The elephant in the purpos/ed room

Elephant in the Room
The elephant in the room

Having signed up early to the 2012 #500Words campaign for Purpos/ed, I was very kindly sent a book with all of the posts from the 2011 campaign. Thank you Andy and Doug. So naturally I did with the book what I am reluctant to do with my various devices I normally read blogs on – I read it in the bath.

I noticed something that interested me – there’s an elephant in the Purpos/ed room – our beliefs.

While many wrote eloquently and persuasively concerning what they thought the purpose of education really is, very few touched on issues of faith. There are a few oblique references, a mention of a stained glass window, a Bible verse quoted and even one contributor who almost seems to apologise for moving on to spiritual matters.

Yet only one blogger, Nick Dennis, actually hammers his colours to the mast called belief when he announces that he is writing from a standpoint that is “unashamedly liberal and deeply humanistic.” He explains in his post that we need to be clear on our principles if we are to better answer the question ‘what is the purpose of education?’

This got my me thinking about my own post – The Purpose of Education is Hope. I realised that I have some core principles, or beliefs, if you can call them that, that lie behind my post that I should expound upon. My view that all people need hope in some form comes from a Christian perspective. I could go on. I could explain how the joint experience of Jesus’ teachings and Jesus Himself have led me to this belief, but I won’t – that’s another post for another time.

What shocked me was that I felt somehow ashamed to blog such a thing – how could I admit it to my peers? What if some amazing atheist philosopher was waiting around the corner to shoot my beliefs down in flames? And I felt envious of Nick Dennis, who could so boldly write ‘unashamedly’ in his post. And it made me wonder how many other people had done the same thing.

I often hear comments that we are trying to do 21st Century Education on a 19th Century model. And yet the purpose of the National Education League as the driving voice between UK 1870 Elementary Education Act was to create an education system that prepared students for the work place, wresting it from the Church who had become to dominate education the UK education system. Is that much different from the pressures we have on today’s education system? And for that reason, it is even more important that we analyse the principles behind we why educate, both individually and corporately.

And so I would encourage future Purpos/ed contributors to follow Nick Dennis’ advice. Do be clear on your principles. Tell us about your beliefs. Let’s not be ashamed about things we hold dear. It will only make the elephant bigger.

Image courtesy of Madison Guy on Flickr – “You’ve heard of the Elephant in the Room

And… it didn’t work

In my previous post I tried to explain how I was trying to get the internet to do some work for me.

I had been trying to autopost from my self-hosted WordPress account directly to Google Plus.

I tried and failed.

Well, to be accurate, I got so far. I got to the point where my WordPress blog was backed up to Blogger which shared my Google Plus profile and just required simple click of a button in the Blogger Dashboard to post to Google Plus.

But I had wanted to automate even that. When I hit ‘Publish’ in WordPress, I would like my post to go to all the places I want it too, without anymore button clicking. Greedy I know, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

And then Hootsuite came to the rescue.

Hootsuite is one of those ‘freemium’ services which does so much for free, but if you really want to get whizzy you’ve got to subscribe. Fortunately for my purposes, Hootsuite does what I want it too for free.

So I signed up for Hootsuite. I subscribed to Google Plus in it. I took the RSS feed from my blog (I used feedburner to do this) and I went to the Publisher button in Hootsuite (it looks like a paper aeroplane). Then I could choose the RSS feeds option to make my blogs feed appear in Google Plus.

Well I think so anyway. This is my first attempt, so I’m about to see if it works.

I just have to press ‘publish’ and wait.

Wrestling with the Internet

I’ve been wrestling with the internet. Wrestling with rules that I haven’t written.

What I’m trying to do is to be able to write something in one place and then for it to appear in other places. Some people call this autoposting. I call it saving my time.

Many services offer this already. For example, when you take a picture on Instagram you can make it appear in Facebook, or Twitter, or Foursquare.

For other services you have to do things that are a bit more involved. For example, I choose to keep my blog on a self-hosted WordPress site. This means that I own the data, but WordPress offers some handy formatting. I had previously setup Feedburner to tweet whenever I write a new post. Today I’ve also made do the same job.

