Thursday, December 20, 2012

Will Narcism Soar or Will Self Consciousness Win Out?

Ask anyone I know and they'll tell you that I think technology is, by and large, pretty cool. One topic that's gaining more interest, and which will require much more research, is the effect(s) that modern technology has on our brain.  For instance, research has been under way for a number of years with a particular emphasis on memory and I don't think it will surprise anyone that we tend not to remember phone numbers anymore.  The effects of the explosion of technology use on our brains leaves literally thousands of avenues to be explored, but one that I find fascinating will be playing itself out over the next ten to fifteen years and the results may be interesting.

Advances in technology have brought huge advances in the ability to personalize products and digitize personal information, images and sound in particular.  Kids born recently will be the first generation to grow up with these "ubiquity of self" capabilities.  How will this affect them?  What effect will seeing literally thousands of images of themselves before they enter school have on how they see themselves in relation to the rest of the world?  Humans  evolved in a world where images other than crude cave paintings didn't exist, and it wasn't until the past 200 years or so that anyone other than the rich could afford the luxury of seeing (much less worrying about!) what they looked like.  When I was growing up families had a handful of pictures around the house commemorating special events, with a few more tucked safely into albums.  Today in our house, again thanks to technology, our walls are adorned with scores of pictures of our two young kids doing wonderful things and looking impossibly cute.  And given modern digital storage capabilities, that's just the tip of the iceberg for images of our kids.  How will this play out as the current (and future) generations of young people grow up bombarded with images of themselves?  Will we see an increase in self assuredness or will it morph into self absorption and narcism?  Adolescent anxiety is on the rise, is there a connection?

We've also seen an explosion in the ability to "personalize" virtually anything.  From Christmas videos from Santa to toddlers having their early writing attempts published for free in hard bound books, where the 20th century was about mass production of gazillions of identical items, the 21st century is all about using technology to make each and every kid feel special about every thing they do.  Again, I wouldn't miss the look of awe on my daughter's face as Santa was addressing her personally for the world, but I can't help but wonder about the effect of having so many of her experiences personalized and so much of what she does recorded forever.

We're starting to get a glimpse of some of the pitfalls of a society where everyone is "connected" and everything is saved on someone's server.  People like Jesse Miller are making lucrative careers out of warning kids about the hazards they face thanks to their net personae.  From being incontrovertibly caught rioting, to losing jobs and coveted university entrance offers, young people are learning some hard lessons about how the ubiquity of their images can affect their lives.  In other words, we're seeing in clear terms how technology is affecting the relationships between kids and the external world,  I would be very surprised if these same phenomena weren't also somehow affecting how their brains develop and function.  Only time will tell.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Improving ESL Engagement

As I look at the numerous things our ESL Department is doing to improve student engagement I can't help but think that we're on the right track in getting reticent ESL students to "buy in" to their own learning.  As I've stated in previous posts, our ESL department has adopted a Learning Outcomes based assessment format, using rubrics to show each student where he or she lies on their journey to becoming fluent in English.  But the changes have gone further than that and what I'm seeing in our ESL 1 and 2 classes is exciting in that it incorporates three of my favourite professional development interests, assessment for learning, technology integration and the general "rethinking" of how we do things (okay, that last one is kind of broad!); here's what's happening.

Students in Ms. Sullivan's class were assigned a project that was very different from past years.  In the past consciously or not, the focus of ESL Social Studies classes has been on telling 'our' story (i.e. the story of Canada) to the students and hoping that through this the students would learn English, and learn about their new country.  But teachers were finding that this approach didn't appeal to many new immigrants, particularly young men, who were ambivalent at best about being brought to a new country with a completely foreign culture.  So, rather than tell them our story, Ms. Sullivan has asked them to tell us their stories, in the form of a project about their hometowns.  Some are doing posters, but most are using either Prezi or Glogster to showcase the stories of where they've come from.  All the students seem interested, engaged and even excited about sharing a part of their 'old' lives with their 'new' classmates.  I've been invited to sit in on their final presentations next week (I look forward to it) but in the meantime, the students have presented draft versions of their projects to students in other ESL classes and have been incorporating suggestions from their peers' feedback into the final product.

