Archive for the category “Differentiation”

Trying to keep up

Phew!

The Victorian Curriculum is trying to kill me.

I’m 42. I was once (until just after Y2K) a professional web developer. I can read code, but if I was any good at writing it, I would probably be earning more than a teacher’s salary.

With completely unfounded confidence, I created a new subject at my school called DigiTech – Web Development. In it, I teach my Year 9s about the separation of Content and Design, file handling and management, how to create and manipulate a database and the various security and people-related issues surrounding the creation of software solutions for small businesses.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. We needed a hard-core programming subject to offset the animation and game design subjects and I desperately wanted to tick off some boxes on the Victorian Curriculum.

At the end of my first semester teaching the subject, I feel a certain amount of pride in my accomplishments, and a great deal of dread in the idea that I will be doing it again next semester.

I told my students at the start of the semester that they would be guinea pigs. That we would be trying a number of different ideas out and seeing what they could handle. That being said, I knew that I wanted them to be able to use CSS and some basic database concepts. I worked with our amazing IT techies to put together a virtual machine with PHP, SQL and FTP capabilities, running only within the school network for safety’s sake.

And then I added people into the perfect solution and watched it explode into chaos.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Students don’t read instructions.
  • The ftp command line is painful.
  • codecademy.com is a beautiful thing.
  • I don’t know as much as some of my students.
  • I DO know more than most of my students (phew).
  • Differentiated learning is absolutely necessary.
  • Students don’t read instructions.

My initial idea for a major project was to have the students create a house system where teachers could add or subtract house points from a database, and the resulting scores would be displayed as beautiful hourglasses a la Harry Potter.

The boys decided within seconds that they would prefer to create an order system for the school canteen – a fantastic idea which has worked very nicely.

My next idea was that small teams would work on their own versions of the project and the canteen staff could choose their favourites at the end of semester.

The boys decided that they wanted groups of seven or eight, all with different jobs. After a single lesson watching one person work while six others stood around him making jokes, I capped teams at 3. The customer is NOT always right.

I decided on three basic roles:

  • content creator and client liaison.
  • Programmer
  • Designer

This allowed for each group to have one person who hated programming, but could still be involved and active in the creation of the site. The programmer would work on the PHP and SQL. The Designer would work with HTML and CSS as well as Photoshop. The Content Creator would collect information, write up process and instruction documents, complete reports for the client and keep the project plan on track.

This necessitated different assessment rubrics. Each team member would be marked on their skillset. Again, this has worked very well. If the team was less than three, and one person was taking on two roles, then they could tell me which role they wanted to be assessed on.

Today, I am working with one very keen student who completed all of the programming over the weekend and has brought the thing into school on a virtual server on his USB. Again, liaising with the tech department, he will have the virtual server installed on the school network and then testing can begin.

The rest are still working on their login screens.

As with any project I ask my students to undertake, I have created my own version of the task. I am creating an order system for the school’s Breakfast Club.

I have FileZilla for FTP. I have Notepad++ for code creation. I have Stackoverflow and w3schools for the many issues that come up every time I try to run a script.

And I’m ready to become a full time History teacher.

Never ask your students to do anything  you’re not willing to try yourself. The number of Professional Development sessions I’ve been to in regards to the Victorian Curriculum where I’ve been told “You don’t need to know it to teach it.” Yeah, OK, maybe that is true. But I’m not an empathetic person. I am quite sympathetic. I don’t have a lot of empathy.

Doing this myself has allowed me to solve a number of problems for my students.

Doing it myself means that I have greatly modified my expectations of what they should be able to achieve.

Doing it myself means that I can look them in the eyes and say “Yeah, but if I can knock this off in ten minutes, then you should be able to get it done in three hours.”

Just think: eventually  you are going to need to know how to do this stuff, if you are going to teach it. Kids can tell when you’re out of your depth. That’s where bad behaviour comes from. Jump in the deep end now and give it a shot.

And ask for help. Help is everywhere.

All the extra reality

pokehatePokemon Go has polarised my Facebook feed. Half of my friends are right into it. The other half are groaning over the next Bulbasoar picture. I downloaded the app four days after it was released in Australia, got my wife and daughter hooked and haven’t looked back. I justify this because as the Head of IT at my school I need to know what’s popular in technology. I justify this because as a father, I am looking after my daughter’s health by increasing our exercise while hunting for new species of Pokemon.

I justify this because it’s a very engaging game with a strong community of followers. And it’s fun.

