Musings from the Middle Kingdom
Online learning is a new experience for parents. Schools need to issue guidance that speaks to them. Below are some tips to help them support children at home.
Feel free to adapt and use as you see fit.
If you are looking for some simple rules to support virtual learning, hopefully these will help.
A corona extends from the Sun, millions of kilometres from the source, to spread light. Kind of similar to a teacher teaching virtually, to students all over the world, as the case might be.
Three months down the road from when the novel coronavirus first emerged in China, one of the biggest impact on society, apart from public health, has been on education. The kickstarting of digital pedagogy on such a scale has never been possible before. All the tech gurus and specialists put together could not possibly had such an impact in a mere 8 weeks after schools started closing across the world. Let's start by giving credit where credit is due.
The Chinese Government’s decision to offer virtual classes on a national scale was the single most important decision that set the ball rolling. Previously, schools were often shut and terms extended or holidays reduced to make up the difference. By almost dictating that the school day run as normal, virtually, they single-handedly pushed a lot of schools into the digital age. By enforcing self isolation, they removed the option of choice and travel which meant most ended participating in virtual learning.
The second is school leadership. This crisis truly highlights the massive power which resides within our school leaders. When they are truly behind an initiative the results are always spectacular. Which also makes me wonder why some school leaders were hesitant in using virtual learning before the crisis. I can never understand why certain schools spend such huge amounts on tech infrastructure, training and still not have much to show for it. I chalk this one, in those schools, to personal disinterest in tech-based pedagogy. If you lead by example, others follow.
The third is the ed-tech world at large, coming together to offer free solutions and training has helped a lot of colleagues take their first step into true virtual learning. From Microsoft Teams to Google Hangouts to Century to Mangahigh to Byju, everyone is on board to support the learning. Of course, there is always an underlying business strategy but this makes me wonder, what if post this crisis, they continue to offer their services for free? How will that help the continuation of the progress made?
Fourth, the teachers, they have been on the frontline and a lot of them struggled, often silently. Of course, we forgot to add the virtual staff room or the proverbial water cooler. They upped their game and learnt some solid skills. On Twitter, the bizz has been super positive. They identified where tech worked for them and where it didn’t. They curated learning experiences which worked for their students and these will shape the conversation on the development of education technology for years to come.
Finally, the parents, the unsung heroes, who had to look after kids at home or make arrangements. They became students themselves at times. Ensuring a child is occupied full time is a job in its own right, ensuring their education and managing your day to day, is a challenge indeed. Getting to set up a positive learning environment at home can be a challenge especially if you have dogs, cats, siblings, the odd inappropriate picture/statue in the background which can easily disrupt a virtual lesson. Not easy being a virtual teacher's assistant. Kudos to you all.
So thanks to the above teaching and learning has progressed into the virtual world but what have we learnt so far over the last three months?
Well, where it worked really well, clear structures were formed using some of the following:
Where it didn’t work:
Key problems encountered
With any digital learning experience there are always aspects of e-safety to consider so make sure that you are:
Tips for parents
Research studies have shown that positive parent engagement contributes to a successful online learning experience for children so identify how you can support the online learning process.
Hopefully, some of the above will give you an insight into some of the initial learning from the global online learning experience so far and you might be able to plan effective digital experiences both as a teacher and as a parent.
Are you intelligently disobedient?
I have been thinking about the term more and more as I visit Nepali schools and also after reading a lot of tweets and blogs from my global PLN.
In schools, admins or leaders define the vision and policies of the school. This leads to conflict in the ranks. Obviously human nature is subversive to a degree and not everyone can be kept happy. There is a lot of backbiting and gossip however the majority of us end up towing the line. We keep our doubts to ourselves and don't try to challenge the status quo. Some do but they argue with passion, anger, heart and often due to ego.
A rare few challenge with facts. They observe, they collate evidence, they research, measure impact and then they challenge. They intelligently disobey and they often end up being the catalyst of greatness in their schools.
The term originated from the animal world - where animals like guide dogs can disobey the command of their owner in order to keep them safe. When translated into the human world it means challenging the status quo at times and often voicing opinions which might prove unpopular. Intelligently disobedient people can take risks, and can come up with creative solutions, all while keeping the needs of the learners in mind.
So if you have a no mobile policy at school or feel strongly about the negative impact of that new assessment policy on your students, be intelligently disobedient. Better yet teach your students how to do that.
Oh and there is a thin line between intelligently disobedient and intelligently obedient. If you do find that what you were against actually can work really well for learners, don't let ego get in the way. Support the change by sharing your evidence & convince others.
A staple of every school that I have taught in is the staff farewell session on the last day. This year was no different. As the speeches started rolling in, one thing emerged and that was a theme of kindness and acknowledgement. It was great to acknowledge our peers who helped us and learnt with us but the 'feel good' factor was how kind and generous everyone was.
