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An SLF Rant

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On my first proper visit to the Scottish Learning Festival in 2009 I happened to share a taxi with Henry Hepburn from the TESS. We’ve kept in touch over the years and he has kindly attended and reported on some of our Pedagoo events. He occasionally emails me if he’s looking for a comment on something, which he did for his recent piece on the Scottish Learning Festival. Sometimes I am canny enough to decline the opportunity to comment, realising that anything I say can end up in print, but I try when possible to do what I can for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I believe that classroom teachers should have more of a voice in these sorts of publications and so if I’m asked I feel that I should try and put my money where my mouth is and say what I think. Also, from a purely selfish perspective, I feel that it’s good for Pedagoo if I have a good working relationship with the TESS. And also, because Henry is a nice guy.

So, when Henry emailed me and asked me for my thoughts on SLF, I replied. I hadn’t got round to looking at the most recent issue of the TESS yet and so when I got the following tweet, I was keen to have a look to find out what I’d said!

Having read the piece (sorry I can’t link to it, the TESS seem to have stopped uploading their content in May unfortunately) I’m surprised to discover that a) I feature so prominently in it, and b) it reads as if I’m having an argument with Alan Armstrong! Which of course, I wasn’t.

And so, I thought I would upload the bulk of the actual email I sent to Henry here (below). I stand by most of what I said, although I probably would’ve toned it down a wee bit if I’d taken a bit more time before hitting send. I also think that perhaps I went a bit overboard on the keynotes, perhaps they are still more relevant and challenging than I’d given them credit for.

“I’m afraid if anyone asks me about SLF I have a tendency to rant on at them. I haven’t been back for a couple of years, but last time I went there were three things which struck me;

– It’s a shadow of it’s former self with far fewer attendees and much less of the SECC being used for it.
– Hardly any of the seminars are from practicing classroom teachers. They’re mainly either Education Scotland/Scottish Government, Local Authority personnel or non-practicing teachers from other bodies such Universities, British Council, Outward Bound, etc.
– The keynotes seem to have become heavily constrained by the centrally determined agenda. It no longer seems to be about who’s good, but who will be most ‘on message’.

I’ve had a quick scan through this year’s programme and it would appear that the lack of teacher-led seminars is still an issue (I have to admit though that this is partly my fault as I had to withdraw my one due to my ankle!).

I think perhaps one has to call into question the purpose of this event. For me, it seems to be much more about prestige/marketing and message delivery from the centre and not of any particularly direct relevance to learning in classrooms. If you stop and think about it, if the purpose was to enhance learning & teaching in classrooms you would design it in such a way that a) lots of teachers could attend and would want to attend, and b) lots of practicing classroom teachers would be made to feel confident enough to sign up to lead seminars. Holding it on a Wednesday/Thursday at a single, large and threatening, venue doesn’t make sense to me if these were the objectives.

What was surprising to me was the reaction we got when some teachers who are planning a local Pedagoo event in Perth suggested that we try to encourage others to run one on the same day: http://pedagoo.org/local/takeover Now these might not all come off, but that’s because these folk are not really getting any support and so a lot of them will probably struggle. The best I can offer is some help with their webpages etc. But imagine if these teachers had the support of an organisation of the scale of Education Scotland! The problem is, because of the very nature of Education Scotland, they’d struggle to cope with the lack of control of such an approach, but at the very least you’d think they could work with a network of local authorities to put together a series of local events across the country.”

I think the reason I get so passionate about SLF is that I think it could be really great. I really enjoyed my first couple of visits, but this was primarily due to the chance to catch up with folk and to attend TeachMeet SLF. I’ve always felt that the seminars were lacking in classroom practitioners, and I’ve long wished more efforts were made to encourage and support classroom teachers to attend and present. In my experience, most teachers in staff rooms don’t even consider trying to attend, let alone submit a seminar, which is a real shame for what should be a must-go-to event for teachers in Scotland.

I agree with Alan when he says that it doesn’t have to be either or. SLF could be fulfilling a role that TeachMeet/Twitter/Pedagoo never could. However, I still think that SLF has the potential to better support the development of learning and teaching in Scotland’s classrooms through better engaging with the teachers of Scotland. I hope the moves to improve teacher engagement described in the TESS article happen and have impact, but many of them I’ve heard rumours of for years, so I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, if you agree with me, rather than waiting for SLF to change why don’t you join me in creating our own opportunities to learn from each other through Pedagoo.org.


Involving Learners in Planning Learning

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I’m a big believer in the power of engaging young people in their learning through involving them in the learning process. As Lois Harris argues, if students are going to feel that they own their learning they need to have opportunities to collaborate in the learning process:

Continuum of Learner Engagement (What) and how teachers can achieve these levels of engagement (How). Adapted from Harris (2010).

Continuum of Learner Engagement (What) and how teachers can achieve these levels of engagement (How).
Adapted from Harris (2010).

But how on earth can we as teachers involve our students in planning their learning? I’ve been working on adapting my practice to make this possible for a number of years now, so perhaps I could tell you how to go about doing this yourself?

Well, I’m not going to. My students are. I’d been working with my S1 Science class on developing approaches to involving them in planning learning last session when we were approached by Children in Scotland to participate in their Leaders of Learning project. Children in Scotland, the students and myself worked together over a number of weeks to explore and develop approaches to involve the students in planning their learning to a much greater extent. The project culminated in the students evaluating what we’d done, and producing the following video to communicate what we’d learned together.

Hope you enjoy learning from them, I know I have!


In the wake of change

I started my first ever Open University course today. And what did I do as soon as I got the email saying I was enrolled? I got into the course website and started exploring. Wow, have they got it sorted. The whole Open University concept is so well suited to the internet, it’s hard to understand how it ever functioned without it!

