Erica McWilliam – PD to savour

I had the pleasure of attending a session run by Professor Erica McWilliam last week. How refreshing to listen to a no nonsense presenter state some home truths about our education system and challenge us to think of what it is we need to do to make it better. Erica talked of our schools offering mandated learning for routine work. Not lifelong learning. Not teaching them skills that will make them successful in a 21st Century workforce.

Erica talked of us needing to reinforce that it’s the pleasure of the rigour of the work that is what we should be on about when we work with students. We should be ensuring that this is part of the Australian Curriculum, not the ADHD Curriculum we are being presented with where we have lots of content ensuring that most of it will be narrowly misunderstood. The fundamental skill of the 21st Century as far as Erica is concerned is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. How many of our students would be stagnant when faced with open-ended tasks expecting them to direct their own learning? Plenty, I’m sure. I found myself nodding in agreement as Erica articulated the concerns I have about the direction of our education system today.

What was most refreshing for me was Erica’s understanding of the role of the Teacher-Librarian in today’s schools. She described Librarians as existing in a hybrid space – a space where we have an invading species present. We as librarians, are often the first to  wrangle with new technologies and figure out how to colonise the new landscape.  As such, we serve the purpose of being the borderland force that can understand how we work in new learning spaces; spaces that often challenge the existing set up employed in many of today’s classrooms.

The difficulty many of us face (me included, as one who feels that she is a hybrid Teacher- Librarian, largely misunderstod by those hanging onto the old model) is that while we may have changed our mindset and are prepared and willing to charter the new landscape with our students, we are hampered by those who have yet to adopt the new way of thinking. How we overcome this is the challenge we face. We need the support of our administrations; we need those in positions whereby they can enact change, to appreciate our new skill set, and assist us in moving our colleagues with us. If that means mandated change to curriculum then so be it. I’m tired of offering to work with others but finding very few prepared to work in a co-teaching capacity. We don’t pose a threat; we pose an opportunity. An opportunity to expose our students to new ideas and open their eyes to what is possible.

If you’d like to read more of what Erica has to say, access her monograph ‘Schooling the Yuk/Wow Generation‘ from ACER. 30 minutes well spent in my opinion.

Learning, 21st Century style.

Image via Wikipedia

Lately I’ve been trying to learn how to use Drupal. The motivation for this is my husband’s business that needs a web presence. I set something up in Google Sites but had a look at what some businesses had achieved with Drupal and thought that might be a better option. My problem was I have never used Drupal, knew nothing about it and needed to find out how to approach setting something up.


So what did I do? I went straight to twitter and asked people there to point me in the direction of tutorials that might help me.  Did I get help? Absolutely. Links were provided, twitter names were offered as go to people and I connected with some followers who I hadn’t  connected with before. So why am I telling you this?

I was in a PLP fellows meeting and we were discussing the successes and challenges we were having with teams in our cohorts. The discussion led by Sheryl and Will was centred around how we have to connect what we are trying to do to learning rather than focusing on teaching Web 2.0 tools acquisition.  The idea was that it isn’t the tool that should be the focus but rather how that tool can be the effective medium for the learning possibilities for our students. Now I totally agree with this, it’s the kind of thinking I believe and it’s what I try and focus on when I discuss adoption of new ideas in my school setting.  However, there is no avoiding the fact that at some point teaching the tools has to happen. Our teachers need to feel competent dealing with blogs, wikis, nings, voicethread, and any other web 2.0 app that has the ability to connect our kids with one another and the outside world. My feeling is if they don’t feel confident they will be less likely to adopt these ideas as permanent shifts in their classroom practice.

