Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Handwriting - a dying art or a waste of time?

As schools move more and more into the use of digital tools in education, the question often comes up,  "Why are we even bothering to teach handwriting?"


I think it's a good question, but also one that is also answered a little too hastily at times. Those who argue for less of an emphasis on handwriting skills do have a case. After all, why spend so much of precious class time on a mechanical task that doesn't involve much creativity or generation of meaning? Isn't the content of what the children write more important than the legibility of their script? After all, how often are the children really going to need to write at length in tidy legible handwriting? Won't most of it be done on computers anyway?


These are good questions. How often do you write with a pen or pencil? Is it for more than quickly scrawled notes and shopping lists? I'm sure more people write emails rather than letters these days. There's also an argument that typing levels the playing field - everyone can be as tidy as the next person, and can have the reader focus on their meaning, rather than make assumptions about their intelligence based on how tidy their hand is.


In spite of all this, I still believe that handwriting skills, cursive handwriting, is still a skill worth teaching. In fact, I would argue it's an artform, a cultural treasure handed down to us over centuries, that we are surprisingly so keen to throw away.


In many cultures, the artful formation of letters is highly valued. The Japanese and Chinese approach to calligraphy, with its meditative attention to the beauty of the brush strokes is one such example. The incredible use of Arabic calligraphy to decorate mosques in the Middle East is another.




The fact is, our Roman alphabet has become a little taken for granted. It's everywhere, used by so many different languages and so we have ceased to think of it as something special. We are beginning to lose sight of the fact that cursive script is a cultural artform to be treasured, and instead see it as a functional and defunct stumbling block on the road to a good education.


However, there are also good educational arguments for teaching handwriting skills, including the effect it has on brain development. Far from being a waste of classroom time, research has shown that children who spent more time practising the shape of letters showed higher neural activity than those who didn't, as this article points out. 

      "(The) research highlights the hand's unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key. She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information."


I love technology. I love the potential it has as a tool to expand our educational horizons. That said, I do believe it can be an invasive species in our cultural ecosystem, killing off a thing of beauty handed down from the ages, one learner at a time.


What do you think? Is this something we should fight to save, or should we start typing our eulogies for cursive script?



Tuesday, March 20, 2012

NZ Kids Online - How much do we know?

This year I am out of the classroom as I received a Study Award from TeachNZ, so I am working on postgraduate research instead, through the University of Auckland.

The topic I am exploring is how New Zealand children are using the internet - how they approach risks of various kinds, what skills they have in facing these risks, and how this might relate to the Key Competencies in the NZ Curriculum that we try to impart in our classroom programmes. I intend to analyse the findings to identify the conditions for increased confidence and skill levels online in order to minimise the risk of harm and maximise the opportunities that the internet offers.

My research will seek to answer the question, “How are 9-12 year old children in New Zealand using the internet, what factors lead to increased self-confidence and competency in dealing with online challenges, and what are the implications of this for schools?”


Last year I had the opportunity to present at the ULearn Conference, looking at the importance of researching children's use of the internet in a New Zealand context. While I was there I recorded this EDtalk, which has recently been put online.



To be honest, recording this was even more nerve-wracking then giving the talk itself! Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity to articulate some of what I have been discovering.


When I was reading around this issue I was struck by how little research there was based on the New Zealand experience. There are some studies looking at teenage internet use, but as for children I had to go back as far as 2002 to find a decent size study. As we all know, the online world was quite a different place back then. In 2002, Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twitter, youtube and even Gmail did not exist. And that’s without discussing the changes to web access via mobile devices such as the iPod Touch and games consoles since that time. Clearly the landscape has changed. 

Take Facebook for example. Consumer Reports ‘State of the Net’ survey last year found that, quote, “Of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million of them were younger than 13”, and that most of these accounts were unsupervised by parents. In fact, in the USA the number of parents who would allow their 10-12 year olds to have a Facebook account has doubled in the space of a year, according to Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project. The same survey showed that most parents also expect teachers and schools to do more to deal with the fall out.

