Saturday, 2 April 2011

Evolving transparency

A truth window. This is an external wall (seen from the interior).

A recent personal incident and ongoing reform debates in my workplace, coupled with today's new definition of 'transparency,' prompted me to write this last CoTAIL blog post. Here's a relevant definition of transparency from Dan Bricklin's website:
"Today, to be transparent means that your are providing data in such a way that anybody with access can drill down on the data and ask unanticipated questions. They should be able to explore interrelationships that were not thought of by those that provide the data."
Data in the educational context may be different than data in the business world, yet the similarities are notable. Granted, teachers are not able to access leadership reports via the Internet as Bricklin discusses (although it is possible), and we do receive 'minutes' of some meetings via email, however, it's still apparent that no matter the report or the number of reports disseminated, data can still be manipulated in the sense that humans can select information to report and are automatically biased in their reporting, despite any appeals to transparency. And, of course when confronted, any number of interpretations of the original data can be made to suit the purpose, or even to perhaps the less ethical side, to self-serve. Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole and Patricia Biederman have published three essays pertaining the topic of transparency in a world where where it's become more difficult than ever to hide things. In the five summary points stand out, the second suggests that those coming forth with 'unpleasant truths' be praised. Point four suggests we'd all be best to welcome counterarguments but leaders especially need to check on their partiality and be willing to listen to dissent. Bennis, Goleman and O'Toole in Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor say that leaders need to embrace the flow of information via candor and honesty and forgo the fear of the 'truth will out.' 'Reward the principled contrarians.' And, regarding other perspectives, it's the feminine touch that wins out according to 'Speaking Truth to Power: The Role of the Executive' by Jennifer Pittman:
"While not typical traits for our leaders, “feminine” virtues of humility, inclusion, vulnerability, service to others, and respect for people, are characteristic of truly great leaders."
It's the concept of 'truth' that we're both drawn to and yet fear. It seems apparent to me that the fundamental definition of 'transparency' involves knowing the truth by being in touch with one's feelings to the extent of being able to empathize and introspect and thus understand the feelings of others. The action one takes then stems from this vulnerable, yet sincere position—and perhaps is more likely to be a 'right action.' In studying the Human Sciences in the Theory of Knowledge, we learn about Verstehen—this very approach involving empathy and introspection that human scientists use in their attempts to study and make conclusions about human behaviors within their respective fields. Isn't this what we're all doing as educators at virtually every interaction we have with colleagues and with students? We should be especially good at this given the daily practice we have. Yet, even when the truth does surface through the mess of thoughts, we're caught up with attempting to do what we think is right within the context of the situation—softening the truth or often times—avoiding it. Best to tell the person what s/he wants to hear, or what might be 'politically-correct' to say. Telling the truth is a two-edged sword alright. Leo Bottary seemed to be inspired by Bennis' words on transparency and came up with some key points on 'speaking truth to power effectively.' Among them: 1) That bad news coming from the leader is better than no news, and that 2) trust in self and in one's leadership prevail.

Shouldn't F2F interchanges be the primary way to show one's transparency? After all, look what's missed without looking at the slightest muscle twitches on someone's face, or seeing the honesty in someone's eyes. This may be true in one-to-one interactions, or with manageable groups of people. But with the constraints of time and in other contexts, the use of blogs, wikis and social networks can then be seen as solutions to some of these challenges. Will Richardson's weblog on 'Transparency = Leadership" and the extensive blog comments offer diverse insight into what leaders need to be doing to be in step with today's forms of practicing transparency. Richardson's whole point is for educators of all sorts to:
"Build a learning network online, and make your learning as transparent as possible for those around you."
There are assumptions to consider here, but the one being that we educators are immersed in the digital world today, despite our position as 'digital immigrants' over our students' position as 'digital natives,' there's no real excuse as to why we all shouldn't be on board with professional social networking. Given our school's move to new assessment, grading and reporting, wouldn't professional blogs, run by our respective school leaders provide the line of thinking, the rationale and justifications for decisions, the research links to peruse, links to other schools having similar discussions, comments and questions for teachers and even board members to ask in that transparent mode that such a communication offers? The different points of view would be welcomed instead of feared. Here's one among many of the pertinent comments from Richardson's post:
"I would say that the two most important principles for leaders in education today are (1) encouraging and facilitating innovation at all levels of the system and (2) fomenting clear and honest communication among all stakeholders in the educational process (teachers, parents, students, administrators, support staff, et cetera)." Chris Johnson
There's also the need for peer review to keep the writing professional. But the nice thing about blogs, for example, is this peer review is built in. Certainly, a professional would want to carefully formulate ideas, state findings, make observations, and provide accuracy with research knowing such writing and research is open to public scrutiny (especially in the case of a high school faculty).

