21st Century Blues

I grew up in an era where, as children, we were forced to face up to our futures, every Thursday night. Perhaps that is an exaggeration but ‘Tomorrow’s World’, a half hour show which introduced the inventions of the next generation, was on before Top of the Pops and there wasn’t anything to do but wait. I’ve no doubt ninety percent of the inventions were never heard of but, still, this was the future and it was hard not to be impressed. That future was ages way. Back then, if you’d told me I could be a web designer or even worked in a call centre I would have stared at you goggle-eyed. You see, the jobs of the future had still to be invented. Hmm.

So it troubles me now when I see the Ken Robinson TED talks for the umpteenth time and he tells me we need to prepare kids for a world of work of which we have no idea. Hasn’t it always been that way? In preparation for a seminar I’m delivering to future English teachers on the use of ICT in English, I’ve come to the conclusion that we are having the wrong conversations. ICT is a valuable learning tool but it is just that. A tool. As I analyse the way I use technology in school I come to the conclusion that it s mostly to aid my teaching rather than the pupils’ learning.

If it doesn’t make my job easier then I tend not to bother. If it doesn’t allow me to achieve something in a better way then I tend not to bother. Technology should be there to make life easier, no? Inventors have always striven to provide us with new ideas because, well, we are intrinsically lazy. As Daniel Willingham states in ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’,

‘Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.’ P.4

So we label the things we want our kids to do as ‘21st Century Learning’ because it sounds exciting. Tech companies hover above us rubbing their hands as we lap up the future. However, if we thought about that logically then 21st Century learning would be much easier than it has always been. Surely we create new technology to make that happen.

What becomes the ultimate irony is that the luxuries of one generation become the necessities of the next. The childish excitement we felt at the internet explosion becomes something different when our pupils grow up with it. Everything seems easier to them; information arrives on a plate; learning is more interactive. And we resent them for it; for embracing the world we created for them. Like Gordon Ramsay running out of his kitchen to berate us for enjoying his beautiful food. We tut and disapprove when they use the inventions of Tomorrow’s World in their present. And we wonder why they don’t understand. More than half of the kids I teach were born in 2000 or after; they know no other century. The term ‘21st Century’ at best confuses them; at worst frightens them.

When I speak to the student teachers this week I want to stress that 21st Century learning is a myth, that we need to embrace what is all around us and use what helps the kids to learn. Gimmicks and fruitcake ideas were a massive part of my Thursday nights s a child; they don’t need to be part of anyone else’s. Let’s stop trying to furnish them with our past and prepare them for their future. But let’s do it without the scary rhetoric. After all, if I were to believe all I’ve heard about the future I could be flying back and forward to learn in any century I wanted.



The Right Conversations?

There might well be a case to say that the implementation of new National courses in Scotland has been haphazard, not to say bungled. There may well be a case to say that the new courses bear no resemblance to anything mentioned in the original ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ vision – an eight word manifesto, folks, never forget that. What is clear, however, is that teachers in secondary schools all over Scotland are metaphorically, and literally I would imagine,  crying into their pillows over these new courses. That they are being delivered as they are being developed, with one eye on the New Highers coming right behind them, makes Departmental meetings all over the country fraught, to say the least.

Teachers worry about these things because we care deeply about the education of the kids in our care, but also because we are increasingly aware of the ‘currency’ of the new qualifications and their future worth. What right have we to use classes as guinea pigs for a vision which has not yet been realised? So we question and complain and find fault because the children in our classes deserve perfection from us. We might never get there but the continual pursuit is what makes us effective educators. It matters. It is not only our right to question and find fault, it is our duty.

IMG_0997But, and this may be controversial, there may be an elephant in the room. When implementation of courses is over – and it will be; and it will be excellent – we may look back and think about the opportunities to discuss teaching, to develop processes of learning, which were missed because we spent too much time worrying about resources. Of course resources are important but, in English anyway, the processes of how we get children into the exam hall is far more important to me.

It may be a cliche to say that change is hard, because that’s not always the case; but do we ever stop and reflect on ourselves as teachers, departments, schools, and how much we have changed during that time? Are there still departments hoping to come through CfE implementation relatively unscathed? Is it still the case that some teachers still fail to realise the vision of CfE and are unconvinced by its intentions? Questioning is essential but it is also my job to ensure that ANY curriculum is successfully implemented, regardless of my objections. That may be a difficult truth but a truth nonetheless.

Perhaps our development time should be spent discussing teaching techniques, more focused lesson study, how we give feedback. Perhaps we should be observing each other more and developing cultures of professional inquiry and collaboration more than we do already. Perhaps we should be filming each other teaching and using that as a basis for developmental discussion. For as long as I can remember in teaching, I’ve had discussions which came to the conclusion that if we teach kids well they will pass any exam. Perhaps this is our opportunity. Let’s not waste it.

