Sunday, March 20, 2011

Schools for today and tomorrow

The more I got involved in educational development, as a school consultant or as a teacher trainer, the more I got aware that school buildings and facilities represent a major obstacle to innovative educational concepts and policies. On rare occasions contemporary school design offers new perspectives to teaching and learning but unfortunately most of the time new schools are not better than old ones even if they look better.

When I contemplate the structure of most schools, I always ask myself: Will these school facilities support the learning design of tomorrow? Would I enjoy going to this school as a teacher or as I student, and would I be able to develop a sense of belonging in these walls and school surroundings? Is this an environment that inspires collaboration, autonomy and communication, diversity and community, transparency, participation, and appropriation?

Of course high quality teaching can happen anywhere, even in the shade under a tree in the desert. The best equipment and the coziest environment cannot prevent uninspired teachers to sap students’ motivation to learn or undisciplined and frustrated students to undermine teachers’ motivation to teach. But, education is not limited to what happens in a classroom or to the relationship between a teacher and his students. The environment itself plays a significant role in the learning. Here I refer to the Scandinavian school models or the Reggio Emilia approach, where the environment is said to be the "third teacher" the first being the children themselves and the second the teacher or the adults in general.

When one sees the computers, the interactive whiteboards, the high quality ergonomic furniture the well designed architectural details and the exclusive materials, the question must be permitted if these components really shake off old structures and generate a new quality in learning and teaching. Do they make a difference when a classroom has the same proportions as those that were built one hundred and fifty years ago? It's not because everything is new and expensive that it may not be poor.

I don't think that a poor school design in a pedagogical sense is the result of a major communication problem between educators, stakeholders and architects. Their expertise maybe different but unfortunately their visions of school facilities are most of the time very similar. I doubt that most architects, stakeholders and teachers have other tenets to define what a school should look like besides aesthetic architectural considerations like harmony, symmetry, proportions and materials or basic characteristics that most of us consider being intrinsic truths of educational environments which are: 15 to 30 students will have to be instructed in a room separated from other rooms, accessible through one or two doors, with a blackboard at the front or a whiteboard or both, windows on one side, wall cupboards on the other, enough individual seats and worktables for each student and "one" desk for "the" teacher.

Do school planners think of education as a multidimensional collaborative and constructive process? Do they assume that the actors involved may be organized in networks and sub networks and multidimensional hierarchical structures defined by multiple levels of expertise instead of linear top down relationships and centralized instruction? I am convinced that they don't. The internal structure of modern schools and also their surroundings are seldom open to appropriation, in a constructionist perspective. But appropriation may well be a precondition so that the inhabitants of a structure can identify themselves with the environment in which they evolve, learn, interact, and think … In this respect, the German Peter Hübner, who sees "building as a social process" could offer some inspiration for anybody involved in school development and planning. Unfortunately schools are seldom conceived ass social meeting places as he sees them.

At least in Luxembourg we have schools that are disconnected from cultural centers and libraries (if there are any) and we have separate buildings for after school activities and lunchtime. Those buildings are empty during school time, and schools are empty during after school time, as if it were obvious that students need to flee from school after 4 or 6 hours of teaching. In every structure the students meet with a different staff, that has its own separated view on them. We build schools without libraries or open spaces for leisure and after school care structures without surroundings that offer the slightest potential for exploration. We have a ministry for education, one for family and yet another one for culture, and of course we have one for regional planning, one for public building, and last but not least one for environmental planning, but they hardly seem to communicate when it comes to developing a sound vision of educational infrastructures for today and tomorrow.

So far, I cannot but draw the following conclusion: First, for what schools have to offer, they are too expensive. Secondly, the total costs for separated structures are to high and none of them offers the richness and interconnectedness that they should. Finally, if stakeholders persist in believing that it is better to have separated structures for every aspect of education, and if, what we have is the maximum of what one can get for the money that has been spent, then, schools are not expensive enough.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The teacher is a cat

Teachers are like old cats. It's very difficult to teach them new tricks, especially if they feel comfortable using old ones.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

ICT for Schools: What you buy is what you think

When I have a difficult subject to discuss, I sometimes like to start off with a graph to visualise my ideas and the complexity of the subject. The first draft of this one was hand-made. I did it during a discussion I had with teachers about choices of ICT equipment, systems and applications. I argued that you need to have a sound framework for ICT decision-making in education.

Any choice that you can make has multiple reasons and consequences. Decision about ICT in education are always – consciously or unconsciously – based on a theory about and a vision on learning and teaching, media and society. Most of the time people are not conscious about their own theories that are guiding their choices and they rarely have a realistic idea of what effects of their decisions will have on learning, teaching and school organisation for instance.

