Q: Firstly, congratulations on winning the NEXT Foundation Expert Teacher Award. What do you think gave you the edge over your fellow graduates?
A: Thank you. That’s a hard question to answer, as the other teachers nominated for the award were inspirational, exceptional practitioners. In terms of my coursework, I made sure that what I focused on for assignments was directly related to my practice. I aimed to focus my learning on what was relevant to my class, and their increased engagement was reflected in the assignments I submitted.

The selection committee carried out a phone interview with each of the teachers nominated for the award as part of the decision-making process. When I heard that I would have a phone interview in which I would talk about my teaching practice, I asked whether it was possible to instead have a Skype interview. I felt that the best way to share my practice is to show examples of it, so I put together a presentation and shared this during my interview. This presentation showed examples of innovative teaching practice. The process of creating the presentation helped me to clarify my thinking on how my practice had been enhanced as a result of The Mind Lab course. Going above and beyond what was asked of me had a direct impact on my selection as the NEXT Foundation Expert Teacher Award winner.

Q: What prompted you to join The Mind Lab course (Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice – Digital and Collaborative Learning)?
A: I still remember the first time I saw a flyer advertising The Mind Lab. It had a picture of a child and a laptop, with the quote, “I’m not the child you were trained to teach.” Although I was only trained nine years ago, so much has changed since then. Nine years ago there were no iPhones, no iPads, no Chromebooks, no Minecraft. 3D printers and coding were unheard of in schools. Rather than feeling threatened by new and emerging technologies, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of these technologies and learn how to harness their power to transform student learning.

In addition to this, Campbells Bay School, where I was employed when I began The Mind Lab course, was in the process of building a Modern Learning Environment (MLE). As I learned from Mark Osborne at Core Education, a Modern Learning Environment is simply an environment designed to facilitate modern learning. I felt that I needed to gain a better understanding of what modern learning was, and what it actually looked like in practice. As well as the professional development that the staff were undergoing in relation to this, I felt that The Mind Lab course would enhance my understanding of future-focused learning, and my ability to effectively teach within an MLE.

Q: What did the course entail?
A: It is a 32-week blended learning programme split into two stages, each of 16 weeks. The first stage comprises weekly four hour face-to-face sessions at The Mind Lab, combined with online support materials accessed via a multimedia portal. The second stage of the course is primarily online, with occasional face-to-face support sessions.

Personally, I found the first 16-week block the most helpful, as knowledge and skills learned were able to be applied to classroom practice straight away, and this application formed the basis of the assessments. The second 16-week block, undertaken via distance learning, was a good introduction to further postgraduate study, but not quite as hands-on as the first block.

Assessment allows for video, photography, blogs or visual diaries of applied practice as an alternative to traditional documentation of learning through written essays.

Q: In what ways has the Mind Lab course impacted on your teaching? Has it challenged perceived ideas? Inspired you to take different approaches in the classroom?
A: The Mind Lab course has helped me to become more aware of the challenges that my learners will face when they leave school and enter the workforce. Studies predict that almost 50 per cent of the jobs people are currently employed to do won’t exist in 20 years. In 20 years’ time, my current class of year 1 students will be 25. They will be completing their tertiary study and beginning their careers. Digital technology will look totally different from what it looks like today.

When I first considered this, my initial response was fear. It made me question whether my job was safe, and secondly whether what I was teaching would help my students thrive in an unknown, ever-changing world. Tony Wagner, an education expert, talks about the disconnect between the skills employers are looking for in employees, and the skills which schools actually develop in their learners. After researching Tony Wagner’s work, I have made a concerted effort to develop the seven survival skills that Wagner believes are essential for 21st century learners:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
  5. Effective oral and written communication
  6. Accessing and analysing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination.

As the name suggests, the course is focused on both digital and collaborative learning. While digital literacy is of increasing importance, the ability to collaborate with others is a necessary skill in every workplace. As a result of The Mind Lab course, I have a stronger focus on engaging my students in learning experiences such as group learning challenges that promote critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving.

I also aim to develop agility and adaptability in my students, as the rapid rate of change requires students to be able to adapt to life in an unknown world. Rather than giving me a list of apps/websites/programmes/ideas to implement in my class, The Mind Lab course created a shift in my mindset that caused me to reconsider and re-evaluate the effectiveness of my teaching practice.

Q: Why do you think it is important for teachers to incorporate digital technology into contemporary teaching practice?
A: Substituting traditional ways of learning with digital technology doesn’t always enhance learning. Using a digital projector over an OHP, a word processor over a pencil, and an eBook over a physical book can have some benefit to student learning. Incorporating digital technology as a substitution tool has a limited, and sometimes negative, impact on student learning. If I was teaching an art lesson on painting landscapes, I would get my class to paint with a paintbrush, exploring line, texture and shape. I would let them experiment with colours and tones, mixing colours before selecting the perfect fit. I would not teach painting using digital technology such as an iPad app, where children could select the background colour, use auto-fill, then choose objects for their “painting”. The learning that comes through experimenting is of much greater value than the finished product.

