Learning in the cloud…

‘Where do our families live?’ ‘Where do we go after school?’ ‘Where do we play and do homework?’

Aditya, Diya, Jayesh, Vishaka, Sairaj and the other children with whom I connect weekly via Skype in Granny Cloud sessions, are generating questions, the answer to which is ‘home’. I’ve written before about this Grade 6 class and their school and about the special opportunity I had to meet them in person. This session is a follow-up from last week’s introduction to children’s rights, for which I have googled a Marathi translation, before checking the accuracy with them – मुलांचे हक्क.

Are homes the same everywhere in the world? We look at images of homes, an igloo, a mud hut, a house on the water, a tree house and an underground house (Coober Pedy, Australia) and the children wonder who built these houses, where they are, who lives in them, what materials were used, how they are accessed. Aditya wonders if there is oxygen in the underground house. Atharva asks what would happen if the tree (in which the house is bulit) fell down. Gaurauv asks if I live in an underground house (it’s in Australia, after all) and I take my laptop to the window to show them the garden.

As always, I delight in the fact that the children who once stared blankly back at me from the screen, a strange looking woman talking a foreign language they did not understand, now chat confidently, ask questions, make jokes, think and laugh with me.

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The other group with whom I currently engage is at a government girls high school in urban Delhi, relatively close to the original office from which Sugata Mitra began his Hole in the Wall experiments, a school that has been involved in his experiments ever since.

Anshika, Priya, Shivani and the others choose the song ‘I have a Dream’ to sing for me and I ask what dreams they have. ‘I want to be a politician so that I can reduce poverty’, one girl says confidently.  One girl dreams of being a doctor, another wants to be a soldier to protect her people and a third hopes to teach the poor who don’t have access to education. Nazreen dreams of being a singer but her parents have forbidden it for religious reasons. Nikita dreams of being a famous singer too… so that she can make money and buy her parents a house and help other less fortunate people.

In the middle of one such session recently, I receive an unexpected call from a Skype number that’s been in my contacts for years. I’m incredulous to see Gouri, whom I have not seen for six years, since she engaged in Granny Cloud sessions as a lively teenager, in the rural village of Shirgaon, in Maharashtra.

Gouri has been selected by the BBC as one of 2016’s 100 inspiring women and camera men lurk discreetly in the background for a news piece as she and I re-engage after all this time. We talk about what we’re doing now and what we remember from the old days, in particular a series of interactions in which she and her classmates talked and sang with a group of Grade 6 students at my school in Australia. (I still recall their wonderful reflections from 2010!) This lovely, poised young woman is an impressive ambassador for the Granny Cloud project.

I marvel at the simplicity of an idea that is so powerful in its implementation. I wonder what Jayesh and Digvijay, Anshika and Farheen will be doing six years from now. And I imagine who they might become in the future…

Kids communicating with kids…

“Hands on heads. Now shoulders. Where are your shoulders? Well done!”

This is the first time Jess and Tyler, two Aussie Year 6 students interact via Skype with preschoolers at KNB, Phaltan, as part of the Granny Cloud project. The little ones on the other side stare wide eyed at these two strangers on the screen. Who knows what they they are thinking!

On the Phaltan side, the session is facilitated by 13 year old Shruti, whose English and computer skills were enhanced by her own Granny Cloud experiences over a number of years. She confidently guides, encourages and translates as required. This is part of an experiment to introduce this kind of exposure at a much younger age to gauge its impact.

After a while, the children begin to warm up and join in, first one, then another, as Jess and Tyler slowly introduce the body parts and sing the song “Heads and Shoulders, knees and toes’. Their excitement is evident through their muttered exchange of observations in between… ‘Heads and shoulders… the one in white is joining in!.. knees and toes… oh wow look at the little one in the middle!.. heads and shoulders…they’re getting it!… knees and toes… look, look they’re all doing it!!…'” It’s an adrenalin rush that I recognise from my own Granny Cloud sessions, even now after all these years, that comes from a rewarding exchange with children when you see it’s going well and they are responding.”

