Tag Archives: thinking

Window to the real world: student reflection and evaluation of their blogging experience (year 9s)

Marc Chagall, The Window

My focus for peer observation (as part of my Professional Learning Practice)  is my collaboration with Nick Fairlie and his 2 Year 9 English classes. Nick asked if I could help him do something different with his students, we decided to try out Posterous as a blogging platform. Readers of previous posts will know that we created a main teachers’ blog which we used for instruction and writing prompts, and the 2 classes of students created their own blogs which we linked to the teachers’ blog.

Our aims for this project:

  • to provide a collaborative and open online platform for student in the hope that an authentic and peer  readership (beyond that of the teacher) would develop an authentic writing voice.
  • to increase student motivation through the dialogue in the commenting section of the blogs as well as through the ownership of the students’ own personalised blogs.
  • to create a community of thinkers and writers across 2 classes by linking all blogs to Nick’s blog
  • to motivate students’ writing through dialogue with a broader and global reading audience
  • to provide opportunity for personal dialogue with Australian authors (Isobelle Carmody and Michael Gerard Bauer)

After blogging with 2 year 9 English classes for a year, it was time to provide students with the opportunity to reflect on and evaluate their experiences. I wrote a post entitled ‘Reflect about your blogging experience’ with a broad range of questions but open response format.

The students responded honestly and thoughtfully. Their reflections were based on a retrospective analysis of their blogging experiences and addressed a wide range of aspects to result in rich analysis and valuable metacognition. In all cases, despite varying degrees of recorded satisfaction with the blogging tasks, students acknowledged an enriching experience including learning they didn’t expect but appreciated.

The mix of personal writing in a public space was challenging, and we expected this. I’ve observed that initial apprehension was replaced by the excitement of being read by an authentic audience including that of peers and also of those from the other side of the world. Students felt increasingly safer in the supported environment with specific guidelines for appropriate and positive online responses and interaction.

It’s interesting that such a competitive and mark-oriented cohort has taken the time to write so much and so well in their own time when nothing was assessed. The comments in the students’ final evaluative post attest to engagement due to factors outside the reward of marks. The community of thinkers and writers which developed allowed students to feel that their writing mattered, and that their personalisation of their space and style enhanced their sense of self. Many students identified the blogs as a highlight of the year’s English classes and hoped to continue blogging next year.

Certainly the experience further developed students’ tolerance of others’ ideas, and pushed them out of the comfort of their own views, often resulting in a wider reading to gain a greater context for their own writing. In some cases students initiated further involvement in online writing and reviewing spaces for their personal satisfaction.

Our aim in this project was explore the possibilities of writing as metacognition, providing opportunities for students to think deeply, question and write honestly – not what they thought the teacher would want to read but as a form of personal consciousness. We were aware of the confronting nature of these tasks but we are also convinced that the outcomes have been even more valuable than expected. Although we focused on metacognition above pure writing exercises, we realised that the writing improved in sophistocation and fluency as a result of the flow of ideas.

In conclusion, this has been a highly motivating and enjoyable experience for us as teachers, and the students’ reflections and evaluations also attest to their enjoyment of the experience. There is always room for improvement, and the students have provided us with ideas for a modified approach for next year. We have been continually impressed with the high quality of thinking and writing overall, as has the global community of readers who have attested to this in their numbers and positive comments.

What follows is a very lengthy detailed description of featured student responses linked to their full posts. (Readers can stop here if they’ve had enough).

In his post, Simon has eloquently expressed the transformative possibilities of an open community of writers enabled by blogging.

“This Posterous adventure has brought a new beginning to my use of the social network. Looking back at the few posts I’ve published to the world, I can see the journey I have taken, but it is not over yet. For all I know, I may not be what I know; there are still some things I haven’t explored. This experience is like one of an engaging classroom; you never want the bell to ring. I have planted precious seeds that are now fully grown evergreen trees. I have the motivation to express my ideas and about myself, even if it is in the blog form. I have discovered new ways to express my word art. I have explored a vast network of shared information. I have discussed controversial issues. I have expressed myself. And now I am here. Reading everyone else’s comments and posts was also a fully rewarding experience. I could grasp the perceptions of things from different angles. I could get more takes on a different item. I could get to know other people. Blogging was a different experience, but it still is an open gate full of opportunity and answers. That’s how amazing it can be. So thank you everyone for staying with me till the end of the year.”

In his post, Krishnak appreciated being able to read what his peers had written:

“Reading other blogs also allowed me to gain a perspective on the opinions of others. What others thought about and what others wrote about opened my eyes to new ideas. The interaction between fellow bloggers allowed us to expand on new ideas and thoughts about life, and also helped me to gain an insight to what people with a different background thought about the same topic.”

