Die Hard…Or Not At All

Die Hard…Or Not At All

We have both lived in our small home town for 12  years. There is one route through the centre. After the first 3 years, the local council changed the road markings at a junction. You no longer had to make a right turn in order to exit the town, you just had to continue. You still drove on exactly the same roads but there was no longer a need to signal.

However, despite the fact that this change was made 9 years ago, both of us automatically signal a right turn as we approach the former junction...unless we make a conscious effort not to do so. We are not the only ones. I frequently follow drivers who signal needlessly at this junction and a knowing smile of empathy appears on my face. Old habits die hard…or, in this case, not at all.

The original pattern of neural pathways that must be triggered when approaching this junction seems deeply and irreversibly ingrained.  The flow of neural information needs to be consciously re-routed each time. This got me thinking about pedagogy, (sad but true), particularly ‘effective questioning’. Read on…

Image 1 - Version 2There is a place for ‘lower-order’ recall questions but I have been in many classrooms and settings where they are the only type of question posed to learners. Sometimes, it is just a straightforward ‘Who was Henry VIII’s second wife?’.

Sometimes, it’s the ‘finish my sentence’ variety, ‘…and the day after Tuesday is…is….hands up…anyone?’’

Then there is the ‘guess what’s in my head’ question – a recall disguised as a higher-order question – ‘How can we use Pythagoras’s Theorem in real life?…C’mon…you should know the answer…I told you last week!

Encouraging learners to engage in higher-order thinking, beyond recall, requires ‘thoughtful’ questioning from the practitioner. Of course, many of you reading this may have attended courses on ‘Effective Questioning’, ‘Higher-Order Thinking Skills’, ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ and ‘Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy’! You may have walked away with handouts of ‘levels’, ‘question starters’, etc. etc. You may even have walked away with inspiration and good intentions!

Despite the best efforts of your course presenter/trainer, it is unlikely that you walked away with a new, deeply-ingrained pattern of neural connections – unless, of course, your trainer was Derren Brown! Your automatic, habitual style of questioning is probably deeply and irreversibly(?) engrained. Effective questioning, one of the pillars of formative assessment, may not come naturally to you. Eek! What to do?

Speaking personally, I was educated and ‘trained’ in the traditional recall style. This was the pattern that I heard from my teachers and to which I responded. It is no effort for me to emulate them and think of recall questions. However, when I started to think about how I could engage my learners with ‘better’ questions, I found myself quite challenged. It was not as easy as simply following a ‘starter’ pattern listed on a handout. But, like most skills, the more I practised and experimented with formulating ‘thinking’ questions, the more comfortable I became with the process…and the results.

However, I can still slip into the habit of closed answer or recall questions, especially in a potentially stressful situation. The old neural patterns kick in and I have to consciously over-ride them.

Many moons ago, after attending a ‘thinking skills’ course, I scoffed at the idea of preparing questions in advance of a lesson, believing that any educator worth their salt would be able to create questions as needed. Since then, I’ve reassessed that view. I have always invested time and effort into preparing physical resources. Effective questions are a powerful resource. It seems strange to me now that I baulked at the idea of preparing questions to deeply engage learners with their learning. I can forgive myself because it was not part of my original training as an educator and thankfully, experience has been a wise and challenging mentor.

The good news is that by putting in the effort to design effective questions we are engaging and exercising our own grey matter in higher-order thinking activities…and I like it when educators actually model the skills they want to develop in their learners, instead of blindly following a commercially produced script. They call it integrity…I think. :-)

OK. So, old habits die hard (…or not at all) because we may be up against forces at a molecular biology level – myelination and the like! That is forgivable. Knowlingly condemning learners to day after day of ‘Guess what’s in my head?’ is not. I echo this sentiment for every aspect of education where educators resist developing their own pedagogy because they believe they are ‘too set in their ways’. If we are are in the business of learning we need to be model learners…and sometimes we need to unlearn…and sometimes that can be tough…but in the words of John McLane “Yippee-ki-yay [ inset plural noun of your choice ]..!

For those of you who like/need to know this stuff…

*The image used  is a portion Sylvester (The 7th Doctor) McCoy’s costume from The ‘Dr Who Experience’, Cardiff.

** ‘Yippee-ki-yay + expletive’ is the character John McLane’s catchphrase, in the ‘Die Hard’ movies…when he leaps into action and violently destroys the bad guys/gals.

 

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The Only Real Failure…

Needing some relaxation after an intense but rewarding day, I  began to watch a film called “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’.* I didn’t know anything about it apart from the names of the actors in the impressive cast list. This is not going to be a review or even a summary of the plot. However, I am going to use some dialogue from the screenplay as a theme for this blog. 

