How to handle smart devices in the classroom?

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Perhaps we’ve all been there. Getting swept into the world of internet and its infinite-appearing sources of information and media for countless hours – while the rest of the world awaits. Due to their ease of use, availability and cost-effectiveness smart devices are these days de facto method when connecting to multitude of sources and people.
But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as is evident by an article e.g. from The Sydney Morning Herald titled ”‘Schools need to react quickly’: Education expert urges smartphone ban“.
Let’s inspect the smart device phenomen more in depth.

For some students smartphones and tablets offer a way to shield oneself from the noise of the classroom. One may even escape reality. Additionally, listening concentration music while carrying out an assignment appears common. Some just play games during a lesson for the fun of it. There are certainly times when teaching can’t compete for the interest of a student.
Others search information with a smartphone when their laptop’s/tablet’s (or vice versa) battery has run down, but even then one has to question the ergonomics of a 5″-6″ screen compared to a device with double or triple the screen real estate.

In my experience teachers are divided into two camps on how to deal with the matter. On one hand there are those who ban mobile devices for the duration of the class. They have for instance trays in which everyone can put their mobile device. I’d say these teachers are in the minority.
On the other hand there are those who simply accept the existence of smart devices as part of the students’ everyday life. In this case, they’re the majority. Both camps might however utilize the devices in teaching if there’s an academic reason for it.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to ban smart devices altogether. At least it depends on the school. There are always teachers who somehow would slip from the agreed policy. Especially in Finland where teacher’s liberty is in particularly high esteem (pedagogical freedom). Also a lot of time and effort is consumed when trying to prohibit the use of smart devices.
Is it all in vain?

Smartphones etc. do offer ways to improve learning. It’s just that sometimes we don’t even fully understand how to utilize them more effectively. Case in point a company called PhoneLabs (see the short video) and their take on learning physics. Even though it’s not only about showing an application, it’s also equally important to teach how to use it (following the lines of Vygotski’s famous and often quoted ‘zone of approximal development‘).

If teachers only approve smart devices, without any indication of trying to utilize them in learning, their potential is wasted and in the process their causes for distractions maximised.

In the end these questions reflect the changes in our society. Today’s parents might be avid gamers, hyperactive social media users and keen music fans – and it all centralizes around a smartphone. Kids copy the aforementioned behaviour concept (transfer effect) and eventually display it in schools as well. It’s our job to seek a balance of smart device usage, be it in school or anywhere.

Behaviorism vs. constructivism: Comparing two leading approaches to learning

Let’s take a look on two most influential theories that have affected today’s learning and teaching styles.

  • Behaviorism (theory related to ‘passive mind’)

-Teacher teaches while the students remain relatively passive
(interaction is limited)
Teacher tells ‘facts’ which are then linked with students’ earlier knowledge (memorazing facts is also promoted)
-Learning happens individually in the classroom as a teacher-led process (80 % of the talk in class originates from teacher)
-Teacher knows everything
Making mistakes isn’t encouraged, in fact mistakes are quickly overlooked so that they wouldn’t leave a permanent memory trace

  • Constructivism (theory related to ‘active mind’)

-Teacher supports an active learning environment
(where students work together and discuss)
-Learning is based on understanding what has been learnt and processing that information
-Learning happens inside or outside the class
-Teacher as an expert, who encourages learning
-Teacher guides students to find solutions to problems
(main responsibility of learning lays with the student)
-Emphasis on learning strategies and creating new knowledge

Finally, many teachers combine these approaches. Based on the situation both of them prove useful in teaching – trick is to find the suitable balance 😉

Teaching empathy: why and how?

Empathy is an important skill in todays interconnected and interdependent world with vast cultural diversity. Understanding others helps one to define oneself as well. That’s why teachers should emphasize empathy skills during teaching also subject teachers, who in my opinion ever so often rely too much on their respective subjects.

