Learning the Banjo #1

I am pleased to announce a new category on my blog: Banjo.


And I know thousands of people will be delighted to hear that I received a banjo for Christmas. I am intending to dedicate at least one post a week to my progress on learning the banjo. I know if you’ve read some of my education posts you might be thinking that I’m about to use a banjo as some kind of metaphor for the state of education in the UK. But no. It’s just a banjo. And I’m learning to play it.

Playing the Banjo
Me. Concentrating. On some banjo music.

So as I already play guitar, you may argue it’s a bit of a cheat to be learning the banjo: it’s already a stringed instrument, I’m hardly learning it from scratch.

Fair comment. But a banjo is a different beast. It has 5 strings rather than 6, and one of them is bizarrely high-pitched. In the book I’m learning from, I don’t even know what it’s for yet, and I’ve been practising for 2 weeks. And while I can strum a guitar competently, I’m hardly finger-pickin’ good; from what I’ve seen a banjo requires a large amount of finger-pickin’.

So the book I have introduced me to the banjo, got me to tune it (for which I downloaded the Android App PitchLab onto my phone) and then got me learning to play ‘G’.

Strumming a banjo is really quite a different job from strumming a guitar. I soon learned that the standard song for banjos is in 3/4, rather than 4/4 (4/4 is all a bit too pop). And I soon learned that the standard strum begins with a pluck of a single string, rather than strumming all of them. Pick first, strum later. Whereas with guitar it’s more strum first, pick later. Here’s me trying to strum ‘Clementine’ last night (as in ‘Oh my darling…’).

Oh My Darling Clementine version 1

Then of course there’s the whole, actually picking out a tune thing. I’ve never even tried on a guitar, but it seems to be more expected on a banjo. So here’s me having a go at ‘Yankee Doodle’

Yankee Doodle

Tomorrow, I am looking forward to bringing my banjo into my school. I haven’t done show and tell for about 35 years, so it’s going to be fun to stand in front of the assembly, show the children how far I’ve got in two weeks and get them to challenge me to learn more. I might even challenge them to see what they will learn this year.

The Pros of iPads and Chromebooks

Having spent the previous three posts musing on the destructive arguments of favouring one device over another, I thought I’d spend a few moments listing what I think are the pros of both iPads and Chromebooks.

Sorry no cons here.


  • So intuitive your granny could use one, and she probably already does.

  • Brilliant at multimedia work – take photos, shoot videos, record sounds, apply green screen effects, mix, edit and publish – they’re all-in-one technology perfection.

  • The app store increases flexibility no end – they can literally do nearly anything because of that saying “there’s an App for that”

  • Robust and reliable – good build quality means they last well.

  • Regularly updated – support for the operating system is excellent.

  • Super fast – switch it on and it works within 8n seconds, taking minimal time from lessons


  • Cheap – chromebooks can be purchased for half the price of a laptop and with cloud servcies such as Google Apps can be just as productive.

  • Flexible – the chrome webstore allows for a wide variety of apps to be used.

  • Easily managed and controlled. With Chrome management, Chromebooks can be setup to suit the exact needs of the user who logs in.

  • Multi-user – a Chromebook behaves according to the login credentials, making one device suit many students.

  • Regularly updated – Chrome Os is updated frequently, meaning that it gets better over time.

  • Super fast – switch it on and it works within 8 seconds, taking minimal time from lessons

Raising Standards at #BETT_2014

It’s easy to get blinded by the shiny when you visit BETT. Acres upon acres of fantastic equipment, software and services feast your eyes. Eager young sales-people yearn to catch your attention. Each one wants to show you how their product will change your school.

I know I’ve been blinded by the shiny in the past. I’ve come across products that I’m convinced will make that one amazing difference to my students. But when I’ve invested the cash, actually they haven’t. Staff and students have been disappointed instead.

The problem with technology is that with every failure, a significant number of staff within a school are disenfranchised. Education, which is essentially a simple process involving teacher and student, is sometimes not served by extra layers of technology. And when technology becomes a barrier certain teachers are put off, sometimes for good.

