Dinosaurs in the Classroom

This isn’t the article i intended to write on the blog. That’s still half written, so i’ll save it for another day. Instead, I saw something that got me so hot under the collar that i felt the need to get some stuff off my chest.

First, a bit of background about what’s made me mad.

Over 30 years ago, I was a young man fresh out of college and early in my first career as a private banker. I was excited and thrilled to be out in the professional world at last, ready to build my career. However, I had already had a few months to realise that all was not necessarily well in the world of work and that there were many sharp rocks in the water that could harm a career or harm the idea that all the people working in an organisation are strongest when they all align and pool their best efforts in a common direction. A couple of short stories will illustrate.

Initially, I had to rotate through all the departments of our bank – to understand the work done by each department and begin to build my technical knowledge. I started in the wills, trusts and estates department, full of dusty ledgers and ruled by arcane sets of rules on double entry bookkeeping. Maybe work that entails whole days rifling through the personal possessions of people who’ve just died does something to the inhabitants after a while. After a few weeks I was given a task to collate the records of a large collection of share certificates. Some were for defunct and bankrupt companies, some had been taken over, in some cases the shares had been split many times. It was technical and time consuming work that required great accuracy. I was new, i wanted to learn and i threw myself in to it heart and soul. Extra hours, skipped lunch breaks – I was in the zone. When I’d finished I checked and double checked my work before taking it to the desk of the supervisor.

He opened up the ledger, looked it over for a while and then told me he’d get back to me. Three days later he called me to his desk. He didn’t invite me to sit, pushed his glasses down his nose and peered over the top at me. “Hmm. Interesting.”
My heart lurched. I’d been so careful in the work, had taken such care. Had I made a mistake?
“Wellllll, it’s all correct, as far as it goes ……………. but this isn’t the way we do it here.”
“But is the information accurate, correct and understandable?”
“Yes, Mark. But, you need to understand, this isn’t the way we do it around here.”

All my pride in that piece of work just washed away like someone had pulled out a big plug. I struggled to understand how a piece of work could be right, accurate, clear and yet ……… all wrong because it wasn’t laid out according to some hidden, secret, set of protocols. needless to say, I was made to lay the information out in exactly the way required. my enthusiasm and sense of ownership had gone and somewhere I was cautioned to limit my inclination to use initiative and innovate.

man-holding-his-head-with-hands_1154-47

In the following weeks I picked myself up, renewed my energy and decided to be positive and optimistic, putting this experience down more to the individual I was reporting to than the system as a whole. I threw myself back in to my work with new energy.

A few weeks went by. I will never forget a particular Friday when i took some time out to go to lunch with a couple of my colleagues. As i was coming back in to the building I suddenly felt a tug on my elbow. A much older colleague with whom I’d had little dealings asked/ told me to step in to a meeting room. As I entered, I recalled that someone had pointed him out to me as ‘the union rep.

“Mark, I needed to talk to you on a very important matter.” He looked stern. “It’s come to our attention that you’ve been working late, taking work home and doing extra projects for the management. It must stop immediately. You’re setting a bad example, management will start expecting it of everyone and we can’t have that.”

After I picked my jaw up off the floor I figured out how I wanted to respond. I won’t write exactly what i said here, but the gist was that I told him to mind his own business and that I would thank him not to infringe on my rights to choose how i approached my career.

There is a little side note to that story. About 5 years later I bumped into said Union Man at a company event. By that time I’d undergone a few promotions, moved jobs and offices, done a secondment in the Channel Islands and was generally moving forward in my career pretty rapidly. He, on the other hand, still sat in the same office, doing the same job at the same grade and was known to be full of bitterness towards the company that he considered had failed to recognise his talents! My only hope at the time was that he wasn’t getting to pour his poison in the ears of any other young, keen and ambitious employees.

I’ve always chosen to live (and work) according to the spirit of the famous poem ‘Invictus’, by William Ernest Henley;

“I am the master of my fate:Β I am the captain of my soul.”

We are none of us helpless and we hold our fate in our hands. I also find common cause with writers like Cal Newport, Seth Godin, Simon Sinek and Adam Grant;

Cal Newport – So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Stop worrying about what you feel like doing (and what the world owes you) and instead, start creating something meaningful and then give it to the world. Cal really delivers with this one.”
–Seth Godin, author,Β Linchpin

Adam Grant – Give and TakeΒ 

Simon Sinek – Leaders Eat Last

These writers all have in common that they are considered to be Twenty First Century thinkers and writers, espousing the right ideas for those who want to succeed in a rapidly changing and demanding environment.

