Saturday, 22 June 2013

What's wrong with education policy debate

I am not prone to ranting. People who know me will tell you I'm neither confrontational nor particularly hard-line. I like to compromise, and find common ground. So this blog may seem out of the blue, and will eventually turn extremely controversial. You read on at your own risk.

I have several problems with current educational policy, but before you start accusing me of party politics, I would say that the political interference in education by Left or Right is equally bad, and that we ought to aspire to educational aims which are based on future-proof principles, and not constantly vacillating back and forth at the whim of the latest cabinet minister who wants to "make his mark" and stake his claim as the next Prime Minister. Seriously, is that a good basis upon which to decide the future of hundreds and thousands of children?

Current education policy does, however, seem to me to take the biscuit. It often seems formulated on the basis of very little evidence, which is in turn often flawed (remember the farcical uncovering of the "poor historical knowledge of modern youth" which was based on surveys for Premier Inn and the Sea Cadets?). Nevertheless, if a conclusion can be turned into a mantra and repeated frequently enough, and exaggerated further by the press who are looking to arrest their declining relevance in society (i.e. sales), it becomes the truth, does it not? This, in my opinion, is no way to conduct a debate about the nation's education.

To illustrate my point, let's turn the tables a little... What if we as teachers behaved in the same way as the education debate is being conducted?

What if we... told our students just to make one point in an essay, repeat the same point ad nauseam, and put it in capitals to make it more convincing and OBVIOUSLY true?
Copyright: Jim
No, we tell them to evidence everything: Point, evidence, evaluate. We tell them to look for potential counter-arguments so they can see both sides, and then to evaluate for themselves what they think the answer might be. Memorisation of facts is not nearly as powerful as the ability to analyse those facts, take them apart, and find out the truth. Unfortunately, in the current climate, the truth, and the evidence which might prove it, and the nuances of the debates, are all simply collateral damage in the quest to gain political capital. What grab the headlines are not the measured nuanced debates of professionals, but the daily kickings from the Secretary of State and Michael Wilshaw which appeal to the confirmation bias of the 40 plus generation who read these things and nod sagely about how much better it was in their day (Was it really, by the way?).

What if we... started telling the whole class off when the naughty child at the back starts making too much noise? And then went out into the playground and started telling every who will listen that everyone was just as bad as that naughty child? Which of us has not been told that this is the first thing you never do in teaching? And yet the journalistic tendencies of making sweeping generalisations from those at the top is remarkable. I'd contend it's not appropriate for education, though. And one of the ways in which citizens would know that is if they had been trained in media criticism, such as is the case in Media Studies, and taught not to accept things at face value. Oh, but it's one of the subjects Michael Gove wants rid of. I wonder why? The journalist is someone who knows a lot of things superficially, and then claims the mantle of the expert. But the very nature of journalism is that it flies from one subject to the next so quickly that 1) it does not develop true expertise, and 2) it looks at things from the skewed perspective of what will sell/scare/interest/amaze the reader rather than reveal what is necessarily true. And these are just the good journalists. As we all know, there are plenty more in the industry who are hacks who will be far less thorough in researching a story, and simply find a couple of provocatively different views from which to formulate a story, and then let rhetoric do the rest. Did you notice I did that myself at the start of the last sentence? Clever and subtle, isn't it? This is how Gove and Wilshaw are winning the battle of the media day by day, and unless teachers fight fire with fire, and can convince the news media that there is a genuinely interesting story to be had in the misuse of statistics and in the manipulation of data for political and commercial ends within education, then we may well be doomed to lose the debate.

Clearly education must be failing: It says so in the papers. Despite the fact that OFSTED's latest data  on inspections puts around 70% of schools as Good or Outstanding (not all under the new framework, to be fair). We have a major problem in education: Again it says so in the papers. Every day. Last week we were (collectively, all of us, remember?) responsible for failing pupil premium students, the higher achieving students. Oh, and we were responsible for the rise of the EDL. The problem has been identified, and repeated again and again, so it must be the problem to focus upon. Privatisation of education has been identified as a key solution, as well as making everything harder. That will automatically tell us how to do our jobs better.

