Educator and technology futurist, Frances Valintine, describes teachers creating and facilitating learning opportunities that tap learner passion and agency. How does technology create new and empowering ways for teachers to create possibilities for learners and allow teachers to focus on the ever-extending human needs of students?
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley ponders out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding and my curiosity is piqued whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’M delighted you’re here.
Steve: 00:35 Teaching, learning and technology. Many educators in New Zealand have had the opportunity to learn through the work of our guests today, Frances Valintine. She’s the founder of the Mind Lab and the Tech Futures Lab and the author of a new book that I’m in the middle of reading and I’d recommend it to you, “Future You.” Welcome Frances.
Frances: 00:57 Hi, Steve. Great to be here.
Steve: 00:59 I’m wondering if you’d start by telling us some of the things that educators who work with you are learning and applying.
Frances: 01:08 So the main focus of the teachers who work with us are doing postgraduate studies with us, most of them in the latter stages of their career. So the average teacher in New Zealand is 55 and female, very similar to in the US and they haven’t really had formal education for somewhere between 20 and 30 years. So the piece that they find the most intimidating is digital, the whole digital revolution and technology. So our focus is around leadership and digital. And so what we’ve found is, if you bring those two together and build confidence with teachers and actually enable them to realize they don’t have to be the expert, that actually all they have to do is facilitate, then actually they whole teaching pedagogy can completely change and they can really focus on the learning outcomes using technology or using the tools that young people love to use.
Steve: 02:02 My read, having been in this field for a lot of years, is that one of the things technology did in many cases, was open the door for teacher and learner to do some role switching. So in many cases, technology allowed the teacher to step back and the student who frequently was ahead on some of the technologies from their teachers, the teachers who were comfortable switching roles, had a great opportunity that in many ways advanced the student’s interest.
Frances: 02:40 Yeah. And if I look at one of our key programs that we deliver, the first session that we have if we have teachers on site, in person, is we start off by saying, there is no instructions in our lessons. So actually we are gonna be talking about things, problems to solve and opportunities to learn. And so, if you imagine you’re in a class with 30 people and you’ll say, we’re gonna make a hovercraft. And then you say, here are the things that we have at our disposal and you have a whole bunch of things in front of you. And it’s like, okay, so the competition – you always want a competition with teachers. We all like healthy competition, is to get self forming teams. So you can be a two person team or a 10 person team – doesn’t matter.
Frances: 03:25 But it’s the first person who can get one of these paper plates to hover. Go for it. Now it’s so interesting when you see teachers and they look and say, are you crazy? Like, how are we gonna get a plate to hover? Like, what is this? And of course, you’ll have enough people in the class who go hang on – I know the basic scientific principles of how you might get a paper plate to hover off the ground. And let’s see what we have. And, oh, look, there’s some little motors here and there’s some batteries and actually, within about 10 minutes, there’s this hive of activity like everybody, and everyone’s looking at each other, like who’s winning the race? Within about 30 minutes, you start getting people for the first prototypes. They’re starting to test things and you know, is it working and know that’s not working.
Frances: 04:09 So they’re iterating and they’re changing and then eventually someone cracks it and someone goes, Woo! The plate is
hovering. Now they’ve had no instructions, but they’ve had a massive learning opportunity. They’ve built confidence, they’ve collaborated, they’ve laughed and actually there’s a lot of learning. It’s at that moment and the reason we do it on the very first day, and it may not be a hover hovering plate, it might be a solar car or something similar, is it reminds them what it feels like to be a student. And then there’s this recognition of gosh, well, when’s the last time my classroom was at much of a high activity and productivity and laughter and then sometimes they realize that actually, when you are actively involved and you don’t have all the answers and you have to figure it out, there’s a massive learning
opportunity that can be incredibly enjoyable.
Frances: 04:58 And for the teachers who are bold enough to reflect, you’ll often hear them say, it’s like, wow, I don’t think I’ve heard that level of laughter and enjoyment and learning for a long time in my classroom. And then we sort of turn around saying, well, let’s make that a normal process of let’s make sure that your classroom, that you can help facilitate learning. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching five year olds or 15 year olds or 25 year olds, but actually let’s make sure that everybody has the ability to be involved with their learning. And if, for example, you’re learning about the life of a camel, what would we want to know about that camel? So pull the questions from the class. Some will have some basic knowledge and someone might say, what’s the difference between a camel with one hump and two humps?
