Month: November 2014

Stupid things I’m forced to read

If your school is anything like mine, you’ll frequently get handed photocopied extracts of books/articles/handouts that are represented as being important/useful/illuminating/life changing etc. After all, if someone has a particular vision of education, and the power to enforce that vision, they will find something in print to support their point of view and feel the need to share their enthusiasm with others, particularly others who may not share their particular brand of enthusiasm.

So it has come to pass that this particular book came to the attention of a staff member with enthusiasm and a role in “leading change”.

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 9.35.44 pmFirst a word about the author: Dr Nancy Sulla is president & founder of IDE Corp, a “world leader in visioning, designing, and implementing instructional and organizational models that empower all learners” that has been “providing instructional and organizational consulting services to schools since 1987“. LinkedIn tells us that in 1987 Nancy was doing an MA,  has been president of IDE Corp since 1994, when she was also completing an Ed. D in Educational Administration.

So I conclude the author is a consultant who has never taught in schools – just what we need!

This is not a book review, as I’ve only skimmed the book, but an extract (the introductory section) was handed out to me and a number of other staff, and I’d like to share the flavour:

Moving Beyond “Its Always Been That Way”

Consider this anecdote I once heard. A mother is cooking a ham dinner. She cuts off the end of the ham, places the larger piece in the pan, and begins to roast it. Her young daughter says, Mommy, why do you cut off the end of the ham” Mom responds, You know, I’m not sure but my mother always did that. Go ask grandma.” The young girl goes into the living room and asks her grandmother the same question. The response is, I don’t know my mom did that so I did too,” and she turned to her great grandmother and asked why. The elderly woman responded, Well, otherwise it wouldn’t fit in my roasting pan!”

What a wonderful anecdote for the ills of perpetuating the dominant paradigm of schooling. Teachers always stood in the front of the room when I was in school, so that must be where you stand. We always had textbooks, so they must be a necessary part of school. We’ve always had students write and solve problems on the board, so that must a necessary component of mathematics instruction. Its time to think through what schooling looks like and make some significant adjustments to past practices.

Incredibly – this anecdote and its commentary serves as a primary justification for the changes to education that the author proposes in the rest her work. The book quite possibly contains some good ideas and has useful things to say, but I am not going to take seriously a book that treats its audience and its topic with a level of contempt that puerile anecdotes are deemed a sufficient level of argument in a supposedly serious book proposing quite serious changes.

Why do I say that – well consider. An anecdote about cooking a ham is conflated with teaching in a traditional manner. Apparently myself, and anyone else who teaches in the way I do, is only doing so because we unthinkingly ape what happened in our pasts, and our teacher’s pasts, going back who knows how far. When I read that passage I can feel the contempt in the author’s tone – there is not the slightest recognition that I (or others) have ever thought about teaching, about the way I am teaching, about what works or what doesn’t work, or about what’s best for my students.

Furthermore, in a book aimed at teachers, the author considers her passage “a wonderful anecdote for the ills of perpetuating the dominant paradigm of schooling”. The anecdote has nothing to do with schooling, so in other words the author is saying  “you’re only stupid teachers reading this, you don’t need serious arguments or discussion” (which sadly has proven to be correct, or else I would not have been handed her writing to read).

The author has also made the usual argument of proponents of student-centred learning that classrooms and teaching have not changed in decades. Anyone experienced in schools knows that there may be similarities in the way classrooms were organised in the ’50s (say) and the way “traditional” teachers teach now, but they are decidedly not the same. What goes on in my classroom (where students are in rows and I’m at the front teaching) is the product of years of refinement built upon experience, knowledge of students, knowledge of pedagogy, reading, discussion, visiting other schools and classrooms and experimentation with techniques and activities. My classroom of today is not the classroom of twenty years ago when I started teaching, and is not the classroom of my teachers or my teacher’s teachers, despite the superficial resemblance. It is, however, part of a long tradition of what works in education.

