Last weekend I had the honor of co-leading the Flat Classroom Workshop (pictures here) with Julie Lindsay at the 21st Century Learning Conference in Hong Kong. I have to admit that although I knew it would be amazing after everything I had heard about the Flat Classroom Conference in Doha earlier this year, I had no idea just how amazing the whole experience would turn out to be!
The flat classroom workshop is a 2.5-day project-based learning experience for both students and teachers. We had about 30 high-school students and 10 teachers participating face-to-face, and about 20 registered virtual participants. The goal of the workshop is to allow participating students and teachers to experience a flat classroom project in a condensed amount of time. Basically, in the 2.5 days of the workshop, the students and teachers go through almost the entire process of a flat classroom project that might normally take six to nine weeks.
The students and teachers in the workshop are given a challenge (in this case, to develop and propose a solution to the problem of the digital divide). Students and teachers worked in separate teams of 5 (i.e.: teachers worked with only other teachers, and students worked only with other students). All teams had members from a variety of schools, including official virtual participants.
Over the course of the 2.5 days, teams had to research the digital divide, propose and pitch a solution to a small group of conference participants, present more formal pitches to all workshop participants and a virtual uStream audience at the end of the first full day, and then finally the three most-likely-to-succeed ideas were presented to the entire 21st-century learning conference as the final plenary session.
What was amazing to me about this process was the fact that not only did the teams have little to no understanding of the digital divide before the conference started, but most had never met their team members, and most of them were working in a different school with different equipment than they were used to, and they had to work together with virtual participants as team members, yet they jumped in with both feet, producing finished presentations that were absolutely outstanding.
Here’s what really stood out to me over the 2.5 days:
Project-Based Learning Works
It is absolutely amazing what students can do when you give them an authentic and achievable task and then get out of their way. We provided several focus sessions on pitching an idea, a basic overview of the digital divide, the power of visual imagery, and an introduction to digital storytelling, but for the most part the teams were on their own. Of course, Julie and I were facilitating the process, but watching students learn how to learn together and seeing the results of their cooperation was a great reminder for me that this is the way a classroom should be run.
Third Culture Kids
When the students first met each other, it was interesting see that they started their introductions with their ethnic background first. Once they established their cultural history they were able to bond about similar experiences (most of them were 3rd culture kids and many of them had never lived in their “home” country) and work together in an open and accepting environment. It was interesting for me to see how important it was for them to acknowledge their cultural history and experiences before beginning the process of working together.
These Tools Are Still New
I’ve been working with web 2.0 tools for a few years now and they are starting to seem “old hat” to me, but for most of these students (and teachers), even though were particularly interested in technology, many of these tools were new or they hadn’t used them in this way. Of course, they all have Facebook accounts and they regularly Skype with their extended families, they really didn’t have an understanding of how to use these tools for an academic purpose, and it was exciting to them to discover new ways to use them. It was a good reminder that the use of web 2.0 tools in education is nowhere near as prevalent as it can seem here in the edublogosphere.
Learning to Listen
One strong difference Julie and I noticed when we were presenting was that I will occasionally ask students to close their laptop lids to listen, while Julie doesn’t. I don’t think that one way is better than the other, but it’s made me wonder: do we need to teach (and model for) students how to stop and listen? I know when I’m working on my laptop and listening to something else at the same time, I am able to stop and listen when I need to, but I wonder if that’s a skill that needs to be taught and learned (not an innate ability that all people just naturally have). Can some students naturally pay attention while others are distracted by the laptop? I know that many of our teachers in the CoETaIL course find it very distracting to have their laptop lids open throughout our face-to-face sessions, but it didn’t bother the students at all, could it be a generational thing?
It’s all about Inquiry and Individualization
When I think of the digital divide, I automatically think about those who have access to technology versus those who don’t. What was interesting to me was that while watching the students try to develop a solution to this global problem, almost none of them tackled the issue of the haves and have-nots. They almost all chose to work on the problem of the “analog” generation versus the “digital” generation. They drew on their own experiences, for example: their grandparents who have difficulty communicating with them online. They focused on the problems of one generation not communicating the same way as another generation.
I was impressed to see that they were not only concerned about the older generation staying in touch with their families, but also about learning from their elders and valuing the input and perspective they have on the world in a format the younger generation understands. The fact that the topic and project given them were broad enough that they were able to find a perspective on it that they were passionate about clearly helped them to be motivated to find solutions that could actually be implemented in their lives.
The Power of Peer Grouping
When Julie organized the groups, she made sure that students and teachers were in separate groups – there were no mixed groups. At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about that grouping, because I was interested to see how students and teachers might work together to use media, collaborate and find solutions. However, on the final day, when a little more than half of the participants (students and teachers) were working together to produce the final plenary session for the conference, it was amazing to see how quickly the traditional student-teacher dynamic returned. Literally the instant the student and teacher teams were mixed, the students stopped talking and the teachers took over.
