Sunday, November 7, 2010


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Over the hills and far away...

I am lucky enough to be able to say every day that I enjoy my job, however this week is pushing this to new heights! In the last year I have travelled far and wide across the north of England and into Scotland delivering training or teaching in a very wide range of venues, but this week I'm delivering Digital Cre8or training to a small group of teachers in the Auchtertyre Learning Centre. This is located on the shores of Loch Alsh, on the mainland not far from the Isle of Skye, it is an absolutely beautiful location and is surrounded by truly breathtaking views. The picture above shows a view looking across Loch Duich towards Ault A' Chruinn and further behind that Kintail B&B where I've been staying. This map shows the village with the little outcrop I took the photo from in the loch (under the 'nan' of Eilean nan Gall) and the B&B to the right of the Parking sign on the looped road to Morvich; whilst this stunning panoramic view shows what surrounds the area I am staying in.

The journey here was filled with 'wows,' particularly as I travelled across from Stirling where I had stopped for lunch after the first 200+ miles of my 400 mile trip. The area around Glencoe was astounding, whilst Fort William clung delicately to the shore of Loch Linnhe, with Ben Nevis (look at the web cam) looming above them both.

As I was driving through Glencoe there was a debate on Radio 5 about the merits of search engines; are they dumbing us down and stopping us thinking? Presenter Colin Murray was arguing that search engines mean that people enter queries into Google et al without thinking and that this means they don't tap into what they already know and almost 'sub-contract' their thinking to an external brain. Perhaps true at times but, as other guests argued, if use of the web is well taught and used by thoughtful, reflective learners with critical skills it is an astoundingly powerful tool.

The key is the effective teaching of the supporting skills. For years we have taught students to access texts in a library, to read, reflect and be critical of these texts before including them in their own work and adding the information to their own grey matter data base. Now we have an almost infinite library which still requires similar skills to make use of it intelligently and add to our learning. I would argue that learning can now go at an even greater pace and can be shared more effectively than ever before.

Whilst we were working today our group discussed mobile phone signals, broadband connectivity etc and its impact on life on this relatively remote location. It got me thinking about the effect that things like radio and TV signals had and further back in time the first widely available printed texts, the first Bibles in colloquial English not Latin etc etc. Were these examples of the dumbing down of the masses, or did they open up new forms of learning and give access to previously inaccessible material making it available in a more democratic way to 'learners' in the broadest sense?

When I arrived the first thing I did on setting up my laptop was to look up Glencoe; I knew of the 'massacre of the Macdonalds' but was not fully aware of the tragic horror of the story. Quickly I was able to bring up a series of entries which enabled me to consider different versions of the story and develop a deeper awareness of the issues surrounding this legendary event and to consider its powerful symbolic importance in relationships between the Scots and the English. Did I trust all the evidence? Not necessarily. Do I feel I understand this event more than I did? Of course. Did I think about it more than I would have done without search engines? Absolutely. Does this encourage me as a learner? Completely.

Rene Descartes said 'Cogito ergo sum' - 'I think therefore I am', perhaps we could now add 'Cogito ergo Googlum' - 'I think therefore I search.'

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Digital Immigrants, Digital Natives.

I was working on some Espresso training with a colleague recently when we discovered we had both been to the same school at slightly different times (20+ years ago sadly!) It got us talking about teaching styles and the changing world of what makes a good teacher. The teacher we both instantly recalled was the 'A' level History teacher whose main contribution to our academic success was to roll up the blackboard and reveal notes for us to COPY, he would then depart the scene heading off to the staffroom to return to the comfort of his fags and coffee. Yes, 'A' level historians copying notes on the French Revolution, no source material, no documents, certainly no images, and as for video forget it. When we arrived for our studies we occasionally had to send a delegation to rouse our pedagogue from his lair, this sometimes prompted him to use the latest technology; he would use the BANDA machine to produce other copyable resources. (And we worry about students copying and pasting from Wikipedia!) Clearly he was a teaching dinosaur, and surely he would have had to change his ways in the modern classroom or would have been, quite rightly, drummed out of the profession.

