Social Media Revolution

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Thanks to Lee.


A Tale of Two Children

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Matilda is a book child.

From the time she was just a few months old she sat in rapt attention, under the crook of a loved one’s arm, listening to words that flowed like the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River; words that told of hungry caterpillars, patchwork elephants and wild things in faraway places. She has been bathed in rich language.

At 4 her vocabulary, analytical skills and comprehension were immensely well developed and she is now well on the way to attaining high grades in all her exams. Crucially, Matilda loves to communicate. Her first recognisable writing was on a postcard to her grandma; who correctly decoded the message, love from Matilda. Her reading skills developed in harmony with her desire to make connection through the written as well as the spoken word.

By the age of 7 she had become a fluent, enthusiastic reader and writer.

Mind you, Matilda’s exuberant approach to life and learning is diminishing as she goes through school. She now evaluates herself against others, and finds herself wanting at times. She is afraid of not being smart enough. Through no one’s fault, she judges herself and her peers with set criteria, with a fixed mindset. She is in danger of rejecting opportunities to learn. She somehow has got the impression that kids who are successful don’t make mistakes; they are always clever. This means that she rarely takes risks with her learning. But she writes well-constructed, beautifully presented essays.

And now we come to our 2nd child: Leo.

He had a similar love of stories learned from his earliest experiences. However, Leo’s brain is wired differently from Matilda’s.

He gets stuck on words like pulling and pushing, because and table.

He keeps switching letters round. It’s not deliberate, just something that he does. He sees letters streaming through the air, whole blocks of them, borne on currents, occupying a zone beneath the threshold of the comprehensible, and tries to pluck and stick them to the page as best he can. But it’s an imprecise science: by the time he’s got a few words pinned down, the others have floated on ahead or changed their meaning, and Manchester’s’ ‘chest’ has turned into an old oak coffer, the queen’s coronation into a pink flower. (Tom McCarthy,  ‘C’)

While Matilda scribbles neatly and assiduously, and always faultlessly, inscribing each word as it falls from the teacher’s mouth, Leo, bathing in the phrase’s afterglow, usually gives up after a few lines and just lets the words billow around him, losing himself in their shapes and patterns, bright and alive.

Whenever he can, Leo communicates in a different way, in which reading and writing form only a part and not the whole. He uses images and sounds to demonstrate his knowledge and understanding and to make his point. He persists in making himself heard and seen, communicating with the tools he finds comfortable using. He is, together with others, building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression.

Leo’s skills lie in making sense, not of a body of known content, but of contexts that are continually changing.

Leo has found that learning to think for himself is more important than simply learning to read and write. His deliberate, serious and sustained practice in creating multi-modal texts arises from his constant self-criticism, a  restlessness, a passion to aim just beyond his capability. He has resolved to dust himself off and try again if he falters. He has a daily commitment to becoming better.

Unlike Matilda, he understands that talent is a process rather than a thing. He has learnt from his earliest days to regard failure not as a verdict on his potential but as a doorway to an unlearned skill. He has learned that it is safe to fail, to experiment, to explore a multitude of possible answers; to develop his own voice. Sadly much of Leo’s energy and effort are more often deployed once he gets home from school!

Which child is most likely to thrive in this new era?

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin …


… was how I began my presentation at BETT last week.

I had been invited by the British Dyslexia Association and to talk about dyslexia friendly schools and the use of digital technologies.

But I started with a story just to set the mood (of which more later). Nobody fell asleep even though it was after lunch and Olympia is a crazy and tiring place to be at conference time.

I then talked a little about the process some schools in East Lothian have embarked upon whereby the whole staff commits to working towards pledging to be a Dyslexia Friendly School. We audit practice, identify areas for development and evaluate progress.

I make 2 assumptions:

  • Difficulties are almost entirely created by the context and conditions in which learning takes place.
  • Digital technologies can minimise or even remove literacy difficulties altogether. ICT not only assists access to the curriculum but enables learners with dyslexia to personalise their own learning.