Clearly, whether we like it or not, this is something we as educators are going to have to invest time in, and we need to do this from a position of knowledge of our own context here in New Zealand. Research around online privacy and risk is of vital importance. The disproportionate media attention given to unusual but high profile examples of online danger can have too much influence on policy formation. New Zealand-based research will help to separate actual online practice from media-hype based on sensationalist (albeit serious) examples. It will, therefore, provide a robust and reliable benchmark that other researchers and policymakers might use to inform policy in regards to appropriate responses, both in schools and more broadly in society.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Narcissists on Facebook?

My good friend, Pacific Londoner, sent me a link this morning to this Guardian article, reporting research that relates Facebook use and narcissism. It makes for pretty interesting reading:

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a "socially disruptive" narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.
People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.
The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.
I suppose in someways it's not overly surprising that narcissists will use Facebook in this kind of way, although as they say in the article, what comes first, the chicken or egg? Is the narcissism leading to the Facebook behaviour patterns, or is there something about Facebook itself that's leading to the narcissistic behaviour? Obviously the more research that looks into these issues the better. However, there is a tendency for the media to latch onto this kind of research to generate fear and overstate the 'dark side' of social media, without acknowledging the numerous benefits social media has to offer.

It is often said that the emerging young adults of today have barely known a world without the internet. They have grown up, generally, with access to the internet and a kind of connectedness that wasn't experienced to the same degree by previous generations (and sub-generations). What would be really interesting would be to find out how much of this purported narcissism is due to these young adults having already done a lot of their identity formation online. And a key question for educators, is what can be done for children and adolescents who are forming their identities online right now - what skills and competencies do they need to be able to cope online, and see through online narcissists and be responsible digital citizens?

I think one of the differences with Facebook and similar sites, compared with one's offline life, is that your profile spells out clearly how many 'friends' you have. Imagine if we all had that written on our t-shirts or foreheads! It's an online status symbol, and an indicator of 'social gravity' - that is, if they can gain enough social mass, that in turn will attract yet more 'matter' into their orbit, and on and on. Until the inevitable supernova! 



The very design of Facebook places each user at the centre of their online social universe. But then again, my eyeballs tend to do that too in my 'offline' life - it's unavoidable! The key is learning to see from other people's point of view, sharing experiences, developing empathy, engaging with a range of ideas. Facebook can be a great tool for giving insight into the lives of those in our network - it can counteract narcissism if used well.


In my experience, Facebook does not lead to shallow friendships. It strengthens existing ones and sparks old friendships into life in a way that probably wouldn't happen without it. The 'social' has always had a dark side, because it involves people. We should no sooner reject online social interaction than we should isolate ourselves from face-to-face contacts and become hermits in the desert. We just need to learn to do it well, and that is best learnt sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

iReflect - Photo Booth as a Learning Mirror

This term I have made a point of providing space in the timetable for the children to reflect on their learning.  I doubt that many people would deny the importance, for anyone, of taking a step back and thinking about what you have learned, how you have learned, what goals you have achieved (or not) and why. 

The typical day in the classroom can pass by with such speed that it is easy as a learner, and as a teacher, to get to the final bell and wonder how you got there. And then the next day it all starts again. It’s no wonder so many parents complain that finding out about their child’s day is like getting blood out of a stone!
All of us value physical reflection. Could you live without a mirror? Or the odd shop window reflection here and there? Clearly some value it more than others (!!). A mirror gives us feedback about ourselves, and we act to make adjustments in order to improve our appearance. So important is this to us that we will often seek out our reflection throughout the day, even just for a glance - it’s a kind of plumb-line I suppose, to stop us veering too far off track (hat hair!!).
Yet reflection on learning is not something that necessarily comes as naturally, especially for children. Writing reflective statements in a journal, or below their maths work before going to lunch can be quite burdensome - more burdensome than the maths itself for some!  
Because of this I have started using Photo Booth as a tool to capture the students’ reflections. The nature of recording oneself with a webcam seems to integrate the physical concept of reflection with the inner processes that are occurring. I allow about 10 minutes towards the end of the day to look back over what we have learned and discussed, (including the social learning that occurs the playground). They can jot down a few ideas if they like, before finding a quiet place in the room to record their thoughts.

