Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ category

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

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:

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.

A flowchart for motivation

More from Mr Pink. Would be interesting to make a quick taxonomy of school behaviours that benefit from a carrot-and-stick approach.

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.

Good News, Bad News

Students Love Technology

So, the good news is that Twitter can help students boost their grades. The bad news is that many students are device-o-holics.

Or perhaps it’s all bad news. Perhaps it’s just that students without Twitter lose marks because the Delirium Tremens they are wrestling with after being told they can’t use their phones makes it harder for the poor lambs to focus on the test in front of them.

They’re wonderful things, out-of-context statistics.

Workspace, Learnspace, Brainspace

I’ve just been watching Channel 4’s The Secret Life of Buildings. The presenter’s an acquired taste but there are some fascinating bits to it.

The main take-aways for me are :

Well worth a watch.

From a teacher/school point of view, it was the Kingsdale story that caught my eye. Poor attendance was tackled (and stopped) by a head who thought buildings matter and an interesting architectural practice.

Now, we may not all have the funding to hire architects or make a classroom like some of those in Cristina Milos’ beautiful Pinboard but given that the learnspace affects the brainspace, it made me wonder if there’s a list of heuristics to help us design better spaces for our children to learn in.

Many of the schools I’ve seen have children’s work up on the walls but the desks and design of the space is very much still done in a traditional ethos.

A key part is probably giving students a say in what their rooms look like, but I thought I’d try asking the crowd. If you have any suggestions for making a classroom or workspace a brain-friendly space, please can you add to this Google Doc? I’d love to hear what tips and ideas people have for making their schools better learning environments,

Books, desert islands and play with a capital P

Isn’t this, in reverse order, what we should be showing children books can do? [via 3quarksdaily ]

Robinson Crusoe is notable for a lot of reasons. It was one of the first English novels. It brings up stuff like cultural relativism and morality and providence with a capital P. Marx favorably critiqued its depiction of pre-capitalist man. It can be read as a big old allegory of British colonialism. And, of course, it’s the locus classicus of desert island tropes. Yet when I finally got around to reading it this summer, it recalled to me nothing so much as the contentment I’d felt at age eight-ish, sheltering in a makeshift lean-to of blankets and card table chairs as I shined a flashlight over the pages of another, though not entirely different, book.

In other words, shouldn’t we be teaching children how much fun reading and stories can be, and weaving into that how rich and deep those experiences of play and imagination can become?

Are you as clever as your tie suggests?


Students with purple ties are gifted and talented. All the children at Crown Woods college in Greenwich, south London, know that. They are taught in separate colour-coordinated buildings, play in fenced-off areas and eat lunch at separate times.

At 11 years old, all pupils at the college are streamed according to ability in what the headteacher argues is the only way to survive in the brave new world of market-driven education.

This is one of the worst ideas I’ve heard in a while. If the head insists on it, shouldn’t the teachers be made to wear ties like the students, colour coded by effectiveness and competence?

Taking student feedback seriously

Here’s something any teacher (and probably by extension any school) should be thinking about:

How useful are the views of public school students about their teachers?

Quite useful, according to preliminary results released on Friday from a $45 million research project that is intended to find new ways of distinguishing good teachers from bad.

Teachers whose students described them as skillful at maintaining classroom order, at focusing their instruction and at helping their charges learn from their mistakes are often the same teachers whose students learn the most in the course of a year, as measured by gains on standardized test scores, according to a progress report on the research.

Makes sense intuitively. And makes me think again how important it is to take on board the feedback from students. Next step, I suppose, is to design a feedback form (to go a long with the how can I improve board)