I was making the point that I could empathise with how some of our staff are feeling since I’ve started exploring drupal. I feel ‘dumb’ for want of a better word; I can’t figure out where best to start and it all seems a bit overwhelming. Similar to feelings I had just over a year or so ago when I started exploring new technologies.  Will countered me by suggesting that my learning is now different. He asked “Did I go and buy a manual or did I go to my network first”?  The point he was making was that I learn differently now and this is the kind of thing I need to impress upon the teachers and students I interact with. My community of learners has shaped my attitude and actions and this very powerful learning is something that our colleagues and students need to benefit from also.

There are many challenges ahead for us if we want  to see systemic change happen. I need to remember that small steps are OK   – they will muster support and allow us to start taking larger steps, maybe even leaps.   

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100+ (E-)Learning Professionals to follow on Twitter

Do you ever have days when you waiver? Days when you wonder if the time you are investing is worth it. Days when you wonder where you are going in life.  Days when you think that maybe it’s just not worth it.

These days cross my path every now and then. What I have found is that when I feel like this, invariably something happens that strengthens my resolve and keeps me ploughing onwards.

Today was one of those days. When you spend a considerable amount of time learning about how we transform learning with the use of new tools you find yourself online a lot. Most of this effort happens outside of my working day which impacts on sleep, family time and time spent with friends. It’s the same for all of us I suspect. I was contemplating this today when Alec Couras put up a link on Twitter to 100+ELearning Professionals to follow on Twitter.  

Scrolling through the list I could see names of people I follow. People like Alec, John Connell, Britt Watwood, Judy O’Connell, Sheryl Nussbaum Beach, Joe Dale, Sue Waters, Doug Belshaw, Jeff Utecht, Lee Lefever and quite a few others. No. 50 on the list was me!! Me. Gotta tell you this was unexpected. Don’t know how it came about but it has stopped me wavering. 


If you’re not familiar with Twitter you should be. It’s a fantastic tool for networking and learning about others who have an interest in educational technology. You find yourself discovering new things all the time. But it’s not just that. It’s also about the human face of the network. Just the other day Andy Carvin put out a tweet about how he and his wife were heading to the hospital for the birth of their second child. The next day he posted the link to the Flickr photos of the birth of Sean Carvin. Andy Carvin doesn’t know me from Adam, but I’m happy to share with his good news and pass on my congratulations. You find yourself connecting on many levels, not just professionally but personally as well. And that’s what makes it work – it’s the human network forming once again with humanity linking us.  

There are people who are not on that list who should be. People like Julie Lindsay, Kim CofinoChris Betcher, Tom Barrett, Dean GroomChrissy Hellyer, Jo McLeay and Sue Tapp and many others. So that’s my next job. Time to send an email recommending others for inclusion on the list so that we all can benefit from the human network.

*I hope this doesn’t sound like a ‘Look at me’ post. I know it could be interpreted that way. I am genuinely surprised at my inclusion on that list.

‘Good ideas have lonely childhoods’

Hugh McLeod reckons this is the best line he’s written in a long time. I don’t know Hugh’s work well enough to agree with him, but I do love this line. It made me pause in my tracks and reflect on the meaning it has for me.

I left work Friday exhausted. We’d been reliant on technology very heavily for our inquiry project with all of Yr 7 and things just didn’t swing our way. Like I said in a previous post, the kids were amazing; they weathered the difficulties and found ways around their problems. I think by Friday afternoon I’d lost perspective. I felt like I’d being rowing upstream and was finding it hard to stay positive. A phone call from a colleague when I got home helped. She posed these questions;

Were the kids engaged?

Did they find ways around their problems?

Did they learn something?

Yes to all the above. Watching a business show this morning clarified things a bit for me too. A CEO was talking about his business plan and how it was a model they aimed for, but invariably it didn’t work to plan with all of the variables that affected the growth of their company. He talked of how you need to be adaptable to changing circumstances because it’s the only way you are going to move forward.

These are skills our students need. If everything works to plan all the time then maybe we’re facilitating a learning environment that isn’t reflective of the world they are going to enter. Work requires you to be adaptive and to find ways around problems. This is exactly what my students were doing as they battled issues with technology. I suppose what worries me is the perception of other teachers about the difficulties we encountered. It’s hard trying to get them accepting of technology rich projects and I do want to see adoption in my school.

