Category Archives: Reflective Learning

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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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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‘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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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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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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To learn or not to learn…

…that was the question this week.

We had decided for a variety of reasons that it was time to move our blog posts to a different platform. After much debating and seeking of advice, we opted for WordPress

And then came the bigger decision. How would we go about this? We had stumbled upon some commercial tools that would provide a smooth, relatively easy and supposedly quick transition from iWeb to WordPress. But they came at a cost. 

Tempting.

Especially with time being a commodity.

Yet something stopped us. I’m not actually sure whether it was concern over wasted cash…pride…a deep sense of principles…or a thirst to learn new skills and explore new territory. 

So we set aside time. A day to play and investigate. Make mistakes. Squeal with delight when something worked – often accompanied by a quick clap of hands and some hopping – and then a deep sense of satisfaction. 

This day was invaluable. We didn’t aim to be perfect and get it right first time. We knew we would make mistakes, but we also knew we had allowed time to learn from these mistakes, refine our skills and knowledge… and try again! 

The transfer of 16 months of blogging took place over the following 2 days…along with the discovery of adding more pages to WordPress and connecting it directly to our main website. It is now 16:39 on a friday afternoon…and there is a sense of achievement. A sense of having felt motivated and engaged. A sense of persevering. And a sense of knowing that this specific learning journey has only just begun.

On reflection…

The kind of experience we just went through resulted in deep learning and a retention of new skills, understanding and knowledge. It required us to apply certain attitudes in order to persevere and find a solution. 

We could have opted for someone else to do this for us – in a ‘quick fix’ kind of way. We could have handed over our blogs to the experts…or downloaded a package that said do this, do that, click this…done. 

And now I find myself connecting this to teaching and education. And the curriculum. As a teacher, how many times did I ‘spoon-feed’ my learners or offer them the ‘quick fix’? And how many learners actually just wanted the ‘quick fix’ and the ‘spoon-feeding’? In my early years as a teacher, I think I was guilty of doing this quite often…but with the best intentions. It seemed manageable. It actually resulted in something I could control – which felt safe and the right thing to do. And it meant I had correct answers and almost perfect products, workbooks etc to show on parent’s evening or during inspections. Gold star. And I covered the curriculum and could tick all the boxes.

And then the paradigm shift. 

Teaching should not be solely about me feeling good about being able to impart my knowledge, control the input and output, and have perfect things to show parents/inspectors. 

I wasn’t all bad, I have to admit. I did care about the learners. I loved the time we spent together…no matter how challenging some of the behaviour could be…

About 8 years ago, I began to transform my thinking, my practice and the way I organised learning experiences in the classroom. I was not perfect. I am still not perfect. I stopped just ‘covering the curriculum’ and began to organise deeper learning experiences for the class. Real experiences where children were engaged in finding and solving problems collaboratively. We were all co-learners and we made sure we had time to make mistakes, reflect on our learning and refine our products and processes. And we had fun. We enjoyed  both the perseverance, the success and the sense of community. 

We live in a fast-changing world. Education systems are also changing at an alarming rate. Sometimes for the good. Sometimes not. There seems to be a bizarre mixture of  messages – a global curriculum overhaul to prepare students for an unknown future within a time of technological growth, which encourages teachers to’take a risk’ and organise learning in new and exciting ways…yet it is coupled with the ‘fear factor’ of  ‘do not get it wrong…we are watching and measuring you and we will publicly name and shame.’

I have no problem with accountability. I do have a problem with a lack of ‘indivisibility of principles’. We are all learners – whether we are 3 years old, 15 years old, 38 years old, 79 years old. A teacher is a learner. A learner is a teacher. Effective learning principles apply at all ages. 

This week we experienced deep learning. We made time for this to happen within our own busy ‘curriculum’. We do what we do in Single Steps Learning because we passionately believe in exploring the potential of all learners and finding creative, effective ways of unlocking this. And we recognise ourselves as learners too. 

So…a couple of clicks and the first Single Steps Learning blog via ‘WordPress’ goes public. Our learning journey continues…



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Sign Language

During our recent travels, I have noticed that the large, black, motorway information boards appear to display messages in a ‘tone’ which is specific to the area of Great Britain in which we are travelling.

Scottish signs ask searching questions: ‘Have you checked your tyre pressures?’ ‘Do your child seats meet safety standards?’ 

English signs tend to be factual and informative ‘No fuel at next services’ ‘J18 – J20 Congestion.’ ‘J4a…20 min’

Welsh signs. Hmmm. The nicest way I can put this (and I speak as someone who was born in and continues to live in the ‘Principality’) – Welsh signs tend to state the obvious (in two languages) and are no help whatsoever. For instance, as you push through a bank of fog, the sign emerges with its illuminated letters spelling the words ‘Beware Fog’. Or, during torrential rain you will be informed ‘Surface Water On Road’ – to which my immediate response is usually the worst kind of sarcasm. 

On Saturday, after driving 380 miles through snow, slush, sleet and flood – I paid my £6 Wales entrance fee, at the Severn Crossing toll-booth, and continued West along the M4. It was dark, raining, the air temperature outside was 1 degree Celsius.  The first sign displayed the message – ‘Bad Driving Conditions’. I could feel the Basil Fawlty in me beginning to awaken…

So, as practitioners, who are trying to guide and empower learners, the language we use is very important. Do we ask genuinely effective questions in which the learner becomes an active participant in their own learning? Do we only inform, making the learner a passive recipient? Or, do we frustrate the learner by telling them something which they already understand and is no help whatsoever?

At this point, I wish to make it very clear that I am in no way inferring that the motorway signs are representative of a ‘national teaching style’. 

However, we only have one motorway in Wales – the Welsh bit of the M4. So c’mon boys! Get some ‘tidy’ messages up there…or are you just ‘’avin a larff,like’!

PS Finally…my favourite. 

Twilight…the M4…England, between Swindon and Reading. The message reads…‘SIGN NOT IN USE’. Oh, the delicious irony.

PPS Would have been even better if it had read ‘Do not read this sign’.


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