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Near the end of the film, there is a voice-over, in which Judi Dench (…sorry, Dame Judi Dench OBE, CH etc. etc.) speaks the following lines…

The only real failure is the failure to try…and the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment…as we always must.”

As an educator and a learner, this struck a chord with me. So much so, that I ‘rewound’ to hear that phrase twice more before I let the film continue.

Without risk, there would be no failure. Without failure, there would be no learning opportunity. Perhaps we can see the destination and are unsure of how to get there. Or, perhaps we are exploring without any idea of our destination, creeping forward or leaping into the unknown. Either way, it involves a degree of uncertainty and risk. 

Fear of failure…or more specifically, the fear of the consequences of failure is a huge barrier to learning for learners of any age. If we do not have the ability to cope with failure, then success will constantly be elusive.

How we feel about the consequences of failure is an indicator of the culture to which we belong – family, school, community, society, tribe, nation etc. We may receive many mixed messages about risk and failure. For some it is a natural part of life, for others it is associated with shame, guilt, rejection and humiliation.

I wonder how many young learners witness the abuse heaped upon a losing side by sports ‘fans’, as if it is the worst thing that could possibly happen. They may be present when the mistakes of individuals are focussed upon and spoken about repeatedly, and their sporting hero’s best efforts are derided without mercy. They may be inducted into a tribal mentality, where the passionate hatred of other humans who wear different colour sportswear is their dogma and creed. I wonder how many learners exist in cultures where the worst thing you could be is slightly different to a perceived norm – ethnically, physically, sexually, or spiritually. You are labelled a ‘loser’ because of height, hair colour, disability, etc. Good luck to the educator who then encourages children to embrace errors as learning opportunities!! (Seriously…good luck…and don’t give up!)

For some learners, failing to try is not the worst thing you can do but a guarantee that the ‘worst’ will not happen – ‘If I don’t try, I can’t get it wrong’. For some it is better to endure anger than humiliation; better to remain in control and deal with certainty than the uncertainty of a less than perfect outcome.

Most of the time, ‘getting it wrong’ is not a matter of life or death. (Sometimes it is – such as the occasion I tried to fit a new light switch without turning off the mains electricity!). Failure to succeed in the education system can result in limited life choices and opportunities for many school leavers. However, we can be made to feel that any perceived failure is hugely important. In education, that feeling can be transferred through a whole system from national government to learner. (We are not ‘winning’ in the PISA league…! Panic! Fear! Anxiety! Blame! More Panic! Knee-jerk reaction! More blame!) 

Of course, the failure to provide effective education has potentially devastating consequences for individuals and society. That is undeniable. And, to quote a friend of ours:

 ‘Public education is the imperfect solution to the perfect problem.’**

There has to be accountability and systems to monitor quality of provision. However, what if the monitoring system itself adversely affects quality because of the climate of threat and fear it creates? Whether that fear is justified or not,  is the system able to detect its own influence and respond appropriately? Or, do we have to wait until a complete system failure? 

The only real failure is a failure to try

If any system of monitoring quality and school inspection is not at least trying to monitor its own impact – then it has already failed. Perhaps those with the power to change and improve these systems*** cannot cope with the disappointment of its failure (even if it is only partial failure) and therefore cannot admit it, perhaps for reasons of professional or political pride. When those who design and operate (enforce?) internal or external quality assurance systems are prepared to genuinely request, receive and act upon feedback concerning their effectiveness, we will indeed be making progress in education. 

Raise standards. Embrace errors.  Revive Learning. Encourage risk . Remove fear. Empower learners. 

*‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ is a screenplay adapted from the book ‘These Foolish Things’ by Deborah Moggach.

** Thanks to Zach Bullock for the quote. 

***Systems should be used for their purpose, not a as social engineering tools for whichever government (local or national) holds the balance of political power.

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‘Village’ People…

(…or Consciously Creating Community)

ny2 007

I grew up in a city in the 1960s. A network of terraced houses built in the 1800s to accommodate the local docks’ workers. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins lived a few streets or a short bus ride away. Front doors were frequently left unlocked. There was a butcher’s at the end of the street, a bakery on the corner of the next. My great aunt and uncle owned the local grocery (one of the few family members who were self-employed). We had a Post Office, a pharmacy (‘chemist’s’), a fish’n’chip shop, a cafe, a newsagent’s, a sweet shop and one of those small shops that defies categorisation, selling an odd assortment of bric-a-brac, toys, ironmongery, and textiles. If it had been 19th century USA it would probably have been labelled the ‘General Store’. There was even a small ‘dairy’ – no cows, just a distribution point for the local milkman to collect full milk bottles and deposit the ‘empties’.  All this within five minutes walk of my house. It was a ‘village’ within a city. Half a mile away there was another ‘village’ replicating the variety of shops.

