Thursday, 29 November 2007

Literacy - the path less chosen

I have just got back from 10 days in the US attending the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) where I was talking about the Shakespeare resources I have developed (more about those later). In walking around, my eye was taken by a reading system called “plugged into reading”, which has been developed by Janet Allen in the US. Now, my interest is not in literacy but I was taken by her approach, which was not phonics, or rote-learning or based on any system… it was built on great literature. She hand-picks books (both fiction and non-fiction) for a series of age groups and offers them the books and the audio version to listen to as they read. Of course this is what attracted me as I am a 100% advocate for audio in the classroom. Having trialled my own audio-based resources with hundreds of students and teachers I know how the imagination is stimulated by audio, and especially audio drama (my speciality). So I looked closer at the “plugged into reading” course – and yes, it has classroom time used to read and simultaneously listen but the second stage struck me as hugely innovative. This is a peer system where the students are placed in small groups and each one is given a job within that literature circle, and a title. One student is the tour guide, leading the group through the text, another is the archaeologist, looking to unearth connections in the book, another is the magician looking to see how the book could be different. There are more, and here is a link to read further, but I was blown away because this was no longer about reading but it was about becoming a detective and in my own SmartPass resources our stated aim is to enable students to become literature detectives.
So yesterday as I heard politicians arguing about the result of England and Scotland in the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) I felt quite cross. Labour threw out the figures for money they had invested (lots) and how they had introduced phonics all over the country. The conservatives said the money was squandered and that phonics was hardly used and everybody blamed the computer game. It seemed like a witch hunt on parents who let their kids waste their time on games and on all those Peter Pan developers who never grew up and don't want to see our kids grow either. But is it really the case we want to blame them?

In the UK children spend 3 hours on average on computer games. Okay so that seems like a lot, but nobody asked; what is a computer game? Well it varies but it is generally a quest to collect enough skills to win something or defeat some great evil… in essence it is a narrative. It is a great novel boiled down to its constituent parts and within that is a mystery to unravel, keys to find – it is literature and it stimulates the brain and the imagination but does not teach you how to read? No! But it uses the parts of literature that grip you... reading is just a skill, what we need to be activating in our students is a love of literature – the realisation that the stories in books, the quests and challenges are far more entertaining if you read them than if you waggle your thumbs on a joystick. It is a paucity of imagination that is forcing our students down, not just a reading skill. Lets tackle bringing literature alive for the student – let’s take away the visual stimulation that makes them lazy and ask them to listen in the classroom. Then let’s ask them to become detectives and tease out the meaning – make connections to history and society and to other books. We have compartmentalised our curriculum so much that nothing is inter-disciplinary – but the world is and literature is. Reading is not just a skill to tick off, it informs all of life and the way in which we interface with the world is the real skill to test. Politicians need to stop arguing and look to creatively using the fantastic literature out there to energise the student. There has never been so much great writing for young people, such access to literature that touches the body and soul of young people. Writers speak to young people at a very deep level and we need to use that. I have called this post -literacy, the path less chosen as I believe we are on the wrong course. We muct stop teaching from the point of view of evaluation and tests, if we don’t then it does not matter if all of our kids can read, because they won’t. They will watch TV and play games and lose out on the incredible journeys the mind can take.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Episode 2. Lines of Desire.

Rose Luckin hit the nail on the head this week in the second part of our debate on the sustainability of the classroom and school in our modern world. The episode is available as a podcast here.

Rose talked of Lines of Desire, an architectural term describing the way people will find a way to navigate themselves to a certain position if they want to get there. Rose likened this to the holy grail of education, that there are many avenues to reach it, and they alter as we develop and mature. But what if our sense of direction is maimed by the education system we grow up in. Listen to the debate as it widens out, with Ian Cunningham, Fred Garnett, Rose Luckin and the host Phil Viner.

Monday, 5 November 2007

The Learning Agreement

In the first episode of All the World's a Classroom, Professor Ian Cunningham talks a little about his practice of creating a learning agreement with his students. I was curious about this so asked him to elaborate and produced this short 6-minute podcast. The idea is to ally the student and teacher/facilitator in a common quest and to build not only a short term agenda, but a long term strategy for learning. The basis for this are key questions - Where have you been? (what past experiences have built up the student's world view) Where are you now? Where do you want to go? (what are the students thoughts about their life and career).
Then once this has been discussed the final 2 questions really jumped out at me as entirely missed by most educational models: How do we push this forward in your entire life and How will this make you happy and fulfilled? This belief in learning being fun and joyful is such a breath of fresh air in a world where results and league tables seem all important and all powerful, and empowers both the student and teacher to grasp the nettle of learning and make it all about today - not about merely preparation for the future. Listen to Ian's thoughts on the podcast, I think that while he uses this approach with students that are outside of the school environment, it could and should be used with all students to give them a sense of ownership around their learning.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

All the World's a Classroom

Well, after two trial posts I can finally announce that All the World's a Classroom, the Oneword radio education debate show is here! Hosted and produced by Phil Viner, developer of the SmartPass Education system, the first episode premieres on Friday November 2nd at 9am. You can catch it on freeview, cable or satellite TV, digital radio or on the internet. The show is also being podcast so you can download them all and hear them any time.

The series kicks off with a debate featuring Rose Luckin, Professor of learner centred design at the London knowledge lab (part of the Institute of Education), Fred Garnett, an expert in community learning and social inclusion and Professor Ian Cunningham, founder of the South Downs Learning Centre.

