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“For learners it is very important to see that their work is valued by others, and they will respond to the challenges that sharing knowledge and skills with others involve by creating great work!”

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Originally posted on the Daily Edventures blog.

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Alessio Bernardelli is quick to attribute his success as an educator to those who shaped him along the way, in particular Stuart Ball (Director of Microsoft Partners in Learning Network U.K.) who was
instrumental in his development as an innovative educator. “I was able and fortunate enough to have great role models who helped me step up and face a global audience through the development of my personal blog and personal learning network on Twitter,” Bernardelli notes. That act of sharing his ideas with a wider audience led to an opportunity for him to make an even bigger impact through his work as science lead at TES (billed as “the largest network of teachers in the world”). Bernardelli also tweets as @tesScience and promotes innovative resources and practices from the TES website, which has over two million members worldwide. Here, Bernardelli shares his pride in educators he’s mentored, the wonders of mind-mapping, and lots of practical tips and free tools for creatively integrating technology in the classroom.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

My efforts have undoubtedly made me a more reflective and confident educator, who is willing to take calculated risks to push the boundaries of conventional practices and employ technology to inspire and enthuse others. As a result of my efforts, a number of teachers, both in my school, with the local authority and from my Personal Learning Network have started using technology in innovative ways with their learners. Quite a few of these practitioners went on to win regional, national and international awards. In particular, three teachers I mentored were in the UK Microsoft Partners in Learning Innovative Education Forum top 10 projects, two of them were selected to compete in the European Forum and one won an award at the Partners in Learning Global Forum. These three Educators are James Allan (Westmonmouth School, Pontypool, Wales) who was in the top 10 UK projects, James Kent (Torfaen LEA) who was in the top four UK entries and attended the European Forum, and Gareth Ritter (Willows High School), who won an award at the global forum.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

The greatest challenges I have faced when trying new ideas in education were usually the lack of resources and the restrictions that sometimes are in place in local authorities in terms of access to websites and social media. Many Web 2.0 tools, for example, are often blocked and it is not always easy to get around these blocks. It needs to be said that this is not always due to the unwillingness of local authorities, or schools’ senior leadership, as in many cases they can be really supportive and excited about the opportunity to showcase innovative teaching and learning in their establishments. But in some cases the tools you want to implement require, for example, quite a few ports to be kept open, or take up quite a lot of bandwidth, and that can be quite disruptive for school networks, etc.

The trick is to try something different, not necessarily a different tool, but a different approach! An example is the ‘EM Spectrum TV Show’ that I created with my 14 to 15 year-old learners in 2009. The original idea was to develop a number of activities that would form a 30 to 40 minute TV show. Each group worked on a different activity and they all chose the tool and type of resource they wanted to produce. So, we ended up with a brilliant news report, a number of visual podcasts, web-tours to showcase useful games and websites to revise the EM Spectrum, revision songs, etc. We wanted to broadcast the show live from the school using our online TV Channel on Livestream, but the service was blocked by the local authority because to broadcast live we would have needed almost all the ports open and that was not possible. So, I decided to pre-record the learners’ work using mainly Community Clips and I then broadcast the whole show live from my house at 8.30 p.m. This meant that my learners could sit at home with their parents and watch the show. They were also using the chat on the channel page to interact with each other and with me as I broadcast their work. So, at first I thought I might need to call the whole project off, but with a little initiative we could turn a stumbling block into a stepping stone for success, as the involvement of the learners’ parents was something quite unique and very meaningful for these students. You can find all the details of this project as well as tips and tricks to support anyone who wish to try something similar in this resource shared on the TES website. I have uploaded many resources on the TES website and other teachers can use my profile page to access other innovative projects and tools.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

When I was the Head of KS3 Science (11 to 14 year-old learners), I used Office Web Apps to create a collaborative spreadsheet that contained the names of all the learners in year 7, 8 and 9 (equivalent of grades 6 to 8) and the assessments that each class was undertaking. Each teacher in my team could then upload their levels for each learner simultaneously, which meant no duplicate versions of the same spreadsheet, which could have caused data to be lost or missed out, less emails to update the team on the overall outcome of the department and it also meant that each member of staff, including myself, was held accountable for uploading their pupils’ levels. This, in turn, allowed me to identify needs and underachievement and act upon them more promptly.

I have been using iMindMap for the last four years or so and, although I used mind mapping before with software like OneNote and using the Drawing Tools in PowerPoint on my tablet PC, my mind mapping skills have improved considerably since then. The simple interface and quick ways to add daughter and sibling branches in iMindMap are so useful that I can take notes in meetings directly as a mind map, which is a really great advantage, as it gives you an overview of all the issues discussed. Most of my planning is done on iMindMap and I often create presentations of great effect thanks to the 3D view presentation mode. I have used iMindMap with my students, too, and they found it really useful for their learning.