Let's look at this situation in a little more detail. A perceived problem has been identified, repeated forcefully and often: People who disagree have been demonised (anyone else an "enemy of promise"?), and we have been told that these enemies threaten our very future. This sounds almost exactly like the way newspapers create a moral panic, and for exactly the same reason, to inspire the feeling of trust in a protector who is looking out for us. You can see where any sense of nuanced debate is being lost here. As for the solutions, clearly privatised schools would not fail: Private companies never fail. And harder exams will obviously inevitably lead to better outcomes, despite the fact that teachers are not being told how to get their students to achieve these higher levels of attainment.
Indeed, if you think about it, how can we possibly get future students to be cleverer when half the profession are a product of the declining educational standards of the last twenty years?

What if we... scared the hell out of our students about their future, and then told them to do everything we say and that will get them home safe and sound? Like sheep.

So here's the controversial bit. Having worked incredibly hard for years to raise my own game as well as that of my students, the last year has coincidentally seen me think seriously about quitting this great profession several times. The egotist in me asks why on earth I should let politicians force me out of a profession I love and am, as an outstanding teacher apparently, quite good at. But then I started thinking of the other people who've probably had similar thoughts.

What if we, as a profession, quit en masse?

Not going on strike. That makes us easy targets to demonise. Governments are great at getting the public to turn against anyone who inconveniences them. But actually quit. Said "We are not prepared to participate in an education system which we believe damages the future of your children, and decreases the life chances of a significant number of them. Find someone else to teach what you want taught."

So far, I've had a variety of gut negative reactions to that suggestion, including my wife's. Gove isn't forcing me to quit a profession I love, goes the line. Except you love the ideal of the profession, not, very often, its actual current substance. We teach despite the fact that we don't like the direction. But then I would argue we are more or less complicit, or at the very least placing ourselves at the mercy of the whims of each Secretary of State. We have long talked about the depoliticisation of education, and even Mr Gove himself has alluded to this as a noble aim of his. But do any of us seriously believe he has that intention?

So I go back to my point. Quit. What would happen?

First, if Heads and teachers quit together, we could not be blamed for holding the nation to ransom. The Secretary of State can simply replace us. In a year, when new teachers have been trained. Oh, and since most PGCE courses have been replaced by in-school training, who is going to do that training? And who's going to do the appointing? I seem to remember the Khmer Rouge getting rid of all Cambodian teachers because they were bourgeois professionals who undermined the Marxist revolution. The effect was catastrophic. Parents are not going to like the fact that their children have nowhere to go. But we aren't withholding our labour: We quit. Perhaps parents after the initial anger directed towards those who have inconvenienced them, would want to know why teachers would actually be prepared to leave their jobs because of the Secretary of State's policies? Maybe then we'd have slightly more informed debate on the subject, and the public would demand our reinstatement?

Maybe I'm an idealist.

But I'd rather be an idealist than a collaborator who fears there is no other option. There always is. And the vast majority of answers I've had about this, while intelligently rationalised, have always been reactions of personal fear.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

10 Ways to use a Youtube channel in education

Youtube: The ultimate distraction (apart from Twitter, but that's for grown-ups, right?).

A marmite resource which teachers either love or hate. Personally, I love it. Marmite me up all day long, if you will. It provides a never-ending source of educational videos, inspiration, challenge, provocation and kittens launching themselves at erratic torch-beams wielded by sadistic owners waiting for their cat to splat into a wall and bag them £500 from "You've Been Framed". What's not to like?

Apart from the cats bit, that's why I started our own Finham Park Media Youtube channel. It's been building up gradually over the last few months, the longer I've been on my journey to explore how iPads and BYOD technologies can be used to enhance my own teaching and learning practice (previously blogged about here and here, so forgive me if I don't go over old ground). I've found it an invaluable companion to this journey, so I thought I would share the countless opportunities Youtube offers educationalists in this blog*. In the form of a list. So you can count them. Ahem...

