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SBS Insight: A Teacher Changed My Life

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Last week I was extremely fortunate to take part in an episode of SBS Insight, titled A Teacher Changed My Life. There were three major stories and three minor ones – I was one of the latter – each comprised of a student and a teacher who had made a big difference in their life.

The thing I loved most about being asked to be on the show was getting to hear the amazing stories of changed lives directly from the mouths of people who clearly would have had a completely different future had a teacher not intervened. It’s a sobering but hopeful reminder of the real and lasting impact that teachers can have on the lives of their students. I highly recommend watching the entire show to hear each of the students tell it from their point of view.

Our episode was filmed on a Wednesday and aired the following Tuesday. During the hour it was broadcast, I was asked to be on Twitter to interact with viewers. Here are some of the things I posted in the lead-up and on the evening itself:

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Inspire Innovate 2016

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This past week, I had the joy of being part of Inspire Innovate 2016, a conference of almost 500 educators from across NSW (and some from further than that!). It was a pretty intense experience, with some sharp keynotes and a range of really practical breakout sessions. I came away very satisfied for the two days that I had to spend away from school to be a part of it. Definitely recommend it to others if you have the opportunity to attend.

I had the privilege of presenting two workshops, one on strategies for teaching mathematics and the other on what I’ve learned from doing Wootube for 3 years. As is my style, I also took a copious amount of handwritten notes – 11 pages worth – to document the sessions and help me reflect on what I was learning.

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If you’re interested, here’s a download link to the full PDF: Eddie Woo’s notes from Inspire Innovate 2016

And here’s a selection of my tweets to #inspirensw during the conference.

Passive/Active? How about Contemplate/Participate.

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Corinne Campbell recently wrote a very helpful blog post that really made me think. She’s always a sharp writer who’s demonstrated again and again that she can see through trends that are more popular than they deserve. Some call it black hat thinking. I call it healthy cynicism, and I really appreciate that Corinne is willing to share her experience and insight with the rest of us.

The post in question is a humble defence of “passive learning”. It’s a reactionary piece that provides a personal and insightful response to the preoccupation in educational circles to prioritise so-called “active learning” (where people are in groups and are involved in activities to develop their understanding and skills) over and against any style of learning where students (or, as Corinne writes, teachers in a professional development setting) are sitting and listening to one person presenting an idea or concept.

Corinne’s thoughts struck me for two reasons, both quite personal to me. The first has to do with when I’m on the receiving end of “passive learning”, and the second has to do when I’m on the giving end.

Like Corinne, I also really value the opportunity to sit and listen to a really clear exposition of a new idea or concept or system (or an old one presented in a new way). I think it’s a mistake to believe in some kind of hyper-constructivism that ascribes value only to activities strictly centred on the learner. And I think a big part of the problem is that there is a false dichotomy that’s been set up by the language used to describe what’s going on here. Case in point: when I’m trying to learn something in a “passive learning environment”, I’m not passive at all. I’m reflecting, pondering, categorising, critiquing and a hundred other metacognitive tasks as I listen. We need a new kind of language. Just because I’m considering another person’s ideas rather than contributing my own, that doesn’t mean I’m not constructing my own understanding. Contemplation is just as valuable as participation. Each has its time and place. We need both wings on the plane.

Secondly, , Corinne’s validation of this kind of learning helps me make sense of something I’ve observed more and more of over the last 12 months. For three years now, I’ve been filming my classroom lessons and putting them up online – completely public and free (I’m a public education advocate – can you tell?). It’s not the flipped classroom, but it’s related to that idea. It was never intended as a medium to reach the masses – I literally only ever intended it to be used by a single person – and so I was immensely surprised to find a broad audience of people (both students and teachers) who started watching along and reporting to me that it was really beneficial to them. Just recently the Youtube channel passed 10,000 subscribers and 1.1 million views across all its videos.

But amid this success, I’ve felt quietly guilty. Why? It’s because I know that, at its heart, my channel is a passive medium. Yes, I could use it as a platform for interactivity (and I have in the past) – but I have young children and I’m a head teacher, so frankly I have higher priorities for my time than fielding questions online (even though I’d love to be able to do that). So I am essentially using this technology to broadcast – that is to say, to replicate a “passive learning environment” in the homes of anyone who cares to watch. This is not the kind of technology that people are supposed to be excited about. The “active learning” movement (which I value and support) is supposed to be about using technology where it helps students investigate, create and collaborate – not to consume content. So in many ways, I feel like I’ve been swimming in the wrong direction.

But it’s not true. I’m providing something that is genuinely helpful to a broad range of people and I’m not going to be ashamed of that. I am opening up an avenue for students to do what I myself appreciate so much: to ponder a counter-intuitive idea, to be led on a journey to understand new things, and to see the world in a different way. That’s awesome and it’s worth celebrating.

