Tag Archives: learning

(Tab)let them eat cake III

A lot has changed since I wrote my last blog regarding EdTech. For one I now have a different role and am directly involved with shaping the digital strategy of the school. Therefore it is probably time for an update of what I have been doing to explore this area of education. Charles Darwin wrote that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” and in all of my EdTech blogs I have made it clear that I do not know enough to comment effectively. However, I am now slowly building up a decent idea of what can be achieved, hopefully without being blinded by “shiny news things”-syndrome.

WebDAVNav: I have to start with this because it is so simple but incredibly useful, although no doubt I am seriously behind the times. WebDAVNav is an app that allows you to access your resources from a smartphone. For example mine is set up to see all of the “my documents” folders and files associated with my username on the school system. Additionally it is linked to the shared pupil and staff resources, allowing me to look at a moment’s notice no matter where I am. This has proved to be super-useful and something that I keep returning to as I am out and about. It is difficult to say just how great it is, but I can’t imagine life without it now!

Tablets: The process of convincing me that they have a role to play in my classroom is well underway. I can see how they might help teaching and also learning, surely the only reason you would ever adopt anything new in education? Having met with the tablet working party throughout last year it was clear that they can provide excellent solutions to certain problems. E.g. want to use a computer but don’t need it for a whole lesson? Instead of booking out a computer room for just 10 minutes of actual computer time why not slide open those tablets and dip in and out as and when required to support pupil learning.  This is the type of small-scale learning-focused issue that I think will be the real reason why they might be adopted en masse in education (rather than some game-changing mega miracle that significantly increases student learning with proven tablet causation). It will be the small and seemingly insignificant things that, together, make a huge difference to turn educators’ heads towards any new thing, technology included. This is illustrated by the popular concepts espoused by Sir Clive Woodward (the one hundred one percents) and Sir Dave Brailsford (marginal gains). An obvious example is a calculator; no Maths teacher would plan their whole lesson by simply stating “use calculators” just as much as we shouldn’t be planning a lesson with only “use tablets”. They have the potential to be a very good resource to aid good teaching and help students learn.

To discover just what anything, EdTech or not, can do it is important to try it out. Therefore this year we have implemented a tablet-trial, equipping a teacher with tablets to use with their classes. This boils down to a class set of windows tablets that students sign into and use in just that member of staff’s lessons; neatly termed “bringing a computer room to the classroom”. Although a far cry from 1:1 it is a starting point to evaluate not only their effectiveness but also the logistics and infrastructure should a larger project ever be rolled out. The plan is for six different teachers to use the tablets with their classes and use qualitative feedback to assess their effectiveness. This will also be useful for those in school who would like to see how they might be used. The teachers involved in the trial have been to a Microsoft Showcase training day and it will be very much up to them as to how they choose to implement them. We also have a few members of staff going to see tablets being used in schools to see how and why the investment has been made.

Over half term I attended a Microsoft Showcase event, looking at the Windows Surface. To me this is everything that I would want for using devices in the classroom, most importantly because it comes with a keyboard. I actually borrowed a Surface Pro from school over the summer holiday and can vouch for what an incredibly impressive kit it is (although it should be mentioned I ended up effectively using it as a laptop, but since my training day can see a whole host of opportunities to improve the way I work). The Surface is a great idea, well-realised and compatible with the Microsoft Office way of working that is ingrained within myself and the school. The day was illuminating and all the presenters made good sales pitches for the products and systems on show. Although seeing and using the technology was useful lunch was actually the highlight for me (and not just the delicious macaroons). I spent most of it discussing with Phil Burney whether it was possible to roll out EdTech in a school successfully. His words were very practical in suggesting that only with time, training and ongoing support is it possible to have a successful and sustained implementation of something like tablets. The bigger picture is how can you give staff confidence with new technologies? Going from being highly proficient in something to starting right back as a beginner is a daunting prospect. Leaders should look to change the “yuck factor” or “I am fine without this new fad” attitude with plenty of time, training and support. My thoughts from March’s OSESIS event ring ever clearer, especially the do and don’t comments. For me this raises the central tension with trying to implement anything; how can people evaluate how it might be useful if they don’t know what it does. Bringing me nicely to…

…e-Homework: We are trialling the use of setting homework via our virtual learning environment (VLE) with a year group for the rest of this term. To allow a full evaluation to occur all teachers of this year group have been asked to set homework this way; bringing us back to the issue of mandate versus optional take up. But without trying it we cannot see whether it helps the learning of our students. Once again this is the key point – does it help teaching and learning? If so there is no problem. Another question to ask is “does it take more time and effort than how I was working before?” Long-term, having practiced, it should take no longer than the original way of working. But it is very difficult to comment without having tried it. The results of this trial will be hugely informative.

