World Book Day 2014: why you should read novels

This is the script from a whole-school assembly given prior to World Book Day, 2014:

world book day

‘Listen you little wise acre: I’m big, you’re little, I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it’

So says the father in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s best-selling story, Matilda. Matilda is one of my favourite books to read to my children and one they love too. Those of you who have read the book will know that Dahl’s Matilida is ‘an extraordinary genius with really stupid parents’. The first chapter of the book is especially good and tells us how Matilda copes with her family: by reading novels from a very young age. Through Dickens, Hardy and Austen, Matilida escapes into a different place. When neglected by her parents these books are the way she learns about the world and they give a comforting message: you are not alone.

In 2014, however, it appears that the act of reading, especially fiction, may be in long-term decline. Physical book sales as a whole in the UK are falling and this is only being compensated in part by the growth of the sales of ebooks.

In terms of the types of books sold, novels seem to be losing out to non-fiction. The best-selling book in the UK in 2013 was Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘My Autobiography’ which sold over 800,000 copies, comfortably outselling the best-selling novel of 2013 – Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Perhaps underlying this is the observation made by author Philip Hensher that ‘people are no longer ashamed to say they don’t read fiction’. In fact some almost see it as a badge of honour to say ‘I don’t read novels’. To me this fixed mindset view of reading is at least as damaging to people and society as those who say ‘I’m no good at maths’.

The other side to this is that though many people are still buying books, it appears that actual book reading may be in decline. A recent survey indicated that many people lie about the books they claim to have read in order to impress their peers, the most read/unread book being 1984 by George Orwell.

On this theme of the decline of reading, the author Ruth Rendell recently said something that would likely strike a chord with anyone who has travelled on London Underground recently:  “The thing that makes me think that it is on the decline is that it is quite common now to get on public transport in the evening and not see anybody reading a book and probably 20 years ago half of the people in the carriage might have been.”

Among children the trends are also not looking good: A national literacy trust survey in 2012 found that just 3 in 10 youngsters read daily in their own time, down from 4 in 10 in 2005. Alarmingly, 17% of the 21,000 children surveyed said they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading a book.

So what would cause a decline in reading books, especially fiction? Well it is hard to ignore the rapid, perhaps exponential, growth in the range of activities competing for a share of our leisure time. With time-shifted television, You Tube clips, WhatsApp and Flappy Bird all available on mobile devices it is easy to lose hours, weeks, months of free time without picking up a humble novel.

With so many distractions that are designed specifically to hold our attention we need some strong arguments to motivate ourselves and others to value spending time reading novels.

Fortunately there are some very compelling arguments to encourage us to do so. I divide these arguments into two groups. Firstly we have the pragmatic, practical arguments. These are based on the premise: ‘if you do this, you get this’. In a way they present a transactional view of reading which may sound a little grubby but the truth is that these points are well worth considering:

Firstly, National Literacy Trust research indicates that reading outside of lessons is closely linked to strong academic achievement and that those who do this on a daily basis are thirteen times more likely to read above the expected level for their age.

Furthermore, in September 2013 a study by the Institute of Education examined the reading patterns and academic performance of 6,000 students over time. It found that reading for pleasure between the ages of 10 and 16 had a very large impact on performance in spelling, vocabulary and, remarkably, maths test results. The impact of reading for pleasure on academic achievement at this age was four times greater than the impact of having a university educated parents.

Finally, in this vein, a favourite Cambridge-based writer of mine, Robert MacFarlane said: “every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write”.

In a world where the ability to communicate is increasingly valued by employers, you should not miss out on an opportunity to develop your writing skills.

The second set of arguments takes a different approach. They seek to encourage you to see the intrinsic merit in reading fiction and therefore might encourage you to begin or perhaps rekindle a long-term love of reading. These arguments are perhaps best articulated by writers themselves:

Author Neil Gaiman said:
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” 

And Alan Bennett, through his creation Hector in the play, the History boys said:
‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’

I can’t be sure if these pragmatic and emotional arguments will encourage you to read more fiction but I hope you will consider it. When I was a teenager at school I, like some of you, didn’t read any fiction at all and it wasn’t until I shared a corridor at university with an English undergraduate that I was persuaded and I  discovered what I had been missing out on. It was like a new world opening up for me.

