Category Archives: Learning

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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Filed under consequences, Education, evaluation, Explore, Learners, Learning, monitoring, Passion, Potential, Practitioners, Primary, Professional Development, Quality Learning, Reflective Learning, Risk, Secondary, Standardised Testing, Values

‘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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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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Let them be heard: Voice of the Children

A 9 year old child writing an ‘open’ letter on behalf of the class after a prolonged period of standardised testing in New York State. They want their voices heard and have asked if we can help them to do this.

This is not ‘our’ blog, so we shall write no more. This blog post belongs to the voice of this child and their class. 

Voice of the Child

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“It’s about time you did some work…!”

For years I listened to my dad jokingly say,

“It’s about time you did some real work! You teachers get it too easy!”

He said it with a twinkle in his eye and a genuine background respect for how hard I worked as a teacher. Yet how many have heard this said by friends, family, acquaintances, politicians, general public, and the media…without the knowledge and understanding about what really happens during a working day in a school; what happens during the evenings; what happens on the majority of weekends and what happens during school holidays?

At this point I feel I need to say that I am aware that, like in any other profession, there are different types of workers. Those that over-commit, those that work hard, those that just do what is needed, those that will do the bare minimum and, lets face it, those that just don’t care. Of course we have education professionals that will fit into each of these categories. That is reality. Just as it is a reality in any other line of work.

However, as the end of the Spring Term neared, I began reading more and more articles about school holidays…the length of school holidays…whether they were justified…whether teachers had it easy…whether it had a negative impact on standards…whether they should be shortened…etc etc.

Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a perspective. Education is a public commodity. If you have been to school as a child and young person, you will have an opinion about school based on your own experiences. If you have a child in school, you will understandably have an opinion about their education and your own ability to attend work. If you are a politician, you are certainly going to have opinions and policies which may be based on your own experience, or on what will get your party into power and or perhaps even on genuine research into proven theory and innovative practice. (I will leave any further political thoughts here). If you work in the media, then the very concept of education and the fact that the majority of the general public have an opinion, will obviously make it something of a focal point.

It prompted me into action. So what were the teachers and educators going to be doing with their holiday? What do they have to say? Hence the creation of our last blog: A ‘snapshot’ survey.

Thank you to all who took part. We had responses from Primary/Elementary teachers, Secondary/High School teachers, School Admin/Business, Advisors/Trainers/Consultants within a geographical area that spanned the UK and the USA.

The question asked:

School Holidays: What are your plans?

A very quick set of multiple choice answers followed…with the option to add more of your own.

The results.

No, it was not the most complicated of surveys. No, it wouldn’t stand up against the big research studies. It wasn’t intended to do that. It was intended to give people we know personally and people who follow us at singlestepslearning, an opportunity to voice their opinion, whilst at the same time giving us a simple set of results, something concrete to analyse.  

Having worked for 16 years in education, I wasn’t that surprised by the results. I am aware of the hours that many teachers put into planning, preparation, assessment and paperwork. I’m also aware of the amount of personal money, time and energy many teachers put in to purchase or make resources. I could continue the list…the amount of time and energy given in worry and concern about the emotional and physical safety of certain pupils when they leave the school building; the fact that teaching a class(es) of 30 all day, every day, involves so many high level emotional interactions. The average teacher must be able to multi-task, must be multi-skilled and must be ready to act with flexibility to any unknown, unforeseen circumstance that may veer you completely off any kind of pre-planned format or content of a session. The energy needed to sustain this level of interaction, to enthuse young children and people, to inspire, to encourage, to treat each as an individual, yet build a cohesive community, to help every learner explore their potential, ask big questions, develop as citizens….well, I’m exhausted just thinking about this. Unless you have worked in a school, unless you have experienced this, it is something that you cannot fully comprehend. Working with young children, young adults is a privilege. It brings moments of sheer pleasure. Yet it is exhausting if you fully commit to it…and there are NEVER enough hours in a school day to do everything required. Never. Hence the result that 44% of respondents would spend holiday time involved in a work related activity.

Add to the mix that there is a growing trend of ‘publicly judging’ teachers by a set of cold standardized results, I’m not surprised that many in teaching are beginning to question their choice of career. And these are teachers who are exceptional. Are we really going to demonise the teaching profession so much that we drive out those that do the best job?

The voice of one teacher who responded…

“I have followed the recent discussions in the media about changing the academic year. I entirely agree that the summer holidays are too long and children forget things. To be honest, I do too! However, as a teacher I find the half terms and holidays invaluable for both catching up and preparation for the next term. They are also a great opportunity to reset my work-life balance, as I generally have too much to do during the evenings and weekends to make time for socialising. On another note I also recall Michael Gove suggesting that the school days should be longer. Clearly he doesn’t see the 16 hour days many of us put in. I’m pretty sure the overtime during term time more than covers our holidays.”

