Category: Education (page 3 of 56)

Why I left teaching five years ago

Last week after another extended FIFA15 session I tweeted:

This led to the anonymous blogger behind Exit Teaching getting in touch via Twitter for the backstory to me leaving the classroom. I’m happy to share it as it’s something that a lot of people in similar situations struggle with. I hope it helps someone!


1. Why did you become a teacher?

Teaching was actually something I’d actively tried to avoid! My father had been Deputy Head of my high school and I’d seen how busy he’d been. I was in my third year of a Philosophy degree when I realised that I was about to need a job. My dad advised me to do my PGCE as ‘something I could fall back on’. After completing a self-funded MA in Modern History, that’s exactly what I did and became a History teacher. I loved it! I’d often say that if there was a roof over my head and food on the table I’d have taught for free!

2. What was your previous role? What are you doing now?

I taught History and a bit of ICT for six years in total. My last job in teaching was as Director of E-Learning of a large academy. I was there for a year and left in 2010. In April 2015 I made the jump to full-time consultancy after some time with Jisc in Higher Education and the Mozilla Foundation, where I was on their education team.

3. Why did you decide to leave teaching?

I skipped middle management and went straight into senior management. I guess I blagged the interview. The position was in an academy that took over nine schools, including three I used to attend – and the one in which my father was Deputy Head. Some of my old teachers were in senior management with me, and some were still full-time in the classroom. Added to that, I was writing my doctoral thesis at the time and had a two year-old son.

Looking back, there were three main reasons I decided to leave teaching. The proximate cause was that I was asked to spend most of my time around behaviour management-related issues. This frustrated me as I felt I was doing too much of it. Another reason was that, although as a cocky twenty-something I felt that I was ready for anything, to be perfectly honest I could have done with some middle-management experience before taking the role. I was thrust into a position where I was line managing two failing departments and one where the Head of Department had just suffered a bereavement. I was a bit out of my depth and wasn’t supported.

The third reason is that I’m an ‘ambivert’ and somewhat of a perfectionist. While I can appear extroverted in social situations, I need time to recharge – but my teaching style didn’t give me the opportunity to do that. It felt like constantly being on stage. I was burning myself out term after term.

3. How did you leave? What were the challenges?

How it ended was a bit of an anticlimax. I won’t go into the ins and outs but I effectively looked around for anything that would get me out of the situation. I realised that I had to choose between a) staying and trying to make a difference (against the odds) in the area in which I grew up, or b) being there for my family and finishing my thesis. I chose the latter and started a job with Jisc infoNet, based at Northumbria University about a year after I’d started at the academy.

The Researcher/Analyst job I moved into was primarily office-based and I took a ÂŁ10k pay cut, but there was a good deal of national travel. That was great for networking. Originally, I thought it would be a very temporary measure before returning to the classroom in the next academic year – but that never happened. I finished my thesis, made some good friends and contacts in Higher Education, and realised there was life beyond teaching.

4. How do you feel about work, career and life in general now?

I’m still very much in touch with the teaching profession. Almost everyone in my family is, or has been, a teacher. My wife is a Primary School teacher, some of my friends are teachers, and I still have a large network of people I follow via social media. In many ways, the work I do supports teachers of all stripes. At Jisc it was providing resources and guidance. At Mozilla it was inspiring and bringing people together. Now, in my new consultancy role, it’s all about problem-solving and providing solutions.

The work that I did in teaching in my twenties was unsustainable. I wouldn’t be able to do it now, in my mid-thirties, never mind in my forties or fifties. It may have been the way I approached the profession, but it’s no wonder so many people get burned out. It’s not particularly their fault – it’s the situation in which we find ourselves.

You don’t have to work all the hours and have no social life to make a difference in the world. In fact, that’s probably a recipe for being out of touch with society and making yourself into a basket case. I’m much healthier now – I’ve started drinking chamomile tea, going to the gym/swimming every day, and even trying yoga and pilates! I’m calmer, happier in my own skin, and of more use to others.

5. What advice do you have for those thinking about leaving teaching?

I’m asked about this all of the time. In fact, one of my most popular blog posts of all time is one that explores the reasons teachers leave the profession. One of the problems is that moving into a different role outside of the classroom is often seen as a ‘failure’. Another is that, because it’s often a ‘vocation’ that people often go into an early age, those looking to move on aren’t always aware of their transferable skills.

