Sunday, 15 November 2009

Inspirational learning environments

During the 8th AEC-NET conference in Denmark, I had the chance to visit Alssundgymnasiet in Sonderborg. It's a senior secondary school like ours, with about the same number of students (400). But what a difference in the design!
I won't go into the details of the wonderful building, since it would just make me and many others green with envy. Suffice to say that entering the building was close to getting into paradise, complete with its own snake, too!

Something else about the school impressed me even more than the creative achitecture. The school was a totally wireless campus, and everywhere we could see students working on laptops - their own that they bring to school every day, I was told when I asked them.

How can they afford this? Surely this can't be a requirement for all students! I learned that students don't have to buy their own course books, but can get them from the school library instead. Books are a major cost for high school students in Finland, whose families have to fork out hundreds of euros every 6-7 weeks. In a year, that money would easily be enough for a laptop or two, not to mention the positive effect of recycling books on the environment! Publishers in Finland would no doubt go up in arms if this was proposed. I also doubt whether our local authorities could afford to supply schools with the books. The Danish students also said that for students who don't own a laptop of their own, the school has got some to lend out. However, no student is forced to use a laptop, and some students still prefer the old pencil and notebook learning.

I wish I could see something like this in the hallways of my school. No wonder there is concern that Finland is falling behind in the application of ICT at schools. In my school, for example, the accepted wisdom is that wireless Internet would be impractical and too complicated to install and maintain. How does it work in Denmark then?

We were taken to observe a class where students presented their research on their ecological footprints in English and with the help of computer graphs and illustrations. Excellent!

We don't need a new school building to adopt similar 21st-century classroom practices. What we do need, though, is the wireless internet and the laptops. I wonder how long we will have to wait for them in today's economic atmosphere! To make the rest of us feel better, the Danish colleagues explained that their school was well ahead many others in their country, and that by no means all schools were as well equipped and advanced in the use of technology.

Even so, I dream on.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Redesigning traditional classrooms

Most people have a fixed idea about what classrooms should look like - desks in neat rows facing the blackboard on one wall, in front of which the teacher is supposed to teach. The industrial model, deeply entrenched in people's consciousness, around the world. Difficult to change, too, with tight budgets and old school buildings, with the traditional square and boxy classroom design. Nevertheless, I have noticed that primary and middle school teachers even in Finland have been slightly more adventurous in rearranging their classrooms, but the higher up you get on the educational ladder the more set are the rows of desks.

Inspired by a colleague, who arranged the desks into groups of four, I wanted to experiment with the same arrangement last year, with quite encouraging results. After some negotiation with the principal and the school development group, we managed to get the green light at a staff meeting to make this a permanent arrangement in two classrooms. The reason why we need to consult all the teachers, is that we are not lucky enough to have our own classrooms, but instead each teacher changes rooms all through the day and week, and consequently several teachers share the same rooms.

Since then I have had all my groups study in this format - 3-4 students together in a small group.

I must say, this suits foreign language learning very well, since we do spoken work and practise communication in the foreign language in every class. Having more than one partner to exchange ideas with leads to more active participation by all the students and wider perspectives on the topics discussed. What's more, this is a simple little change to make me throw the learning ball to the students more often in my lesson plans.

How to arrange students into the groups then? I have tried different ways. I had read earlier that the teacher should set up the groups, making sure that there are both boys and girls and students with varying abilities in each group. Doing this is rather time-consuming, and I don't always know the students enough in advance to be able to gauge their ability. In addition, I am often unaware of personal chemistry problems between students, which may lead to unnecessary conflicts and unconstructive collaboration. Our high school system, as I have explained in a previous post, is unique in that it is more like a university system. Students choose the courses they want to study in each of the 5 grading periods, and so the compotisition of each group changes five times a year, so in every group I teach I usually have some students that I meet for the very first time.

After a couple of failed attempts, I decided to let the students choose their own groups. Quite expectedly, this led to some disruptive groups of good friends and a few shy and quiet students helplessly standing by the door, too afraid to join anyone voluntarily. This didn't work all that well either.

My latest system has worked quite well. In the first lesson of a course, I let the students sit in pairs that they choose themselves. After that I will join up the pairs and individual students in mixed groups of 3 or 4. In this way the students are given a little of bit of choice, which they like, but I can interfere, too, with hardly any opposition from the students. Lonely students don't stick out like sore thumbs, and the noisy ones are kept apart.

