Tuesday, 14 October 2014

MOOC: What Future for Education? Activity 4.1

This post is the for the required activity 4.1 in Coursera's massive online open course (MOOC) 'What Future for Education?' from London University's Institute of Education. To follow the thread on this blog, use the label FutEd.

Reflect on your own schooling. Did you go to a 'good' school? What 'residuals' did you take away from your school and how has it helped you subsequently?

I went to school in Northern Ireland which is generally considered to have a good education system, and my schooling happened in the days of the Eleven Plus exam, which set me on the path to a grammar school. This meant that I was in a stream where progression to university was the expected norm, so my teachers had high academic expectations of me and - for better or worse, and possibly at the expense of other developments - bent their efforts toward us securing the best possible exam grades to ensure entrance to a university they would be proud to boast of in their publicity.
My school was extremely hierarchical and there was absolutely no 'voice and choice'. It was very much one-size-fits-all, and we were expected to shape up or ship out. Discipline was strictly enforced, with aberrations in uniform being the usual reason for the deputy headmistress' admonishments, rather than the behaviours I've seen in my own professional career in the classroom. We did not so much as roll our eyes at teachers, although - of course - we had our own, more subtle, ways of rebelling.
What was useful from my education? Well, primarily the grades I received and the doors they opened for me, most obviously being those of higher education. I went to a top university and gained my degree using the same 'cram and regurgitate' skills I'd learned at school, although with a rather fuller extra-curricular timetable as you can imagine.
Looking back, I am very appreciative of the education I received - because I am happy where it lead - but I also think I experienced many examples of how not to teach which inform my own practice. The teachers certainly had our best interests at heart but those interests were concerned almost solely with results. 
In terms of holistic education, it was a faith school so they did attend to 'character building' within the framework of the church, but the idea of an explicitly or consciously holistic education didn't seem to feature otherwise. (For example, when I went to university and people talked of a 'gap year', I thought they'd been working for the clothes company!) 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

MOOC: What Future for Education? Unit 3 Reflection

The third unit reflection for the Coursera MOOC What Future for Education? To follow the thread, click on - or search for - the label FutEd.

Reflect back on the teachers you considered in the first reflection task at the start of this week. Reconsider what it was about them that made you consider them to be so good. Would others that were taught by them have the same conclusions?

I cannot recall ever having been in a class where there was unanimous agreement about the teacher in terms of the quality of their teaching, their accessibility and other such aspects. Teachers that I have found approachable and helpful have been judged as intimidating and obscure by peers, and vice versa. Of course there are teachers who are generally more or less popular, but finding an individual that connects with all students in the same way must be nigh on impossible.
Thinking back on this week's readings and viewings, it is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all description of a 'good' teacher as it very much depends on context. From the inspirational personalities embodied in the likes of 'Dangerous Minds', 'Dead Poets' Society' or 'Freedom Writers' to the cult of celebrity tutors in Hong Kong and back to the Gurukul system of India past, the idea of a great teacher evidently varies across time, culture and place. Furthermore, it is important that we don't fail to acknowledge that relationships between students and teachers depend as much on the former as the latter. Despite attempts of national policymakers, we cannot reduce the human personality to a set of constant features. Sometimes human behaviour is illogical, inexplicable and much of the time it is unpredictable, so 'good' teachers will realise this and avoid trying to categorise themselves or their cohorts, but rather observe and respond to the atmosphere and context as it changes.
From the Google Hangout Discussions I participated in this week, there were some clear agreements about elements one might expect to observe in an effective teacher. For example, when we were asked to describe a 'good' teacher from our own educational experiences, everyone talked about individuals who were kind and took an interest in their students as people. Interestingly, many of us could not necessarily remember the content - or in one case, the subject - that had been delivered by these teachers, so I think this endorses the idea below.

Reflecting on my teacher training experiences, this was not something that I can recall being mentioned - the focus being on planning, policies and standards - although it has definitely become clear to me, over the last few years in particular, that without making that personal connection to learners, we are perhaps denying them (and ourselves) an important life experience.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

MOOC: What Future for Education? Activity 3.1

This post is the for the required activity 2.1 in Coursera's massive online open course (MOOC) 'What Future for Education?' from London University's Institute ofEducation. To follow the thread on this blog, use the label FutEd.

Do you remember having a good teacher? Or a particularly bad one? Reflect on your memory, what was about it about this teacher that makes them stand out for you?
How does this image of a teacher relate to other images you have of a "good" teacher?

