Apr 302012

I returned from Yokohama more than a week ago.

(It’s been busy. Well, you know.)

Since I returned, a lot has been said. Really, a LOT. But I haven’t said anything here yet, though I’ve spoken on other peoples’ blogs and in the Twitterverse. So, here goes.

I’ve been a “recipient” of professional development ever since I’ve been a teacher. I’ve been a “professional development provider” of some kind for a much shorter length of time, but enough to feel like I’ve seen and done it all.

#beyondlaptops was the best yet.

  • it pushed me
  • it pulled me
  • it made me uncomfortable
  • it made me think
  • it made me DO STUFF
  • it made me wanna DO MORE STUFF
  • it was collaborative
  • it was not sit-and-absorb
  • it was differentiated
  • it was not structured-workshoppy[1], nor airy-fairy
  • it was conversational

I could go on, but those are the off-the-top-of-my-head reasons.


Okay, I’ll go on.

Here’s the thing: we spend all this time going to PD sessions where we sit and are challenged by Ms. BlogsALot and Mr. BigNameTechDude to DO STUFF. And we do it. And we sit and muse, and go, “Ahh yeah, that was good. Man, I’m going to use that next week.”

And maybe we do.

But even in the unconference types of conferences, I’ve found there’s a lot of unstructured sitting around talking about coffee and sharing practice — which can be good.


(you knew that was coming, huh?)

But, what are we doing after we share our practice? Where and how does it evolve? How do these PD experiences — even the unconference types — push us to contribute to the continual development of the practice within our profession? How do novices and experts alike collaborate to push our practice and our profession further?


In the case of those working in the field of ICT/tech integration/facilitation/coordination [2], there are few opportunities for us to move beyond our practice. I personally feel that this is because our practice is still relatively new, and we often disagree about what it encompasses.

“Change leads to disappointment if it is not sustained. Transformation is sustained change, and it is achieved through practice.” -B.K.S. Iyengar

“Whatever it takes to make mutual engagement possible is an essential component of any practice.” -Etienne Wenger

Here’s another thing: even most unconference types of PD don’t facilitate this kind of stuff.

#beyondlaptops was organized. Without some framework, the conversations simply become back-patting and sharing, and “Oh, I wanna do what you’re doing with that task in year 10!” This is nobody’s fault, per se. But with better design, I think we can have better PD experiences similar to those at #beyondlaptops.

#beyondlaptops involved (primarily) decision-makers and change agents within schools. This was key. This was not (primarily) a PD experience for teachers. That’s not to say the teacher voice wasn’t there — loud and clear! — but rather that our conversations were about how to move schools forward. And let’s face it: sadly, in many (most?) of our schools, teachers aren’t the ones moving the institution forward: the leaders are. If you have good leaders, you luck out. If you don’t, you can find your way pushing and pushing and pushingandpushingandpushingugh to make all that wonderful transformational change you dream of…. only to see it end at your classroom doors.

To have decision-makers and change agents in the same space is important. This is one of #beyondlaptops’s primary success points. I found it extremely valuable to hear stories and experiences from other practitioners in my role, and to hear also from other leaders’ perspectives in a very non-threatening, honest way what drives them crazy about what people do in my role. Not only was it valuable just to sit and listen, but to probe their thinking, and to find out why something worked or didn’t work a particular way, and to then reflect on whether it would (or wouldn’t) work the same way at my school, and why or why not.

#beyondlaptops was contextual. It allowed for the differences that exist between schools. Participants represented 21 different schools in 10 different countries. Sure, many have similarities — American curriculum vs. IB frameworks, and more. But none of us have the same student demographics, and therefore none of us can or should be doing exactly the same thing. Conversations at #beyondlaptops allowed for that. I found that I took few notes about the things I learned during the two days. Rather, my “notes” were mostly questions: How can we maximize PD during the school day at AIS? Can I convince our MYP coordinator to help me map the ISTE NETS standards? How can I help parents see value in using mobile devices? How much influence will our Tech Director have on our 1:1 program in the Junior School, and how will this affect my role in the Secondary School? Where will we keep our e-portfolios, and who will use them? 

#beyondlaptops was small. Fewer than 60 attendees. I would argue — and I think Kim and other participants agree — that it should be even smaller. The conversational setup of the two days meant that it really was about dialogue. I wanted to be able to engage in conversations with everyone there, but sadly I probably only was able to engage with half the participants. Still, this allowed for some powerful discussions.

