Personal Reflections

To properly look at and talk about the future, it is important to look back at the past. If you are an educator using social media for your own professional learning, or if you are leading professional learning around any current issues, it is important to know a bit of history and to recognise that you are moving along a path that has been forged by others before you. I haven't always been so quick to recognise that myself in the past - and I see some of my own naivety and self importance from a decade ago manifesting itself in others in the present day. I will try to provide an example.

I first joined my local edtech professional association back in 2005, being encouraged by a mentor from the Technology School Of The Future named Yvonne Murtagh. It was through one of her workshops that I became really interested in the potential of Web 2.0 (as it was called back then) and I embraced the concept of blogging for professional learning. The association was CEGSA (known now as EdTechSA) and through various channels I met a high school teacher named Bill Kerr. Bill was working in the area of computer science and digital game making (amongst other things) with his students, and was an advocate of programming well before the recent push that sees coding as an important skill that students need. I am sure that he would view the latest push from experts with a wry smile and just a little frustration that so few educators (myself included) could see the value of this work eight years ago. Bill ran some great presentations at the annual conference where he would buck the trend of what was being offered, and showcase some interesting things. One year, he managed to get his hands on a OLPC laptop - and another time, he gave a talk about Alan Kay, a contemporary of Seymour Papert that seems even more relevant in today's STEM and Makerspace frenzied edusphere.

Gary Stager has also worked in this space for many years, working with the acclaimed David Loader in Melbourne back in the early nineties on a pioneering one to one laptop program. He has been and is still a leading advocate of the maker movement for learning. I have had the privilege of seeing Gary on several occasions and he always challenges my thinking because he can take what is accepted as good practice in the wider education community and turn it on its head. He also must be frustrated and relieved in equal parts that his message and work over such a long time is now gaining mainstream acceptance. But education and schools are slow moving beasts - so slow that messages and ideas that seem new are often reincarnations from the past. But the latest generations promoting edtech quite often think they are the pioneers and the innovators when in fact, with a little bit of digital literacy, they can find that they are the benefactors of less heralded but more important work and thinkers from the not so distant past.

Like I wrote earlier, I too have suffered from the delusion that I was travelling a new path that the majority of educators had to eventually get on board with. But being an early twitter user or maintaining a blog for over a decade or doing interesting things in the classroom doesn't qualify me for anything but being a learner who can still learn from others and share a few things along the way with others. Bill critiqued the read/write web I was in love with back in 2007, and at the time, I felt offended and a bit misunderstood. So I am sure that some more recent voices on Twitter and other online spaces would likely be unresponsive to my plea to "know your history" a bit more before you put yourself up on a pedestal as a progressive educator or a changemaker. But if you are pushing makerspaces and don't know who Gary Stager is, you need to look back. If you think you are being cutting edge with games and have never heard of Marc Prensky, do a bit of homework. And if you think you're cool because you're a self professed connectivist or have a PLN, but have never read Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Nancy White or Leigh Blackall, then get in touch with the recent past. I'm not bothering to link those names because Google will lead you down as many relevant rabbitholes as you can handle.

Don't be like George Bush when he said, "The past is over."

The first week of school has just finished, and at my site that has meant some new staff, a number of new students and a heady mix of excitement and trepidation. I spent some time this morning with my new principal trying to describe the scope of and the idiosyncrasies of my role at WGS. I am really lucky to work in a role that suits me and challenges me at the same time. I am always fretting about whether I am prioritising and making correct decisions, and am probably my own harshest critic. Being at a disadvantaged school does mean that I have access to funding to really be able to provide quality technology options for our students, and I really try to think through the best way to use that tax payer funded money.

I am very conscious of the responsibility of being accountable as an employee of the public education system, and I wouldn't want to work in any form of school. I turned down an invitation to showcase some of our technology at one of Adelaide's more prominent private schools because I just couldn't bring myself to even indirectly contribute more to the already well advantaged. It felt traitorous to the system to which I am loyal. I am aware that religious institutions helped to popularise education well before public education became an essential public good. But in my eyes, so much of private education is about maintaining class divisions, gatekeeping against the wrong sort of people, or lavishing even more opportunity on the most privileged within Australian society.