Which brings me back to Hugh’s line. Here’s what he said in his post;

1. “Good ideas have lonely childhoods”. When I say, “Ignore Everybody”, I don’t mean, “Ignore all people, at all times, forever”. No, other people’s feedback plays a very important role. Of course it does. It’s more like, the better the idea, the more “out there” it initially will seem to other people, even people you like and respect. So there’ll be a time in the beginning when you have to press on, alone, without one tenth the support you probably need. This is normal. This is to be expected. Ten years later, drawing my “cartoons on the back of business cards” seems a no-brainer, in terms of what it has brought me, both emotionally and to my career. But I can also clearly remember when I first started drawing them, the default reaction was “people scratching their heads”. Sure, a few people thought they were kinda interesting and whatnot, but even with my closest friends, they seemed a complete, non-commercial exercise in futility for the New York world I was currently living in. Happily, time proved otherwise.

I feel like I’m in the playground, sitting in the sandpit pretty much alone right now in terms of my thinking. Friends will come, they always do, they’re just hanging around the fringes. I need to draw a few more lines in the sand to attract a crowd. I’ll keep at it.

“…we have to work globally to stop the accreditation tail wagging the learning dog” – now that’s a quote to use and an idea to ponder.

John Connell is a Scottish blogger who I consider to be a mentor of mine. He thinks deeply about education and the direction we are headed in. I always feel  enriched after reading his blog; he writes well about important issues facing education. He was kind enough to leave a comment on my previous post which I think is worth highlighting in full. Once again he’s made me think; 

The core issue is as you describe:

“……in the light of the stringent exam structure that exists in our senior years of high school. The argument that was presented suggested that our parent community wanted high enter scores. Our job at those year levels was to get our students through the curriculum and prepare them for 700 word essays, and it wasn’t helping them to have them learn how to collaborate with students from around the world. ”

I believe that such arguments, while inevitable, need to be tested to destruction. I have found over the years I have worked in education that the estimation of parental views held by too many teachers is, at the very least, stereotypical, and too often, rather patronising. I just wonder what would be the outcome if you (ie Toorak College) were able to find a way to test the depth and nuance of parental views on these issues.

Of course, parents want the best for their children, and they want to ensure that they have the greatest chance possible to make progress in life. I know from our chat over dinner a few weeks ago that you want the same for your own kids as my wife and I want for ours.

BUT – I am equally sure that most thoughtful parents are far more aware than is generally recognized in education of the need to find a reasonable balance between the demands of accreditation and entry to higher education, and the demands that life in all its complexity will place on our kids as they face the future. Too many teachers prefer to see parental views as one-dimensional and reductive in nature – I would challenge them to prove that their view is genuinely reflective of the actual views of the parent body.

So, I just wonder what the outcome would be if you could find a way – through straight talking and honest communication – to explain the logic and the humanity behind the kinds of messages we are trying so hard to build into the education systems for today and tomorrow. I am willing to bet that many more parents would express agreement with such views (while still wanting their kids to get what they need to go where they want to go) than the more patronising teachers realise.

Ultimately, I think that teachers and parents face the same dilemmas to an extent that we often fail to recognize. Why not test it? We might find that we can move forward together – teachers, parents, students – to find the ways and means to give our kids access to both realities.

Beyond that, of course, we have to work globally to stop the accreditation tail wagging the learning dog – but that is in the long term. In the short term, why not work towards finding a joint understanding between teachers and parents of the very real issues impinging on schooling, and impinging on the lives of our kids.

