Dealing With Exam Results- Pass or Fail.

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 20th November 2017)

It would seem, if you follow the progress of our exam system through both social and traditional media, that from P1 to S3 exams don’t matter; then they do for a couple of years, but only if you do well; then we’ll photograph your kids literally jumping for joy and put it in the papers. If they don’t, we’ll create a Twitter hashtag telling them that it doesn’t matter. A conveyor belt of ‘celebrities’ will sympathise, claiming, ‘I got nothing at school and I turned out all right, didn’t I?’ We’ll all have our stories of why exam success isn’t the be all and end all.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.

With each year of experience it’s often sobering to think of the number of young people who come through my classroom door. Entering my nineteenth year of teaching, I was shocked to realise that some of the first kids I taught will be well in to their thirties by now. I recently met a former pupil in Glasgow, instantly recognisable and memorable as one of those kids who had been, in his own words, a ‘nightmare’. A polite and erudite young man, he now runs his own business and is married with a couple of kids. He left school with nothing but a whole heap of negative baggage but went on to be a responsible, successful individual.

As a secondary teacher, I do believe that the best thing we can provide for our young people is a strong set of qualifications which will allow them to move on to the next stage of their lives, whatever that may be. That may not sit well with the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence but it is what I’m judged on whether I like it or not: it is what Secondary Schools are judged on. However, this is a damning indictment of those kids who fail to achieve at school, whatever the circumstances. Meeting my former pupil merely reaffirmed the folly of the way our education system works.

Is it not patronising to tell kids who don’t do well in exams that it doesn’t really matter? They, we assume, worked hard at those exams, perhaps expected to pass. Failing is a perfectly natural lesson in life so telling them that it doesn’t matter demeans them as individuals. Is it important to do well in your exams? Of course  it is. Will your life be over if you fail? Of course not. But you will have to reconsider your options. Assisting kids in being able to deal with the disappointment instead of metaphorically telling them to ’cheer up’ is a more responsible and caring way to help them grow and develop.

We Must Do Better Than This

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 6th October 2017, adapted and developed from an earlier post of mine,)

The cup slams down on to the desk. Lukewarm coffee splashes onto the pile of documents I’ve yet to read. I don’t sit down in my chair, I collapse into it. The chair doesn’t invite me. I surprise it. In revenge, the wheels send me backwards into a cabinet. Three ring binders, piled precariously, fall to the ground. I can’t be certain but I’m sure my sighs can be heard in at least three adjacent classrooms. I stare at the ten e-mail requests I have received since the beginning of that last double period. This can’t be what it’s all about. It just can’t be.

‘What just happened there?’ should be the question most on my mind. ‘Why did that lesson go so badly?’ I should think about the endless planning I did for this lesson; the immaculate resources I prepared; the constructive yet essential use of ICT. The clear outcomes set, the challenging but achievable goals. Everything was perfect; it should have been perfect. And, of course, I should have been thinking about these questions. But I wasn’t. I had ten minutes to get ready for the next lesson. Another one I had planned for ages. I didn’t have time for questions.

That the rest of the day went well doesn’t really matter. They usually do. However, when I’m driving home, when I’m eating dinner, when I’m spending time with my wife discussing normal things, I know damn well I’ll be thinking about that lesson. I’ll be blaming myself and punishing myself and coming to the conclusion that I cannot and never will be able to be much good at this teaching thing. I’ll be back at my desk for the obligatory two or so hours of marking and preparation. I’ll be in school at 7.30 next morning to go through it all again.

Perhaps this portrays the reality of an impossible job. Perhaps it merely confirms the reality that you never stop learning. Reflecting on what goes wrong makes us stronger. However, nineteen years down the line I’ve finally arrived at the point where I know that, no matter how hard I’ve tried to get over it, that feeling never leaves you. Twenty four hours a day. I’ve dreamt of bad lessons, of troublesome students, of difficult colleagues. I’ve woken up at three in the morning worrying about course work. It never goes away.