1. The simplest way to use Youtube is as a place of stimulus and discussion for class topics. A video URL can easily be set as research, to provoke debate, to extend thinking for more able students or to help explain something more simply for those having trouble getting to grips with a new concept. Once the students watch the video you've shared, the comments section below allows for the debate to occur. If you "Favourite" the video, it will appear in your channel, and you can then direct students to your channel, and supervise and moderate what they're saying, especially if you have set this as a homework task.

2. I love using Youtube as a place for flipped learning videos too: I create a very simple video, say a tutorial on a concept I'm teaching, an app or piece of software I need students to be able to use, or instructions for hardware such as cameras, particularly useful for subjects like ICT, Media, Photography, DT, Music etc (example here). A Youtube channel allows you to curate all of your videos in one easily-accessed place for your students.
  1. Video tutorial
    I then set it as homework for students to watch and take notes on, so that they come to the lesson knowing how to do what I've been describing, or as a minimum, having questions they want clarifying. The ability to review the videos as often as they like allows the students not to feel they have to move at the same middle-ground pace as the rest of the class, and personalises the learning a little more. Allowing questions right from the start of the lesson also allows me to differentiate from the start, allowing those who know what they're doing to get right on, while I can spend time helping those who had questions. I should say at this point that I am aware there has been much criticism of the Khan Academy approach to flipped learning, about the boring videos and inaccuracies, 
    but these criticisms mostly miss the point, which is the principle that if you create a video of information you've already taught in class, it can not only be accessed any time to refresh the students' memories, but it can also be done slightly differently to differentiate, be that to stretch the most able, or to assist the less. The great thing about having these videos on your own channel is that you can arrange them into playlists on the same subjects, and have the playlist order follow the same logical order that students should tackle them in, gradually getting harder. the students are improving their skills with every video, but tackling each new topic at their own pace, once they fell they have mastered the preceding step.
3. I tend to use flipped video lessons in conjunction with Ted-Ed, a brilliant resource in itself which I've described elsewhere. It allows you to take any TED or Youtube video and create quizzes based on the videos which students can undertake as the test of how well they have done their homework, and be used as the basis for differentiation from the start of the class. The test immediately shows who has not done the homework, who has done it but needs more input, and who should be moved on straight away. The quizzes can be done different ways, in class, using different software, or even paper if you're into that sort of thing, but the TED-Ed quiz facility has a few nice features (such as hints about where in the video the answer lies if students struggle, and a self-marking facility) which add to the variety of your teaching.
4.  The same principle applies to teachers. I use my Youtube channel to help other teachers with app tutorials to help them work out how to make best use of certain apps to improve their teaching and learning. Again, all of these are arranged into playlists, by topic, to make them hopefully easier to find. I learnt a lot from other teachers who have put tutorials on Youtube (@eyebeams was one particular early inspiration), and a Youtube channel for me just felt like an easy way to share things I was showing teachers in my own school. 

5. However, new media technologies take us way beyond simply finding things other clever people have done, and this is where your own Youtube channel comes into its own. For a start, if your students create their own video work (on phones, iPads, at home, on PCs etc), it is the place to store it for later referral, for assessment (remember, you can comment on their work from there). The process of uploading is incredibly easy once you have the video file, or even more automatic from certain apps which are already linked to Youtube.

6. This also acts as a public showcase for your students' work, which is a huge incentive for them. You need their permission to share this work publicly (you can upload things to Youtube but keep them private, or stipulate that only people in your classes can see them), but if they and the people they filmed are happy with it, you can then open the channel up to more public eyes and exposure. This knowledge that anyone could come across their work can really sharpen their focus and inspire students to produce over and above their usual class efforts.

7. Not only that, but if your students are serious about their work, the channel acts as a networking opportunity for your students, to allow others to see what they have done, and allow them to talk about and discuss their work with industry professionals. It might even get them noticed by someone really important, but even if they're don't get signed for their first multi-million dollar film deal, the channel opens up the way for discussions with people who can help them to improve their practice. In one recent example, a friend of mine who works on video effects saw the work of a student and started a conversation with them about how they could get better, and different techniques they could use. hey presto, the student's next piece was even better. Feedback from an expert certainly carries more weight than mine does (apparently!).

