Traditionalist nonsense or progressive flimflam?

Innovation is desirable in every other aspect of life. The constant tinkering, tweaking and adjusting that makes for faster trains, safer aircraft and life-saving surgery. “No, Doctor, I don’t want any of that newfangled key-hole surgery, I want to be ripped right open just like in the good old days” said no one, ever. But not in education. Oh no. In education we’ll have none of that (spits) progressive flimflam.

The latest twitter spats and blogging battles seem to be being fought on the right by traditionalists who support a teacher centred approach where the student is a passive recipient of knowledge vs. progressives on the left, who espouse a child centred approach favouring change and innovation.

Just like when recently you were being asked to pick between teaching knowledge or skills (because, apparently, it had to be either or), now you need to pick between being a traditionalist or a progressive. And if you can’t or won’t, that’s because you’re probably either a little too simple -ah, bless- or you lack principles.

The thing is, when I think about my own teaching style I’m pretty traditional. I’m very much a starter/presentation/guided practice/feedback/further practice/plenary kind of guy. There is actually quite a bit of direct teacher instruction and didactic teaching in my lessons. A stickler for tradition, me. Why? Because it works.

But there is also quite a bit of group work, peer assessment and self assessment about my lessons, much of it supported by innovative use of technology. These are activities that lend themselves very easily to more a progressive approach to teaching and learning. Why? Well, for the same reason. Because it also works. Continue reading

Six years out of five hundred

I can’t help but feel the last six years have been one of the most important periods in my life. My wife and I had to move to new jobs and a new place 170 miles away from the comfort of the familiar, my eldest son started school, my youngest son was born, we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, I became Head of Department and somehow… somehow… I managed to find the time to gain a masters degree in ICT and Education.

Today is my last day as Head of Modern Foreign Languages at Nottingham High School. It’s not quite sunk in yet. I find myself having to repeat that sentence over and over again hoping that its meaning will eventually percolate through to that small bit in my brain that deals with irrefutable facts. Continue reading

The last laugh

A Level results came out last week. In a year which has seen the number of top grades reduced nationally for the first time in decades, Nottingham High school – my school – has seen, not only a continuing improvement, but its best results ever (72% A*-A), a feat that saw us move up to the top ten independent schools in the country.

In Spanish – the subject I teach and for which I am directly responsible – our results have also been our best ever (88% A*-A; 100% A*-B). Few of my students would have believed this possible at the beginning of Year 10, when they could barely say their names and where they lived with any confidence at all! Four years on, thanks to their hard work and dedication to the subject, they have done themselves – and me – very proud indeed.

It was during these four years that I began to research the transformational potential of social media and and ICT in general and to apply some of my findings to my teaching practice. Many fantastic things happened during those four years: my wife and I had another boy, my work in technology integration started to be recognised nationally and internationally, I was fortunate to be promoted to Head of Modern Foreign Languages and I gained a Masters Degree in ICT and Education.

However, during that time there have also been plenty of those who have questioned my approach for having the audacity to suggest that social media in general – and social networking in particular – could be harnessed by schools to be potentially beneficial to both teaching and learning. Continue reading

Programming in Schools: Lessons from Language Learning

When we learn to write, we don’t start by studying the process through which the ink travels from the cartridge to the nib of our pen and on to the paper. When we learn to speak another language, we don’t first study buccopharyngeal anatomy in the hope it will facilitate the production of difficult foreign sounds. When we learn to drive a car, we worry more about making the machine work and less about how the machine works.

In each of these cases, achieving a successful outcome – becoming an accomplished writer, a speaker of foreign language or a talented racing driver – is not dependent on the intimate knowledge of the processes involved and can demonstrably be achieved with only a basic understanding thereof.

Indeed, it does not necessarily follow that a car mechanic should be a good driver or that a otorhinolaryngologist would boast an uncanny ability to pick up new languages.

I think computer programming – or coding – shares many similarities with the laboured analogies above. In order to master the use of a computer, some basic understanding of programming will undoubtedly be helpful, but this begs the question: what outcome do we wish to achieve when we suggest programming should be taught in schools? Do we want children who can use computers effortlessly or children who can speak computer fluently?

Many have suggested that schools ought to view programming as the new Latin so that the UK can become a competitor against the likes of Silicon Valley. However, I’m not convinced that a focus on learning to code will result in a generation of students bred with the sole purpose of taking on the likes of Google or Microsoft. If the traditional approach to learning languages is anything to go by, it’s more likely to result in a generation of students that are made to learn languages and then drop them at the earliest opportunity.

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Is it time to change History?

The issue of Modern Foreign Languages take up has hit the news almost daily since the GCSE results were published last Tuesday.

The fact is that numbers are in decline with no sign of abatement. Regardless of whether you have strong feelings or not about the place of languages in secondary education, hardly anyone would argue that this decline is good news for the education of our children.

There has been a significant amount of soul searching in the national papers in the past seven days about just why the United Kingdom appears to be so uninterested in learning other languages, an attitude which was formalised by the government when they made languages optional at Key Stage 4.

The government actually replaced compulsion with a statuary entitlement to study foreign languages, which means that secondary schools must still offer a language to all pupils who wish to take one, although this is blatantly ignored by an increasing number of head teachers in the state sector. But never mind that.

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The languages class divide

GCSE results were published yesterday. For the 23rd year running, the trend was an improving one, with more pupils getting better grades.

It’s not all good news though. The statistics also confirm a continuing decline in take-up in foreign languages: the number of students taking a language has dropped by a third since the government made them optional at GCSE six years ago.

Having said that, there are places bucking the trend where languages are still flourishing. Amongst the proverbial ivy and oak panels, the house ties and the straw hats, the study of foreign languages is still thriving in British private independent schools.

Since languages were made optional in the state sector, take up has nose dived to an all time low, with languages disappearing altogether from some schools at the hands of head teachers who saw an opportunity to save cash for a more popular performing arts and media centre.

Some head teachers, however, had no option but to abandon languages altogether at Key Stage 4 and beyond due to appallingly low take-up. Some students in the state sector really could not wait to get rid of a subject they perceived as hard, pointless and boring as hell.

However, private schools in the UK have tended to retain languages as compulsory to GCSE (age 16), with some doing the International Baccalaureate studying a compulsory language all the way to university entrance age, thus creating a de-facto class divide: those who can afford a private education are learning other languages, whereas those who cannot are not.
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