How Peter spent his Two Days Off

A curriculum for the third millennium

A reaction from Peter Macinnis to a conference on August 7 and 9, 1996.

(This paper was written for staff at St Paul's College, but provides a good insight into the way our Learning Centre will run.)

 Curriculum for the third millennium — a response

I have been thinking for some time about how to avoid the educational damage of new technology while reaping the benefits. Part of this concern arose from people asking me ‘How can we avoid kids just dumping sections of a CD-ROM back at us as an assignment?’ My inadequate initial answer was to suggest creating the sort of assignment that would not allow that sort of simplistic plagiarism.

So when a course was offered on the ‘Curriculum for the Third Millennium’, I jumped at the chance to go. Now I think I know how to get around quite a few of the problems, and I have acquired a range of ideas, just by applying what I heard to what I have been mulling over.

The format was two days, each presented by a speaker. The first, Gerry Smith, is the principal of River Oaks Public School, a K-8 school in Ontario, the second, Brian Alger, is Director of Information Technology and also a classroom teacher at River Oaks.

River Oaks was established as a new school, with some staff being selected, some being transferred, which has always been intended to be a showcase for the use of new technology. They seem to have bought all of the hardware, but to have had some industry assistance in setting up and in training staff. For the most part, staff did not have high computing skills. Indeed, Gerry Smith mentioned a need to avoid the compulsive hacker (using that term in its older sense of somebody who seems welded to the keyboard).

A few staff were designated as coaches, and computer labs were set up for a limited period of time — two years — during which time, all staff had to get up to speed on the use of the range of computers and computer technology that would be available. I am unsure how new staff are treated, but there have been remarkably few, as people seem to like being there.

Now keep in mind that these were K-8 teachers, with their students all day and every day, rather than having period bells go at regular intervals through the day. This allowed them to run integrated programs of the sort that we could not even contemplate. Some of their strategies would not work with a Year 9 class of boys on a windy day

But what would happen if we assigned (say) three teachers to Year 7, and gave them the task of teaching in an integrated fashion, passing the baton of leadership back and forth? What would happen if we then extended this, say, into Year 8. With the proviso that some students would be likely at any given time to be out doing modules with Years 9 and 10 while the other Year 8 boys worked on core material. Let's not think too hard about it now, but this could be a logical extension to our present renewal, later, when we have this initial lot sorted out.

There is another aspect to consider while you are reading this. Hopefully the teachers in the feeder schools will start to teach this way, and if they do, we are going to have some very different kids siphoning through. It would be nice to think we were ready for them.

The Conference begins.

Gerry Smith led off. Make the environment inviting, he said. Use colours which work with kids when the rooms are painted, capitalise on the existing conditions, but avoid the egg-carton model, where the classroom has a certain number of slots, all of which should be filled, no more and no less. Get flexible, look for places where a teacher can take a choir of 120, freeing up teachers for other things, like coaching other staff in using the new technology.

If you are going to stride boldly into the future, you need to say so. All classrooms have phones, all teachers have voice-mail (on which they can receive messages and also leave the current homework tasks!!), a computer with e-mail access, and now Internet access from school, with the option of dialling up and getting onto the Internet through the school from home coming soon.

A phone in every classroom? Well, why not? It gets used by students who are trying to gather information — the Yellow Pages is as effective as the Web for most needs, and it gets used by the teacher when and as necessary. How many clerical workers could function without a phone? The telephone is a cheap way of saying ‘we are serious about this’.

Oddly enough, the cost of the phone system was about the same as the cost for a P.A. system. They also planned for 600 computers, though they only have 250 there at the moment, and most importantly, access points are all over, not just at the back of the room (think for a moment about the message that is conveyed by shoving the computers up to the back of the room: don't we want to treat the computer as just another tool, like the pencil or pen?)

One interesting point: these Canadians are all infected with the viewpoint of Marshall McLuhan, and this was a continued sub-text in all that they said and described — at least to this unreconstructed McLuhanite. The metaphors were McLuhan's, and the solutions were McLuhanish, but that was fine by me. They even quoted extensively from post-McLuhanists.

All teachers have laptops. After all, they are supposed to be models for classroom behaviour. There are no computer labs now, as all of the computers have moved into the classrooms.

Electronic mail has had some interesting effects. There are just three staff meetings a year, although there is more thoughtful contribution from staff members, because they can sit down, read, digest, and then react in their own time.

Of course, what they did not say is that e-mail also encourages people to react angrily, to fire off a blistering message that they will regret, half an hour or half a day later. If we ever get e-mail, it would be a disaster not to develop a code of behaviour for ‘flame’ messages.

