Virtual Creatures in a Botanical Garden

An article from the Sydney Morning Herald with the headline, Video games in school: Pokémon Go used to teach science, popped into my feed this morning.  As is often the case it was a bit clickbaity, but I do understand the need for this in our media.  What it actually meant was that some students captured a Pokémon Go character in the botanical gardens, and then the science teacher talked about the plant life seeing they were now there at the gardens.  Lured there if you will.

 
I don’t have a problem with games in learning but I do get concerned when some educators think that we need to tap into the latest game or fad that comes along to help motivate our learners.  Comments like “We’re using what the kids already like to do to get to our outcomes,…” are worrying for me sometimes.  The half-life of popular games and toys is generally quite short and I don’t think we should be expecting that teachers tap into the latest hit game in the market place.

 
Fidget spinners were all the rage for a short while and I saw a number of posts about incorporating them into learning.  In my neck of the woods, fidget spinners are so ‘last month’ and the students have moved on. Pokémon go is but a distant memory.  My view tends to be if the students are obsessed with these things at home, the last thing I should be doing is encouraging more use at school.  (Call me old –fashioned).

 
The other troubling aspect is this quote from the article. “Most major textbook publishers now have in-house game developers…”.  I think we need to continually cast a critical eye over this sort of development.  Perhaps not outrageous conspiracy theories about evil neoliberal villains profiting from students, but nonetheless we need to be cautious.

 
There is a place for online games in class, but I think we need to use them sparingly and with a very clear understanding of what our motives are for using them.  Vague ideas about motivating students need to carefully assessed.

 

In short, rather than luring students to the garden by chasing virtual creatures on a screen, leave the devices behind and stroll to the garden.  For me, that’s a bit closer to real life learning.

Living and Teaching in the Slow Lane

Around the start of this year, 2017, I noticed some unusual things happening. I began to frequently drop things like full cups of coffee, bowls of spaghetti, and most alarmingly glasses of French vodka. I also began running into things, or more precisely not taking a wide enough berth around objects like door jams and kitchen benches, particularly island kitchen benches became more difficult to circumnavigate. This coincided with problems with memory, or more particularly memory of things I had been asked to do. (My wife believes this was not a new development).

After much protesting, snarling and gnashing of teeth, I relented and we went to our local GP. He performed a battery of tests and promptly announced that he was very concerned and that I needed a CT brain scan quite urgently. Within hours I was at hospital and the scan was done. During the scan I actually fell asleep despite the farcical cacophony of sounds these machines make. While I was deeply anxious, this also made me very tired and so I nodded off. My doctor rang an hour or so later, and in between grumbling about his new Porsche SUV managed to convey that he would ring as soon as he got the results.

I was awoken around 10 hours later by the unmistakeable opening guitar riffs to Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ echoing in my ears. It was the doc with the happy news that there indeed was something on my brain that shouldn’t be there, and this would explain the changes I had been witnessing. He then verbally delivered two dot points that don’t marry well. Don’t panic and it doesn’t look good.

To move the story along the neurologists etc did their tests and 2 months later proudly announced that while things earlier appeared grim, the general feeling was that this intruder in my brain would not pose a threat to my life and limb. In fact the hitchhiker in my cerebellum was already starting to lose interest. Unusually my uninvited guest now started to have a profoundly positive impact on my life simply by making me slow down. My strategies to overcome dropping things and running into things was too simply do everything at a more sedate pace.

I now pick up coffee and vodka slowly, I drink it slowly. I walk around the house and out and about in public, slowly. I speak more slowly, after spending extra time to think. I spend a lot of time just sitting, musing, and looking around. Not daydreaming, just thinking, slowly. I’ve brought my new snail philosophy into the classroom. I speak more slowly; I have long pauses while I wait to see if everyone is on board. While I’ve always done this, now it’s far more noticeable. While it at first seemed a bit awkward, it now feels natural and I think it’s been a help to the students. My feedback is concise and considered and simple. Together we know that we will take our time and get the job done. Yes there is a lot to get through, but we will get to it when we are good and ready and not before. I used to stay in class at breaks and help students who were struggling a bit. Now I know that I need a break and so does the student. At playtime we play, no work. Oddly enough by slowing down, we seem to get more done.

I’ve changed the way I go about the endless distractions that go along with teaching. I’ve culled my email system to the bare bones. Student and parent email are answered, and any others are culled depending on my new rating system. The new system is basically lots of deleting while I say, “Computer says no.” I never spend more than an hour after school working. When the alarm on my phone goes off, I leave. Slowly yes, but I leave. I take zero work home. This was difficult for me to do at the start but now I find it perfectly fine to leave things unfinished. I have simplified everything about my teaching and savagely culled what I regard as all but the most important elements. So my new mantra is ‘Slow”. I say it to myself a dozen times a day. I’m a better teacher and person for it. My family get more of me and I get more of myself.

