The real reason I don’t like iPads

iPads are amazing.

So I’m trying to work out why I don’t like them so much. Many educators I know rave about them, talking about how they are transforming classroom practice. How can it be that I dislike something that benefits children? Is it their cost? Ease of use? Reliability? Compatibility? The fact that I’m a bit of a Google-head and just suffering from raw iPad-envy?

No. It’s none of those. You can justify their cost if the educational benefits are high enough; they are clearly ease to use. Reliability issues would hit the national press and so must be none existent. As for compatibility – there are so many Apps in the App store, who cares if the iPad is a bit of a closed system. Educators like Daniel Harvey have made great lists of iPad-related resources that make it easy to use iPads in the classroom for even the most inexperienced of users.

So what is my problem? I have realised it is school leaders.

At a recent conference for hundreds of headteachers and deputies, I was bemused to see purple-covered iPad after purple-covered iPad emerge from their designer containers only for the basic ‘Notepad’ App to be switched on. Then headteacher after headteacher began taking notes, one index-finger at a time.

It doesn’t take much searching to find that there are many other note-taking Apps out there – many of which would at least improve the experience of taking notes, or even better, the productivity, with something like Evernote. It struck me that many of my colleagues would have been helped with the simple addition of a keyboard, or maybe even, (shock, horror) dispensing with the technology and using paper and pen.

Meanwhile, I sat taking notes on my Chromebook and pulling up web pages relevant to the topics in hand, surrounded by colleagues with more expensive technology using them extremely ineffectively. If only they followed a twitter stream like #ipaded – then at least they might be getting some value out of their technology.

But that wasn’t all.

A few weeks later I spoke to an ICT co-ordinator who had come back from the Summer vacation to find that his headteacher had spend a substantial chunk of his ICT budget on iPads. The headteacher had been seduced by the shininess of the iPads and the kudos he would get from the students by purchasing them, without having thought about what the students would actually do with the iPads. Not only that but the ICT co-ordinator was disgruntled and disillusioned that he had been bypassed so. It’s a headteacher’s perogative you might argue, but it strikes me as a poor decision on more than one level.

In conclusion, my dislike stems from the decision-making of fellow school leaders. I’m excited when I see educators make the most of their technology for the benefit of the education of their students. It disappoints me when I see educators spending a lot of public money on technology that isn’t well used.

No technology has an impact on learning on its own: success depends on how it is used.”

Nesta, Decoding Learning

A new class on the Chromebooks

A new class used the Chromebooks this week. They hadn’t used them before, so I was a little concerned that things wouldn’t go too well. I could picture frustrated teachers pulling the hair out and declaring their love for the way things used to be when we used slate boards in them nineteenth century days. And the children putting their fists angrily through each of the Chromebook screens.

There are two problems with using Chromebooks. The first is remembering your username and password. The second is being able to type on them properly.

Remembering, spelling and typing are all things that primary school children are getting better at. Eight year-olds in particular – there are so many other things to worry about you see, like television and, well, what’s on television.

And this class in particular is a concern. With five statemented children and a further twelve on the special needs register, remembering instructions, spelling accurately and typing quickly have all been problems in the past.

The teacher had planned a week with a musical theme, using Rising Stars, Switched on ICT scheme of work – the Year 4 unit “We Are Musicians”. The children were going to compose songs by the end of the week, using a website called Jamstudio.

All sorts of barriers – would the Chromebooks work? Would there be enough bandwidth for 30 children to edit audio? Would they remember their usernames? Would they actually learn anything about music?

I held my breath.

And it was with some relief that today I found out that everything is going extremely well. Speaking to the teacher went something like this:

Me: How did it go?

Teacher: How did what go?

Me: You know, the music thing?

Teacher: Oh fine. They composed mood songs today. You should have heard Cory [statemented for ASD] he kept saying “I composed 7 songs today.”

Me: Yes, but how did the Chromebooks work?

Teacher: Yeah, great. The children all listened to each others songs at the end. We put them through the class loudspeakers and they had to guess whether it was a sad mood song or a happy mood song…

Me: No problem with the Chromebooks cutting out? – all the children could edit their songs?

