries’ (pp. 32-40)

When doing action research in Brazil and South-Africa, during times of political she found that the fear and the hope of the political change reflected in her research findings. As she didn’t fully understand this impact, being a European researcher, she needed help from her local colleagues there to get a better view on the situation.

This made her feel inadequate at times and a feeling of guilt being “white” in a place where “white” people were seen as the oppressor. She quotes Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972)” on this, who believes that:

“Genuine education can only be experienced through ‘praxis’, that is combined reflection and action through which the consequences of action ‘become the object of critical reflection’”.

The following statement she quoted of Freire made me think:

“Oppression is a ‘cultural invasion’ which is a complex process whereby even those whose intention it is to liberate will perpetuate oppression unless they engage consciously in praxis, in partnership with the oppressed, rather than as their intended benefactors.”

So, am I actually an oppressor? Am I engaging my students in praxis? I am trying to do so, but sometimes the means and time are not there to do it the way we would like to do it.

2. action research from the inside: a teacher’s perspective (pp. 62-73)

In this section of the book she gives a vivid account of her action research project she did in the late 1980s when she just started as a school teacher. At the time she had to prepare her students for the national ‘O’ levels exams in poetry and at the same time she wanted to encourage the students to enjoy poetry.

She started of teaching poetry using one particular poet and asking opinions from the entire class on the poems that she recited. She discovered that the students could not relate to the poet that she had chosen and also that it was already difficult for most students to try and understand the poem, let alone speak in front of the entire class to voice out how they interpreted it.

True recording and active dialogue with the students she revised her lesson plan and gave the students one book with famous poems and the freedom to select poems from other books of their choice. The students were then to discuss poems of their own choice within smaller groups. Lastly they had to write their interpretation of the poems and optionally to write their own poem, of any form they chose. All of this very much in line with situated cognition and socio-constructivism, though she doesn’t mention that.

What is interesting is not so much on how she changed her lesson structure during her research, but how the students responded to it. She mentions for instance that initially in the group work the students did not really take the assignment seriously, until they discovered that they were being recorded and that what they said was listened to. Somekh sees this as the students feeling involved in the research, being listened to, but I wonder whether it is not just a case of fearing that they will get a bad mark, or a bad representation in the research report.

Another interesting finding is that she let each of the students whom she had quoted and transcribed in her research report read their own story and comment and approve that it can be used. One of the students read the story about himself and then asked why she had changed his name. After that she decided to use the pupils real names instead and they had a proud feeling of it.

At the same time I’m wondering how I would collect data and interact with my students on my research if I were to do an action research. Probably I will need to use some form of ICT to do so.

3. Action research and innovative pedagogies with ICT (pp. 178-195)

She uses the notion of “exploratory praxis”, whereby she is using Susan Noffke’s definition of praxis as:

the continuous interplay between doing something and revising our thought about what ought to be done

This is something I can very much relate to. I think when teaching a topic, we have an idea of what we need to do, afterwards we reflect on it, or sometimes even while teaching and then get new ideas of what needs to be done. Even though we plan, we also need to be flexible and respond and interact with the learners.

In the research project PELRS she describes that the teachers in the study are co-researchers, doing the action research. In the past research had been focused on how ICT could be used more effictively to support traditional pedagogy rather than looking at how it could be used to support the introduction of new pedagogic practies. Somekh’s research was focused on the latter.

Secondly she introduces the Structuration theory of Giddens as an influence on the design of the research. This theory is interesting as it addresses the resistance against change (by ICT) in an agency (e.g. a school) based on the power and hierarchical structure. Something for me to perhaps research further on. Having seen introduction of ICT in corporate environments and the behaviour of people in those organisations towards the changes that it brought with it, I would like to explore more on this.

Somekh uses the theory to define four outcomes for the learning process (p.182):

  • learn creatively (e.g. contributing, experimenting, solving problems) 
  • learn as active citizens (e.g. acting autonomously, taking responsibility)
  • engage intellectualy with powerful ideas (e.g. using thinking skills, grappling with ideas/concepts)
  • reflect on their own learning (e.g. evaluating it through meta-cognition)

The third aspect influencing the design of her research is a pedagogical underpinning. She states (p.183) that in the learning process of the curriculum with help of ICT, a three-way interaction is created: teacher – learner – ICT. Earlier there were interactions between teacher – learner, learner – learner, but not the learner – ICT interaction is added. ICT intervenes in the teacher – learner interaction by drawing away attention from the teacher to the screen and at the same time also offers a different form of interaction and opportunities from which the teacher will be partly or wholly excluded.

The fourth area of influence is the concept of Vygotsky that all human activity is mediated by the use of tools. A selection of technically expert students were also made co-researchers with the goal to learn from them how they enculturated the use of computers, at school and at home. An interesting finding from this was that although the students found certain software for learning maths boring, but did not voice this out to the teacher during the lesson, as they were afraid by doing so they would not get to use the computers at all anymore.

The last area of theory used in the design of the research is the Activity Theory. This also encorporates Vygotsky’s notion of tools mediating human action within larger organizational strutures. Human activity is never individual and isolated, but is always integrally part of an activity system. She also mentions situated cognition and cites Brown (1989):

“the notion of situated cognition, with its insight that learning is shaped by the context and is most often a joint and distributed process between different minds is a key to understanding activity theory”

The activity framework was used by including not only the school and teachers, but also the home environment, other adults, peers, the community at large as influencing the learning of the students. ICT became a set of mediating tools over which the students could exercise choice and through which they could learn through play and experience flow. Roles of teachers and students were negotiated and learning focus was framed by both teachers and students. The transformative learning outcomes are the four points as mentioned earlier.

