It’s not just about the gun laws.

I had finished my day at work, culminating in a highly successful Christmas Fair. I ensconced myself at home with those most enjoyable of evening routines – teatime with the family, bathing our youngest, reading stories, singing the song we always sing before bedtime.

And then I switched on the News. There I learned that 20 children within the same age range as my own children had been murdered. A week focussed on both educating my school children and parenting my own children had ended with this. I was struck by how my children will still have their bedtime tomorrow, and the next day, and hopefully for many years to come. But the children in Newtown wouldn’t.

Today the inevitable debate has unfolded. What actually happened? Why? Would it have been different if the gun laws had been different?

I can’t answer any of that. I could pontificate on the difference in gun laws between the UK (where I live) and the US. But it’s not just about that.

What I can’t get out of my head is that during those tragic 30 minutes or so when Adam Lanza went on his insane rampage, it is estimated that 400 children died somewhere in the world. Malnutrition, disease, war. They all take their toll. Just like the 20 children in Newton, those 400 children in different parts of the world had their whole lives ahead of them. They were pure and innocent too. They will have no bedtime routine tonight either.

Estimates are that about twenty thousand children die each day, two thirds of them from preventable causes. 1 in 7 of those children die from the simple reason of just not having decent toilets – a problem that you can help by visiting toilettwinning.org.

Yet the world’s media don’t go running to those tragic deaths. Somehow we are numbed from this human tragedy. People just like us are dying all over the world and yet some deaths are reported as more tragic than others. It’s this discrepancy that bothers me. It’s an injustice on such a scale that it is easier to argue about US gun laws, despite the entrenched positions that both sides take.

The late, great atheist Douglas Adams, in his book, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, talked about the interconnectedness of all things. It’s a principal that I agree with. Maybe if we work to see the world become a more just place, rather than merely protecting our own corner of it, then we might see less injustice all round.

Whatever happens after this, there may be another shooting next week. Or in January. Or maybe not until February. I don’t know. But I do know that twenty thousand children will die tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that.

Musing on my first week with an iPad

Mainly I’ve downloaded a lot of Apps.

Evernote, iBooks, Google+, Drive, Gmail, Youtube, Green Screen FX, iMovie, Morfo, Hootsuite, Explain Everything, Skitch, Popplet, Garage Band, Puppet Pals, TED, Khan Academy, Edmodo, Paper, Chrome and Incerts Snap.

I’ve tried to use some of these apps. I was pleased to get my mail and twitter feeds syncing, but then swiftly became overwhelmed by another device that is syncing all my feeds. That’s not the iPads problem though, it’s my problem for being “over-teched”.

Most of the Apps still have the blue New band across them because, despite the fact that they look ace, it does take time to get into them. I’ve signed into Evernote and got it working, but I’m not entirely sure what it offers me over Google Apps. I think that in terms of the documents I have to produce and manage for work, my laptop and my Chromebook are still going to be the devices of choice. I tend to use the Chromebook to take the notes from any meeting, share them with colleagues, manage data in spreadsheets and events on school calendars. If I need to print something for a staff notice board or a classroom display, I’m still likely to use Microsoft Word on my laptop, or Publisher if I’m working beyond A4 paper size. Microsoft still has the upper hand for me when things need printing.

The great success with the iPad has been in experimenting with images, video and audio. I haven’t done anything productive with it yet, but I love Garage Band. I’m especially looking forward to plugging my real guitar into it and trying out some of the different amps on there – I can feel a renaissance in my song writing about to dawn. I’ve also managed to make iMovie and GreenScreen FX work nicely today. I saw an ADE present on them earlier in the year and like he said, they are really easy to use. The GreenScreen app did crash a couple of times, but a quick restart of the iPad sorted that out.

Today I recorded some video into iMovie and then edited it down to a reasonable length. I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t make devices have to edit, compress and process any more video than they need to – edit first is my preferred option. I then took the green screen bit of the video and ran it through Green Screen FX. Then I put that back into iMovie and made a finished version of it. Here it is: Why I like Rising Stars

I have found myself doing a lot of comparing with the other devices I have, thinking things like “that’s really neat” or “that could work better”. For example, the normal video editor I use on my laptop is Techsmith’s Camtasia – so of course in my head I’ve been comparing how iMovie works with that. What I really should be doing is thinking about what my students will be doing with these iPads if and when they get them. I like the idea that they can do amazing multi-media story telling, but I’m not sure if that’s they thing they most need to do. The teaching of basic English and maths is important in my school and I’m not yet convinced that iPads are the best use of money to meet that need.

