Author Archives: robinmacp

Scottish EduTwitter⤴

from @ robin_macp

At the start of 2019, UKEdChat.com published a lengthy list of educators to follow in both the UK and abroad. Without wishing to sound parochial, I was frustrated at the presence of just a couple of people based in Scotland. The list is made up by nominations, so it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. However, I know from personal experience just how many people I’m in contact with in Scottish education who have invaluable experience and knowledge that can benefit teachers around the world. After a couple of #FF tweets, I was inundated with many more Twitter handles to add to my list. What follows below is therefore a team effort and one that I hope proves useful to many others.

I’m a big believer in using Twitter as professional (as distinct from social or personal) media. It provides a voice for teachers that allows them to share ideas and blogs, or challenge poor policies and practice. This grassroots community is an essential counterpoise to officialdom that enables us to discuss education in a democratic fashion. Yes, there can be disputes and even abuse, but you can always block or report. I also know from working abroad that keeping in touch with what’s happening back at home is essential, especially if you are looking to return to Scottish education. Thankfully, moving abroad for a spell isn’t the career suicide that I was warned it was when I left in 2008.

So I hope this helps to build Scottish EduTwitter, and gets our fantastic talent in the sector the wider recognition that their work deserves.

NB: if you want to be removed from this list, or your details need to be changed, drop me a line. And finally, there are over 100 individuals on the list, with no rationale to that other than I ran out of steam. It is NOT comprehensive, nor final…

Twitter Handle
@aileendunbar
@ajcorrigan
@AllM14891126
@amweston ‏
@andrewkbailey13
@anna_d_beck
@anneglennie
@BrotherMunro
@carolinebreyley
@catmac705
@ChrisMcGrane84
@ChristineCouser
@ciaracreative
@cijane02
@claganach
@DB_AKODS
@Dean_Campbell_
@DenholmHT
@don_iain ‏
@DrSarahMcG
@DrZoeRob
@EarlyYearsIdeas
@eLearnMissKelly ‏
@emma_r_andrew
@Emma_Seith
@emsosu
@FearghalKelly
@gems_sand
@gibsoni
@GilchristGeorge
@Glazgow ‏
@gray730
@GTCS_Charlaine
@Henry_Hepburn
@IanStuart66
@JebJill
@jminelly27
@johnjohnston
@jonesieboy
@JW_Firth
@kate_wall98
@KateJohnson3
@KCrommie ‏
@kelsmif
@Kenny73 ‏
@kennypieper
@Korenth69
@L0ur0Col
@learningjay
@lenabellina
@Lindabell15
@literacyadviser
@lizziegowans
@loumsanders
@LynneJ0nes
@Margery25
@MarkRPriestley
@MckechnieJanet
@MissAHolmes ‏ 
@MissHiggins6
@MissLapere
@mrallanmaths
@MrBeattieS
@mrdissent
@MrMcEnaney
@MrSMathsWizard
@MrsPert1
@MrsRSeaview ‏
@neiledinburgh
@nickmward
@owexelstein ‏
@PaulineMurray8
@Peter_N_Smith
@pimpmymemory
@princesssandi07
@professoredith
@realdcameron
@relativism
@richardjholme ‏
@robfmac
@roffeme
@Rokewood
@ScotsTeach
@sdisbury ‏
@Sfm36
@stuartphysics
@susanward30
@TheCo_opTeacher
@thegerrydillon
@ValerieDrew1
Organisations
@EducationScot
@EISUnion
@gtcs
@pedagoo
@RCET_Scot
@RemSrebScot
@researchEDScot1

The Effect Size Effect⤴

from @ robin_macp

There’s nothing more satisfying than winning a staff-room or pub argument about what works and what doesn’t by quoting effect sizes. There they are, in black and white: stats that show you are right. Homework is rubbish, class sizes don’t matter, feedback is king. However, my concern is that effect sizes in the hands of uninitiated are like matches in the hands of toddlers. There are a few things to take into account before you swallow the evidence…

What are effect sizes and why are they useful?
Effect sizes are a way of showing the statistical significance of a data set. Put simply, they are useful because they show the difference in outcomes between a test group (which has been given a specific intervention) and a control group (which has had no change to their teaching). The reason they are useful is that they can show the size of the difference between two groups.
For example, imagine an experiment where two groups of 30 pupils had been taught using different strategies and showed a gap in test results of 10%. It seems logical to say that this intervention has been worthwhile. However, what if all 30 of the pupils who received the intervention scored above all the ones in the control group? This would make it even more significant, because it worked for everyone. On the contrary, if the 10% difference came from only 5 pupils who did incredibly well, but the other 25 were pretty much the same as the 30 in the control group, it wouldn’t seem so earth-shattering.
This is where effect sizes come in. If you want to get chapter and verse on how they’re calculated then read Rob Coe’s ‘It’s the Effect Size, Stupid!’ What the effect size does is takes into account the spread of results (the standard deviation). This means that you get a deeper understanding through the context of the results.

Unpacking effect sizes
However, there are a lot of teachers (and school leaders) who bang on about effect sizes as if they are the only thing that matters. According to John Hattie, anything with an effect size of 0.4 or above is meaningful, and above 0.6 has high impact. This has led to lots of stats being parroted in teacher discussions to show which strategies and interventions are the most effective and should therefore be followed without hesitation. Looking at lengthy tables like this would seem to spell out with great clarity what works and what doesn’t:

Hattie

Sadly, it isn’t that simple. Within these stats lie substantial variation. The classic example is homework – quoted here at a modest 0.29. However as various blogs and authors have pointed out (most effectively Tom Sherrington in the Learning Rainforest), the picture changes when we look at primary homework (a paltry 0.15) and secondary (a game-changing 0.64). The older the pupil, the more valuable homework is. Hattie has also pointed out that research is based on what has been done up to now. It may be that primary homework can be set in the future which has greater efficacy, and could change the numbers up the way.

A shift in thinking
What interested me this week was listening to Ollie Lovell’s (@ollie_lovell) thoughts on Craig Barton’s podcast episode ‘A Slice of Advice’. He subsequently wrote this blog post in which he uses his interviews with Adrian Simpson and John Hattie to explain his thinking. What emerges is the problem that an effect size can vary depending on how the experiment is designed, rather than the impact of the intervention. Based on this, Ollie rejects the use of effect sizes and calls them a ‘category error’.
I’m intrigued by this and it represents a significant shift in thinking if we’re going to abandon effect sizes (and the ranking of them) as a meaningful way of evaluating strategies and interventions. I suspect this is a debate that is about to explode, and in all honesty I don’t yet know where I stand on it. I did think the most persuasive point Ollie makes is this:
“Has an effect size ever made me a better teacher? I honestly couldn’t think of an example that would enable me to answer ‘yes’ to this question.”
With that, I have to agree. I also give a lot of respect to Ollie for tackling this head on. He’s ventured into a field that few would have ever considered to question.

