There is something heroic about working away on a computer while the rest of the world sleeps, with only a cup of tea and a distant street lamp to keep one company. But the health benefits of caffeine-fuelled nights are yet to be discovered. Thus it was that around four weeks ago I decided that a radical change in my lifestyle was in order.
One of the hazards of teaching youngsters about educational technology -- well, any subject I suppose -- is that it's all too easy to become predictable.
What's a database for? Storing data. Yawn. What's a spreadsheet for? Modelling. Snooze. Yes, I know that we have to address such things -- indeed, would be failing in our obligations if we didn't -- but sometimes it does a lot of good to be a little 'left field' about it all, where possible.
Here are some ideas.
1. Look out for modern dress productions of Shakespeare
One of the best I've ever seen was a production of Julius Caesar. There were many fine moments in it, but the two which really stood out for me were the following:
In Act 1 Scene 2, Cassius says to Casca,
"Will you sup with me tonight, Casca?",
to which Casca replies,
"No, I am promised forth."
I the production I referred to, Casca didn't answer straight away. Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a PDA, flipped it open, checked it for a few seconds, closed it, and put it away, and then said,
"I am promised forth."
Marvellous! Needless to say, the audience laughed its collective head off.
Later in the play, the action takes place in Mark Antony's camp. In this production, as the curtains draw apart we saw someone putting sheets of paper through a shredding machine. From an Eng Lit point of view this is wonderful, because it sows a few seeds of doubt in the audience's mind: what's being shredded, and why? Is Mark Anthony as squeaky clean as we were perhaps led to believe?
A very good film is Ian McKellan's Richard The Third, in which the first scene opens with a tickertape being transmitted. There's a discussion about technology in itself. If you teach modern history and you want to convey what Hitler's Germany was like, or a Citizenship teacher wanting to discuss ethics and loyalty, you could do a lot worse than show this film.
2. Bring old stories up to date
Similar to the first idea, this is all about getting the class to think about how modern technology would have been used by historical figures.
A good one I tried once was about Jesus. Instead of preaching the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps he'd have used YouTube. What difficulties might he have faced (a) getting his message across to as many people as possible, and (b) being believed?
Once you start to look at these things in a modern setting, the ideas, and even the language, seem less remote. In this way, focusing on modern technology can help to make subjects like history and Religious Education more comprehendible.
3. Look for alternative ways of presenting concepts
For example, I love this spreadsheet poem.
It's another way of getting the pupils to think about mathematical relationships. You could ask them to work out the relationships for themselves, before showing them the poem. You could devise a much simpler one, and then ask them to do the same.
4. Use technology to help you see things in different ways
I witnessed a very effective art lesson (for teachers) once, in which the tutor gave out digital cameras and instructed the teachers to go out and take pictures of textures. "Get right up close and personal", he told them. And they did: close-ups of brickwork and carpet tiles, to mention just two, were enough to stimulate discussion about texture, pattern, colours and shadows.
5. Use your imagination
Or rather, get the students to use theirs. How could a writer make use of a handheld camcorder, for example? Or, turning this idea on its head, what yet-to-be-invented gadget would be a real boon to an author?
You don't have to know the answers to such questions, because the important thing is the discussion and presentation which ensue.
6. Get reading
In the current issue of The Author, the Society of Author's magazine, there is an article about the use of historical fiction in the teaching of history:
"Rebecca Sullivan, CEO of the Historical Association, a charity that exists to promote and support the study and teaching of history at all levels, [said] 'Fiction can engage pupils and open them to more thought and study. Teachers use historical fiction because it improves historical understanding in pupils.'"
How much use of fiction do teachers of ICT use? There are some rich pickings, such as:
The dialogue between the astronaut and Hal, the all-powerful computer, in 2001: A Space Odyssey
The marvellous piece from Asimov, The Machine That Won the War
The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys,
And last but not least, the brilliant news flash, 'Time travel is possible'
These stories can be great starting points for discussion, not only in the educational technology classroom, but for other subjects too.
7. Designing the classroom
Finally, a nice activity is a project in which pupils, working in groups, have to analyse the classroom and come up with ways in which it could be enhanced with technology. Part of that will have to include any refurbishments which may be necessary to accommodate the changes (such as a storage facility for a class set of mp3 recorders).
Needless to say, groups should present their findings and ideas to the rest of the class and even, if there's a particularly mouth-watering idea, to the Principal.
