Category Archives: education

(Tab)let them eat cake II

A few recent blogs have re-kindled my interest in “EdTech” and its place in teaching and learning. Following my post on discussing tablets during a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meeting last term I also feel obliged to give a quick update of what happened next. My own thoughts remain very similar to before. I have the same healthy scepticism for any new learning directive or teaching strategy regardless of whether it includes technology or not; convince me that the benefit outweighs the cost. This theme was further highlighted by Tom Bennett’s Raging against the machines? Not really. Adventures in misunderstanding post on EdTech. He too has a “hearty scepticism” and would like to see “wide-ranging evidence” to persuade him it has a significant impact  – but too often this sort of attitude is perceived as technophobia rather than a considered stance to new methodologies. As Bennett says

“If tech adoption were cheap or easy, and didn’t take much time, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. But if you want to persuade people that it’s right for them then it’s not unreasonable to ask what evidence is there that this will have a positive impact before they money on it. That’s just good governance.”

The fact is that it is not cheap nor easy to implement ,on a whole-school or even departmental scale, changes to EdTech so we had better be sure that they make a measurable difference. I am pretty open-minded about most new ideas but can be prone to paralysing cognitive dissonance when I fear that they might cause colossal amounts of work… In this respect I would imagine I am very much like everyone else who actually works as a classroom teacher and understands all of the trials and tribulations required to semi-successfully teach and assess a large(ish) class of students. In fact a blog post from December by the excellent Heather F on how technology has transformed her teaching struck a chord with me. In addition to her, as always, sensible musings her point that “if applications of technology are genuinely useful they won’t need the hard sell” is bang on the money (pun intended). I have no doubt that tablets will prove very useful both in specific subjects and across the school at some point, but I have not yet been made aware how. Perhaps this will be something I find out as I look to delve deeper into their impact in the classroom. However, I am equally open to the idea that we are not at that point just yet. That is what I mean by having an open mind and not being immovably one way or another, pro or anti EdTech.

Ain't no party like an S Club party! (Image taken from Flickr)

Ain’t no party like an S Club party!
(Image taken from Flickr)

So what did we do next after our aforementioned TLAG meeting? We set up a ‘working party’ to explore staff attitudes further (it seems from my own personal experience that jokes on the theme of “well it certainly is work but I’m yet to get to the party” are either unfunny or have been said before).  The group was made up of seven members of staff from a range of subjects across the School and hoped to represent a spread of opinions, from those very open to EdTech, those with experience of its implementation and those who were healthily sceptical. I believe that we got the balance about right other than we seem to have more “sceptics” than “champions” to borrow from Harry Webb’s superb recent post on why EdTech sucks (and what to do about it). The aim of the group was to discuss how best we could survey what teachers across the school thought about the possibility of EdTech, specifically personal devices such as tablets, aiding teaching and learning in the classroom. One thing that we all agreed with is that coercion of having to use EdTech will simply not work, as Harry Webb says “mandation is clearly not the answer”. However, there are definitely some benefits or “lots of small gains” as a member of the working party mentioned at our last meeting. We also felt that people did not know enough about what you could do with a personal device in the classroom; the “unknown unknowns”. I include myself in this category – I do not know exactly what I could or could not do with something like a tablet – and aim to expand my knowledge by attending conferences, reading blogs and participating in workshops to see what they can offer. No doubt you’ll hear my experiences in the eagerly awaited third instalment of the (Tab)let them eat cake saga, release date to be confirmed.

I am lucky enough to work with a range of talented people and one such colleague summarised a sensible approach to EdTech and the vast array of shiny gadgets available with these two simple questions:

  1. How does ‘it’ make the teacher’s job simpler, easier and more effective?
  2. How does ‘it’ make the student learning process simpler, easier and more effective?

