Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Give me liberty: why teachers need free speech more than ever

'You're live'

I love social media. This will surprise no one with the misfortune to follow me. If they ever taxed it, I'd be pawning my kidneys on the Dark Web for screen time. I also love free speech, debate, and the potential for teaching to re-energise itself from within, from the ground up by international and powerful conversations you can have online. I like being able to criticise things. I also like suggestions about what to do next. I like dragon slaying and myth busting, even if I’m the dragon. It might be painful, but like going to the gym, you never regret it afterwards.

Is Twitter the last great salon of free speech? I sometimes wonder. Open to anyone with access to the internet, free, instant and international, it smashes borders and levels access in ways unimaginable just fifteen years ago. From nothing, I used it to make connections with minds great and grand and groovy around the world. Without it, researchED would have been nearly impossible. Tweets can girdle the earth far faster than Ariel’s forty minutes

But for every force, there is another equal and opposite; some don't embrace this new paradigm; who resent change, or its harbinger, discussion.

You can say anything you like as long as we agree with you

It's important to remember how far we've come at least in the UK. When I first started howling into the void, many things were dogma. It was practically inconceivable to write openly in dispute of the public wisdom of, among other things, universal group work, 21st century skills, learning styles, skills-based curriculums and so on. I’ve heard people speak forlornly about how lovely it was then, and how it were all handshakes and cheeky winks when social media were t’lad.

I had a very different experience. It was lovely if you jogged along with the orthodoxy, but very intimidating if you disagreed. Happily what we see now is the creation of a space where dispute is a dependable part of the conversation. Tribes form in these digital spaces, just like they do in real life, and multiple viewpoints are presented, pilloried, paraded and prodded, just as they should be.

Your mileage will vary about what you consider acceptable or unacceptable criticism. When I started teaching I was told to accept school paradigms because 'back to work, rookie'. When I wrote Teacher Proof I received emails from academics who told me I was quite wrong and didn’t really understand the science anyway. When I started researchEd I was told that teachers should be the recipients of the divine wisdom of Mosaic Tablets of academia, and our role was to deliver the exciting and yet strangely unworkable projects of novelty and vanity I often encountered in classrooms. As a writer I have seen people who should know better write that the current crop of online teacher authors should ‘be very careful because they were being watched,’ and that we were ‘wielding too much power. This, about people sitting at their kitchen tables blogging in their sweat pants and tweeting.

That just makes me want to screw my eyes up and imagine these aristo gatekeepers naked, playing a trombone. In any pluralist society we enjoy and endure a magazine of belief systems. Crucial to the success of that system is that we permit the expression of those views. 'I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it' remains as true now as when-people first misattributed it to Voltaire.

Twitter yesterday
The irony of course is that education institutions are created to be furious furnaces for molten minds, hot and fluid, but in times of turbulence they often seem the most thin skinned and resistant to challenge. The double irony is that many in education who would call themselves disrupters and game changers and crusaders are the ones who enjoy being disrupted least, or having their own games changed, their own cheese moved an inch.

I've seen many in the traditional priest class  grimace and rail against this new model army of volunteers and expendables, unable to endure the mildest of criticism. But those who have status rarely willingly vote for the redistribution of their capital.

School bullies: How schools can suppress professional conversations

I've written, tweeted, blogged for around a decade and been lucky enough to escape nearly any heat from the institutions within which I taught. I think this was a combination of two things: broad minded management who rightly saw my opinions as personal, and a careful policy of never speaking about my children, my classes, my school, unless it was uncritical and supportive. I write about policies, strategies, ideas, not 'Man, that observation I just had blew and sucked simultaneously.' Others appear not to be so fortunate. I know of many schools who have a 'no social media' policy in their school policies, and few are the teachers so unencumbered by financial demands that they can bite their thumb at a salary for the sake of tweeting a few dank memes about Minecraft.

There is a class system, a caste system of who is and who isn't allowed to have an opinion in any hierarchy.  Now, I’ve rarely been a victim of anyone trying to close me down, but I've been complained about twice to my schools for blogs I've written. I've been reported to the DfE, the TES, for holding opinions the complainants found objectionable. Since I started writing a couple of reports on behaviour for the DfE I’ve started to get sniffy comments along the lines of ‘Should someone in your position be making such statements?’ None of this concerns me. I am happy to be inappropriate, if being appropriate means being so anodyne that no offence could possibly be taken, The Hell with that.