Baby and bathwater?
We all know that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. However, Hattie makes a good point: what else are we going to use? I’m not a researcher but a teacher (and not a Maths one at that too), so what I say next should be taken in that context. At present I kick against the trend of effect sizes being quoted haphazardly by teachers in debates as I usually find this reductive. However, until there is a better method of expressing the value of an intervention I think we need to train teachers to be able to reach the story behind the numbers (as Hattie says) or understand the mechanisms (as Simpson says). If the numbers are less reliable than we thought, imagine how much distortion in practice is caused by their blind application in classrooms. While the debate rages effect sizes will continue to be used, so let’s do so with more care than before. Remember, the effect size is the headline, not the article. You need to read on…

The Vantage Point: Lessons of a First Year in Leadership⤴

from @ robin_macp

The Vantage Point: Things I’ve Learned this Year

I’ve just finished my first year in a senior leadership role at a new school and wanted to get across some thoughts about what I’ve learned. A version of this will feature on Craig Barton’s podcast so if you’d rather listen to that (and hear from much smarter people into the bargain) then I won’t be offended…

The Vantage Point of Leadership

I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of presentations about leadership, and much of it is common knowledge and/or common sense. If you work hard, show honesty and care about the people in your school you’ll have integrity. Be lazy, mendacious and heartless and you won’t. However, this tweet from Amy Fast expressed something I had been aware of but hadn’t yet found a way to articulate:

screenshot_20180706-223122801207303.jpg

This is spot on. You can (or should) see the whole of the playing field but you carry no other special powers by dint of your title. I’d like to think the majority of school leaders understand this intuitively, but I suspect they don’t.

On Amy’s point about needing to learn more, I’m about to read Tom Ree’s ‘Wholesome Leadership: the heart, head, hands and health of school leaders’ and love the fact that he has a chapter on staff wellbeing. It should be a good read.

 

The GP-Consultant Model of Leading on Research

I previously worked alongside Carl Hendrick where he was the school’s research lead and I headed up professional learning. I relied on Carl’s expertise when shaping things like INSET days and Initial Teacher Training as his job was to act as a filter for research evidence. Moving to a new school meant that it’s the first time I’ve found myself in this role. I thoroughly enjoy it and have introduced a Professional Learning Reading Group and a monthly Education Research Bulletin. These have had a good response and I’ll look to develop them next year.

However, the more I think about being a research lead the more I realise that, in medical terms, I’m essentially a general practitioner (GP). This is fine – in fact, it’s probably essential – but if you’re going to become a fully research-informed school then you need to extend your capacity. What you need is a team of consultants. To give a specific example, I’ve always taught secondary but now I’m in a 5-18 all-through school I need help from colleagues who are experts in primary pedagogy. I’ve put in place a core team for next year to help me develop evidence-informed practice and am looking to grow this in the long term. A key message here is that this change won’t take place overnight, and you need people who are committed to making the vision a reality.

Directing the Flow of Information

A former colleague of mine used to say ‘know everything, correct enough’ and I think that mantra works for a lot of education. The trick is learning how to know everything. So how do you improve your intelligence gathering and networks?

As a new leader there are people who will challenge you early on, and then there are others who will tell you things quite openly (and perhaps bluntly). However, the silent majority probably won’t tell you important things because they don’t want to burden you, or be seen as someone who is negative or disgruntled. Actually, they need to tell you things that matter. Being approachable does not mean people will approach you.

What you need to do is get your colleagues to tell you what you need to know, as opposed to what you want to know. This will only happen if you build trust and a culture of undefended leadership. It takes time, and a lot of conversations, to get people to this point. However, the more information you have, the clearer your view is from the vantage point.

Visibility versus Priority

It is patently obvious that good leaders need to be visible. However, you can start your day planning to get around and be visible but as things unfold you can find yourself having to work behind closed doors as crises crop up. This also means that much of your work goes uncredited because it’s done covertly, so if you went into a leadership role to get credit, it’s probably best to leave. Now.    

You can also get dragged down by major projects, so for example this year I was responsible for getting us to be GDPR compliant (I can sense your jealousy from here). This meant a long slog at the desk which only got heavier as the May 25th deadline loomed. It also meant that when I walked around in June, people often said ‘I haven’t seen you for a while, how are things?’ That’s a clear sign that you haven’t been visible enough: being a keyboard warrior does not make you a leader. Therefore a key focus for me next year is to assess priorities more carefully and budget time more effectively to make sure that I don’t disappear into a bunker, however necessary that may seem.Coming up for air is good, and classroom air is the best kind.

Learn First, Act Second

I made a decision before I started at a new school that I had to spend time learning about the culture and ethos of the place before I weighed in with any new initiatives. In hindsight, this was perhaps my best decision of the year. It’s tempting to come in all guns blazing to put your stamp on your role, but I think it’s ill-advised (though obviously context is key). I spent about 50-60 hours in lesson observations throughout the first term and then gave feedback to the whole staff in the January INSET day. This was well received and also meant that that when I did launch new ideas (like the PL Book Group) it was based on genuine need.

This comes back to a truism of education: not everything works everywhere. Whatever your prior experience and knowledge base is, it won’t bulletproof you when you walk into a new school. In fact, the skills that you got you the job are likely to be inadequate for successfully doing the job. You are not now, nor will ever be, the finished article as a leader. That’s why the tweet by Amy Fast resonated with me so much.

So, Was It Worth It?

Of course it was, and I’ve learned more this year than I have in any other of the 16 years I’ve been in education. Yes, leadership is tough and a lot of stress follows you home. It is also hard spending less time in the classroom as this is the thing that made me love teaching in the first place. However, I’m one of those people who need a new challenge the instant they feel that they’ve cracked something. I spent 8 years in middle leadership roles so the time was right to make the step up. That’s the final thought: getting your timing right is key. Don’t go in too early, as you’ll be at risk of sinking.

LGBT History Month: Tales of an Orange Juice Boycott⤴

from @ robin_macp

This article is an adaptation of an assembly I gave recently to mark LGBT History Month.

1969 was a landmark year for LGBT rights with the Stonewall riots in the USA. As a consequence, the 1970s saw a dramatic level of engagement and activism, but the history of this period is far less well known than the campaigns for civil rights led by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others. This is a fascinating – and ongoing – period of history and deserves a much greater spotlight from educators. This article will highlight one aspect of the campaign that shows how the boycott strategy was not just about buses in Montgomery, but also orange juice…

1977 was a wateshed year for the campaign for equal rights for LGBT groups. This was because a famous American singer called Anita Bryant launched the ‘Save Our Children’ campaign. She was a big name in America: she sang at the Superbowl, she advertised Coca Cola, and at this time was the prominent face of Florida Orange Juice. In 1977, Dade County in Florida passed a law that prevented discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Bryant – a committed Christian – was furious. In her campaign against gay rights she argued that because homosexuals can’t have their own children, they recruit and groom other people’s children and abuse them. She succeeded in overturning Dade County’s reform.

