21st Century Soup-Spilling

[post_intro]There’s a lot of talk about 21st century education. There are the skills that children need, the jobs that don’t exist yet, the access to learning anywhere and all the wonderful things the internet enables us to do. All of this is valuable, I think, but I wonder how much it is side-stepping the real issue?[/post_intro]

When I first started teaching, the wonderful Annie Younger pointed something out to me. She said that “children will learn from you even when you don’t want them to. It is a blessing and a curse.” What she meant was that in a school you are constantly observed. Not just in lessons, but in the corridor, talking to colleagues, spilling soup on your shirt in the dining room and the children learn from that too.

Much of the 21st century thinking about schools that I have read has focused on overt areas( e.g. assessment and badges) and times (e.g. homework and flipped classrooms) when we do want children to learn. Badges, flipped classrooms and the like. This is all good. Perhaps, though, we are ignoring think more about the tacit, unintended, soup-spilling messages our 20th century schools are giving out.

The main one, for me, is the structure. Perhaps more out of tradition than intent, schools are hierarchical, command-and-control beasts. While yes it’s good to look at ways to reinvent the classroom, what if we had a closer look at the way our schools were structured? It’s always easier to think in binary terms – hierarchy (bad) vs wirearchy (good) – and there is a danger that that blurs much of the goodness in the overlap but should we be beginning to adjust the organisational structures to fit a more fluid world? Does a school need a head? How do we embed teams? Should we? How do we engage in a less us and them manner with parents and communities?

via David Wilcox, SocialReporter.com

Dave Gray‘s talk below is a great starting point for thinking about this.

As a teacher it’s hugely exciting to be able to use all the magic of technology. It’s great to be able to tweet and blog and share photos and get classrooms connecting with others around the world. That is, as Annie Younger might have said, part of what I want the children to learn. What I’m not sure I want them to learn is that all of this happens despite, not because of, a school’s structure. The values that are implicit in what I am trying to teach are not necessarily carried through in the way my colleagues and I work. That is the soup on my shirt.

#SOLO Taxonomy Presentation for Primary School Children

Thought I’d share a little slideshow I’ve made to introduce my class to SOLO. Been mulling over trying it this summer and thank in large part to the theory here, some serendipitous resources mentioned by Ewan and the sheer enthusiasm of Tait, I’m taking the plunge.

Would love to hear any tips.

One thing that has struck me is that it might dovetail nicely with DSRP, with SOLO providing the direction and DSRP the engine so to speak.

Self-knowledge, Personalised Learning and Butterflies.

There’s a lot of talk about making learning personal at the moment. We should all be tailoring it to the needs and interests of the child. Much of it is sensible and I agree with much of the sentiment.

I also think there is a risk that comes attached. That risk is an overt focus on self-knowledge and an assumption of some positive understanding, breadth and direction that isn’t there. The child, so the thinking goes, chooses what he/she wants to learn and then builds up from there, with more vigour and more enthusiasm and more lasting success.

Well, possibly. But as Andre Gide said,

“Know thyself” – a maxim as pernicious as it is odious. A person observing himself would arrest his own development. Any caterpillar who tried to “know himself” would never become a butterfly.

While we shouldn’t stop personalising learning, we should neither decide too early against the idea that there are some things, beyond the child’s knowledge or perceived interests, that they will look back on and thank us for the introduction.

Is a curriculum a why, a what or or a how? #digitalstudies #ictcurric

Have been thinking a lot more about the ICT curriculum and had a little Damascus moment earlier on. Often, when I have sat down trying to get thoughts clear about all this I find I get overly drawn to the “how” of teaching. This is fun, but ultimately back-to-front, I think. The why and the what should come first.

The first thing IT teachers need to agree on, I think, is the “why”. There needs to be a rationale to give it shape, to balance the competing claims of Computer Science, Digital Media, and Digital Literacy amongst others.

