Failures of Regulation

I think that there is a school of thought, and one that is very well intentioned, that believes that process can lead to excellence, that if we avoid enough errors we will achieve greatness.

At the heart of this is some truth: excellent artefacts have few glaring errors, and simple mistakes are one the sign of an amateur.

Some English teachers work like this, imploring students to focus on avoiding error and following “the rules”. Some of these rules are just folklore and some actually reflect wider usage.

  • Never start a sentence with “and.”
  • Don’t have more than one “and” in a sentence.
  • Don’t write sentences with more than 25 words.
  • Avoid clich├ęs.
  • Don’t split your infinitives
  • Don’t end your sentence with a preposition.
  • Use a variety of long and short sentences.
  • Leave out unnecessary words.
  • Don’t write in the passive voice.

Some of these are misguided and simply reflect prejudice, and others are sensible restrictions. However, you can follow every single one of these and still write boring, forgettable crap that no bastard will want to read. You just legislate again mistakes, but you can’t legislate the production of quality.

Others, and I count myself in this second camp, focus on students producing and consuming at a great rate, with less focus on avoiding error. Write then polish, rather than fret and don’t write.

There are similar veins in management, and especially management of schools. Some leaders encourage performance and engagement, and polish as they go. Other imagine that if you keep people away from “mistakes” then achievement, engagement, and success will follow.

Things to be avoided include

  • Students all working one a task together
  • Students all working on the same task
  • Using information or activities from a textbook
  • Teachers setting goals for students
  • Doing the same activity again
  • Explaining concepts to students

Just like the grammar rules, the individual items on this list are sometimes associated with low-quality work. However, and this is the kicker, you can avoid all of these things and still have a crappy school.

You can, in some cases, have students just phaffing around, without resources, without goals, and with teachers who will not or may not provide them direction. You cannot subtract your way to excellence.

Instead, I believe that leaders should park their orthodoxy and concentrate on helping students and teachers actually learn. Quite aside from anything else, when people define their roles in terms of finding errors and punishing those making them, they see errors everyone and teachers and students alike get sick of being told they are bad.

Instead, help the learning train get up some momentum, and then tweak it for ideal performance, rather than parking it in the shed until every possible mistake is obsessed about, talked to death, and turned into the boogie monster that it usually isn’t.

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Podcasting: The Next Generation

About a year ago I did a session at the ICTEV conference about creating learning tasks that used genuine collaboration, and the session went brilliantly, with the participants making a good podcast in less than an hour, and having a lot of fun in the process.

But the real purpose of professional learning is not to have fun, but to pick up perspectives and approaches that you can put into practice as a teacher. With this is mind, I was delighted to hear that a second teacher from this session has had students make a podcast. You can and should listen to it here.

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I Have a Dream

I know there are many good and principled school principals, but imagine if each and every school had a principal that made a positive contribution to the welfare and learning of students, and a positive contribution to the work that teachers and other staff do.

Imagine if that large and expensive apparatus that supports principals supported students and teachers instead.

Imagine if all that energy that went into flashy self-promotion went straight into classrooms.

Imagine if all that energy that went into nit-picking went into making school positive and effective.

An effective and decent principal is a marvellous asset to a school, and I do think that schools need leaders, but I think those leaders should work in the service of the students, rather than the staff and students should work in service of the principal, no matter how they behave or perform.

I’d like to think that one day this is where governments, school councils, and education departments will direct their efforts. Fingers crossed.

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Mixed Messages, or How I Kept Loving Paper

Certainly the title of this article is provocative, The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom, but it led me to think about my own evolving views about eLearning.

Last year, when I was my school’s eLearning leader, I did my utmost to make the most of all those devices in the learning space. And perhaps I overdid this because, now that I am back with the same students and we are using the devices less, the environment runs more smoothly and more learning appears to be happening. I know this is a controversial assertion, so let me unpack it for you a bit.

1. Computers are not always better.
Computers are powerful and, if you have the right device, they start up quickly. But they don’t do all things better than a pen and paper and, in many cases, they are slow to start and a certain number of them don’t work at any given time. I’m sadly not in a position to mention specific numbers, but when a sizable minority don’t have functioning devices, then it’s not actually a one-to-one environment.

Writing prose is perfectly fine on a computer, in my experience. Working out an algebraic equation on the screen, however, is slower than a pencil and paper. Computers are great for some things, perhaps even many things. But they are not the best tool for all tasks. There is a vital place for real-world and paper-based tasks. Dissecting a virtual heart is not the same rich experience that actually cutting into and experiencing a real heart is.

2. Some computers are more equal than others.
iPad start quickly and have some amazing apps. A laptop has a full-sized keyboard and is often sturdy. A Chromebook is cost-effective and makes real-time collaboration easy. And I’ve heard Microsoft reps at a conference assure the audience that Windows 8 will be ready for the educational big-time in the next two years. But each and every device has strengths and limitations. And when you lock yourself into doing all your learning on a single device, you close as many doors as you open. I have heard that some schools now have a two-to-one program where each student has an iPad and a laptop, and this certainly increases your options dramatically. But I maintain that there is a place for non-screen based learning as a significant part of the mix.

3. Screens are distracting.
It’s hard to keep your eyes off a glowing screen with a moving image. You’ll notice this whenever you walk into any room with a screen. This is hard enough for mature adults with an obvious economic imperative to stay focused, much less a person with a developing mind. But being fixed on a screen, even with people at the other end on other screens, is not always the best use of your brain cells. I am more and more convinced that eye contact, body language, tone of voice, laughter, tears, and physical contact reinforce relationships and positivity in a way that all our clever electronic tools cannot do.

So, am I suggesting that we ban computers? Not at all. I think that teachers should make the most of blogs to communicate with students, parents and other teachers. I think that we can all use blogs, podcasts, videos, and social media to share our creations with a wider audience and this brings an authenticity that is hard to beat. I also think that we can bring in all kinds of resources electronically that are just not available otherwise.

But…

But, I am also saying that we should use them in a genuinely blended environment, where we turn off the screens for a decent amount of time and do other rich learning and interacting. Non-screen doesn’t mean medieval. It can mean all kinds of positive things, things that we should embrace just as much as we embrace eLearning.

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Serving Two Masters

My students spotted that I was in a suit yesterday, and they were curious, naturally enough. I figure there is no value in being dishonest, so I told them when they asked, “I am going for an interview this afternoon.”

“At another school?”

Yes.

“So you’re going to leave us?”

I’ll be sorry to leave you guys, but I don’t know what things will be like here next term or next year.

“But we don’t want you to leave.”

Obviously, I felt awful. But we have to take care of our welfare first at times. We are no good to our students on stress leave or worse.

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