I well remember after i left banking in the late 1990s that as I worked to change my career I started to evaluate where I wanted to work. Without ties, the world was open to me. In some ways, the decision was made for me when people started talking genuinely and seriously about legislation that would, by law, limit the working week. As though, somehow, in some sort of socialist Lala Land it was going to be mandated that nobody must have ambition, nobody must make effort to rise above anyone else, nobody should gain or benefit from the fruit of their own labour. This was all the motivation I needed to set out on an international venture that has now stretched for close to 19 years.

Young people today are growing up in a very different world to the one that I grew up in. It’s way more global, more connected, faster paced and requires a greater level of continuous learning (and unlearning) . This is exactly the kind of world that Newport, Godin, Sinek and Grant are pointing towards. This makes two things very clear to me;

a) When adults say of lifelong learning things like, “I make a particular point of learning from everyone around me,” you’re listening to someone who’s fudging it. Lifelong learning means real learning, not just the lazy practice of kidding yourself that because you spend time around others you’re absorbing their knowledge and wisdom by osmosis. If that was true, we should give every kid in school and A grade when they pass out – just because they showed up and spent time around others.

It also, though, doesn’t necessarily mean the frenzied pursuit of more and more bits of paper. Certificates that say you attended some programme of learning don’t necessarily represent a good fit with the knowledge you need at the time. The best learning to meet the needs of an ever evolving life is the learning that can be gathered through a self-generated and evolving curriculum based upon personal interest, opportunities and circumstances.

b) And this one is the real bee that got under my bonnet and inspired me to park the other article i was writing – people like Union Man shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Twenty First Century children or their teachers. Their toxic line in mediocrity is so unhealthy that it has no place.

What do i mean – here’s an article published in TES that had me almost frothing at the mouth;

TES – Teachers Shouldn’t be Expected to Work For Free

This article seems to start off on the subject of school/ education funding. However, suddenly it veers off in to a rabid attack on school leaders in a style that would have been worthy of a protege of my Union Man from 30 years ago.

According to the writer, every time a teacher is offered an opportunity to learn, to grow, to expand their skills in to new areas their first response should be, “Not until you tell me what’s in it for me.”

This is how we prepare and motivate teachers to lead a new generation towards fulfilling their potential, grabbing opportunities in the global economy. Do the world’s great creators, artists, designers, idea generators ask, “Can I get away without doing this extra half an hour of effort?” or “Tell me what I’m getting paid before I put in this effort.”

This is the way educators in Britain will condemn another generation of young people to live stunted and denuded lives, wondering why they’re not better off than their parents’ generation, wondering why all the money and jobs seem to be flowing elsewhere, why Asian economies are so buoyant while theirs remains so anemic.

If the writer needs extra time to watch Great British Bake Off, rather than supporting a generation of children to get the best possible education that is his prerogative. But I wish he’d keep it to himself

 

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Carol Dweck applies Growth Mindset to Issues of Growth Mindset

I’m never quite sure if it’s exclusive to the education field, or more extreme, but there is a very bad habit of latching on to ‘the latest new thing,’ demanding that it represents a magical simple wand to change the profession. Then, when simplistic representations of the concept or idea don’t deliver instant, easy payoff there’s a backlash and attention switches to attempts to tear down any validity in the idea or concept.

In recent years we’ve seen this happen with differentiation, at times with the emphasis on formative assessment, with the concepts related to Grit (Angela Duckworth) and very strongly in relation to Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset.

So it’s very refreshing to hear this interview with carol Dweck, conducted by Times Education Supplement;

TES – Carol Dweck – On Growth Mindset Theory

To my mind, the real value that comes out of the interview is that Dweck’s work has caused masses of teachers to focus on the issues of student motivation and its impact on learning outcomes to an extent far greater than ever before. I believe it’s also lead to a far greater level of attention to the fact that what has to matter more is learning rather than teaching and that teaching is nothing if not evaluated on the basis of its impact on learning and the fulfillment of potential on the part of learners.

As educators, we work with the human mind. This is incredibly complex and will never lend itself to simplistic prescriptions. The nearest comparison is to look for a desire that simple formulaic approaches to leadership can create highly effective organisations. The human mind, human motivations and the dynamics of human interaction are incredibly complex. Therefore, it will always require maximum flexibility, conscious reflection and ability to calibrate responses. It is vital to be open and receptive to all evidence of what’s working and how and ready to continuously build a flexible tool kit that offers increasing levels of responses and refinements.