My experience was described beautifully in Stoner by John Williams, a formerly undiscovered 1960s novel which became a surprise best seller last year. The writer, Julian Barnes, said the following about it:

“The key moment in the book is in the first chapter when Stoner, who has come from a rural background and is studying agriculture, has to take an English class and he is given Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet to read.

“And he is asked what it means and he can’t answer: he can only say ‘it means – it means’ and yet something has happened within him.

“It is not that he has understood, it is almost that he has an epiphany because he hasn’t understood but he knows that if he can understand he will understand literature and if he understands literature he will understand the world.

“That is Stoner’s epiphany and that is an epiphany that many, many readers have.”

To emphasize the power of fiction I would like to read to you from Birdsong, By Sebastian Faulks, a novel I have been reading in recent weeks. Many of you will know that I am leaving The Perse at the end of this term and in my new school I have been asked to coordinate their efforts to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the First World War. To help me do this well I wanted to do some background reading on events. There are many excellent non-fiction history books out there that set out the brutal facts of the war but, in my view, nothing matches the power of fiction for helping you to connect to the people that took part in this desperate, mechanized, conflict.

Jack Firebrace stood with Arthur Shaw on raised ground near what they had called One Tree Hill, watching. They expected a swift passage, almost unopposed.

Jack was muttering, Shaw saying nothing at all. They saw the Scots coming up out of their burrows like raving women in their skirts, dying in ripples across the yellowish brown soil. They saw the steady tread of the Hampshires as though they had willingly embarked on a slow motion dance from which they were content not to return. They saw men from every corner walking, powerless, into an engulfing storm.

Their own contribution to the day, the vast hole that had been blown at twenty past seven had given the enemy ten minutes in which to take their positions at leisure. By the crater they saw young men dying in quantities that they had not dreamed possible. They had not fired a shot.

The excess of it made them clutch each other’s arms in disbelief

‘They can’t let this go on’, said Jack, ‘they can’t’

Shaw stood with his mouth open. He was unmoved by violence. Hardened to the mutilation he had seen and inflicted, but what he was watching here was something of a different order.

Please God, let it stop, thought Jack. Please let them send no more men into this Hurricane.

The padre, Horrocks, came and stood with them. He crossed himself and tried to comfort them with words and prayers.

Jack turned his face away from what he saw, and he felt something dying in him as he turned.

Shaw had begun to weep. He held his miner’s hands to the sides of his head and the tears coursed down his face ‘Boys, boys,’ he kept saying. ‘Oh my poor boys’

Horrocks was trembling. ‘This is half of England. What are we going to do?’ he stammered.

Soon they all fell silent. There was an eruption from the trench below and another wave went up into the pitted moon-like landscape, perhaps Essex or Duke of Wellington’s, it was impossible to see. They made no more than ten yards before they began to waver, single men at first picked out, knocked spinning, then more going as they reached the barrage; then, when the machine guns found them, they rippled, like corn through which the wind is passing. Jack thought of meat, the smell of it.

Horrocks pulled the silver cross from his chest and hurled it from him. His old reflex still persisting, he fell to his knees, but he did not pray. He stayed kneeling with his palms spread out on the ground, then lowered his head and covered it with his hands. Jack knew what had died in him.

As you may already know, tomorrow is World book day.  World book day is fantastic event that celebrates books and reading for all ages so don’t miss out on this opportunity to nudge yourself along to pick up a something new, especially if you haven’t done so for some time. The library will be giving away free one pound World Book Day tokens during the day and there is also a bookmark making workshop as well as a World Book Day quiz and word search with edible prizes for the winning entries.

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Digital Technology: How can we improve the impact it has on learning?

Twitter lit up two weeks ago as Apple launched a range of new products including the latest thinner, lighter, faster, iPad Air. New technology excites many of us, presenting new possibilities for doing things differently. This is certainly true in the education sphere where enthusiastic teachers seek to use technology both to tackle difficult problems and to find new ways of learning. Schools, however, are typically (and rightly) wary of businesses seeking to sell the latest piece of equipment that will, according to the marketing, revolutionise classroom learning. How can they be sure that costly technology will bring the benefits promised? The concept of opportunity cost is also important here: there are many things teachers can do with their classes, so is the application of digital technology in learning the best way to spend the time available or would they be better off doing something else?

