Sometimes I’m pretty dim. Take for example, three weeks ago at the ICTedu conference. Saturday morning, the Minister for Training and Skills Ciaran Cannon opened the conference, then I got up and did my (first ever) keynote.

Ev at ExcitedWhen I sat down he complimented me on my thought-provoking talk, double-checked the name of the book I’d recommended (“Teacher Proof” by Tom Bennet if anyone’s interested), asked if I’d heard about the ExcitED movement/conference at the end of the month (if you’re a tweacher on twitter, you’d want to have been living under a sound-proof boulder not to have heard about it) and politely said he’d love to have me there.

So here’s the bit where I’m pretty dim. I thought I was just being invited to attend! It wasn’t until the next day when the provisional schedule was emailed to me with my name pencilled in for a keynote that the penny dropped with an almighty clunk in my teeny little brain that I was being asked to speak.

Perhaps it’s the Irish tendency towards suspicion of authority figures (which, let’s face it, is quite ridiculous on my part – as a teacher I’m an authority figure myself!) but I approached the conference with some trepidation, as well as excitement. It seemed unclear what the balance of attendees would be, as a mix between international speakers, techies, edtech companies, policy makers and educationalists looked like the eclectic target audience. Unsurprisingly, I’m most in my comfort zone addressing other teachers so the prospect of the unknown was a little daunting. And more than once I had heard concerns muttered amongst my tweacher friends (and I had done some muttering myself) that perhaps this would be one of those events where tech people look down their noses at teachers, tell us we’re doing a terrible job (we’ve heard that one before), that we don’t ‘get it‘, need to ‘get with it’ and that the solutions are very simple; all involving technology permeating every aspect of the educational experience. I’m sure I sound cynical, but don’t forget, there’s a major financial incentive for the tech industry if you can convince governments worldwide that their education system is broken and the only way to fix it is with technology!

Photo excited kids

Thankfully my concerns about the conference – if not about the bigger picture – were unfounded. Friday and Saturday were a celebration of the remarkably innovative and creative projects students and teachers engaged in this year all over Ireland. In fact, it was not dis-similar to the Féilte event organised by the Teaching Council and the Learning Walk which was such a highlight of ICTedu. The speakers were challenging but never insulting; the panelists were a wonderful mix of students, teachers, experts and innovators and the genuine palpable passion in the air was a lovely thing to breathe in and behold.

I was utterly blown away by the BT Young Scientist winners Ciara, Sophie and Emer, who articulated the vision students have for blended learning (which they collected and collated at the festival). I was also deeply impressed by the panel contributions of Adrienne Webb (CESI chairperson), Mags Amond (CESI exec member and innovative secondary teacher) and Bianca Ní Ghrógáin (the most creative primary school teacher I’ve ever come across). If I hollered from the audience spontaneously, please excuse me! I get a bit rowdy when I’m excitED 😉

As with every event you give your weekend over to, you want to feel as if you emerge having learnt something, having met some really fascinating people and with questions and challenges bubbling in your brain. On this front, it certainly didn’t disappoint. Three people in particular challenged me to re-assess some of the things I have embedded so deeply in my psyche that I no longer view them as even being open to debate.

Mike Feerick

Mike Ferrick, founder of Alison.com was perhaps the most provocative panellist, confidently proclaiming the death of the traditional classroom and challenging us to consider schools as being in competition with the internet. He believes that problems of non-attendance will loom large in the very near future, as students realise that they can learn a hell of a lot more if they stay home from school and take charge of their own learning via the internet! I can list many reasons why I disagree with him – schools provide structure, motivation, interaction, social support – but I’m sure he could just as easily argue back that these features are being developed, rapidly, in online learning environments.

Instead of dismissing him as a crank, or a profit-hungry entrepreneur, I want to sit down with this man and have him show me what he sees right now that I can’t see. Because what struck me most forcefully about him was his absolute certainty. I want to understand why his faith in digital learning is so powerful that schools in his mind are already obsolete. And once I can understand this, once I can see what he sees, perhaps I can harness things I don’t yet know exist to help my students’ learning.

CB

I also had a provocative challenge from Ciaran Bauer of Bridge21 during the round table sessions where we offered our suggestions for the National Digital Strategy for Education. The teachers at our table, including yours truly, immediately got stuck into the nitty gritty niggles and practicalities which make the integration of IT into the school and the classroom so time-consuming and difficult. Our concerns are genuine; as one of our number observed, it’s hard to get into the flow of competing in the Mathletes challenge when the internet connection keeps dropping to nothing every five minutes and I know I could give a hundred similar examples of where the petty obstacles to integrating edtech become so great (and they are generally so bloody stupid too) that you just give up in frustration. We’re certainly a long long way from tech as an invisible tool, like water from a tap, that’s always there when you switch it on (I can’t remember who gave this analogy but I liked it!).