In best-case scenario teaching empathy…

  • Prevents exclusion and enhances team spirit (you become aware about how no-one should be left alone)
  • Prevents bullying (you don’t feel the need for bullying because you realize how others feel about it)
  • Improves multiperspective thinking and broadens cognitive skills (you learn to inspect e.g. global phenomena on multiple aspects)
  • Develops anti-violent behaviour (e.g. naturalistic first-person shooter videogames blur the lines between fact and fiction and don’t usually pose moral questions for the players, but practising empathy helps one to see the deeper question of cause and effect)

How to teach empathy? Some examples:

  1. Practising emotions and how to express them
    The first step is attaining self-knowledge through inspecting one’s emotions. Too little time is spent dealing with various emotions inside a classroom. Especially those as a result of a conflict. In any case, knowing yourself preceeds the greater understanding of empathy.
  2. Historical empathy
    For instance teaching about world wars is difficult, since in many ways they remain distant – even story-like – for youth of these days. But if we include microperspectives and let students investigate world wars through a historical character (farmer in Soviet Union, young woman in Nazi-Germany) we can actually bring the world war reality closer to the students.
  3. Writing a letter
    Students can write letters e.g. for immigrants (could be fictional characters) and share their perspectives. Writing something is always a useful exercise and also helps to develop abstract thinking due to the fact that there are no model answers.
  4. Simulations
    Simulations offer a venue for argumentation and empathy. One can organize e.g. a United Nations simulation in which students need to represent someone else or another country and perhaps see things differently, through an unfamiliar ideology (also prevents xenophobia).

Weak political discussion culture in Finnish schools?

According to a survey conducted by the Finnish Board of Education (2011) there’s a weak discussion culture related to political and social issues in Finnish schools. In fact the aforementioned has called for the society as a whole to provide prerequisites for building an identity that allows positive encounters, interaction and democracy between people. Even according to teachers, student opportunites to participate and have their say at school should be improved (Eränpalo & Karhuvirta, 2012). Students of all age should be able to form and voice their opinions safely in a school environment – what better legitimate forum to foster argumentation there is than schools? In my opinion a more open discussion forum also advocates inclusion, something that every teacher should ultimately strive for.

Another study made by International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (2009) suggests that young Finns have exceptionally good level of civicsknowledge internationally. Worth noting here is that young Finns actually evaluate their skills to be significantly worse than young people in many other countries. Low self-esteem or lack of self-knowledge perhaps? In any case while young Finns seemed to have proper level of civics’ knowledge in international comparison they weren’t interested in politics and participation (though similar results were also found in Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Slovenia).

Finland is relatively open-minded and a democratic society.
But are teachers unable (or unwilling) to evoke discussion inside a classroom?
And why brilliant civics’ information levels don’t equate to higher participation rates?

Couple of aspects come into mind. Let’s inspect them.

  1. Finnish tradition has been consensus and authority driven.
    Individual opinions have been secondary.
  2. Albeit discussion culture was vivid during the 60s and 70s especially among leftists, political activism seems to have dried out (in comparison). Did extreme level of political participation translate to saturated political thinking?
  3. It’s ‘easier’ to teach when you avoid conflicts and different opinions. It’s a case example of teacher’s survival strategies.
  4. Behaviouristic teaching methods have their place, but perhaps there’s still too much memorising facts instead of practising actual skills in Finnish schools?
  5. Finnish civics’ education focuses on formal political sphere (high level of policy-making) whereas young people are interested also in the unofficial and down-to-earth ways of influence. We should find ways to bridge the former and the latter.

Pedagogical freedom — secret to Finland’s success?

Perhaps one of the most differentiating factor that makes Finnish school system unique, is the way of allowing teachers autonomy and pedagogical freedom (also called as didactical freedom).

It means that teachers in Finland possess a wide liberty to design and carry out school lessons. While the curriculum gives instructions on what and how to teach various topics, it doesn’t mandate time limits that for instance a civics teacher should give 2-hour lessons about European Union for high school students. Instead it’s taught as much as seen necessary by the teacher, in the appropriate course naturally.

A teacher may also choose what kind of textbook/ebook one uses and which teaching methods are applied with a certain class. That’s mainly because what works with some, might not work with others. Since each pupil is an individual and their development phases delicate as well as diverse, it’s best to tailor the teaching to suit different needs.

Pedagogical freedom also tells us that in Finland teacher’s expertize is quite trusted. After all, every qualified teacher from elementary school onwards holds a Master’s degree. No need for extra surveillance and strict mandates on how teaching is to be carried out (that’s left for the parents ;)).

