Can’t just Google it

Sometimes thoughts and ideas gel in the most unexpected ways.

I’ve been mooting a post on Facebook and social networking in general. I fully understand concerns that the Pedagogue’s boss has—to the extent that he thinks teachers should stay off social media since the potential risks are too great. However I suspect that betrays a misunderstanding of how social media can and should be used.

Used responsibly, it can be a significant tool for both the teacher and learner, providing us with ever expanding ways of accessing, disseminating, discussing and digesting.

We also cannot escape the fact that students will use it. Being users themselves, teachers will be better equipped to advise and guide and warn of the pitfalls and dangers. We should not take a head-in-the-sand approach.

We talked today about students who come from poorer families, typically these students are or have recently been in receipt of free school meals. Many will come from households where they have no access to a computer or the internet.

This was brought home to me last week, when I watched students struggling with basic skills that most of us take for granted, such as typing with a minimum of two fingers. Most striking was some students complete lack of understanding about how to use the most basic of tools—a search engine (aka Google) to find the simplest of information.

It’s stating the obvious to say that online skills are essential; it’s not so obvious that many students lack them. We need to use and understand Twitter, Facebook et al so we can both help, support and if necessary protect our students as learners and as children.

Elastica :: Connection

Quickly learning the language

There are some things we take for granted in education, none more so than the immutable truths that good schools have strict rules, a uniform and stream their classes.

I’m not, for the moment, concerned with the first two, suffice to say that there are good schools all over the world that don’t require a uniform.

But over the course of the past three weeks I’ve observed more than a dozen lessons in many subjects and the one that stood out was a GCSE Spanish class given by an NQT and former Shotton Hall trainee.

Not only was it the best lesson I’ve seen, but it was the only one where the students weren’t streamed. Such was the small number who had opted for Spanish that all were lumped in together.

There is little evidence, it seems, that streaming has any advantages for the more able kids—those it is purported to help—and plenty that it holds back those at the other end of the learning train. It’s the kind of “common sense” solution that fails to stand up to scrutiny, serving only to placate parents, politicians and teachers while providing no discernible benefit for the very people for whom its should.

We accept that within streamed classes we must differentiate—it’s a key Ofsted tenet that per se suggests streaming is recursive if not redundant. Yet we persist with it and all the negative connotations and impact it has for the less able.

I found myself in that Spanish class while trailing an extremely able year 5 student for a day. I asked him which of the lessons he found most challenging: yes, it was Spanish, because, as the student said, the teacher had ensured that he was as stretched as the pupils who evidently found the language more difficult.

It’s food for thought. Mmmm, Spanish food…

The Fall // I’m Going to Spain

The sacred bowl of Vakr

Each of you must drink from the sacred bowl of Vakr. You will then be awake for the first time in your lives to the words that are true. You will know what we have always known. Drink now. Make sure all share Vakr’s gift.¹

We’ve talked a lot about VAK recently, the idea that there are three types of learners: those who respond to visual stimulation, those who prefer audio and the kinetics, who need manual interaction.

To those three is sometimes added reading and wring, indeed it is often known the VAK/VARK model. Anyone can find out their supposed learning preference by completing the VARK questionnaire

It seems plainly obvious that the questionnaire makes several assumptions and that these assumptions inform its results. Chief among them is the assumption that we are capable of accurately assessing and reporting our own learning behaviour. We are also expected to have an accurate memory of past decision making, to be able to reliably select from a list of unlikely scenarios (to reliably speculate on learning, in other words)² and to assume that all methods of presenting the same information are equal.

There are too many variables.

VARK is based on theories of euro-linguistic programming that have been widely discredited, not least by a Newcastle University review of the relevant literature.

The problem as far as I see it is that students can be pigeonholed as one type of learner with their learning consequently tailored to that approach.

It also becomes self-justifying. Students who see themselves as visual learners will seek out visual sources.

In fact we are all capable of learning in many ways. Before we are five we learn to recognise and manipulate physical objects, to speak, to walk, to understand, all without any kind of learning model.

Any approach to learning should be multi-faceted, incorporating all aspects of the VAKR paradigm. Make sure all share Vakr’s gift.

Half Man Half Biscuit // Dickie Davies Eyes

Mention the Lord of the Rings just once more and I’ll more than likely kill you.

¹ Dean Stevens // The Norgard Saga Episode 12

² For example, the options in this question simply aren’t or have never been available, so how can anyone evaluate them as a concrete learning experience?