You're paid to teach, not think 

Worse, when talking to teachers both here and abroad I’ve found out some are told explicitly that any form of social media presence that discusses teaching will result in disciplinary action. Where is this grisly and anti-intellectual cowardice coming from? What are they scared of? By doing so they close down a profession's ability to self critique, argue, grow and learn from itself. Joining Twitter is like Chewie punching it from the co-pilot’s seat. The ideas just keep coming, faster and faster.

Crucially, what is being lost is more valuable than the perceived gain. I follow a lot of teachers, and in my experience the vast, vast majority of those who tweet and blog and engage are massive, massive nerds for their jobs, love teaching, love working with children, and want to swap ideas, research, stories and experiences. It certainly isn't a prerequisite to be a good teacher but by God it's a healthy quality for one to have, I'd say. The voices I follow teach me, enrich my understanding, and, yes, challenge me to reconsider my biases. Twitter is an enormous source of fresh ideas; it's also a beautiful ally of empowerment if you're on the margins of authority. Here, if someone reads you, you matter as much as any minister or magistrate. No wonder some people don't want you on it.

Confident, mature minds welcome criticism. Those who believe they hold strong positions are comfortable to argue them. Famously if you want to know who really holds power in society, ask what you aren't permitted to talk about. Who tries to shut down your conversations, rather than tackle what you said with counter argument? Who tries to get you sacked, and who tries to tell your employer you're a terrible person? Who goes low when you go high? Who doesn't have an argument?

I hope I've been able to be a small part of a conversation over the last decade that has helped normalise a more open discourse about what may or may not be discussed. And I hope social media never loses its power to surprise, agitate and animate.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The light and the dark: Ofsted, Michaela, hope and inspiration

'Are you on Twitter again? Tom. We've spoken about this.'
Before me, on my writing desk, are three things: a plaster bust of Socrates, one of Lincoln, and a small pewter Stonehenge. Unremarkable choices- the salariat equivalent of a lava lamp maybe, or the moulded plastic Buddhas beloved of garden centre grottos- but they are mine. It became a shrine by accident. I didn’t plan their purchase or position deliberately. The subliminal architecture of my world threw them together, and they are currently employed as mandalas, or muses, or mementos by default.

Socrates pursued truth beyond all else, for its own sake and, according to Plato, drank Hemlock rather than betray his philosophy. Lincoln is an equally easy inspiration: the great orator, thinker, writer and wrangler for social justice. And I regard Stonehenge with a childish awe, hypnotised by its ancient enigma, a time machine from another planet, speaking of transience and permanence and industry in one brutal monument. It invokes mystery and mysticism and the marvel at the work of human hands.

These physical objects are trivial compared to the mental objects they represent- the ideal form of our aspirations, however far we fall from them, or ridicule ourselves in their pursuit. In Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, the poet writes ‘Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp -- or what's a heaven for?’

If it wasn't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all

In a year that has already acquired a reputation for withering hope faster than we can gather it, we need all the inspiration we can get. Geopolitical earthquakes send tsunamis of uncertainty around the world in dark and uncharted currents and we are reminded that periods of stability and peace are probably the exception to a violent and less perfect norm. For most of us, these forces rage at a height so high that they may as well be wars in Heaven, and we wait for what chance and the tides wash up.

That’s why we need, more than ever, reasons to believe that things can get better as well as worse. Hope, as someone said, can never be false. If you were to ask most people what century they would like to live in, had they but a time machine, many people’s first answers- Rome at its height, La Belle Époque, the Renaissance, Jane Austen’s 19th century theme park- are usually followed by the qualifier ‘and rich, of course’, because being poor has throughout history been a universal shitstorm. Even then these fantasies are usually discarded after a moment’s consideration, for the less glamorous but more pragmatic ‘Now’ with its medicine and comforts and social progress. Mileage varies internationally, but progress is irrefutable, however non-linear it appears up close.

In education, my own small pond, the news is often wearying, as we read of illiteracy, incompetence, venality and lack every time we open our phones. You do not have to work with children for long to realise that in every room, students carry bruises under their uniforms, physical, emotional, and historical. That for some, progress is measured on a metronome, skipping along, and for others you need a microscope and holy water to see it. Workload buries many teachers; the lash of the inspection and the goad of high-stakes, irrelevant performance management makes many in schools wonder what it was they loved about the job in the first place.

