What’s Up, Docs? Digital Technology in English.

As  an English teacher I get no greater pleasure when I see a classroom full of children engrossed in a book. Whether that is a focused ten minutes on their own choices or hanging on every word of Macbeth, books are what got me here and books are what it should be about. So when it comes to tech, I’ve always approached with caution. With any new ‘innovation’, I always begin with two questions: will this help reduce my workload rather than increase it and will it genuinely be a better way to teach kids stuff? If the answer to either of those is ‘No’ then I’ll ignore it.

I have real concerns that some of the major international tech firms are looking on at Education in the UK and are rubbing their hands with glee. So much money; so much possibility. The blind swallowing of this thing called ‘21st Century skills’ often disguises the fact that good learning is good learning no matter the tools we have in front of us. But is it incumbent on us all to find out what might work for our classrooms and ourselves? Perhaps. Again, approaching with caution – and a firm eye on the price tag – is key.

Having said that, though, it is our professional responsibility to utilise the best strategies for our classrooms. Using effective tech is already part of what we do in Scotland. The Government issued document ‘Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through the Use of Digital Technology’   states that: Digital technology is already embedded within Scottish education. It has a place within Curriculum for Excellence, Initial Teacher Education and the Professional Standards set by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS).’ So, knowing that, I have always tried to use the best resources I could find for my classes. The danger comes, however, when we use tech just because it is there.

I have recently been dabbling with the  ‘Classroom’ suite of tools from a very big tech company. For writing in the senior school I have begun to see it as hugely impressive. Our students have to produce a Folio for Higher and National 5. Using Docs this term has allowed me to follow progress very closely, to mark and assess as they go along, and avoid the chasing up of late bits of paper. It both cuts down on my workload and helps the students to make progress. Sold. I would never use it with younger kids; they need to write accurately with pen or pencil before they should move on to more focused tools but for seniors it works really well.

As teachers we should be able to assess how tech works most effectively. Kids have loads of gadgets but are not as tech savvy as we may be lead to believe. In fact it is often  lazy assumption. They have tools with great power. Whether we can tap into that or not remains to be seen but we should find out of ourselves. Tech, if anything, should allow us to extend the classroom, providing genuine opportunities for learning. If it doesn’t do that the we should leave it alone. And get back to the books.

Show a Little Respect: Perhaps We Do Have More in Common

I have always resisted the urge to comment on the Michaela School in London. Aside from being a particularly heated, often nasty, occasionally cruel debate, I never see it as my place to comment on a school I’ve never been to, never worked at. It seems that we in Scotland have more with which to concern ourselves. However, their successful Ofsted report this week spurred me on to write something; their undoubted success might be symbolic of a greater divide in educational discourse.

I have read many blogs from their teachers, from their visitors, from their critics. And, while there may be things which seem anathema to me as a teacher, from what I’ve read and heard the kids love it at Michaela; teachers love working there; outsiders love visiting. That should be enough, shouldn’t it? Of course it should. Kids who wear their uniform with pride, set high standards for themselves and are polite and erudite is a noble aim. How Michaela get to that point is really nothing to do with anyone else.

And that’s not a damning indictment of anyone else’s school. There are great schools everywhere: not all of them have the same approaches as Michaela yet they work. I work at a Secondary School in a firmly working class area and we are a great school, improving all the time. But are the kids polite all the time? No. Do they always do their homework? No. They often come from backgrounds where school and education is not valued and that’s a genuine concern. There are a whole host of cultural reasons why schools become what they are. Michaela started from scratch, taking the opportunity to embed cultural and educational habits from the beginning and I commend them for that.

So, for those who feel antagonism towards Michaela and what they do, I wonder if it’s because we feel that their success is  slap in the face for what our own schools are doing, in some way their being right makes us wrong. It doesn’t. It’s just a school doing what they do very well indeed. I see teachers trumpeting their Ofsted/HMIe success all the time on social media. I often see criticism when poor reports are issued. We should all be delighted when any school does well. Their students deserve no less.