That said, our amusing shared recollection does highlight an issue I discuss with colleagues a lot, the nature of communicating effectively with today's children; challenging them and encouraging them to become critical thinkers in a modern world. A colleague once said to me that teachers can potentially spend too much time teaching 'in their past not the children's future.' Certainly the world is now very different to that where a teacher was a bit flash if they had more than one colour on a BANDA sheet and dragged a TV into the classroom, drew the curtains and showed us a video.

Most of us currently involved in education are 'Digital Immigrants' not 'Digital Natives' and we can struggle at times to engage with that future world.(Marc Prensky the American educational writer and thinker is credited with bringing these phrases into wider use in his paper 'Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.')

Speaking as an immigrant myself I constantly speak the language with a heavy accent, as with most people new to a language I am translating from my native tongue and not thinking in the new language. My children are natives and exist in the multi-media, web 2.0 world, I am merely an interested visitor. This new world for me is a land of opportunities and I love using the wealth of digital resources available to us now and certainly see how many of them have enhanced the way I can teach. They enable me to communicate in so many varied ways, encouraging children to make their own links in their learning.

I regularly use the analogy that Learning Objectives are like sticky buds, each hook on the bud is a possible way for children to understand the concept or skill we are trying to teach. We teachers throw these 'buds' at our students and hope they stick. When I started teaching my 'sticky buds' had one or two hooks on them, I would throw these at the class and some would stick first time. I would keep re-throwing these 'sticky buds' until most children had got the objective, this could be a frustrating process and could lead myself and colleagues to say 'THEY just don't get it.' Now, however, judiciously used multimedia and interactive classroom resources can help to produce 'sticky buds' covered in hooks and each child has a better chance of the concept 'sticking' and, importantly, each child may have the bud attached by a different hook.

At times I have to mention a 'health warning' when working with colleagues on their use of interactive and multi-media resources: often a teacher will say 'I can't wait to do this in class - they'll love it!' Sadly, I say, they will probably not even bat an eyelid as that is how they expect to be communicated to.

Our digital native children need us to try to speak the language the best we can, to strive to think not translate. After all when I travel abroad I generally find that my terrible attempts at pigeon home language are better received than the slow, loud English of the dreadful British tourist stereotype.

As I close this, my Digital Native son is about to kick me off this machine and continue editing a movie he and his friends are making, using an £80 digital camera, free video and audio editing software, home made special effects, adding soundtracks, titles and effects to enhance the finished product. At each stage he has used You Tube et al to search for tutorials online - after all why ask dad when there are millions of fellow natives out there waiting to help. (By the way Digital Cre8or is a fantastic new multi-media qualification, worth pursuing with students with similar enthusiasms and interests, see links on the blog)

As the title of one of Marc Prensky's books says:
"Don't bother me mom - I'm learning"

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Loveliest of trees the cherry now...

I have been struck recently by just how beautiful the cherry trees have been this year, they seem to be particularly dazzling and long lasting. As I was driving to a school near Bishop Auckland today through grey miserable weather they provided splashes of relieving colour and I turned to thinking about A.E. Housman's poem:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Over recent weeks when walking with my family I have taken to irritating my 12 year old son by quoting this poem whenever we pass under the blossom decked cherry trees. Unsurprisingly he tells me how unimpressed he is by my poetic musings, however when I mentioned it tonight both he and his sister could quote the opening lines.

I am a great believer in the power of learning poetry, there is a great pleasure to be derived from having an apposite line or two to conjure up and it can provide a valuable way in to great literature for kids - as long as it's not their dad reciting the lines! As I pass by the cherry trees Housman's words play through my mind like an irresistibly catchy tune, and provoke me to look closer and enjoy the blooms more.