In any regard, today's digital world seems to be bringing transparency to the forefront in new ways never before considered. And this can either be problematic or advantageous for those, like leaders, whose transparency or lack thereof drives the wheel of change. Ending on a more Utopian note, is it possible that the combined transparency of both the old, traditional F2F and new technologies today would lead to a fundamental change in human nature such that we might develop less fear of telling the truth? Or, even with a more metaphysical consideration, we have to prepare ourselves for the day we can actually come to read each others' minds! Ponder this. If babies can do it, Ray Kurzweil predicts so can we! We may be destined to tell the truth after all! But, if nothing else, at least we can rely on Shakespeare's prediction in reference to transparency: 'The truth WILL out.'

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Working with Wiktionary (Project 5 Evaluation)

After searching around for online possibilities as to how my Gr. 12 EAL students could develop their usage of the most commonly-used academic words (AWL) in English, and after a relatively quick consult with Jeff Utecht, my CoETAIL instructor, we agreed that the students should try the real-world wiki I came across: Simple English Wiktionary, which featured the AWL words. After Jeff and I looked over the many links and possibilities for practice and editing, I decided to have my students undertake editing the Simple Wiktionary for about 80-120 mins. per week.

I have to say that I wasn't too far off the plan I started with. If I consider the Essential Qs:

1) Can academic vocabulary learning and acquisition be fun?
2) Does the use of technology help to motivate and improve the second language (L2) vocabulary acquisition process?
For the first one, I'd say maybe my definition of fun is somewhat distinct from my Gr. 12s' definition of fun, however, according to student comments, some did in fact find the experience to be 'fun.' (See student comments below.)

As for the second essential Q, I'd say that the experience working on the wiki was motivating for some—those who were already comfortable with technology found the set up on the Wiktionary somewhat intuitive and could essentially figure out for themselves how to write (or copy) the code to make the edits. There's even a place on the Simple English Wiktionary called the 'Sandbox' where newcomers can practice working with the required editing codes. We started out there, but apparently didn't spend enough practice time there, according to one of the editors. But there's a second part to this Q—improve the acquisition process. I'd say the time it spent learning to properly edit (and even then we still continued to make errors and frustrate the editors) detracted from the potentially speedy acquisition. Because it took so long to edit, the students ending up working with fewer words than planned, which thus limited the overall acquisition process.

On the positive side, the students performed admirably on their quiz assessment that followed the editing and practice of each set of 5 AWL vocabulary on the Wiktionary. Most scored between 90-100% consistently. For the assessment itself, the students are expected to answer a question, similar to the initial practice questions the EAL teachers created for students to establish a context, and their response needs to demonstrate their understanding and correct usage of the word in a similar context. After working with 10 AWL words, here's what my students had to say about the experience. And we did 'assume good faith' that the students would make a valid attempt at doing the right thing:

The good:
"The good thing about [Wiktionary] is I learned the words [and] shared with other people."
"It was more interesting to use the computer [Internet] to put things [down] for everyone to see."
"I paid more attention to making sentences and grammar... and it was easier to know the word... because we had to know all the things about the word... better than making vocabulary cards."
"I didn't [have to] try hard to memorize [because] I memorized while searching and writing my own sentences."
"It's good to check with the teacher first to check grammar."
"I love to learn how to use new technology."

