Sunday, March 22, 2015

Power Up 2015 with Excited, PDST and CESI

On Saturday 21st March I attended Power Up 2015, the first Power Up presented in collaboration between Excited, the PDST and CESI.

In this free-to-attend professional development opportunity, five workshops were on offer;

  1. Using social media for professional learning
  2. Finding and selecting information
  3. Capturing and using images on mobile devices
  4. Assessment tools and applications
  5. Managing classroom information
I was faced with the usual dilemma of wanting to attend all five but being only able to chose, in this case, three.  I chose 2, 4 and 5.

Finding and Selecting Information was presented by Sioban O'Sullivan (@0812Siobhan). Siobhan is an advisor for the PDST and has an obvious passion for helping teachers learn new and innovative approaches to classroom teaching.

Siobhan's presentation focused on a selection of Google tools that I'm sure teachers would find useful not just to assist their teaching but also useful for student independent work. I particularly liked the research tool in Google Docs which had previously slipped under my radar. Siobhan also introduced social bookmarking tools including Diigo (particularly excellent) and Feedly. Download her presentation here.

After a short break I headed on over to Assessment Tools and Applications presented by David McMahon (@Davidmcma) and Mark Finlay (@Finlayma). David and Mark focused on 4 tools for collecting assessment information in the classroom; Mentimeter (, Socrative, EdPuzzle and Blendspace. 

EdPuzzle is a fantastic app that allows teachers to add questions to videos at various points along the timeline. There is a sample here. The app even provides direct links to videos from a variety of sources such as TED, Vimeo and of course, YouTube. Yum!

Teachers will particularly like Socrative. It allows teachers to create a variety of quizzes. However, particularly useful is the ability to download student quiz results in excel format (among others). David and Mark's presentation is the third in the list here.

I hardly noticed the time go. After an hour I headed over to my last session on Managing Classroom Information with CESI stalwarts Bianca Ní Ghrógáin (@bnighrogain) and Mags Amond (@magsamond). Mags and Bianca focused on three tools - Plickers, Edmodo and Kahoot. If you haven't tried Kahoot yet, give it a go. It is eh, a hoot!

Edmodo is an invaluable tool for teachers. It looks like Facebook and works a little like it, except teachers have complete control over how they use it. It can be used to set up classes, make and set quizzes and assignments, provide a library of resources and generally keep student learning on its toes.

Think of Plickers as giant QR codes. You can print off one per student, unique to them. It allows a students to provide A, B, C, D answers to class assessments. What make Plickers attractive is that several codes can be scanned at once, from a distance, by the app on your smartphone or tablet.

Overall, it was a well attended, fast paced morning and a nice reminder of the range of tools available to teachers, the commitment of teachers to give up their free time on a Saturday to upskill and of the dedication of presenters from CESI and the PDST.

The revolution is well under way.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Finnish Education - Subject to Conditions

News comes that Finland has decided to do away with what are, in schools, traditionally called 'subjects'.

In other settings, subjects were referred to as 'disciplines'. There is a world of meaning in the difference. A discipline is a knowledge and skill base acquired after in-depth study. It speaks to mastery of a human endeavour.

School children do not need such a high level of knowledge; however, one thing is patently clear, the pursuit by specialists of a particular discipline provides the generalist with the material that informs a subject taught in school. This subject comes with its own pedagogical approach. If not, then the subject would not be a 'real' subject as such but a mish-mash that serves some purpose other than the cognitive benefit to the individual arising from the pedagogy of traditional subjects.

This is evident in 'subjects' such as CSPE in Ireland (Civic, Social and Political Education introduced by a Labour Minister for Education) - not a real subject with it's own pedagogy but a mish-mash of topics which was once described as designed to produce nice Labour Party voters.

So there are three issues here;

1. What purposes is served by a move away from 'subjects' towards 'topics' ('phenomenon teaching' to the Finns)?
2. What is at risk? and
3. Why has no one thought of 'topics' before?

1. The purpose is very clear. Instead of learning economics and (or) history, a pupil might learn 'European Union' which would draw on topics from several subjects.

This is fine. However, a child who is great at history but weak at economics will be (all things held constant) only so-so at "European Union'. This is not the say the child should not study economics, but it is always better to provide a foundation education and thereafter, play to the strengths of a pupil.