Perhaps it is something to do with the message of the poem urging me to extract maximum pleasure out every opportunity, perhaps heightened by me having fewer of 'my threescore years and ten' than Housman did when he wrote the piece. Either way the words encourage me to look and enjoy and remember those moments. As W.H. Davies says, in a similar vein, in his poem Leisure..
'What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare'

This brings me back to teaching and how learning poetry and engaging with the words can be a powerful tool in the classroom. It also opens up all sorts of opportunities for creative ways to work with multi-media and 'hide' the poetry learning inside exciting, engaging and challenging activities which will help children to remember great lines of verse.

This led me to brainstorming ideas for working with the poem as a starting point whilst I was grinding along the A1. Here are a few:
  • Chance for a walk, taking digital photos of cherry trees and more as we go.
  • Researching other poems with a spring theme, reading, sharing, importing and creating a class portfolio, illustrated with images from our walk
  • Uploading the images to Picasa (free photo editing software) and editing and enhancing them, including captions with lines from the poem(s)
  • Learning some or all of the poem, reciting and recording in Audacity (free multi track audio editing software) adding appropriate sound effects and/or music before exporting as MP3
  • Emailing MP3 to home, friends/family as a record, putting onto iPods etc
  • Creating slides shows of images and using the recordings as a sound track using Photo Story 3 (free slide show creation software)
  • Writing our own poems and adding to the portfolio, before repeating some of the ideas above with our own versions
And that's all before going really cross curricular and finding out about the life cycle of the cherry tree and researching other plants animals etc. featured in our other poems; mapping our walk on paper and on google maps; finding out about the lives of our poets (check first as Housman for example may bring up some tricky issues for a primary classroom!); look at the number of petals on the flowers and see how they will often be a Fibonacci number etc. etc. etc....

It is so empowering as a teacher to be able to pursue our own ideas, enthusiasms and passions whilst giving the children opportunities to learn in a wide range of ways and I'm really pleased to note a real upsurge at the moment of schools and teachers re-taking control of the curriculum and making it theirs again. It's time to have more confidence in our ideas and the strengths and passions we have and sharing those with OUR children and taking them on journeys they might want to be on.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

SATs and League Tables (Click here for tables 08)

This year's KS2 SATs are looming and if the NUT get their way it could be their last year! However the NAS/UWT are demanding they remain and are threatening action if they are abolished. What a mess. It seems that my posting from 15th April is becoming more relevant; our representatives are now conspiring to create conflicting bad news stories.

Most teachers seem to have issues with the league tables and the way they are used as an unsubtle measuring device and as far as I'm concerned they remain a poor way to judge a school. League tables are certainly used by interested parents when they are choosing schools, but without an understanding of Contextual Value Added data, or of actual visits to see a school in action, they act principally as a measure of an individual school's raw material. I have visited some schools high on league tables where I wouldn't want to send my children and vice-versa some fabulous places, where children are provided with excellent teaching in a wonderful environment, despite lingering in the lower reaches of a table.

When asked by non-teachers about choosing a school I always say the key is deciding whether a school will help YOUR child to achieve 100% of their potential, not do they get 100% level 4+ for all their children.

Some people feel that opposition to league tables is down to a fear of accountability, a particular proponent of this view is Chris Woodhead (the former Head of Ofsted). In his "Answer the Question" column in the Sunday Times he never fails to give his views to parents who are ostensibly asking for advice. In this week's column he was asked for his views on the potential boycott, to which he replied "The tests expose failing schools. That is why the teacher unions have always hated them." He also felt that "Parents need it [League Tables] if they are to exercise a choice about the school they want their children to attend." I have no doubt that weak teachers, poor managers and over doctrinal union activists may feel like this but the majority of hard working, high quality educators dislike them for several very sound reasons.

It is clear that the curriculum has narrowed over the years as teachers feel pressured to push their school up the local table. It certainly causes some children undue pressure, as witness the tears and fears I have seen some conscientious pupils go through. The final year at primary school has become a rather bizarre time where so much seems focused on '5 days in May.' This in itself potentially causes further problems as the release of the pressure valve in the final half term and the shock of moving to secondary school in September seems to reinforce a plateauing of children's true levels. High school teachers therefore feel they cannot rely on the SATs data, so who does it serve and how do the tests help?