8. The discussion and comments sections for videos also allow an opportunity for extended peer feedback: By sharing the links with other schools, you allow your students to put their work before a broader audience of their peers, and a broader range of criticism. This acts the same way as the way other colleagues share their class blogs between schools, and with the same positive effect in my experience.

9. Additionally, I think having your own channels allows you to share your students' work with other teaching professionals, providing an opportunity for moderation. Anyone who finds themselves in my position of working in a small department without a budget to send you to those costly moderation meetings will appreciate the ability to share your links with other professionals and get their opinion on the marks you're giving, or how the work could be improved, especially if you're feeling a bit too close to the work to be objective.

10. Finally, there is a great deal to be said for how far a Youtube channel gets you noticed as a school. Ours has attracted attention from all over the place, and when people from around the country discuss the work of Finham Park students, many of them have seen it on our Youtube channels, so our school's reputation is enhanced.

One final word on Youtube. Many schools block it, despite the fact that it is the most extensive resources of video material the world has ever seen. For me, that's all horribly wrong. The fact that students could access inappropriate material via Youtube is not a reason to ban it. After all, no school banned the Internet, despite the rumour that at one stage it consisted of 90% pornography (This may be apocryphal and impossible to prove, but you have to admit it's persuasive and emotive: Everything we need from a "Gove-fact"!) Essentially, it should not be for technicians or bureaucrats to decide what your students can and can't access. It should be for the teacher. If the teacher doesn't feel confident that students will stay on task and use learning-related sites they have stipulated, then they shouldn't take a risk in using it. On the other hand, if you feel you trust your students, or that you have the ability to manage behaviour (it is the behaviour which you are criticising after all, not the technology), then use it. As far as I am concerned, what students can access should be a matter of teaching and learning, not decided by technicians. They are there to serve the teaching and learning community after all, and that's a powerful argument to take to leadership teams to get them to unblock these sites.

*If you are about to skip the rest of this blog o the basis that Youtube is blocked in your school, I suggest starting at the LAST paragraph

Sunday, 2 June 2013

BYOD In Schools - Part 4: Student Engagement

This year has seen our school begin the process of implementing a Bring Your Own Device Strategy (BYOD) across the whole school, notionally led by me, which is somewhat worrying. Fortunately my erstwhile co-leader @Gripweed1 has made up for my many deficiencies in the process, and we enter the final half-term of the year, 6 months after starting, having successfully negotiated the first stage of the process. I've blogged about the different parts of Stage One before, but a quick recap may save you trawling through all that:

We started by mapping out the route we would take, looking into other schools which had gone down similar or alternative roads, and identifying areas of planning and infrastructure issues we had to address first before moving forward. We then began involving students with @Gripweed1 leading a highly successful Safer Internet Day, where students were consulted about the rights and responsibilities of them being able to use their own devices in school as a learning tool. Their input was critical in allowing us to develop a BYOD policy, and the intention is to have students review this annually as part of our PHSE programme, to ensure it remains up-to-date and fit for purpose. While our focus shifted on to a small group of "dangerous teachers" who were conducting class trials with the students, we realised that the students were going to be the key to the success or failure of the whole process, and it is this student engagement I want to address today.

So far, we have engaged different sections of the student community at different levels. All were involved in the development of the Acceptable Use Policy, and several classes across different year groups have been involved in exploring the technologies through trials. Now we're looking at the issue of digital leaders, and the contributions they might make to moving the process forward. There is a great deal of talk across the Twittersphere about digital leadership: Some of it is little more than a nod towards it, as I've seen in several schools where student leaders are more or less teachers' assistants. However, there are many other schools where it is clear that students are genuinely leading not just other students, but also the teaching and learning process through mobile technology, and here they seem to be driving the idea forward almost more effectively than if the process were top-down. Mark Anderson (@ICTEvangelist)'s work at Clevedon in the South-West is a case in point, and we have learnt a great deal from his generously shared expertise.