And yet. We all find our own wells of hope. There is good news with the bad. Like the recent clarification from Ofsted that clarifies- at last- that schools need not display extraordinary levels of deep or arcane marking:



Unless of course schools choose to have marking policies that decimate their staff. And why would they want to do that? This page should be nailed to the front door of every school like the Luther's 95 theses. Marking levels has become abusive in many schools, as they panic to show progress once lesson observations were binned as a metric. This one announcement could, should, be an earthquake in schools practice. I wonder how long it will take to reach every governor and leader in England and Wales?

The Passion of Amanda Spielman

Then there was the mellifluous sound of the Chief Inspector-elect, Amanda Spielman publicly acknowledging that schools in poorer areas were more likely to receive lower grading because of their circumstances, and therefore the assessment of a head teacher’s performance in that context was less likely to be a fair reflection of their competency or efforts.

‘Ofsted's incoming chief inspector has said that the watchdog's overall judgements on schools are not a "fair way" of assessing headteachers' performance. Speaking today, Amanda Spielman said that this was because schools in poorer areas were less likely to get top inspection ratings because they were "harder to run". She said that recent research suggesting schools with disadvantaged intakes are less likely to be rated “outstanding” than those with more privileged pupils, was in part probably a reflection of “reality, whether we like that or not”.’


This is a fantastic sign that Spielman understands the impact Ofsted has, and more importantly will think deeply about how to turn the institution from a sword into a ploughshare. If anyone can, I hope she will. 

Michaela School Choir Practice
What have the Michaeleans done for us?

Finally few educators on social media could have failed to notice that the Michaela Community School/ Factory For Turning Children Into Glue and Tears (delete as your ideology dictates) ran a book launch that doubled as a rally for their unconventional blend of traditional teaching and 21st century learning- ultra trads, if you will. Live streamed, tweeted in real time, and punching so far above its weight that David and Goliath look like a fair fight, it represents a new model for how schools face the world. Scorned by people who have never visited, and often admired by those who have, I have yet to see an institution that, in the face of such antipathy, exposes itself so candidly to scrutiny, challenge and frontal attack. It’s almost as if they knew they were doing something extraordinary. Twitter sizzled with their battle cries, and it was inspiring to see so much positivity for a school that has worked hard to earn it. All credit to their head teacher Katherine Birbalsingh, who has two settings, as far as I can see: combine harvester, and dead.

Green shoots, and good news. Maybe even ideas that will bear fruit in the future. Who knows? When all the troubles of the world escaped from Pandora’s box, the last thing left there was Hope. I’ll finish by referring to the beautiful close to the recent masterpiece series True Detective (in an idea possibly borrowed from Alan Moore). The two heroes, Rust and Marty, are discussing good and evil (Spoiler Alert, incidentally):

‘After describing his near-death experience, Rust tells Marty he's been thinking about the stars and how they've reminded him that there's an eternal battle going on between light and darkness. Marty's pessimistic about light's chances:
 RUST: It's just one story, the oldest.
MARTY: What's that?
RUST: Light versus dark.
MARTY: I know we ain't in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.
 After Rust convinces Marty to haul him out of the hospital, Rust presents a counterargument, offering the final dialogue of the season:
 RUST: Y'know, you're looking at it wrong, the sky thing.
MARTY: How's that?
RUST: Once, there was only dark. You ask me, the light's winning.
 

Monday, 21 November 2016

Blocked: Minecraft and the taboos in education



'Hello we're Ofsted'
If you want to know how to upset the maximum number of people in the shortest possible time, I can recommend saying- when asked- that you think using games like Minecraft in the classroom is a bit gimmicky and you can’t see much of a point to it. Cue: Boss level carnage on my inbox all day. And what it reveals about education is itself revealing.

Friday. I get a message from the Sunday Times asking if I had any views on Minecraft, the popular Microsoft world-building game, as an educational tool (the hook being that a special educational version was being launched. Every story needs a relevance hook). You bet I do, I said. I thought it was a bit gimmicky. I’d seen a few classes use them, and I wasn’t inspired. Students seemed to be as occupied with the mechanics of playing Minecraft as they were with the content of the lesson. To me, that seemed like displacement; rather than drilling down deeply into a topic, time in the classroom, and attention space in the students’ heads appeared to be spent on playing the game. Some content was covered, but it seemed a huge faff to get there. And there didn’t seem to be much evidence that it was more useful than cheaper, simpler alternatives, like just teaching them. I wrote a few chapters about this in my last book Teacher Proof.

