Archive for May, 2009

Education. It’s a risky business!


The TES recently undertook a survey of over 2200 parents on the issue of the potential boycott of SATS by the NUT and NAHT which showed that the unions do not have the support of majority of parents over this issue. This is in strong contrast to the findings of research carried out by NAHT and the  Department for Children, Schools and Families which found that 85% of their survey of 10,400 parents wanted league tables and national testing scrapped.

Whoever you may choose to believe this does raise interesting issues about where parents do stand in relation to education system changes. In fact parents have very little influence but I am interested in what they think because if the education system is to change radically, and I believe it must, this must happen with the agreement and crucially, involvement, of parents. They must be on side.

And I think this is problematic because mostly parents do not want to take risks with their children’s education. And a reason we do not want to do this (I am a parent also) is that is we place such high emotional value on getting their education right. 3 Years ago my daughter was allocated a secondary school that we felt was wholly wrong for her and had not been one of our original choices. Although it was not our fault on hearing this news we felt we had badly let her down, kind of neglected her welfare somehow.

The next few weeks of preparing an appeal case took over our lives completely and felt like the most important thing we had ever done, literally. Thankfully we won the appeal and the relief and joy was equal in measure to the opposite feelings we had experienced.

I then continued at the forefront of the campaign that led to the establishment of the so called’ lottery’ (I prefer ballot) admissions system in Brighton which judging by the vilification of me and some of my colleagues in the local press was testament to the strength of feeling over these issues.

Whether or not getting our kids to the right secondary school should take on such an elevated sense of importance is another matter. The fact is it does. And as long as it does I wonder what it will take to persuade parents to do anything vaguely radical when it comes to their kid’s education.

I recently attended an event about the future of education at the British Academy in London at which a parent, who is also a teacher, told us that he had sent his young teenage daughter to study in France for a whole term in order to enhance her experience, broaden her outlook etc.. He told us that it had been a great success and that his daughter came back more fulfilled as a result.

He then made the following, very interesting point. He said that although he and his wife believed their actions would be of great benefit to their daughter, they couldn’t actually guarantee that. They were trying something out so there was an element of risk involved. He then said that whilst he felt it OK to take that risk in respect of his own daughter, he didn’t feel he could take the same risk in respect of the pupils he taught.

I get his point, and therein lays a particular problem in respect of the progress of the radical changes that we must undertake.

May 29, 2009 at 3:09 pm 1 comment

Ask the experts ??

Futurelab_logo_colour small Ken-Rob-2-763967 small

During the past week I attended two events in London, both on the theme of the future of education. The first was at the British Academy and was a discussion day about the future of education organised by Futurelab, the second was at The Purcell Rooms on Southbank and was an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the ‘All our futures’ programme, which is chaired by Sir Ken Robinson.

The first was around general issues about the future if education fuelled by Futurlab’s research in this area. The second was about ‘creativity’ (or lack of it) in education. Across both these events, which were worthwhile attending, there was a common, and unfortunately not unusual, lack of young people’s voices in any significant way.

When I raised the issue at the Futurelab event it was met with the usual comment that there is so much information to gather that it is not always, unfortunately, possible to represent everything in their research. This is a common response (I raise this question on a regular basis at different events I attend). What I would like to know is that if it is hard to represent all views why is it always young people’s views that are left out.  And also, if not everything is represented, is the research actually relevant.

Another interesting issue that arose was about creativity in schools. When Sir Ken Robinson talks about creativity in schools he means as an integral part of the whole of schooling, and not just an adjunct (e.g. creativity hour).  At the Futurelab event I raised the issue of the ‘freeze frame’ technique (the technique of getting young people to enact an event, freeze at a certain point, and describe how the character they are portraying thinks and feels at that moment) and its value as a teaching/learning technique.

It was my 14 year old daughter who introduced me to this technique (something she had come across in drama classes) and her who suggested that it might have a role across the whole curriculum.