Teacher: Yes. Great. No problem.

As you can see. It has happened again. No problem with the Chromebooks. They just worked. Again. A new class, considerable barriers to access, with a non-specialist primary teacher teaching music. They’ll be doing me out of a job soon.

 [Cory’s name was changed]

Chromebooks – there’s really nothing to say

The joy of following many other education technology people on Twitter is you get to find out loads of tips and suggestions for things to do to make education better in my school. Increasingly though, I find myself following people who, when they blog, post about iPads and how they are using them. That’s all very well, but is becoming increasingly irrelevant to my school, since we do not have any iPads.

Hold on,” I can hear you saying, “I thought this post was about Chromebooks“. It is – kind of. I can hear other people saying, “Hold on! No iPads? How can you sustain school improvement without iPads?

So the thing is, whenever I think about writing a post about Chromebooks, it ends up becoming a post about something else, so I don’t write it. For example when my students used storynory.com and Blogger to read, listen to and then review a story. They did all that on a Chromebook – but the key thing was the websites they used. Or when my students used Youtube and Google Docs to re-write the lyrics of a well-known song. They collaborated together on the same Google Doc, partly in lesson time, partly over the weekend. They used Chromebooks to do that, but it was Youtube and Google Docs that made the activity work.

I am caught in the trap of wanting to build up a bank of evidence to say that Chromebooks work in classrooms, just as others are doing with iPads. Every time I try to justify that argument I find myself focusing on a particular way of teaching and a particular set of web-based technologies that support that, not the actual Chromebook. Damn Chromebooks – they’re just so faceless, so lacking in charisma – they just let you get on with teaching.

I wish they had more shiny about them. If only they were more complex or more difficult to setup – for example if they took a good day of technician time to setup , then, at the least, the technician would know about them. But no. Not Chromebooks. They just work. The kids use them. For learning. Boring really.

There’s nothing else to say.

Leagues Tables are bad, not good.

I like Michael Gove.

I like his ambition and elegant enthusiasm for our education system. I like his story and I like his eloquence. I like most of his ideas. He has a vision for an ideal education system that I mainly agree with.

Unfortunately I think that some of things he is doing, and some of the things he is letting happen are going to take our education system further from this ideal. Further away, not closer.

League Tables are one of those things.

In today’s speech I found myself almost cheering at some of the paragraphs. Fairer exams, external invigilation, education for education’s sake… Yes, yes, yes I was saying. As I wrote recently, I am convinced that we have been over-supporting children in assessments at all levels, because of a tendency to ‘game the system’ – a concept that Michael Gove refers to later in his speech and is well explained by both David Weston’s post and Owen Elton’s post on the subject. You can also go to Scenes from the Battleground to find a almost running commentary on the GCSE English Fiasco and how it relates to this situation of ‘gaming’, or as @oldandrewuk would say, ‘cheating’.

However I would like to take Michael Gove to task about his section on league tables. He is either wrong, or lying about them.

He starts by asserting “In the past, before the clarifying honesty of league tables, schools were judged on hearsay and prejudice.” No. In the past, schools were judged by a parental visit, where parents, not knowing much about their local schools would visit a few, get a feel for the place and assess whether the place would suit their beloved child. As myself and all of the above writers have written, the system is being at best ‘gamed’ and at worst cheated. The league tables are not honest. They might be, one day in the future, but right now they are not. League Tables are a judge of how well a school plays the system.

Then, he goes on to tell us that there are some schools that, according to these clarifyingly honest league tables, are outperforming others, despite having a challenging intake. That’s true, there are some like that. But in those areas, there are still a small percentage of parents who are passionate for their children to succeed at education. League Tables, not the school visit, become the prime indicator for these parents, which means that the parents with most ambition for their children send their children to the school that is highest up the league table – they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I work in such a school and know that some parents have sent their children here over a school that may be closer to them because my school is higher up the league table.

But let’s assume for a minute that our league tables are completely fair and honest. Do they still work as a judge of a school? Do they work in football, or will there be some teams who are always near the bottom, and some near the top? In football it depends on money, mainly. Throw a lot of money at a club and you’re likely to move up the league table – it doesn’t always work – there have been some almighty failures in football, but it mainly does.

is the same true for schools?

