Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Accountability & Student Surveys

'The Flawed Culture of Education Today'
It may seem self-evident, but I'll say it anyway: accountability in teaching is one of those things schools always struggle to balance. On the one hand, teachers are human so there will always be a certain number of people trying to 'get away with it'. However, on the other (much fuller?) hand, it's doubtful graduates follow the latest teaching news and come away with the impression that it's a job for those who are looking to coast toward the holidays, leading them to then enrol in teacher training college. This leads me to believe we teachers do the best we can most of the time, and that it may be more constructive to trust in this and work from that point forward rather than spending endless resources trying to force us to prove we care.
(This post from David Didau delves into the issue, pointing out the 'versus' mentality that seems to have arisen: if it's not teachers against the government, it's teachers against parents or teachers against students or...) 
I am about to start working in a school where students will be asked to fill out a survey to assess their teachers. Not knowing what this survey will entail, I'm curious (and possibly a bit apprehensive) about how the resulting data will be used.
I've experienced student surveys in the past where the instructions clearly asked respondents to avoid naming particular teachers (and when they did, names were removed) They were used as a general gauge as to how positive students felt toward their learning experiences in general, including - of course - time with teachers in lessons. However, the data was shared with everyone involved as it came in, rather than held by SLT and shared in a 'tidied up' version. This meant we were free to interrogate the results ourselves and where things weren't great, we individually reflected on why this might be with colleague discussion on how to address it. When all the responses were in, then there was a whole school meeting with SLT's interpretation but the tone indicated this was a set of results 'we' (SLT and all staff) were responsible for rather than just 'you' (the teachers). There was the acknowledgement that we are not lone islands with complete control over everything experienced in our lessons and a student's response might have been different on a different day, but where we saw strengths we could ask how that might be, and the same for where we saw targets. Out of this came approaches we could likely say were working, alongside things that definitely weren't. For example, in their comments, students made it clear they appreciated one-on-one time as teachers circulated the class during quiet working periods as - even in the most collegial of classes - they didn't always want to put up their hand and ask for assistance. It also became clear they didn't appreciate hours of homework and felt it had minimum impact on their learning, although they did feel that homework menus or customised homework helped them greatly. They also mentioned they didn't enjoy weekly reflections but admitted they did help them identify their achievements and targets, and so asked for them to be continued but perhaps done at key points, such as the end of a unit or topic, rather than at the end of every week. All these findings were directly applicable to each and every teacher whether they were practising the mentioned approaches or not - there was something we could all learn and consider.
On the other hand, I've also heard of student surveys where the results are used to berate and personally criticise rather than support and grow. I've even heard of them being used as a way of ranking teachers, a disgusting practice: we are not on Teacher Idol!
As everything points to the fact I am moving into a professional and collegial working environment, I fully expect that however these upcoming surveys are introduced and used, it will be without threat to individual teachers' confidence and self-esteem, so I hope to learn more about how this kind of feedback can be a positive aspect of self-monitoring. 
I already carry out more and less informal surveys about my own teaching among my classes and use this to continually adapt to their needs, so this added layer might just add some extra insights.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Global Education Conference: Online and On Target

Last week, I finally had the opportunity to take part in the online Global Education Conference, organised by Steve Hargadon @stevehargadon and Lucy Gray @elemenous after managing no more than a 'dip' into it in previous years. It only made me realise what I'd be missing! The presentations I was able to participate in and moderate were of great benefit for people like me looking to develop their online connectivity, be it related to professional development or collaborating across classrooms.

I also took this opportunity to present my own experiences and ideas on running successful online collaborative projects and was most-grateful for the support of (what has turned out to be) my long-term mentor, Julie Lindsay of Flat Connections.

There were many sessions of note, but the first I will highlight was from Education Beyond Borders by Noble Kelly (recording here) in which he described the inspirational work they are doing with teachers on the African continent. What they have achieved so far is nothing

short of remarkable in terms of bringing 21st Century methodologies to the forefront of teacher training, and I highly recommend checking out their site and possibly getting involved.

Another session which was expectedly brilliant was from Julie Linsday and teacher partners who described and discussed projects they had taken part in. Some great ideas to be found for both beginners and veterans so check out their presentation recording here.