I am one of the parents at my school. My daughter began Yr Seven this year. What do I want for her? For me, it’s not about the highest possible entry score to get into University; it’s about development of the whole person and preparing her for the world she is going to be entering as an adult. Perhaps we do need to ‘test to destruction’ our assumption that parents are focused on university entrance scores and seek their clarification about what they want for their children? Perhaps they are unaware of the changing nature of the workforce and the types of skills that will be valued by employers of the future? There’s no doubt parent education is going to be necessary to assist them in understanding our motivations, but perhaps they get it already and we’re just underestimating them? 

Thanks for visiting John – I value your input and your ability to provoke further thinking.

(and don’t you just love that line, ‘we have to work globally to stop the accreditation tail wagging the learning dog’. Going to have to use that some time!!) 


What kind of world are we preparing our students for?

I’ve had a very busy couple of days. Actually, I’ve had a very busy last few months. I’m immersed in a new way of looking at education and it’s very hard to switch off. As much as I try and stay off the grid for periods of my day, I find myself thinking all the time. Any down time I have for housework, driving my kids to their next destinations, even having a shower and getting ready for work seems to be occupied with my head mulling over ideas about the future direction of education and how we respond to it.  (Just to clarify my interpretation of down time – none of that is really what I’d like to think of as down time, but it’s the only down time I have!!) 

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s visit to my school this week brought a lot of this into focus for me. Of late I’ve been reading Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind. He talks of society moving from an information age into a conceptual age, where we are going to need people who are creators with the ability to empathise with others using Right brain directed thinking. According to Dan, Left brain directed thinking is still important, but there needs to be a balance betwen the two. Hence the book’s title, ‘A Whole New Mind’.  Much of what Sheryl relayed coalesced with the thinking I have after my period of immersion.

Sheryl was speaking of the need for education to address the changing society we live in. Her focus was on the Human Network we habitate, and how we can use technology to foster relationships with people not just in our immediate locale, but worldwide and the importance of these digital literacy skills for the students we teach. Tania Sheko, who is from one of the school’s joining our cohort, was in attendance and she has written a  very good post about Sheryl’s visit. Here’s some of what she had to say ;

Firstly, she emphasised that 21st century learning, although based on technologies, was primarily a human network. These technologies enable global connections and wisdom of the crowd. Sheryl gave the example of Twitter as a means of finding the best information about buying a new car. I suppose it’s an extension of the network of friends and colleagues people turn to when looking for a good car, or finding a good plumber, only the global aspect facilitates expert knowledge more effectively. In a fast-changing world, where the information today will be outdated tomorrow, rather than teach memorisation of content from a single text, we need to teach students how to work collaboratively. As Sheryl said, ‘don’t think computers, think innovation’. Our students need to be able to be productive, self-directed and effective communicators, understanding digital communications, and not be overwhelmed by the fast pace of change in their lives. It’s not about the tools, the technology, but about learning. 

A very good summary Tania. Read her post  – she has much more there and it does encapsulate the thinking of Sheryl.


My time spent with Sheryl lived up to expectations. She loved Toorak College and felt like she’d been visiting Hogwarts. We do have the most beautiful school setting; a wonderful original building and stunning gardens. Sheryl was impressed with the examples of self directed learning taking place. A Yr 8 inquiry week and students from Yr 7 filming in groups for a Connections class. She’s a frenetically busy lady; when you listen to her describe her schedule you swear you are never going to complain again about how busy you are. When she presented to the staff at my school I’m sure none of them would have been able to ascertain that she had come off a long haul flight with no sleep. By the time I left her Thursday night she’d been awake for 33 hours and she was still sounding very lucid. We’ve chatted many a time through Skype, but this was our first meeting. I have to admit to being a little apprehensive – what if she didn’t like me or vice versa? Happy to report we got on really well. She’s passionate about what she does and so am I. That ‘s what’s important in being able to relay this message and have it heard; you have to believe it.

