COETAIL: It’s More Than a Course–It’s a Way of Life

This graphic, which was modified from the original Profile of a Modern Teacher graphic, examines what it means to be a COETAILer. Whether you are a past or present member of the COETAIL community, someone who is considering enrolling in the future, or someone who already identifies and practices many of the beliefs included below, it is our hope that together we can bring about an inner and outer transformation in the world of education.

COETAIL A Community Approach to Learning

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Kill The Report Card

Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com
Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com

Report cards drive my teaching.

There, I said it. I know it’s the last thing we are supposed to say, because we strive so hard in international schools not to teach to the test. But, the truth is, it’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about for fear of being judged.

It doesn’t really matter whether I’m teaching to a standardized test or a report card based on unrealistic curriculum frameworks, I’m still teaching to something. And for many months out of the academic year, it sucks all the life, fun and passion out of education.

In all likelihood, 75% of these report cards are going to be looked at once by parents and never seen again. Some of them won’t even read the words. They’ll just skim over the columns to get a general overview of their child. Considering this, is it really worth the enormous amounts of time teachers continue to invest in them year after year?

Instead of allocating two entire months a year to collecting data and writing report cards, I wonder if our time and energy could be better spent somehow. I wonder what might happen if we spend that time creating intriguing and meaningful learning experiences for our students rather than giving them weeks worth of independent activities while we assess on the outskirts of our classrooms.

We like to think that we hold ourselves to high standards. “We don’t teach to the test and we don’t cover units,” is an often-heard expression of every proud educator. Coverage and teaching to the test are considered bureaucratic and ineffective in education, so we don’t dare use those words.

In place of them, we’ve found substitutes that diffuse the potency and are more tolerated. Instead of “cover,” we now use “get through” and “finish.” Instead of “teaching to the test,” we now “have to report on it.” The linguistic ambiguity somehow lessens our guilty conscience, and allows teachers to remain in a passive role that absolves them from any responsibility.

This is just part of education. We can’t get around it,” you’ll often hear us lamenting. “What would happen if we got rid of report cards? That’ll never work.” Despite our loathing for report card writing seasons, it’s easier to stay the course and play the game than it is to revolutionize it. Part of the reason we oppose report cards so strongly is because we know they are a waste of time and believe something is inherently wrong with the current model.

So, how can we make it right? How can we track student progress in a way that is meaningful, yet time-efficient for teachers? How can we shift the focus back to learning, rather than reporting on it? How can we ensure that teacher time is used for effective long-term growth, rather than short-term appeasement?

What follows are a few ideas to get the conversation started at your school for how to throw out traditional report cards and move into personal learning contracts.

Less is More: 

Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com
Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com

Literacy and numeracy are the only concepts that teachers should continue to collect data on in elementary schools. This data should then be qualitatively and quantitatively tracked (and reported on) to ensure the foundation of learning is strong in all students, and differentiation takes place at school and at home.

As for everything else, what’s the point?

The world is not going to come to an end if we don’t report on an eight year old’s understanding of migration push factors and three-dimensional figures. Little Timmy won’t be at-risk if his parents don’t find out in writing that he struggles to read graphs, but has a solid understanding of how media influences society.

Secondary schools are often attempting to assess more skills than are humanly possible. How can you know 80 students so well that you can assess them on 14 different skills when you only see them twice a week? Why are we wasting so much time on a best-guess scenario?

What we might find is that by freeing up time currently allocated to assessing and writing report cards, we can spend more time teaching to the misconceptions students have raised…and fostering more learning along the way.

Educators are beholden to time more than anything else in this profession. If time is such a precious commodity, why are we assigning so much of it to jumping through systemic hoops because that’s the way we’ve always done it?

From Reporting to Coaching: 

Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com
Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com

Administrators don’t give report cards to teachers because it doesn’t foster professional development and they have more important things to do with their time. Many schools are now moving towards a coaching model of professional growth where administrators or learning coaches help teachers identify strengths and areas of development.

The most empowering form of this coaching model is when teachers can identify an area of development (potentially gleaned from previous observable data) and take ownership of it as their learning goal. When this goal is articulated to the coach or administrator, it becomes a form of a contract for personal or professional growth. The teacher acknowledges that this is an area they are struggling with and would like to put time and energy into developing. They call upon the coach to provide guidance when necessary, collect observable data and monitor their progress.

For example, if I choose to make a contract with my leaning coach that I would like to work on providing greater wait time between question and answer, the next time my coach comes into observe me, I know that this specific outcome will be the source for data collection. I won’t be focusing on seventeen areas of development all at once, but rather, one which I can effectively manage and nurture.

Teacher-directed professional growth is beneficial because we have ownership and agency over our individual goals. We negotiate the terms of our learning and are empowered in doing so.

If this coaching model is so effective for professional development in teachers, why aren’t we employing it for personalized learning in students as well? Why has the coaching model evolved for teachers, while the reporting model remains archaic for students?

Redefining What Drives Learning: 

Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com
Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com

We always tell our students that they shouldn’t be overly focused on their grades and how they compare to others. We preach that what we care about most is their progress, their growth and their attitude towards learning.

Yet, our speech and our actions are contradictory at best, hypocritical at worst. On Monday, we tell our students that they shouldn’t stress out about their scores. On Friday, we write report comments based on the unit we just finished and assessed. What better way to lose students’ trust than by telling them they should measure their personal progress against where they started while we measure their ability against an abstract standard.

Instead of having unnecessary summative assessments and end of term report cards, why don’t we base our student growth model around personal learning contracts. These contracts, established between the coach (the teacher) and the coachee (the student) would arise out of periodic conversations between both parties. These coaching conversations would take place in the same way teachers have reflective dialogues with their administrators.

The teacher would ask the student to specifically identify an area of development. The student would articulate the concept(s), skill(s) or attitude(s) they would like to work on over a given time frame. Throughout that period of time, the teacher would be collecting observational data on the student’s progress and report back what was collected. After the contracted time frame, a follow-up coaching conversation would ensue with the teacher communicating what was observed. The student would then reflect on their efforts, their progress and their next steps. A new contract would be identified, or the old one modified, depending on the direction the conversation takes.

The length of time between coaching conversations would depend on a variety of factors, such as: is the teacher in elementary or secondary? how many students are in the class? how frequently will specialist and world language personal learning contracts be formed? how old and/or capable is the student of pluralizing their personal learning goals? how much data will still need to be collected in literacy and numeracy for tracking and reporting purposes?

The pitfalls for such a change are many, but it will inevitably come down to one question: is it adding more to teachers’ workloads, or is it freeing up time to teach and coach?

One way to ensure that teachers are not falling victim to the add-on ethos of so many institutions and curricular frameworks is to schedule these coaching conversations into their daily or weekly timetable. Whether it’s 20 minutes a day to meet with one student in elementary or it’s 60 minutes a week to check in with several secondary students, this cannot be seen as “one more thing to do” in teachers’ eyes. Otherwise, we’re only substituting one failing concept with another in disguise. The whole essence of a new model is to have teachers stop wasting their time on report cards and free up more time to improve student learning.

A Conceptual Rebirth 

Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com
Created by Reid Wilson via someecards.com

With some ideas in education, we can try to reconceptualize them in a new light in order to make a current model better. But for others, the models are embedded too deeply in our consciousness for a simple conceptual shift.

We can’t allow a new concept to grow until an old concept has died. Whether it’s a coaching model based on learning contracts or something completely different, we must allow our concept of report cards to die. They don’t serve us anymore.