It made me think about the role of kindness in the schools. Am I kind? What does that mean? How does that look in practice? Is kindness only talking to everyone gently? Is it just being concerned for someone when they are in your class or in front of you?
Can we tap into kindness to help our wards become better learners?
Establish a relationship through kindness
By showing them kindness during their times of distress especially when they have not got that concept for the umpteenth time whilst the class has moved on or when they have forgotten their homework or equipment or so on. Yes, there is a need to teach them discipline, but remember forgetting a few times in the bigger scheme of things is not important. Even when you have a persistent behavioural issue, often kindness in the face of adversity can help that child become more empathetic, even though they might not show that at the time. As Dr Stanley Greenspan suggests empathy comes often when children are empathised with.
Below are some direct benefits of being kind, children have (Sourced from the RAK Foundation)
What about staff?
Lest we forget, the other main body in schools, staff. It is equally important to be kind to them and often this is quite difficult. I'm sure there have been times when we all haven't been as kind as we could to a colleague. Some of you might think tough love can't be avoided at times. Maybe, but there are always better ways to deal with situations than criticism or just ignorance. Often forgiving someone's mistake is good leadership. They probably have punished themselves in their head countless times. We often don't compliment people enough as it is much easier to pick on things they do wrong. As I tell my team, you might do ninety nine things right but that one thing you do wrong often gets stuck in people's head - Don't let it get stuck in yours. Care about your own well-being too. Don't criticise yourself if you do things wrong. Remember, we all are not perfect.
Is there need for kindness or empathy training in schools?
Perhaps but there is great deal more to gain through role modelling kindness both to students and staff from the top down. Not only will this create a better work environment but it will make you personally feel better and that surely is not a bad thing.
Some practical suggestions (student level - staff I leave to you)
I am sure you all can think of countless others. Feel free to tweet them at me (@KSThakral) or mention them in the comment section below.
*Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-32.
“This can’t be right”
I once observed a student say this during a discussion about a guessing game we were creating based on numbers. She believed zero was both even and odd. When another student presented counter evidence, she considered the point. “I really didn’t think of it this way,” she said.
She was displaying intellectual humility.
As we educate young learners are we creating intellectuals who are always sure of themselves or are we integrating the concept of intellectual humility.
What do I mean by intellectual humility?
To me it means an ability to say no when you don’t know an answer however that is not the end of it. It is then finding out the answer and continuing the discourse. It also means to consider alternative viewpoints from the point of view that I might be wrong. One has to understand the limits of one’s knowledge unlike general humility which is often linked to traits like unselfishness, sincerity and honesty. If you are looking for a more intellectual definition see the end of this post.
If we can teach our learners to be constantly in a state of open mindedness, receptive to new ideas and new sources of evidence, we create better learners who can engage in a civil discourse much more effectively. "A person with a fixed mind-set and a high IQ, for example, might take on an arrogant stance, presuming they “already know everything” and therefore inadvertently holding themselves back from learning something new." Once this type of mindset is embedded, it is difficult to change over the course of a person’s life time.
"Without humility, you are unable to learn," says Laszlo Bock, Google's VP of hiring. "Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don't learn how to learn from that failure." This is one of the top qualities they look for in employees. There is an excellent example of Google CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrating intellectual humility in his original interview at Google. Read here.
If you would like to learn more about intellectual humility, please follow this online course from the university of Edinburgh
So how can we start training our students in intellectual humility? As the rule of three goes, below are three simple methods you could experiment with in your classroom:
1. Encourage discussions on a topic where everyone’s view point is acknowledged.
2. Ask students to elaborate with evidence and not opinion. Teach them that distinction.
3. Role model examples from the past where once you thought you were right and now have changed your mind. Get them to share theirs.
"(Leary et al., 2016) define intellectual humility as recognising that a particular personal belief may be fallible, accompanied by an appropriate attentiveness to limitations in the evidentiary basis of that belief and to one’s own limitation in obtaining and evaluating relevant information (p1)"
"Now watch this video by Kathryn Schulz where she reflects on the notion of “being wrong,” arguing that we often have “error blindness” and that we have created a culture with an aversion to being wrong. Schulz invites us to reverse this narrative and recognise the power that comes from learning from our prior mistakes and uncertainties."(OpenMindPlatform.com)
For further reading, see Schulz’s book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.
Children love games, in fact, we all do so two years ago we started a project to look at how gamification principles like leaderboards, levels of challenge, rewards and competitions could support learning.
Being an inclusive school, we support a varying range of abilities and one of the major challenges most international schools face is a transient student population. Students join us with varying levels of interest and proficiency especially in Mathematics and English. Personalisation is core to the school’s vision and our gamification programme focussed on empowering learners to access our curriculum based on their pace. Another focus was enabling staff to use innovative methods of instruction to support student learning.