Well yes. A school only makes up 20% of the achievement of a student – the other 80% is down to social background.

Most school effectiveness studies show that student background rather than schools can explain 80% or more of student achievement. (Silins and Mulford 2002: 561)

So what is this? Are we really saying that schools don’t make much difference?

Although good schools make a difference, the biggest influence on educational attainment, how well a child performs in school and later in higher education, is family background. (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009:103)

It seems that way. And if that is true, then even an accurate league table is only measuring the educational attainment of that community, not the school itself. And if the consequence of a league table is to move aspirational families to schools which are higher up it, then do we need them? Shouldn’t we find a more accurate way of judging schools? We have a perfectly good one in Ofsted already. Ofsted and parental visits are a more accurate way of judging our schools.

I would not abolish league tables completely however. I would produce one for each community – so one league table might cover the outcomes of twenty schools. That would be an interesting way of making system wide improvements and putting social interventions in that make a difference to education.

I’m all for change and I’m with Michael Gove that we need to change some key things in our education system. League tables, however are one of the things that inhibit change. They do not go hand in hand with a more rigorous exam system – the rigorous exam system should be there to reward or deny the individual students. Ofsted and parents should judge schools.

Lego Men Don’t Bleed

I suppose it’s a function of growing older that Remembrance Day should get more poignant with each passing year. This year a couple of conversations have added to that.

The first was a conversation with one of my daughters, who overhead my wife and I talking about visiting my dying grandad in hospital. “I’d like to see him before he dies,” she said. We explained that she would have to be very brave, because he doesn’t look or sound much like the great grandfather she had seen previously.

When we arrived, he was lying naked in his hospital bed with a tube in his penis and his lower teeth removed – he had lost them on his previous visit to hospital. He was covered in red splotches and his hands were a deep unnatural purple colour that had spread back along his arms. He was groaning slightly.

He became aware of us and reached towards his hand towards me, but was unable to focus or saying anything intelligible. I held his hand for a moment and told him I loved him. My daughter, who is only seven, could only stand by the door.

As we walked out, she said, “I saw a lot of sick people there, but nobody as sick as Grandad Bob.” (For that is what we call him, despite his correct title being “Great Grandad”).

How to best introduce children to death and dying is an area of some interest to me. In my first year of teaching I was in a school where a mother killed one of her own children, and the consequences of that act were deep and far-reaching. An elder brother, who was eight, survived the attack and I remember doing some research at the time (before the age of Google and Wikipedia) and finding out that it was between the age of 8 and 10 that children start to get a deeper understanding of death. It was quite possible, I was told, that the surviving brother would have had no mechanism for understanding the loss and its permanence until he was older.

This was backed up firstly by my own experience. My other grandad had died when I was 8 and it made no difference to me at the time, even though I had loved him dearly. When I was 19, I remember being in conversation with my father about that time and the sadness of that loss suddenly hit me – I was unable to hold back the tears. It was like grief caught up with me when I was ready.

When the 9/11 attack happened on the Twin Towers I remember well the differing responses in my school. At the start of the next day, September 10th, the Year 4 children – aged 8 – were talking about the people jumping from the heights as if it was some kind of computer game, whereas the Year 6 children, only two years older, sat in sombre reflection of the events.

The second conversation happened following my son’s first Remembrance Day Parade as a cub at the local church. We were talking about some of the stories he had heard, including the bravery of amputee soldiers in how they deal with life after tragic injury. We were reflecting that many of those soldiers are looked after in the same hospital were my Grandad Bob is dying. And then he said “I often get my legs blown off in Roblox.” For those of you who don’t know, Roblox is a website where you can play games created by other members, based on a block type system that looks a lot like Lego. The players in the game all run around like little Lego men.

A part of me wanted to scold my son – how very dare he be so insensitive on Remembrance Day!

But he’s just nine. To him death is something that happens in games just before you restart. He’s probably not developmentally ready to appreciate the permanent loss of death and the grief that goes with it, and if he isn’t I don’t want him to have to wallow in it.