In his post, “jialew” reflected on how blogging improved his writing:

“Writing had always been one of my many dislikes, with the help of classmates I started to grow out of that shell and approach the task. By reading their posts I gained an insight of what they had put into their posts, and most importantly what their views of the world is like.”

He understood how difficult good quality commenting actually was:

“Commenting may look simple, but I found it very hard, especially commenting on the friends’ posts. Thinking about it rendered my thoughts and contention blank, I had no clue what to do.”

He appreciated the global connections –

“Being able to connect to people outside of a restricted classroom is interesting, especially when you think about the distance that that separates the writers and viewers.”

Technical problems are unavoidable. Students should be given the opportunity to become independent problem solvers, not to expect everything to work smoothly, and not to be afraid of experimenting with solutions. He faced technical issues and worked through them.

“ I had some unfortunate issues with the technology within Posterous, at times it would freeze and reload the page when I’m nearly finished. To solve these issues I either just ignored it or wrote a brief plan for the topic; soon I would find out that I would either go off track or become focused on an unintended subject.”

In his post, Ashley admitted that blogging ended up being a valuable experience for him.

“Blogging this year has been an interesting and rewarding activity and I will continue to blog. I always thought that blogging was a boring outdated activity but after experiencing it for myself it has changed my mind. I recommend that everyone should be blogging even if it’s only occasionally because it is such a unique and unmissable activity.”

He understood the value of recording his thinking in his blog writing –
“Many times I’ve said to myself, “what is the point of writing it down when I know in my head I think what I will”. While this is true to a point, it is also very wrong. I thought I could remember it all but as I grow the more I have to remember. I think it is the same logic as why we take photos. Sure, we can remember things we did in them but they can still be forgotten and can remain fresher on photos.”

Kobie (post here) appreciated the reflective and open nature of the writing prompts which offered a freedom that assessment tasks did not have. The blog writing was not assessed.

Having in a sense, a homework assignment revolved around writing what you feel, was pretty refreshing a different… better than any assessment tasks!
I approached the task initially enthusiastic, but wary: I thought it’d be more of a ‘write this and make sure you do it to these requirements’ task. Once I realized it was about free expression and thought, I became more comfortable with it.

He also had trouble with commenting –

Commenting was… to be honest, difficult. Mostly because it felt awkward; being told to comment on your classmates writing and critique it felt strange…

My reflection:
This response is understandable for a few reasons. Firstly, commenting is responding to others’ writing, and should ideally be a natural and voluntary thing. Young people use commenting in a conversational way without any particular structure, often using ‘text speak’, and not necessarily as constructive criticism. Commenting is a valuable aspect of written dialogue which needs practice. To make it easier for students, we could provide examples of rich, authentic commenting. Students already have a choice as to which students’ posts they respond to.

Eric Wong (post here)
had blogged before but enjoyed the wider audience and interaction of this blog much more.

“This was actually not my first blogging experience as I had a previous one in year 8 where i had to blog about my experiences and findings when doing an assignment therefore i was pretty comfortable about blogging. This was not as significant as it didn’t have many comments and views. Using posterous spaces is so much better because of the various topics i receive from my teachers and it actually makes me think deeply about my life as a Melbourne High student.”

He eventually understood the value of the online writing community:

I initially didn’t like the fact that i had this blog to myself but as time passed, i found out that this blog belonged to the world and especially my classmates.

Hanan (post here) was one of many students who identified the valuable aspect of freedom in the blogging format. He comments on the fact that initial discomfort with the new form of writing disappears with practice and is replaced by enjoyment.

“Blogging gives me the freedom and time to express my thoughts and past and present experiences. As I write more, I enjoy it more and become more comfortable with it.”

He understood the importance of exposure to differing viewpoints:

“You may agree or disagree with other bloggers, but this creates an interesting conversation on what is being discussed.”

William (post here) understood the value of the open writing platform enabling a community of writers:
“The fact that we can see other blogs means we can get a profound and meaningful view into the minds of the people we learn, forge deep relationships with and see every day”.

William expresses beautifully the transition from initial apprehension to embracing the blog as a place for ‘soul searching’ and heartfelt writing:

“When we first began writing our blogs, I felt slightly apprehensive. I almost felt as if it was meaningless; who in the right mind would read the ramblings of teenage boys? This was the first time I had ever ‘blogged’, and I just followed the instructions of my teacher and the actions of my peers. But as I typed, I found it wasn’t hard at all. It was almost as if I was releasing a burden from my mind onto virtual paper. It was in a sense, soul searching. As I wrote, I started examining myself; my desires, my hopes and actions. I started examining the world and its happenings closer than I had ever done before. I explored key fundamental issues with today’s society and myself.
The apprehensiveness disappeared almost instantly. I enjoy writing immensely and it was a natural process; it felt productive (since it was homework and I was improving my English skills at the same time) and somewhat enjoyable at the same time. If only all our homework was like this! The liberty and freedom to express your creativity and thoughts is my favourite part of blogging. I didn’t have to think of things to write; it just came to me as I wrote in a logical order”.