As a toddler, shopping with my mother or grandmother could be interminable. Progress from shop to shop could be slow, as neighbours, acquaintances, and family members randomly met and exchanged news and gossip. Shopping for a neighbour or family member was not unusual. If it rained while you were out shopping, a neighbour would take your washing off the line and put it inside your back door.

Many of my grandparents’ generation lacked formal education, having left school at 14 in order to assist or solely support their families. They valued education and its potential rewards, encouraging their children to aspire to careers beyond the skilled or unskilled manual labour of the docks.

Consequently, family members of my parents’ generation gained a few academic or specialised qualifications. Changing their ‘collar’ colour from blue to white. With greater earning capacity and a wider choice of job opportunities, they left the ‘village’ and began to populate suburbia or more distant population centres. Some emigrated to new continents.

The family homes which had seemed like a busy network of bee-hives, with their constant to-ing and fro-ing between them, became quiet except for ‘celebration’ days or holidays. The telephone became the substitute for face-to-face interaction.

I am a child of the ‘diaspora’. My first cousins are scattered around the globe. The nearest member of my family lives 25 miles away.

The ‘village’ had its negatives as well as its positives. Those that didn’t conform could be shunned, bullied and belittled. They were not necessarily undermining the community, they were often expressing their individuality. You could be gossiped about for wearing clothes that were ‘too loud’ or having ‘ideas above your station’. For some, leaving the ‘village’ was  a liberating experience, essential for their personal growth and well-being. Be assured, I am not idealising. The ‘village’ had its fair share of ‘ne’er-do-wells’, rogues and a criminal element. In addition, maintaining a degree of privacy could be viewed as suspiciously secretive or exclusive.

What’s my point? Where am I going with this?

OK. In the ‘village’, the process of building and maintaining community required a minimum of effort. You could avoid it if you really tried but otherwise it just ‘happened’. The historical/geographical context governed the degree of interaction. Families and neighbours facing similar ‘struggles’ could and would empathise with each other. They would offer support, share resources and seek solutions. If you destroyed trust, the repercussions could last a lifetime (or two)!

In the strive for individualism and independence, have we lost that real sense of interdependence and kinship? How much would you really sacrifice for a suburban neighbour or co-worker who may be there one moment and gone the next? As we have become more ‘mobile’, both work and personal relationships may have a greater sense of ‘impermanence’. Also, if someone destroys trust, they may not have to live with the consequences for too long.

Building classroom communities requires deliberate and sustained effort. The values, attitudes, skills and knowledge to build a healthy community have to be internalised by learners who may not have had the experience of growing up in a ‘village’. The ethos and climate of classrooms cannot be solely dependent on the charisma, mood swings or dictats of the teacher/educator. At the other extreme, empowering learners does not mean allowing ‘jungle law’ to develop.

In a world seemingly driven by mobility and material acquisition, there is an even greater need to acquire ‘values’ which value people and embrace diversity; which value skills needed to develop emotional intelligence and collaboration;  and values which build and maintain community.

While I abhor the abuse of social network media, from a personal point of view, the recent advances in this type of technology has enabled my family ‘diaspora’ to begin a process of reconnection and the rekindling of a sense of kinship. A virtual ‘village’.

We are social animals. We are interdependent. And, while we pursue political or educational policies which promote hierarchy and the selfish individualism of a dog-eat-dog society, we merely serve to widen divisions and ignore our collective responsibility for the well-being of all.

Getting the balance right means that we not only provide opportunity for and tolerance of a diversity of individual aspirations and beliefs but also a sense of responsibility for and contribution to the community, which is dynamic and ever-changing. This is real lifelong learning. And, when individuals feel secure and valued, they develop greater motivation and confidence to take risks and explore their potential.

 

For more thoughts on building and maintaining community see  our previous post ‘All hours, all weathers.’

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Single Steps Learning:

Please read this blog by Robert Smith – Ed. Psych, Teacher, Author and keen observer of the human species. I defy you not to laugh…!

Originally posted on Stuff from my brain:

One early autumn, I found myself at a school in rural Norfolk, watching a lesson on two-dimensional shapes. The teacher was giving key facts about particular shapes and the pupils had to work out what the shape was. She started easy with square, circle, triangle but eventually found her way to the kite, the mathematical name for a four-sided shape which has two pairs of equal, adjacent sides (yes, it looks like a kite!).