In fact the world is full of things that are superficially similar to the same things of decades past, but are actually a product of refinement of what works – think of today’s cars compared to cars of the fifties. Same basic structure, still recognisably a car, but today’s model much better in every dimension.

Look back at the paragraph I quoted and imagine an engineer writing “what a wonderful anecdote for the ills of perpetuating the dominant paradigm of vehicle design” and then proposing a complete re-organisation of cars. Even if the engineer’s ideas were sound, the idea of introducing profound change in vehicle design using an anecdote as a justification is so laughable it barely needs stating.

But in education we get that sort of thing all the time, and often we just lap it up.

The only question worth asking.

Do you have kids yourself and have you ever attended school open days? Or as a teacher have you been present at an open day, wearing a suit you never wear when teaching and showing off equipment that sits in a cupboard 364 days of the year? Well, I have been both of those things, and have decided there is only one question prospective parents should ask teachers:

Would you send your child to this school?

Now its fashionable to think that as a parent you need to find the “right” school for your child – that special combination of atmosphere, teaching, grounds and other children that exactly suits the talents and temperament of your child, but on the whole I think that’s untrue.

For the vast majority of kids any “good” school will do. Every so often there is a child that genuinely needs to be at perhaps a smaller school, or maybe a more caring school, or maybe more sporting school. Or even perhaps a bigger, more anonymous school. And of course some students will thrive at a more academic school.

As teachers, we would like to work in schools that do genuinely care about the students, that push them academically while supporting weaker students, where the atmosphere between students and between staff and students is one of respect. Where on the whole kids get along with each other and where there is minimal disruption in lessons, and what disruption there is is dealt with promptly and effectively. Where the kids are taught well, achieve academically and have a shot at the best universities at the end. And when we find schools like that we tend not to leave, and we are also happy sending our own kids there.

So, would you send your child to the school where you work? At a genuinely good school it would not matter that the student is a son or daughter of a teacher. At my current and previous schools the answer from some of the teachers has been yes – so over the last 10-15 years there have always been students who have had parents on staff and as far as I could see they did not suffer because of it.

But equally I have had conversations recently where the statement has been made “I would not send my child to this school” and I think that’s one of the most damming sentiments a teacher could express, equalled only by “I would no longer send my child to this school”.

So give it a go. To avoid personalising it too much at schools you visit ask “how many staff members have their own kids at this school?” and see if the answer gels with your impression of the school from brochures and displays.

Sugata Mitra & Ken Robinson

This post was initially just going to be about Sugata Mitra, with a separate post on Sir Ken, but after thinking about it I decided to write on both. Earlier this year I attended a conference that featured both Sugata Mitra and Sir Ken giving keynotes, and to certain educationalists (note – I did not say teachers) that’s a combination that sends paroxysms of delight shivering down their spines, equivalent to the shivers the teenage girls I teach would get at the thought of attending a 1D/5SOS double bill concert.

Now we all know Sir Ken, as his bio on his personal website begins:

“If there was a moment when our crisis in education hit critical mass it may well have been the date Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk went up on YouTube. In just 19 minutes his wry but eviscerating presentation gave voice to what so many of us are living through: our schools are failing to recognize creativity; we’re failing to prepare the next generation for the challenges that lie ahead.”

Hubris, anyone? (and guess – does he call his site kenrobinson.com or sirkenrobinson.com?)

However, it is true that among the people reading this roughly 100% will have seen his famous TED talk, and I’m ashamed to admit that I was once once of those self-important w@ankers that played it at a staff meeting and forced the whole staff to watch (but on the plus side I got years of bankable credit with the Art department). When you think carefully about what Sir Ken is saying you realise it can be summed up in the phrase:

“all teachers are shit”

Yes, Sir Ken believes everything we are doing is wrong, and we are ruining the current generation just as surely as we ruined generations past – setting them up to fail, and at the same time destroying the future economies of our respective countries, because what we are producing is not what is, or will be, required.

