Innovation in the Hunter Region – Part 1

Last year, in fact over the past couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to observe classrooms where innovation is taking place and students are being effectively engaged in the learning process.

It started back in 2011 when a fellow English teacher I admire, Bianca Hewes, posted on a her blog about a videoconference she did with someone in my region, a certain Neil Fara, head teacher HSIE at Irrawang HS who was doing some interesting things centred around student engagement. (You can check out his blog here to follow the Project REAL journey). Neil kindly offered me the chance to come and visit his classroom.

It was a wonderful experience to say the least. Here was someone doing what I wanted to be doing, and it was working! Now, being the person I am, I couldn’t just sit back and observe so I walked around the room (actually two classrooms with the dividing wall removed – a great metaphor for change in education if I ever saw one) engaging students in conversations about what they were learning. There was a relaxed, yet busy vibe to the room that was inspiring.

Neil’s approach has been to “flip” (not just in the now trendy flipped classroom sense) the way the environment and learning is structured. His students have all the work for the semester loaded onto their laptops and make their way through the content at their own, personalised, pace. What was particularly interesting for me was where this change in pedagogy had come from- the students themselves. Neil and his staff had surveyed the students to find out what they disliked about the subject and about teaching, and their voices were heard. Student voice in action!

What I was also able to witness was their differentiated model of assessment where students were allowed to demonstrate their learning and mastery of the subject in diverse ways. A year 10 girl learning about the Vietnam war and the effects of post traumatic stress disorder had composed a song about a Vietnam veteran’s experience. The video is on the Project REAL website, well worth the look. Also included are several other examples of authentic, engaging assessment tasks.

I remember driving home from the experience so enthused about the possibilities of student engagement and student voice, and that one visit continues as an inspiration to me to help remind me of what is possible when change seems far off.

As Molly would say, “do yourself a favour” and head on over to the Project REAL website to find out more.

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ITL Research, ICT, Innovative Teaching & the moral imperative

I am currently reading the ITL Research findings report, paying particular attention to the section written by Michael Fullan where he discusses innovative teaching & learning (p33). One piece that struck home with me was his discussion of the 3rd driver of system reform which is that ‘pedagogy needs to drive technology‘ and that the ITL research shows that ‘when pedagogy ( innovative teaching practices) is clearly the focus a lot of other things fall into place, including strong use of ICT, and improving the learning of 21st century skills on the part of students.’

One complaint made by many teachers (and I am guilty of it myself) since the advent of 1:1 computers in the DER program is that technology becomes just another distraction from the learning that should be happening (and ‘used to happen back in my day’ etc.). It is all too easy to blame the laptops for distracting the students (playing flash games when they should be typing up the notes from the board). Technology is seen as the bane of a teacher’s existence, or at least an annoying consideration that we shouldn’t have to deal with, we’ve got to get tougher on these kids, etc. Ban the laptops, burn them (ok that was going a bit too far).

The point I am trying to make here is that rather than seeing laptop technology as an annoyance (or a curse) the REAL problem here, and the one we’d rather ignore, is that increased ICT access highlights the lack that is inherent in so much teaching and learning.

Lack of relevance
Lack of engagement
Lack of meaning

Rather than seeing increased ICT access as a negative, we should see it as an opportunity for us to reassess what we’re teaching and what the students are learning and to make the teaching/learning process more engaging, relevant & meaningful.

It means we’ll have to modify, alter or even throw out what we’ve been comfortably delivering for many years. We’ll have to begin to ask students what is relevant for them. We’ll have to find new ways to engage and challenge these young minds. This is our new moral imperative (or perhaps it has always been our imperative) and we must not turn our backs from the future to waste our/their time looking back at a sepia tone past.