And I said that. I think there are a lot of activities we use in classrooms that share this problem. Superficially they seem to interest pupils, but it’s more because they act as a seductive distraction rather than a supplement to the lesson, like turning the Gettysburg address into a Manga strip or something. Kids might spend happy hours (or not) drawing Abe Lincoln as a Japanese hero, but that’s a long road indeed to learn about the 16th President.

I have no issue with hooks; I use hooks all the time- culturally relevant landmarks that act as seasoning for the meat of what we’re covering. In my philosophy class I used to show 30 seconds from X-factor or similar, then use it as way to discuss Virtue Ethics or Kant. But that was a heartbeat. Activities that invite students to think for an extended period about something other than what is being learned- and I mean something trivial, like the workings of a computer game- is time wasted.

This matters. This really matters. Because I’m used to teaching students who don’t get a second chance at education; who (whether they know it or not) rely on education as their lifeline into alternate futures. Into literacy, jobs, opportunities. I take that seriously. Anything that wastes that opportunity is a crime against a child, against their options. And theft from the already poor is a felony. Many of them can’t afford tutors or catch-up classes, or bags of cultural capital. For them, education is their life boat.

A level Philosophy, 2046
So that’s something in my opinion I observed with many gaming platforms. I’m not anti-tech in education. I’ve seen many uses front and back of house, that help schools and classrooms operate. But this appears to me to be a serious issue. There are some brilliant tech writers in this field. Read Donald Clarke, a UK educationalist who is both passionate about tech integration but rigorous in his quest for evidence bases to back it up. Or in the US, Larry Cuban, who is a similar mix of enthusiasm and scepticism. Both are excellent and simultaneously Cassandras and Pollyannas to the tech sphere.

Secondly, there’s the issue of evidence bases. I run researchED, an organisation dedicated to the better use of research and evidence in all levels of education. And one thing that repeatedly strikes me about the ed-tech sector, is how, often, products are sold on the basis of claims of extraordinary efficacy. Remember Brain Training games? All the rage a few years back, with claims they would keep your brain healthy or something. No evidence for it, but get those units shifted boys. They often get caught our when they make claims that are too specific, so many instead move onto intangibles that people also want. Things like ‘engagement.’

Engagement is great. Every teacher wants their students engaged, focussing hard on what is being taught. We know that focus is a big part of learning. But engagement by itself is a poor proxy for learning. As Daniel Willingham says, ‘Memory is the residue of thought.’ Which means, we remember that which we think about. Which is a problem if you’re teaching, say, the Tudor Kings, but for half the time in the classroom your students are thinking about collecting digital rings and power-ups, or building a pyramid with blocks. They might look fascinated, but what are they thinking about- Henry VIII, or blocks?

From Willingham:

‘Anticipate what your lesson will lead students to think about. The direct relationship between thought and memory is so important that it could be used as a self-check for a teacher preparing virtually any assignment: Always try to anticipate what students will be thinking when they are doing the assignment. Doing so may make it clear that some assignments designed with one purpose in mind will achieve another. For example, a teacher once told me that, as part of a unit on the Underground Railroad, he had his students bake biscuits so that they would appreciate what escaped slaves ate most nights. He asked what I thought of the assignment and my reply was that his students will remember baking biscuits. In other words, his students probably thought for 30 seconds about the relation of the baking to the course material, and then spent 30 minutes thinking about measuring flour, mixing dough, and so on.
 Another example comes from my recent observation of my nephew as he completed a book report. The teacher asked the students to draw a poster that depicted all of the events of the book. The purpose of the assignment was to have students think of the book as a whole, and to consider how the separate events related to one another. This purpose got lost in the execution. My nephew spent a lot more time thinking about how to draw a good castle than he did about the plot of the book.’


And from Professor Rob Coe from Durham University:

'Poor Proxies for Learning:
• Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
• Students are engaged, interested, motivated• Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
• Classroom is ordered, calm, under control
• Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form)
• (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently)'
https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/~/media/CfBTCorporate/Files/Resources/inspiring-leadership-2014/masterclass-Professor-Robert-Coe-James-Richardson-Beyond-the-teaching-and-learning-toolkit.pdf 

In other words, these things might be desirable in themselves, but by themselves they don't tell us if students are learning.

So we should select our activities with care. If we use a game platform we need to ask ‘Will this benefit my students in a tangible way that can be measured?’ Grade increase, attendance, something. If the answer is ‘no’ then how do you know it’s working? The second question, just as important is, ‘Even if something is happening, is it worth the time spent on it that could be spent doing something else?’ In other words, maybe your students all leave the lesson knowing the Tudor Kings off by heart. But if it took a whole term to get there and you could have done it through other methods, then the cosy may outweigh the benefits.

