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Die Hard…Or Not At All

Die Hard…Or Not At All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Only Real Failure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only real failure is a failure to try

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

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

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

** Thanks to Zach Bullock for the quote. 

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

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‘Village’ People…

(…or Consciously Creating Community)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Worth fighting for…

As the second half of the spring term starts, we feel it is appropriate to reblog this post. Many teachers have spoken to us about it and how it resonates with them.

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Samwise Gamgee: Darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo Baggins: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Samwise Gamgee: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.’

 

An emotionally charged exchange between Frodo and Sam in ‘Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers’. Don’t try to find it in the book. The scene was specifically written for the movie. However, it struck a particular chord with me as I watched it…

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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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Worth fighting for…

Samwise Gamgee: Darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo Baggins: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Samwise Gamgee: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.’

 

An emotionally charged exchange between Frodo and Sam in ‘Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers’. Don’t try to find it in the book. The scene was specifically written for the movie. However, it struck a particular chord with me as I watched it (again) during the holidays. (Purists, please keep reading!)

 

I feel ground down.’ is a phrase that we heard too often, from friends and colleagues before the holidays began. Not just because of the normal hurly-burly of the season but because of the imposition of policies and practices which are not congruent with the values of so many educators.

 

Many, whose passion is to inspire and empower learners on their journey, feel that the opportunities they provide are being systematically eroded or at worst demonised. Under pressure/threat to produce results, some schools are slipping back into a ‘factory’ mentality; desperately looking for foolproof, quick-fix ‘machines’ (schemes, initiatives) that will churn out shiny ‘products’.

 

And sadly, our ‘products’ are still going to be judged on how shiny they are…not whether they work or have the ability to adapt and grow.

 

I like systems. I like systems that do the job for which they were designed. I can genuinely admire the systems used by ‘fast food’ chains to improve efficiency and output. However, I strongly question the nutritional value of their products, their contribution to obesity and the subsequent strain on the health service.

 

So, herein lies the incongruence for many educators. Educators who value fairness (in all its interpretations), emotional intelligence, compassion, interdependence etc. being coerced (often by coerced leaders) to implement systems which do not promote these values and then being monitored on how effectively and efficiently they are doing it. I detect the hand of Sauron…

 

However, ‘The darkness must pass. A new day will come.’ I don’t know when but I do know that it is worth fighting for. That’s why Lynne and myself will continue to do what we do, for as long as we can. And, if you are in a place that is ‘grinding you down’ through coercion, then the fight is to hold onto what you believe in,

even if you can’t express it…yet.

 


 

A Happy and Hopeful New Year to You All.

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Stirling…

The OK Diner is NOT in Stirling! It is in on the outskirts of Leominster. However, it did furnish us with a cup of coffee and a cinnamon and raisin bagel on our way to Scotland.

Thanks to all the ‘DfL’ Step One participants this week who engaged so fully. You are a credit to your profession and to learning. It’s real commitment to give up your Saturday!

Thanks to Lynda for organising our Stirling events. 

Also huge thanks to Claire for keeping us fed and giving us beds; Katie-Morag for guarding and entertaining us; and Masterchef Alison for her Orkney culinary delights. Hmm…this is beginning to sound like an Oscar speech…

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