Unlike some students, who found the open-endedness of post prompts challenging, William embraced them:

“Best of all, it felt casual. We were told that there was no pressure, and we could write anything we wanted. This lack of restriction meant that anything I thought would immediately get written down.
I feel blogging has been an invaluable experience and it has been the most enjoyable type of homework we get for English.”

Hayden’s response (post here) is testament to the challenge of writing prompts which encouraged higher order thinking and pushed students’ thinking and writing to a high standard:

“I found that the hardest part of blogging was always to start. I could never consider a way to start my blogs without serious thinking.”

He appreciated the ability to share his writing and read his peers’ writing:

“ I also find that having an audience for my blogs compels me to review what I have written much more thoroughly to ensure that I did not make any typing mistakes. The most important thing about these blogs were that my classmates had to do the same task as I, allowing me to see their views on the same topic, how they expressed it and what was good about it, allowing me to mimic their techniques as well.”

He understood the value of learning with and from his classmates:

“ I feel as though all of this was simply a program where we, the students, improve each other’s abilities without the assistance of a teacher. “

He appreciated being able to personalise his blog space:
“The fact that I could customize my wall meant that I was able to feel much comfortable with viewing my space and writing the blogs to my heart’s content”.

Simon (post here) understood the value of the global audience:
“ I think it’s great that we are writing for the world, and knowing that you are really makes you go that extra mile to make it the best.”

Tony (post here) solved his problem of writers’ block by broadening his reading and expanding his exposure to different ideas. This kind of independence and initative is undoubtedly valuable:

“When I started blogging on posterous, I felt the challenges of writing. My first blog was tedious and I couldn’t think of nothing to write about. I didn’t have developed ideas. The hardest part about blogging is thinking what to write which will impress the global audience. As a result, I began to read the newspaper daily to accumulate some fresh ideas. The editorial section was full of sophisticated ideas that I could not fully comprehend. As you read more and more, you take more in and begin to realise there are different ideas, elements and aspects you have not even thought about.”

He suggested that his writing had improved due to his reading audience:
“I am fully aware that my writing has changed over the course of my posting experience. My ideas, sentence structure and fluency have improved drastically, ameliorating my overall writing. I believe it is because I have to put lots of effort to come up with these deep thoughts.  It is important to have an audience for my writing because they can critique my work. They can help me find the flaws of my piece of work and improve it, make it unblemished.”

Tony’s blogging experience has led him to explore other online writing opportunities:
“Due to the fact I like blogging quite a lot, I have started writing blogs and comprehensive guides for several websites such as maplewiki and basilmarket. I write on them because I use to play the game MapleStory and I found it quite enjoyable. I want to help out new players in the best way possible. I already have about 24,000 views on my guides.I am going to continue blogging as a hobby. Thank you Mr Fairlie and Ms. Sheko for introducing this to me.”

This is an example of how an initial understanding of blogging satisfaction can lead to the initiation of further, authentic writing outside school. In this case the student has chosen to write for personal satisfaction, identifying an area of expertise and sharing this with a global audience. The student has gone beyond the confines of writing for assessment only.

Michael (post here) gave an honest and poetic evaluation of the value of his peers’ blog posts:

“As you scroll down the countless posts of the two classes of year 9, you will inevitably find shards of preciousness — sometimes golden dust; other times, fool’s gold.
But, undeniably, the thing that gives away the shine of a man is the title of his blog.
You really do dig deep with blogs.”

Patrick (post here) appreciated the development of quality writing through the posts, and acknowledged an improvement:
This was the first time I had made a blog which is why in the beginning of my Posterous space, my posts were short and had little content for pondering. As time goes by and as I practise, my posts get longer and contains a far better quality of content up until now although there had been some variations. This made me to believe that creating a blog could actually supplement and even improve my English writing skills.

We had no trouble with inappropriate comments, as Patrick stated:
“Fortunately there was no cases of trolling or cyber bullying which is unlikely due to the nature of my audience.”

