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

Lembit, SAT’s and picnics pot pourri

You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Lembit Opik who so unexpectedly lost his seat in the election. But only a bit. Whilst I am sure it is no picnic for him, I have no doubt that when he has finished crying on a Cheeky Girls shoulder he will pick up some tasty work, Portillo like, in the media. He is quite high profile already, as though preparing for just this moment. He has already been on ‘Have I got news for you’ just hours after his fall and this morning on breakfast TV, not just once, but on two different slots.

Michael Portillo’s political demise all those years ago has, it seems, been voted as peoples’ third favourite moment of the 20th century. By his own admission his notoriety at the time has enabled him to reinvent himself and carve out a very nice, and no doubt lucrative, career in the media. If we’re not very careful we are in danger of even calling him a ‘national treasure’ (although on reflection perhaps a step too far).

Lembit does not have the same level of notoriety although his high profile womanising will do him no harm. He is sufficiently known, though, I think to be a prime candidate for picking up some very nice media jobbies, thank you very much, not to mention the autobiography, the diaries!!)

Whilst Lembit has been replaced as MP for Montgomeryshire, it is also no picnic for many head teachers of primary schools who are facing the ignominy of being replaced, at least temporarily, if they boycott the KS 2 SAT’s that are due to be taken this week. Those heads who are participating in the boycott are doing so for very sound, deeply felt educational reasons. The nub of this as one primary head interviewed this morning put it is that she simply did not feel that a 45 minute exam in any way reflected a child’s achievements over their previous 8 years schooling.

Any child that does not do well in their SAT’s knows it, and starts their secondary schooling with that blot on the landscape. This can’t help but affect that child’s confidence, the position they occupy in secondary school, and the view their new teachers have of them. Where there is setting at a secondary school the SAT’s results contribute to what set a child might be put in.

If they are put in top set they will probably feel quite good about themselves (as will their proud parents) although their can also be pressures on them to maintain that position. If they are put in the set below top set, well they are not quite good enough really, are they? If they are put in bottom set, then that means not up to much really, pretty worthless.

We do not literally believe those judgements, or at least we would not admit to it, but a child does. This leads to hundreds and thousands of school children starting the very scary and life changing journey into secondary education already with a chip on their shoulder, already disadvantaged, already with lowered expectations. No picnic at all.

It is in recognition of this, and of the fact that scrapping SAT’s does not mean scrapping ‘assessment’ as such (there are very many robust means of assessing a child progress) that those heads participating in the boycott are doing so. Rather than analysing the legal position of a boycott, or threatening to replace participating heads, it seems to me that the government would benefit from listening properly to the very cogent arguments being proffered.

One reason, I suspect, that the boycott appears to be somewhat patchy is that there seems to be no real political strength apparent in teachers unions. This is typified by a ‘laugh out loud’ moment when I heard on the news this morning that the NUT was holding a ‘protest picnic’ on the issue of KS2 SAT’s. Well, that will show them, won’t it!!!

So no need to worry Ed Balls, Michael Gove, or David Laws (or whatever combination of the three wins influence over the coming days) when it comes to dealing with the NUT, it is a picnic!

May 10, 2010 at 10:29 am Leave a comment

Stranded in Lanzarote – JCQ response a disgrace

When people first heard that we were stranded in Lanzarote as a result of Eyjafjallajoekull a first reaction was to comment how lucky we were. However, the truth belies that.

We were psychologically prepared initially for a one week holiday in a villa on the island. We were not psychologically prepared for our stay to be extended indefinitely, in the event for an additional week.

A great deal of the extra time was spent trying to find a flight home, feeling lost in limbo up to the time we did eventually manage to find one.

There were additional living expenses, which in theory we should be able to claim back from our airline, but in truth are expecting a mighty battle over.

Whilst you might think our kids would have relished this additional time off school there reactions were in fact very different.

Our 15 year old daughter got very upset at the prospect, realising that she would miss key lessons as preparation for GCSE’s, in particular missing a mock GCSE in PE the proper exam of which she is taking next week. She is a high achiever, very motivated, and until this happened on track for some great results. What upset her was the prospect of this being put at risk, through no fault of her own.

To help with this we got the school to email the mock GCSE paper which she then took in our hotel room, emailing the results back to school for marking. Up to the point of taking this mock she had been quite worried and miserable, but it was remarkable how she perked up immediately after having sat the mock.

Our 12 year old son reacted very differently. He is in Year 8, not yet on the GCSE treadmill, apart from in fast track French. For him the extra time off school was a bonus, more time in the pool and in the sea.

They did both miss their friends, Mum and Dad being poor substitutes, despite my efforts to regress which served only to embarrass. They were able to have some Facebook contact but despite all you can’t beat good old face to face stuff.

In response to our email to them explaining the situation the school did manage to inform ‘most’ of their subject teachers. I highlight ‘most’ because I do feel that missing the odd teacher was sloppy. One of my daughters’ subject teachers had no idea of the situation and was completely unprepared for remedial action on her return.