In Professor Robert Coe’s (Director of CEM and Professor of Education at the School of Education, Durham) Inaugural Lecture: Improving Education, A triumph of hope over experience he presented the graph below that summarised the findings of the Education Endowment Foundation which, based on their review of research into the impact of ICT on education, found that the average learning gain of using ICT in education is just 4 months. This is well below the impact of many other possible activities such as feedback and peer-tutoring, implying that more often than not we might be better off abandoning using technology in favour of these alternatives.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 20.53.20It is, however, worth digging a little behind this 4 month figure by reading the relevant pages of the Education Endowment Foundation website. Importantly, it is suggested that ‘the approaches in this area are varied’ and that ‘there is considerable variation in impact’.  It is clear, therefore, that possibilities for very effective use of technology in learning coexist with less effective applications, and schools need to take time to ensure they make the right choices.

The work of the Education Endowment Foundation examining the scale of the effect of different actions on learning has built on John Hattie’s highly influential book ‘Visible learning’. In Chapter 21 of Hattie’s latest book (written with Gregory Yates -Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2013)), the authors go further and identify the following key generalisations (based on the analysis of academic research) about the effective use of technology in learning:

a)    Effects were stronger when computers were used to supplement traditional teaching, rather than being seen as an alternative,

b)    Effects were stronger when teachers received higher levels of training in the use of computers

c)    Effects were strong when computers offered students opportunities to extend their learning practice periods or take advantage of tutorial assistance

d)    There were clear advantages in the students assuming control over the learning situation in aspects such as pacing and mastering new material

e)    Students were able to use computers most effectively when working in pairs

f)     Computers have the ability to provide highly adaptive feedback to the learner

g)    Students learn more when they work in pairs using technology.

These seven points can help us make the right choices so that our efforts exceed the average impact of using ICT to support learning. Exponents of flipped learning, for example, should take comfort from point d) as handing over control of the pace of learning is a key feature of this approach.

In addition to identifying these generalisations from research, Hattie and Yates address two important issues that may influence how we use technology in schools: the ‘digital native’ theory and multitasking.

While they recognise that ‘every child in our schools today needs to become computer literate to participate fully in life and society’ they reject the elements of digital native theory that suggest that today’s learners, because of their immersion in technology from a young age, learn differently from past generations. They state: ‘we find little evidence…that a) computers can replace or displace outmoded teachers and b) students can function and learn at ever increasing levels of depth and sophistication due to their recently developed electronically enhanced cognitive resources.’

Multitasking (chapter 20) is an important read for all teachers. The authors are unequivocal that, despite popular belief, humans can’t really multitask. In reality we switch rapidly from one activity to another, rather than perform both simultaneously. Unfortunately, when attempting to learn while doing other activities (e.g. using social media) this switching has a considerable negative impact, reducing reading comprehension and the ability to retain information in the long-term memory. While this may not be news to teachers, many students would benefit from hearing this clear message and the suggestion that the ideal learning environment is one of ‘quietness and lack of external stimulation’. The real challenge for students is, however, finding such an environment, especially when their work is taking place on a computer. Suggesting technological solutions such as the freedom app may be helpful here.

The pace of change in digital technology means we will no doubt continue to see many exciting new developments that may or may not have beneficial impacts on learning. What is important is that we approach new developments with a clear head, tread cautiously and use research evidence and past experience to guide us on whether they are worth introducing in schools. To help with this, I think it is well worth adding the Education Endowment Foundation’s view to your browser favourites and you should revisit this page when assessing anything new. They suggest:

–       Effective use of technology is driven by learning and teaching goals rather than a specific technology: technology is not an end in itself.

–       It is important to identify clearly how the introduction of technology will improve learning rather than assuming that new technology will automatically lead to increased attainment; technology without pedagogy is very unlikely to be effective.

–       Technology should support pupils to work harder, for longer or more efficiently to improve their learning.

–       Motivation to use technology does not always translate into more effective learning, particularly if the use of the technology and the learning outcomes are not closely aligned.

–       Teachers need support and time to learn to use new technology effectively. This involves more than just learning how to use the technology and should include support to use it for teaching through professional development.