I have heard the cries before from private school teachers and supporters before about catering for the disadvantaged and being inclusive - and some are, but only to a point. I had the privilege of hearing Lynne Symons speak last year at our EdTechSA AGM. Lynne was, at the time, the principal of Mark Oliphant College, the biggest of the government super schools founded just over five years catering for over 1500 students from Reception to Year 12 in one of the most disadvantaged urban areas in the state. As she said in her speech, and I paraphrase here, you might have some poverty in your school or have some disadvantage in your school, but our government disadvantage and complexity eats any private school's for breakfast. And I know it's not a competition about who is serving the neediest or who has the most families under stress, but only the public system takes all comers in and is more concerned about the progress and journey that each student takes, rather than if their students can get their Year 12 results on the front page of the state newspaper. No school gets it right for all of their students all of the time but I am proud to work for a system where that is the goal.

 

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I actually titled my first post about Spheros and my July EdTechSA conference workshop as "Meet The Robot That Got Me Interested In Robotics." It's true. I have neglected the area of robotics and programming for a long time. It was a personal blindspot and one that I felt guilty about but willing to leave because I felt that it would be outside of my comfort zone. I even felt like a fraud being a so-called leader in ICT or eLearning who had yet to properly engage in the STEM arena.

I'm getting better and I know that it is important. I even went along with our Lego Robotics teaching guru, Mel, to our state Lego RoboCup event. I still don't know a lot about being hands on with Mindstorms gear but learnt a lot by watching the two teams compete in the Soccer division and the Rescue section.

The good thing about my school is that we do have teacher leaders who will take ownership of initiatives and run with them with little more than moral and budgetary support from me. Our Beebots are used widely in our Early Years classes with a couple of teachers taking the lead - and we have had our kids use them for learning Vietnamese!

But Spheros in our school has been my own journey. I have added to the original 15 Spheros that I bought in March, bringing two Sphero SPRKs and four Ollies in as additions. I just want to reflect on what else I have learned since the last post when I was still just working with my Digital Leaders.

This term, I started to work with some classes within my own building. I am line manager for four classroom teachers and my office is based in that building. I am also the self appointed Sphero maintenance person - I keep them secure, charge them prior to use and kept tabs on the apps needed on the building's squad of 10 iPads. Just prior to starting with the first class, I saw a tweet about an app called Tickle that uses a Scratch style interface to program a number of connected robots including both Sphero and Ollie. It is easier to use than MacroLab and as I was about to introduce programming robots to Year 3 and 4 students, it was the perfect tool to use to set some simple programming challenges.

I listened to a great podcast on Teaching With Sphero Robots which I found via Wes Fryer, where I picked up a great tip about numbering the Spheros and the iPads and pre-connecting them so that when woken up, there isn't the Bluetooth configuring or misconnections that can happen when multiple Spheros try to connect to multiple devices simultaneously. This was fine except for when I had a flat Sphero that meant grabbing a new one, waking it up and connecting it out of this carefully planned sequence. I lined up Digital Leaders to help out in the classrooms and we made a start with three different classrooms.

The students used a checklist sheet that was based loosely on the badge system I had been using with Digital Leaders and a skills sheet I used with staff during a Student Free Day professional learning session. Basically it works them through at their own pace to gradually move from using the Sphero as a Connected Toy over to using it to Program. I set a simple programming Challenge as the first step for using Tickle.simple tickle challengeThis was very engaging and I was surprised at how quickly kids adapted to the app and completed the challenge. For those who were struggling, some help from a Digital Leader gave them the confidence to persist and work through. The next step was to design a maze and program your way around that maze using Tickle. I created an example maze using a large Nerf Gun box but one of the teachers I worked with, Salma, suggested that masking tape on the carpet would work just as well. The common area between the classrooms is now covered in a variety of challenges! Again, watching how some kids went into a flow state of trial and error as they tried and adjusted and tried again until their Sphero was following their predetermined path and changing through a planned sequence of colours.

