Category Archives: Explore

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)

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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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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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Better Latte Than Never

So, we left Killin, according to schedule (Honestly..we did!). The A85 is picturesque, single-lane road but also a main artery through the Highlands. Just outside Killin, a set of temporary traffic lights had appeared (which wasn’t there at 8.15 a.m.) and a work crew were resurfacing the road. We joined the queue which is headed by a large articulated lorry. I know, you can already see where this is going…not very far/not very fast!

Unfortunately, we didn’t get over 30 mph for the next 30 miles. At the roundabout on the outskirts of Stirling, the lorry took the exit for the motorway – we cheered. We took the exit for Stirling…and end up behind a JCB digger moving at 15 mph. At this point we both went a bit Victor Meldrew (‘I don’t believe it!). We are obliged to follow the JCB, through Stirling, until we are almost at our destination.

We arrived at Viewforth Offices and found a parking space right outside the main doors (hooray!). We were 10 minutes late for our appointment with Early Years Curriculum Development Officer Mary Pat McConnell. We were acutely aware that Mary Pat had already relinquished a good portion of our planned meeting time so that we could squeeze in another school visit.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.** Reception cannot locate Mary Pat. We had a momentary panic that we were in the wrong meeting venue. Not so (Phew!) Eventually, Mary Pat appeared and we exchanged apologies for lateness. She, like us, had been unavoidably delayed and not in a position to send or receive messages on her mobile phone.

We headed off to the canteen. Where we had a very focused and productive 20 minute meeting (brainstorm – distil – decide – design) fuelled by an extra shot in the Starbucks latte (Thanks Mary Pat!) and we were off to our next port of call!

Better Latte Than Never

The learning journey. We had a plan, we had a schedule, we had means of communication. However, real life happened. Plans had to change, we had to adapt. At times, despite our frustration, there was nothing we could do. Our speed was being dictated by outside forces. There were points on the journey that we could have ‘escaped’ the lorry but this would have still lengthened our journey or we could have become completely lost. There are times when that would be OK, or even fun, but not on this occasion!

Despite a practitioner’s best effort, thorough planning, passion and enthusiasm, there are so many external forces that can impact on learners and learning. This is not about finding excuses, it is about recognising and acknowledging that learning is a messy business. And unless we recognise, acknowledge and deal with ‘real life’ forces, no amount of imposed ‘structure’ and standardised testing is going to affect significant positive change in a learning culture.

And finally, there are often unexpected bonuses when plans go awry. In this case, if all had gone according to plan, we might never have met the lovely Linda Stevenson, whom we had only spoken to on the phone.

**Does this make sense in an age of digital timepieces?

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GoodbiWeb

Here we are in the Apple store, Cardiff…wondering who is going to host our website after the demise of MobileMe in July 2012. We are furrowing our brows as we hear that iWeb is going to be discontinued. We have invested a lot of time into getting the site ‘just how we like it’ and Lynne has developed new ‘designer skills’. Time to take a few more steps…

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‘Designing for Learning’ in action…

Last October we began work with inspirational practitioners in Dorset. Gary Spracklen is one of those practitioners and has sent us a video clip of learners from Prince of Wales First School, engaging collaboratively in order to solve a seasonal problem.

Please watch and enjoy! Then take a moment to reflect on the skills, attitudes and knowledge needed to complete this task successfully, from all learners involved  – children and adults!

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf?file=http://vid1239.photobucket.com/albums/ff513/Nelkcarps/SingleStepsLearning.mp4

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Festive Reflections from Cardiff…

Single Steps Learning had their ‘work party’ in Cardiff this year. The city was lit up brightly, last minute shoppers were dashing around and excited children were dragging adults to Winter Wonderland!

We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been involved with Single Steps Learning during the last year – children, practitioners, schools, authorities, businesses, friends and family . We wish you all the best for this festive period. May you have many happy moments to remember whether you are celebrating or relaxing during the holidays.

Lynne and Andrew

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TEDx London: The Education Revolution 2011

Tomorrow, we will be leaving early to attend the TEDx London event. It has been organised in response to Sir Ken Robinson’s talk – ‘Bring on the Learning Revolution’ (see clip below from 2010). The whole day will be full of inspirational speakers and attendees talking about turning ideas into action.

We will be posting regular live updates on Twitter…

…and we have created a special TEDx page on our website to host our thoughts and live twitter feed.

http://www.tedxlondon.com/first

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Celebration…

Today we are celebrating a successful year of ‘Single Steps Learning’. A journey of a thousand miles really did begin with a single step…and another…and another!

We look forward to many more!!

Thank you to all our friends, family and everyone we have met and learned alongside during the past year.

Andrew and Lynne

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