If we can work within these parameters we may find that the application of digital technology in education can indeed produce the level of impact on learning that has been promised for the past 30 years.

Further reading:

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I picked up on the Festival of Education through twitter early this year and had high hopes from the billing that this would be a fantastic event. It did not disappoint. Held in the atmospheric grounds and buildings of Wellington College, it was brilliantly organised and set out to attract teachers (and tweechers), parents and families by bringing together leading speakers from the world of education.

As anyone who has been to a music festival can attest, one of the greatest challenges of these type of events is choosing who to see. There were as many as ten different talks running simultaneously and I was left wondering what might have been if only I had turned right to hear Andrew Adonis (@andrew_adonis) or left to hear Michael Wilshaw (I missed both, alas). That said, the talks I did see (thirteen, in all) were, almost without exception, stimulating, challenging and entertaining. They varied enormously in content and style and encouraged me to make new connections between ideas at different scales in teaching: from the big picture, philosophy and direction of education, right down to specific lesson ideas and practical measures to aid the use of technology in the classroom.

As perhaps already hinted at, my festival experience was greatly enriched by twitter. I used tweets as my notes, a summary of the key ideas I had heard and thoughts I had, had. Meanwhile by following #educationfest I could also see others opinions on the same presenter and get a sense of what was being said in presentations I was unable to attend. I made many new twitter connections during the two days and finally met people in person who I had originally only known through twitter.

Here is a summary of some of my festival highlights:

Tucked away in the first slot on Friday, Daphne Koller (@DaphneKoller – Professor of Computer Science at Stamford and co-founder of Coursera) was convincing in her view that MOOCs potentially offer most to those with poor access to education both in developing nations and within developed nations. She also presented compelling evidence of the potential benefits of the use of online assessment to drive mastery learning which chimed with Michael Barber’s (@MichaelBarber9 – Chief Education advisor at Pearson) view that technology is likely to have a significant impact in assessment in the next 10 years.

Oliver James was brilliantly entertaining, debunking ideas about the importance of genes in child development, making a plea for parents to avoid only giving praise to children for academic performance rather than effort (encourages perfectionism which in turn may lead to problems such as eating disorders) and suggesting that we should worry less about trying to educate under 6’s and let them learn through play (as many of our Scandinavian neighbours do).

Dylan Wiliam (@DylanWiliam) is a fantastic speaker and he made a real impression on me, going at some pace and digging deep into research to find out how teachers can improve. His answer is deliberate practice; a constant desire to reflect on what has gone before and learn from mistakes is neimage (1)eded throughout a teacher’s career. Dylan also made an interesting observation about homework: the evidence suggests that most homework is ineffective but that homework which is effective is work that prepares students for the lesson to come, not work that consolidates the lesson just passed. To me this seemed like tacit support for the idea of flipped learning, which I wrote about in a previous blog last year.

Tom Bennett (@tombennett71 – TES Behaviour Guru and organiser of the forthcoming ResearchEd conference) did a superb demolition job on popular educational ideas from recent years – learning styles, multiple intelligences, thinking hats and others. He eloquently expressed how the quality and quantity of educational research has been lacking and that this has left a void which has been filled by untested ideas that have an attractive concept at their heart but no evidence for their effectiveness in improving learning. Tom also writes brilliantly – if you haven’t seen it, take a look at his blog.

I have seen Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher – Head of King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford) speak before and he again impressed with his presentation of  his 10 cimage (2)haracteristics of great lessons. You can read more about them in his excellent blog here. Tom also came up with some of my favourite quotations from the weekend, including: ‘If you’re not struggling, you’re not learning’; ‘we need values in education, not just outcomes’ (otherwise what drives outcomes becomes the priority – i.e. teaching to the test); ‘if you’re not enjoying the lessons you’re teaching, your pupils aren’t enjoying them either’. Look out for the book he is rumoured to be writing.

Geoff Barton’s (@realgeoffbarton – Headmaster of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds) talk, ‘don’t call it literacy’, was inspirational and I went away with a deeper understanding of the importance and challenges of teaching pupils to write well. His suggestion that we need to help students to move from ‘what should I write’ to ‘how should I write it’ resonated strongly.