Frances: 05:48 That would be a one discovery inquiry question. Someone might say, what do they eat? You know, someone might say, do they really store water in the humps? And someone else will say, well, only live in Africa and someone might go, well, I’m not sure that’s true. And so you get all the questions together and then you start thinking about how would we divvy up those answers to the kids in the way they like to learn? So you could say, well, how could we find out these answers to these questions as a group? And someone might say, oh, we could go to the school library. And they say, well, who would like to go to the school library? And you might get two who say, yeah, I’d like to. So, right, well, that’s your job. And someone else might say, well, I’ll go to the zoo.
Frances: 06:27 This weekend, I can go down and see the zookeeper who looks after the camels. And someone’s like, oh, that’s a great idea. Let’s get a few of us and we’ll go to the zoo this weekend and we’ll find out in person. Someone else says, well, I can do the Google search. It’s like, okay, you do that. And someone says, oh, my neighbor, they love animals. I’ll go see what they know. And then you bring it back. And suddenly you have students who have discovered the answers through a process they chose, sort of a self-driven process of self selection. I like to do it this way. And then collaborating back into a classroom where everyone is learning different ways and they can see the different types of learning
that’s come to bring it together.
Frances: 07:09 The great thing about that by having a few students in each group is they’re also self-correcting. So if somebody comes up with a crazy idea, that’s saying, oh, there’s a type of camel that’s got three legs. You’re gonna have someone go, actually, no, no. Well, you try to find me the evidence of that and they realize it’s not true, which develops other skills as well around fact checking and actually saying, well, Facebook told me it’s true, well, hang on. How do we know that that’s true? So you layer in all these learning opportunities into a session, and that can be done in almost any subject area at any age group, but it is about that facilitation that actually makes the learning a little more messy. It’s not structured, it’s not perfectly formed, but at the other end, if you talk to the students, they will remember every part of that process and they’ll have the knowledge that they set out to discover in the first place.
Steve: 08:09 So as I was listing, I jotted down two words or three words. The first one is two words is a phrase, is that learning opportunity. I’ve been proposing to people that our old vocabularies don’t fit. So the idea of planning a lesson or planning instruction, an administrator plan to observe instruction, those words don’t seem to fit. It’s it’s really, how does the teacher design a learning opportunity? So the driving word I use is that it’s the student learning production behaviors. So it’s what the student does that causes the learning outcome so that the job of the teacher is to create that learning opportunity.
Frances: 08:54 Absolutely. And look, the learning opportunity starts by putting your feet out of your bed in the morning onto the floor. You start another day of learning opportunity. And even between that process and getting to school, there are learning opportunities. It’s about getting on your bike and cycling and meeting your friends and avoiding the dog on the road and stopping to buy something at the shop. All of those are parts of this learning and I think that we need to move away from this idea that learning comes from a book or learning comes from these various structural lessons or they come from sitting exams, because actually, that’s not learning. And in many cases like exams, you could argue that’s memory only. And so for some people that’s wonderful, but for me, that actually is an immediate failure because they know that that’s just not the way they learn.
Steve: 09:44 The other word I jotted down was facilitation. I’m working with the district right now in the states that has actually dropped the word teacher out of the district vocabulary and put in facilitator. So the people are called facilitators when they write a note there, they talk about our facilitators. And one of the one of the leaders in the district just wrote a blog that I’m gonna be posting, but I realize I’m gonna have to put an explanatory sentence at the beginning because throughout her whole blog, she’s talking about what the facilitators are doing. And there’d be a bunch of people reading this, not understanding that she’s talking about what most people are calling the teacher in the classroom, but in their work in that district, they describe that role as facilitator.
