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

Taking Away the Water Wings.

There was a time when I enjoyed Easter Study days. Getting down to the business end of the year; kids beginning to really focus; the more relaxed approach; the snacks. I tended to get their full attention when they had given up their holiday time and were aware that I was giving mine. I would even take pride in the numbers I would get in the sessions; surely testimony to the relationships I was building with the class and their appreciation of my teaching. Great results in August were clearly down to that extra work we had all put in.

But then, after a few years of this, something began to trouble me. It wasn’t merely that I was giving up holiday time I could and should have been sharing with others. It wasn’t even that it was voluntary with no chance of ever being paid. It was down to the fact that, even though I tried not to notice, the kids who really needed the extra help never turned up; the high flyers who were destined to pass with ease always did. It was a joy and a luxury because there was little challenge; little chance of it not being a success.

So does Easter study class really help them? Do they need more time with a teacher to go over material they haven’t learned yet or need more practice in? I don’t think so. What I think serves them better is time on their own to revise and learn, revise and learn; time to think for themselves and develop understanding of the things we no doubt spend ages in class going over pre-holiday. Dare I say it but, yes, developing understanding is at times a very solitary activity. My pupils will benefit greatly from sitting quietly in their own rooms and revising the work.

We may well be doing them a disservice by providing more teacher access at this vital time. I haven’t done the research though. Sorry. But, in my experience, it seems that perhaps we over-protect them from real learning at this time of the year. Perhaps we provide too much of a safety net. We may do that for genuinely caring reasons: we want great results for pupils and school; we worry that a little bit extra just might make the difference. However, I would suggest that targeting those most in need would be more beneficial and these guys often are reluctant to give up holiday time.

So, at this point, perhaps we would be kinder to them if we simply locked the school over the Easter break. Removing the water wings might help them to become better learners. And, while I can understand the argument that offering Easter classes may help to develop a stronger leaning culture in a school, they may well learn better without us. I still want them to be able to contact me – I use Glow for questions and access to materials – but I won’t feel any guilt about not being in school at all.

Future Perfect

In his free e-book ‘Stop Stealing Dreams‘ Seth Godin talks about how the toy manufacturer Lego tried to save their brand. From the box of little plastic blocks, they created specialised boxes so that children could create a Fire Engine, a Star Wars character, a car park. He makes the point that this, in some ways, is exactly what is wrong with our education system. Instead of the chaotic adventure of creating something from a bunch of bricks, using imagination to develop crazy looking things, we now need a map to get to somewhere and we already know what it looks like. A bit depressing , isn’t it?

There is a better way though. It just takes a bit of imagination and the will to change, the will to believe that change is possible.

What would happen if we created a series of online resources which kids could access from home and watch again and again? What would happen if we created a series of online lectures which the kids could access again and again? The technology exists in YouTube, TED, Khan Academy but we can create our own through ‘Explain Everything’, ‘Show Me’ and others. We could flip the classroom in a way which could change school forever. We could switch on a generation of learners to REALLY prepare them for the real world.

But there is a problem isn’t there? Access. There is already a class divide between the kids who still don’t have online access at home and those who do; a divide between those who can and those who,  because of negative experiences at school due to things being blocked – phones being banned, hardware being out of date –  link online learning to school and that’s always been a bad thing. Even when we try to create something new for them online – Glow, Edmodo, Class Dojo, whatever – they often have such trouble accessing it that they don’t see the point. Instant access to information means exactly that. If they can’t access it as quickly as they can on their phones then to is a joke to them. So the students who do have access don’t use it for school.

As an English teacher I am already imagining in a world where I do more of this:

Holden’s Desperate Quest

As I create more of these for every point I want to teach in the novel,  I am creating a permanent, online series of mini-lectures which my students can watch as many times as it takes until they get it. I can save myself a hell of a lot of time repeating myself by using them every year – no more wasting time over resources creation- and I can create a real homework scenario where students can prepare for a class where we can focus on skills and real life learning instead of listening to me lecture.