There is no doubt the tables are used by “middle-class parents with sharp elbows”, to quote David Cameron when discussing his views on faith schools and the lengths parents will go to to get their children into 'good schools.' He felt unable to criticise parents for exercising choice; "I think it’s good for parents who want the best for their kids. I don’t blame anyone who tries to get their children into a good school." Who can disagree, but are league tables the right way to form an opinion, and is it acceptable to rush for baptism, rediscover dormant faith or manipulate possible entry through multiple property ownership? Choice has become a political tennis ball and is something of a myth which panders to the sharp elbowed. How can everyone have choice? All children can't attend the 'best school' in an area, so those places will continue to be monopolised by the families fortunate enough to be able to 'choose.' The real debate should be how do we ensure choice isn't needed because your local school will be good enough.

Having said all of this however I do see some value in the tests. Certainly testing always forms a crucial part of understanding children's progress and planning for their future learning. Further to this I also see value in having this externally verified by independent and well trained examiners and that this evidence can feed into the data available to help build up a picture of a school's progress. I saw some of this process when I was a marker for the 2007 KS2 Literacy SATs (being awarded Grade A status - thanks for asking), however this was in the days of EdExcel and prior to last year's disaster with ETS.

For the last couple of years I have also worked with groups of children at a local school delivering Booster Classes, which is where I was this morning. I do have some reservations about this process and the ability for the sessions to contribute to the issues of pressure and curriculum narrowing; however when I talk to the children I try to let them know the benefits of "facing the SATs." I genuinely believe that some of the processes are useful; for example it is a life skill to deal with pressure, to meet a deadline, to perform well on a given day or to complete tasks with focus and sustained concentration. The tests do provide a real-life opportunity to have some of these experiences. Surely, however, this is not sufficient reason to continue with them in their current format.

Year 6 teachers have reservations about boosting, revising and coaching, but they have to balance these against the demands of supporting their pupils and promoting their school. Speaking to colleagues in Lincolnshire and Leeds over the last two days has reinforced this and no doubt it forms the basis of numerous staff room conversations as we turn into the home straight. In the end my aim with these booster sessions is to help the children to face up to the challenges of the testing period to the best of their ability and whilst the tests remain I am prepared to continue being involved with this work.

Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton (1780 - 1832)
Click here to see the top 50 primary schools in England (Notice anything? The sharp elbowed or eyed amongst you might! A whole other, and terribly contentious, debate could follow!)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Fibonacci Sequence

This week's article by Marcus Du Sautoy in his Sexy Maths column for the Times was all about the Fibonacci sequence, which inspired me to write a little about my Fibonacci Master Class which deals with Leonardo Pisano's famous sequence.

By the way Marcus Du Sautoy is my favourite living mathematician. I never imagined I would have a favourite living mathematician, but I guess he doesn't have much competition as I probably couldn't name another one! Having said that he is a pretty cool guy. If you are not aware of him he is the current Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, you might have seen him with Alan Davies on Horizon recently, or have followed his Story Of Maths last year on BBC4 or have seen him a couple of years ago on the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. He tell the stories behind huge mathematical ideas in an engaging and lively way; sort of a modern day Johnny Ball for grown ups (with real Oxbridge kudos and academic publications behind him!)

Du Sautoy's awe and wonder approach is what I try to achieve with my Maths Master Classes; a series of lessons I designed for a school in Bradford, which I'm now using in schools as part of my work. They focus on the lives of famous mathematicians and artists trying to get more able upper KS2 children to be inspired by maths and to investigate and explore the discoveries of these characters in an open ended way. These classes generally work best when delivered as a sequence of lessons, and contain 4 to 6 hours of material; with resources including PowerPoint presentations, worksheets, images and videos. I usually deliver the sessions with staff from the schools observing and quite often participating. In fact one of the really pleasing aspects for me is the number of times teachers and other adults get out their pencils and ask for a copy of the worksheets so they can investigate the ideas themselves! I also get huge pleasure from the way children in all settings respond with enthusiasm as they try to make the discoveries of Durer or Gauss or Pascal etc themselves. A colleague at a school in Halifax recently said she felt quite emotional when she watched one of her pupils explain how he had found a way produce a magic square using a strategy of his own.