I’ve found that my ability to stand up and engage only moderately-interested teenagers is a particularly useful skill. As is my ability to get things done. Invention is the mother of necessity, so the workflows you develop as a teacher stand you in good stead for getting stuff done outside of the classroom. Planning, preparation, knowing how to talk to external stakeholders (i.e. parents) – all of these are in-demand qualities.

Everyone’s situation is different and so it’s difficult to give generic advice. What I would say is that if you feel that your job – any job – is getting in the way of things you think are important, then you should consider doing something else. If your health (both physical/mental) or your relationships are suffering, stand back and re-evaluate. Teachers tend to be extremely loathe to take time off because of the ‘burden’ they’re placing on others. However, that’s the school’s problem. If you need to take a couple of days to get your head together, then do it. Better that then long-term absence and a cascading series of problems.

There’s so much opportunity out there. Teaching is a valuable and rewarding occupation. But it’s also stressful and relatively low-paid (if you stay in the classroom). Take your time to discuss it with people you know and respect. If there’s a consensus, start looking for something else!

Image CC BY-NC Thomas Hawk

Tetris, badges, and learning pathways

I was listening to the always-excellent Song Exploder podcast in the gym the other day when I came across a bit that really made me stop and think.

Nothing showing above? Click here!

If you fast-forward to about 3:04 you’ll hear the artist RJD2 talk about his approach to song writing being influenced by studying Mathematics in college. Fascinatingly, he talks about music in spatial terms – suggesting that, like me, he may be mildly synaesthetic. RJD2 imagines music as being like a game of Tetris where you can dictate the shape of any of the pieces.

As an educator, I find this intriguing. If we imagine the falling tetris blocks to be the things that learners have to assimilate, then it’s easy to see how problematic it can be to neither being in control of their ‘shape’ nor the speed at which they come at you.

What if we handed that over to learners? And what if each block was a badge along a learning pathway?

Image CC BY-SA s. bÀr

Today In Digital Education (TIDE): a new podcast from Dai Barnes and Doug Belshaw

Update: We’ve now got our own domain at tidepodcast.org and you can subscribe in your favourite podcast client, or via SoundCloud!

TL;DR: Dai Barnes and I have decided to record our Sunday night conversations. These will be going out as a regular podcast known as Technology In Digital Education (or TIDE). You can find the first episode at tidetalks.tumblr.com and you can use this link to subscribe in your favourite podcast client.


TIDEBetween 2008 and 2011, I co-led a weekly meet-up that also went out as a podcast. EdTechRoundUp was a motley crew of educators who on a Sunday night to discuss the week in educational technology. We were very inspired by EdTechTalk and the work of Dave Cormier and Jeff Lebow.

People floated in and out of the ETRU community (as it was known), but there was definitely a core that remained constant. Dai Barnes was one of these, both in terms of leading conversations and curating links. We’ve kept in touch ever since and, last time we met up in London, decided to start up another podcast. Dai’s now Head of Digital Strategy at Oundle School in Peterborough.

We considered resurrecting ETRU, but that’s already been attempted once. We wanted something different, reflecting the current state of play. I, for example, am no longer a classroom teacher – or even based in a school. So instead of looking backwards, we’re looking forwards.

Hopefully, the podcast will be like listening into conversations Dai and I have on a regular basis. We’re pretty opinionated, and we share good links. We’ll try and make sure the show notes are as up-to-date as possible!

Download/listen to the first podcast here!

We’d love your feedback. How’s the length? Should it be shorter/longer? What would you like to hear us to discuss? Any other suggestions?

Learning Pathways: Descriptive or Prescriptive? [DMLcentral]

My latest post for DMLcentral is up. Entitled Learning Pathways: Descriptive or Prescriptive? I riff off something my former colleague Carla Casilli posted a couple of years back.

A sample:

In this post, I want to dive deeper into learning pathways, dividing these types of pathways into broadly two groups. There are those kinds of pathways that are descriptive and those that are prescriptive. Neither of these labels is pejorative, as each could be appropriate given a particular context. This way of looking at learning pathways has often come up in conversations around Open Badges:

Click here to read the post in full

I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to add yours on the original post. Please do consider doing this as it engages the wider community in what I think we all consider to be an important issue.

In related news I’m currently writing a new Webmaker whitepaper around learning pathways with Karen Smith. It should be available by the end of March! 🙂

An Unreasonable Man writes his Damn Book

The above image* was taken by Ian Usher at a co-design event just before I joined Mozilla in May 2012. It shows me in conversation with Oliver Quinlan (left) and John Bevan (right) both of whom are now at Nesta.