This approach comes with its own interesting context. Finland is facing some economic challenges (decline of Nokia, economic troubles in Russia). The Independent article cites business interests in England who would like to see a similar approach. And in Ireland, our former Minister for Education,  in November 2011, justifying lower second level reform, emphasised that schools needed to teach children so they could fulfill the wishes of the 'Captains of Industry' - in a radio interview (at 14mins 29 secs) he stated

"What were are trying to do is to allay, align that kind of labour market interviewing thresholds with what happens in the school and what a number of employers have said to the universities and we have heard this from Captains of Industry that people coming out of the present education system on paper may have a wonderful set of qualifications but in reality they don't have the necessary additional skills or complementary skills to enable them to communicate their learning, to engage in dialog with other people, to make presentations, to work collectively with other people..
I have argued previously that the purpose of education should include equipping the individual with
the skills to live an independent and economically sustainable life (survival and adaptability). However, the focus of education should not in the first instance, in my opinion, focus on making worker bees. Education has to ensure that it addresses higher needs. An education which seeks merely to equip pupils with job skills is a recipe for baking a nation of hopeless automatons.

So teaching topics has value in education, but this is not an education.

2. There are several things at risk (although there are opportunities too). Firstly, there is a short term (say, 10 years) threat to those specialisations that provide the material used by generalists. Without subjects, there would be a decline in those going on to specialise at university level. It is interesting to note the move toward business-accountability at third level. Those disciplines which do not generate income are, under this model, doomed. Ultimately, we risk losing research in those disciplines that help fulfil the higher level needs in the pyramid above.

Teachers risk losing out also. No longer would schools need subject specialists. As Ruairi Quinn (in my view, mistakenly) stated, teachers at second level teach subjects rather than pupils. I think this does second level teachers a great disservice, particularly when it was Minister Quinn who cut funding for guidance counsellors. Nonetheless, second level is noted by its subject specialists compared to primary school. A topic-based approached would ultimately call into question the need for subject specialists.

This is all the more worrying when research by John Hattie, among others, showed that the quality of teacher subject knowledge was a significantly important component in student learning.

But hey, that's just teachers' jobs.

Another threat is to the well-being of pupils. A child must, in every instance, be valued as the person they are. Their education must reflect this. An 'education' which focuses on the skills industry wants children to have in priority over the person of the child is an Orwellian nightmare. What good is it if we gain the world but lose our soul.

It is important to recognise the political pay-off from a more general, job-focused education. In depth study promotes critical thinking skills and deeper knowledge, appreciation and understanding of the social and political structures, values and attitudes that shape the world in which we live. A critical education makes the political management of a society more difficult.

3. It is interesting to note that we didn't always have the subjects we have now. For example, geography and science grew out of a discipline called 'natural philosophy'. The 19th century had people famous as polymaths simply because such a thing was possible. Since the 19th century increasing specialisation in knowledge has occurred. Consequently, even if a topic-based approach to teaching caught on (and I'm sure, like all fads, it will for a while), eventually we would find ourselves specialising.

Notwithstanding this, it would only be a matter of time before the 'topics' became subjects themselves  and we returned to where we started.

The lower second level reform in Ireland (Junior Cycle) originally referred to 'curriculum components' in preference to 'subjects'. This seems to have been rolled back for the time being but I am sure that it will raise its head again. Indeed, the idea of topic-teaching is contained in the notion of 'short courses' which have lent a sort of Mongolian-Barbecue flavour to Junior Cycle Reform.


So I think that Finland is making a mistake. Again, this is not to say that there is no room for 'topics teaching'. However, it is far better to construct a curriculum which in which the teaching of subjects, rather than the subjects themselves, are integrated. This places higher professional demands on teachers. They need to collaborate more with their colleagues. They need to be familiar with the content of other subjects so that where relevant, they can draw synthesising connections between their subject and another teacher's. But we should preserve the unique skills and knowledge provided by traditional subjects.
(No, Miss, the Sugarloaf was never a volcano! a little in-joke for geography teachers in Ireland!)

The independent article provides an example of an English lesson where a child might learn that it was foggy in Denmark and that this is an example of the student learning geography.

I know I am biased, but it would be particularly sad if the teaching of geography, or indeed any area of knowledge was reduced to this pseudo-education.

A little Dead Poets.......

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ciaran Cannon TD on Gifted Education and on Technology

Ciaran Cannon TD is an advocate of the needs of gifted children and of the importance of technology in education. On Saturday, a new book on gifted education both here and in the United States will be launched in DCU.

Ciaran launched the first comprehensive report on gifted education in Ireland back in December and his words struck a chord on several levels. Below, he speaks about not only the needs of gifted children, but the need to embrace technology for the sake of all children.

I would like to thank Colm O'Reilly and his colleagues at CTYI for their very kind invitation to join you this afternoon for the launch of this report "Gifted Education in Ireland, Educators' Beliefs and Practices".