For any of us whose work involves working with other human beings, we can never get good enough. We have to relish the process of continually learning more, refining our skills and adding more skills to our ‘toolkit’ in order to give us more refined choices for the decisions we take when dealing with others. I believe Carol Dweck’s work is just such a new tool that is thoroughly worth having in the toolkit. It’s not a panacea, a magic bullet and we need to rebuff those who seek to write it off because it didn’t deliver instant gratification.

Appreciating Teachers

A client walks in to a lawyer’s office, approaching the receptionist’s desk, “I’ve come to bring a gift for Ms X, my lawyer.”

It doesn’t happen. So, why do teachers think that they’re a different profession worthy of receiving gifts in gratitude? In my view there’s only one real significant benefit in giving a gift to a teacher – and that is as part of a family educating their children about giving, gifting and appreciation as part of development of values.

In other words, it’s really about the benefit to the giver rather than the recipient.

many years ago i worked in private banking. over a couple of years, we placed a big emphasis on raising our levels of customer service, sensitivity to the needs of our customers and empathy skills. The training included, among other things, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). There were many bi-products. Attrition/ turnover of clients dropped significantly. Clients spent more money with us, placing a bigger proportion of their investable assets in our care. As a result, our profits went up appreciably and we were well rewarded in salary increases and bonuses. But, we started to run up against an interesting problem. More and more elderly clients were leaving legacies to their account officers in their wills. Mostly, they were token amounts, but i had one client who was adamant that she was going to leave me over 10,000 pounds (a lot of money back then!). maybe it was for the best that she passed away the day before she was due to meet the lawyer to revise her will. Because, the truth was I was uncomfortable with her leaving me money for what I had done. My belief was I’d done my job and been a decent human being in my relationships with her and other clients.

In all my years as an educator I also feel I would have felt genuinely uncomfortable if a parent had ever given me a gift of any value. I also often felt uncomfortable when students gave all the praise for their examination achievements to the teachers, parents and tutors – as though they had simply made themselves passive recipients of knowledge and allowed the gurus to put the learning in to them. To be a true lifelong learner, the individual must see their educators as mere facilitators who assist them to acquire the skills to learn, lead them to the sources of knowledge and support them on the initial stages of the journey.

I loved receiving cards, drawings or letters from students and have often kept these as special memories. They frequently represented very spontaneous and open heartfelt messages from children. If parents were appreciative or thankful for how the school ran, face to face or through emails and cards – that was more than enough thanks. In the same way that one doesn’t give to receive, I believe true educators don’t give of themselves, their professional skills and efforts in the expectation of receiving something back other than the knowledge and evidence that children have been given the opportunities to begin their journey enthusiastically and with solid foundations as lifelong learners.

The Guardian – Secret Teacher – We Don’t Need Gifts – A Thank You Will do

The Harm Done By Tuitions

ivod-tuitions-article

Here’s an article I wrote that has been published in this month’s edition of Ipoh Valley of Dreams magazine.

With apologies to Jane Kuok – I’ve got no idea why i look so white in the photo, or where the full stop went at the end of the article – but well spotted!

Learning to Learn

Becoming a lifelong learner works best when educators ensure that every pupil acquires the skills and competencies of learning – the ‘how’, as well as teaching them stuff. In fact, i could even suggest that a lot of the stuff has little use or purpose other than as a vehicle for the acquisition of learning skills, practice and honing those skills.

With this in mind, I wanted to share this really useful link for educators, parents and students;

Learning Scientists – Downloadable Materials

The page provides six very good, downloadable posters specifically related to building and strengthening study (learning) skills. There are also some links to stickers.

It’s important to remember something critical with this kind of material, especially when sharing the concepts and ideas with a class of students. The experience was really brought home for me in relation to mind mapping. This is a wonderful set of techniques that I personally use very frequently and value a lot. In one school group, I remember a very enthusiastic teacher telling me that she was introducing mind mapping to her class six classes. She took a couple of special sessions with them and came back to tell me that they loved it, were very excited and confirmed they could really see the learning and creativity benefits.

So, she taught them the techniques and had a few projects and exercises where the outputs for all pupils were to be as mind maps. A few months later I met this teacher and asked her, “how are your classes progressing with their mindmapping?” After a moment’s hesitation she looked shocked. “Oh, I’ll need to check, but i haven’t seen any of them doing it for a few weeks.” She came back the next day, having checked and confirmed that she could only find one child in three classes who said they were still using mindmapping at all.