Alan (post here) identified the peer and global audience responsible for the improvement and enhancement of writing skills and broadening of perspective:

“Through the blogging my writing has changed. Ideas are easier to put into words and I now have a different perspective on topics. I feel it is important to be able to read other people’s blogs so that you can gain another perspective on the topic an it is also important to be able to comment and ask questions so that you can fully understand what they are saying. It is also important to comment with overseas people so that we can get an even wider view on the topic. Overseas commentator also made the blogging experience more enjoyable as you felt your views were being read by more people. Through blogging I was able to get a better understanding of myself and others.”

Vinh (post here) was honest in his evaluation of the blogging experience. Blogging opened up experiences he would not normally seek out:

“A blog, in its core, is basically a part of your mind. Just typed out, and shared with the world. I don’t see myself in the future as being the artsy, blog-keeping type but i think this years experience has opened me up to a whole new side to the internet, which I would never have bothered to explore.”

Writing to a public audience was challenging to Vinh:
“I don’t really like putting myself and my thoughts up for public judgement. Even if its anonymous. In a way, you could call me quote introverted, i like keeping things to myself.”

He found writing fluency of ideas challenging, especially since English is his second language. The example of metacognition here is worth noting:

“At first, I had quite a bit of difficulty making my writing fluid and connecting ideas effectively, just because I was, literally, translating my thoughts as i wrote them down. The way I think also made this harder as I tend to think in chunks of ideas, rather than words or single ideas. Sometimes these chunks all link together nicely and so i write fluently and quickly. Other times i get stuck. Having these chunks in Vietnamese also doesn’t help the block.”

Blogging has opened up a new world for Nathan (post here):

“Blogging hasn’t changed my style of writing, but it has reignited my passion to do some recreational reading and writing. I now realise that the world of literature and writing is endless and I should never be empty of ideas if I have the right determination and will.”

Lachie (post here) appreciated the value of having an authentic audience for writing:
“It was also a great experience to have such a diverse audience to write for. Writing without an audience is pointless. You may as well be talking to a wall. Nobody hears your opinions, your beliefs if you have no audience.”

He summed up the value of a global audience nicely:

“Having people from Finland and America or any other country viewing and commenting on my work is truly a great privilege and honor. However, with this comes a greater responsibility to only write appropriate comments and pieces. These connections made me feel as if my writing actually meant something, that people enjoy my writing”.

He gained a valuable insight into his peers through their writing.  Herein lies the value of sharing writing with peers.
“The insight that I have gained from blogging is that there is more to people than meets the eye. That is, that you cant judge people from their exterior but what its on the inside that you should judge and that counts.”

Andrew (post here) commented that the quality of writing follows the sophistocation of thoughts expressed:
“The insight that I have gained from blogging is that there is more to people than meets the eye. That is, that you can’t judge people from their exterior but what its on the inside that you should judge and that counts”.

He offered some insights into how writing prompts could be more engaging to students:

“For one, I feel as though the topics were too abstract, and too different from student life. Having debates about school curriculums, education systems and subjects, sounds slightly more appealing than having broad, abstract ideas, that don’t really relate too much. Though I enjoyed it, I believe having debates on things that we can relate to, would be better. The ideas can still be abstract and broad; just more relatable to education, or student life.”

“xiangxxu” (post here) identified the personal space of the blog and audience as affirming:

“Having a blog that i can control and customise as i please made me feel responsible and important, as i can do as i please on the blog and it was up to me to control what i would like to express, thus making me feel responsible. Also it made me felt important as narcissistic this may sound, but i felt more valued as a person when i have people from around the globe able to read my thoughts on multiple issues.”

Less confident students have acknowledged a development of confidence in writing, as well as the value of being able to read others’ posts. “Flaming ball of doom” (post here) reflects honestly on his shaky beginnings:

“I was reluctant at first as I wondered why would anyone want to read what I had to say? Then I realized nobody was forced to read it and the people who did would hopefully like it. When I began to write my first post I was slighty nervous but excited and as I kept writing I stopped being nervous. My readers’ comments on my posts helped me a lot as it allowed me to see how others interpreted my posts and I had to answer some tough questions.”

Vincent (post here) loved the opportunity for dialogue with the Finnish students:

“Having the ability to communicate with Finnish students provided a wonderful knowledge and insight into the way they live.”

Andrew (post here) valued the authentic audience:

“Of course, without an audience, writing would be somewhat pointless. Nobody hears what we have to say, our opinions, our beliefs are just ignored”.

In his post, Sasank described his initial apprehension about sharing his thoughts with a public audience online, and admitted being reassured by the secure and supported blogging space:

“Before this year, i had never blogged as i was protective of my privacy. I was afraid of entering a new world, where i would be sharing things very personal to strangers. HOwever, as the year has gone by, i have developed a confidence in myself and others, as my views have been accepted and constructively commented on”.