Teacher: OK, I’m thinking of a shape. It has four sides. Anyone want to guess?
Pupil: Is it a square?
Teacher: No, but good guess because a square does have four sides. Anyone else?
Pupil: Rectangle?
Teacher: No… let me tell you something else about it: it has two pairs of equal length sides.
Pupil: It could be a rectangle, Miss!
Teacher: Yes, it could be, but it could be other things too…
Pupil: I think…

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All hours, all weathers.

UK roadworks sign. In other European countries...

M4 motorway. 8.30 p.m. Somewhere between Bristol and the Severn Crossing. We have been driving on motorways for three-and-a-half hours. There is another warning sign to reduce speed to 50 mph. Another long stretch of road works. There are average speed cameras looming at intervals. I am moving at exactly 50 mph and have another vehicle ‘tail-gating’ me, despite the fact that the passing lane is empty. 

Lynne commented, ‘They always seem to be working on this motorway. You never seem to be able to just drive it without road-works somewhere or other.’ That got me thinking…

The motorway is built to allow people to reach destinations as swiftly and safely as possible. However, it is subject to constant wear and tear from vehicles and the environment. 

It is alarming how quickly roads can become damaged. One short period of snow and ice can cause a rash of potholes to appear, which, left unchecked, become larger, causing accidents and/or vehicle damage. Underground watercourses can cause subsidence and the seasonal variation in temperature attacks the integrity of the road surface. Even roads built to the highest standards are subject to environmental attack. And the safety of the most well-constructed road is ultimately compromised by the individual or collective behaviour of its users.

The motorway regulations of the Highway Code are there for a purpose – safety. There are those motorists who flagrantly disregard them. You see them travelling at high speed, weaving in and out, ignoring lane priority, tail-gating, intimidating with total disregard for the safety of other road users or their own personal safety. Then there are those of us who, perhaps, just push the boundaries if we think there is a need…and we can get away with it…and then there are middle-lane drivers…don’t get me started!

Yes, road-works can be frustrating, especially when it is unexpected and a delay could have undesirable consequences. Yet without this vigilance and maintenance, the consequences could be fatal. So I had a paradigm shift as I was motoring at a constant 50 mph. ‘Hard hats’ off to the road workers, who are out at all hours in all weather.

A community ethos is a bit like that motorway. It is a ‘living’ thing, constantly changing as it interacts with its environment. You build it for a purpose, to carry your learners safely, swiftly, and as directly as possible, to their destinations. 

Learning communities will never be perfect. The ethos and infrastructure will always be and under attack from all sorts of environmental factors. That is nature’s way. And, no matter how comprehensive our class rules, charters and contracts may be, they are only as effective as the the ‘users’ decide they will be. There are those who will flout, those that will push, those that will comply and those who will be inflexible, unaware or unable to use appropriate judgement (middle-lane drivers…aaargh!).

To maintain a viable ethos in the learning community, we need to be attentive and proactive. Planning for ‘routine maintenance’ ‘seasonal repairs’ and dealing with the potholes as they occur, not waiting until the ‘accident rate’ triggers a response, by which time significant and possibly irreparable damage has been done.  Community building is not something that you do as a ‘one off’ at the beginning of an academic year. It requires constant vigilance and maintenance – reflection and discussion…and…it is the responsibility of all members. Sometimes, you need to be responsive and maintain or repair community when it is not convenient to do so. ‘All hours’ and ‘all weathers’. 

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A Different Permission…tread softly.

In the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of entering the magical worlds of several 3-5 year old children. Some within an Early Years Foundation Stage setting in Greater London, England and others within a Foundation Phase Nursery/Reception classroom in the South Wales Valleys. 

Yes, I was invited by schools to join their EY environments…but truly entering the world of a 3 or 4 year old requires a different permission – the permission of that unique child.

Anyone who has spent time with young children will know how carefully they judge you and your intentions. Those eyes that silently glance for seconds at a time or those hands that thrust something in front of you and watch your reaction. And for every child there is a different point at which they decide to let you enter their universe. It could take moments, it could take months, it could take years. But only they can decide you are trustworthy and let you enter into their magical world. 

There are so many theories about Early Years Education, so much research, so many recognised practices and documents. All of which are helpful in terms of gaining knowledge and information. But when faced with that young learner, it is the quality of the interaction that takes precedence. The quality of those moments shared. These young children are busy making sense of their surroundings. They are busy constructing their immediate world. And, as educators, we attempt to enter these worlds and become co-creators and guides. Yet it is how we enter and how we aim to interact that can determine whether we co-construct or unintentionally destroy that magical world. 