This campaign gripped America – and it mobilized the gay community. They launched a boycott of orange juice which meant that something as simple as doing your grocery shopping became a political act. If you bought orange juice it could be implied that you were homophobic. If you didn’t, it could be inferred that you were pro-gay rights. The orange juice boycott meant that it wasn’t used in drinks in gay bars, and instead people ordered an ‘Anita Bryant’ cocktail (vodka and apple juice) which meant the money went to the campaign to fight back. Bryant ultimately lost. She was criticized by leading public figures such as President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan – soon to be President of the USA and also a man who emphasised his Christianity in his politics.

The events of this period are captured brilliantly in the novel Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. This novel was serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, which meant that Maupin could react to events as they happened in each instalment of the book. One of the most powerful pieces of modern American literature comes when a leading character, Michael, writes to his parents about the Bryant campaign. Michael has moved to San Francisco and his parents have no idea that he is gay. When he discovers that they support Anita Bryant, he writes to them to tell them the truth about his sexuality. This letter has since been used by countless thousands of young gay people (male and female) as a template for telling their own parents about their true selves. It goes like this:

Dear Mama,

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. Every time I try to write you and Papa I realize I’m not saying the things that are in my heart. That would be OK, if I loved you any less than I do, but you are still my parents and I am still your child.

I have friends who think I’m foolish to write this letter. I hope they’re wrong. I hope their doubts are based on parents who love and trust them less than mine do. I hope especially that you’ll see this as an act of love on my part, a sign of my continuing need to share my life with you. I wouldn’t have written, I guess, if you hadn’t told me about your involvement in the Save Our Children campaign. That, more than anything, made it clear that my responsibility was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homosexual, and that I never needed saving from anything except the cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant .

I’m sorry, Mama. Not for what I am, but for how you must feel at this moment. I know what that feeling is, for I felt it for most of my life. Revulsion, shame, disbelief – rejection through fear of something I knew, even as a child, was as basic to my nature as the colour of my eyes.

No, Mama, I wasn’t “recruited.” No seasoned homosexual ever served as my mentor. But you know what? I wish someone had. I wish someone older than me and wiser than the people in Orlando had taken me aside and said, “You’re all right, kid. You can grow up to be a doctor or a teacher just like anyone else. You’re not crazy or sick or evil. You can succeed and be happy and find peace with friends – all kinds of friends – who don’t give a damn who you go to bed with. Most of all, though, you can love and be loved, without hating yourself for it.”

But no one ever said that to me, Mama. I had to find it out on my own, with the help of the city that has become my home. I know this may be hard for you to believe, but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who don’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being.

These aren’t radicals or weirdos, Mama. They are shop clerks and bankers and little old ladies and people who nod and smile to you when you meet them on the bus. Their attitude is neither patronizing nor pitying. And their message is so simple: Yes, you are a person. Yes, I like you. Yes, it’s all right for you to like me, too.

I know what you must be thinking now. You’re asking yourself: What did we do wrong? How did we let this happen? Which one of us made him that way?

I can’t answer that, Mama. In the long run, I guess I really don’t care. All I know is this: If you and Papa are responsible for the way I am, then I thank you with all my heart, for it’s the light and the joy of my life.

I know I can’t tell you what it is to be gay. But I can tell you what it’s not.

It’s not hiding behind words, Mama. Like family and decency and Christianity. It’s not fearing your body, or the pleasures that God made for it. It’s not judging your neighbour, except when he’s crass or unkind.

Being gay has taught me tolerance, compassion and humility. It has shown me the limitless possibilities of living. It has given me people whose passion and kindness and sensitivity have provided a constant source of strength.

It has brought me into the family of man, Mama, and I like it here. I like it.

There’s not much else I can say, except that I’m the same Michael you’ve always known. You just know me better now. I have never consciously done anything to hurt you. I never will.

Please don’t feel you have to answer this right away. It’s enough for me to know that I no longer have to lie to the people who taught me to value truth.

Your loving son,

Michael

The first time I heard this letter was in 2005, when my older cousin Dugald registered his civil partnership with his long-time partner Gerald. They were one of the first couples in the UK to take advantage of this change in the law and Gerald read the letter at the ceremony. It was one of the proudest days of my life.

My simple message to my pupils is this. Your sexuality is an intrinsic part of who you are; as Michael says it is as basic to your nature as the colour of your eyes. It is a huge part of your identity. I hope that any member of a school community who has the bravery to come out as being gay is treated with the utmost kindness. It is an act that takes a lot of courage and is worthy of respect. I also passionately believe that any community is made stronger by diversity. Imagine how boring the world would be if we were all the same.

The self-evident truths of staff wellbeing⤴

from @ robin_macp

A recent blog post by Kevin McLaughlin prompted me to write this piece. His heart-felt article, entitled ‘The Depressed Teacher’, outlines his journey from being rated as an ‘outstanding’ teacher by Ofsted to being evaluated as ‘requires improvement’ by the new headteacher only one month later. From 2012 to 2016 his health suffered so badly he was admitted to A&E twice with suspected heart attacks, which turned out to be stressed-induced physical symptoms. He finally left the school.

This resonated with me on a personal level as two of my close family members left the profession due to stress-related health problems, and another ended his career feeling very undervalued and depressed. Given the current issues with recruitment and retention of staff, this issue is of paramount importance now more than ever. This article outlines some thoughts and offers practical suggestions, but its main purpose is to further the discussion so that positive change takes place. The current situation is untenable and school leaders must act to improve the wellbeing of all staff. A child’s education depends on their teachers being happy, valued and highly motivated. Without the right conditions to be successful as a teacher, everyone loses out.

The extent of the problem

In May 2017, CUREE launched a study on teachers’ professional identities, looking specifically at how they are impacted by policy making and cultural factors. There are some positive findings. Over 90% of teachers are actively trying to develop their teaching and better than 7 in 10 believe that evidence-based practice is important. Yet at the other end of the scale, 77% of teachers in Scotland (where I work) feel unable to have a good work-life balance. 72% feel they have no control over how they are assessed as teachers. Finding reliable statistics on recruitment and retention is frustrating but it seems clear enough that teachers feel overworked and the processes that evaluate them are beyond their control.

No wonder then that wellbeing is such a major issue. One thing I would like to make clear is that wellbeing is not a new, trendy thing – you just have to read the 1776 Declaration of Independence where Jefferson calls ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ a self-evident truth. What, then, are the self-evident truths of teacher wellbeing?

The causes of pressure

Broadly speaking, I think there are three sources of pressure on teachers.

  1. Outwith school: national policies which impact on workload, such as curriculum change and assessment reform.
  2. Within school: leadership teams and line-managers that make demands of teachers and evaluate their performance, difficult colleagues, or dealing with difficult pupils/parents.
  3. Personal: the pressure we put on ourselves to excel at our jobs.

The people with the most significant ability to influence levels of pressure are school leaders. They do have to respond to external edicts that are mandatory, but the way in which policy is implemented can be controlled or ameliorated to an extent. Leaders clearly set the conditions in which teachers work, and they also hold responsibility for ensuring that staff don’t overload themselves. One uncomfortable truth here is that teachers can can be mental self-harmers: we push ourselves past breaking point because we know the importance of what we do. In doing so we don’t fully recognise the damage that we do to ourselves. Kevin even goes so far in his article to say that “now I point the finger of blame at myself”. Finally, school leaders have most influence over the nature of the relationship between teachers, pupils and parents. They can either support their staff and back them in times of difficulty, or throw them to the wolves.  