I remember clearly my English teacher for A-Level, Mr Mulholland, who has sadly since passed away. When I try to pin down what made him stand out for me, I think it was because he made the effort to connect with me on a personal level. He had a good sense of humour and never used humiliation as a disciplinary tool for failing to complete homework (as so many other teachers did). He made allowances when I fell behind but always expressed an unerring belief that I'd get there in the end, and this motivated me to meet his expectations, even when I wasn't keen on the text at hand. He was at a distinct advantage in terms of me choosing a great teacher, in that I generally loved the subject he was teaching, but he was also a bit 'quirky' and I think being an extreme minority in my school (and indeed country) meant that I subconsciously sought out role models who were a bit different. This is all getting a little bit too introspective, but ultimately I think it was his character, rather than anything he'd learned in teacher training college that made me enjoy learning with him so much.
On the other hand, my language teacher who was much-respected as a person who delivered good exam results, could not figure me out at all. The pressure she put on me to meet her high expectations meant I pretty much failed to meet any of them, and she expressed her frustration at not being able to control me in unkind ways, including regular 'dressing downs' in front of the class. The workload from her was immense and I'm not sure the concept of differentiation had ever been considered, so it was one-size-fits-all which didn't fit me at all.
From these experiences (among others), I have come to the conclusion there is no single definition or description of a 'good' teacher. I think the key lies in relationships, and this will be affected by individual personalities of teachers and students, as well as an awareness of how language acts can impact on different personalities. I think teachers need to be sensitive to the needs and concerns of their students, but I also recognise this is extremely challenging, when faced with multiple classes of 20+ students that you see for a limited time each week, with a course to get through.
Ultimately, I believe the best teachers will be those who are open to learning themselves; learning about their students and learning ways they can reach these students. It is a learning journey that never ends.

MOOC: What Future for Education? Unit 2 Reflection

The second unit reflection for the Coursera MOOC What Future for Education? To follow the thread, click on - or search for - the label FutEd.

During your own education, how has your "intelligence" been assessed?
Through formal examinations, including oral exams for foreign language. I also sat the '11 Plus' exam in Northern Ireland back in the 80s, meaning I had access to grammar - rather than 'high' - school. Then I sat the national exams, GCSEs followed by A-Levels for entrance to university. At university, coursework was introduced as an additional assessment method and that pattern has pretty much continued until today. The exceptions are when I undertook teacher training: that put me through my paces! Not only was my written work (planning and reflection) under scrutiny, but also my 'performance' in the classroom was under close scrutiny. Apart from the actual critique of my teaching in the classroom, I had what every teacher has; the outcomes achieved (or not) by my students and this was the greatest measure of my success, beyond grades, praise or criticism.
With regards to the 'traditional' mode of testing, I saw a rather curious post on the Coursera forum where one teacher said she herself suffered terrible exam anxiety and therefore allowed her students to take notes in to their exams. I imagine the reason for sticking with the exam format to test learning was an institutional requirement, but there are many alternative ways of assessing, especially with - but not necessarily because of - the availability of technology.

How has this affected the educational opportunities you have been given? 
I do not find traditional 'cram-and-regurgitate' tests particularly difficult and so have had the advantage of having had lots of opportunities such as further and higher education. Although I realise how fortunate I have been in this, I also see the injustice of denying others the same opportunities. I know many a mature student who had a better study ethic than I at university and beyond, because they had real-life experience of the benefits and disadvantages a solid, or lack of, education entails.

What judgments have people made about you that have been affected by an assessment of your "intelligence"?
People have judged that because I am a teacher I must have a high level of intelligence. In truth, I was just lucky to find a system that I could manipulate up to a certain point with last minute cramming.
Having additional qualifications beyond my undergraduate degree as lead employers to believe I am a competent applicant for their positions, even when the position has nothing to do with my formal education e.g. working in a nursing home or a health food shop.
Our culture is set up to count achievements in education as proof of performance, even though they are usually divorced due to the essential features of each.

