Wednesday, 7 December 2016

What makes an effective Innovative Learning Environment (ILE)?

The term Modern Learning Environment (MLE) has been replaced in NZ during 2015 by the OECD's term Innovative Learning Environment (ILE). Much of the original discussion was about the space and the furniture within this space, but increasingly it is recognised that it is what happens inside the space that matters+Michaela Pinkerton's May 2014 #TeachMeetNZ presentation summed it up beautifully when she said "The most important open space is your mind" (see my post here). I have been fortunate to visit a number of schools with purpose built or refurbished ILE spaces, and this year I have been lucky enough to be working in my own ILE. I would like to share my thoughts about effective ILEs with you.

What is an ILE? 
I thoroughly recommend reading this OECD report on Innovative Learning Environments. It underpins much of the MoE's thinking on ILEs. Their ILE website includes useful information for our NZ context as well as case studies from new purpose-built schools and refurbished existing schools. To sum it up in my own words, an ILE is a flexible space for a combined group of learners to lead their own learning with the support of each other, adults (teachers, teacher aides), whānau/community, the world and with access to physical and digital resources.

Image Source
Why run an ILE?

Preparing for the future
Learning and teaching in the 21C is still trying to prepare students for their future, and what this future looks like is no longer predictable. Some of the common themes of what we think students will need to be successful in their future include (in no particular order):
  • collaboration skills (beyond local communities and countries)
  • communication skills (incl. digital communication)
  • social intelligence (face-to-face and online, with people from varied cultures and backgrounds)
  • flexibility (in thinking, in where and when we learn and work)
  • creativity
  • ability solve real-life problems
  • digital fluency
Nothing is more powerful than to practise these skills hands-on, and to see them demonstrated in the practice of those around you.

Improve student learning
Extensive research has proven that students learn best when they are:
  • actively involved in decision making
  • initiating learning
  • collaborating together
  • making connections within and across learning areas.
(http://ile.education.govt.nz/the-local-context/)
Improve teacher practice
Teachers and leaders comment [that] flexible learning spaces allow the power of teacher collaboration to be maximised in ways not possible in traditional classrooms. (http://ile.education.govt.nz/flexible-learning-spaces/)

How to set up an ILE?
Who will be involved?
When you collectively (usually leadership, teachers and maybe whānau, though it would be beneficial if all schools regularly involved whānau and students in this process) have decided that an ILE is the best option for your learners, you need to think about who will be involved in it. The teachers (and teacher aides) need to be fully committed to it as it requires a shift in thinking of how learning and teaching happens. You need to be prepared for change as and when it is required, many teams have found that sooner or later their assumptions were challenged or their students' needs changed.

Many students are resilient, they tolerate or enjoy the change. Most students I have spoken to have appreciated the flexibility of space, the fact they had multiple adults to work with and the increased agency they have been given over their own learning. However, some student can struggle in an ILE unless their needs are well planned for. For example consider the additional noise and distraction a larger group of children can create for a student with sensory issues. Sudden change can upset the need for routine for other students. Students who have difficulty managing themselves and their learning will require extra attention.

Where will the ILE be located?
Unless you are building a new school or classroom block, many ILEs are confined to working within exisiting classroom footprints. You will require a certain amount of flexible space for your larger group, but you can also reduce double up (e.g. when combining three classes you won't need three art areas, but you might need a larger mat space).
From http://ile.education.govt.nz/flexible-learning-spaces/ 
Think about your exisiting spaces and how you can adapt them: We operate in two traditional classrooms adjacent to each other with a large 'hole' in the wall in between. We also have a covered verandah out front. To create different spaces within these two rectangles we have a variety of furniture that easily can be moved, e.g. benches / kneelers and lily pads, jelly bean tables with stools, tables at three different heights, ottomans and chairs as well as a cheap beach shade tent (very popular!). In addition we have large outdoor beanbags our students use inside and outside (Note: Ensure that you can remove the covers and wash them as they can get dirty quickly).

The role of digital technology
Chromecast-2015.jpg
Google Chromecast
In my practice digital technology plays an important part to transform student learning (you can read more about our 1:1 Chromebook environment here and here).  In a flexible space you need mobile devices, you need a robust connection, a place where digital work can be showcased to others (e.g. a TV with Chromecast / ATV), in addition to online spaces (Google Suite for Education - formerly GAFE - or O365, sites, blogs etc.). Where do you charge and store devices securely when they are not in use? Will students be able to get to their devices easily? Headphones are vital; where do you store them and how do you keep them intact?

