Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Do we blame dentists for tooth decay?

I’ve been reading a lot of assignments of late to do with literacy generally and the “literacy wars” in particular. Perhaps predictably the students fall comfortably into the “phonics” or “whole language” camps – few have made the accurate observation that both approaches co-exist in the classrooms of effective teachers. Some have stretched a little further to include the impact of certain teaching philosophies on student achievement while others have made similar observations about the impact of the “home environment” on reading achievement. While reading it struck me as a curious that, almost alone one out of all the professions, teachers are held accountable in ways that other professions are not.

I’d like to pose a question – do we blame dentists for tooth decay? After all, dental hygiene is their job isn’t it? Isn’t their job to ensure that our kids have their teeth in good shape? Or do we say that dentists may be the experts and have a major role to play - but that each individual has to consider their dietary choices and do some basic things like clean their teeth on a regular basis? If I choose to drink carbonated sugar water with colouring, lollies with enough sugar to make a diabetic spin-out and then choose not to clean my teeth then I have to take the consequences of that – don’t I? I suspect that most would agree with the latter view. Is it my dentist’s fault if I get decay?

We would also have reasonable expectations that dentists would use the latest techniques as established by research and technological advances – even if they were at odds with the techniques used in our parent’s day. So, higher speed drills and good quality pain medication is something most would vote for. Would we really want the dentist to use slow spin drills just because that was what we were used to in our childhood? Would we even go to a dentist who refused to use modern equipment and techniques, or that used the same knowledge base that existed say two generations ago? (We could also extend the metaphor and ask if we would prefer modern magazines in the waiting room or a range of recent publications – torn and tatty copies of the Readers Digest may not suit us all. )

Rhetorical questions only as I think I can predict the answers.

Relating this to literacy - what is the equivalent of a “good diet”? What is the equivalent of “cleaning our teeth”? What new methods are now possible thanks to advances in technology?

This is in no way intended to shift responsibility for literacy “failure” to parents – but it is to remind us that sometimes what goes on outside of school has a significant bearing on what schools can actually achieve. This metaphor also helps hold a mirror up to our expectations of literacy and schools in general - they seem at stark odds to our expectations for most other aspects of modern life.

Photo credit: http://www.dentalsurgeons.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/dental_chair.jpg

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Learning locally

I’m a fan of online learning and learning via the Internet. The treasury of knowledge that resides in “the cloud” magically captured and reproduced via a series of “1” and “0” is simply staggering. Despite a lifetime of reverence to the printed page I have become an enthusiastic user of electronic learning. If you know what you are looking for and know how to ask the right questions you can discover basically any thing you want on the Internet in less time than it takes for your coffee to cool.

I am an neophyte member of any number of electronic communities - some incredibly useful and which provide me with all sorts of useful information and educational techniques. I have a secret passion for mathematics education - and am able to access rich information from all around the planet. Such is my involvement in the online community that I considered letting my membership of my state mathematical association lapse - after all, I can access more information more easily on the web; why should I continue with an organisational structure with procedures older than me?

I decided to attend the annual conference and then retreat to my laptop for ideas when I need them. I made the trip to the state capital and was staying with relatives. I noticed that my relatives had the same brand of TV that I do - but that it was tuned differently. It did not have an annoying “beep” every time I pressed a button, nor did it show a host of “empty” channels. It took perhaps a minute for my relative to show me how to retune my TV to remove these features.

My point is that this learning, as simple as it was, is unlikely to have taken place online. I have been frustrated with the “beep” and empty channels for months - but I had been unable to find a solution (I had tried to find one via the manual with no success). Sometimes we can learn things of personal significance in the most unanticipated places...from people.

I was reminded of the infamous press conference by Donald Runsfeld in which he spoke about “unknown unknowns”. As tortured as his terminology was he made a sound point - sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. The Internet is brilliant for discovering what you want to find out - or, as Runsfeld would put it, “known unknowns”. However, for that incidental knowledge, for those happy productive coincidences, it seems that we need to remember the “social” in “social constructivist” learning.

It’s been said better before by environmental group Greenpeace - “Think global - act local.”

(And yes, the conference had some gems too - I’ll be continuing my membership.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Students leaving a legacy - Alan November

We live in an era of bells and whistles and razzmatazz, the 30 second sound bite, flash animations and “edutainment”. For a message to “hit home” it has to be delivered with all the “bells and whistles” that are possible. Right? Wrong.

Educational consultant Alan November proves that powerful thoughts, spoken softly in the most traditional manner of all - a teacher in front of some students with only some slides (still images) to help him, can be riveting.

November crams a lot into this relatively brief TEDxNYED talk. One central theme though is that our students deserve the opportunity to leave a legacy through involvement in real world issues - that they consider important. The teacher doesn’t own the learning - it belongs to the students.

I’m hesitant to repeat November’s words here as they are told with a gentle humility which ironically makes them more powerful. In essence though, November values his students and values the contribution that they can make to our society - not just at some hazily defined time when they grow up and finish school, but here and now while they are at school. Their school “work” itself can and should be significant in the here and now. He stresses the significance of allowing students to have the opportunity to make a difference - to “leave a legacy”.

The word inspirational has been devalued in recent times which is a real pity as this is one talk that deserves the accolade. It isn’t just challenging, or thought provoking - it really is inspirational, even without “bells and whistles”.

(Access his presentation here or at   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebJHzpEy4bE

Alan Novembers web page =   http://novemberlearning.com/

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The interruptions ARE the job.

Today was frustrating - until I had a visit from a ghost.

It was one of those days - I was organised and had my “to-do-list” ready. I was focused. I was energetic. I was efficient.

I was also popular.

From the moment I arrived at my desk and turned on the computer there was an endless stream of knocks at the door. Students wanting to discuss assignments, students wanting clarification, students wanting to discuss some items for their professional portfolio - even one student not sure what question she wanted to ask but sure that she needed to talk to me to clarify what her question should be. My trip to the cafeteria for a much needed coffee turned into a student ambush and a discussion with a group of half a dozen more students after assignment advice. Then there were colleagues with questions about previous units or asking for some ICT advice.

All the time I was busy and productive - but my to-do-list had not been touched. My frustration levels were rising. My self imposed deadline was looming. And then I had a message from a ghost.

I remembered a conversation, one sentence really, that I had with the principal at my first appointment decades ago. He had obviously had a busy day - frantic in fact. It was towards the end of his professional life and he was beginning to show the signs of a demanding career. He slumped into the arms of a poorly padded chair in the staff room with a world weary sigh just as the phone went. Again. He was needed in the office. I asked him as he pushed his way up from his seat “Do you ever get sick and tired of all the interruptions?” He gave me a weary smile and answered “Nev - the interruptions ARE the job.”

How true that is.

We do not do paperwork and administration for the sake of administration. Our fundamental purpose is to educate - to assist students to learn. Everything else is secondary - important perhaps, but secondary.

So I leave the office today with my “to-do-list” untouched - but I did my job well.

Dedication: To Dallas Shadbolt - “The interruptions are the job.”

Illustration credit = http://www.whataracquet.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/to-do-list.jpg