Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Closing digital gap empowers students

Technology can transform learning into real life, relevant experiences.

Not too long ago, it was absurd to say that every Tom, Rashid and Baba should have access to the Internet. For what? Now, since 2011, the United Nations considers it a human right, "underscoring its unique and transformative nature not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole."

And while access to technology is not "the great equalizer," that Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals proclaims will level the playing field for all students, it does close the digital gap and empowers students from low-income families in learning.

Take, for example, educator Sugata Mitra's experiment in an Indian village. In 2000, this professor of education technology at Newcastle University installed a computer in a wall and documented illiterate, slum children (with zero English) figuring out how to use it, and then actually using it to learn and share knowledge.

Mitra has since designed a learning lab in India, where children can explore and learn from each other — no teachers present — using resources and mentoring from the cloud.

Access to the Internet offers children from all backgrounds opportunities to work together and communicate and do research in areas that interest them. It's a platform for developing personalized education and even individual networks that go beyond a classroom setting, offering possibilities only dreamed of before.

Still, "Back in my day, we used paper and pencil!" is a common reaction to the idea of iPads, tablets or other technologies in the classroom.

Reality is, "back in your day" has vanished into the swirling mists of time.

It's a new era, baby. The times require that students be drivers of their own learning.

Educators are forced to ask themselves, "What does learning look like?"

I agree with John Malloy, former director of education of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board that "this is about the tools that help children live in a world that is both digital and physical."

The HWDSB is rolling out Malloy's five-year plan to transform the learning environment and provide all students (no matter their backgrounds) from grades 4 to12 with personal iPads by 2019.

In a conversation with Malloy, he said, "the tablet or iPad is like how we used paper and pencil." Furthermore, "the plan is about changing the relationship between students and teachers and students and classmates, and transforming learning opportunities."

I think truly changing such relationships would mean reinventing the school structure and dismantling curricula-driven learning, both of which have endured — for better or for worse — for more than 150 years and were not designed with student-driven learning in mind. It is going to take more than an expensive iPad in every student's hand to make learning in institutions a democratic process. Still it's a start.

Last year, an initial pilot was run with iPads being deployed in seven elementary schools and three high schools.

Jerry Smith is principal at Dr. Davey School, one of the seven elementary pilot schools. The school is in a "tough area," Smith said. "Half of us are new to Canada and parents have it hard around here."

Smith was particularly excited that kids could record their learning and newcomer parents got to see what their kids were learning and interact with them.

He emphasized how students are learning skills that parallel the real world and the job world they will enter — skills that include problem solving, sharing files, Google docs, enhancing experience and connecting with meaningful activities.

It's not just about academics. Technology ushers in a different set of norms and we worry about kids learning proper behaviour and safety, etc. "We are teaching kids how to be active digital citizens, not be wasteful and so on, in a formal setting," Smith told me. "They are getting real life, relevant experiences that engage and force them to ask deeper questions and not just learn things that are in a 10-year-old textbook."

I also chatted with superintendent Peter Joshua, who added: "Students need time to interact, to develop forward thinking and creativity."

Joshua pointed out that technology enhances learning, not only across income levels, but also across the different learning styles, as we see happening in "special education" situations.

Education is something that you have to want to pursue; no one can do it for you. But educators help pave the way. Provide kids with the technology, guide and counsel them, support their interests, facilitate their networking opportunities, and poverty will become less of a barrier to being educated.

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a freelance writer based in Hamilton. Bekoko.ca

Closing gap empowers students

Sunday, March 15, 2015

10 Unschooling Mistakes to Avoid


I believe that the root of all evil is comparison. When you find yourself about to do the "is my child keeping up?" or "her child is better at piano then mine, and they're the same age," just stop. Don't do it.
When you look at another unschooling mum and back at yourself and feel that you fall short, don't go there. Rather, allow her to inspire you; don't feel down.

2.Believing that everyone should agree with you.

This is the attitude of any newbie. I remember how militant  I was when I first became a vegetarian (I no longer am-a vegetarian).  I couldn't tolerate people who weren't. I must have been an insufferable 'know it all.' I know I certainly annoyed people.

3. Getting offended/feeling hurt when people don't agree with you.

The world owes you nothing. If someone tosses you a dubious look or expresses doubt in what you are doing, deal with it in a mature way.  Learn not to take yourself so seriously. Laugh.

4.If there really is a problem, being afraid of admitting it.

Your kids are unruly, or they really don't seem to be 'getting it.' There might actually be an underlying cause for it. Or they don't seem to have any interests. Don't panic.You can still  raise a child that is learning naturally. Get the support you need.

