What About “Spare” Time?

Contrary to what kids believe, they don’t actually spend their entire lives in school. In fact, in Manitoba, according to my quick math, kids ony spend about 10% of their time in any given calendar year actually in the classroom.

This makes classroom time very, very important. What we teach is often out of our control as someone most likely assigns you a curriculum. How we choose to teach those concepts though is the art of teaching. How are we going to structure a day or even the learning experiences in a single lesson so that we can attempt to reach each of the students in our classroom?

We need to set priorities.


One of the most interesting things I notice in classrooms is how kids spend any “extra” or “spare” time they might have. You know what I’m talking about. That time at the end of a period where a student might be finished their work and they have 10 – 15 minutes occasionally with “nothing” to do. This doesn’t happen very often in my classroom but I’ve been thinking lately about how we deal with this time, how we create it for students, and what it says about the priorities of your classroom.

Let’s say that a student has a day where they have 15 minutes at the end of a period. What do they do? Do they simply pick up a book? Do they do other homework? Do they have a self chosen project they are working on? Classroom time is a finite resource that we must be careful to use wisely and to help our students to use wisely.

I would propose that similar to a sort of Google time arrangement, students should have either a self chosen inquiry type of project or a plan for this time. If once their assignment is complete a student has nothing else to learn in your class, what does that say about the dsiscipline you are teaching?  Instead, 10 minutes writing a blog post or a comment, or learning something about a field of study, or answering a question they are curious about, is an important use of that time. Little bits of time add up. Make them count.

Education: “Let’s See”

I remember getting rid of the spelling program in my grade four classroom.

That happened about 15 years ago and other teachers in my school weren’t all that happy with me. First of all, they were legitimately concerned about the spelling ability of the students I was teaching. Wasn’t getting rid of this pre-packaged program going to hurt them? But more than that, people simply wanted to know, “can you do that?”

My attitude towards education has always been, “let’s see.” Let’s see what kids need. Let’s see what works and what doesn’t. Let’s see the results in a few months. Over the years I’ve most often described my classroom as both a laboratory and a studio. I’m happy to say that I’ve always fallen into the progressive camp when it has come to my beliefs about education. I believe that kids are curious and interested in their world. I believe that they want to be involved in building a better world for their generation to live in. While never trendy, my practices have definitely evolved over time as my beliefs about education has changed.

As with any teacher who has been in the classroom over the past several decades I’ve lived through whole language, back to basics, the rise of technology, the maker movement, and a dozen other educational philosophies. This is both right and proper. Education is far too vital for us to believe one thing and stick with that belief forever. Education is a vitally important personal and national resource and we must constantly be examining it deeply and critically, asking questions of schools, and teachers, and classrooms about where they’ve been and about where they are headed. But it is also far too important to think that there is one right way to educate people.

That being said, I have come more firmly to realize that there are trends and general movements in education that are more important than others. There are trends that uncover the valuable currents running underneath our schools, while other trends simply cover them up and hide them. While there is no one right way to teach or reach every child, there are ways and means that are more valuable and important than others. We live in an advanced twenty first century liberal (both small and large “l” at the moment in Canada) democracy. Our teaching and our classrooms need to reflect that.

The daily life of a classroom is a complex work that needs to balance content learning, skills, and attitudes. It needs to connect students with others around the world to help them see people for who they are and not for who the media may portray them to be. Education needs to call us together into cooperation to build a better world. It needs to challenge us to become better citizens of our nation and of the world. It needs to help us to become more human.

A tall order.

And one that is far too important to hand over to worksheets and apps. Technology in classrooms has enormous potential to move us in the right direction, but only if we don’t use it mainly to track the number of dipthongs a student can read, how many math questions they have answered, and to find out if they can find the main idea of a paragraph. Using technology in that way simply lacks imagination and vision.

And in this vital enterprise, we need both of these things in abundance.





Privacy? I Give Up.

While we’ve all known for years that pretty much everything we do on the internet is public and watched by someone, the Snowden revelations a few years ago offended me. I was offended that we had sunk that deeply. I was also offended that so few people seemed to care. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you care?” I read over and over again. In my mind, this misses the point.

So I worked hard to try to do something about it. I wanted to maintain some modicum of privacy. I went so far as to transfer my domain, blogs, and email to Iceland, a country that I found after some research has some of the strongest privacy laws in the world.

But now? Today, I’m declaring that I think the task of maintaining some privacy online, for average people, is impossible.