If you are in favor of a computer lab you have a different view on learning organisation and learning processes than if you prefer distributed equipment. The same is true if you expect a wireless laptop cart to be the best solution for using ICT with your students. If you think you need specialised educational software you probably also have a different view on learning, literacy, instruction and teaching than if you prefer production-oriented software with no predefined content. In case you have a limited budget for equipment, the decision to spend it on interactive whiteboards says something about your teaching concept. It probably differs from the concept someone has, who would prefer to spend the same amount on computers with free software, cameras, camcorders, digital microscopes or robotics sets first. The second fosters simultaneous and autonomous hands on activity by many, the first promotes centralized lecture style activity of one at a time.

Most decision makers have hardly an overview on the short term and long term effects of the decisions they make. Some effects are purely financial or technical. Of course they ought to be considered even if for the moment your budget is big enough.

Some effects are organisational. A computer lab for instance is fine, if you don’t use computers on a daily bases. If the classes who use it are few and if you are near to the lab, you can use it whenever it’s free. If every teacher wants his time share for using the lab and if there are many teachers and classes, they will have access once a week or once every two weeks. If at the assigned time a technical or organisational problem comes up, you will have to come back two weeks later – unfortunately that’s when you had planned your field trip. The same logic applies to mobile systems like laptop carts.

The most important however are the effects on teaching and learning. Do the invest in ICT serve old ideas with new means or are your invests a stepping stone to new educational practices? And, what else is needed to implement new educational practices?

As an educational ICT consultant I have experienced that teachers' views are often guided by considerations of high availability (for themselves and for today), handling, short term productivity, control, fast familiarisation, and technical modernism.

Schoolboards and politicians are focused on costs and social equity, but sometimes, if the salesman has good convincing skills, their hunger for modernism overwhelms their decisions, with the consequence that costly hype equipment is bought without any noticeable effect on education.

Technicians mostly concentrate on reliability, efficiency, maintenance and standardisation, but are also driven by ideology and by the option to take control over the technology and the users.

Architects are generally concerned about budget limits – if equipment is part of the project package – about design issues of cabling and computer furniture.

In the end what is lacking is a sound framework connecting teaching, learning, equipment and software to guide people to choose from all the options that are available.

Which is the dominant learning and teaching style in our school today, and where do we want to go from here? Which technological strategy will help us develop our school? Which are the competencies that our students really need to develop, when we consider that they are three, eight or fifteen years from entering the job market or playing an active part in social, economical or political “adult” life? Which are the competencies that teachers need to develop in order to serve as guides or even role models for their students? What are the implicit and explicit “messages” to the learners and the community, of the different hardware of software solutions that schools can choose from? Are students treated as responsible autonomous learners or are they vessels to fill with information that is expected to morph into knowledge? Do we talk about standards to the learners meaning specific software that “everyone” uses in the office, or do we talk about standards in the sense of information management, communication, non-linear production processes and so forth. Are ethics, authorship and empowerment important aspects of schools considerations, and are they connected to technology, or are technological resources seen as value free “tools”? Is the learner in control of the machine or is the machine in control of the learner? And who controls the machine that controls the learner?

Such questions are never left unanswered even if they are not raised. At least the answers are hidden in the choices schools make regarding hardware, software and distribution of technology.

At times where choices have to been made, my graph doesn’t necessary simplify the task but it helps to critically analyse possible scenarios and describe the interconnectedness of some major layers that maybe considered.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Constructing oral narratives online

Ages ago, I participated in a R&D Project called TEO. I was a primary school teacher then, back in 1994. The project's main objectives were to develop a software to record narratives using a computer, and to use this application to practice oral language skills. The tool was called TEO - meaning Text Editor Oral. It worked under the old MacOS 9.

We used TEO in primary school but tested it also in special needs education and in Kindergarten. In primary school, students aged from 7 to 12 used it to record self invented narratives in French, which is the 3rd language that is taught in Luxembourg from 2nd grade up, after Luxembourgish and German.

In TEO, the narratives could be edited by adding and deleting recording parts, or by rearraging them using drag and drop. Each recording was represented by a simple icon that could be used for these manipulations, there were no complex soundwaves or timelines. The icons were automatically numbered so that you could easily tell if the recordings had been rearranged, if parts had been added or deleted.

The theoretical framework of the project was a constructivist view on second language acquisition, embedded in a multilingual context and based on a concept of 'Storying' - meaning a narrative approach to language production. Collaboration, using and sharing implicit language knowledge, students' voice, self-evaluation, students' control over their productions and autonomy were major tenets of the framework.

The tool was great and so easy to handle, that very young children had no difficulty to work with it without any assistance from elders or adults. The project was e great success, which means that students made enormous progress in oral French without a lot of instructive teaching. They eagerly constructed narratives with the knowledge they shared and were not at all afraid of expressing themselves in a language they hardly mastered, mainly because they were not forced to speak in front a class and they had full control over their recordings. If they were not satisfied with the sentence they produced they could just drop it and have another try without leaving traces of "failure". Anyone knows that this is reassuring but you seldom work under such conditions in school.