But at the same time, I am concerned that the developmental stage of appreciating the finality of death might be being pushed back for our youngsters – especially in this age when we are so focussed on the playing of games in which each individual can succeed and we can all be winners.

It makes me appreciate the fact that we have a Remembrance Day – a chance to reflect on lives ruined through war and conflict. And someday I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to educate my own children that real people do bleed, without being overly-morbid about it.

Really making a difference – The radical-progressive.

I’ve written before about the radical train.

It gives this notion that we’re all somewhere on the train, under bridges, over bridges, whether we be progressives, conservatives or traditionalists… Except, that is, for the radicals who are busy laying the tracks two miles down the line.

And the problem then is, which radical do you follow? The progressives, who are in the engine room, have to make that choice – make the wrong choice and they’ll be hurtling down the wrong tracks. And as everyone knows, trains aren’t that easy to turn round.

Personally, I’ve often tended towards the radical. I like to have ideas – lots of them and then hope some people will shoot down my tracks. I don’t get too worried if they don’t though, because I’m busy having more ideas.

However, I recognise that being that way doesn’t actually get anything done. At times I have to force myself into the progressive, and even the conservative and traditionalist, because each have value in my organisation. Each is important in getting stuff done. Getting stuff done well. Getting stuff done right and safely.

Today I met two people who I would call “radical progressive”. Right at the moment I think these kind of people are the best. They kind see tracks that are off in the future, they are happy to lay a few tracks of their own, but they also have the determination to make their trains go down their tracks. They make me want to be on their trains.

The first person was a teacher called Nadine from a school near mine. Nadine, like me, has an interest in developing her more able learners – her gifted and talented students. She also believes, like me, that a gifted and talented approach to teaching, applied in the right ways can benefit all learners. Fantastic.

Last year I had set up some gifted and talented network meetings following the death of our Local Authority led network. We planned three meetings, cancelled one and at the last meeting there were about 6 people there. For me it was one of those tracks that I had laid and nobody really wanted to go down. Fine.

And then I met Nadine. Like me, she has started a network, but unlike me, she has made a plan for how that network should run. She hasn’t opened it up every school, but limited it to just a few and she has placed an onus on each school to contribute a learning activity to the rest of the schools in the network. She has laid some tracks and driven her train down them – a radical progressive.

And then I met Daniel Harvey. Find him on Twitter at Danielharvey9. Like me, he wanted to get a network of teachers together to meet face to face and share good practice –  a teachmeet – Teachmeet Brum in fact. I had previously organised a Teachmeet back in 2011 – the first Teachmeet Brum which you can read about on Oliver Quinlan’s blog.

The thing is, after that teachmeet, I had a failed attempt at organising a teachmeet and then helped out at another teachmeet but didn’t do a very good job at it – not so many people attended and I had begun to think, oh well, there go some more clean bright tracks into the overgrown, weed-infested place where train tracks go to rust away their latter years.

Not so perhaps. Daniel Harvey has a plan. There are a cluster of primary schools attached to his secondary school. He has a supportive leadership team. He has a passion to improve practice and see positive outcomes for his students – one of the great things about this teachmeet was that his students actually presented – and they did a fantastic job. In short, we can have more teachmeets in Birmingham, because Daniel is a radical progressive – he lays tracks yes, but he is also driving his train down them.

Thanks Nadine. Thanks Daniel. You’ve reminded me to be determined. My own train is a small one-form entry primary school, but I must drive it down some of those radical tracks and not be completely overtaken by the numbers game demanded by league tables and Ofsted.

And I hope neither of you mind if I hop on the back of your train once in a while.

Over-supporting is a nice way of saying cheating

 This helpfully drawn graph by  David Weston on today’s blog post at the Teacher Development Trust has helped visualise a problem that has been growing in my mind for at least ten years. I referred to it obliquely in a previous post entitled “Moral Purpose” when I mentioned the notion of Game Theory in assessments. Game Theory is one of those things that I haven’t really understood until now, but a really helpful post from maths teacher Owen Elton this morning has helped me understand it better, and in particular how it applies to the particular situation in the English education system.