This brings me to Friday.  As with any staff, there are going to be people open to new ideas and people who take time to move along with change. A discussion ensued with a member of staff about the relevance of Sheryl’s message in the light of the stringent exam structure that exists in our senior years of high school. The argument that was presented suggested that our parent community wanted high enter scores. Our job at those year levels was to get our students through the curriculum and prepare them for 700 word essays, and it wasn’t helping them to have them learn how to collaborate with students from around the world. The other argument was that they couldn’t see how computers could be used for exams and didn’t see how it would be likely in their lifetime.  

My answer to these statements went something like this. What is our responsibility as teachers? Is it to prepare them for an exam, or is it to prepare them for life and the type of world they are going to be entering where these type of collaboration and digital literacy skills are going to be valuable? Will there come a time when we are going to see students use technology in exam situations? I think so. When, I don’t know, but with the rate of change and adoption in our society it could be within the next 10 years. I’ve been mulling this over the last 24 hrs and have been wondering if the English course will adapt and have students complete tasks that assess their digital literacy skills. At the moment we assess their ability to analyse persuasive language. I could see this evolving to include  assessing their ability to locate persuasive arguments from Web based sources; it seems to me that in the future, and now for that matter, it’s becoming more important to know how to find the best and most authoritive source of information in tandem with how to analyse the language and persuasive techniques (including visual stimuli) being used. Digital literacy , knowing how to find what you need, for the purpose you need it for, is going to be the vital 21st Century skill in my belief. We will all be in command of hand held devices, our phones, that are going to be able to perform so many tasks for us. We need to know how to use these to best effect and how to source the best of what is out there.

The week finished with a dinner in the city with Sheryl and local Melbourne based bloggers. Sue Tapp, Jo McLeay, John Pearce, Lauren O’Grady, Pam Arvanitakis and Darren Murphy (soon to relocate to London).  A fun evening where I got to chat with new found friends and share some ideas.

My hope is that Powerful Learning Practice is going to be the launching pad for further uptake of this kind of thinking in the school I work at. After meeting Sheryl, I know she has the passion and commitment to help us traverse this new approach to learning and hopefully give us the capacity to build this with our staff who are yet to be convinced of the need to move forward. What we’re facing is the change cycle that comes from moving from the knowledge age to the conceptual age. We are all going to have to adopt a whole new mind in order to cope with this change.

It’s the field of dreams adage, ‘If you build it,  they will come’. Hope so.

Sheryl’s visiting Australia (and Toorak College!)

If you’ve been following this blog you’ll have some inkling that I’ve been helping Sheryl Nussbaum Beach and Will Richardson set up an Australian arm of their Powerful Learning Practice initiative. This group is going to be global in scale including schools from the United States, New Zealand and Australia. I’ve been working at getting schools here in Australia to join this initiative and am pleased to report that we have schools from New South Wales and Victoria across all sectors; Independant, Catholic and Govt. Schools.

Some of the people leading these school teams include those writing blogs. Dean Groom, Judy O’Connell, Frances Manning, Rhonda Powling and Tania Sheko. Three of those names are Teacher-Librarians. Great to see them at the helm of change in their schools.  It’s going to be very exciting leading our schools through what we all hope is going to be something transformational for our colleagues who are taking the leap with us. I first started reading about Powerful Learning Practice in December of last year. I could see that it had the potential to shift my school and it’s teachers towards an understanding of the power of these technologies to reach out and make a difference to the learning environment for our students. We start the program on Sept. 8th. Our United States participants will be having a fact to face meeting at Freidricksburg Acadamy and we’ll be joining them via ustream. I’m excited to see that there are names I am already familiar with from our United States and New Zealand participants. Elizabeth Helfant, Alex Ragone, Lenva Shearing and  Jane Nicholls.

What is really exciting for me is that tomorrow I am finally getting the opportunity to meet Sheryl. She’s in Melbourne to keynote at the Expanding Learning Horizons conference being held in Lorne. She’s visiting my school tomorrow to present to the staff here about 21st Century learning and Learning communities.  I hope the people I work with realise the status Sheryl occupies in the Educational Technology sector and pay heed to the message she delivers. I’m sure her visit is going to make an impact; I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with Sheryl and get to know her during our Skype chats. It’s going to be wonderful meeting her face to face at last!