The central component of my presentation was about what we mean by the term ‘literacy’ as our interpretation has implications for the fundamental beliefs and practice we have taken for granted for a long time, and has profound implications for learners with dyslexia. TheBig Debate’, in simple terms, is that between the purists who say that literacy is about the written or the printed word and the techno-zealots who claim that print is dead.

I proposed that neither is accurate, and that literacy is a constantly evolving process; one which must encompass new technologies and approaches to accessing ideas, experiences, opinions and information.

I quoted the Curriculum for Excellence definition of literacy and illustrated the different and complex forms of text available to learners today. An exciting new notion to some teachers in England was that CfE is described principally in terms of outcomes for learners rather than inputs from teachers and that this inevitably changes relationships between teacher and student; I would argue for the good

My story was about 2 youngsters; Matilda, a fluent and enthusiastic reader and writer but one with a relatively fixed mindset, and Leo whose formal literacy skills were undeveloped but who took risks with his learning – mainly out of school using multi-modal platforms and media. I claimed that it was a youngster like Leo who is more likely to be a successful learner in the long term as he is a critical and creative thinker whose skills will be highly prized in the Information Age – just as long as he manages to survive school with his sense of self worth intact.

I described how Leo constructs his own meanings and performs understanding using the tools with which he is familiar, and with real audiences in mind. These of course cross arbitrary divisions between age + stage and subject boundaries that he finds so irksome in school.

I addressed the notion of the Literacy Club, very familiar and comfortable to the likes of Matilda (and me). Up until very recently acceptance and membership of this club has been defined by the thickness of the book, the speed of the tongue, and the amount one’s brain could hold (at least until test time rolled around.)

Comprehension was something that happened when the work with words was done.

It’s a club from which learners with dyslexia have been excluded for too long.

If we base teaching on a conceptualization of reading as a single line of development from simple to more complex tasks, it will perpetuate the myth that reading is over and done with by age 7 or 8; unless you’re stupid.

Reading is a life long endeavour, that develops in competence and confidence the more it is practised across increasingly more difficult and diverse text. In an era of new literacies we are in a simultaneous state of learning to read and reading to learn. So I asked, ‘Who’s in the various literacy clubs?: Blog, Twitter, Wiki, YouTube, Transmedia…’

I posited that we were all emergent readers when we encounter new texts and media that push the boundaries of genre, form, format, and mode: on and offline? My experience with Inanimate Alice is an illustration.

I concluded with a quotation from I know not where:

‘Confusion is an enlightened reaction. If anyone is not confused then s/he is missing some of the details’.

Babies need Books: a whole new world

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Ladybird launches ebook app for babies

Ladybird Baby Touch app

The Guardian reports that the Baby Touch series, aimed at children as young as six months,  has been adapted for the iPhone and iPod .

As of today, it won’t be just the parents of toddlers who have to wrestle with their children for their iPhone. Babies as young as just six months old can now be introduced to the world of ebook apps, with Ladybird’s popular Baby Touch Peekaboo series going digital.

Penguin’s app for the Baby Touch books went live at Apple’s digital store last week, for download onto the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.

It uses four stories from the Baby Touch series of tactile playbooks designed to allow babies to experience their different cloth textures while also opening flaps to uncover images hidden underneath.

The digital version, which has been tested on babies from three to 18 months, uses similar bold patterns and bright colours to engage its tiny readers on the themes of the sea, farms, animals and vehicles. The parent, or the baby itself, can tap on the screen to reveal secondary images hidden underneath the designs.

The app can’t emulate the board books’ different textures, but instead incorporates animation, voiceover, music and sound effects.

Ladybird editorial director Heather Crossley said the app had been designed to reflect the various different stages of baby development. The “gentle” movement of characters on the screen aimed to suit the tracking eye movements of very young babies in the first stages after they learn to focus, while the screen-tapping of the app encourages the six-month-old baby to develop his or her attention span and motor skills.