5. Expecting your kids to be best buddies and get along all the time (well most of the time) just because they're unschooled.

They fight. They say they hate one another. That's okay. We can't choose our family but we sure as heck have to learn to get along. That's one advantage of unschooling. They HAVE to work it out because they spend so much time together.

6.Expecting your kids to become educated by osmosis.

This is magical thinking. They won't. You have to engage them. You have to make sure they get exposure to a wide range of activity.

7. Thinking that you are their one and all.

You are not. Share them.

8. Over-protectiveness.

Let them venture forth according to their strengths, age and ability.
Be sensitive to the needs of the changing and growing child.

9.Having to prove that unschooling works-especially in BIG ways.

Funnily enough, BIG gets redefined over and over and you realize that they are doing BIG things but not in the way you and others might have envisioned it. And remember, behind a shining star, there might be an even brighter star shining so be careful not to block that light because of your belief in the first.

10. Immediate evidence of 'learning' taking place.

Relax. You will be amazed at how what you angst over last year is all but a distant memory this year. Learning unfolds, often with out us noticing.

Note: This post was originally written and posted here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

7 conditions for 7 things kids need to succeed

Thank you CBC for the article entitled ‘The 7 things kids need to succeed: Character traits include grit, self-control and social intelligence.’
This piece is based on the work of journalist and author Paul Tough, ‘How Children Succeed—Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.’

There were a few thoughts that immediately popped in my mind when I read the article. The first thought was ‘how do we define success?’  I appreciated the mention of what ‘becoming successful adults’ means, according to Tough and that is ‘being successful in achieving their goals.’
Great! We are on the same path here. But where our paths separate is in how to achieve their goals.

Don't expect school to teach the 7 personality traits for success, as outlined by Tough: grit, curiosity, self-control, social intelligence, zest, optimism and gratitude.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Failure is the new winning: Discovery, innovation and growth come from learning from our mistakes

Happy New Year! I have to be honest, I have neglected my blog, but I promise, I will post weekly from now on, even if that means reposting (it likely will until things slow down in a few months).
In the mean time, check out my latest article in the Hamilton Spectator on failure; a reflection for the new year.

Jan 12. 2015

Hamilton Spectator
By Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko

A running joke in our family goes that growing up, we were supposed to be born knowing how to do things well. At the family's "haute couture" tailoring establishment, mom would throw something random at us, like embroidering an elaborate design on an African boubou and expect it to come out perfectly, beautiful stitches evenly distributed.

"I can't" was not option. You learned, and quick about it. Sounds tough, but I believe mom's 'can-do' attitude, helped foster resiliency to cope with life's challenges and failures, keeping us trying and not giving up easily.

Failure. Everybody is talking about how failure is not a bad thing, it's the new winning: discovery emerges from failing, innovation comes from failing, growth develops from making errors. In business, failure can be a stepping-stone toward fortune. In education, we're hearing how kids ought to be encouraged to explore and make mistakes.

In fact it's got to the point that admitting to mistakes, especially as a public figure has been twisted into one cheeky way of letting yourself off the hook: "I'm sorry. I'm human." (I like to make a distinction between making mistakes and wrongdoing. Mistakes are made unintentionally; they are errors of judgment. Wrongdoing is intentional — like cheating on your taxes or having an affair).

At a Toronto conference last month, the keynote of a very successful British Columbia nonprofit shared his failure story, complete with the yearly "failure report."

"Canadians don't like to admit failure," he commented in passing, he himself a born- and-raised American.

Whether or not we take offence, it's worth looking at: what is the cost of focusing solely on good points? At all levels, be it personal, at work, in the community or in the country, by not examining when or where we fail, we give up opportunities to figure out how we can improve and be better. Hiding or ignoring our shortcomings, hoping they'll go unnoticed is self-deception. We end up stunting ourselves.

In our high-speed world of constant change, that price is too high.

We are still acting and thinking in a way that doesn't correspond to the reality of today — whether than means social justice, economy and work, environment, education. The two aren't jiving.

School is still largely about getting the right answer, business carries on mostly seeking to make maximum profit (screw future generations) and being right is better than doing right.

But now more than ever, with the global-size problems we face, remaining uncomfortable with failure is not an option; we need to practice "smart failure," trying over and over again, striving for the changes that need to happen.

For change to occur, we have to risk failure — which of course is at the heart of the matter. The feeling of shame that failure can bring and the desire to avoid shame at any cost keeps people from risking failure.

However, we can't face failure without talking about shame, and we can't talk about shame without talking about vulnerability.

"Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability," writes Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston. "It's the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change."

Furthermore, "Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage, not weakness," Brown says.