If ‘it’ does not have evidence that it improves either of the above then you need to re-consider whether ‘it’ is the right approach to learning and teaching, whatever ‘it’ might be. The working party has also focused the direction of how we will canvass the opinion of the staff body; in our most recent meeting a method we considered and agreed upon was to actually go into departmental meetings to discuss the range of options available. Following a chat with one or two members of the working party (staff with the “known knowns” to bastardise further the Rumsfeld quote) there would then be a short departmental questionnaire to fill in. Our aim is to roll this out in the next half term and try to get round every department before the end of the academic year. I am intrigued to find out what people around the school think and this will then inform the next steps of the working party. Additionally I am also looking forward to discovering myself, first hand or via the conference circuit, what might be possible. However, if it does not improve upon or simplify what is currently in place then I may well remain the open-minded sceptic. To be continued…

Header image taken from Flickr.

Gridiron greatness

As stated before in my posts I very much enjoy reading; both for pleasure and to learn. Due to the latter, heavyweight pedagogues litter my desk, bookcase and floor by my bed. Yet sometimes I feel I can learn just as much looking outwards and away from education’s ripped abdominals of wisdom and conjecture. Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading the wonderful The Score Will Take Care of Itself by the late Bill Walsh (just the very name of this book brings smiles of joy to my face; focus on the process and not the outcome). Walsh was a Hall of Fame American Football head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers and the book captures the musings, ideas and standards of an extraordinary man who helped revolutionise a sport with his approach.

ALRIGHTY THEN (Image taken from Flickr)

ALRIGHTY THEN
(Image taken from Flickr)

Although the book is more business-orientated than straight biography I really enjoyed the snippets of detail I picked up regarding the sport itself. This is coming from someone whose sum knowledge of “football” is from watching Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Any Given Sunday. The former film a seminal classic from my youth; and to think if it wasn’t for that pesky Dan Marino holding the ball laces inwards, Ray Finkle would never have kidnapped Snowflake the dolphin in the first place.

In fact I found the sporting history of the book fascinating and will make a more determined effort to understand the game in future. Walsh took a team that many people regarded as not only the worst in the National Football League, but also the worst sporting franchise in North America, and turned them into champions. All within three years of taking over.

Image taken from Flickr

Image taken from Flickr

Right from his very first day he sought to impose the highest possible “standard of performance”. From the players, to the coaches, to the administrative staff, everyone knew exactly what was expected and how they should go about implementing it. This was not simply offensive game plays or travelling to away fixtures, even the secretaries who answered the phones were fully briefed on exactly how they should carry out their role. Often when I hear someone is concerned about this level of detail it makes me think that their micromanagement might have a negative or diminishing effect. Walsh was worried about this too with a chapter entitled Don’t delay delegating (Famous last words: “I’ll do it myself”). In fact he had a bad experience with a boss who did their best to keep him as an employee, at the extent of communicating to other franchises that Walsh was not particularly good.

Diagram of Bill Walsh's former colleagues who became head coaches

Diagram of Bill Walsh’s former colleagues who became head coaches (Image taken from Wikipedia)

The coaching tree diagram above shows the extent of Walsh’s influence and the huge impact he had on American Football. In 1998 half of the 30 coaches in the NFL had worked for either Bill Walsh or fellow Hall of Famer Tom Landry. This is surely a sign that, although he feared his diminishing tendencies, at heart he was a multiplier.

As a teacher I have no real interest in making decisions based on inspection bodies; I lose count of the number of times I have discussed with like-minded individuals this concept. At no point should we be looking to make things right for inspection. Instead time, effort and hard work should be spent finding ways to improve learning, thus allowing students to achieve to higher standards. You don’t need any “OFSTED-whisperer” to tell you that. To me this book exemplified this attitude of high performance for the sake of doing things better and not for just a final outcome. I am not so naïve to think that leadership in schools should pretend inspectorates do not exist or not consider them in their thinking, however, the key is that they do not use them as a focus to direct teaching and learning. An inspection rating “will take care of itself” if everyone is willing to put in time, effort and hard work into reviewing and refining the practice that does work and being open to new ideas and methodologies for the sake of advancing pupil learning.

A few other things I have taken from reading the book:

  1. The top priority is teaching – educating those in an organisation to continue your good work and that through hard work, elevated thinking and a sense of joint responsibility anything is possible.
  2. Standards of performance – to bring the best out of individuals and the group give them high expectations. This will be required for both actions and attitudes.
  3. Unleash mentors – allow individuals within the group to teach and help others to improve, give them the chance to lead and a share of responsibility.
  4. Discussion is important – chatting through ideas, allowing people to contribute is vital to allowing creative solutions to be found. Everyone can and should be involved in and influence this process BUT once a decision has been made that is the end of the discussion and energy is concentrated on implementing the change.
  5. Being wrong for the right reasons – it is fine to make mistakes if you are looking to improve; to succeed you must fail. However, it is important not to allow ego or pig-headedness to make a mistake into a major problem.