I have been using the excellent TES website to develop my portfolio of resources and to share innovative ideas and teaching activities. The rating system allows all members of the community to leave a comment and a one-to five-star rating for the resources they download. This feedback is very valuable to me and to all the contributors on the website for various reasons. Firstly, they can act on resources that people have found problems with and improve them. This encourages users to become reflective practitioners who constantly aim to improve their impact in education. Secondly, seeing the comments and the number of downloads and views is really rewarding for a teacher who spent time and effort to create great resources and upload them on the website. This not only encourages them to upload more resources, but it also allows them to develop their own professional portfolio of evidence that can be used in their CV and with potential employers. A great example of this is Gerwyn Bish, who was a Post-graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) student this year. Gerwyn uploaded some really great resources and I started to notice his work, so I would regularly give five stars to his resources and promote them through the @tesScience twitter stream, as well as on the TES Science newsletter. Gerwyn used the evidence from his resources, i.e., the comments and ratings from the TES Panel, in his professional portfolio and he completed his training with great praises from his tutors and got a job as a Newly Qualified Teacher starting in September. I have also invited him to join my TES Science Teacher Panel and inspire others to use the TES website to develop professionally and as a space to interact with other innovative educators. You can see Gerwyn’s professional portfolio here.

I use Twitter to promote the best resources from the TES website and from the sharemylesson.com website (TES sister website for the US) and to engage with the science community of educators and science communicators. I also engage in twitter chats like #asechat which is the chat for science educators in UK where a topic is voted by the contributors and then discussed for an hour each Monday evening. I have moderated the chat a few times.

I used Livestream and WordPress when I worked with NGfL Cymru (National Grid for Learning in Wales) to set up the NGfL Cymru Live channel to broadcast the professional development events we organized for the educators who could not attend, or who would be too far to get to the venue. I also developed the NGfL Cymru Blog to promote the work of the network. The blog received over 10,000 views in the first three months since its launch and both the blog and the Livestream channel are still the NGfL Cymru’s main assets to reach out to teachers in Wales and beyond.

What is great about all these tools and innovations is that they didn’t cost my establishments anything, as they are free tools! In fact, you can upload as many resources as you want on the TES website and build your lifetime portfolio, which shows your progression and development as an educator free of charge. This also allows you to have a portfolio that is not attached to a local environment, like any virtual learning environment from a college, school, etc. So, if you move schools, you can still bring with you the experience you built on your TES portfolio.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

I think the biggest obstacle I encountered was in my first years of teaching when laptops where not as popular yet and most schools had computer suites full of PCs. But the disadvantage with those was that most of the time these rooms were timetabled for the IT Department, so I had classes that I could often take to use the PCs and others that I could never take, because the room wasn’t available at the time I taught them. But in my last school I was fortunate enough to have a set of 30 laptops in the science department, which was great, because we now didn’t even need to move from the science lab to use a computer and we could run experiments and record our findings in innovative ways using a laptop. I remember a group of girls using Photosynth to show a beautiful 3D display on
circuits they had made or a group of boys explaining their circuit using Photo Story 3. Having laptops in the science lab opened up a wide range of learning experiences that my learners didn’t have the chance to explore previously.

What is your country doing right to support education?

The greatest innovation in Wales to support education, I believe, was the introduction of the Skills Framework 2008, which gave clear guidelines on the importance of developing thinking, communication, ICT and numeracy skills. The framework became also the underlying principle of the new national curriculum in Wales, which shifted the emphasis from a content driven curriculum to a skills-based one. That gave freedom to teachers to become more creative and develop schemes of work that addressed their learners and community needs more adequately, i.e., learning became more personalized. However, not all institutions made that step and some carried on doing what they had always done, but the principle of the framework was right.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

The mindset of teachers needs to move towards a more collaborative approach to education. That is why sharing resources and ideas through platforms like TES is very important, as it allows teachers to interact with other educators worldwide and learn new and effective ways to teach their subjects.

Wales is a very small country and schools compete to be the best, so teachers are often under pressure to perform better and better and to outperform the schools in their clusters. This can sometimes lead to the situations where teachers don’t want to give away their “secrets” and can become reluctant to share good practice, because, at the end of the day, they need to get their school at the top of the band.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

I believe the best opportunity for innovation in education is using the learners’ skills and enthusiasm to drive the curriculum. Projects where the learners are given the opportunity to decide how and what they want to learn turn them into more independent learners. We need to help our students to become creators of knowledge and not just consumers of knowledge. So projects like this, where learners are actively involved in developing and delivering innovative learning activities, and this one where learners became educators of teachers by producing video tutorials to show how to use certain features of a particular software, or the ‘EM Spectrum TV Show’ where learners became responsible for the education of students worldwide by developing a revision TV show to share with students online, gives children ownership over their own learning and that of others! The development of Web 2.0 tools, video storing websites, and platforms like the TES, which allows you to reach an active network of over 2 million teachers are the ideal tools to provide students with a real audience of monumental proportions. For learners, it is very important to see that others value their work and they will respond to the challenges that sharing knowledge and skills with others involve by creating great work.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Start blogging and reflect upon your teaching inviting others to join you in your journey. If you develop your personal learning network on the TES website and twitter, you will always find someone to help and give supportive advice and you will never feel isolated, even if you work in an unsupportive school.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

The popularization of self-created video content and blogging is having a great impact in students’ progress and development of skills. In fact, many cannot just find a pool of great video content online, but they are more and more encouraged to develop their own content and share it with the world. In this respect there are two examples I am particularly fond of.