His observations underlined the importance of giving students the opportunity to learn constructive feedback and tolerance of others’ opinions:

“ I had to comment on things which i did not agree to, and i still had to be ‘nice’.”

It was interesting to read that the blogging tasks set for homework were experienced differently to other homework:

“It also provided a great diversion from other homework, and basically just gave me some time to myself.”

He admitted that this experience had given him new confidence in his own ideas and writing:

“Again, it gave me more confidence and i came to know what others thought about my style of writing.”

Ilan (post here) acknowledges that a good blog post takes much thinking, time and rigorous editing.

“At the start blogging was a bit of a challenge. I had all of these ideas in my head, most were absolutely terrible, a couple I could form into a semi reasonable post but there is a big difference between half thought out ideas and a well written posterous post. The problem was transferring a thought front my head onto the page and making it make sense.”

The open and personal nature of post prompts allowed students to express their thoughts in a way unrelated to curriculum, and students were able to focus on refining their writing to best express their ideas:

“This didn’t only help get the ideas out, it also helped refine them and make them more logical and understandable.”

Brendan (post here) was initially sceptical about using social media for serious writing but he was soon convinced otherwise:

“At first I was skeptical because I thought it would be just another Facebook however the passages written by my fellow students were not stupid and useless such as ‘I’m bored’.”
If you’ve read to the bottom of this page, I hope you appreciate as much as I do the value of students’ reflection and evaluation of their blogging experiences, using Posterous spaces to create a community of thinkers and readers. Nick and I have found the experience extremely rewarding, and we’ve learned as much from the students as they have from us. I hope to continue to provide deep learning opportunities using social media next year.

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Our students were told to get lost – online

Yes, it’s true, our blogging boys were told by Nick to ‘get lost’

Have you ever had the pleasure of being lost? Not just a bit disoriented, but utterly, irredeemably confounded?

The excitement of not knowing what’s literally around the corner mingles with the terrifying possibility of never finding your way back home and the result is the humbling revelation that you’re not the centre of the universe after all; your known world is a tiny speck on the edge of a vast and beckoning globe. Bliss!

I’m amused by the esoteric nature of the student tasks, and how well they’ve embraced each new challenge, putting in their heart and soul in most cases. I don’t think they’ve ever been told to ‘get lost’ online, never been asked to think about and document the randomness of online browsing, to think about how it made them feel. One of the students commented at the end of his post –

Meh. By far the weirdest task so far –

but on the whole, students have good-naturedly played along and produced writing which was well worth reading.

Nathan is an example of this:

I soon ended up at the New York Public Library which was pretty bizarre considering that I started off with moths.

However, it wasnt the outcome of my research that left me spellbound. It was how I felt. I was reading article after article that I soon lost track of time. I was so engaged with these articles that I became lost.

The beauty of getting lost online is no matter how hard you try, you may never be able to retrace each individual step of getting lost. Each time you get lost online, its always a different story; always something new.

This task has inspired me to learn in a more positive light, that the online world has more power and is more influential than we know!  

Lachie was quite enthusiastic about the whole thing:

This task has inspired me to play endless hours of the wikipedia game to satisfy my now addicted curiosity of being lost. So goodbye satnavs and goodbye readers as hours of drooling over my keyboard tirelessly playing the wikipedia game await me!

Andrew did a lot of thinking and reflecting, coming to an honest conclusion about the task of documenting the process of getting lost online –

But, this gets me thinking. If getting something that you do conciously, to become something you do subconciously, is it harder the other way around?
Immeasureable amounts of information are processed subconciously. Can we get something we do subconciously, to become something we do consciously?

I honestly have no idea.

Fantastic! Questions leading to more questions – surely this is the beginning of a healthy thinking habit.

Richard started searching ‘purple’ and got lost on the way through the wrong meaning of ‘shade’, coming across an article about ‘umbrellas used about a Bulgarian who was killied by a dose of ricin injected by a modified umbrella.’ to secret police, methods of torture and finally thought experiments and Schroedinger’s cat.