Do you consider yourself to be a "learner"? why?
I am a learning addict - absolutely! I did not enjoy school that much in terms of learning as much of it seemed irrelevant (although I loved the social aspect), but now I have the opportunity to shape my own learning, I love it. A great video I found illustrating this desire to take responsibility for one's own learning is from Born to Learn and was highlighted by Hamish Clark on the Coursera forum.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

MOOC: What Future for Education? Activity 2.1

This post is the for the required activity 2.1 in Coursera's massive online open course (MOOC) 'What Future for Education?' from London University's Institute of
What Future for Education MOOC

What you already know about intelligence. How do you know if someone is intelligent or not?
When someone mentions 'intelligence', often I assume they are using it to refer to someone's potential ability in academic. My ideas about intelligence have been greatly influenced by Carol Dweck's book Mindset, where she sets out her ideas about competency being based on practice and effort rather than innate ability. 
Nonetheless, there is still the idea that some people have a greater ability to learn than others, and classroom observations would initially support this theory. However, through my years of teaching I have come to realise it is perhaps better to think of the situation as some learners being better prepared for learning, rather than able or intelligent. This preparation could come from previous knowledge, understandings and skills and may be greatly affected by the opportunities and exposures they have had as a child. For example, a child who was read bed-time stories every night before they started school may be more likely to read independently and therefore have a larger vocabulary and interest in reading than a child who experienced no such stories.
In judging if a person is intelligent or not there are particular tests that might give an indication such as those that measure IQ, or the one used in my previous school, the CAT4 which claims to have "been developed to support schools in understanding pupils’ developed abilities and likely academic potential. Results from CAT4 can help in intervention, monitoring progress and setting targets for future attainment." However, I have seen the danger in such tests as students are immediately labelled as 'gifted', 'average', or even 'hopeless' in the context of particular departments' expectations for them. Therefore, I would prefer to refrain from making judgments on the intelligence of any given individual.

Do you consider yourself to be intelligent? Why? What is your evidence for this?
I consider myself to have the potential to learn anything I set my mind to, although some things will be more difficult for me. For example, anything in the realm of Maths or Physics is likely to be extremely challenging - perhaps to the point where I give up - as I have no recent background in either of these, and the number of complex concepts I would have to master in order to move forward would be high. Also, despite my fascination with the greater universe, I have limited motivation for really getting to grips with the obscure theories behind astrophysics or the like. I would have little to no knowledge of the key terms associated with these fields and would feel intimidated and unsure if asked questions on subjects related to this. 
By contrast, if I am given an unfamiliar piece of literature, I will probably feel confident in commenting upon it as I have been practising this skill since my schooldays, and can use the jargon of this area with ease. 
The idea of 'intelligence' would need to be clearly defined in a given context for me to be able to comment on whether or not the term fits me, although I suspect my tertiary-level 'Western' education and the fact I likely match the context in which these tests were produced would both put me at an advantage against others without these features in their background.

Friday, 3 October 2014

MOOC: What Future for Education? Unit 1 Reflection

The first unit reflection for the Coursera MOOC What Future for Education? To follow the thread, click on - or search for - the label FutEd.

Based on your experience as a learner, what do you think you will be able to get out of this course? 
So far, much of what I have read is a revision of ideas encountered on my MEd which I finished in 2010. Although it's only 4 years ago, it was useful to revisit some of the learning theories I perhaps had not considered for some time.
As already acknowledged on the forum, learning is rarely linear and I look forward to having my previous learning about learning (and meta learning) challenged, confirmed and developed over the rest of this course.
Being able to engage with an interested community is often the motivation for my participation in MOOCs and I can already see from the forums that I have a range of peers, many with significant experience and most with ideas worth sharing, exploring and dissecting.
By the end of the course I hope to be more secure in my understanding of learning theories, but also have had my thinking taken in different ways to open my mind to possibilities which will ultimately improve my skills as a teacher.

And what ideas do you already have about the future of education?
This is a good question but when I reflect on it I simply don't have a clear answer. At the beginning of my MEd I thought I was learning a lot of 'new' ideas and was excited to see the changes that would take place over the coming years. However, as my studies advanced I realised that some of these supposedly 'innovative' and 'radical' theories had been around for decades (at least) and yet national education systems continue to plod along with the more traditional (and in my humble opinion, ever-decreasingly effective) approaches.
Although instruction has apparently changed in the UK from more to less didactic methods, my own experiences tell me there is much work to be done in teacher education to raise awareness of learning theories and their profound implications.
I think we will see increasing use of technology in the classroom, but I wonder if training will keep up with this to ensure it is not just used for the 'wow' factor, but rather for sound pedagogical reasons. Observations to date don't make me optimistic, but change is inevitable as the 'click' generation make it to teacher training colleges. It's a brave new world...

