Archive for March, 2009

In ‘The Element’

Last year my 11 year old son and his 10 year old mate, Eric, the son of our administrator, were members of Fagins gang in a fantastic performance of Oliver, produced by Brighton Theatre Group and performed for a week at the Theatre Royal in Brighton.

A few months later we got wind of auditions for the members of Fagins gang, and the ‘Artful Dodger’ for the upcoming West End show of Oliver with Rowan Atkinson as Fagin(The one where they found their ‘Oliver’ and ‘Nancy’ through the TV programme ‘I’d do anything’).

For various reasons my son didn’t audition, but Eric did. Ostensibly he auditioned mainly for Fagins gang because the lower age limit for the Artful Dodger’ was 12 and Eric was 10. There followed a series of auditions which included auditions for the Artful Dodger, because Eric looked right for the part (he has an incredibly mischievous looking face) even though in theory he was too young.

Although he has no formal training through all these auditions and various rejections he persevered and won the part of the ‘Artful Dodger’. He was successful entirely through his own unswerving determination to win this part.

The show, of course, is a smash hit and many of our friends have been to see Eric in it. The universal comment from all of them is that when you see Eric performing you can see that he is ‘in his element’.

And this in essence is what Sir Ken Robinsons new book, ‘The Element’ is about – ‘How finding your passion changes everything’.

In the book he relates tales of people doing extraordinary things when they find their passion. Dancer and choreographer Gillian Lynne, Beatle Sir Paul McCartney are amongst them. These are high profile stars who usefully illustrate what can happen when people find their ‘element’. Doing so, though, is not just the domain of superstars or just applicable to the arts. It is equally applicable to the more mundane. Robinson cites an example of a fireman who from early days at school just knew that all he wanted to do was to be a fireman and that is what he has done for the whole of his working life.

I have a mate who I met at university who changed courses midway from Maths, a subject he loved, to literature, specifically to broaden his horizons. On leaving university he went back to his maths and after many more years of part time study is now one of the highest qualified actuaries in the country, a job he himself describes as one for those who find accountancy too exciting.

Another mate has spent the majority of his working life in the development and application of renewable and sustainable energies for the third world, another is a first class and committed computer programmer.

All of these people have found their element despite and not because of our education system, in my view. In fact an education system which was designed to serve the needs of an industrial society and not the 21st century information society we are in does its best to ensure that we develop according to what is prescribed by others from without rather than to our own instincts from within.

Ken Robinson cites Michelangelo who says of his sculpture David that he did not create the David, it already existed in the stone and he just revealed it by removing those parts of the stone that were not the David.

Robinson claims that this is what our education system should be doing, allowing people to strip away what is not them to reveal the essence within. Who could argue with that?

March 31, 2009 at 10:04 am Leave a comment

If it can be fun for some, why not for all?

As I look around different educational initiatives that are aimed at helping our young people learn I am struck by the fact that some of the most interesting initiatives are aimed at ‘disaffected’ students who for one reason or another are not doing well.

An example is Winchmore School who are piloting a scheme called ‘Study Plus Maths’ aimed very specifically at disaffected students who are not doing well in the subject (

The scheme involves what they describe as studying maths through context. This might mean working out the figures involved in discounting the price, say, of an MP3 player. Or simply integrating maths activities into other subject lessons.

It also involves a degree of ‘personalisation’ in that the teacher will gather information about an individual pupil’s interests and hobbies and aim maths activities at that.

So this is setting maths into a real life context and in my view is a good and positive thing.

However, looking into this more deeply I find some rather more disturbing aspects of this.

There seems to be a feeling amongst pupils who are taking this that learning maths in this way is more fun and more interesting than the normal maths classes. So I would ask the question if that is the case why is this more enlightened way of teaching not available to everybody learning maths. Why make this false distinction between normal and disaffected pupils.

In a sense it is a way of rewarding those who for whatever reasons haven’t found the normal lessons particularly compelling. Their reward is to get interesting Maths lessons. Why is that not available to all pupils?

More disturbing is the headteachers comment that if pupils do get grade C in Maths then the options for the future are very limited. I find this astounding.

How good was David Beckham at Maths, I wonder, or Paul McCartney?

Incidentally, mathematics professor Jason Brown claims to have solved the mystery of what chord is used at the start of ‘It’s a Hard Days Night’ by using a mathematical calculation called Fourier Transform. There is also evidence that children that listen to music do better at math, because math and music both use the brain in similar ways.

In furtherance of the headteachers false statement suggesting ‘no maths, no future’, some of the pupils have foregone other subject options in order to undertake this ‘StudyPlus Maths’ scheme. In the words of one parent, ‘Better to give up an option in order to ensure she (her daughter) did well in a core subject than use another option that wouldn’t benefit her really’. And in the words of another parent his son was ‘disappointed to give up geography which he was interested in’.

Even as I write this I can feel my hackles rising.

March 23, 2009 at 11:57 am 1 comment

19th century education meets 21st century building under BSF

I was having a look at a Teachers TV video about a building completed under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

This is the  Hadley Learning Community building in Telford which was completed in January 2007 and is regarded as a flagship building under the programme.

The building is designed to house facilities for primary, secondary, children with severe and profound learning difficulties, early education and childcare, and a variety of community activities and is something of a behemoth

There were a couple of issues that were raised in the video that I found disturbing and perhaps typical of what goes on under the BSF programme.