The school has one ISDN (that means serious communications grunt) line, and limited access in the classrooms, controlled by the teachers.

Music is all-electronic. Brian Alger is a pianist by trade who has a Master's in the work of Oscar Petersen. He says that at least this way, using electronic instruments driven by keyboards, all kids can get some access to things that sound OK, then later on, they get into serious instrumental stuff. In fact, they show a greater willingness at High School (9-12 in their terms) to play real instruments.

I would like to see a composition centre: one keyboard, composing software, MIDI interface and other such gubbins in the Learning Centre. Not so much for the music students as for others who want to create music for their work, but also to allow people to play their work through headphones to others. But here, I am running ahead of myself. I am sure the music students will both hog it and in doing so, lead others into good habits.

At this point, we got one of the McLuhanish bits:
If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got.

The only area of the Canadian economy that is growing at the moment is the information/communications area, and there is no reason to believe that it is otherwise here. Of course, if the information bubble bursts, we could be in serious trouble, but at least our students would know enough to find out where the real jobs are. It follows that we need to change what we do, or at least justify it.

 

We were asked why you would teach people to calculate square roots. My answer, that it helps you take your mind off the dentist's drill — it works for me — is probably not a sound pedagogical reason. Or why do you teach dividing a fraction into a fraction, or the rivers crossed by Leichhardt on his trip to Port Essington, or any of a number of other things. We're doing a great job in education — what a pity we aren't doing the right thing, said some thinker or other.

By now, we were up to our sixth or seventh useful thinker in education, and I called to mind the ‘Shrink Lit’, where a work was compressed into a rhyming couplet — Grendel's breakfasts were rather plainish/ A cup of coffee, a couple of Danish — and I wondered why somebody does not do the same for the world's great educational thinkers. A 300-word précis could get me well inside Ausubel, Bruner or Piaget . . . anybody for ‘Shrink Eds’?

There are three waves of reform: doing the same but more of it, doing the same but faster, and restructure/redesign. Of course, what we see as major may not be so to the kids. After all, they see the computer much as we saw the telephone in the home, at their age. But however we do it, we need certain things. Five different things in fact.

Vision

Vision is the glue that establishes a group purpose, establishes directions, and when marketed externally, gets people to contribute to developing it.

Staff training

Most of theirs was done in a coaching model, where staff were assigned times to be at places to offer specific help. Some is just a case of giving staff hands-on time.

This comes down to roughly equal proportions of staff awareness of what the technology can do, what software can do, and how to use it. This does not mean how to drive the computer, so much as how to drive the learning process in a useful way.

Curriculum

This needs to be mainly about learning how to learn. How to use the Yellow Pages, how to use the index of a book, or the chapter headings, how to e-mail an expert and ask for help. These are portable skills. Yes, there is a core of knowledge as well, but that sort-of blots on, much of the time, and in any case, what is ‘learning’? It is being able to act on the ‘learned’ information. Is there a single set of skills for all to learn, or is the age of the teacher upon us, where we will need to decide what is good to learn?

I still don't know how some upstate New York American Indians tracked me down to ask about numbats — I was so surprised to be asked that I answered, and forgot to ask them where or how they found me. But over several weeks, we had some great exchanges, covering marsupials, how to view GIF files, and all sorts of non-zoological things. And later, they sent some questions about Australia to our Year 12, after viewing the Year 12 home pages on the Web.

 

Information technology

This is a source of ordering for information, not information in its own right. This is where we give the students ways to be original in presenting information, to make something interactive and informative. Yes, we need to teach the rudiments of using the software, to explore its capabilities. Then after that, we can leave them to USE the software. The process of analysing the information for presentation leads to true learning.

An interesting point for some people to consider: River Oaks have banned commercial art sources. You do your own, drawing (maybe tracing?) then scanning into a scanner, and adding colour with software. This discourages the use of ‘almost-right’ pictures (like the front cover of this paper). Pencil and paper are much easier to manipulate, and I plan to encourage kids to use this approach.

Communication

This is about telling people what you are up to, drawing the parents in, drawing the community in, developing a higher level of commitment and belief to and in the vision. This closes the circle, because now the outside starts to impinge on the vision, supporting, sustaining, nurturing, improving . . .

A project, River Oaks style

Telling the story is the key aspect — whatever the story may be. So first we need to dissect out the story plan, brainstorming one of those boxes-and-lines models, that seem to be called mind-maps or concept maps.

