The secret to digital learning from a 40-year teaching veteran


The Microsoft Innovation Educator (MIE) Expert program connects high-potential teachers across Australia – and from around the world – to share their vision and expertise in applying technology to the classroom. We caught up with Margaret Simkin, teacher-librarian and Head of Information Services at Hamilton College, to discover how she became an unlikely champion for digital in the classroom – and her secrets for getting less-enthusiastic teachers onside with new technology.

Margaret, most proponents of digital learning are relatively new to the teaching profession. On the other hand, you’ve been teaching since 1977. Was it at all difficult to adapt to new technology in the classroom?

After I joined the MIE Expert program, I’ve been tasked with teaching staff – particularly those of my generation – how to adopt technologies like OneNote and Forms in the classroom environment. And, of course, I get the inevitable resistance of “I’m too old, I can’t adapt”. I simply tell them: “if I can do it, you’ve got no excuse!”

You’ve been very successful in getting many of those teachers on board with the digital agenda. Care to share any secrets to doing so?

Teach the teacher by teaching the students. Young people don’t worry about if they’re making a mistake with the technology, or if they’re going to look silly if they don’t know how something operates – and that makes them the best “early adopters” out there. In my Year 4 class, I got each of my students to introduce themselves using a OneNote Page, in any form they wanted to. They went wild – everything from drawing their hair in every shade of the rainbow, to pulling together collages of their photos.

A lot of the times, we try to convey the importance of digital through seminars and workshops and the like – which is all well and good, but teachers inevitably return to the classroom and hit a wall of inertia. It takes time to plan new lessons, to master new technologies, and that’s time most teachers don’t think they have. But when you inject that sort of enthusiasm directly into a class, teachers have no choice but to run with it. They also catch that energy and start to see that this technology can shake up how their students learn and grow in a positive and relevant way. For us teachers, experience is still the most effective educator.

How has digital enhanced your classroom?

I’m a huge fan of Class OneNote – it’s literally the most amazing product that I have encountered in my entire career! For my Year 12 History class, it’s simplified the way in which they can load homework and quizzes, access my lesson plans, and get feedback from me on their work.

The biggest changes, however, relate to collaboration. OneNote has not only made it much easier for my students to manage how they work together – tackling different assignment sections simultaneously, for example – but also given them a platform to share their notes, interrogate one another’s reasoning, and even combine their different perspectives in the one place to help them study more comprehensively. It’s encouraged critical thinking and debate in a way that really brings the History syllabus to life.

How important a role does collaborative learning play in the future of our students?

On a more fundamental level, I would say collaborative technologies have made the classroom far less prone to disruption than before. If a student’s sick, you can share your lesson with them in real-time while they’re at home. You can potentially share notes and ideas with not just students but also teachers in other schools. Schools thrive on collaboration, not just within their corpus but with others as well.

Has joining the MIE community helped you thrive?

Absolutely. It took me a while to finally apply because of various circumstances, but when I eventually went to Melbourne to meet the entire community at Microsoft’s headquarters…I was shocked that everyone was raving about the same things as me. Sometimes, in your own school, you don’t have anyone else to spin ideas off, or to push you to keep growing. The MIE Expert community gives me that. And as a result, I’ve had the chance to share what I’ve learnt from the community with more and more teachers in Hamilton, with greater support from our school’s leadership.

What has 40 years of teaching taught you about being an effective educator?

In all honesty, what we do with technology isn’t especially new. The fundamentals haven’t changed much in the last 40 years. But we just have far more effective tools of conveying and facilitating the right dynamics in the classroom. In my first year of teaching Geography, I remember buying a rainbow cake which you could cut to illustrate the concept of tectonic fault lines. Now, you’ve got 3D models, interactivity in students’ notebooks – tools that allow you to really put the focus on the concepts and principles rather than getting distracted by the medium.

That’s the key to being a good educator, I feel: doing what works. If something improves outcomes for our students, I’ll champion it, no matter what it is. That goes for technology as well as policy. Our IT guys are some of my biggest supports because they’ll do whatever it takes to help our students learn better. If you’re constantly focused on the end-goal of whether your students are learning, engaging, and encouraging one another, your decisions in any area of education, technology or otherwise, become incredibly simple.

 

Connect with Margaret Simkin on Twitter

For more information on Hamilton College, visit http://www.hamiltoncollege.vic.edu.au/

 

 

 

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