Educational change is occurring everywhere. Advice is everywhere on how to provide enabling environments that allow the unique child to learn and develop. Yet the pressure is on to measure that development, to speed up the development, to get those children to attain and reach the expected levels. And, measurement of how this is being done does not always take into account that children and educators are people, not just sets of numbers and data to be entered into a system. Maybe, because of the types of measuring tools we use,  it can’t be taken into account. Maybe the systems have no space for the ‘human’ element. But if this is so, at what point do we lose the very essence of who we are and who we are helping our young learners to become? How do we maintain the quality time needed to build relationships, create worlds and enjoy learning moments? 

This is not just a UK pre-occupation, it is happening in many places around the world. I have been alerted to one principal in the USA who decided to take action and write a letter to parents/carers in response to the increase of testing and assessment. 

If we, as educators, attempt to enter into a child’s world purely with a measuring tape and an assessment purpose, then we run the risk of ‘treading on those delicate worlds’. There is a growing concern. A fear that ‘targets and assessment’ are becoming the driving force. ‘Yes’ to accountability. ‘Yes’ to aiming for quality. But, not at the expense of losing our souls and destroying the natural wonder, curiosity and imagination of young learners. 

So, how do we continue to create opportunities for ‘quality moments’ with our young learners? How do we stand tall and hold onto our values…because actually, for many educators, there is fear involved and a feeling that they are being ‘railroaded’ into operating in a way that is incongruent with their passionately held beliefs about learning. Moreover, what will be the real cost? 

This post is for the many educators that we have spoken with in the last few months. Thank you for what you do, often in the face of adversity and the snapshot judgements of others who are operating with a different, often ‘political’,  agenda. 

Lets hope that education never loses the human touch in the name  of ‘systems’ and ‘politics’ and can find the balance needed to inspire individuals, to help them uncover their dreams and to explore their potential – whatever their age. 

‘I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’  

English: Footprints, Omagh An ecco footprint h...

William Butler Yeats

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‘Quality’ time…?

It has really hit home this weekend how important it is to stop, reflect, recharge the batteries and be kind to oneself. Even if it seems inwardly selfish. A sense of self-survival and self-nuturing is necessary. All too often we get caught up in life, in work, in school, in pressures…and all too often we forget to give ourselves the basics that will ensure we can keep aiming for quality.

Life has been busy for the last 3 months. Work has been busy. We haven’t forced blogs. We didn’t want to force ourselves into writing when we were tired. We didn’t want to ‘find something’ to write about – a ‘forced subject’. We didn’t want to take our focus away from the people we were working with to fit in time to ‘blog’. That would not have resonated with our souls.

We are currently doing lots of thinking about the world of ‘online’ connectivity. The potential 24/7. The potential of a tool for learning and connecting. The potential of it adding quality. The potential of it destroying quality. And striking that balance.

Quality is going to be the focus of the next few blogs. This blog begins with a recognition that we all need to give ourselves time to reflect and recharge our batteries in order to be able to aim for quality. We found a place to do that this weekend. And we valued it.

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The Appearance of Learning** (‘We must be seen to be doing…’)

Italiano: Maschere veneziane - Baùta

Italiano: Maschere veneziane – Baùta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have just returned from an inspiring two weeks in Stirling with two groups of dedicated practitioners. We have had a number of conversations which generated ideas for blog entries. However, the ‘appearance of learning’ became the ‘pebble in my shoe’ and now it’s time to get it out!

In teacher training college, I (Andrew) had an hour-long lecture on the display of learners’ work. I still remember the lecturer saying, ‘informative, interactive and, wherever possible, 3-dimensional’. We were informed of the pros and cons of ‘double-mounting’ and why staples were preferable to drawing pins as fixings. We were never informed of the truth about classroom display…and the politics involved.

There should have been a practical workshop on ‘Backing Paper’ – how to put it on display boards without tearing, creasing or ‘bubbling’ it…and how to get it perfectly horizontal! Oh, the trials that face the newly-qualified teacher! (Also, where do all the blue ‘Bordette’ rolls disappear the day after they arrive in the stock room…when they subsequently never appear on anyone’s walls?) There should be a module on writing loan agreements for staple guns.

For me, classroom display is a multi-purpose tool to celebrate, inform, inspire, involve, engage. However, it should always have the learner as the focus not the teacher (or the headteacher!). It is not the same as decorating your living room!

 Classroom display should not be ‘wall-paper’. One purpose is the celebration of learners’ effort and achievement. However, achievement should not be equated with ‘perfection’. It is a snapshot of their learning at a point in time. 

 The reason for this blog arose from a discussion where some practitioners mentioned that school policy dictated that only ‘perfect’ work could be displayed in their schools. Written work could not be displayed which had spelling mistakes, poor grammar or sub-standard handwriting. Graphic work would not be displayed unless it conformed to a ‘model’ demonstrated by the teacher – so was often ‘improved’ by adults (without the learners giving consent or being present). These are displays of work which have the ‘appearance of learning’. 

