Friday, 9 April 2010

IWB entered the classroom

Recently, our school has invested heavily in IWBs. In principle, I am all for getting new technology into schools as it challenges me to stop and think, and maybe look at the classroom and the whole learning experience from a new perspective. In my school, teachers don't have their own classroom but share different rooms at different times. Anyone could sign up as a volunteer to start using the IWB rooms, and I jumped at the chance together with some of my colleagues.

What I like about it

I have now used the IWB for 6 weeks. It's nice, for many practical reasons. For example, a lot of the clutter on the teacher's desk is gone - among other things, the fiddly separate speakers connected to the teacher laptop. These are essential language teacher's equipment, and now the speakers are neatly on the wall as part of the IWB.

It does save my time when I don't have to prepare OHPs or PowerPoint presentations anymore to present the correct answers of textbook exercises, but can use the course book publisher's website and the curtain application to gradually reveal the lines. I can use the coloured markers to highlight certain points, or construct something in collaboration with the group - even ask the students to come to the board or use the slate to add something on the board. Mind you, it takes some getting used to the delay with which the markers work, and certain software don't allow the use of the markers at all, but all these are just little hitches that you just need to familiarize yourself with. It’s the same with getting used to any new tools.


In our school, wiring has been a nightmare. Once, I and colleagues spent a long time trying to trouble-shoot why the laptop couldn't find the connection to the IWB. We clicked every possible button, reinstalled programmes - all to no avail. Finally, we realized that one of the many extension wires along the floorboards had been disconnected - possibly by custodians, while cleaning. Just one of the many hair-splitting instances when lesson plans have had to be scrapped. One colleague complained that he had resorted to preparing OPH transparencies as plan B, just in case the IWB didn't cooperate! Teething problems, partly, I'm sure. But this uncertainty and need to learn a lot of new technical details is enough to put some colleagues off using the board at all, especially as in our school, we don't have the luxury of a full-time ICT person to help out if needed. An extra challenge is that there are different IWBs in different classroom, each with their own peculiarities to learn and get used to. I would possibly do more if I could use the same board for all my lessons.

What is pedagogically new?

As for the pedagogical advantages of the IWB, I must say I am still looking for the real 'interactive' element so much hyped about yet. And I am still waiting for the WOW effect. We have had a few training sessions with experienced IWB users or vendor reps revealing their secrets. So far, all they have been able to show is very simple exercises and games, mostly for the primary school level. I have no doubt about how the use of the IWB motivates very young students and brings lessons to life. But I'm afraid that isolated magic tricks, or funny little things you can do with all the gizmos of the board won't cut it at the high school level any more. So far, I haven’t been able to see or fathom for myself really well-planned, pedagogically reasoned high school lessons, where the IWB considerably facilitates student learning. I need a spark to start even imagining what it can do for me and my students. Straight away, I fell into the trap of just trying to force the new tool into old-style lesson plans. I often find myself just using IWB an electronic version of the old OHP, and then get totally disillusioned about the mere cosmetic changes it makes in the lessons. It's clearer, more colourful, and easier to use (when it works!), but that's all. It still boils down to reassessing what LEARNING is supposed to be today, and how to activate students to take charge of and get passionate about their own learning. The IWB is no automatic solution to this. I need to know what to do first!

Networking and some progress

To find inspiration, I started looking for online peer support groups. And as often happens, within no time I had joined the Interactive whiteboard revolution Ning, created by Australian educator Chris Betcher, whose Betchablog I was already familiar with. There are already close to 1,300 members on the Ning, mostly from Australia and the US. I spotted a discussion about IWB use in high school, initiated by Julie Lecoq from France. Julie is is doing research on the gains of IWB use in schools. I didn't really find any more concrete ideas in the discussion thread but a lot of confirmation to my initial thoughts about no magic formulas for IWB use but a need for new, innovative, creative thinking to benefit from these expensive tools.