This was really pleasing to see. The checklist sheet become the self directed learning sequence, and kids would call their teacher over to see them achieve the next skill and have it signed off, so the formative assessment angle was working really well.

Using this sort of technology will always have its issues and you just have to be flexible and adaptive. If you are patient and just work through ways of solving a problem, the kids see that approach being modelled and immediately reduce their own agitation when things "go wrong" or "don't work". Sometimes a Sphero wouldn't charge properly and it would mean getting a spare and helping them get connected so they could get back on task. Sometimes Tickle would lose connection with the Sphero and so a process of shutting down open apps and then re-opening them would solve the problem. The great thing was that all three teachers picked up their comfort levels using these robots and didn't require me to lead their following lessons  but were more than happy for me to be the person to ensure they were charged and organised!!

 

I can remember a conversation with a fellow Year 12 student back in 1983. He said, "On the last day of school here, I'm going to walk off the grounds, turn around and take one last look at this place, and then turn around and never look back."

As far as I know, he has been true to his word ever since. I can relate to his perspective because high school does not hold any special memories for me. So it was with a wry smile that I noted that this year's EdTechSA conference was to be held at my old school, Immanuel College in the brand new senior school named after my year 12 English teacher (probably one of the better teachers I had in my secondary years). I was a boarder for 5 years and the new centre sits right on top of where the old boys' boarding house used to be. So it certainly brought back some conflicting memories to be heading back over the past two days to attend and present at this year's EdTechSA conference.

Where once were rooms lined with beds and wooden cupboards, has been replaced with a contemporary learning environment that reminded in some ways of the Australian Science and Mathematics School up at Bedford Park. For a smallish conference, it was the perfect venue. The theatre was comfortably full for the keynote speakers, the rooms were spacious for the various workshops and the program was full of great learning opportunities.

Things started out well with an engaging keynote on Global Learning from Julie Lindsay. Her words got me thinking that my school Woodville Gardens is very global with its large EALD population - kids who come from refugee backgrounds alongside of second and third generation kids whose families still head over to Vietnam or India for a few months every year to catch up with family. She reminded me of my old online collaborative project with Doug Noon's Alaskan kids, and got me thinking about the possibilities that could be utilised at my current site.

I got to play with an Arduino board in one session and gain a starting view into the SOLO taxonomy. I heard about some new web based research tools and then played around with QR codes and AudioBoo in the afternoon. I got a better insight into the potential of Lego EV3 robotics, introduced a bunch of educators to the engagement of Spheros and rounded off with a spot of 3D printing and an insight to Jarrod Lambshed's journey with his Connected Classroom.

In presentation mode during my session: https://www.flickr.com/photos/134717758@N06/19739886481/ by jessottewell27

Participants hands-on Sphero action. https://www.flickr.com/photos/134717758@N06/19546803150/ by jessottewell27

"Now, this is a Sphero." https://www.flickr.com/photos/134717758@N06/19548632679/ by jessottewell27

So, great conference, very cool venue, learned heaps, but I never got the urge to stroll around memory lane or check into the Old Scholars office. Like Tom March alluded to in the final keynote, some things are best left in the past.

I've been at Woodville Gardens School now for nearly four years in my role as Assistant Principal, and I have learnt a lot. The school, the community, my colleagues have all given me a greater appreciation of things on so many levels. Tonight I thought I would try and articulate a few of these.

A DigiTech TeachMeet was held tonight at my school. A bunch of educators keen on educational technology from mainly the western suburbs here in Adelaide gathered to share, enjoying the comfortable surrounds of our resource centre. Two of my colleagues shared about their practice - for the first time in front of others who weren't their immediate colleagues - and they were brilliant. Julie shared about her use of video making with Year 1 students in their History Inquiry and Kellie shared about her long term practice of Discovery Time which has elements of inquiry, technology and making all wrapped together with her Reception students. Seeing them both present so well gave me a greater appreciation of the high level of teachers we have at our school. Granted, these two are exemplary but the fact that what they talked about is as good as anything happening in any school in Australia made me proud to be their colleague.