While I’m not a coding or programming ninja or guru, I do OK in the tech skills department. I have no trouble maintaining websites, customizing them to do the things I need, and running and designing scripts and programs. I’ve fought hard to learn some of these skills. But in the end I think this is largely fruitless. If I want to use the “modern” web, which interacts between my desktop and online environments and if I want my phone to simply talk to my calendar, you need to give up your privacy. Data leaks between all of our environments and applications. If we aren’t prepared for each of them to be an isolated silo, the task of privacy is a dream.

I’ve been an advocate for privacy, for making informed decisions with kids for years. I’m a large fan of open source software as well. None of this changes. I still am a believer in privacy, but I simply don’t think it is possible right now with the hardware and the software that we have. I hope that some day it is. Until then, I need to make friends with the web as it is.

That starts with moving over here. I’m going to leave behind my webspace behind and move here. If you’ve got my other place bookmarked, it will need to be updated. Thanks.

“Living in a World of Opaque Black Boxes”

“Over the next 20 years software will be embedded in everything, from refrigerators to cars to medical devices.

Without the Freedom to Tinker, the right to reverse engineer these products, we will be living in a world of opaque black boxes. We don’t know what they do, and you’ll be punished for peeking inside.

Using licenses and law to control and keep secrets about your products is just one reason why in the future we may know far less about the world around us and how it works than we currently do.

Today, technology is generating more information about us than ever before, and will increasingly do so, making a map of everything we do, changing the balance of power between us, businesses and governments.”

Taken from “The End of the Internet Dream,” the keynote at Black Hat 2015 given by Jennifer Granick. It’s a long read. And it’s worth your time to think about.

Wikis and Blogs – the 2015 Edition

I don’t actually have students for another three weeks, but, like most teachers, long before a student ever walks through your doors, my mind starts turning to school.

It amazes me every year how much more of my classroom set up stuff I can do without actually being in my classroom. I need to go in to get my class lists, my schedule, and to hand paper on my bulletin boards, but besides that, I can do almost all of my set up from home. Welcoming letters, lesson and unit planning and all of my classroom tech infrastructure can be done from anywhere.

Today I decided that it was time to start looking at a few of my essential pieces: blogs and wikis.

I’ve used Idea Hive as my classroom brand for almost a decade. The site itself has moved around, starting at David Warlick’s Class Blogmeister, to edublogs when they were first starting out, to Worpdress.com, and then finally to my own self hosting set up. I still believe that having a central classroom space (I call it a mother blog) is important. It’s open to the world, I can post whatever I want on it and make it the homepage of all of my classroom laptops, forcing kids to see what I post on their each time they turn on a computer. I’ve thought a lot of the years to moving to a Facebook page or group as well as other technologies, but in the end, I’ve always stayed with WordPress as my platform. It is customizable, I can add plugins to it to add functionality that I might want, it generates an RSS feed for people to subscribe to, and, most importantly, I have control of the data if I want to add something or delete from it.

This year I have decided to start with a basic WordPress setup that I have added Buddypress to as a plugin. This will allow me or my students to add discussion groups and forums to our site. As the year goes on we can also add additional functionality such as wikis if we need them.

Eventually each of the students in my class will set up a space of their own. This year I’m thinking of doing it differently than in the past, working kids up from discussion groups to wiki contributors and then to “graduating” to their own space. I’m not sure about this. I’ll have to sort it out.

In opposition to most of the wikis I use in the class, this blog gets emptied every year. I think that each class deserves it’s own space to grow into. This means that each year this site gets emptied out and rebuilt. This gives us a clean slate.

I also took a look today at a wiki that I’ve been using since 2007. Studying Societies is a simple wikispace that I’ve used on and off for all of that time. This is a space that we use for our study of history. Keeping a single space for this long in a small town has led to interesting dinner conversations in more than a few homes as younger siblings check out the editing history of certain pages and find work completed by older brothers and sisters. They take great joy in reediting their work!

This space I don’t clean out from year to year as I want the students to see that they are part of a continuum of students who have worked to build up collected knowledge over years. They like to see what others before them have done and get the opportunity to add missing pieces. After this many years we are starting to compete with link rot when it comes to some of the images and videos that are embedded.
This will need to be a priority for this year’s incoming class.