I don't think anyone has come up with one, universally working solution for organising classrooms and learning in a school setting. If that solution had been found, I'm sure we'd all know about it by now!

Naturally, not everybody likes the new classroom set up. Students protest because more active participation is expected of them. Sitting in rows allows them to spend more time quietly in their own thoughts, or withdraw totally from any participation in class. Not so in the groups, where they have to at least recognize the existence of their group mates in one way or another. Shy students find it difficult to sit facing others. Some also complain that when they do have to face the front of the class, with the board and the screen, it's awkward to keep moving their chairs to be able to see properly. Other complaints have been about the difficulty of moving between the groups in a crowded room.

Colleagues who share the same classroom complain that it is impossible for them teach their subject with this desk arrangement. This is especially true about maths teachers. Last spring we had rather a big conflict, where one maths teacher couldn't find anyone to change rooms and so started demanding me to put the desks back into rows for her to be able teach in the room. I didn't comply, since I had the staff meeting decision to back me up. On the other hand, some other colleagues who have been intially forced to teach in this room, have actually found it good, and have changed some of their classroom routines accordingly.

The latest criticism, just this week came from a cleaning lady. She was waiting for me outside the classroom, ready to come in after my last lesson in the afternoon. She asked me why I had the desks in groups and suggested I go back to the old arrangement, so it would be easier and quicker for her to wipe the floor. I was rather astounded by this sudden comment from an unexpected source. I considered it wiser not to start throwing pedagogical jargon about collaborative learning to her and gave a simple explanation of group work. She then went on to enlighten me that I was actually preventing students from learning properly, since most of them weren't facing the blackboard! Oh well, maybe next week I should offer her some good tips about cleaning in return...

Friday, 6 November 2009

8th AEC-NET conference in Sonderborg, Denmark

Greetings from Denmark! I have more or less been 'off the radar' for over two weeks. At first there was the presentation to prepare as we were lucky to be shortlisted for the AEC-NET award again. I wanted to introduce the audience to something new, and practised with Prezi, the new presentation tool developed in Hungary. I had some trouble downloading the finished presentation and was rather panicky at one point, since the presentation date was getting closer and closer, but with the friendly and speedy help from the Prezi team, plus totally unexpected assistance through Twitter, I managed in the end. Pheww! Thank you so much everybody!

On the whole, though, It was a lot of fun learning a totally different concept of putting a presentation together. PowerPoint is so linear and predictable, whereas Prezi forces you to start from the big picture and then add surprising details and fun parts to it. I must say Prezi did live up to its novelty value, especially since all the other presenters relied on good old PowerPoint. I got a lot of interested questions. Here is the beginning 'canvas' of the presentation, where I used pictures of lego characters as part of the illustration, since we were in Denmark.

I don't think it was only thanks to Prezi, though, that we were lucky to win another AEC-NET award for our WHAZZUP? project. We did have a very lively online community last year, where students learned a lot
about the 10 different participating schools and their respective cultures. Students were also guided to more academic blog writing in addition to the popular forum discussion and chat, where more colloquial language could be used. Many of them also produced multimedia presentations on various topics that they were learning at school. Creating a positive digital footprint, and responsible net behaviour were also among our goals, and to a large extent we did manage to get the message across.

Here we are, the winning WHAZZUP? team - I and my colleague Merja plus our student Henna, who presented with us, holding the certificate, and two of our partner teachers, Geeta Rajan, from New Delhi India, and on the right Adrienne Webb from Dublin Ireland. Adrienne, our partner for many years in various projects, has just published a very nice account of her AEC experience on the webpage of the Computer Education Society of Ireland.

As good, efficient and easy as virtual communication and collaboration is these days, I still think face-to-face meetings retain an important place in building trust and motivation for lasting partnerships. All my long-term colleagues around the world are ones that I have had the chance to meet and get to know personally outside the virtual world. I feel energized and inspired after sharing ideas with so many wonderful teachers from so many countries. The new WHAZZUP? 2009-2010 is on its way - a hopefully improved version from last year. Working on intercultural projects is an ongoing learning process that I really enjoy!