My last post was a little pie in the sky, idealistic and out there; but hopefully got some readers thinking about what we might do if we were setting up an education now. This post is going to look at some easier, more immediate changes for individual teachers, senior managers and maybe even the government. Remember that I feel that the current education system does an OK job at educating people ready for the next step but that there are significant improvement that could be made to truly enhance our students’ future potential.
Consider any homework you set. Is it homework for homework’s sake, or something constructive? Is it something you didn’t quite have time for in lesson or something that might broaden their horizon? In my opinion, homework should be voluntary (bar the occasional piece of revision), and should push students beyond what they have to know, towards what they want to know.
Do you allow time to go way of tangent or allow students to explore a topic by themselves? Would this be beneficial at some point? Are they more likely to form a bond with your subject if you spoon feed them the information they have to regurgitate in an exam or if they have been allowed to explore the aspects of your subject they are interested the most?
Are you on top of current developments in your subject? Do you keep learning both in your subject and in your profession? How can you inspire students about your subject when you just rehash the same lesson from 15 years ago without any aside on current developments within this field. This is obviously more important in fast-moving fields of knowledge such as my own than some others.
Trust your teachers once you know their strengths and weaknesses and give them the space and confidence to experiment and try out new techniques. Those schools I have taught in that do the best for their students are those that do not force their teachers through endless hoops of submitting lesson plans, monthly book scrutinies etc., but that instead give their teachers the time and freedom to be creative.
Consider freeing up space on the timetable for students to explore their own interests. Think of it as a secondary version of “golden time” from primary schools or clubs but built into the normal teaching time. Provide them with places they could go during this time (labs, libraries, work shops, language labs etc.), staffed with teachers that can steer the students in the right direction but don’t provide a strict guidance on what to do.
Keep the curriculum broad, putting a spotlight on some subjects will automatically cause others to be less important. Plan for creativity and original thought rather than rote learning tested by a written exam. The road education is staring down at the moment in many ways looks a pathway to failure for a good 20-30% of students.
Provide a valid vocational option to the academic option. Most European education systems, including Finland, offer this. I would offer a choice at age 14 or 16 which would be voluntary as to which direction to choose.
Consider that our country is not as homogeneous as some of your ideal education countries, and that schools within this country vary wildly. Assessing and judging a school in a leafy green belt suburb success in the same way as one where a large proportion of the intake does not speak English when they start school seems senseless at the least. Provide students arriving without the necessary literacy and numeracy skills to ever access a secondary curriculum with a solution, such as an intensive course of English for a year before starting a year lower than their age would suggest. The same could work with native students who for one reason or another have not quite managed to reach the required standards at primary schools. Don’t let them progress to secondary schools and fail continuously, completely destroying any joy for learning and ambition these students may have had.
In my last post I discussed some of the issues I saw in the current state of the education system, primarily in the UK, but many of the points go for most other countries. We are living in an age where technological progress is accelerating. In the last week we saw a story of a computer simulating the number of nerve cells and synapses in a human brain, potentially laying the foundation for full brain simulations and artificial intelligence. We also saw Cambridge University opening up a department that assesses potential threats from nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. We forget sometimes, but iPads were released just over 2 years ago, Facebook has only been around for 8 years and most teachers in school will remember doing any research projects using paper encyclopaedias and the library rather than the Web (first appearance 1994). The world is changing at an ever-increasing rate and as educators our role is to prepare our students for this changing world in to which they will go and work. Our role is also to anticipate these needs and pre-empt them to give our students (and indirectly our economy) the best chance in this future.
As I discussed in the last post, I do feel that there are serious issues with this and that, in England at least, the government is looking backwards rather than looking at how to best prepare our students for a future where knowledge can be downloaded into a brain implant, artificial intelligences (think Siri but better..) can find anything you like and 3D printing and nanotechnology can make anything you like. I do appreciate that my ideas further down are idealistic and not very realistic and my next post will look at some easier changes that we could make sooner. Also, many of my ideas will have constructivist undertones, in some cases approaching the ideas of Montessori educational ideas, so if that’s not your thing you might not be keen. The final reservation is that I have spent the last 5 years or so in high-achieving schools and though I believe these principles could work across the board and open up more avenues for all students, other people with more experience in certain areas might have opinions to the contrary.