So I’m resolving not to talk about passive or active learning any more. I’m going to think about whether I or my students are learning by contemplation or learning by participation. As educators and learners, we need them both.

Guest blog at ment2teach

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It has taken me a while to think of myself as a teacher who has something to offer to other teachers. In many ways I am still very young and inexperienced, and there’s no shame in admitting that – it would be a greater mistake to pretend otherwise! Yet at the same time, I’ve come to a point in my career where I’ve made enough mistakes and experienced a broad enough range of situations that I actually do have some things of value to pass on to pre-service and early-career teachers. That’s why I’m excited about ment2teach, a new initiative launched by Jennifer Michalski.

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Among other things, ment2teach is a space and a platform to facilitate mentoring relationships between teachers. I know how important mentoring is – I was incredibly fortunate to have spent my first six years teaching in a faculty where basically all the staff took it upon themselves to mentor me in one form or another – and I believe it’s one of the best ways to learn. Life’s too short to learn from your own mistakes – if you want to get anywhere, you need to piggyback on the experience of others.

Apart from offering myself as one of the mentors there, I’m also contributing to the ment2teach’s blog. In fact, my post there – “The missing ingredient” – is the first one published on the site. It’s the first in a series, and over the next two weeks I’ll be posting the rest. Happy reading!

My not-so-new workspace

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12 months ago I moved to a new school and had the fun task of setting up my desk from scratch (again). It was very bare back then – this is how it looks now:

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As you can see, the whole thing is rather more filled out than before. My shelves are now looking a little healthier (or they may need to lose a bit of weight, depending on your preference) and my screens seem to have grown and multiplied. (Seriously, trying to do any kind of timetabling on a single monitor? Practically an invitation to madness.)

I’m feeling a lot more settled and directed heading into 2015 – I guess that’s to be expected since this is my second year in the role. Nonetheless, there is plenty of change afoot – a couple of new staff in my faculty, and I’m very excited about the energy they’re going to bring to the table. One thing’s for sure: there are interesting times ahead!

 

Teaching outside the classroom

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Hey Eddie, I got offered a full time job next year. Pretty excited but I want to be an active member within the school, rather than just doing the teaching component. So for example I want to participate in extra curricular activities within the school. But i was wondering if that is something a first year out teacher should do, considering the workload? What are your thoughts on that?

What a fantastic question. It comes from a really good heart that wants to get involved but also wants to be realistic about its own limits (and believe me, in your first year of teaching you will definitely confront your limits!). This is something I personally feel very strongly about, and I’m glad you’re thinking about very consciously rather than just falling into the path of least resistance.

Full disclosure: every year that I’ve been a teacher (including my first), I’ve been deeply involved in activities outside the classroom. That probably gives you an indication of the kind of advice I’m about to give. But now what’s important is that I justify it!

To answer your question, I need to pose a question back to you first. And that question is: what is a teacher’s role? What is a teacher actually supposed to do? You’ll note that I did not ask, “What is a teacher’s job?” or “What is a teacher paid to do?” I don’t want to know what the minimum expectations are; I want to know what it actually means to be a teacher, what it should mean, what it ought to mean. As a teacher, who are you? Why do teachers exist?

Your answer to my question will define the answer to your own question. I’ll show you how I answer each one in turn.

As a teacher, who am I? Why do I exist? I am a role model, an instructor, a mediator, a mentor, and a coach. I exist to do everything I can to bring people through the journey from being a child to being an adult. That includes standing in front of a classroom and explaining things – a lot of it – but it includes so much more. It includes teaching children how to relate to their peers – and those who aren’t their peers. It includes being an example of character and integrity. It includes forcing students to challenge their own limits even when they don’t want to – and proving to them that they are capable of more than they believe they can do. It includes showing them why they shouldn’t always do things even when they are capable of doing them. It includes helping them understand right and wrong in the nitty gritty of everyday life where things aren’t black and white. It includes helping them see their true role within their family, within their group of friends, and within broader society. It includes training them to work effectively with others.

So what am I supposed to do? Does my role end when my students and I walk out the door of the classroom? Not a chance. In some ways, that is just the beginning. I can think of two primary reasons – among hundreds – why teachers must participate in school activities with their students.