If others want to be superhero, champion teachers, who are answering their life’s calling, so be it. Good luck to them. For those who see being last out of the car park as a real achievement, again, good luck to them. And for those who hate being last to leave but have little option because of their workload, slow down.

A wise friend said to me the other night. Teaching is a job. It’s a good job, an important job. But it’s just a job. My advice, do it slowly.

 

The Trogs and the Prads. Episode 1

Once before, (no not upon) a time there was two tribes. Each tribe had loosely shared goals and philosophies that were strung together with gaffer tape and some liberally glued semantics. The tribes were named the Trogs and the Prads, and each wore their gang colours with ebullient helpings of pride. While the tribes generally kept to themselves, over time they had begun to inhabit the same forest, the strangely named Curricugodgy Wood. The coming together of the two tribes led to a violent outbreak of rank stupidity.

Whenever individual members of either tribe ignored the pleas of elders to stick to the pathways and not venture into the dark wood, violent attacks would be the outcome. If some poor bumbling Prad wondered alone, he or she would soon be pitiless prey for the roaming squads of Trogs who moved stealthily around, jealously guarding their territory. At times the Trog squads would devour the defenceless creature, and other times just hunt them for sport.

The Prads themselves were excellent hunters known for their ferocity and tenacity in expanding their territories. They took great pride in hiding out near a fortified Trog stronghold and ambushing any who dared venture close or even whisper it’s name. Like the Trogs, the Prads hunted in fighting armour made almost entirely of a particular thread made of pomposity interwoven with self-admiration. It was almost impenetrable, (almost) to any kind of weapon dipped in thoughtful, measured and reasoned questioning. The tribes matched each other blow for blow, and rarely achieved any new ground to stake their respective claims upon. Until one day…..

The Prads had been keeping a wary eye on a new tribe who had set up a very modern village in a valley adjacent to Curricugodgy Wood. The valley was called Sillycone Valley and its strange inhabitants were the Corpreneurs. Now the Corpreneurs were thriving in their valley due to the fact they were colonising all around them without so much as a USB cable to use as a weapon. While they appeared to be a very peace loving people, Corpreneurs had the peculiar ability to talk you out of your property and rights before you could bat an eyelid. They lured you onto the battlefield, started talking gibberish, and by the time you got home your castle was gone. There were many a person who had gone into battle with the Corpreneurs and been left with nothing but a pathetic,insecure grin to show for it.

The Prads admired these new Corpreneur raiders and their battle tactics, and decided to form a coalition with them. Nothing in writing mind you, but an unspoken understanding that they were fighting a common enemy. The Trogs greeted this new alliance between the Prads and Corpreneurs with ridicule and disdain. Well, just long enough until they realised that the war had swung against them somewhat, and that they may well have to seek a similar affiliation.  They started sending feelers out to other valleys.

There are two other tribes I haven’t spoken of, the Teachlings and the Learnlings. Their number far outweighed the total of the Trogs, Prads, and Corpreneurs combined. Unfortunately while strong in number the poor Teachlings and Learnlings held little sway in the woods and valleys where they toiled everyday. They mostly dutifully accepted their lowly place in the pecking order. (The Prads often got the Teachlings and Learnlings mixed up, which annoyed both no end). Occasionally you would see a timid little Teachling standing at the front door of their house sipping a cold cup of tea or coffee. They took little notice of the wars raging around them. When all the tiny learnlings they had taken under their wing were shuffled inside, the door was closed, and the really important stuff could begin……

Mark Johnson

@markxsyst

I reject your experiences and substitute my own.

Another week and another visitor to a school in Wembley blogging about their positive experience, and of course attacked on twitter for daring to say these things. What is it about our digital identities that allow us to dismiss the experiences of others (which we wouldn’t do in person) despite never having visited the school? I think it’s about planting a flag and virtually saying, “None shall pass”. Is there another way?

What if you vehemently disagreed with the educational philosophy of a school, you regarded it as draconian, inflexible and damaging to students, and against everything you believe, or know, or the research you align to or have done yourself? Now imagine you are about to speak to a child who has moved to the school. They tell you at their previous school they were bullied and intimidated and unruly classrooms constantly disrupted their learning. They had had a miserable time there. Now they are happy and confident and excited to be in an environment where they feel they are actually learning. Do you tell them they are wrong? Do you tell them that the school is damaging them and they are being treated poorly? Do you dismiss their experience as invalid?