What can be done?

This means that effective change is most likely to come from leadership teams. A starting point is to make wellbeing a priority for all. I firmly believe that a school is a community and that provision for wellbeing must cover all staff – teaching and non-teaching – as well as all pupils. An  excellent response to Kevin’s article came from Naureen Afzal who set out a list of key questions for school governors, which puts staff wellbeing firmly within view of people who have significant authority over decision-making.

There is no silver bullet to the problem of workload, but all decisions taken need to consider the impact they will have on how many hours teachers will be working as a consequence. Carl Hendrick and I have argued that being research-informed as a school will reduce workload by cutting out the fads and fluff that increase teacher workload without improving pupil learning. For a concrete example, have a look at Dylan Wiliam’s ‘four-quarters marking’.

One truth here is that capacity for work is not a uniform thing: it varies for each teacher. It also depends on what pressures we’re under outside of our job. Understanding the personal situation of each teacher is therefore important and requires leaders who take an interest in their staff, i.e. a human touch. It also depends on what work is being done. Reading to improve subject knowledge is something I do happily during term time and in the holidays. Knocking out spreadsheets isn’t.

I’ve come to realise that my capacity for work increases if what I’m doing fulfils three criteria: it is stimulating, rewarding and valued. When this is the case, I can work very hard and feel that my wellbeing is not under threat. I don’t actually know how many hours I work as I’ve never counted, but my workload has never bothered me. That’s because I enjoy what I do, but if I didn’t I’m sure I would start to resent the late night/early morning/weekend session where I could be doing something different. Essentially, a 50-hour week of stress-inducing work is far worse than a 60-hour week of work that is intrinsically motivating.

On this point, another truth is that it’s not about the money. I definitely agree that teachers in Scotland are due a salary increase after a decade of erosion, but this alone will not resolve the issue of wellbeing.  There will still be a major problem with work-life balance and impact on health. For me, provision of staff wellbeing should be centred around enhancing those things that speak to our intrinsic motivation. This means looking after our mental and physical health.

Practical steps

This week I added something new to our inset day: a voluntary wellbeing hour. I asked staff to suggest activities, and we ended up with a menu of eight options. Some of these were physical like spinning, aquafit and walking (I run 5-a-side football, which is all the wellbeing I personally need). Others were geared at mental health, so yoga, pilates, knitting and reading were options too. We are lucky to have an amazing school library right at the heart of the main building, so I loved what one colleague said when she suggested reading. She pointed out that the library is often a thoroughfare as we run from one place to another on a mission, so we rarely get a chance to sit down and use it for its true purpose. A quiet reading hour with a good book is bliss. The point of all these activities is to start the term on a positive note and to allow staff to get to know each other a bit better. It builds mutual respect and enhances the sense of goodwill and strong relationships that are the foundations of a great community.

Another task I’m working on is writing a guide that covers our wellbeing ethos and provision. Sometimes awareness of what is available is a problem, such as access to a counsellor. I’m very keen to hear from other school leaders who have done a similar thing as we need to share as many ideas on this as possible.

Getting in the right people

One thing I loved was a recent job advert posted on Twitter by @jon_brunskill:

Jon Brunskill

There is also a lesson here on recruitment. I did Values, Behaviours and Attitude training last year and found it to be immensely useful. A VBA is an additional interview to the standard competence one, and the aim is to see if a prospective candidate shares the values and ethos of the school. It’s a good way to identify staff who are supportive and caring, rather than arrogant, egotistical bullies. Whenever you recruit new staff, see it as a chance to add to the wellbeing wealth of your community. Also, if you are the teacher going to interview then ask searching questions about the school’s provision for wellbeing. If you’re not impressed walk away – and tell them why.

The most self-evident truth of all

I’ll leave the final word to Kevin, who concluded his article with this message:

“Too many schools are putting too much pressure on their staff. Too many schools are ignoring common sense. Recognise the signs and act upon them. Your good health is more important than turning up for work as a quivering wreck. Your school needs to understand this. If your school doesn’t, resign. No school is worth ill health.”

Amen to that.

 

Harnessing the power of the testing effect⤴

from @ robin_macp

The power of the testing effect has wide currency and is identified by Dunlosky et al as the most effective method that pupils can use in order to build long term memory. This sounds wonderful, but there’s a problem. Does telling a pupil to self-test actually lead to them self-testing? And if they do, are they actually doing it in the right way? To become good at this is actually quite difficult so it needs to be modelled in the classroom first. What follows is a process I used this term with my National 5 history class (the Scottish equivalent to GCSE), so I hope it provides a practical case study that others find useful.

Step 1: calibrating the knowledge base

The most difficult thing for pupils to become familiar with at the start of this particular history course is the standard of the knowledge they need to learn (and be able to recall). The content we covered is a unit called ‘Migration and Empire’ that addresses which groups came to Scotland, as well as where Scots emigrated to, in the period from c.1830 to 1939. The first section looks at Irish immigration after the famine of the 1840s, so pupils need to know technical terms like ‘potato blight’, statistical information (the population of Ireland decreased from 8 million to 5 million), facts about where Irish people settled in Scotland (e.g. areas of Glasgow like the Saltmarket) and concepts like ‘strike-breaking’. They need to be able to recall some fairly precise information and the standard is higher than they are used to.

Having taught the content, the first factual test consisted of 30 questions divided into 6 sections, half of which were multiple choice. The class were given some instruction in metacognition and advised on how to self-test, but this was little more than an introduction. Until they’ve actually tried putting theory into practice, it won’t mean much. The first test was therefore tough and the average mark was just 16.2 out of 30. Pupils marked it immediately (Dylan Wiliam’s advice is that the best person to mark a test is the one who just sat it) and I took in the scripts to do some (swift) number crunching to give whole class feedback. The final section of the test on Irish occupations scored the lowest and needed some reteaching to correct misconceptions.

Step 2: applying metacognition

The second section of the course looks at other immigration groups to Scotland – Lithuanians, Jews and Italians. This time we could prepare for the test using a scaffold of types of knowledge, which we identified by looking back at the last test (the recipients were definitely doing more work than the donor at this stage). They had to go over previous questions and answers to think about knowledge types and we set up this framework:

  1. Key terms and concepts
  2. Events and processes
  3. Key individuals and groups
  4. Statistics/facts

This allowed pupils to categorise information using knowledge organisers I made, but they populated. The second test used the same structure as the first, and the average mark rose to 22.6 out of 30. Number crunching afterwards showed no particular section was weak, so no reteaching was needed.

Step 3: teaching to self-test

The third part of the course is on reasons why Scots emigrated and has some tricky knowledge on the Highland Clearances, poverty in the Lowlands, and incentives like government-sponsored emigration schemes. The knowledge for this is the hardest to break down and organise logically.

