Posts filed under ‘Teaching’

Birbalsingh, Adonis, and Plan B

On Newsnight last night, musician Ben Drew (aka Plan B) talked about his disillusionment with politicians – “no politicians have ever represented me because they have not come from the environment I have.” His relative success as a musician, with some acting, and now directing, thrown in, has occurred, he says, despite, and not because of, politicians or indeed the education system, both of which he considers failed him. His education happened outside the formal education system, because there was no place for him, or for the likes of him within it.

Continuing the piece answering questions from Jeremy Paxman were Katherine Birbalsingh, ex deputy head teacher and proponent of a return to the old ‘traditional’ ways of teaching Latin and of stronger discipline in schools, and ex labour Schools Minister Lord Adonis.

Birbalsingh’s argument for greater discipline is that ‘working class boys are the most vunerable’ when it comes to education and often lack the structure, order and discipline in their home lives that their middle and upper class peers benefit from. It is, therefore, up to the schools, she argues, to provide this. Drew, she explains, “wasn’t inspired in schools because his teachers weren’t free enough to be able to inspire him”. Her solution to this is to “instill structures and systems  to make sure the children are disciplined enough to sit tight so that their teachers are free enough to be able to inspire”.

This conjures up images for me of rows of children dutifully ‘sitting tight’ whilst their teachers strut their inspirational stuff until the period ends and the next cohort are wheeled in to be inspired in turn. We just need some security staff to deal with behaviour issues ensuring the children do indeed ‘sit tight’ and hey presto the teachers are freed up to get on with it. Simple enough!

Problem is children aren’t very good at ‘sitting tight’, goddam them. They are naturally vivacious, full of energy with lively enquiring minds, relishing experience, craving diversity. In fact children are probably the least suited to ‘sitting tight’  of all humankind.

They do love to be inspired, though. My teenage kids can tell me precisely who the good teachers (the ones who inspire) are and the bad teachers (the ones who don’t inspire) are. We all of us have tales about subjects we enjoyed because of the teacher, and subjects we didn’t for the same reason. The teacher in all this is massively important, and can have a real influence on the whole of a childs life. That is why, in my view, we should recognise bad teachers and bad teaching and outlaw both, for the sake of our children. Seriously.

What I found more disturbing about the Newsnight item was Birbalsinghs assertion that “we need absolute order and structure, school uniforms need to be perfect in school”. This honestly sends a chill down my spine. And this made worse by the fact that Lord Adonis (labour) in his own words, completely agreed with her.

I know the boundaries between conservative, labour and indeed, now liberal democrat, governments are very blurred. I would have hoped though, perhaps naively, that the extreme right wing rhetoric of Birbalsingh would at least have been somewhat tempered by Adonis. But not to be, it seems.

Lord Adonis celebrates the ‘success’ of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney whose headmaster values ‘discipline’ and talks about a ‘no excuses’ society (no excuses meaning toe the line, or else). Of course the school is regarded as being successful on their GCSE A – C results and such measures. No account is taken, as far as I can see of the ‘achieving personal potential’ , or ‘happiness’, or ‘fulfilment’ measures, largely because such matters are not measured at all, as though irrelevant.

It would be easy to become depressed by such unenlightened thinking across the political spectrum, but despite all this I remain optimistic about our education system. This is because I know the kids are texting underneath their desks despite mobiles being banned, that they are networked and connected, that there is an unstoppable force that will out regardless.

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February 16, 2011 at 12:10 am Leave a comment

Blog’s away!

You may have seen the item on Breakfast TV news this morning (14th Feb) about the use of blogging in Heathfield School which is a fantastic demonstration of the massive potential of digital technology for education. If you didn’t see it the essence is that pupils of Heathfield Primary School, under the inspirational guidance of deputy head David Mitchell (@deputymitchell if you want to follow him on Twitter) are writing blog posts. Not only do they really enjoy this, it is also having a fantastic positive effect on their writing abilities.

This is happening at a time of immense change when the education ‘system’ is going through yet more changes on top of the constant fiddlings that have taken place over the last 20 years. This is incredibly destabilising and difficult for schools, but of course education must go on. The initiative at Heathfield School is a prime example of how a simple application of digital technology can have hugely beneficial effects, despite current uncertainties over curricula etc..