I only just realised that I was well and truly lost online, here I was reading about some wierd paradox that I have absolutely no IDEA how I ended up here. So I guess curiosity takes over the feeling of being lost online. This activity took over an hour, but it was totall worth it and I have learned a lot more about the world. Looking back on this task, I am amazed and perplexed how I started from a simple colour, purple, to a brain-frying paradox.
It must be so much more satisfying to receive a comment from your class mate than your teacher, wouldn’t you think?
On first impression, the chain of links that you followed seems rather strange, but when I read your reasoning , I felt that the process by which you got to Schrodinger’s Cat was perfectly logical and quite coherent, which surprised me as the human thought process can be quite difficult to comprehend at all. It is testament to your very well-written and highly enjoyable writing style that people will be able to read this article and connect with it.P.S. Nice one on the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox. Have you heard about Wigner’s Friend. Read it, you’ll find it quite interesting.
It’s clear when comparing first posts with those recently written that students have moved away from the kind of formal writing they consider appropriate for submission to their teacher. They’ve relaxed and become quite comfortable with writing using their own voice. They are no longer writing for the teacher in a prescriptive manner; they are writing for their peer audience, and also for their wider audience. Most of them are openly enjoying the writing task, despite the ‘weirdness’, and occasionally a student expresses criticism at what he perceives to be a meaningless task. We noticed definite cynicism expressed by a particular student recently, but, as Nick says, ‘the positive spin on …’s post is that he is thinking about his mind, and forming opinions about productive ways to use it.’
This is why we both feel the blogging experience has been valuable – students are thinking. They are thinking about the world, knowledge, themselves and about thinking itself. Their writing comes from real perceptions and is aimed at real people. And more than that, they’re sharing their thoughts with class mates and the wider world.

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Open minds welcome – Year 9s begin blogging

I’ve noticed that Melbourne High School has two mottos. One is ‘honour the work’ and the other, perhaps more recent, is ‘more than just marks’. The school is a hub of co-curricular activity which attests to that. And yet, not surprisingly for a selective school full of bright and competitive boys, the focus is largely on attaining high marks and, in particular, a high ATAR in VCE. There’s nothing wrong with that if it doesn’t interfere with what matters more – the development of a love of learning, a thirst for understanding and thinking.

When English teacher, Nicholas Fairlie, and I put our heads together in the hope of doing something different with Nick’s two Year 9 classes, we decided to try out Posterous as a blogging platform. Nick found the perfect quote by Thomas Mann to introduce the point of blogging, a quote which so beautifully expresses the reflective aspect of blogging.

Keeping a Diary

“I love this process by which each passing day is captured, not only its impressions, but also, at least by suggestion, its intellectual direction and content as well, less for the purpose of rereading and remembering than for taking stock, reviewing, maintaining awareness, achieving perspective.”

(Thomas Mann, Thomas Mann: Diaries 1918-1939)

Nick had the boys spell-bound as he introduced the project –

And so, boys, this is why we’re blogging. Not for the rightness or wrongness of our ideas, but for the having of the ideas and shaping them fit for the page. These pages will celebrate and affirm thinking: bold thinking, creative thinking, subtle and robust thinking. What goes here is valuable because it is the product of our minds and because of that will be respected by us all.

Without making a big deal of it, Nick spoke to the boys about responsible and respectful behaviour, pointing them to the guidelines:

5. Nice as it is to read encouraging comments, such as “well done” and “good job”, try to give some more feedback than this. Work on building a dialogue.
6. Keep track of what has been said by others before, and then try to provide some new viewpoints. You can also ask thoughtful questions, as there may be new and unfamiliar cultural references in other students’ photos and commentary.

Past experience has taught me that rich commenting is an art which has to be taught. So much learning takes place without much effort though – writing not just for your teacher and a mark, but for a peer audience and a potentially global readership, will open up the scope for authentic discussions and social learning.

And so we have made a start. Two classes of Year 9 boys have created their own blogs and personalised them (as they all naturally want to do), and these blogs have been linked on the front page of Nick’s blog. They have written their first blog post on a topic which has yielded some mature and thoughtful responses (to ‘We are what we know’). It was exciting to read such interesting responses to an open and abstract topic which may have intimidated much older students – a rich start to something that promises to truly be “taking stock, reviewing, maintaining awareness, achieving perspective.”

After sending out a tweet and Facebook status to promote the blogs and encourage commenting, we sat back and waited for readers to bite. My generous network jumped in immediately with responses to encourage and challenge the students in their thinking. My online colleague, Sinnika Laakio-Whybrow, from Finland, was amongst these and will no doubt impress upon the boys that their writing attracts a global audience, and that it’s just as easy to have a discussion with someone on the other side of the planet than with someone interstate.

sinikkalw responded:

I would go along with your reasoning that most of us don’t really know who we are or what exactly we know. But why is that perfectly fine with you? Wouldn’t we all be better off if everybody knew a bit more about themselves and what they know?

1 day agoAndrew Poxleitner responded:

Andrew Poxleitner
I would agree that if people knew more about themselves than they do right now, not only would they benefit, but the contributions to society would also be invaluable.Perchance I was a bit vague on this, in the post, but we also have to question ourselves on how to do so. How do we find about ourselves? I believe, at least, I’m in the dark in regards to who I am, and how to figure out who I am.
Therefore, I’m perfectly fine with the fact that maybe not many people know who they really are, because from the very start of the discovery, it’d be like picking needles out of a haystack.
Being realistic, not everyone can figure out who they are, and that’s a fact. Well, at least to me it is.