And my final thought…

…learning experiences can happen anywhere, with anyone. Schools provide one venue for learning. Time away from school can also provide rich opportunities for learning. It just comes down to what you as an individual, and what we, as a society, decide to value. But that is another story…another blog…

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Filed under Education, Learning, Practitioners, Primary, Secondary, Single Steps Learning, Teaching, Values

Good Afternoon (Two Days in Stirling Part Four)

Single Steps Learning's Stirling Adventure

Re-caffeinated, and accompanied by the sound of screeching of brakes, we arrive at Riverside Nursery. It’s great to see Jackie Elliot and Lorna McAllister again (we are late but they are smiling!). We are excited to be here. We have already seen the ‘Documentation’ (annotated and pictorial record of learning) and we have been invited to observe the children collaborating in order to solve a problem. 

They receive a phone call from ‘The Zoo’. One of the animals has escaped! Can they help return the animal (represented by a soft toy), negotiating a series of obstacles…and without direct ‘hand’ contact. 

There is an assortment of resources that the children could use. They are immediately engaged by the scenario and ideas are flowing freely. Resources are chosen and one group settles on using some ‘tools’ to lift the animal into a carrier bag. Using a combination of readily available classroom materials, the children successfully cross a ‘river’ and a ‘swamp’. There is much celebration followed by a ‘debrief’ in which the children reflect on how they solved the problem and interacted with each other. 

Debrief with nursery children sounds a bit ominous and formal but it is a brief reflection and exploration of their learning. Unfortunately, we have seen, in a discussion forum of a national publication, disparaging and mocking comments about asking Early Years children to reflect on their learning. But isn’t this what ‘good’ parents do naturally – question, discuss, show interest and value the thoughts of their offspring? So why would we do anything less? The perception that the educator’s role is to fill empty heads with important stuff is still one of the biggest barriers to effective learning – but not in Riverside Nursery!

The careful questioning we observed, guided the children’s thinking and enabled them to ‘crystallise’ their experience into something tangible. There will, of course, be different learning outcomes for different children – some will be able to articulate reasoning, some may only be able to recall events and feelings and yes, some may not be ready to engage fully. However, taking part in the ‘ritual’ of valuing experiences has to begin somewhere – do we wait until children formally understand all the concepts of a birthday celebration before we allow them to take part in the ‘rituals’? No, we don’t.

We then have our own ‘debrief’ with Jackie and Lorna, who are modelling high quality learning themselves, using collaborative tools and strategies to develop reflective practice within their setting. Thank you both!

We leave the nursery building at a respectful walking pace, run to the car, then back to Bannockburn and Park Drive Nursery. The ‘Drive’ was easy…the ‘Park’ was more difficult. We arrive just as children are being collected…not a parking space to be seen…

Eventually, we meet with Jackie Dupont, discard our coats and bags and have a tour of the setting. We are delighted to meet Sharron McIntosh again and see how she has been visibly recording the children’s ideas for developing their learning. There are some wonderful questions about animals – ‘Can a giraffe fit in a house?’, ‘Why does the farmer put ‘jobbies’ on the field?’

We are thankful for some refreshments and settle down for a chat with Jackie, Sharron and Head of Nursery, Joan Gillanders. Our informal chat turns into an exciting and productive brainstorming/planning session. The minutes fly by and it is time to leave. Thanks to you all for the invitation and the welcome.

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Filed under Designing for Learning, Early Years, Education, Effective Questioning, Embedded CPD, Experiential Learning, Learners, Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Quality Learning, Reflective Learning, Single Steps Learning

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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Filed under Community Learning, Education, Experiential Learning, Explore, Learning, Passion, Practitioners, Problem-Based Learning, Quality Learning, Reflective Learning, Single Steps Learning, Values

Google: Getting Welsh Business Online

On opening an email from the Welsh Government last week, we noticed an invite to the Google Launch Event: Getting Welsh Business Online. Not being ones to miss out on an opportunity, we immediately signed up!

Tuesday 7th March arrived. At some point, we did wonder what the event would entail? How should we dress? Who would be there? What was the purpose? How would it be organised?

As we walked towards the Coal Exchange, Cardiff Bay, we smiled at the ‘Gingham Bunting’ and the signs pointing us in the right direction. Our first clue that the launch was going to be a bigger event than we first anticipated!

Conference badges in alphabetical order gave another clue. Followed by complimentary bottles of ‘juice’ – refreshing,  surprisingly tasty and supplied by Lovely Drinks of North SomersetRow upon row of seats in the main arena – each with a Google ‘goodie’ bag. Twitter users immediately began the ‘goodie’ bag banter. Why were some red and some blue? Did they contain different items? Some excitedly mentioned the free information books…others the sweets…and one ‘loving the lip balm’!

Google 'Goodie' Bags

A general buzz of excitement could be felt in the room. 

As the event was about to kick off, someone sitting directly behind us whispered,

“If I can learn one new thing, it will be worth it…”

And then Sian Lloyd, who was hosting the event, took to the stage… “Noswaith dda a croeso…”. 