I asked if i could sit in on the next session with the pupils. She and i spoke with students in small groups, reminding them how enthusiastic they had been with the techniques when they were first introduced. Time after time the responses were similar and boiled down to a hesitant admission that it was good, that they had been excited, but that as others (especially key opinion shapers among the children – the cool kids?) stopped doing it, they had an increasing feeling that it wasn’t for them, even that it was a bit wierd. It boiled down to, “people like me don’t do stuff like this.” And we wonder why we’re so slow to bring about real lasting change in education?

The tough hard truth is that self identity, and especially identifying with others can override the very best of learning and opportunities for growth if not tackled adequately and in a sustained manner. This raises many more issues about how, as educators, we work to limit ‘group think’ and support/ encourage/ entice creativity, individuality and the confidence in our students to plough their own furrow, to believe that they are not obliged to meekly conform to fit in.

Student Engagement

Student engagement can be considered the opposite of ‘bored students’, though I believe our aims should go higher than simply trying to prevent children from being bored. As educators, we should aspire that every student in our care develops the habits and inclinations of a lifelong learner.

This is a phrase so glibly batted around in the education environment today with little regard to what it truly means or why it matters. To me, to be a lifelong learner means;

a) A person has the inclination to continually learn throughout life, in both formal and informal ways. Too many adults let themselves off the hook by saying – ” I learn from the people around me and my experiences. That’s lifelong learning.” In the meantime, those people never pick up a book or a journal related to their professional field while slowly they and their peers slide slowly in to irrelevance. That’s no different to what all but the worst have done in workplaces since the industrial revolution (and even before that). This is something way more than that – it’s about being what I call a ‘learnivore’, hungry to acquire new knowledge directly and indirectly related to one’s professional field.
b) The person’s open and flexible to ‘unlearn’ and doesn’t cling on to old dogmas,
c) The person sees learning as a ‘pull process. They’re not waiting for someone to ‘do learning to them.’ There are telling examples here when you see the reactions of some teachers to new information technology. When you put new hardware or software in to the hands of a youngster, they experiment in order to figure out how they can use it and what it can do for them. When you put it in the hands of a teacher, all too often you hear, “when am I going to get a training programme on this?” Of course, part of the reason for this is an unconscious need to be the ‘sage on the stage’ and to always know more than the students.
d) Related to that, lifelong learners are prepared to be vulnerable, to admit what they don’t know enough about and to seek out new knowledge from wherever they can find it. They don’t just try to bluff their way out or avoid.
e) Lifelong learners leave clues – they read, they consume high quality media (e.g. TED lectures, online educator debate forums etc.)
f) Lifelong learners actually relish and enjoy the learning process, in fact, so much so that sometimes they may need to place restrictions and some restraint on themselves regarding how much time they devote to furthering their learning.
g) They have developed the skills and the wherewithal to learn, to reflect on their own learning and to plan a course of learning for themselves that never ends, but always moves them forward.

Returning to the issues of children in school – if that’s the ideal of the adult lifelong learner, then what do we need to be doing in school to provide the right climate and environment to create lifelong learners. This is not just a side issue. Vast numbers of schools today proudly declare lifelong learning as a core value and principle of their school.

First – we must start off remembering that every child starts out innately in love with learning, fascinated in the world around them, ever curious and inquisitive. Too often, the poorest educators destroy that love so totally that the student will never get it back. Moving beyond ‘do no harm,’ educators need to work to keep each child connected with that part of themselves and to give them all the reasons to apply that love to the syllabus learning and beyond.

Secondly, I believe, in age appropriate ways they invest significant time in helping children to develop the habits and skills of learning, to understand their own learning, to reflect on it and to plan for future learning towards desired knowledge goals. In other words, there’s attention to the process of learning as well as the content and the end goals.

Thirdly, the educators exhibit being lifelong learners themselves, including showing vulnerability when things come up where the students may know more than them.

Next, teachers are courageous and bold in planning lessons. This does mean that some of them won’t come off – and that’s OK. They will also build genuine differentiation in to their lesson planning, supporting each student in the appropriate way. This means avoiding the traps of simplistic categorisation and pigeon-holing of their pupils. They will also invest considerable effort in knowing the pupils (not just those who actively speak up and volunteer information during classroom discussions. Perhaps more teachers would be sitting down to lunch more often with their pupils.