Although I could continue listing indefinitely, the final session I want to share was by the 'unschoolers' Lainie Liberti and her son Miro Siegel. They talked about their own immersive learning experiences alongside their initiative - Project World School - which brings "groups

of Western teens to South America to form a month-long intentional learning community." Watch the recording here but be warned - it may make you want to don your backpack and get going yourself!

I have downloaded several other sessions to watch, including one of personal interest on using Adinkra symbols to explore values and identity, so you can see just how wide-ranging the topics were. 

[Edit: Have just watched the session and it was really interesting to learn about Sue's experiences in Ghana connecting her students with classrooms in that country. Since visiting Ghana, Sue has set up the 'African Friendship Society' at her school and the engagement and excitement generated around writing is quite something to hear about. If you have 40 minutes, definitely check this out!]

For me, the conference underlined how powerful connecting educators across the globe can be, both in terms of inspiration and support. As the conference is also the launchpad for international projects, I have no doubt that thousands of students will have their learning experiences enriched by the connections made possible through GEC. Head over to Global Classroom Project to see how you can become a part of this global movement.

And no need to despair with the closing of GEC 2014 as you can check out all the recordings from this page. Happy learning!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

MOOC: What Future for Education? Activity 5.1

This post is the for the required activity 5.1 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.

Why do you think governments consider education to be such a high priority?
My initial thoughts on this is that the answer is rather obvious and twofold i.e. (1) to prepare its citizens to take their place as productive members of society and (2) to provide occupation for children while parents are at work.

Although the second of these might indicate some cynicism about teachers as babysitters, it is a practical element of schools; one only has to consider the chaos, backlash and reported negative impact on the economy of teacher strikes to see the truth of it.

However, as I consider the first element - that is, preparing kids for their futures - this is somewhat more complex than it first appears. Ideally, schools should equip learners with the skills they need to follow their chosen path but it is arguable that schools actually dictate this path to a greater extent, depending on: the designated curriculum (compare 'high' versus 'grammar' schools in the UK; prioritisation of particular subject areas (consider 'core' subjects in different countries' education systems); how competent an individual student is in that particular school's assessments and grading processes (written, oral, performance- or attendance-based) and so on.

Getting back to the question, education is seen as one of the most important areas a government can produce policy for, and so on top of the need to prepare youth for life, there is a political element to addressing issues in this area. 

I think it is a truism that governments structure education systems according to their varying beliefs - much to the detriment of the schools at their mercy given the ever-shifting goalposts - and therefore it must be a high priority for governments to influence the outcomes of education for those they 'control'. Governments use education as a way of getting their agenda across, whether this is seen as admirable and called 'excellent education' or entirely self-serving in which case it will probably be labelled as 'brainwashing'.

Ultimately, it would be most fitting if we could say governments see education as such a huge priority as they want to ensure the best life outcomes for each individual, but I suspect the truth is closer to seeing it as such a huge priority given they would like to be the ones whose path is followed most closely to reach their particular vision for an ideal society.

Monday, 27 October 2014

MOOC: What Future for Education? Unit 4 Reflection - Schools

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

  • How has your experience of school shaped you as a learner, and as an adult?
  • In what ways do you think your own schooling could have been improved, and what priorities do you think are the most important for schools today?
The effect of my school experience on my character as a learner is one of delayed accomplishment. Although I performed well at school subjects, being able to cram at the last minute, I failed to develop any consistency in my approach to studying until long after I'd left school. I would say that I learned how to be an effective learner, only through my teacher training and observation and reflection on what helps and impedes goal achievement.
As my school was so strict, it seemed that all responsibility for success or failure resided with the teacher, so that sense of personal achievement was something I rarely experienced.
There is one particular teacher that I remember who taught me a foreign language. She was fierce and relentless in her assignment of homework and when I achieved a modest 'C' in her subject, I felt she had done a good job as I was such a poor learner that I ought to be grateful for receiving anything short of a fail. However, in retrospect, I feel the school did me a great disservice as I know I had the potential to achieve a top grade (since proven), but the school's draconian methods drove me from studying rather than supporting me in developing effective learning habits and techniques.
From this long and painful lesson, I realise that schools have a duty to equip learners with the essential skills they need to access, process, evaluate and remember subject-related material. If a teen leaves school hating it, then we have done something very wrong; school should be viewed as an exciting time of discovery and self-realisation, not a soul-destroying competition to get to the top.

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 3.1 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.

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...