This school has given me a greater appreciation for how tough some kids, even here in Australia, can have it and that our society still doesn't really know what to do about it. The media likes to come down hard on schools like ours for our NAPLAN results which don't match schools where everyone comes to class well fed, in clean clothes, with a full night's sleep, without memories of trauma or abuse and from a household with all of the amenities that modern life can provide. Some of our kids do pretty well considering that some have to go home to be substitute mothers or to be unpaid cleaners. Some of our kids have been speaking English for less than a couple of years and for some, school is the only place with comforting rules and safety and where the adults in charge have to speak nicely and listen to their point of view. It has made me very appreciative of how I can provide so much for my own kids and how really they want for very little.

I have a greater appreciation for other cultures and how difficult it must be to be in a place where all of the norms of your world that you grew up in are all out the window. At the same time, I can see how appreciative many of these parents of varying backgrounds are of the opportunity that education can open up for their children. I still enjoy the sight of seeing kids of varying backgrounds walk out of the school grounds deep in conversation with others talking about going to Vietnamese lessons, or what happens at the local mosque or their last trip up to the bush. End of term class parties are certainly a great mix of cuisines as home made spring rolls sit alongside samosas and Tim Tams.

I'm super appreciative of being part of a large leadership team. We all bring our individual strengths and talents to the table but we are pointed in the same direction. I've learnt stacks about multicultural families from my fellow AP, Anna. I've got a much deeper understanding of special needs students and the support required to make a difference from our coordinator, Dee. I've improved my restorative justice skills and "turning things around" conversations from watching our counselling team, Liz and Marek in action. The Heads of School, Ashley and Marg, who both have time to listen to me lay out my concerns and issues and offer their advice in moving forward. Add to that a hugely influential Principal, Frank (two weeks away from retiring) who has shown me the value of the big picture, and the difference that innovation can make in a place where conventional thinking and traditional ideas will be limited in their impact. I have a great appreciation of how much I learn from these people, my colleagues. I'm lucky to be a part of it all.

And when I get to play the role of host like tonight, it is nice to appreciate working in a facility that is less than five years old, where the technology is at a high level and where the kids who come from either complex or disadvantaged backgrounds get a place that they can be proud of, that is theirs.

This year was the third time that I have been to EduTech. In 2013, I went with Frank, my principal and we noticed that a number of South Australian schools were sending groups of teachers rather than just a couple of members of their leadership team. I must have been in a major blogging slump then because I didn't reflect on any of that conference although Dan Pink was there, so was Gary Stager, Stephen Heppell and Alan November, along with Skype-ins from Sir Ken and Salman Khan. So in 2014, we expanded the group going to include my fellow AP, Anna along with three teachers who represented the Early Year, middle primary and upper primary teams. That conference featured a huge line up of big edu-names, none beamed in, including Sugata Mitra, Sir Ken, Ewan McIntosh and Ian Jukes. I blogged about that experience here.

I think I've become the defacto tour guide for our school because late last year, Ashley, our Early Years Head of School pulled me aside and said that senior leadership had approved funding to take 8 people to the conference in 2015. I know that last year's attendees have all used many of the ideas to improve their practice, to become more connected to others beyond our site and to become drivers of innovation in terms of learning opportunities for our students. So, we ran our process and selected our participants and we headed out last Monday evening for Brisbane. The group was a good mix of year level expertise, experienced and early career teachers, excitement and nerves.

I decided that I wouldn't spend time during talks making notes because I didn't want to be carrying an iPad or laptop around all day - I thought my phone would do the job. Using Twitter, I either posted a quick observation or favourited someone else's tweet to build up a timeline of gathered cyber-notes. I had done my research about who I wanted to see - and was pleased to see that two speakers, Shelly Terrell and Simon Breakspear, who I was keen to see were available after initially being booked out. I even volunteered to speak at one of the four TeachMeet sessions about my Student Leadership program. I hoped to catch up with educators that I normally only get to converse with online but apart from that, I was hoping to be quite open and flexible about my EduTech experience.