Next, we need to agree on the “what”. Given the rationale, what do we want students to learn? What attitudes, what skills, what knowledge? That, I think, is what we will be assessing the children on.

These two, by and large, are where I would expect schools to want to find some consensus and some comfort in numbers. But they are miles away from the “how”. I admit, I love the idea of schools doing hackdays, for instance, but that is my leaning. And to try to work backwards from “stuff I like” is not necessarily the most sensible approach. How these goals are achieved or organised can vary massively, from individual lesson plans like those being shared at #ictcurric, to the astonishing mindmaps of @teachesict suggested portfolio approaches like Brian’s. If you take a look at those resources, you can see that the how is a huge, flexible, customisable beast. It will, I suspect, and perhaps even should vary from school to school. It will depend on staff, on equipment, on children.

There is a huge amount of goodness to learn from all of the “how” resources, but I think the discussions would be most fruitfully centred on the why and the what. If we centre on the how, my fear is that we will spend too long discussing differences that we don;t need to be discussing.

What to teach in IT? #ICTcurric #ICT500 #RethinkingICT #ukedchat

So a while ago Michael Gove said the current ICT Curriculum is being scrapped. To be honest, hooray. The current offering is dismal, almost unforgivably so. There already seem to be a bundle of energetic, committed characters looking to redraft a better one and in response to Chris and his call for ideas here are some first thoughts.

  1. Don’t call it ICT
  2. Pillars
  3. Structure
  4. Concerns

Don’t call it ICT.

I’d never heard of ICT before I became a teacher. I worked in IT in various capacities for 15 years before becoming a teacher and have an MSc in Computer Science. People work in IT. Please let’s call it that. Or pink elephants. Or anything that isn’t ICT


A ‘these truths I hold dear’ of sorts. Any IT curriculum should:

  1. be agnostic

    In terms of pedagogy, let’s specify goals not routes. In terms of tech, let’s do operating systems not Macs, spreadsheets not Excel, and principles not implementations. In terms of society, let’s be accessible to as many as humanly possible.

  2. be focused on learning.

    It should be designed in such a way that the teacher can learn with the students. Tech moves very quickly and I see no shame in being the most experienced learner rather than the font of all knowledge.

  3. be challenging.

    There is a fear that children know more than adults. Fine. But don’t teach them what is difficult for you if it is easy for them. Don’t do Dreamweaver till you’ve done HTML. See previous point!

  4. be varied.

    Not just computer science, not just playing around with media, not just anything.

  5. be relevant,

    to children and to industry.

  6. be a work in progress.

    Because to be relevant you have to be.

And by contrast, no IT curriculum should ever, ever be a slop-bucket for other subjects’ technical projects, “oh because, you know, it involves a computer and the internet”.


So what should the IT Curriculum contain? I’m jotting down notes here but I’d think the key strands could be something like:

  1. Computational Thinking

    This is an academic discipline in itself and has plenty of cross-curricular “oomph” especially with maths and sciences. In Google’s words, it “involves a set of problem-solving skills and techniques that software engineers use to write programs that underlie the computer applications you use”. In an IT Curriculum it could mean learning how to apply concepts such as abstraction, divide and rule etc. using software like Scratch, or building a basic app. It also provides a way to understand the hardware behind the software. Because it is an academic discipline, this can be as resource heavy or as resource light as one wants. If the budget allows, then Mindstorms , if not, then paper.

  2. Working Life

    This is essentially a pared down version of what the curriculum is now, i.e. training for the workplace. Topics might be email, search, browsers, databases, word processors, spreadsheets, project management tools, photo editors, movie editors, sound editors etc. The important point with all of these, I think, is to show the grammar behind the tools. File menus, windows … Again, build-in comparison. If you do Microsoft Word, do Google Docs too as a comparison. Be agnostic.

  3. Digital World

    This is essentially how 1 and 2 affect our lives. Topics might be: cybersafety, web design, information and truth, Open Source vs paid, connectivity vs influence, wisdom of crowds etc.