The bad:
"I was sad when someone deleted my work after I tried my best. I felt denied."
"It was the same thing over and over again—need something more creative."
"It was easier for a computer nerd."
"There was an unknown person controlling the editing."
"It only worked if you liked [doing it]."
"There needs to be more options of what to put on the page."
"I don't like when they keep removing my things."

Here's what was initially planned:
  • Find a picture that (obviously) illustrates the meaning of the word in context and post it.
  • Post a copy of the word family.
  • Create an original sentence that reflects personal experience using the work in the correct context.
  • Locate a practice exercise using the word and include the link on for others to use. Somehow provide evidence of having completed the exercise.
  • Using Bloom's Digital Taxonomy: 'analyzing,' try mind-mapping or 'creating,' after 4-5 words, try a photo story or a comic creation.
Here's what actually happened:
  • Find a picture... Initially it was relatively easy to figure out how to use Wikimedia Commons and find pictures that corresponded to the word meaning. But in practice, the Wiktionary editors did not like the pictures the students would find, and would end up removing them by the next time we opened the Wiktionary. Here, the 'assume good faith' seemed to break down. In 'talking' with the editor, we were told that the pictures were too abstract or inappropriate. We ended up abandoning the picture search after a few times of this (and as a result affecting the 'visual literacy' segment of this project).
  • Post a copy of the word family: this worked OK as long as the students didn't mix up 'word family' with 'related words' and 'forms of the word' found on the Wiktionary. Sorting this out, and revisiting the errors did at least have the students 'rethink' these word distinctions.
  • Create an original sentence... This seemed to be the best strategy, as long as the students paid attention to which definition they were writing the sentence to (or posting a corresponding definition to the the wiki if needed), and as long as I checked the grammar before the sentence was posted. Otherwise, it was just more work for the Wiktionary editor to clean up afterward.
  • Locate a practice exercise... I found several links at 'English Corner' that seemed to work well for AWL word practice.
  • Mind-mapping: In the end, the Wiktionary editors seemed to accept the mind maps the students tried. I found to work fairly effectively. The students could take screen shots of the mind maps they created and eventually learned how to upload them to Wikimedia Commons prior to posting them to an AWL on the Wiktionary. Here's a sample on Wiktionary.
  • We had a chance to add synonyms, antonyms and in some cases where it worked, to put up pronunciation keys. Here's another sample showing the pronunciation key edit, which also shows some of the history of the editing.
I was able to manage overseeing all of the edits to some degree using my RSS feed through NetVibes. (Although the editors would often beat me to it...) After adding the words the students were working on, their edits would come in automatically. I would then go into the 'history' found on any page of the Wiktionary and see exactly what was done. This made it easy to hold students accountable for their work. It also allowed me to let them assess themselves when it came to grading them for the work that was done. There's also a 'My Watchlist' in the Wiktionary where specific word edits can be monitored. The students completed this Scoring Guide after setting up 5 AWL words. I verified their assessment after a relatively quick look at their work.

Overall, the students had lots of practice thinking about the word definitions, the parts of speech, forms of the word and different usages. We have yet to reach the 30 word goal by the end of the semester and for the remaining words, I'm now leaving the Wiktionary approach an optional strategy. I'm glad we took the risk. Despite moments of frustration and disappointment seeing their work disappear and despite the 'assumed good faith,' we started with, we did end up with lots of collaboration and dialogue about how to use these AWL words that more than likely would have never happened otherwise. So, we'll assume good faith here and return to one of the essential Qs we started out with: Does the use of technology help to motivate and improve the second language (L2) vocabulary acquisition process?

