Using discussion forums to create ‘Stretch and Challenge’ activities

I am currently working with various different clients, helping them to develop their use of the VLE system Moodle.

Discussion icon One of the techniques that I show people is how a discussion forum can be used to create an effective ‘stretch and challenge’ activity. Stretch and challenge, is a term that is used by Ofsted, and relates to ‘does the tutor provide an opportunity for the more able learners to be sufficiently challenged – beyond the core learning objectives that they expect everyone in the class to meet?’ A few years ago – this area of work seemed to be one of the key questions being asked by inspectors, and something that caused many tutors problems. Other factors in the Ofsted inspection regime are currently more important, but stretch and challenge is still observed and commented on.

When I was teaching, I used the VLE extensively to support my delivery. I would organise each course by topic, which was often (but not always) structured with 1 topic per week. Within each topic, I would provide certain common items – e.g. some notes related to the topic, relevant links, some form of activity and as the last item within each topic, I would pose a challenging question related to that topic. For this I used the discussion forum mechanism to pose the question. This was for me a convenient mechanism as easy to set up, and I was providing an opportunity for the learners to engage in discussion during or after the session. In reality – in most cases no actual discussion took place within the forum itself, however this didn’t matter – as I knew from observing the students behaviour and from verbal conversations that took place during the session or at the start of the following session that they had read the question, and some had thought about an answer to it. On some occasions discussion within the forum did take place – which was great as it gave the ‘quieter’ learners a chance to air their opinion, as well as giving learners access to other learners opinions (which then helped with their assignment writing where they had to present a balanced viewpoint on a topic – not just their own viewpoint).

Examples of some of the questions that I used in my teaching were:

  • There were discussions in the media about sexual inequality within sport, and it was highlighted that women tennis players at Wimbledon got paid significantly less than the men. Tim Henman then contributed to this debate, by stating that it was right that men get paid more as they play best of 5 sets, compared to women playing best of 3. I was able to use Tim Henman’s opinion as an opener for the discussion – which did evoke a huge response from both the males and females in the group – without me having to offer my opinion on the topic.
  • In biomechanics (science of sports movement) I carried out an experiment to estimate the force that the bicep has to exert to move the forearm. The reality is that the muscle itself has to exert a much greater force than the end movement (as this is a type 3 lever which gives mechanical disadvantage) – so the challenging question was ‘Why has the human biceps muscle evolved as it has which gives such huge mechanical disadvantage – which hasn’t evolution moved the muscles attachment to the forum further from elbow, which would allow greater forces to exerted by the forearm? (Please comment on this blog post if you want to offer an answer).

The hard part of this process was thinking of a good challenging question, here are a few tips:

  • When starting a discussion, making a statement and then ending it with the word “discuss” – often doesn’t open a discussion. Instead ask a more specific question to open the discussions.
  • If applicable – asking topical questions (e.g. relating to something currently in the news) will more likely evoke a discussion.
  • It is possible to ask a question from a viewpoint that isn’t your own – which allows you to ask more ‘risky’ questions (see the Tim Henman example above).
  • Asking a question from someone else’s viewpoint also allows you to ask a question that is more likely to create an emotional response – which in turn is more likely to attract an answer.
  • If students do post – you can contribute to the discussion to further develop it, explore other avenues/opinion, reference articles or webpages that are relevant.
  • If you do respond to posts – be careful not to ‘kill’ a discussion by giving the students the ‘correct answer’ straight away, instead try to lead them through further questions.
  • Questions don’t have to have a right and wrong answer (again, think about the Tim Henman question.
  • Think of a series of questions in one go – rather than one at a time. This is much quicker, and it is often possible to relate questions together. Most VLE systems will have the option to time release the dicsussions, or you can manually hide them, and make them visible as required.

If  you can think of other tips, then please add to the comments below.

It is possible to be outstanding in an Ofsted inspection

I am really pleased that in the last few weeks, Walsall College have become the first FE college to get an overall grade of ‘Outstanding’ in a Ofsted inspection following the new inspection framework. I am pleased because this has raised the bar for other organisations to aim for, and proves that it is possible to achieve this magically (and at times mythical) level.

Over the last few years as I have worked with different organisations, it becomes quite clear that Ofsted is quite simply the single most important feature of an FE college, followed secondly by financial stability and thirdly by issues realting to the quality of teaching and learning. Personally I would prefer it if the 1st and 3rd items were to swap positions, but this is the reality that we live in. One thing that I have found interested is the different ways that senior management talk about Ofsted.