The first key concept of my plan is that year groups disappear completely (apart from maybe a collective form experience). Instead each area which I will discuss later would be graded in a similar fashion to music examinations now. Passing a grade in a an area opens up the next grade in that specific area but not in the others. So you could imagine a student who was strong creatively but perhaps not as naturally able in mathematics doing grade 6 work in Design but grade 4 work in Mathematics. This would allow people to work through the grades at their own speed, emphasising those areas they are most capable in and being able to use more time in those that are more difficult. This also has some of the aspects of computer games such as levelling up or Role-Playing Games. If I am sticking to the 1-8 model I would imagine grade 1 to be the equivalent to say KS2 now (under 6′s would focus on play and social skills), moving through to a GCSE equivalent at grade 5-6 and A-level at grade 7. Grade 8 would be largely equivalent to an undergraduate project now. As you can see this concept would mean the merging of primary and secondary schools, or at least maintaining a greater fluidity between them. An employer might specify that they need someone with a grade 5 in Literacy and 6 in numeracy, or a university might look for a grade 7 project in mathematics and two grade 8 projects in the experimental sciences.
The second concept would be to change the way that a school day is structured. There would be a common core for all students with projects using the common core in subject areas. I’d envisage the common core to consist of the following areas (these would obviously need fleshing out):
- Literacy – focusing on writing skills rather than literature. This would move from early acquisition through grammar and construction of coherent arguments through to structuring thesis-level material at the highest grades.
- Numeracy – focusing on every day applications of mathematics up to statistical analysis and probability.
- Life Skills – including health, relationships, nutrition and cooking, basic economics and civics
- Critical Thinking skills – Development of the processes of critically evaluating information. Development of arguments and debating skills.
- Research skills – developing methods of acquiring knowledge, evaluating sources, use of information technology and bringing information from multiple sources together in a coherent whole.
- IT skills – these will be variable with time, but I feel that students should be taught the basics of presenting their work etc. as well as an understanding of hardware architecture (logic gates etc.) and learn how to program.
- Foreign languages – I would like students to be taught 1 or even 2 foreign languages immersively with teachers that do not or refuse to speak the main language of education.
The core subjects would be taught in groups, much like classes now, though some might consist of virtual classrooms bringing together say all those students interested in learning Arabic from a particular region. Some (literacy, numeracy and the languages probably) would still be examined though perhaps nationally except for the highest grades.
What are now the subjects would be changed to project-based areas. I feel that allowing an element of choice rather than deciding what everyone should do will maintain engagement and often lead to deeper result faster. Students would carry out projects in any of the following fields:
- Languages (native and foreign)
- Mathematics (pure and applied)
- Experimental Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography (physical), Geology etc. with all the various intermediaries included)
- Creativity (Art, Music, Drama, Design etc.)
- Humanities (History, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Geography (social), Economics etc.)
- Vocational (projects directly related to work, leading to apprenticeships and perhaps a return of the concept of master works from medieval guilds)
- Physical (including sports, games and dance)
Projects would start off simple and chosen from a list and build up to de novo research, writing and ideas at the higher grades. Students would be expected to work on projects from every field (up to a certain level) and some projects would be individual whereas others would be in teams. Many of the projects could have a cross-field aspect allowing progression in multiple fields. Examples could be to write and perform a play in a foreign language, to design and build a new style of bike, use physics when programming a computer game or to create a financial and mathematical model of the economy of Ancient Rome. Projects do not have to be written but can be presented, built or modelled as well.
Subject-specialist teachers would become mentors for the various projects guiding the students’ work in 1 to 1 sessions, small seminars and perhaps up to large lectures for concepts that many students are interested in. All projects would be marked internally by the lead teacher for that project. Schools would exchange expertise and a teacher might have students spread across multiple sites producing work. Higher grade projects would be assessed by an external panel of experts (think PhD viva or similar) from universities, local businesses or government.
