Building connections

If you ask me to define a key hallmark of schooling in today’s world in just one word it has to be about connections. It became crystal clear after listening to designer Mary Featherston and internet whiz Michael Furdyk talk passionately about how they are facilitating connections between students, their environment, teachers, the internet, local communities as well as the global challenges.

Michael Furdyk
Michael Furdyk

I discovered Michael Furdyk at the ACEL International Conference in Sydney last year. He is a 26 year old Canadian who has taken his passion for the internet and making a difference in the world to a global level by creating a website called TakingITGlobal. Michael refers to it as social networking for social good and social learning.

This not-for-profit website is giving students a voice through technology by connecting them to other like-minded students to grow ideas, share knowledge and collaborate on local and global projects. One company donated digital cameras and scanners so that students in Afghanistan and other developing countries could ‘speak’ to the rest of the world. It forces us to ask what we mean when we talk about student voice!

An interesting point that Michael made in his presentation was that in a study (I think this was by Robert Epstein ‘The Case Against Adolescence’), teens in the US are on average as competent as adults when it comes to decision making. This may be surprising for some of our teachers but we have students who are already experts in using the tools. What they need is the opportunity to become leaders, peers, mentors through collaboration with other students on projects that really matter to them.

How many of our schools are prepared to take a great idea and turn it into something like TakingITGlobal? What I always find is that the work that students do when challenged in such ways always outstrips our expectations. Why not start with something that has currency such as designing relevant learning spaces? Which of our schools is prepared to take on the challenge and make the relevant connections?

12 thoughts on “Building connections

  1. I’m interested in your last paragraph Mr. Whitby; why are you proposing these changes as if it is the schools responsibility solely; the CEO is a major factor in which individuals schools rely on to so such a thing:

    Reaction #1:
    “How many of our schools are prepared to take a great idea and turn it into something like TakingITGlobal?”

    Believe me when I say, all schools want to do such a thing, but when compulsory solutions such as CEnet is forced onto the Catholic School’s it becomes increasingly hard to approach your challenge to schools, especially when such a challenge involves school’s to place time, effort and money to create a great idea into practicality, if the CEO wont, why should a single school do so?…

    “Which of our schools is prepared to take on the challenge and make the relevant connections?”

    Are you imposing that the CEO would fund these costs to take on an innovative communication renovation? If so I’m sure every school in the Parramatta district would love that offer (without any catch’s like an on-site primary school to be included)

    Well I doubt that is what you impose anyway, I assume that you once again, want the school itself to spend money, time and effort to do such a thing… but you and I both know that current education funding and CEO funding distributions will never allow the possibility of such a proposition/challenge to take place.

    “What I always find is that the work that students do when challenged in such ways always outstrips our expectations. ”

    I understand and agree that on a student level, yes they are outstripping the education expectation… but you cannot use this example as if it implies in a large scale…. the student example and revolutionizing education are completely two scales that should even be compared to one another… Just because students can exceed challenges, don’t expect that schools have the capability to exceed your “challenge” to, because once again, at this rate, it’s just impossible (as I proved above)

    Once again, correct me if I’m wrong, glad to listen…

  2. Some interesting observations Jsinc. However, they show a lack of understanding of how we as a system of schools are approaching this. We have done a lot of work as a system (including school leadership teams) in working out a way to support schools as they go about the challenge of providing quality learning and teaching. At the heart of the strategy, is the belief that the teacher makes the real difference to improving student learning and that teachers in collaboration with each other whether local or global can enrich this process. This also requires input from school and system leadership teams to support the work of teachers in learning spaces.

    Generalised comments about levels of funding or location of schools seem irrelevant to the argument you are trying to present. I don’t think they add to the nature of the discussion about what we need to do to support today’s learners. We can’t keep coming up with excuses as to why we aren’t delivering for our students.

    Your expression around CEnet being forced on schools is a gross misrepresentation. It is provided for schools to use in a way they see fit. It is one of the many tools available. And given that schools are not at the same level, some may need the capacities and capabilities that CEnet offers.

    If teachers have moved beyond VLEs and LMSs – great! I’ve never said one size should fit all schools. We encourage learning communities to make decisions around how those funds are used to promote learning.

    It’s a real cop-out to suggest that schools need to rely on systems or central offices to lead them particularly when it comes to developing meaningful learning experiences. In fact, that’s what teachers do best. We are challenging teachers to look at new ways of doing rather than seeing it as an extra. We are moving towards open source software – it doesn’t cost anything for a class to create a blog. It simply requires teachers to get out there and experiment. Dare to fail as Michael Furdyk would say.

    Last Tuesday, we had 3 school principals share the work they have been doing (one of which was your school). They each outlined how they were trying to create a relevant schooling experience in their communities. Each took a different approach and had a different orientation to the nature of the problem and how they were addressing it. A common thread in these presentations was a recognition that the schooling experience needs to change; teachers and the support of teachers is central in delivering change; it is a complex, demanding and intellectually rigorous task but the end results are well worth the effort.