  • Some colleges that I have worked with, have quite clearly believed that getting an overall grade 1 (Outstanding) was in fact impossible, as if it was some kind of El Dorado that you could spend all life searching but never find, and as such they have accepted and aimed for an overall grade 2 (even if they talk publicly about aiming for grade 1). This strategy although not one that I personally like, did work when an overall grade 2 was the highest that had been achieved by anyone else.
  • The other strategy that I frequently come across (which I like even less) is the one where senior managers insist that all areas of the college have to work towards a grade 1, but without putting in any steps, strategy, guidance or leadership in how to get there, or without being able to tell people what grade 1 would actually look like, if they were to get there.

Personally I am driven by a desire to achieve quality, so I always aim high, so for me aiming for anything less than a grade 1 doesn’t interest me, however I recognise that to get there requires strong leadership, a coherent strategy, and most importantly communication up and down the hierarchy of the organisation so that all know what is expected and aimed for and also how will they know when they get there.

Now that Walsall College have achieved this, provides 2 advantages to everyone else:

  1. We now know that grade 1 is possible, so aiming for and being content with a grade 2 is no longer a feasible long term objective.
  2. We can look at what Walsall College have done (and other colleges that I anticipate will follow suit in the coming months) to get to this level, and use this to help shape the strategies and practices that are required.

If I use a sporting analogy, Back in the early 1950s a lot of people thought that it wasn’t physically possible for a human to run a 4 minute mile, until Roger Banister in 1954 famously achieved the feat. Once he had proved that it was possible to break this ‘speed barrier’ many people over the next few years achieved the same and bettered Roger’s time considerably. I am hoping that now that Walsall College have broken this ‘Ofsted Barrier’ that other colleges will follow suit accordingly.


Post edit on 10th April 2013

…and within a week of me writing this post, predicting that there will be other colleges following suit, Swindon College achieve the same feat. http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/provider/files/2203819/urn/130849.pdf

A good practice guide for PowerPoint

Many people think that PowerPoint is old hat – there are lots of negative posts about the bad use of PowerPoint, and I have noticed that many organisation are no longer offering PowerPoint training to staff as there is a belief that everyone knows about PowerPoint nowadays. Sadly this is not the case; I regularly have to endure really bad PowerPoint presentations – often from people that are very high up in organisations promoting either the use of technology or quality in education – yet their PowerPoint use is appalling.

A few years ago when I was running PowerPoint training regularly, people often asked me for some guidance information about what they should or shouldn’t do when using PowerPoint, and so I pulled together a document, detailing the things that I do, when I am using PowerPoint. Most of the considerations are based on straight forward good teaching and learning practice, and things that make the presentation more accessible to disabled learners. My document isn’t intended as a step by step ‘how to guide’ (as this would then become obsolete every time a different version of PowerPoint came out) – instead it says what should be done and why. This means that this document could be used for any presentation medium not just PowerPoint.

I struggled to think of a good name for my document, so in the end I just called it ‘The Dave Foord Guide to PowerPoint’ – simply because that is what it is – it is the set of rules/practices that I personally follow when using PowerPoint.

The guide is available for others to download, print and reuse from the PowerPoint section of my website http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources_powerpoint.php

If any organisations would like me to run training for their staff on the effective use of presentation tools such as PowerPoint, then please contact me, my details are at http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php

Below is a short video introducing ‘The Dave Foord Guide to PowerPoint’

Why I support ‘no-notice’ inspections

It was recently reported by the Guardian, that Ofsted will be moving to a no-notice method for carrying out inspections. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jan/10/schools-no-notice-ofsted-inspections?CMP=twt_gu  a move which I completely support.

Due to the diverse nature of my teaching in 7 years I went through 3 Ofsted inspections, 2 QAA inspections, 1 ALI inspection and god knows how many internal inspections. Perversely I actually enjoyed the lesson in which I was being inspected – the pressure and the expectation I actually thrived on (similar to when I played more sport – I loved the big occasions, and performed at my best in front of the crowds). Apart from 1 internal inspection, I always came out very well in these observed sessions.

The thing that I didn’t enjoy was the build up to the inspections. The fact that the whole college went into a form of panic in the 6 months leading up to the inspection, which dominated everything, stopped any real innovation happening (I remember being told in no uncertain terms that I had to back off the ILT stuff as there was an inspection ahead and the college had to focus on that not ILT!), and all so that we can put an unrealistic ‘show’ on for the inspectors.

I believe that no-notice inspections is the only way forward – this will give inspectors a chance to see the reality rather than the rehearsed, and weaker teachers will be identified, whilst stronger teachers rewarded, and as such – I said it many times when I was teaching, and I still stick by it now – anyone is welcome to turn up and observe me teaching or training without giving me notice.

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/7021/6515869227_fb11e682ee_b.jpg on 2012-1-11
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/29455658@N08/6515869227/ created on 2011-07-19 11:28:46
Connecticut State LibraryCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Using ‘game’ and activity templates in education

This is idea 1, in a series on ‘putting the fun back into fundamental learning‘.