 Believe me, I do understand where this motivation is coming from. Schools which are aiming for excellence believe that displaying only ‘excellent’ products will create an aspirational culture. I think there is definitely room for celebrating high quality work but not at the expense of the truth. Shouldn’t we be honest about variation and engage the learners in a dialogue about the progressive nature of quality? Encourage aspiration by all means but engage learners in an honest way of achieving their goals. Otherwise, isn’t this the same mentality as ‘We are judged by our grade results. Therefore we only examine learners who achieve high results. We are judged to be a high performing school…by appearance.’

 A concerned practitioner expressed how her display of students’ work did not look perfect but was accompanied by students’ annotations which indicated that they were aware of what they had achieved but were also aware of what their next steps would be. For me, this is a ‘display of real learning’. It shows students engagement and makes the learning ‘visible’. It is not merely the ‘appearance of learning’.

 Like most things in life, I think the answer is balance. Some schools will go to the extreme of having only student work on display. I think there is nothing wrong with having engaging and informative ‘commercial material’…as long as it is engaging and of interest to the learners! However, I have also seen the other extreme where a classroom was ‘plastered’ in commercial posters and pull-outs from teaching publications. Information overload…no student work. No celebration of learning.

 Once, I had the experience of an enthusiastic headteacher showing me a classroom as example of excellent display . Wow! It was colourful, informative and lots of 3-D creations. A few commercial posters, a bulletin-board, class rules. Signs with beautiful lettering which had been painstakingly cut out, double-mounted and laminated. There was NO student work. None. Later, I gently pointed this out to the headteacher. She had never noticed. It may have been a ‘beautiful’ environment for the students to exist in but there was no student ownership. No sense of ‘our’ classroom. It was very much the teacher’s classroom. This gave the ‘appearance of learning’ but in reality there was no evidence of it. Not a scrap – except that the teacher had learned some interior design tricks. Another extreme.

 Balance. Teachers are part of the class learning community. Why shouldn’t they have some of their ‘work’ on show if it enhances learning and the learning environment? Or, like many teachers, be a co-creator of a display of learning.

 When I was 11 years old, my teacher ‘gifted’ us a display board. We populated it with our artwork, origami models, magazine clippings. She taught us how to mount work and design labels. We shared things that we valued and never abused the opportunity. She must have been way ahead of her time. 

 I have never witnessed this as a negative extreme. However, I imagine a classroom where learners select all the display but there is never teacher engagement about quality would be as bereft of ‘visible’ learning as a ‘perfection only’ classroom. 

 Balance. If space allows…why not have displays created solely by learners; displays of learning co-created with teachers; samples of high quality product to inspire and samples of ‘visible’ learning showing progression; and also some information from the world outside. Inspire, inform, engage, involve, celebrate.

 Finally, one of my most hated phrases is ‘we must be seen to be doing’ – usually before some type of school inspection. Huge amounts of time and energy wasted on creating the appearance of something happening, which in day-to-day reality is not. Time and energy that could be spent on managing change positively rather than resisting it (…but appearing not to). I am not saying that all change is good but it is inevitable. We need to be responsive as opposed to reactive. I believe changes should be challenged and honest debates held – especially where changes are imposed to score political advantage points.

 However, that will not happen while inspection systems create a climate of fear and make snapshot judgements based on the ‘appearance of learning’. Results can be achieved without ‘real’ learning taking place. ‘Appearance of learning’ culture is transmitted through current hierarchies. Ultimately, we all lose out and our education system continues to be incongruent with the values most of us espouse. Or, do we just have the ‘appearance’ of an education system?

 

**Thanks to Eddie Schulberg for the phrase ‘appearance of learning’. 

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Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook – A Taste of Professional Development

The ‘lone’ chef!

Starters

I like to cook. Simple dishes or complex menus, I enjoy the preparation, the cooking and the presentation. However, I like to cook alone. I don’t like someone else being in the kitchen, especially if they are trying to engage me in unrelated conversation. It spoils my personal enjoyment of the act of cooking. 

(Or looking at it from a consumer’s point of view…you begin eating a favourite dessert…someone engages you in conversation…suddenly, you’ve finished…but you didn’t savour a single mouthful because your attention was elsewhere…and there’s no more! 

I know at this point some ‘food fans’ will need to recover. Take your time, take your time…)

Main Menu

Good cooking is about paying attention and being aware of what is happening to the individual elements within the meal. It is about skilfully using tools and utensils for their intended purposes but also exploring new uses. And, yes, I like cooking because it allows for creativity. Experience and experimentation. 