I did have one lesson where I saw a glimpse of something new, thanks to the IWB in the class. We had been doing an online photo project on Flickr, and in the last lessons of the course, I asked students, in pairs, to give their feedback on e.g. what they had learned, found interesting, what pictures and what writing had made an impression on them. They got really involved in doing this, and I was happy to see a lot of negotiation and collaboration taking place in the computer room while they were preparing. When we got back to our classroom to share their presentations, I was surprised to see the students using the IWB very creatively, and with no teacher guidance or pre-training needed! Interacting with each other and the board really made a difference to their presentations.

Baby steps, need for patience and perseverance and a gradual learning curve in store for me.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Second impressions of school in Singapore

After my first impressions, I will now write a couple of thoughts about what I observed in the lessons I attended during the student exchange, and what ideas I, as a teacher, brought back.

I was surprised to see how similar many of the teaching practices were compared to our schools in Finland. The more student-centered approach seemed to be the norm in most of the lessons I observed. Instead of sitting rigidly in straight rows only facing the teacher and listening to him/her, students did a lot of problem solving in small groups, just like I and some colleagues have started doing in our lessons lately. Our students were asked to join them in their groups, and it was nice to see the interaction start after they had managed to break the ice.

I wanted to find out about incorporating ICT, since the work my AEC-NET colleagues had showcased at several conferences was always of such superior quality. The classrooms and the whole school seemed to be very similarly equipped as our school - a data projector in most classrooms. Some teachers actively used ICT in their teaching, others not so much - familiar story. (NB. I only observed a few lessons during one week, so I shouldn't really draw any general conclusions. These are simply my personal impressions.) But when you think about it, a data projector only serves as a modern replament of the chalk board or the OHP if it is only used by the teacher to show and demonstrate things to students. I have seen this reality in schools in many countries. We think we are up-to-date and doing something new when in fact, we are just doing the same old thing in a slightly flashier fashion.

Each Pioneer teacher is given a personal laptop by the school, something that only a few schools in Finland have managed so far. Instead, we have one teacher laptop in each classroom that all the teachers using the room share.

Just like in our school, Pioneer Secondary had a separate computer room that teachers could book to use for their classes whenever they wanted, provided that the room was vacant. We attended a lesson where students were doing their AEC-NET project work. I was very impressed to see how self-directed and active the students were in their small groups. The teacher was available to help and facilitate but the students mostly worked very independently and confidently, and they were only 13-14 years old. It really showed me what education at its best could be today. The students were doing research on ecotourism, and then uploading the results of their work online to share with project partners in other countries.

Pioneer Secondary has invested in a whole school platform, called iCollaborate, which they have used for all the students' project work for many years. Basically, similar to Moodle that our school provides as an overall platform. The advantage of the whole school using one platform is, of course, that it is easier to train teachers to use just one system, and simpler to manage it on the whole. The downside then is that standard solutions don't please adventurous teachers, who soon want to jump outside the box and try something more user-friendly or versatile. Personally, I find these platforms restrictive and dull compared to what social media tools are on offer these days, but that's just my preference.

I had a chance to talk to the head of the ICT department, Ms Ling, at Pioneer Secondary to share ideas. She told me that because most of their staff are quite young, they are perhaps a bit keener to incorporate ICT in their lessons, as it is an integral part of their own lives, too. For this reason, she also said that most of the teachers using ICT are quite confident and self-directed, and thus don't need her help a lot. Yet she is there to help and assist all the teachers, which again brought home one thing I feel is terribly neglected in many Finnish schools, and which I have mentioned many times before - the fact that Finnish schools don't invest in employing a full-time pedagogically and technically qualified person to help teachers, as was the case in Pioneer. I want to add, though, that I tend to reject the ageist idea of teachers' ICT use - considering myself as an exception to the preconception that older teachers can't be 'digital natives'. But, of course, there is no denying the fact that ICT tends to be a more integral part of the lives of the younger generations, which is bound to have an effect on schools once some of today's youngsters become teachers.

I totally agree with Ms Ling's vision that you can't force any teacher to use ICT. Instead, the will to use it must spring from a pedagogical need whereby the teacher realizes that to facilitate good student learning today, at times ICT is the only means of doing it. She also pointed out that their aim was not technology for technology's sake, but a down-to-earth, sensible approach, where technology enhances student learning. Sounded very wise to me! I asked her about the use of IWBs, which my school has heavily invested in lately, but which I didn't see at Pioneer at all. Interestingly, she said they had looked into them but concluded that they didn't offer anything drastically better or different than what you could accomplish with a computer and a data projector! I have only started to learn to use one in our school, and so far I tend to agree with her.