Now, I know that EduTech is a commercial event with loads of sponsors, a huge vendor area but I've stated my opinion about that a couple of blog posts back. There are useful things that I might want to consider purchasing for my school and I'm not forced to go to any of the booths. For instance, I got to see first hand the 3D printer that I'd been recommended, and hopefully will be able to cash in on a special they were offering at the moment. The Maker Space area was filled with great making and coding resources (I like Cubelets and Little Bits) but guess what, they cost money.

But the value was in the discussions with my colleagues - What did you think of that? How do you think that would go at our school? What do you need to get things happening? What's challenging you right now? What tells you that you're on the right track? What does this all mean for our students? We sat and listened to Eric Mazur together, then went our separate ways, then met back up and talked and then scattered and then crossed paths again. I got to catch up with online colleagues (Sue Waters, Tom Barrett, Ewan McIntosh), and compare their work with my own, to catch up on the gossip and introduce some of these personal influences to my day-to-day colleagues. I met some more recent online links for the first time as well (Corinne Campbell, Matt Easterman) and chatted with other South Aussie colleagues (Paul Luke, Dave Henty-Smith, Nick Jackson). We got the whole group happening on Twitter - regular users helped the novices to build out their connections in a flurry of first time tweets, retweets and favourites.

If I had to pick a couple of highlights, I would say that the workshop with Shelly Terrell was the number one pick. She talked about and demonstrated online spaces both for teachers and students. She was so easy to listen to and a ninety session passed in no time at all. I also enjoyed Eric Sheninger, whose insights about leadership in a school striving for continual improvement and innovation were invaluable as one who aspires to meaningful leadership. I even bought his book, "Digital Leadership" but stopped short of getting it signed like some did (never understood the appeal of autographs, really). I wasn't as dedicated as I could have been about getting to sessions and missed a few that would have been good. Being a previous delegate, I could tell where the sponsor's sessions were on the agenda and knew when to vote with my feet. I'm not sure what the solution is in that regard - sponsors who have paid big dollars will want their product featured in one way or another but educators are too savvy to get sucked in for anything too blatant.

So, 2015 was still a solid investment for my team. The names weren't as big as 2014 but the conversations we had were just as important. I can't think of any other event that could provide what we got from our two days and expose them to ideas and concepts that will spark action back at the workplace. And I'm looking forward to see how that all plays out.

 

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So, last night I decided to get with the times and check in on one of these #hashtagED Twitter chats that few of my online colleagues have been saying are the ultimate in online PD. The one that was being promoted a bit at EduTech was #AussieED and I took note of the 8.30 pm AEST start time, and dutifully watched for 8 pm my time with my trusty iPhone at the ready. I even saw the topic was around this idea of being a teacherpreneur which I thought could be interesting as it threw my mind back to a recent Stephen Downes post in which he wrote:

Why do I dislike the idea of teaching entrepreneurship so much? Because it changes the child's perspective from the idea of serving social needs through work and learning to one of serving the needs of people with money. And when you have this perspective, you can never get at the question of why these people have all the money in the first place, and you can never perform work which changes that.

This observation really resonates with me. Being an entrepreneur means the world of business, money making, exploiting of marketplace gaps and investing in hope of a future financial payoff. There is no problem with entrepreneurs in the education space - consultants, software developers, PD providers and so forth - even if some believe that they are more crucial than what they really are. But to apply that label to classroom teachers or school based leaders, well, that is a big stretch in my mind. So to me, a "teacherpreneur" would be someone from a teaching background constructing or plugging a service or product. But clearly, I am in the minority.

I was not really prepared for the scope of the #AussieED experience. I had loaded up TweetDeck and straightaway the tweets were running off the page so fast that I couldn't even read one before it was being bumped down the page. The moderators had posed some questions - the first being "What is your understanding of a teacher entrepreneur?" And it seemed like anything went ...

Q1- teachers who are forward thinking and break new ground by searching for new innovative ways to teach

A1. A educator who spends their time in the creative and innovative design of pedagogy.