I introduced this at the Futurelab event as an example of why it is valuable to seek young peoples views (I would never have found out about it had we not been chatting over dinner), how such teaching and learning possibilities may themselves inform building and space requirements (such techniques require space), and how creativity could be integrated across all subjects.

Unfortunately, the ‘expert’ panel to whom I addressed this didn’t really ‘get’ it. They understood the value of this having come from my daughter (pupil voice) but didn’t, I felt, get the fact that I was referring to the technique being used across all subjects, not just as a good technique for drama. Nor did they get the implications this would have on school, building design (vis a vis the BSF debacle).

This was disappointing. My difficulty is that if the so called experts whom I would expect to be ‘on side’ don’t understand these issues the great hopes for the future as I see them are very distant indeed.

May 26, 2009 at 5:14 pm 1 comment

Kids cravings – addicted to gadgets

addicted to gadgets small

I have just come across a social experiment, ‘Teenagers try to go without gadgets’ that, as a parent, has added to concerns I have for my kids.

For any parent this is real food for thought and an aspect of addiction to technology that is not focussed on games addiction. It is, though, more worryingly focussed on the potential general addiction of young people to their everyday gadgets – mobile phones, mp3 players, i-pods, social networking sites, TV et al.

It is an experiment that was conducted amongst teenagers in Los Angeles who went without their electronic gadgets for a week. The results are worrying and illuminating. The teenagers themselves recognised their addiction, recognised that the uncomfortable feelings they were experiencing were akin to, or were actually, withdrawal symptoms.

One teenager talked of feeling empty, one described being without her gadgets as ‘being’ weird, one that it was harder than she thought, one described her desire to reach out for her mobile phone as a ‘craving’.

Part way one described feeling ‘at peace’ without any music blasting in the background, or TV or phone. One celebrated the fact that she met new people on the metro because she was not absorbed in texting etc.., and she also heard birds singing outside. One that whilst reading in her room she realised she could hear the crickets outside and the wind blowing.

I remember a few months ago when my 14 year old daughter had to do without her mobile phone for a few days whilst it was being repaired. She described her felling to me of it feeling a bit like having lost a limb. She was seriously uncomfortable without it.

I also remember one day when I took a day off work during school half term and spent it with both my kids (11 and 14) all hanging out together at home. We did a bit of baking together, some painting of egg cups, chatted, all things that have become sadly too rare in a household of working parents and electronic communication.

The interesting thing that I noted was how relaxed the kids seemed because there was no peer pressure on them, how my daughter went without any make up for the day (usually unheard of), how neither of them niggled at each other, as though this was a momentary respite from the charged world they have become used to.

I have tended to feel that addiction happens mostly on the fringes. Now I’m worried I may be wrong about that.

May 18, 2009 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment

Dad’s beaming

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More on the ‘finding oneself’ theme following my post In the element about Eric who is now playing the Artful Dodger in the West end production of Oliver.

Happily this one concerns my own daughter, Charlotte. Last week she captained the school basketball team that won the under 14’s national championships at the Nottingham Wildcats Arena. She was also ‘mentioned in dispatches’ with four of her team mates for superb commitment leading up to the finals and outstanding performance on the day.

Naturally I have immense pride in her for this achievement but hand on heart I would have to say that she achieved this despite us, her parents, not because of us. Her pursuance of basketball clearly gives her immense pleasure on many levels and although we have supported her in it (largely through ferrying her around) we have not been driving her in it.

The drive and determination to succeed has come wholly from her. Her school, which is a specialist sports school, led by coach Matt Kelly (a charismatic character who commands great respect from those he coaches), also has supported and encouraged her and the whole team. The boys team who he coaches as well also won, an outstanding achievement.

The environment in which this has occurred is a real example of how education should be. Not driven, but supportive, not prescriptive but collaborative, allowing talent and natural inclinations to shine.

And incidentally, Charlotte has been selected for the Sussex basketball team. She’s in her element, Dad’s beaming.

