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.

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.’

Clever(ish) Lands

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 17th March 2017)

There are some striking moments in Lucy Crehan’s ‘Cleverlands’. The author spent time in five of the world’s most successful school systems – in terms of PISA results anyway – looking for patterns and clues. It is a fascinating read and, regardless of your opinions of PISA, should appeal to those with an interest in curricular change. What struck me most, however, was that amongst those systems, there were characteristics which we in Scotland hold dear.

Indeed, there are moments which raised a smile, considering the transformation we are attempting: performance standards mainly used in the classroom, an outcomes-based approach to assessment, attempts to create an increasingly more research-aware profession. All the more frustrating that we seem to be struggling to implement our flagship Curriculum for Excellence.

The obligatory stop in Finland reminds us of the good stuff going on there but also highlights the reasons why teachers, and education in general,  are so much more respected over there. Finland is a country of only five million people: they were determined to utilise the talent of all citizens. They couldn’t afford anyone being left behind so developed an educational system to support that. Scotland should listen.

Finnish teachers have complete autonomy and decide to teach using strategies underpinned by research. The research they conduct together allows them to collaboratively reach those decisions. And here’s the thing: despite having the freedom to choose what and how they teach in their own classrooms, they all teach in very similar ways because they have come to understand the most effective ways to teach. All kids in Finland experience similar high quality classroom experiences as a result.

So, while we can never replicate the systems we most admire, there are undoubtedly models which provide us with ideas and aspirations. We are currently trying to shoehorn an exciting new curriculum into a set of structures unable or unwilling to accept it. We seem unwilling to waver from the same rigid timetabling in secondary school which allows any leeway or freedom to innovate. We seem unwilling to take research seriously.

‘Cleverlands’ reminds us that we have the ability to change education systems if we really want to. But if we are to truly implement a creative curriculum which wants us to work in cross-curricular ways then we need to change the structures to allow us to do that. Otherwise dump the idea. If we are to truly develop a research-savvy teaching profession then provide us with the time and resources to do that. Otherwise dump the idea.

Great ideas which are poorly supported create the conditions for guaranteed failure. If we don’t have time then we don’t have time to waste. Let’s stop wasting it.

 

Coming Soon. The Pupil Equity Fund. Let’s Not Waste It.

‘From April this year £120m will be provided through the Attainment Scotland Fund directly to Headteachers to use for additional staffing or resources they consider will help reduce the poverty related attainment gap.’

Scotland is rightly ashamed of the gap between rich and poor in our country, especially when it appears in our schools. If we are to believe that education is a right, then we need to be aware that those who grow up in poverty are already facing massive disadvantage before they even turn up at our doors. It is hoped that the Pupil Equity Fund – coming to a school near you from April of this year – will begin to reverse that trend. That the money is going directly to schools might cause some people to sit up and take notice, but it is incumbent on all of us to have a say on what might be done with it. 

It is impressive that this bold move is being made, even though tackling the problem was how the First Minister asked to be judged. However, we must be wary of wasting it. It is a big commitment and there may be a danger of it being frittered away on hasty decisions and poorly researched plans.

So let us hope that schools don’t rush into spending their money, that they have a plan in place before they start. It would appear to me that most of this money should be used to help all children to access the curriculum in the very early stages of school. Education opens doors for people; those that start significantly further behind need a leg up. They need support to develop the literacy skills of which they have been deprived before starting school. It would seem to me then a sensible approach to move heaven and earth to tackle inequality from there.

Strong Literacy skills allow children to access the curriculum. Without them, many struggle in school and, unchecked, those issues are exacerbated as they move through the system. Secondary school, especially, becomes a hellish nightmare, where everything seems a challenge.  So it would make sense to address those issues,  providing whatever it takes – extra support, resources, time, getting parents involved- to bring them up to the level needed to deal with the learning required in the rest of their schooling.

Whatever happens, perhaps we will look back and say that this was the moment. Along with the First Minster’s Reading Challenge, there is a clear desire to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable and deprived in Scotland. Regardless of our political affiliations it would be shameful to have wasted it. Money will be coming to your school, or your child’s school. Have a say in how it’s spent. Get involved in the discussions. It’s our moral duty to do so. Whether it is a success or a failure, this may well be the moment that changed everything. If we want a more equitable society, let us make sure we do the right thing.

#4countries Post-Brexit.

When it was created back in 2011, part of the thinking behind Pedagoo was the belief  that if you put a group of teachers in a room and allowed them the time and space to discuss all things education, then great things can happen. Put them in a nice room? Even better. Treat them like intelligent professionals? Fantastic. I’ve just returned from a weekend at the Norton House Hotel where I spent two days with 25 educators from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. And, yes, great things did happen. Seven hours of sessions on Saturday, four on Sunday, ram-packed with intelligent conversation, searching for common ground.

And it went on through dinner and breakfast. Other than a set of bullet points for discussion there was no plan, no agenda. We found a path through the complexities of each of the four education systems and began to discover a way forward. It was a challenging and exhausting experience – by five thirty on Saturday I was out for the count – but hugely rewarding and wonderfully invigorating. While recognising the blocks to progress, what was fascinating to find out was the huge ambition and focused determination to overcome those barriers.

As we began, what was striking was that after the initial moans and groans about our respective education systems, the pride and joy we felt about the job we do every day in our communities shone through in every conversation. We started in our own countries, developing themes for debate and recognising areas for development, and as we moved into mixed groups, the room came alive. We probed and pushed, explained and extrapolated. There was serious debate and loads of laughter. But we began to focus on the things that we may learn from each other in post-Brexit Britain. Whether we feel that the UK is on its last legs or at the beginning of a new, golden age, we can still share the vision we have for our children.

In my group, when asked ‘From what you’ve heard about the context, if you could move to any of the other countries, which one would you move to?’, every single person knew that they would stay where they were. For what better way of changing things for the better than working hard to enhance our own communities. The (very) real David Cameron reminded us of Debra Kidd’s line from ‘Notes from the Front Line’: “it is pedagogical activism that will prove to be the butterfly wing of change” .

Sitting at dinner on Friday night, slightly nervous, none of us really knew what to expect. By Sunday, we left with greater resolve and determination to go back to our schools with a rebooted energy to continue to fight to enhance the life of the children we serve.

I left with a greater understanding of the difficult issues teachers from other UK countries have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. However, there were also wonderfully inspiring tales of hope and aspiration from everywhere; a determination to succeed against difficult odds because we all understood why it was important. It was an honour to be invited to the #4countries conference; an honour to meet such inspirational people, people I can now call friends. No matter our political futures, we understand that education exists to allow the children we teach to become empathetic global citizens; to strive to be the best that they can be. They will need to be.