Firstly it became clear that when the building opened to secondary students the needs of the students in respect of their settling into this radically different environment (from their older, smaller school) were not properly accounted for.

In fact the centres principal Dr Gill Etough, who guided the whole building project from its beginnings, doesn’t feel that ‘anybody in the whole Building Schools for Future has really [noticed that we need to know how to] deal with the kids to make them more settled’.

This is astounding considering that the secondary school exists to serve the needs of its pupils, or should do. I suspect that the senior management of the centre were blinded by the glory of the building itself.

Secondly when Dr Etough went into one of the classrooms and the children didn’t stand up she said to them, ‘Aren’t you supposed to stand up when I walk into the room’ to which they were all required to stand up and intone ‘Good morning Dr Etough’.

This is astonishing and something from the 19th century, not the 21st.

For me this one of the issues with the whole BSF programme. Apart from the fact that it is attempting to ‘predict the future’ at a time when the future is particularly unpredictable, there is a disconnect between the architects vision of the 21st century school building and the education vision of those who will run it.

As one of the pupils commented when asked what she thought of the new building, ‘It’s ok, but schools, school’.

March 16, 2009 at 1:08 pm Leave a comment

Freeze frame

My 14 year old daughter came back from school yesterday enthusiastic about what she had learned in her history lesson about the suffragette movement. This was a little surprising because she has told us in the past that she has no enthusiasm at all for history largely because her teacher does nothing to inspire the class –  ’45 minutes of the teacher droning on followed by 15 minutes of us writing things down’.

On this occasion, however, my daughter found the actual subject matter so compelling that she forced herself to take notice. She was particularly taken with the story of Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the kings horse at the 1913 Derby at Epsom and suggested that this moment would have been ideal for the class to do a freeze frame.

The way a freeze frame works is that a moment in time is selected and the students enact a freeze frame of that moment (in the case of Emily Davison this would be the moment she threw herself in front of the horse). The students hold the freeze frame moment until they are tapped on the shoulder by the teacher when they describe what they feel is going on in the characters mind at that moment.

I don’t know why I haven’t come across this before but I think it is a fantastic technique, which judging from my daughter’s reaction the students enjoy. Yet in her experience the technique appears to only be used in Drama and English.

In my vision of a 21st century learning environment in which the students themselves select from the range of resources available to them I imagine freeze frame would be rather popular.

March 5, 2009 at 11:02 am 13 comments

Widdicombe or snowman

I know it is a long time gone but just reflecting on the controversy over school closures due to the recent snow I note an article in this weeks TES in which a headmaster of a primary school in London is quoted as saying;

‘…..children all over the country stayed at home, had a wonderful time playing in the snow, and probably learned twice as much as they would have done at school.’

This is in stark contrast to Ann Widdicombe’s comment that the closure of schools just showed how lily livered we had all become, no stiff upper lip and all that.

I’m sure the concept that young people can have fun whilst learning is somewhat alien to her as indeed it is to many of the teachers and parents I talk to. The view that somehow education has to have some stern aspects to it if it is to be considered serious can be very deep rooted.

In turn this leads to rejection of the idea of games based learning regardless of any evidence of its potential effectiveness. By games I mean any type of game, whether technology based, or simply building a snowman.

Yet, almost all people I talk to who have endured our education system have a tale about a particular subject they enjoyed because the teacher ‘brought it to life’, made it fun, and subjects that have been rejected because their teacher made it boring.

This dependence on the vagaries of different teachers introduces an unacceptable inconsistency into the classroom.

Better an individualised approach where the learner is able to take advantage of a variety of learning resources, including teachers, to learn according to their own proclivities. This does mean that the teacher is a resource amongst other resources to be called upon, or not.

The natural progression of this is that those teachers who are most fun will be in demand with those who are no fun eventually redundant – a sort of self regulating environment.

I wonder how long Ann Widdicombe would last then.

March 4, 2009 at 5:39 pm Leave a comment

Admissions balls

As those who live in Brighton and have children will know two years ago a change was made to the schools admissions system to a system now known generally as the ‘lotto’ system (I prefer to refer to it as a ballot system which is actually what it is). Having been implemented in Brighton successfully it has since been taken up by many local authorities across the country.

Now I hear that there is a possibility that the system may be scrapped with no suggestion as to what it might be replaced with.

This is absolutely extraordinary. I was involved at the leading edge of the campaign that succeeded in getting the new system implemented. It was fiercely opposed by the Tories at the time, but now even the local Tories have admitted that the system has worked well and is certainly far fairer than the system it replaced. This was based on a ‘distance to school’ criterion and excluded large swathes of the city form their nearest schools.

The current system which took into account the new ‘admissions code’ was developed after a two year period of analysis involving much modelling of alternative systems. This also involved a newly formed parents stakeholder group with representation form around the city and which had members on the main working party established by the council to look at the issue.

Over the period of analysis there was considerable public consultation and the resulting system was scrutinised in depth by the schools adjudicator when opponents of the system raised objections with him, all of which he rejected.

After all that effort, and when the new system is just two years old, but giving results in terms of meeting parental choice significantly better than the old system considering scrapping it is not just madness, it is in my view irresponsible.

Ed Balls says the concentration of resources should be on improving schools so that all schools in all areas are equally sought after. So let’s concentrate on that rather than wasting money on the inevitable expensive processes that would be involved if the current admissions system is scrapped.

March 4, 2009 at 5:35 pm Leave a comment

Mick Landmann on education, digital technology, and the 21st century

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