It’s probably a little OTT but I think these almost map onto Shannon and Weaver’s 3 modes of communication.

Concerns from #ukedchat

I had a look through Brian’s #ukedchat session and the following seemed to be the key concerns.

  • Funding.

    Many were understandably concerned about resources. I’m not sure industry would be “delighted” to help out and in a way I think focusing on large donations is a misuse of energies. Equally, there is a fount of free stuff “out there on the interweb”, from Operating Systems up. More interesting to me are projects like Computer Science in a Box and RaspberryPi

  • Assessment.

    This seemed a secondary school concern but I think it’s relevant to every level. The Hackday assessments sound intriguing, though I’m not sure I understand how they would work. More prosaically, there are the QTS style IT literacy tests to show you know how to use a word processor or a spreadsheet. There are project-based outcomes, for e.g. media related parts. And for the computational thinking elements, that could easily be done as a paper-based test. That’s just for the summative. I see the need but I’m not sure I see the problem.

  • Training staff.

    The concern here was how to get IT staff up to speed. It is astonishing how ossified people’s attitudes can be and I feel a bit stumped by this. Two points might mitigate it: first, by IT not simply being a glorified Microsoft Office training program they might take it more seriously; second, by making sure that an assessed part of the curriculum is ‘debugging’ in its broadest sense – how to know what to do when you don’t know how to do it (see e.g. this)


If you’re interested, some medium term plans are beginning, slowly, to take shape here:

Private Schools and Private Tutors

I have nothing against private tutors – let me say that straight out. But I think without openness in the communications between tutor, child, parent and school everyone suffers significant problems for schools, parents and children. Equally

The Problem for the School

Heads of Department, in fact private schools in general, draw a huge amount of succour from their results. If they are getting children in to strong, academic schools then that is seen to be indicative of strong, academic teaching (with the knowing wink that some children were so gifted they didn’t need any help).

Certainly in London, this is no longer the case. Tutoring is rife but this is not necessarily a problem. There are plenty of valuable reasons for tutoring, such as

  • when a parent wants a more creative curriculum or a more bespoke curriculum on top of what is being offered at school,
  • when a parent wants “out of hours” coaching for their children, such as an Easter before GCSEs or a winter before 11+ exams, or
  • when a school is demonstrably failing a child for a specific topic (e.g. fractions) or for a specific time (e.g. through a character clash with the teacher).

What is more concerning it that tutoring is rife but there is very little open discussion about it.

There seem to be two types: school-advised and outside world.

School-advised tutoring is a bizarre creature. Much, if not most of the time, it is well-advised. For instance, if a child has to catch up after moving from another country, tutoring can work well.

What is bizarre, though, is when schools are simply happy with the fact that everyone gets tutored. If parents are paying good money for education, shouldn’t the expectation be that their child’s needs will be met? At the moment, in less kind moments, it can feel like RyanAir. OK, yes you paid for the flight but the lifejacket costs you £50 …

The sad thing is, with the stress of securing the best (or more healthily the right) school for their children, it seems parents too rarely demand to know exactly why my child’s needs were not being met in class.

When tutoring is advised by the outside world (friends at coffee parties, peer pressure, nervous grandparents or whoever) there are different problems. As a teacher, I only hear in passing which children in my class are being tutored and which aren’t. Often parents have asked the child not to say anything. [Note to self: must be more proactive and ask parents to tell me direct!] I can guess four possible reasons for this, there may well be more.

  1. Parents are somehow embarrassed at having to get tutoring
  2. Parents don’t see it as any of the school’s business or want to avoid getting into a discussion with the school at tutoring.
  3. Teachers have highlighted that the child needs no tutoring but parents aren’t so sure.
  4. Tutors have asked to keep home and school separate. Once, appallingly, a tutor told me he wanted no contact with the school because it “cramped his style”.

This communication breakdown, intentional or not, has three effects, neither of which benefit the child.

