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I have read many school mottos, but one that confuses me is “rooted to soar”.

According to the school’s Wikipedia page the motto is explained as “rooted in character and skills, to soar for the nation”. However, this is not obvious in a three-word motto.

School mottos should make sense immediately. They should not need elaboration or a Google search. After all, they are supposed to be distillations of what each school strives for or values the most.

How exactly does one remain rooted while trying to soar? A circling raptor is not tethered to the ground. If it were, it might look like an aerostat.
 

 
While an aerostat seems to be “rooted to soar”, it is not actually soaring. It does not have the freedom to explore, approach, or encounter. It is literally tied down.

I am all for kids for who grow up with timeless values. But if they are really to soar, they should not be tethered. We do far too much of the latter in schooling that kids forget or do not learn how to think for themselves.
 

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This semester I am doing something I did not think I would have to do. I am advising my adult learners on what to do when they show up for their performative evaluations.

Amongst other things, I am telling them to:

  1. Come prepared
  2. Arrive early
  3. Be properly attired

These sound so basic that you might think they need not be said. But “golden rules” do not get their shine without polish.

What is socially acceptable or expected does not always come naturally. These behaviours need to be taught and modelled.

The three rules that I mentioned are not just for creating a good impression, they also reveal the mindset and attitudes of my learners. If they practice them, they show me and others that they can see themselves from another person’s perspective. They respect the time and effort everyone makes to participate at an event.

Those three rules are not limited to their performative evaluations. They also transfer to other contexts, e.g., interviews, meetings, classes.

I do not have to defend these rules. But I am concerned that I have to be so explicit about them at this late stage of my learners’ development. My interactions with some of them tell me that their previous teachers and mentors might not have insisted and persisted with these values.

It is that or I am becoming an old fart. Is curmudgeon.com available?
 

When the stone dropped in the once placid waters of teaching, its ripples started spreading. One result of enforced mergers of some mainstream Singapore schools was how some teachers had to look for teaching opportunities elsewhere.
 

 
This is a classic case of a problem defined largely through an administrative lens, being patched by an administrative solution, only to create another problem.

The original problem was falling enrolments due to falling birthrates. Logically, fewer children means smaller intakes mean fewer classes. Administratively, this also means too many teachers.

The administrative solution was to maintain established teacher:student ratios above all else. Never mind other possibilities like centralised efforts, team teaching, or more boutique efforts.

This created the previously non-existent problem of teacher surplus. As a result other schools now have to take in teachers who have no where else to go.
 

 
The silver lining in this dark cloud has been that teachers who interact in tight circles within their own schools now are forced to fraternise with teachers elsewhere.

Interactions take the form of phone calls, job interviews, job initiation, mentoring and guidance, and daily interaction. Unlike the induction of beginning teachers, these interactions are with intermediates or veterans.

Staff at all levels — school leaders, middle managers, on-the-ground teachers — can more clearly see the differences in school culture and teacher quality when new old teachers join their ranks.

This is like going on a vacation and experiencing a new culture for the first time. Unlike a vacation, they cannot return home to what they are used to. They have to live with the consequence of administrative decision-making.

Today I draw a link between a newspaper that calls itself Today and schooling.

Over the last few weeks, I noticed the Today paper experimenting with different web publishing formats.

I had previously been able to read desktop and mobile versions of the same article from Today. Recently, however, some pages seem to only be desktop-only or desktop-like.

Whether the pages were desktop or mobile, I could load them in Reader View in mobile Safari and get only text and images that were relevant to the article. There were no other distractions. Lately, I rarely have the option to toggle Reader View.

I have also noticed that some pages do not load content on the desktop or mobile browsers if ad blockers are on or privacy apps are active, respectively.

The Today paper is doing this despite Google Chrome and Apple Safari browsers cracking down on various types of ads and trackers.

The paper needs to stay ahead of the game, not fall and roll backward into the web publishing past. Back then newspapers pushed what they wanted — content, ads, and trackers — with very little consideration for reader experience.

There is a similar parallel in schooling. Some schools restrict technology use (“it is distracting”) and others ban them (“it is harmful”) in favour of ye good olde days. They push content and testing with very little consideration for how students actually learn best.