But it has brought to the forefront a conversation that I have been having for years about the value of AR and VR. That’s Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality for the uninitiated.

VR booth from the early 90s

Dactyl Nightmare VR game from 1991

Virtual Reality is the replacement of our reality with another, complete, world. You wear a headset or a helmet and when you move your head, your virtual head moves as well so that you can look around. In the early nineties, this was going to be the next big thing. I spent hours in bulky armour carrying a pistol and shooting pterodactyls on the VR system at a games arcade. I did my major project for my Bachelor of Computing in VRML, replicating the (then) new Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre so that people could go on a virtual tour of the space.

VR and VRML were going to replace the Internet and television and movies would never be the same.

Fast forward twenty years. VRML is nowhere to be seen – a victim of optional plugins and varying standards. VR went into hibernation until the Occulus Rift dragged it kicking and growling from its den.

And now, twenty years after I foolishly specialised in online 3D navigation, we are finally ready to have the VR and AR conversation again.

At this year’s DLTV DigiCon, my favourite keynote speaker was Josh Caratelli, a game designer from Big Ant Studios. The point I took from his keynote was this: VR and AR are not the future of technology. Getting involved in this now isn’t early adoption. We should already be on top of this.

Oh, and holograms aren’t that far off either.

So, racing to catch up to where I was twenty years ago with my MSAC model and my exploding pterodactyls, how can I introduce/use AR and VR into our curriculum?

Here’s a couple of ideas:

Scavenger hunts

We have school tours come through on a pretty regular basis. We have Grade 5 Come and See programs where primary students spend the morning doing Year 7 subjects to get an idea of how the school works. We have orientation days and art exhibitions and parent information nights. If we could enhance the school using AR we’d save on paper and showcase the brilliance of our student modellers and programmers.

My plan:

I’ve made a list of things around the school that could easily be modelled. I’ll hand one of these to each of the students in my Year 8 Engineering and Design class. They’ll create these models. We export them into Aurasma – an excellent AR tool for IOS. We match them to their real life counterparts and as parents move through the school with the app open, 3D models will pop up, with the name of the student next to them. Instant exhibition space.

Exhibition Spaces

Speaking of which…

We have regular art exhibitions at the school. If a parent held their phone up to the picture, an information sheet with an explanation of the work, their photo and maybe some sketches could pop up on the screen to add information to the picture.

qr_code_without_logoOr we could go old school and instead of having the student’s name and homeroom, we simply have a QR code, which links to an online space with their production journal and concept art scanned in.

The boys would set up their own pages, demonstrating competency across a number of DigiTech areas.

Value added Literacy

Book-e-mon. Gotta read ‘em all.

When you use Aurasma on Small Gods, it will pop up a review.

AR book reviews

This is the slogan I want for Book Week this year. I’m going to have my class all create an image with a book review for their favourite book. Add in pictures and their names. And then put each of these into Aurasma. The teachers can do the same. As students return and review books, the librarian can check to see if the book is one of the enhanced versions and if it is, the student wins a prize.

In the near future:

Other possibilities would be having a Microsoft Hololens when they finally come out. The Arts department could run virtual sculpturing sessions. We could add AR instructions to woodwork classes. Minecraft club would suddenly be a LOT more interesting.

I’d also take a look at the new HP Sprout.

And that’s just Augmented Reality. What about replacing reality altogether?

VR

Mecha-PTBIn Year 10 we run VET Creative Industries in partnership with the Academy of Interactive Entertainment. We also run Game Design, using Game Maker and Unreal Engine. My plan is to get hold of a HTC Vive system and start building models that we can import into that virtual world. I’d get the boys to recreate the school and run virtual paintball sessions created by the more active Game Design classes. We could run virtual tours of the school.

Enhancement and Acceleration

All this extra reality is a great way to enhance our educational possibilities. AR and VR give the students opportunities to excel beyond the regular curriculum restrictions. Posters could become multimedia extravaganzas. Teachers could walk through a real life recreation of an Egyptian pyramid. We could split the atom in Science without blowing up half of the school.

I think the other big point I took away from this year’s DigiCon is that we need to stop limiting our students and instead let them learn in the best way for them. The other thing I learned is that I have a LOT still left to learn.

Differentiation

A fish climbing a tree will fail.

OK, I lied. Here’s the picture

I’m writing reports. I’m too tired to go and find all of the tired tropes teachers traipse out every time they talk about differentiation.