Student motivation is a critical factor. Attention to it should be built in to the agenda of the whole school and every member of staff from the Principal down. This also touches upon issues of student voice, agency and continually monitoring real engagement. On the latter topic, I recently came across an interesting article that highlighted the need to go below the surface to explore genuine engagement – not to get lulled or fooled by pseudo-engagement;

KQED – Mindshift – Are Your Students Engaged? Don’t Be So Sure

The article makes very clear why, and the extent to which, engagement matters. Engagement levels carry direct clues to future potential and achievements. It goes on to dissect some of the dangerous myths regarding engagement and especially the false evidence that can lead a teacher to believe a student is engaged. Pupils know their teacher wants to see engagement. As a result, many have learned strategies to ‘fake it’ within wider school cultures that motivate them to give as little as they can get away with – the path of least effort.

Quite rightly, it also points out that a classroom where everyone’s having carefree fun and a good laugh isn’t a substitute for engaged learning. As it says – there’s real effort involved – rigor, relevance and stretch – what Angela Duckworth termed called ‘grit’. Children aren’t afraid to sweat in athletics or other sports training – if they’re not ready to ‘sweat’ a bit in their classroom learning, we’re still doing things wrong.

Teacher Professionalism

Too often in education there’s an inconsistency that’s a little hard to explain. On the one hand, most are quick to state as a truism that the key to better quality of education for every child is the teacher. However, these words don’t tend to be backed with adequate and effective action to raise the professionalism of teachers.

That the professionalism needs to be higher is the case, backed by recent research by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – the same body that runs the PISA tests), and not limited to teachers in any one country or part of the world.

I believe we can put some of the blame on the fixed industrial model that plagues education. When the teachers are seen as interchangeable widgets in an industrial process or production line, this is not a conducive mindset to think positively about how to enhance the skills levels, attitude, motivation and purpose of the individual teacher.

This article shares the key findings from the recent OECD research. I think it’s appropriate that they haven’t tried to simplify or suggest that there is one simple solution that can be applied every where. Professionalism is a sophisticated set of standards, expectations and common norms that all members buy in to. This isn’t about lessening autonomy or scope for creativity. In fact, commitment to continuous improvement, innovation and contribution of new and innovative ideas to the profession are important components of what it should man to be a professional teacher.

The Journal – OECD – Teacher Professionalism Needs Improvement Worldwide

When looking at the findings, I can see them from the perspective of teachers in the Indian private school system. Teachers do get pre-service training whilst in-service development is often rather ad hoc. However, we know that the quality and standards of that pre-service development are woefully inadequate. Talk of major overhaul of the B.Ed syllabus has gone on for years with little meaningful change. Worse, vat numbers of the colleges given licence to run B.Ed courses are sub-standard money-making operations with lack of consistency, standards or awareness of international best practices. For this reason, I’ve often seen that better results can be achieved taking teachers without the B.Ed who have more worldly professional experience, training them on the job and merely requiring them to get the B.Ed within 3 years to satisfy the rules and requirements.

The fifth of the observations is an interesting one, that I’ve seen in practice. There tends to be more professional development available to teachers working with younger children than for those in secondary and higher secondary. This often comes because of perceptions from both sides (the teachers and management) that for those teachers, niceties like theory or science of learning are mere flim-flam and that their job is to know the syllabus material and to target all of their time and energies on putting as much of it as possible in to the pupils’ heads long enough for it to stick to produce the best possible results in competitive examinations. People who are merely dispensers of gobbits of knowledge don’t require much professional development! In fact, its sometimes seen as a distraction and a waste of their time.

The four recommendations make a lot of sense and are quite strongly in aligment with ideas that I’ve been developing lately in looking at the whole ‘end to end’ process of recruiting and developing professional educators who rise above the average.

Acknowledging that the pre-service training available to them isn’t all it might be, we have to go further to counteract this negative effect. High impact induction, proper mentoring and buddying systems and setting them on the right path as lifelong learners are critical factors, after recruiting for attitude, EQ, child-centricity and commitment to the role. Talent with the sciope to grow in to leadership roles should be identified early and nurtured. This isn’t always easy in single stand-alone schools. Groups can do it. otherwise, schools should learn to collaborate more in this area, perhaps where they are not in direct competition.

Then, the teacher professional networking can be taken to higher levels. Today, teachers have the scope to network with fellow professionals anywhere in the world. Within schools, we need a culture where teachers don’t feel threatened by each other’s presence in their classrooms and we need to be training teahers in action research – especially in countries where there is little or no education research coming out of universities.

In short, if we start to really act like we mean it when we say that teachers are the key to raising the bar, there is much we can do. That work needs to start now.

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