Saturday, 18 October 2014

To limit, or not to limit technology use in the classroom?


I used to be very pro-technology, and tried to incorporate up-to-date digital content into my English lessons. But, to my horror, more and more often I find myself wanting to follow media guru Clay Shirky's surprising decision to ask students to put their technology away in class.

First off, from my own experience, I have realised that multi-tasking really is a myth. If your job is to truly learn something, or accomplish a task, you will need to focus! Gadgets on the desk  are too tempting, and greatly distract students from focusing on the tasks at hand. Secondly, when we are trying to learn a foreign language, where communication and social interaction plays a huge role, why should we practise this with screen barriers between us while we are in the classroom together? Surely, it's more productive to talk face-to-face, maintaining eye contact and focused presence. And thirdly, students get enough "tech time" outside the classroom, so it's not healthy for them to spend their whole school days as well, glued to the screen. Having said this, I believe extending lessons with relevant online work for homework is often a good idea.


But, as always, there's the other side of the coin. Today's teens find it harder and harder to tolerate old-school "hard work" learning. They need ever-changing activities and flickering screens to get involved. This is where technology comes to our rescue. Pacing a 75-minute lesson with some online activities provides a welcome change in the working rhythm. A case in point is the recent hype about Kahoot, and no doubt it does instantly hypnotise a whole classroom into short snacky-type activities. Here is what I blogged about this energising effect of Kahoot in more detail earlier. Yet, you can only use it so much with any one group. The "seen it, done that" syndrome soon hits in, and we teachers are left hunting for the next temporary online remedy.

Maybe this is the future of education - teachers' job consisting more and more of curating different applications to keep their students on task? Unfortunately, for the time being, we are still missing attractive and engaging enough game-based programmes and applications, to facilitate, for example, individually adaptive grammar learning. Consequently, many teachers already burn out under this pressure, spending all their time fishing the net for the next great app. We should get language teachers and cutting-edge professional game designers together to develop these!  I do believe that we teachers are also entitled to a life outside school, irrespective of whether we see our job as a vocation or just a job.
There must be a golden half-way measure in all this frenzy until pedagogically sound and user-friendly online learning applications are widely available. At the moment, I balance my lessons with a hybrid approach - tasks where all gadgets are put safely out of sight and reach, and others where laptops, tablets and sometimes even smartphones are in active use.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Can an old dog learn new tricks?

Our friends' old boy would definitely opt for taking it easy!

When I was doing my teacher training (eons ago!), we used to have to write to-the-second lesson plans, in which we even had to anticipate possible students answers to our questions, and then write down reaction and intervention alternatives to them. Back in those days - in the last century - school seemed so much simpler than today. Every classroom had the neat, straight rows of desks, the teacher's word was the law (or close to it anyway), and mostly, the students didn't question this reality.

It's a different ballgame now. My 16-19-year-old students get restless after about 10-15 minutes if they need to focus on one learning task that long. They can't part with their smartphones, which sit on their desks, within easy reach - and they DO reach for them, the moment there is even a momentary lull in the lesson. For many of them, the phones, or alternatively tablets or laptops have become almost an extension of their bodies, and they feel rather lost if a nasty teacher asks them to put them out of sight for a while.

So, the question is, what should be done to avoid the inevitable friction between today's students and teachers trained in the 20th century? We had a mandatory in-service training day last Saturday, with a keynote speaker from Helsinki University, Professor of Educational Psychology, Ms Kirsti Lonka.

The title of the talk was 'Plunges into tomorrow's learning', where instead of ready-made, clear, structured answers and guidelines, Professor Lonka threw us possible ideas and scenarios what that future learning at schools might look like. Surely, it's up to all of us teachers to start redefining our role and renewing our classroom practices, or our students' spark for learning will soon be totally lost, and they will just waste their school days, mindlessly entertaining themselves on their gadgets. One thought that stuck with me was that although there is no doubt that teachers will still be very much needed in the future, they won't be needed to deliver information any more. If you define your role as a a teacher in 20th-century terms, aren't you perpetuating an old-world paradigm that will possibly fails to reach the kids of the digital age?

Serendipitously, today I came across Scott McLeod's blog where he says the following:
You want student learning to change but you don't want to change teaching or schooling. Good luck with that.
Good luck indeed! I am quite concerned about the apparent lack of many students' motivation for school work, so what could I, as the facilitator of student learning, do to help them? Traditional school practices are still the norm, and most of us will probably stay firmly put in our comfort zones, fully believing that that's for the benefit of student learning. What baffles me, though, is how long educators have been wondering about these issues, with the same problems and questions cropping up again and again, and still not much changes, other than maybe in individual schools or the classrooms of individual teachers!

One step forward would be to drastically change the arrangement and design of learning spaces. Here's a time-lapse video of an experimental, flexible and adaptable learning space at Helsinki University. A far cry from the desk rows in the old school, don't you think?