What if a student was coming from a very strict academic environment where they were miserable and constantly in trouble? What if they were now in an educational environment where there was lot more freedom and students drove their own curriculum? You might be inclined to think that this is a recipe for disaster, and not helpful for disadvantaged students. Would you tell the student who has now adopted a more positive self-image and is actually doing something with their learning and has improved their behaviour no end? Do you dismiss their experience as invalid?

This is a simplistic notion of imagining that before you spit venom or ridicule what a school is doing (no matter how much they promote themselves) think about a scenario where you are talking to a student who is happy and confident at this school. What might your reaction be now? How might that change where you plant your virtual flag? Indeed, how might that re-frame how you think about your digital identity?

The answers to these question are complex and varied, yet they can be made very straightforward. No school should be above criticism, but if you haven’t seen it through the eyes of those who are there, what would you say to the students who feel they belong and are valued?

Mj

@markxsyst

Teachers are Creativity Crushers

There seems to be a bit of a resurgence of late in the tired, hackneyed, Sir Ken Robinson mantra ‘schools kill creativity’. While it is definitely jaded, a bit of spit and polish brings it up like new. While I have no problem with people having this view, I expect them to be honest and admit that they must also have a poor opinion of teachers to think that schools really do kill creativity.

No I know that people, including Sir Ken, will say that it’s not the teachers it’s the school system that has students slumped stupefied at their desks or snoring in their lime green bean bags. In fact many doomsayers will proclaim they have great admiration for teachers. But if ‘schools’ murder creativity, then teachers, who are actually doing the teaching, where the rubber meets the road if you will, must be complicit in this, or at the very least helpless to inspire student creativity.

You can’t have it both ways. Teachers are great inspirational professionals, but schools are suffocating the lifeblood out of kids, just doesn’t wash. Funnily enough the educators that blog and tweet the Robinson mantra, rarely say that their own classrooms are creative wastelands. If fact you are most likely to hear the schools kill creativity war cry during edchats about creativity and innovation, where everybody is telling each other that their classrooms are positively awash with creative juices.

So I’m hopeful that we can move on from a profession that stands and cheers when charismatic entertainers proclaim that our places of work are hollowed out shells of pathetic, mind numbing, robotic conformity. I’ve been a public school teacher for a long time, and I never cease to be amazed at the creativity and innovation going on in our classrooms. If you are an educator and you don’t agree, it might be time for you to try your luck on the celebrity speaking circuit. Remember, the harder you sink the boot into schools, the more popular you will be.

Trump’s wall can’t match our Personal Walls.

There has been quite an outpouring of protest and grief since the election of Donald Trump as US president. This has grown considerably in the first few days of his administration. There a range of hashtags out there in which you may denounce the new president. #notourpresident sums up much of these feelings. I’m certainly supportive of people democratically registering their individual protest, but I want to argue that by doing this in response to Trump betrays a wall building mindset of our own in the west.

It is not surprising that we are seeing howls of outrage at Trump’s machinations. Some of his proposals seem positively draconian and as we speak he is enacting laws that appear very divisive. To be fair he was elected on much of this platform, wall building and restricting visas etc. The interesting side of this outrage is that it has surfaced solely because it is occurring in the west and it’s capital, the USA, and impacts heavily on the western world we inhabit, which is very much governed by powerful influences in the States. The US of course dominates institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank. It pilots the course for much of the world through a whole range of measures, very few that aren’t in the best interests of the US.

Against this backdrop we have had appalling human rights atrocities occurring in the non-western world for many a long year. The epicenter of this in recent decades has been the Middle East. Stunning numbers of innocent civilians in a number of Middle Eastern countries have lost their lives, and much of it the direct result of western intervention. (With western MSM dutifully grinding out the propaganda to support these efforts and cover up the slaughter with misinformation and lies). When a terrorist attacks in a western city we get wall to wall coverage and outrage from western leaders. When terrorist attacks happen on almost a daily basis in the Middle East, whether it be western bombs raining down on Syria or Yemen or suicide bombers in Pakistan, we are largely unmoved. We build our own personal walls to insulate ourselves from those unfortunates in destitute lands. Doing so allows us the righteous indignation to protest against Trump’s ‘evils’.

