Out of Africa

It’s all about the core subjects, exam results and league tables. The direction of travel in the UK education system is clear for all to see. There are many who fundamentally disagree with this approach, including me. What is the benefit of the KS2 SATs test to the children who actually sit them? The marginalisation of arts and non-core based subjects smacks of of early 80s Thatcherism and will surely lead this country down a cultural cul-de-sac to the detriment of everyone. I wonder also if, in 10 or 20 years time our Olympians will be as successful as they are now?

Sometimes you need to see something completely left field to crystalize your thoughts on an issue. For me, this came in the form of a video which one of my oldest friends shared on Facebook at the weekend. Dave and I grew up together in Thornbury, near Bristol. This was in an a pre electronic entertainment era – if any of the three or four (from 1982) TV channels weren’t to your liking then you had to make your own entertainment. That typically involved bikes, go karts, breeze blocks and any old pieces of wood we could find, and in the summer endless games of cricket. From those heady days our lives took different paths, after University, after a couple of turns Dave now lives and works in Cape Town and I ended up teaching in Rochdale.

The video Dave shared was about an outdoor learning project at his children’s school, the Imhoff Waldorf, which is situated on the Cape Peninsula, right on the South Western tip of Africa. It’s hard to imagine a geographically more stunning setting, situated between the stunning Atlantic coast to the West and False Bay to the west and nestling in the foothills of the Cape Point Vineyards. However, it’s location is not the only thing which is special about the Imhoff Waldorf School. Take a look at this video and decide for yourself.

Whilst very few schools will have the luxury of such magnificent topography, there are surely lessons we can learn from the ‘Waldorf’ approach. What screams out from that video is the focus on the child, rather than the result. Right from the early years in KS1 children in our system are defined by their achievement alone. Schools are ranked by SATs, GCSEs ans A levels, children are merely numbers which are fed in to oil the wheels of the machine.

There are examples of schools in the UK which are seeking to connect more closely with their local communities and environments. A great example is a small rural primary school in Weardale, a small village in the North Pennines. They have put farming at the heart of their curriculum. This makes great sense for a small rural school, but perhaps others could learn from it too. Outdoor learning should be encouraged across the curriculum. Excellent projects such as incredible edible offer the opportunity to combine schools and community whist teaching messages about sustainability. It’s also really easy to bring children closer to nature. I’ve recently introduced children from the school I work in to the webcam showing a nest of peregrine falcons in Rochdale. I get asked more questions about how they are getting on than I do about anything else – why? Because it’s happening on their doorstep and they can relate to it.

The lessons we can learn from schools such as Imhoff Waldorf should not be ignored. They are using their environment to create a holistic education centred around the needs of the children. They also strive for academic success, but realise that this should not and does not determine what a successful education looks like. Given a shift in priorities, there’s no reason why our school system could not strive for the same goal. In the short term that’s very unlikely to happen, however, it’s up to us all as educators to look for any way we can to help broaden children’s outlook and experiences so they are better equipped to connect with their own communities and environments.

As my mate Dave pointed out “at least we had the chance of a life of creative play outside of school.” Many children no longer have that luxury at home, so it’s up to us to make sure they do at school.

Out of Africa

The Power of the Image

To stay true to the spirit of this blog post, I will begin by crediting a fellow blogger for inspiring it, so thanks to John Sutton of Creative Blogs for raising the profile of copyright infringement – a hugely important consideration for any blogger.

Images are a fantastic tool for bloggers. A well chosen picture can hugely enhance a blog post and add another dimension to your writing. In particular, on twitter, tweets with an image attached are likely to get more views, likes and retweets, simply because they catch the eye of the reader. It’s easy to overlook a text only tweet, but if there’s a picture attached you are more likely to make that split second decision to read the tweet.

This begs the question – where should we get images from and how do we know they are safe to use?

For years now, I have wrestled with the dilemma that is Google images. On the one hand I know that nearly all the children I teach will, at some stage find themselves searching images unsupervised. Given that, is it not sensible to teach them how to use it safely and responsibly by using it in school. On the other hand, should I not be pushing them towards alternatives sources of images which are safer and more secure? The answer, of course, is both.