Brown's message is that if we accept vulnerability into our lives, failure (which is inevitable at some point if you are breathing) won't look so bad when it occurs.

Young children can teach us a lot about overcoming failure. Fear of embarrassment is not on their radar. A young child will keep at it, until they get to where they want to be, or learn the skill they are after. Creative people and innovators share this unbending focus.

We need more people daring and risking failure in order to grow stronger, healthier people and communities.

There are many signs of hope. For example, what's exciting is a growing openness about sharing work in progress as opposed to presenting the final, "perfect" product or concept at completion.

At a recent McMaster University W Booth School of Engineering Practice 'Open Innovation Studio' session (at the Hamilton Public Library), I was in a room full of student engineers who are working on solutions to real world problems. This session was for the public and community partners to hear reports on the students' innovation challenges.

I was impressed by how receptive the presenters were to the audience’s probing questions, their willingness to engage beyond university walls and their honesty in exposing their challenges publicly.

Experiences like this are heartening — proving that it’s happening, we are becoming comfortable with exposing uncertainty and valuing the learning in failing.

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a Hamilton freelance writer and blogger. Read more of her writing at Bekoko.ca.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

16 Cs of Open Source Learning

I had the pleasure of presenting at Hamilton's Function Keys 2 Conference last month. My presentation was entitled 'Open-source learning: education from a wider community perspective, technology, and culture.' For the occasion, I developed 16 Cs of Open Source learning and here they are:

karlsson on the roof

  • Curiosity 
  • Creativity
  • Coolness  
  • Challenge
  • Complexity
  • Context
  • Conversation
  • Collaboration
  • Connection 
  • Contribution 

Examples of Open Source Learning:

  • Community and Communities of Practice
  • Crowd accelerated Innovation (‘cycles of improvement’ driven by people watching web videos TED- Chris Anderson: How YouTube is driving innovation).
  • Collectives and Cooperatives
  • Clubs and Circles and Cafe
  • Culture
  • Commons

I won't put up the whole presentation here but if you are interested contact me.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The child's need for complexity.

My mum gave my 4-year-old nephew a stuffed toy snake—cute for his baby sister but certainly not for a sophisticated “builder” like he considers himself to be. Without a backward glance, he tossed it over his shoulder and asked me, “Where is that other snake? The one with moving parts?”

Complexity. Something with a bit of a challenge; something that will stretch the mind, get you into the zone, require a change in perspective even.

I recall when my teens were little. With the oldest, I was reading the Lord of the Rings when she was..7. And she loved it. It became the defining book of her life for years. She memorized entire passages out of that book!
Gosh, even before that, she was 6 and her sisters 3 and 4 and they were all reciting from a beautiful children's Shakespeare film series, Macbeth (“Is this a dagger which I see before me?.....I have thee not...Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation!” I recall my then 3 year old lisping away).

It was fun and exciting for them, and I am pretty sure they understood very little of it. But they felt the grandeur, the rhythm, the depth therein, and this was enough; this was what they needed to suck on and grow a little more.

Literature was never basic. Winnie the Pooh was the original material, with all the nuances, reflections, humour and unadulterated language intact. Nothing predictable and trite--material we parents could enjoy as well.
This is what they could grasp--that there was something bigger than they, something to aspire to, some knowledge that they would get to by and by, and eventually understand.

The world was delivered to them in its entirety; there were no bit-sized pieces offered up. They bit of what they could chew—how ever they could manage it, no pressure, just their own personal interest and curiosity. They could ruminate over what they took in, they could find meaning and apply it within the context of their lives.

To my delight, I read in the Telegraph about research conducted by the University of Liverpool (Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems) that shows how brain activity is increased by exposure to poetry or language such as Shakespeare’s.
For example volunteers read a line from King Lear: “A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded”. They then read a simpler version: “A father and a gracious aged man: him you have enraged.”
The researchers report that Shakespeare’s use of the adjective “mad” as a verb sparked a higher level of brain activity than the straightforward prose. The study tested how long the effect lasted. It found that the “peak” triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained onto the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind “primed for more attention.”
Philip Davis, an English professor and research on the study explains, "The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike.”
The study also mentions that self-reflection is enhanced  and what is education without self-knowledge?
And now when I hear about parents fretting that their 4 year old doesn’t know her letters, I cringe!
“She doesn’t know the basics!” the parent wails. “Everyone else her age does! She will be left behind,” wahhhh!
There is a reason why the basics are called basic—because they are just that. They are quickly learnable.
I try to reassure parents with young children that they are exactly where they should be--playing, being read to, been taken out into nature to observe first hand the complexity of their natural world, every leaf, every rock, every cloud, a miracle unto itself.