I spent a lot of time being told by people that ‘This works you idiot! Go back to the 1950s!’ but very little time being directed to evidence beyond ‘I say so.’ But the burden of proof lies with the claimants.

Show me the Bit Coin

And as far as I can see, there just isn’t a solid evidence base to substantiate the claims that many of these platforms make. Saying ‘My kids love it though’ isn’t nothing, but it’s not substantive proof either. When I was a rookie teacher, I had a brainwave: when we were studying Mandalas (a religious symbol or art piece designed to be impermanent), their homework would be to go home and make one. Some would come back with cakes shaped like Jesus and Buddha and so on. Delicious, and they adored doing it, but terrible, terrible homework, a complete waste of their time. Just because they love it, doesn’t mean they’re learning. It’s fine to have strong gut feelings about what is and isn’t working in your classroom, but in order to avoid these biases, we need scalable, replicable research to guide us. 

I might be wrong. Minecraft might be the saving of our kids. They might all go out and colonise Mars with their mad Minecraft skills. But until there’s any evidence base to suggest it, it’s wise to be sceptical. And I thought my scepticism was pretty measured. I wouldn’t  ban it in classrooms, had I even such a Genie-like power, but I think teachers need to have these kinds of conversations, otherwise we don’t deserve to be called a profession.


Digital Dummies and Cyber Prams

The online reaction was extraordinary though. For the second time this week I’ve been struck by how passionately some people cling to their beliefs, and how viciously they’ll defend them from the slightest scrutiny. The kick back was breath taking from where I sat, I assure, you. ‘You must be a fucking moron’ was the general (and in some cases literal) thrust. Once again, people were ‘reporting me’ to the DfE, even though I don’t work for them (their hotline staff must be getting pretty sanguine about it. ‘Yeah hello DfE? No….no he doesn’t work here….noo…’). ‘Unfit to work with children’ ‘Completely out of touch’ ‘Gradgrindian bollockry’ etc. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, like a ticker tape of people demonstrating the 21st century maxim of ‘I disagree with you so I am entitled to speak to you like dog shit.’

It made me pretty sad, again. Most of the worst comments were from non-teachers (am I surprised any more?), gaming enthusiasts who had a strangely robust confidence in their opinions about teaching and learning, and people with kind of scary avatars. Fair enough; I used to read a lot of comics and play Dungeons and Dragons, I get geek subculture. Even a childhood hero, Ian Livingstone (legend of Warlock on Firetop Mountain fame) had a pop, which marks, I think, the last leaf falling from the tree of my innocence. Journalists for gaming magazines, CEOs of edtech firms, edupreneur digital gurus, a huge, apparently infinite conga line of people who love both computer games and calling me an idiot for disagreeing with them.

Well it works for me

I had a lot more time for the teachers who used Minecraft and told me how useful they found it. I had even more time for people who told me how much impact it had on their autistic pupils or family members. It’s still personal anecdote but it least it suggests areas of enquiry, possibilities for the future. I was pretty clear: I’m not anti- all uses of this kind of tech, and I’d be delighted to see it help people. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence as either Hume or Hitchens used to say, and claims made for these kinds of platforms are often extraordinary.

I’ve often felt that you know you’ve touched on a real problem when nobody wants to discuss it, or wants to let you criticise the status quo. And that’s what I found here. Some tech claims are so wild, so naïve, so radical, that people are scared to contest them. The ever-increasing integration of tech into classrooms is assumed. And I think teachers need to query that; need to say ‘where’s the evidence?’ a lot more. That shouldn’t be controversial. But it was. It really was. I stood in a wind tunnel of scorn today that made Storm Angus seem like a squall. Just for saying that we needed to be more sceptical of yet another platform that promises big and costs dollar. I wonder why that is?

There is a lot of money in education. Tech firms would like some of it. And that’s not entirely a bad thing- if they can come up with products with utility that are efficient and appropriate. But I won’t apologise to anyone for asking for better evidence, and for a better deal for teachers and students in the classroom. I hope we can have this conversation without such pointless controversy and pearl clutching. I think it's a debate worth having, because I think what teachers do is valuable, I think children's lives are priceless, and it matters what we do to make a difference to them. 

Game Over. 



Further reading:

Here's an interesting blog from Greg Ashman to suggest some ways why it might not work as well as its proponents hope: https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2016/11/22/why-microsofts-minecraft-probably-isnt-the-solution/