In order to reassure my daughter that she would not miss out as a result of our enforced stay I told her that her circumstances would be taken into account, and if it was adjudged that due to the prevailing circumstances she was put at a disadvantage in her preparation she would be able to take, say her PE GCSE, at a later date. She said this would not be the case. I swore it was. She was right.

It seems that whilst the JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) has said that some oral exams and practical tests would be re-arranged they also insist that no written A level or GCSE exams would be rescheduled. Why? I’ll tell you in a minute.

And where does that leave my daughter. She has done absolutely everything that has been asked of her, she is an asset to her school, she is on track, through her own efforts, for some fantastic results in her exams. When some of this is put at risk, through no fault of her own, can she depend on the ‘system’ to be sufficiently flexible to support her appropriately? No she can’t. Why not? Simply because they can’t be arsed – it would require a certain about of reorganisation and I can only assume that it is to avoid the necessity for this that the JCQ have decided, ahead of time, not to offer any flexibility for written exams.

I think this is appalling, and yet another nail in the coffin for an education system that thinks more of itself than it does of its pupils.

April 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm Leave a comment

They’re not all on ASBO’s are they!

I read a post recently that came through the BECTA ICT Research Network from a PhD student in Australia who was looking at  the potential of smartphones to deliver personalised learning, something I believe in.

In fact I believe that education content delivered through this medium will become massively important rather faster than people tend to believe (see Ray Kurzweils ‘Law of accelerating returns‘ about the exponential progress of technology). I also believe that through the use of digital technology there is the opportunity to transform education beyond recognition in a way that finally allows our young people to fly.

However, we do have to be careful that our use of smartphone technology for this purpose does not become intrusive in young peoples lives.

Rather worryingly the Australian PhD student characterises the possibilities of smartphone technology for this purpose thus:

‘As we well know, a mobile device can collect data relating to a student’s interests (gathered from search history, applications and communications), location, surroundings and proximity to others (GPS, Bluetooth).

However, what has been less explored is the opportunity for a mobile device to map the movements and activities of a student from moment to moment and over time. This longitudinal data provides a holistic profile of a student, their state and surroundings.

Analysing this data may allow us to identify patterns that reveal a student’s learning processes; when and where they work best and for how long. Through revealing a student’s state and surroundings outside of schools hour, this longitudinal data may also highlight opportunities to transform a student’s everyday world into an inventory for learning, punctuating their surroundings with learning recommendations. This would in turn lead to new ways to acknowledge and validate and foster informal learning, making it legitimate within a formal curriculum.’

I raise this because it is a part of the wider debate we should be engaged in about the real, often unsaid, implications of digital technology. There is an excellent series on BBC2 in the UK, The virtual revolution , that really does express and expose the reality and the dangers of the web based information society we currently live in. You can’t come away from the programme without the feeling that the question we should be asking ourselves is not ‘if’ the personal data about us being gathered by Google or others will at some point be used for purposes more sinister than sales and marketing, but ‘when’ it will be used in this way (or if, indeed, it is already being used so without our knowledge) and what, if anything, we can do about it.

Our children, the so called ‘digital natives’, tend to approach all this with the innocence of the young, gratefully grasping the myriad freebies that they are presented with. It is the duty of the adults who understand this to forewarn our kids of the dangers and to arm them with strategies of defence, even things as simple making it absolutely clear to them that anything digital that they post to the internet, through whatever forum, is there forever. There is no going back.

It is also the duty of adults, I believe, to recognise an over intrusive application of technology as characterised above. My own kids who are 12 and 15 would be absolutely appalled at the idea that there location and movements were being tracked through their mobile phones. A huge part of their maturity is gained from the trust they are shown by their parents and other adults. Stripping this away is condemning them to a sort of nether life where they never feel they can completely take full control of their own lives because we are always watching. After all, it’s not as if they’re all on asbo’s.

We really do need to trust our young people more and believe, as I do, that allowing them to fly means trusting them with far greater control of their own learning.

March 8, 2010 at 3:12 pm Leave a comment

League tables, report cards, scrap the lot

So, according to a survey of nearly 1,400 teachers for the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) more than a third of all teachers have serious doubts about the introduction of report cards to replace league tables and I’m with them.

The most controversial aspect of this seems to be the proposal to take a variety of criteria about a school as a basis for awarding a single grade.  Presumably some sort of magic formula would be applied, and hey presto, out pops the grade.

In New York they already operate such a system, but are in the process of adjusting things to deal with the ‘problem’ that 97% of New York schools are getting an A or B grade. Presumably this means that 97% of schools in New York are very good (according to the criteria) so what is the ‘problem’.

The problem is that this does not allow them to identify better and worse schools (the A&B’s and the C&D’s) on which the whole warped notion of apparent choice based on suspect criteria depends. This is, of course, is how our league table system also currently works based upon a set of criteria (established by governments by the way, and not by teachers, parents and pupils) to place schools higher or lower in the table.

Essential to its success is the creation, or maintenance, of an underclass, the C’s and D’s purely for the purpose of having some measurement on which to judge, the better and the worse. And how far does this extend – better and worse, winners and losers, good schools and bad schools, good pupils and bad pupils, clever kids and stupid kids, kids with a future and kids with no hope.