As part of a School Action Research Project, we investigated the impact gamification makes on attitudes, engagement and learning outcomes. We reviewed a number of platforms and mapped their impact on our processes from a pedagogical point of view. A direct result was the pilot of Mangahigh in Year 5. As part of our data analysis based on standardised assessment, we identified students who were at risk of becoming disaffected and decided to use this as an opportunity to engage them.
Mangahigh uses Artificial Intelligence to generate and mark assignments so it had the added benefit of reducing staff workload. Key staff like numeracy and assessment coordinators were trained via the support that was offered by Mangahigh. Between us we worked on a strategy and decided to focus on a year group which had the most number of underachieving students.
Staff development was critical so we conducted workshops and highlighted the benefits of using gamification and continued to support them throughout the pilot. Similarly, we ran workshops for parents showcasing how the pedagogy worked and discussed how to shift the focus to education based games instead of conventional games.
We wanted to start by setting a weekly homework or a class task initially. At this point, our strategy went out the window, as students went wild with it. In the first week, they logged more activities compared to the entire month before. We saw levels of engagement increase. Within the first month, data analysis showed that some of the identified students were catching up to age-appropriate levels. Teachers were supporting students with clarification of concepts and some students were racing ahead of the curriculum. Once the pilot was over we took stock and looked at positive outcomes and issues faced by teachers, parents and students. We devised solutions and extended the pilot with Year 5 teachers now training peers from other year groups.
The focus was on developing Mathematics proficiency through the use of gamification principles across the Primary School. The programme empowered teachers to develop innovative pedagogical practices that incorporated data-driven planning.
Students take CEM tests in September and these are used to measure annual progression. Analysing data showcased higher than average gains for age-related Mathematics progression after the project was introduced. Even taking into account the highest ever annual gains historically, the year on year progression was almost half a years worth per child!
Measuring progression of disengaged students showcased huge jumps. Boy A who was -0.4 and -0.5 in his two previous CEM tests jumped to +0.98 in one year. Similarly, Girl A who was -1.5 years behind her age reduced the gap to -0.07 within one year. These success stories can be attributed to greater use of data generated via Mangahigh, which enabled our teachers to support students by reducing the burden of assessment and assignment setting and focussing on informed lesson planning and targeted interventions.
The end result was that over the course of the programme, our students won the FOBISIA Mathematics challenge (twice) and 17 gold medals as part of the annual Mangahigh challenge. More importantly, though, there were some amazing individual success stories that inspired the whole school community.
Our initial work on this project was also published by Mangahigh to inspire others on how to embed gamification successfully in schools and now it has been recognised as an example of outstanding use of Digital Technology for Learning at the education Oscars, the International School Awards 2019.
To us though the main success has been that our students have fallen in love with Mathematics again and this continues even when they don’t have Mangahigh in front of them.
This past week has highlighted that if you give staff and students the freedom to creatively explore a subject, the outcomes are phenomenal. The energy levels that they showed truly amazed me and trust me they tend to be pretty high in our normal lessons.
Now, I can spew how we used gamification techniques, planning rubrics, targeted activities, differentiated challenges and so on but none of that matters compared to what our students brought to the table.
Creativity, Imagination & Energy.
There was a sense of community, there were tears, there was grit, there was resilience, there was passion, there was risk taking, there was learning, there was collaboration, reflection and action and let’s just stop writing all the learner profile buzz words as well.
I can tell you about the teacher that came in, looked at the energy in the room, got shocked and walked out. “Oh My! This is Computer Science Week!” Or I can tell you about the group of parents that came in on a visit and ended up in the Innovation Lounge when activities were on full swing. What a way to sell your school especially when their children say out loud “I want to go to this school”.
I wish I could bottle the energy up and share it with you all. If you are interested in finding up what we got up to, please go through this Twitter collection or the YouTube vid at the end.
Computer Science Week 2018 highlights
In the end, students loved the experiences we setup for them, they engaged with the subject and brought something new to the table for each activity they took part in.
So as I sit here reflecting on the week and the lessons learnt, which student showcased what potential or how a particular child that we normally find difficult to engage with in lessons was observed leading from the front, one thing is clear, we have got to ignite that passion in our lessons as well. My teachers were on point this week and they skipped lunches, they stayed back, each day their energy quotient went up to match the students and the students responded in kind. A feedback loop of sorts and it was amazing to be part of it.
But is it sustainable every day?
So how do we go on from here, the challenge for every educator who sets up something like our Computer Science week is, what about the lessons after the event and also what about the other teachers and I do apologise to the colleagues who had to bear the lessons after us. Trust me, I have been at the receiving end of that in the past as well.
The answer to it, yes. That passion I saw in colleagues was always there and just like the kids they need a planned approach to bring it out. If you think of each lesson as a mini event and build on the principles we used in the week, there is no way lessons will not be as engaging.