The death of report cards shouldn’t be a passive and natural death–it should be active and intentional. We must kill the report card. For it is only through this death that a new conceptual rebirth can emerge.

And maybe then, something other than report cards can drive my teaching.

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This blog is not a critique of the school I work at (which is awesome), but an observation of conceptual and systemic failure in education as a whole.

I am Introvert, Hear Me…Write Quietly Alone at Home

Background: 

Introversion and extroversion are one of the most thoroughly researched topics in personality psychology. There is no agreed upon definition for what tendencies an introvert embodies compared to an extrovert. There are, however, generalizations that have come out of this field of research that most psychologists can accept as the norm. These characteristics should be viewed as a spectrum in which individuals have differing degrees of behaviors present. They should not be seen as a black and white, one-size-fits-all truth.

Extroverts are most often considered assertive, dominant and bold. They tend to think aloud and prefer speaking over listening. They prefer being in the company of others and are drawn to the external world of people and activities. They are gregarious and enjoy being in environments where there is high stimulation. They don’t mind being the center of attention and are quick to think on their feet. They express themselves best through conversation and easily engage in small talk.

Introverts, on the other hand, are quiet and cerebral. They are highly introspective and drawn to the inner world of thoughts and feelings. They listen more than they speak and tend to think carefully before they talk. They process information about their environment unusually deeply, observe subtleties others overlook and are able to concentrate and persist for long periods of time. They express themselves best through writing and prefer deep discussions over small talk.

Photo Credit: Βethan via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Βethan via Compfight cc

Extroverts are talkers who get their energy by being around other people. Introverts are thinkers who create their energy by being alone or in small groups.

Depending on which researcher you consult, introverts account for one-third to one-half of all humans. This would mean that one-third to one-half of our students are introverts, and one-third to one-half of our colleagues are introverts. Due to introverts being the minority in society (and in schools), the perception of them and their contributions can often be affected by the dominant, extroverted majority.

Susan Cain, author of the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” makes the claim that society aggrandizes and values one type of archetypal personality: that of the extrovert. She coins this belief, the “Extrovert Ideal,” and suggests that it is an oppressive standard of conformity most humans (both introverts and extroverts) strive to achieve. Cain examines a shift that took place in the 20th century where society changed from valuing a culture of character (citizenship, duty, honor, reputation, morals, manners, integrity) to a culture of personality (magnetic, fascinating, attractive, dominant, forceful, energetic). This shift, which precipitated the Extrovert Ideal, manifested out of the increasing career-driven, business world (where presenting ideas to a board and being charismatic were more important than the ideas you were selling). Later, the increased presence of this archetypal extrovert figure took root in popular media, where enigmatic characters and strong personalities began to leak into our subconscious. Due to this cultural value shift, many Western societies have come to emphasize and praise this Extrovert Ideal. This has had an interesting effect on how Western cultures in particular, perceive certain behavioral traits.

Cain outlines several studies that show how talkative people are considered smarter, better looking, more desirable and more interesting. This would then likely affect how likable, trustworthy and influential a person is.

But should it? Why is it that those who talk the most in groups are considered smarter? There is no correlation between the quantity of speech and the quality of ideas. How is being talkative an indicator of trust or influence? Is there something inherently suspicious about quietude and solitude?

Photo Credit: Worlds In Focus via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Worlds In Focus via Compfight cc

Introverts are not oblivious to these societal opinions. We didn’t need data to confirm what we have been experiencing and feeling for most of our lives. Societal messages, those coming both consciously and unconsciously, have been communicating that there is something wrong with us. We are often told that we are too quiet, we think too much and we are too serious. We are told that we are no fun, we don’t know how to enjoy ourselves and we are too sensitive. We are told that we are not happy unless we are sociable and we must be outgoing in both our personal and professional worlds.

We might be called arrogant and standoffish because we don’t like to be around others as much. We might be called boring and told we have no personality because we don’t want to be the center of attention. We might be called weird or gay because we are not the aggressive archetype of our gender. We might be asked: why are you such a party-pooper? what’s wrong with you? why are you so unhappy? do you think you are too good for us? (I’ve been described and asked the above on multiple occasions throughout my personal and professional life.)

As a result of these false perceptions, Susan Cain goes onto say, many introverts have had to pretend they are more extroverted than they actually are in order to fit in and become the social norm.

Why is it that students and teachers should feel like they need to be disingenuously extroverted in order to be accepted for who they are? How might societal, cultural or community bias towards extroversion affect how students and teachers are perceived, contribute and participate in a learning environment?

Photo Credit: Troup1 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Troup1 via Compfight cc

Through an evolutionary lens, introverts would have had to maintain their survival through some sort of contribution to their species. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. Likewise, introverts in education must have something to contribute to the survival (or recreation) of education…but, only if the environmental conditions allow them to survive.

Are introverts becoming an endangered species in school communities? Or, do they have a healthy population in modern educational institutions?

Introverts can be found all throughout the educational community: from students to teachers, administrators to policy makers, and support staff to parents. Considering this, what can we do in order to ensure that introverts are valued for who they are in the community they belong to?

What follows are a mix of light-hearted suggestions and honest insights that may help educational institutions honor introverted tendencies, reconsider current practices and promote a healthy introversion population.

For Colleagues:

Introverts have a hard time with small talk. You know that uncomfortable silence that often puts you at unease? Small talk is sometimes like that for us. If you see us standing by a plant at whole school events or sitting in an empty row at staff meetings, this is probably why. It’s not that we don’t care about how your day was or don’t want to hear what you did on vacation, it can just be difficult to warm up in conversation. For us, engaging in small talk throughout the day is akin to what it would feel like for you to remain silent for a day. Sounds pretty discomforting, doesn’t it? Instead of asking us typical chit-chat questions, ask us about deep pedagogical topics, like where the future of education is heading or something we are struggling with in our classroom.

Introverts often like to eat alone in our rooms or with a small group of people with whom we feel comfortable. This isn’t because we don’t like you or think you are unworthy of a conversation. We introverts create their own energy. We don’t get it from others–we give it to them. Constantly engaging and talking with students and colleagues all day is extremely exhausting for us. We go back to our room to avoid the staff lounge and cafeteria not because we think poorly of you; it’s because we wouldn’t make it through the day if we didn’t. Another reason we might avoid these common areas is because we would have to put on a false sense of extroversion while there in order to keep up with your conversational energy.

Asking introverts to be falsely enthusiastic at meetings, such as standing up and dancing, doing school spirit cheers or high-fiving everyone in order to leave, is sure to be met by inner annoyance. By all means, if that external enthusiasm is how you feel you need to express yourself, we are all for it and completely support your actions. But don’t make it an expectation that we have to be like you and then tell us we are no fun when we begrudgingly comply with intentionally less enthusiasm than we actually have.

Photo Credit: Let Ideas Compete via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Let Ideas Compete via Compfight cc

That would be like us asking you to sit and reflect in silence on your teaching practice for a few hours straight. How’s your enthusiasm now?

Introverts might not be as talkative in the hallways as you would like. Again, this is not to be taken personally and goes back to our aversion for small talk with a limited external energy supply. Saying hello to everyone we pass by and engaging in constant discourse only appeals to the Extrovert Ideal (and benefits only extroverts). We don’t necessarily see the connection between staff morale and chit-chat (as it only helps the morale of those who are extroverts). It doesn’t mean that we are not friendly, as most introverts have high degrees of empathy and compassion, but it does mean that we can’t always give to you. We need to take care of ourselves first. If we didn’t take care of ourselves first, we wouldn’t be able to give so much of our energy out to those we care for. The next time you see us walking across campus, forgive us if we prefer a quiet hello, a head nod or a smile and bashfully get back to our classroom to continue with our latest obsession.