It is interesting that as I solidify my thoughts on this book more and more I see parallels between being a multiplier and what Bill Walsh ultimately did for the San Francisco 49ers. I would hugely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in leadership philosophies and how to get the most out of people they work with. Steve Jamison and Bill Walsh have weaved a fascinating insight into top level sports management and coaching; there are lessons here that should be shared beyond sport. Remember: “quick results come slowly”! Next up as part of my sporting reads, when I get the chance, is Legacy about the All Blacks, which came just as highly recommended as The Score Takes Care of Itself.

Header image taken from Flickr.

Biology A Level: International Rescue?

This blog has been at least a year in the making. In fact ever since 2013 when we decided to change our A level exam board to an International A level, I have tried to keep a check of our rationale for doing so. After giving a talk at a Cambridge International Examinations seminar at the end of November I had written down a long list of reasons and originally planned to post these during the Christmas holiday, but life events rather overtook me. What follows below is a précis of the reasons for leaving AQA and the other domestic exam boards for the exotic climes of an international qualification. As such it focuses on the perceived benefits of the change; I aim to redress this balance, should I need to, in the future with information about limitations. Although it was originally me, as HoD, that initiated and steered a course towards International A levels, my department were very much behind the decision from the off. In fact due to the huge uncertainty of what exactly the new Science A level specifications were going to include and how the practical work would be assessed we “jumped ship” early – officially deciding back in September 2013. Students at Sixth From are now studying the “International” A level from Cambridge International Examinations.

International rescue?

International rescue? (Image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

The decision making process was made easier by our disenchantment with EMPA and ISA “practical examinations”. Students constantly performed well below their attainment in theory papers. In fact with a little (very lightweight, unreliable, insignificant, etc) statistical analysis I demonstrated that on average our Biology A level students were performing one and a half grades below their theory paper attainment; and this is from pupils who carried out practical work almost every week and were scoring close to full UMS in the theory papers. The International A level offers a “proper” practical examination, one beyond any suspicions of “interference” so that students are awarded marks that correspond to their performance in theory papers. I could probably write a whole post on my total disillusionment with the proposed changes to domestic Science A level practicals… I will leave that for another time, suffice to say I am disappointed by the approach of the domestic exam boards and dismayed that practical assessment will not form part of the overall A level grade. More reasons are shared below and are taken from notes I used when discussing International A levels at a CIE seminar held at Somerset House in November. It is a fairly comprehensive list of the motivations behind why I think the award would suit pupils at our school:

  • Natural progression following on from the principles of IGCSE, which we teach at Key Stage 4.
  • Syllabus is more thorough; the content manages to balance a broad range of topics and goes into an appropriate depth of knowledge. In particular it favours breadth of knowledge over “sound bites”.
  • Assessment is not modular, encouraging students to think about the “big ideas in Biology”. This links directly to the syllabus; it is not divided into topics that are then examined in separate papers.
  • Encourages more exhaustive learning and rewards those who work hard and understand the topics.
  • The emphasis is on students carrying out and planning practical work. Experiments are present throughout the two year course…
  • …even more importantly these experiments are formally assessed, thus rewarding students who have grasped basic practical skills. This maintains the significance of actually having to do practicals properly in the classroom whilst learning the course and removes any suspicions of interference. Pupils therefore are awarded marks that match their ability and correspond to attainment in theory papers.
  • Grades are criterion-referenced.
  • Better preparation for university, particularly if students plan to study a biology-related degree.

As stated in my introduction I will be revisiting this list and possibly adding more to it. I also want to share our experiences of actually teaching the qualification as well as any problems we encounter. Perhaps it will prove to be our International Rescue, but for now I am pleased to type: “FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE. THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!”.

Header image taken from Flickr.

