Flat Classroom Conference – Beijing 2011

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Well, what a weekend we had. Yes, another one! Following on from my adventures in Shanghai the week before with ISCMS (see previous post), I attended the Flat Classroom Conference Beijing 2011 which was hosted by my school, Beijing BISS International School. A great achievement, particularly for my friend and colleague, Julie Lindsay who is one of the founders of the ‘Flat Classroom’ movement alongside her co-founder Vicki Davis. Congratulations too, to Kim Kofino for her great presentations and ‘presence’ at the conference.

We saw many smiling faces of kids from all over the world – which surely was the measure of the success of the conference. For some of the students, this trip to Beijing was the first time they had left their home countries and all feedback from the young participants was positive. I must also take my hat off to BISS for doing a great job hosting the delegates. As my wife Penny says, ‘BISS punches above its weight!’ yet again.

The idea is simple, really. Flatten the walls surrounding the classroom (metaphorically speaking) – in other words, lose the barriers to communication and collaboration. The world really is becoming flat (maybe Galileo got it wrong!).

Check out the hash tag #flatclass2011 on Twitter to see many interesting tweets packed with useful links from the conference.

Highlights for me were sharing ideas and skills with friends from all over the world. I loved the sessions on Visual Literacy (basic film-making) run by Frank Guttler who describes himself as a ‘film/video educator’. He gave us so much technical information which will be useful in the future and his manner was easy-going and patient with video novices like me. I also enjoyed being reminded of digital tools such as QR Codes – look out for them appearing all over BISS soon! Many thanks to the dozen or so students who each presented a different useful digital tool to us on the last morning .

I was less impressed with the sessions on Instructional Design, which for me and possibly many of the young people were too burdened with edu-speak and procedure. The fundamental ideas seemed good, but I believe the intention of making ‘instruction’ easier to implement, ironically, backfired in this particular example of ‘instruction’. By breaking all the steps of planning down and giving them a name (and the inevitable acronym), I believe, people’s creativity in designing their projects in a short timeframe (a weekend conference) was hindered by confusing templates and instructions. Perhaps the groups who were brainstorming some great ideas, might have had better results if just left alone to create and encouraged more at the end of the process. Just my opinion, of course. The other thing I did not enjoy, was having our project design ‘assessed’ and given a ranking against other ‘entries’. A poorly-conceived rubric was applied to our work, which we had not been given until after the task was finished. Also, I felt that the elements being assessed were not particularly relevant in judging whether a project concept was worthwhile or likely to be implemented. We as educators should be careful to apply meaningful assessment – especially to fellow teachers! Check out my group’s idea for a collaborative project called LIPS (Local Issues People Share). Who knows, we might just do it!

Congratulations to all involved with a terrific Flat Classroom Conference – especially to Julie, Vicki, Kim and all those great students! Kudos to you all.

Beijing Learning Summit

I had the privilege of speaking at the Beijing Learning Summit on the weekend. Check out the hash-tag #bls2010 on Twitter. The event was a great success on many levels, but for me the best part was mingling with 170 enthusiastic teachers who were willing to give up their precious Saturday to share skills and knowledge with each other. Many hands-on sessions were offered by teachers with diverse experience engaging with technology.

I attended an enlightening presentation by Ann Krembs, called ‘Weavin’ the Web In’. Ann is an inspiring Elementary School Librarian at the International School of Beijing. Her enthusiasm for ‘weaving’ fantastic Web 2.0 tools into teaching and learning is infectious and I have a great new list of resources to investigate. Look at her blog at http://www.dearlibrarian.com and her great wiki which is full of useful links http://dearlibrarian.wikispaces.com . Many thanks for the great presentation, Ann.

The second session I attended was called ‘Inbox Omnitrix’, presented by my friend Tod Baker who is the IT Coordinator at the International School of Tianjin. Tod’s presentation was focussed on reducing email stress through his philosophy of clearing unwanted clutter, not only from our inboxes, but from our lives in general. I found it very inspiring and have spent today applying his simple mantra of – Do, Defer or Delete. I am happy to announce that today I have successfully reduced to a mere 5, the 4500 emails (I kid you not) which had accumulated in my school email inbox folder. Very liberating, thanks Tod. He suggested some reading on the subject: Check out ‘Inbox Zero’ by Merlin Mann; ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen and ‘Mastering Email Overload’ by Stever Robbins.