It started in a Year 6 class I had a decade or so ago. I’d been in the school in a deprived part of Birmingham for a couple of years and we had had a new headteacher that year. The head, who hadn’t shown much interest in my class for most of the year, took a sudden and very intense interest in the class during SATs week, including offering to help read the questions to the children in the maths SATs papers – as everyone knows, maths is not a test of reading and children who can’t read so well shouldn’t be disadvantaged in their maths just because odd their poor reading skills. So in that first test, I saw the headteacher position himself next to a girl who was very border line between level 3 and 4. He read the questions, yes, but then went on to talk her through the steps to solving the problem. He didn’t actually tell her the answer. Then in the next test, which was a mental mathematics test read by a lady on a cassette tape (a voice that all teachers in England will know very well), he stopped the tape. After the first 5 questions the children were allowed some ‘extra thinking time’ – and likewise after the next 10 questions.

I felt really uncomfortable about what had happened, so the next day, before schools started and before the final test of the week I went to the headteacher to express my discomfort. “Did we go to far?” he asked, smiling. I felt that we had and we agreed not to support the children so much. Relieved, I went away to prepare my children for the final test of their SATs week. And after it, I remember he called back into his office, I thought to ask me how I thought the week had gone. But no, he told me that he had seen me playing too roughly with the Year 6 boys at playtime during football. I should be careful not to do that he asserted. I knew what he was saying – don’t grass me up and I won’t grass you up.

It was a difficult time for me – I spent the next year or so really struggling with my practice and it was only when I moved schools that I started to regain my confidence.

But aside from that, it was my first experience of the grey area of over-support. The facts are:

  • There are no entirely externally assessed national tests in England.
  • Primary schools are held accountable by national government using the results of their tests.
  • Teachers are held accountable by their schools using the outcomes from tests.

As Owen Elton says when analysing the ‘teacher’s dilemma’ in the blog post I referred to above, teachers “should mark generously”. He was referring to coursework, but translating that to SATs tests in primary schools, teachers should give whatever support they can to their children.

Now, I would maintain that stopping a mental mathematics test to give children more thinking time is cheating, but there are grey areas of support, which as David Weston says would be called cheating by some, but not by others. Here are some:

  • test papers can be opened up to an hour before the test by their teachers – but should they be?
  • children can be placed in different rooms and group sizes around the school to give them different levels of emotional support – but should they be?
  • teachers can read test questions and instructions to their children – but should they do so?
  • Children are allowed to sit in the same room where they have done their learning – but should they?

For each of those examples above I can think of examples where the regime has been abused. For example:

the deputy headteacher who opened the writing tests an hour earlier, saw that the test was on a certain form of writing and spent the next 45 minutes reminding children about features of that kind of writing…

Or

the school where a friend’s daughter was placed in a room with only two other students and found that the atmosphere was a lot more conversational than previous tests had been…

Or

my son reported his teacher had raised her eyebrows and pointed at an answer in a maths test…

Or

the headteacher who accidentally left the science display up in the classroom where the science test was being sat…

And of course, when a teacher has stepped into the grey area one year, is it easy to step back from it? Doesn’t the grey area get bigger?

My second clue that a grey area of over-support existed was in speaking to a colleague from a university a few years ago. She had noticed that the year that they had had to introduce plagiarism checkers as standard was the year that corresponded with the students who had sat the very first SATs back in 1996. She also noticed that it was that same year group of students who suddenly demanded far more from their tutors. It was like they had lost their independence and almost needed their studies doing for them.

My third clue was looking over the shoulder of my mother who is still a marker for one of the exam boards. She was marking a set of maths coursework, and each one was virtually identical. Some of the names and places and numbers were slightly different from each other, but the format and the nature of the maths represented was identical – no child seemed to demonstrate any independent thinking or mathematics. But I suppose is there any wonder that secondary school teachers need to over-support their students if their students are assessed in an over-supportive way at primary school?