When it comes to image searching it’s not just the suitability of the image which is important. The other significant issue is copyright, and it’s something which is potentially about to get a lot more serious – there are ‘copyright trolls’ out there actively targeting schools who infringe copyright, threatening fines up to £800. Copyright is an issue which is equally important to children and teachers – the number of times I see teachers posting images (in their own posts and posts by children which they have approved) subject to copyright on blogs proves it.

At least in schools we (should) have the filters to ensure that in the vast majority of cases children will not find unsuitable content on Google images, and in the unlikely event that they do there is a clear teaching point – stay on the page and tell a responsible adult so something can be done about it. We can therefore teach children how to find copyright free images on Google in a relatively safe environment. However, once they are away from school, any filters in place are unlikely to be as robust and may not be there at all. We are also compelled to inform parents about the potential dangers and what they can do to mitigate them of tools such as Google images.

This is where images search resources targeted more at bloggers and children in particular can be introduced. There are a number of sites which enable to you find and re use creative commons images. These include photopin, pixabay and photosforclass. If you are using any of these it’s worth checking search terns before introducing to children – on the former two sites I have found some images which would be unsuitable for children. There is also an increasing trend for apps to embed creative commons searches. Currently, Pic Collage includes this feature, and there are plans for it to be incorporated into Book Creator too. This is great for children, as it means they can find appropriate, copyright free images without even having to leave the app they’re using.

As with all internet safety dilemmas, the key word is awareness. We as teachers need to be aware of the dangers of unfiltered image searches and copyright breaches. We also need to be aware that children do not have the same safeguards in place when they are away from school, and that they need help to use them safely and responsibly. Finally, parents need to be aware of these issues and of how they can support their children to help them stay safe.

The Power of the Image

Growth Mindset in the Real World

It’s not like it used to be. Sunday night, crowded around the radio waiting for the Official Radio 1 Chart Show to find out who would be this week’s number one. And, if it was a special week, poised with your finger over the record button trying desperately not to get the DJ talking over your favourite songs – why did they always do that? Nowadays there’s no chart show and singles and album sales are no longer the be all and end all for music artists.

It won’t be a surprise, then if you missed the fact that a local bunch of lads secured their second number one album a couple of weeks ago. For a start, it was announced on Friday via a press release on their website. No fanfare, no fuss, just a number one album. If you haven’t worked out who I’m referring to you yet, you’re probably not from Bury – it is, of course, Elbow.

Their story is one of unlikely triumph, so some would like you to believe. The seeds of the band we now know as Elbow were planted in Tottington Primary School, Bury (which, incidentally is where I trained as part of the now defunct GTP program) when three boys – Richard Jupp, Mark Potter and Pete Turner – became friends. One would become a drummer, one a guitarist and one a bassist. Their friendship survived through high school, where they began to write and perform (badly). Through a series of chance meetings and changes of direction the band was completed by Guy Garvey and Mark’s younger brother Craig.

I first met them just before they released their first album in 2001. For them to get to that point was nothing short of a miracle. Their first big break came a couple of years before that when they were signed by Island Records. After releasing their first EP to great critical acclaim and building a loyal following through lots of gigs around the Manchester area, their first album was written, recorded and ready to go when out of the blue they were dropped by their record label. They went from being the next big thing to having to take part time jobs in local bars to make ends meet. This would’ve finished most bands off, but against the odds they managed to negotiate another record deal, this time with V2, re-record the album and got it released.

If they though it would be plain sailing from thereon in, they were wrong… Two more albums followed, both of which were again critically acclaimed but massively under promoted, to the extent that even some of their most loyal fans didn’t know that their third album ‘Leaders of the Free World’ had even been released. The inevitable lack of sales which followed meant that they again faced to prospect of being dropped. This was even more of a big deal than the first time. By that time band members were married, some with children, for the band to continue something drastic had to happen. Through sheer hard work and persistence a third record deal was signed, this time with Polydor (ironically a subsidiary of Island Records).