And finally:

At heart I am very much a moderate and at times can be accused of being quite conservative when it comes to new things. Even more so if they are being forced onto people. However, even I realise that a no at any cost approach to anything new will severely limit innovation (whether technological or not) and that without trying things out all you have is gut-instinct or opinion. There is plenty going on here to start the evaluative process and no doubt I will report back in brobdingnagian proportions in the future.

Header image from www.freefoto.com

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Know Thy Impact

Yesterday I had the good fortune of attending the Impact Conference 2015, which gathered a truly stellar cast of speakers together in London. Trying to measure the effect of interventions when it comes to teaching and learning is a fascinating area and one that I have come to via Professor John Hattie’s Visible Learning books, especially The Science of How We Learn. As a keen scientist (okay biologist) I am also interested in the idea that by observing something you can’t help but change it; certainly the Hawthorne Effect is a useful reminder that many interventions will work by just being a source of increased attention to detail and raised level of effort. So how do we sift the useful from the useless and how can we prevent the proliferation of educational homeopathy? These were just two of the questions I approached the conference with. Below is an outline of what I took from two of the excellent speakers on show, Professor Rob Coe and the aforementioned Professor John Hattie. Sadly once again I cannot rein in my inefficient verbosity (some might call it verbal diarrhoea) thus I will not be writing up the fantastic Sam Feedman and Philippa Cordingly or the hilarious genius that is Dr Ben Goldacre who all also spoke at the conference.

Professor John Hattie (talk I) I took a great deal from both of Professor Hattie’s talks, in particular challenging the assumption that just because something works it is good and therefore shouldn’t be changed. Reassured that there is very little you can do to decrease attainment (although interestingly labelling students has an effect size of -0.61) it was heartening to hear him say that in the UK success is all around us; it is impossible for everyone to be in PISA’s top 5. Certainly one of the main takeaways from this talk was a reemphasis on seeing learning through the eyes of the learner and using criteria from the learner’s point of view to measure impact. This was nicely summarised as “teachers who learn to be learners and students who learn to be teachers”. Another key point I eagerly agreed with was that the job of a teacher is not to help students realise their expectations but to help them “exceed what they think they will do”. During the first session Professor Hattie was also at pains to point out that he did not say that “teachers should not be researchers” in a recent interview. Instead he urged us to be “evaluators”, a not so subtle change in semantics. I actually fully agree with this. As teachers we are not trained in research so it seems a task for which we are not optimally suited. One might argue that there should be more emphasis on research on the ITT and other training courses, but my own opinion is that this would be detracting from learning the skills needed for actually teaching. However, that’s not to say that the area of research should not be revisited at some point in a teaching career.

Professor Rob Coe As joint author of What makes great teaching Professor Coe did not disappoint during his witty and

insightful talk. He made it clear that it isn’t enough to just know the effect sizes for certain interventions but, as teachers seeking to improve education, we should always evaluate what we do. I liked his point that using motivation to enhance attainment is putting the carriage before the horses in that convincing a student that your lesson is a “game they can win” to raise attainment will have the knock on effect of increasing interest and motivation. Professor Coe confirmed my belief that we do not allow enough time to elapse for an answer after asking a question, but extended this to waiting another 3-5 seconds after an answer to elicit even better responses. This is something I aim to do immediately, both with my classes and colleagues! The final point I’d like to pick up on from this part of the conference is the question “do we know a good lesson when we see one?” There is no doubt in my mind that grading of lessons is an absurd practice but it is wonderful to hear evidence to back this up:

  • When two teachers observe the same lesson and one grades it “Inadequate” the probability that the other will agree is just 10%. Even with thorough training in how to observe a lesson the probability increases to just 40%.
  • When an observer judges a lesson “Outstanding” the probability that the pupils are really making sustained, outstanding progress is just 5%.

Moral of this story? Do not grade lessons.

Professor John Hattie (talk II) Opening on a slightly controversial theme of “neurotrash” Professor Hattie argued that this area of educational research is interesting but does not actually get us anywhere. So often you can simply replace the term “brain” with “learner”.  Turning his sights next to the cause célèbre known as “twenty-first century skills” he suggested that by themselves they are irrelevant as they are devoid of content. In fact it is only where they come with content that you start to establish a transition from surface to deep learning. Indeed he spoke on how critical thinking and problem solving quite simply should not be taught outside of subjects. Another fantastic quote, this time on the importance of learning from failure, was “the second time it’s a mistake, the first time is a learning opportunity”.