Our initial discussions for the roles of digital leaders looked at a variety of potential roles Digital Leaders could undertake. These ranged from having

  • FROG champions who would train students and teachers in the use of our FROG VLE
  • Technical support leaders who would almost be apprentice technicians 
  • E-Safety Specialists whose job would be to advise and monitor e-safety across the school
  • Device Specialists whose job would be to look at the way certain device workflows could be translated to other devices without causing problems 
  • We even then started thinking about having specialists in different types of software as these need considerable training too, for example Adobe specialists, Microsoft Specialists, Android Specialists etc

You can see that the lists eventually became far too cumbersome to be workable! We were ourselves in danger of losing sight of "the main thing" and turning our digital leaders into glorified Techies, so we changed our focus back to Teaching and Learning, and this proved far more fruitful. All aspects of the role can now be clearly related back to leading, enhancing or supporting teaching and learning, and we have also looked at how digital leaders can be used to smooth the transition of students coming up from primary schools so that they are confident and ready to meet the challenges of secondary. Equally, we would like Digital Leaders to be able to use their experiences to gain accredited qualifications which would help them further a career in this sector if they so wished, and we are currently exploring the sorts of qualifications on offer.

This is what we came up with in the end...

Digital Leadership at Finham Park

Job description

Digital leaders will...

Be able to support teaching and learning through SMART Learning
Be able to support the use of mobile devices by teachers and students
Be able to support and develop the use of VLE
Be able to assist specific departments with the acquisition of teaching and learning resources (apps, websites, software)

Be able to develop outreach programmes
Be able to liaise with primary schools to promote digital transition
Be able to manage the digital leaders' social media presence
Be able to work with collaborative networks in order promote and share best practice

Be able to support the development of e-safety training across the school
Lead assemblies to whole school on e-safety
Lead lessons to students in e-safety
Lead whole staff training on e-safety
Be able to promote the use of digital technology at whole-school events (e.g. Genius bars at Year 7 parental events)

Be able to offer basic technical support to teachers and departments
Checking computer power, peripherals, sound, mice and keyboards
Helping teachers to use iPads with AppleTV
Clearing a printer jam
Checking toner and paper
Projectors and connections
Problem diagnosis?
Management of school computer screens, uploads and podcasts
Preparation of machine images through FOG
Device usage (ipads and other devices, especially help for staff)

Person Specification

Digital Leaders should...

Be dedicated to this single area of student leadership (there are many other areas of student leadership around the school, but we feel this role is so big it will be time-consuming)
Be a positive role model to other students
Have an interest in developing digital technology skills further
Be responsible users of technology
Be keen to learn to work with other people involved in the creation of a digital environment
Show tenacity and commitment
Be able to demonstrate prior digital skills
Have a clear understanding of safe and responsible social media use
Be willing to foster leadership skills

Our second draft of a job description has yet to be approved, so I put it out here for discussion: Have we missed anything? Can you help us to tweak it further? If I've learnt anything from blogging and tweeting, it's that no idea I've ever had couldn't be improved by somebody out there, so we very much welcome any input here via the comments section below.

The class trials will report back at the end of the year, and hopefully we will have enough evidence that mobile technology can have a tangible impact on teaching and learning to move the project forward across the whole school. At this point, the role of the digital leaders will become crucial in the process, and it is more than likely that they will be leading teachers as much as students. This gets us to a stage I think many schools and SLTs are nervous about, namely where the students' expertise begins to overtake that of the staff. I can empathise with this to an extent, although I have to say that mobile technology is one key area where, if teachers don't learn to step outside of their "sage on the stage" role, we won't move forward very fast. As an old t'ai chi teacher of mine once told his students, "if I don't train you with the aspiration of becoming better than me, who then will I learn from?"

Only if we can get over this psychological obstacle in how we see our role will we truly begin to create a collaborative learning environment, where teachers and students move each other forward.