This is the point at which you might become familiar with the Elbow story. Their first album for Polydor and fourth overall was ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’. It was again released to much praise form the music media, but again achieved modest sales success. Their big break came when it was nominated for, and won the 2008 Mercury Music Prize. After nearly twenty year writing, rehearsing, recording and performing Elbow became an overnight success. Shortly after they won the Mercury they played their first headlining arena gig at Wembley Arena and it was at this gig that I got my best insight into the secret of their success. At the after show party I spoke to their bass player, Pete Turner. Without really thinking I commented that I bet they couldn’t believe they were playing such a big venue. Not a bit of it, he said he knew it would happen one day, it was just a matter of time.

The Elbow story is not one of unlikely triumph. It’s one of hard work, determination, persistence, an absolute belief in their own abilities and a refusal to accept defeat. There were so many times when they could’ve called it a day, a running joke in our family was Pete’s lack of a plan ‘B’ should the band not succeed. Thankfully they didn’t listen. They kept practicing, writing and honed their craft to such an extent that when their break came (and it wasn’t lucky – you win the Mercury Prize on merit alone) they were at the top of their game and ready to take advantage of it.

I can’t think of a better example of a growth mindset. How else could they overcome so many hurdles and prove so many people wrong? If you don’t believe me, download their latest album ‘Little Fictions’ and go and see them live this summer – 30 years after they began to play together they’re better than ever.

Growth Mindset in the Real World

Cross-curricular computing with Scratch Maths

Earlier this week I was privileged to take part in a joint twitter chat, with #caschat and #mathscpdchat joining forces. As a dedicated computing teacher it’s sometimes easy to forget how much the subject overlaps into other subjects, and chats like this are a great way to help you re-connect to other curriculum areas.

I was particularly pleased to be introduced to the Scratch Maths project. This is a research led project which develops Computing and Maths skills through Scratch. There are so many reasons why this is a good idea – it’s a great way of encouraging class based teachers to embrace computing by placing it in well planned and resourced units which also covers broad sections of the maths curriculum, or alternatively you could use computing sessions to re-enforce maths learning. Either way, what’s not to like?

If they are able to prove a link between this project and higher attainment in Maths, this could be the start of something special, not only in Maths, but in Computing too.

Cross-curricular computing with Scratch Maths

Fake news – a shift in the internet safety paradigm

I’ve had the misfortune of a couple of days of man-flu this week. Consequently I’ve been stuck at home, often with the radio on in the background. During Adrian Childs programme on Radio 5 live on Monday morning there was an interesting discussion on the recent phenomenon of fake news, looking at what it is (and isn’t), how people react to it and how it can be filtered from real news.

What struck me is that this has serious and potentially far reaching implications for how we teach internet safety in the classroom, particularly in KS2. I use the SMART rules as a framework in KS2. Of the five rules, the ‘R’ for reliable has arguably been the least significant, focussing mainly on the accuracy of information you seek to find on the internet, using Wikipedia as the classic example of a site which needs verification from other sources. Whilst this is important, it’s easy to make a case for the other rules being more so, such as keeping personal information private and not agreeing to meet people online.

However, fake news means we have to revisit these priorities. Children now need to understand that not only should they check the reliability of sources, but now they should question virtually anything they see online, and it can appear in the blink of an eye. The very nature of social media means information flows quickly and judgements on validity and relevance are made on the spot. This offers us the opportunity to have some really interesting discussions – what is fake news? What could motivate people to create or share it? How can you discern what is fake and what is real?

These issues are really important and recent global events have brought this sharply into focus. When you see the President of the United States of America in an open Twitter war with established newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, you can see how important it is that the next generation of voters have the critical thinking skills to make their own judgements. In terms of life skills, it doesn’t really get more important than that.

I recently blogged that the growth in physical computing is blurring the lines between DT and Computing. Arguably fake news is doing the same with PSHE. Whilst it’s obvious links to internet safety place it firmly within the Computing curriculum, the scale of this problem makes it much more important than that alone.

Fake news – a shift in the internet safety paradigm

BETT 2017 – Where’s the Pedagogy?


My second visit to BETT and for the first time I visited the show for two days as I was fortunate enough to be released from teaching on Friday. A little bit of prior experience and a more intimate knowledge of the DLR made the journey down much more straightforward this year. It also helped that I didn’t lose my travelcard on the tube this time…

Having been before, I was a bit more focused in my aims this year – I wanted to see more of the speakers and more carefully target the stands. I guess less product, more pedagogy summed up my approach.