  1. It leaves the tutor in a very strong position, whereas it should be the child who is the focus. Any success is the tutor’s, any failure is what was being coped with anyway. Parents have no way of how much they are getting for their money. For schools, there is the common refrain “but I did this with my tutor”. The direct result being that the teacher has either to cobble together a lesson on the side or ask the child to do it again or any number of other options which do not benefit the child.
  2. The suspicion taints every child. If a teacher suspects a child of being heavily tutored, they are going to be less likely to recognise his or her talents if the child is succeeding on his own. The current atmosphere of ‘hiding who is being tutored’ aggravates this and again it is the child that suffers.
  3. Schools and departments within them are increasingly at risk of living in cloud-cuckoo land. The old “what we do works, just look at our results” argument becomes a complete, and worrying, nonsense. If staff do not know which children are getting outside help, then they are going to have a very skewed view of the efficacy of their teaching. They cannot with any sense decide “what went well” or what would be “even better if”. It is almost reaching the point that parents can begin to treat any teacher who says “trust the system” with distrust in equal measure. This is a shame as there is much in the systems in private schools that do work, and can be seen to work based on solid evidence. This up, up and away benefits neither school, parent or child.

The Problem for Parents and Children

Here I am vastly less experienced but here, as a slightly pathetic attempt at completeness, are some possible problems:

  • children lose time that could be spent being children (I agree with this woman)
  • parents lost time that could be spent being with their children
  • cash spent and no real understanding of whether or not it worked.

The problem for the tutor

A Simple Fix

Much of this comes down to schools, I think. There is nothing that anyone can do to stop someone getting their child tutored. Nor, arguably, should there be.

Impetus for tutoring Solid Reasons Less solid reasons
School Brief tutor or agency and communicate regularly, share results from school/tutor with parents, assume short term Just say no & advise parents against, run e.g. maths club in school for free
Outside World Gauge from parents why being tutored, assess internally if this highlights an area of weakness in the school offering, ask for tutor/agency contact details and if possible present parents and child with joint, results-based plan Gauge from parents why being tutored, assess internally if this highlights an area of weakness in the school offering, ask for tutor/agency contact details and if possible present parents and child with joint, results-based plan. If communication and co-planning not given, then advise parents strongly against.

All of this is predicate on a school audit of tutoring and one wants to get really OFSTED a policy in place for tutoring.

Basically, though, isn’t it all common sense?

Sorry …. turned into a monster …

Character Building 2.0

Character building in the UK, I think, needs a little bit of an upgrade. Part of that means having a clearer idea of what we’re trying to build.

Character building 1.0 & The Welsh 3000s

Currently, character building is a euphemism for any experience that is uniformly dreadful and unrewarding. One example, from my childhood, was a challenge called the Welsh 3000s.

“It’s very rocky, and both uphill and downhill sections are demanding. Navigation can also be problematic without previous knowledge of this area of Snowdonia. For some, the walk involves camping/bivvying at the top of Snowdon the night before, adding to the weight of kit for the initial section. Additionally, one mountain, Crib Goch, is very exposed – several people have died on it.

This challenge is commonly underestimated – you need to be very fit to walk it in 24 hours.”

And no, it was not rewarding, nor enjoyable, nor could I see the point. Still, these challenges abound and are perhaps especially prevalent in the independent sector. Even the wide-eyed Wellington progressive Anthony Seldon says that “Hikes and gruelling expeditions should not be the domain just of the posh”.

Character Building 2.0

The difficulty with this is not that the hikes shouldn’t happen. Simply that they need to be given a context. Saying that they are simply good things for their own sake is not, I think, good enough. I like this from KIPP, Duckworth, Seligman et al.