#beyondlaptops allowed discussions to be framed, but also allowed for us to push them in another direction if we wanted. The conversation frames sometimes pushed us out of our comfort zone (Thanks, Scott!) and other times made us work hard to understand.. Hey, why do we need to talk about this topic, anyway? [3] There were also break-out sessions for interested parties to Get On With Things — namely, those separate agendas of our own we all brought. Kim was good at giving us space to do this, and I suspect after the first day we maybe could have even had more.

Back to what I was saying (and what Iyengar and Wenger were saying) earlier about practice…

Practice makes our profession. Practice makes the change. Practice pushes us forward.

Practice is the action. 

Sitting and talking and planning and sharing is great, but what comes next?

#beyondlaptops was the closest I’ve come to discovering a Community of Practice in the making for our fieldand you know I don’t say that lightly.[4] I want our profession to grow. Unlike some, I don’t think that the role of “ICT facilitator/coordinator/whateveryoucallyourself” is going to disappear any time soon. I also don’t think that it’s the goal of our job to make our job obsolete, but that’s another story. [5] I want us to be supported and I want us to support others. And I want us to do it well — in the ways that are best practiced in the specific contexts of our learning environments.

Those of us at schools in Singapore are already talking about a #beyondlaptops “support network” to share what we are doing and challenge each other to carry out the great ideas and goals and actions that came out of discussions in Yokohama. I am excited about this initiative and I think it has potential to be powerful and transformative. I also love that it would be ongoing and highly contextual, rather than yearly and external. I suppose I’m excited about the idea of a Community of Practice within a Community of Practice. :)

I can’t wait to see where this all goes. I am confident that #beyondlaptops is “bigger” than just a group of us like-minded peeps sitting around and chatting.[6] It will drive the action. It is bigger than us.

Already at AIS we’ve begun to implement two fairly big “things” that came out of discussions at #beyondlaptops:

  1. Our Laptop Bootcamp[7] for new starting students will become student-led (rather than Tech Director-and-ICT-Coach-led) and will be offered weekly, rather than bi-weekly. We have new students nearly every week at AIS, so frequency was becoming a concern. Further, we wanted to capitalize on the well-established Home Group buddy system already in place at AIS thanks to our Student Welfare Admin team, which previously we really were ignoring, TBH.
  2. Our Behaviour Management protocol is being re-designed to include clearer processes and procedures for students with regard to actions and consequences for behaviour related to digital citizenship. This will be in place within the next few weeks, but prior to its implementation it will be subject to feedback from our student leadership team at AIS.

There are a few more irons in the fire, but this is all I can definitively share at this point. Neither of these were on the action agenda prior to #beyondlaptops. I hope to share much more as we move… #beyondlaptops.[8]

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do and to interact regularly to learn how to do it better.” — Etienne Wenger

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  1. [1] don’t get me wrong – workshoppyness has its place
  2. [2] (could we have any more descriptors?)
  3. [3] budgets, data, and parent input, anyone?
  4. [4] If you’re new here, you might not know that this is what my monster Thesis was about. Yeah, I’m a Communities of Practice junkie and it really revs me up to think that we might be onto this here.
  5. [5] For those who know me well, you’ll note that I’ve come full circle on this now, after having looked at bundles of research and history of education and technology/media.
  6. [6] which, really, admit it, is what Twitter is.
  7. [7] I hate this term, but that’s also another story. Picking my battles!
  8. [8] cue cheesy music and credits
Dec 152009

[note: this was originally posted April 30, 2008 — back when I apparently used to blog more often. I’m resuscitating it as part of a #edublogBT meme begun by Jon Becker]

All this talk about writing, grade books, and “the unthinking habits of grading” has given me so much to think about. My mind is swimming.

The thing is, I think about this stuff all the time. It is only recently, after reading hoards of comments and postings (and all the bits in between) that I begin to understand my naivety. Or is it ignorance? (Hint: not everyone thinks about this stuff all the time.)

First, a bit of background, for the sake of context

I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and attended Catholic, publicly funded schools. The teachers I had, with two notable exceptions1, all used criterion-referenced assessment to grade my work. I always (other than with the two notable exceptions) knew how I was being graded, even if they did average my scores and turn them into percentages. I graduated from an unusual work-at-your-own-pace high school in 1992.2

After completing an English Lit degree on the West coast, I entered Education. I did not realize at the time (1997) that the program I was in was progressive compared to most Ed programs out there. Thinking, ignorantly, that what I learned was what all teachers-to-be learned, I eagerly entered the world of K-12 education, armed with what I thought was Everything A Beginning Teacher Should Know.