A1 A teacher who creates, invents or re-invents an idea, system or product to more adequately meet the needs of learners

A1: Someone who invests in the needs of students and makes it their business to enhance youngsters' life chances.

A1 - one who tests, tries and believes in their ideas reaching out to as many as they can..inclusive to the core

It was starting to sound like anyone or anything could be classified as a teacherpreneur - but these responses seem at odds with the first hit on Google:

entrepreneurˌ

noun: entrepreneur; plural noun: entrepreneurs
  1. a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.

Then a couple of tweets came through that was on my wavelength.

The term edupreneur is just another way to commercialise education. Look at the feed on this tag already

A1. Someone looking to exploit a niche. Regards the term intellectual property loosely. Doesn't need to be a teacher.

And it was true about the feed on the tag. As my head spun from all of the one way traffic on the #AussieED tag, I was amazed that there was very little pushback or challenging of the concept. It seemed universally accepted that being an entrepreneur is totally a positive thing, and not only that, almost anyone and anything related to teaching could be see as entrepreneurial! I figured to make any sense of this at all, I needed to start at the beginning with the initial question, and it got some traction with one of the moderators. The screengrab shows the conversation as it unfolded.


As you can see, an actual entrepreneur (who is in line with the dictionary definition) got involved in this conversation but I still felt like innovation is being mistaken for being entrepreneurial. I know they are not mutually exclusive but it is possible to be innovative with being entrepreneurial.

Anyway, at that point, I thought I would bail and go work on a blog post or something but I thought a brief acknowledgement to Brendan Jones was in order:

teacherpreneur chat2And there was the word of the night - antigroupthink - which summed up perfectly my experiences on that topic in #AussieED. I'll participate again sometime in the future but not before checking out the topic thoroughly first, and working out a strategy for dealing with the torrent of tweets.

I am looking forward to EduTech. I am lucky enough to be leading a group of seven of my staff off to Brisbane in under two weeks time. Several have been wanting an opportunity like this for a couple of years now, while others are nervous about participating in such a high profile event early in their teaching career.

However, across my network connections, there is a growing trend towards bagging EduTech both as a concept and as an event. I am not saying that some of the criticisms aren't valid or that educators aren't entitled to hold views that are anti-EduTech. It's just that incessant bleating of the same complaints over and over again that give out the vibe that it is an evil, money-sucking, leeching parasite of a conference for gullible teachers that I feel is unnecessary. I get the sense that some people would rub their hands together with glee if they heard that this event that has risen to prominence in just a short number of years was about to fold or to discontinue.

I've read the complaints. Overseas speakers get buckets of cash while our poor Aussie compatriots get no monetary recompense. It's too expensive. It is too big and too impersonal. It's a big echo-chamber. Too many vendors peddling wares to unwary schools. Too much celebration of the edu-celebrity. There's elements of truth in all of these generalisations. But it's not the total story.

There has to be a reason that huge numbers of Aussie educators flock to Brisbane - and it's not because we are all gullible sheep lining up to get fleeced. There has to be a reason why the big name speakers resonate with teachers - including teachers who don't join state professional edtech organisations. Everyone has different reasons - I can only share mine.

I enjoy the different speakers, especially the ones from beyond our shores because they can sometimes present ideas in new and different ways compared with the way institutions involved in learning operate in Australia. Everyone has their asking price, and if someone like Sugata Mitra is asking a six figure fee and EduTech are prepared to factor that into their expenses to put him in front of me (and several thousand compatriots), I don't have a problem with that. As with all speakers (and anything being spoken, written or conveyed about education and learning) the onus is on the attendee to be a critical consumer. I don't have to agree with everything that Sir Ken says as I feel that my learning is most informed by the tensions or points of difference that I notice. And being plugged into Twitter at the same time enables me to see into other people's brains at the same time and see how the story is resonating or reverberating there. I see more pushback or added value via Twitter than nodding and regurgitating but it could just be that I have chosen who to follow intelligently and strategically. The money angle is interesting because all speakers have a limited window of opportunity in which their reputation can reward them financially - does anyone remember Jamie McKenzie or Marc Prensky? These people were forward thinking at the time but their potential conference learning power has certainly diminished.