Wow, massive alliteration bomb right there.

Einstein and his tree-climbing exam comes to mind immediately.

The focus for our school in the upcoming years is differentiation, and the first goal is to explore the concept and see what comes out of the dialogue. I’ll dialogue later. I’ll monologue now.

Like an evil villain. Mwahahhahahahahahaha!

See? Tired.

And I worry that, if I create a different lesson plan for each and every one of my students, and then have to mark each one differently to allow for their special abilities, that I’ll be a lot more tired later. Of course, if I spent more time marking work and less time writing blog posts, I might be less tired. But, what can you do?

Here are some thinking points:

  1. Most schools do a great deal to try and raise the grades of students on the left hand side of the bell curve.
  2. What are schools doing to extend those students at the upper end of the scale?
  3. Bored geniuses are… genii? Grant me wishes? I’ll look it up. Bored geniuses (obviously not me) are often discipline problems. They tune out because the work isn’t challenging, or isn’t relevant.
  4. Extending the high achievers definitely involves more work for teachers and will be a bone of contention in planning meetings, even if nobody says anything out loud.
  5. A lot of current educational methods are being made redundant by new technologies.

I’m not offering solutions just yet, just offering points to think about.

If you’re making students answer questions from a text book, differentiation will be difficult. Luckily, this isn’t such a prolific practice as it was when I was younger.

OK. Enough rambling. What are the solutions?

First up, look at the questions you are posing in your assignments. Are you asking students to do something that they can cut and paste from Google?

“What were some of the effects of World War 2 on the world economy?” can be typed into your favourite search engine verbatim, and students can pick and choose a variety of answers to submit as their own. There is no reason to extend myself as a student. My answers might be better than the lower kids’, but I don’t have the motivation.

Essays such as this should be put to rest. Anything that can be Googled needs to be removed from the curriculum. Try this: “Create a radio news broadcast from a specific day in 1946. Include local and world news, sports, business and weather reports”

They can Google the information but they still need to use it in an original way. You’ll have already taught them about how to be web-search literate, finding accurate and relevant information from authoritative sources. They’ll rationalise their choice of information in their updated bibliography.

They can be assessed on ICT knowledge, History knowledge, speaking and listening in English and hopefully group work.

Secondly, create tiered assignments based on your knowledge of the students. Each tier should have opportunity to stretch themselves, allowing the teacher to move them up for the next work task.

My Engineering and Design class is called The Evil League of Evil. Students start off as Minions, and work towards becoming SuperVillains. The first tasks have them following instructions and showing me that they can gather evidence. It also allows for a variety of responses, allowing those with higher skills to show this. The boys create Lego robots, designing and planning before creating, and finally evaluating their own and others’ creations.

The second task is split into three. They can Build a Robot – if they still need more help – using instructions and continuing to record evidence. They can Design a Robot – Henchman level work that gives them some autonomy but still working on a task I’ve set them. Or they can Invent a Robot – the Villain level work which lets them create a bot from scratch with no intervention from me.

From there, I can shift boys up and down the ranks, depending on how they respond to challenges. They know where they are at all times, and have the impetus to try and reach that highest level.

And of course, we finish the semester with an all in Robot Battle Royale, for those who have achieved a high enough level. Once reports are done. To keep them going for the last two weeks. There are prizes. It’s great.

I know people are thinking “But yeah, practical subjects like that lend themselves to differentiation! And think of all the extra work you just did!”

First up, I’m using Stile, which I love. It allowed me to simply copy the activities into different classes, and I could simplify the language for the minions and add a couple of bonus activities for the Villains. So, not so much extra work.

stile2 stile

Secondly… Well, sure,  you might have a point. Differentiation is easy in practical subjects. But I can come up with dozens of ways to differentiate an English or History lesson off the top of my head.

Leading to my final point in this mad ramble. One that I’m sure you’ve heard from me before: Collaboration. Nobody should have to do all of this work alone. I have a great team working with me in Technology, so assigning tasks and year levels is easy and the results are fantastic. Use your team. Have a regular spot in the morning briefing, in every staff meeting. Have one staff member share a success story in differentiation. It doesn’t have to be subject neutral. But it could give the rest of the staff that spark that lets them do the same in their classes.

I want to go into depth here. I’ve been working with differentiation for over 10 years. But I also want to keep this under 1000 words (or one picture). So I’ll stop and add more later.

Five words to go! Whoo hoo!

…Damn.

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