Monday, 10 October 2011

How We're Learning

The past month has been very exciting time at Burlington High School. On the first day of school every student showed up with an iPad 2. Our first few weeks did not accurately resemble those simple, clean Apple iPad commercials. There were hiccups and challenges along the way. In some cases, we were all learning by trial and error, and by doing. It was great to observe colleagues seeking new approaches to learning and using the device as a vehicle to replace passive learning with active engagement.  As this year progresses we hope to learn from our mistakes and continue to provide the most relevant, engaging learning environment for our students.

One thing I have noticed here at Burlington is that with the sweeping integration of a new device, many seem to be trying new things at the risk of a possible fail. For many of us, this is hard to overcome. I have started working with some teachers on various class projects and, while these projects are exciting and engaging, the distribution and presentation of them is occasionally met with a hiccup. This isn’t to say that teachers are ill prepared, but instead it is showing determination in the face of possible failure. What’s more is that our students get to see a model for taking on educated risks. I have yet to meet a teacher who stands in front of a classroom and bats 1.000. To quote the Dead Parrot Monty Python sketch, “It ceases to exist!” And that is a good thing.

Another good thing is the new approaches to learning many teachers are taking on this year. I had the opportunity to work with a few teachers this past month and in some cases, collaboratively teach the class. Here are a few of those highlights:
Michael Milton is teaching the Enlightenment period through social media. Each student cohort was assigned a philosopher from the period. Student groups started researching their philosopher and collecting facts about their respective philosopher. Students then created a social profile for their philosopher using Twitter and a blogger page. Once these pages and profiles were created, Milton had students write introductory blog posts for each persona. The blog posts were written from the philosophers’ point of view. Once the posts were completed, students asked the philosophers questions using the comment section on the blog. This conversation was extended to Twitter as well. Student groups had to field questions from users on Twitter (many of which were teachers at BPS) and learned how to aggregate Twitter conversations using a hashtag.

This experience remixes the traditional and allows the students to not just be the recipients of information, but also drive it.  To many students, this subject matter is boring and trite, however when you allow students to engage with the content rather than just receive it you create a more fruitful learning experience.

Another exciting experience is happening in our foreign language department. Our Italian students recently traveled abroad for a week in Cles, Italy. They spent time at a host school and got a first hand experience of another culture. While abroad, another Italian class at BHS got to Skype with their peers abroad. While this type of connection seems commonplace in today’s world, the experience for many students was memorable. Students opened up the videoconference and held a dialogue in Italian with their peers abroad and the Italian students they were sitting with. They got to experience the immediate relevancy and powerful impact learning another language can have. Students also began to rethink our place in the global classroom. These students experienced how powerful connections can be and how using these types of social learning tools can impact and enliven their learning.

These are just two examples of the new approaches to learning happening this year at Burlington High School. In both cases, there were things that didn’t go right; an application crashed, a restart was needed, and the network was not found. This is normal and is what we should come to expect. The message that we take from this is that both teachers attempted to try something new at the risk of a potential hiccup in order to give their students a relevant learning experience. In both examples listed above the students involved in these lessons were not simply the recipients of information, they were the authors of their learning. As educators, this should be our objective each time we step in front of a class. Each time we create a lesson plan we should ask, “Are my students inactive participants in their learning? Or are they the authors?”

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