When we started this some students didn’t really know how they should speak or what they should say. To help with this I have given them some reflection tools, to prompt their thinking. The Stepping Stones cards from The Learning Project are ideal for this kind of thing. I love the quote on their website: 

Trying to learn without reflecting and reviewing is like trying to fill a bath without putting the plug in!

We also have a Reflection Circle on the mat at the end of the day, where five or six children can share something they’ve learned, something they didn’t know when they woke up, or something they can do better now, or perhaps a goal for the next day. This doesn’t take up much time, and I believe is worth the investment. It models and normalises the reflective process and is a nice way to end the day.
What tools for reflection do you use in your classroom? Does your timetable prioritise reflection in some way? Please leave your comments below!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

No, we won't be needing a graphic organiser...

I read a blog post today by Dean Shareski, in which he quoted Darren Kuropatwa's question, 'What is it I can do now that I couldn't do before?'.  What a great question, and a constant challenge to those lucky enough to have digital tools in their classrooms that would have been undreamt of in the not too distant past.


This past week my class has started a new term, and a new inquiry 'A Bug's Life', looking at arthropods (insects, spiders etc) in our neighbourhood, and the effect they have on us, as mammals sharing this environment. There is so much scope for wonderment and awe when we look at the world of bugs - beyond what Hollywood sci-fi movie makers could think of in the originality, complexity and freakishness of some of these alien-like creatures.


My students are already excited about it, and I have had jars of collected bugs coming out my ears this week, as they have gone about their house and garden looking for strange creatures and bringing them in (one parent told me, "She's gone bug-mad this week!").  Usually at the start of an inquiry I will spend some time finding out what the students know already, and what they want to learn. I might have done this using a graphic organiser in the past, but I love the fact that now we can really bring this curiosity to life, in relatively simple ways, using video and web 2.0 tools.


Below is a very short and simple video we made, stitching their questions together as soundbites, choosing an iMovie theme, and getting some backing music from Garageband. So easy, and so much more interesting (and shareable) than writing this down on a graphic organiser. What's more, it was our first time posting a video on Youtube, so they were very excited about that.





As you will see on the class wiki link above (A Bug's Life), we used Wallwisher to post some of the things we already knew. Another new experience for the children, and fun at the same time.


I'm really looking forward to getting into the inquiry more, and exploring what it is we can do now that we couldn't do before. I'd really like them to become junior entomologists, and create mini nature documentaries in the style of the late Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter) and New Zealand's own Bugman, Ruud Kleinpaste. We could then enter these in the MADE Awards.


What an exciting time to be a teacher!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

TMI? Children's disclosure of personal information online

The world in which children live is inherently full of risk. Some might argue that a risk-free childhood is no childhood at all. However, the ubiquity of the internet and social media in the lives of children today presents a range of risks which differ not so much in kind with those of the past, but in potential. The ease with which information, text and images can be stored, copied, manipulated, replicated and misused, (Livingstone and Brake, 2010) has created a need for vigilance and action on the part of parents and educators. 

Children's disclosure of personal information on social networking sites in New Zealand is an issue of high public interest, as revealed by the current media attention given to it, such as this report on Close Up  about adolescent use of Facebook. In addition, the 2010 report by the Privacy Commissioner, 'Individual Privacy and Personal Information', identified the information children put on the internet about themselves as the issue that caused most concern among respondents, as it also did in 2008. 

However,  it remains a desperately under-researched field, making it difficult for parents, educators and policy-makers to make informed decisions about how best to impart the skills needed for children to become good digital citizens, with a high level of awareness of their rights and responsibilities towards themselves and others.

Last year as part of my post-grad study I reviewed a lot of the literature around this issue and drew up a research proposal. Perhaps one of the most significant findings of a number of the articles I surveyed was that generally young people are using social networking websites responsibly and consistently with how they conduct their offline behaviour, and that the actual risk from online predators is very, very low. Yet the small percentage of those who do take privacy risks are of sufficient numerical size (considering the millions of users of social networking websites) to justify considerable concern from researchers, educators and parents (De Souza & Dick, 2008; Williams & Merton, 2008; Hinduja & Patchin, 2008).