I was introduced to a concept that I had not heard of before; James Nottingham’s Learning Pit, see here.This is another instant takeaway that I will look to explore and guide my classroom work. Again the words spoken by Professor Hattie were particularly pertinent in that “feedback feeds on error” and we must not stigmatise failure, instead encourage a thorough reflection and analysis of what went wrong and why. Overall I found yesterday’s conference to be a fantastic INSET / CPD opportunity and would recommend the January event to anyone interested in looking at ways to measure and evaluate impact. Additionally the discussions with other delegates will also be worth the cost of the ticket! Click me!

Header image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

The Twenty Five Four Percents – TLAB15

My recollection of Saturday is a bit of a blur but for a third year running I was left wishing I had access to Hermione Granger’s Time Turner necklace as this would have been the only solution to the problem of choosing which workshops to go to. Sadly time travel was not an option, but the tweets on the day and subsequent blog posts (e.g. Cup of Teaching, Nikki Able, Those that can…, Kamil Trzebiatowski and many more) have given me a flavour of what was happening around Berkhamsted. The two workshops I attended were excellent and more on them in the future. However, this post seeks to be a brief summary of my own workshop for anybody who was unable to make it.

The title of the workshop was a play on Sir Clive Woodward’s statement that “Winning the Rugby World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing one hundred things 1% better”. The session was based on a post I wrote at the start of this academic year and at our little gathering I hoped to discuss ideas that I had picked up and adapted to use in my teaching. Nothing was earth shatteringly novel and I was certainly not breaking any new ground with my presentation having borrowed almost all of the ideas from elsewhere. In fact the best had been nicked with glee from the brilliant colleagues I have worked with, but as English workshop leader Mike Grenier put it in a tweet on the day “better to be a professional magpie than ostrich” and I made this point in my presentation with a few Pica pica flying on to my email address. However, I hoped that even if people took just one thing from the session they might refine and improve it further and then let me know how it went. This actually happened during the workshop with great ideas (much better than my own!) coming from the delegates listening. The hour time limit put paid to any ideas of discussing one hundred ideas, so twenty five four percents it was.

  1.  Backburner Bingo – students are given an incomplete key word grid that they fill in as the lesson goes on. Some of the key words should be novel and some can only be found out through listening to teacher / carrying out activities in the lesson. This is then completed in the background until someone yells out “BINGO!” and wins a prize. The key is to ensure that for some definitions there is no one correct answer to draw pupils into a discussion. However, Backburner Bingo can become a bit of a distraction, especially if your pupils enjoy the competitive element!
  2. What’s in the box? – simple activity where you unveil a box in the classroom that has something inside it (although often this can be imaginary or hold something that could not possibly be contained). By giving a series of clues students then try to guess what is in the mystery box. E.g.
    • Alive
    • Has a backbone
    • Venomous
    • Has fur
    • Lays eggs

With the answer being a duck-billed platypus. Sometimes I intersperse these clues throughout the whole lesson, which is what I attempted during the workshop. Again this can be used to elicit discussion. Certainly my demo did this with the question of whether round was the best word to describe a Jaffa Cake; probably not and disc was suggested as a better alternative!

  1. Patience – when asking a question do not expect an instant response, but allow a good 8-10 seconds before actually looking for answers. I used a tortoise moving slowly across my slide to illustrate this point, but often just count to ten in my head. This was something I picked up from The Multiplier Effect and also use it in departmental meetings.
  2. Random name generator – using the settings on PowerPoint to allow a random name to be picked from a class list, which led to…
  3. Random command word generator – pupils have to create a question with one of the exam question command words (e.g. describe, explain, calculate, etc), which led to…
  4. Random verb generator – created by a colleague, Cécile Coudert, in the Languages Department who customised it to test students on whether to use être or avoir. In fact anything could be plugged into it and a couple of people told me they did similar activities with their classes.
  5. Revision bookmarks – another colleague, Rob Tanner, has created bookmarks with a proposed revision schedule for students to use, as tweeted by Mumta Sharma on the day. The great thing about these are that they act as a constant reminder that pupils should be taking responsibility for their learning early in the school year (e.g. for GCSE groups the schedule starts in February). Again this idea was further improved by the suggestion that students could use a hole punch when they had covered an area or completed revising a topic.
  6. Six words – students use just six words to summarise a key word, term or process. E.g. in one class an AS student came up with “globular protein, specific complementary active site” to describe an enzyme. During the session I actually asked people to come up with their own to describe TLAB15, having had a little time to reflect on this task my best effort would be: whirlwind of enthusiasm and idea sharing.
  7. Three pictures – students summarise a key word, term or process in three pictures. On the day Andy Ford tweeted his own three pictures to sum up the day.
  8. Trips for further interest – my colleague, Tom Robinson, has started to organise and run voluntary stretch and challenge trips on the weekend for students to come along to if they wish. We have been to the London Natural History Museum and its offshoot in Tring and to Downe House in Kent. Although this does require the usual paperwork we have found them to be fun days that help to eke out the interest and passion from the Sixth Formers who come to them.
  9. The Jaffasaurus – Again something I have stolen from a colleague, Dave Payne, and I have written before about “the Jaffa Cake conundrum” and will only briefly outline it. By writing less, better students can ensure that even if their tired and overworked teacher / examiner marking their end-of-topic test /exam has run out of their favourite biscuits they will still be awarded a mark. This idea led onto…
  10. RTQRead The Q The aim is to eliminate irrelevant detail and ensure students actually address the question when writing an answer. Again leading to…
  11. ATQAnswer The Q Do students actually answer the question in front of them, or do they try to answer one that they have seen before? This “four percent” and number 12 were also discussed in my previously mentioned post. However, just before the day itself a brilliant former colleague, Lucy Smyth, told me she uses BUG with her classes to a similar effect:
    • Box the command word
    • Underline the key words
    • Glance at the marking allocation
  12. Teacher Tips For Success – pinned up on our Biology notice board and at various points around the department are laminated posters with each teacher’s top tips for exam success. The three subtitles are:
    • Best piece of revision advice
    • Most common mistakes seen in exam papers
    • If I could give one piece of advice to someone taking an exam it would be

