The quest for independent learning is schools has always appeared to me to be intrinsically paradoxical. Like flying in birds or swimming in fish, it seems to me that dependence is in a school’s nature.
The culture in schools is one of dependence. Students need to attend school; they need to come to our lessons; they need to do as we say; and they need to pass the exams we set. Students are dependent. On us.
The odd teacher will, on occasion, notice that not all is well and will strive to inject some independence into their ailing students in order to slow down the onset of the chronic dependence. At this stage school committees might be set up in order to find out more about this devastating condition and teachers will spend hours discussing what they need do to fight the problem of dependence amongst their students.
But this reminds me the often quoted story of the drunk man looking for his lost keys at night under a street light. When a helpful passer-by enquires, the drunk tells him he that, in fact, he lost his keys further down the street. Puzzled by his response, the passer-by suggests that he might have better luck if he looked for the keys further down the street, where he lost them. But the drunk, convinced by his own logic, shakes his head and says “but here is where the light is”.
Last week I was accused of being a luddite. Me. A luddite. This came about after I was critical of Google Glass, which apparently is the next big thing .
When I first saw the amazing video Google has produced to promote Glass, my jaw dropped. Science fiction had become science fact. Truly astonishing stuff. However, as a short-sighted, fashion-conscious, daily glasses-wearer, I immediately started having doubts about its practicality. Would I want to wear Glass all the time? If I took it off, would it fold neatly into your shirt’s pocket? Would I really want to talk to a computer I’m wearing on my nose in public? On the bus? Walking along the street? And, wouldn’t I look like an idiot wearing it?
To my surprise, I found I wasn’t so worried about Google’s plans for monetizing Glass, or about privacy concerns or about where this technology might lead us. Instead I found myself worrying about fashion, vanity and practicalities and my conclusion was that no, I probably would not want to wear Glass in most circumstances. For me, a small tablet device is still the best option. So I said so. And thus I became a luddite.
The truth is that I rather like the sort of company that Google is becoming: creative, innovative, bold and brave. Apple is reputedly also trying to come up with the next big thing, which, for them, apparently is a wrist watch. But this comes just as fewer and fewer of us feel the need to wear a watch at all. Try this: next time you’re in school ask for a show of hands if your students are wearing a wrist watch. I bet you only very few hands will go up, if any at all.
Cue then Google vs Apple rivalry, which is when things get really silly and we start behaving like small children in a playground – my dad’s Apple is bigger than your Google – and we begin to lose sight of what the next big thing really is, which isn’t a pair of bionic glasses or even a speaking wrist watch. The next big thing is that access to the social internet is no longer limited to the little tablet in your pocket (or the big tablet in your bag). So, let’s not get mired in and diverted by pointless tribal arguments and let’s start exploring the enormously massive implications for our schools of ubiquitous internet access.
I remember my introduction to Astronomy was an artist’s impression of the solar system which hung modestly in the corridor outside my classroom. It was a large poster with jagged crumple lines which traversed it like a lightning strike, revealing the white paper beneath the printed layer and culminating in a big tear in one of its corners which someone, long ago, had tried to fix with sticky tape.
When it came to the solar system, I remember my teacher was only interested in making me recite the names of all the planets in order, according to their distance from the Sun. Mercury was first and Pluto, which in those days was a fully fledged planet, was last. If it weren’t for that old poster, my interest in our Solar System would have dissipated immediately after the test.
Earlier this week I led a seminar for PGCE students at Nottingham University on the use of the internet and its potential for encouraging pupils’ creativity. To start, I asked those present to put their hands up if they used the internet daily. All hands went up. I then asked them to keep their hands up if their pupils used the internet on a daily basis. After a moment’s thought, all hands stayed up.
However, when I asked the PGCE students – who had all finished their first teaching placement – to keep their hands up if they had planned or been encouraged to plan lessons, sequences of lessons or homework that required the use of the internet, all hands went down. Isn’t it curious, I asked them, that all of you and and all of your students use the internet daily but none of you exploit its potential for teaching, learning and creativity? Isn’t it curious that schools force their students to inhabit this alternative reality for six or seven hours every day where the internet doesn’t exist?
The work of a teacher is both challenging and complex and requires high standards of professional competence and commitment. However, research shows that formal professional development may not be the optimum means by which such high standards of professional competence can be achieved. The principal reason for this is that traditional CPD tends to be based on one-off events that can often be a solitary activity and can seem remote from colleagues, students and classroom practice in general.
Many teachers have begun to diverge from only using traditional CPD provision and started to address their individual and collective professional learning needs – which can often be perceived as being different by management – effectively by seeking informal professional development opportunities. An alternative model of regular peer-to-peer professional learning meetings – sometimes referred to as TeachMeets or Show and Tell sessions – is beginning to emerge as a more successful, supportive and motivating way of sharing best teaching practice with the aim of improving overall teaching and learning. Such bottom-up professional learning is more likely to be followed up and to result in innovative practices that are successfully embedded and sustained.
We are all fortunate to teach alongside excellent teachers whose expert practice could benefit the wider school but often remains confined to their classrooms due to the relative inefficacy and limited opportunities offered by lesson observations. Thus, we would benefit from exploring ways to share highly relevant expertise amongst our colleagues that are not tinged with the negative connotations often associated with lesson observations and other “institutionalised” means of professional development.
Students who have entered secondary education in the last two years can’t remember life before social media. Despite this, the schools tasked with their education often fail to grasp the important role that social media plays, not only in the private lives of their students, but also in the wider school community.
In this context, young people’s use of social media tends to be unfairly misrepresented and very unfavourably portrayed by schools and teachers who, perhaps, feel constrained by the circumstances and pressures in which they work and who might fear a loss of control leading to a capitulation to what they perceive as a preference for immediacy among the current generation of students. The overall conclusion is often that social media is a disruptive force which further erodes academic rigour and undermines the teacher’s traditional role and relevance, thus proving in the eyes of many sceptics that social media is unfit for academic purposes.