MOOC: What Future for Education? Activity 1.1

What Future for Education MOOC
This post is the first required activity in the Coursera's massive online open course (MOOC) 'What Future for Education?' from London University's Institute of Education.
Reflect on your previous learning experiences. Think about one particularly successful and one unsuccessful learning experience. Consider what were the conditions that made this experience successful or unsuccessful for you and what this tells you about your own preferred ways to learn.
When I was at school, we often had tests at the end of a topic or term. I always performed well on these, because I was able to cram at the last minute (quite literally chanting to myself from notes as I entered the exam space) and then regurgitate it over the next hour or two. On finishing the test, the information was immediately relegated to some dusty corner of my memory, never to be accessed again. I was the envy of many who had spent evenings regularly throughout the term reviewing their notes and getting to grips with the concepts and I felt pretty talented; guess who has the last laugh now?What this resulted in was the situation where I received a 'top notch' education with excellent results but actually learned very little. Even to this day, I struggle to recall basic facts from my school days and it is something I constantly try to remedy through personally-directed readings and study.Sad to say, this was much the same for my undergraduate degree which I gained little pride in receiving, but when I undertook my first teacher training course (the Cambridge CELTA) I suddenly had to develop, and employ, a whole new range of skills...and it was tough! No longer could I rely on temporarily memorising discrete 'info bites'; I had to draw on all my learning and skills every day as it was impossible to predict what a tutor or student might ask of me at any given moment. And despite the challenge, I absolutely loved every minute. (Well, maybe apart from the minutes in the small hours of the morning when I was trying to finish off a lesson plan!). When I received that certificate I felt like I had earned it, and I had definitely learned something new; something I would then take and build on for the rest of my personal and professional life.
What these - and other learning experiences - made me realise about myself is:

  • the learning has to be relevant; even if not contributing to a future career, I have to see why it is important to learn this particular thing at this particular time;
  • the learning has to be challenging; I need to feel like it will significantly enhance my knowledge or skills in relation to the time I spend on it;
  • learning is my responsibility; I cannot - and do not - blame the teacher, but rather seek ways to compensate for any failings in course materials or instruction;
  • I prefer to choose my own pace of learning but sometimes I need a good push to get going; I prefer multiple fixed shorter-term deadlines than one end-of-course deadline for assessment;
  • I will never reach the 'end' of learning; there will always be ways for me to enhance, improve and build on my learning.


As a teacher, it has made me realise that formative assessment and the 'spiralling' of learning is essential if 'deep' long-lasting learning is to result.The conceptual model, most recently popularised by Lynn Erickson and Lois Lanning is one I have explored extensively over the past couple of years as it seems to offer a richer learning experience where there is a constant building of essential knowledge and skills.At the moment, I do not feel that education systems and qualifications necessarily demand deep learning so I hope this course offers the opportunity to explore and discuss such aspects.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

More MOOCs

With the workload of finishing off the last school year, and preparing for a new baby, there hasn't been much time for blogging, so a quick update...

Over the 'summer' break, I have been exploring numerous MOOCs on a range of topics from Irish history to the fundamentals of teaching. September sees me enrolled on several courses with varying levels of engagement but two I intend to complete fully are Learning to Teach Online from the University of New South Wales and Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (or ModPo for short) by Al Filreis from Pennsylvania University.

Learning to Teach Online has been an interesting in terms of confirming much of my own theory around online or blended learning, and the reflections involved in this course have made me consider alignment of curriculum, assessment and methodology in a very structured (and useful) way. Should it run again, I would thoroughly recommend it for anyone seeking to embark on - or improve the efficacy of - online learning, whether for part or all of a course.

Having a stronger academic background in language than literature, I am always keen to 'up' my knowledge and skills around the latter, so the course on American poetry has been most enlightening. So far, we have focused on Dickinson and Whitman. Dickinson manages to create such densely-packed lines, often musing on the nature of poetry itself and the insights gained so far have been beneficial in informing me of various perspectives on a writer with many possible interpretations.

The Whitman materials await my attention so, as the baby naps, that's where I'm heading now. See you there perhaps!

Monday, 16 June 2014

Marking: From Loathing to Loving

Earlier today, I read a couple of blog posts (including this one) about 'common language' and its pros and cons. I then sat down to continue checking my Year 8s writing corrections and realised that I was actually enjoying it; definitely progression in my attitude toward a task that I met with procrastination more often than not.

What's the link?

In the past, when I've annotated a learner's writing, I have struggled to give them enough direction to self-correct without a. 'telling' them the 'correct' answer (and thereby robbing them of a learning opportunity) or b. being so vague that the learner really doesn't know where to start with how to improve what they originally penned.