This time, once we’d covered the content we did a lesson on how to construct a test. Homework beforehand was for each pupil to come up with 10 questions and answers on the material we’d covered. In class, they worked in pairs on a combined list of 10 questions based on comparing their efforts. They then doubled up with another pair and refined this further. We then came together as a whole class and, with a scribe typing things up on a computer and projected on the screen, we took the best questions and answers and wrote a 30 question test.

This exercise allowed us to stop and think about what knowledge we need to recall, and how best to frame a question that would test our ability to recall that. This led to lively discussion about the wording of specific questions, as the main problem pupils have with history self-testing is they ask open questions that are more like essay titles. For example, instead of asking ‘when was the depression in the fishing industry?’ (answer: 1884-1894) they ask ‘why was there a depression in the fishing industry?’ It’s a valid question, but it’s for full written practice, not a low stakes test. When we had written up 30 questions, we worked on turning half of them into multiple choice (which is trickier than they realise – they need 3 credible wrong answers for every question). I then took the document we drafted and edited/formatted it, with only one question needing a rewrite by me before pupils took the test in the next lesson.

So what was the outcome? The class average was 27.2 out of 30 (so over 90%), and the pupil with the lowest score in round one achieved 100%. You may well say ‘of course they did so well, they knew the questions in advance.’ Yes. That’s the whole point. The assessment here wasn’t so much about answering factual questions but how to make them. In giving feedback I focused on the fact that some pupils had contributed more questions than others to the test, so some still have to practise how to make a good test. However, we’ll keep working on this so it becomes easy – and, hopefully, transferable to other subjects.

Step 4: the forgetting curve and self-regulation

I observed a lesson once where a Year 11 pupil couldn’t remember a piece of information from the year before, and when the teacher followed this up it turned out they couldn’t remember even having learned the entire topic. This shows the half-life of knowledge, so the forgetting curve needs to be defeated with spaced practice.

Forgetting Curve

So what I did with each of these tests was turn them into a Kahoot. We allowed enough time (at least one week) after each test before doing it again as a Kahoot, and this showed that some information types were harder to retain than others (no prize for guessing the chief culprit – statistics).  Over time we’ll build up a bank of these which pupils can use for self-testing and will return to them periodically in lessons. When we’re midway through the Transatlantic Slave Trade next term we’ll still spend 10 minutes doing an old Kahoot on Irish immigration to Scotland. This means I can have a weekly test with much less effort, so my jealousy of maths teachers who seem to test with ease might finally subside…

Making effective use of the forgetting curve works wonders for long term memory, but it also shows pupils how easy it is to self-test. I estimate that we’ll have about 15 such tests by the end of the course which means they will have at least 450 pieces of precise knowledge on entering the exam room, so the ammunition will be there to provide evidence in all essay questions.

The crucial final ingredient is taking the pressure out of the testing in this process. The last test was both the least stressful and the most successful. The message here is that to get pupils to want to self-regulate by testing themselves you need to reduce the stakes first. Emphasise that a test isn’t about data collection (though I obviously did that in this example, as a diagnostic), or reporting. The crucial message is that tests are about practice. The first mark you get is far less important than the last mark you get. The more you self-test, the better your recall, and the more you build confidence. Once they experience this process so it feels real rather than abstract, they will be far more likely to do what we want them to do: take up the challenge of learning for themselves.

Designing a Supercurriculum⤴

from @ robin_macp

This is an old post previously published on the Wellington College Learning and Research Centre website, but I’m reposting it here in light of a recent conversation about the need to go and above and beyond what a national curriculum can offer.

This blog is based on a talk given at the Wellington MAT inset day on February 10th, 2017, at The Wellington Academy. Robin Macpherson (@robin_macp) uses the experiences of the Wellington College Peace and Conflict Institute to explain what the value of a super-curriculum is, and how to construct one.

Wellington, like many other schools, puts a lot of emphasis on extension, enrichment, societies and guest lectures. This is intended to add intellectual value, and provide additional stretch beyond the regular curriculum. The fact that most schools feel the need to provide this – thus demanding a lot of teacher time and effort – says a lot about the limitations of the regular curriculum.

However, providing multiple additional sessions doesn’t necessarily add up to a coherent whole. In fact, it may even confuse and demotivate if pitched at too high a level. We can also learn a lesson from our professional learning philosophy here: one-off, centralised sessions do very little to change practice or enhance skills. What does make a difference is an extended period of learning with a specific focus and outcome in mind. Take the analogy of learning to drive a car. You wouldn’t expect to be a safe driver after a one hour lecture, or a one day course. You would practice for around 40 to 50 hours for several weeks before even thinking of taking the test. If we want to learn something of meaning and worth, we need to commit to it over time and tackle it in depth.

This is where I question the value of a scatter-gun approach to extension. Can we expect pupils to learn something of meaning from ad hoc talks and seminars? Looking at school websites that boast of guest lectures and one-off events, I sometimes wonder whether these are designed more with marketing and a prospectus in mind, or perhaps as a way of filling up their pupils’ UCAS personal statements. Extension should mean a lot more than boosting a school’s university entry stats.

This even applies to school trips. Fun as they are, do children learn a lot if they have little prior knowledge of where they’re going or what they’re doing? A colleague in the History Department, Jamie Bough, did a lot of research on the value and purpose of trips and her thinking led us to reshape how we approach them. Much like a good Harkness lesson, you need to know something first, otherwise you end up a passenger. Preparing the groundwork is essential, as is the follow up on return to check pupil progress. After all, a trip is a series of lessons – just in a different location.

This is where developing a purposeful super-curriculum comes into play. Real stretch and learning can be provided if we prepare extension the way we plan and deliver a scheme of work. Importantly, stretch and challenge also applies to teachers. I firmly believe that for pupils to be inspired, teachers need to be inspired first. This is a great opportunity to teach something that you are passionate about and perhaps don’t get the chance to address in your regular teaching. It also taps into a school’s greatest resource: the collective subject knowledge of all the teaching staff. How much of what we collectively know, as educated and skilled professionals, goes into the delivery of the regular curriculum? This leads to another consideration, which is the opportunity to wrest back control of what is taught in schools from politicians and universities. This is a great opportunity to develop teacher autonomy.

My final axe to grind here is that most schools speak of holistic education in the sense of creating rounded individuals, and imply that this means more than a narrow focus on academia. We then tend to see lots of pictures of pupils engaged in non-academic activities to underscore this point – here they are, becoming better human beings. I argue that academic and holistic are not antithetical. If we want rounded people, we need to start in the classroom, and we need to consider what values we put into the curriculum. This is not considered enough in my subject, history, and I doubt whether other subjects like science and maths cover values and decision-making much either.

So how to do it? The first important question to ask is this: in your area of expertise, what does the regular curriculum not cover that it should? If you can identify an obvious need, then start with that as your focus. Secondly, how can you turn this into a programme of study that will lead to deep-seated understanding of concepts, content and skills? Finally, how does this fit in with the context of your school? What ethos and values do you espouse that can be strengthened in your bespoke programme of study?