All of these have the purpose of making students look back and review past mistakes and (hopefully) change their practice in future.

  1. Observation (of the Nation) – as HoD I have always enjoyed carrying out lesson observations; not for the form filling in, but for picking up new ideas and activities to use. Therefore the fifteenth four percent was a hearty recommendation to go out and observe colleagues departmentally and beyond. In fact instead of a flashy INSET course in some soulless hotel function room I believe people would gain much, much more from going to another school for the day. Not only observing lessons but soaking in the whole culture of the place. Interestingly both the eighth and ninth “four percent” were picked up from just this process; my colleague, Tom Robinson, spent a day at Westminster School and came back brimming with enthusiasm and a Six Words, Three Pictures worksheet.
  2. Lesson Study – this is a natural continuation of point 15 and something we are just setting up at the moment, forming triads of colleagues working together to plan and deliver lessons. There is lots of information all over the internet about this ancient Japanese teacher improvement process. We are lucky enough to be working with the University of Hertfordshire to set ours up. What I am particularly interested in is how to make it sustainable and more than a flash in the pan… Any thoughts are most welcome!
  3. The Triptych Learning Conversation – a new (and still currently being refined) model of observing lessons. The emphasis is on having a proper conversation between the observer and observee both pre and post observation. This is again taken straight from the brain of someone much cleverer than myself and on Saturday it was a real pleasure to meet Dawn Cox whose excellent blog post inspired me to start designing a document to improve the whole experience of observations. More on this from me in the future.
  4. Subject selfies – to some the selfie is the very embodiment of vulgar egotism. However, many departments can use them as a way of promoting discussion of their subject and for this reason I think that they can be a great way of engaging students outside of the classroom. As much as the selfies of teachers by an ancient monument or overlooking the crater of a volcano makes for a great departmental display, it is when the students themselves engage with the process that the idea really takes off. A colleague in the Geography department, Laura Andrews, has made a super display of “geo-selfies” with contributions from both the staff and students; there are selfies from the peak of Kilimanjaro to overlooking Sugarloaf Mountain.
  5. Learning audits – this is as much about terminology as it is good practice. Any form of work check or book scrutiny should be used as a means of sharing good practice as much as it is about accountability. The fact that terms such as “book look” or “learning audit” get this point across a lot better than the alternative nomenclature is no surprise!
  6. Further reading – encouraging students to read beyond the specification, with a recommended book of the term, e.g. Life Ascending by Nick Lane (as an aside this is a fantastic accompaniment to A level Biology, I cannot recommend it highly enough!). What I forgot to mention on the day is that we now try to source these recommended titles from our pupils, so posters go up in classrooms with the phrase “recommended by Stew Dent, U6RJL”. This point was followed by the need to read beyond the subject ourselves as educators and to take an interest in books to improve our teaching. As one delegate pointed out this does not necessarily need to be in book form anymore and TED talks are an excellent source of innovation.
  7. Twitter – voyeur is the wrong word, but I am certainly someone who likes to listen / read what is going on around the country and this is the place to do it! On occasion I tweet some inane opinions, but mainly this is for me to stay in touch with the great minds across the country.
  8. Blogging – similarly I stumble upon lots of excellent and highly sensible ideas via blog links on twitter. However, my main point here is that by writing a blog yourself it gives you a chance to properly reflect. Certainly writing this has made me think very carefully about what actually happened on Saturday and how I might improve on my presentation in the future. Therefore I would encourage others to blog to help distil and refine ideas and allow others to gain from the experience. In fact look no further than workshop attendee Paul Gillam’s excellent blog on Edexcel IGCSE Biology, perfect for high achieving students and teachers alike!
  9. Formal idea sharing sessions – immediately after TLAB13 I set up a formal cross-curricualr group that met to discuss ideas in my own school. It was not compulsory, no-one told others how to do things, instead it allowed for colleagues to sit down and actually chat. Something that we never quite seem to find the time to do.
  10. Collaboration – as mentioned, I can take very little credit for any of these ideas. But that is the point of teaching, we should not always be looking to reinvent the wheel but rather improve and refine what is around us. Our collaboration allows up to improve the one hundred one percents and we do this without consciously thinking about every time we help or pas son an activity. As the thirtieth POTUS said “I not only use the brains I have, I use all the brains I can borrow”.
  11. Failure –we are very keen to let all and sundry know how important it is for students to fail (again a previous post makes this point even more explicitly), but as teachers we should not be ashamed of failure either. Beautifully this point was made by Neil Atkin in his superb workshop earlier in the day.

