Politics: the biggest problem in education

The biggest problem in education is political interference in the work of classroom teachers. This post has been brewing for a while. One long-term influence is dissatisfaction with the current education system. This dissatisfaction is one of the reasons I entered the teaching profession in the first place, and also a reason I’m in favour of the Conservatives’ idea of independent state schools under the Swedish model. More short-term influences include Vicki Davis’ excellent blog post Administration Should Be Like The ‘Pit Crew’ and a meeting/confrontation I had today. As usual on this blog, I’m not going to mention where I work nor individual names there.

Although with the recent financial turmoil this is turning into a less illustrative example, the delegation of responsibility by the UK government to the Bank of England for some financial matters I see to be a great idea. It puts those with the greatest knowledge and experience in charge of something very important. Education, on the other hand, is a very party political matter with endless tinkering of the system to attempt to win the support of middle-class voters. I’m a believer in government being as small as possible: whilst the state needs to intervene in the ‘big picture’ of education, I think there are other organizations and bodies eminently more suitable to deal with assessment and examinations, for example.

Ever since the Conservatives introduced a free market into UK education in 1990, schools have become more and more like businesses. I’ve seen the good and bad side of this system. In 1990, the new rules allowed my parents to take me out of the local, very poor, middle school (at my request) and install me at a much better school. I’m not against parental choice, per se, but I’m certainly against the endless analogies and comparisons of schools to businesses. Educating children is not like making products to sell at a profit. Instead, I think a better model is schools as charities.

If schools were seen as charities they would be:

  • Independent
  • Able to raise money from various other organizations
  • Focused on process as well as results
  • Diverse in nature

The type of leaders needed in charities and NGOs are different from those required by business. I’m generalising monumentally here, but those at the helm of the former tend to have inspiration and drive quite unlike those in the latter group.

So those in charge in schools shouldn’t be good managers, they should be great leaders. Instead of flaunting their power within the ‘corporate hierarchy’ they should, as Vicki Davis states, support teachers – those on the front line:

To me, times are lean and mean.  The classroom should be like a well maintained car and administration should be like the pit crew. They should give the classroom the tools they need, encouragement, a mission, and quick “pit stops” to improve and keep them going…

If you’re not helping the cause of education, you’re hurting it.  And with times being tough, those who count themselves leaders need to take a hard look at their own rolls when asking teachers to make cuts.  For, to ask teachers to make sacrifices when you aren’t willing is unfair and breeds contempt.

Although I’ve been accused of it for the first time today, I’m not one for manipulating others and playing politics within my organization. Not at all: I’m there to make things better for the system – locally, nationally and internationally. The problem with a strictly hierarchical system is that it is nothing like a meritocracy. I’m certainly not questioning the overall ability of the senior management at my school, but I have felt, at times, and in my career overall, times when my ability as a professional to make decisions and put forward opinions has been undermined somewhat.

I’d like, as Vicki again mentions, school hierarchies to be as ‘flat’ as possible. Obviously, there’s a need for management. But now, more than ever, teachers need to be given freedom and be shown trust to exercise their professional judgement over issues affecting them. Not to do so would be to play politics for politics’ sake and to undermine potential educational experiences for a great number of children.

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Teacher as Game Show Host?

A couple of years I wrote a post exploring a metaphor of the Teacher as DJ. It was well-received and stemmed from the amount of music I use in an average lesson! Today, I came across another metaphor that ‘got at’ something central to my life in the classroom: the teacher as a gameshow host!

Joel at So You Want To Teach? (an excellent blog in many respects), wrote a post entitled Pacing: What Every Great Band Director Knows about the importance of transitions, engagement and procedures in the classroom. It struck a chord with me as I’ve been stressing these things to the student teacher currently in our department. You need to be smooth – and it pains me to see it when colleagues are otherwise.

Some of this comes through experience, but much has to be planned. I’m far from perfect, but if you’re starting off on the journey, here’s some tips:

Make everything look professional

Don’t give out badly-photocopied worksheets, use Powerpoints with awful, clashing colour-schemes, nor recycle folders to keep work in. Show some respect, get some respect back. The students in front of you are used to highly-polished media environment. Put some effort into your ‘stock lesson’ to make it better by seeking relevant help. My tip? Subscribe to blogs like Presentation Zen!