For Administration:

What is a model employee nowadays? When administrators are looking for skills in candidates, what percentage of those skills are naturally dominant in extroverts?

When institutions seek out team players who can work in a collaborative environment, why type of person might they be envisioning? How many of them are picturing someone who is lively, talkative and brings a lot of energy to the community? How many of them are picturing someone who quieter, more reflective and thinking deeply?

I would posit that in evaluating applicants, you will find people skills valued over thinking skills, and rightfully so. Communication is at the heart of teaching students, collaborating with colleagues and meeting with parents. But it’s important to remember that thinking is equally at the heart of the teaching profession. You can just as easily have communication without thought as you can have thought without communication. Despite both needing to be present, I question whether introverted skills are taking a back seat to extroverted skills in teacher recruitment?

How often are schools looking for teachers to be outgoing, full of energy, exciting, enthusiastic and communicative? How many are actively looking to add teachers who are pensive, insightful, observant, persistent and thoughtful?

When teachers attends job fairs as candidates, they are encouraged to go to the social functions so administrators can see how they interact with potential colleagues. They are placed in a room full of strangers, some of whom they are competing against to get the same coveted position, and are then supposed to make small talk and see who can come across as the most charismatic in front of their potential employers. It’s as though some administrators see socializing and the ability to chit-chat as a precursor to being an effective teacher or positive presence within an institution. Why is this? Small talk and working in a collaborative environment are two entirely different objectives.

Collaboration is hugely beneficial to education as a whole, whether it be through team meetings, staff professional development, or an online PLN. Collaboration and connection to others is paramount for introverts and extroverts alike to share, refine and recreate ideas. However, a healthy balance must be achieved, as too much collaboration has the potential to hold introverts back.

Photo Credit: Gilles Gonthier via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Gilles Gonthier via Compfight cc

Introverts aren’t opposed to team meetings and committees, as they can often be a place of exposure to new perspectives and a source of idea extraction. They can capitalize on their listening skills, make observations and focus intently throughout. For introverts, this can become a great opportunity for social brainstorming, with others’ thoughts sparking their own. However, the real value does not come from the meetings themselves–it comes afterwards. This is when introverts can go off and be thinkers, reflectors, synthesizers, ideators and insightful proposers. It is important for administrators to remember this when gathering feedback from their staff. Extroverts will give you feedback right away and be done with it, often at the meetings themselves. However, introverts will digest and process bits of information they gleaned from the meeting for days after. Administrators should try to give them more space and time to make observations, provide insight and propose improvements that everyone else might have immediately overlooked. One way to do this is to keep a digital form available so introverts can contribute feedback when they are ready and have thoroughly come to a thought conclusion. It also gives them an opportunity to articulate their thoughts in a non-public venue.

Collaboration is hugely effective, but so is independent thought. Introvert and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who is a proponent of working independently, once said, “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by a committee.” In a collaborative environment, we must find balance between meeting times and isolative creation. Let introverts wander off alone into the depths of thought and bring ideas back to committees and groups, rather than collective ideation in real-time. Solitude can be a catalyst for innovation.

For Students:

While reading Cain’s book, I came to the realization that I was being an enormous hypocrite towards my introverted students. I had unknowingly succumbed to the Extrovert Ideal and was pushing my quieter students to be more talkative, participate more in whole class discussions and work in a highly collaborative and stimulating environment. Thinking back, I had the best of intentions and wanted them to grow up to be not like me (an introvert). I wanted to provide the nurture that perhaps I had missed as a child so they could have all of those extroverted qualities that many introverts wish they had. However, I erroneously thought that introversion and extroversion were more dependent on nurture, when in fact, it mostly comes down to nature.

As a teacher, that doesn’t mean I believe we should move back to an era of isolation and individualized learning and completely do away with collaborative learning environments. However, I think we all could consider riding the pendulum back a bit towards the center when it comes to collaboration over-kill in a classroom.

We consider the learning needs of EAL students, Learning Support students, Exceptional Learners and everyone in between. But how often do we consider what an introverted student might need, or be feeling, in a modern classroom? I don’t think they are going to need pull-out support, but I might give them a little more freedom if they decide to pull themselves out of an overstimulating and talkative group.

Conclusion:

Introverts are not better or worse than extroverts; they are just different. There are many biological factors that play into how introverts and extroverts respond in certain situations. Although emotions and thoughts can be nurtured and re-learned to a certain degree, introverts are the way they are due to reasons beyond their control. In 21st century schools, it’s not only unrealistic, but also unfair that introverts are expected to be more like extroverts. Educational institutions should strive to be a little more understanding of our quirky personas, and perhaps even consider ways in which introverts can be more effective colleagues and learners.

And if that happens, instead of the social majority wondering what’s wrong with us, maybe we can begin to teach them what’s right with us…

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The primary source for the blog post above was Susan Cain’s, “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Instead of constantly sourcing and quoting her, I will defer much of the information in the background section to her book. If you are an introvert, are in a relationship with one or work closely with one, I highly recommend reading her book. She also has a wonderful TED talk that gives a much-less detailed overview of her research.

The Profile of a Modern Teacher

One of the greatest misconceptions in education today is that certain teachers have a higher natural aptitude in technology than others.

This inspirationalgraphic sets out to disprove that notion and remind the audience that external skills are only a function of the internal dispositions that allowed them to grow.

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The Profile of a Modern Teacher

CARP Visual Design Principles for Elementary Students

When looking around, I noticed that there were a few teaching resources for the CRAP/CARP design principles (contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity), but most of them were made for middle and high school students.

I therefore created a poster intended for elementary students, although it probably can be used by any age. I think it’s important that we develop visual communication skills early on, as there’s really no reason for students not to learn them. Humanity shouldn’t have to wait until middle school for students to be effective visual communicators.

This was my first infographic, and it is the product of what I learned most recently at Learning 2.0. I would like to thank Ray Gentleman and Heather Dowd for their help and guidance on that day.

CARP Infographic for Elementary

 

CARP Infographic for Elementary (Quality PDF)

SAMR: Redefining Redefinition

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop called Transforming Your Classroom, facilitated by Kim Cofino. If you haven’t had a chance yet to attend a workshop given by Kim, I highly recommend it. She is a world leader in helping teachers expand innovative practice in modern learning and everyone should have the opportunity to transform with her.

The workshop was based on exploring the SAMR model of education, which provides a framework for how one can implement technology in the classroom. SAMR, which was developed by Reuben Puentedura, looks at how technology can be used to redesign the learning task, and thereby improve student outcomes. It moves learning engagements from those that enhance student learning, to those that transform it.

Image the creation of Dr. Ruben Puentedura, Ph.D. https://www.hippasus.com/rrpweblog/
Image the creation of Dr. Ruben Puentedura, Ph.D. https://www.hippasus.com/rrpweblog/

This blog is not a critique of the SAMR model in any way, shape or form. I frequently refer to it when reflecting on my learning engagements and it guides and extends my innovative risk-taking in the classroom. I can only hope that more and more educators around the world begin to refer to the SAMR model with greater frequency so we can all modify and transform not only our own pedagogical practices, but also our students’ attitudes towards learning.

