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!
Click on "contact", won't you, and wave right back at me?
Last term, in the process of pulling together the 'Effectiveness' training day, I decided that thriving as a teacher boils down to these five elements, and in each of the five we face dilemmas and contradictions. In each of the five there is insight and clarity to be had: a path forward through the forest.
Below is a brain dump on them. I hope it sparks your own thinking. You might use the 5 headings as a way of gathering your own observations, insights and curiosity.
Oh and please if you're local to Sydney, come hang out with me on June 9 and we can explore them together!
Almost every challenge is a self-challenge. Our biggest limitations are our self limitations. Our self-conceptions, self-knowledge, self-acceptance, self-love, and so on, set the upper limit on all other development. For instance if a colleague or student really gets under your skin, the problem isn't with them, but with you. It simply gets projected outward onto what you perceive as reality.
I remember going pale with shock at a certain moment when I realised how much my 'self' was constructed by concepts of who I was that OTHER people had, and that I had then internalised and taken at face value. Rewrite the script!
You have reports due Thursday, parent-teacher night tonight, three students you have to catch in the playground, a cheque requisition form to drop off at the office, two unplanned lessons, a conversation you have to have to with a colleague, a phone call to see a dentist, a stack of marking, and then when you glance up you realise there are 30 new unread emails! This is no caricature or hyperbole, is it? In fact I could go much further without exaggeration.
How can we thrive in the complexity and chaos of school? How can we be creative when we only get the top 5% of our 'to do list' done?
I have felt so much better since I cracked this one with the GTD methodology. Once again I recommend How to Get Things Done by David Allen. It is a life saver. Or... come to my next workshop!
All work is people-work, especially at school. Students are people. Colleagues are people. We convince, inspire, neglect, insult, deride, undermine, praise, negotiate with, get permission from, give permission to, equip, resource, empower, assist, mentor, damage, save and enable each other.
Picture a school as a network, focal points around optimists, pessimists, leaders, and gate keepers. Where do you fit on this map? What are you broadcasting? What are you known for?
A helpful tool I find is the notion of 'social currency'. What is your currency? Is it high or low?
How can you improve your currency? How can you use it to better shape your responsibilities? How can you use it to benefit others?
Well everything is changing. Society is changing. Traditional schooling is a dead duck, plain and simple. The model we grew up with, and see in films and in soap operas, is bankrupt. Schools that don't come to terms with this will not survive another 10 years. I suspect many schools will indeed go under, while new schools will be seeded with a much different charter and radically different structures.
Much resistance to change comes from the reality that we are confident experts of the old model, whereas much of the new model is still to be worked out. If a teacher has spent 5 or 10 years of their career perfecting techniques for 'getting control' of their class, they may be reluctant to embrace a model where 'control' is not even sought.
It's not only starting from scratch, but it's going where no man has gone before. Yikes!
But then, who said we had a choice?
I repeat this like an automaton now. I think these words are original, so yes you can quote me:
"Technology mediates relationships. Space mediates relationships. Technology is space."
Gettit? Two people in a meadow. Their proximity allows them to hear each other and have a conversation. The space mediates the relationship. If they stand further away they can't hear each other, so no conversation, so no relationship.
Ah, but if they use technology... such as smoke signals, or a telephone, then although they are not in the same physical space they are in the same virtual space. Technology is space. Technology creates space.
Furniture is technology and is also therefore space.
How does your classroom mediate relationships? The shape of your room is technology. The furniture is technology. The layout, centres of gravity, signs and decorations, doors and windows, are technology.
And yes of course the computers and internet are also technology, and are also therefore space. Does your class move through virtual space as well as physical? Do you help your students nurture a virtual persona? Do they publish online? Do they tweet? Do they Skype? Does each have a profile page representing their current learning? Do they answer questions from other students in other schools, and ask their own questions in turn?
Very tricky one, space. Whatever we do we mustn't take it at face value, or ignore it. Every decision about the physical space of the learning environment, from chairs to the internet, is laden with meaning and implications.