The Biology of Superpowers: Part I

Disclaimer 1: My knowledge of comic book and film Superheroes is very limited. I am by no means an expert and my only real familiarity comes from watching a few film adaptations. A cursory internet search here or there helped supplement my limited understanding for the purpose of this post.

Disclaimer 2: This post has nothing to do with explaining the biological processes behind a country projecting dominating power and influence over the world (a joke for the historians).

On Monday I took an assembly and decided to try to engage in some biological discussion over Superheroes and their superpowers. By presenting The Biology of Superpowers: Part I I hoped the students would find the subject matter interesting and also allow us to tackle some quite in-depth biology. Although the former was true, the latter did not necessarily occur as accurately as hoped. What follows is my pretty poor effort to try to summarise our explorations of biological explanations for the Avengers’ superpowers. Why the Avengers? Perhaps because there was too good a pun to be had with Avengers Assembly? Or maybe it was because there was lots of material available and some movie trailers to watch in case I needed any “filler”? To be honest I probably should have focused on the X-Men and macroevolution, but this is only Part I

Dr Bruce Banner / The Incredible Hulk

Firstly I must mention Banner’s “genius level intellect”, but what is more interesting is the Jekyll and Hyde nature of his power. During the assembly I mentioned that quite a few teachers are prone to an anger-induced tendency to “hulk-up”, often triggered by dodgy excuses for not completing homework.

HULK SMASH FOR NOT HANDING YOUR HOMEWORK IN ON TIME (Image taken from Wikipedia)

HULK SMASH FOR NOT HANDING YOUR HOMEWORK IN ON TIME
(Image taken from Wikipedia)

However, where we can get into the biology is the physical manifestation of Hulk’s powers due to absorbing “massive amounts” of gamma radiation. As I am sure most people know, our DNA codes for our phenotype and therefore changes to the DNA could cause changes to the phenotype. In addition gamma rays are a form of ionizing radiation that can cause major problems to living organisms in that they damage DNA. Therefore if Bruce Banner’s DNA was altered by the gamma radiation it could, potentially, cause observable changes to his phenotype. Although the idea of mutations causing changes to DNA, which cause changes to genes, which cause changes to phenotype is a very observable phenomenon it is unlikely it would ever lead to the Hulk coming into being. In fact it is more likely the “massive amounts” of gamma radiation would in fact cause radiation sickness, cellular death and increased incidence of cancer. I guess that wouldn’t make such a great story though…

Steve Rogers / Captain America

The story of Rogers’ heroic perseverance despite his scrawny and frail body is inspiration to us all; many a student could learn from this dedication when applying the same concept to work ethic and ability. We focused on two ideas from after Rogers had transformed into the mighty Captain America:

  1. The ability of Rogers’ body to replenish the “Super-Serum” that transformed his speed, endurance, agility, reflexes, durability and healing to the “zenith of human capabilities”. We decided this was very unlikely, e.g. a type 1 diabetic does not regenerate beta cells in the Islets of Langerhans following regular injections of insulin. However, it could have been a very early trial of gene therapy which just might be possible in today’s world; perhaps the “Super-Serum” was in fact a crude way of administering a plasmid vector to supplement the DNA in Captain America’s cells… There does appear to be a modicum of biological theory that mightsupport this and gene modification is an area with a lot of interest. Although how to do so to result in Cap’s powers is another thing.
  2. Being frozen for “decades” in suspended animation. Well there certainly is a precedent in nature through rotifers, tardigrades and even humble sea monkeys.
    A tardigrade, aka a waterbear (Image taken from Wikipedia)

    A tardigrade, aka a waterbear
    (Image taken from Wikipedia)

    Cryptobiosis is most definitely a survival strategy, although generally based on almost total dehydration similar to how seeds can remain dormant for many years. However, once again although there is a glimmer of possibility it is unlikely that the frozen in ice concept (as per the storylines) would work nor even the anhydrobiotic mechanism on a complicated multicellular organism.

Tony Stark / Iron Man

My favourite depiction of Tony Stark the man is from The Avengers:

Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?

Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.