If your students work on digital devices, how will you monitor and support their work? I absolutely love using Hapara Teacher Dashboard to monitor my students' work within the Google Suite and generally in the Chrome Browser. We use other educational programmes to help our students' learning such as Reading Eggs, Mathletics and XtraMath; most come with dashboards that helps us view some of their online work.

How does learning happen in an ILE?There is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, there would be little point in setting up the above and then strictly teaching in a 'sit down, be quiet and face the front' style (there is a place and time for this, too, of course). Know your learners, keep their knowledge, skills, maturity in mind and start  by giving them some agency over their learning. It could be choice about where they work and with whom. Choice about the order of completing learning activities, about how to complete a task (think UDL). Vary groupings and size of groups. Offer them to access the learning in multiple ways (again UDL). Observe and collaboratively reflect, and regularly. Talk to your learners, what works for them, and what doesn't? You could be amazed by what happens...

The benefits
Image Source
Through cross-grouping across the ILE, students can work at their level and make progress, as long as teachers plan their programmes carefully so that their learning can accelerate (if below the expectation for their age). Still, by being exposed to many students of different ability across the ILE, students can feel encouraged to work hard and move up. Their social skills improve as they have different groups of students to interact and work with (tuakana-teina) and different adults work with them. Learning happens individually, in small and in larger groups. They can shine in different areas beyond what one teacher would normally cover in their class.

Teachers can teach to their strengths and receive support in the areas they are less confident. Overlap can be taken care of, e.g. three teachers would normally each have maths groups at Stage 3-6, they can split them between all of them instead. They can observe students interact with different students and adults, and together they can form a better picture of how to support individual students. Collaborative inquiries help teachers inform and improve their practice and enhance learning outcomes for students. Teachers can follow their passions and collectively expose students from across the ILE to more different topics than one teacher alone would have been able to. They can informally observe their colleagues' practice to support their own and / or come up with ways to support their colleagues.

Anecdotal evidence from teachers I spoke to shows that collaboratively teaching improves their wellbeing and they take fewer sick days; there are other teachers able to support them on an 'off' day (while still teaching rather than taking the day off) and they will return the favour. While an ILE is a concept not all relievers are familiar with, having additional adults in the same space helps them cover for a teacher who is away.

From my experience

  • Everyone is a learner, and no-one is 'the expert'. You lead your ILE collaboratively.
  • Teachers do not have to be 'clones' of each other, in fact difference in experience, age, passions etc. add to the flavour of an ILE.
  • A shared vision is a must, and it needs to be revisited regularly.
  • You have to respect and trust each other, and laughter is an important and very useful ingredient.
  • Collaborative planning is vital, especially as all changes impact on a larger group of students and adults.
  • Observe, reflect, discuss - and repeat.
  • While you might start out with 'your' group (home group, maths rotation, reading group etc.), ultimately all students are all your students. 
  • Digital technology used effectively can transform learning and teaching.

Given the chance, I would choose an ILE with like-minded colleagues over a single-cell classroom because I believe in the benefit students gain from it. An ILE is not a panacea for every problem in education, but combined with strong pedagogy, ongoing inquiry and other positive initiatives like PB4L, it certainly holds a lot of promise to prepare 21C learners for their future. Please feel free to share your experiences (positive and negative).

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Why choose Chromebooks for students?

Just recently I was asked this question again, and it was interesting for me to reflect on it from a teacher's point of view, in addition to my exisiting ideas as facilitator. This is the time of the year where many schools are thinking about their devices requirements for the next year. Here are my thoughts:

Firstly it is important to know what your vision is: What is the school vision, and how does this translate to the vision inside your learning environment? Much could be said about how to develop such a vision, but for this exercise, let's just assume, I want to 'raise self-directed, connected, life-long learners'.

The next step is to look at your pedagogy: How will you go about working towards this vision? Again, a topic that requires lots of thought and can lead to much debate. In this instance I have decided I want to give students agency and choice over their learning, I will use the UDL principles when planning our learning plan our learning and students will have choices within a must do / can do programme.

Out of this and my school's focus I will be able to develop the actual curriculum and activities.

Nowhere in the above does I talk about using technology; however, in a future focused learning environment effective use of devices is a must to work towards a vision like the one stated. With the multitude of devices available, where do Chromebooks fit in?