I believe that this would benefit the student by allowing them to work on areas that interest them at the time that they are ready to access the material. Allowing a choice between purely academic and more vocational projects at higher grades will help those students who are better in one area than the other, whilst not forcing anyone into a direction. Most students will maintain a broad choice, with many cross-curricular projects, allowing them a flexibility of choice. The economy would benefit from a work force that is used to project work, working in teams and producing work to deadlines. The core subjects will ensure that all students have a broad range of abilities which can be norm referenced. Universities and local business will have a close involvement in the higher grade projects allowing them to interact with students before they get to them and perhaps maintain a flow of students into the local business world and universities. Teachers get to teach students that are interested and able to access the material, continue their own subject development and reduce the pressures from constant curriculum changes and government initiatives.
I also am well aware that this is very much a thought experiment rather than a realistic proposal, and that chances are that maybe 50 people will read it, many of whom will disagree with some or all of my points. I have been planning and detailing it for many of my daily commutes and I thought that it was time to write it down and start thinking about something else!
This is not an app review like my previous posts. I felt like diversifying slightly, going off on a tangent and exploring my own ideas. I have this freedom in my blog but my students don’t have it at school (and as a teacher I have it in limited fashion). I have been thinking about the state of education for a few months now with this blog post bubbling up inside me waiting to be written in some form or other, but it only truly crystallised into reality today due to something one of the students in my form said. In a chat in form time for issues to be discussed at the Student Forum (a student body that suggests potential changes in the school I work at) one of my 12-13 year old students asked why school timetables did not have time for creativity and their own interests built in. She went on about how she would like to try learning Arabic and Chinese and she was wondering what would happen if she had tried changing a different variable in her science experiment.
This hit home; I have felt for some time that the way education is now is maybe not the best way that education should be and that many of the structures in place are for the benefit of the teacher, school, university or government, rather than that of the student. To our students a large proportion of their education must feel like jumping through hoops to get to the next level. I am going to have a look at some of the issues I feel are holding the education system back from creating a generation of students who love what they are doing, are good at it and are prepared to succeed in life and their career. In a next blog I will look at some of my ideas for solutions, hopefully based around some the discussions this post might generate.
- Students are taught in year groups rather than ability groups per subject. I have taught students at the start of their GCSE course who could have easily started their A levels three months later but had to sit through 2-3 years of comparatively dull material because they were only 14. Similarly, some students struggle with certain subjects and are behind in comparison to their peers in their age groups. Would these not be better off working through the content they could achieve success in, instead of being dragged up through the school because of their year of birth and failing continuously?
- All students get taught the same material because that is what being examined at the end. Many will be taught it in the same way, write the same notes, do the same experiments and end up thinking the same thoughts. How does this prepare them for a life after education where those that can assimilate new information, think for themselves and out of the box are in many ways more desirable? Do we want to create worker bees or individuals that can bring change? Are students going to be more engaged when what is being taught is tailored to their interests rather than to a list some middle aged person in a ministry has decided they should learn or think is interesting to a teenager.
- A student asked me not too long ago why we had to learn information for exams that could easily be found out by using search engines. I did not have an answer ready. Particularly at GCSE (but also at IB Diploma, A- level or even some undergraduate courses), my subject, biology, consists of memorising vocabulary and applying basic skills to the same situation over and over. There are a few analysis parts to the questions and at higher levels some exposure to new information in the exam to which their knowledge can be applied, but how does this compare to actually doing the subject properly? How often do people use rote learning and regurgitation in their working life? Why are we assessing students on the ability to cram information?
- Exams at fixed intervals are there more and more as a way to assess accountability for the school and teacher. They are also used as a way for universities to decide which students to pick.They also cause a whole heap of unnecessary stress to our students as a result. This harks back to the previous point, but how does the skill of cramming for a test in any way prepare you for study or work beyond an undergraduate level? Exams lead to teaching to the test, limiting the freedom of teachers and their classes to deviate too far from the beaten path.