The thing that all of these ideas have in common is that they stray from the 'norm', and that gives them a bit of a punch.
What 'outside the box' ideas have you used to teach technology, or with technology?
If you enjoyed reading this article, you will probably find this one useful too:
What do the Cambridge Primary Review, the 14-19 Diploma and walking down Piccadilly have in common?
In the evening of 19 October 2009 I attended the launch of the Cambridge Review of the Primary Curriculum, at the Royal Society of Arts. What the report brings out is the fact that there is much that children know, understand and can do. This will not be news to anyone who believes that children are (or could and should be) active agents in their own education as opposed to empty vessels into which a teacher pours knowledge. Anyone who believes that teaching is more than merely following a script written by a third party, which is about as creative as painting-by-numbers, knows this.
Indeed, my own small-scale research (please see References), and the research which Miles Berry and I undertook (ditto), shows this to be the case. So hearing it emphasised at such a meeting and in such a robust publication was most welcome.
It was interesting to learn, for example, that when asked what makes a good teacher, the children came up with the same answers instantly as academic researchers take eons to discover! The teacher must know their stuff, make learning fun, and tell the class in advance what they will be covering.
(I intend to write a separate article about the Cambridge Review, but I'd like to go on record now as saying I think it's a seminal piece of work, and likely to prove the modern-day equivalent of the Plowden Report (and no doubt suffer the same fate). I haven't read the final bit about ICT thoroughly yet, but was impressed enough by the statement, at the launch, that ICT was seen as fundamental a type of literacy as oracy or numeracy, and not merely as an instrument for achieving something else, to say that perhaps I was wrong when I said the educational ICT community should reject the ICT aspects of the report. But, as I say, I will write more when I have read more)
The following day I attended a Westminster Forum on the subject of Diplomas and Apprenticeships, as I have already mentioned. There are two dangers in education. One is that conference organisers too often fail to include young people as an integral part of the programme. Another is that good ideas like the Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills will end up as just more sets of tickboxes for teachers to complete.
I am delighted to say that my worse fears on both counts were allayed at the seminar. Not only did the organisers have the good sense to include a talk by a young person, the school had the good sense to choose an excellent spokesperson!
Victoria is undertaking the Advanced Diploma in Engineering, and was one of the most articulate speakers I've heard. In her allotted five minutes she managed to convey vividly the benefits and challenges of the Diploma, and what doing it has meant for her personally.
She also said, in response to a question of mine, that her teacher's ability to teach the course improved dramatically after s/he had attended an Inside The Workplace event as part of their professional development!
Victoria was accompanied by a friend, who sat in the front row giving her moral support, and who was also prepared to assist in answering questions. In speaking to their teacher I found out that preparing for, taking part in and attending such events was all part of the school's approach to teaching Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills.
Finally, whilst walking down Piccadilly writing the draft for this article in my head, I was brought back to the here and now by a girl asking me if I knew where Regents Street was. I replied that I did, and that it would be easier for me to take her there than to try to give directions (and before you leap to any conclusions, I should mention that she was accompanied by her mother!). We got chatting, and it turns out that the reason she was in London was to attend St James's Palace, where she was presented with her Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award by Prince Philip, the Duke himself. Just listening to the catalogue of what she had done in order to achieve the award was enough to make me feel exhausted!
So what do these three episodes have in common? I think the obvious conclusion is that young people know and can do an awful lot, given the right set of circumstances. So, as far as ICT is concerned, what are the 'right circumstances'? I would suggest the following:
- Start from the premise that the young person in front of you knows a lot, but is keen to know more.
- Provide a real challenge, as far as possible, not a made up, and therefore irrelevant, one.
- If audience is involved, let it be a real and important audience. Victoria sat next to, and was spoken to by, Tim Boswell, MP. That's more than a lot of adults have done. And it's so much more meaningful than having an 'audience' of several thousand unknown people on YouTube in my opinion.
- Build the teaching and learning of Functional Skills, Personal Learning and Thinking Skills and other kinds of skill into the work itself, not as some kind of artificial add-on.
- Make learning enjoyable.
- Treat the young people as adults, as far as possible. At least, treat them with respect: the ideas and opinions and scenarios they come up with may pleasantly surprise you.
- Make sure you and your colleagues obtain relevant and enjoyable professional development.