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The 11th Year

We're beginning our 11th year in the 21st c. now and as an educator of '21st c. learning,' I'm wondering where we stand in terms of meeting any of the 21st c. goals or 21st c. standards we're on about, like the ISB21 T.A.I.L. Standards and Benchmarks, for example. But it's not just local, it's global (or 'glocal' as some like to call it). The 21st c. learner and everything else out there coined 'the 21st c.....' is the latest slogan suggesting we'll stay lost in the previous c. (or possibly further back) if we don't get on board—it appears it's where we need to be as educators (and every other successful person on the planet for that matter). Ironically, we're already IN the 21st c.—it's not a matter of getting there anymore. Given the fast pace of growth in modern times, isn't 11 years a lot of time to be spending to get somewhere? Here are some relevant places that taut the ideals of education of the 21st c. or even pose threats should we ignore acquiring and using its corresponding skills: Educational Origami, and this comparison between the old and new centuries is particularly idealistic one. The highlighted bits in 'New Research Shows...' suggest there's a definitional problem operating—not with the definition of 21st c., but of '21st c. skills,' and that this underlies the lack of embracing the new. In the video: 'Educational Change Challenge,' we're practically threatened by the claims made regarding the gap between 'us' [the old] and 'them' [they young]: "Are we preparing students for our age or for theirs?" the narrator queries. Or, how about '21 Things That Will Become Obsolete in Education by 2020 by Shelley Blake-Plock? I have to admit that I get taken in by such claims, but at the same time many of them, like the look of parent-teacher conferences, which are likely to disappear in place of 'virtual communication opportunities,'' were actually more appealing. How about #13 though?
13. Organization of Educational Services by Grade
Education over the next ten years will become more individualized, leaving the bulk of grade-based learning in the past. Students will form peer groups by interest and these interest groups will petition for specialized learning. The structure of K-12 will be fundamentally altered.
Now this to me seems a lot more dramatic of a change. But, need I really 'worry' about such a change? Or, Technology in the Classroom: Myths & Opportunities by Alan November inspires us teachers to see these changes as a relatively seamless process. I'm just starting up my Theory of Knowledge (ToK) course and we watched 'Shift Happens' to be reminded of the phenomenal pace of knowledge growth in all areas, of course with special emphasis placed on technology-related developments. My students commented on how the 21st c. pace is all they know and that there's nothing really shocking to them about it. It's us adults who seem to worry about how to ably cope with the future.

So then how DO we prepare to prepare our students to solve problems that don't yet exist on the planet? What about old-fashioned Professional Development (PD)? If the educational system itself is heading for a complete turn-around, then perhaps such is the case with PD. 'Why America's schools fail: Ineffective Professional Development' outlines most of the problems I've experienced with dead-in-the water PD—lack of time, passion, lack of professional learning communities. I've been involved in countless PD programs over the years, including conducting them myself. In fact, conducting PD workshops is a good way to evaluate their effectiveness. But despite the best PD programs, it's the sustainability factor, the 'I'm-going-to-do-this-in-my-school' factor, the 'I'm- getting-my-administrator-on-board' factor that makes all the difference. (Of course the COETAIL cohorts run by Jeff Utecht is certainly one PD program up for recognition—personal testimony as justification!) I'd venture to say that the more earth-shaking the change, as the #13 described above, the more factors in ones' favor the better to see evidence of reform. Using students as leaders is one such unique approach: 'Students as professional developers. Here's an upcoming conference with a networking partnership strand. We need something like these new PD approaches. We need to prepare teachers for the 'control shift.' We push educators into the 21st c. NOW. Isn't 11 years long enough? We need something systemic. We need commitment from more than just a small number. We need the PD to be embedded in our everyday world. We need administrative support—even Board support. Mentoring? Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)? These all sound feasible, but not unless we really want to do this—and I mean 'we' collectively. It'll take all of the constituents—admin included—to get into the 21st c. before the next decade ends—or before we end up going backwards!

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Course 5 Project

(One of the most commonly-used academic vocabulary in English)
analyzed, analyzer, analyzers, analyzes, analyzing, analysis, analyst, analysts, analytic, analytical, analytically

Why would anyone want to analyze this jellied candle?

