GESS/GEF, Dubai, 2014

IWB_smallOK so a year has passed and once again I find myself back at the GESS/GEF Conference in Dubai.    Again I have taken a wander around the event and the various hardware, software and service vendors with stands at the event.   My hope was that something would stand out or at least I would see progression from the stands available last year (You can see my post resulting from last years GESS/GEF conference here).

Walking around I saw some very interesting stands providing quite specialist engineering equipment such as pneumatics equipment for students studying technology, or robotics equipment.    There were also specialist stands for those seeking furniture, uniform or manipulatives for use with younger children.   Now I suspect last year these stands were at the conference however I myself failed to notice or pay much attention to them.    This year I paid a little more attention.

So, to the more common stands……..and yes, once again Interactive Whiteboards were very predominant.     There were a mixture of fixed boards and datashows, datashows with integrated IWB capabilities, as well as touch screen displays.      Vendors demonstrated the various “unique” features of their software;  One vendor showed how the display could be split into 4, so that 4 students could interact with the display at once, with each students contributions individually coloured.   Despite all the “unique” features of each vendors offering I could not help but see an IWB as being nothing more than an IWB; a technology created over 20 years ago, which is fixed in place almost always at the “front” (Why does a learning space have to have a front?    Does the teacher really need a desk as the centre of classroom attention?   Should an IWB be the focus of attention?   Or should the space be about learners and learning, changing as required?)  of the class and can be interacted with by only a small number of students at a time.   Also, after over 20 years, these devices still remain relatively expensive.    Why is this technology still so popular and why isn’t it seen as old technology?

The other thing that was quite common at the conference was media rich content.    A number of companies were providing their answer to where schools can find content to engage learners.   Now some of this seemed ok especially where the content was designed for younger students and as such was very graphical and simple in nature in order to appeal to younger children.    I could see this content working across most schools assuming it is multilingual or in the language of the school it is aimed at.   However I questioned the materials available for older age students;  Why would I pay for content when I can easily find content on the web through YouTube and a multitude of other websites.   I can have students develop their own content using a number of applications or can even develop my own materials as the teacher, such as where I intend to use the flipped classroom model.       How often am I going to use the content I purchase and is it worth the cost given this?

Now you may be reading this and thinking I have a very negative view of GESS/GEF; I don’t.    The conference had some very good presentations, and I only visited on day 1.    I am sure this will continue to be the case of days 2 and 3.   The fact that vendors at the show seem to focus on IWBs and also generic content meant to fit all schools, is a concern.     So what is the solution…….I am not sure at this point, although I suspect it will be different for each school.   I think it relies on dynamic content created by teachers and students to match the needs of students and learning, as they/it changes from day to day, week to week and year to year.

Maybe GESS/GEF 2015 will include a vendor with a solution.   We will need to wait and see!

Not the definition for Differentiation

Education is littered with technical terms and jargon with a few acronyms thrown in for good measure; differentiation, AfL, SEN, G & T, inclusion, PBL, personalization, EFL or ESL or EAL, to name but a few.   Most of these terms and their associated definitions come from the western educational world.   As such they rely on certain assumed background knowledge and experience plus on a certain cultural background.     What are the implications where these terms and their definitions are applied in other parts of the world?     Remember, in a different part of the world we have differing cultural and contextual backgrounds plus the added issue of translation.

Our understanding of something new is grounded in what we know already, in our experiences, etc.   As such explanation of something new requires concrete examples, so in the case of differentiation the concrete examples might include providing challenging extension tasks for the more able, or providing additional teacher or other staff support for students who are less able.    So to the teacher experiencing the term of differentiation for the first time, they might come to think of differentiation as meaning they should provide extension tasks to the more able and additional time and support to the less able, as these were the concrete examples provided.    Now I know this is quite a simplistic view, and that if we were introducing differentiation to teachers we would include a variety of techniques for challenging the more able and supporting the less able, however does this truly get to the heart of what differentiation or any other term for that matter, truly is?

Another approach is to look at what a term is not.    Here we can ground the ‘NOT’ version of a new term in things teachers already know and have experience of.    So continuing the differentiation example we might discuss teaching all students the same content at the same pace and at the same time.    We can then ask “why is this not appropriate?”.     The answer which teachers, and even those who have never encountered differentiation, should reply with will be the fact that students have differing needs, abilities, interests, etc.     So differentiation is the opposite of teaching students the same content at the same pace and at the same time.    From this, discussion can be generated into how this can be done practically in the classrooms of a particular school, with particular students within a particular context.   I would suggest that this approach would generate a “better” understanding of what differentiation or any other term is, as opposed to the explain and model approach.

So next time you need to explain something new, to teachers or students, give some consideration to NOT explaining it.