I think this is a real way forward, where we simply transcend the complications of platforms, technical compatibilities, even connectivity. Blogging can be undertaken anywhere, anytime on any device and doesn’t even need constant connectivity, simply the ability to connect to upload a blog, or to read someone elses blog (unless stored locally).

Yet it opens up the world.

This does open up the potential for what Mike Butler (outgoing chair of the Independent Academies Association [IAA] and chief executive of the award winning Djanogly City Academy in Nottingham) describes as a ‘guide by the side’ approach which gives the learners greater control of their own learning, with teachers in a more supportive, facilitation role.

Heathfield were also pioneers in the use of YouTube in the classroom. Some may feel that giving access to the vast range of videos on You Tube may be problematic if it gave young pupils access to disturbing materials but Heathfield got around this by installing software to filter out comments around the materials that may have been disturbing.

This gives access to an extraordinary free resource that can be used in a number of ways for learning, not least in the use of the ‘freeze frame’ technique that I blogged about a couple of years ago.

What I particularly like about both these initiatives, blogging and YouTube, is the simplicity of implementation from a technical perspective. None of this involves complex Learning Management Systems or VLE’s, no considerations of SCORM compatibility, no complex devolvement of new systems or technical standards. Just progressive thinking.and ‘guiding by the side’ (a term I an rather taken by).

It is no wonder to me that @deputymitchell has taken his rightful place in the ‘inner circle’ with the likes of Tim Rylands, Dawn Hallybone, Stephen Heppell, Derek Robertson et al.

More like this, please.

February 14, 2011 at 4:41 pm Leave a comment

Let’s not wait until the iceberg melts

Icebergs small

Last night my 11 year old son told me that he had gone from hating history at school to loving it. When I asked him why, he said that he now had a good teacher. I haven’t yet quizzed him, as I will, on his perceptions of what was bad about the previous teaching and what is now good, but it is interesting that he makes that distinction. In my view teaching in a way that is interesting and motivating is not just desirable, but should be required of every teacher. I admire and respect teachers for undertaking a difficult job and when it is right in enhancing a child’s life. But I abhor bad teaching because of the serious harm it can do.

If we want to know what is good teaching or bad teaching we just have to talk to the young people who are being taught. They know what they like and don’t like, they know what switches them on and what turns them off. And we should listen to what they have to tell us about this and do something about it, even when we hear stuff outside our comfort zones.

As parents we celebrate each child’s individuality even if it’s only to extent of ‘he’s got his fathers eyes, but his mother’s nose’. Yet we force them to endure an education that expects uniformity, that expects an 11 year old to achieve the same standards in the same subjects as their 12 year old mates, or a class of 30 to express equal interest in all things.

We do this not because of any considered philosophy of education, but purely through means of practicality. How else can we ‘control’ a class of 30, a year of 120, but by imposing strict criteria on required outcomes.

My son also recently had a science test coming up and was told by his teacher to revise for it. That’s all. Not any guidance of how to revise, what to revise, even where to look for advice. Just ‘go away and revise’. Oh yes. There was some advice to try BBC bitesize, but not to do everything there because it was not all relevant.

That evening I caught him in our front room aimlessly flicking through the various folders of the work he had undertaken during the year not really knowing where to start, which things to concentrate on.

And then he asked me if I would test him so he could get an idea of what he knew best and importantly what he knew least. This is ‘assessment for learning’, a concept that he arrived at of his own volition, understanding that finding out the gaps in his own understanding could give him a structure for revision.

Unfortunately his teacher had not had the foresight to arm his pupils with some past tests in order that they could test their understanding in this way, but we were able to find some appropriate stuff online. In fact BBC bitesize was not the most helpful or structured. Many more structured resources were to be found on other sites simply by Googling ‘Year 7 science tests’.

Why do I say all this? Two reasons. Firstly on the question of practicality we do have the opportunity to really, seriously deliver (or I prefer to say ‘allow’) ‘personalised learning’ by appropriate use of digital technology. Going online to find appropriate revision materials is just the tip of an enormous iceberg.

Secondly, young people are wholly capable of being properly engaged in the debate about their own learning. So let’s ask them, listen to them, trust them, believe them, and act on what we hear.

And instead of just fiddling around the edges let’s do it now before they lose interest and before the global warmed digital iceberg disappears.

July 1, 2009 at 11:32 am 4 comments

More Balls!

ed-balls1

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

Fast track to nowhere

This morning my daughter will take the first part (the oral) of her French GCSE. She is 14 years old, in Year 9 and this is part of the fast track scheme within her school.