As a final note, I would be very happy to share any of my resources or the presentation itself. Just contact me and we can be part of the collaboration I was just typing about. Or even better please, please, please let me know how you use and improve these ideas. I am serious when I say I am already looking for my next twenty five four percents.

Header image taken with permission from @TLABerkmasted.

The TLABoratory

Next Saturday sees Berkhamsted School hold its third Teaching, Learning and Assessment conference (TLAB15). I have been lucky enough to attend the two before and both times came away awash with ideas and, more importantly, renewed enthusiasm for my work. Each visit has benefitted me in numerous incalculable ways; from my classroom teaching to decisions made at a departmental and even whole-school level. With tickets now sold out and the event just eight days away I feel the familiar professional curiosity of what might unfold. Based on previous experience I am sure to be in for a real treat… In fact one of the main problems I have faced each time is whose workshop to attend. However, away from the key note speeches and conundrum of which workshops to go to, I am also looking forward to the chance of chatting with everyone there. Over the last year there have been so many tweets and blogs that have influenced my work that I cannot wait to actually speak with the people who have written them.

...and to think they said this design wooden work

…and to think they said this design wooden work (image taken with permission from Nick Dennis

Just like my dilemma of choosing a workshop to attend, there will be so many people there who share my interest and, dare I say it, passion for teaching and learning that there is no way I could speak to them all. To some extent this is what I would term the laboratory of collective enthusiasm and this is the real driving force of the teaching profession. The fact that people are prepared to give up a Saturday to further their own practice and feedback to their place of work. There are plenty of displays of this dedication across the country at various events. However, I single out TLAB as it just happens to be the one that properly sparked my interest in teaching and learning and therefore I owe it a great deal.

I remember being in the audience of the keynote speeches and participating in the workshops of TLAB13 and thinking: THIS. IS. INCREDIBLE. Swiftly following this day I asked to set up a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group (TLAG – imitation is the greatest form of flattery!) at my own school and started co-ordinating a cross-curricular ideas sharing forum. In many ways recreating the TLABoratory like conditions of endeavour, curiosity and openness. This group has been operating for the last two and a half years and is a fantastic conduit for creativity and collaboration. Yes, we do not set the world on fire with what we discuss, but the accumulation of small gains is very much what education is about.

This brings me nicely onto some shameless self-publicity *pretends to hang head in shame*. I have the very enjoyable task of actually delivering a workshop this time around. The concept of this workshop is to look at the small margins of improvement – refining what works well to make it even better. The session is brazenly called “The Twenty Five Four Percents” in homage to Sir Clive Woodward and his one hundred one percents. I hope to share twenty five ideas that might enhance learning and teaching in the classroom and beyond, one hundred would have been pushing it in the 50 minutes provided! Please be forewarned, I will not be delivering earthshattering advice and no doubt a lot of what I say people do already, but most likely twice as well. In fact I fully admit that most of the ideas have roots (pun intended bearing in mind the conference logo) elsewhere. However, having the chance for some open discussion and ideas sharing is all part of the laboratory that is teaching and if I can give something, anything, back then it will be my honour to do so.

And at this point I must return to my slideshow… I have a presentation to plan!

Header image taken with permission from Berkamsted School website.

(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.

(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.