Both newspapers and schools need to get a broader sense of what is happening today. Readers and students want more say and involvement, have more rights, and feel more empowered.

Modern web browsers already reflect these changes. Users can install blockers of ads and trackers. Content creators can upload and share their thoughts on multiple platforms with only themselves as filters. But the Today paper seems to want to roll back time to yesterday.

Students today might block boring or irrelevant lessons by averting or closing their eyes. They do create content, but this is often heavily filtered, strictly dictated, or otherwise constrained like recipes. Schools still are stuck in the past.

We might think of schooling as teaching the prior generation's knowledge so that youth are prepared to communicate on an equal footing with those they are about to join in the economic and civic spheres. -- Robert Pondiscio

This is not news. I share the quote above as a critique of how many schools prepare students more for the past than the current and much less the future.

The sensing mechanism that newspapers and schools have is the same. What they create as artefacts are mirrors with which to reflect on themselves. What they critically read, watch, or listen to online serve as looking glasses to anticipate tomorrow.

It was not the fault of Plickers. It was a terrible 0g and SWN connection at a school venue.

Yesterday I planned on using Plickers at a master class to provide a shared experience for 60 teachers. At that point, I wanted them to apply what they had learnt about the SAMR framework for technology use and integration.

In my original plan, I would have just given a mini lecture on SAMR to highlight how one tool could be used at four different levels depending on the mindset, resourcefulness, and pedagogical leanings of the teacher.

What would follow was a Google Forms quiz on the session’s content taken by all participants individually. They would then take the same quiz using Plickers, this time in their assigned groups. The plan was to illustrate how the tool could reinforce old practice or enable new ones due to task design.

My plan and implementation allowed for the mini lecture, but I only had time for one quiz. I opted for the Plickers-based one. Unfortunately, I had to resort to the Google Forms quiz and describing the original plan.

Plickers fail.

The failure was down to two very poor wireless signals. My phone’s signal went from 4G to 3G to almost no bars at the venue, so I could not tether my phone to my laptop. This meant that I could not call up the ‘live’ Plickers page on my laptop’s browser (to show questions) nor use the Plickers app on my phone (to scan code answers).

I bought some time during an activity and managed to get on the school’s wifi — the infamous “segregated wireless network” (SWN) — with the help of a teacher. However, things hardly changed from my run-in with SWN two years ago.

Back then, web pages in my browser were stripped of formatting to look like the web of 1997 instead of 2017. This time around, I kept getting “insecure website” error messages when trying to access Padlet and Plickers. The new Google Sites seemed to work fine though.

Why was Sites secure but Padlet and Plickers insecure? Why were the latter two secure enough minutes ago when I tested them while having lunch offsite? My phone connection, home connection, and Wireless@SG treated Padlet and Plickers as secure. Does the SWN admin know something that every other entity does not?

Infrastructure.

During the initial activity, I asked teachers to suggest key factors for technology integration. That group highlighted “infrastructure” as one important factor. I can see why. There is no point telling them to integrate technology if their hands are going to be tied by wifi.

To be fair most other schools and educational institutions I visit provide excellent wifi. But even as I acknowledge these hotspots, I also need to point out the notspots.

With Bhutanese educators.

It is 2017 and sadly school wifi woes are still somehow a concern here. I had slow but reliable Internet access when I conducted a weeklong series of workshops in Bhutan in 2010. My experience at yesterday’s school venue was one of time travel. I went back to when I had my dialup modem and someone kept picking up the phone. Connectus interruptus.

Last week, a local newspaper tried to brew a storm in a teacup by reporting that a parent sues school for refusing to return confiscated phone for three months.

This is the sort of headline and article that only helps a newspaper sell more ads. It does not help change the rhetoric, mindset, or behaviour around phone use in schools.

One predictable reaction to this was the “parents nowadays” sort.

Another set of reactions, in a follow-up article by the same paper, was parents that sided with the schools that have strict rules about phone use. The common refrain seemed to be that such rules “minimise distraction and temptation”.

I do not buy that. Nor do I agree that “such confiscations can be ‘teachable moments’” about school rules or for “values like responsibility, respect and self-control”.