In terms of superpower Stark relies on his suit, powered by the electromagnet in his chest. This magnet saved his life by preventing shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him. In a twist of fate that comic books so love, the shrapnel cannot be removed either. Therefore Iron Man / Stark is dependent on the electromagnet, which turns out to also be a convenient energy source for his superpowered suit giving him abilities such as flight and super strength. So what about the biology? It is perfectly possible for shrapnel to be lodged in the body and for the person to survive. What is unlikely is that it would *still* be moving inwards and therefore continuously require the magnet to prevent it entering the pericardium. In addition it is more than probable that having an electromagnet in one’s chest would lead to serious infection… Therefore our verdict was, although it was possible to have shrapnel in one’s body that is being prevented from going in any further, it is unlikely that Iron Man / Stark would be healthy enough to actually be a superhero.

Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow

My favourite Avenger (this caused much mirth from the male teenage audience, I can’t imagine why). However, I admire Black Widow because she is not a superhero and does not have any superpowers. Indeed she is world class athlete, master tactician and expert in martial arts and in spite of her lack of powers. She is a polymath rumoured to have agility greater than “an Olympic gold medallist” and is also an accomplished ballerina. I would suggest that this is well within the realms of the biological world and would point to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Matthew Syed’s Bounce. Both books argue that 10,000 hours of ever increasingly difficult practice will make someone an expert or world class in a sport. As a product of the former Soviet Union it is easy to imagine that a young Natasha Romanoff could have been whisked away to put in the desired volume of training in the quest to produce a super spy.  Black Widow’s superpower is easily the best because it is something that is replicable, time allowing.

Thor

Thor is a deity with superhuman durability, longevity, speed and strength. His hammer, Mjolnir, allows him to transport between dimensions, manipulate electricity and the weather. Being based on a Norse god we decided to home in on the idea that he could control weather. As god of thunder Thor is well known beyond the Superhero universe and is a mainstay of early Scandinavian mythology. You might imagine that looking up at lightning, humans tried to rationalise this unknown as an angry god hurling thunderbolts. As such if people are happy to believe in gods they may well attribute forbidding and unfathomable events to those supernatural beings. Perhaps it is in the human psyche that such gods exist? Therefore there is perhaps a biological basis for Thor, Asgardian god of thunder, to exist in the mind as action potentials and firings of synapses. Or at the very least it would be very difficult to argue with someone who uses faith and belief to come to the opinion that Thor is controlling the weather.

As a final summary I will admit that I purposefully left out Hawkeye from the ensemble / assembly. As great editors might say, it was a question of pace and timing (and also perhaps that he is not a particularly interesting character, or at least IMHO having watched the film at least once). In addition I would once again invite any criticism, both canonical or biological, to put me right. However, I will end with the proviso that this was all just to elicit biological discussion rather than to mess with any comic book pedantry. I will also be exploring the issue further in my Sixth Form extension classes as a stimulus to talk about the big ideas in biology. The final word falls to a student who, having watched my assembly last year on “Dinosaurs in the Movies” discussing the biological limitations that mean Jurassic Park will not happen anytime soon, commented “what childhood memory are you going to destroy next time, Sir?”

Header image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

(Tab)let them eat cake

Last Monday we held our first Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meeting of the term. I have mentioned this group before  but I would reiterate what a really good vehicle it is as a way of getting staff from across the school together and this week’s meeting was no different. The topic of the session was “the future of tablets in education”. Although this was a broad and wide ranging matter it gave rise to some very interesting discussion and exploration. From the start we put the issue into context by outlining that the technological infrastructure required to run tablets was not the issue we were trying to address. We felt that there was no point spending time talking about WiFi, charging points, storage, etc. Instead by imagining that all of these administrative details were in place we could focus more squarely on actually using a tablet for teaching. As a final reference point it was also made clear that we were talking about tablets in general rather than any particular model.

