> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: February 2007

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Handwriting and Keyboarding

Every week I download the latest podcast from Women of Web 2 (WOW2). They have a weekly chat, Tuesdays at 9pm EST. That's the middle of the night our time so I haven’t heard one live yet. I missed the first one, called ‘Keyboarding’. It didn't sound very appealing. I couldn’t imagine how they could chat about that for a whole hour.

However, I’ve come to trust those podcasts to set me thinking about things, so I duly downloaded and listened to ‘Keyboarding’.

I am the sort of teacher who writes ‘Your target is handwriting! Present your work with more care.’ For years I’ve heard people say that typing will supersede handwriting. I’ve not been convinced. I’ve got loads of stories of disasters that all hinged on a piece of bad handwriting: doctor’s prescriptions, military coups, and NASA operations…

The chat on the podcast was discussing how important it was for schools to teach children correct keyboarding skills. They discussed the amount of sustained time children need to become proficient. They assumed that this would be necessary for all children. They weren’t advocating doing away with teaching handwriting, just seeing typing (or keyboarding) as the NEXT natural step.

I had a sort of brain freeze over the idea. Concentrate more on typing? Learn how to use the QWERTY keyboard properly? Yes, fine for people who will need that in the future. And that would be? Oops. Everyone.

What about handwriting? How often in the adult world of work do we actually rely on our handwriting? I can think of several occasions when it is nicer and perceived as ‘more caring’ to handwrite: birthday cards, a personal note at the end of a typed letter, a comment. But for anything of length, especially if we require to edit it, I think typing wins hands down.

If pupils typed efficiently, they could do all their work online. And think of the paper we would save.

Good grief. Next I will be (gulp) reading books online.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Can education really be fun?

I’ve been reading, and pondering Ewan’s post about bringing games and fun into secondary education. Can we really bring play into the main part of our teaching? Play, by definition, seems to be what we do when work is done.

It’s true that if we can add an element of fun to our teaching, things go more smoothly. On the very simplest level, announcing that we will play a game when this activity is over, frequently galvanises even the most lethargic pupil into action.

But games aren’t just about competition. What exactly are they? What is play?

Play is pretending. It’s about trying something out, free from the anxiety that what you do will have a permanent effect. Children play naturally. They play at schools, at work, at being grown ups.

Play and failure really are closely related. Play gives you the permission to fail without there being disastrous consequences.

This is why, when we want to give ‘authentic’ experiences to children, we need to take care that this constitutes a risk which adds excitement, and is carefully structured to maximise success. We choose tasks which we know they can achieve, but won’t necessarily achieve immediately.

There is a tension between school and the real world. And there is a tension between play and real. But tension provides a wonderfully elastic basis for some really brilliant bungee jumps!

How can we use this in education?

Thursday, February 08, 2007


'Knowing the price of everything, the value of nothing'

That’s my grandmother talking about young people. And it’s one of the reasons I am a teacher. I want to teach the value or importance of things not just the ‘prices’ or facts about them.

Wanting to be a better teacher led me to blogging. I see young people using new technologies with enthusiasm and I want to use them in my teaching. Of course I’ve realised that this stuff might come naturally to them, but not to me. Apparently they are, according to Marc Prensky digital natives. And I am a digital immigrant.

I’ve got an immigrant’s technological ‘accent’.

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent. They include printing out your email… needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it and bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL).'

Well, I’m a tiny bit more fluent than that, thanks to my recent forays into technology.

I’m learning too. The way we teach will have to change. Some of the skills we were taught just don’t fit any more. Remember all that stuff we were taught about how to study –‘find a quiet place’ etc? Well the natives don’t need that. Nor do they like waiting to receive information. They expect to be able to get the information immediately.

But they need us to help them develop critical thinking skills, so that they can process the stream of information that pours through their lives. And they do need our affirmation and encouragement as they face the bewildering world of today.

I am scheduled to teach Jane Austen’s novels Persuasion and Emma, to a group of seventeen year old boys. My colleagues are slightly amused by my predicament. When the class was planned, it was mixed, larger and well, distant.
The lads are bright. But how on earth do you convey the world of Emma, whose sister ‘though comparatively but little removed by matrimony, being settled in London, only sixteen miles off, was much beyond her daily reach’?

I’ve had an idea: I’ve given each pupil in the class the task of presenting, via any media they like, one background aspect to the novels of Austen. I have promised to film and publish online their efforts. Watch this space.

Friday, February 02, 2007

How to motivate learners

Sometimes when I am getting obsessive about something, like the missing apostrophe or whether or not I should just accept the US spelling of colour, I think about Stevie.

Stevie is a freelance safety instructor. And he can’t afford to be irrelevant to his classes. Right now, he is in Iceland giving training to workers on a large construction site. He has been contracted to train operators on the safe use of their MEWPs. MEWPs are Mobile Elevated Work Platforms, not, as you were imagining, Pokemon characters.

Safety training has its challenges. A large number of the trainees don’t speak English -or Glaswegian- which is Stevie’s chosen tongue.

It’s crucial however that they meet the learning objective.

Stevie uses a combination of Powerpoint, video and pictures via a laptop to teach. He builds on prior knowledge, and is not averse to photographing any potential problems on site to help get his message across.

The learners need the qualification to be licensed to work, but first they must pass a theory test and a practical exam. Instructors can license them within one day, so that trainees can have proof immediately that they have been trained. Hence the primary motivation for learning.

Safety instructors have to be accountable in a way that focuses the teaching mind wonderfully. Their instructions might mean the difference between life and death. The practical class involves kinaesthetic learning. How will I know if you have understood the learning objective? You will show me. The big picture is 'You will be safe at work'. Activating this level of motivation should be easy, but isn't always.

Conditions can be unkind. As Stevie says, when we last talked ‘The temperature today was minus 28 degrees. And the last thing you want to do is go outside to 20 metres and work on a platform.’ I decide not to share my story of the leaky radiator.

Stevie’s a member of IPAF. Their website is, well, quite serious as you might expect. But it has a interesting page called ‘The Rogues Gallery’ showing some of the mistakes that no doubt contribute to the truly awful safety record of the construction industry.

I’m sorry to say some of the acrobatics will look horribly familiar to anyone whose school recently had its windows cleaned.

If you know anyone with MEWPs, Stevie's your man. I am his big sister.