“You are using a book, CD or website to learn how to take photos with your new digital camera. You would like to have:
-clear written instructions with lists and bullet points about what to do.
-a chance to ask questions and talk about the camera and its features.
-many examples of good and poor photos and how to improve them.
-diagrams showing the camera and what each part does.”

Don’t make the task easier, making the thinking easier

When I started this course differentiation scared me. Even its Wikipedia page is scary, though not as terrifying as integration’s.

Differentiation still scares me, mathematically speaking, but I know that it’s a suppressed memory that will return with time, like kinematics did earlier this week.

But right now its another kind of differentiation that’s occupying me.

When we started this course, a little over four weeks ago, I think it’s fair to say that all of us put subject knowledge at or close to the top of our lists of a teacher’s key concerns.

We were wrong; none of us would be on the course if there had been any question that we couldn’t cope with the material. Subject knowledge is a given.

A couple of weeks ago most, if not all, of us would have said behaviour was our main concern. Many may still say that and with good reason.

But crucial as it is, it doesn’t pose the same pedagogical challenges as differentiation. No one ever learnt anything by behaving well. (You could argue that the best learning comes from breaking rules, not obeying them, but that’s a blog post for another day.)

Differentiation is pedagogically critical. No, not calculating “sensitivity to change”—not even in maths—but ensuring that everyone in each class is engaged in learning and making observable progress. We manage it on the crudest level by organising students into year groups and sets, but within those the variation in engagement, commitment, “ability”, motivation and self-regard can be huge.

The size of the gap only becomes truly evident when you teach. Faced with 22 students, there are dozens if not hundreds of possible variations. You simply cannot plan for all of them.

The crudeness of class and year organisation are matched by the crudeness of the standard approach to differentiation: bronze, silver and gold tasks. Each teacher will have their own nomenclature for each level of difficulty (red/amber/green; tough/tougher/toughest etc.), but the principle of stepped tasks remains the same.

I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad idea. Two days ago I doubt I would even have questioned it.

Then I read a David Fawcett blog post, Can I be that little bit better at…..understanding why I might be getting differentiation wrong, whence the title of this post was taken.

Instead of making the outcomes of tasks easier for different groups of students, structure the thinking behind it that little bit better. A colleague of mine said a few months back that ultimately, every student in her class, regardless of ability, will have to sit the exact same exam with the exact same time limit as everyone else. Making tasks easier for some just means that they will know less. I have to agree. Gone are the ‘must, could, should’ objectives and differentiated endpoints. Instead every student has to learn the same key content, but, the way each student thinks and gets there may be different.

Most of the differentiation we do in lessons happens in response to the events that unravel. Yes we can plan until the cows come home but it’s the moments in a lesson when you have to rephrase an instruction, give a prompt when someone is stuck, pose a tough question that spins a student on their head when they are flying.

The opportunity presented itself to me today on a couple of occasions, but rather than spinning the student on their head, instead of empowering them, I stuck to my lesson plan.

Of course, making the thinking easier is much more challenging than making the task easier, but it’s only by challenging myself that I will continue to revel in this experience.

It’s the reason I decided to do maths (apart from the government’s ridiculously lopsided and shortsighted approach to teacher training funding): if I challenge and question myself in every aspect of my teaching I will be better able to encourage my students to challenge and to question.

Writing a blog post can be an easy task—I should know, I’ve rattled of a few in my time. I could make it more difficult, perhaps, by using more complex grammar constructions and richer vocabulary or by attempting to cover more ground. But where’s the thinking in that?

The Smiths // What Difference Does it Make?

I before E except after C

It’s weird how such a misleading, useless rule has become part of our venacular, reintroduced and reinforced with neither question nor qualification. Just this week an English teacher mentioned it in a session on literacy; as a species we should reject such unscientific explanations as disarmingly insufficient.

You might say that these are the exceptions that prove the rule; but as Wikipedia notes some authorities deprecate the rule as having too many exceptions to be worth learning. Only some‽

The “i before e” rule is perhaps the classic misconception, but it is far from alone.

Science is full of them: blue blood in the veins, for example, or the idea that organisms evolve “intelligently” to adapt to their environment.

Maths too, such as two negatives make a positive (not if you add them, they don’t), multiplying makes numbers bigger (not with fractions) and many more.

But how do we address these misconceptions? One teacher has argued that we need to include them in our lesson plans, raise them with students and point out that they are wrong. I’m uncomfortable with this approach.

