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Friday, 29 April 2011

Why Do I Need a Teacher When I’ve Got Past Papers?

Taking a meandering stroll through my local branch of a significantly large book store last week, I couldn’t help noticing that there were several concerned parents with several panicky looking children headed for the Education section. Aha.  It’s exam time. The time when parents begin to take an interest in their children’s prospects of success and when students begin to come to the terrifying realisation that, gulp, perhaps they should have worked a little bit harder; the time when battle weary teachers begin to develop that glint in the eye at the upcoming farewell to that difficult fourth year class. The sun is out; Bank holidays aplenty; Royals are getting married; the hard work has been done. Let’s hit the past papers.

I don’t know if you are aware – although if you are a teacher I’m sure you will be – but sales of past papers have become a growth industry in Scotland. They’ve always been around, of course, but the mountains of these things you have to navigate your way around in the book store nowadays beg closer inspection. If Mrs. Middle Class is buying past papers for all the subjects her children are studying, does it not suggest that something has gone wrong at some point here? I always feel the urge to whisper to the frantic parent that if you have to spend fifty pounds at Easter then it’s already too late. It symbolises to me exactly what is wrong with our Education system.

A few years back as part of a Chartered Teacher project, I conducted a little research into the use of Past Papers as a Teaching Tool in English. I, as all of us do at some point, especially early in our careers, would turn to these papers at times in the year, believing it to be a genuine measure of progress. Bearing in mind that I am an English Teacher and can only speak from that point of view, I found that unless we can recreate the true experience of an exam situation there is very little benefit gained. Yes, they do become accustomed to layout and type of questions but would it not be better to construct these questions around current reading or even topical newspaper articles? In English, which I consider to be a skills based subject, having students complete past papers in class or, even worse, for homework, merely confirms what they do not know rather than what they do know. And it is this negative experience which makes them groan every time they see them being churned out at the beginning of lessons.

Getting back to the large book store, the bottom line is that someone is making a fortune from the exam anxiety our Education system has created. You will also find, along with past papers, at least six books to help your child with Higher English. More still to help you with Curriculum for Excellence. They are not cheap. Add that to the endless photocopying sometimes required in the lead up to exams you can begin to see what a massive waste it all is. I think the over-dependence on past papers is lazy and, ultimately, not particularly beneficial. Nothing replaces regular challenging reading as the optimum way to become a better reader in any subject. No text book will help you with that.

When we, as educators, buy into the belief that past papers are some form of panacea, or we recommend them as revision tools, we are being lazy and confirming the myth that the exam is everything.  It may well seem to be at that moment but there are better, more productive ways to revise. Otherwise, why do they need you when they’ve got past papers?

 Incidentally, the next time you’re in your local large book store and feel the temptation to purchase past papers, ask them if they are available on Kindle. When the colour has drained from their faces, tell them that was for John Smiths and all of the other small booksellers they drove off the High Street. Then they will know how it feels.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

‘He’s Not the Messiah, He’s a Very Naughty Boy’

There is a scene in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, which reminds me, in a strange kind of way, of schools and their teachers. It’s the scene where Graham Chapman, as Brian, is being chased by a band of followers, who are convinced that he is the Messiah. As the group moves on, a character played by Spike Milligan shouts for attention, convinced he has the answer to their prayers. The group ignores him. They walk off in another direction. He shrugs his shoulders. He walks off in the opposite direction.

There are various ways to metamorphose this scene into schools, especially in the current CPD context. The group are completely ignoring the one man there claiming he has the answer. How many times has someone popped up in your department with a sure-fire way of improving Learning and Teaching, be it Writing/ Reading/ any other thing we do every day, badly, allegedly? And how many times has this person been ignored and dismissed as another ambitious wannabe manager looking for a foothold on the ‘golden’ ladder of promotion?

But what about Spike, himself? Giving up at the first sign of any obstacle to dispensing his vital, perhaps even crucial, view of the problem area. Give up. Nobody is listening anyway. Sound familiar?

However, you could see the real culprit as the so-called messiah figure who always seems to be disappearing round the corner at the least opportune moment. I’ve been teaching for almost twelve years now and in that time I’ve experienced several of these remote messiahs. Currently ‘Co-operative learning’. And very often I blindly follow, hoping for the answer, just around another corner, just out of reach.

