Tag Archives: teaching

The Only Real Failure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only real failure is a failure to try

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

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

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

** Thanks to Zach Bullock for the quote. 

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

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‘Village’ People…

(…or Consciously Creating Community)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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All hours, all weathers.

UK roadworks sign. In other European countries...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Back to school…

Glanffrwd Infants School, Ynysybwl

A trip back to Glanffrwd Infants is always good for the soul! The Nursery/Reception class I had are now in Yr1/2 and most of them are experiencing visits from the tooth fairy!  

“Where are you on your journey now?” said one of my boys! Another just wanted to report that he thought his mother was in love with a man in a hat (it turned out to be Matt Cardle!). 

I love the fact they keep my coffee cup under lock and key for when I return!!!

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