The final pointer towards over-support has been the GCSE English fiasco that has been debated long and heard over the last few months. Who is the wrong? The schools? The exam boards? The politicians? I think we all have to take some of the blame. And hears why:

When I hear students say things like “the system has let me down”, which is a quote I’ve heard from the news in recent weeks, that’s when I have to think that actually we all share some of the blame. We have created an assessment culture that is at best over-supportive and at worst is cheating. Michael Merrick foretold this in his post back in March, when he asked the question: “When primary responsibility for success or failure is taken away from the student and placed instead on the shoulders of teachers, what effect might this have on the education system? ”

To me it is inevitable that we have come to this point – we are so lost in ‘playing the game’ or ‘keeping the Ofsted wolf from the door’ that we have forgotten that an education system should be built to let individual students triumph. Is ours? Is it really?

I don’t do a good job by moving my school to outstanding, or moving my school up the league table – I do a good job by moving my students from consumers to contributors, by educating them so they can achieve for themselves. Yes, hopefully those 2 things are synonymous. In an ideal world they would be. But in the real world (to quote Michael Merrick once more) “that murky landscape of educational ethics comes into view, with exhausted and anxious teachers straying over the once clear demarcation lines, in the process creating a culture that absolves students from real responsibility (and even, sometimes, effort) in their own learning and achievement.”

And to quote Frank Zappa, which is becoming a bit of a habit at the moment: “go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts.” And he said that in 1966.

The mediocrity of facilitation

The late, great Frank Zappa

I’m always a little mithered by the word ‘facilitation’ being used in an educational context.

I think it started from way before I ever thought I’d become a teacher. I had an excellent lecturer on my BEng Electrical Engineering course who loathed the word ‘facilitate’. I don’t remember much about him – it’s been twenty years and I’ve not needed much of the content of my electrical engineering degree in my career as a primary school teacher. There was another thing though – he was a keen Frank Zappa fan who wore blue denim every day. On the day Frank Zappa died he changed to black denim and never returned to the blue. And he didn’t like the word ‘facilitate’.

I’ve heard teachers say that they are not actually teachers, but facilitators. They ‘facilitate learning’. This worries me somewhat. I think teachers can facilitate group work – children getting on with each other – they facilitate behaviour. But I don’t think learning can be facilitated. It has to be taught.

Good teachers, who have misnamed themselves ‘facilitators’, must work alongside children until the point where they get stuck. Then they teach something. But that isn’t facilitation. It’s teaching.

I saw this in practice on Tuesday when I interviewed for the post of inclusion leader within my school. As part of the process, the candidates had to teach two children they had never met before, both with statements of special educational need. I’m always wary of forming hard and fast judgements on such a snapshot of an activity – learning doesn’t often happen in snapshots, but over the course of time and in the context of the relationship between teacher and student. However the activity did demonstrate the dangers of facilitation and the great benefit of teaching.

One of the candidates guided the children through an activity where the children formed sentences from pre-printed words on a laminated sentence board. By the end of the activity, both children had both spoken and written a mainly accurate sentence. The children were engaged, but there was no clear evidence that they had definitely learnt something new. It could have been that the children just practised something they could already do quite well.

By contrast, another candidate, who turned out to be the successful one, did a far more uncomfortable activity. They played a game where the task was to make a model of a picture on card out of plasticine. The children then had to guess what the other model was by asking questions. However they got stuck. There was an uncomfortable moment where it was clear that neither of the children had the expressive language to either ask the most appropriate question, or to describe their shapes. At this point the teacher had to step in and teach the children. She modelled some language that the children had clearly not used before and made the children use it. After the teacher’s input, the children were able to try speaking in sentences and using more accurate words – but it took the teacher’s input to get there – no amount of facilitation would have helped.

My belief is that a facilitator can help children practice what they already know and can possibly help children work co-operatively on a project using what they already know, but they cannot teach children knew stuff. Learning is the process where children gain the knowledge of knew stuff. Teaching begets learning.

The final part of facilitation that makes me nervous is its place in the distributed leadership spectrum. This is a blog post for another time, really, but suffice to say that leadership can be distributed not enough, just right or too much. Some words that would help describe this are:

Instruct – Consult –  Delegate – Facilitate – Neglect

Facilitation is just a little too close to neglect for my liking.

Teaching is great. Great teachers make great schools and a great education system. Teachers who think they should facilitate as their top priority only lead to a mediocre education system, and we all know what Frank Zappa said about that:

“Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system.”

[Image courtesy of http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2966259]