What I really wanted to do today is make my new posts appear automatically on Google Plus. But it’s been a bit harder than I thought it would. It appears that there used to be a solution, but it isn’t working anymore. The solution involved a backdoor to Google Plus via an SMS service from Google Voice, however this service doesn’t seem to work within the UK, and I’ve read one or two things that indicate it has stopped working elsewhere too. Reading between the lines of other peoples posts in forums and blogs I detect that Google Plus is trying to position itself as the manual posting place – the place where you go to actually write your content.

Myself, I don’t mind that, but when I write a blog post I like to write it in a text editor of some kind – Google Docs or even Notepad do the job. Then I can cut and paste the text into my WordPress Dashboard. This might seem labour intensive to some, but I have had too many experiences of losing a WordPress blog that I’ve been writing straight onto the web dashboard – I need something I can save regularly – and I can imagine the same thing happening if I tried to get into the habit of writing directly onto Google Plus.

So here’s my solution. I’ve setup a new blog on Blogger at I can use to autopost from WordPress to Blogger. I have then updated my Blogger account so that it is using my Google Plus profile.

And now, using this very post, I’m going to find out if it will automatically appear on Google Plus.

“I’d prefer to use the Chromebooks”

It’s taken a good year, but my staff now use Chromebooks with their children as a first preference. Given the choice they put Chromebooks ahead of our other devices.

We have 30 chromebooks in a Lapsafe charging trolley and 30 Windows PCs in an ICT suite. The teachers know the PCs – they’re what we’ve used for years – they’re comfortable with them. But the Chromebooks are now more convenient.

The 8 second start up means very little lesson time is lost at start up. Even if the odd device does not connect to the wifi first time, a restart takes 10 seconds – and now we have an open Meraki network around the school, devices connect 99% of the time.

The portability of the Chromebook means that they work really well in normal classrooms. Teachers can use them in the room where they are most comfortable.

Google Apps makes a big difference too. Being able to produce work in Google Docs, share ideas in Google Groups and output best work to Blogger means the Chromebooks are really versatile, productive devices.

But what summed it up for me was last week when a teaching assistant was acting as a cover supervisor for a teacher who was absent. This particular lady is not the most confident with technology, saw the plan the teacher had left for her and I gave her the choice – ICT suite or Chromebooks.

I’d prefer to use the Chromebooks,” she said.

Gaps in the market #3: books for more able 9 year olds.

A bit like the six year old not challenged by the books that she is actually interested in, the more able nine year old has a similar problem.

This is another of my gaps in the market.

A more able nine-year old has the reading ability of a teenager, but books for teenagers are all a bit, well, teenagery. Books like Skulduggery Pleasant, where the hero is undead, or Beautiful Creatures, with just a hint of sexuality. These books may well be fine for the average 14 year old, but if they’re the current in-thing and the next step up for someone with the reading age of a twelve-year old, they not really suitable for a nine-year old.

Myself, I enjoy sci-fi and fantasy and so I wouldn’t mind encouraging my son to read the same sort of books. I’m not going to force him, mind, just a gentle steer. He already read Lord of the Rings when he was eight, so where do I go from there. George R. R Martin is the current successor to Tolkien, but George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones series is barely appropriate for me, and I’m 40, let alone my little boy.

And so he’s reduced to reading Cressida Crowell’s ‘How to Train a Dragon’ series and the Beast Quest books. All these are fine and firmly within the 9-12 category found in many bookshops. But they level of the text is too easy for my boy – he’s read them in an evening, which means either that reading becomes an expensive hobby, or that the 8-book visit to the library is a weekly visit.

There is an answer of course. Appropriate books at a challenging level do exist and many of them are free. The ‘classics’, like Treasure Island, are a step up and being older than seventy years can be downloaded for free from many places, including the Kindle store. I’m going to encourage my son to read these books of course, but what I would really like is for the authors of popular series for 9-12 year olds to step up their language just a little. Maybe they could write the odd book in their series with just a bit more challenge – so that a book takes more than a single evening to read.

Gaps in the reading market #2: Less able 10 year-old boys

I wrote about my first gap yesterday. My second gap is not so much a gap anymore, because I think it has been filled. But let me explain anyway.