* Apologies for those reading this by email, you’ll need to click through!)

About Oliver’s book

Oliver’s written a book called The Thinking Teacher which I began reading this week. It’s a really clear and well thought-out approach for those who want to take a step back and think what it is that we’re actually doing when teaching others. For a limited time his book’s on special offer via Kindle for the bargain price of 99p. You should buy it.

Here’s a few things that I’ve highlighted already:

There are few other careers than teaching where everyone entering already has thirteen years of experience in the workplace.

Great observation. This is why (some) parents seem to think it’s OK to tell you how to do your job – and why edtech entrepreneurs think they know how to ‘fix education’. Of course, spending time somewhere as a ‘consumer’ is not the same as working there. It’s an imperfect analogy, but anyone who’s ever worked in a shop that they’ve also bought things from will know the difference between front and back of store.

If we are in the business of teaching and learning we have to believe that most things are learnable. All things being equal, it is possible to make significant changes in yourself and to learn. Of course, many things are situational: I am never going to be an Olympic gymnast – I am too old and my body is past it already. However, with enough time, dedication and practice I could certainly learn some gymnastic skills and improve.

I think the important insight here is that you don’t have to have the capacity to be the best in the world at something to derive use and satisfaction from getting better at it. Our world all too often tells us differently and it’s up to us as educators to push back on the holistic value of learning.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. (George Bernard Shaw)

Although I’ve heard this paraphrased before, I never knew it was a quotation from George Bernard Shaw until Oliver used it to introduce one of his sections! Such a great and widely-applicable way of looking at the world.

Great teachers are immersed in their field, not as a syllabus but as a changing, developing entity, with new areas to discover and new questions to ask.

This is one of the things I miss about teaching. My field was History, but even that was an ever-changing landscape based on discoveries (‘out there’ and my own) as well as different intepretations and ways of visualising the past. We can apply this mindset to any area, though – for example I’m trying to ask new questions about what it means to be ‘literate’ on the web.

You should definitely snap up Oliver’s book while it’s on special offer. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it! Check out his blog and Twitter account too. 🙂

About YOUR book

Great though Oliver’s book is, my main point in writing this post is to encourage you to Write Your Damn Book. That’s the name of a course I received via email over the past year from Paul Jarvis. He’s now ended it – packaging everything up and making it available as a free PDF (5.2MB)**

You should write your book this year. Seriously. People are waiting to hear your unique take on life. They want to find out more: what do you wake up every day thinking about? For those of you who blog regularly, why not select your best posts and self-publish? Curate your stuff and put it out there for people to read! Books help you reach out of your echo chamber.

You can create a book using your favourite word processing software, export it to PDF and sell it on Gumroad. Or do as I’m doing for the two books I’m writing this year and try out Leanpub as a total solution. If you want a physical copy, I’ve had success using Lulu. There’s something about having a physical copy in your hands but, either way, it’s the intentional curation that counts.

You know, I bought myself a cheap bit of wall art before Christmas. It’s ironic given the title of Oliver’s book, as it says THINK LESS. DO MORE. Some of us need to do less doing and more thinking. But for me, my motto for 2015 revolves around less thinking and more doing. What’s yours?

** If that link doesn’t work, try this one (archive.org)!

Answering questions from #durbbu

Over the past few days I’ve posted artefacts from my keynote presentation at Durham University’s elearning conference. First I shared my presentation, then I shared some of what participants created using index cards during the session. In this post, I want to answer the questions I was asked via the final side of the index cards. I answered other questions in the session, but I guess you had to be there (the audio was too poor to include that part in the recording I made).

So here’s the questions I was asked, followed by some imperfect responses. 🙂

How do you deal with the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome?

Well, first off, it’s worth saying that if I had a one-size-fits-all answer to that I’d be a very rich man. 😉

But seriously, I think it’s part of a wider question about how people feel collegiality within and across institutions. In my (limited) experience in universities I’ve found that this is tied to people’s identity. For example, when people start identifying themselves as an ‘Open Educator’ then it makes them look for opportunities to collaborate.

I mentioned in answer to one of the questions in the session itself that you can stop things getting ‘stale’ within an organisation by mixing things up regularly. This can be done through things like job titles and hierarchy, but even simply by moving furniture around, starting off interesting projects and even having a cake club.