The problems you face are usually two-fold: time and resources. Of these, time is the bigger issue. Your working week will already be packed, as will that of your students. However, if you’re asked to lead a co-curricular activity, seize this as an opportunity. Also, most resources are free and it’s amazing how people outside of your school community will gladly give of their time if you are promoting something which they consider vital, and have never been asked to come into a school to help with. There are also a lot of educational charities with outreach programmes that are ready to support you. To give two examples, I have worked with Facing History and Remembering Srebrenica and have found them to be outstanding.

The experience I’ve had with the WCPCI has been superb. I set this up with two colleagues, Tim Novis and Rob Murphy, after a Holocaust Memorial Day talk a couple of years ago. We realised that trying to teach a massive and important concept like genocide by a one-off event each year was ineffective. In fact, by giving it such limited treatment it may even be damaging by downplaying its significance in the minds of pupils. Our discussion moved on to the absence of peace studies in the curriculum. It’s easy to look at the causes and impact of war, but what of peace processes? We only tend to look at these when they fail – see the ad nauseam teaching of the Treaty of Versailles. We therefore decided to set up an institute which would study a conflict and subsequent peace process in depth, and then visit that place to apply what we had learned in the classroom.

In 2015-16 our focus was the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which culminated with a visit to Belfast. There we met with former terrorists from both republican and unionist sides, and also spoke with people who had lost loved ones to terrorism. We visited Stormont and various museums (such as the Crumlin Road jail), and took a walking tour of Belfast to look at the memorials and murals that mark the city. A particular highlight was observing an Orange Order parade that was refused entry to a Catholic area by riot police. After returning, we spent time with pupils reflecting on the process and they presented at the Telegraph Festival of Education. Overall it was a powerful experience, and seeing pupils put difficult questions to people who had killed for a cause was something new for me. It resonated on a level that told us we were doing something right.

Mural

This said, we made several mistakes. There were two main ones. Firstly, we forgot to set up meetings for our pupils with people their own age. The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the Troubles, but the future is problematic as most of Belfast’s schools are de facto segregated by religion. How do young people, who grew up after 1998, see their future? Secondly, we realised that we had spread the learning element too thinly across the year, with sessions every two or three weeks. This meant some pupils, who attended all sessions, were very well versed in the Troubles and Good Friday. Others, who missed one or two sessions, had long gaps without focusing on the major concepts. Some were therefore less secure in their understanding and found it too challenging.

This year we have been studying Bosnia and will visit Sarajevo and Srebrenica in March. The charity Remembering Srebrenica is helping us with the trip, and I went on their educators’ tour last year, which means I know the trip logistics and risk assessment side of things very well. To address our mistakes we condensed the programme of study, with some reading and viewing materials given in Michaelmas and then weekly sessions in Lent. On the trip our pupils will spend time at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology to meet with Bosnian teenagers to see what life has been like for them growing up in the post-Dayton world. We also hope to be able to film our experiences in a video essay, which will enhance the presentation at Ed Fest.

Nedzad

In 2018, we are looking to work with Sandhurst School to take a joint trip to Rwanda. They are experts at this and very far ahead of where we are in terms of a whole-school approach to a super-curriculum and ethos. Working with them will be an education in itself for our staff, as well as the pupils. The future is very exciting and will, I hope, give our WCPCI pupils the best experience of their educational career.

I hope this has given food for thought. We do need to add value and enrichment beyond the curriculum, but how we do this matters a great deal. As teachers we don’t have time to expend on preparing things that have minimal impact. If we structure what we offer it will make a massive difference, to both ourselves and our pupils.

Using Twitter for Professional Learning⤴

from @ robin_macp

This post is aimed at teachers who are new to Twitter, but may also be useful to those mentoring a new teacher and want to help them shape their professional learning. It’s based on a talk given to colleagues at a recent inset day as part of an ed tech carousel.

Twitter for Professional Learning

In 2014, Twitter estimated that 4.2 million tweets on education were sent every day. If you haven’t used it before because you think it’s simply a passing fad, then you’d be mistaken. I joined Twitter in 2012 after hearing Jill Berry extol its virtues as a vehicle for professional learning. I paraphrase, but she said something like “the old adage has it that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you need to get a bigger room. Twitter is that bigger room.” I’ll admit that it was a slow-burn process for me but I eventually got into the habit of using it for reading, and then eventually sharing my own thoughts and getting involved in ‘chats’. Looking back I wish I’d started earlier and in more earnest, which might have happened if someone had given me a steer on how to make the most of it. This blog is therefore what I would have written to myself five years ago, but aimed at the time-pressed, Twitter novice teacher who wants professional learning on their own terms.

How to approach Twitter

The first thing I learned was that the term social media is misleading. When you consider the range of platforms and what they all do, labelling them all as ‘social’ is nebulous. I would classify Twitter (and things like LinkedIn) as professional media. If you want to be ‘sociable’ and post pictures of you walking the dog/baking a cake/dancing at your mate’s wedding, then go for Facebook or Instagram. Keep Twitter separate – it’s much better for reading and debating about education. To this end, keep these golden rules in mind:

  • Everything you post is public. As a teacher you have a duty to uphold public faith in the profession (think Part 2 of the Teaching Standards, if you’re in England). The upside to this is you don’t need to worry about your permission settings as you do with Facebook. Just know that it’s all open.
  • Assuming you’re employed by a school, they don’t want you to bring them into disrepute. Each time you write a Tweet, remember that your head/line-manager/pupils might be reading it. This shouldn’t put you off – you are absolutely entitled to express your professional opinion. Just make sure you keep it professional.
  • When you write up your bio, decide whether or not you want to divulge specific information. You can easily say what you are interested in without saying much about who you are or where you work.
  • Never follow pupils (or parents), or get involved in an exchange with them. They are bound to try to contact you at some point, but politely explain to them, in school, that it isn’t an appropriate forum for discussion with them.

Some basic tips

I’m amazed by how many people don’t get started on Twitter, despite their curiosity, because they find it confusing. Here are a few very simple things that will help you get underway:

  • Aim to follow a couple of dozen relevant people to familiarise yourself with it. A very good periodic table of edutweeters is available courtesy of ICT Evangelist Mark Anderson. This will cover a range of education debates and views, but also look for accounts which are relevant for your subject or specialism.
  • You don’t need to express your own opinions or write your own tweets. You can simply retweet things you like. Many people write in their bio that ‘retweets are not endorsements’ but I don’t bother because this is a pretty obvious convention.
  • If you ‘like’ a tweet it’s a great way of recording things that you’d like to refer back to later, or reread. I ‘like’ tweets to show that I support the comment, or want to bookmark a blog or website.
  • Hashtags – the dreaded # symbol – seem to cause confusion. They can be used in two ways. Firstly it can simply be a comment to add spin to a tweet, so this statement could be considered #helpful (or #obvious if you know this already). More importantly, hashtags allow you to follow something specific or join in discussions. There are many good forums that happen at a set time each week, like #UKEdResChat. If you write a tweet and add this hashtag it means anyone else following that thread will see your comment. Try it out by searching for #UKEdResChat, and then click on ‘latest’ in the menu bar. This will show you all the latest tweets in the thread, not just a select few.
  • Direct messaging is better if you want to talk to someone privately, or without the character restriction of a regular tweet. For this to be available both parties (or more if you want a larger group chat) need to follow each other. See above advice on not following pupils/parents to protect yourself.
  • There is a dark side. Some people are trolls (i.e. abusive) and personal attacks do happen. My advice is to ignore this. You can mute or block people you find offensive, or report accounts which are hateful. If you only use Twitter for reading this is unlikely to ever affect you.