Of course you could misuse the application for drill and practice exercises but the overall project's framework and the teachers' views on language acquisition prevented such an approach.

The project lasted one year and was documented in a written report, three videos showing children at work and a multimedia CD-Rom explaining and illustrating the framework. Unfortunately the documentations haven't been reedited yet or put online, so that they aren't available any more except for my own report of that time which can be found online on my other website.

After the official R&D project was over, two additional Windows PC versions had been developed with the funding of two other projects, and a few teachers continued to work with it although the PC version was hardly running stable. There was no large scale implementation, promotion or distribution of it after that.

TEO was not forgotten but it didn't last long as nobody seemed to be interested to finance software maintenance in order keep pace with the development of operating systems, and software libraries. But that's the way things often go with R&D projects.

In the early years of EducDesign we wanted to develop a new version of the application for the Ministry of Education in Luxembourg but we got no funding for that either, so we finally decided to do it on our own.

Instead of TEO we called it Tiparlo which in Italian means "I speak to you". We created an online browser based version of the tool and added also some great new features like export into mp3, adding images and comments and setting access rights. It works fine with most common browser in their latest versions. Up until this year Tiparlo could not be used independently of a global OLEFA CMS/IMS based Website in which Tiparlo is part of an online software suite called Collaboration Server which contains other modules like Storyboard, Painter, Webbook and Wiki.
As some people asked us if there was no other way to get it, because they had no support from their schoolboard or the Ministry of Education to get an OLEFA based website, we decided to give it a try and offer Tiparlo separately. Well, it's online now and it can be found at

Its main objective is still to encourage authentic oral expression, communication and language reflection. Tiparlo is very helpful to keep track of someone’s language development or second language acquisition. It fosters cooperation and autonomy, peer tutoring, learning from one another, self-evaluation and critical thinking.

Tiparlo is perfect for minimal invasive language "teaching" and for second language acquisition in multilingual contexts where students share their explicit and implicit language knowledge in meaningful situations.

I know that a lot of teachers would prefer closed applications where students listen to phrases and words, repeat them and get a right or wrong, and a score. With such tools students can also work on their own and you don't need to spend to much time on their productions. The number of rights and wrongs says everything you need to know. But that's not the way I like to promote IT in school.

With Tiparlo it's different. It's not the teacher or the tool that controls the production and the learning but the students themselves. To evaluate the learning processes, you need listen to the narratives, consider the context in which the production process took place and have a discussion with your students. Now and then it may be interesting to film or to record the discussions among the students during the production process. Not with the "big brother is listening" approach but with permission of the authors, if you want to get a somehow authentic work and have a respectful relationship with your students. Such "teaching" demands a lot of effort, much more that if you use closed ready made applications, but the results are worth it and have much more impact on the language acquisition progress than forever popular drill and kill exercises, which in my view are an insult to the intelligence and the creativity of children, who always prove to be born language learners when embedded in a language rich context.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jacques Duez : The pleasure of the real questions

I have completed the list of the interview transcripts below, that have been published on the website on
  • 01 - le chemin pour devenir professeur de morale
  • 02 - l’invention d’une pratique vidéo avec les enfants
  • 03 - ne pas garder de savoir en réserve
  • 04 - la caméra introduit de la distance
  • 05 - rencontrer l’humanité à travers un écran
  • 06 - la correspondance comme effet de montage
  • 07 - une égale capacité à dire ce que l'on ressent
  • 08 - le savoir et le vivant
  • 09 - paroles de proximité, paroles populaires
  • 10 - l'existence de ceux qui ont la parole
  • 11 - les rencontres avec des artistes
  • 12 - le plaisir des vraies questions
  • 13 - problèmes des retrouvailles
  • 14 - sauver sa peau face au pouvoir
  • 15 - l’univers infini des personnages
  • 16 - ne pas faire du journalisme
  • 17 - être vivant, se casser la figure, faire ce que l’on ne peut pas (published sept. 7th 2010)

I find chapter 12 very interesting and also funny. Translated it's entitled "the pleasure of the real questions" It includes a reply to to a child saying "Jacques, with you we haven't learned anything." - absolutely great!
I reminds me of a situation where Frank Trierweiler and I coached a group of teachers who were supposed to reflect on an evaluate their teaching strategies and concepts. In the final session one of the teachers said that she hadn't learned anything out of all this. I don't remember my reply but I remember that I was frustrated. Jacques in his situation wasn't. Read it for yourself it's worth it.

The picture has been taken by Christian Schwarz during the evening dedicated to Jacques Duez on April 15th. Thanks to you Christian.

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain

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