Finally, Michael Gove being interviewed by David Aaronovitch was arguably the headline act of the festival (if you ignore Katie Price, which was not easy given that she arrived in a pink bus). It is certainly an understatement to say that Gove is a controversial figure, but he actually came across incredibly well and while you may not agree with what he had to say, he did say it very well and you cannot fault his conviction. After the event I was reminded to read this article which appears to give an accurate profile of the real Michael Gove.

This extended summary still really only gives a small taste of the event and given the variety of talks on offer each delegate must have had a very different experience. In short, to get a real impression, you had to be there – perhaps next year you will.

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MOOCs – do online courses have a place in secondary education?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have made a huge splash in the media over the past 12 months. In short, these are (currently) short online university courses for free via three main platforms – Udacity, Coursera and Edx. Both Coursera and Edx are backed by major ‘real’ universities including Harvard and Stanford. From July this year, a UK based platform, Futurelearn, will also begin to offer online courses from a number of leading UK universities. At present it seems that many universities are getting involved because they see MOOCs as a way of attracting students to study full time at their institution, but what does the future hold? Many are skeptical about the potential scale of their impact but others see things differently. Prof Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University, describes this as the “Napster moment for higher education” and Sir Michael Barber suggests ‘an avalanche is coming’:

Meanwhile, Sebastian Thron, founder of Udacity, has made the extraordinary claim that the growth of online learning will mean that in 50 years time there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education. For a more sober reflection, I would also recommend that you read @timharford ‘s blog on the topic: what oxbridge can learn from youtube.

To get a better understanding of the developments in this area I attended a conference earlier this week hosted by Merchant Taylor’s School: ‘Making sense of MOOCs’. It was especially interesting to hear Dr Hamish Macleod talk about The University of Edinburgh’s experiences of running MOOCs in January 2013. Here is some of the raw data about the take up and completion of the six courses they offered:

MOOC data

At first glance, the ‘completion’ rates look very low when compared to ‘real’ university courses where such high drop-out rates would not be acceptable. Drop-out rates however don’t seem like the right metric to use for courses where the barriers to taking them or dropping out of them are basically nil. It seems more reasonable that MOOCs are  measured on just the absolute number of people who actually finish a course. The fact that over 6,000 people from all over the world completed a course in Equine Nutrition for no certificate or material benefit other than for extending their own learning is remarkable.

For schools, MOOCs raise different opportunities and challenges. In the near term, the real opportunity for schools is to encourage able and interested students to extend their learning by taking existing MOOCs that are relevant to them, especially if they offer a foundation for their own university study. Given that a 12 year old pupil completed the Astrobiology MOOC offered by the University of Edinburgh, many of these courses should be well within reach of the average A-level student.

A key challenge for schools, however, concerns whether MOOCs will creep deeper into secondary education. Are school MOOCs on the horizon? There are a few reasons why this might not seem likely, for example:

  1. Students may not be ready for or want self-directed online learning – students need teachers to prompt and motivate them through learning school level qualifications*
  2. Practical subjects (e.g. sciences) require practical experiences that an online course can’t replicate
  3. Why would schools want to offer such courses? They would be time consuming and potentially expensive to set up so what would be their motivation?

Despite these objections it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that secondary school online courses might be with us in the future. Here is a scenario:

Schools want to offer a broader range of subjects (e.g. additional foreign languages) or an extension class in a particular area but can’t justify the cost of employing more staff for subjects with potentially low take-up. An online A-level or short course in that subject could be offered by a group of schools getting together to set it up and they could employ one teacher to offer direction and assess work. The contact time would likely be less than in a normal class. Taught material could be delivered by video and discussion could be managed using Google Hangouts or Skype with work submitted and marked via Google Docs (this could be written or voice or video feedback). As more such courses became available, students could sign up to the courses which have the best feedback by former students. While these wouldn’t be a full MOOC experience (these would be much less ‘Massive’ and be more teacher directed), it could create a tremendous opportunity for all learners to take meaningful additional qualifications away from the constraints of the timetable.

In truth, I cannot imagine online courses will replace the school experience (school offers so much more than just subject learning, and, to be blunt, parents need somewhere for their children to be looked after), but I do think that technology like this could have a significant disruptive impact on secondary education in the coming years and schools need to be alert to the opportunities and challenges ahead.