After the session I ask the girls what surprised them. “How quickly they caught on. It was really awesome that we got to teach them. Can’t wait till next week!” And from the other side? Prassana, who’s researching the effects of early interactions of this kind: “It was wonderful. The little ones warmed up so quickly” And a text exchange between the girls…

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Self challenge: A post a day for a week #2

A different workshop…

These are a few of the delightful children with whom I regularly interact via Skype from Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan, an unusually egalitarian school in Phaltan, Maharashtra in India…

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It’s my first time visiting KNB and I’m excited to meet ‘my kids’ in person, but before the school year starts, the teachers gather for some of their own learning. I’m grateful for the opportunity to lead a workshop here and share learning with this dedicated group. It will be an introduction to the ideas of Ron Ritchhart and Visible Thinking, something completely new for them.

I head into the session far more nervously than usual, uncertain what to expect in terms of their level of English and their openness to different ways of thinking… but mostly concerned that, without being able to understand their conversations,  I might not get a sense of what connections to help them make, how to shift thinking forward or what to reinforce.

My fears turn out to be unfounded. There is enough English in the room for mutual understanding, be it via valiant attempts at self expression, translation by those who do speak English or facial expressions and body language.

There are so many things that make this a unique and special experience for me…

I love the way most of those speaking in Marathi still make eye contact with me (not the person translating), and I can sense the passion as they talk about their school, even if I don’t understand the words.

I like the fact that a small sprinkling of English words in the midst of the Marathi, along with intonation and facial expression, are often enough for me to get the gist of what they are saying.

I’m delighted by the fact that when I am talking, even though I know they are concentrating hard to understand me, I can see the light dancing in their eyes, because they are excited by the ideas I am sharing.

I love the warmth with which they welcome me, their obvious desire to learn, as well as their pride in their school and everything it stands for.

I’m humbled by the opportunity to share learning in a context so different from the well resourced schools at which I usually work and to observe first hand that the most important resources are not ones that money can buy.

I note with interest that in this outwardly simple seeming, rural school, powerful beliefs, not just about learning but about humanity underpin every single thoughtful thing that happens. (Read more about it here)

I remind myself again that, even at my age, after so many years of experience, there is always so much to learn…

Tomorrow I meet ‘my kids’!

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My first experience of a thinking routine in Marathi!

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Instant communication and twice yearly report cards…

I am a ‘cloud granny’ , ever appreciative of the miracle of instant global connection which technology affords us…

Usually when I write about the Granny Cloud, it’s in the context of Mitra’s School in the Cloud.

Cloud ‘Grannies’ all over the world (people of all ages and genders) interact regularly and electronically with kids in a range of settings, currently mostly in India, but expanding to other countries too. As these sessions unfold, it’s rewarding to observe the children’s confidence grow, English improve and computer skills develop.

And I am also a ‘real’ Cloud Granny…

When my kids were little, we would take photos of their latest achievements, wait till the film was developed and then mail the prints a week later to the grandparents overseas. By the time they were received, the photos were out of date.

skypegrannyToday, I wake up to a series of photos and videos of 15 month old Shai’s latest antics. By mid afternoon in my time zone, I can expect the inevitable ‘Skype? ‘ message and I hear him laughing before we can even see each other on the screen.

The lovely teacher at Shai’s day care has set up a private Facebook page, where she posts photos and messages of the daily activities, so parents and (even faraway) grandparents can enjoy seeing the children playing, learning and interacting. It’s a joy to observe Shai’s love of animals on the day the animal lady comes and to watch his progress as he gradually learns to join in with the older children in musical and art activities.

So…

Why is it that, in this day and age of instant communication, schools and parents still expect the kind of report card suited to another era? 

Why do report cards traditionally go out twice a year, when there are endless ways teachers and learners can, and do, communicate their learning throughout the year?