The same tools – wikis and WordPress have been cornerstones of my classroom for a long time. But both of these tools are powerful and flexible enough that they evolve with me and my classroom. I can alter them and make them match different classes of students and my needs.


A Challenging Tweet

Scott Leslie tweeted this out of his account the other day:


He followed this up by saying that he was looking for evidence or pushback about his idea that the field of edtech has remained largely unchanged over the last two years.

I have to admit that, first off, I was happy to see someone else write this. I’ve been struggling with edtech for a while, feeling that the field was stagnating. But I also often felt that this was just me. A lot of people still seem pretty excited about things so I thought I was just starting to pass into my middle aged, grouchy crumudgeon phase.

But I thought I would give this some honest thought. Here’s what I’m thinking about the last few years of edtech development:

1.) Edtech is not going away, it is, in fact, if anything, more pervasive in how classrooms operate then it was two years ago. Many people have found at least one tool or app they can latch on to and are using in their classrooms. Those people five or eight years ago who called this a passing fad need to find another excuse not to get on board.

2.) There is little doubt that edtech has become an industry that is worth big money. In the last few years we have seen billions of dollars invested in technology for education…


3.) The majority of this money is going into building tools and apps and software that either reinforces what happens traditionally in classrooms (grade / attendance / behaviour trackers), or gives some classrooms (those who can afford it) access to higher quality content, or is aimed directly at teachers, principals, and central office staff providing no new learning opportunities for students.

So, overall, I would agree with Scott’s tweet. While there is big money flowing into edtech, and there seems to be a continual flow of new apps (just check the education category in the Mac app store for all the confirmation you need on this) and sites that are meant to change classrooms, there have been few new tools being released that are actually significantly changing learning for students.

I would add to Scott’s original thought by saying that I think edtech has splintered into several groups:

A.) Edtech “lite” for people who have have ipads (or what have you) in their classrooms and want to simply grab a few apps to give their kids better information about the body (or astronomy, or algebra, etc) or to help them master their multiplication tables. These are the people the startups love as they are always willing to invest a few dollars into the latest app, and who aren’t terribly concerned when their content isn’t updated regularly as they will move on to something else.

B.) Edtech “central” for administrators, consultants and central office staff who push certain pieces of software, apps or websites down into classrooms. These are generally grade, attendance and skill tracking software which are meant to “enhance accountability” in classrooms and keep senior staff “informed.” This category is loved by companies as this software can run into the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.

C.) Edtech “DIY” this is the category which has emerged newly over the last few years. While not an app or specific piece of software, it has seen huge growth as a trend. This is the portion of edtech that has driven things such as coding, 3D printers, Arduino, robotics and makerspaces into schools. Incredibly hot and trendy right now, this is a movement to go past edtech lite and get some high tech hands on and brains on time for kids in new ways.

D.) Edtech “Connections” This is the category that I think many of the original edtech bloggers fell into. These people work with a lot of fairly simple platforms that were not necessarily originally developed for education  (WordPress, Flickr, Google docs, RSS, etc) and are used mainly to connect learners with new content, and, more importantly, new people who can supplement their in class learning.

While tools and people may work in more than one category, most of them fit fairly cleanly into one space or another. The other thing that I believe is new (especially very recently) is that we are beginning to understand the effect that technology has on classrooms, teachers, and students more deeply and fully. All technology is not equal. It does not all support learners and learning in the same way. While some seek to revolutionize learning, others cement classrooms and schools into traditional modes of practice quite efficiently.

So I believe that edtech is changing. It is a moving target, a changing field. But I also believe that as educators we need to be careful about chasing shiny objects. Depth and good things are out there, but we need to be prepared to sift the dross from the real gold.









The First 100 Years of Web Design

One of the most influential things that I read this summer has to be the transcript for a presentation called Web Design – The First 100 Years.

If you haven’t seen it, the original is here and well worth your time to look over. Basically, the author, using aviation as his example, wonders about the history of engineering and design. He moves from the Wright Brothers through clippers to 747s to the Concorde and even out to space travel. But a long the way, he notes that air travel ran into the law of diminishing returns. Planes got fast enough. We can cross the globe in a day for a reasonable price. Few people needed more than that.

From here, he says:

“Today I hope to persuade you that the same thing that happened to aviation is happening with the Internet. Here we are, fifty years into the computer revolution, at what feels like our moment of greatest progress. The outlines of the future are clear, and oh boy is it futuristic.

But we’re running into physical and economic barriers that aren’t worth crossing.