This particular Master Class follows on from a Master Class on the French Mathematician Blaise Pascal. It is introduced by referring back to "Pascal's Triangle", the children are encouraged to explore a set of diagonals on the triangle which produce the Fibonacci sequence as their totals. They are asked to explain what they have noticed in the sequence before being introduced to Leonardo Pisano, or 'Fibonacci', himself. As an aside we look at his home town of Pisa and I usually set the children the task of researching whether Fibonacci could have seen the famous 'Leaning Tower' - I'll let you do the same, if you want - answer below.*

The sessions continue with the children recording in their own ways the results of 'Rabbit Problem', posed by Pisano in his book Liber Abaci. They are encouraged to present their findings in a diagrammatic fashion so that they can present them back to the group. I encourage the children to refine their ideas so as to be as efficient and clear as possible.

Finally the pupils are shown how to create a Nautilus spiral using a series of Squares with the dimensions of the Fibonacci sequence.

Watch the video below which shows the slides from the supporting PowerPoint presentation, clearly it is only an indication of the content. If you are interested in this or any other Master Classes please get in touch via the blog or email me through my profile.

My whole approach to the Master Classes could perhaps be summarised by Blaise Pascal himself when he said
"We are generally better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others."

*ANSWER: He was alive whilst the first part of the tower was built, it then began to lean before being completed approximately 120 years after his death.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Easter Teacher Conferences (follow this link for sample stories on Times online)

Easter always brings the various teaching unions' conferences and with them comes a flurry of stories in the media where the latest concerns of teachers are aired and discussed. This year of course is no exception; we've had "abolish the SATs or we'll boycott them", "raise our pay by 10%," alongside horror stories such as "schools hiring bouncers to ensure pupils behave" or "teachers' mental health damaged by disruptive pupils."

Do these headlines ever do our profession any good?

In my experience many non-teachers fit into one of two (admittedly stereotyped) categories:

1. The "I couldn't do your job" group, who are generally supportive, but are mystified by the idea of working with children.
2. The "teachers don't know what it's like in the real world" group who have little patience for any pronouncements by so called professionals who they regard as having an easy life and wouldn't cope with if they were asked to do a "proper job."

Group one have all their well meaning support reinforced by images of urban war zones and Clockwork Orange classrooms. In this world teachers battle on bravely with Vicky Pollards tutting, cursing and abusing their way through another un-productive day on their way towards achieving inevitable benefits-scrounging single-mum status or becoming an ASBO collecting hoodie hoodlum.

Group two have all their knee-jerk lack of support reinforced by images of lazy weak teachers demanding undeserved improvements in their working conditions. These teachers can't control the yobs and chavs principally because they pander to them due to "political correctness gone mad" (TM), don't believe in competitive sports and wouldn't be able to deal with the commercial realities of work in industry.

So, how do we get our message across in a way which gets real support and perhaps proper action on some of the genuine grievances we in education might have? Whinging sound-bites certainly don't help. Clearly we need to find better ways for parents and members of the community to understand and get involved with what we do every day. Maybe we, and our representatives, should think about public comments in the same way we do about commenting on pupils' work. First look for the positives and successes then highlight the targets for improvement and above all make them manageable and achievable. Perhaps we can gradually bring the public with us and have our profession genuinely appreciated and improved for all involved. Until then Easter will continue to be a time when old arguments are re-ignited and prejudices on all sides are reinforced with no real change being achieved.

"Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people" - WB Yeats

Ironically as I wrote this piece the BBC radio news headlines announced "teachers threaten strike action if funding for sixth forms isn't improved." QED!

Example stories