Having got to grips with the system a thought occurred to me, why are we still so far behind in schools? It’s not hard to imagine how better use of the web could really revolutionise the way secondary schools function, and therefore how students experience education. I’m not suggesting that we should shut all secondary schools and replace them with a version of the OU, of course not. But there could really be a lot more variety in the system than there currently is. It just so happens that Ian Stuart shared the following great animation on Facebook today also, with the question “When will education culturally accept this change?“.

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Image by Best Reviews

It is amazing, isn’t it? I first used the internet in about 1995 I think, and I got my first mobile phone in about 2000. Since then the use of the web has revolutionised the way we do so much, except learning in classrooms. My school are in the process of switching on an open wireless network throughout the school and opening the door to students using their own mobile devices in class, which is fantastic, but perhaps this shouldn’t really be that cutting edge by now? A mere eight years after the first iPhone was launched and McDonalds first installed free WiFi in all of its UK restaurants!

There is some great work going on in the world of Digital Learning (such as the provision of Glow and the new NDLF in Scotland), but I sometimes worry that the pace is too slow, and even where devices are being provided to students, do our current curricular structures allow and encourage their most effective use? Too often devices are introduced and used to simply replace the pen and paper and our practices continue relatively unchanged. However, the effective use of technology has the potential to revolutionise the way we do things as well augment what we already do. One example of this is High Tech High in the US. I like the way in the following video that you can see that IT is integral to the way they learn, but they don’t really focus on it when they’re explaining the way their schools work:

I recently wrote a little piece for the GTCS Teaching Scotland magazine about how we’ve dropped the word ‘digital’ from ‘digital banking’ as no-one really banks any other way anymore. And yet in education, we’re only beginning to dip our toes into ‘digital’ learning, how much longer will it be until we’ve reached the point when we can drop the ‘digital’ again?

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Given how far behind we are on this front in education, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of urgency either. For me, I think we need three things to get moving with this:

  1. Significant investment in hardware, networks and software in schools.
  2. Continuous support, encouragement and guidance for teachers and schools who are wanting to do something different in order to make the most of technology to transform young people’s learning.
  3. An agenda of policy reform (probably through the CLTAS forums) which aims to alter the curriculum to enable teachers and schools to modify their practice to make the most of the potential of technology.

I really feel that we need to get a move on with this or we’re putting our young people at a disadvantage in terms of the skills they are leaving us with. I don’t claim to have got it perfect myself yet, but I’ve long tried my hardest within a system which isn’t conducive to change. However, I’ll finish with a quote from one our former students who left us to study medicine at univeristy.

I think that the single best thing that my time at Preston Lodge gave me was such good experience in using Google Drive and other online resources (particularly from the biology/science department). This really let me hit the ground running when I came into lectures etc, as I already had methods to use that I had tried and tested during my time at school. Please keep on encouraging pupils to use Google at PL, it’s very very very very useful!

All we had done was tried our hardest to use Google Apps when appropriate and possible to support learning, which was nowhere as much as we would’ve liked to due a lack of hardware, network and conducive curricula, however imagine how much more confidence our young people could have in using the web constructively when leaving our schools if we could just get on with it!


A Chartered Comeback?

I see from a recent a issue of the TESS that Kezia Dugdale has proposed bringing back the Chartered Teacher scheme:

“What I am proposing is not hugely dissimilar from the chartered teacher scheme we used to have. I think it’s important to have more opportunities for teachers to develop their careers. That has been stifled in recent years by taking away heads of departments.”

Obviously, as a participant in the Chartered Teacher programme, I’m a big fan of it. I think there were issues with its introduction, but I believe that a lot of these issues were addressed in the revised standards.

However, despite fixing many of the issues with Chartered Teacher with the new standards, these weren’t given the time needed to bear fruit before the programme was scrapped. I fear that any resurrection would eventually suffer the same threat. The fundamental problem is that many school leaders aren’t keen on a process whereby employees can self-select their way onto a higher pay grade. Whilst I understand the reasons for the way in which the programme was set up, I can also empathise with those in the position of having to lead and manage schools on a tight budget. Rather than simply resurrecting something which has already failed to continue, perhaps we should be looking for something a little different which better meets the needs of all parties involved.

How about instead of resurrecting the Chartered Teacher scheme as was, we introduce a new promoted post pay grade into the SNCT Salary Scales. It could be called Chartered Teacher still, or something else such as Principal Teacher Learning. The fundamental difference to the prior scheme would be that this would be a promoted post in schools which teachers could apply for, just like any other promoted post except with a couple of key differences:

  • An essential requirement for the post would be a relevant Masters degree.
  • The post would carry a whole-school broad remit related to the leadership of the development of learning and teaching approaches across the school/cluster.

From a teachers’ perspective, this would mean that you could undertake a Masters degree with the intention of securing one of these posts which would justify the cost of the Masters study. From the employers’ perspective, school leaders would be able to recruit and select candidates who have undertaken Masters level study for a clearly defined post. There are already a number of schools creating these sorts of posts and they may benefit from a more clearly defined structure when doing so. In fact, I suspect the creation of this grade would encourage many more schools to appoint teachers to these sorts of roles, and crucially, really make use of the posts to drive forward learning and teaching in their schools.

Whilst I can already envisage the criticisms to this approach, I think that this would be a much more sustainable way forward. It might not be as pure as the original scheme, but at least it is more likely to be accepted by Head Teachers and Local Authorities which would mean that it might actually be able to continue this time.


Columban Story


Last year I was fortunate enough to accompany a group of students from my school on a Columba 1400 Leadership Academy on Skye. The talented Jamie Halvorson (a former student of mine and Columba graduate) was there at the same time to capture footage for Columba and asked me for my thoughts on the programme on camera. You can view the results of this chat above.


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