However, over the last few months, I’ve been grappling with the concept of transformation within the SAMR model and would like to offer some questions and conceptions to the reader. The following reflections will aim to extend our definition of redefinition and transform the relationship between the SAMR model and its implementor.

In order to meet these goals, we must first ask ourselves some important questions as to why we are using the SAMR model in the first place: What are we actually hoping to transform? Are we only looking at transforming the act of learning (task) and the tool we use to do so? Or, are we also striving to transform human thinking (concept) in how we relate to potential applications (technology)?

The part of the SAMR model I often get stuck on is the fourth tier, redefinition. Redefinition is often defined as, “designing and creating new tasks that were previously inconceivable.” I have no problem with the agreed upon definition for redefinition, but I do feel that if there is no tier above it, it can be quite conceptually limiting.

If something was previously inconceivable, that by default means that it has already been conceived. It has already come into existence. If it was once unimaginable, it no longer is, because it is currently being applied through its already manifested form.

Photo Credit: Kristofer Williams via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Kristofer Williams via Compfight cc

This would then yield the next question, “What comes before that which was previously inconceived?” In my opinion, this is the tier of conception, the tier of cognitive creation. At the redefinition tier, we are not really imagining and conceptualizing as much as we are applying what has already been thought of before.

In its essence, redefinition is already outdated because it has been conceptualized, it has been conceived and popularly applied. If the ultimate goal of the SAMR model is to operate within that domain, we are at a juxtaposition with the essence of SAMR, as we have limited our definition and scope of the redefined.

In redefinition, it is still true that we are creating, but it is mostly content and learning experiences that fall within higher-order thinking skills, not concepts. The current model looks at how we redefine learning through overcoming limitations of time and space to enhance learning. I would argue that we could take it even further by inviting not only educators, but our students themselves, to drift into a further tier of SAMR, that of conception. Everything that currently exists within redefinition could have only come into being (and our teaching) through a tier solely based on conception. After an idea happened, it was brought down into redefinition through technological advances, which allowed us to access its potential.

I believe that if we truly want to transform student learning, we need to de-conceptualize an overemphasis on tool and task and re-conceptuatlize the value of concept and thought, as the former certainly would not be here if it wasn’t for the latter. We should be encouraging students and their teachers to not only explore the available technologies already out there, but also explore the corners of their mind to bring the recently conceived (conception) down to the previously inconceived (redefinition). This would not only increase the SAMR model’s effectiveness, it would make it more sustainable.

This seed to re-conceptualize the SAMR model starts with how we view the model itself. It could be argued that the model, in many eyes, is seen as separate from that whom enacts the learning, when in actuality, it is a reflection of it. A cognitive divide seems to be at play if educators are seeing themselves as separate from the tools they apply.

Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

This is where I believe that a conceptual shift is necessitated. The current interpretation of the model takes a passive approach towards human extensionism. Its form almost necessitates that teaching is limited by the tool, rather than the tools being a function of human creativity, and conception. If we use this model to only look at how technology can be leveraged in learning, we are ignoring the fact that human ideation, creation and manipulation are the driving forces behind it. The limits of technology will be in direct correlation to the limits of our mind. Therefore, I think that it is essential that we also encourage and recognize a tier of conception, of true creation, so that we are empowered to explore the conceptual limits of human potential.

For it is only through this act of conceiving, that models like SAMR will have the true power to not only transform student learning, but redefine the concepts on which they are founded.

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The author realizes that this post will likely be contentious for some and will readily admit that he knows nothing in comparison to the SAMR developer, Reuben Puentedura. The blog post is not a critique of the SAMR model, but a proposed redefinition of its extended interpretation.

Elementary Blogging: To Force, Or Not To Force

There seem to be wide-ranging opinions on when and how students should blog as part of their learning. In one camp are the proponents of blogging by choice. These educators advocate that students should not be made to blog because it’s not authentic. Forced blogging is like forced reflection—empty and devoid of meaning. They believe that blogging should be centered around student voice and choice, and their participation in communicating their thinking through a personal or class channel should be entirely up to them. In this way, many state, it will be more authentic learning.

In the other camp are those that believe students should be required to blog—that it be an expected part of the modern learning experience. These educators believe that digital communication skills and virtual participation should be indispensable in modern classrooms. As such, all students should be expected to use the class and personal blogs to document their thinking, learning and collaboration with peers just as they would offline. They argue that we do not offer choice to students as to whether or not they want to engage with literacy and numeracy, so why should we give them an opt-out clause with online participation.

Photo Credit: VinothChandar via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: VinothChandar via Compfight cc

I think the first thing educators need to do when asking themselves how they would like blogs (or other forms of e-portfolios and digital documentation) to be used in their classroom is to evaluate where their students are at.

How long have the students been engaging with digital devices? Is this their first or second year in a 1:1 environment? Or, are they proficient digital consumers and creators at this point?

What is the purpose of an open-ended, choice-based, voluntary blog? Is it to empower student voice? To give them a forum? To create their own learning? Why are you doing what you are doing? Why are they?

What impact does open-choice blogging vs. required blogging have on the curriculum? Or, how does curriculum influence where students operate on the choice-requirement continuum?

Are students ready to take on an empty canvas and begin to paint their thoughts? Or, would they need more structure to give them the tools, skills and time to properly interact with blogs and other digital spaces in order to leverage their potential?

Would there be any parameters in place for open-ended student blogs? Would they have time expectations for composing a blog of their choice? Would there be expectations for conventions, skills or concepts? When and where would students complete this?

Will forcing digital participation and publishing have negative effects on students who would not choose to do it naturally? Or, could it open them up to a world they previously might never have known?

Photo Credit: geezaweezer via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: geezaweezer via Compfight cc

Many of the answers to these questions will also depend on what year level we teach. Obviously, what we would expect from a Year 11 student should be different from from what we would expect from a Year 9 student. More so, our expectations for a Year 4 student should be different from those of a Year 7 student. Some age-levels are going to be more productive and effective with open-ended blogging to an audience. Others are not, and their blogs might turn into rambling substitutions for journals and diaries with little educational value. We all can imagine students for whom both forms of blogging would work for, and those that would require one form or the other.

When considering whether to implement more structured blogging and online participatory agreements versus open-ended, voluntary blogs, I think it is important to consider the age of the learner and the desired purpose for these online spaces. It is also imperative that educators understand that navigation along this continuum is flexible, and extreme arguments of “no choice” and “all choice” are self-defeating.

Coming from an elementary perspective, there are a variety of viewpoints about where teachers should allow their students to interact with blogging along this choice-requirement continuum. It’s a debatable topic that often comes up in workshops, conferences, staff meetings and online discourse.

In PYP schools especially, opinions seem to be strong around this topic. And one of the most frequently used arguments against required blogging is that is is not authentic. Authentic learning seems to be the latest buzz phrase, and with most buzz phrases, the more that they are used, the more they take on a meaning of their own.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of authentic is: real or genuine; not copied or false; true and accurate; made to be or look just like an original.

It seems that the word authentic, in its oft-used educational context around blogging, has instead come to mean “of interest to and chosen by the student” rather than “real or genuine.” I understand that a blog that is required is not genuine in the sense that its impetus did not originate from a locus of self. However, I would argue against there not being real or genuine value in its practice.

To those that say expecting and requiring students to blog (or document and interact with their and others’ online learning) is inauthentic, I would present the following argument:

What about numeracy and literacy? We have the responsibility to ensure that our students become proficient in reading and writing. We require that they learn, understand and apply basic operations in mathematics. Both of these subjects are required at school. Does that make them inauthentic?

