On Being Professional


I’ve had that term thrown into my face recently. “It wasn’t very professional when he spoke like that,” referring to a time when I didn’t use standard English in a conversation. And I’m sure I’ve been guilty myself of using the word in the we-should-be-more-professional-about-this context.

But being professional is simple. It means being part of a profession. And if you’re a teacher, being professional means being a teacher.

We sometimes place too much on a word, and I think ‘professional’ is one of those words. I obviously can’t speak for other professions, but I think the following is true for teaching:

  • When we say we should be more professional, we don’t mean we should teach better, we mean we should be more serious. Let’s be honest, we often mean let’s pay more attention to health and safety.
  • When we say we should speak professionally, we don’t mean we should speak in a way that helps us teach better, it means we should always use standard English, avoid the colloquial and don’t say anything funny.
  • We when say we should behave like a professional, we mean be honest, but not too honest. Dress smartly. Set an example. Arrive at school really early and work really late.

I’ve had conversations with school leaders where it is obvious that ‘being professional’ also means: don’t use social media; don’t blog; don’t have an opinion.

If you are a ‘professional teacher’ it means that you are paid to teach. You are not an amateur. You are paid because your country values what you do. Your country values your contribution to society.

Being professional does not bestow some angelic status upon us. We teach. Children learn. That’s it really.

The coming mathematics apocalypse

I am tremendously excited by the current maths curriculum in English primary schools. The expectations are higher by at least a year. It is a no-nonsense raising of standards.

I’m excited because if we can find a way of teaching the curriculum successfully, then our students will have levels of maths previously unheard of in this country. They will be on top of the mathematical world. The average will be above average. They will have the skills and knowledge to found an empire of learning.

Not only is the curriculum at a standard that is a year higher than the previous curriculum, but there is talk of the floor standards, already raised from 60% to 65%, to be raised further to 80%. This means that schools will have to find a way of getting more of their students to a far higher standard. What a fantastic aspiration.

But it’s the ‘if’ I see as being a problem. Let’s face it: we don’t currently have the maths specialists we need in Years 5 and 6 – the upper years of primary school. Secondary school maths departments complain of misteaching, cramming for the end-of-primary-school SATs and students without the knowledge they need. What will it be like with even higher standards, both on the level that children must attain, and also the number of children that must attain it?

I see three options:

  1. Success – we achieve the ambition. We find a way of teaching more of our children to a higher standards than previously attained. A golden age of knowledge is ushered in.
  2. Cheating – we pretend to achieve the ambition by blurring further the grey line between supporting students and telling them what to do in tests. The nation lurches towards a moral crisis.
  3. The Maths Apocalypse – We ramp up the stress. School leaders put the pressure on their teachers with the higher expectations. The teachers crack under the pressure and shout things at their students like: “why don’t you just get it!” A generation is turned off everything to do with mathematics. It’s a maths apocalypse.

The problem with raising standards for students is that we also need to raise standards of teaching. Many primary teachers have a ‘C’ grade GCSE in maths, yet the maths expectations now required would go a long way towards achieving one of those ‘C’ grades.

The clock is ticking. In 2016, the first cohort of students will be tested on the new curriculum. Only eighteen months away and staff rooms across the country should be buzzing with conversations around how we teach maths and the subject knowledge we need. Networks of maths co-ordinators will right now be exemplifying the standards – turning the words into maths that can be taught and practised. Experts from teacher training will be working closely with schools, finding ways of bringing their new trainee teachers up to the required standard and sharing some of their training expertise with teachers who are struggling with their own maths. Teaching schools will be focusing on developing their Specialist Leaders for Education in mathematics so that schools within their networks without maths specialists have a means of accessing their expertise.

We have time to prepare and to succeed. Doing nothing will only prepare us for the mathematics apocalypse.

Collecting Tweets

Occasionally I get interested in the science of social media. I think: wouldn’t it be interesting if I can analyse this in some grand way. Wouldn’t it be great if I could collect a load of tweets about something, crunch them and then make some world-changing conclusion.

Of course there’s Storify. I’ve not used it until today, but I’ve seen others produce interesting stories of events from them. I made my first one today. 2 minutes of signing up and clicking things created this (a story of posts about the recent London Google Teacher Academy).