So I guess my answer is that the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome (which I’ve seen many times) is tied to a wider issue around identity. There’s no quick fix, but improving the meta-level situation should lead to a decrease in the syndrome!

If Mozilla designed a VLE [Virtual Learning Environment] what would it look like?

What would your inclusive online learning environment look like?

These two questions were asked by the same person so I’ll answer them together.

I don’t think Mozilla would design a VLE because we believe that the web is the platform. A VLE or LMS (Learning Management System) is, almost always, something that is a walled garden, sectioned off, and separate from the open web. I’d point to Audrey Watters’ excellent talk at Newcastle University last year for a history of how universities’ online life has been enclosed by profit-making companies. I did find it odd, for example, during the Blackboard ‘roadmap’ presentation at the conference that they seemed to put ‘speed to market’ ahead of having a feature set that matched their current offering.

But anyway.

There are, of course, things that need not to be on the open web. Commercially sensitive information, personal details, things not ready to share with the outside world. But I don’t think we need some separate, monolithic platform for that. I’m a big fan of the ‘small pieces, loosely joined’. It’s how the web works. This approach means that people need more knowledge and web literacy skills, to be sure, but it means investing in your staff rather than large corporations driven by creating shareholder value.

So I guess it’s less ‘what would an inclusive online learning environment look like?’ and more what would it feel like? And my answer is: it would feel inclusive. And it would feel like that because it was co-designed with the people using it, who would have agency over the small pieces that are loosely joined. The VLE/LMS is a top-down command-and-control technology-as-power approach to edtech.

How does the idea of Radical Participation in HE [Higher Education] deal with students who prefer to stay passive? Would learners that prefer not to engage nor participate then not learn?

I think two things are being conflated here. I tried my best to separate them out during the presentations and the questions immediately afterwards, but let me try again. Radical participation is not synonymous with confrontation or conflict. Nor is extroversion a pre-requisite for those involved. In fact, in many ways radical participation is the polar opposite of this. It’s meeting people where they are, and allowing them, if they choose to participate fully in the life of the institution.

My issue, which I raised in the panel session and then touched on again during my presentation, is that too often in universities the student union is seen as representing ‘all’ students. I don’t think that’s the case any more than politicians of the party that is currently in government represent everyone within the country. There are other ways to get involved. And I don’t think that this has to be a huge deal. It’s about making small tweaks to everything, and more about mindset that policy.

One more thing (a bit of a can of worms, but I’ll open it…) is that people learn to be passive through formal education. Bring me a child from primary school and I’ll show you an active learner. What is it, then, that kills that desire for agency in learning? Could it be our method of assessment from secondary school onwards? Surely not!

Would instructor-less ‘group’ learning/studying work at all levels – e.g. FE [Further Education]?

When is change just for change’s sake?

Again, these two questions were asked by the same person. I’ll deal with the second of these first. Change for change’s sake is when an agenda is imposed on an organisation or institution and doesn’t come from a perceived need for change within the sector. Having said that, it’s not always evident to some people (who need to change) why that change is necessary. So I guess it depends on the specific context. I will say that those who say ‘is this change for change’s sake?’ are usually the ones who have a vested interest in the status quo. The natural order of things is change and flux. It’s us that make it otherwise.

I’m not sure whether the questioner thinks that I was advocating instructor-less ‘group’ learning/studying, but it appears so. Having taught in secondary schools, I’d say that instructor-less ‘group’ learning/studying certainly works for 11-18 year olds, as I’ve tried it! Not all the time, not for everything, but it’s certainly possible. It’s to do with mindsets and getting learners (and teachers) out of the mentality of spoon-feeding for exams. I’d like to see a lot less learned helplessness at all levels.

Are there any examples / case studies of truly RADICAL PARTICIPATION in HE [Higher Education] that go beyond traditional small group of individual MOOC style stuff?

I’m not sure I completely understand this question, but as I mentioned in my presentation, what works in one place doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere. What’s ‘radical’ in one organisation is run-of-the-mill and perhaps even a bit timid in others. One way to check whether you’re on the right trajectory is by looking at the guiding principles of the organisation. Does it have a mission/manifesto? What does that say?

Often, we tinker around the edges and are afraid of wholesale change. The lesson of Charles Handy’s Sigmoid Curve, however, is that we need to constantly re-invent ourselves and our institutions to stay current. To paraphrase what Heraclitus said a couple of thousand years ago, the river looks pretty much the same over time but you’re always stepping into different water.