Anna Rafferty, head of Penguin’s digital division, said that while the publisher already had experience of developing its Spot the Dog and Peppa Pig apps for slightly older children, an app for babies had posed new technical challenges. “We had to make the touch area much bigger, because babies don’t always hit the spot exactly, and we slowed down the action, because babies take a bit longer to press the screen, and to be delighted by the image underneath,” she said. But Rafferty foresaw a promising new market for the baby apps. “We certainly have a very healthy baby book list that does very well, so we’re interested to see how this goes,” she said. “From the research, you actually can engage very well with very young babies.”

21st Century literacies

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The ability to read, write, speak, listen, view, investigate, collaborate, and communicate are essential given the 21st century contexts with which our all engaging.

We all need to read complex, multi-genre, multi-modal texts and we require practice in developing skills to access, interpret and construct our own understandings. We ignore the diverse range of stimuli available at our peril, not least because we will lose the engagement of our young people and miss out on a vast array of stimulating, enticing and educative experiences.

Essential skills are:

  • Listening – fundamental for the collaboration and connecting that allows us to develop as learners.
  • Questioning – there is no good search, without a good question. Our questions allow us to make meaning, discern what is important and what is not, to analyse, validate, and seek out what is most critical.
  • Self Efficacy – the feeling of self worth and competence that intrinsically motivates us, the belief in one’s own ability to perform a task.
  • Adaptability – to succeed one must be adaptable. The acknowledgement that the need for adaptability is constant enables us to change where necessary, to manage that change, and handle the ambiguity that comes along with not knowing the future. Being adaptable helps you be resilient and maintains effectiveness in a changing environment.
  • Connecting – in this complex world, engagement is enhanced with connection. Our brain needs connection to make sense of learning. Finding, connecting, and collaborating with others is vital to all our futures.

Give them a laptop and a group of pupils will teach themselves

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I’ve been prompted to post this comment on the inspirational talk I heard at the Scottish Learning Festival in September by the news that Sugata Mitra’s ‘Granny Cloud’ will feature on The Culture Show this coming Thursday on BBC2 at 7p.m. Mitra -professor of educational technology at Newcastle University – has recruited hundreds of grannies in Newcastle to go online to help children in India with their education. And he has reversed the process for children in Gateshead.

The academic who inspired ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ believes all pupils should be given time in groups with a computer to teach themselves. One of the most powerful things Mitra says – again and again – is ‘…and then I went away’. That’s the key!

Teachers simply need to design questions that evoke curiosity and interest, then ‘sit back and admire as learning happens’.

Mitra’s work over the past decade has shown what exciting things happen when we let these children take learning into their own hands.

Since 2006, Mitra and colleagues have been asking the question: How will learners in remote areas get an equal opportunity? These areas are not necessarily geographically remote. They may be remote in other ways, for instance, areas in big cities that are socio-economically remote, areas that are religiously or ethnically remote.

This is where computers come in. Laptops were sold to the richest schools in the world. But the richest schools already had good teachers and, mostly, good students.

Mitra decided to modify and develop technology and take it to some of the remotest locations he could find (including Gateshead). He wanted to examine whether it would survive, and if it did, what would it do for education.

He started to install computers into brick walls in public places in hundreds of villages and slums in India, Cambodia and Africa. The media called this the “hole-in-the-wall” project.

The computers were designed to be used by 6- to 15-year-old children, free of charge and free of any supervision. In the first five years of the experiment, they showed that groups of children could teach themselves to use a computer and the internet, irrespective of who or where they are; irrespective of what language they spoke and of whether they went to school or not.

Ten years later, a girl in rural Maharashtra is studying aeronautical engineering following her encounter with the computer in the wall. A village boy who became a genetic engineer in one of India’s premier laboratories found the subject by reading the New Scientist at his hole in the wall.

What else could children learn on their own, apart from the use of computers? In Hyderabad, groups of children showed significant improvements in English pronunciation, with just few hours of practice on their own. They used a computer and a speech-to-text program that had been trained in a native English accent.