Our recent election cycle saw opposition parties in Scotland criticise our schools as disaster areas; oh, how the SNP have ruined our education system. And while there are undoubted problems, much of the criticism was dishonest nonsense. My greater concern though was for the kids sitting exams at the same time, hearing how terrible they were, how bad a deal they’d been served. Think about how the kids at Michaela feel when they read criticism of a school of which they are very proud. We should be celebrating the success of any school, embracing the good things happening. That doesn’t mean we have to be just like them, although there may well be lessons to learn on both sides. We might find that we have more in common than we think.

Re-reading and the Discovery of Old Friends

We’ve been decorating this week which meant moving bookcases in and out of rooms. It has been a big job, not helped by finding myself sitting in the hall flicking wistfully through books I’d forgotten I had. A volume of Woody Allen cartoons; a signed copy of The Wasp Factory’ by Ian Banks; a book of John Updike essays on Art. There is no more blissful way to spend an afternoon, surrounded by old friends, more revealing than any photo album. The Updike book, especially, grabbed my attention because he is, perhaps, the writer who has influenced my reading history more than any other.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I went to University. My schooling and my background had convinced me that it was for others and complete terror of formal education kept me away. Throughout that time though I read and read. Updike’s Rabbit novels were an obsession. Harry Angstrom’s struggles to cope with the reality of a changing America struck a chord and stayed with me throughout Uni until eventually I wrote my dissertation about them. I still own my well-thumbed Penguin copies and they’ve sat on the shelves ever since. But here’s the thing: since graduation -1996 – I’ve never been able to pick them up again.

Like old, lost friends, I’m planning to reacquaint myself this summer. The first book sees Harry at 26, my age when I when to Uni. The last one is at 56 – not quite me yet but not far off. I wonder what I’ll find in there though: the lines I underlined, the corners I folded down.  Rereading old books is not merely a luxury, it is a necessity at times. Like old photos, we may see an additional detail in the corners, a changing perspective. And while Harry and I are old friends who lost touch, perhaps we can discover a whole new relationship.

Discovering old books unexpectedly is a joy. It’s why I’ve never been one for alphabetical order; not books, not records, not CDs. The aimless wandering allows me to stumble upon unexpected corners and spark old memories. Along with our music collections, nothing travels with us as much as books. Moving into any new home, sharing that home with a significant other for the first time. Our books take a special place. That bookmark you left sticking out of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’; that train ticket peeking out of ‘The Third Policeman’; the post-its peppering ‘The Magus’.  They all tell our life stories for us.

So, it’s time to move the bookcases back today. It’ll likely take less time than when I moved them out. But what I will do is shelve the old friends in a much more prominent position. The newer, shinier upstarts can take a back seat for a while. Books change as we change; our knowledge, our political perspectives, our relationships. Opening up the ‘Rabbit’ novels once again is a big step for me, but one I hope will, rather than return me to a younger man I don’t know any more, allow me to rediscover the beauty and art of my book collection.

What’s Grown Ups Going to Think?

There is a moment in ‘Lord of the Flies’ when Simon, the artistic, religious visionary, speaks an uncomfortable truth. ‘Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.’ The boys in the story begin to show what happens when all rules, all modes of decency, are eroded. I thought about this recently when reading some of the sneering tweets aimed at the hashtag, PedagooFriday.

I created #PedagooFriday six years ago;  blame me. I wanted to create a space where anyone could share a positive experience from their classroom and, perhaps, develop a happier tone at the end of the week. I’m very proud of what it became, even though I have no input into its running now. Of course, there will be things that are not so great, things that you might feel are nonsense. However, we should welcome new voices even if we may disagree. If not, we welcome a world of ‘Lord of the Flies’ and the atmosphere of ‘survival of the fittest’ pervades.

When the rules, or lack of them,  are established, we manoeuvre in our attempts to be one of the tribe, to impress Jack, the most powerful, strongest, angriest voice. Standing just behind his shoulder, we can throw spear-like tweets knowing that someone has our back. Who we hurt, or upset, is neither here nor there because this is a Twitter and you choose to enter the arena. There is no attempt to enter dialogue, to explain; no attempt to empathise or understand. It is acting without responsibility and, we soon discover, there are no rules.

So, many entering the fray for the first time, sharing their practice, find themselves spurned and mocked very publicly. Jack and his tribe sniff out a weakness; perhaps retweet with a mocking aside; perhaps write a hilariously scathing blog post in retort. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Because Twitter is in the public domain and if you choose to land on the island then what do you expect? Very quickly you are asked to choose one side of the island over another and you better make the right choice because after that anything goes.

Except it doesn’t. We may well choose to share ideas others may think of as silly or frivolous. It may well be the first time we’ve cleared our throats and, like Percival Wemys Madison, ‘The Vicarage, Harcourt St, Anthony, Hants’, have chosen to speak up. We are, for the most part, trying to find our voice in the scary world of Edutwitter. And who can say that at some point we haven’t tweeted something we later regretted or were embarrassed by. When I joined Twitter seven years ago, the educational landscape was a fairly empty one. Now it is a ferocious island where, it seems, it is every man for himself.

So you may think you are right in everything you say; you may even be right. But it takes bigger person to recognise the teacher behind the idea; the teacher tentatively stepping on to the beach, finding their way. It takes a bigger person to welcome all to the debate. Our humanity is based on how we treat others. Social media should be no different. If we don’t consider that, like the characters in ‘Lord of the Flies’, as soon as proper adult turns up, you just look like little boys again.

The Push and Pull of the Broad General Education

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 19th May 2017)

Speaking at Glasgow University recently, Graham Donaldson suggested that the reasons for Scotland’s disappointing performance in the PISA rankings might lie in the delivery of the Broad General Education, Not that it is not broad enough or general enough; he suggested the problems might be in the lack of depth. Revisiting the experiences and outcomes, along with curricular areas, might help to see where he is coming from. For could it be the case that, in our attempts to provide a P1 to S3 curriculum, we are attempting too much?

Indeed, staring at the huge posters of Es and Os issued to schools might be akin to a hard-nosed FBI agent, scanning a series of connected photos in a seemingly impossible homicide case. What seemed so simple – an eight-word manifesto – has become so complicated.

An education which is broad is all very commendable but should we be worried that our young people are dipping their toe in lots of water but not getting particularly wet? We pride ourselves on the ‘lad o’ pairts’ approach to education but, with BGE, we really need to get that right.

The concept of an ‘aged 3 to end of S3’ education is complicated by the change from primary to secondary. The structures are different and secondaries are finding that transformation a challenge. The timetabling structures are a constraint; the pressure for good exam results are a constraint. That we, very often, rush to setting even in S1 is a constraint. Indeed, setting more or less negates the aims of a Broad General Education. For how can our young people be getting similar experiences when the system is telling some of them from an early age that they are no good?

That perceived lack of depth is certainly having its effect in the upper school. Teachers are increasingly commenting that learners are not properly prepared for National 5 courses and, while that might set off alarm bells, it highlights an all too familiar problem of exam results becoming the Holy Grail of school success; some things never change.

When our schools are still judged on those exam results – and they are- it is understandable that they begin to focus on those as early as possible. And if the BGE is not preparing them well enough? Houston, we have a problem.

Perhaps this is why HMi inspections appear to be focusing on the delivery of BGE more than anything else. The success of Cfe depends upon it. The best thing we can provide for our young people is a strong set of qualifications as they move on to the next stage of their lives. Getting the Broad General Education right needs to be our priority in order to achieve that.

An Opportunity for Decency

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 21st April 2017)

Before the 2014 Referendum many teachers were asked to avoid expressing their voting intentions in the lead up to September 18 of that year. Generally, that was the correct stance to take. However, the imposition of this edict lead many to avoid discussing what was the most important day on our recent political history, missing an opportunity to teach our young people about the importance of debate in a healthy democracy. Whether we’re about to experience a rerun or not – strap in, folks, it looks like we may be in for the long haul – teachers have an opportunity to do it better this time.