I generally love my job. In all those years, there have rarely been days on which I wasn’t excited about getting into school. Recently though that has been a lot harder. The increasing awareness that the big and bold project that is Curriculum for Excellence is nothing but a pipe dream, crushed under the weight of poor implementation and bad decision-making; the inevitable new strategy added on to the pile of those we barely had time to implement last session; all added to a creeping feeling that, despite everything, nothing much has changed in Secondary School. We attempt to develop a Broad General Education from S1 to S3 without any real commitment to changing our timetabling structures. So we resort to what we know. Exams. The tail wagging the dog, once again.

We’re told things must change though.

The First of September was a quiet Friday, it seemed. Like many teachers, I’d been back a couple of weeks and just getting used to a new timetable and new classes. I might never have noticed it had I not been sent a link on Twitter, but there it was. Another major report released quietly on a Friday afternoon, lost in the maelstrom of the school day. The Teachers Workforce Planning for Scotland’s Schools document has much to discuss, much to debate.

The report suggests that – and as an English teacher I raised an eyebrow at this – new teachers, unless they wanted to teach English, wouldn’t require Higher English on entry to Teacher Education but at the point of exit. I wonder how this will go down with those who see TeachFirst as a way to attract ‘high quality’ graduates? Shouldn’t we expect high levels of Literacy to be in place when a student leaves school?

There were interesting comments on a return of the much-maligned Chartered Teacher Programme. Recognition that promoted posts were scarce and teachers were leaving, or planning to leave the profession, due to lack of opportunity, is important. However, there are many whose progress throughout the Chartered Teacher Scheme was curtailed last time round.

But that’s not really my concern for the moment. If you’re like me, you’ll sit through meetings about this and smile. ‘Of course, we’ll read that document. Of course, we’ll reflect and discuss the main points.’ Of course, we won’t, probably. I’ll add it to the workload document I didn’t have time to read, and the follow up report. That one is underneath the National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan.

Oh, there are the new Literacy Outcomes that came out in June; the Education Governance Report that came out in June; the Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education Delivery Plan which also came out this year.

Excuse me while I slam my coffee cup down on the desk again.

You’d never guess from the media coverage, but we teachers are utterly fantastic at what we do. We teach kids to be better than they ever thought they could be, work harder than they ever thought they would. And we do it every day. Enough with the documents though. I’m like that drawer in your kitchen, full of carrier bags. You know it’s so crammed full that you can hardly open it but you keep cramming another one in now and again.

I want to get back to loving this again. There must be a better way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking up teaching will help solve recruitment woes

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 11th August 2017)

Recent suggestions that Scotland could soon have a “Teach First” system of teacher training should not come as a surprise. If you haven’t heard of Teach First, it is a charity set up to tackle educational disadvantage in England and Wales. Participants bypass traditional teaching routes to work directly with disadvantaged schools. Graham Donaldson first suggested something similar in his 2011 report, Teaching Scotland’s Future. But he clarified that “routes of this nature could complement” more traditional routes into teaching – and therein, perhaps, lies the rub.

If “traditional” teacher-education routes were still financed and supported as they always were in t

However, despite this “proud tradition”, we are struggling to recruit enough teachers. We have to look at all options now, surely? Well, no. We are struggling for numbers because successive Scottish governments have defunded education to such an extent that it is hardly the attractive profession it once was. And there’s a familiar ploy: defund something until it is barely able to function – then privatise. That’s what it will be: a firm step towards the privatisation of our education system.

So here’s a thought: perhaps making teaching an attractive prospect, not one used as political ping-pong by politicians, will attract graduates. Perhaps highlighting the work of teachers who do amazing things day in, day out, instead of focusing on the negatives, will attract graduates. Perhaps allowing us to showcase the skills we have and our love for the jobs we do will attract graduates. Perhaps paying us properly will attract graduates.

And another thing: please stop saying that Teach First-type routes attract “high-quality graduates”. That’s an insult to every teacher I know – all of them already high-quality graduates.

I don’t understand our willingness to accept the degradation of our teachers in society. We chose this profession because we wanted to change the world for the children we teach. We turn up every day, despite seemingly constant criticism from all sides. There are clearly recruitment issues, but there are simple ways to solve that. Open up and fund ITE programmes properly, don’t erode them until they disappear. Because that’s what will happen – believe me.

Time – our most valuable resource.