Since day 1 of my teaching career I found the workload simply overwhelming. I had a gazillion things to get done and tiny amounts of time to do them. Time was soaked up by playground duties, meetings, paperwork, and an avalanche of emails. I had emails coming out of my ears!
In my early years, somehow I found a way to create time to work on passion projects. 2006, in hindsight, was the most intense: on top of a full teaching load, I pioneered the Beyond Borders website (online collaborative student communities), running a dozen projects with 1,000 students, while simultaneously setting up the 4 years of online French courses that launched in 2007 under our new 'HSCOnline' brand.
Back in those days my motto was "Work smart, and work hard." It was rewarded - I won teacher awards, was invited to speak at conferences, and found myself on the Senior Exec at school. (Picture me, blinking widely, like a possum in headlights).
But this approach to getting work done was not sustainable. Back in those days, my mind was firing on overdrive. There was no method to the madness, and this fostered a sense of panic. As I hit 30 I recognised this and identified an ambition: to sustain work effectiveness but dump the stress and anxiety. I needed to find an 'off' switch. You might find this obvious but I ain't never turned 'off' in my life.
I made the breakthrough in January 2010, idly picking up the book 'Getting Things Done' by David Allen. He talked so much sense, in such simple terms, and I had one of those epiphanies.
Before I go further - here is a sped-up video of me using his techniques to clear my email inbox from 100 down to ZERO in about 18 minutes. Press play but then read ahead as it plays.
Over a year later, I am still astonished at how many of his suggestions are strongly (very strongly) counter-instinctive, but transform your workflow when applied. I spent the rest of 2010 getting the hang of them.
He addresses all the 'stuff' we have in our life:
- petty jobs we have to do (ring so and so, pick up the milk, get the car registered)
- fiddly work (gathering student data, report-writing, programming)
- broad aims for our life (spend more time with the family, save for a holiday, renovate the house... become a more loving person)
- policy, procedures, how-to guides, and other mountains of information we need to know or adhere too
Every work obligation, appointment, hope, desire, dream, mundane chore, passion project, deadline, at work and at home... we are mentally invested in these things, and it all mushes together in our minds like porridge. Each day we have to wade through this porridge.
Hence my high level of stress and anxiety. Hence my 'work like crazy' panic.
Allen proposes a strategy that is entirely realistic and workable, and makes utter sense out of everything.
Now I won't rewrite his book right here. I recommend it, and I'd love you to come to my training day where we'll work on implementing the principles.
However, here is a sneak peak of what my workflow now looks like:
I have a complete inventory of every single mental commitment or job or project or event or ambition. Everything is catalogued and organised and is easy to process and action. I maintain this catalogue daily, just like I clean my house and tidy my room. There is no difference. My physical life is tidy, so why should my mental life be a pigsty?
Here are some glances at the system as I personally have implemented it, and I'll say something to conclude:
I use my Outlook Calendar for all events and reminders. My calendar is on my iPhone too. If I have to buy a birthday card this arvo, I set up a reminder to beep on the way home. Each day I can see what time is booked up, and what is free.
I have a reference system for all incoming 'information'. This is my knowledge base, with everything from bus duty procedure to excursion policies, from timetable information to 'history files' on students and colleagues. The biggest two spaces for this information is: my nested email folders (I just drag emails over) and 'One Note', a brilliant application that functions like a paper notebook with reorganisable tabs and subtabs.
This is what my One Note system looks like:
I have big tabs on the left, sub tabs along the top, and sub-sub tabs on the right.
Every single job that I have to do goes into my Outlook task list.
Note, when I say job only mean simple, single step items. If it's fiddly or requires multiple steps then it's a project.
Now, I give every task on my task list a due date, or more likely NO DUE DATE and a category. The category is the sort of task it is rather than what area of responsibility it falls under.
I print out my task list daily:
Each day I sort my task list by DATE (left hand photo) to get an idea of today's and upcoming deadlines - my URGENT stuff.
