A Netflix of Education? No thanks.

Flicking through Netflix the other night, desperately tying to find something worth watching, the scale of how much our access to resources has changed really struck me. From the three channels of my childhood, I now have access to thousands of programmes I don’t want to watch; alongside Spotify where, for about a tenner a month, I no longer have to buy any other music and can listen to almost anything at any time. Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware of the moral arguments against music streaming and the problems that causes for the artists; however, I think it is an inevitable step in the process. It ain’t why, it just is. So I can have all the TV I ever want, all the music I ever want and all the books I ever want, all on my smart phone.

But that cultural change surely comes with a cost.  The ‘on demand’ approach to our lives is a dangerous game to play when it slips into education.  When our students begin to believe that they can access us at times of their convenience, when our time becomes theirs, we should begin to worry. Of course, we want our students to achieve the best they can, better even, but that will come at a cost, in workload and wellbeing. The onset of exam revision season brings those concerns to centre stage. And giving them unlimited access to our time may be doing them more harm than good.

Screenshot 2016-03-28 12.07.18Of course,  greater use of digital technology is a wonderful thing when it used appropriately. The use of online learning networks – such as Glow in Scotland – allows us to top load our students with resources and access to further work; but our time cannot be a Netflix for our students. I want them to access help at any point through a wide range of on-line resources and revision guides. What I don’t want is a never-ending supported study where I am forever on call.

We must be able to distinguish between our resources and ourselves. I already see new teachers with every day lunchtime study sessions and after school drop ins. It cannot end well. Workload problems are becoming the most important issue in education so to add to that in some vain attempt to support student learning is a roadmap to burn out and exhaustion; and it doesn’t help our colleagues who, very often, feel pressured to do the same. By all means, have a window where students can come and see you. But close it more often than not.

A part of our Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland was to create independent students who would take responsibility for their own learning. The hope is that they would be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Our desperate clamour for raising attainment – a noble aim, of course – results in schools offering more and more support and asking teachers to do more and more. What we need to do is foster that independence in our children where, at some point, they need to go away and work hard. So, like Netflix, they often may not find what they are looking for. Especially if it’s us

What Are We Waiting For? It’s Time for Genuine, Grown Up Collaboration

IMG_0881I’ve become more and more convinced that we will always struggle to develop as teachers in the way we should until watching each other teach, and analysing the good and the bad things we see, is embedded into our working week. However, the problem with peer observation is a cultural one, and a deep-rooted one at that. I know there are examples of excellent practice but, more often than not I fear, teachers struggle to hear potentially critical comments about their practice. We close our classrooms doors and try new things and hope for the best and there is no-one there to tell us where we are going wrong. And that is where we are going wrong.

Faced with the prospect of our peers finding fault in our new strategy, we very often race for the lock on our doors, sliding down,  perspiring, heaving deep sighs of relief. What if our new technique is rubbish? What if my lesson goes wrong? Why would we want others to stand in witness to our weaknesses? In my last post entitled ‘A Time to be Brave’ I called for serious investment in teachers and our time; but that must come with a commitment to professional collaboration and a commitment to challenge our practice maturely and constructively.

Doctors deliberately try to prove each other wrong. In medicine, any new ideas are literally placed under the microscope.They are committed to finding fault in their colleagues’ work because it is, very often, a matter of life and death. The possibility of a medical practitioner trying out a new strategy learned from a blog over the weekend would be ludicrous. And perhaps that’s what gives teaching an advantage. We can take risks. It’s not a matter of life and death. However, our students get (at least) one year with us and if we get it wrong for them, the consequences could be far-reaching.

The tragedy is that we become so entrenched in own our own work, so emotionally connected to the work we spend so much of our time on, that is difficult to avoid taking any criticism personally. When you’ve spent all Sunday working on what you believe is a fabulous resource which others pick holes in, it is difficult not to retreat into your classroom and avoid sharing in the future. Why is that? And how can we change it? Perhaps years of mistrust – perceived or otherwise – have brought us here. Perhaps we need to step out of our comfort zones if things are to change.

I turn fifty this year – I know. I don’t look it , do I? Sorry? I do? Fair enough. – and I’m running out of years to perfect this teaching thing. However, paradoxically, I’m worried my increasingly thick skin is becoming immune to any criticism at all,  rather than just the silly stuff. Waiting about for structures to change is no longer an option for me. I want to open up my classroom to scrutiny and I want someone to tell me why my cleverly constructed lesson was ineffective. So observe my lesson. Criticise the work. But tell me why and give me alternatives.  I promise I won’t hate you for it. I promise I won’t cry in the car park.

A Time to be Brave – Invest in Teaching.