Which books should we be reading?

Well now. I shared Antifragile: things that gain from disorder during the presentation as I’ve learned a lot from it. There’s lots of fantastic books from which you can learn ideas. Read lots – as Ryan Holiday does.

However, you also need to apply the ideas contained in what you read, after filtering them through your knowledge and experience. I think this is key. Some of that is just blogging or otherwise writing and sharing stuff that you think is worthwhile. I try and have a URL for everything so that I can build it up. If you’re not comfortable sharing that widely then you could just use Simplenote or a personal wiki.

They’re not new, but timeless books I come back to are:

I don’t know, perhaps they’re not useful to you. But I find those books useful that spur my thinking about the reasons why we do stuff. Getting to the foundations is important. For everything else – more practical, ‘one big idea’ stuff – I just read the Wikipedia article. Too often those kinds of books have five pages of explanation then 195 pages of filler. 😉

Update: Ben Leighton got in touch to remind me that, during the Q&A in the session I recommended Thanks for the feedback : the science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. It’s a good book, but you can probably get away with reading just the first few chapters…

Image CC BY Matthias Ripp

What (some) people think about ‘radical participation’

Yesterday I was in Durham presenting on Radical Participation. At the start of the session each participant was given a couple of index cards. During my keynote I stopped and asked them to write or draw something on one of the four sides.

Today, I scanned in three of the four sides (the final one involved personal info that people may not have wanted to share more widely) and uploaded the images to this Flickr album. The header image is one person’s view of their institution’s ‘architecture of participation’. Interesting!

I did use Quicktime to record my screen during the presentation. That can be found on Vimeo. However, the audio is difficult to hear in places when I strayed away from the microphone.

1. What’s your organisation’s mission?

What's your organisation's mission?

2. What would constitute ‘radical participation’ in this session?

What would constitute 'radical participation' in this session?

3. Draw your organisation’s architecture of participation.

Draw your organisation's architecture of participation

Many thanks to Malcolm Murray and team for inviting me to take part in such a great event. Also: I got to stay in a castle! 😀

Radical participation: a smörgÄsbord

Today and tomorrow I’m at Durham University’s eLearning conference. I’m talking on Radical Participation – inspired, in part, by Mark Surman’s presentation at the Mozilla coincidental workweek last month.

My slides should appear below. If not, click here!

I was very impressed by Abbi Flint’s keynote going into the detail of her co-authored Higher Education Academy report entitled Engagement Through Partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. In fact, I had to alter what I was going to say as she covered my critique! Marvellous.

After Abbi’s keynote I was involved in a panel session. I didn’t stick too closely to my notes, instead giving more of a preview to what I’m talking about in my keynote tomorrow. As ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to some hard questions!

Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society [DMLcentral]

Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society | DMLcentral 2014-10-24 08-02-37

My latest post for DMLcentral is up. Entitled Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society it’s a slightly longer post than usual. My aim is to get educators to think about their own information environment and that which they’re promoting to their students:

The problem with social networks as news platforms is that they are not neutral spaces. Perhaps the easiest way to get quickly to the nub of the issue is to ask how they are funded. The answer is clear and unequivocal: through advertising. The two biggest social networks, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), are effectively “services with shareholders.” Your interactions with other people, with media, and with adverts, are what provide shareholder value. Lest we forget, CEOs of publicly-listed companies have a legal obligation to provide shareholder value. In an advertising-fueled online world this means continually increasing the number of eyeballs looking at (and fingers clicking on) content.

Click here to read the post.

I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to leave them on the original post. I look forward to your feedback!

PS You might also be interested in Ian O’Byrne’s response to the post.

Web Literacy: More than just coding; an enabling education for our times [EdTech Digest]

Web Literacy | edtechdigest.com 2014-09-08 14-03-43

Last week, my colleague Lainie Decoursy got in touch wondering if I could write a piece about web literacy. It was a pretty tight turnaround, but given pretty much all I think about during my working hours is web literacy, it wasn’t too much of a big ask!

The result is a piece in EdTech Digest entitled Web Literacy: More than just coding; an enabling education for our times. It’s an overview of Mozilla’s work around Webmaker and, although most of the words are mine, I have to credit my colleagues for some useful edits.

Click here to read the post

I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to add your thoughts on the original post.

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