Then I sort by 'category' (right hand photo) and highlight tasks that suit the shape of my day - depending on my mood, schedule, and what seems important as I scan the entire list.
Do you see the brilliance of this? One of my categories is 'errands'. I go get a coffee, and on the way check to see if a colleague is at their desk because I want a word, pick up my post from my pigeon hole, drop off three cheque requisition forms to accounts, and count how many Year 9 textbooks are left. I've been accumulating these errands and here they are, at my finger tips, in my task list, nicely ordered.
There is nothing that I have to do in my entire life that does not appear on this list! It is comprehensive. As such, I can trust it. As such, I don't have to make 'mental' notes to do things anymore: I don't _brood_.
I establish project spaces in One Note for any fiddly ambition: rewriting the Year 8 programs, getting fit, establishing a 'lulu' student-published bookstore at my school, writing reports (requires a space for data gathering), broadening the SCIL Associates team, and so on.
These ambitions are too complicated to be jobs. I need space to brainstorm, create a plan, and bring together information and resources relevant to the ambition. This space may need to be large and well categorised if there are multiple people, meetings and documents involved.
I feed specific step by step jobs from my project spaces in One Note, to my tasks list in Outlook.
I am constantly realising that items in my jobs list are actually too complicated and need their own project space.
I review my project spaces regularly. I chip away at them. They are all steadily moving forward.
Finally, I have a 'One Day/Maybe' space, also in One Note for any brainstorming, dreaming, goal setting, or project consideration that I know I cannot realistically act on RIGHT NOW!
It is wonderful to have a space where I can pour out far out dreams and "I wish I could..." notions, in such a way that they are recorded, and catalogued, and I can return to them later, but without them clogging up my system.
I am constantly moving projects and jobs from my task list and project space to my ONE DAY space. I never realised just how much stuff I had made mentally commitments to. Now I have a much better sense of what I should put on my plate and what needs to go into storage for now.
Throughout 2010 faced up to dilemma after dilemma:
Is this a task or a project?
Can I realistically fit this in or is it a 'someday' item?
Does this really have a set-in-concrete deadline or is it just that I really really WANT to get it done this month?
This email to me seems to have reference information, three jobs, and the suggestion I take on a whole new project. WHERE DO I PUT IT?
Uh oh, I just realised there are 5 items in my head that I didn't put into 'the system'. I had better put them in NOW or it will fall apart.
Uh oh, I have 100 emails and zero time to process! I CAN'T GO BACK TO THE BAD OLD DAYS! I will wake up 30 minutes earlier, process them, and be tired but happy rather than well slept and anxious.
Ooooo that's why I've made no progress on project X - the next step is to recruit so and so, and so and so is busy and I'm reluctant to approach them. Ok decision time - do I approach them or dump the project?
As I have faced these dilemmas I've gained skills in mental processing. I have slowly developed a much more confident, intuitive, clear sense of the landscape of my workflow - a sense of what is optional, what is doable, what is urgent, what is important, what strategies are effective, and what strategies are all talk.
I've realised that most of the time when we send email we don't have the faintest clue what we really want to result from it. Meantime, 20 people have to read our chit-chat, wondering "Where do I put this thing? What am I supposed to do with it?"
Email becomes a mix between a party-line, a to-do list, a thinking-out-loud bin, and most tellingly, a deferral/outsourcing of clarity. i.e. "I don't know what to do, so I'll send an email discussing the issue."
It makes me feel like I've DONE SOMETHING! Really, all I've done is dumped my porridge on someone else's plate.
As 2011 launches, I am more certain than ever that if I really want to make things happen at my school, I need to form a collaborative alliance, face to face. I need to get off my chair and go and present a concrete proposal to the person in a position to resource me, or approve the idea, or publish the concept, or sign off on the budget, or give me physical space to work in.
Thanks to the system, my inbox is at zero, my anxiety has all but disappeared, and my creativity is flourishing. Since I have an inventory and tools to measure progress, I am more and more aware of actions that waste time and actions that bring about real concrete progress.
