Wednesday, 18 June 2014

In defence of Media and Film

I was quaking in my boots a little when OFQUAL published their list of subjects being considered for "reform" (or not!) a few weeks ago. And lo, there it was: Film is disappearing. One of the hardest, most engaging courses I teach, as well as one of the most enjoyable. Going. Going. Gone.

Those of you who follow these developments will know how this story goes: Two hours later OFQUAL rescinded their own publication, claiming that Film should not have been on the list (here if you're interested). Huzzah and hurrah. 

But then it struck me that, rather than feeling happy at this, I should have been more than a little indignant at the fact that we have to defend our subject's validity YET AGAIN! So I decided act, and to take their consultation document: For all the good it did. A series of anodine and difficult to disagree with statements which will eventually secure tacit agreement for the measurements they were going to take anyway, I suspect. So I wrote to them. This is my open letter to OFQUAL, in defence of Media and Film Studies' place on our curriculum.

To whom it may concern

I am writing to you about your online consultation concerning the reform of GCSEs and A Level qualifications. Having filled in the entire document online, I was disappointed that that the consultation document provided no opportunity to argue for the continuance of Media or Film Studies at GCSE, AS and A level, so this letter is a direct appeal in support of these subjects for your consideration in reforming them.

First, for the vast majority of the students I teach, Media and Film Studies are the most important subjects they learn, despite also studying so-called “traditional” qualifications alongside them. I teach in a highly academic school, and we do not teach for passes, we teach for excellence. Of the students I teach, seven in the past year alone have been nominated for national and regional awards for their Media and Film production work (including BFI Young Film-maker of the Year). I doubt that they would ever have achieved this level of quality of their own volition, without someone to introduce the subject to them in the first place through passion, rigorous academic study and through practical experimentation. These are the media and film professionals of the future, but they need time to master their arts. Students who arrive at university to embark on Media or Film as courses they are studying for the first time are at a clear disadvantage according to my former students, and the fact that mine have been training in professional skills since Year 10 means that one day, they WILL join the industries and move these industries forward innovatively and creatively, and keep the UK at the very top on international media and film production, with all that this entails for National economic growth and prosperity.

On an academic level, I would draw your attention to the already demanding nature of assessment: GCSE involves extended comparative writing which motivates many to improve their linguistic abilities; A level examinations are currently substantial essay-based examination papers. Both subjects include assessment of research skills, as well as analytical skills. These are the bedrock of the “traditional” curriculum we seem to be returning towards, so why would we withdraw subjects which reinforce such skills?

Second, there is a popular perception of Media and Film Studies as “soft” subjects, which I would disagree with fundamentally. The vast majority of my students will also tell you that Media and Film were far tougher courses than their “academic” counterparts. In part this is the fault of the mass media itself and its largely biased reporting of the subjects: The tabloids have no qualms about labelling our subjects as lesser subjects compared to the “traditional” subjects being pushed by the present government. The fact that the broadsheets put inverted commas around the word soft does not in any way absolve them of blame for reinforcing this perception, in my opinion. The message from the media is clear: Studying media or film is an easy option. 

However, I would argue that OFQUAL is equally to blame in this process for not countering this perception explicitly with evidence. I would contend that the level of demand at both GCSE and A level is very high: Students analyse film and media texts in exactly the same way as they do in English, except that they must take account of not only linguistic characteristics of texts, but also the way the layout, camera angles, editing and sound work in tandem with these linguistic features. This adds layers of meaning which are very subtle, additional to those studied in English, and indeed constitute an entire language of their own. And this only covers the textual analysis aspects of the courses. Film and Media Studies also require that students understand why texts are the way they are, by taking into account institutional, social, political, economic, historical and technological factors which may influence meaning and interpretations of texts. While this is a skill which is taught in English, I would argue that the up-to-date nature of film and media studies enquiries makes it much more challenging for students to interpret the influence of these contexts, as they are not doing so with the benefits of hindsight, or with the help of “expert voices” to guide them. Media and Film students learn a basic framework of analysis, but from there they are applying this to texts which are so new they are largely untouched by academic study. They have to apply their learning very subtly, often drawing in a range of material which benefits other subjects, such as History, English, Philosophy and Ethics, Sociology and Psychology.