It really wasn’t until this point that we understood what this was all about. Google had chosen Wales to launch their new ‘Getting British Business Online’ initiative. Along with the Welsh Assembly and Partners, Google will offer a programme of support to boost the online digital presence of Welsh business. 

Edwina Hartand Sian Lloyd

Edwina Hart, Business and Enterprise Minister, spoke about the digital skills needed for tomorrow’s market, the target to ensure faster broadband access across Wales by 2015, recognition of problem-solving skills and preparing young people for work in a technological age. 

Dan Cobley, MD, Google UK and Ireland, arrived on stage amidst polite applause. He expressed his delight at being in Cardiff and delivering the keynote speech.

  “We live in exponential times.”

Dan Cobley highlighted success stories in Welsh business and then attempted to engage the audience by testing their knowledge of Welsh success in history. A mixed response at this point. The audience yet to warm up and participate. Only a few responded. (Although alternative reasoning could point to the fact that  the audience lacked ‘general Welsh knowledge’!).

Dan Cobley, MD, Google UK and Ireland

“Let’s pick a word like sex…”

The demonstration of ‘Google Insights for Search‘ began with an initial intake of breath and a few nervous glances as Dan Cobley uttered the phrase, “Let’s pick a word like sex…”

He went on to show the ‘search trend’ for ‘sex’ on a global basis over the past 5-10 years. Audience participation then surged as he asked the question, “So, what if we put chocolate in as a term? Would chocolate be higher or lower than sex in Wales?”

Immediate laughter and the word ‘chocolate’ reverberated around the venue – although mainly from female voices noted Dan Cobley!

The audience finally warmed to Dan Cobley at the mention of ‘Rugby’ – especially when he commented that the Google Insights trend for the UK maybe suggested why Wales did so well in the Six Nations. 

“Chocolate…higher or lower than sex in Wales?”

On a more serious note, Dan Cobley spoke about the need to understand data and the link between understanding what the market ‘search terms’ really were so that these can be utilised within your own websites to optimise the performance and presence of your business.

This sparked an interest in us – what would the search trend for ‘education’ look like in the last 10 years?

Search Term: Education in Wales

Surprised?

I’m not sure if we were surprised, shocked, saddened or just resigned to reality. It is something we will definitely think about from multiple perspectives. 

Returning to Dan Cobley and the ‘facts’ he presented:

  • Businesses which embrace the digital online economy experience 4-8 times faster growth. These SMEs bring in custom from around the world and export their products globally – and they can do it without the support of big I.T. departments.

  • Everyone today is a broadcaster – 60 hours of YouTube footage is uploaded every minute.

  • Everyone is connected – 845 million people on facebook, 91% of 16-24 yr olds are active on social media.

  • Half of all new internet connections are now from mobile devices. In 2011 the sale of smartphones overtook the sale of PCs.

  • Make your website ‘mobile friendly’ – 79% of people use a smartphone during shopping.

  • ‘Mobile’ optimisation is a game changer for local businesses. 81% use a smartphone to look for local information, 31% make a purchase after looking.

  • 25% of all search queries come from mobile devices.

  • Take the first step and create an online presence…or improve what you already have

  • Become ‘greater with data’ – use tools like ‘Google Insights for Search

  • ‘Digital Basics’ – use images, tell people why you are different, use endorsements from clients, use a map plugin to publicise your location.

  • Make your business have a ‘multi-channel and multi-media’ presence

  • ‘Leap and learn’ – engage in the process. Try something out, analyse it, refine it.

Getting Welsh Business Online

 Local Salon Owner

Guy Christian, a local salon owner, joined Dan Cobley on stage to explain how an online presence has contributed to the success of his business. It was great to hear someone talk realistically about their experience – both the pitfalls and the success. Recognising the need to take a risk and learn from mistakes. 70% of new clients to the salon now come via the internet and they market their business exclusively online.

“Business only survived because of our web presence”

Sian Lloyd returned to the stage to bring the formal part of the event to a close. The reading aloud of ‘tweets’ was met with laughter – particularly the mention of Dan Cobley’s great hair and inspiring speech. The ‘roving microphone’ began moving around the audience – question time with Dan Cobley and Robert Lloyd Griffiths (Institute of Directors).

And the final surprise… 

As the informal networking began, delicious canapes were distributed by friendly staff. The bar opened…and, much to my surprise, I was given a complimentary glass of sauvignon blanc! How civilised. Maybe my surprise is due to a career in education – the only complimentary thing you are likely to receive is a pencil (and that’s if you are lucky!). 🙂 

Coal Exchange, Cardiff Bay

So – it was ‘goodbye’ to the Coal Exchange. A great evening. A great event.

And ‘hello’ to Google Juice Bar. But that’s another story…

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Filed under Business, Learning, Networking, Potential, Professional Development, Single Steps Learning, Teaching, Technology