If you're intrigued, get the book, and let me know how you go. And of course if you can travel to the northern beaches of Sydney, come spend the day with me and we'll explore this and other key skills for thriving rather than surviving at school - http://scil.com.au/workshop/a-day-with-steve-collis
Technology is sometimes equated with better teaching. The assumption is that technology is the road to improved learning.
It's much more complicated than that. Technology consists of a wide and varied set of tools that alter our relationships with each other and our relationships with the world.
In particular technology tends to mitigate or overcome the limitations and tyranny of distance. It can also enhance, or hamper communication. It can hyper-stimulate. It can obfuscate.
Teachers using technology blindly and without reflection are at best playing a hit and miss game.
I talk with teachers who seem to feel guilty because they feel they should 'use technology more' - such a vague and general, and DAMNING statement. Introducing technology into a class for the sake of it, out of some general sense that technology = good, may only have the effect of undermining the best thing going for the class - the energy of a real life passionate teacher.
A useful experiment for me would be to get rid of technology all together, at least for a certain period of time. This would help me notice afresh how technology changes things.
A few other ideas in the article made particular sense to me:
2. That in some sense technology threatens to do away with the teaching role altogether - or to disrupt it. I teach online French. My students barely need me. And they perform better than face to face students doing the same course. My school offers lots of online courses, and we see the same pattern across the board.
So what's the new role of the teacher when the content of the course can be taught without a human being?
Again this is complex. We generally prefer interactions in our learning. We're not robots and it's no fun learning by staring at a computer screen. There's nothing like an informed, entertaining and persuasive orator.
On the other hand, busing in 1,000 students into a High School, sitting them down in boxes and getting them to copy off the board can be done away with. As can sitting down students in a computer room and telling them to type an essay response. The teacher is serving no role except as dictator, director, baby-er, babying the students, spoon feeding them, rendering them passive.
High School teacher Andrew Douch uses podcasts to deliver much of the basic content of the biology course. Students work through them when and where they want, at a pace that suits. They can repeat sections, skip other sections. His role is re-invented - and his face to face classes are for discussion, exploration, student-driven experimentation.
I've moved down a very similar path and never want to look back.
Now, stripping technology from the classroom seems to me to be an excellent experiment to see what teachers are still good for!
Give me technology pushed to its logical conclusion, where I can learn unhampered, free from being bossed around by the teacher-king whose subject I am.
Or give me a room with some peers and one or more enthusiastic experts in the field, and let's just see what we can do when we bring our creative energies together. I'll thank the expert on the way out for spending time in a room with me helping me to delver deeper into the field.
What purpose then, for classic 9am to 3pm schooling, in little battery boxes? I predict (hope) that the traditional school structures will break down over the coming years. It may be a slow erosion as students begin to outsource certain subjects to alternative providers, or it may come suddenly. I hope it happens.
3. That students who are used to passive learning kick and scream when prompted to take an active role.
Our online students find online study difficult. My students find themselves backed into a corner. They have no teacher bossing them around. They have to take control, take initiative. They almost always end up rising to the occasion, gaining in the process entrepreneurial skills that will benefit them for life.
But almost universally they don't like the switch!
Don't expect your students to thank you any time soon if you start stepping back from a directing role and require them to start driving the learning process.
As I type this, my Year 8 French students are working intensely on making comic strips by taking pictures within our virtual 3D world, which we call "Booralie Island". Now they're making comic strips. I'll paste the comics in amongst this text that I am typing.
COMIC 1, by Sarita, Danielle, and Rebekah
We're going to post the comics at http://nbcsfrench.wikispaces.comwhich is our website dedicated to publishing resources created by students. We categorise those resources by chapter and textbook, so any teacher or student who is using the same textbook can find resources that match exactly what they're looking at at the moment.