- One final point (I can keep going but who wants to read a full treatise…) is that ever increasingly values are attached to subjects, saying that a particular subject is “better” than another. I am particularly thinking of things like the EBacc. A society needs a varied work force with many skills and interests between them. If you are going to say that one (often academic) subject is a lot better than another (often vocational) subject you end up causing disinterest in education by those students that are more likely to enjoy, engage with and succeed in learning a trade or something practical.
I feel that we can move away from some of the problems, in a large part due to the ever-increasing availability of technological aids that could be used to decentralise education. There is less reason now for a Victorian-style classroom as knowledge is more freely available. There is also less reason for rote instructions to allow students “to stand on the shoulders of giants” as many fields move so quickly that anything they are taught by textbooks and the curriculum is at least 10 if not 20 years out of date. As said, I will plan out some sort of idealised education environment (in my opinion of course) in a future post.
It has been a little longer than I wanted to since my last post, but it has been pretty manic the last week or so and I haven’t gotten round to adding my next App. As such this is also going to be quite a short one, looking at an app for testing for various forms of colour blindness called ColorTest. It is an app that whilst very limited in scope (it shows examples of Ishihara colour vision testing plates), but has been useful when discussing genetics in general, and X-linked characteristics in particular.
There are 24 different plates testing for the various forms of colour blindness. when you click next it says what a person with colour vision would see and what a person with impaired colour vision might see.
Pro: It does exactly what it says on the tin, and does it well enough. There are obviously internet sites that do this just as well but at least this free app has no adverts.
Con: The teacher has to provide the genetics background, but then it never sets out to explain this.
This post is going to look at a more general iPad app that is used both by myself on a day-to-day basis and by my students. This app is Notability. As in my last post I will discuss some of the features of the application and then look at some the practicalities.
Notability, as the name might suggest, is a note taking application. And cutting to the chase a little, it is a really good one. Like most iPad users I started of using Notes for making ,well, notes. The lack of handwriting recognition and just the general clunkiness of it drove me to have a look at number of other Apps which included Penultimate, Notify and Evernote (which is its own case and has some excellent applications (as it can be independent of an iPad) once I get my head around it fully). Notability came out ahead in part because the students at my school had it in their starter App pack, and I thought it essential that I found out what I could do with it. Making and organising your notes is straightforward, as is exporting to various other applications (be it email, DropBox or attached to a Tweet).
When using Notability to make notes you have the option to use the keyboard (which is a little annoying as it covers half the screen as in most iPad Apps) or write using the pen function. This is easiest with a stylus (although my handwriting, which is bad at best, gets worse), although some of the students manage to very neat notes with their fingers. Initially I struggled with Notability as I had not figured out how to use the magnify tool which zooms into a section of the page you are writing on and allows you to write smaller text more easily.
Notability easily takes images from your image roll and allows you to put them into your note, allowing you to resize it and edit certain features. It can also take direct links from the Internet and insert them into your text as an image.
Now to the part that I think most of my readers (and thanks for bothering to read my first post BTW) are interested in, which are the applications within the classroom. As a teacher I use it for general note taking but it really comes into its own when marking electronically submitted work on an iPad. Any Word/Pages file can be saved as a pdf (using the Pages app in my case, though I am sure other conversion tools are readily available) and imported into Notability where it is straightforward to mark on to the pdf. You can the send the student their marked work back whilst retaining a copy for your records.
None of the students in my school have had a great deal of training in using this app but they can do great things with it. I have seen students produce practical reports produced by Notability including images of the experimental set up and their results. One thing it cannot do yet is allow a video clip to be inserted into it directly, but you could imagine students uploading a video clip and sticking the direct link into their work. At the moment many students are still figuring out what their favourite method of taking notes is, but as it develops I am certain that many more exciting uses will come up. I will keep you up to date!
Pros: Easy to use, powerful note taking application with many export options
Cons: No video import, no graphing functions (students would have to produce a graph by hand or in Numbers (though that has its own issues) and import it into the app).