Cooking is not just about following a recipe. For a long time I could never understand when people would say, ‘I can’t cook. I follow the recipe to the letter but it’s always a disaster.’ I couldn’t understand this until I watched a friend of mine ‘performing’ in her kitchen. 

Many years ago, just at the beginning of my teaching career, I received a dinner invitation. I arrived on time but cooking had not commenced so I was led into the kitchen where I offered some assistance. My friend put some oil in a saucepan and turned the gas on a high flame. However, the pan was then left as she began to prepare the ingredients. I anxiously watched as the oil began to ‘smoke’ and then I had to intervene with a warning. My friend laughed and with good humour, said ‘I’m always doing that. The smoke alarm lets everyone know that dinner will be ready in 20 minutes.’ Hearty guffaw from her, nervous laughter from me!

For my friend, cooking was a necessary evil. She didn’t enjoy it and was resigned to the fact that she would never improve. There was also an attitude that cooking was about doing ‘stuff’ to food using unfriendly technology…and somehow the food always fought back and the technology would always sabotage your best intentions!

(OK educators, I guess you can see where this going but bear with me.)

Perfecting the pastry.

For me, cooking is an art and a science. Last Christmas, I discovered the science behind the need to keep ingredients cold whilst making pastry for mince pies. (Honestly, I was fascinated.) The texture of my pastry has become more consistent because I have a better understanding of what is going on in the mixture. 

Cooking can also be a kind of meditation. Engagement and attention. Three saucepans, a frying pan and an oven. All with different timings. That requires attention. It requires engagement of all the senses. It requires the right intervention at the right time – small adjustments of heat, timely stirring, tasting, add more of this and a little of that. It also means frequently dealing with the unexpected…hmm…I don’t think there are supposed to be lumps in this…! You need to be focused and responsive. 

To really enjoy cooking requires a willingness to learn. To learn new preparation skills and techniques; to learn about new ingredients; to learn about the theory or ‘chemistry’ of cooking; to learn to wield new tools and utensils; to develop resilience following the inevitable disappointments. 

And, as we all know, not only does learning require reflection but also an attitude of self-efficacy. 

Waiting…managing time…

It seems incongruous that my friend, who was also a teacher, was resigned to her status as a ‘bad cook’. There was an acceptance that small fires and smoke alarms were the norm. I haven’t seen that particular friend for many years and we didn’t teach in the same school. But as I was musing about how I might develop this blog, I wondered if she applied the same resignation to her classroom. Had metaphorical ‘small fires and smoke alarms’ become the norm? 

This is not a blog ‘knocking’ teachers. It is about how attitude and self-perception are key ingredients in professional development. Please read on…

My own kitchen disasters happen when my attention is pulled away from what I’m doing. A thirty second lapse, as I answer the phone, can be all it takes. Something gets burnt, boils over or I miss an important step in the process.

How many well-prepared, well-intentioned, highly-skilled practitioners have their attention pulled away by unnecessary interruptions. A thirty-second lapse is all it takes. Someone gets ‘burnt’, something ‘boils’ over or you miss an important step in a process. 

Hmm. I can hear some murmurings, some whispers…‘Aren’t you about collaboration? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical saying that you want to work alone?’

Collaboration isn’t about doing everything together all the time. Collaboration means that we work together to solve problems that are difficult or impossible to solve by ourselves. We use our individual and collective skills when it is appropriate. Collaboration could occur at various stages of problem-solving. It could mean collaborating at the point of generating ideas and then implementing agreed solutions individually. Or, it could be a collective task of implementing one person’s idea which they could not achieve alone – architects, generally, do not physically build the house they have designed.

With reference to my own cooking. I don’t need another person – I’m usually cooking for no more than three. This is not challenging. I can manage it alone – if I’m not interrupted! However, if I was cooking for a large number, then I’m going to need some help. As a collaborative entity we would need a whole different set of skills and attitudes, from how we would organise ourselves to how we would communicate without going into Gordon Ramsay parlance! We would have different roles, and we would have to be aware of the dynamics between us. Collaboration does not mean that we chop the same onion at the same time…otherwise the likelihood is we will both be shedding a few tears…not because of the onion but because we could be shedding some fingers! Collaboration means that we may be engaged in different tasks, which require different expertise but contribute to a towards a single outcome. (To witness entertaining (but not perfect) kitchen collaboration see ‘Cake Boss’! Leadership or Facilitation? Discuss.) 

A watchful eye…

In a successful collaborative classroom, learners develop the skills to organise and communicate effectively, managing their own learning and also behaviours. This means that if the practitioner is distracted by external forces…

(Knock. Knock. ‘Excuse me, Mrs Can’t-Wait-Till-Break-Time wants to know what YOU have done with the school’s ONLY stapler. SHE said YOU had it last!!!’), 

…then, instead of the ‘pots and pans’ boiling over, they would self-regulate for a while.