We’re starting to see that putting everything online has real and troubling social costs.

And the devices we use are becoming ‘good enough’, to the point where we can focus on making them cheaper, more efficient, and accessible to everyone.

So despite appearances, despite the feeling that things are accelerating and changing faster than ever, I want to make the shocking prediction that the Internet of 2060 is going to look recognizably the same as the Internet today.”

Earlier this summer I noticed that my Raspberry Pi2 was probably fast enough for 90% of people, 90% of the time. That’s enough computing power to do most of what we need to do. Have we hit the wall of diminishing returns with our technology? Have we hit it in edtech? Why are we spending $100’s of dollars on individual machines when a $35 computer will probably do just fine?

I’m completely with Audrey Watters on this one. A lot of the edtech that I am seeing emerge is making old ways of learning, old ways of organizing classrooms more efficient, but they really aren’t doing anything different. They aren’t helping kids access new and interesting content, or helping them connect with people who might push them into deeper levels of understanding. Instead, many of the latest apps, services and products are aimed at teachers, not kids.

I’m still a believer that my default classroom tech set up: classroom blog, discussion boards, individual blogs, wikis, google docs and hangouts, flickr, skype, and a few random pieces of production software (audacity, etc) does more to give kids a voice, to connect them with people on the other side of the globe who have new ideas for them to evaluate, than 90% of the VC dollars out there have done with the latest apps.

The power of edtech lies in its ability to connect people with new people, ideas and content; who can push and broaden what students understand of the world and not in making flashcards pretty on an ipad.  Don’t give me a new digital checklist (even if I can share it with parents) to let me know that as of February 17th Johnny mastered the provincial capitals. I could do that before. Give me something new. <rant/>


Note to Self Podcast

I’ve been walking this summer. Lets just say that when your pants start to get tight, it’s time to start doing something… But that’s another story.

When I walk I like to listen to podcasts. I like to keep my brain occupied as I go. Lately I’ve been listening to a new podcast that people might be interested in. It’s called Note to Self. Taking the text from the website, the podcast is about:

“Host Manoush Zomorodi talks with everyone from big name techies to elementary school teachers about the effects of technology on our lives, in a quest for the smart choices that will help you think and live better.”

There are a lot of tech podcasts out there, but what first caught my eye (my ears…?) was a few episodes about edtech. The host interviewed parents, teachers and kids about a number of different issues surrounding tech in schools. Nothing too in depth, but the show has an interesting perspective that we sometimes lack.

While many of the episodes are worth taking a listen to, if you are interested in the ones about edtech, scroll back in time to the ones that were published beginning last March and April. There’s an entire set of episodes called Bored and Brilliant that is about turning off your phone and letting your mind actually wander and get bored that’s also worth your time. I’m thinking of using it with the kids in my class this fall.

Google Docs and Writing Analysis

I’m a big fan in my classroom of listening to kids read. I think that you can learn a lot from simply sitting beside a student and listening to them read for a period of time.

I’ve often wondered the same thing about writing. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to watch how a student writes?

Now you can.

Draftback is an extension for your Chrome browser that allows you to playback the production of a Google docs document. Quite simply, this plugin allows you to scroll back and forth through time seeing the progression of a piece of writing.

I haven’t tried it, but it seems to me that there would be a lot here to examine. A student could write a piece and using Draftback you could then sit with them and talk about their writing process. Why did you erase that entire line? Why did this part go quickly for you? I noticed that you came back after you finished writing and edited the introduction, tell me what you were thinking?

I think there are a lot of possibilities here for looking at a student’s writing process.


Is It Time to Give Up On Computers?

This post was published about a month ago on Audrey Watters’ blog. It grew out of a panel talk that took place at ISTE this year that I would have LOVED to have been able to attend.

Audrey has proposed an excellent premise here: the model of edtech that has emerged in recent years (read: when the big money showed up) is more a matter of controlling students and their access to information and tools than it is a liberalizing or democratizing experience.

She traces the idea that computers have moved from the classrooms of innovative teachers into becoming networked, centralized machines that have now been moved to the cloud where they can be centrally controlled. This meets the needs of central offices and IT departments, but not learners.

She closes with this:

“We’ve upgraded from punchcards to iPads. But underneath, a dangerous ideology – a reduction to 1s and 0s – remains. And so we need to stop this ed-tech machine.”

Obviously, if you haven’t read this yet, you need to.