In 2004, I undertook my first Chartered Teacher module and thus, became a potential Spike Milligan – without the good jokes, of course. Yes, I have found myself preaching to the ‘won’t-be-converted’ at times and a soul-destroying feeling it can be. But the point I am trying to make is that, unlike old Spike, it is crucial that those with a voice, be it Chartered Teachers or anyone who has something to say, keep on shouting until they are heard. The Chartered Teacher programme should have I think, in time, changed the perception that anyone shouting loudly has a hidden agenda. Perhaps we do have the…gulp…good of the profession at heart. The financial benefits are fairly transparent so why should we be looking for promotion?

There is a growing voice amongst teachers that effective and beneficial Staff Development will come more and more from inside our own departments. So why shouldn’t it be the Chartered Teachers who lead the way? All too often we bite our thumbs at outsiders who haven’t taught in years, coming into our schools on In-service days, claiming they know the answers. And very often the answers may be next door, in the classroom of a colleague who we’ve taught beside for years. The times they are a-changing and the days of searching for a hero are well gone, I’m afraid. Open up your doors, my friends! Walk six feet and listen. You never know. Spike might have something important to say after all.

P.S. I never got round to finishing the Chartered Teacher programme...maybe one day.

Friday, 22 April 2011

The X Factor and the Future of Assessment

This week my middle school S4 class and I looked closely at an article from The Observer, ‘Is Simon Cowell Essential to the X factor?’ where two prominent commentators debated the latest news that he may be leaving. Knowing nothing about the programme, I expected these kids to tell me all about the latest news and give me an Idiot Guide. They did so. I must say, very little surprised me and I tried not to look too appalled as they told me that the greatest glee they felt was from watching the really bad singers humiliate themselves.
What did they think of the winners? They would be successful because they would be millionaires in a year. Hmm. At my age it is very easy to get up on the middle class moral high horse and condemn this ‘low culture’ as a lot of nonsense but I am beginning to think that there is something far more damaging than I first thought. It seems that the X-Factor teaches three things:

1 – If you are a winner then you are placed on a pedestal not necessarily because you are the greatest talent but that you have the greatest money making potential.

2- If you are a loser then you are a loser. You will be mocked in public and treated like a loser. Why? Because you tried and failed in front of others.

3- You can be a judge. Even the viewers are judges remember. Standing on the sidelines mocking the losers. Not commiserating or offering help – at least Cowell and his smug cronies occasionally do that - but wallowing in the humiliation of others, gleefully celebrating their rightful comeuppance. Who Do they think they are?

So is there anything really wrong with a harmless bit of schadenfreude on a Saturday night? Well, yes, actually. As an educator I see the kids who watch this show every day. I see kids who have learned that taking part means win or lose, that having a go must mean that success is the only option because reputation is on the line. I see kids who would rather sit on the sidelines and say ‘I don’t know’ to every question because being wrong in front of an audience, and an audience of peers at that, is too horrible to even contemplate.

And, do you know what? I don’t blame them. I would do the same. Because school reiterates that X Factor feeling every day of their lives. Humiliated into a ‘bottom set’ from the age of eleven. Pressed into an assessment funnel from even earlier and spat out at the end either a winner or a loser. If it was me, and I was given that choice, I would stand on the sidelines too. 

If Curriculum for Excellence is to change things for kids in Scotland it needs to consider an assessment process which will help them get out of this X-Factor mindset. Success and achievement should not come in a certificate in August. It should come from us, the adults, every day of their lives.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

All Teachers Fail Every Day

'Ever tried? Ever failed? No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.'
Samual Beckett