May 14, 2009 at 12:11 pm Leave a comment

Who needs schools. You live and learn!

classroom small

‘You live and learn’ is an idiom that has come to mean that as you go through your life so you learn new things, actually that if you live, you learn. It comes to mind because I have recently been looking at John Medina’s Brain Rules book (and DVD and website) that was written on the premis that most of us, including teachers and others responsible for education, do not to know how the brain works. If this is true (and I fear it is) how can we evolve good teaching and learning practices?

Medina goes as far as to say ‘If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like [the picture above] a classroom.’

The book by-lined ’12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school’ divides the study of the brain into the twelve principles of:

EXERCISE | Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.
SURVIVAL | Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
WIRING | Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
ATTENTION | Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.
SHORT-TERM MEMORY | Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
LONG-TERM MEMORY | Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
SLEEP | Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
STRESS | Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
SENSORY INTEGRATION | Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
VISION | Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
GENDER | Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
EXPLORATION | Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

….all of which are wholly relevant to our education system, and give compelling evidence of what is so wrong with our current system but point the way to how to put it right. A few thoughts on this.

Whilst PE is part of the curriculum we should actively encourage other forms of exercise at school, including dance, drama, etc.. We should also consider ways of transforming the typically inert lesson period into something more active.

The physical, proven fact that all brains are wired differently not only exonerates, but should make compelling and essential the drive for ‘personalisation’ in education.

Everyone has a story of a bad teacher, or bad teaching, that not only meant nothing was learned, but also in some cases that a whole subject was tarnished. We have a ten minute maximum attention span so it is easy for something to become ‘boring’.

Repetition in the classroom is crucial because one missing piece of information can damage the understanding of other information related to it. But information is best remembered if it is understood. Our memories work in particular ways. Repetition for memory is useful, but not in isolation to understanding.

Retrieval of information works at its best when the retrieval occurs in a similar context its original encoding. So, if something is learned during a geography field trip, probably retrieval of that information is hardest in, say, exam conditions.

Sleep is essential to learning so it does make sense to consider the naturally changing sleep habits of young people and take these properly into account in our education system.

Stress impairs learning. So apart from any stress a young person my be under through other circumstances subjecting them to the slow drip feed of stress as they move closer to their exams will severely damage their learning.

One of the overriding assertions is that ‘we are powerful and natural explorers’. We are ‘born with incessant curiosity that compels us to aggressively explore our world’ and from birth we have the innate ability to ‘form a hypothesis, design an experiment and draw conclusions.’

This for me is key. Rather than try and force learning to happen, which in my view is what the current education system attempts, I believe we should allow innate functions to let learning happen.  So who needs schools. Just live and learn!

May 11, 2009 at 2:27 pm 1 comment

More Balls!


This is another post about SATS. I really don’t want to give the impression that I am obsessed here but I believe that what happens with SATS is a good indicator of how things may pan out in the shorter term future particularly in relation to issues around assessment.

A boycott of SATS next year by the NUT supported by the NAHT would in my view be extremely positive and help forward the end of these unnecessary tests. However, the signs that this will happen are not good. For a moment on Saturday I was rather more optimistic when the NAHT meeting here in Brighton appeared to have voted to support the boycott. In fact it turns out that they had voted to ballot their members in respect of their support of the boycott. Somewhat lily livered I’d say.

I have already heard noise, also, that the NUT were potentially backtracking on the boycott in light of the possibility that the government will be willing to make some compromises, although what compromises could possibly be acceptable if the tests still remain is a mystery to me.

Ed Balls has said that he doesn’t want ‘pupils and teachers overly stressed by the Year 6 SATS’. Well, part of the problem is that teachers and pupils do get stressed by the SATS so he should scrap them.

He also has said that ‘a boycott of the tests would set a bad example to children.’ Absolutely right if you think that the only example that should be set to children is to never question government wisdom, that faced with universal unpopularity amongst parents, teachers and children alike government policy should always go unchallenged.

Perhaps that’s the example Mr Balls is setting for his children. I’m not setting it for mine.

May 5, 2009 at 2:23 pm 1 comment

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

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