Along the way, odd questions will come up. Here is an exchange I once had:

Draw the map of Australia with state boundaries.
Why are the lines on the map where they are?
I don't know — look, just draw the map, will you?

In the Third Millennium, teachers will be on the lookout for questions like that.

Draw the map of Australia with state boundaries.
Why are the lines on the map where they are?
I don't know — find the answer for me, will you?
Where will I look?
I'm not sure — who can we ask? (etc)

(the answer is in the Commonwealth Year Book)

In the Third Millennium, group work will be the norm, but students will also do independent work. They will often use hypertext to write material that is linked to the work of other students. Students will take risks, trying to get answers that may not be there. Students will add in their own ideas, and realise that their own ideas have merit and value.

The intelligence we consider now is still the good old-fashioned IQ, Spearman's notion of g, or General Intelligence. The intelligence we should be thinking about is that of Howard Gardner, which is multiple, having seven or eight different aspects. Students learn in different ways, have different ways of thinking and absorbing, need different support, need to be able to do things differently. We have to worry about how to support these different intelligences with media. We will use the media to awaken, enhance and amplify the users' intelligence.

That means different strokes for different folks

 

The next phase involves finding sources of information. We can use the Web to find experts and e-mail them (this gives fast responses), or we can look for other nearby information. Right now, the Internet is new enough that most people will respond, but the joy will soon start to wear off.

Terry Pratchett writes for juveniles like my 14-year-old son and me. He always answers letters, and when he wrote back to my son, giving careful answers to a number of questions, I dropped him a one-line e-mail, acknowledging his effort, and thanking him for the gesture. He replied with a possibly standard response, saying that JRR Tolkien answered him when he wrote, many years ago, but that with e-mail, the trickle was turning into a flood.

One delightful example of this: e-mail mentors, composers (or writers) in electronic residence. A student creates a MIDI file, and sends it to a professional composer who reacts to it, maybe comments or improves on it, and sends it back. A whole composition is about 40 kilobytes, and canbe ‘attached’ to an e-mail message.

Note at this point that we do not in any way do away with the need for literacy. We still need to read and write, but we need to be a bit more savvy about how we tell and present our story. We can dodge away from the linear into the non-linear.

At the same time, we don't use the new to do the old. A word processor is not a typewriter, and we need to draft differently when we use a WP — the original does not go on paper, but on the screen, and we use much more interpolation of text, a great deal more cutting and copying, dragging and dropping. We can spend more time now on emphasising the quality of thought, says Brian Alger.

In the next couple of years, video-conferencing will become the norm. Why not have a joint project between Ontario and Australia? asks one of the presenters. (Well, for a start, I noticed that their computer was still on Ontario time — the same as Atlanta time, and we know how much overlap that would give during the school day. But if Ontario is out of the question, Onslow, Osaka and Otago are all distinct possibilities.)

Have we missed the mental bus?

Ask an ordinary average child to play Super Mario from end to end, and many of them will do it. They have an internal map of the whole course, know what hazard will appear at this point, and how to avoid it. The thinking required here is similar to that required in creating a multiply-linked hypertext work. This is the norm, even though it is not ours.

Coming soon to a schoolroom near you: TerraVision, which has you navigating through a virtual globe, where the display comes from real-time (= a fancy way of saying ‘now’) satellite images. Kids can hover over Hamburg, then zoom in. Or look at what is happening on Mount Ruapehu.

We need to be aware of incidental learning. Few Americans are at home with the idea of our reversed seasons and daylight — a Canadian e-mailed Year 12 to ask ‘when we have our summer holidays, seeing that our summer is in January’. Americans logging onto the Mt Ruapehu ground camera last year feared the worst when they got total black, not realising that it was midnight in Ao Tea Roa. There was some good incidental learning there . . .

 

About this time, I started generating ideas for challenging projects. Some are mine, some are ‘pinches’:

Create and manipulate an art work, starting with something on paper, and ending up with something either on paper or on disc. You may use any available software, but you will need to print out the stages of your work, either on paper or on disc. You may use a scanner or video capture to get started. Suggested topics: a sporting image, a landmark, a machine, animal(s) or a scene.

Start with one of these lines, and produce something which uses at least two media. Your final result may run on a computer, or you may prefer to transfer it to videotape, using the line output cable from one of the teaching computers.
Do not label me a dreamer
What happens now?
The world will have to change

Take one of these problems, and suggest two different solutions, demonstrating each solution with a different software tool.
Bullying
A new boy in the school
Why does that boy have no hair?