Chromebooks are laptop type devices set up to work within the GAFE environment (though saying that, two of my own sons use Chromebooks at their O365 high school). These devices are relatively cheap, they are quite hardy, especially with their SSD (rather than a spinning hard drive), and easy to manage by your GAFE administrator. Chromebooks can access any site on the www (unless you restrict access), they are many useful Chrome apps and extensions to allow you to get more creative - all provided you have reliable and reasonably fast internet access.

Schools use various approaches when it comes to devices: My current school has purchased all devices and students from y3 (and some y2s) are assigned their Chromebook to use at school. Other schools have parents supply a device to bring to class, and other schools again follow the Manaiakalani idea and establish a community trust to support parents purchasing a particular device. All these approaches have their own merits and can work when the local community are on board. There are also lease options which I have not looked into myself; in my opinion Chromebooks need replacing less frequently than the desktops / laptops / netbooks of the past, so I personally see little point in paying for lease - but I am happy to learn otherwise if you would like to share your experiences.

There are a range of small and large suppliers of digital devices: Large, nationwide suppliers might be able to offer a good price, but purchasing locally ensures that money stays within the community. Large suppliers now tend to have a special education team to help you choose the most suitable device and support setting up etc. Local suppliers might be able to help you at short notice as they are close by etc. Check with your usual suppliers, or contact companies advertising in publications such as the Interface Magazine.

There are few (or rather no) devices out there that can do everything you want to do at a reasonable cost. I feel strongly that a mixture of devices is beneficial but this requires additional managing by someone with technical know how. In our y2/3 ILE we have 28 chromebooks, all of them assigned to individual students (y3 students, and y2 students working at the beginning of CL2). We also have 13 iPads with various educational apps, as well as six Win8.1 touch screen laptops. In the back of the cupboard we have a set of old Android tablets which we have talked about but not used recently (they would still work well for recording students read etc.). The Win8.1 devices are favoured by our y2 students, but due to age of the device (and age of the users?) I have a lot of trouble with the touchscreen flickering which often though not always comes right after giving the screen a thorough clean.

Whatever devices you choose, it is important to think about device management. Who sets up the GAFE accounts and the Chromebooks, and how? Who manages device settings within the GAFE Admin Console? Who sets up individual student blogs, and how do teachers best manage online work? If you are using a mixture of devices, this task gets more complex. What usage agreements are in place, do your students understand them? Who pays when something gets broken? Saying that, since we have assigned our devices to individual students, we had basically no breakage though our children are only 6-8y old.

For managing digital student work, I thoroughly recommend using Hapara Teacher Dashboard for anything GAFE related, it makes a teacher's life much easier, and children appreciate the feedback / feed forward comments on the Google Docs etc. A lot of online programmes (such as XtraMath, Reading Eggs, Typing Club etc.) offer online dashboards for teachers, but how do students view their progress? In our ILE we use solutions from simple post-it notes on A3 card to printed out avatars which the students move along the printed out Reading Eggs maps - digital is not always better.

With devices comes sound: Think carefully what headphones you need for your devices. Despite my best intentions our headphones are still not assigned to individual students, and my guess is that this is partly to blame for the breakage of headphones we experience. Have you every had twirlers and chewers in your classroom? However, after a very serious talk with our 38 lovelies, we have seen marked improvements.

How does your classroom setup support using portable devices? Our ILE consists of two rectangular classrooms with a wide opening between them. We have flexible furniture arrangements, my side of the room has desks at 3 different heights with chairs and stools as well as benches / kneelers and 3 comfortable low seats. My little beach tent is waiting to get unpacked again. The other half of the ILE has mainly kneelers, ottomans and low seats as well as lilly pads. We have a covered verandah along most of one long side of the classrooms, and the children use outdoor beanbags to do their work out there. We deliberately removed the old desktops from the classroom as they would have restricted our ability to rearrange furniture when we needed to.

Device storage and charge are important points to consider: Some schools invest in purpose built cabinets, others rearrange exisiting furniture such as cupboards or filing cabinets (remember to leave enough gaps for air circulation). All storage areas should be lockable. Prior to being back in the classroom I had not regarded charging as a big issue, but now I personally make sure everything is plugged in over night so we are ready to go every morning.

Please feel free to ask any questions, I am happy to help if I can!

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Google Sites: Permissions for Folders and Documents

Several years ago +Helen King taught a group of us about setting up folders within Google Drive for documents to be shared on a Google Site. With a little help from the fantastic +Fiona Grant (and a little doctor enforced rest for a very sore back), I finally got this little tutorial completed. Please let me know if anything requires further clarification, I look forward to hearing from you!