One of the changes to the Inspections framework within FE within the UK, is that inspectors are now looking to see if students are enjoying themselves whilst they are learning. This is actually proving a really big challenge for some educators.

One way that technology can be used to bring an element of ‘fun’ back into the learning process is by using game type activities as part of the process. I am not talking about high-tec immersive type games, but much simpler, types of activity, were the tutor enters the basic information about their subject and the computer converts this into an activity. We are lucky that there are many different game and activity templates out there, so we can use a wide variety in our teaching and learning (learners will quickly get bored of doing lots of crosswords, or lots of multi-choice questions).

Some people think that games shouldn’t be used in education as they question the learning value of them, but one thing that a good ‘game type activity’ can do, is encourage repetition, which for learning basic facts, is recognised as an essential part of the learning process, yet one that is hard to achieve in FE and HE.

I used to use QUIA (see below for details) a lot in my teaching, and because I taught sport science students (who are naturally competitive) they would often repeat activities many times to try and get a better score (especially if I did the activity first to set a target) – this for me was a great way to cover key information, e.g. names of bones, muscle actions, definitions of physical terms etc.

Here I will describe 3 examples of web based tools that can be used for this purpose


Quia

http://www.quia.com/ is an excellent resource, although it does have a cost attached to it of $50 per year if you want to create your own activities.

  • You can create activities, where you enter the information, and it turns that into a game type activity for you. Activities include battleships, matching pairs, wordsearches, ordered lists etc.
  • There are quizzes, which even has built in tracking so that you can track which students have done what.
  • There are survey options which are easy to use and easy to analyse afterwards, and many other options.

I personally think that the $50 per year is worth paying due to the amount of time that it can save and the quality of the final products, but even if you don’t pay, there are many activities that are on their site which have been shared by tutors which you can do for free, if you go to http://www.quia.com/shared/ you will see the list of subjects covered, then looking into any of them will reveal thousands of created resources, that you can use with learners, by just copying and sharing the URL.


StudyStack

http://www.studystack.com/ works on pairs of information (e.g. capital city and country, author and book, psychologist and theory etc). You can either use an activity that has created by someone else, or create your own for free. Once created the pairs of information are turned into various game types, including anagrams, crosswords etc, but also simple kinesthetic type games such as hungry bug, which is like the game snakes that used to appear on early mobile phones. Young people in particular will sometimes play these retro type games for hours at times, so if we can use this for education then brilliant. The output isn’t a polished as QUIA, and the site does have advertising on it, but for ease of use and to provide variety, and being free is an excellent site. An example of a hungry bug activity created by someone else is http://www.studystack.com/hungrybug-49086 – if you then click on the icons below the activity you can play different games with the same sets of words.


Jigsaw Planet

http://www.jigsawplanet.com/ is a web based jigsaw creating site. You can either do one of their preloaded jigsaws, or more likely we can create our own. All we need to do is upload an image, select the number of pieces, and the piece shape and it will convert this into a jigsaw for us. So for example if we wanted the students to learn a table of important but uninteresting information, we could convert the table into an image (by just doing a print screen, or using a tool like Snippy to capture a region of the screen containing the table), upload this to Jigsaw Planet and away you go. An Example of this, using a simple table of information based on countries can be found at http://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=29a2685d793d


There are many other tools out there, but these are 3 web based ones (and therefore easy to manage) that I particularly like.

Putting the fun back into ‘fundamental’ learning

Later this month I will be contributing to an LSIS Learning fair in the East Midlands where I am running a session titled ‘Putting the fun back into fundamental’. The session will focus around changes to the Common Inspection Framework, and the fact that inspectors are now looking at whether the learners are ‘enjoying’ their learning experience. I have worked with a few providers where this is proving problematic. Some teachers quite simply do not have the skill to provide enjoyable learning, and others have the skills but are afraid of the culture change, and afraid that if the learners start to have ‘fun’ whilst learning then the lessons will become rowdy, they will lose control, and the learners will stop respecting them as the pillars of wisdom and knowledge that they as the tutor obviously are.

During the session that I am running on this topic, I will be providing short examples into 9 different examples of how technology can be used to easily bring in an element of fun into the learning environment,  in a way that enhances learning. Theses can be used at the end of a session to reinforce the learning that has taken place, they can be used as additional ‘stretch’ type activities, or in some cases can be used as the main method of teaching and learning of the subject.

I will blog about each different idea over the coming days, and the links below will become live as each post is published. The blog posts on this topic will all be tagged with the word ‘fun’ so all the posts within the series will be located at https://davefoord.wordpress.com/tag/fun/

The ideas that I will cover are:-