Teaching is seen as a complex set of interactions. Improvization, lightning fast reflexes and adaptation to new circumstances are absolutely needed in teacher’s profession. That’s why pedagogical freedom gives room to manouver in ever-changing times…

Everyday life decision-making simulation — a case of inclusive teaching

I’ve been developing an idea concerning everyday life decision-making, to be executed in a form of a simulation during a series of consecutive school lessons. In general the dilemmas with simulations are, in my experience, that they offer a venue first and foremost for enthusiasts. For instance I’ve been a part of couple European parliament simulations in which we dealt with vast issues like youth unemployment and democratic deficit. Moreover, the simulations were thematically linked to an intergovernmental organisation that might feel distant to young pupils.

That’s why I’ve been thinking about a simulation that would be more ‘down to earth’ and better connected with the pupils’ everyday life. The grand idea behind this kind of simulation is that instead of teaching (or preaching) about the importance of various democratic approaches and voting in general level, we would offer pupils a chance to gather experience firsthand how decision-making could work — though a pragmatic case example.

How often you see a teacher asking what would the pupils like to be taught about? Teachers might teach the importance of certain ‘democracy’, but how much of that you see realized inside a class room? Teaching is still unneccessarily fixed on formal politics where individual’s opportunities to influence are quite limited. Therefore, through simulation we would be empowering individuals so that they might realize they have a say and an actual effect how things play out.

This particular simulation would aim to 1) create greater inclusion, 2) focus on practical issues, 3) improve empathy,
4) develop negotiation and argument skills.

Everyday life decision-making

  • Concentrates on practical issues, for instance deciding about something related to school or its surroundings
  • Something to ponder about: Could pupils design a lesson? How much freedom should pupils have?
    1st lesson
  • The simulation starts from selecting an everyday topic
    (if it would impossible to choose, teacher could help to choose a topic)
  • Lesson continues with selecting roles: each individual/pair etc. would either represent an interest group (empathy practice) or just be themselves (argument practice)
    2nd lesson
  • Then everyone would prepare arguments based on the choice made during the previous phase and gather material to help to form an opinion
    3rd lesson
  • We would discuss, debate, agree/disagree and perhaps ultimately reach a compromise on the agenda

Finally, I still argue that schools should do much more to improve inclusive teaching. Too many pupils feel left out e.g. when a teacher designs lessons. If we never include pupils in teaching why should they care to participate later on?

 

Teachers and the Comenius’ Oath – what’s the deal?

Since early 2017 we have had a teacher’s oath called ‘Comenius’ Oath’ in Finland. Among the first to take the oath was actually Hanan al Hroub, who was awarded with Global Teacher Prize in 2016. Comenius’ Oath is named after Education Philosopher Johan Comenius who lived in the 17th century in Europe. Similarly than medical doctors’ Hippocratic Oath, this oath in question gives ethical guidelines on how to act in teacher’s profession. By no means is it mandatory to take nor is it a requirement in teacher’s work. Everyone is free to choose.
But let’s check out the oath:

‘As a teacher I am engaged in educating the next generation, which is one of the most important human tasks. My aim in this will be to renew and pass on the existing reserve of human knowledge, culture and skills.
I undertake to act with justice and fairness in all that I do and to promote the development of my pupils and students, so that each individual may grow up as a complete human being in accordance with his or her aptitudes and talents.
I will also strive to assist parents, guardians and others responsible for working with children and young people in their educational functions.
I will not reveal information that is communicated to me confidentially, and I will respect the privacy of children and young people. I will also protect their physical and psychological inviolability. I will endeavour to shield the children and young people in my care from political and economic exploitation and defend the rights of every individual to develop his or her own religious and political convictions.
I will make continuous efforts to maintain and develop my professional skills, committing myself to the common goals of my profession and to the support of my colleagues in their work. I will act in the best interests of the community at large and strive to strengthen the esteem in which the teaching profession is held.’

What do you think about the oath?

 

7 multidisciplinary learning aspects teachers in Finland must pay attention to

According to the newest Finnish basic education curriculum from 2016, every teacher needs to pay attention to certain important general skills and incorporate them into teaching, regardless of the subjects they teach. Let’s go through those skills.