    The principals made no false claims that they had found the answer. They simply pointed out that they were on the journey of learning. This is what I see as the key issue as we go about delivering the change that needs to take place in today’s world. This is behind my comment that I wish it were so easy. We need to share good practice when we find it and I’m struggling as to how we go about this so that everyone benefits from the ‘wisdom of the crowd’. It would be great if you encouraged your colleagues to share their experiences with PBL with the wider learning community.

    We have been exploring these issues on our own system blog by attempting to share ideas on how we might collaborate more effectively. I don’t think there is a silver bullet, magic potion or one size fits all approach. What we do know is that good teachers in great relationships with kids and colleagues, understanding where students are at and using a range of the enabling tools available will make a positive difference in the lives of young people. And through that process will change the very nature of schooling and the perception of teachers and teaching as a profession. Anything is possible!

  3. Sorry for a late reply, just finished CSSA exams, and it takes a bit of time to take in the essay response you replied with, fondly enough, I don’t understand why a reflection essay is needed to say that “teachers and students need to be creative and find their own way to adapt into the 21st century teaching style”

    Your talk about the 3 principles just further implies your point that it’s up to the teacher to provide the new way of learning (which I don’t totally agree with), and you continue to find ways to remove the CEO’s involvement of setting an example in leading the majority of the catholic schools into 21st century learning.

    Rather than setting the example, you oversee case studies of PBL projects that are tested by a minority of our Catholic schools at their own expense and risk, which I can understand, in hopes to find a way “that everyone benefits from the ‘wisdom of the crowd’” but The fact that these 3 principles have concluded in different approaches to the problem with different outcomes, proves that there will never be 1 defiant solution you can find to implement to the main stream catholic schools, and if you continue along this approach to 21st century teaching, each school will have its own objectives and methods of teaching, you will find that the equality and opportunity of every student to be exposed to the same style of teaching and learning varies and disintegrates as parents become really hypercritical in which school implements the best approach, hence determines the quality of education…

    I believe it’s not until a holistic approach begins in testing innovative technology/methods (i.e.: using CEnet as a medium to test run some web 2.0 based networks) that you will be able to determine how to best implement web 2.0 into the wider community and receive real time user feedback to determine success (as every student would have ability to connect to CEnet)

    Now a couple of points I want to cover:

    Statement #1 and #2:

    You state “It’s a real cop-out to suggest that schools need to rely on systems or central offices to lead them particularly when it comes to developing meaningful learning experiences.”
    See now that’s a contradiction in itself; let’s take a relevant scenario: STAFFNET!

    “We have been exploring these issues on our own system blog by attempting to share ideas on how we might collaborate more effectively”

    It’s like you say that students can use open source as an alternative to CEnet, and there is no need for students to be central, and then we see teachers and CEO use all this central decision making tools, and central communication technology that was provided by the CEO, ironic how you find the need to be central in developing learning experiences but see no need for students to receive the same opportunity. It makes students like I feel that your saying it’s ok for students find their own way to collaboratively learn within the local class, but it’s ok that we miss out in the feeling and experience of a holistic collaborative forum, (like STAFFNET) which is vital step in web 2.0 and meaningful learning experiences, as students too would like a formal way to communicate, compare and collaborate between all school students in the Catholic system( student’s are begging for this method of communication to be made available to use, through CEnet is logical and practical!).
    Students currently have no communication with other schools, CEnet is a limit and boundary, it cannot for example compare thoughts and work like STAFFNET, and does not provide the inter-school communication, we need a CEnet that can act holistically for students (like NING or BoredOfStudies) where all students within catholic schools can see other students, hence the collaborative experience and feeling….

    Statement #3:

    You might counter me with a pre-statement: “open source software – it doesn’t cost anything for a class to create a blog”, true I agree with you, but the reality is a student/teacher innovated blog sites will never receive the same coverage and exposure opportunity as CEnet, hence the failure to meet some vital inter-school communication that many students want.

    Lastly, Statement #4:

    “And given that schools are not at the same level, some may need the capacities and capabilities that CEnet offers.”

    From what I understand by this statement, you are telling the public, that you are willing to hold back and stop progress into Web 2.0 technology and Collaborative teaching/learning because you believe other schools are not ready for it?? I believe the vast majority of Catholic Teachers, Students, and Communities are waiting, if YOU’RE waiting for them to catch on, then this whole debacle will never exist, because they are waiting for YOU to lead the way into this.

    But heck, and this is just a reaction and reflection from one student, I wonder how many students agree with me, and maybe even teachers?

  4. For the sake of brevity – there will always be divergent views but we both agree that teachers need to be well supported in order to make a real difference to the learning outcomes of their students.