In our elementary math curriculum, do we ask students to go off and learn if they are interested? “If you want to learn, you can. If not, you don’t have to.”

In literacy, do we give an option to write a variety of text types? “Well, it’s up to you whether or not you want to.”

In PE, do we let students swim if they are passionate about it and watch if they aren’t? What about in Music? Drama? Art? “Participate if you are interested. Otherwise, you can do something else.”

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Photo Credit: Mark Nye, ClubofHumanBeings.com via Compfight cc

The argument that required blogging participation is not authentic because it is forced or mandated would also have to mean that everything that is required in education is not authentic because it is not self-chosen learning.

Reading? Inauthentic. Writing? Inauthentic. Spelling? Inauthentic. Addition? Inauthentic. Functions? Inauthentic. MYP? Inauthentic. CAS? Inauthentic. DP? Inauthentic. School in general? Inauthentic.

Granted, some classes I was required to take in high school and college proved to be of little value to me and did not offer real application later in life. However, the issue here isn’t so much about what content or medium for learning is required or not, as it is about participation.

When did participation in learning become so optional?

There is no opt-out clause for learning in our physical classroom environment. Why should there be one in our digital environment? When did we start seeing the physical classroom as a place for learning and the digital classroom only as a place for self-chosen expression?

The classroom is a learning space. Students discuss ideas with each other, work together to solve problems, help teach and coach each other and are expected to be active members of a learning community. At times, students may choose to learn in partnerships or small groups. Other times, they may prefer to work independently. But, the shared expectation is that at all times, students should be engaged in the learning process and taking an active role in their education.

Think of the online world as another learning space. It carries the same purpose and many of the same functions and potentials as a physical learning space. Sometimes, it can provide more learning opportunities than the physical space; sometimes less. However, its essence as a place for student learning remains the same as a physical classroom.

Which brings up the following questions:

Why would we change our expectations for an equally productive learning space? If the purpose for both spaces remains the same, why would one carry expected participation while the other carry optionality?

In an online and dynamic digital space, students are:

  • reflecting on their learning journey
  • sharing their thinking with one another
  • connecting ideas and concepts
  • using an authentic tool for modern communication
  • recording and celebrating their learning
  • creating and publishing multimedia products
  • expressing their opinions
  • exploring multiple perspectives
  • relating to one another
  • changing their initial thinking
  • experimenting with design, layout and visual literacies
  • collaborating with their peers
  • thinking visually
  • establishing a digital thoughtprint
  • practicing responsibility
  • living the Learner Profile and PYP attitudes
  • establishing resilience and practicing perseverance

Why would we want this to be optional? What is not real and genuine about this?

Although I believe in inquiry as a pedagogical approach, I don’t believe that extremism in student choice is the answer as we broaden our learning spaces from traditional classrooms to digital learning environments.

Photo Credit: Nicholas Erwin via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Nicholas Erwin via Compfight cc

There is a way to ensure that student voice and choice come out in learning no matter what space we use as the medium. It’s called content. The teacher’s responsibility is to set the concepts that students will learn through and within, teach them the skills and tools necessary to access those concepts and let them explore their passions within it. Authenticity, in whatever definition one wants to use, arises out of that. It can be done in physical space or digital space.

Authentic learning does not mean that students can opt-in or opt-out of participation. It also doesn’t mean that real and genuine learning can only arise from unconditional student choice and voluntary engagement. There will be times when teachers should allow their students to blog, document and interact by choice, and there should be times when it is required. The flexible navigation along this continuum, of course, will depend on the readiness level of the learners and the age range teachers are working with. It should also reflect the role, purpose and application of this digital space. Teachers should responsibly modify their expectations for interaction in this space to ensure that they are leveraging its potential.

In the end, one should not devalue required learning in digital space and call it inauthentic because it does not provide choice in participation. This blog, after all, was written for an assignment in a course, and the thoughts within it are as authentic as they come.

 

A Beginner’s Guide to Minecraft in an Elementary Classroom

“What’s it called again, Craftmine?” I wondered aloud with a confused look on my face to a classroom full of nine year olds, playing dumb the whole time. “It’s MINECRAFT!” they all yelled back in unison, smiling and laughing at how out-of-touch their teacher was with their world.

The truth was, however, that I was playing them from the day I first mentioned any knowledge of Minecraft’s existence. We had just begun discussing what the students already knew about persuasive texts and convincing others to change their perspective. I begun, “You know, some students actually believe that video games can be used for learning? Can you believe that? I’ve heard some students say that there’s this game out there where you can actually learn stuff from it and not just play around?” I looked around at the windows and ceilings as if trying to find my words, “What’s it called again…Craftmine?” I modeled a dialectical think aloud about the potential benefits and drawbacks for using videos games, specifically Minecraft, in schools. Then, I introduced the first learning engagement, which was to write a persuasive text on whether or not games could be used for learning. Throughout the next two weeks, I continued to play dumb and conveniently forget the name of that game learning tool they loved so much.

The seed had been planted and the path I was about to lead them down had begun. At this point, the kids were set. Their teacher, however, was not.

The Research Phase:

The impetus for experimenting with MinecraftEdu in my class started three months prior, as I set myself up for a task that I thought would be challenging, but manageable. There was no one at my school who had piloted it or used it before, so I was on my own in teaching myself. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and the initial challenges that lay ahead of trying to self-teach myself a computer game that I had absolutely zero knowledge about.

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

For months before uttering the word Minecraft in front of my students, I had been searching for anything related to Minecraft to give me some background knowledge with the game, as I had none. I am not a gamer, and the last video games I played with regularity were original Nintendo and Atari. I had seen photos of Minecraft on the Internet, but had never seen it played live before.

I started this research process by using my PLN to learn about how and why MinecraftEdu could be used in education. Reading these articles was the easy part, as one could easily see the potential for its inception. Next, I moved onto watching tutorial videos and YouTube playlists to get a better idea of how to start and implement MinecraftEdu. These collections of tutorials created by experts who have come before me were extremely helpful and I ended up watching them several times over in order to wrap my head around it all. By this point in the research process, I had created a vision in my head of what I wanted my students to experience. It was just a matter of finding a way to make that vision become a reality. In order to do this, I needed to get into our recently installed MinecraftEdu server, become comfortable with what teacher controls existed and experiment with what worlds I could create for my students.

It was at this point that I experienced the steepest ascent in my learning curve, as I had to not only learn how to complete the simplest of movements within the game, but also learn how to create the vision I held in my head. This was very time consuming, and I was quickly humbled with how easy it looks on the tutorials and how difficult it actually is to do on your own at the beginning. What I also noticed was that all of the tutorials I encountered demonstrated what you could do in MinecraftEdu, but did not always express how to do it. They all assumed that viewers came in with a basic level of background knowledge with Minecraft, which wasn’t the case for me. The struggles I had learning how to complete the simplest tasks were starting to break my will and I found myself gradually letting go of the vision I held for the students. None of the worlds that were generated randomly looked like the landscape I held in my head. Some randomly generated worlds were so mountainous and filled with trees that it was difficult to move and see around you, other than extreme close ups of pixilated tress and uneven terrain. The completely flat worlds were great for building, but were so empty and devoid of landscape that they felt like you weren’t in a real-world context. The frustrations were building up and I felt like I was out of control with creating the vision I held in my head.

