Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Bruce Lee Legacy

Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in the world. There are twice as many Mandarin speakers as English speakers. If you want your students to learn a language that will be useful to them in the future, I suggest learning Mandarin. I have collected a few links to help you. I am amazed at the number of great free videos out there. Some of my long-time readers will remember that I lived and worked in China for 2 years. I didn't learn much Mandarin, but the fact that I tried a few phrases opened many doors to me. Just learning a few phrases can break down many barriers. Speaking of barriers, this week I have posted a couple of my old China Diary entries from 2006. Hope you enjoy them.

China Diary - The Bruce Lee Legacy

One of the teachers on staff this week had one too many people stare at him in the street. Someone came up, invaded his personal space and stared long and hard. The teacher pushed the offender aside but decided to do some staring of his own and went up to the Chinese gentleman and invaded his personal space in return. Loud and heated words were exchanged, that neither side understood, and a crowd began to gather. At this point the teacher decided he had made his point and left. Another teacher hearing this story suggested that confronting the person was highly dangerous as there was a good chance he was a martial arts expert. The truth is the average person in the street here is just as likely to be a martial arts expert as you and me. I get the feeling that most Chinese people don't have time to drop in the local Shaolin monastery to steal a stone from the master's hand or to practice flying through the air in slow motion wearing pyjamas. Like Australians, they are basically too busy trying to earn a living and keep the tax man at bay and they really just want peace and quiet. Now and then when I am out for dinner someone across from me will have a good long stare with their mouth agape. I fight them with the deadliest martial arts move I have, the Australian wink, click, shake of the head and smile. It may take me three or four winks but I always end up subduing them by forcing them to smile.

China Diary - Happy With Uncertainty

Despite the excitement I experience every time I enter a supermarket in Guangzhou for another shopping adventure, it would be nice if, just for once, I could take an Chinese Australian interpreter with me so that searching for simple items that I take for granted at home, would not be such a chore. Take toothpaste for example. You would think that even an inexperienced shopper like me could find a tube of standard peppermint flavoured toothpaste in the supermarket. Not in China. There are literally hundreds of different flavoured toothpastes on the shelves. Up until now I have been buying toothpaste according to the pictures on the packet. The first week I didn't even realise you could have different flavoured toothpaste and ended up with a Colgate tube that was honey flavour. It tasted sweeter than honey and I am positive it was actually causing more tooth decay. I persevered for a week with the honey before returning for another attempt. The time was just as bad. I asked a shop assistant in my best Chinese for peppermint toothpaste and came home with something that tasted like charcoal. Next time I studied the pictures on the boxes carefully and decided the picture of a mint leaf on the pack assured me I would get peppermint. Unfortunately it must have been a picture of a tea leaf as I have been brushing everyday with what tastes like a cold cup of tea. I am nearly out of toothpaste again and who can guess what flavour it will be next time. In China you have to be happy with uncertainty. I think this time I will just open a few packets and taste them all until I find the right one. It is no wonder the Chinese think foreigners are strange.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Share My Computer? No Way!

I feel I need to respond to a recent article by Jamie McKenzie,  “Over-Equipped? Is it possible to have too many laptops?” His argument is that “It turns out that one-on-one is perfect for some activities but not the best choice for other learning activities.” I would have thought this would be obvious to any teacher, but I don't see the connection between the tools one chooses to complete a learning task, and personal ownership of a laptop or netbook. Sometimes pen and paper is quicker and more efficient than using a computer but we don't tell kids they have to share one exercise book or pen between two students.
He also cites an article from the New York Times that states that giving out netbooks to teenagers from poor neighbourhoods actually lowers writing and maths test scores because kids spend their time playing games on the devices. You can manipulate data to suit editorial comment at any time but I imagine the lower test scores are a result of student's disinterest in the school system in general. Kids see that authentic learning is taking place outside of schools rather than within them. The kids are saying, “I don't care about what the tests measure because it is not going to get me a job anyway". As I have stated previously, handing out netbooks doesn't change much in schools. Technology management is about people. It is change management. Teachers need support in learning how to use tools effectively. If they don't have this support, they can't make use of the a laptop's potential to support new types of learning that engages students. Good teachers, quickly learn how to use computers well in their classrooms to engage students. Just like they probably used blackboards well to engage students. Bad teachers don't do this. Invest in teachers and you invest in students.
Netbooks are getting cheaper all the time and soon students will all have something like an iPad in their bag whether teachers like it or not. So why can't each child have a netbook? How would you feel if you started work at a new company and you were told you had to share a computer with another worker? If you really believe that it is best if kids share computers, demonstrate your support for the concept by giving your laptop away and sharing a computer with the teacher in the next classroom. Go on. I dare you.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

What is Constructivism in Education?

In a recent blog post, some of the assumptions behind my thinking were identified and quite rightly challenged:

Learning new digital technologies is, in and of itself, a good thing. Fair comment. What is the point of students mastering new technology if it doesn't lift levels of engagement and thereby improve learning outcomes.

Digital media learning has an inherent "nature" or "essence", which is, at its core, best suited to "constructivist" models of learning. The problem with the term constructivism is that represents a broad spectrum of positions that include Social Radical Constructivism (there is no reality other than what I imagine). I have worried about this term myself and need to clarify what I mean by constructivism.

That risk-taking and failure are also inherently good things, and in the case of schools and digital technologies - are in fact, inevitable things. I think that some of those who are passionate about educational reform and technology believe that schools need “a bomb under them” and need to try new strategies that reflect the use of technology outside the classroom. My view about risk taking is a little different. I think we all can learn best by doing things ourselves or “learning on the job” which inevitably leads to mistakes and learning from these. As Halverson and Jenkins state:
“In the apprentice system, it was taken as given that most students would learn, eventually, what they needed to know, while the public school system starts from the premise that only a small portion of the population can fully master its expectations.”
“The idea that the apprenticeship model was successful for individual learning is by and large true. Because the master could work closely with the learner in apprenticeship, most learning failures could be mitigated or averted.”
“The long-term individualized attention to learning-from-failure that came with apprenticeship learning was not a part of traditional public schooling. This intolerance for failure at the system level has been translated into a similar intolerance to experiment at the classroom level. Contemporary public school policies insist that all students show learning progress, which has led to dominant models of instruction that emphasize efficiency, smooth learning trajectories and predictable outcomes. Schools are often reluctant to experiment with high-yield, high-risk, instructional practices. Innovation is risky - most innovations fail, and even the ones that succeed are usually fundamentally transformed before achieving wide dissemination.”

Student choice is an inherently good thing, and should, as a default position be expanded - while the teacher's power in the classroom, as a default position, should be diminished. I think that rather than leading to anarchy, teachers gain strength as leaders in the classroom by modelling their own learning. If the aim of education is to build an enthusiasm for life-long learning, students need role models who can learn with them. But, yes, it is again a valid criticism that I have not explored and argued opposing positions.

What do you think?