  5. I have been following these items for some time, with interest as I love a lively professional discussion,and I’m reminded of David Hargreaves’ observation that “Real transformation.. must affect people and cultures far beyond those organisations controlled by government (or we could say CEO)” The CEO isn’t controlling what we do to make the difference. It is teachers who make the difference and NOT the organisation (CEO). The CEO can only provide a range of services and infrastructures that can assist a teacher who wants to make a difference outside the square. The ‘system’ must however have vision, which in Parramatta is articulated loudly and strongly. You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to realise that change is long overdue and I’m not speaking of just Parramatta. What then is the role of the teacher in the 21sr century? We can just teach or we can make a difference. We can be good or we can be better. Paul Kearney says that we rob our students of their enterprise because we care too much! There has to be risk taking. There has to be a giving way to different ways – to imagination and creativity! We have to transform rather than reform. We have to set our aims higher. I think Sir Ken Robinson summed it up best when he said “The problem with human societies is not that they aim too high and fail but that they aim too low and succeed!” So what will you aim for – what you know you will get or something better?

  6. Some very interesting things have been said here. I have never thought that teaching was about having things handed to you on a platter – perhaps that is my experience in building school communities as places of learning. I see the future of education as exciting. Children want connection. Teachers need to be connected. We need to develop strong links with one another in our own schools but also among our schools. This means starting with good professional conversations, asking the challenging questions, looking at the big picture that CEO paints and how this is interpreted within our own schools, building capacity of teachers so they can lead the learning within the classrooms, sharing and collaborating with rich learning experiences, looking to the students by enabling them to take control of their own learning and believing that they can do it. CENet helps to a certain degree but the amount of other tools available is mind blowing. I don’t recall CENet as being imposed upon schools – did I miss something? But I do know that at my school our students are collaborating in ways that some of us would never have thought possible. Learning is affected by space and by the tools with which we engage. Let’s cut the whining about how much things cost and use what we can now, today, to enhance the learning outcomes of our students!
    (Have a good time at ACEL Luke last year’s was well worth it!)

  7. Some insightful observations and comments. I agree with the point that creativity is the key to real transformation and life-long learning. Einstein famously said imagination was more important than knowledge. That is why we must equip teachers with the resources they need to engage every student. Tools are only the enabler; it is the creativity and imagination of teachers as to how and why those tools are used and what impact it will have on the learning.

  8. I agree with everything in relation to Michael Furdyk. I believe that creating learning communities generates powerful learning experiences. If a 14 year old boy in the USA is willing to go teach my class photoshop via skype what is wrong with that? He is passionate about his subject and that passion will hopefully overflow onto my students. Sites such as ning can really create lifelong learning opportunities.

    However, the problem that I see in transforming education is this statement:

    “What they need is the opportunity to become leaders, peers, mentors through collaboration with other students on projects that really matter to them”

    I agree with this statement however I find it difficult to see how many aspects of the NSW curriculum provides students with opportunities to be involved in issues that really matter to them. I am finding it more and more difficult to answer the question why do we need to know this?

    Therefore, I think that freedom needs to be given to the learning process. I think skills are essential however, I think in order to give students the opportunity to pursue a passion or an intriguing issue we need to set them free.

  9. Gavin, this is the real core of the problem. I see it this way – the NSW curriculum is merely descriptive of knowledge, skills and to a degree, content. It is however silent on pedagogy. This is where the teacher has to be pro-active. We need teachers prepared to take the “descriptions” and fashion them into relevant, contextual, and connected learning experiences for all students. As preceeding comments explain, it requires creativity, collaboration at every level and celebration when we see good practice in any learning space. That’s where I think we can make a real difference.

  10. Greg, this is a most important point. I think that many teachers still become bogged down in the ‘content’ of curriculum rather than exploring ways or strategies to achieve the same outcomes through creative learning experiences that connect students to their learning and to their world.

  11. Some interesting discourse. I think many tecahers become bogged down in content because the NSW upper secondary curriculum is dominated by high stakes external examinations that focus on content and using it in context to demonstrate skills and understanding. I agree that creativity and contextual learning should be the focus of our endeavours. I think the new national curriculum is not going to be much different; discrete KLA’s, and proscribed minimum areas of knowledeg and skills. As Greg suggests pedagogy is the way to unlock this but I think that while the high stakes exams are perceived by the students, public and government institutions as being vital indicators of success and accountability it will be an ongoing struggle. I think there are two things needed; One is to continue to focus on the pedagogy and using ICT as the engaging enabler and second that there needs to be a revision of the notion , purpose and method of high stakes assessment. Until we get that the difficulties will be ongoing.
    I wonder how schools that are now powering into content integrated, ICT based learning will manage with the Stage 6 Curriculum and the HSC? I know the learningtheory suggests good pedagogy will lead to good results but will it see a reducation in content emphasis and strictured, structured assessment and testing? I don’t know…


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