It assumes that all students are aware of and may apply the misconceptions. Clearly this is not true; there are just too many. I’d wager, were I a betting man, that even the most seasoned maths teacher would struggle to list all those I linked to above.

Why would you introduce a misconception, running the risk that that is what a student takes away from the lesson?

Even if it’s a common misconception, why not spend valuable lesson time reinforcing the good learning rather than dwelling on what’s wrong. It’s like teaching someone to bake cake by telling them all the mistakes they could make—they’d be no nearer able to bake a cake than they would have been when you started.

When I worked at Berlitz, the world’s leading language school, one golden rule was that you never repeated a students mistake. You didn’t want them to hear the mistake, only the correct version. I feel this holds true for any discipline.

As a trainee teacher I need to be aware of the misconceptions that students may bring to class and be prepared to deal with them. And the best way to deal with them is to set the students on a path that leads them to the correct understanding; by the time they get there they’ll have forgotten that they ever thought 2³=6. Or that I comes before E.

The Wedding Present // Anyone Can Make a Mistake

What’s the point?

I love Pointless, the BBC quiz show that comprises the only regular, daily TV consumption in my household.

Of course any show co-presented by a Fulham season ticket holder should be compulsory viewing, even without Richard Osman’s eminent football credentials, his chummy, amusing banter with Xander Armstrong, the misappropriation of the word “podium” and the startling (and for teachers, portentous) ignorance of many of the contestants.

Then there’s the buzz of getting a pointless answer. You don’t get that kind of thrill on Eggheads. (You don’t get any kind of thrill on Eggheads.)

It’s a buzz that we should want to see in our students. We don’t want them just to get the obvious answer. What we want are the pointless answers, the answers that the least number of people have given.

Yes, we want them to know about the Central African Republic, about Molybdenum (is there a better word in the English language?), about assassinated US presidents and UK prime ministers (Spencer Perceval since you ask).

But we also want them to think pointlessly—to ask themselves, “What isn’t obvious?”, ”What isn’t the teacher telling me?”, ”What can I discover?”

We should want then to ask why, despite its significant uranium and oil reserves, gold and diamond deposits and significant quantities of arable land, is the Central African Republic among the ten poorest countries in the world.

Why does the word molybdenum sound so good? Why did a band from Leeds write a song about Spencer Perceval?

Unfortunately we can’t add £250 to a jackpot every time this happens, but we should be just as excited as I am when Richard reveals the list of pointless answers and mine is on it.

iLikeTrains // Spencer Perceval

And this is me

I graduated in 1988. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, nobody had heard of Simon Cowell and beer was not much more than a pound a pint.

I moved to London, worked in business publishing for a few years before moving to a printing firm where I set up and ran their digital press systems and workflow.

In 2000 I changed career for the first time. In hope rather than expectation I applied to be the editor of the MacUser website. I spent four years in the job, successfully growing the readership despite ill-advised management decisions that have since been reversed. It’s nice to be proven right occasionally!

In January 2005 I moved to Brussels and became a freelance editor and writer, which I continued to do after moving to Switzerland in 2009. In 2011 I returned to Brussels and decided I needed a change. That was when I discovered teaching, spending two years as an EFL teacher till I returned to the UK at the end of 2013.

I am a keen cook, cyclist, Fulham FC fan and music blogger, an eclectic reader, with interests ranging across sport, especially cycling, history, popular science and contemporary culture, and an enthusiastic exponent of modernism, especially brutalist architecture. Since starting this course I’ve had next to no time for any of these.

I try to speak Belgian French with a bad accent and German with a terrible Swiss accent. Fluency is elusive.

I think beer may be our species’ greatest achievement.

These are facts:

  • There are almost 19,000 songs on my iPod;
  • I’ve watched the entire series of The Wire four times;
  • I jabber if I try to speak when I meet anybody famous, especially if they’re one of my heroes;
  • I have an unhealthy obsession with my socks (though, healthily, not with anyone else’s);
  • Steve Wright-in-the-afternoon doesn’t know what “factoid” means.

The following things annoy me:

  • Calling the place they stand on Pointless a “podium”;
  • TV, comfortable shoes, unpolished shoes, men in hoodies, comic books (as opposed to comics), ill-fitting jeans and anyone who generalises about cyclists—I accept that this list is irrational and stupid (last one excepted);
  • The Metro centre road system and car parks, which can only have been designed by a lunatic;
  • The excessive misuse of the following words: legend, hero (see above) and icon;
  • Fulham FC.