Good Enough is Never Good Enough

It wasn’t a bad lesson overall but all I can hear in my head was the exaggerated whisper, ‘this is boring’. On the surface everything seemed to go to plan; most of the pupils seems to get what I was saying, engaging with the lesson, doing what I wanted them to do. But that phrase, that swipe, that bullet in the gullet, to quote one of the great English poets.  A reminder of all the time spent planning, thinking about the next lesson came crashing down around me. I’ll not lie, it’s not the first time I’ve heard it; it doesn’t often happen though. This time hurt me more and I don’t know why.

I was rotten today and I know it. Boring. Bored. I felt a bit ashamed of myself because I knew it wasn’t, is never, good enough. Good enough is never good enough. Boring is unforgivable. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pandering to every pupil who uses that word. I’m not a children’s entertainer. It’s just that I knew my delivery was predictable, stale and unimaginative. The opportunities for further discussion, further learning passed me by. I let my class down. But, when you have five or six classes a day, when you see one hundred and fifty kids sitting in front of you waiting to be taught, is it realistic to be on top form all of the time?

In an ideal world it probably should be. Our students need us to give them our best every day. Physically though I’m finding it impossible. Despite the workload, despite the Masters I’m studying, the marking, the preparing,  the blogging, everything I do, the thing I find most exhausting is the everyday routine of standing in front of a class of thirty kids all day. There is no hiding place. We work under a microscope all of the time, with someone waiting to pounce when we are not on our game. So I was boring.

Then I recalled a passage from Hattie’s last book, the one about the science of learning.

‘Teachers are frequently disappointed by the lack of student response to what ought to be richly stimulating activities and experiences. Student apathy and lack of motivation are frequently cited as factors underlying teacher stress, burn out and lack of job satisfaction’ (Hattie, p.3)

And it got me thinking about the ‘this is boring’ whisper and I realised that it wasn’t the comment that bothered me. It was the fact that I knew it was boring. I had relied on the fact that the class would do what I asked them to do, would complete the task I had set. They knew it too. What was unforgivable was that I could have done it differently and didn’t. It is not enough to keep kids busy. It is not enough for them to have filled up notebooks. This is not a post about engagement. It is a post about ensuring that learning is not merely something to endure. It is something to be memorable, ‘richly stimulating’. Ach, man. This is a hard job.


I Used to Do That- still do, sometimes

One of the most pleasing parts of my current job is seeing the standard of new teachers coming through. More so than ever, in English anyway, I see more committed, enthusiastic student teachers who see the job as a lifelong challenge. I hear them more willing to discuss the theory of teaching as well as the practice. Being involved in the interview process for Initial Teacher Training courses over the last couple of years has convinced me that, for the first time in years, we are getting it right it terms of accepting future teachers into the profession.

Part of that stems from the memories of my own first years in the classroom. I was in my thirties when I started teaching but was enthusiastic, committed and desperate to make an impression in a career of which I’d always been slightly terrified. I had those idealistic dreams when every pupils in my classes would love everything I did, for how could they not? When you are a battle-weary and experienced classroom teacher I think it is easy to forget that initial feeling that everything is possible and it is all still stretching out before you. Perhaps, as we start a new term, we should try those shoes on again.

What never leaves me though is that child-like excitement when I am about to start a new text. Even one I’ve taught loads of times before. Approaching the text in English class is possibly the most vital part of our planning. What do we want them to learn from this text? Which sections do I need to spend more time on? How much background knowledge will I need to provide? What do the they already know? In an ideal world we could do it all but we can’t. With experience comes the knowledge of planning for time and for content.

Looking back at the first time I taught ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ – which I am about to start again – I wish I’d had an experienced teacher to plan with. It is such a wonderful story that, of course, the pupils will love it too. They didn’t, of course. The text is too context-specific and, dare I say it, too wordy in places to merely enjoy it on its own merits. An experienced teacher could have told me to spend time discussing slavery and the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, even before starting to read the novel. I learned over time that planning is so much more effective when done with someone else.

The great improvements I’ve seen in the ‘readiness’ of student teachers suggests that we can learn loads from them too. Their enthusiastic naiveté is, at times, infectious and new and original ideas are always welcome. However, we should  never forget that experience is all. Looking through some old resources – some of which I created over ten years ago – I was both amazed and embarrassed. There is some good stuff in there. Perhaps this term I will try and remember what it was like to be a new teacher. But, added to that, a strong measure of reality. The future teachers in Scotland look good to me. Let’s make sure we help them along the way.