Why do teachers spend great chunks of time reporting in a summative way on a final report, when formative assessment, goals and ‘feed forward’ during the year are so much more valuable?

Why don’t teachers, parents and learners share the learning via online portfolios, easily accessible throughout the year, demonstrating process, progress and final product, with facility for reflection by students, feedback by parents and ‘feedforward’ by teachers? (Let me know if you have a great system, we’re working towards it.)

Why don’t learners communicate their learning more with parents and the wider world through the many possible channels available online?

Why do governments and school administrators continue to dictate not just the existence of report cards, but often the format and parameters they should fit?

Why don’t we abandon report cards altogether?

Now, to prepare for the meeting in which we will review our reports and do our best to make them fit expectations and requirements…

Letting learning happen…

Knowing is obsolete.

Teachers may no longer be needed.

Could it be that you don’t need to go to school at all?

If you’ve watched Sugata Mitra’s TED talks, you’ll have heard him deliver these and other similarly provocative statements that challenge the notion of school as most people know it. Wherever his work is mentioned, responses range from highly positive to even more highly critical to quite rude. For every teacher excited by his ideas, there are several who find them insubstantial, objectionable or downright threatening. For me, this is part of the charm!

My favourite line from his ‘School in the Cloud’ TED talk is this:

“It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen”… THIS is the key.

Whether or not you choose to believe that schools will change (or, gasp, become obsolete); whether you believe that teachers are instructors, facilitators, guides or not required at all…

Are you ready to acknowledge that children are able to learn by themselves?

Have you taken steps to release control and encourage your students to take ownership of their learning?

Are you ‘letting learning happen’? 

I’ve followed Sugata’s work since the early days and his ‘hole-in-the-wall’ experiments influenced the thinking of thousands of teachers, by highlighting the possibilities of student driven learning. In the video below, he talks about the current status of the School in the Cloud project, his wish that won the 2013 million dollar TED prize.

I’ve met Sugata in person and enjoyed his tongue in cheek sense of humour and the way he cheerfully pokes fun, so I find his closing words amusing…

What would it be like if we had the kind of world where if you asked a child ‘Do you go to school?’ he says ‘I don’t know’?…well, think about that”.

When I once showed my elderly mother photos of learning in the school at which I work, it didn’t look at all like school to her. I sincerely hope that when my great-grandchildren go to school (if indeed school still exists), it won’t look anything like school today.

For now, I’m excited to be working with teachers and learners in these changing times, exploring inquiry learning, provoking thinking, pushing boundaries, challenging the notion of school as it used to be and ‘letting learning happen‘.

And I’m even more excited to be part of the learning in Sugata’s ‘School in the Cloud’.

I’ve been a member of the ‘granny cloud’ for a number of years, interacting with children in a range of settings in India and, along with the other ‘grannies’ (including people of both genders and all ages!) supporting Suneeta (Research Director of the School in the Cloud) who’s been instrumental in keeping this project alive, breathing life into it during even the most challenging times.

Yesterday marked the opening of the first ‘School in the Cloud’ in India, at a government girls’ school in Delhi, a stone’s throw from the site of the first hole-in-the-wall, and I was there (well, only on the screen), not just observing, but playing an active role.

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As always in these sessions, the children started off a little reticent, quiet, filled with awe… but soon they were chatting and smiling and even singing for me.

It didn’t matter that there were other people in the room – Suneeta, the media, visitors, Sugata and his crew – I was unaware of them as I engaged with the kids.

It didn’t matter that screen-sharing wasn’t working properly. The cloud grannies are used to abandoning plans and improvising.

It didn’t matter that the girls are unfamiliar with Skype and didn’t know where to type their names, when I didn’t quite understand their accents. They will figure it out next time.

It’s been a while since I last interacted with kids in the SOLES and I am really happy to be back. It’s exciting to be part of Sugata’s vision of learning and I’m ready to ‘let learning happen‘…