Actively participates
Shows enthusiasm
Invigorates others

Comes to class prepared
Pays attention and resists distractions
Remembers and follows directions
Gets to work right away rather than procrastinating

Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked
Allows others to speak without interruption
Is polite to adults and peers
Keeps temper in check

Recognizes and shows appreciation for others
Recognizes and shows appreciation for his/her opportunities

Is eager to explore new things
Asks and answers questions to deepen understanding
Actively listens to others

Gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly
Believes that effort will improve his or her future

Finishes whatever he or she begins
Tries very hard even after experiencing failure
Works independently with focus

Able to find solutions during conflicts with others
Demonstrates respect for feelings of others
Knows when and how to include others

With it, you can begin to give children a) some meaningful targets and b) some meaningful reasons. At least, then, at the end of a nightmarish hike across the Welsh mountains, one might feel a sense of achievement, not pointlessness.

To do what needs doing

Michael Ellsberg has a book out called The Education of Millionaires, which outlines the 7 key skills you need to know to become a millionaire like college drop-outs Zuckerberg or Gates. The argument, loosely, is:

  1. yes college can teach you many wonderful things
  2. but those things do not transfer easily to the real world.
  3. various millionaires have done really well without a university degree
  4. so at worst, higher education may actually get in the way
  5. at best it obscures the key skills money-making college drop-outs like Dell and Gates have learned.

Vartan Gregorian has an excellent review.Along with the standard defence of liberal arts as a preparation for the ups and downs of life, one point in particular struck a chord.

What is also left out of the debate about higher education is that its purpose is not just to provide a pathway paved with gold for the nation’s elites. If we frame the discussion that way, we may unintentionally serve to disparage the people who are in charge of the daily management, maintenance and smooth operation of our civilization — the men and women who deliver our mail, comprise our police force, serve in our military, work in our libraries, teach our elementary school children, and devote themselves to a thousand other jobs that, if not performed with responsibility, commitment and creativity, would undermine the basic structures of our society. Though these individuals may not be reaching for the kind of stars that Michael Ellsberg and others would have them aspire to grasp, most are doing something even more important: they are engaging in the useful tasks of good citizens and contributing to the common welfare, including providing for their families. And perhaps they are even carrying out what Marcus Aurelius called “one of our assignments in life … to do what needs doing.”

Spot on, in my book. Any mass educational system will have a hard time dealing with those at either end of a bell-curve. But surely the failures of these systems to cope with exceptional cases does not invalidate them? Rather than eulogising these exceptional cases – Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg – as icons in the fight against an impractical education, they should be celebrated, I think, for having the self-awareness to decide that college was not for them. No less, no more.

Education 2.0 and Bruce Lee

I’ve just done a feedback survey at school to try to understand why teachers don’t use our intranet more. I’m keen to do some internal workshops on flipped classrooms, BYOT etc but wanted to see what general attitudes were beforehand.

There were two recurring themes:

  1. it is an extra that gets in the way of real teaching
  2. it is too complicated to add to

Many of these same teachers will happily figure out how sites outside e.g. Facebook, holiday sites and ebay work. These sites are no more complicated than WordPress (on which our intranet runs).

So what’s happening?

Well, my current thinking is that there are two things we’re doing wrong. Both of which have to do with what Bruce Lee might call “emotional content”

  1. The focus is on the finger
    In Enter The Dragon there is that memorable line “concentrate on the finger and you miss all that heavenly glory.” Many staff, I think, see posting to the intranet as exactly that: posting to the intranet. It is not, for example, sorting out homework for kids, or showing examples of work so students can comment, show off and discuss.
  2. Public should be the default
    It is understandable, especially in a school fro Primary year group, to be worried about privacy. We have policies to address this, e.g. no full names, no pictures in public not authorised by parents etc. But …
    It is senseless to have to log-in to see a lunch menu. Or a curriculum. Or a list of spellings. This “everything is private” status seeps into much of the other work on the intranet. It makes it feel that whatever is up there will not be seen. The content does not become “emotional”.

There is no point, I think, doing any Education 2.0 workshop until people understand those two points. Anyway. Cluetrain thinking may all be a million miles away but we will get there.