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.

Re-reading and the Discovery of Old Friends

We’ve been decorating this week which meant moving bookcases in and out of rooms. It has been a big job, not helped by finding myself sitting in the hall flicking wistfully through books I’d forgotten I had. A volume of Woody Allen cartoons; a signed copy of The Wasp Factory’ by Ian Banks; a book of John Updike essays on Art. There is no more blissful way to spend an afternoon, surrounded by old friends, more revealing than any photo album. The Updike book, especially, grabbed my attention because he is, perhaps, the writer who has influenced my reading history more than any other.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I went to University. My schooling and my background had convinced me that it was for others and complete terror of formal education kept me away. Throughout that time though I read and read. Updike’s Rabbit novels were an obsession. Harry Angstrom’s struggles to cope with the reality of a changing America struck a chord and stayed with me throughout Uni until eventually I wrote my dissertation about them. I still own my well-thumbed Penguin copies and they’ve sat on the shelves ever since. But here’s the thing: since graduation -1996 – I’ve never been able to pick them up again.

Like old, lost friends, I’m planning to reacquaint myself this summer. The first book sees Harry at 26, my age when I when to Uni. The last one is at 56 – not quite me yet but not far off. I wonder what I’ll find in there though: the lines I underlined, the corners I folded down.  Rereading old books is not merely a luxury, it is a necessity at times. Like old photos, we may see an additional detail in the corners, a changing perspective. And while Harry and I are old friends who lost touch, perhaps we can discover a whole new relationship.

Discovering old books unexpectedly is a joy. It’s why I’ve never been one for alphabetical order; not books, not records, not CDs. The aimless wandering allows me to stumble upon unexpected corners and spark old memories. Along with our music collections, nothing travels with us as much as books. Moving into any new home, sharing that home with a significant other for the first time. Our books take a special place. That bookmark you left sticking out of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’; that train ticket peeking out of ‘The Third Policeman’; the post-its peppering ‘The Magus’.  They all tell our life stories for us.

So, it’s time to move the bookcases back today. It’ll likely take less time than when I moved them out. But what I will do is shelve the old friends in a much more prominent position. The newer, shinier upstarts can take a back seat for a while. Books change as we change; our knowledge, our political perspectives, our relationships. Opening up the ‘Rabbit’ novels once again is a big step for me, but one I hope will, rather than return me to a younger man I don’t know any more, allow me to rediscover the beauty and art of my book collection.

What’s Grown Ups Going to Think?

There is a moment in ‘Lord of the Flies’ when Simon, the artistic, religious visionary, speaks an uncomfortable truth. ‘Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.’ The boys in the story begin to show what happens when all rules, all modes of decency, are eroded. I thought about this recently when reading some of the sneering tweets aimed at the hashtag, PedagooFriday.

I created #PedagooFriday six years ago;  blame me. I wanted to create a space where anyone could share a positive experience from their classroom and, perhaps, develop a happier tone at the end of the week. I’m very proud of what it became, even though I have no input into its running now. Of course, there will be things that are not so great, things that you might feel are nonsense. However, we should welcome new voices even if we may disagree. If not, we welcome a world of ‘Lord of the Flies’ and the atmosphere of ‘survival of the fittest’ pervades.

When the rules, or lack of them,  are established, we manoeuvre in our attempts to be one of the tribe, to impress Jack, the most powerful, strongest, angriest voice. Standing just behind his shoulder, we can throw spear-like tweets knowing that someone has our back. Who we hurt, or upset, is neither here nor there because this is a Twitter and you choose to enter the arena. There is no attempt to enter dialogue, to explain; no attempt to empathise or understand. It is acting without responsibility and, we soon discover, there are no rules.

So, many entering the fray for the first time, sharing their practice, find themselves spurned and mocked very publicly. Jack and his tribe sniff out a weakness; perhaps retweet with a mocking aside; perhaps write a hilariously scathing blog post in retort. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Because Twitter is in the public domain and if you choose to land on the island then what do you expect? Very quickly you are asked to choose one side of the island over another and you better make the right choice because after that anything goes.

Except it doesn’t. We may well choose to share ideas others may think of as silly or frivolous. It may well be the first time we’ve cleared our throats and, like Percival Wemys Madison, ‘The Vicarage, Harcourt St, Anthony, Hants’, have chosen to speak up. We are, for the most part, trying to find our voice in the scary world of Edutwitter. And who can say that at some point we haven’t tweeted something we later regretted or were embarrassed by. When I joined Twitter seven years ago, the educational landscape was a fairly empty one. Now it is a ferocious island where, it seems, it is every man for himself.

So you may think you are right in everything you say; you may even be right. But it takes bigger person to recognise the teacher behind the idea; the teacher tentatively stepping on to the beach, finding their way. It takes a bigger person to welcome all to the debate. Our humanity is based on how we treat others. Social media should be no different. If we don’t consider that, like the characters in ‘Lord of the Flies’, as soon as proper adult turns up, you just look like little boys again.

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.

 

The Higher English Folio and Equal Writes.

There won’t be an English teacher in Scotland out there who isn’t currently stressing over the marking of written Folio essays for both Higher and National 5 classes. A pile which never seems to shrink; another pupil who’d like you to take another look; the demoralising realisation that deadline day is fast approaching. Indeed, over the course of my eighteen years in teaching the assessment of writing in the senior phase has changed several times, arguably not in a good way. I would argue that, at a time when equity in education is so much in focus,  the way we assess writing now has never been so unfair.office-594132__340

The new exam system is now in its third year and, while this might surprise some,  I have been mostly pleased with it. Teaching Don Paterson poetry has been a joy; spending time with Hamlet has been fantastic. The rest has been a chore. Time seems to be constrained; deep learning, at times,  rare. However, the writing folio – one creative piece and one functional piece of  a maximum of thirteen hundred words each – is externally assessed by the SQA and is worth thirty percent of the final grade. So, a good grade for Folio can take you much of the way to a pass.

The writing is assessed using a marking grid which every teacher and pupil can access during the writing process. So far, so fair. But not really. It would be difficult to argue that the external assessment is unfair; perhaps there is an argument there but that’s for another day. The real problems become clear, however, when we consider the preparation and support given. The SQA guideline suggests ‘reasonable assistance’. It also says this;

‘Assessors should not provide specific advice on how to re-phrase or improve responses, or provide model answers specific to the candidate’s task. It is not acceptable for the assessor to provide key ideas, to provide a structure or plan, to suggest specific wording or to correct errors in spelling and/or punctuation. This would go beyond reasonable assistance.’

Those who can, rush straight to their tutors for help. And yes, despite the above advice, tutors do. Parents often insist upon it. Those who can afford it get more help. those who can’t, struggle on. Different approaches are followed all over the country. It’s a system which, while appearing to be equal in terms of assessment is, in fact, anything but.

So perhaps, if we are to assess writing more fairly, it needs to return to the final exam. Why the hell not? It might re-emphasise our need to teach writing properly. Our whole curriculum was supposed to be a move away from our traditional exam system but it doesn’t appear to have worked. What was intended to be an attempt to narrow the gap appears to me to be exacerbating it. Let’s face up to that and do something about it.