EduTech is not cheap but it is no more expensive than other similar sized events in Australia. The sheer size increases the chances of me meeting up with educators I currently connect to (I hate the phrase PLN) and meeting new teachers to add to those connections is awesome as well. Yes, there are lots of vendors there but I have never engaged in a conversation with a sales rep or consultant unless what they were showcasing piqued my interest and I wanted to ascertain if there was an opportunity of value for my school.

For me, it is a future of learning festival. It is not like the local EdTechSA conference - it is a totally different beast. It is big picture, forward looking and unashamedly so. I have seen first hand how exposure to new ideas as a live event (as opposed to watching a YouTube recording) has spawned innovation and forward movement at my own school from the colleagues who attended last year. It was a chance to press pause on their day to day classroom practice, deeply converse with their colleagues, see ideas from fresh and multiple viewpoints and resolve to rethink things when they get back to their classroom. For example, Scott, a colleague who heard Ewan McIntosh speak last year about Google-able and unGoogle-able questions went back and started a rethink about how he got his kids to research. This spread to his learning team and a planned approach to rethinking the middle school opportunities and learning programs for our students. Today that group attended a Design Thinking workshop with Tom Barrett as the next logical step in that process. The EduTech spark that got Scott pondering has lead to a steady flame of progress at our school. I am confident that my 2015 group of attendees will find sparks of their own.

So, I get that some people don't like the idea of for-profit event like EduTech. I get that they feel disrespected as Aussie educators of repute when they aren't offered dollars for their time and expertise. I don't have that problem because I'm not going to get asked or even imagine that I would be in that market space. I'm just happy to have a 7 minute slot at one of the TeachMeets and share that space with a bunch of educators who I wouldn't get to meet face to face under normal circumstances. I suppose that it all boils down to your own expectations. But for me, slagging off EduTech as a constant theme is tiresome. Plus it is kind of ironic to be moaning about a corporate influenced event on a platform like Facebook.

So if you are reading this, will be at EduTech and you see me, please say "G'day." I am a bit of an introvert so breaking the ice with new people is always welcome. And if you're not going, no worries. Everyone has different priorities - and a conference is just one way to get the brain connections buzzing.

 

foanes 2Enjoy - hope someone finds this mildly amusing. The Michael Bolton reference is a bit of an in-joke that contrasts my wife's musical tastes with my own. For the record, I did take Joanne to see Michael Bolton in concert a few years back, and he was very entertaining. I'm finding that the drawing part of trying to do a comic strip is the easy part - coming up with a story or anecdote or observation is definitely the hard part.

This link popped up via Ewan McIntosh in my Feedly reader today, and reading the article sent me back in time to 1995, when I started teaching at Flagstaff Hill Primary School in southern suburban Adelaide. The whole premise of the Washington Post piece is that open space work environments as apparently championed by Google are not really working that well, and that the drawbacks are outweighing the anticipated benefits. What surprises me (as it will many educators) is that the open space concept is supposedly new, and this analysis had me thinking back to my first experiences in an open space work environment.

Flagstaff Hill was built in the early eighties when the open space concept was really taking off. Two of the larger buildings had this design, while the other major in the primary section was a double storey block with more separate, privatised classrooms. I was a young teacher straight in from country service and I arrived ready to teach a Year 4/5 composite class - the principal told me that I would be in Blue Unit, one of the open space buildings, built to accommodate six classes with minimal shoulder height dividers between teaching spaces. There were four smaller withdrawal spaces that could be used for working in smaller groups and in the centre of it all was a "well" a recessed section where a class could sit on the ground in a rectangle pattern with their feet in the depression - conceived as a common meeting space.

backofblue

This view looks back into the centre of the unit. There is a semi-permanent corner divider in the centre of the pic, and off to the right in the background you would find the "well" and then beyond another teaching space. You can tell I liked dangling displays back then!