Monday, 24 October 2016

"We do not learn from experience... We learn from reflecting on experience."

Whether this quote is actually from John Dewey or not, it sums up well my recent Ulearn16 experience.

Leading up to the conference I thought very hard about where I need and want to focus my professional learning energy and funds (for example see here my post on Passion Learning for Teachers). There was also a Twitter conversation whether the Ulearn concept was still relevant and still offering value for money for those teachers attending (admittedly the cost is considerable even as presenter). To not keep you in the suspense, I felt it was absolutely worth every minute and every single cent both my school and I personally invested in my attending.

To make such a judgement, it is important to consider what I would want to attend Ulearn - or any other PLD event for that matter. What is it that I hope to gain from attending?
Some teachers consider Ulearn as the event to learn about how to use devices in their practice. Others will (thankfully) put the 'why' and 'how' before the use of devices. While it saddens me that there are still some people that don't know to put the pedagogy before the tool, I realise that teachers still need support with how to use devices, and Ulearn is a great place for this. But this is not what I went for.

I attended Ulearn to have a look at the bigger picture of the ideas and policies that influence learning and teaching in New Zealand. I deliberately chose breakouts that made me think harder and deeper about how learning happens in our classrooms in NZ, and how we could improve on this. While I had read about Larry Rosenstock and High Tech High, and about Michael Fullan and his work on educational reform, it was inspiring to hear from them both in person about their work. Especially Michael Fullan's ideas really resonated with me, probably only now am I ready to have a look at his work in more depth than previously and seriously consider what impact it can have on my own practice and on the practice of others.

Some of the sessions provided much food for thought, e.g. Mary-Anne Mills' session on what future-focussed curriculum really is, and Derek Wenmoth's session on 4D learning. Derek really made me think a lot harder about the way technology underpins and enables what we try to achieved with our future focused curriculum (I'm meshing both sessions into one it appears lol). I also really enjoyed the session by Rosemary Hipkins and Cathie Johnson looking in depth at how the PAT test is set up and what information we can learn from the student results - I am already looking forward to using this tool again, because now I'm in a much better position to make use of it.

I was surprise to hear so much talk about CoLs; while our school is part of the beginning stages of a CoL, I must have had my head in the sand about it. While on the one hand I am all for collaborating, for working together for the best of the students of a community, on the other hand I am concerned that by schools feeling forced into such communities they might lose sight of the opportunity that this collaboration could provide. For many years I have dreamed of a time where all education providers in a community would sit down together, examine what their strengths were, which niche they might occupy, and then together find the best way forward for all students in their community. Sadly the reality can look quite different with schools competing for students from the same community, and when certain academic expectations are to be met, schools could be choosy about whom they might enrol.

One of my biggest takeaways was thinking about vision: What is your vision? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? What is your school's vision? Do your team, your students and whānau / community share this vision?

The social aspect of meeting tweeps, friends, ex-colleagues etc. from all around the country and beyond was a great bonus to coming to Ulearn. There are a number of educators I call my friends though we have only met in person a handful of times if at all, thanks to social media we have gotten to know each other so well that long periods of no f2f contact make no difference to this friendship - you know who you are!

Back at home I did not want to lose this momentum, so I asked on Twitter:

I decided to set myself goals 3-2-1 style:

So far I am happy to report I have NOW left my hermit cave more often, I have participated in a few twitter chats and I have (finally) finished my blog posts about Ulearn.
It was interesting to investigate my first SOON - connecting other teachers online. I realise I had dropped off social media for professional purposes for most of this year, so it is not really surprising that I did not know where educational online conversations nowadays happen. I have noted that the VLN has gone very quiet, the POND does not seem to be a very bustling place, and while there are lots of members in FB Groups, I have seen few deep discussions amongst many rather shallow ones. G+ does not appear to be frequented as much as previously, but there are a number of busy Twitter chats. So where does everyone go who is not into Twitter? Where is all the rich discussion gone we used to have in the admittedly a bit clunky interface of the VLN? This is one of my current ponderings brought upon by reflecting on Ulearn.

The hustle and bustle of everyday had me in its grips far too soon after Ulearn, so it has taken me two weeks to come back to my blog posts (the threat that I won't be able to storify tweets was probably the biggest motivator!). However, it has been great to go back and read back through notes to remind me what it was that I found important, to refresh why and how I see education in New Zealand. This is where John Dewey (or not) quote comes in - reflecting on experience. What will you do with what you have learnt from Ulearn or other PLD events you have attended?


#Ulearn16 Day 2