A few weeks ago she, in common with school pupils in Year 9 around the country, was required to select the subjects she will be taking up to GCSE for the rest of her secondary schooling to that level. The process of identifying these subjects (which are in addition to core subjects) was agonising for her, for us, and for the many other parents and young people we know who were going through the same process.

The reason this was so agonising is that the decisions taken at this time require ‘second guessing’ the future academic and professional paths of the youngsters concerned. Yet they are only 14 years old.

This is exacerbated by the fact that a young person can be put off a subject simply because it is not taught well. Because in making their choices for the future there will be a natural and understandable tendency towards those subjects that they ‘enjoy’  (mostly because they are taught well) a subject that might have induced deep interest had it been brought alive by its teaching might be lost to a young person.

Although my daughter is undertaking fast track French, and by all accounts doing well at it, she decided not to continue French to AS level after taking her early GCSE. This decision was partly predicated on the fact that although she is doing well she has felt that she has been struggling with the grammatical structure of the language, and that she does seem to have a somewhat uninspiring teacher (for her) both of which have marred her enjoyment.

Her decision not to continue French is now ‘set in stone’ so inflexible is the system. But last night she dropped a bit of a bombshell. During the intense revision she has been undertaking prior to her oral exam, many of the aspects of the grammar that she felt she had been struggling with have suddenly clicked into place for her. The result of this is that she now regrets her decision not to continue French to AS level as this new level of understanding has reinvoked her enthusiasm for the language.

A recent study published in the journal of Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability on primary schooling has concluded that ‘having a bad teacher in the first year of primary school can damage a pupil’s entire education’.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/5224476/Bad-reception-teachers-can-harm-entire-education.html

I would go further. Whilst having great admiration for teachers who struggle against the myriad changes to the system made by meddling politicians I do believe that bad teaching throughout school life (not just at primary level) coupled with an inflexible system that requires too much too soon of young people ‘can damage a pupil’s entire education’.

April 27, 2009 at 11:10 am Leave a comment

SATS – the elephant in the room?

The government’s response to the NUT threat to boycott SATS in 2010, supported by the headmasters union, is to say that this would be illegal. No looking at the issues wondering if they have a point, no concerns that if such a rather wishy washy union as the NUT are proposing action this may reflect some serious concerns.

The basis of the teacher’s discontent is their reality that they spend too much time preparing 10 and 11 year olds for their Year 6 SATS at the expense of a great deal other of the teaching they should be doing.

This isn’t a new criticism of the SATS but I suspect this issue is rather coming to a head (pun unintended) because there is no sign that Ed Balls and his lot have any intention of doing anything about this (aside from saying that the tests are ‘not set in stone’ which has created great excitement amongst many of those who wish to see the SATS scrapped).

The great opportunity to have scrapped the Year 6 SATS at the same time as the Year 9 SATS were scrapped has been missed and only strengthened the view that the overriding reason for scrapping the Year 9 SATS was to take the weight off the massive marking task that has proved so controversial. So all this leaves things kind of in limbo.

In a recent discussion on Radio 4 Today programme about the proposed boycott some interesting things were said which pandered to some myths about the tests. Here are just three of them.

  1. ‘We need tests because we want young people to be able to read and write’. WRONG. You have to have good teaching in order to maintain standards. Tests ain’t teaching.
  1. ‘You have to have SATS in order to have some measure of a child’s progress’. WRONG. There are all sorts of means of assessing a child’s progress. It is often mistakenly believed that to be against SATS is to be against any forms of measuring progress.
  1. Young people need to get used to taking tests for later on when they take their GCSE’s and A levels etc.. WRONG. My view is that all exams should be scrapped, but given that that is unlikely, certainly in the medium term, there are many ways of preparing for later exams that do not have to start 5 years in advance.

In my mind there is no doubt that the SATS should be scrapped forthwith. One of the things that is holding things up, though, is the fact that this would send out an extremely significant signal that real change is afoot, that the old obsession with testing and league tables is coming to an end.

For politicians who generally can only see 5 minutes ahead and who fuel such obsessions in the mistaken belief that this addresses accountability, taking an action that in fact points the way towards a new world that may exist the day after tomorrow is extremely uncomfortable.

Yet, there is a growing feeling of inevitability in this. How long can Ed Balls and his colleagues ignore the elephant?

April 22, 2009 at 9:41 am Leave a comment


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

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