The first one is my 13 year-old nephew’s homework on the Spanish Armada, where through a clever use of images, sound effects and humor, he created a very professional looking video. In the development of this video he used a wide range of higher-order thinking skills, as well as ICT and communication skills. The technologies he used enabled him to be creative and address his audience in a very effective way.

The second example is a teacher (Gavin Smart) who asked his granddad to Skype with his 6th grade class to explain the causes and effects of acid rain. Gavin recorded the Skype conversation and edited the video by adding useful visual aids, and uploaded the video of his granddad here. I got so excited about this project that I wanted to reward this granddad by making his efforts as visible as possible, so I started the #mygrandadvideo hash tag on twitter and encouraged as many teachers as possible to see this inspiring project. This Skype session was very valuable for the learners because they could access real life experiences from someone who worked as a hydrologist and could share details and information their classroom teacher might not have come across, but it was a really
valuable experience for the granddad, too, because he could still offer an important contribution to education and the school community. The video got over 2400 views in less than two days and that was another confidence booster for this very generous pensioner.

Having mentioned blogging, I have experimented with an 11th grade class by setting a series of tasks where the learners had to write a blog/resource about the physics in their curriculum and I invited a primary school teacher to get her children to read and comment on the blog posts. The idea was that my students should try to make the information they were trying to explain accessible to their very young audience and, in my opinion, that was a really useful exercise, because in order to simplify complex physics topics like photon absorption and emission, they needed to first really understand the process thoroughly and then create mental models that could be used to teach these concepts to a 10 to 11-year-old learner. Modeling scientific processes invariably leads to better understanding and retention of those processes.

Another attempt to blogging with young learners was setting up my eldest son’s blog. Matteo (7) is a very reluctant writer, but he gets excited about the comments he receives on his blog and seeing new spots appearing on his world viewers counter and that is good encouragement for him to continue writing.

A trend that is getting in the way of learning, in my opinion, is teaching to the exam. Again, this is a consequence of the growing pressure to improve performance, but there is the risk that teachers become more and more reluctant to try new approaches to learning and teaching, new technologies and collaborations with other schools. I have witnessed teachers actively discouraging their learners from digging deeper into a topic they were interested in, because “You don’t need to know that for your exam!” I think these trends are becoming more and more popular in the teaching community in UK.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I would give a tablet to every child, whether it is an iPad, an Android, or a Microsoft Surface, it doesn’t matter, but I believe the flexibility and enhanced interactivity a tablet is offering (especially to young learners) makes them a very effective learning tool. I have seen some excellent practice with iPads, but I am really excited about the potential of the Microsoft Surface, because I have always believed the lack of a way to effectively take handwritten notes on Android and Apple tablets is a great disadvantage. I have used tablet PCs for years and they have been one of the most useful tools in my teaching. For example, having the ability to add handwritten notes, diagrams and drawings in OneNote has been a very powerful learning and teaching tool. If I could get hold of a Microsoft Surface I would certainly promote its potential in education and explore the advantages of the stylus and of the Windows 8 OS, which brings this tablet much closer to a more powerful laptop, or PC, which is what has been missing in other tablets available on the market.

But what makes tablets really useful and exciting is the fact that they can just be picked up and used with no delay due to loading time. Also, the integration of back and front cameras, together with their size and weight, makes them a very creative device. So, learners have a much wider and more creative choice when it comes to create their own notes and work. In fact, they can decide to create and edit a quick video on energy resources, for example, or use one of the many free apps for note taking and mind map drawing. Many of these also allow them to save and share their work online. So, merging these exciting features with more traditional and excellent software like Office and an operating system that is completely compatible and integrated with your PC/laptop could be the solution that many have been waiting for so long and the Microsoft Surface seems to offer that solution. So, exciting times ahead for learners and teachers!

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About Alessio Bernardelli

Birthplace: Parma, Italy
Current residence: Cardiff, Wales, UK
Education: BSc Degree in Physics and Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)
Website I check every day: http://tes.co.uk
Person who inspires me most: Tony Buzan
Favorite childhood memory:
My dad was reading a story from a book and it was so gripping that I ask him to read it again the day after, but he told me he was pretending to read from the book, but he actually made the story up and couldn’t remember it exactly! That was pretty cool and made my dad look pretty cool, too.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): West Wales on holiday with my wife and four boys, but we like going back to Italy, too, and visit my mum.
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Last time I laughed was today when I
was recreating the story of Daniel in the lions’ den with my boys (we were recording a short animation) and Stefano my second boy kept adding melodies with his voice in different situations. He was really funny and cute!
Favorite book: The Mind Map Book by Tony Buzan
Favorite music: Pearl Jam, Dire Straits, Paul Simon, Lucio Battisti and Paolo Nutini
Your favorite quote or motto: “I cannot fail, because in any situation I can learn something!” -Anthony Robbins

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