1 day agosinikkalw responded:

Technology truly is amazing, here I am on the other side of the world having a “discussion” with you!In hindsight, and with life experience, I can assure you that teenage is the very time when you really start on the lifelong journey of “finding yourself” and becoming your own independent individual. What seems like needles in a haystack to you now, will become clearer and clearer to you as years go by. If there was a reliable method of “finding your true self” that worked for everyone, I’m sure we’d know about it. The beauty of life is the journey, the process, the gradual deepening of our understanding, the willingness and openness to find out. Because not everybody can figure it out, doesn’t mean that you can’t, does it?
I’m grateful to be collaborating with a teacher who has a focus on the deep learning beyond marks, one who is excited about the possibilities of social learning and willing to take the small and larger risks associated with such a project. Our clustrmap already shows over 80 visitors from different parts of the world. Nick has been in touch over the weekend and is cooking up a meaty follow-up for the boys.
This is going to be so good. Here is the link to Yr 9 English MHS blog. Please come in to read the blogs which are linked on the right hand side of the blog. We would love you to leave a comment and add to our rich conversation.

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Filed under 21st century learning, blogging, Collaboration

Reading in a whole new way

Photo courtesy of Darren Kuropatwa on Flickr in the group Great quotes about learning and change

Debates about whether reading and writing are going to suffer in the digital age open up opportunities for reflection and discussion.  I was interested to read the Smithsonian article Reading in a whole new way about the way that reading and writing have changed and how they will continue to change.

Today some 4.5 billion digital screens illuminate our lives. Words have migrated from wood pulp to pixels on computers, phones, laptops, game consoles, televisions, billboards and tablets. Letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper, but flitter on a glass surface in a rainbow of colors as fast as our eyes can blink. Screens fill our pockets, briefcases, dashboards, living room walls and the sides of buildings. They sit in front of us when we work—regardless of what we do. We are now people of the screen. And of course, these newly ubiquitous screens have changed how we read and write.

What really interests me is the change in the way the mind works with online reading, and I think it’s very well expressed here:

Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation all the way down to the footnote. Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time. We review a movie while we watch it, we come up with an obscure fact in the middle of an argument, we read the owner’s manual of a gadget we spy in a store before we purchase it rather than after we get home and discover that it can’t do what we need it to do.

It’s important to understand the positive changes in the way we read so that we don’t get stuck in lamenting the loss of old ways of reading. Certainly I can identify with the reflex to do something while reading online. Interrupting reading to look up a definition, investigate something for deeper understanding or find others’ opinions may be mistaken for a lack of focus. Is this kind of reading really a lack of concentration or is it actually a new and different way of understanding information?

Some people never read news anywhere but online. When you read news online you can fine-tune your control of what you want to read. Hyperlinks take you straight to the source; tags and keywords make searching and finding easy. But even this kind of reading would be enriched by some form of teaching.

I think that in many ways it’s more demanding than traditional reading, and I also expect that future generations will adapt as people have always adapted to new challenges. I believe that we have the opportunity to become less passive as readers and more discerning, more willing to seek out others’ understandings and views. Again, a great teaching opportunity.

How do we as teachers help students to read fluently, thoughtfully and informatively? I hope to encourage students to use the collaborative annotation facility on Diigo to annotate and share their understandings and questions of texts. What other ways can you think of which push reading into a more connected experience?

Yes, things are changing. We’d better start thinking about the implications and reflect on what’s most important in our role as teachers.

Photo courtesy of Langwitches on Flickr

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Filed under 21st century learning, internet, teaching, technology

Problem-solving is for the birds

Problem-solving is not limited to the world of humans. It’s interesting to watch other species use thinking to solve a problem. Crows and ravens are, for me, associated with Grimms’ fairy tales and tales of dark forces, but here, thanks to Britannica Blog, we see a very practical crow persisting in reaching its goal.

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We want dot-points

dotpointgrave

Thanks to cogdogblog for the photo.

My older son has started university this year. His core subjects are Psychology and Politics, and Logic is one of his breadth subjects. Today he was telling me that some of the students in one of his Psychology classes were complaining about a particular lecturer. They thought he was too vague. What did they mean by ‘too vague’? The lecturer gave them material to read, but he didn’t specify what exactly they were supposed to learn, he didn’t give them dot points, and he didn’t make it clear what they needed for the assessment task or exam.

