Reimaging Learning Conference

Last week-end I attended the Re-imagining Learning conference in Limerick, a conference by the Educate Together folks aiming to rethink early secondary school.

As expected the majority of the talks were very interesting and/or inspiring. The way the schedule seemed to work, keynotes were meant to be higher level and make the audience think and ponder and imagine, while the sessions in between were more practical, sharing information on past or current initiatives by education professionals.

Attending a conference outside of my field was an interesting experience, although I found it awkward to introduce myself. I thought afterwards I should have simply left it to "I'm interested" rather than trying to justify my presence, but thinking again I'm not quite sure it really explains what the hell I'm doing here. Ah well. I can figure it out as I participate in more of these events, I guess.

I took a ton of notes, however as I haven't been good in the past at transcribing talks, I'll start by posting a mishmash of thoughts, themes and ideas that I took home with me.

First and foremost, there is a lot happening in Ireland in education at the moment, including curriculum reform (recommendations) at the Junior level. It was inspiring to be surrounded by professionals in the field who obviously care so deeply about what is going on and how to improve the state of things.

The Friday morning keynotes looked at the early years of the Junior level, covering how these first few years have a major impact that will affect the attitude of the student toward school until the end of their schooling. "Curriculum integration" was a big theme over the two days and another speaker noted curriculum cannot be looked at independently, it is heavily dependent on the political context even if we like to pretend it is neutral.

John Portelli's keynote was very interesting, explaining the importance of a critical-democratic framework and the dangers of pre-judging. He touched on a lot of themes and it was incredibly frustrating to see him having to rush through the ideas he was introducing. Although the conference was very professionally organised, time-keeping was terrible from the beginning and it put a lot of undue pressure on speakers who felt they had to fly through their material.

Some practical tips I picked up during some of the sessions:

  • In Sean O'Leary's talk on science differentiation, he mentioned simple ways to make material more accessible, for instance language level readability. He showed examples of a science exercise, and how to rewrite it so that it means the exact same thing, the problem is framed the same, however the language is simpler which removes a potential barrier. That's something I absolutely want to look into, because I know I am guilty of it, as I tend to switch to smartass academic language whenever I write an exercise sheet that I know I will be handing out. He also uses visual cues as often as possible to help with memory (rebus). To dos:
    • Find a site or software to assess the readability level of the material I write.
    • Check out the Science Differentiation Pack the speaker worked on and see what I can use in there
  • Neil Bulter showed us all sorts of games he used in class to encourage students to develop their problem solving skills. See notably Fantastic Contraptions, Gravity Pods, and Light bot. To dos:
    • This last one I must check out properly and see if it can help newcomers come to term with how programming works

Some general ideas that stick to mind:

  • Like everyone teenagers want to know more about themselves, understand who they are and what is their place in the world. By teaching them about development theories they can learn to make better decisions. Development theories include multiple intelligences, etc.
  • Teaching in groups is excellent and the ideal way to do things, however the teacher needs to help/teach/promote higher level thinking and discussions, to move it beyond disputes (e.g. partner phrases)
  • I didn't know the Irish Computer Society was so involved with school and education! They train schools in using technology to engage with students. And they even have an awesome Scratch handbook! To dos:
    • Get the handbook
    • Find out more!
  • Many times speakers put forward the idea of having the teacher stand back and act more as a facilitator and guide. For instance, community-based learning (Martin Galvin), that encourages young people to look into a problem in their community (e.g. nutrition based health problems) and learn about it in a self-driven way and through community service. Giving an ill-structured problem (a very general question) that has no clear-cut answer, and let students run with it! See also the Global Learning Initiative Project (Lori Holcom) that hooks up students with other students from schools around the world.

Some books/articles I want to look into:

  • The Passionate Teacher, 1995
  • Something to learn more about teacher follow-up moves, by Brodie (2008). This was mentioned as part of the talk on "fostering a 'conjecturing atmosphere' in mathematics lessons" (Therese Dooley).

Of course the conference covered all these topics (and more!) in much more details and I have a lot of things to think about, think through and hopefully use to better my own beginner-teaching and make it more relevant.

Additionally, I met with Paddy, a retired school principal from Cork, who was kind enough to give me some advice on how to find a school near where I live and who to talk with to see about teaching programming to high school students. A big to-do!

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