Our public discourse shames us; our politicians, at times, shame us with their play school antics. Our young people need role models.

They also need to know the difference between fact and opinion in a functioning democracy. Recent global events have emphasised the importance of understanding the issues, of understanding why it is not enough to merely have an opinion based on gut instinct. The level of considered debate – or the lack of it – has emphasised the importance of why facts trump fiction: every time. If we have to ‘suffer’ another era of political ‘awakening’ then surely we must use the opportunity to develop that essential awareness of issues over the polarised taking of sides.

Our curriculum is set up for that very purpose: it could be the era in which we finally embed the true virtues of Curriculum for Excellence. We all need to be Successful Learners, listening to the opposing arguments, reading all the facts, preparing for our future. We all need to be Confident Individuals, able to debate rationally with those who perhaps don’t see things our way. We all need to be Responsible Citizens, aware of our place in Scotland, regardless of the eventuality even if it does not turn out the way we would like. And we must all be Effective Contributors to a Scotland in which we will all live, taking our place in a strong and healthy democracy, where all opinions are valued and no-one is silenced.

I wrote at the time that the recent U.S. Presidential election was, in a way, a referendum on decency; we saw how that turned out. As teachers, and as adults, we need to model that decency for our young people. So we don’t mock opposing views; we don’t humiliate those we disagree with, with pithy Social Media jokes; we don’t call those we oppose ‘Traitors’. We may have to rise above our politicians in that regard. But whatever happens, just remember that we all have to live with the consequences of what Brexit and a possible Indyref 2 might bring. What kind of Scotland do you want?

With the broken backs and the pac a macs…

I teach at the school attended by Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera and the reason I make that clear from the start is that ‘We Could Send Letters’ was the song to which I first properly listened to the lyrics, a song probably written when he was there. Indeed, in many ways, the album ‘High Land Hard Rain’, followed closely by ‘Rattlesnakes’, ‘Swoon’, perhaps the first Smiths album, saw the beginning of a love affair with words. It seems strange that I reflect on the fact that my life long love of words does not originate in a lifetime of reading great books but I suspect it’s true.

Before that I’d mostly listened to my parents’ music and, believe me, I thank them for that. Endless country albums, Elvis, Buddy Holly. Latterly Simon and Garfunkel. Flicking through piles of LPs, listening to everything; in the process inadvertently developing a wide ranging knowledge of music. LPs meant you pretty much had to listen to every song. However, while we decry the lack of attention span and awareness of great music in our young people, we have collectively ruined music for them. Young people don’t listen to albums any more. They choose only their favourite songs to download. Why listen to a whole album? But we criticise them for that even though it wasn’t a teenager who invented the iPod.

And their experience of TV and cinema is similar. Download only the programmes and movies you want to see; no more sitting through boring ‘black and white’ snorefests on afternoon TV. Those advances in technology have provided such a plethora of choices that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between the good and the bad; all choices are merely choices. But we criticise young people for that even though it wasn’t a teenager who invented Netflix.

So perhaps school needs to be a place with fewer choices. Not ‘no choices’ but fewer and of greater quality. Like sending a reluctant reader to the library without your assistance or advice, kids don’t always have the knowledge or experience to make the best choices for themselves. Like my parents’ collection of LPs, perhaps we should parachute them into an environment filled with greatness; the best books, the best music, the best movies, the best art, the best everything. Maybe then, their choices will always be good ones.

Roddy Frame wrote those wonderful songs when he was teenager in East Kilbride, walking the corridors of my workplace (although that’s technically a lie as we’ve moved in to a new building but bear with me). Listening to his lyrics now merely confirms the greatness of his work. I’d like to think hearing them when I did changed me forever, along with the records I inherited. Passing on the best of the past so that our young people can appreciate their present and cope with their future should be the goal of education.

School should be a place where the only choices available are not merely good ones but great ones.

‘And now the only chance that we could take
Is the chance that someone else won’t make it all come true.’