Happy Steve

Innovation and Learning

Start with clarity of intent.

Now build it out with an evocative vision. Improvise progress by tinkering: with lots of trial and lots of error. The not knowing is the best bit: the mysteries the surprises, and from time to time the windfalls! 

Hello there, I'm Steve Collis! 

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Interactive White Boards - considered from a broader perspective.

A colleague threw a question at me via Twitter about interactive whiteboards (known as IWBs) today, and I thought I’d respond via my blog.

Let me be very clear on one thing: I have nothing against IWBs. If I was running a school with infinite funds, I’d equip every space with one. (Er… actually I’d equip every space with 10 of them, or pay for every wall to BE an IWB…).

However, I’m also not terribly excited by them, and have never felt any ‘buzz’ about them. I know there has been a lot of buzz about them, and I think that buzz, in itself, is great. Give me a energised, enthusiastic teacher any day. I think half the benefit of Twitter, Vokis, Voicethreads, Glogsters, and yes IWBs, and yes any other shiny new technology is the infusion of energy and, well, newness. The human experience, including students and teachers, is fundamentally a rhythm of energy states.

School, unfortunately, can correlate with low energy states for students and teachers. This is the equivalent of a balloon that has the capacity to be blown up to the size of a house, being left all shrivelled and flat. Incidentally, I consider the HSC and other important exams in the same way as IWBs. If they have a kind of propaganda value that can inject ‘importance’ and a sense that ‘this matters’ then I see value.

Let us put IWBs to the side for a moment and consider the core problem of schooling at the moment:

-          Fundamentally, we have institutions called ‘schools’ with spaces called ‘classrooms’ lead by a kind of chief called a ‘teacher’ who dictates activities called ‘lessons’.

-          Over time (we’re talking age 5 to age 18, i.e. 13 years… you can get less for murder) students adapt to this situation and turn passive. They are much too young to have an insightful perspective on the value of education. The situation is bizarrely artificial.

-          (So why did it get this way? Because the system is excellent at embedding authority structures and a familiarity with repetition, key ingredients in an industrial society. Compare schools to factories, and imagine it is the early 1900s.)

I am not damning this sort of schooling. Consider the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ where the central figure of the classroom is highly inspiring and deliberately creates space for the students to follow their own path and make their own discoveries.

However it has an intrinsic centre of gravity that tends to become a veritable black hole: a veritable centre of attention into which falls all creativity, independence, initiative and… boat-rocking. I use the last word very deliberately because young people, with powerful characters, who will go on to impact the world in powerful ways, may find themselves censored and chastised by the school system that values conformity and submission.

What has all this to do with IWBs? Only this: they create a centre of gravity in the classroom.

Attention will fall into it, never to escape! The same is true of the blackboard, or whiteboard, or teacher.

I don’t care what multimedia acrobatics an IWB can accomplish.

And the ‘interactive’ bit is a nod in the right direction, but it has exactly the same problem of a teacher asking students a question, or for any type of input: only one student can contribute at a time.

There is a time and a place for one big centre of gravity, but in our current context where this is the quintessential fatal flaw of schooling, it is the last thing we need.

I see multiple paths to lead us forward, and they all involve multiplying the centres of gravity in a school. Think: chaotic, highly organic, local, student-driven, and documented only in retrospect.

An energised teacher and a rich multi-media projection tool is a big improvement on a bored teacher with chalk, but it’s hardly a game-changer. That’s why I’ve never been bowled over by IWBs.

Well, well, well Mr Collis, then what does impress you? Well lots of things impress me, including an old-school classroom with a brilliant inspiring teacher. In terms of technology, some paths that appeal:

- 'ideapaint' which turns every wall into a whiteboard. Dispersed centre of gravity!

- 1:1 computers. Every student has a computer, and the teacher almost entirely loses the lecture role.

- peer tutoring. Groups of students should have 'super-node' students who play the role of surrogate teacher. This can change from moment to moment, as key figures in the learning community step up to the mark. Think: spontaneous workshops, troubleshooting, exploration. 

- 10 IWBs in a classroom: 10 * better than 1 IWB in a classroom!