So this BETT I get to do a short talk myself. I’m on at the leader’s summit talking about raising standards. If you’re there at 1:15 on Friday January 24th you can catch what I’m going to say, which is essentially the story of using technology well to raise standards. I’m concerned about the amount of money that gets spent on technology without this focus and my story is one of success with limited budgets, where children achieve even in deprived circumstances. I’ve entitled my talk Raising Standards with technology: How to make the most of Pupil Premium Funding, but I guess I could have entitled it Raising Standards in Austerity Times.

Hopefully see you there!

iPads are inherently evil

To understand this post you really should read this previous one first.

Of course, iPads aren’t actually evil, but let’s just pretend that they are.

Let’s start with the money. All those hundreds of pounds for a device produced in Chinese factories where working conditions are at best questionable. And then you get it and it can’t connect to the wifi particularly well.

And speaking of money, Apple only pay 2% tax in the UK. 2% on 7.4 billion profit, when corporation tax is in the region of 24%. That means they could be paying another 1.4 billion – roughly an iPad for every Primary school child in the country.

Then there’s all the Apps. when you buy an iPad you need to budget for a whole load more money to get the basics.

And the compatibility issues. They virtually don’t sync with anything. Well, maybe a bit with Dropbox. And Google Drive. And some other cloud platforms, but hardly anything. Once your data is in Apple format is it easy to get out? No – I don’t think so!

I mean: what is the point of an iPad?

Chromebooks are inherently evil

To understand this post, you really should read my previous post first.

Chromebooks, of course, are not inherently evil, but let’s just say that they are.

For a start, £200 for something that only browses the web? That is ridiculous isn’t it. For £200, you could buy a decent phone that does the same thing. You could probably spend that money more productively on a camping holiday in Shropshire. Or a really nice bottle of whisky.

Then there’s Google. The company that pay no tax. And they’re the only ones doing it. Not Apple or Dell or any other tech companies, who of course are the model of civic consciousness. I heard someone say that if Google paid their tax, every child in the country could be bought a Raspberry Pi…

And what do Google get out of Chromebooks. They get our data. All that information that tells them how to send us just the right advert to tempt us, to make us spend even more of our money.

And there’s the World Wide Web itself. That vile world of http which is about one quarter porn, another quarter gambling and the rest spoof sites and wikipedia.

I mean what is the point of a Chromebook?

On the idea that a device can be ‘evil’

"Cuddling with multiple Devices" by Adactio from Flickr
“Cuddling with multiple Devices” by Adactio from Flickr

I was at a fascinating conference in December about computing in primary school. More thoughts, I’m sure will follow. However it was something other than computing that got me thinking. Without naming names, I heard one presenter say: “iPads: don’t get me started on iPads.” Then, the very next presenter said, “I really dislike Chromebooks.”

I have mixed feelings about both of these statements. I was sitting at a Chromebook at the time, busily tweeting away as I took advantage of the frankly fantastic wifi offered by the Cumberland Hotel. Thinking about the previous few weeks however, the very best lessons I had taught involved using iPads. I like both devices. In fact I’d go on to say that my favourite device is actually my Windows laptop, because it’s so wizzy.

What’s more I really like the idea of children benefiting from using a mixed economy of devices. I think the flexibility learnt from using different devices is invaluable. That’s why, despite being a complete Google fanboy, I still purchased iPads for my school. And upgraded teacher laptops with windows devices, not Chromebooks.

What I’m saying is that I am for flexibility. I am for children learning with different technologies, different operating systems, different interfaces.

I could go on. I could specify what I think the pros and cons are for the different devices I have mentioned. But there’s a wider point here. As teachers we are inherently positive people. We teach for a reason – we believe we have something to offer our children – that education is a gift, something that will benefit them, give them knowledge and maybe even hope for a better future.

If we start defining ourselves by what we are not, or by what we don’t do, then we diminish ourselves. Unless we are dismissing items and actions that are inherently evil, we should stick to emphasising what we are for.

And neither iPads or Chromebooks are evil, are they?

  • Social Slider