‘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.

Using a Point-to-View Camera

I’ve written before of my strange relationship with my overhead projector. I found it in a cupboard a few years ago, blew the dust off and haven’t looked back since. In my English classroom I use it almost daily to write with kids, to annotate articles and passages and analyse poetry. Modelling writing is the best way to share what you know; the teacher struggling over a sentence here, a word there, develops a culture where everyone is entitled to be messy and change and develop their own work. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you go back and think about them and correct them.

A few years back, however, I purchased a small Point-to-View camera for the purposes of taking photos of sections of written work and placing them on the class blog; a good example of an essay introduction or some clever analysis or the perfect answer to an exam question. It worked well for a while then I drifted away from it and it ended up in a cupboard. Another piece of tech bites the dust. But perhaps not. I recently stumbled across it and thought I’d give it another go. This time, if it doesn’t take, I’ll get rid of it.Slide12

This week I’ve been using it as a visualiser, connected to my macbook. I spent most of a lesson talking my way through a practice exam paper, sharing every thought as I went through the passage and questions. I talked about the things I should highlight, the order in which I should address parts of the paper – for example, I always advise having a quick scan of the questions before even reading the passage – and helpful ways to uses codes or marks to highlight key language points. All the time, I’m using a pencil to point things out and underline.

And while was a bit wary of how it would be received by this particular class, as I had a glance up I noticed that they were scribbling away furiously. They were noting down my thoughts; they were hanging on to every word. Even when I moved over to the trusted OHP to begin to structure answers for them, they continued to focus on the mental process and what they should be thinking about as they answer, rather than the answers themselves. It’s still way too earlier to judge but, from a learning point of view, I’m hugely impressed. It seems to have had an immediate impact.

What I’d like to do, over the next week or two perhaps, is to use it to share examples of excellent work during the lesson. I realise that this is not particularly original – many have done it – but I’m keen to see how the pupils react to that. I don’t know how they’d feel about their work going live but I’d hope that it would help build a more collaborative culture in some of my classes. For now, though, I’m reasonably happy that I’m finally getting my money’s worth.IMG_0711 ipevo

Deconstructing My Own Bad Ideas

So, yes, I get it, that writing a blog is supposed to be about reflection and learning and thinking through your mistakes. Why is it, then, when I read over the four years of posts I’ve somehow managed to collate, that I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve written some real stinkers? How’s about that for an opening? Bear with me; I get there in the end. Reading through the archives does indeed make me wonder what I was thinking at the time but I do see the point. Sometimes learning something and deconstructing that learning is much more useful.

Take, for example, name generators. I’ve a draft post of something I wrote about lollipop sticks and those ‘fruit machine’ style online things that whizz through pupils’ names. I tried them; both, in fact, and after Dylan Wiliam’s TV show the other year, just about every teacher I know started using them at the same time. By the time we got to period six on the first day the kids were sick of the sight of them. They were, mostly, ditched very soon after but served a purpose. My classes learned very quickly that they would no longer be allowed to drift and disappear. The lollipop sticks quickly helped me develop a culture where everyone knew that they could be asked at any point. I didn’t need them any more.

Class Dojo was another one. I wrote this post about my experience, explaining that I was criticising my use of it rather than the software itself. Pupils get points for various classroom tasks, including behaviour if you want it, and they are visually presented on whiteboard or such like. Again, and I’m quite willing to confess that I used it to promote good behaviour for a while and that others may use it more effectively than me, I quickly realised that it told me nothing. The good kids got lots of points, those well-behaved soon gave up caring. Nothing beats the ability to develop trusting and respectful relationships and a strongly adhered to code of conduct to promote a positive learning environment. No computer programme will give you that.

I’ve also just deleted a post about my wonderful wall displays from about three years ago, in which I describe the valuable learning being displayed on poster paper and glitter type stuff. If you think about it, wall displays are only ever effective if they are noticed and read and very often they lose their effect very, very quickly. I still display pupils’ work, both good and bad, but I have limited space so try to ensure it changes very regularly and that I leave spaces blank rather than put up colourful rubbish. See this post on Feedback Gallery. Use the space you have effectively as long as you find out what is most effective.

Finally, and only because I’ve observed a lot of lessons which still waste more time than necessary on this, I completely disagree with myself about writing Learning Intentions on the board. What’s been really useful about this unnecessary distraction is that I’m more and more focused on what I want my pupils to learn every day and make it clear to them throughout lessons. I’m not sure of the value of writing them out as sometimes they change depending on the rhythm of the lesson. But it has been hugely important in reiterating the learning.

Writing a blog can be embarrassing at times; you necessarily have to write about vulnerabilities if is to be of any use, I think. However, I realise how fortunate I am to have a written record of my thinking over the last four years. It has made me better than yesterday, for the most part.

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 Pub Quiz and the Joke of Formal Assessment

There was a time in the past when I regularly attended a local pub quiz. It was an excellent excuse to show off my ‘so-called’ intelligence, mixed with a little bit of Guinness of course.  Indeed, this became more of a social event but still I wanted my team to win, was disappointed when we didn’t. I was a teacher, for goodness sake; I knew a lot about…well…things.

The novelty soon wore off though and it has been years since I visited any pub during the week, for any reason, never mind for a pub quiz. That changed the other week when, in celebration of the beginning of the summer holidays, I returned to the challenge – to the land of the trivia-obsessed. It was an interesting experience.

You could say that things have changed somewhat. First of all, every team achieved a remarkably high score in what seemed to me to be fairly challenging subject rounds. Has the nation’s intelligence increased since I was last there? Has our thirst for trivia become an obsession.

Secondly, there were a remarkable number of visits to the toilet during rounds. Were we more concerned, worried, fearful of our quizzing performance or do we merely drink too much? Needless to say my team did not win.

The team which did, however, was full of teachers. They had been using their phones to search for answers – as were most people there it has to be said – and were quite happy for this to be known. The irony wasn’t lost on me. The rise of the smart phone has changed our view of information and how we access it. From the brick like ‘Richard Gere in Pretty Woman’ monster phones we had back in the day to the mini computers which can do everything, it seems that access to this information has changed everywhere except in schools. It is becoming something of a joke.

Sugata Mitra claims that the point of education is to get information to kids as quickly as possible in order to get to the point where they can really begin to learn. His ‘child-centred education’ claims that students can learn for themselves and much of what we do in school bores them. We spend our time transferring information which they can get on their phones.

Our approach to formal assessment seems to be so outdated that even pub quizzes are showing it up. The irony of a team of teachers winning a pub quiz by accessing the answers on their smart phones shouldn’t be lost on us. The kids I teach can access everything which is blocked to them in the classroom by stepping outside into the corridor to use their phones. They can access Facebook and Youtube and Twitter and possibly the answer to every question we are currently asking in school.

So, If we are to engage our young people in a lifetime of learning we must stop ignoring the ways that they access information. ‘Why do I need a teacher when I’ve got google?’ asked Ian Gilbert. It is a serious question. The time has come to stop flogging this dead horse and start helping them use information in the correct way. Teachers have cottoned on to that outside of the class. If we don’t then our exams will continue to be tests of memory. Like a pub quiz. But ten years ago.

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.