My own presentation was called ‘Wedding Wikis With Web Tools’. I wanted to show how easy it is to embed web 2.0 tools such as Noteflight scores into wikis for use with students. Also, how using and embedding active web tools can engage students and increase their creativity. I started a new wiki especially for the Summit which shows a number of my favourite tools embedded into wiki pages. I plan to use a wiki like this shortly to showcase student compositions and share them with my colleague and Northwestern classmate, Jen Brush who also uses Noteflight with her students in the United States. Have a look at my presentation at Slideshare -embedded in my wiki, naturally!

There are so many clever ideas to be discovered and shared amongst like-minded people – often working right next door in the same city or even the same school. Summits and workshops such as BLS 2010 give us the opportunity to simply get together and put our busy routines on hold for a few hours. We focus our energies on sharing what we do and on learning something new and being inspired by each other. What a great idea!

Digital Portfolios

Here is a graphic diagram of what I asked my students to include in the Music area of their ePortfolios. We held student led conferences on 21 April at Beijing BISS International School and some students were using digital portfolios for the first time. Not everyone completed every sample and reflection in time for their presentations, but many did. It was a very good start and we will improve our systems for next year. The key is to keep updating portfolios ‘as-you-go’ rather than having a big rush once a year. Well done BISS for another digital innovation with our students.

For a more detailed reflection about digital portfolios at BISS, go to our learn.reflect blog.

Canon – Great For Beginning Composers

I would like to share a little project idea with you all, because I think it has worked so beautifully with my young grade 6 MYP Music students at Beijing BISS International School. We have just come to the end of a unit called ‘Structures’ where the students learnt about binary, ternary, rondo, theme & variations etc. Our unit question was: ‘What patterns can I find in the architecture of music?’ We are using composition more and more in my classes and for the first time, I used Noteflight online tools with my younger students to compose simple rounds. I did this project last year using manuscript paper and I have noticed how much more successful it has been now that we have gone to the digital medium.

After explaining how a canon or round works – we listened to quite a few examples and sang some as well – we set about composing four-bar melodies based on C major triad only. Each bar had to use mainly C, E and G but they could use passing notes etc. This of course led to more learning about strong beats, non-chordal notes etc. The students were encouraged to use interesting rhythms and to make each bar different to each other bar. When they had created their melodies, all they had to do was set up three new staves above their melody line in Noteflight. Then they simply cut-and-pasted their melody into the other parts, starting one bar later each time. Super easy, but the results sounded great. The kids loved the sound of their pieces, because they could hear the beautiful interplay of the voices in canon.

This project is the perfect example of how digital composition tools engage students better than just using manuscript. I know, they did not get the practise of writing by hand, but they were thrilled to hear how their pieces sounded.

Now, we have of course kept going with the idea and they have composed a number of rounds, each time becoming more complex. They have moved on to using two chords in a pattern of C – G – C – G and their voices come in after two-bars to keep the chord framework lined up. Even though the structure is very simple, the sound of the resulting pieces is pleasant and the students are amazed at how good their canons sound. Through this process, they have learnt about: structure; harmony; triads; rhythm; timbre; contrary motion and melody writing. They learnt a lot more from this activity than they would have if I had just instructed them on theory (as I did with the previous year). This group, remember is only in Grade 6 (11 year olds).

I had some visitors to my class a few weeks ago (prospective customers for the school) when my students were all busy on this task and I could tell that they were surprised by the work the kids were producing. One adult asked in a disbelieving voice, ‘She composed that? By herself?’ – I was able to answer very proudly, ‘Yes’

Here are some examples of the students’ canons. You can see that they did not always follow the chord structure exactly, but the results were still great. They were able to learn from their mistakes and refine their work. What a great job they did. The final example is one I did with them in class.

Music Notation – Do we really need a pencil?

I have given a lot of thought recently to the pros and cons of the different modes of writing standard music notation to create musical scores. My question is increasingly, why do my students need to be able to write music notation with a pencil and paper? The same question, theoretically, can be asked about handwriting in general. Is the skill of calligraphy or physically inscribing notation a truly necessary skill for music students to learn in the 21st century?

To be honest, I am not adamant that my students should not bother learning to ‘draw’ notation, but I am definitely heading in that direction. Let’s list some pros for keeping up the manual skills of drawing notation.

  • Students may become more aware of conventions of notation, such as note head shapes and sizes, the correct side for note stems etc.
  • Students improve fine-motor control and ‘penmanship’
  • Students can notate music without a computer (but they will need paper manuscript, pen, pencil, eraser)
  • Students may feel a sense of satisfaction with producing an artifact ‘by hand’.

Now, lets list the benefits of using digital notation. My students use Sibelius as a powerful music publishing desktop package. They also use Noteflight which is a web 2.0 tool.