1. Learning to care of yourself and everyday skills

This is something schools are often said overlooking. Teachers need to make sure pupils learn for life, not (just) for school. In my opinion, coping with life is one of greatest lessons schools can offer. And one can only wonder the vexed question: Where’s the balance between theoretical and practical knowledge?

2. Thinking and learning to learn

It’s always pivotal to learn to think for yourself, not just follow others and trends. If a society is to evolve, someone needs to be the pioneer with new ideas. Additionally, with teacher’s support one should discover the best way that advances learning.

3. Cultural skills, interaction and learning self-expression

Interaction, group skills and problem-solving are deeply advocated by the newest curriculum. In theory the more there’s interaction, the less there’s distrust, exclusion and xenophobia.

4. Multiliteracy

Information flow is growing rapidly and pupils are exposed to various interest groups. That’s why one should learn to filter it and distinguish ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’. I’ve been thinking about a course model that revolves around the idea on how to identify false/correct sources. Needless to say though, multiliteracy needs to evolve leaps and bounds from the current level.

5. Information and communication technology

Schools are in the midst of a technology revolution that seems never-ending. Some teachers are uncertain how to use new technology, when and how much. And how much new technology really helps learning? Are old teaching methods abandoned too easily?

6. Working life and entrepreneurship

Closely connected to ‘everyday skills’, working life shouldn’t stay too distant from pupils. Let’s not forget creativity: Could pupils start a fictional company? In any case, it’s a good lesson of how to think a little bit ahead.

7. Participation and bulding a sustainable future

Pupils should be introduced to various ways of how to influence near and far as well as be encouraged to find suitable ways for them. Not e.g. by creating a bad conscience of events happened in the past, but through real interest. In the end teachers have to ponder, how practical and close to everyday life teaching about participation can be.

Comments welcome 🙂

Phenomenon-based teaching – is Finland scrapping subject teaching in schools?

Phenomenon-based teaching or teaching by topic means that instead of simply teaching various subjects separately in schools we teach broader themes and topics, which cross subject limits. For instance teaching about United Nations and inspecting it through history, religion, geography, math etc. simultaneously. Or teaching about money and how to spend it: first going through history how money has become a currency for transactions, then inspecting it with moral values and philosophy. And further pondering in math how to save money by calculating interest rates.

Independent raised a small storm some time ago by suggesting ‘Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with ‘topics’ as country reforms its education system‘. Finnish National Agency for Education was quick to respond: ‘Subject teaching in Finnish schools is not being abolished‘. Yet, in the statement it was acknowledged that while teachers in Finland have a wide liberty carrying out teaching, phenomen-based teaching is emphasized in the new curriculum that came into effect in 2016. Pupils should already participate each year in at least one multidisciplinary learning module that contains teaching by topic.

The benefits of phenomen-based teaching include that instead of memorizing facts and figures or accepting knowledge ‘as it is’, we’d focus more into understanding, analysing and interpreting phenomenas. Additionally, pupils should not just think based on the subject which lesson they are in, but rather connect things they learn through multiple subjects.

Finnish schools are dissolving traditional division to girls and boys

Based on the newest curriculum concerning basic education Finnish National Agency for Education (Opetushallitus) has released a guide how schools should take into account gender variations, which these days transcend girl and boy centric approaches. Gender-conscious teaching means that teachers are sensitive in recognising individuality and personality of each pupil, regardless of their background. In practice this means that teachers guide pupils to make individual choices instead of maintaining segregation in education and job market.

This line of thought also includes that teachers should acknowledge there are more genders than two and therefore pupils shouldn’t be only recognised as boys and girls. Recognising various sexual orientations and a multitude of identities is crucial in teaching as it helps to break stereotypes, prejudism and broadens one’s understanding.

The key is to realize that any person can become anything. A gender or being genderless shouldn’t dictate one’s life choices. That’s why teachers should encourage pupils pursue their abilities despite of deep cultural assumptions how one ‘should behave’. As with any possible topic teachers should be aware and be willing to discuss about new fields which might not be that known to them. Thus we achieve better level of inclusion among pupils.

Anything to comment?