Despite these initial limitations, there was something in me that didn’t want to give up, that wouldn’t allow me to give up. I knew I didn’t want a Superflat world, but I also felt I couldn’t rely on a randomly generated world functioning well enough to meet our learning outcomes. This was when I began to look at the Customize World Code option, which allows world builders to have more self-determination in the biome or landscape a world contains. After several hours of YouTube videos, various websites and trial and error to teach myself how to write the proper codes into the generator, I finally stumbled upon a website which worked accurately enough for me. In a very user-friendly and visual manner, not dissimilar to introductory coding apps, you can choose the ground layers and biomes of the world you would like to generate.

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

I had finally found a landscape and biome that was close enough to my vision that I was happy moving on. The landscape, for these learning outcomes, needed to be flat so students could easily move around. The flat landscape also facilitated the laying of MinecraftEdu’s border blocks, which kept students corralled within a certain area so they could not wander off into the never-ending horizon and miss the learning intention. I highly recommend introducing MinecraftEdu to students with a flat world, in the biome of your choice, with a border around the region you want them to collaborate within.

Building the World:

When using the Superflat Generator, my priority was not as much on the layers of earth that were below the surface, but rather on what landscape looked like and offered to my students above it. I did not want the students digging endlessly and creating cave systems, so I kept the terrain layers at only 5 blocks deep. I wanted a biome that contained water, had a mix of grassy plains and trees and was flat. I chose the river biome, but when I entered the world, everything was there except the river. I flew around in all directions looking for the river, but never was able to find it. Not deterred, I went into the features section of the Superflat Generator and clicked on lakes and decorations. This gave me the water I needed to provoke a variety of real-world applications such as irrigation, energy and basic needs along with the tress I needed to make the world seem more life-like and facilitate crop consideration.

After the landscape had been generated, I needed to build a border wall around the section of land I wanted the students to cohabitate within. This can be done with increased efficiency by using a function within the MinecraftEdu teacher menu that allows you to lay multiple blocks at once. After the border was built, I began to strategically place information blocks, which are blocks with teacher-written messages that students can read, around the enclosed area. Information blocks, in my opinion, are where so much potential power lies in MinecraftEdu. The creative designs and collaborative interactions students take on can be enhanced through guiding questions, provocations and clues written on these information blocks. This ensures that learning in MinecraftEdu is always purposeful, intentional, reflective, inquiry-based and rooted in the curricular outcomes.

While watching screencasts and tutorials of how MinecraftEdu had been used by others, I began to see the conceptual learning potential this digital tool offers. I realized that so many of the concepts our class had already learned this year could be applied to this one particular learning engagement. I work in a PYP school where conceptual understanding takes precedent over content knowledge. To access these key concepts (form, function, causation, change, connection, perspective, reflection and responsibility), students learn about them through the lens of related concepts that are more contextual.

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

To ensure that students’ experience in MinecraftEdu was rooted in learning outcome and conceptual understanding, I spread more than 20 information blocks throughout the world that connected back into the majority of related concepts we have learned throughout this year. These related concept blocks contained reflective questions for them to consider as they navigated, interacted and created their world. They provoked students to start being the concepts and acting through them rather than simply learning about them.

To learn more about the basics of starting MinecraftEdu, check out these tutorials I put together, which attempt to highlight step-by-step explicit instructions for what I’ve described above. It is intended for those teachers who, like me, have had absolutely no experience with or no knowledge of Minecraft or MinecraftEdu. It will walk you through the steps it took me several days to learn in less than an hour.

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image

 

Putting the Plan Into Action

Now that the world was ready, it was time to set the tone for introducing Minecraft to the students. It was time to surprise them with the fact that their teacher wasn’t as out of touch as they thought, and was ready to enter their world and learn through it.

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

After students finished their persuasive texts, they did a gallery walk and read each other’s perspectives on their iPads. We found out that about two-thirds of the students were initially in favor of using video games for learning and one-third were opposed to it. Students then partnered up with a student who had an opposing perspective to theirs and had a mini-debate in an attempt to persuade their counterpart that their perspective was more valid. I remained stoic, indifferent and inquisitive to both perspectives and continued to play dumb through the entire process, confusing the name of the game one last time. Finally, after months of preparation, it was time to put my plan into action.

I wanted to set the context for learning through MinecraftEdu in an intentionally dramatic way to build enthusiasm and tension after all of their impassioned persuasions. A clip of their reaction can be found in the video at the end of this blog.

After the excitement settled down, we broke into three self-appointed groups: experts in Minecraft who could teach others, those who had played Minecraft before and complete beginners to the game. We matched up differing levels of expertise in triads that would work together to help each other learn. Next, students got their feet wet by going through the tutorial world provided in MinecraftEdu, which acts like an exploratory obstacle course for students to learn the basics of how to maneuver and control themselves within the world. The experts coached the beginners and a communal feel began to take over the lab as students were very enthusiastic and willing to help their classmates learn the game they were so passionate about. After all students had a more clear vision of what Minecraft was, we needed to start putting the use of this tool into context and introduce the learning engagement.

Learning Outcomes:

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

How We Organize Ourselves: An inquiry into the interconnectedness of human-made systems and communities; the structure and function of organizations; societal-decision making; economic activities and their impact on humankind and the environment.

Central Idea: People adhere to governing systems that impact their behavior.

Lines of Inquiry: The actions and choices we make as members of society; Governing systems; Our awareness of the consequences of these choices and actions

Key Concepts: Form, Perspective, and Reflection

Related Concepts: Governing systems, Interpretation, Opinion, Behavior and Beliefs

GRASPS:

Goal: You are to build a functioning and organized society based on systems.

Role: You are a group of refugees who have come from various countries, cultures and backgrounds.

Audience: You are the community members that will live in this society.

Situation: You have just stopped migrating and have decided to start a community here in this space.

Product: A Minecraft model of a functioning, organized and realistic society.

The Reflective Process:

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

After the tutorial world introduction, students returned to the classroom buzzing with energy and enthusiasm about the prospects that lie ahead of them. During the entire Minecraft process, we used Philosophy 4 Children (P4C) as a guided inquiry model that served as a community forum for student voice, choice and collaboration. Our first P4C examined what moral dilemmas or community problems might occur in Minecraft. Students discussed what system of governing laws and behavioral expectations they should agree to as a society while I took notes from afar. After documenting the summary of their conversation, I shared the Google Sheet with students so they could review and reflect upon trends and valid points that were expressed during their first “town hall meeting.”

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

Next, we set up a Padlet wall for students to brainstorm and exchange ideas for what systems they could create in their society. One student wanted to take it further, so she requested we start a Today’s Meet backchannel with a set time each night for students to join in and discuss ideas for their society.

The next day, students were introduced to the Minecraft world I had built for them using the Superflat Preset Generator, along with border walls and information blocks. They were instructed to simply wander around the world (I enabled creative mode to allow them to fly and see the world from an aerial perspective), get to know their surroundings and locate as many information blocks as possible.

Students were not allowed to build at this point (you can control this in the teacher menu), but only were supposed to reflect upon the related concept questions and consider strategic placement of systems.

Later in the hour, I gave the students the ability to practice building, but let them know that in this first session nothing was going to be saved. Once again, students happily coached each other to ensure that everyone was up skilled as efficiently as possible. Several times during the session, I froze the students (teacher menu option) and gave them certain instructions, such as to fly around the world from an elevated perspective and consider community planning. Students later were encouraged to stop working on their own test building and visit each other’s in an attempt provoke greater creativity and innovation.