After a few minutes, we split the groups, and the teachers and I debriefed for a few minutes about what had been happening and how quickly it happened. Although none of us were surprised to see it, all of the teachers had been consciously trying to step back and not take control, but it happened nonetheless. It was almost as if it were involuntary.
Process Over Product
I started out in an MYP school, and perhaps that’s why my approaches to teaching and learning have usually tended to match that philosophy. Seeing the MYP Design Cycle in action again at the Workshop (after working in Elementary for the last two years) really reminded me that students can tackle almost any technology project, even when starting with little or no previous knowledge, and work their way through it following that process. All the teacher needs to do is provide the framework for the students to lead them through that process of learning. It isn’t about the content, but about the process of learning with technology, and that process can be adapted to fit any content.
Virtual Audience and Virtual Team Members
The authentic task and opportunity for choice were great motivators, but it was especially interesting to see how the students reacted when we emphasized our virtual participants. As soon as a virtual team member was in the chatroom, students would jump in and talk to them, when they presented in front of their virtual audience on the uStream the students seemed to sit up straighter, and when we announced the global (online) vote the students wanted to watch the percentages changing in real time. It seems like this generation is so used to sharing so much of their lives with a (potentially) global audience that doing things without public interaction might not be worth it for them. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but it certainly makes me wonder what they must think when faced with a pencil-and-paper task to be read only by the teacher – when they’re already used to sharing their lives and their work with the world.
We’ve asked all of the participants to share their thoughts via an anonymous survey and their blog on the Flat Classroom Conference Ning. You can read all of their blog posts on the Ning, but I thought I’d include a few highlights here as well.
Chris Smith was also very generous with his time and spent quite a while with our participants recording their thoughts and experiences with his handy Flip. All of the videos are available on the 21st Century Learning Conference Ning – they’re all short clips and well worth watching.
From Beatrice (student):
It was a life-changing experience to connect, communicate, and cooperate with people from various cultures. I interacted with people I’ve never met before, and even spoke in front of a large audience; if you know how shy I am, you will understand how meaningful it was to me.
I think that the ultimate goal of Flat Classroom wasn’t to learn about technology, or to bridge the digital divide (although those were very, VERY important objectives!)– It was to Flatten the World.
I believe that when we broke down the walls of the classroom, a small crack was made on the walls of the world. Starting from flattening the classroom through technology, we shall flatten the whole world step by step. I’m looking forward to the day I’ll be attending a “Flat World Conference.”
From Saundra (teacher):
The flat classroom project is not about creating a flat sameness from the peaks of diversity. It is about recognizing diversity and weaving it into a shared vision of how a problem can be solved. It is learning what it means to be even in understanding and experience and use that to create something new and uneven.
From Toby (student):
Our team has bonded over the past few days and we’re über tight. The tasks have been challenging yet rewarding. What we learned about our cultural differences will stay with us always. Hopefully we’ll be visiting Seoul soon! XD The time limits tortured us yet brought out the best in us. It was the first time we learned the concept of digital divide and we learned much about this through the workshop. We also learned a lot of teamwork and collaboration skills, as well as the secrets to creating a creative, memorable presentation.
From Sara (teacher):
The process that we engaged in over the last 48 hours at the 21st Century Learning Conference Hong Kong is what happens in reality. It’s not a lecture, it’s not passive (nor is it aggressive, thank goodness), it’s a genuinely tangible manifestation of real life. It’s a real problem, it’s a real solution, and it’s real time.
From Wu Ming (student):
This is my first time participating in some activities with someone from foreign countries and international schools. I found my language skills not as good as my teammates. My English is not fluent enough to fit the pace of the conference. I spent most of the time catching up with my teammates but not thinking of ideas. Though, I am glad that I was allocated into a team with friendly mates. They gave chance for me to try presenting and improve by time. I am comparatively bad in speaking English, but I am gaining confidence in speaking English after this activity.
On the other hand, the activity is fascinating. This is my first time (again) to attend lessons with a notebook all along. I enjoy computer lessons before since I can use the computer, not just sitting in the classroom and listen to what the teacher say. This activity provided a great chance for me to use computer without the need to worry about the timing due to the insufficient amount if computer. Other schoolmates from our school enjoyed this activity too. There are also many snacks provided so that we wouldn’t get too bored or sleepy. This is a nice learning environment for me, and I like to have this at my school.
If you’re interested in seeing the final products, check the Workshop wiki for embedded multimedia on each team page. You’ll also find the video archieves for our uStreamed sessions, including the final plenary.
I’m still on cloud nine a week later! The students and teachers that participated are absolutely amazing in every way. Seeing such a large group of students and teachers so passionate about learning, communicating and collaborating, and so committed to making a difference was a life changing experience. I sincerely hope that our FaceBook group, and our various Nings and wikis, will keep us connected – I, for one, want to keep learning with everyone who participated!
I owe Julie and Vicki a huge thank you for continuing to push boundaries, for connecting me (and so many others) through the Flat Classroom project so many years ago, and for giving me the opportunity to co-lead this workshop with Julie. I can not wait to do it again!
And I must admit, I’m kind of wishing I was still seeing this stunning view every day: