The Scary Truth of The Walk Through

I was introduced to the concept of ‘the walk through’ recently during a chat about computer games with a young lad in one of my classes. The young gent in question was a proud gamer and regularly spent thirty pounds of his mother’s hard earned money on the latest games. She was happy to do so, he claimed, because he was so good at them. So good that he regularly finished them in a weekend.

I wouldn’t want to slur his good character but I questioned this obvious talent and wondered how he managed it. ‘The Walk Through’. On YouTube. Apparently he can go and follow someone else playing the game to get to the end quickly. Telling his mum that he’d finished made him feel good.

My initial outrage soon subsided though. How reflective is that of the school experience of many our kids? How often do we embed the notion that the end product is the be all and end all and the journey, so to speak, is not especially relevant? This boy knew that he’d get more plaudits by telling people of his success – completing the game and telling people about it- so how he got there was not really important to him. Who has taught him that? Where has he learned it?

Reading ‘The Game of School’ by Robert L. Fried this week led me to think about that walk through. He argues that teachers, students, parents are aware of the rules of the game even if we don’t refer to it. There is an unspoken code to which we all allude  in order to avoid ‘rocking the boat’.

‘The Game begins whenever we focus on getting through the school day rather than actually learning.’ Friel, introduction

We play the game by entrenching established practices whether they work or not. Kids know how to get through their day without rocking the classroom boat. And we provide the walk through. There is a suggestion that teachers are more than happy with this arrangement. I couldn’t possibly comment.

We inadvertently ensure that assessment procedures emphasise the grades rather than the learning and, Fried argues, kids become aware that exams are not there to assess their learning; they exist to assess Local Authority, who use them to assess schools, who use them to assess teacher competence.

‘Students come to learn that beating last year’s test scores is the thing adults in school care most about.’ Friel

Everyone, deep down, knows that yet we still wheel out what Ian Gilbert calls; ‘the Great Educational Lie’ that if you work hard and get good grades you will get a good job. I’ve always been an advocate of the policy that Learning and Teaching must be the priority of formal education or it fails to achieve very much.  So when do we finally grasp the great truth that the tail has, for some time, been wagging the dog? My student is, of course, not emblematic of students everywhere; but he is out there and he won’t be the only one.

I’m not sure I really have a solution apart from a huge drift towards honest continuous assessment but until we start talking about the walk through then we may as well just forget about real teaching and just teach to the damn test. That is how we will be assessed anyway.

More Teachers Need to Blog

‘How can I know what I think until I see what I say?’ EM Forster

I’ve always thought that, as a teacher and a professional, it was not merely my right to speak up about educational matters but my duty. When I started Blogging a year ago it was to share things I was trying in class with a wider audience and to attempt to communicate with educators who, perhaps, felt the same way about the way things were changing. Education is in a constant state of change in Scotland – and, seemingly many countries. It is not a new thing. However, what has changed is the ability for teachers to share these discussions with a wider audience through social media. I chose Blogging because I wanted to write.

Blogging does allow you to develop a thought, into a point, into a discussion. The disorganised thoughts flying around my mind during the week now find somewhere to go, instead of post-it it notes which get lost. When I write my blog posts I start by splattering any thoughts in no particular order, a sort of stream of consciousness. But when I see those disorganised thoughts I can ‘ see what I say’ and edit accordingly.. This has made me a better writer and, thus, a better teacher of writing. I can more understand the practical difficulties in structuring an argument, or reflecting some thoughts; something I ask my students to do all of the time. It also allows me to reflect on things I thought six months ago and adapt or even disagree with now.

And I want people to read my blog too. It is no vanity project (or is every Blog a vanity project? Discuss.) I think I have something to say but what good is writing without a reader. It is no diary, no keeper of secret thoughts. There is nothing more public and the Internet has become the ultimate leveller for the unpublished writer.  I read other Blogs to find inspirational ideas, great thoughts and wonderful writing. And, as I do in school every day of my life, I look for those who set high standards and attempt to emulate them. Why settle for second best? Even though I often fail to live up to that standard.

Before blogging I walked about with an almost constant niggling doubt about what I was trying to achieve in Education. There are as many great things which I felt were not being celebrated in schools as there are bad ideas. I questioned everything, as I try to encourage my students to do, but had no focus, no burning pyre to get rid of those ideas. My Blog has given me somewhere to distribute the detritus of my everyday thoughts. Some of them I wish I’d spent more time on. Some of them I’m every proud of. But I wouldn’t change any of them now. A year of Blogging reflects my development as a teacher but also as a thinker. And that can’t be a bad thing.

There will be those of you who are very Blog and Twitter savvy who believe there are too many of us out there gassing on about our opinions. However, I want to be controversial here and say that, in Scotland at least, there are not enough. Social media has opened up a world once closed to us. A country full of great educators with things to say. I suggest that there is not enough discussion going on out there and certainly not enough relevant literature to inform, inspire and explain the changes occurring in Scottish Education.

Too many people who have great ideas often become stifled by school structures and the intimidating hugeness of it all. We are professionals. We are not fools. We can discuss the world of education in a positive and supportive, if often critical, eye without any of it becoming personal. You are a teacher. You have great things to say. Share them. Get blogging!

Empathy for the Devil

My only country

Is six feet high

And whether I love it or not

I’ll die

For its independence.

                                                                 ‘Patriot’ By Norman Maccaig

If I told you that I regularly buy The Observer what would you think? If I said that I loathed the current coalition Government and harumphed quietly at Newsnight and ranted at Question Time, would that add anything to the picture? I listen to Tom Waits and The Smiths. I liked The Wire. I wear dark rimmed specs, have a kindle and enjoy a latte; I feel slightly sorry for Ed Miliband and wish he was better, but loathe Tony Blair. What would you think? Some of you will recognise ‘my type’; others may empathise a little more. But some of you already have me tagged don’t you?

The recent media frenzy over Scottish Independence raised a few questions about polarisation for me and how comfortable we are in our own belief systems. When you filter something down to the simplicity of a Yes/No answer then you often fail to connect with the real issues.

In our daily lives, we like to read newspapers which we know will reflect our world views. We read books we think we should be reading. We befriend – both in social media and real life – those who are similar and ‘unfollow’ those with whom we disagree; because it is easier. It makes us feel that we are correct in the way we live our lives and that our views are sacrosanct. I’m no different. It’s just that it is beginning to worry me. When we become so entrenched in how we live our lives, how then can we expect empathy to thrive?

And it’s the same in Education, isn’t it? We hang out in the staff room with those who share our outlook and educational beliefs. We avoid those who may not see it the same way. Thus, we avoid the real conversations we need to have because it is deemed unprofessional to rock the boat. It might be controversial but I think we also tend to share our creative ideas with those who we think will be most receptive. An easy audience.

We then create a polarised education system; for example, those who like the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland and those who don’t; those who like Glow and those who don’t; those who think change is good and those who don’t. When people disagree with something you fundamentally agree with, how often have you taken it as a personal slight? How often has it been intended as a personal slight? Perhaps we need to toughen up and do better.

I think Teachmeet can really help here, especially the smaller, trimmed down, Teachmeet 365. I recently proposed a ‘Teachmeet plus partner’, sending the audience into a frenzy as they pictured prospective ‘significant others’ sitting alongside them at the next one. What I meant was a Teachmeet where the entry ‘fee’ was to bring one other person from your establishment who had never been to one before. Maybe then we can start to encourage others to join our conversation.

Teachmeet is often a pebble in an ocean. A pebble which starts ripples but, perhaps, only small ones. By sticking to our own beliefs we miss great opportunities for learning. We won’t always be able to reach out, but a little bit of empathy perhaps goes some of the way. As long as I don’t have to read The Daily Mail.

Book Tweets

(While I am aware that I have  briefly touched on this subject before, here,  I always intended to return to it to add some more thoughts and reflections.)

Ask any pupil in any English class and the two words which will kill a love of reading more than any others are ‘book’ and ‘report’. You might change ‘report’ for ‘review’. You might call it character study. You might call it a cream bun but they know what it is. What they don’t get is why oh why they have to do it.

Let’s face it. Book reports serve little purpose. In theory we say they ask the pupil to reflect their understanding but they don’t really. They are ‘busy work’ which kill a love of reading in children. Fact. (but don’t press me on that.)  However ask yourself this? If you knew you had to write a report on every book you read at home would you be so keen to pick one up? Especially when you don’t really like reading anyway? Thought not.

Adults pick up a book at the end of the day when they have finished work and want to escape. We very often don’t let our pupils do that. A love of reading should be our only aim in English class, especially in the lower years. Everything else will fall into place.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against responses to reading. It would be a shame to miss opportunities for pupils to express their views on something they’ve read. We just have to be careful as to what and how often. So, when it comes to Personal Reading – not study of literature but a choice of books to be read independently – book tweets are brilliant. They are exactly that. Book reports in 140 characters.

There are rules, however:

  1. Title and author must not be used.
  2. Tweets must be grammatically perfect and punctuated properly. No abbreviations, no text speak.
  3. And they must be as close to 140 characters as possible. No short escape routes.

Younger year groups love them. They do not always find it easy but they do manage to condense what they love about the books they have read into short tweets; and isn’t that worth it? Pupils reflecting on their reading in a shorter, snappier and more memorable way. They also make great wall displays which can serve as a book recommendation wall.

This is not a substitute for real responses to literature. We still study challenging texts and respond in lengthy essays. It is part of the course still. But the time saved from marking meaningless, grudgingly-written, dull monotonous book reports can be used for good old fashioned reading time; and that’s the ONLY way to encourage young people to read.

Book tweets create a buzz about reading in the classroom. They are quick, short, snappy, fun and, genuinely, encourage an enjoyment of reading in any subject. Why not use them for quick fire revision notes. Everyone in class takes a different point and writes a tweet. It could work. And not a computer or techy tool in sight.

Some examples from this year’s S1 class:

‘Storm Catchers’ by Tim Bowler  – Fraser

When Ella gets captured during the storm, the family also find out a bit more about their own past. More than they wanted to…

‘Sleepwalking’ by Nicola Morgan – Rebecca

People are programmed at birth to not have emotions like rage, sorrow etc. Some go wrong, called Outsiders. Really interesting and weird.

‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ by Patrick Ness -Megan

Todd is the only almost- man in Prentiss town. A place where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. He finds a spot of complete silence…

‘Journey to the River Sea’ by Eva Ibbotson –   Danielle

Maia, an orphan, is about to start a new life in the Amazon rainforest. But did Maia know what was ahead of her? This book is funny and true.

Do Students Really Dislike School? (or why I’m not such a bad driver after all)

In recent years I’ve been becoming more and more concerned by memory loss. Perhaps you’ve shared that. I get into the car at home and before I know it I’m parked outside school. Nothing in between rings a bell; I could have used a tardis. I break into a cold sweat thinking about the chaos I may have caused; the debris I may have left behind. I worry about my future. I worry. I worry. Then I read Daniel Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ and whole world makes sense again. You see, what was happening was not the sad public crumbling of a once average man but a sign of great skill and proficiency.

One of Willingham’s important assertions in this book is that human beings don’t really want to think; we are not wired to do so.

‘Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.’ (Willingham , 2009, p. 4)

He claims, probably unsurprisingly, that ‘the only path to expertise is practice…and by making mental procedures automatic.’ So when driving to school what I am displaying is pure learning; so much so that I barely know I’m doing it. I am moving knowledge from my working memory – that bit that gives us a headache wondering what to have for dinner – to my long term memory, where I’ve learned it, can do it, and it no longer troubles me. Making space, you could say.

Nothing especially ground-breaking there, you might say. However, Willingham also makes some excellent points about how a lack of this background knowledge in the long term memory is the true block to progress in learning. That might suggest why home environment, especially in the early years of school, is so crucial.

On the point of returning to school to, ostensibly, start a new set of texts with five different classes, I’m now thinking of this in a more immediate context. Is it true that we sometimes underestimate the importance of factual knowledge when approaching Literature in the classroom? And, as an English teacher, how can I overcome wide ranging background knowledge levels in my students?

l might have assumed background knowledge when approaching the play script of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. Do thirteen year olds in Scotland know much about the Holocaust? What should I assume? How would I really know? Perhaps, to a lesser extent with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. They must be aware of racism in society. But the murky politics of the Deep  South, depression-era America? It raises some vital questions in terms of planning. In our endless desire for coverage, our race towards an end of unit assessment, how much do we genuinely take real learning into account and is that even assessed? How often have I rushed into a text, missing opportunities for real learning?

Daniel Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ is a very important book which I think all teachers should read. It questions our approach to planning lessons and to the ways children learn. He questions assumptions about learning styles – not always convincingly in my opinion – but creates a framework for curriculum development where real student learning is at the heart of what we do.