After seeing their soon to be inhabited world for the first time and experimenting with sharing a limited space in a practice build, we sat down and inquired through another modified P4C: What moral dilemmas and problems did you observe while going through the practice build? How could we avoid these problems in the future? Students had another discussion that examined relevant issues that were affecting their MinecraftEdu community and proposed many ideas for how to solve their societal problems. Students later reviewed the summarized notes I took and continued their reflections in small, organically formed groups.

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

Next, we brainstormed other systems, aside from individualized shelters, we might need to have in our community and students began discussing who might be responsible for the creation of those systems. I printed out aerial maps of the world so students could start thinking about how they could use the natural environment to their advantage and build efficiently in space (a form of city planning). During these discussions, students realized that there might not be enough space for all of the communal systems and their individual houses. That was when a student asked if they could build houses together and become roommates so they would have more space for the other societal systems. In the previous P4C, students also requested that the related concept information blocks not be scattered throughout the community area, but rather condensed into one space to facilitate creative building. The class then created a System Sign Up Sheet where students self-selected societal systems in small groups and agreed upon their roles. After modifying the previous day’s world based on the students’ requests and organizing system responsibilities with each other, students entered the world and the societal design began.

The Societal Design:

The entire societal design occurred over an eight-day span, with approximately 60 minutes spent in MinecraftEdu each day. Students required little to no guidance in building their systems, as student collaboration and peer coaching was prevalent throughout the process. Students focused on one system at a time and worked in small groups to complete the shared vision they held. They also helped each other build their homes, and in many cases decided to live together under the same roof. As students finished one system, they moved onto constructing the next system without pause. They had the option of building successive systems with the same group members, or finding new peers that shared a similar passion for the next project to be introduced into society. The design phase became a very organic and free flowing evolution of a community. 

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

Before students began building each day, they were expected to visit the related concept (information block) zone and read some of the reflective questions. Additionally, I would often freeze students in each design session and give them some guiding questions to consider. This was to ensure that students were staying on task within the learning outcomes and using their time efficiently.

During the creation and design phase, students who were more versed with Minecraft began to take advantage of some of its known potentials in creative mode. They started to push the boundaries of what was acceptable behavior within educational aims inside MinecraftEdu, and this started to cause problems for others. Some students began to get off task and use their MinecraftEdu time for more play-based wandering than learning. Initially, I would redirect these students through guiding questions. Later, the class started to self-police each other and would let me know if their peers were making choices that were not educational in nature. Although I did not want to get involved in their society, I felt I needed to give consequences to those students who were knowingly making poor choices and not using their time effectively. If not, the learning outcomes would have quickly deteriorated and the learning tool would not have been as effective. Students who were disrespectful to others or who were playing with inventory items not conducive to purposeful learning were taken off their computers and had to watch from the sidelines for a designated period of time.

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

Eventually, through P4C conversations, more community dialogue began to emerge about laws and forming a government. This helped shift the perception of the teacher having the power and authority in their society and empowered students to evolve into the owners of their world.

When students struggled with proposing a government system that would be effective, I guided them towards democracy and voting. The society was divided into three districts, based on where students lived and worked. Students nominated themselves to run for office as council members and each district elected one leader to government. These council members then proposed a set of bills that their constituents advocated for. The bills were voted on through Google Forms and those that passed were enacted into law.

Wayfaringpath Photography
Wayfaringpath Photography

From that point on, the non-educational behaviors that were becoming increasingly commonplace began to stop. Many of the subjective and questionable applications of MinecraftEdu were clarified and students knew what was okay to use and what wasn’t. If there were any laws that needed to be changed or additional bills proposed, students could contact their district representative and a new round of voting would take place.

In the end, students designed a detailed and purposeful society that demonstrated conceptual understanding of our learning outcomes. Using MinecraftEdu as a learning tool was a resounding success. The societal build became more than a learning engagement for How We Organize Ourselves. It became a synthesizing tool that was a culmination of all conceptual learning students engaged in throughout the academic year, with more than 20 related concepts evidenced. The collaborative and student-centered nature of MinecraftEdu empowers learning, engages students to unimaginable heights and offers limitless potential as a 21st century instructional tool.

If you would like to see more, please take a look at the following videos. The first gives a pedagogical overview of the entire learning process described above. The second takes you on a tour of 4RW’s Minecraft society through students’ eyes.

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image

 

Resources for Guidance and Inspiration:
Learning Through MinecraftEdu (a video that outlines the entire learning journey mentioned above)
4RW Minecraft Society (a tour of our society through the eyes of the students who built it)
MinecraftEdu for Beginners Part 1 (a screencast tutorial made for those with no experience in Minecraft)
MinecraftEdu for Beginners Part 2 (a screencast tutorial made for those with no experience in Minecraft)
MinecraftEdu Starter Kit (a document full of articles and links to help guide your thinking)

The Problem with Abstract Skill Outcomes: A Course 2 Final Proposal

Are all skills created the same? Are all concepts equal? These were just a few of the questions I left asking myself after a grassroots COETAIL group met at our school last week. We had just discussed whether or not a digital learning scope and sequence was necessary, and to what degree it should only be focused on conceptual understandings and skill outcomes.

Photo Credit: gill_penney via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: gill_penney via Compfight cc

As a PYP teacher, I love the conceptual approach for the students, but have some hesitations about overly conceptualizing for teachers. At times, the vague and abstract nature of conceptual understandings and loosely worded skill outcomes can leave teacher interpretations at vastly different levels. Because of this, students can potentially leave year levels and finish their entire elementary experience with completely different skill sets and levels of conceptual understanding.

Let’s take a look at the following fictional scenario to exemplify this.

Three students, all in the final days of 5th grade, have come through the same elementary school in a 1:1 environment. Let’s assume that all three students had access to the same resources, had similar family backgrounds and are of similar capabilities. The only difference being that in each year throughout elementary, these students found themselves in different classrooms. They had the same access to education, but had different learning experiences over the last four years in a 1:1 environment.

From 3rd grade to 5th grade, their teachers used the following approaches to learning to guide instruction in communication skills.

Communication Skills:

Exchanging thoughts, messages and information effectively through interaction.

  • Give and receive meaningful feedback
  • Uses a variety of media to communicate with a range of audiences
  • Collaborate with peers and experts using a variety of digital environments and media
  • Shares ideas with multiple audiences using a variety of digital environments and media

By their last few days of elementary, here is what the students are capable of:

Photo Credit: elvis_payne via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: elvis_payne via Compfight cc

Student A can give feedback in a variety of ways. He can speak to a friend orally and he can write notes on post-its and stick them onto his classmate’s poster. He can add notations to his peers’ written pieces and has completed student rubrics by highlighting the skills on sheets he has been given. Student A also knows how to take photos and videos on his iPad. He can then show this media to his peers by holding the iPad and pressing play. Student A collaborates with peers by helping his classmates solve math facts on knowledge-based apps. They play fun games together to practice multiplication and division. He also uses his timer to keep track of how long his partner is taking to complete her Word Study task. Student A has learned how to communicate via email by writing questions and declarative statements in the body of the email. He can write mass emails to teachers with a one sentence body saying he wants to conduct a survey and he will stop by their classroom later this week. Student A knows how to make Explain Everything videos and iMovie trailers, but his videos are quite terse and visually uninspiring. He knows how to email those projects to his friends, but usually just saves his videos on his iPad and shows them to his peers that way. Student A is also proficient in using Notes to write down new things he has learned. This is what he typically uses to word process and document his learning.