* For one reason why human beings are so much better than computers for motivating people, read why a ticket inspector is a job that a robot could never steal:

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We are sharing – Twitter and Schoology

‘We are sharing’ is a phrase I heard my four year old daughter use to explain why she had taken a toy from her (now crying) younger sister. Not really sharing as we would recognise it.

In teaching, however, the culture of sharing is very strong. This was a revelation to me after leaving my former career in finance where sharing of ideas both between and within companies is almost non-existent. It is perhaps not surprising that companies keenly protect their intellectual property but it does seem unfortunate that even within companies, individuals and teams often keep their ideas to themselves to ensure they gain most from them. That this is not the case in education is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much. The sense of a common purpose teachers have in giving pupils the best education they can encourages them to offer what they know and make the most of ideas generated by others.

We are sharing beyond school – Twitter

In the past, if you were looking for new ideas, perhaps your best option was to attend an external inset course. When these are run well and attended by like-minded individuals they can provide meaningful learning experiences and teachers return to school full of new ideas and enthusiasm. The key downside with external inset (aside from the cost and the often variable quality), however, is its one-off nature. The renewed excitement and passion rapidly fades under the weight of the everyday tasks that teachers need to complete.

Enter: twitter.

Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 20.43.37Since discovering how educators are using twitter, teaching has not been the same for me.  Twitter is simply one of the best ways for teachers to connect, learn and improve. I am now continuously engaged with ideas about teaching and learning. Everyday it throws up something new and this stimulates me to improve my teaching. While old-style inset still has its place, if you want to continuously improve how well your students learn you need to get involved with the teaching communities on twitter.

If you have never used twitter before for professional development and want to see what all the fuss is about, I would urge you to read this blog post by @elearninglaura about why teachers should tweet. Then, take a look at this post and this post by @edudemic to get you started. Then get an account (I would recommend a separate account from your personal account, if you have one) and search for relevant hashtags e.g. #ukedchat or #edchat just to find out what is going on and perhaps find people worth following (even me! @kingduncanking).

We are sharing within school – Schoology

Now, while twitter excels for communication and collaboration with teachers beyond school, it is perhaps a less useful tool for improving connectivity in teams within school. The key reason is that it is likely that the types of discussions you might want to have between colleagues on a daily basis are not something that you would want to share with your followers on twitter. Aside from possible privacy issues, the content is only relevant to those you are working with and has little or no meaning to others. For example: you might want to share a resource you created for a particular element of a course you teach or canvass opinions about the dates for a forthcoming field trip. This could be achieved with e-mail but because e-mails are easily deleted and people can be left out of replies accidentally, e-mail simply isn’t an effective way to share information in a group. What we need is an internal twitter.

Enter: Schoology


Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 21.47.34

We have been using Schoology as our virtual learning environment at The Perse School for the past two years and we have been capitalising on its benefits for sharing ideas. Schoology is cloud-based and has an ‘update’ feature not unlike Facebook where anyone in a group can post a message (with attachments) and others can reply or ‘like’ accordingly (If you are familiar with ‘Edmodo’ you will know this has similar feature). In my department (Geography) it has been incredibly productive. When someone creates a new resource or finds an interesting article or video clip, they post it there. If someone has a question they can post it and quickly get responses. In a busy school where not all staff are based in the same location it acts as a daily glue to bond us together. It also maximises the quality of our teaching and learning by enabling us to effectively share best practice and avoid duplicating work. In addition, a continuous departmental dialogue keeps everyone in the loop and ensures that departmental meetings are focused on the issues that require face-to-face discussion.

One of my first realisations on my PGCE course was that, when standing in front of a class, the collective brainpower of the students I was teaching dwarfed me as an individual teacher.  If I could tap into their collective ability this could help them make rapid progress. This idea also applies to teachers. By connecting, sharing and collaborating effectively within school and beyond school we can continuously develop and improve the learning experience of all of the students in our care.

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Learning with Technology: A view from China

If you look to the south when standing on Jingshan Hill in central Beijing, the Forbidden City extends out in front of you. Beyond is Tiananmen Square with Chairman Mao’s face staring blankly onto the crowds of tourists buying replica communist memorabilia. But look in every other direction and you see the new China extending out on this flat plain in the shelter of the Xishan hills. Rising out of the haze of construction dust and traffic fumes are the glass, steel and concrete edifices that are home to the 20 million residents of this rapidly growing megacity.