Third, I would argue that the range of topics which are studied at GCSE and A level is also extending for students. The subject involves more than a study of mainstream popular film and media texts. It involves the study of texts from other cultures around the world, in other languages (my own students study Spanish, French, Iranian and Cantonese/Mandarin texts), and asks that we understand those cultures so as to be able to discern their influence on particular films, and their influence on our own culture. These are skills which are incredibly demanding for students between the ages of 14 and 18. Furthermore, film and media texts act as a cultural resource and a way of gaining access to experiences and cultures, and raising important issues relevant to society today (including, ironically, the idea of media bias and media agendas, and their influence on the political agenda, the reason that you are carrying out this consultation in the first place, one might argue: See point 2 above).
The media and film industries shape, and arguably construct, the terms of people’s perceptions, the way people think, their attitudes, values and beliefs. Students need to understand the role of the media in that process if they are to have any chance of becoming engaged, active and reflective citizens within our society. If we deny them these opportunities, we can only blame ourselves when society somnambulates into a future of fear, despair and obsequious conformity. We owe our students a better future than that.

I hope that you will give the above arguments the weight of consideration they deserve when considering how the subjects should be reformed.

Yours faithfully

Mike Gunn

If you want to write to them with your own equally passionate (but undoubtedly more eloquent) supporting letter, please feel free. The address is below:

Spring Place,
Coventry Business Park,
Herald Avenue,
CV5 6UB       

PS Rest assured: I didn't post cartoons with my original letter to OFQUAL!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Technology tools that support new teachers

Being a new teacher can be daunting. To be honest, even when you've taught for many years, a move to a new school can make you feel almost entirely like a beginner again. The nature of teacher is that students listen when they respect you, and rarely before that point. Your job as the teacher is to establish high expectations, behaviour boundaries, and what I used to call "the deal": "You guys work hard, and I'll make your learning worthwhile and engaging".

Behaviour for learning

As such, the first thing to establish is your behavioural expectations, and I would say it's worth sweating the small stuff. New teachers often say that the added distraction of students using mobile devices is just another discipline headache they don't want to have to deal with, hence they don't go near technology. Personally, I think that if students are misusing technology, what you have is a behaviour problem, not a technology problem, and it should be treated as such. A few little routines, however, can make a real difference. Things like "screens off" time while you explain tasks, and insisting on tablets and devices being flat on the desk where you can see them go some way to creating the attention levels and transparency of use that you want. The same goes for acceptable noise levels, no hands up during questioning and creating an atmosphere in which students are allowed to speak without fear of others criticising or interrupting are the bedrock of good classroom dynamics. A couple of really useful little apps I've found are RandomMaster and Too Noisy (really good for Primary classrooms!)
Too Noisy
RandomMaster is a student selection app: Pre-enter the students' names, and it simply randomizes them as necessary, in front of their eyes on the AppleTV, and there's no arguing, and no bloody lollipop sticks! It can be used to put students into groups, pick the student to answer a question at random, and assign roles within groups (Expert, scribe, researcher and so on). 

Too Noisy is an ambient volume level measurer: You set what is an acceptable level of noise while the class are working independently, and the display will show students when it is getting too loud, without you having to tell them every two minutes. Again, it's simple stuff, but it makes your expectations clear from the off.

Amongst the other apps you can use are things like timers to stop some students dominating class discussion, and spinners to assign random questions. 

A great tool for this is Triptico which, if you've never seen it, gives you loads of little animated apps such as timers, spinners, scorers, task selectors, word magnets for labelling, order sorters, thinklink hexagons (if you're a SOLO Taxonomist, which isn't as creepy as it sounds!) and various different quiz formats. It's absolutely brilliant if you're working on a desktop or laptop or whiteboard, especially as you can run multiple activities on a screen at once (timer, quiz, student selector etc) BUT it's not yet available as a mobile device app, which is a shame for people like me who don't like swapping between devices for tasks in class. As a new teacher, that might not seem like such a big deal, but every moment you spend getting round tech problems is a moment the class can go off-task and off-boil. The fewer of those you have, the better at the start. That said, it's still well worth checking out...