What intrigued me is that during the same event, I noticed that ifttt.com broadcast a way of collecting tweets. There is now a recipe for collecting tweets with a certain hashtag and sending them all to a Google Spreadsheet. I’ve done this a few times with the #gtauk tweets and collected the tweets in three separate spreadsheets here:

Of course, the next challenge is to do something with all that information. This is where something like Storify comes in handy – it already has a way for publishing the posts in some interesting ways.

My first #gtauk word cloud
My first #gtauk word cloud

All I could thing of doing was making a Word Cloud of the tweets, which I did on my iPad (for the first spreadsheet) using an App called ‘Word Clouds‘.

For the second spreadsheet, I again took the tweets to word cloud, but this time used Wordle, which is slightly ironic because Wordle uses Java Applets and so doesn’t work on either of my chromebooks, nor my iPad. I increased the irony by posting the Wordle-generated images to the Google Teacher Academy Google+ Community.

I admit, that publishing this information is a word cloud is not the most interesting thing to do with these collected tweets – I’m still trying to think of a more useful or interesting way of crunching this data.

The 2nd #gtauk word cloud
The 2nd #gtauk word cloud

I have now finished this experiment by seeing how many #fail tweets are generated on Twitter in an hour. Here’s the Spreadsheet. I’m a bit disappointed really: there were only 74. I thought there would be more than that.

Truth: it’s a belt not a sword.

I could subtitle this: Never trust Christians (or anyone for that matter) when we talk about the sword of truth.

The 'Sword of Truth' series (Terry Goodkind). Great books; bad metaphor.
The ‘Sword of Truth’ series. Great books; bad metaphor.

It’s a powerful metaphor. Truth shaped like a sword cutting through the falsehoods and deceptions of the current world. One of my favourite reads is the ‘Sword of Truth’ series by Terry Goodkind. It’s a fantasy story where the hero searches, finds, loses, uses and ultimately defeats his enemy with this Sword of Truth. However it is just fantasy. Truth is not sword-shaped in the real world.

But I know that at times I have perceived truth in this way – it’s a tool for the confrontation; a weapon to be wielded to defeat the lies I perceive around me.

Imagine you have a tricky relationship. It might be at home, at work, or on social media even and you suddenly realise you have it: the truth that is going to rock their world. You don’t care how they feel because you know it’s going to vindicate your position. And so you wield that weapon of truth, cutting deeply with its blade. All before you falls, devastation is left in your wake…

I was in a sermon recently and the preacher used this metaphor: ‘the sword of truth’. I paused for a moment, not quite believing what I was hearing. Truth can’t be sword shaped if you’re a follower of Jesus, because it would contradict our main purpose: to love.

Truth isn’t a sword. It’s a belt.

It’s the thing you put on before you arm yourself, not the armament itself. It holds your trousers up. It keeps your clothes in place so that if you do have to put armour in, it doesn’t chafe too badly.

Truth is what makes love authentic – love can’t hurt or cut or bite. No, love only mends and fixes and heals and cures. It befriends and consoles and grieves and laughs.

If you hear Christians talk about using truth like a sword, know this: they have something wrong. Truth is not a weapon of destruction.

It holds your trousers up.

Key Stage 2 Maths SATs Analysis

Admittedly, not the most exciting post title you’ve ever seen, but let me draw you in with what I found out:

  1. The greatest proportion of maths expectations we need to improve on at my school come from the Year 1 programme of study.
  2. Two of the key questions that we need to get better at are taught through the KS2 computing curriculum, and not the maths curriculum.
  3. At my school we are really good at teaching calculating and number, but we need to improve at teaching problem solving.
  4. Neat, well presented work does not equate to success in maths SATs.

So, I used a useful spreadsheet I found on the TES website to analyse the maths SATs results from 2014 (you’ll need a TES login to access that link). I was particularly concerned about the 6 children who didn’t make 2 levels of progress during Key Stage 2. Six out of thirty is a large percentage for us: it moved us down from well into the top of the half the country (in terms of progress measures) to well into the bottom half. While there was a back story (read: justification) behind each child, I wanted to look more carefully at the results each child had achieved and find out why they hadn’t quite made the grade.