  • Digital notation is always neat and tidy.
  • Students produce much more creative compositions because they can use immediate feedback to make improvements on the fly.
  • Digital notation can be played back accurately and immediately without the need for highly skilled performers.
  • It can be linked to midi instruments to ‘play in’ notation.
  • Printed parts can be generated instantly.
  • Entire scores can be edited easily without the need to re-write or transcribe what has already been done – for example, transposed into different keys or  instrumentation changed. Bars can be added or deleted without ‘messing up’ the whole.
  • Digital notation can be embedded into web pages such as wikis and blogs

In the last year, I have embraced digital notation and online composition tools with all of my middle years and IB Diploma students. This has been a conscious change from using paper manuscript and paper workbooks and we have now gone completely paperless. I have noticed a marked improvement in the general level of engagement of my students in composition tasks. And the best thing, is that their work across the board is more creative and complex. I am convinced that the main feature which has led them to better musical creations, is the ability digital tools offer to experiment, test ideas and work by trial and error. I can see that students are missing out on the manual skills of using pencil or pen, but I believe the benefits to their musical learning outweigh this. I can honestly say that many of my students will probably never get around to ‘drawing’ a treble clef now, as there is too much composing to be done. I would feel it was a waste of their time in most cases.

The other thing we are finding now, is that students are putting their work on display more actively. Each student has their own area in a shared class music wiki. They embed their scores and write reflections and are able to share their creations with each other and a wider audience.

We have to ask ourselves if it is really that important for students in the 21st century to be learning the same skills learnt by their parents. Or does their access to stunning new learning tools and digital environments lead them naturally towards a better and more effective way of doing things? If we insist on teaching the old skills, we should have good reasons for doing so, especially if it takes time away from students who would otherwise be constructing their own learning through creative experimentation.

Digital Tools & The Old Guard

I am a musician and a teacher whose career has been weighted towards hands-on practical skills, such as playing an instrument, reading music notation, working with others in ensembles, improvising, composing, arranging. These skills could be considered ‘old school’ and as such carry with them a sort of nostalgia because they traditionally did not have much to do with technology (in the past that is). I have been noticing of late, a great deal of resistance to incorporating new technology into teaching. The ‘old guard’ has been grumbling! The mantra of “I do it a different way” or “I don’t have time to put everything on the computer” – “I’m too busy teaching my subject”. There seems to be a division amongst teachers into two distinct camps – the ‘old guard’ who rely on pen and paper and a good dose of ‘fact delivery’; and the ‘techy teachers’ who embrace the new tools available to us as just that, tools.

I can certainly empathise with busy teachers, since I am one myself. But, I truly believe, that we need to just get on with it! And we need to get on with it quickly, because the new technology does not stay new for very long. We don’t have time to go ‘softly’ on this.

There is an ongoing tension between the two camps, which is understandable. Often, the experienced teacher has been delivering their brand of lessons for a long time, and they have a safe confidence in the pattern of their work. Learning to use this or that bit of new software or web 2.0 tool doesn’t seem worth the effort to them. After all, what if they do not become ‘expert’ enough in the use of the technology to be able to ‘teach’ the kids how to do it? This is the fear I have heard expressed quite openly recently.

There are three points of awareness which I believe can be the catalyst for change in the ‘old guard’.

  1. We do not have to ‘teach’ kids how to work the technology. We can ‘learn’ it with them together.
  2. Technology provides us with TOOLS. We should be focussing on WHAT we write, compose, create rather than the technology itself. Kids will find out how to operate applications for themselves (once we get them started), but they need our guidance and experience to scaffold their creativity, collaborative skills, subject specific knowledge and citizenship.
  3. The big one – the WHY. Technology in the 21st Century is all about connectivity and networking. As soon as students work online, they start to share and learn from everybody else in their network – big or small. A reflection written in a wiki or blog can be looked at and commented on by classmates or anyone else who is ‘connected’. A reflection in a paper journal is usually seen only by the teacher, sometimes by a parent. It ends up in the school bag or in a pile on the teacher’s desk to be graded and admired by just one person.

So, I consider myself a hands-on sort of person. I love physical tools, by the way. Knocking in a nail or using a hand saw or plane are some of life’s greatest pleasures to me, not to mention playing the flute or cello. But, I am also loving my digital tools, especially in my teaching. Reading other peoples’ blogs about education, politics, music, ideas is just fantastic. Twitter gives me daily access to so much knowledge and thinking, that I just can’t believe I waited so long to sign up!

We just need to be open to change and be aware that our students need to connect with more voices than just our own.