COMIC 2, by Connor, Joel and Ethan
I'd like to think that teachers who would otherwise use the textbook, might direct their students to check out our own special comics. I'd like to think that students will find it interesting to see the work produced by their peers in other places - perhaps it will give them a sense of connection with other French students. Also, it's a heck of a lot of fun. The fact I can find 3 minutes to type this shows they are intensely 'into' the activity. I can hear, right now, students discussing their camera angles for the comic shots! Students are asking for virtual money to buy virtual clothing in the virtual clothing shop to wear for the shots!
Comic 3, by Lee, Daniel D and Daniel MB
It's the sort of activity where, if you're not careful, the students will spend hours and hours getting distracted. I've been very careful to get them moving - keep the comics simple, but let's get them done here and now and have them posted by the end of the lesson. It's now 10 minutes after the end of the lesson, and I am about to publish this blog post and the comics below. This is crucial - I can't sustain uses of technology that take hours of my time. 10 minutes, I can handle!
AHHH We didn't all finish! Out of 6 groups of students, 3 groups finished on time - not a bad start considering I had to teach them how to position the camera in the virtual world, how to take screen shots, add speech bubbles, resize pictures etc. The frenetic pace to the class worked well because the students worked efficiently.
Next time we'll aim higher!
If you have 20 seconds, leave a quick comment and say which city/country you’re from – I’ll show the comments to the students. (I showed them the comments on the lolcatz blog post – you just can’t beat the effect it has on our class perspective!)
Summary for if you're busy: Voice recognition works brilliantly now, even in noisy environments. By far the best software is Dragon Naturally Speaking. Get the cheapest version "Standard". Click here for educational pricing. You're crazy not to buy a special microphone designed for voice recognition as well. Click here. Watch out! Even though it works fantastically, psychologically you'll find it quite uncomfortable, and if you don't work alone, consider privacy and annoyance.
Read on for a bit more detail:
Here's me dictating at almost 200 words per minute with 100% accuracy. I am using a headset designed for voice recognition, which I think is very important if you're going to bother buying the software.
But that's just a gimmick. In real life I don't each those speeds because I can't think of what I want to say that quickly!
I use voice recognition quite a bit to dictate emails and documents. Here’s some information for other teachers curious about it.
Why would I use it?
Not for speed. The claim that you can dictate text with voice recognition quicker than you can type it is not necessarily the case, especially if you can already type at a decent speed. I find that by the time I’ve made corrections, it is about the same speed as I type.
Because you’re sick of typing. This is my main reason. I just get sick of typing. My fingers get tired or sore. Or mentally I get annoyed at the effort and clunkiness involved with tapping each individual key for every last letter in every word.
Because you hate the paperwork of teaching. I use voice recognition mainly for the boring bits, e.g. writing teaching programs, giving feedback to numerous different students about the same task. Emailing various people on a similar topic. There is little creative fun in this sort of typing. It is repetitive and dull. Voice recognition is at its best for this. It lets me fly through it as quickly as I can talk, without getting tired fingers. Take, for instance, essay marking. Students make the same
mistakes over and over again. It is soul-destroying writing “start each paragraph with a topic sentence” or “ensure you integrate quotes into your sentences rather than just putting them by themselves” over, and over, and over again. I suppose you could use macros for this. And of course typing these comments is easier than handwriting them. Easier than all these, is voice recognition.
You’re in danger of repetitive strain injury. Or some other muscular problem. Or perhaps it’s too late, you’ve stuffed your fingers but are still in a job that requires heaps of text-production. I enjoy playing computer games in the evenings, and it’s too much for my fingers if I’m also typing.
How well does it work?
Very, very well. The technology is much, much better than it was 5 or 10 years ago. Here's a less gimmicky demonstration than the one above:
Accuracy is not 100%, but it isn’t far off (there are some words it always gets wrong with me). You can speak as quickly as you want to without hurting the accuracy, providing you’re speaking clearly. In fact, speaking in phrases or full sentences is much more accurate than dictate one or two words, because it gives the recognition program a context to help figure out what you said.