One Epiphany (of many)

Fast-forward to 2001: I entered the realm of international education, working at an MYP school. Before this moment, what I knew about MYP could have filled an ant’s mouth. Sitting in an MYP training session, my then-mentor flashed the subject-specific criteria for Language A (MYP’s equivalent to English Language Arts) on a projector screen.

Thought #1: “Hey, that’s cool! That’s the same criteria my grade 7 teacher used to grade my writing, and it’s the same criteria I have always used to assess student work.”

[insert hmms and haws of other training participants here, as they ponder the criteria on the screen]

Thought #2: “Wait… doesn’t everyone use this?”

It wasn’t long after Thought #2 occurred that I learned the answer: No, not everyone is using this. Plenty of conversation and interaction with my then-colleagues (from various backgrounds in education, as expected in an international setting) taught me that what I had taken for granted my entire (short) life was indeed not “the norm.”

The Interim and a Confession

Over the past 7 years, plenty more colleagues, students, and their parents have shown me that other ways of assessing are indeed rife and plentiful. Just yesterday I engaged in three different conversations with three different families about this very topic (parent conferences were timely). Witness a verbatim quote from one of those discussions:

“Wow, this is so different from what we’re used to. You mean you want your students to come show you their work before they finish? You won’t take points off?”

[I won’t even get into the connotations implied by the use of the words “want”, “before”, and “points.”]

Don’t get me wrong — I do not think the same way about this issue as I did 10 or even 3 years ago. I have learned more than I can express on this small page about how to assess meaningfully. I have spent many, many teacher days fantasizing about not assessing at all, and like Dana Huff, I still have those days. I am guilty, in past years, of assigning my students the most boring five-paragraph essay you’ve ever read, just so I could be bored to death reading it and they could be bored to death writing it.

A Question … and Answers?

I have offered some of my thoughts about assessment before — indeed, the reason I initially began this blog was to reflect on what I was learning in an IBO PD course on MYP Objectives and Assessment. Now, having learned so much, I feel my philosophy of assessment is still evolving, and I do think long and hard about why I assess my students’ work and how I do it.

(And, please know that I mention MYP only because I feel it is one of the best educational systems out there for student learning. Is it the only one? No. Are there others that do the same? Yes. Is it just about best practice? Yes.)

So here’s the thing: I know there are other methods of assessment. I know about them well enough because I took the required courses in university, and I have seen them used in classrooms. But here’s what I still don’t understand — and please don’t mistake this for a rhetorical question:

Why are we still using them? (Do they facilitate learning?)

I’m starting, today, with just this question about criterion-referenced assessment, but know that I’m not limiting my thoughts to only this aspect of assessment. I anticipate that those thoughts — and more questions — will follow as my assessment philosophy further evolves.


So far, here is what I believe. Assessment is…

  • primarily for learning; the assessment of learning is secondary.
  • real and not “fabricated” just to put a number on a paper or in a box.
  • goal-focused, and those goals should be based on where the students are at in their learning.
  • varied, with a wide variety of opportunities given for students to reach their goals.
  • frequent and woven into every aspect of what we do, while we are learning. (I am uncomfortable with the thought of students being either too excited or filled with dread at the mention of assessment; I want my students to see assessment as something we do all the time.)
  • part of the natural learning process, not something tacked onto the end.
  • not driven by reporting terms, boxes that need to be filled, administrative software, or any other nonsense that has nothing to do with the learner.
  • applied when needed for learning, and not at calendar dates specified a year in advance.

1Okay, so really it was three notable exceptions. And they were notable because they were exceptionally bad teachers. I’m not naming names, it’s water under the bridge, yadda-yadda-yadda — and the truth is I learned many life lessons from these poor teachers.

2The dates are important, because I refuse to believe that the concept of criterion-referenced assessment is “new” and “progressive“. The dates, although applicable only to my personal experience and not bodies of research, further give credence to my personal belief that education is painfully, mind-bogglingly slow to change.

Photo Credits: Nice Hat by cwalkatron; Question mark by Leo Reynolds

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Nov 282009

Screen shot 2009-11-28 at 1.10.16 PM

I snipped this image from a PDF of a scholarly article I’m reading about a new tool (at the time) that was designed for inquiry-based learning in science classrooms. The actual article and the actual tool are not important, but the challenge listed here is. I should note that this challenge (or some form of it) was mentioned at least 4 times throughout the article.

Although the article is more than 10 years old, it highlights so many things that I think are wrong with the current state of tech in education.

What do you think?

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 28 November, 2009  Posted by at 2:26 am change, Instructional Pedagogy Tagged with: , , , , , ,  No Responses »