In the tsunami-hit village of Kalikuppam in southern India, children with access to a hole-in-the-wall computer taught themselves basic biotechnology, reaching a test score of 30% in just two months. They had started with a score of zero. If Tamil-speaking children could teach themselves biotechnology in English, on their own, how far could they go? A 30% score may be impressive, but it’s still not a pass. The researchers decided to use a local woman, working for an NGO, to help them go further. She had no background in biotechnology, but she took on the role of an untrained friendly mediator to encourage the children, using their desire to impress each other and their adult friend. Two months on, the scores in Kalikuppam rose to over 50%, close to what is achieved by trained subject teachers in the posh private schools of Delhi.

Mitra brought these results back to Britain. By chance, Vikas Swarup, whose book became the film Slumdog Millionaire, revealed that he had been inspired to write his story by the hole-in-the-wall experiments. Following that, he made an appeal to British grandparents to give an hour of their time to talk, using Skype, to children in the slums and villages of India. Within days, 200 volunteers, of all ages, many of them retired teachers, had come forward.

In the following months, 40 of these “eMediators” had over 200 hours of contact with children in India. They read them stories, played games with them, and chatted about their two countries. A child development expert, Suneeta Kulkarni, is measuring the effects of this on the children’s English communication skills.

Two years ago, they decided to try the same approach in the UK and have been working with three schools in the north-east. In Gateshead, 10-year-olds working in groups were able to answer GCSE questions they would normally encounter six years later. Mitra asked if they could have done this more quickly if they had not shared a computer but worked on their own. They said they could not have done it at all that way

Mitra now believes that groups of children, given the appropriate digital infrastructure, a safe and free environment, and a friendly but not necessarily knowledgeable mediator, can pass school-leaving exams on their own.

The new model is straightforward. It’s called a Self-organised learning environment. It’s ‘just’ a “cybercafe” environment for children – light, comfortable, safe and inexpensive. Children work in self-organised groups of four or five. They have the freedom to work as they please, or not to work, if they so please. Order is maintained by the children themselves. Sessions should be timetabled, just as playtime is. Each session is driven by a question designed by teachers.

Now Mitra is calling for such learning environments to be built in every primary school. He says that teachers

need to be trained to design simple questions that will evoke curiosity and interest while gently nudging a group towards the curriculum. Then, they can sit back and admire as learning happens.

The teachers have to learn to let go.

In the language of physics: “Education is a process of self-organisation and learning is its emergent property.”

Fascinating stuff. I’ll be watching on Thursday.

CPD Question Time

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I attended an event at LT Scotland’s Glasgow office last week (yes, in my holidays) which proved to be a stimulating event.

I can’t better the summary posted by Nick Hood.

 My question to the panel quoted from Fullan and Hargreaves’ ‘What’s Worth Fighting for in your School?’. I was about to ask it when I realised I was doing exactly what I was complaining about: using language that excludes those ‘not in the know’. Luckily I realised this in time and reframed the question. Here it is:

How do we mitigate against a ‘Balkanised culture’ in which separate factions reflect and reinforce very different group outlooks on learning and teaching, the curriculum, and 21st century education?

I had in mind not just those who sit at training or staff meetings with arms crossed and ‘lips pursed like a dog’s bottom’ but also those whose passion for the next new gadget or idea imbue them with a sense of virtue and superiority.

I’m afraid I fall into both categories at times.

Nick has a more complete summary of the thoughts of the panel. I was so worried about what I would say if the chair asked for my opinion that I fear I didn’t pay the fullest attention.

My feeling is that it is essential for a common understanding to be thrashed out prior to real change occurring. Shared meanings must not be assumed. Some consensus about definitions of such terms as self-directed learning, readiness and interest grouping, locus of control, multi-modal resources, authentic assessment, divergent thinking, is essential. Most importantly the notion that societal transformation is happening now and that the current way of doing things is untenable in the 21st century needs to be grasped by all concerned in education. Such radical reframing takes time and support.

 It is impossible to mitigate entirely against diverse clusters forming – that’s how people are – but open discussion about the philosophy of change and the impact this has on us all is one way to promote an ethos that is moving towards re-conceiving the culture, structure and processes in which we all learn.

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