Photo Credit: pgpdesign (paul) via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: pgpdesign (paul) via Compfight cc

Student B primarily gives feedback on her class blog. Her teachers have normally posted something of provocation on their shared blog space and then students comment on each other’s ideas. She also gives feedback to her friends when they peer conference side-by-side with their iPads in hand. They tend to write their final draft in Google Drive and they talk about how they can improve each other’s work. Student B also uses Explain Everything to create projects that show her understanding. She knows how to make basic iMovie projects from scratch and can insert photos and videos. She frequently uses her class YouTube account to post new projects to it. She can then share her learning on the class blog, where she receives feedback from her peers. Student B has become very adept at making PowerPoint presentations when she is orally presenting to her class. She and her peers are good at finding photos on Google and cutting them out to make collage posters. They share the photos by emailing them to each other and then decide which ones they want to use by replying all. She also knows how to make math videos that teach others how to strategize. She uses YouTube as a centralized place to store all of her media production. Student B has enjoyed using Voice Thread the previous two years to collaborate with her friends and share their projects at Student-Led Conferences. She knows how to store certain media in the cloud, but hasn’t learned how to share it with her peers yet. Student B uses mind-mapping apps to brainstorm for writing tasks and inquiry projects. She shares them by printing them out and putting them on her classroom wall.

2265479534_80a63f6627For Student C, feedback and online interaction are synonymous. Student C has her own blog where she shares her thinking with the world. There are two sections to her blog: one for school-based reflections directed by the teacher and one that is her own free space to share her thinking with the world. She often receives feedback not only from her classmates, but also from family and friends on the other side of the world. When she goes home, she often will read what her classmates have written on their personal blogs and respond to them. She uses her class YouTube channel to upload videos she has made at school, and then posts them in various locations on her blog. She has mastered basic iMovie projects, can import different audio tracks into the background, narrate over her projects to communicate her intention more clearly, edit and trim clips and evaluate themes she feels best allow effective transitions and subtitles. Her most recent project was creating a stop-motion film for a literacy engagement. She is beginning to move onto more technical movie production apps using actual video recording equipment.

Student C prefers to use Explain Everything, Book Creator, Haiku Deck and other creation apps to show her understanding in visually stunning ways. She shares them with the world on her personal website, which she has built from scratch in class. The website is used like an online portfolio to showcase her proudest achievements. Before posting them on her website, she usually shares the files with her peers on Google Drive, where they can open and watch them in specific apps, before they orally record their feedback for her. She also uses Google Drive to share, comment and collaborate on documents, sheets and forms with her classmates. They tend to collect data using Google Forms and invite their classmates to respond with an online survey. They use the comment option on Google Drive to help each other become more accountable for peer feedback, instead of forgetting their oral conversations. Using the cloud and file sharing has become a natural part of her writing process and collaborative learning.

Student C had become greatly interested in a remix project she was doing with a partner in class. They were asked to find Creative Commons video clips that they could mash together to communicate their understanding of environmental damage caused by pesticides. She even used a clip from a project she made last month while writing code for her PYP Exhibition. Student C feels completely comfortable reaching out to other students around the world, as she has participated in several global collaborative projects over the years. She uses Skype, Instagram, YouTube and Vimeo to continue collaboration with friends who have left the school and now reside in other countries. Currently, she is using her personal accounts on Blendspace, Padlet and Today’s Meet to centralize brainstorms about the mod her group is building in Minecraft. Their goal is to build a world that shows how natural resources affect settlement patterns and local economies. Nearly everything she does in school is accessible from home because she uses the cloud and websites as a storage platform for her learning.

Photo Credit: spacepleb via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: spacepleb via Compfight cc

Student A, Student B and Student C all have met the criteria for communication skills in the latter years of elementary. According to these learning outcomes, all teachers have been successful in meeting the required skills that students are expected to learn.

Is this okay? Is this acceptable? If you were a student, would this be fair to you? As a parent, would you be satisfied? I suppose the answers to those questions would depend on what perspective you are responding from.

The fictional snapshot example mentioned above only takes into consideration a few communication skills in the approaches to learning. It does not begin to consider the research skills, self-management skills, thinking skills or social skills that would also be affected by differing degrees of digital literacy education. One could write a 25-page thesis comparing the experiences and skill sets different students could potentially receive from teachers who, in all good faith, are instructing the concepts and skills based on these words alone. Across year levels and throughout the elementary school, there remains the potential to inadvertently create enormous gaps in what students can and can not do through digital learning.

It is for this reason that I am in the process of promoting and prosing a digital learning scope and sequence at my school. The scope and sequence would be created just as much for the students as it would be for the teachers. Students will only be instructed to the skill proficiency and comfort level of those who teach it. The goal of a scope and sequence is not for all students to receive the exact same education. Rather, the goal would be to close the potential gap in the degree of digital literacy instruction students could receive from overly generalized skill outcomes and conceptual abstractness.

Photo Credit: SimonQ錫濛譙 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: SimonQ錫濛譙 via Compfight cc

If there is a base-level skill set that students receive at each year level, teachers will be able to build off the capacities students have learned from the previous year in a much more efficient way. After finishing elementary, all students would have an intentional digital learning education, rather than a random one based on what teachers they had. The scope and sequence would clearly articulate what concepts and skills teachers at each grade were responsible for instructing, thereby reducing the gap in student proficiency. There will always be differences in degrees of digital learning based on teachers’ instructional styles, but a scope and sequence could alleviate large discrepancies and bring all students into a more level digital playing field by the time we send them to secondary.

To what degree my proposal of an articulated scope and sequence for digital learning will be considered or adopted is out of my hands. Regardless if it is successful or rejected, what I hope to accomplish is to get the ball rolling and plant seeds of consideration for a more purposeful approach to digital literacy at our school. Part of the reason we have Students A, B and C going through many schools nowadays is that teachers don’t know what is expected of them. They don’t know where their students are coming from and they don’t know where they are going. They don’t know what they are responsible for teaching. A clearly articulated scope and sequence document may benefit the coaching and up-skilling of teachers just as much as it would the students. If teachers know what is expected of them, they will learn it and they will teach it. If they don’t know what is expected of them, how can they teach it?

3238236041_790496f3c7In high-paced learning environments, teachers struggle to keep up with the evolving digital tools for instructing the conceptual understandings and skill outcomes to the highest level possible. This is why I am proposing that a dynamic scope and sequence document be written and stored in the cloud so that we can frequently update the tools and potential implementation methods over time. This will help teachers put the concepts and skills in context so they can readily understand how they might look. The concrete tools and suggestions might help teachers speak the same language, rather than inferring meaning from multifarious speculations.

Teachers don’t need over-abstraction and subjective generalizations. They also don’t need over-specification and mandates. They need a balance of abstract concepts, practical skills and specific tool options. A clearly articulated scope and sequence for digital learning will ensure that we are all operating on the same page in instructing an exponentially important subject discipline life skill. If teachers are speaking different languages and graduating students with significant gaps in digital learning, or setting the bar too low because there is no scope in place, we are doing 21st century learners a disservice by not adequately preparing them for the world they will inherit.

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My action during Course 2 was to request that a digital literacy committee be formed in elementary to get teachers working together on this aspect of education. Since then, a working group has been formed to review the role of digital learning and to design a media-rich library in our school. We are having amazing conversations about what we value in education, our vision for learning in the school and most importantly, how to ensure that teachers are all under the same expectations for their roles in digital learning. If teachers don’t know what digital learning entails, students won’t either.