But it was at this point that Ciaran suggested to us that a failure of imagination was what was holding us back; that we needed to get creative; that the solutions are there waiting to be discovered. That teachers need to stop looking at what’s NOT possible and making excuses and start dreaming of what is. Then find a way. Although at the time I felt quite annoyed with him, and a bit judged and mis-understood, having had a day or two to reflect, I think he had a point. Way back when I began using tech in my teaching, it was because Catherine Cronin had said something very similar, albeit in gentler language, to look for the white spaces, to find what is possible even in situations where so much seems impossible. That was the catalyst that led me to the point I’m at now and it’s a journey I’m very thankful I embarked upon!

I need to ferment some ideas around making the impossible possible a bit more but suffice it to say that there’s a room in our school that desperately needs to be re-vamped into a creative space, with computer pods and couches and beanbags and right now there is no money. We have the space, we have 7 computers and we have the vision. We need three more computers; a carpenter to rip out rows and build some pods; some comfy seating and the money to pay for these things. I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t perhaps some kind of sponsorship deal out there to make it happen? Although it was acknowledged on the day that the very idea of educational philanthropy is still relatively alien in an Irish context, could it really be as simple as Ciaran seemed to suggest? Create a compelling proposal, then hound potential investors until one of them – or some of them – come on board? Hmmm. I’m not sure…

Anyone out there want to transform one room in our school? I’ll give you all of the credit and LOTS of publicity…plus my undying gratitude as an extra bonus?

I await your response!

Yours in anticipation,

Evelyn O’Connor

 

Finally, I was fascinated by the adaptations people offered to my not-at-all-original outline of the skills we’re told students need to develop, consisting of the three C’s – creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. Tricia Kellegher suggested adding in communication and curation. Her suggestion was partially echoed later in the day when I was lucky enough to grab a quick chat with Marty Cooper. For him, it all comes down to people developing the confidence to communicate their message clearly. It didn’t go over my head that here is the man who invented the mobile phone suggesting that the most important skill we can teach is clear communication! It also fired some kind of synapse in my brain, making me recall that Bill Liao, co-founder of coderdojo, had tweeted earlier in the day that the c he’d suggest adding to my list was Computational Thinking.


Tricia KellegherMarty CooperBill Liao
Now I was starting to see a pattern. The inventor of the mobile phone values communication about all else; the co-founder of a movement to teach young people to code values computational thinking; and my keynote raised concerns about edtech devaluing or undermining critical thinking. When you consider that my final year extended essay focused on the later novels of George Orwell, including 1984, it’s not surprising that I value critical thinking above all else. After all, being able to think critically about the world is what enables us to question those in power – a process that I believe should be on-going and never-ending.

Yet during our panel discussion, memorably for me, Bill Liao challenged us to consider that maybe there’s more to being educated than only developing the ability to think critically. And suddenly it was like a light switched on inside my head. I’m doing good things by giving my students the opportunity to be creative and to communicate and to collaborate and if our focus isn’t on critical thinking 100% of the time during the school year, that’s ok too.

You’d be forgiven for muttering to yourself right now ‘she’s right you know, she really can be quite dim sometimes‘ because this seems so bloody obvious. But I think my own personal preferences and talents and the system I grew up in taught and measured and valued little else except critical thinking, although I’m willing to accept that this was perhaps my own fault for selecting all academic rather than practical subjects. I’m not for a second advocating that we ease off on getting students to develop critical thinking skills – I haven’t lost my mind completely – but that doesn’t have to be our exclusive focus ALL OF THE TIME. Basically I think the message Bill was offering, which is one I needed to hear (and perhaps I’m just putting words in his mouth now, in which case I apologise) was that we need to re-conceive what we value; to widen the scope of what we value.

How wide should be widen our focus? Well perhaps we could begin with creativity, collaboration, communication, curation and critical and computational thinking?

The other thing I kind of want to clarify, is something I said during the panel where I mentioned that I felt it was mostly the middle class students I teach who were accessing and using my site. I then said we should all be thankful for having grown up in a home where education is valued. I’d be concerned that anyone would conflate the two and think that I was offering the patronising view that only middle class families value education, which is a trend, certainly, but by no means a given.