Focus on engagement

You can know your subject inside-out, use the best metaphors and diagrams you can muster, but if students aren’t engaged in your lesson, very little learning is going to take place. Play games with them that test their understanding of topics. I love, for example – and this is very relevant to this post – Game Show Presenter. Cheesy, but fun! Another favourite is Andrew Field’s marvellous ContentGenerator.net products, some of which are free. 🙂

Develop a winning formula

Never let it be said that teachers shouldn’t mix up lessons a bit, but there needs to be a basis on which this can be done successfully. As I’ve mentioned above and many times previously, I use a lot of music in my lessons. For example, students enter the classroom to a theme tune (think: Rocky, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, etc.) and know to write down the date, title and lesson objective. I then take the register whilst slower writers catch-up and those finished consider what the lesson’s keywords might mean. It works for me!

During the lesson, I play a variety of music – for example the Countdown 30-seconds-left tune, to fun stuff like the Oompa Loompa songs, to a bit of Speed Garage (if they’re working too slowly) or the occasional Mashup. You can close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears… 😉

Work on your transitions

After a while, links between classroom activities come naturally. As a teacher you’re prepared to go off at somewhat of a tangent to explore an arising issue, then bring things back-on-track smoothly. But to begin with, this takes work! Anecdotes and interesting facts are really useful in this regard – as a History teacher I tend to glean these from Horrible Histories books and suchlike. The lesson should have an obvious progression toward meeting the objective that is clear to the student. Framing the title of lesson as a question works well in this regard.

If you’re a teacher, do you consider yourself to be like a gameshow host? a DJ? or something entirely different?

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Good teaching is good teaching.

I came across this video recently (thanks Ollie!) from Professor Daniel Willingham, Cognitive Scientist and Neuroscientist at the University of Virginia. He makes great use of YouTube to get across his points about the theory of ‘learning styles‘:

  1. They don’t exist.
  2. Good teaching is good teaching

If you’re a teacher, you need to spend 7 minutes of your life watching this:

I’ve no problem with people using learning styles as a way to get teachers to mix things up differently in the classroom. Where I have got issues is when teachers try to misuse data to define and pigeon-hole students into one dominant learning style. That’s got to be wrong…

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Never lose a document again: how Google Docs can change the way you and your department work!

Instead of attaching documents to emails, why don’t we attach email addresses to documents? That way, everyone sees each update of a document (e.g. a scheme of work) and there is a central repository for departmental or school files.

Watch this video:

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Google Docs is part of a wider suite known as Google Apps. There’s a version of this called Google Apps Team Edition that allows only those within an institution or business to collaborate on documents. You can access Ridgewood’s login page here. Only those with an @ridgewoodschool.co.uk email account can access this (which includes pupils, so be careful who you share documents with!)

Step 1

Sign up for an account. Follow the instructions using your school email address.

Step 2

Login to the Ridgewood Google Apps dashboard using the username/password set up in Step 1. You might want to bookmark this login page for ease-of-access next time!

Step 3

In the dashboard area you have several options, the rest of which you can explore at your leisure. For the moment we’re interested in Docs, so click on that!

Step 4

The Docs overview area is fairly straightforward. Documents which have been shared with you are accessible to the bottom-right. You can click on the toolbar to create a new document/spreadsheet/presentation/form/folder, upload existing documents (in Word .doc format, etc.), and share these with others:

Step 5

Once you have created or uploaded a document, click on the blue Share button to the top-right of your screen in the editing window. Then click on Share with others:

Step 6

You can view the ‘revision history’ of the document by going to Tools/Revision history in the editing window. This shows every change that has been made to the document. You can revert to any previous incarnation of a document if necessary!

Step 7

Play! Explore what Google Docs can do. Once you exhausted that, have a look at the rest of the offerings within the Google Apps suite – Sites (easy departmental websites), Calendar (plan course/departmental/school events), Start Page (customised ‘home page’) and Chat (real-time text chat like MSN Messenger)

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Doug’s first world tour!

I was looking at the little ClustrMap in the sidebar of this blog and it amused me that you couldn’t really see any land mass for all the red dots. Those dots indicate locations of visitors: the larger the dots, the more vistors from that part of the world.

If you click on the smaller map, a larger version of it pops up on the ClustrMaps website. Doing this, it got me thinking thatif each one of those dots indicated someone willing to put me up for a night or two, I could actually get my way around the world fairly easily!