  1. In those other activities, you are still teaching. A lot. You are still explaining and training and helping students to learn. In fact, you are helping them to learn a whole host of skills and knowledge that cannot be taught in a classroom setting. I think back to my days as a touch football coach, and the many mornings I spent out on the oval teaching my team how to be a team. I’m confident that the lessons I taught out on the field will be some of the most enduring memories of school for the boys and girls I had on my squad. So if you’re a teacher, you should be out there doing that. Why would you pass up that golden opportunity?
  2. In those other activities, you see students in an entirely different light that will help you to understand them better and be a better teacher to them when you are back inside the classroom. Conversely, your students will see you in an entirely different light and that will help them learn more effectively too. Whether it’s sport or photography or army cadets or prefects, each activity you’re involved in helps you see a different side tip your students. Often a student who seems to do badly in your class has meant wonderful skills in other areas, and discovering those will help you appreciate them and give you opportunities to reach out to them (rather than them constantly disliking you because you are merely the teacher of the class they hate the most). Just like air is the medium for sound, I believe that relationship is the medium for learning. And every avenue along which you can form a better relationship with your students will help you to teach them more effectively.

So you can see I have a pretty firm stance on this one. I think it’s a no-brainer to get involved with school activities wherever you can. In fact, hopefully my two reasons above help you to see why I don’t think it’s actually accurate to call them “extra-curricular” activities (since “extra” literally means “outside of” and “separate to”). I think the name “co-curricular” activities is far more appropriate (because it helps us to see that the learning taking place in such activities runs in parallel to the learning taking place in classrooms).

That brings us to the question, then, of time. You wisely ask if these activities are “something a first year out teacher should do, considering the workload”. To be sure, any and all activities you engage in will take a significant investment of time (if you do them well, that is – and you should). There are only so many hours in the day and that means the time you spend on activities will inevitably take away from your time spent on other tasks related to classroom teaching.

But this fact remains true throughout your teaching career; it’s not like you hit some magical point in your fifth or tenth or twentieth year where you say, “Great, I’ve perfectly mastered my classroom teaching now, so with I’m going to devote some of my wonderful newfound spare time to some activities!” That day never comes. Teaching by its very nature is all-consuming. It’s a bottomless pit that will swallow up however much time you throw at it. You can always plan a more innovative lesson. There is always a new tool or technique or technology to try out. You can always spend more time helping out students after class. And there will always be new opportunities to broaden and deepen your understanding of your subject area.

None of these are bad things – they are the reasons why we as teachers never need to get bored! But they do mean, in my opinion, that you shouldn’t wait indefinitely to get involved in school activities. I would wait an absolute maximum of twelve months, because admittedly the very first year is not just your entry into teaching but into full-time work itself, and that can be pretty traumatic. But after a year, it’s time to take the plunge. Yes, it will take some time out of your 24 hours. It’s so worth it, though, that I don’t think you’ll look back.

Awards aren’t evil

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A few days ago, @corisel posted this thoughtful reflection on awards in teaching. It’s well written and touches on a really important point: that teaching is a team sport. A single child is raised by a community of educators, not by any one teacher in isolation. So, individualistic awards can be a dangerous thing; they can wrongly emphasise the recognition of one person over the whole group that is really responsible for any positive thing that has been achieved.

The whole discussion reminded me of someone else who was very opposed to the whole system of awards that seems to exist in every field under the sun. That person was the renowned physicist Richard Feynman.

Feynman

Feynman was an incredible scientist, but he was also an amazing personality. If you’ve got 10 minutes and want to marvel at his life, watch this very entertaining video about him by Scishow. The relevant fact about him, though, was that he hated the idea of awards. As in education, science is always a group endeavour. Every discovery stands on the progress and work of others. So, Feynman argued, it was wrong to recognise individuals with awards. In one TV interview he said:

I don’t like honours… I don’t need anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone… should decide this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize: the prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use. Those are the real things; the honours are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honours. It bothers me. Honours bother me!

His words seem to capture the essence of what many people have been saying so far in the discussion. But there’s more to the story. Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 – and given his whole stance on things, you would expect him to have refused the prize (he wouldn’t have been the first). However, he didn’t; he accepted the prize. This wasn’t just because he wanted his name up in lights all of a sudden. He actually went through a philosophical reversal about prizes when he saw the response of his friends and the common populace when he was awarded the prize. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, he said:

And so, you Swedish people, with your honours, and your trumpets, and your king – forgive me. For I understand at last – such things [awards] provide entrance to the heart. Used by a wise and peaceful people they can generate good feeling, even love, among men, even in lands far beyond your own. For that lesson, I thank you.

His point is that awards have a power to draw attention to things that are good, and make people aware and curious about good things that they otherwise would not have done. Yes, they can be abused – they can be pursued for selfish reasons or given out as mere political gestures – but the awards themselves are not bad. In fact, they can be wonderful.

All this is just to think through the other side of things. I have no personal stake in the issue as I’ve never done anything to deserve such awards anyhow! But I thought it interesting and thought it would be nice to hear another point of view (namely Feynman’s – not mine).