20140531_11-01-19

It would also do an injustice to my own parents to imply that somehow I grew up in a comfortably well off family of doctors or lawyers or teachers. My mum completed her Leaving Cert and at her father’s urging joined the Civil Service rather than follow her dream of becoming a hairdresser. It wasn’t much of a career move as she had to quit her job a few short years later when she married in April 1973; only months later the marriage ban was lifted, but it was too late for her. My dad left school after the inter cert and worked on building sites but an innate talent for numbers saw him move into accounts and he worked in various jobs before joining Mayo County Council as a revenue collector and working that job for over twenty years (oh the taunting I got at school about Zacchaeus the tax collector in the bible stories!). I’m the fourth of five children, yet despite the first four of us being steps of stairs, we all achieved a university education and two of us have Masters, in Film Studies (that’s me the lightweight) and Financial Maths (that’s David the heavyweight) respectively. So I guess my point is that a household where education is valued is far more significant and important than a household where money is comfortably available.

One final thing occurs to me. At ExcitED, teachers as subject specialists was quite a hot topic of dispute. There was a general vibe in the air that the old chestnut “primary teachers teach kids, secondary teachers teach subjects” is entirely true. I have to say, as someone utterly devoted to and consumed by my subject speciality, yet at the same time utterly devoted to my students, this blanket dismissal of the importance of subject expertise made me really uncomfortable. Think about the Mathletes participants, how important it was for them to get the encouragement to participate from their teachers, who are also, presumably, lovers of Maths. Think about the success of my own website, which exists, I firmly believe, because I communicate my passion for my subject. Or Marty Cooper’s obsession with communication and Bill Liao’s emphasis on the importance of computational thinking. It’s possible to be an obsessed subject specialist and a really caring teacher simultaneously!

Yet I will grant one thing here. I am most certainly waging a constant battle not to be biased against those who don’t love my subject; who don’t value the same things I value. I’m conscious of it and I try at all times to challenge it and minimise it but when people tell me they don’t like reading, I have to admit some small part of my brain starts to view them as alien life forms. I was heartened recently when I confessed this prejudice to my Principal and she laughed and admitted that she (a former PE teacher) finds it hard to understand people who don’t enjoy sport, or at the very least exercise. I wonder if I had asked Bill Liao, would he see people who don’t embrace computational thinking as missing out on half of the wonder of the universe? Or if Marty Cooper met someone who had taken a vow of silence, if he would see this person as nice, sure, but odd in the extreme?

The only other observation I have to offer here is this: when we drink from the fountain of knowledge, it does not matter what we like to drink or how we like to drink, only that we find the magic liquid that quenches our thirst and then instantly inflames it again so that no matter how much we drink of that fountain, our desire is never quashed, never lost, never drowned out, never squashed.

Maybe everyone has their own favourite drink and when they sup at the fountain of knowledge it tastes different for every individual person. Perhaps how they drink varies too – some gulp, some sip, some take their time, others swallow in one go and go for another and another and cannot be sated. Some drink standing up, others lying down. Some stick to the same drink but try different recipes, different vintages. Others never sup the same liquid twice, because there are so many flavours of knowledge in the world and so little time to savour them all.

Nonetheless, we must still admit that the difficult thing is FINDING your favourite drink and your preferred style of drinking from the fountain of knowledge in the first place. Students having to study a broad range of subjects is often criticised but a large part of me hesitates to embrace the idea that we should specialise earlier. We have our entire lives to devote to a narrow field of endeavour. Perhaps looking at the vast horizon, rather than zooming in with tunnel vision on one area, is to be desired rather than just being an end result of an outdated system.

Finally, do we have students who thirst for knowledge? I think far too often we whinge and moan that they do not want to learn. I’ve started to think of it like this instead: maybe they are thirsty – but just not for the same beverage (writing, writing, writing) every day! And once they find the thing they cannot get enough of, irrespective of how they feel about your subject, they will transform utterly and a tangible beauty will be born.

For fantastic coverage of the day, check out the Youth Media Team blog.
If you’d like to see photos, go to www.excited.ie

ps Oops – forgot to say congrats and bloody well done to the organising team of Minister Ciaran Cannon, Bernard Kirk and Frank Walsh. Bravo gentlemen!

 

16 Responses to Musings on ExcitED…

  1. niamh barry says:

    I am interested on your point on one room that needs to be re-vamped…..I would argue that every classroom in every school in the country needs to be revamped. I have just finished my thesis on a case study on a learning space in a second level school in Ireland. Our classrooms need to become learning spaces that have the environmental cues that influence the pedagogical intentions of teachers and the learning behaviours and motivations of students.