The intention of this blog is to build on the ideas and thoughts raised in the show and to contribute to future episodes -so please leave your thoughts and comments here and I will respond to them and include them later in the series.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Carrot - stick, stick - carrot

This week my forehead hurts where I have been slapping it with a Homeresque (and I mean Simpson and not the author of the Iliad) d'oh. For the past two weeks I have been interviewing and editing the Oneword Radio series All the World's A Classroom (transcripts and podcasts coming soon). Much of our debate had been around the widening gap between the students who can operate within the world of the school, and work towards their 5 GCSE passes... and those that are left behind. Our discussion was all based upon how they (those who flounder in the system) can become invested in their learning and how we could broker a deal ,or agreement, with them that kept them interested and was relevant to their lives. You see I naively believed that after 10 years where education, education and yet more education had been at the top of the agenda, that the gaping wound between students who could make school work for them, and those that couldn't ,would have been healed, or at least addressed with some imagination. D'oh - what was I thinking, in fact the government said this very week:

"It is a considerable achievement... that the gap between children from lower income and disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers has not widened." D'oh! (No I don't suppose Ruth Kelly slapped her head but why not - can anyone really think this is an achievement?) And how is this gap being tackled - detention, truancy sweeps and ASBOs.

Within days of this statement, applauding their considerable achievement, the government published their new progress targets for 2008. And is their target for students to be happier? Is their target for all students to receive an education designed for their individual needs? No, it's mostly the same-old-same-old... for schools to achieve a percentage of passes and for that to be better than last year. Smack -d'oh! BUT... there is now a need to close this gap. But how? Well no news on that yet but at least it is being addressed.

Let's just hope nobody looks to South Yorkshire for the answer... as my already pink and sore head was given multiple slaps when I heard about Praise Pods which are taking Rotherham by storm. These are spookily like the diary room of Big Brother, where students are sent to be lavished with praise for doing something good. So far there are 2 schools in the scheme (and 2,000 students have been praised) with 6 more schools set to join up. But when did praise need to be artificial, when did students become so needy of affirmation, and when did all of Rotherham's teachers get replaced by pod people - cold and heartless replicants from space? The inventor of the Praise Pod is working on version 2 which films the student glowing in the praise (like on some giant sun bed) and the film can be sent to the parent's mobile phones to show them how wonderful their child is. Smack -d'oh!

How is this inclusive? How does this heal this ever widening rift of the achievement gap and how does this model emotional intelligence to children. I don't like the praise pods and I don't like the institution that sets ever higher goals for 80% of students but will allow 20% to sink to the bottom (Lord Adonis' figures not mine) for 10 years before addressing the problem. Throw me a soapbox (thanks) so I can say that a society works when it is judged on those at the bottom and not those at the top (oh I feel righteous) Students want to learn - they all do, but many cannot respond to the classroom and the school. That is the challenge facing us today, not to homogenise education but to individualise it, to make it relevant and alive... so how do we do that? Well we need a better carrot than a praise pod and a better stick than calling someone a failure. In fact, lets eat the carrot (great for Vitamin c) and throw the stick away (playing pooh sticks is an excellent pastime) and talk to our learners about what they want and how they see themselves fitting into an educational environment.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Glass half-empty of Tiny Tearaways

This morning on the radio, Dr Tanya Byron was being interviewed. She is a clinical psychologist and host of BBC's House of Tiny Tearaways (if you haven't seen it, then think: Kids do the funniest things.... with ear-piercing screams and lego bouncing off the walls). She has been asked by the British government to head an independent review into: "How we (the British government) can help parents and their children get the best from new technologies while protecting children from inappropriate or potentially harmful material".
So, imagine my surprise, when instead of talking about how technology could be used to create great strides in learning and bridge the gap between those that do well at school and those that lag behind... she talked about the dangers of the internet. In fact, allowing your children on the internet was "akin to opening your front door and saying to your child, off you go and play outside …." But that's good isn't it? That's real life; I used to play outside as a child and I learned some pretty important life skills as well as burning a few calories, but according to Dr Byron children should be allowed to do that only in order "to understand risk".

After that sobering interview I walked to the South Downs Learning Centre where I was due to talk to a group of students. This group was a dozen 11-15-year-olds who, for a variety of reasons, were not in school. This was my first meeting with them and I did not know what to expect - what kind of risk was I putting myself in the way of? Well, it was a fantastic experience. I was there to talk about the basics of film-making as they had been given a camcorder, a lap-top and told to go ahead. When I arrived it was 11-year-old Ruby who led the discussion/Q&A, as they had met before-hand to plan their questions for me. Some were obvious - what films have influenced me, have I ever worked with anyone famous, yada yada, yada. But when we got into the mechanics of film-making they were so attentive and eager to learn - and they had shot a short film. They showed me an actual film with credits and everything. They had got together as a group and gone out (yes into the street and a local garage) and filmed a simple 1-minute film. I went to film-school in 1983 and it took about 9 months to get to that stage. And yet technology - this potential evil our kids must be protected from, was firing these kids up creatively, critically and challenging their minds. Now it would be a big untruth to say this film was going to win any awards (and I agree with them that their main actor was pretty bad) but it was still a film. I am going to go back soon and see how they have taken my comments on board - about structuring the editing of a scene, and at that point I will put their movie up for you to see. Watch this space.

So that, dear audience (so far my wife, the Lynneguist, and my mother) is what I aim to explore as this blog continues. I want to look at positive uses of technology, of resources that engage and stimulate students (of all ages) and to see how learning can bring together parents, students, teachers and the wider community.