Around 650 people currently subscribe to the RSS feed of dougbelshaw.com. Google Analytics reports about 6,500 unique visits per month. For my first world tour I’d like to play it safe and mainly visit English speaking countries. So, erm, who’s going to put me up next summer? :-p

 

Blue Skies Thinking vs. Grey Skies Thinking

I attended a meeting today. It began as it meant to go on: it was assumed and then stated explicitly that we all wanted to be home ASAP and that there was some stuff that needed to be done so we’d better get on and do it to meet our obligations and get it out of the way. It’s what I would term a ‘Grey Skies Meeting’.

We’ve all been to Grey Skies Meetings. They’re the ones where:

  • Something needs to be done but no-one wants to do it.
  • Problems are raised.
  • There is a strict hierarchy and everyone ‘knows their place’.
  • Saying anything that entails lengthy discussion is frowned upon and there is immense peer pressure not to do so.
  • Internal politics are at the forefront, the actual purpose of the organization is put on the backburner.
  • Quick solutions that tick boxes are welcomed.

I came away from the meeting somewhat downhearted. There were a few in that meeting who genuinely wanted things to move forwards in the same way that I did. But, for some of the reasons given above, they only expressed these ideas and thoughts before and after the meeting had taken place.

I want to work in a Blue Skies environment that has meetings whereby:

  • Opportunities are identified.
  • The reason for the organization’s existence guides the process and progress of the meeting.
  • People feel confident at putting forward ideas and concepts that aren’t necessarily full-formed, but point in the right direction.
  • A meritocracy operates: people’s contributions are judged by their usefulness rather than the position that the contributor holds or the length of time they’ve spent within the organization.
  • Smaller plans feed into a bigger plan.
  • The talents of the whole of the individual are used rather than their utility being defined by their position within the organization.

This isn’t a blog post about my school. It isn’t really about education per se. It’s about how our society operates and defines people. I want to be where there’s a blue sky. In fact, just saying that has made me remember ELO’s feelgood anthem Mr Blue Sky, which has cheered me up no end… :-p

Want to improve your meetings? Take a look at lifehacker.com/tag/meetings!

 

4 reasons you should jailbreak your iPhone 3G

I’m never happy to leave things be. I like doing things with devices that they’re not ‘supposed’ to do. Happily for my bank balance, there’s other people who feel the same way and are a lot more gung-ho with their devices than I am. My strategy is basically to see how they get on and then copy if they’re successful.

I don’t think I’ve actually mentioned that I re-purchased an iPhone after previously returning one. I love it. I paid £59 upfront for a 16GB version, then £45/month for 9 months and then dropping down to the £35/month contract for the remainder of my 18 month contract, as recommended on moneysavingexpert.com.

‘Jailbreaking’ your iPhone allows functionality not offered by Apple either via the in-built software or that available through the App. Store. Here’s 5 reasons to jailbreak your iPhone:

1. Apple doesn’t always allow a level playing field

For applications to show up in Apple’s App. Store, they have to be approved by Apple. Unfortunately, Apple don’t allow a level playing field. For example, applications that allow ‘tethering’ (using the iPhone as a broadband modem) aren’t allowed, and those that offer similar functionality (but are better) than Apple’s offerings aren’t allowed through the net. Podcaster, with it’s ability to download podcasts wirelessly is an excellent example of the latter. More on ‘Apple’s capricious app. policy’ can be found here.

2. Bypass silly things

Sometimes, applications that are allowed through into the App. Store have been crippled in some way. Take the applications that allow you iPhone to be used like a torch, for example. Apple’s rules don’t allow for developers of applications to play around the brightness settings, making this particular one of limited use. Jailbreak your iPhone, on the other hand, and no such restrictions apply! :-p

3. Customisation

I’m sure that I’m not alone when I say that I like my devices to feel personalised, not just the same as everyone else’s. Jailbreaking enables you to make your iPhone yours. Look at the image to the right, for example. I’ve got rotating Mac backgrounds on there, a subtely different theme, coloured signal bars (which change colour depending on signal strength) and I’ve changed the ‘O2-UK’ carrier name to ‘DAJB’ (my initials). I’ve got lots of applications installed on my phone, but I just have the ones I use most often available at-a-glance. The rest are hidden away in a coverflow-style program for app. launching (see below). Much better! 😀

4. Mobile broadband with iPhoneModem

I bought a mobile broadband modem when we moved house and I was without landline broadband for a few weeks. This week I’ll be selling it on eBay. Why? iPhone Modem allows me to use my iPhone as, guess what? Yep, a wireless broadband modem. It works most straightforwardly in conjunction with Mac OSX, but it’s not impossible to use with Windows or Linux. Result!