I also want to extend a warm Irish welcome to all of our visitors from abroad in particular Tracy Cross, Jennifer Cross, Liz Albert and Kim Lansdowne. I do hope you enjoy your time in our capital city and get to savour some of the pre-Christmas atmosphere and I want to thank you for your very valuable work in helping to produce this report.

As a policy maker and a parent of a gifted child I have long been an admirer of the ethos and methodologies employed by Colm and his exceptional team here at CTYI, DCU. They deliberately seek out and support those of our children who are born with very unique talents and they nurture and support those children to empower them to achieve to the very pinnacle of those talents. Most of all they allow gifted children, many of whom feel somewhat alienated from their peers, to simply feel accepted.

Ireland, like every other nation on earth will face incredible challenges and indeed huge opportunities in the coming years. In fact I would argue that the power of technology is about to herald the dawn of a new age of learning, academic endeavour and innovation the like of which we have never seen before.
I'm convinced that by the end of this century the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century will seem like a very pedestrian affair when compared to the Technological Revolution of the 21st. Even by 2020, just six years away, there will be 25 billion devices connected to the internet, three for every single human being on earth, and what that connectedness will allow us to do is simply mind boggling. The instantaneous creation and acquisition of knowledge by the world's finest minds collaborating from the four corners of the earth will lead to discoveries we cannot even imagine.

In education, our children are finally gaining access to the billions of pieces of knowledge floating around in the ether and with the advent of voice recognition and interactive devices, we will soon just have to reach out and retrieve whatever we need. For example, I have never before had the pleasure of meeting with Tracy Cross but in the fifteen minute taxi ride from our national parliament to DCU I learned a lot about his very successful career, his upbringing in Knoxville Tenessee and the fact that his exceptionally bright mother at 15 years of age was summoned to the principal's office and handed her high school diploma by her principal saying "we can't do anything else for you". I also learned that Tracy graduated from community college, got married and went on his honeymoon all in the one week! The point I'm trying to make is that a half an hour ago I knew none of this, simply because I didn't need to. With my somewhat waning powers of retention, I may not recall all of that detail in a month's time but I don't need to, the knowledge is always there, waiting patiently for me to reach out and grab it when I need it.

Sugata Mitra, a Professor of Digital Learning at Newcastle University argued last year that we may be heading for a future where knowing things is obsolete and where it is no longer a necessity to spend time filling our children full of knowledge and then testing their ability to regurgitate it at will.

Imagine for a moment a generation of Irish children suddenly unburdened by the need to retain and regurgitate knowledge, a generation that could finally be free to create new knowledge, free to rediscover the awe and wonder they experienced when staring up at a bright new world from their cradle?

Already across this country we have trailblazing teachers who are using technology every day to create classrooms without boundaries, to empower children to learn better, to move from mechanical systemic thinking to critical thinking and genuine intellectual creativity.

Now imagine for a moment what might be possible if we create that kind of learning environment and then combine it with an education system which proactively works to identify gifted children and support them in developing their talent.

That is why your research for this report is so critical in that it sets out to engage directly with teachers in an effort to determine their attitude and behaviour towards gifted children. The findings in general seem to indicate that most schools believe that they have the appropriate mechanisms in place to identify gifted children but then feel somewhat challenged in providing for the needs of those children. In particular teachers in post-primary level feel that they have neither the time nor the resources to adequately serve these unique needs and that is very worrying.  I have no doubt but that the very early emphasis on a state exam at secondary level is contributing to that highly pressurised learning environment with little scope for innovation on the part of teachers or students......and that is why there is a very real urgency around reform in our Junior Cycle.

I'm delighted that CTYI is engaging in this deep collaboration with some of the world's finest minds on giftedness. I wish you every success in your work. Let's all work towards a time when no child will be summoned to the principal's office to be told there is nothing more that can be done for them. 


Gifted Education in Ireland and the United States: Examples of best practice for parents and teachers. Will be launched is at 4:15pm on Saturday 21st March in 1838 club in DCU. 

In spite of conflicting opinions to the contrary, gifted children are largely a heterogeneous group with students from various socioeconomic groups and differing educational needs. This book is a collaboration of research and best practice from CTY Ireland at Dublin City University and the Center for Gifted Education at William & Mary. Both of these institutions are renowned for their work with gifted students in Ireland and America. Each chapter is written by experts in the field of gifted education and covers areas such as high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds, curriculum for gifted students, social and emotional needs of gifted children, particular programmes and courses available to them, and the most-current Internet resources that can be used both in and out of the classroom. The book is an important addition to the literature in gifted education and will prove a useful resource for parents, educators, and researchers working in the field. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015