Now why Sir Ken is wrong has been expressed much more eloquently than I could here and here (but I will say that if he truly believes schools are killing creativity or do not provide enough time for the arts he must be willfully blind whenever he sets foot in a school) but the interesting thing is how believable he is. He does have a special gift when talking, with lots of wry little comments and self-deprecating jokes. Here’s an example from an interview he gave:

It’s always important for adults to remember they were once children themselves. I mean, I was. I have to admit to this. I spent my early life as a child.”

He’s just so cuddly I could just eat him up. At the conference he was equally wryly amusing, and had the audience eating out of his hand, nodding sagely at points he made, live tweeting “I’m listening to SIR KEN ROBINSON!!!!!!!”  and laughing after every little joke – in some cases laughing before every little joke because we knew what was coming. And at the end of his talk (summary “you are doing everything wrong”) he received a standing ovation from the thousands (literally – it was a big conference) in the audience.

Can you picture that – thousands of teachers applauding a man who had very nicely told them they had been approaching their life’s vocation completely the wrong way. To be fair much of the audience were administrators or other educationalists (because most teachers don’t get to go to interstate conferences) and among that audience saying “your teachers do everything wrong” was preaching to the converted.

Equally as amusing was the hero worship that preceded and followed Sir Ken’s talk – most subsequent speakers managed to drop the lines “as Sir Ken said at dinner last night” or “talking to Sir Ken at drinks yesterday” or “as Sir Ken also believes” etc etc ad nauseam. I was waiting for the “as Sir Ken said while we were standing at the urinals…” but alas, it never came.

But if Sir Ken was top of the bill at the conference a close second was Sugata Mitra. If you ever get the chance to hear Sugata at a conference watch his TED talk first, then save your time and money as you’ll just hear the same thing.

Sugata is famous for his Hole in the Wall experiment where computers were placed in the wall of buildings in poor Indian townships, and then left there with no instructions or explanation. When the researchers revisited they discovered that the children had a) taught themselves to use the computer and the internet, b) taught themselves English and c) taught themselves advanced genetics. From this experiment Sugata concluded that students do not need teaching or teachers – their natural curiosity coupled with internet access will lead to all the learning they need. A nicely written alternative view of the experiment is here.

A subsequent development has been his idea of “Self organised learning environments (SOLE)” which is at its simplest groups of students with internet access, and occasional skype sessions with a “skype granny” to aid the learning process. Again, naturally curiosity will lead students to the learning they need.

So unlike Sir Ken, Sugata doesn’t (necessarily) believe that teachers are shit, just that they are unnecessary. However, luckily for him Professors of Educational Technology at Newcastle University are in demand, so there’s career hope for us yet.

As it happens I have been part of a massive experiment – in this experiment tens of thousands of students were not given access to a lousy computer in a hole in a wall, but were given their own laptop! I am in daily (yes daily) contact with a subset of these students and I would like to report the following results:

a) all students have learnt how to use the machines (so Sugata & me best buddies on this)
b) no students have taught themselves a foreign language 😦
c) advanced genetics nowhere to be see 😦

However

a) advanced game playing much in evidence
b) advanced k-pop listening and viewing also in evidence

The students do use their laptops to extend learning initiated by teachers and teaching, but this sort of thing doesn’t count in Sugata’s view (I assume!). But saving Sugata’s bacon I have discovered that sometimes students look things up that interest them without teacher initiation. This is a completely new development because before the laptop initiative no students anywhere had ever looked things up in, say, a book.

I have also been part of a concurrent initiative where adults have been given access to a laptop, and have daily interaction with other adults who are expert in certain fields. This experiment took place in a “school”. I’m sorry to report that none of the adults in this experiment that were, say, History experts, have had their natural curiosity and access to other experts lead them to learn Physics. As it happens none of the Physics experts have learnt any Art History. And most shockingly, none of the Drama experts have learnt any advanced Mathematics – and vice versa!

The only conclusion is, pace Ken Robinson, that schools have killed their natural curiosity and creativity. He is right, after all.