Forbidden city       Beijing skyline

(The Forbidden City.)                   (A new Beijing skyline.)

A country of superlatives, China has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. The opening up of China to the rest of the world has led to three decades of double-digit annual economic growth. The impact of this growth has been wide-ranging: China has simultaneously become the world’s largest car market and the world’s largest CO2 emitter. An estimated 250 million migrants have moved from rural areas to the connected coastal cities, creating an insatiable demand for housing and leading to a dramatic drop in absolute poverty.

These changes have put China at the heart of globalisation in the 21st century. But globalisation doesn’t stop with international trade; it extends to all areas of our society, not least education. In the UK, Michael Gove has actively looked overseas for educational ideas; Free Schools, Ebacc and Teach First all owe their existence to schemes already operating in countries that rank more highly than the UK in the PISA world rankings. Meanwhile, in China, despite their apparent success in education by PISA standards, schools are also looking overseas for a different approach. In the past Chinese education has focused on students acquiring knowledge to pass exams, often at the expense of creativity and critical thinking. In 2010 the national government recognised that this element of their education system needed reform to equip learners fully for their globalised future.

There is, therefore, considerable potential for improving teaching and learning by sharing ideas internationally and for this reason I was delighted to be able to attend a conference at RDFZ Xishan school in Beijing in late November 2012. RDFZ Xishan, like The Perse, was a founder member of the Sage Alliance of Global Educators in 2011. It is a remarkable school, only founded in 2009 (the whole school campus for 1,000 students was built in just eight months) but it has already established itself as one of the highest achieving schools in Beijing with its pupils gaining places at the leading Universities in China, the UK and the USA. In addition, the school is justifiably proud of its modern approach to education in China, focusing on encouraging students to be ‘self-directed, lifelong learners and supporting the idea that ‘learning should be happy, exciting and fulfilling’.

RDFZ school

(RDFZ Xishan School, Beijing.)

The focus of the conference was the use of technology in education, specifically looking at the use of computers or tablets in classrooms in a so-called ‘1 to 1’ arrangement whereby each student has their own device that they bring to every lesson. This is an area which RDFZ Xishan has particular experience, as this video demonstrates.

With teachers from schools in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the USA, the conference generated some fascinating discussion about 1 to 1 technology in the classroom. It was very interesting to see how different schools were using devices to support learning and the wide range of meaningful, personalised activities that are possible, especially when technology is embedded in lessons rather than residing in a dedicated ICT room. The conference also highlighted the importance of treading cautiously into this area and how introducing 1 to 1 comes with issues that need to be tackled to maximise any positive impact. That said, if a school can choose the right platform, introduce it gradually, invest in training for its students, staff and parents to ensure the devices improve learning, then the use of 1 to 1 technology in schools could represent a tremendous educational opportunity.

It was an unforgettable experience to visit Beijing and to be able to meet and share ideas with teachers from around the world. I am extremely grateful to my Headmaster for giving me the opportunity to attend the conference and to the Principal, Staff and Students at RDFZ Xishan who made me feel so welcome.

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Flipping Classrooms

The rise of digial technology in schools has been dramatic – few classrooms are now without an interactive white board, most schools have developed their own virtual learning environment, and many are experimenting by making iPads or similar devices available to students to use in class and at home. While many will praise its impact on teaching and learning, a legitimate question that some would ask is: does this technology really improve our students’ education? The precise impact of technology can be difficult to isolate but one way I believe teachers could use technology to actually improve all student learning is through a flipped classroom.

A flipped classroom is one where learning traditionally undertaken as classwork is done at home and work that is traditionally done as homework is done in class. The lesson is delivered to students as homework usually via a video or other resource prepared by the teacher and the lesson time is spent applying the understanding gained at home.