This is simply divisive and leads the worse performing schools working very hard to lift the morale of their pupils who know that they are regarded as failures, as the dregs, by the broader society around them.

Come on. Time to recognise that a 21st century education system is about fulfilment and that the ability of a school to deliver an environment where each child can fulfil their individual potential cannot possibly be expressed in a single grade, or indeed on the number of A-C’s achieved.

Personally, I would not change the way report cards may be used, I would scrap the whole bloody nonsense of such measurement altogether.

February 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

i-pad, u-pad, we-pad….or do Wii?

My ten bobs worth about the i-pad. Yes, Graham, getting sucked in…to the debate at least.

So, I find myself getting sucked in to the debate about the i-pad. This is unusual for me because, to be honest I have certainly been on the fringes of what Stephen Fry in his review of the i-pad calls the ‘nay sayers and sceptics’ in respect of the i-phone and i-pod touch et al.

In my defence, though, I have never said that the development of the Apple mobile device armoury is not extremely well conceived, beautifully designed, and skilfully executed, or that Apple have not led where others have followed.

But, neither do I believe that the sun shines from Steve Jobs posterior. There is something about the evangelism surrounding all things Apple that disturbs me. Perhaps it’s the blinding light shining from you know where that restricts our peripheral vision preventing us from properly seeing the full picture.

Where it comes to the i-pad, and indeed i-phone, i-pod touch etc. context is important, I think. At least it is in the world I occupy which professionally and personally revolves around education, specifically primary and secondary education. Even more specifically a large slice of my life is taken up with the exciting opportunities offered to education through digital technology which, as Lord Putnam said at the recent Learning Technologies show at Olympia, has changed the way people interact, engage and make sense of the world’.

The i-pad, in all it’s glory (and I do not doubt its gloriousness) will open up all sorts of exciting opportunities to do some remarkable things in some schools and educational institutions around the globe. But, fantastic as that is, this effort will be restricted to a minority for three very good reasons that have nothing to do with design or functionality. These reasons are that the i-pad is too expensive, too nickable, and too fragile.

Stephen Fry in his review of the i-pad refers to the ‘shockingly low price’ of $499 (£310) for the basic model. Shockingly low for someone of his means, for sure, affordable for someone of my means, completely out of the question for the hundreds of  thousands on a low income. Will the ‘Home access’ scheme (which already restricts provision of access to broadband to one year only)  be extended to the provision of this device, even the basic model. I suspect not. In any case the ‘Home access’ scheme doesn’t by any means reach all the people who need it.

Where the ‘Home access’ scheme is meant to narrow the digital divide, the aggressive pricing policy of Apple (when did you last see a discounted i-phone or i-pod touch), I’m afraid, only serves to widen it. This does play into Apples hands, of course, because their enormous 15.9 billion revenue is made mainly from the haves and the perception that their beautiful products are made for the beautiful people who, of course, can afford them.

I know that Steve Jobs has made a point of saying that he wants to keep the price low, but there is low and there is low.

In a tweet today Graham Brown-Martin (of Handheld Learning fame) said ‘as I walk thru the Elephant & Castle favela I wonder if I’d really whip out an #iPad to read the news…’ Now extend that thought to all the pupils in all the schools.

We recently had a burglary at our offices. Someone had got hold of the key and came in at their leisure when no-one was around. From everything we have in the office, dozens of systems, Macs and Pc’s and all sorts of other equipment, the burglar took just our i-pod touch (my freebie from the Handheld Learning conference) and our Mac mini. Small enough to conceal and very sellable, just like the i-pad. No doubt the good Apple folk would puff out their chests in pride that their products are so eminently nickable so not likely to be much change there.

And as for robustness, I have no idea how much rough handling the i-pad can take (because of its elegance it does seem rather fragile, but this may well not be the case), but it would have to be very robust indeed to survive the ravages of my 12 year old sons treatment. Clothes, books, bottles, lunchboxes, nothing survives the daily onslaught. His mobile phone just about survives, because it is small enough to go in his pocket, and has a case to protect it. Even so it looks pretty sorry for itself, although just about intact.

It might be argued that other devices may be equally susceptible to damage, but that isn’t the point. Someone will have to address the issue of rough treatment, and I don’t suppose it will be Apple. They are just not in that space.

You may feel that I am simply being something of a killjoy about all this, but I think I am just being practical and pragmatic. I don’t doubt, or deride, Apples achievements as innovators. But, in the world I occupy, I cannot see a ubiquitous place, per se, of the i-pad, i-phone, i-pod et al despite all the potential on offer.

In this respect, though, Apples great achievement, and it is a great achievement, is to set the standards for others to follow and I applaud them for that. But I expect to see a greater use of other devices for education, netbooks for a while, making way for smartphones that can be had free on very low tariffs, gaming consoles like PS3 and x-Box, others like the DS and of course the brilliantly conceived Wii.

January 28, 2010 at 5:42 pm 9 comments

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

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