Since the Kids’ Conference had its foundation in history teaching and story telling we thought we should share something about its origin …
The idea for the Kids’ Conference was born in 2011 after our son came home with an English test he’d just taken. The test was on an A4 sheet of paper and had sentences with blank spaces for the student to write in the missing words in the gaps. There were red circles around incorrect answers and a number in the top right corner. He’d got 15 out of 20.
He tossed the test on the kitchen bench for our information, raided the fridge, made some toast and then settled in front of the computer with his new headphones and microphone. In a few minutes he was deep into Minecraft and totally engaged in taking his self-designed avatar out around the digitised landscape.
When we finally managed to drag him away for dinner we wanted to know who he was talking to via the computer – was it a school mate and why were they all playing Minecraft when they should be eating?
Well – he replied – one of the gamers was a kid in the US and the other one lived in China and they were discussing creating a server for the game they were co-designing.
“That’s nice dear,” we said – having no real idea what he was talking about.
A few weeks later on Mother’s Day he showed me what he’d been working on for hours over the weekend. “Here Mum – push this button!”
The Minecraft scene he’d created was a huge brick wall with a simple button on a plinth in front of it. As I pressed the digital button – the words ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ were punched out in individual letters from the wall. He then showed us the intricate digital electronics and mechanics that he had designed to create this effect. What we’d thought of as just some form of computer Lego was an incredibly sophisticated digital game.
Was our son exhibiting some amazingly precocious skill or gifted insight? No – he is just an average achieving (but great) kid who was super interested in being able to use a digital environment to test out some ideas, explore and create something new. The fact that he had apparently worked out basic engineering principles was a bit amazing.
After these observations we started to discuss this disconnect – how could there be such a gulf between what was happening in lounge rooms all over the world once kids got home from school with what was happening in the classroom? How could it be that kids were creating their own digital worlds, seamlessly communicating internationally online and then discussing the next possible use of technology all without any adult intervention or specialist teaching?
Yet meanwhile these kids were still being universally subjected to the same hand out English tests that we remembered doing in drafty school rooms on wooden desks in the ’60s.
At around the time our son was getting into Minecraft I was starting a PhD in Education Systems and grappling with a topic and a focus. One area I’d written about in the past was the issue of national testing and how this appeared to actually drive down the typical measures of learning outcomes – mainly assessed through those same paper tests – which estimate the learning potential of school age children by looking at reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.
But our experience at home – like that of many parents – made it starkly apparent that the education system was becoming rapidly out of step with the emerging digital learning environment and social-media platforms. What curriculum designers like myself thought would happen ‘in the near future’ was happening rapidly in real time. It was then we started talking about the chance to have a session where kids presented to teachers on their discoveries using digital media. Why not a whole day – a Kids’ Conference – where students had the podium?
Mulling this over I happened to meet up with Jo Clyne from the History Teachers Association of Victoria (HTAV) while lining up for coffee at ACU one day and talked about whether the association would be able to help develop such a Conference.
A year later I was invited to speak at HTAV’s annual teachers’ Conference and presented my take on the potential for digital learning in the classroom and proposed the first Kids’ Conference. There was a flood of recognition with the teachers present – they appreciated the phenomenal change they could harness if only the curriculum would flex enough to enable these new tools to flourish inside the classroom.
With the help of HTAV’s input we brought together a small group of students and teachers from across Victoria who were actively using digital technologies in new ways to share their ideas in November 2012 – my son happily came along to present on Minecraft and gave a comparison of the MCG and the Coliseum.
From that first Conference we’ve had students present from across Victoria and even internationally. Some presenters have demonstrated apps which have become successfully adopted, last year we had students present on augmented reality, we’ve had the digital radio team from Carrum Primary and creations from amazing budding digital film makers.
With the growing dialogue on ‘National Innovation’ there seems to be a recognition that this innovation reaches back into primary and secondary schools. Tools like Minecraft are now clearly recognised for their educational qualities and not seen as simple recreational games. Students are being appreciated as great generators of ideas – just like anyone else in the community.
So is the intention of the Kids’ Conference to find entrepreneurs or to showcase the apparently ‘super talented’?
No – it’s about supporting students and teachers in the classroom to be greater co-learners and co-creators of knowledge. It’s about bringing adaptability into the classroom and supporting facilitation as a greater part of the teacher’s toolkit.
The Kids’ Conference enables any student or, ideally, any group of students, to show how they are approaching the use of digital technologies in the classroom. As we’ve seen over the past five years that’s something we can all learn from.