This year, I have been experimenting by flipping some of my lessons with my lower 6th physical geography classes. I have been recording 10-15 minute videos and posting these on our school’s virtual learning environment. Students are directed to watch these and make detailed notes. The lessons have a warm up activity questioning students about what they learned and I check the video notes that they should have completed. The main classwork builds on the homework and the type of activity will depend on the nature of what is being learnt: a student may need to apply the understanding perhaps in a practical experiment, or by answering an exam question in an unfamiliar context. Alternatively, it could be a structured debate – especially valuable where the content taught in the video is contentious. Students can also peer assess each other’s work and peer teach new elements to each other – they could even produce their own instructional videos. During the lesson I am free to circulate and offer help to students where it is really needed. I can direct those who are struggling and challenge those who are excelling. Where common misunderstandings arise I can step in and teach that section again to those who need it.

Tangible benefits

Even after a relatively short time in using this approach I am convinced that there are a number of tangible benefits that make it worth pursuing further – these include:

Learning autonomy: giving students control over their learning motivates them and it ensures that students learn key ideas when and where they are ready to learn, not when a timetable rigidly determines it. When in the classroom they can work more independently and seek help where necessary. In a traditional classroom model, a student may not be ready for learning in a particular lesson, perhaps because of lack of sleep, hunger or problems with their peer group. As a result that student may miss a key concept that was only available at that moment. This gap in understanding may then undermine their subsequent learning. Furthermore, when they get home and need to apply the content they missed in the lesson, they are really stuck. There is no one on hand to help them proceed.

Differentiation: students can learn the key content at their own pace. They can pause, rewind and repeat a video to ensure they have understood it. The availability of the videos on the virtual learning environment also creates a tremendous resource bank for students when they come to revise material for examinations.

Catching up: students will inevitably miss lessons through illness or other commitments such as sport fixtures. The flipped classroom ensures that they do not miss out on key content and can catch up on missed activities with less impact on their overall learning.

Perfect delivery: As teachers we strive to explain ideas clearly but we can’t always be sure we have achieved this when we do it live in the classroom. By recording ourselves we can ensure that what we deliver includes everything we mean to say and we can communicate this logically and clearly.

Increasing student-teacher interaction: While initially this method may raise fears that the human element of teaching is being lost, in reality one of the key benefits of the flipped classroom is that the teacher has more individual contact with students as less time is spent on group instruction and therefore there is more opportunity to get to know each student and help them make progress.

How to start flipping

If you want to start flipping your own classrooms you will obviously need to invest time to set up your lessons in this way, not least the recording of videos. This is best done gradually; it would be very demanding to flip a whole course in a single year. For some subjects you can use video content that has already been prepared, for example from the Khan Academy or Educreations. I would however encourage you to create your own videos for two key reasons:  Firstly, your students know you and trust that what you are saying is relevant to them so they will engage with the content. Secondly, however good other video suppliers are, you are always going to be able to give the emphasis in the places where you know your students need it and ensure that all elements of the video are tailored to the particular specification you are following.

There are a number of different ways to record your videos. I have been using a mix of three methods which all have merit:

Interactive white boards: Smart Boards have a function that records what you do on the board. If you plug in a microphone to your computer you can talk as you explain. This is an incredibly quick and easy method of producing videos.

Computer with Screen Recorder: on a computer you can use any of the free web-based screen recorders e.g. or to record what is going on, on your screen. I use a microphone to add narration and a graphics tablet to add hand written drawings and annotations during the recording. This method is great when you want to make videos from the comfort of your desk or at home.

iPad: tablet computers provide a very convenient way to record videos because you can write directly on the screen (a stylus is recommended) and they typically have built-in microphones. The best apps for this purpose seem only to be available for the iPad at present. ‘Explain Everything’ [see image] is an especially effective video recording app and there are also some free apps such as ‘Screenchomp’ and ‘Show Me’ which are great to get started on.

I am convinced that flipping classrooms is a fantastic way of utilising technology to improve our students’ learning. However, I am cautious about going ‘fully flipped’ (which is the case with a growing number of schools in the USA where the method is increasingly popular) as I can see that there is still merit in the traditional model for certain types of activity and with particular year groups.  I also think it is important that not all student learning comes in bite-sized video chunks. Students do need to struggle with learning from more demanding resources if we are to prepare them fully for university and beyond. That said, if all of our teaching is delivered in the traditional way, we are missing out on an opportunity to ensure that all the core learning in our subject is understood by all of the students in our classes.

Further reading and viewing:

Web links:

Flip Your Classroom – Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams – ISTE 2012

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