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 23rd June 2017)

It is difficult to talk to fellow teachers about real change in Scottish Education without coming across the thorny topic of Time. There is no shortage of commitment, no lacking in interest in new ideas, new strategies. But that’s not enough, is it? We can provide as many as ideas as we like, create as many resources as we possibly can; without the time to properly implement those ideas we will more than likely wander around the edges, more anxious than ever about what we may be missing. Teaching is a series of habits, of learned behaviours, and to change what we do takes real commitment and time from all involved for implementation.

It is this dichotomy which frustrates teachers most, I think. We see the wonderful work by organisations like SCEL (Scottish College of Educational Leadership) and their efforts to get into as many schools as possible, leading the way in new, radical approaches to continuing professional development, but often return to our classrooms overrun with tasks to complete and classes to prepare. And, when faced with those pressures, we return to the habits which successfully get us through our day. It’s not that we don’t want to be leaders; we merely find that the space to implement real change is filled with other things we must do.

I have always been wary of acronyms in Scottish Education. Once we use them, they can become meaningless words, easy to dismiss. However, more and more I’m beginning to see SCEL as our most important. Whatever your definition of leadership, it would be difficult to argue that taking responsibility for our own development is not part of that.

Money is certainly there. Investment in SCEL, in the Pupil Equity Fund, in the Attainment Challenge, in the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. Professional Development opportunities have changed completely over the last ten years. However, our opportunities to benefit from them have not.

Imagine what we could achieve if, instead of a cupboard full of resources provided for our National courses, we were provided with the more valuable recourse of Time. Time to collaborate properly; time to innovate properly; time to embed new habits and transform our classrooms: instead of struggling to cope with what we have already and finding ourselves vilified in the press for our reluctance to change.

There is no greater resource than our teachers. To improve their skills, to improve their ability to teach our young people, then we need to give them what they need. Having SCEL is a ground-breaking achievement but without the time to adapt we may be missing a massive opportunity. Let’s not do that. Please?

‘You and Me, all we want to be is lazy’

Of all the things that have begun to happen to me as I get older, increasing claustrophobia is my most concerning. Whenever I’m in a position where I can’t see a way out – whether an exit or an excuse – I start to get anxious and feel my heart rate increasing. More and more , I avoid social occasions, certainly if there is likely to be a large crowd: more recently I’ve begun to dread larger CPD events, especially ones where the ‘presenter’ asks the ‘audience’ to do some work.  I feel the same way when Bruce Springsteen turns his microphone to the audience: ‘No, Springsteen. YOU sing!’

That feeling is probably the reason why online learning appeals to me. I can read things when and where I want: there is no one with flipchart paper or a microphone to put me on the spot. And, to cap it all off, I don’t have to tell anyone who I am or where I’m from or what I hope to get from the day. Seriously? If you’re running a CPD day and have to ask that then there’s a problem. Indeed, if you’re an educational ‘consultant’ and need that reassurance then you really need to up your game. If you’re selling your product you should be clear what it is from the start.

But online learning is much more appealing to me. Sometimes. The comforting delight in knowing that you can give up at any time means that, for the most part, I give up at any time. Never finish things, I dip in to blogs and research papers and find books, and get about half way through them and give in, learning lots of little things along the way. And, knowing I don’t have to ‘feedback during plenary’, it is massively satisfying. But it’s different when you’re an adult. I’m not sure how I would have got on if I had something like ‘Flipped Learning’ when I was at school.

That tendency to give up is probably why these things won’t work for everyone in schools. It is in our nature to be lazy. As Daniel Willingham says 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.’ Some of my students may love online learning; some may hate it; most, I think, would love the idea but never find the motivation to do it on their own. Flipped learning makes a lot of in correct assumptions about the willingness of children to work in their own time.

So, while crammed classrooms are probably claustrophobic for some kids, it really is the best way for us to teach a class of thirty. It’s not perfect by any means but I’m yet to be convinced that more ‘open’ approaches to learning can work for every child. We have a responsibility to those kids who needs us most, those disadvantaged by background, and new, untested strategies are often vanity projects. Teaching them well, in the best possible way, is our duty. Let’s not take risks with that.

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.

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.