However, over the last couple of weeks, I've been trialling a resource from Laura Randazzo on TeachersPayTeachers and it has been transformational for both me and my learners. The idea is that there is a shared set of codes used to annotate texts - nothing new there - but the feature that separates it from the rest is that the reference sheet gives technical guidance on the error, using authentic concise and accurate terminology. I like to think that my editing of the reference sheet has also enhanced its efficacy as I inserted shortened urls (using Bitly) linking to further guidance and self-tests.

The first 'win' with this resource occurred after I asked learners to go through, and note in their workbooks, the error codes. Lots of mental sweat visible here! Next, they wrote out the guidance, followed by the corrected version of the extract. At that point, I did an anonymous feedback survey and the results were most encouraging. While a couple (surprisingly, not more) of the 24 surveyed mentioned they hadn't enjoyed the physical wrist tiredness they'd experienced in writing out at such length, every single one (yes, without even one exception) gave positive feedback. They said they felt it made them more aware of their errors, how to correct them and that the exercise meant it was less likely they'd repeat the errors in their next writing task, partly because of their raised awareness and partly because they would proofread more carefully so as to avoid such onerous writing out of corrections again. (At the point of writing this post, this remains to be seen, so I'll be back to update on whether this is indeed the case or not.) I had explained to the class that I would make a decision on whether to continue using the system or not based on their feedback, so a positive response was effectively the class telling me, "We want more!" 

The next victory came as I sat down to mark their corrections and realised that having this common understanding of technical terms made it so much easier for me to mark up their work. As learners had already corrected themselves following guidance on aspects such as 'preposition', 'tense shifting', 'fragment', 'subject', 'verb' and a range of punctuation terms, it was effortless to concisely note where their focus should lie for future proofreading. 

Furthermore, an added bonus was that the learners I would usually worry most about understanding my feedback found they had an advantage over the rest of the class: my EAL learners. As they have all experienced learning English with regular exposure to grammatical terminology - especially around tense formation - I was able to be even more specific in my feedback to them, using terms like 'past participle', 'present perfect' and other such terms the rest of the learners (and many English teachers) would baulk at.

The enjoyment factor for marking now comes from the strong sense that it is a constructive, collaborative experience that is visibly building the learners' skills, while being differentiated, personalised and putting the onus of learning where is should be: with the learner.
"If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this: feedback should cause thinking." (Dylan Wiliam (2011)
A massive thanks to Laura Randazzo for this resource; I receive nothing for promoting her materials, monetary or otherwise, but I do wholeheartedly recommend a look here.

Friday, 13 June 2014

From 'Good Teacher' to 'Effective Teacher'

My last post reflected on my thoughts at the start of the Coursera MOOC on Coaching Teachers, and as it draws to a close, I have to say it has been some of the best PL I've had in a long time.

One of the big things it's prompted me to think about is how a teacher moves from being a good teacher to being an effective teacher. Good teachers are often judged on their classroom performance, implementation of school policies and respected pedagogical approaches, but effective teachers are judged on the outcomes achieved for their learners, plain and simple. So the guy that regularly gets his guitar out in a lesson for a singalong and the teacher who requires absolute silence for most of a lesson might have different approaches and classroom environments, but to judge their efficacy, it's the learners we should be focusing on. Do they learn and retain that learning over time? Can they apply the learning in appropriate contexts? Does learner feedback indicate high levels of engagement with intellectually stimulating learning experiences? Only the answers to these questions (among others) will indicate if the teacher is effective or not, regardless of what we can observe in a one-hour session plucked at random from the school year.

This post from Class Teaching (a blog I recommend to anyone who'll listen) reinforces the idea and adds to it. Consider this graphic (taken from the same blog) for a moment:

A common complaint among teachers is, 'I taught this last year and they've forgotten it. They don't remember anything!' but if we are regularly teaching 'in a spiral' with revision and revisiting being prominent features, that would surely be less of a feature. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that many curricula from around the world are so dense with content that many feel it's nigh on impossible to touch upon many standards more than once a year, but I'm thinking that the key is to prioritise according to individual learning goals and go from there. I'm not talking about unmanageable IEPs for the thirty or so kids you have in every class, but as you get to know your class through formative assessments, the areas that need more attention should become clearer and allow for a sharper focus on what's most needed. 

What is referred to as "spaced retrieval practice" is supported by research as an extremely effective method so click through to the original post for guidance on starting points on implementing this in your own classroom.