Below is a summary of the research proposal I put together that highlights many of the key issues and how I would go about researching them.

A further implication of the literature that came through again and again is that any effort to increase privacy awareness and protection skills must include parents. Because many schools approach social networking websites with caution, or block them outright, young people tend to spend most of their online social networking time at home, or on mobile devices. Many studies show that parental supervision of online behaviours reduces the amount of risk-taking behaviour, but that the awareness and skill levels of those parents was often not sufficient to provide the support that young people needed (Ofcom, 2008; Berson et al., 2008; Sharples et al., 2009; De Souza & Dick, 2008; Berson & Berson, 2006; Steeves and Webster, 2008;
Youn 2005; Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Wirth et al., 2009)

Part of this is no doubt due to the rapid pace at which the technology and habits of use of young people change. It may well be that if a school wishes to be most effective in protecting its young people from the risks of personal information disclosure, then the school has a role to play in educating parents through seminars and workshops, and must see this work as a partnership. Hope (2002) and Ofsted (2010) both affirm the importance of schools and families working together in partnership, with schools needing to be proactive in initiating this partnership. The research mentioned above by the Privacy Commissioner, as well as the fact that increasing numbers of older adults are using social networking sites like Facebook, suggests that there could be considerable demand for such a programme.


How aware are you of how your students are using social networking sites? How does your school involve parents in digital citizenship education? All thoughts and comments welcome!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Crop Rotation and Classroom Practice

These last couple of weeks on holiday, I've probably spent more time planning and preparing than I have for a long time, and as a result, I'm really excited about getting back into the classroom. It's not that I haven't spent time planning in past holidays - rather that in 2011 I have had more time available to think about my classroom practice and where to take it.






Since 2003, after returning from Japan, I have been (almost non-stop) studying part-time while teaching full-time, and I have say, it has taken its toll. Mostly in lost sleep, but also in lack of mental space and available time. Last year I finished a Postgrad Diploma in Education in e-learning, and was preparing this year to begin my thesis research for my masters, looking at children and adolescents' attitudes to privacy and risk when using social networking websites. 


For one reason or another, this year I decided to break from the study for a year and to be honest, it's been liberating! Now that I'm not studying I wonder how I found the time to do it. I really do enjoy studying, but when the only time in the day available for it is after the kids have gone to bed and the dishes are done, it can take more than it offers to life. Already one term into the year and the study break has breathed new life into my teaching - ironic really, as that was what I was hoping the study would achieve!

I think I was feeding the theory and starving the practice. More ambitious for qualifications than tried and true experience on the ground. No amount of journal articles read and annotated, no amount of APA referencing, will improve classroom practice - unless one is very deliberate about, and has time to reflect on classroom implications of theory and let these change your practice, and all this requires time.



I think there are some parallels in agriculture, especially around the notion of crop-rotation.  I don't know a huge amount about gardening and that kind of thing, but as I understand it, different crops draw different nutrients out of the soil, and if you keep planting the same crop in the same soil, season after season, the soil becomes depleted and the crops weaken or fail. To avoid this, farmers/gardeners will plant different kinds of crop, or leave the soil to rest altogether, to give it a chance to recover.


That is where I am at right now in my teaching. I've been growing academic crops for a long time, and it's time to give it a rest. Time to have the space to experiment with some of the great ideas that I often hear and read about from others, and see how they work for my learners. Time to reflect on practice, and feed this into future planning; time to provide meaningful feedback and create authentic learning experiences; time to redesign my classroom space and try new things.


I'm excited to be a part of the E-Learning Classroom wiki, a project in transforming classroom practice towards genuine e-learning integration, and reflecting as a community of practice, under the guidance of Jacqui Sharp. This wiki, and others that Jacqui has developed, are so rich in resources and ideas, that it will be the hub of my professional development for the foreseeable future. I strongly encourage anyone to spend some time on these wikis and refer them to other teachers you know who are looking to transform their own practice.