Having analysed the data, I made a presentation for my staff so we could talk through the issues involved. Why not just talk it through with the Key Stage 2 department? Well as I’ve indicated above, many of the statements where we need to get better at are actually taught from Year 1 or 2. I’ve put this presentation into a Movenote here. Please feel free to watch, but don’t expect quality – I was using Movenote to practice my presentation for the staff meeting on Wednesday – it’s a first take, and I’ll be expanding on many of the points during the actual staff meeting.

My two big considerations are the following:

  1. My children need to get better at logical reasoning to achieve well in maths. Logical reasoning is most explicitly described in the computing curriculum – how can I use the computing curriculum to raise standards in maths?
  2. With the foundation for success clearly coming from the teaching in Year 1 and 2, how can I make sure that this teaching is as good as it can be?

It will be interesting to see if my staff agree with me on Wednesday.

Teaching Computing to Year 5

So, as I said in my previous post, I’ve been teaching computing today. It was a year 5 class with no experience of computer science. Of course the expectations in the National Curriculum are that children know words like ‘algorithm’ and ‘debug’ from Year 1. My intention is to speed the children quickly through the expectations in my planning framework, so that they grasp the Key Stage 1 expectations quickly and make good progress into the Key Stage 2 expectations.

Here’s what I chose to do.

  1. Connect with a programmable toy. The children have been using these for years, but it’s great to give a bit of context. We have some Big Trax in school and I used these to remind the children how you can give instructions to a robot.
  2. Start with Logo. I used the handy browser-based Logo Interpreter by one of those friendly Github types, Joshua Bell. I showed the children how to make the first letter of my surname ‘P’ (the program was: fd 40; rt 90; fd 20; rt 90; fd 20; rt 90; fd 20)
    Kasra used logo to make his 'K'
    Kasra used Logo to make his ‘K’

    and then asked the children to make the first letter of their name. This is actually in the planning for a Key Stage 1 class, but the children have to start somewhere!

  3. Encourage the children to hack. Of course, I really should be moving the children on to drawing different polygons, but there are some amazing program on the Logo Interpreter page, and I wanted children to experiment with changing some of the variables and seeing what would happen. I showed them how to do this and then let them play for a few minutes. I was impressed with the screenshots that Evie took, where she not only demonstrated that she could make a letter ‘E’ but also that she had made the ‘tree’ in the logo interpreter into a much smaller version by changing the variable.
  4. Play with a programming game. Some great games already exist out there, but I chose to use Lightbot. It was interesting to see the children wrestling with the precision needed to use just a few commands to get the robot on the screen to do exactly the right thing.
  5. Program the Sandwich Bot. I told the children that I would become the ‘Jam Sandwich Robot‘ and they had to program me to make a Jam Sandwich. I shared Google Slides with them and, in small groups, they each took a slide to write their ‘algorithm’ (instructions) for the Jam Sandwich Bot. After five minutes, I ratcheted up the intensity by showing the video I had made when doing the same lesson with some Year 4 children. They worked with renewed fervour as they were desperate to be the first to successfully program the Sandwich Bot to make a jam sandwich. This is the video of what happened.
  6. Reinforce the vocab. I finished by spelling out ‘algorithm’ and ‘debug’ and talking about where you would see these occur in real life.

The ‘where next?’ includes an introduction to Scratch and using Logo to experiment with repeated sequences. I would be interested to know whether computer scientists out there are thinking ‘No don’t do that!’ to any I have written above, or if anyone has any better suggestions for how to start this kind of work with children who’ve never done it before.

Teaching computing to a blank page


At my school, I’m on a journey of learning how to both lead and teach computing. I wrote about a planning framework previously. These next 2 posts are about lessons.

In some ways it’s easy teaching computing to children who have had no prior experience. Children at my school, whilst they are strong in IT and digital literacy, have had minimal experience of what used to be called the ‘control’ strand of the ICT curriculum, and is now called ‘computer science’. They are very much a blank page.

I am aware of the damage that can be done to blank pages. When teachers-who-know-a-little misteach, it makes teachers-who-know-a-lot despair. A criticism of much primary science by secondary science teachers is that children often do the fun stuff without really understanding it at primary, so that by the time they’re ready to do the fun stuff and really understand it at secondary, the students dismiss it because they’ve ‘done that lesson before’. Obviously without Bunsen burners. We don’t have Bunsen burners in primary schools.