My feeling is that if we truly want students to engage, then where practicable we have to give them as much opportunity as possible to choose their own topic/material/curriculum.  Of course this isn't news to anyone who has been following research into education and learning for the past decade, but this story provides just one small example of how rethinking delivery and letting go of little control can make a huge difference in student engagement.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Improving Practice....One Department at a Time

In BC for the past decade or so schools have been required to come up with a yearly "performance plan".  Though the intention behind this is laudable, (i.e. to get educators to be more reflective upon, and responsive to, the ever changing needs of our student population) a more effective way to achieve this is through departmental performance plans.  When developed at a school level, the goals within a performance plan become extremely general and often vague.  The risk of course is that these goals end up being nothing more than platitudes to which the staff pay scant attention.  For example, at our school the performance plan goals are to increase social responsibility and to improve reading ability.  Nobody would argue that these are worthy goals, but to the teacher of the senior math class or a P.E. class, do they really help to guide practice?

In my experience the most effective goals are those shared at a smaller level, where more commonalities exist class to class and teacher to teacher.  As I've blogged about before, we are having success this year in rethinking how we are delivering and assessing ESL.  One of the goals that we've set is to have greater engagement from the students through more informative assessment practices and different approaches to the material.  Our English department has had success with similar "retooling" in recent years.    Overarching "school goals" may serve as guides, not unlike mission statements or statements of values.  But each department at our school, as I suspect the case to be at most schools, has its own goals, strengths, challenges and personalities.  To enact meaningful change we need to work with each of these groups, listen to their concerns and tailor new ideas and new ways of doing things to the circumstances at hand.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Let's Start REALLY Respecting Teachers

Anybody even remotely connected to education in BC has heard by now of the BCEdplan, and those of us in the profession have been literally surrounded with talk about it.  There are some great concepts in the plan, some true indicators that those at the top are really starting to comprehend how learning occurs, and how we need to alter our current system to reflect what we know about learning.  But there is one BIG elephant in the room that's going to hinder acceptance of the plan and 'buy in' from the biggest stakeholder group involved (other than students).  I refer of course to teachers, and here's the dilemma.

Exacerbated by the coincidental timing of the release of the Edplan and the current job action by the BCTF, some of the language within the plan itself is, at best, disrespectful of the great work that the vast majority of teachers already do for the students of BC.  For instance, let's consider a couple of passages;

"Professional standards will be high, and we will bring in a new system to regulate the teaching profession."

Anything beyond the most obtuse and perfunctory analysis of that statement would interpret it as being disrespectful, even slightly aggressively so.  Are standards, as measured by student achievement, not already high?  Yes they are.  So why not write something like "Professional standards will remain high...".  Is there any concrete evidence that the teaching profession in BC requires a new system of regulation?  Is there a preponderance of incompetent teachers?

Or how about this statement;

"On Pro D days, parents make alternate arrangements for their children and they need to be assured that these days are used as intended."  The implication?  To me it's that there's a pervasive problem of teachers using Pro D days in unprofessional manners.  No evidence however has been put forth by anyone that this is the case.

Yes, there are cases where teachers have wasted Pro-D days, and yes, there are a (vanishingly) few teachers  that need "regulating", but the government does a huge disservice to the profession when it panders to all the negative stereotypes about teachers and teaching that we see in the media.  And that's exactly what this aspect of the Edplan is doing.

In formulating this plan the ministry has done a very good job incorporating findings from recent research that sheds light on how humans learn and how our system could better facilitate that learning.  That's a good thing.  But other research suggests that one of the surest ways to improve an education system is to attract and retain quality teachers. Therein lies the problem, due (amongst other things) to budget shortfalls, stagnating wages and a general political and cultural disrespect for the profession,  teacher morale in all of North America has suffered a beating over the past two decades.  But countries in which students achieve the best results consistently say that the best way to encourage and motivate teachers, and to attract some of the best and brightest to the profession, is a reasonably simple combination of fair pay and nurturing a culture of respect for the teaching profession within society.  The ministry is currently at a deadlock with teachers over pay, (thanks to a line in the sand drawn by a previous government) and is showing what could best be described as disdain for the profession in the wording of this plan.

Given these factors, the ministry of education can't reasonably expect teachers, as a group, to be enthusiastic about this education plan.  Without the support of teachers, this plan, which has some genuinely promising ideas with which to work, will not fly.  That would be a shame but that, unfortunately, is the reality.