Desserts

Some thoughts. Whether you are cooking or teaching, attitude is everything. The desire to learn, to go beyond what you already know, the belief that there is more to explore and you are capable of effecting change. The anticipatory excitement before trying something new and the wisdom to see setbacks as a natural and essential part of the learning process. 

Staying safe, with your limited but tried and trusted repertoire (whether you are a fast food or a top-end restaurant) may please a certain target clientele, make life easier and massage your ego. However, in terms of education it does not model the learning process and certainly does not value the variety of learners and their needs.

Engagement and attention are key dispositions. Do you listen and observe carefully and intervene at the right time? Do you follow ‘recipes’ to the letter or do you respond to what is happening in front of you? How do you ensure that you and your learners are not distracted unnecessarily? Is this an issue in your setting that needs to be addressed by everyone? (Keep a tally of the number of interruptions – you may be surprised.)

Collaboration. If you have too many ‘pots’ to watch, how do you effectively engage the skills of others (classroom assistants and the learners themselves) in moving towards developing a self-regulating collaborative learning community? What tools and strategies do you use which specifically promote and enable learning about collaboration?

And, if you work with someone who burns toast at least 30% of the time, don’t try peer assessment, effective questioning or mentoring…especially while they are holding the bread knife! ;o)

 

Teas/Coffees/Night-cap

The skill or myth of multi-tasking. Cooking is a multi-tasking activity. It requires shifting focus between different elements whilst having an awareness of what is going on elsewhere. If that is something you genuinely find difficult because you are not wired that way, that’s OK. If you like to focus on the start and completion of a task before moving on to something new, that’s OK. It is OK but cooking is probably not for you…microwave ready-meals don’t count! 

When some people talk about multi-tasking they boast of how many things they can do, which is fine, but does quality suffer? Do they merely practice crisis management? I think that the skill of multi-tasking lies in understanding WHEN to switch focus between activities that compete for your attention and also understanding the economy of action that needs to be taken. This is the skill of an outstanding practitioner in the kitchen or the classroom. 

The finished mince pies…

 

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Standardized Testing — The Brutal Search for Factual Data

George Bernard Shaw once said: “Live in contact with dreams and you will get something of their charm: live in contact with facts and you get something of their brutality”. When it comes to the current preoccupation with standardized testing in the United States (and, more particularly, in New York State), my fear is that we are replacing dreams and compassion and thoughtful analysis with a quick but brutal search for data and statistics. And it is wrong to do this. We ought not to acquiesce to that which diminishes the quality of life for our children, our teachers, our schools and our communities.

via Standardized Testing — The Brutal Search for Factual Data.

We recently published a blog about a child’s response to the standardised testing regime that they had been subjected to over the past few weeks. Testing that teachers may not necessarily agree with, but are forced to administer and then (in some places) publicly named and shamed in the media – and we are not talking about the ‘banding’ or listing of schools based on their performance (which happens in the UK), we are talking about the names of individual teachers. This is happening in parts of the US. How long before this trend spreads?  

The above blog by gilboafox caught our interest. It is well worth a read. 

This sentence in particular resonated with us.

“We ought not to acquiesce to that which diminishes the quality of life for our children, our teachers, our schools and our communities.”

We have just completed a 3 day event in Stirling, Scotland. Assessment within ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ was a major theme – something that everyone is working towards. Assessment that encourages learners (of all ages), helps them to progress and involves them from start to finish. Assessment that does not just reduce the learners (of all ages) to a number, a piece of data that can be used by politicians to justify their existence and policies. Every practitioner this week talked about learning and learners with passion, respect, understanding and accountability. If only ‘those in charge’ talked about the teaching profession (who are also learners in their own right)  in the same way and applied an ‘indivisibility of principles’ approach.  All too often teachers are used as scapegoats…and forced into situations that are incongruent with their principles and values.  

If ‘health and well-being’ is high on the agenda, how do we as a profession help to create an assessment system that is not soul-destroying…a system that involves the learner (of all ages) at the centre of the process…a system that is accountable to the learner and not just the politician? Do we, as members of the education profession, have the confidence to stand up, stand tall and be heard? Do we have the confidence to question?

“To question is to grow” (Great line in ‘Proud’, M People)

Now is the time to question more loudly than before. Now is the time to grow. 


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Filed under Community Learning, Designing for Learning, Early Years, Education, Learners, Practitioners, Primary, Quality Learning, Secondary, Single Steps Learning, Standardised Testing, Teaching, Values