Triptico is a nice little link to the next, most important part of teaching:


Before we start, a caveat: Beware of using technology in and of itself as a "thing". In terms of engaging students, this is short-termism at its worst. The fact that students are using mobile devices does not mean you have their attention. Sometimes it means you have a good deal less of it than you think. And it definitely doesn't necessarily mean they are learning! But it does offer you a huge variety of new worlds to explore from within your classroom. And it's the tasks that you set which will engage students or not. So think carefully.
  • Fun activities are one way to make learning fun and effective, so use apps like Triptico to make the learning enjoyable.
  • Differentiation is another key area which mobile technology can help you with if you want to engage all students. It makes it considerably easier to assign students different materials depending on their ability levels. "Flipping the classroom" is something I really rate as a means of differentiating work, and allowing students to work at their own pace (See my post about Flipped Learning here), and technology makes it very easy to distribute these different resources to different students, whether it's over your VLE, through Youtube playlists or web-pages (you can collate these easily on Pinterest for instance), or simply sending out different electronic resources via email. Want to make it flash?  Use QR codes or augmented reality apps like Aurasma or Layar.
  • Getting your students to show their learning in different ways which are more accessible from whatever stage they are at is one of the great uses of technology in teaching. Some students are ultra-bright in certain areas, but can't show their learning in writing yet. It's important that they learn how to write well, but nevertheless, a student can create a brilliant Science report or MFL monologue without being able to write it down, especially if tech is at your side. Try using apps like Explain Everything to allow them to create videos with their own written or verbal commentaries to show you their learning. Tellagami is another lovely little app which allows students who are a bit shy to speak their findings through a cartoon character, with background pictures to illustrate their learning. Or for longer projects which are intended to develop written skills, what about getting your students to create their own interactive books, with video links, hyperlinks, pictures, and even quizzes. Apple's iBooks is a great way to do this, but I tend to go with Creative Book Builder for its simplicity, and the fact that Apple don't get to put a whole stack of obstacles between you and the sharing of your work! (Apple? Proprietary about their software? You jest, I hear you not cry...)
  • Finally, technology is more than ever about communication, especially with the advent of mobile tech. It gives you the ability as a teacher to bring the outside world in, make the learning relevant to that outside world through face-to-face interactions (Skype, FaceTime, Google hang-outs). Our own Science department did a superb project with NASA last year, communicating weekly over Skype to talk to their experts about global warming, and to help them with aspects of their work. I can't tell you how many sparks were lit by that single project, but the students still talk about it today.
  • And it's not just about bringing the outside world into your classroom: It's as much about getting the work of your students out there. Primary schools are now getting their students to blog their learning to other schools internationally, and forging international relationships with other students. Blogger is free, it's connected to a Google e-mail account, and it's easy enough for a monkey to use, as the last 500 words should easily attest. My own personal ambition for my film students is for their work to be known before they even leave our school. We formed the Finham Film-Makers Society, we set up a dedicated Youtube playlist from the department channel, and already the students are starting to gain the sort of exposure they will need to succeed in a competitive business. Can you imagine doing that ten years ago?
  • Before we end though, a second caveat. Once your use of technology is confident, re-appraise what you're doing in the light of the most crucial question: How far does this enhance learning? Are you using technology and time to create resources which are having no impact on learning? Have a look at the SAMR model below, and if you think you're just substituting stuff, take a step back. Either re-think what you're doing, or give it up. Life's too short to spend time on tasks which don't benefit your students. Re-formulate your task in the light of what you want students to learn, and you'll soon start to work your way up the ladder.
The SAMR model: How transformative is your practice?
I could write another whole section down here on another of the most important aspects of good teaching and learning, which is Assessment for learning. But you know what? You've probably had enough reading for the day. Conscientious blog-readers such as your good selves will probably have a stack of other (far more interesting and erudite!) blogs to be getting on with, so we can cover Socrative, GoogleDocs, and all those delights at a later stage. We could even set it for homework. Let's go crazy. In the meantime, for those of you just starting out, I wish you all the best. It's a great profession.