I have one main frustration with the iPad. The wifi receiver seems to be more sensitive to walls than any of my other wifi devices. I can upload a video to Youtube from my phone whilst standing in my kitchen, but I can’t do the same on the iPad because the signal isn’t strong enough. I don’t know if this is a problem in schools or when 30 iPads all try to connect through the same access point, but it is a worry at the back of mind at the moment.

Next week I’m going to teach some children how to make some iMovies. It will be interesting to see how they get on with doing all the movie making on one device – previously we have used flip cameras and a video editor to do that.

But we’re all cheating, remember.

So it’s great to see that more primary schools are meeting their targets. I love the way the BBC headline is phrased: “Fewer primary schools fail to meet their target.” Hooray: we have less failure. It shows what a glass-half-empty culture we’re in at the moment in education. We could so easily have said – Hooray: more success!

So I could go on about this over-negativity I suppose. Or I could make the ironic link between this and what Michael Gove said yesterday. Today the DoE tells us that: “Heads, teachers and pupils deserve credit for meeting the challenge head on”. Yesterday Michael Gove wrote to schools criticising an admittedly small minority of teachers for having a detrimental effect on their schools through working to rule.

However what I want to draw attention to is that today’s headlines come at a time when I believe we have an over-supportive assessment system in this country. Some people have pointed the finger at how the system has been geared to judge the school and not the pupil. Others have expressed their fears that our system is being ‘gamed’ – teachers and school leaders are ‘playing the game’ to make their schools look good, without actually doing the job of raising standards through good teaching. A helpful way of looking at this may be David Weston’s hastily but well-drawn graph of the continuum between teaching and cheating. Or you just might say that actually we’re all cheating.

You see, the BBC say: “The results are based on the national tests children in all state schools take in their final year of primary school.” But they don’t say that these tests are entirely self-invigilated. Unfortunately the phrase ‘national test’ distracts us from the fact that schools can sit their students with as many support staff as they want, in whatever group size they want, and nobody but the staff in the school watch them do it.

Yes there are one or two ‘invigilators’ that Local Authorities send out to schools on random monitoring visits, but they are so few and far between that school can pretty much guarantee that they won’t be there on the crucial day.

And who benefits from these tests being, shall we say, over-supportive? Schools do. When we read from the DfE:

“Schools with a long history of underperformance, and who are not stepping up to the mark, face being taken over by an Academy sponsor…” 

we begin to get get a hint of the intense pressure that schools are under. Headteachers and Governors are replaced in this process. Poor SATs results can trigger an Ofsted inspection bringing more pressure onto teachers. Surely if we just give one or two suggestions to those border-line children just to tip them over onto the right side of the grade boundary it won’t matter? Will it?

The problem with this approach is that it sucks the independence out of children. No matter what their ability these children expect the same level of support as they go into secondary school. Then to achieve their own progress measures, the secondary schools are under the same pressure as primary schools to ‘tweak’ their GCSE results just that little bit. And all along our students are losing their independence. We are creating a generation of exam zombies – education consumers who expect education to be done to them, not to be active participants.

Ever wondered why they need so many plagiarism checkers at universities these days? It’s not just the ease of access to online material – it is also the fact that our students expect to be supported. They do not expect to think for themselves. It is not a ‘thinking skills curriculum’ that fixes this. It is a rigorous, well-invigilated exam system that demands students think for themselves.

So unfortunately, even though I’d like to be glass-half-full about today’s announcement, celebrating with the many primary schools that, like mine, are now above the floor targets, all I can think of is the increasing amount of learners who will need support to hit their inflated targets throughout the rest of their education. It weakens us as an education system and it weakens us as a society, even though it might look good in the short term.

My first 24 hours with an iPad

me holding my first iPad

So after some reluctance, the nice man from XMA finally convinced me that I should consider iPads for my school.

I am considering them.