As soon as I got there two themes emerged very clearly – physical computing, mostly in the form of robotics and virtual reality, mostly in the form of Google. The sheer number and variety of robotics was mind boggling, the vast majority of it beyond the budget of a financially stretched (or not) primary school. I also thought there was a lot of product, but the links to learning were much less clear and in many cases non-existent. As is so often the case, you had to search carefully to find the pedagogy, and some of it came in a great little session –  ‘We are the droids’ in which Mic Hughes, Bill Harvey, Neil Ruckus and Lucy Rogers shared their experiences of robotics in the classroom. This included the crumble bot, a low cost (£25ish) entry level robot which children can build and program themselves. When questioned on the key to success, the answer was watertight planning. It doesn’t matter what the tool is, you have to know what you’re doing and what the learning is. This shift towards physical computing is also blurring the lines between computing and DT which is both a challenge and opportunity for all schools.

I must, at this point give huge credit to the Raspberry Pi Foundation, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that no other organisation is doing more to promote computer science in education than they are. Not only were there a great variety of Pi themed stands and activities (real ones, with ideas you could try and touch), but they also launched the rather wonderful Hello World magazine, aimed specifically at educators. I have no idea have they can create such a quality publication and distribute it for free, but I’m very grateful they have.

The same themes were evident with VR – where’s the learning? I actually though Google might have made more of it on their stand, maybe they’re mindful its early days too. The number of VR suppliers out there surprised me. With Google offering a pretty strong option free of charge, I can’t see much space in the market. It’ll be interesting to see how many of them are around in three or four years time.

Other speakers I saw were Rajen Sheth, Senior Director of Product Management for Google for Education, who mercifully limited the hard sell and spent more time discussing Google’s principals for reimagining education. These hold true whether or not you are under the spell of the mighty G, and a couple of his phrases stuck with me. He discussed how learning should be personalised and measured, and that we should ‘ teach to the edges of the classroom’ meaning learning should be inclusive for everyone. He also highlighted that we should be equipping students with the skills to become life long learners. I’m writing this blog on a tool which didn’t exist before 2010, publishing it on a platform which was launched in 2003 which runs on the World Wide Web, which contrary to most children’s beliefs once didn’t exist. Enough said?

Another great session was Ashton Sixth Form College’s Digital Literacy Initiative by Brian Cooper and Dan Atkinson. You maybe wondering why I was at this one, being a primary practitioner, so time to declare a interest, it was recommended to me by my good mate Anton McGrath, who happens to be the Principal. I’m really glad for the tip off. The initiative is all about empowering teachers to use technology effectively by offering incentives and encouraging them to play to their strengths. We’ve all seen expensive, top down initiatives thrust on to over worked, under pressure teachers which are poorly implemented and supported and which probably get canned when the next big thing comes along. Ashton’s approach is the opposite, they encourage teacher led development, reward ideas (through an innovation of the month award,) support change through small, managed‪ and sustainable steps. It’s an approach that would work in any institution and is definitely something I will be pitching to our SLT.

Another theme which I noticed was the gradual move from up front to annual licensing costs. Three of the main apps I looked at – Explain Everything, Minecraft and Erase All Kittens, are all moving to annual licensing. Whether these are on a named or concurrent basis isn’t clear, neither is how they will enforce their licensing. In isolation the costs are not too prohibitive, but when combined they start to add up. If we were to licence all three it would come to around £10 per pupil. I can see why vendors we doing this, in a market where there are so many new tools emerging it makes sense to tie schools in to a longer term relationship. However, the reality is we’ll have to look at restricting some tools to narrower year groups, which is a shame when previously we could budget more easily with an up front cost.

I’ll leave the last word to a lad I sat next to on the DLR on my way out of the Excel. He was 17 or 18 years old and was discussing his career ambitions with his mum. First of all it was great to see a lad of that age actually communicating with his parent and there wasn’t a phone in sight. He recounted a meeting he had with his school careers advisor. He recounted how he told him that his goal was to become an investment banker, to which his advisor replied “I think you should focus on something more realistic.” At that point he described to his mum how he got up, turned around and left the room.

Maybe I learned more from that incidental exchange than I could at any conference. Keep the fire burning, son. We all should.

BETT 2017 – Where’s the Pedagogy?