What are the benefits?

When you think about it, there are real advantages here. Keeping up to date with the latest in educational thinking is essential and is built into the teaching standards in Scotland. If your focus is entirely on what’s happening in your own school and not on the wider trends in education you’ll constantly be behind the curve. This leaves you exposed to the sort of fads and faux initiatives that have blighted teachers and pupils, adding to workload without adding to learning. See Twitter as a good bulwark against this, provided you follow people who are research informed and despise learning myths.

Twitter is also a) free and b) something you can do whenever you want. I mainly use the app on my phone because it means I can check in daily for 5 minutes or so to see what’s happening in the education news. We all work ridiculously hard as teachers, but there are pockets of time (maybe 3-5 minutes while you wait for something, be it a bus to arrive or a meeting to start) that you can use. It facilitates ‘little and often’ professional learning and makes your use of time more efficient. Also the blogs that I read via Twitter are usually around the 1,000 word mark so you can get through them swiftly.

If you develop your use of it, you’ll find that it can be great for networking. Few people relish the chance to meet new people in a packed room when you attend a conference. However, Twitter is a much easier and less stressful way of connecting with people who have similar interests and concerns. You can pick up great ideas for classroom practice, because no one posts an idea on Twitter to patent it. I’ve only ever found people to be very positive when you tell them you used their idea and it worked.

As well as a personal account, you can also run a departmental account. Make sure you check your school’s acceptable IT use policy and get permission to do so first. Once this is in place, you can share the login details with more than one colleague to divide the workload. You can use it to share resources, celebrate achievement and so forth. It can be a great way of pointing pupils in the direction of good resources and extension material. I found it invaluable as a way of keeping parents informed of what we were doing on school trips, especially when abroad.

From my own perspective, I like being able to talk about things that I’m passionate (or frustrated) about with people outside my own school. I get a broader perspective and conversations are wonderfully free of the type of internal school politics that can be draining to morale and energy. This helps you focus on big issues that matter. It also means that you can start casual conversations about teaching and learning in school, which is very often where the most impactful professional development happens.

Want to know more?

Twitter accounts to follow:

  • @dylanwilliam
  • @miss_mcinerney
  • @DTWillingham

Further reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/apr/20/teachers-on-twitter-why-join-get-started-social-media

https://www.theeducator.com/blog/20-uk-teachers-follow-twitter/

High impact, low cost professional learning⤴

from @ robin_macp

A couple of years ago I was heading off on a course. I had to get a train there so set off early enough to arrive with time to spare for a caffeine fix. I armed myself with some reading for the train, having just bought John Tomsett’s ‘This Much I Know About Love Over Fear’. The first chapter had me hooked and as I settled into a cosy corner of a cafe with a good coffee, I read on. The thought occurred to me that I could just skip the course and stay where I was for the day. However, my school had paid for the course so duty compelled me to traipse across the road to the hotel where the trainer was eagerly awaiting, flipchart and post-its at the ready. By the time the course was over, my suspicion had been confirmed: I would have been better off reading in the cafe.

There is a difficult truth here. The majority of one-off CPD courses are a waste of both time and money. I get into trouble saying this because there are a lot of providers in a growing industry who will be out of a job if everyone believed what I’m saying. However, research from the Teacher Development Trust shows that:

“the most common training involved sitting watching a PowerPoint and the most common reason for selecting a course was ‘the teacher wanted to go’ – not hugely systematic. When CUREE conducted a snapshot of training provision for the TDA, they found that barely 1% of training they looked at was effectively transforming classroom practice. Finally, in research from NFER, when teachers got back to classrooms only 7% of schools checked to see if there was any effect on student attainment.”

In other words, training is often delivered in a way that all teachers recognise as poor teaching. Plus, there is a query over the motivation for going. The easiest way to show you are meeting a development target is to simply go on a course. No one seems to bother checking that it worked, but at least you get through your end of year review. Finally, even if the course is well delivered it rarely changes what happens in the classroom. If it does, very few senior leaders would actually notice.

Then there’s the issue of CPD budgets. These are shrinking because whenever budget cuts are required (i.e. for the foreseeable future) staff training funds are first against the wall. Given that many courses fall in the £300-£500 range after VAT is added, they would have to be absolutely stellar to justify the outlay. Let’s also keep in mind the time-cost (perhaps the most valuable currency for teachers) as someone has to hold the fort and cover lessons while the attendee is absent.

This all sounds very doom and gloom, but I should point out that some providers offer much cheaper, and better, training. I’m the Data Protection Officer at my school so I have to get on top of GDPR this year. I went to a one day session with SCIS and learned all I need to know, am using the resources gained to conduct an audit, and I have the ongoing support of the presenters who were very helpful. All this cost £95. I would also draw a distinction between a course and a conference. The former involves a hotel basement (usually) and lots of Foxes Glacier Mints to maintain morale. The latter, when done well, can offer excellent variety and great networking opportunities: researchED costs £25 a ticket – beat that for value. I also used to run content for the Telegraph Festival of Education and if you’re organised you should never pay full whack for a ticket. We had over 300 speakers on the bill spread over two days. Again, maximum choice at £63 for one day, or £105 for two (at early bird rate).

The main reason for writing this, though, is to present an alternative model that works. I think that teachers should consider a much wider range of options when pursuing CPD. I spoke at the researchED national conference this year with Carl Hendrick and we used this slide to show what a good cycle of professional learning looks like:

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 20.15.02

When a teacher identifies an area for development they should begin with a discussion. Who knows most about this area? If no one in your school is an expert, then try Twitter. Get some good advice on how to proceed. The first step doesn’t involve going on-line to find a course, it should be finding out the lay of the land. This leads to the next step – reading.

Blogs and many (though not enough) excellent research papers are free. Books are maybe £15-20 and, ideally, schools should be gradually building up a good CPD catalogue in their library. This starts a process which the Teacher Development Trust highlight as being crucial – learning over an extended period of time. To acquire an effective skillset it takes 30-50 hours spread over a year. After all, we wouldn’t expect to learn to drive after a one-day course, nor would we expect a pupil to pass an exam after a day of lessons. If the skillset is significant enough to have an impact in the classroom, it will take time to master.

Observing is the next step. This can be observing what happens in your classroom, or somebody else’s. It might even involve visiting another school – an exercise which does actually merit getting cover for. Essentially, try to study the effect of what you are professionally learning in its context. Seeing things in action is better than theory, so try to do whatever you can to capture this.

Then, write. This can be low-level like an entry in a CPD log, a Twitter exchange, or more challenging like a blog or a talk for colleagues. This step inspires reflection which makes it so much more likely that the skills acquired will be internalised and then put into action. Even if you only write for an audience of one, that audience will benefit.