Interested in jailbreaking your iPhone 3G now? The best place to start is probably the link below:

modmyi.com/wiki

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Creating a homework blog in 3 simple steps using email

Posterous has been mentioned a couple of times before on this blog. First, Phil Rowland set up a blog using the service for his BTEC Sport students (although he’s now extended it to include all his PE groups). Next, our librarian, Angie Dickson, set one up. Both have been impressed by how easy Posterous is to use.

Here’s how to get started (taken directly from Posterous‘ official guide):

Yep, that’s it! It really is very easy. No signups, and pretty much everything can be done via email. You can, of course, create a blog post via logging into the site itself, but most of the people I’ve spoken to about it like the ability to create them by email. 🙂

Anything that you attach to an email to Posterous will be dealt with ‘intelligently’ and added to the blog post. For example, here’s an email I sent to my Posterous blog:

 (click to enlarge)

and here’s how it turned out:

  (click to enlarge)

It really couldn’t be any easier to set up a blog! The only things I would recommend you take care over are:

  • Set the name of your blog, it’s address, and decide who can comment: login to your Posterous account and then click on ‘Manage’ at the top right-hand corner of your blog. Clicking on ‘Edit my posterous’ allows you to change the site name, where it is on the Internet (e.g. mrbelshaw.posterous.com and choose who is allowed to comment on your blog posts.
  • Set an avatar: an avatar is a small icon representing you on the Internet. I always use my little South Park character. There are many sites you can use to create something similar, including faceyourmanga.com, a South Park character generator (unfortunately blocked on our school network), and the Simpsons character generator on the SimpsonsMovie.com site! 🙂
  • Add some information about yourself: it doesn’t need to be much, but students and interested visitors need to know they’ve found the right blog and not someone else with the same name as you…

Here’s the Posterous-powered blogs so far at our school. I hope to add many more in the near future!

  1. Mr Belshaw (History – also links to GCSE History student blogs)
  2. Mr Rowland (PE)
  3. Mrs Dickson (library)
 

I’ll tell you this for free…

…put yer money away!*

This post was prompted, in part, by a wonderful recent presentation by Merlin Mann’s entitled How To Blog and its horror-inducing first few slides.

I’ve been contacted in the past week by two separate individuals who wanted to place paid advertisements on my sites. The first offered $150 for 6 text-link ads at the end of blog posts on the now-defunct teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk. I presume this is because these appear near the top of Google search rankings for certain keywords. The second was simply exploring the possibility of paid adverts on this blog.

I said no to both on principle. You may find that strange, as I’ve had Google and iTunes ads on my sites before.** Well, yes, but I’ve realised the error of my ways! As has been pointed out to me by several people, adverts on a personal blog make people question your impartiality and just don’t look very professional. I’ve taken these points on board. The only advertising on my sites now can be found at historyshareforum.com to help cover hosting and bandwidth costs. :-p

So you can be sure that when I recommend certain products and services, I’m not being paid the individuals or companies behind them. Transparency is key.

The only thing I’m now struggling with now is revealing which school I work at. In the past I’ve made sure I don’t say where I work to keep the professional and personal completely separate. In a connected online world, however, this is becoming increasingly difficult. Take elearnr, for example. This is a blog I’ve set up to share links, resources and guides I create in my new role as E-Learning Staff Tutor. Whilst I mention names of members of staff on there, I haven’t – as yet – said which school I’m talking about. I’m torn between what it will mean for this blog, and being completely transparent with the other.

I’d appreciate your thoughts and comments. 🙂

*Watch this YouTube video clip of Peter Kay if you don’t get what I’m talking about…

** I apologise you can see an iTunes ad in the sidebar, I’ve tried several times to get rid of it using K2’s sidebar manager, but it just won’t budge! 🙁

(image by Joseph Robertson @ Flickr)

 

Librarian blogs and social networks

Angie Dickson, our new librarian, is an fan of the PE blog Phil Rowland set up for this academic year and wants to set up her own. Not only can she use this blog to communicate with students at our school, but with librarians and heads of information services worldwide!

Here’s some examples of some great (newbie-friendly) blogs in the field:

There are also some social networks powered by Ning related to libraries and information services:

Finally, there’s a great website called LibWorm that’s a search engine just for librarians! 🙂

(image from The Read/Write Web: Social Software and Libraries)

 
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