From a teacher's point of view, one of the very rewarding and enlightening sides of organising international student exchanges is being able to see different schools, and learn from their good practices, to have something to take back to your own school. I only wish, schools would be more open to good ideas from outside, even unusual and radical ones, and not be such closed and immutable national fortresses.

It is also great to network and make friends with overseas teachers. We had the privilege of working with a wonderful educatior, Ms Yuen Chai Lin, who worked incredibly hard to make our stay comfortable and exciting - even extending her hospitality to opening her home to me and my colleague to stay in. This gave us an extra glimpse to the Singaporean culture. We can never thank her enough for all her friendliness and considerateness, and for untiringly sharing the Singapore customs with us, and explaining anything we were curious about.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Why do I do student exchanges?

International school projects and exchanges have been a central part of my career for over ten years. Every so often, I start weighing the pros and cons, and questioning the point behind it. After another such exchange, this time taking eight students to Singapore on a return visit after hosting a group of Singaporean students two years ago, it is a good time to reflect and take stock again.

My philosophy behind the value of such exchanges hasn't changed in all these years. I have quoted this before, but after many more exchanges, it is even truer than before:
“Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with travelled bodies, but untravelled minds.” (Caleb Colton)
First-hand experience, even if brief, of a place always gives you a better insight than any book or virtual tour ever could. No other means so far allows you to holistically immerse yourself in the new environment, using all your senses. This is why, whenever the opportunity arises, I jump at the chance of taking students on home stay visits to partner schools ourside Finland. Getting a glimpse into the host student's home and family life, and taking part in the daily school activities opens their eyes much more, and forces them to work out a way of participating in a strange culture and getting along and collaborating with very different people. This is something you can totally miss out on, or avoid on a touristy visit.

One of the fundamental roles of such school exchanges is to sensitise students to seeing the relativity of phenomena in the world, and the fact that if something is different from what they are used to, it is not automatically stupid or wrong. It is essential to have frequent reflection sessions with the students, and try to open up new perspectives and ways of perception and understanding for them. First impressions of a new place are so often based on stereotypes, and even reinforce such preconceptions. This is where a teacher can guide the students towards a more rounded and open mindset in new situations.

Being thrown into a host family, with totally different customs, possibly religion, and a foreign language is daunting to many students. Approaching Changi airport after our almost 24-hour journey, almost palpable nervousness started spreading amongst our students. What will I say when I first meet my host family? How will I feel, will I be able to eat the food, will I feel isolated and alone? All these questions and many more were criss-crossing our students' young minds, as this was the first time for most of them to travel without their own families. In the end, they all pulled through wonderfully, even despite the age difference between them and their hosts, who were 3-4 years younger. I was really proud of all of their adaptability, and I hope they all got lots more self-confidence and a sense of being able to cope.

One more significant advantage in these exchanges is the chance for students to practice oral communication skills, which will most likely be called for in their future careers. During each exchange, students are expected to present something in a foreign language, usually a talk about their culture and background. We always prepare these presentations as a team, practice them together, and students really rise to the challenge and shine when the time comes. In Singapore, it was wonderful to see their confidence and pride after a successful performance in front of a huge audience.

Many colleagues think I must be crazy to get into so much trouble and extra work without any extra pay. Maybe so. However, I feel I'm on a mission, which can't be completed inside the closed foreign language classroom at school. It is not uncommon for Finnish people, with almost perfect passive knowledge of English, to suffer from 'a reduced personality syndrome' when having to use English. They do brilliantly in isolated, written language exams, but are totally unable to adapt that knowledge into creating a fruitful and pleasant communication situation with real people. Overcoming this disability is my mission - for me, as much as for my students. After our week in Singapore, I am happy to say that we proved that Rudyard Kipling wasn't quite right in writing: "east is east, and west is west, and never the two shall meet..." For a short period, we did bring them closer together!

As before, we kept an online travel blog during the exchange for families and friends at home. Unfortunately, it's only in Finnish.