It is the thoughtful, considered use of digital technology to transform learning that makes a difference. The SAMR model is a helpful way of assessing the effectiveness of using digital technology. If a task is not enhanced by the use of digital technology, there is no need to use it. However, if digital technology allows for the creation of new tasks with significant benefit to the learner, then it would be senseless not to take advantage of this. In my own practice, the use of blogs (using the Blogger Jr app) has transformed the way that learning is shared. Physical portfolios, which showed students’ best work and were shared with parents at parent-teacher interviews twice a year, have been replaced with an individual blog page. My year 1 students are emerging writers, so the focus is on sharing learning visually or using video rather than in a written format. Students take photos of the learning process or create video reflections after completing a piece of work, then upload these to their blogs. Blog posts are reflective, ongoing, show the learning process over time, and the work posted is student-selected. Parents have instant access to their child’s learning, which provides the opportunity for rich discussion of learning at home. Student blogs also give the opportunity for overseas family and friends to keep connected to school learning, which was not possible using the portfolio model.

There are many other reasons to incorporate digital technology into the classroom, such as: improved relevance to digital natives; seamless home-school learning; enhanced ability to cater to diverse learning needs; preparation for the ‘real world’; enhanced access to information; global learning opportunities (e.g. Skyping children in countries you are learning about); reduced cost of resources (e.g. purchasing an eBook over a physical book).
The most important thing is not whether teachers are incorporating digital technology into teaching practice, but whether the incorporation of digital technology enhances and transforms student learning.

Q: Did the course provide an opportunity for networking with other teachers and a chance to bounce ideas off each other?
A: My only reservation in accepting the award was that it almost felt unfair to single out one teacher from the amazing cohort that I undertook the course with. The course was based around collaboration – in workshops, in discussions and on the online portal where work was shared. While assessments were completed by the individual, the learning that underpinned these assessments was collaborative.

During one workshop we were working with an invention kit called a MaKey MaKey. A MaKey MaKey turns everyday objects into touchpads and, when used in conjunction with a coding program can be used to create music. One of the groups wanted to create the score to the Imperial March. In the group was someone with knowledge of music, someone who worked out how to create a code so that the right notes could be played, and someone who searched for the notes for the Imperial March. The task became rich through the shared use of the group’s abilities.

Q Would you consider further postgraduate study at some point?
A: Absolutely. I am currently looking at options for further study beginning in semester one next year. I’m considering a master’s in either applied practice or educational leadership. Interestingly, two other teachers that I met while doing The Mind Lab course are considering the same options, so we’re hoping to continue our postgraduate study together. My wife and I are expecting our third child in early October, so it’ll just be a matter of balancing study with family and work commitments!

The NEXT big thing

The NEXT Foundation has provided 800 tuition scholarships this year to allow primary and secondary teachers to access and undertake The Mind Lab by Unitec’s postgraduate programme in digital and collaborative learning, and build the skills and knowledge they need to prepare young learners for an increasingly digital future.

The NEXT Foundation was launched in March 2015 and will invest $100 million over the next 10 years in New Zealand-based education or environmental projects that overcome a specific problem, address a current need, or create a future opportunity.

In 2016, the Foundation will provide 1350 tuition scholarships for The Mind Lab’s postgraduate programme. It has also provided a research grant to study the impact of the qualification.

Chief executive Bill Kermode says the NEXT Foundation is proud to support The Mind Lab.

“The pace of technological change has led to a growing need for teachers and schools to consistently integrate digital literacy into the curriculum, and build an education system that sets our children up for a successful and rewarding future in a technology-enabled world.”

Make way for Mind Lab

The Mind Lab’s activities extend beyond professional development for teachers. It recently announced the offering of its postgraduate certificate to Auckland tertiary educators, expanding the opportunity to teachers at Universities, Polytechnics and Private Training Establishments.

Frances Valintine, founder and chair of The Mind Lab by Unitec says the extension of the programme will allow tertiary educators from Auckland-based learning institutions to upskill their digital technology skills and knowledge of contemporary teaching practice.

“The Mind Lab by Unitec has been working hard to upskill New Zealand teachers at a primary and secondary level with 1000 teachers already gaining deeper understanding of modern education through this postgraduate programme. Making this qualification available to tertiary educators is in recognition of the critical role that digital and collaborative learning plays at all levels, across all industries and in all workplaces,” says Valintine.

The Mind Lab by Unitec’s Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital & Collaborative Learning) is a part-time 32-week programme and is redefining professional development for teachers through the offering of a hands-on, progressive and blended qualification.

The Mind Lab also teaches school students from year 1–13 who attend education workshops in one of its four locations in Auckland, Gisborne, Wellington and Christchurch. Over the next five years additional new sites are planned with the ultimate goal of teaching 10,000 teachers and over 180,000 school students.


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