Somekh’s generic pedagogic framework (GPF) is highly influenced by:

  • Claxton’s learning styles (2000)
  • Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of intensive engagement in activity or flow (1996)
  • Lave and Wenger’s vision of learning in a community of practice (1991)

I have not heard of Claxton’s learning styles, but very much like the concept of flow and Wenger’s CoP.

Some lessons learnt as Somekh shares on her research:

  • teachers initially enthousiastically adopted the new methods, but the sense of ownership was lacking. They were co-researchers (and assumed to have ownership by having this title) but adopted the methods because the main researchers had established them, not because they directly saw the need to change themselves. Some teachers went back into their old styles of teaching unintentionally and e.g. wrapped up lessons at the end of class timing, instead of at the end of the learning event (project).
  • the GPF diagram contains two levels of outcomes, one on the transformative level and one on the level of the national education program.
  • the student-researchers did not immediately dare to take on their roles, as they were still fixed in the old concept that children are not taken seriously or that their could be consequences for what they would say. Once the relationship with the researcher had been established only, they started to critisize what was going on in the classroom.
  • the introduction of PELRS did not fully succeed as a transformative learning platform, but it did help to introduce ICT and new pedagogies into the education system. There were several constraints, like limited time frame to teach.
  • the introduction of using the internet to get information, provided a liberation on one hand, introducing the students to new info that even the teachers may have limited knowledge about, but on the other hand gave them the need to learn about ‘information literacy’ skills. How to distinguish and filter the trustworthy information from the not trustworthy. Normally teachers / schools would filter out this information, but now the students had to make this distinction themselves.

An interesting read with some interesting pointers for me to further explore on. Changing teaching habits is not easy and introducing new tools will definitely automatically introduce a change, but how to change the pedagogy along with it? Another question is whether the learners (in my case adults) are able to work more or less indepently and collaborate. This is only possible if the goals are negotiated and very clear from the beginning and some form of scaffolding is in place to help them get started.

An insightful and interesting book.

Bingo icebreaker game a big hit!

Sunday afternoon we started a new IT Essentials computer course at the temple where I’m volunteering. Usually we have around 35 people signing up for the course, of which generally about 25 of them will actually complete the course. This year we had a shocking 50 people registered and most of them also showed up on the first class!

Still not sure how we are going to handle such a big group, considering that in physical space we can accommodate comfortably a maximum of 35 people, once we are starting to do practical work on the computers, of which we have 22 now. But that’s a problem to worry about next week. Last Sunday we had to entertain and get going a group of 50 adults who are going to be following this course weekly for the next 6 months or so.

The previous year we had a problem that we had quite a disintegrated group of students who took a long time to get to know each other and work together. At the time we had omitted a proper intro to let the students familiarize with each other before starting to do some actual work. Not to fall into the same trap again, I decided that this year we would start with an icebreaker game. I have been doing many different icebreakers as a student myself, and thought that the one I participated in last year during one of my courses at NIE, was quite good, a human bingo.

How does it work? You have a normal BINGO-score card, with 5 x 5 squares. But instead of putting numbers in the squares, you put characteristics of people, like: “loves chocolate”, “is married”, “wears glasses”.

Then they have to go and ask their peers to see who could match one of the squares and each person only appearing once on the square. When someone has 1 row filled up, it’s BINGO, and they get some sweets. To manage this with 50 people, I split them in 2 groups and gave a group price as well, for the first group who had 1 full square. It was really a big hit, they mingled around well and had fun finding out details about their classmates.  Officially you’ll have to verify the filled up cards and make sure people are not cheating, but hey, I was already happy that people seriously tried to get to know each other and played the game without getting into a mess… mind you, this is all in a room that could just fit 50 people in there seated, no more space to walk around!

Here is the bingo score card I used:

Loves cooking   

 Has children Has same favourite colour as you  Is vegetarian  Has a mobile phone
 Wears glasses   Has visited more than 3 countries  Is married Is from same home country as you    Plays musical instrument
 Likes to sing    Likes cats      FREE  Likes to dance  Is wearing earrings
 Loves to read books  Wears lipstick  Likes dogs     Is same age as you  Is crazy about chocolate
 Born in country side    Wears red colour clothes  Likes to eat durian  Likes shopping  Wears jeans

Hot Potatoes vs. Flash quiz templates

A few weeks ago I tried out Hot Potatoes which is an educational software to create quizzes with feedback. It’s very easy to use, it took me less than half an hour to create a few different kind of quizzes. It allows you to fill up the feedback as well to be given when a student gives the wrong answer. The quiz is generated into a HTML format, and can be played back in a browser. Yet, to be able to use multiple types of questions in 1 quiz (e.g. a few multiple choice questions, drag-and-drop, True/False), you need to upgrade to a higher end version.

Though it’s easier to use than Flash, I found the quiz templates in Flash more useful. I have yet to try both of them out with a LMS that supports SCORM, but so far, I’m in favour of using Flash. Still Hot Potatoes is a nice tool for teacher who are not very tech-savvy and would want to make a small quiz to be given to the students as a form of self-assessment.