This brings us back full cycle, in a continuous process of reflection, which makes us healthy professionals. Feeling that we are constantly learning and moving forward is good for morale as well as practice. It doesn’t need to cost the earth, and it does work better when done incrementally. I think the litmus test of all professional learning is whether or not it improves the quality of learning for your pupils. If you followed this cycle all the way through for one year, I’d be amazed if it didn’t. Unlike a day spent sucking boiled sweets in front of a PowerPoint.

Want to know more?

Three Twitter accounts to follow:

  • @informed_edu
  • @GilchristGeorge
  • @jillberry102

Website:

http://tdtrust.org/

Reading:

‘This Much I Know About Love Over Fear… Creating A Culture For Truly Great Teaching’ – John Tomsett

Electric Dreams: from digital philosophy to the classroom⤴

from @ robin_macp

Kranzberg’s First Law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

“technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.” – Dr Melvin Kranzberg

What exactly do we mean when we talk about digital strategy? It’s a catch-all term for an enormous range of issues relating to the use of technology in the classroom. This blog will attempt to break this down so that technology does the two core things that it should in education: streamline a teacher’s workload and enhance pupil learning. Note that philosophy and strategy are different things, and these terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

There are, to my mind, three key question areas when considering how to use technology:

  1. Digital philosophy – what do we actually believe in relation to the role of technology in education? On what evidence are we basing this philosophy?
  2. Digital strategy – what decisions should be made to create an infrastructure which supports teaching and learning?
  3. Implementation – how can we embed systems so that teachers and pupils can use technology effectively?

Here’s a breakdown of what each stage involves.

Digital Philosophy 

This is the conversation that many schools didn’t have when technology became a driving force in the classroom. The cart came before the horse. It consists of answering some very broad, but crucial, questions:

  • In what ways can technology enhance learning?
  • What responsibilities do we, as teachers, have in teaching children to be digitally literate?

The first question requires us to consider the way in which pupils learn. Books like Benedict Carey’s ‘How We Learn’ provide excellent reading before thinking about how technology can support the process. I share the view that the notion of 21st century skills is a myth. There has been no change to the way in which human beings learn in the last couple of decades, even though the tools we use are different. Essentially, people adapt to their environment so the advent of the printing press, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the microchip have seen us engage successfully with different media. However, it hasn’t changed how we absorb, store, recall, transfer and apply information. The 21st century is not a paradigm shift in this respect, so changing the core principles of good pedagogy is unnecessary. The questions we should therefore be asking ourselves revolve around ways in which technology can support and enhance the established ways in which children learn.

The second question is easy to answer. We are all responsible as teachers for digital literacy, just as we are for literacy, numeracy and wellbeing. Technology is an integral part of everyday life, so we need children to be aware of its uses and its pitfalls. Again, this covers a massive range of issues from how to use a spreadsheet to how stay safe on-line. We are failing our pupils if we don’t guide them in areas which are vital to the world they live in.

This said, there is still a diversity of ways in which schools can decide to move forward. They can opt to be tech-lite, using it in a minimalist fashion only for things that they are certain work. Alternatively, they can aspire to be tech-centred and make this a key feature of the school. This is question of context, as Kranzberg’s law notes. Do what works for your school and your pupils, but at least have the discussion and make your mind up before purchasing anything.

Digital Strategy 

Once the school’s philosophy has been agreed, key decisions need to be made about how technology will be deployed for teachers and pupils. These are just some of the things to consider:

  • Will everyone be provided with the same device? Or will the school be device agnostic and simply require everyone to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)?
  • Will a specific platform be used? Will the school be Google, Microsoft or mixed economy?
  • What hardware is needed?
  • What training will be provided and how?

Needless to say, these decisions need to be informed and money needs to be spent effectively so that the system established is sustainable.

This brings us to an essential ingredient for a successful school: digital leaders. The problem here is akin to marketing, in that finding someone who has expert training in the field and knows the culture and context in which schools operate are thin on the ground. Ideally what you want is an IT director who understands everything about hardware and software, and a professional learning/research lead who they can work in partnership with. This way strategic decisions are driven by how children learn and are informed by robust evidence. Then, once decisions are made, staff training is comprehensive. The more confident and competent the staff are, the more sustainable the system will be.

Implementation

This comes down to the minutiae of day-to-day operations. Teachers typically come into work and log on, work all day, then log off and go home. They then usually log on at home, to fit work around family life. Therefore technology book ends the working day. If it fails to work it ruins everything. We’ve all had total meltdowns because the toner ran out on the photocopier, the projector broke down or the software crashed. We also know that the golden rule of the high stakes lesson observation is that technology will inevitably let you down. Whilst these problems can never be eliminated in their entirety, their frequency can be reduced by having the right strategy and the right team in place. That team should always consider ways in which technology can streamline teacher workload to free up time for planning lessons. This creates a healthy cycle in which the effective use of technology is magnified.

Preventative action can also be taken by following one core principle: never, ever, introduce new tech in a blanket roll-out. Always, always pilot it with a small group first to see if it works the way you want it to. Equally, never buy into something because another school has it and you want to keep pace with them. This is not a marketing arms race.

So what works? 

A substantial report by the OECD in 2015 found that pupil use of technology was greater at home than it was at school. It also found that learning was most effective in schools with moderate use of technology, rather than minimal or extensive use. This would suggest that the Goldilocks conditions apply to ed tech as they do to so many other things. However, there is a substantial caveat: the effect that technology has on learning depends on how teachers are using it. If the tool is used incorrectly it won’t get the job done.

We should also think very carefully about the ways in which ed tech can support pupils with SEN. Things like voice recognition software can be hugely beneficial to pupils who struggle to write, allowing them to get work done with reduced anxiety and better attainment. Conversely, the use of technology for SEN pupils can be used ineffectively. Simply providing a laptop in the classroom is not a panacea. Like extra time in exams, they need to be shown how to use it to their benefit. This can sometimes be a blind spot in lesson planning, so all classroom teachers should think about ways in which ed tech can benefit individuals as well as a whole class.

This leads us to think more carefully about our pedagogy when using technology. If teachers consider how pupils learn, then think about applying what they have at their disposal to facilitate this, it will have the desired effect. A simple example: we know that retrieval practice via low-stakes testing is an effective strategy. There are dozens of good apps that can make this easy for teachers to set up and for pupils to self-test with, both in the classroom and at home.

Continuing the cycle

The implementation stage is not the end of the road. It is not just healthy, but essential, to review your school’s digital philosophy. Technology evolves at a rapid rate, so we should allow our philosophy to evolve alongside it as the context changes. It doesn’t have to be done every week, but at least annually there should be a ‘back to first principles’ conversation to think about what the relationship with ed tech is. Reflection is a crucial part of the process.

Want to know more? 

Three Twitter accounts to follow:

  • @neelamparmar1
  • @josepicardo
  • @ianfordham

Further reading:

Book: Educate 1-to-1: The secret to successful planning, implementing and sustaining change through mobile learning in schools

Blog: Shooting Azimuths http://www.josepicardo.com/