By constructing our own fortresses so that we may ignore the plight of non-western ‘others’ we are increasingly feeling safe and comforted by our enclosures, in a world that MSM tells us is becoming more dangerous by the moment.  We seal ourselves off from the notion of global justice and equity by protesting against visa bans, while dismissing the bombing of the very people these bans impact on. Western MSM conveniently tells us when to be outraged and by what and by how much. We throw a cloak of invisibility over the plight of  the Middle East and Africa and march triumphantly and tweet and Facebook to demand ‘our’ rights. If you are suddenly outraged by Trump’s presidency, I applaud you. I do ask that we try take down some of our walls, or at least peak over them to attempt to understand and possibly empathize with the horrific plight of others caused by western governments, but that don’t directly or indirectly impact on ourselves. I’m as guilty as anyone of diverting my gaze so as to avoid discomfort.

I believe that perhaps the way forward for all on the planet is for those in the west to begin dismantling our personal comforts walls and strive harder to protest against injustices that aren’t of personal interest to us and aren’t dictated by western MSM. The construction of barriers we build around ourselves are far more restrictive than anything Trump can build. We are essentially constructing our own personal prisons and greatly restricting our intellectual and moral freedoms.  We may pay heavily for this in the future.

I Hope My Students Don’t Think like Me.

Through many parts of the Western world and of course America, we are seeing mass protests against President Trump. I personally think, like many, many others, that Trump is ill-equipped to handle the presidency. But what is deeply troubling to me, is that among those calling for people to stand up and fight for compassion, understanding and tolerance, (which are surely worthy ideals) very few would have protested against President Obama for those same ideals. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that those protesting only value socially just principles for Westerners, or they are unaware of the appalling human rights record of President Obama in the Middle East and Sub- Saharan Africa. I like to believe the latter is more probable. Nonetheless, we surely want our students to grow up to be active participants in fighting for social justice for all on the planet, not just when those rights are visibly challenged in the West. For this to happen we need to help our students to be far better informed than we are.

Our views are of course shaped by our personal experiences and biases. If you follow me on Twitter you will be well aware that I post stories, many from outside Western Main Stream Media, that shine a light on an endless litany of human rights violations committed by the Obama administration in the Middle East and Africa. I’m sure many followers find this counter narrative to the ‘cool, caring and charismatic’ Obama, quite tiresome. It was brought on by a deeply moving personal experience with friends of mine who live in the Middle East. But we don’t and shouldn’t need personal experiences or an obvious narcissist bully like Trump to encourage our students to look behind the heavily laden propaganda curtain of Western MSM and seek out different points of view.

We surely want our students to ask the questions: Who is saying this, why are they saying it, and is anyone saying something different? We want them to ask, do I have all the information here, do I have enough knowledge to make an informed opinion? It’s not post-truth or brexit or Trump or fake news that requires us to make an extra effort to make sure our students are well-informed to rise to the challenge of combating intolerance and bigotry and injustice. It’s the acceptance on our behalf, the adults, that Western MSM has all the answers we need to be informed. We want our students to move beyond our own privileged, selective, hypocritical outrage. I don’t want our students to be horrified by western politicians who suggest we ban Muslim immigration, but indifferent or unknowing of western politicians who support and fund genocide in a Muslim nation such as Yemen.

If we want our children to fight for a more socially just future for everybody, we have to do more than stand up for the things that Western MSM instructs us to. We have to encourage our students to ask questions about the news and information they are receiving. Again, this is not because we are in some strange new world of fake news and post-truth evidenced by Trump and Brexit. But because Western Media has never been about truth. We regard with cynicism and a degree of mirth the journalistic restrictions in countries like Russia and China, while blissfully unaware of our own Western propaganda machine. Standing up for things that we see are unjust is right and proper. I want our children to grow up and challenge the injustices that us as adults don’t see.

For many in the west the election of Trump is seen as a nightmare. For many in the Middle East the election of Trump provides a glimmer of hope. A false hope perhaps, but a Clinton administration with a ‘business as usual’ foreign policy map was too much to bear. A personal experience that touched me in a profound way made me seek out different perspectives beyond the Western bubble in the way that I used to. Over the last few years I have become lazy and found it much easier to just hook myself up to the McCola generation of western fast food news. It’s terrible nutritionally because it’s basically empty of different perspectives, but it’s satisfying and rewarding and addictive. I want more stories about celebrities booing and hissing Trump, and beatifying Obama. I want to hear lots more about the evils of Putin and how the US are the last troubadours standing and singing songs of freedom for all. I crave the simplicity so that I may sit in righteous indignation in my media room, content with knowledge that I am ‘in the know’. I just don’t want the children in my classroom to grow up thinking like me.

Two Worlds. PISA is Everybody’s Football

This blog is inspired by a person whose opinion I value greatly. With all the drama surrounding the PISA rankings, it is increasingly obvious that many on twitter with an interest have taken a side and then lectured to each other. The only ones listening though seemed to be those who liked what they heard, although that may be a bit unkind.  My recent conversation with a valued friend was far and away the most enlightening view on the whole fiasco, and indeed challenged my thinking.