I am not saying there should be no rules. I am saying that these rules are a relic function of schooling when they should be more about the current and future.

Let’s break the issues down logically.

When people focus on distraction and temptation, what they actually want is for students to pay attention to their teachers.

Students of all ages through the ages have been distracted when the lessons are not interesting, meaningful, or challenging. We are asking them to pay attention when the product and process do not seem to be worth the price.

As phones are much more interesting, meaningful, or challenging, they become the “distraction” from the teacher or “temptation” away from the lesson. The blame is placed on the student and the phone instead of the teacher and the teaching.

When a student gets caught for giving the phone more attention, it is an opportunity to teach and reinforce a school rule and not much more. Learners are unlikely to learn responsibility, respect, or self-control if the phone is taken away from them because there is no circumstance and context for them to develop and practice those values.

Learners needs to have the phone to decide they should pay attention or not. They need to read contextual cues to decide if the use of the phone when someone is doing their best to teach them is irresponsible or disrespectful. This is how they learn self-control.

It might help to view these values as skills-in-action instead of fuzzy concepts. Phone use is the context and circumstance to practice these skills, just as planes and flying are the context and circumstance for pilots to get good at what they do.

In a phone-free environment, there is no pressure for teachers to teach differently. For example:

  • Why teach what is Googleable when it is more important to think about what you might find online?
  • Why limit learners to consumption when creating, sharing, and critiquing are more powerful ways of learning?
  • Why keep teaching in the artificial confines of the classroom walls when phones can make those walls transparent or break them down?

I wonder if the newspaper could instead feature what academic purposes of phones in classes might be. (Hint: See my questions above.) This could go some way in educating themselves and parents that phone use is not all bad.

It is telling that parents, school authorities, and other stakeholders focus on the negatives of phone use. It is just as telling that the newspaper opted to focus on schools that disallow phone use when there are other schools here that have more reasonable usage policies. The paper seemed to grudgingly report that:

ST understands that most polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education do not ban the use of phones on campus, though students are discouraged from using them for non-academic purposes in classes.

I wonder if it did its homework in finding out how many primary and secondary schools have more logical phone usage policies. My interaction with different schools and education institutes here, thought limited, has revealed a riot of colours instead of the monotone grey presented by the newspaper.

In siding with an old school message, the paper reported:

Acknowledging that some parents may be concerned about their child’s well-being, most schools also have payphones or alternative arrangements for parents who want to contact their children urgently while they are in school, such as calling the school office.

If a message is truly urgent, why delay it with unnecessary intermediaries? There could be circumstances that require some protocol, but even world leader open themselves via social media and modern organisations flatten hierarchy for more direct reach.

Furthermore, the well-being of a child is not restricted to when he or she is in school. Some rely on public transport and the phone is a lifeline in the event of delays, emergencies, or just plain checking in.
 

 
In 1982, ET needed to “phone home” in order to return to his home planet. A communication device was a lifeline to where ET needed to be.

Current phones are where the learner of today is at and indicative of where they need to be. They are periodic tools and everyday instruments for learning how to be: How to think, act, and behave.

Restricting or banning their use might provide the so-called “teachable moments”. However, such moments are not necessarily learnable ones. The latter are powerful, meaningful, and interesting to the learner. These are the same properties we might afford a phone. Instead of turning them away, we should be embracing them.

We let ET phone home. We should let our students phone home, too, with the ET (educational technology) that they already carry in their pockets and bags.

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I am not sure where I am going with this, so I will let the storytelling tell me where to go.

Last Friday was the final day of the school term for mainstream schools here. I was at a mall and walked behind a mother and her son. The boy, about 8 or 9-years-old, started merrily declaring, “I am so happy there’s no more school!”

Then he started walking like the little girl in the now infamous video. There is even a GIF of her and her younger brother.

As he dance-walked, he kept repeating, “Woo-hoo, there’s no school! Woo-hoo, there’s no school!”

I am sure that many teachers are just as thankful for the break. Inside they might feel like the girl in the GIF and secretly they might want to express themselves like the boy at the mall.

Enjoy the break teachers because you deserve it. And if you gave too much holiday homework, you deserve what is coming your way too. 😉


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