The reason for designing such events is not just for the students but for teachers as well. In my view, it is one of the most effective form of teacher development, learning through action. No amount of lectures or courses one attends can ever hope to match the hands on learning that my colleagues went through this week.
Try to remember your favourite teacher, the one who got you excited about a subject and inspired you to want to do well. A great teacher has the ability to make not only the topic interesting, but also the process of learning, opening up students’ eyes and hearts so that they have the acquisition, critical thinking and self-reflection skills needed to make the most of the opportunities that are offered to them.
By training and allowing teachers the freedom to focus on the process of engaging students and inspiring their interest in learning, instead of being forced to focus on the outcomes and results of assessments, we ensure engaged students, who take ownership of their learning and develop a life long passion for the subject.
The question I will leave you to ponder with is, how do you go beyond the basics to ignite a passion, curiosity and fascination in your learners?
Books hold tremendous power over our psyche.
Nothing compares to a good book in firing up the human imagination. They help us unite in a way like no other. Stories have true power to bring about change and open us up to ideas and new thinking, thinking which we would never agree upon if someone spoke to us about it.
One of the sessions over this term whilst using the Book Creator app with primary students, resulted in some great stories and fun learning. It was a pleasure revisiting some of my childhood classics like Enid Blyton, Dickens and discovering new ones like My Family and Other Animals. How I missed that one is a travesty but I guess better late than never.
I also noticed that as we grow older, we don't share as much about the books we read. It starts becoming more of a personal thing.I witnessed this when our Primary children were so enthusiastic in talking about the books they read and sharing why and what they liked. In Secondary it is often more guarded, perhaps a more reflective view that isn't shared as often. At IB level, it is like getting blood out of stone. Even teachers fell foul to this. I wonder if the fear of being judged plays a part in it or conforming (or not as the case might be) to a particular stereotype or agenda or we simply just become selfish.
It would be interesting to find out how reading for pleasure changes as children get older. From being almost a daily thing when you are young (at least in school) to being selective as you grow. Perhaps other commitments to your time take precedent or the enforcement of certain texts as part of academic studies plays a part. It makes some of us switch off and move on to other mediums like music, films, games and so on and that I guess is the true travesty.
I think back to a visit from JK Rowling at a previous school. Inspirational does not even begin to describe it. It was a life-changing event for some of the children. There were tears, excitement, enthusiasm by the bucket load. Even those who haven't read Harry Potter (well the series has only sold 500 million so bound to have a few billion who haven't read it) were inspired as I found out when I talked to teachers and students around the school.
Why was it so good? Despite her being such a lovely lady, it was her persona, how she praised everyone who asked a question, to how articulate she was with her answers. How her passion for reading and writing stood out and how she connected with the children. How the human element shone so brightly. Her politeness, calmness and that fire when Potter lore was discussed with some true fans in her interactions. That is what perhaps translates in her stories, that ability to connect, which has made her such a success. So how does all this help teaching?
Well, I think you picked up all the traits implied and if we as teachers can tap into those then our learners are truly going to foster a love of learning right on par with the love of books.
That one child...you know the one I mean.
The one who looks lost in your lessons. The one who does not connect with the learning. The one who ends up not getting you that perfect pass rate. The one that you talk about in the staff room. The one whose parents aren't as supportive as you'd like or who is just lazy or has behaviour issues or any one of a 1000 other reasons for not doing well.
That one child is always of interest to me in my lessons. I am always curious about what makes them tick. Why is it that everything I do works for others but not them?
I delve into data, but that often doesn't help at all. I delve into the myriad of experiences offered by my colleagues on dealing with them. I work with parents, experts, differentiate, you name it and I do have success from time to time but not all the time.
So how do I deal with that one child (or more as the case may be)?
I build relationships.
Instead of differentiating more, I try to find their interests. I let them work at their own pace. I use praise a lot and I rarely criticise. I try rewards, cajole them, probably not the most politically correct term to use, groom them for learning.
In one case, I had to learn about basketball just in order to strike a conversation about the sport and in another read up on One Direction. I made a point to walk about at lunchtimes when that child was playing basketball and strike conversations or use 1D references in lessons. I take an interest in them as an individual, I start valuing their opinion. I don't try to force it and try to let it happen organically. I once had to wait more than three quarters of a year to get through to a student. A lot of learning time had been lost but the gains made in the remainder of the course helped them achieve more than what they did in their other subjects by the time I finished with them.
The end result is, that one child will work their socks off for you if they connect with you and chances are remember you and what they learnt from you for the rest of their life.
“There comes a day when you realise turning the page is the best feeling in the world, because you realise there's so much more to the book than the page you were stuck on.”
Zayn (formerly from 1D)
I am Sunny Thakral. If you are here on the site then you know a bit about me. If not then I am a teacher and these are my musings. Hope you enjoy them.