Correct by typing. The best way to use it is to have your fingers ready to correct bits here and there as you go. The program would rather that whenever you make a mistake, you retrain the program to avoid the error in future. Fair enough, but you come up against a law of diminishing returns. The program is already very accurate and it’s not worth me stopping to retrain every few sentences to push accuracy from 96% to 98%.
DANGER! DANGER! I often don’t notice errors. DANGER! DANGER! It is very difficult to accurately proof read your own dictated text. So many times I’ve reread my dictation carefully, and missed huge errors that make you look careless when your document is published, email received, or whatever. I was intrigued that a few years ago I noticed quite a few errors in a colleague’s emails, only to discover he was using voice recognition himself.
Which program to use?
Without a doubt, Dragon Naturally Speaking, which is miles ahead of any competition. The current version is 9.0 but they've patched it to 9.5 for free. There are three versions: Standard, Preferred, and Professional, but all have the same accuracy and the same speech engine, so you can get the cheapest version, Standard, and get the same performance, with fewer bells and whistles in the software.
The teacher price for the Standard version is $100, and about for the Preferred version $200. That particular website offers to bundle Standard with a proper voice recognition headset (which I imagine is very good, like my recommendation below) for $179 or Preferred for $279. Read below to hear about how important the headset is. Don't bother with speech recognition if you're not willing to get a decent headset.
I recommend getting the Standard version for $100, and then buy the following headset separately.
Which headset should I use?
The microphone makes a big difference. Ah, now this is the important bit. Don’t use the microphone that comes with the software. Instead, invest in a proper microphone with built in Digital Signal Processing. This sort of microphone has circuitry built in that modifies the input even before it gets to the computer, isolating your voice and getting rid of other background noise. This improves accuracy remarkably. It also allows you to dictate in noisy environments, or even in the car! My wife and I drive to work together, and when she drives I’ve been known to dictate. Even against the noisy engine of our old Ford Laser, and Amy Grant on the CD player, accuracy is similar to in a quiet room by myself.
Plantronics DSP 400 The headset that I use, and can vouch for, is the Plantronics DSP 400. It works tops. My only criticism is that the joint at the top of it is fragile and breaks easily. Mine has been stuck together with tape since shortly after I purchased it. Look for cheap prices on this headset here. (As cheap as $70, although I don't necessarily recommend you order from the cheapest shop.)
My friends will laugh at this because I have a reputation for using sticky tape with just about everything.
How good a computer do I need?
Check the specs here: http://www.nuance.com/naturallyspeaking/preferred/sysreqs.asp. In particular you need a decent amount of memory, because on top of what you’re already using, the voice recognition program needs more. There is nothing worse than a computer that goes sluggish because it has been forced to use the hard disk for memory because it has run out of normal memory.
The negatives of using voice recognition:
Watch out! It feels very weird dictating. It is a very different mental space to typing. In casual conversation, it is normal to backtrack, trip up, reword, change direction, and even change opinion mid-sentence. And in conversation we tend to mumble, especially if we’re not absolutely sure of what we’re saying. To dictate properly you have to have in mind the next few words you’re going to say. Speech comes in bursts. To dictate they need to come in clear, confident bursts. I find I’ll dictate several short bursts of 7 or 8 words, and then go on a roll for a few sentences with no hesitation.
There is a process here of getting used to thinking before speaking, and then speaking with clear enunciation.
You become aware very quickly of which sounds you tend to mumble.
It can annoy colleagues. Some of my colleagues can block out sound and focus on their own work, even while I’m droning on in the background. Others can’t, and out of considerateness (or fear of retaliations!?!?) I avoid dictating while they’re around.
It can be embarrassing. For some reason, I find it very uncomfortable dictating emails when colleagues can hear me dictating, even if the emails are of a mundane nature. I think this is fascinating. I can only assume that, for me, composing emails requires a sense of private space. I tend to type emails rather than dictate them, if I have company in my staff room.
A funny video where a demonstration of Vista speech recognition stuffed up:
This video features a completely different speech recognition program, the one built into Vista. Even at it's best it is nowhere near as good as Dragon, but on this day it was definitely not at its best.