There are a few boys (and possibly some girls too), who don’t get reading at 6 or 7 when they’re supposed to. I’ve met them over the years and they present with a range of reasons for why they can’t read. Family breakdown is probably the main thing, with medication coming in second – either having too much or not having enough. I suppose it’s difficult to focus on reading a book at home when your father is beating your mother regularly and then leaves you, never to be seen again. Similarly with medication: drugs do work, but if they dosage is wrong they really don’t, and this can have a catastrophic effect on learning.

By the time these children get to books the schemes that exist in the infant part of the school just doesn’t suit. The English may be at the right level for them, but the themes are not. These children are watching drama like Eastenders and have lived through some tough stuff themselves. Reading trite stories about animals that can talk can be a little demotivating.

So there was a gap in the market here. Books with easy texts but an early teenage theme to them. And then Rising Stars made Dockside and the gap was filled.

I have to declare an interest here – we use Dockside at my school and it’s brilliant. For the one or two readers who did miss the reading boat the first time around, Dockside has really helped them catch up. They will be going on to secondary school being able to read, instead of pretending that they can.

Gaps in the reading market #1: Bright 6 year old girls

bookshelf in bookshop
Watch out for Rainbow Magic!

I post this, half hoping to be corrected or at least pointed in the right direction.

I believe there are gaps in the market for reading books in the primary age range.
This first one is for able girls who are about 6 and 7 years old.

These girls begin to master the books within their school reading system towards the end of their reception year and begin getting some degree of fluency by the start of Year 1. This means that by their 6th birthday they’re really getting quite good at reading. So they look around at what to read, and of course the main thing girls of that age want to read about is fairies. And unicorns. But mainly fairies. So inevitably they all find the the ubiquitous Daisy Meadows and Rainbow Magic – a seemingly endless sequence of books all about how some girls from the real world meet and actually become fairies. It is, quite literally, every 6-year old girl’s dream.

Now I didn’t mind it when my own six-year old started reading these books. The first couple are pretty good and I could see her gaining confidence in her own reading. But by the end of the first series of seven books I began to get a little tired of the plots and the standard of English. Seriously, I’ve seen books for younger children with more complex grammar and a wider range of vocabulary. Julia Donaldson in her book “Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book”, which I would suppose is read to three or four year-olds, uses the word ‘indignant’. Such a word would never appear in Rainbow Magic.

And then I discovered that there are many more series of seven books. In fact at least ten more. I suddenly had a vision of my daughter reading these books when she’s nineteen.

What I really wanted was some sort of language development in Rainbow Magic: a progressively more demanding vocabulary; greater challenge from more complex sentence structures; that sort of thing. But no. It was all pretty much the same.

So there’s a challenge all you authors – can you write something to engage and challenge bright 6 year old girls. My second daughter is four at the moment – if you could sort something out for 18 months time, I would really appreciate it.

There are only two types of pedagogy

I’ve had my brain cells jangled over the last few days by some of the debate stirred by Michael Gove’s speech to the Social Market Foundation on 5th Feb. An earlier Scenes from the Battleground post gave an almost prescient insight on the subject. I’ve looked at a few tweets and one or two blogs on both sides of a divide that seems to be termed ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’, including this one, which seems to indicate that not all of Gove’s evidence is as positive as it could be.

I don’t think traditional and progressive are helpful terms when thinking about pedagogy.

It would seem that ‘traditional’ means direct instruction. It means drill and practice. It means chalk and talk. It means text books. It means students as expectant yet passive learner. It means teacher as sage, mentor and guardian of knowledge.

Whereas ‘progressive’ means discussion. It means group work. It means pupil voice and co-construction. It means learning styles and putting the child firsts. It means teacher as coach, or even facilitator.

To me such division is destructive. I don’t think of pedagogy in that way.

To me there are only two types of pedagogy – fixed scaffold and negotiated scaffold.

In fixed scaffold the teacher sequences the lessons in a set way that will enable the student to master the knowledge by the end of the sequence. The teacher is entirely in charge of this sequence – they know the start points and the end points and they use their teaching skills to enable their students to succeed through the fixed scaffold they have designed.