Challenge children with ideas to mull over; have discussions with them.  Many well known people have been raised this way; young Leonardo da Vinci hung out with his uncle, who spent hours with him, examining nature and discussing their findings.  Louisa Alcott's childhood home life was filled with evenings of Concord's most stimulating minds, and walks and talks with Henry David Thoreau.  Einstein's parents encouraged his questions (once he finally decided to start talking).

Seeking out and embracing complexity with children can be a powerful experience for the both of you.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Technology, Education and Poverty

In Ontario, there's a plan to provide every kid from grade 4 to 12 with access to technology (iPad, tablet etc). There's this idea that with technology in the classroom, school is going to be the "great equalizer" at last.
We are not so naive as to believe that access to technology in education will level the playing field and poor kids will miraculously have the same opportunities their wealthier peers have.

But while handing out ipads will not overcome poverty, access to technology will empower poor students in learning. Access to technology via ipads will offer opportunities for children to work together, research, and collaborate in areas that interest them.

Take for example Sugata Mitra’s experiment in Indian villages. Mitra installed a computer in a wall and documented illiterate slum children figuring out how to use it, and then actually using it to learn and share knowledge.
Mitra has since designed ‘School in the Cloud,’ a learning lab in India, where children can explore and learn from each other —no teachers present—using resources and mentoring from the cloud. Mitra proposes Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE), which he defines as “broadband, collaboration and encouragement put together.”

Fact is, school, as we know it is history. School is obsolete (especially relevant for poor kids). Done. Terminated.  Can I say it any more succinctly?
Today, students are called on to be the drivers of their own learning.

The internet offers an unprecedented opportunity to do so. We can find out what we want to know in seconds. We can connect in groups and across the world, with others who share similar interests and concerns.

Open Source Learning

Another way to understand where education is heading, what’s stirring in the Zeitgeist and taking hold of the imagination can be understood as ‘open-source learning.’
We have heard of the concept 'open-source' in internet circles; anything can be learned over the internet. There is a new openness to educational resources. Institutions of higher learning are offering free online course materials. MIT (Open CourseWare) has over 2000 gratuitous course materials, their motto being "Unlocking knowledge, empowering minds."
Open source learning is based on extending this idea to all learning, to everyone. It's a term that I believe was coined by none other than John Taylor Gatto.
Technology is lowering the costs of education: expensive textbooks will no longer be a barrier to education.

Joint Collective Agencies and Communities of Practice

It is happening everywhere; learning in communities, work groups and collaborations. ‘Communities of practice’—a term coined by John Seely Brown—is the new learning spaces and places representative of this new culture of learning.
Kids getting together and pursuing their passions in joint collective agency, is the revolutionary wave in education. Learning in community, engaging one another, practicing 'deep tinkering' 'marinating in the experience' are some of the ideas for a new culture of learning that Seely-Brown is popularizing.

My teen has been participating in virtual communities for years now, first following her interests in the arts and now focusing on anti-oppression, social justice activism. Exchanging conversation, picking up ideas, reciprocating with her fellow bloggers, the amount of learning she is doing through social media like tumblr is astounding.

Here’s where she goes to dialogue, critic, share, challenge and be challenged. Her virtual community supports the work she does and she in turn supports the work of its members. I never realized how powerful this tool for learning is until I saw the comments and feedback she gets from fellow ‘social justice warriors’—spurring her on to further work.
Online communities can provide the support that a kid might not otherwise be able to access (for example, children questioning gender). Shared experiences all factor into building the self-esteem that is critical in order to overcome abuse and injustices and yes, the trauma of poverty itself.

Not what you know but who you know.

Do you have a linkedin account? I do. We all know that developing personal networks is invaluable for professional growth. Who knows? We might get discovered or at least, land a job.
There’s the concept of personal learning network’ (PLN) to describe the cultivating of personal networks for learning opportunities. PLNs are those connections individual learners make to suit their specific learning needs.

Connections are being made on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Blogs, Google Hangouts and more. Ahead of the adults, young people connect online in a social context as well as a more strategic, intentional way in order to share, grow opportunities and stay involved and connected

For younger children, it is important to have the guidance and support of caring, knowledgeable, and trusted adults.

To wrap this up, I’d like to offer a quote from Mitra who says, “we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It's not about making learning happen. It's about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then she stands back in awe and watches as learning happens.”

Hand kids the technology, guide and counsel them, support their interests, facilitate their networking opportunities, and poverty will become less of a barrier to being educated.
Education is something that you have to want to pursue; no one can do it for you. But educators can pave the way.

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