This is not a ridiculous pipe dream. The technology not only already exists but it is already being used in an effective way. Check out udacity.com  and Khan Academy. If our governments are serious about improving our education system, if our Governments want our children to develop those skills which ‘business’ says they lack  – and for which they castigate teachers – then universal broadband with tablets for every student must be the aim. Let’s make levelling the playing field our number one priority.  Sure, some may abuse that but teaching responsibility both online and off must be a key aim in a child’s education. We cannot keep holding everyone back because of the bad behaviour of the few. We have the resources to change our world forever. We have the resources to change all of our children’s futures forever. But do our political masters have the will?

The Power of Words

We have a problem with labeling in education. Perhaps we’ve always had a problem, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the way we deal with problems. Stick a label on it. We label students; we label teachers; we label parents and management. We label teaching strategies; Aifl, co-operative learning, solo taxonomy. It makes us feel good. We can have a folder with that label on the spine, poly-pockets inside, preserving lovely worksheets. We tell ourselves that we have covered that strategy or included that strand; we have completed the professional development on that and don’t need to do it again, thank you very much. And therein lies the problem.

You see, the problem with labeling things is that, while we can tick that box, we can also put it away in a drawer or on a shelf. When we label things we limit the scope of its use. When we label things we can put them on a pile or to the back of the queue. When we label things we can easily dismiss them and that becomes a problem; quite often great ideas are lost behind the label.

At a recent conference I asked a panel of experts, including Graham Donaldson, former HM Senior Chief Inspector of Education, whether we are at the point where Glow, Scotland’s intranet, was now tainted and needed to be left behind. This might seem surprising to some who know me as I’ve been using Glow successfully in the classroom for about three years and have done my best to champion its use to colleagues whenever I can. However, I have come to the conclusion that Glow has become a label that teachers have dismissed – wrongly in my opinion – and nothing can save it.

I presented at a Teachmeet 365 some months ago on what I was doing with Glow in the classroom. I discussed the improvements,  explained how I overcame obstacles. I responded to the age old complaint that you have to click on five things to get anywhere by showing the Glow Light page which can be adapted to include all required links. I responded to the inaccessibility of Glow Blogs by showing examples of all of my pupil blogs – from S1 to S5 – and how quickly I could get to them.

I responded to the claims that better tools were available outside by showing my S1 wiki on Anne Frank.

The follow up discussion suggested that either no-one was listening to anything I was saying or that people have made up their minds about Glow and nothing I could have done would have changed that. It pains me to say it but Glow as a label has become tainted. Nothing will bring it back. We use the failure of Glow to disguise the truth that teachers are often resistant to using ICT. We need to change the direction of the conversation.

We are happy to personify Glow, just like we are happy to personify Curriculum for Excellence and the Chartered Teacher scheme. When we label things it is much easier to dismiss them.

I realised that I’ve been going about it the wrong way all this time. Instead of explaining how I use Glow in the classroom to blog and create wikis and use chat room for higher revision classes and homework drop and discussion boards I should be explaining that my classes create wikis, blogs and all of these other things, I merely used Glow as a vehicle. That is my choice. It has made me much more ICT aware. It has enhanced the learning experience of the students I teach. If you choose to use any of these things through Glow or any other way, I’m not sure it matters. As long as you do.

I am a reflective teacher because of the Chartered Teacher scheme

I am much more confident with ICT thanks to Glow.

My classroom is a vibrant, creative, hard working, purposeful, challenging space because of Curriculum for Excellence.

The Chartered Teacher scheme has gone; Glow, in its current form anyway, will go the same way. Some may rejoice, I won’t. But there is one thing left on that list that we need to fight for. The only way we are going to do that is to change not merely the way we teach but the way we all talk about teaching. Language is a powerful thing. Labeling things uses that power in a destructive way. Let’s make an effort to stop it.