Will I return to study and finish my masters? I'm sure I will, but I want it to be from a firm foundation of practice, and that's what I'm thoroughly enjoying building at the moment!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When is the best time to tweet your blog post?

I got thinking today about the fact that many people read blog posts because they pick them up in their Twitter feed, and there seems to have been a shift away from RSS readers.
So if you write a blog post, what is the best way to let people know about it? If you tweet it, there's a good chance that many of your followers are not online at that point in time. If you keep tweeting it, do you run the risk of over-doing it?


I figured there must be some sort of netiquette for this sort of thing, so I googled it. I came across this post which asks exactly that: "How many times should you tweet your blog post?" They quote @GuyKawasaki who suggests tweeting four times, eight hours apart. Among the reasons are the fact that your followers live in different timezones, and, as mentioned above, they are not always online anyway.


Then I wondered, are there any particular times of the day when tweets are most read? Surely someone has asked this question before. Sure enough, googling this question got me 164,000,000 hits! I came across @danzarrella the 'Social Media Scientist' who suggests tweeting late in the day and late in the week for the highest click-through rates.


Malcolm Cole did some research concluding that 4:01pm is the best time to tweet if you want to be noticed. The Social Media Guide, on the other hand, recommends 9am Pacific Standard Time, because it works well in three other timezones in the USA and UK. Unfortunately that corresponds to 4am here in New Zealand, and at that time I usually have better things to do than tweet.


So what is the upshot of all this? 
  • It's ok to tweet about your blog post more than once, to give people a chance to see it. Maybe four times over two days?
  • Afternoons and evenings might be best, especially nearer the end of the week - but you can't please every timezone.
  • Obsessing over this kind of thing means one's life is a little out of balance!
Tweet freely for others and blog freely for yourself - can't go wrong.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Google Instant - Help or Hindrance?

One of the features of Google search that I have mixed opinions about is Google Instant. This means that when you are typing a search query, predictions and results will appear as you are typing.

As a user I find it very useful and efficient, and it can offer the phrasing or search terms I was looking for and save a lot of time. But as a teacher, I wonder whether or not the pros outweigh the cons. The pros, of course, are that students are given the same efficiencies I am while searching. They can begin a query, and then if their question is listed below in the predictions, they can click on it, avoiding the need sometimes for having to spell tricky words.


It is the unpredictability of the content of the predictions that worries me. Even with strict filtering on, Google Instant can give pretty dodgy predictions, especially if a student's search query begins with the same spelling as something less savoury. Try "How to make ..." and you will see what I mean, depending on what the next words starts with.


Fortunately, from Settings at the top right of a Google page, it is a short step to switch Google Instant off.




I have put this setting on all of my students' computers for now, erring on the side of caution. In the Advanced Search menu there is also the option of selecting the reading level of results. This would be great if it were a setting that could be applied to all search results, not just individual searches.




The other option, of course, is not to use Google at all, but one of the many search engines that are designed especially for children. A favourite of mine is Kidrex, which I have linked to our class wiki, but there are others such as KidsClick (which seems to be under construction at the moment) and CyberSleuth. A great option for teaching children effective search strategies, using AND, NOT, OR and other boolean techniques is Boolify, which uses these phrases to jigsaw the search terms and narrow down the results.




What is your search engine of choice for children? Do you think I am right to switch off Google Instant for my 8-9 year olds? How do you teach your students to search safely? Please leave your comments below!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Putting a daily timetable on my class wiki using Google Calendar

I've recently been giving my class wiki a bit of a re-vamp (always a work in progress!) and one of the latest additions is a Google Calendar. I already had one of these, showing important dates for the class, trips, deadlines etc. on a page of its own. 


The difference is that the new one is on the Navigation bar of the wiki, and shows the 'Agenda' format, listing just that day's events and when they are happening. This makes the daily timetable accessible, no matter which page of the wiki they are using.


This is how I did it:



The great thing about a Google Calendar is that you can have one off events, or have them repeat weekly or daily, which means that once it is set up, it just needs a little tweaking here and there.


Try adding one to your wiki sidebar, it's a good way to keep everyone informed. And now I don't have my students saying, "What are we doing after lunch, Mr Mac?!"