Now it's time to bring together some of the knowledge and understandings gained from the previous COETAIL courses and apply it to a 'real world' experience in the classroom. I'd like to revamp an existing vocabulary learning project in my EAP (English for Academic Purposes) 12 class. This group of EAL students are the least proficient English learners in the high school. Most of the group is generally Japanese and most of these (usually 90%) will be returning to Japan for college or university. The implications are that these students are sometimes weary of their English learning attempts, as they still have not achieved a passing score in reading/ vocabulary or writing. Further, the closer they get to returning to their home countries, the less motivated some are to improve their skills. Counter to this, however, there's a subset of students who view this last semester of language learning as their last-ditch attempt to get as far as they can in English. I have these two groups in mind when I set out their last semester tasks and try and individualize their experience as much as possible. I believe a focus on vocabulary benefits all in the group and find myself challenged to improve their vocabulary via innovative teaching as well as learning strategies. This is where Web 2.0 comes in and where the following NETS-T standard is targeted:

2. Design and Develop Digital-Age Learning Experiences and Assessments
Teachers design, develop, and evaluate authentic learning experiences and assessments incorporating contemporary tools and resources to maximize content learning in context and to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes identified in the NETS•S. Teachers:
  • a. design or adapt relevant learning experiences that incorporate digital tools and resources to promote student learning and creativity

Here's a UBD (Understanding by Design) look at this revamped vocabulary learning unit:

Stage 1 – Desired Results

Established Goal
EAP 12 learners to leave ISB in June having acquired more English academic vocabulary than their current level at the start of the semester.

Students will understand that learning strategies, including metacognitive strategies, can enhance long-term memory in acquiring vocabulary. What is anticipated is that students will need to explore the different learning strategies, on somewhat of a trial and error basis using Web 2.0 activities, to see what's most effective for each as a learner.

Essential Question(s)
Can academic vocabulary learning and acquisition be fun?
Does the use of technology help to motivate and improve the second language (L2) vocabulary acquisition process?

Know & Be Able to Do
Over the course of their last semester, the Gr. 12 EALs will acquire (which means actively use in speaking and/or writing) at least 30 new most-commonly used academic English vocabulary.

Stage 2 – Assessment Evidence

Performance Task(s)
• Do a pre-assessment. Looking at Academic Vocabulary Lists (Coxhead), students will identify words that they do not know how yet to use and will work to acquire these vocabulary over the semester.
• Practice the meaning and usage of a particular word via a glossary on & a wiki for reference. (A particular context in the form of a question is teacher-generated.) This is where the use of different strategies and different online activities come into play. Here are possibilities:
  • Find a picture that (obviously) illustrates the meaning of the word in context and post it.
  • Post a copy of the word family.
  • Create an original sentence that reflects personal experience using the work in the correct context.
  • Locate a practice exercise using the word and include the link on for others to use. Somehow provide evidence of having completed the exercise.
  • Using Bloom's Digital Taxonomy: 'analyzing,' try mind-mapping or 'creating,' after 4-5 words, try a photo story or a comic creation.
• After 5 entries have been completed, student takes a 'quiz' on the vocabulary word in the same context, using a new set of questions (teacher-generated again)
• When the unit is completed, have a 'public' presentation (maybe a digital story), or other creation, like a rap/ interview/ talk-show and subsequently post on SlideShare. The final assessment demonstrates acquisition (spoken and/ or written).
• Some type of self-assessment to discern to what extent each student actually acquired the vocabulary.

Stage 3 – Learning Plan

• Ensure that students' prior knowledge of the vocabulary can be utilized to more deeply understand a particular word and its usage.
• Ensure students remain interested in the project—invite them to add, revise activity.
• Allow students to evaluate their work and its implications
• Ensure activities are personalized to the different needs, interests, and abilities.

This is the plan. Now comes the implementation. Vocabulary practice and quiz questions, as well as the glossary itself to be set up on The glossary needs to link to a Wiki. Sites need to be identified to practice the vocabulary and to complete the glossary requirements. All to be posted and made available on Panthernet.