DLTV conference key note – “Creating New Connections”

I had a difference of opinion with a colleague that I would like to share with you. Deon thought that it would be a great idea if every student had some kind of bar-code or implant, so they could wave their arm in front of a scanner when they came to school and we wouldn’t have to waste time marking the attendance rolls. We have the technology and it would be very efficient, but I disagreed. When I mark the rolls in the morning, I like to look each student in the eye and make a connection with them, say “good morning” or “how are you?” or whatever. I think such an idea dehumanizes people, and if we don’t treat students in a human way, they won’t act in respectful ways to us or each other.

The theme for this inaugural state conference is “Creating New Connections”, so I hope you take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to meet new people, chat with old friends and connect face-2-face with people who you might know well online. I love this theme, because you can “create new connections” on may different levels. On a microscopic level, we create new connections between neurons when we learn, constructing a network of pathways that help us to make sense of the world around us. On an individual level, we create new connections to people, places and objects. For example, I associate past ICTEV conferences with Melbourne Grammar, hot soup and the smell of coffee wafting through the courtyard. On a global level, technology has enabled us to create new connections with colleagues, peers and others across the world, that would not be possible otherwise. So this keynote is about the interface between humanity and technology.

Ray Kurzweil is an American author, scientist, inventor, futurist, and is a director of engineering at Google. In March this year he did a fascinating TED talk titled “Get ready for hybrid thinking” about the advance of technology, the limits of biology and the future of the human species. What fascinates me about this talk, is that he combines some of my favorite things: biology, evolution, how the brain works, learning and technology. What scares me about this talk, is the potential for exponential growth of, what Ray Kurzweil calls “non-biological thinking”. He describes access to almost unlimited computational power, using nano-bots to connect our human neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud, providing an extension of our neocortex.Why it scares me is because the rate of development of new technologies has outstripped our cultural capacity to adapt. We already have too many examples of technology used in unethical and inappropriate ways. Phone hacking, phishing, bank fraud and other crimes that boil down to a lack of humanity. This brings me to the point of my talk – “Don’t forget what it is to be human”. Professor Thomas Suddendorf states that what makes us human is

“Our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on different situations, and our deep-seated drive to link our scenario-building minds together.” 

In other words, our ability to connect concepts in the past, present and future and our desire to connect with others to explore these ideas. Books, film, art, music and science are all examples of the ways we do this. So, what I would like to consider over the next (less than) 20 minutes is the values that make us human.  The following slides, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, show animals that demonstrate human characteristics. If you were an animal, what would you be and why? David Attenborough thought he was a slow-moving sloth, I think I’m a bit of a bower bird, basically a loner, but collecting lots of pretty things. Or a mallee fowl that scratches around and makes a huge mound of temperature-controlled humus. I’d like you to turn to the person next to you and exchange your animal egos.

It is our responsibility as teachers to impart good moral values – ‘cultural norms’ – to our students. In addition to knowledge and skills, teachers are helping students to form attitudes and opinions, which inform their behaviour. We teach students to connect, to communicate and to collaborate. Collective knowledge construction is the next step, which enables us to work in teams to solve the big problems – like responses to climate change, global inequality and disease prevention. So the following slides represent values that I think are important to pass on to the next generation.

You are a role model Balance Slide20

1. You are a Role Model, so demonstrate Balance and Present yourself well

Firstly, as a teacher you are a role model. You all know the reasons why Facebook is banned in most schools and a shocking time-waster in many businesses. My thoughts are that Facebook is a bit like a ghetto – (almost) anything goes – completely false ‘factoids’ and pseudoscience goes viral, embarrassing and inappropriate images are shared and some people make hurtful comments, without consequences. My suggestion is that if we had more mature and respectful people using social media, they would act as better role models to others. If we, as so-called responsible adults, present ourselves well and act the way we would be like to be treated, hopefully others will follow suit. It is not an ‘online’ issue, it is simple respect for others.

2. Empathy and Respect

A lot of early adopters of technology bemoan the fact that others refuse to take up digital tools with the same enthusiasm. I suggest we give them a break. Everyone has their strengths (and weaknesses) – a teacher at my school, a self-confessed Luddite, rarely opens his emails and baulks at online assessments and OHS modules. However, he is an outstanding outdoor education teacher, who is a great judge of character and has a wonderful rapport with students. He takes kids bushwalking up mountains and sleeps in caves and gives students valuable experiences that I can’t. So, maybe the ‘blockers’ at your school are doing the best they can and have other talents to offer?

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3. Organisation and Preparation

A well-organised and well prepared teacher demonstrates to students that you care. I use digital tools to keep myself organised in ways I could never do before – my filing system is ‘P’ for paper or ‘B’ for bin. Some people ask how I get the time  – I’ll be honest, I haven’t got a clean house! I also use my blog like a journal, doing my unit and lesson planning online. So all my resources can be linked online and students have access to them 24/7.

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4. Have the Courage and Confidence to try something new

I am lucky to be from a small school with great leadership, where I am supported to try new things. There can be a fine line between confidence and arrogance, so beware that some people might see you as the latter. You need confidence to try new things, but over-confidence can get you into trouble too! Try not to bite off more than you can chew, but if you do, spit it out and start again. As long as you reflect on your experiences and act in ways that end in better outcomes, you haven’t made a mistake, but a negotiated a learning challenge.

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5.Persistence and Resilience

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6. Be Flexible and Respond to Change

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7. Partnerships and Teamwork

You may have heard the African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go long, go together”. Partnerships, with experts, peers, organisations or community can enhance your teaching and make for authentic learning in your class. Use social media to connect with people with similar interests and invite them to speak to your class – I’ve had Catherine Anderson (@genegeek) and Mags Lum (@sciencemags), who I met on Twitter, Skype into my class and present to students on “DNA for dummies” and “My career as a metallurgist”. They were able to answer student questions and bring some different expertise into my classroom. In my first year of teaching Year 12 Biology, I have connected with the Gene Technology Access Centre, who deliver a box of hands-on experimental materials and use Polycom to beam into my classroom and deliver a lesson – great professional development for me, ans excellent learning for my students.

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8. Communicate, Collaborate and Share

One of my past students, Chloe, is now in her fourth year of a biochemistry degree at Melbourne University. I had Chloe in my Year 8 Science class nine years ago. I asked the class to choose a disease and prepare a digital product explaining the cause, symptoms and treatment for the disease. Chloe chose Malaria and produced an excellent slideshow with simple text and great images. I uploaded the presentation to Slideshare and it has since had over 50,000 views and 1,200 downloads. You might say the disease slideshow went ‘viral’? My explanation for the huge numbers (it is, each week, the most viewed of all my many presentations) is that it is being used in developing countries as a teaching resource, which would be a fantastic outcome – an authentic task that, by sharing, has benefitted many.

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9. Have Passion and be Transparent about your Priorities

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10.  See Opportunities and Take Risks

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