Once the teachers in this school start using e-mail, they are going to have problems managing the amount of mail that flows in. Develop a guide to lists and news groups, explaining what they are, and include a list of addresses that might be useful, and suggest ways of storing e-mail, using Eudora Light. Present this in HTML, to be read using Netscape 2.02 or higher.

Compose or write a new Australian national anthem, or take an existing possibility (such as Advance Australia Fair, Waltzing Matilda, We Are One But We Are Many), and develop a presentation of it, using at least two media, saving the result to videotape.

Examine the information about the Ugly Islands, and describe three more animals that might live on the Ugly Islands. Provide a name, a description of where and how they live, what they eat, a picture, and if possible, a scientific name. Produce this as HTML text, with the picture as a GIF file ready to be viewed under Netscape 2.02+

Create an illustration to represent one of the unillustrated animals of the Ugly islands. Present this as a GIF file on disc.

Build a 1:87 model house from paper, drawing the net structure in Corel Draw, printing it out and testing it. Then add textures and tabs for gluing, print it again, and assemble it. The 1:87 scale is the standard HO scale, and this will allow you to concentrate, with others, in developing your ideas for a model community of 300 people, adding some HO scale landscaping.

Attend a conference or an important meeting, record what goes on, and prepare a multimedia report on what you saw and heard. Present this either from disc or from a videotape.

About this time, I realised that the Learning Centre needs somewhere that kids can record voice-overs. Most of the Canadian examples seem to have been recorded in a trattoria with marble all round, during the rush hour. We need an acoustically soft cupboard or a hush hood.

All things being equal, the Learning Centre probably needs a runtime set, a computer dedicated to demonstrating recent products created by students, as publication is an important aspect of something like this. More importantly, over time, people should be able to link their works to each other, to call each others' illustrations and explanations.

 Anatomy of a project

A good project needs to provide sufficient but not excessive guidelines. It should allow students to negotiate an equivalent-or-upgrade variation, and may allow teachers to relax requirements in special cases. It requires a journal to be kept of all steps, it requires an action plan at the start, it requires signing-off once a week, and it should allow for or encourage group work. It is directed at completing a specific and specified product.

Where groups are used, if the whole of a class is tackling a project, roles need to be assigned in the sub-groups, and one essential role is ‘floater’, the person who is designated to spend ten minutes in each hour (or whatever) kibitzing on other groups to see what they are doing. It needs to foster in kids the idea that they are information artists.

Under it all, the project should have in mind a version of Bill Stapp's idea that there are three aspects to coming to grips with a program: knowing about it, caring about it, and doing something about it. So long as any two are in place, the third will follow.

It will need to include some evaluation of the project as it exists — Brian Alger dislikes (rightly, in my view) the notion of ‘finished work’ at this level). But evaluation makes the kids take a step back from their work to see where they would like to go next. The report should also include a ‘my ideas/our ideas’ section.

It probably needs some thinking tools. I have decided that enough is enough: I need to read Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences, I need to read de Bono on the Six Thinking Hats. I will ask them to Be a Famous Person, to Compare and Converge, to Make a Model, to Search and Destroy Faults. Most of these are just names to me, so I will need to build some meaning into them as well.

I need a lot more time to think, so do we all, but we don't have it. So I plan to start out small, and build up from that. I will recall ‘Teaching as a subversive activity’, and stop asking ‘guess what I'm thinking’ questions. I plan to demand of my students that they amaze me. I plan to shamelessly steal ideas from those around me, both students and teachers. I hope to be robbed blind.

I expect that I will have some failures. I know I will have some successes, and that, as time goes on, I will have more successes. I will reduce the number of failures by concentrating on getting students to specify minimum standards for their product, involving content, media, audience and message. I will spend most of my time submerged in the class, working with one group or student. I will use students more as demonstrators of methods.

The dead rat model for the dissemination of innovation.

One dead rat, catapulted into a besieged medieval town, could be enough to get plague past the impenetrable walls, to create ripples of contagion. Some of the plague bacteria mutate to better forms, some to worse, but the spread continues until all are infected, more or less equally.

Just think of me as your tame local dead rat. I hope to infect you soon.

 

Peter Macinnis,
St Paul's College Manly,
macinnis@ozemail.com.au


Back to the rest of the opinions, heresies and rants

This file is part of a series, written by Peter Macinnis, and last revised on November 8, 1997

This file is http://www.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/3rdmil.htm

It may be freely reproduced for educationally useful purposes (you decide if it is useful), if the file is reproduced as it appears here -- I like people to know that it is me causing them annoyance :-)