The session was incredibly illuminating and as a quasi-luddite I was fascinated by the ideas staff had for using tablets to help teaching and learning. In fact it presented me with quite a challenge to transcribe the minutes. Not only was there a range of opinions but also different levels of actual experience shared during the session. (As an aside with reference to meeting minutes, my personal feelings are that there is a real art to getting them right. Whoever writes them can be a scribing Shane Warne, spinning comments one way or another. In my other life as a head of department this can be quite useful! However, to try to keep as much veracity in the TLAG minutes I emailed a draft around to those who attended so they could check I had captured the sentiments expressed correctly) To lay my cards down on the table I am currently cynical of the effectiveness or tablets in improving teaching, learning and assessment in my own classroom. There is no real problem that I think they would address and I wonder whether they might actually make life harder for me. Whenever I think about change, new ventures or novel ideas these two points are my fist questions: “what problem does it solve?” and “will it make more work than the previous option?” However, I am always open to listening to new ideas and the wisdom of others:

“I not only use the brains that I have, but all I can borrow” Woodrow Wilson

Over the issue of teachers using tablets for email and as organisers there seemed more agreement in their usefulness. It is easy to see how a Drama or PE teacher could give feedback on a performance or skill instantly to a group of students by using the video or camera and then playing it back; you would be mad to suggest it would not help or be an impact on their learning. My personal opinion is that I would definitely benefit from having access to a premium model as an organiser and way of working away from my desk.

However, there were the beginnings of two camps with regards to student use. Some could see subject specific niches that they would fill and therefore enhance learning opportunities. But here comes the greatest sticking point for me; how do we know that they actually improve learning? Where are the double-blind placebo-controlled studies? It makes me twitchy to think that such finite hardware costs so much. Is it a humungous white elephant? Especially considering my dubious views on the end product; I struggle to think of any use for them in my next week’s teaching. Genuinely nothing. I have no doubt that they would be great for a research lesson and a colleague who has taught in a school that used tablets confirmed this. However, it was also pointed out that even 100 years ago pupils at our school have had access to more information and knowledge than they would ever possibly need via the library. The problem is guiding and focusing learning.

Just in case you were unsure, The animal above is a dinosaur. (Image taken from www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Just in case you were unsure,
The animal above is a dinosaur.
(Image taken from www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Whilst I am airing my slightly prehistoric views I also raised the point that the vast expenditure of buying in tablets and pimping up the technological infrastructure could be used to employ more staff. Perhaps this might alleviate some of the admin tasks that teachers face on a day to day basis actually allowing them more time to focus on their teaching, learning and assessment? I also think that without days, if not weeks, of expert training the teaching body will never be able to make the most of tablets.

A common theme that cropped up in our meeting was that using this sort of equipment should not be foisted upon staff. A lot of my reaction to tablets is most likely the “yuck factor” that my university lecturers used to explain why people took certain views on ethical issues in biology. I certainly have some fear of the brave new world of techno-education and I will admit that most of it is probably due to not being aware or exposed to the opportunities that exist for using tablets effectively in the classroom. However, for me the biggest issue is the doubtful pedagogical effect these devices would have. As another colleague who got all Tom Cruise said during our session:

SHOW ME THE MONEY! (Image taken from Wikipedia)

SHOW ME THE MONEY!
(Image taken from Wikipedia)

For me the crux of the matter is what problems do tablets solve and will they create more? A common concern was whether they will prove to be a greater distraction in the classroom. In my opinion undoubtedly. You might argue that we should be guiding students in how to use technology and avoid potential distractions. After the session I was interested to read a blog from a university lecturer in the US who has moved away from using technology all of the time with his classes. The writer references a metaphor used by Jonathan Haidt of an elephant and rider which I think neatly sums up the problem of student distraction. There will be many who think we should indeed be strengthening the “rider” when using new technologies and I would agree to a certain extent. But why introduce a definite distraction unless it has a definite positive effect?

There is no doubt in my mind that tablets have the potential to be very useful, but they are no panacea for improving student performance. And I would go so far as to say they never will be. Instead they will be another tool in the arsenal, a quicker method of completing tasks, another resource to use in conjunction with a variety of others. The tablet should not be central to learning but rather a device to support it. My line manager is a very wise beast and he summed it up nicely when saying that we should not be blinded by “tabletmania”; only when a sub-£100 tablet makes them truly ubiquitous within education will we start to really see their best uses as they start to naturally evolve. To conclude I found the information shared and the issues explored a real eye opener. I have a lot more reading to do on the subject and I look forward to coming back to this topic with a little more wisdom and perhaps different point of view in the future.

Header image taken from Flickr.