The coveted class areas were in the four corners of the building where teachers could lay claim to two solid brick walls, while in the centre were two class sections where the front wall where the whiteboards were mounted being the only solid part of that classroom space. It was to this space that I was directed. I met the vacating teacher who gleefully told me she was getting out of Blue, and heading over to Orange building where she would have her own room and not "have to share" any more. I guess she had decided that "open space" classrooms were not for her.

frontofblue

This is looking frontwards to the only permanent wall in my 1995 classroom. Note the trays and portable dividers that separate my classroom from my neighbour's on the left side of the image.

I was lucky that I lobbed next door to a teacher who would become my closest friend in education, and we used the openness to dabble in team teaching, and to explore progressive teaching methodologies over the next eight years (although not without shifting around the Blue Building, and then eventually into the vacated library). So, I think that we were able to make the open space environment work but it does take a certain mindset and there are a lot of differences when compared to a traditional classroom where the door can be shut and the rest of the world kept out.

Noise and visual distraction were a factor in open space classrooms for sure. I recall agreements around times of the day when things were asked to be a bit quieter and everyone was always mindful of the effect their learning activity was having on their neighbours. In that way, because in a few steps you could see what every class in the unit was up to, that mindfulness tended to work favourably. Until .... you got a colleague who didn't want to embrace that ideal.

I remember one teacher, in our building for the year, who didn't concern himself with anyone but his own classroom. He loved doing construction stuff with his students and we used to joke that it sounded like the scene from the beginning of the Flintstones where the whistle blows in the construction yard and Fred just abandons his work and heads for the door. He also used to have a tradition of the "tray tip". If he found a student's tray of belongings to be in a less than stellar way, he would hold the tray aloft over the child's desk and ask the class loudly (and of course, the whole unit heard the whole thing) if he should tip out the contents forcing a clean up by the culprit. This was then followed by a whole class chant of "Tip, Tip, Tip!!" until it reached a crescendo and the tray was upended in front of the helpless offender. The practice was extremely popular with the Year Three kids in his classroom until one day he grabbed a tray of a student who had unfortunately left an unfinished flavoured milk carton in amongst the crumpled up worksheets and pencil shavings. The carton had been in there for several weeks, brewing beneath its folded in spout. So when the "Tip, Tip!" chant started, the student was powerless to warn the unsuspecting teacher about the contents in the tray. The tray was tipped, the carton exploded all over the desk, the odour was over powering, and to top it off, the student then threw up all over the contents. The stench was such that all five classes were vacated for the clean up (and the shared air conditioning system made sure that his error in judgement haunted us all for quite a while).

But when all teachers were on the same page, the environment worked quite well. Swapping groups for lessons was easy because one can see if the other class is ready. A teacher could work with a group in a withdrawal room knowing that other teachers in the building could "keep an eye" on the remaining students working independently. It forced inventiveness when it came to displaying student work. I hung netting from the ceiling and used paper clips to hold art work in place. Collegial consultation was the norm, rather than the exception.

pirateship

Another hanging display in front of the netting - the pirate ship goes with the dangling seaweed and jellyfish art pieces. If you look carefully, you can see a penguin infested paper iceberg on the right.

I know that when I moved to my next school and had to return to a closed in classroom with only a door connecting me to my next door colleague, I felt boxed in and less inspired. It was harder to see what my colleagues were up to but then again, it probably spawned the next productive phase of my teaching journey where my colleagues and I moved to an online environment (using a wiki and Skype) in order to grab back the natural collaboration that I feel is possible in an open space environment.

Really, teachers have to make do with the spaces they are given. There are plenty more sixties style prefab box classrooms out there as there are eighties style open spaces. My teachers at Woodville Gardens probably have the best of both worlds in their more modern concept classrooms that open onto a shared common area, but that is not to say that they one day might end up in a heritage listed building (like my wife taught in at Lockleys Primary) where thick brick walls and concepts of learning from a century ago influenced the architecture. Teachers and learners don't really need seclusion - the concept of breaking down the classroom walls is clearly not a new one!