Frances: 10:36 And look, there is a lot of ego attached to a term teacher. So I imagine it wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of people saying, well, I did all of the hard yards and heavy lifting to earn that degree as a teacher. And now as a facilitator, is it taking away the prestige of being a teacher? But I think it’s about relatability. I mean, if I look at job titles today across all sectors, they mean very different things and people have got all sorts of new, wonderful job titles. And so I think part of the problem when you have a term that has basically been around for a long time, we have these sort of general views of what we imagine a teacher to be. And actually, I think they have moved a long way away from that.
Frances: 11:19 Teachers do far more than teach. They are involved with the mental health of their kids, the physical health of their kids, their aspirations of what they want to become. They’re guiding them, they’re mentors. They do so many things. And in a way, it’s selling them short by calling them a teacher, which suggests in the good old days, you stood in front the blackboard and you talk and teach how to do arithmetic. So maybe it’s time for a new name. The general what you’re saying, a facilitator to me is what they are. They’re coaching, facilitating and bringing the best out of their students. And I think it’s a great privilege that we have people who want to do this. I mean, I’m in awe of teachers. I mean, constantly, the work they do on so many levels, but actually the terminology is probably a little bit limiting to the full scope of what they do.
Steve: 12:11 The facilitator, in my mind, facilitator is almost a promotion from teaching.
Frances: 12:18 Yeah. I guess it’ll come back to some people I think would see that differently…
Steve: 12:21 Yeah. Oh, I’m sure. That’s what I’m saying. But it’s almost like if, as you move into a leadership role in any organization, you
take on increasing facilitation of the work that people are doing rather than the actual delivery of it. And that’s how I imagine it in my head. There’s a piece that jumped out to me – you triggered me for my history but way back when technology was first beginning to show up in classrooms, I worked with the with the dean of a university who first started putting the phrase out to teachers that some teachers were seeing themselves challenged by technology, a sense that technology was taking their place. And the picture that he put in front of them was begin to consider technology as a co-teacher. So if the two working side by side, what are the things that the technology can do that now free you up to take on this other whole new role? And that’s what I see people discovering as they move into that facilitator role. I used to have to deliver this knowledge to the kids, and now there’s all these other places they can go get that. So that frees me up to step into this next higher design level.
Frances: 13:46 Yeah. And look, I think that technology is no more taking a job away from a teacher than a giving a hammer to a builder as taking away their tool. I mean, it’s a tool. Technology is a tool of the 21st century and it’s a very useful tool because it actually enables us to do things that we could never do before, particularly around collaboration and sharing and backup and extension of learning. And if you’ve got bright kids, they can go so much further if you give them scope to do that, because they’ve got access to a very much a democratized education system globally now online. So it is a great tool and we should never be fearful of something that actually makes our job easier and more time to be human, and to provide that care and nurture and support for the students that we’re there to teach.
Steve: 14:31 Which is the piece that technology is…
Frances: 14:34 Really bad at
Steve: 14:38 Yeah. I place a lot of value on questions. So I’m wondering if you’ve got a thought about what are some questions teachers
should be asking themselves as they look at technology and learning and then maybe there’s some questions they should be asking kids.
Frances: 14:57 I think a question to ask kids is, as a teacher, a very brave teacher, I have to say, but a good teacher would be, what should I do less of?
Frances: 15:07 But also explaining. So it’s not designed to say less teaching. It’s about letting the kids come forward and saying, well, these are the things that don’t really work and then, what should we do more of? Because actually, as a collective, then you start to get real insight of what’s working and what’s not. And then what I always find when you have these open ended questions, is you discover a lot more than you give credit to people for. I mean, I know that there’s teachers I’ve talked to about this and they might be teaching eight year olds and they’re saying, well, what does an eight year old really know about what I should do less of? And then they’ve come back and said, wow, actually they’re much more informed about how they learn and the way they learn and when it’s good and when it’s not so good than I ever imagined. There there’s an awareness of their own learning.