In negotiated scaffold, the teacher may still set the end point, but the journey to achieve that end point is negotiated between student and teacher. Together they set the learning goals of the students on a short and medium term and the teacher alters their teaching to suit those short and medium term needs.

In my experience, both of these pedagogies have educational merit. The former allows the teacher to apply all their subject knowledge to a given group of students so they can succeed, while the latter allows the student to feel more ownership over their educational journey, therefore engendering motivation. I have recently blogged why motivation is so important.

In fact I have my own small scale evidence of the success of both pedagogies. Back in 2011 I taught a maths group for a year. They were low achieving, working about two years below national standards and, just as a ‘by-the-way’, they were nearly all girls.

I taught the first seven weeks using an entirely negotiated pedagogy. So much so, that I didn’t even set goals for the children – we used a Google Spreadsheet to share what area of maths the children most wanted to learn. I ran that through a word cloud gadget and the words that came up the biggest became the curriculum. Progressive or what? We blogged about the learning and used the responses from the blogs to go off at tangents and start new enquiries that we hadn’t even considered. At the end of those seven weeks the group had made twice the expected progress.

In the second seven weeks I planned the entire learning sequence myself. I analysed the weaknesses and taught a sequence of lessons that I thought would address those weaknesses. Each lesson was laid down in a strict order a week or two in advance. After those seven weeks, again the group had made twice the expected progress.

Now I fully realise that this small scale research would not stand up to the rigours of academic study, but for me it means that I have started believing that both pedagogies work. And it means that I regularly use a mix of negotiated scaffold and fixed scaffold within the sweep of my teaching each year. I tend to use the negotiated stuff to start things off with a class or a group – to get to know them and to help them feel like they own their learning. Then when I know them well enough I use the a more fixed approach, regularly using direct instruction, but still intermingling the odd bit of group work, discussion, and dare I say it (especially when I’ve blogged so negatively about it in the past), facilitation.

In percentage terms I reckon I may start a term about 50/50, but then move to 20% negotiated, 80% fixed by about mid-term. If that makes me more of a traditionalist, so be it.

The Importance of Motivation

In an ideal world all students would skip happily into schools determined to extract every ounce of knowledge from their able teachers. But it’s not an ideal world and that’s why motivation is important.

Like many, I have marvelled at Sugata Mitra’s success at enabling children to learn to use computers and the internet without even needing to know English. His ‘Minimally Invasive Education’ success in that area had proven results, however I struggle to see how it would translate to my context. If I were to setup a ‘Hole in the Wall’ in the Grosvenor Shopping Centre in Northfield to reach the 40% of the local community who don’t have a home computer nor internet access, I’m not sure if I would have the same results. The fact is that we have free internet access already in our local libraries and yet this service is not oversubscribed with people desperate to gain the benefits of becoming computer or internet literate.

And when Mitra quotes Arthur C Clarke in his Ted Talk on the subject, “any teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be,” I worry about how he is interpreted by his listeners. Can everything be taught by a computer in a wall? Can anything be taught by a computer in a wall in the UK?

I think motivation is the key that turns the engine of education.

In India, where Sugata Mitra’s seminal work took place, there is a national poverty target of 23.9% by 2015. They are not on track to meet it. This means that more than 1 in 4 families live in extreme poverty. For children this means hunger, dirty water, poor sanitation and quite probably living amongst the freely roaming dogs and chickens. For a family, a single educated child can mean wealth beyond all previous comprehension. Therefore the motivation for education is extremely high.

In the UK, the situation sounds similar. One in four children are living in poverty, claims the research. But surely this is a different kind of poverty. In the UK poor children can still expect food, housing, clean water and a free(ish) education. In the UK the electricity supply is pretty reliable, whereas in India even middle-class folk can’t expect to have a 24 hour supply of electricity.

So it would stand to reason that the motivation for education in the UK is not quite so strong as in India. Not all students skip into my school determined to extract every ounce of knowledge from their teachers.

And it is for this reason that schools need some way of motivating their students to learn. Please hear me right: what I am not saying is that we need a new National Curriculum subject entitled “motivation.” But I am saying that motivation is an important issue that needs addressing in any school. How we do it is another question, for another day.

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