When the PISA rankings were released the drama quickly unfolded in the media, which surprised exactly no one I imagine. Then, the go-to argument quickly settled on the suggested national phonics check. There were howls of outrage from teachers and some academics. The thrust of the push back argument was that teachers already do this so why waste time and money on what would surely develop into a task for monitoring teachers.  (I personally can’t see the value in the phonics check, but what do I know?).  Those against the phonics check quickly counter-punched with the less than equitable funding in Australian education as a major reason for our apparent PISA disaster. (Both sides seemed to yell out ‘silver bullet’ to each other, but that’s twitter for you.)

Some in favour pointed to the extraordinary results coming out of the U.K. since they introduced the national phonics check.   I’m wary of drawing much from results from other countries but open to suggestions. My knowledgeable friend made the point that the U.K. results are  ‘statistically unusual’ and are what happens when you turn a ‘measure into an objective’.

pisa

The thing is both sides are a little bit right. More equitable funding is a worthwhile goal, as is trying to get teachers and leaders to improve their practice.  From my oracle, “PISA comes out, we’ve slipped again, and no one has a project. Just folks shouting at each other, with no attempt to build consensus. If you want to find out where the problems are, it is SA, Tas, NT. But it is about much more than the funding, it’s the meeting of the school system with these external factors that need to be investigated. We don’t understand why social/cultural realities in these states impact achievement. What happens in school? What should they do? What are they doing that works well? What could they do better?”

I’m lucky enough to work with people who have gone into ‘under-performing’ schools to help with literacy programs/coaching. Their stories are perhaps surprising to some. There are schools with no consistent phonics programs to speak of. There are schools with no structured reading program. There are schools with no consistent language across their campus regarding literacy. Instead of arguing about the phonics check, perhaps we could acknowledge that not all school systems have literacy nailed down, (including phonics) and like any other profession some educators need lots of help. ( I know I’m constantly thinking I should be doing better, but that’s another story.)

Could those arguing for the phonics check broaden their outlook and acknowledge that phonics is embedded in most ITE courses? Could we agree that once teachers start their career, schools of education have no control of the teaching practice of their graduates? The best phonics teaching in the world doesn’t guarantee anything in the wild.

Some insightful words again from my learned friend. “We had these conversations (in school improvement versus out of school improvement) 10 years ago. We continue to have them. Nothing changes. They are both right, ……………….. but are only a bit right. They need each other, but can’t see it. Two worlds. And as you say, kids end up unable to read. Which is a tragedy. And we never come together to forge a plan.”

From my point of view I think this might be our problem then. Two worlds, divided, and sneering at each other, while we have kids in high school that can’t read. We need to get phonics teaching right, and equitable funding organized and much, much more. But most of all perhaps we need the two worlds to become one. Patronizing? Maybe. Idealistic? Possibly. Worth a shot? Absolutely.

PISA at a Vegan Cafe

Deep in the bowels of a vegan cafe over a couple of almond milk lattes:

“Fuckin pollies and media ripping into teachers again about the PISA rankings. Look at the these fuckin headlines will you! Not one fuckin solitary word about inequitable funding and social disadvantage fueling these results. I mean if you break this PISA shit down it’s all there. Ah, hello, fuckin Northern Territory starved of funds and resources, what do they expect? Oh and Tassie.

“Is Tassie short-changed in funding too?”

“I don’t think so. Fuck knows what goes on down there. But the point is, ACT are fuckin flying! The pollies make sure their own backyard gets the best turf. Ya with me?”

“Absolutely!”

“ACT are the fuckin Shangai of Australia. Except this year Shanghai have had to add their results to other districts.”

“How did that work out.”

“Shithouse according to these PISA boffins.”

“So what’s our response to Oz results?”

“Well the media need a story so fuck em, but unless our fuckin pollies are even remotely interested in tackling this appalling inequity in funding, nothing will change, nothing.”

“So what now”.

“This is as good as it gets I’m afraid, without equitable funding we are destined to slide down the rankings.”

“Nothing else we can do?”

“I doubt it.”

“Does it matter how we compare to other countries?”

“Who fuckin knows, it’s a shitscramble!”

“Yeh.”

“Fuck these almond lattes are awful.”

“Mine’s all right.”

“We all have different fuckin tastes I guess.”

“Yeh true that. Hey speaking of Tassie. You holidaying down there at chrissie again?.

“Beautiful part of the world mate.”

“Yeh true that.”