In other words, he expected them to read and think for themselves, to learn instead of just memorising dot points to satisfy exam criteria. According to my son, his lectures were more about making students think about things. eg. in a lecture about sensation and perception he might present an example that encouraged students to reconsider the way they perceived things, to deconstruct how they perceived reality.

What is going on in our education system that produces such an attitude to learning ?

Of course, this is a complex question which cannot be answered simply but, in my opinion, this is the result of teaching to the test, of putting all the pressure onto a final mark, an ENTER, which will allow access into a university course, which, in turn, will provide students with a job. Nothing wrong with employment. Nothing wrong with wanting further education. What is wrong, then?

The lamentable thing here is that academic success is based on performance which is made up of mastering discrete chunks of information. Why? In order to pass the assessment task or test. What is missing here is the desire to learn something because it’s interesting, because a deeper understanding enriches your life. What is also missing is the thinking behind the learning, the ability to independently read and understand, construct meaning, evaluate information, solve problems and construct creative solutions.

If students at tertiary level claim they cannot learn without the summaries or the dot points, then shouldn’t we reassess what we are teaching them? Shouldn’t we consider which skills are most important to them in their lives?

These students compared two lecturers: the one who frustrated them with the open-ended teaching method, and the one they preferred, who provided dot-point summaries, and provided notes, telling them that this was all they needed to know for the exam, and anything else they didn’t need to worry about.

My son liked the unpopular lecturer’s teaching style because it was more philosophical, more interesting because it required higher order thinking.  He said that it wasn’t the case that this lecturer would include in the exam things they hadn’t covered, it’s just that he didn’t present his information in pre-digested chunks.

What do other educators think about this? Do you see this as an isolated or general problem? What do you think are the most important skills students should leave school with? Are we preparing our students for their future world?

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Filed under Education, learning, teaching

Thinking and writing about biology

Sean Nash created a biology NING. One that even I want to join. Why is that so remarkable? Because I’m not a science person.

Sean Nash has created a NING called ‘Principles of biology: bringing life and living things into focus’. Yes, it’s about science. Yes, it contains lots of scientific facts, but it also approaches the teaching of science in a different way.

When I clicked the Forum tab at the top of the NING, I chose a discussion called ‘Synthesizing Respiration and Photosynthesis’. It doesn’t start with a long dry paragraph full of scientific facts. Instead it goes like this:

Take a good, solid read of this blog post. Read it again after thinking about it for at least five minutes. Then come back to this forum and scribble a bit creative commentary on how our study of photosynthesis and respiration allows you to really get at a deeper meaning of the post entitled: Grinding Grain by Dr. Doyle.

What is remarkable? The topic is introduced by a blog post. A blog is a discursive thing. The blog is called Science teacher: breaking out of the classroom into the world. That already tells you something. The blog begins with a poem about grinding grain by Antipator of Thessalonica, 85 B.C., and it’s descriptive in a way that makes you feel the process physically.

I love the fact that the instructions that go with the reading of the blog post recommend a second reading after a few minutes of thought. Thinking is part of the instructions! And what follows is not a summary, not a copy and paste of facts, but instructions to

scribble a bit creative commentary on how our study of photosynthesis and respiration allows you to really get at a deeper meaning of the post entitled: Grinding Grain by Dr. Doyle.

That’s ‘how’ and ‘deeper meaning’ in the same sentence. Now, brace yourselves, but here’s what follows as instruction:

A description in less than 100 words that is sufficiently creative that at least two classmates leave thoughtful, vote-like comments to… would be worth a measly few (yet potentially powerful) extra credit points to add to your pile.

What’s amazing here?

Description, not summary.

Creative. Enough said.

Requiring response of others. Interaction, whereby your description is required to initiate response in another person. Writing about your response, effecting a response in someone else.

Can this be science?

And here’s the clincher:

What do you get from this? What does it make you think of? Does it allow you to see, or understand anything in a deeper way?

Thinking, evaluating, deeper understanding.

Here is one of the students’ responses:

The knowledge we gained through learning about cellar respiration and photosynthesis really helped to understand what he was saying. As he described what it felt like to turn the wheel, “First my right arm, then my left. I can feel my biceps swell. My legs work, too, shifting my weight back and forth with each pass of the milling wheel. My breathing picks up.” I can now easily understand why he begins to breath more readily, and when he begins to describe photosynthesis, and the creation of the wheat I can really follow what he says instead of being more lost than anything else (paragraph 7). The best place I could see that the knowledge was very relevant was when he begins to show how photosynthesis works in one direction, and that cellular respiration sort of reverses the process ((paragraph 7)

I love the reflection on the learning process at the end of the lesson. There are so many things I love about this way of teaching.

Who said that science was separate from literacy?

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Filed under 21st century learning, creativity, Education, learning, writing