Another example is algebra. @oldandrewuk was telling me recently how he would prefer it if no algebra teaching was done at primary, because it would make his job teaching algebra in secondary maths so much easier. Non-specialist maths teachers can’t help but teach misconceptions with a complex area such as algebra and thus it would be better to leave it to the specialists.

I’m aware that computing may be similar and I would be interested to know what secondary colleagues think about the computing teaching going in primary schools – do they expect to have to correct children’s misconceptions? Would it be easier to start from a secondary school blank page? Or is some knowledge a good thing?

Either way, I’ve taught three hours of computing today to a class in my school who were very much ‘a blank page’ and I’d be interested for people to pick apart my teaching and consider what is helpful and unhelpful to their long term progression as computer scientists. I’ll write about my lesson in my next post.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/Bunsen_Burner_(PSF).jpg

Computing isn’t just Computing

I know many of you will have got this sorted in your schools already, but for me, in my school, we’ve taken some time to get our heads around the Computing National Curriculum. Part of the reason for this is that English and maths are our top priority – everything else comes second to those two subjects. Children in my school enter the school way below national average and we have our work cut out accelerating progress so that they leave school with the correct standards for English and maths.

But excuses aside, despite being ‘the Computing Co-ordinator’, I am not a natural computer scientist. Yes, I have taught children how to make patterns using logo. Yes we children program roamers in my school. But aside from that, my expertise, and therefore the expertise of the children and teachers in my school is around digital literacy and creating content using different media and technology.

So I was delighted, when I acquired the ‘Switched on Computing‘ scheme (by Rising Stars, written by primary education technology legend and broccoli fanatic, Miles Berry) to see that they have allocated the statements in the 2014 Computing Curriculum into 3 broad sections: Computer Science, Information Technology and Digital Literacy. It meant my school was already quite good at two of the sections – we just had to learn how to do the first.

For me, one way I like to learn things is through re-categorising them. So I took the stuff I knew about and tried to match it up. I know there are lots of great bits of planning out there done by assorted Computing Subject Leaders across the country, with possibly the best being the Google Site produced by the 30 computing experts who first advised the UK government on what should be in the curriculum. However, I found myself going to three main sources:

  1. The Rising Stars ‘Switched on Computing’ scheme of work. This provides six topics per year with suggestions on how to teach them. In Year 6 it becomes quite complex, with a large degree of prior knowledge expected and the implication being that it will become increasingly cross-curricular to find time within the normal school day.
  2. The Computing at School website, which is constantly being updated with handy courses and advice, but also has some simple expectation statements that can be used to define what children should know by the end of each key stage.
  3. Phil Bagge’s website. If you haven’t seen his Jam Sandwich Robot lesson, you really should, especially as it inspired me to make my own version.

I then re-categorised them as follows to make a kind of curriculum planning tool. Paganel Computing Planning (click the link to see the PDF – or you go straight to the Google Drive folder and download it as a docx).

I think it was important to do this, because I have to be realistic about where the children are at – I can’t impose the Switched on Computing lessons immediately on Year 6 as they require a considerable amount of prior knowledge. But if we have those to aim for, with a document that helps teachers identify the prior knowledge required, it should help us get our children to a good standard as soon as we can. After that, what I am excited about is using computing to make our maths standards go through the roof, which is something Conrad Wolfram talks about here.

What I learned from ungraded lesson observations

After 4 years in my role as deputy headteacher, grading every lesson I observed, I finally moved to ungraded lessons this term. I’d like to explain the context of my school here, but for various reasons, not least the brevity of this post, I’m going to limit this post to the things I learned; the ‘why move to ungraded lessons’ can wait for another time.