All Teachers fail every day. It is, however, our duty to try and fail a little better. Before you press the delete button very angrily after leaving a stinging comment, hear me out.
If you think about it, having thirty kids in front of you every day - thirty brains, thirty learning styles - is a complex business; it would be impossible not to fail at some point during a fifty minute lesson, never mind a whole day.
Don’t get me wrong. I very rarely go home thinking that I’ve been a failure today. I try and accentuate the positive; but I need to be constantly aware of every child who I think I’ve failed to reach. And there is always at least one. The young boy who finds writing a real challenge and crumbles under the pressure; the girl who has just had a terrible Science lesson where she was confused and too frightened to ask for help; the promising footballer but reluctant student who has just finished his favourite lesson of the day – P.E. They all bring baggage to the classroom, baggage which I not only may not know about, but will find impossible to overcome in a short session even if I did. So I fail. Sometimes. And that is okay. As long as I am aware that it is happening.
Some of the greatest educational writing I have read recently has discussed the premise that our children should be allowed and indeed encouraged to fail. Of course, that is right and proper. Resilience is one of the key factors in promoting lifelong learning and an ability to cope with failure is part of that; but what about us?
Are teachers allowed to fail, never mind encouraged to do so? Don’t be ridiculous. An admission of failure in school would certainly take you down roads you don’t want to follow. But from a personal point of view we are being hypocritical if we do not, as professionals but more importantly as educators and learners, reflect on our failures. We are failing our students if we do not show them that failing can be good; if we do not talk about our own failures and how we deal with them – modelling failure, if you like -  we are missing wonderful learning opportunities.
Exam season is almost upon us. Study plans and last minute preparation is nigh. I’ve been in school this week –yes, during the holidays – with a group of very keen S5 pupils preparing for Higher English. I hope they all pass. They have worked hard. They deserve it. But, with the best will in the world, I cannot guarantee that they will. Some may come out with absolutely nothing from the exam. And after a year of very hard work and a lot of tears, is that fair? Their failure will ruin their summers. Perhaps cause feelings of humiliation in the presence of family and friends. And despite the great year we’ve had they won’t remember anything more than a fail in English.
As teachers we can start to change that, I think. Lock away your past papers. Work harder to provide real learning experiences. Stop viewing exam practice as a lesson. Challenge every day. Never ever say ‘we have covered all the course work, now let’s revise.’ No longer build up the exam as the be all and the end all, it is just another challenge.  And be prepared to fail. You will anyway at some point. Get over it.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Standing on the Sidelines - a Much Fairer Approach to Assessment

It’s the Easter Holiday. I’m sitting at home looking out at the third day of persistent rain and wondering; wondering whether I’ll get out at all during this holiday, yes, but also reflecting on a fairly momentous term for me.  I’ve just taught two classes in parallel, in different age groups but in different ways, and it really brought into focus something which had been troubling me for a while.
If you’ve followed the journey my S2 class have taken when working with ‘Inanimate Alice’ you will know that I’ve been very aware of the ‘hands off’ approach required at times even though that controlling teacher’s voice kept shouting at me to intervene. In complete contrast, the S3 class, one year older, had to produce a Folio of five written pieces for their English Standard Grade. Ideally this would be the best five pieces over two years but this ‘low ability’ set had, shall we say, dragged their heels.
This juxtaposition of 'hands on' and 'hands off' assessment is ludicrous. The S2 class spent three months working on Digital Narratives: each produced a blog, in which they reflected on their learning; an imaginative piece, where they produced their own written episodes of ‘Inanimate Alice’; and Digital versions of their next episodes of Alice. All completed after an initial study of the first four episodes of ‘Inanimate Alice’ and with little input from their teacher, beyond support and encouragement.
The older class were duty bound to produce five more or less identical pieces in order to satisfy the criteria of the English Standard Grade Folio. The tragedy of the Folio system – whether this was the intention or not – is that we know what the final product should look like before we even get there. These kids will produce slightly inferior versions of what we want them to produce and they’ll know it; despite also producing some wonderfully creative T-Shirts before Christmas. Something has to change. Is Curriculum for Excellence capable of providing that change? I think that really needs to be up to us, the teachers.
If the current crisis in Education in the USA is anything to go by - see Diane Ravitch's excellent piece on Obama's education policy in Newsweek - and Michael Gove’s new 'modern' approach to educational policy comes to fruition in England, we may be faced with greater testing, not less. When belts are tightening, grades and numbers, for some reason, become more important. We teachers are asked to justify what we do even more than ever. So, keep your nose clean, your head down, don’t rock the boat.
No chance. Shout from the rooftops. If Curriculum for Excellence is to mean anything then it should allow us to provide our students with meaningful learning experiences. The ending of the learning  ‘journey’ should be unknown but worth it; the journey itself, wonderful. If I’ve learned anything over the last three months it is that if we can find a task that will engage our pupils, one in which they can discover their ‘flow’, their ‘sweet spot of learning’, then we should step back and let them get on with it. Keep away from the building, nothing to see here.