    • Hi Niamh, I absolutely agree that every classroom in every school needs to be revamped but I’ve decided that change is a marathon not a sprint. Having ONE room like that might spawn a desire for more rooms like that, and once you have a widespread desire, action tends to follow from that desire…. that’s my thinking anyway! Know any sponsors??? 😉

  2. Mags amond says:

    Great post Ev, blushing to be named checked in it. Great keynote. Great reflection and sharing. Thank you.
    I wonder, with he greatest respect and deepest love for my teaching colleagues, if the room most in need of digital remodelling is the staffroom?
    Mags @magsamond

    • You were brill Queen of the Classroom 😉 Funny you should say that about the staffroom. We had an IT steering committee on Friday before I bombed up to the conference and we were saying that wifi in the staffroom and a teacher to teacher buddy system would aid the upskilling of staff in getting comfortable with edtech…

  3. Hi Evelyn,

    Congratulations on a fantastic keynote on Saturday. And for the post, you were definitely using your critical thinking skills over the weekend.

    I think however your view on the EdTech sector may be somewhat negative. We should move away from the us and them perspective. Young people would be the main benefactors if educators and EdTech companies worked closer together.
    Most of the people in the EdTech sector are connected also to the mission on improving outcomes. When you listen to their story, very often the enterprises began as the entrepreneur wanted to address an educational limitation, they were familiar with.

  4. conorsmurf says:

    First: Please don’t encourage sponsorship. There is nothing I fear more than business interests getting into the classroom, it can only lead to corruption and furthering of the social divide, and that’s before we get to Orwell. (I’ve said it before but Ireland is not a country that can ignore temptations)
    Second: Was there any sense of balance at the event? (I get the sense that there was)For me a teaching of the basics of all those ‘c’s is important, with critical thinking looming large over all of them. By basics I mean an understanding that can be accessed in order to cope with change. Tech is great but it is not everything, there is more to the world and how we interact with each other. I’m sure tech can be used to help teach dancing but you still end up needing to dance. So, if I was to teach dancing (and boy can I dance) I would teach it with whatever was available and suitable, but the kids would spend a lot of time dancing. If that’s what was being put forward than great, but if it was ‘kids only understand tech’ than not so great. I can read and understand Aristotle and I’m sure the ‘kids’ can too. I often think of how people say rugby has completely changed, yet it still requires some basic skils, the ability to tackle, pass, think, communicate etc. Education is the same.
    Third: I want bean bags. I REALLY want bean bags.
    Oh, and I agree about the number of subjects. I still haven’t decided what to do when I grow up.

    • I share a lot of your concerns Conor but I’ve seen students who weren’t great writers make incredible short films. I think the challenge is deciding what we want them to be good at and that’s not something we seem to have consensus on. Is my aim ONLY to develop written storytellers or can they develop the craft of storytelling in different mediums? I’ve also seen students who were brilliant writers be absolutely useless in a group project. Being a great communicator on paper but terrible in person will evidently be a problem for this student in the real world…
      The message loud and clear from the educators in the room was that tech should be an invisible aid to learning but not an end in itself, not a learning outcome, just a tool…
      As for sponsorship…. I dunno Conor, how the hell are we supposed to get what we need without looking beyond the pathetic funding we get at the moment???

      • conorsmurf says:

        I completely agree about written and visual storytelling and I guess that’s my point, they both show an understanding of what a good story has. They both have the basics, the fundamentals, of story telling and then they use these skills in different ways, based on their own personalities. I don’t teach how to write a story from the off, I teach them story telling using a variety of sources. Is this using tech? I don’t consider it to be.
        Why should we insist that everyone must be able to communicate in the same way? I don’t.
        Don’t let desperation lead you to the dark side. Re-read your Faust, or rewatch the Star Wars movies, whichever suits you better.

  5. Evelyn one room at a time sounds good to me! You have consistently been at the forefront for change and innovation. Getting a learning space like Bridge21 is a cause worth pursuing. Really enjoyed your musings and our much discussed Bridge21 trip to Claremorris is an absolute definite for next year. And by the way you were really impressive over the weekend. Onwards and upwards!

  6. Claire Biggins says:

    Well done, Evelyn, a great synopsis of a truly engaging and thought provoking weekend. Driving home to our beloved Mayo, my head was spinning with questions very similar to those that arise in your blog; ICT replacing a teacher; people focusing on the ICT problems not embracing the potential; learning spaces; subject specialists; narrowed curricula; sponsoring schools etc.