Write rhymes – students of English rejoice!

Do you remember when you were at school and you were given the task of writing a poem that rhymed? Do you remember the agony of not being able to find the word you needed? Well, students in the 21st century need worry no more thanks to Write Rhymes, a handy new tool that will find the rhyming word you need in your hour of need.  

All you need to do is type in the text you’ve come up with, press alt and click on the word that you need rhymed. Write rhymes will come up with alternatives for you to consider. Dead simple. Yet another reason why we as educators need to come up with high order thinking tasks that are going to extend our students thinking. Tools are becoming available to do the thinking for our students.  They will find them. We need to be rethinking our classroom practice to foster thinking tasks that require more than highlighting a word and having the answer magically appear! There’s the challenge; we must rise to it.  

That’s not to say I won’t be using Write Rhymes as a tool in my classroom this year. Teaching our students how to find these time saving devices is another skill entirely. To improve their digital literacy skills they need to be taught how to find tools that will make their lives easier -that’s smart too. As my husband always says to me, ‘You have to work smarter, not harder Jen.’ Advice I don’t always manage I have to admit, but an essential digital literacy skill that our students should be learning as we move into the 21st Century.

Telepresence – is this the future for presentations and maybe education too?

I came across this fascinating presentation via Garr Reynolds Presentation Zen blog.  If you’re not reading Garr yet you should be. He’s coming to Sydney in a couple of weeks and I’m hoping to get there to soak up his Zen advice about presenting and engaging your audience.

The video is a Cisco presentation held in Bangalore, India. John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, has Marthin De Beer, Senior Vice President of the Emerging Technology group,  appear on stage using Telepresence. Marthin was in San Jose at the time and appeared on stage as a holographic image. It’s very effective and opens our eyes to the potential use of technology like this. It would enable us to have face to face conversations, interacting as we would do in any real life situation except for the ability to physically touch the participant.

The Human Productivity Lab explains how they did it;

The Musion display technology is similar to the tech that telepresence provider Digital Video Enterprises uses for their seamless tele-immersion room.  A sheet of Musion’s patented, transparent Eye-liner foil is stretched across the stage.  The ultra high-definition image of Marthin De Beer and Chuck Stucki are captured in San Jose and the images of the virtual humans are then transported over the Human Network to be displayed in Bangalore.

Imagine the impact on conference participation. Keynote speakers wouldn’t have to jump on planes and travel halfway around the world. You’d just need a venue and your session leaders could particpate using telepresence. I’m going to be watching the NECC conference with interest; I’m not going, but I’m sure that I’m going to feel like a part of the event with participants ustreaming, live blogging, posting detail on Wikis and tweeting what they’re learning to their networks. In years to come will we even have to go to conferences like NECC, or will we be able to have a virtual presence using these new and innovative technologies?

There is a longer version of the Cisco Telepresence presentation that you can watch here.  John and Marthin talk of how this technology is going to transform business and the length of time it will take to get product to market. They also refer to the use of Wikis as a mass collaboration platform to enable creativity and innovation. Cisco has an internal ideas wiki that has apparantly led to new innovations taking root. 

Watching this has cemented my belief that it is necessary to empower our students with an understanding of these networking tools. We have many wikis in operation at our school now across many year levels. They’re still a new idea for many and some work better than others, but I think it’s essential that our students learn the nature of them and how to utilise them to best effect to benefit all. This is the business model they will be walking into when they enter their working life. Surely they are going to be a step ahead of the pack if they have exposure during their formative years.

Isn’t it our job as educators to prepare them for the future? We need to be making sure our schools are shifting into this 21st century. Let’s use the tools they are going to find when they start their working life. Let’s make school relevant.