The world of educational academia seems so distant from the humble classroom teacher that at times it could be from a different planet. There can be little doubt that there is a vast tsunami of great research being undertaken at University level, and much of it fascinating I’ve no doubt, but I never read it unless I have to and I very rarely have to. The tragedy is that there is clearly a lot of fabulous work being done in education which is having very little impact. And surely our time and resources – human or otherwise –  could be put to better use.

clock-407101__180The rise of the teacher conference has brought this to my attention. I look down the Twitter feeds of those in attendance and very rarely see a classroom teacher. Okay, they might be there and not tweeting but it seems that more and more take place during the week and those that happen on a Saturday come and go without even registering. And believe me if I haven’t heard about them then the vast majority of my colleagues won’t have heard of them either. However, there’s a bigger problem with teachers not getting out of school for important conferences than me getting annoyed about it.

A passive acceptance that there is no cover available to allow us out of school is not only unacceptable but standing as a block to our own professional development. I know of very few teachers who get out of school to attend the ‘bigger picture’ conferences and certainly none who bring back ideas and thoughts which they are then given time to share and develop. The lack of resources available to provide that space is not something we should merely accept. We are being deprived of the opportunity to access the very research and information which could radically change the educational experiences of the children we teach. Being told that ‘we know you’re busy but…’ isn’t good enough. Recognition of time constraints should never have ‘but’ as an addition.

So it seems to me that a sensible approach to real educational improvement would be to genuinely invest in our teachers: investment in time rather than empty but shiny initiatives imposed from who knows where; investment in genuine engagement with current research, not merely reading it; investment in proper and effective peer observation and collaboration. It’s not a selfish stance. I’m not complaining about my workload here. Teaching is a difficult but important job and the workload comes with it.  I’d simply prefer that if I have to have that excessive workload then it should involve things that are helpful and important; not tedious box-ticking tasks which deflect me from the very thing I’m good at.

There are many teachers who do their best to access current research as much as possible, quite happy to do the extra when appropriate. However, it’s a soul destroying and dispiriting task when you realise that nothing is changing.; when you realise that, probably, teaching hasn’t changed much in the last ten years; when you realise that time is a valuable resource both in terms of school and life. The opportunity to change our educational system is here. I won’t get another chance in my career. And the financial resources required would indeed be an investment, not merely additional waste on a profligate profession. The gains could be immense; the impact on our classrooms huge. All it would take is bravery. From all of us.

The Scottish Government and Reading for Pleasure

IMG_0603This week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a new venture to encourage  primary-aged kids to read for pleasure. Part of her Government’s ongoing – and as yet unsuccessful – attempt to enhance literacy and narrow the attainment gap, children in primaries four to seven will be encouraged to read as many books as possible and write short reviews to win prizes for themselves and their schools. As one who has blogged, tweeted and presented at Teachmeets, on the importance of reading for pleasure, I’m delighted that this has been placed, to an extent, centre stage of a literacy push. I do worry slightly about the competitive element though.

The First Minister’s comments on reading for pleasure echo mine exactly: “Research … shows that reading for pleasure is crucially important for children’s development, and I hope this scheme goes a long way in encouraging Scotland’s young people to see reading as an important leisure activity as much as a school one.”  That we place reading for pleasure at the heart of any literacy development is vital, especially in the early years, if we are to develop life-long readers, and anything we can do to encourage that must be seen as a positive step. From experience, however, I think there may be some flaws with this venture.

Where it begins to fall down for me is the added burden of the book review. I’m not wholly against writing about reading but I think we open up areas of real difficulty for some kids if we mesh something which we present as being for pleasure with something else which has its own pitfalls. Writing book reviews, long or short, can be a wonderful experience for kids who are confident readers and writers. For reluctant readers, who we spend a lot of time encouraging and finding books for, the thought of writing at the end of a book can turn them off reading forever. They are faced with all of the issues they have with literacy: now hitched to something which was supposed to be about pleasure remember.

I also have an issue with choice. To paraphrase Donalyn Miller, writer of ‘The Book Whisperer – as I do time and time again – in order to create lifelong readers we must provide three things: time, choice and love. Closing down the choice of reading material to a set list chosen by adults is a potential disaster. Kids like to read books recommended by their friends. They may be terrible in our eyes but, with reluctant readers who we simply want to read, nothing should be off the table at first. Then, perhaps, later on we can start to push books their way. Book choices should not be limited to what adults think they should read.

However, despite these concerns, I welcome the Scottish Government’s new focus on Reading for Pleasure. I love the fact that Nicole Sturgeon is talking publicly about her favourite children’s books. We should all be doing the same in our classrooms and in our homes. I perhaps worry though that in order  to take this forward someone felt that it should be made into a competition. So one kid can read ten short books while another reads one long doorstopper: who should get a prize? If you teach kids you’ll probably know that reading for pleasure is not as big a disaster area as we are lead to believe. However, for those who are still reluctant readers we need to get this right.

First Minister’s Reading Challenge