    Dare I admit, I was frightened that ‘MY’ dear cherished subject Home Economics would not be valued anymore and perhaps replaced on the timetable with a really cool Programme and Coding subject? I completely understand the need, demand and potential for subjects like Programme and Coding to be included on the school timetable. The need to incorporate more ICT in school is extremely important. However, I believe it should be just that, incorporated not replacing.

    Looking at recent research published in the Lancet, it shows that 26.5% of Irish girls and 16% of Irish boys under the age of 20 are classed as overweight or obese. Or from an economic perspective, in “Healthy Ireland; A Framework for improved Health and Wellbeing 2013-2025”, the report states that the estimated economic cost of obesity is € 1.13 billion per year. Practical subjects such as Home Economics and Physical Education have a place on the timetable too.

    I embrace ICT in my classroom. I realise that my classroom is full of digital natives, and being from Generation Y, I love using ICT in the classroom, especially finding a new way of teaching a topic and making learning innovative and creative. Taking part in the Jamie Oliver Food revolution, I recently had him stream live (yes, we are the lucky ones with 100mb broadband) into my classroom to help create and promote fresh healthy dishes, breaking a Guinness World record for the most people cooking at the same time but more importantly highlighting the importance of food education. Perhaps this is a minute glimpse of Marty Cooper’s vision of how ICT can help end global hunger.

    I understand the passion you have for your subject. When I was in school my favourite subjects were always Maths and Chemistry, but studying Home Economics at a B.Ed and M.Ed level has made me acutely aware of the need for a subject of life skills- nutrition skills, cooking skills including a focus on special diets, family skills, consumer skills, social skills, health (including mental health) and textiles skills. It is somewhat frightening to see a First Year student panic and nearly breakdown at the thoughts of having to cook by themselves or to continuously hear that take away dinners are a constant feature at the Irish dinner table (aka, on the couch in front of the TV)! However, I find it hard to hide my contentment, when a parent tells me (usually not in a particularly nice tone) that their son/daughter won’t stop reading food labels or are trying to get the whole house to eat less processed food! I always say, that’s great that they are transferring education to their lives.

    My M.Ed thesis is focused on the Digital Learning Outcomes of the Key Skills in the new Junior Cycle so I understand the need for ICT to be incorporated into every subject. I just can’t agree with the argument that ICT can completely replace teaching and/or learning! I really feel that schools should be a place of holistic development not focused or specialised in one area.

    I questioned myself on the drive home, why didn’t I just go to Bloom in the Phoenix Park on Saturday, pretend this ICT revolution isn’t happening! Alas, “Knowledge is Power. Ignorance is Bliss. But curiosity—even if it had killed the cat—is king.”

    • Hey Claire, I think you’ve identified exactly the vision teachers have for IT in the classroom – to incorporate it into our teaching but not to let it replace the classroom, which as you’ve said, meets needs and carries responsibilities far beyond “content delivery”. Physical, mental and emotional well-being are things a computer cannot provide. No device can notice when a student is feeling down, or stressed or anxious or in need of reassurance.
      I actually share your concerns about the ‘downgrading’ of Home Ec and PE. Short courses in these subjects and more time sitting stationary in front of a computer screen will surely only exacerbate the obesity crisis we’re currently facing in Ireland. I just hope school managers making timetabling decisions can see this bigger picture too…
      Lovely to see you on Sat. I’ve a feeling we’ll be meeting at similar events again in the near future 😉

  7. […] reflected and refracted their two days with different lenses – have a good 5 reads here: Evelyn O’Connor, Tricia Kelleher, Damian Quinn, John Heeney, Helen Bullock and Philip […]

  8. Hi Evelyn, I’m a Filipino-Australian long time retired high school teacher. I wish I were part of your world. I would have loved to be at that ICTedu conference to listen to your keynote. As it is highly unlikely for us to meet, I’m content to read what you’ve posted. I have read a few (love them all) and will continue to do so. For now may I, please, have your email address? I’d like to write you a longer letter. At my age I can only manage emailing and facebook. You say you’re pretty dim sometimes. Oftentimes, I am. Hence, my request for your email address, if that is possible. Thank you very much. Milwida

  9. Emily says:

    I think it is so beneficial for students to have a creative space to work in, as you stated. It could lead to children being more excited and positive about their learning experience if they have somewhere stimulating to work.

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