To help convince me he left me with an iPad – a whole one. In fact he left two and I gave the other to a keen colleague who is bound to get the most out of it.

Now if you’ve read any of my previous posts you may be thinking that this isn’t a fair trial – he’s such a Google fanboy you’re thinking. If it doesn’t say Chromebook nearby he’s not interested. Actually, what I’m interested in is getting rid of the servers in school and having devices that spend more time in children’s hands than in the hands of technicians. I have to concede that the iPad may be such a device.

So what about those first twenty four hours.

The first thing I did was get onto Amazon and order an Apple TV. I was really keen to see how the iPad might link to that and make the art of instructing children more efficient. That ordered, I picked up the iPad and started sweeping left and right on the screen: swishing my fingers with gusto. I soon realised that with only 2% charge I would have limited swishing, so plugged in the iPad to my laptop to charge. Only it didn’t charge. iPads only charge via USB when they’re off. Oh well. I switched off, my growing excitement thwarted, and left it to charge.

Later on that day, when it had reached 28% charge I had another go and made it connect to our school network. No problem – it coped with the proxy fine too – a distinct advantage over Android devices which seem to be sadly lacking in the proxy department (I believe this stems from a philosophical issue at Google who can’t believe that people would want to filter their internet). I had a few more swishes at this point and tried to sign up to iCloud but realised that with the XMA email as the iPad’s user account I wouldn’t be able to do too much. I really wanted to see how Google Docs and mail worked on the device but realised that I would need to download the App, which needed a working iTunes password, which I didn’t have. I was stuck.

And so I went home.

There I had my only technical disappointment. Bizarrely it wouldn’t connect to my wifi unless I was in the same room as the access point. All the other devices I have – my Lenovo laptop, Chromebook, Nexus 7 and Galaxy – all connect with no problem anywhere in the house, but not so the iPad.

Reasoning that I shouldn’t give up on the device just because of my own priorities, that evening I had a go with some of the Apps on there. I was blown away by Garage Band – the sound of the guitars was just so authentic. I had a quick look at Sock Puppets and Morph, but the download-my-own-Apps itch was still there so I wiped the iPad and set it up with my own iTunes account.

I had owned an iPhone until a year months ago and so still had a range of functional apps to download. And of course I could get those Google Apps ones I wanted to try.

Google Docs works really well on the iPad – it has similar functionality to an Android device, you can only create text documents or spreadsheets and the sharing options are not completely comprehensive. But it works well. I was also able to explore how to sync my mail onto it, although it is rather overwhelming now having 4 devices all telling me that I have email.

The next day, I could see by the smile on my colleague’s face that she’d done a lot better than I had. She had made a brilliant little animation using Sock Puppets that made me regret wiping the device the night before – now I’m going to have to pay for that App myself! And Garage Band!

Speaking of Apps, the Google Doc I made was intended to gather up some recommendations for great Apps to use. If you have any do get on to the document and add them – I’ve embedded it below so you can see how the list is coming along.

Over the next couple of days I’m going to be investigating Evernote and that Apple TV device when it arrives.

To sum up how I’m feeling – I’m not desperately excited about the device in itself, but I am excited by what other teachers and students will do with it when they get hold of them.

What are schools really for?

In a previous post I quoted the research that shows that schools contribute around 20% to the achievement of any particular student. The other 80% comes from a student’s family and community.

This opens up a question then – what are schools really for?

Should we

see them as ‘education-only’, with the intention to do that 20% really brilliantly?

Or should we

see schools as a vehicle to break into that 80% – to break into families and communities, making school’s not just about education, but about social services, family support, better parenting, medical aid and so on…

For those of us who would like to see schools treated as the former, it is depressing when government and media make decrees as if schools are the panacea for all society’s problems.

Policies such as judging schools with league tables, or judging SMSC (Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural education) in Ofsted, are both methods to try to force schools to break into that magic 80% of achievement that is actually held within the student’s community. Similarly fads such as SEAL, P4C, VAK learning styles and the like, whilst they can have their own educational merit, can also be used to force teachers into educating into that same 80%, when perhaps their efforts would be better served focussing on the 20%.

Myself, I’d like to be able to that 20% really, really well, without working in the fear that I am actually being judged on the entire 100% of a student’s life chances.