Pimp your PGCE

The one year PGCE is one hell of a test of the human spirit. Amongst the few days out of school placements, there are brief deluges of information at Uni; drenching trainee teachers with professional wisdom. Somehow, they are expected to manage this, and accommodate all this information into their practice. Somewhere in this heady rush towards the classroom, students are expected to find ways to bring digital technology into teaching — and I helped a few do that at Oxford Brookes University.

My contribution to the learning for these intrepid PGCE students was a workshop entitled “Pimp your Planning” — as part of their PGCE Tech Day. Given that they only get 16 hours of input on the digital aspect of their professional practice, I knew that any time I had had to be used well. I created a session to encourage these students to find ways to introduce, not only digital tools, but digital literacies, into their classrooms. It was a redraft of an experiment from a year ago — so huge thanks to the fabulous Clare Fenwick for inviting me back: after my session last year got such great feedback (or at least that’s what she told me!).

A determinedly practical session, my hope was to use a very artificial task — to find a way to use 3 digital tools in the planning for this term — to encourage students to try something new, something digital:

To take risks. To work and fail in the open. To share their experiences. To reach beyond the easy sometimes. To show the kids that digital technology offers a set of capacities that deepen learning across the curriculum skills.

While there were some fantastic ideas — I was particularly impressed with the group given Scratch, Videoconferencing and Twitter; who had to incorporate these tools into a topic on dinosaurs for Year 4.

Though none of the five people in the group had used this tech in school (though most had used Skype for family and friends) — they quickly reimagined the plan, innovating a Twitter account for Mary Anning, to reimagine how this 19th Century Paleontologist might have shared her momentous fossil discoveries. Instead of hot-seating, with the teacher as Mary Anning, they conceived the idea of calling her (or a friend of the teacher for more authenticity to the interaction). Perhaps obvious to some, these were new to them. And they were very excited!

Most impressively, they raised the issues of confusing the kids with ‘magical thinking’ — in terms of time-travel/anachronistic use of tech/impersonating a real historical person. We discussed how to handle this — and the issues for digital literacies (such as IP, and digital identities).

Though other groups were also awesome, and conversations deeper than I think the participants expected to be having, there were some challenges for me:

One of the students questioned if I was seriously encouraging her to be seen to ‘fail’ in front of the kids. Was this ok?

I did stumble to answer this without ranting. (OK, I failed to avoid ranting!). Although (I think) I enthusiastically urged her to positively rethink how important it is to model taking risks and the demonstrate value of a first attempt in learning to kids — I now realise that she really trying to say something much harder. I think she was trying to say that she didn’t feel comfortable failing.

This really worried me. I looked around the room — and realised that she was not alone — lots of people were nodding in agreement.

Now, I realise that I probably unsettled them a little (I do that when I am excited!). However, these were people on a highly stressful course for one of the most pressured jobs in the public sector (others are available!). A career under constant scrutiny — and where getting something wrong can mean a damaging Ofsted classification that hurts the lives of staff and students in a community.

And yet, here I was, asking them to be more risky — to fail (in a safe and appropriate way — where learning is enhanced by reflecting and improving on the failure) and be proud of it. Was I mad?

Now I am quite sure that one of the most important lessons digital technology has to teach us — children and educators alike — is that (for now) there is a gulf between humans and our tech that means we will always be just about to lose any grip we might have on it.

For example — you might become an expert in using a Microsoft Office product — and then they update the software and change where all the icons are and how the menus operate. Sounds familiar right? My guess is you complain for a while, but soon go and find the learning you need to get working again. Right?

The most important gift that edtech folk have is not their skillset. It is their mindset. If you bring digital technology into your teaching, you will inevitably model important capacities to the children you work with: a familiarity with failing; the joy of the challenges that come with change; an open door and an open mind — able to ask for and give help in learning; and (crucially) resilience in the face of adversity.

Many people believe that we should teach coding in schools because it is a language / subject worthy of time in the curriculum for relevance to future careers. I do not agree.

I believe computing belongs in the curriculum because it forces teachers (and trainee teachers) to look beyond the hard but familiar walls of curriculum, and fixed pedagogical paradigms — and experience learning as their children do.

It ain’t easy — but nothing worthwhile is. That’s what we tell children, so why shouldn’t it be true for us.

My thanks to all the students who shared their time and trusted me with their time today.

Originally published at www.ezekiels.co.uk on March 6, 2017.

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