  1. Teachers talked to me more about their weaknesses. We might dress it up in management-speak ‘areas for development’ but let’s face it, we all have weaknesses. And for the first time in forever teachers were able to talk to me about them. “Maths is not my strong point,” said one teacher, honestly. “No, I find teaching the less able children really hard,” said another. This helps me help the teachers. It means that pride we can adopt based on our last observation is put to one side. We can let it go.
  2. Teachers were more experimental. Previously on a ‘round of observations’, I wouldn’t have seen anything other than quite formulaic: introduction-main activity-plenary lessons. But in this round I saw split introductions where teachers introduced a harder topic for more able children after they had already sent the other groups to the main activity and I saw a lesson which the teacher extended by 20 minutes just because she thought it was going well.
  3. Mistakes were celebrated. I saw a lesson that completely bombed – the teacher and the children knew it. The pitch was all wrong and far too challenging for each group. When I went in later that day the children all told me ‘FAIL – First Attempt In Learning’. They had a laugh about it and went on to having better pitched lessons for the rest of the week.
  4. I noticed things that I hadn’t noticed before. For example in one year group in which I really rate the teacher because she engages the children so well, I noticed a couple of misconceptions that she was teaching the children. They were minor examples of misteaching but would involved some reteaching by another teacher higher up the school at some later date.
  5. There are still some teachers who want to be graded. Some prefer the contentment of knowing that their last lesson was ‘outstanding’. I found it hard to stop myself from confirming an ‘official’ grading and one occasion (slapped wrist, Steve) I did so. Must remind myself to be more determined to remain unjudgemental next time…

Nevermind the moonshot, feel the guilt.

No. It’s not that kind of guilt.

There is one idea that has haunted my thinking in recent months: I could have taught children who now, as adults, are beheading their enemies on behalf of Islamic State.

That hundreds of women and men from the UK have journeyed to Iraq and Syria to fight a brutal war was bad enough. That some of them may have been in my classroom has horrified me. These people have been through our education system. They have walked the corridors of our schools. They have sat in our classrooms. I may have taught them ‘homophones’ or their ‘7 times table’.

Did it matter whether they were taught by evidence-based or evidence-free teachers? Did it matter whether they were labelled as kinaesthetic learners? Did Brain Gym make a difference?

I once wrote that the purpose of education is hope. So where is the hope here? When British people go to join a cause that revels in the genocide of minorities, has our education system failed? Or is this broader than mere education?

I can’t answer these questions on a broad level. And I can’t answer them for any so-called British Jihadis. However I do know something of guilt, firstly that of some colleagues and secondly mine.

Story 1: It was sixteen years ago and I was in my second year of teaching. Returning with 40 children from a visit to a local park, a local youth approached me from behind, hit me hard on the back of my head and knocked me unconscious. There is more of a story than that, I’ll tell it sometime, but for now I’ll focus on the slight sense of guilt I had from my colleagues. It turned out that my attacker had been taught by them. I couldn’t help but sense that they felt they could have done something more when this child had been at primary school. Maybe something that would have stopped the violence.


Story 2: It was earlier this year and I see three young men on my estate who had taught in the same Year 6 class some years before. One of them had been the angry young man of the class – flaring up into uncontrollable anger on a daily basis. I had worked overtime to find ways to include him in my class. It turned out that despite some further flare ups and time in PRUs at secondary, he had settled down, got some GCSEs, joined a local church and community group and looked like become a responsible member of the community. The other two had been underachievers, slightly behind in their reading and maths. I can confirm that I spent less time on them than the first child. Now they both had ASBOs and the first young man warned me to sstay away from them – “they were trouble”.

So there it is. The guilt.

Maybe if I had spent my time better in that Year 6 class I could have helped those children become the kind of students who could have achieved at secondary school. Maybe my input would have made no difference. I know there’s no point living in the hypothetical and I’m certainly not looking for any sympathy.

Last week, at the Google Teacher Academy in London we were ‘Moonshot Thinking’ – thinking of ways that we might make education ten times better than it already is. Is it a moonshot to think we can educate crime and brutality out of society? Or is that beyond moonshot? Was there a point at which a teacher in a school somewhere in England could have said something to the student who later became known as ‘Jihadi John’ that would have stopped him from killing US journalist James Foley?

Is it a moonshot to suggest that all the world’s problems can be solved through education? Or by thinking such aspirational thoughts about education do we inevitably end up finding ways of dealing with guilt brought about by imperfect teachers teaching imperfect students in an imperfect education system?

Image courtesy of http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Caught_red-handed.jpg

  • Social Slider