Frances: 15:57 And so I think it is about having that ability to have trust that it’s not about always being right. It’s this idea that even as a teacher or a parent, you have to be open to learning, yourself, because actually, sometimes, this idea of I have to be right, is really self limiting. And it means you don’t have the chance to evolve over time and actually see that perhaps you’ve become stale in your practice and actually perhaps doing things that are almost on autopilot, but are actually not that rewarding either for yourself as a teacher or for the students, because you know, nothing on autopilot feels great. It’s just a process it’s rinse and repeat, and nobody wants to be there. So it’s about saying, okay, why do I do it that way? Knowing I’m not having great enjoyment doing this again and again, and what will I do differently? So turn that question back to the students and say, what do you love and what should we do more of?
Steve: 17:00 I like it. So close us out here. I’m gonna head back to your technology futurist title. A picture that that teachers might be be pondering of what could be down the road?
Frances: 17:20 I think there is many new forms of learning that we’re going to be facing. The one thing that COVID taught most of the world is that actually, face to face learning is not the only way to learn and we have now have developed different modalities and different styles and online is clearly going to be the winner. There’s going to be a lot more investment in types of online learning that moves far away from this idea of a Zoom call or a hangout. And actually, we will start to move increasingly into virtual worlds. We’ll start to have groups that people can be self facilitating and self-forming groups where you’ll start getting centers of excellence. And within classes you might, instead of teaching all the kids at the same time, at the same age group in the same year, I think there’s gonna be a move towards topics and subjects and people will, self-select the level that they’re at.
Frances: 18:18 And so you get that extension at the top, but you’d also get the chance to spend more time if you’re not quite understanding it. I’ve really struggled for a long time to understand why we teach every child who’s 12 years old the same way, when some of them have really strong, they might be incredibly technical and mathematics and science comes naturally and they want to be extended, and yet you’ve got a whole bunch of people in the class who are really struggling to get the basic concepts. Online enables you to actually separate up by topics and levels and we’ll start to see specialists within the education system, even within a school, we’ll start having this ability to think about the individual student and where they fit, as opposed to putting them all into the same class and saying, well, you are all born that year so therefore you should all be learning the same way.
Steve: 19:05 I’m kinda painting a picture in my mind of teachers working for a school could have very different roles and kids may be working with several different teachers and combined roles. So I have an online teacher facilitator that’s working with me in this specialty area while I still may be in this third grade classroom. I have a special interest, so I’m working over here with that person. And those teachers together are in effect putting the students’ educational plan forward.
Frances: 19:39 Yeah. And I think it could even be that they’re out in different schools. It could just be almost platforms where there are rockstar teachers and they can teach concepts so beautifully and you might have a class online with a hundred kids with that rockstar teacher who’s teaching chemistry because actually, it’s really hard to get good chemistry teachers, but that person, everybody goes to. But actually, when it’s in English, actually somebody is like really struggling and you have a sort of a class that is catch up and kind of key principles of English language or whatever it might be. And that has a smaller group of people who are working together. I think that we’ll start to understand that you don’t have to have the system everyone moving through in the same way.
Frances: 20:20 And actually, as we better understand the mix between online and real life and blended learning, we’ll start to get those benefits right across into our students. But I think it’s the way that we think about adults, how we learn. We go and find the knowledge we need from the personal place that suits us at the level that we’re at. We do it all the time. So if I want to go and learn about quantum mechanics and I’m a beginner, I go and find a beginner class online of somebody who can teach me that and I’m with people who are always also beginners. And I don’t go in saying, excuse me, how old are you? Is this the right class for me? So, we do it once we’re out of the school system. We literally match ourselves with what we need. We need to bring that back and have that ability without having to go into a private elite system in a public school system, to be able to work in the same way and find the knowledge at the level where you start from so you can progress forward through the system and get the learning outcomes in the success that we all hope every single student will have.
Steve: 21:24 Well, Frances, I’ve really appreciated the the conversation with you. Could you take a moment and tell folks how they can follow up and connect with you?
Frances: 21:33 Sure. You can find my website – so one is techfutureslab.com. And the other one is the MindLab, which is our main education site, themindlab.com. And then I’m available as Frances Valintine on LinkedIn or on Instagram.
Steve: 21:48 Thank you and ‘ll be sure to post that in the lead-in to the podcast. Appreciate your time today and your thinking.
Frances: 21:55 Thanks, Steve. It’s great to be here.
Steve [Outro]: 21:59 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.