Friday, December 29, 2006

Grumpy old teachers

It's not that they're anti-computers. It's not that they are tiresome old stick in the muds, resistant to change, reluctant to embrace the future and let go of the past. It's just they know the foundations on which the future is built.

I am an occasional reader of 2 cents worth, a blog about the use of IT in education, written by self-styled 'education technology pioneer', David Warlick. Much of the discussion orbits around IT professionals and IT teachers who are embracing new technology (especially Web 2.0 etc) and trying to enthuse their colleagues about it. Often, they find that the response from other teachers ranges from the amused to the downright hostile. These 'stick in the muds' are often held up to criticism (not so much by David but by his readers) as being unwilling to learn new things. This kind of criticism always piques me and I have been thinking about it for a while now.

I am sympathetic, up to a point. I have done more than my fair share of advocacy for ILT. When you are an IT teacher, you also get an option on a second job of general muse and enthusiast for the progress of IT within an institution. And I can get angry, restless, judgemental as often as the next person. However, I am finding myself more and more on the side of the cynics and Luddites who bemoan the loss of library space in schools (culled to make way for more computers) and who sniff at their new electronic whiteboards. While we should be looking at the nature of the new curriculum and constantly asking ourselves what our students should really be learning, we must also remember that as 30-something and 40-something teachers, our own ability to deal with and adapt to this new digital era is built upon the rock solid foundation of really good reading, writing, mathematical and reasoning skills. We learned these from a paper-based curriculum. Thus we must fight for our students' right of access to literacy, numeracy and philosophical competency, and their right to be exposed to the painstaking, dogged and long-winded process of learning these skills to a high level.

I've been meaning to post about this for some time; it was M (of musingsonamac, who functions as my official supplier of right wing web content) who sparked me into writing by sending me this link to Boris Johnson on the subject of computer games.

However, lest you skim read this and come to the conclusion that I like Boris and don't like David, I am adding the always challenging and very readable Mr W to my blog roll as he continues to make me think, and is thus obviously a great teacher.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Blog jargon

Was looking up the correct spelling of blogiversary and found this fantastic list of blog jargon.

I can now confess to being a sufferer of hitnosis.

To become mesmerized by constantly reloading a Web browser to see if a blog's hit counter has increased or comments section has expanded. (Coined by Perry de Havilland)

I was also tickled by this definition:

Clog Blog
A blog written in Dutch and/or by someone in Holland

This launched my partner and I into a frenzy of naming and we would like to be the first to coin the following phrases:

Hog Blog
A blog about pigs

Snog Blog
A blog about kissing

Tog Blog
A blog about duvets

Obviously, if any of you wish to add to this you are most welcome.

PS And to think, I was actually supposed to be writing a long, verbose, utterly profound 'what is the point of this blog' type posting... looks like another Christmas miracle, then...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Christmas miracle

Most of the blogs on my RSS feed seem to have dried up slightly over the last few days... and who blames them. But I thought I might lighten your evening (when you creep to the computer to escape the present wrapping, saying that you have to check the weather reports for travel...) and reproduce the following.

As the chimes of midnight rolled over the battlefield, the gunfire fell silent. In the first moments of a frosty Christmas morning, they emerged from their entrenched positions and began to cross the barran no-man's land that was not, on reflection, so wide. The Windows users, weary and fractious from so many needless reboots, held out their hands in cautious friendship to the wary Mac users. The Mac users, bewildered by the unkempt and diverse nature of the enemy, who could not even manage a stylish uniform let alone matching lap top accessories, gradually overcame their fear and engaged the Windows users in conversation, finding after a while that one or two of them actually did know something about web design and new media. After a while, pieces of shareware were brought out and offered to the enemy. A cautious game of Tetris was struck up. Several people began to swap pictures, the Mac users biting their tongues at the delay while the Windows users fretted over their camera drivers. As the sun eventually rose, happy individuals were sat together, blogging and chatting away and remembering how it felt when there were just geeks and non-geeks, back in the day before the wars broke out.

Then, suddenly, a stray blog posting, shot off without thought, suggested that Macs were the lush toys of rich creatives who had never done a real day's work in their lives. Before anyone could add an emoticon, a Mac blogger had returned fire by implying that Windows users were all corporate drones with no souls. In a moment, the battlefield was once more riddled with gunfire and destruction. And the Christmas miracle was forgotten...

Sunday, December 17, 2006


1) Bone-deep weariness, a shortness of temper, an overwhelming depression at how little has been taught and learnt this term, melancholic contemplation of other possible careers

2) A trance-like state caused by heady anticipation of the holidays, leading to stupidly late nights and a general attempt to burn out not fade away

3) The slow but irreversible degeneration of lessons into quizzes, games, videos and other mindless issues. Alternatively, a rarer but more virulent strain causes a rash of tests and mock exams. These lead to terrible bouts of marking, often delayed for many weeks and manifesting themselves when the sufferer believed themselves to be symptom free

Heads of Department, Faculty, School and others will find themselves suffering from Present Allocation Disorder. PAD is caused by desperately trying to work out whom to buy presents for, and how much to spend. Most schools have this nasty condition well-managed by a complex wine cascade, in which senior managers give middle managers bottles of wine from Marks and Spencers, and middle managers give their juniors bottles of wine from ASDA and so on.

Commiserations to all of you suffering with me at this time of the year. Some people hold summer bouts to be the worst, but in my opinion, the Christmas version, with its bacchanalian overtones and endless bags of Haribo, is the nastiest.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A definition of irony

The blogsphere has made me realise that the teaching profession is not alone in its insane slavery to the gods of statistics, targets and league tables. The police and the NHS are similarly burdened.

This post from The Policeman's Blog is great.

Friday, December 08, 2006

We are soap

Let's not be frightened of rumours. If you are even seen walking around with a member of staff of the opposite sex, the kids will speculate that you are in love. We are their entertainment, their soap opera... Here's a tip. Don't deny. Elaborate. Many years ago I would support a young male colleague in his two hours of Friday afternoon hell with the bottom set by drifting into his lesson to 'sort a few bits of paper out' at the back of the classroom every week. After a while the kids started teasing him and he got flustered. Finally, one of them challenged me. 'Are you and Sir going to get married?'
'Yes.' I answered. 'When my divorce from the Head comes through. And when Mr Jones gets custody of his kids from Miss Simpson in Art.'
They shut up.

PS Many years later another colleague was accused of fancying me by a Lower Sixth group. 'No, no' he protested, flushing 'Ms Pepperpot has a boyfriend.'
'And I bet they just sit and make spreadsheets together' came a sarcastic voice from the back of the class...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Contextualised Value Added - coming soon to a Self-Assessment Report near you?

This article was out of the blue.
Colleges have complained that a new government method for measuring "value added" penalises them if their students do too well in their A-levels. In certain cases, the system, which is being developed by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), lowers a college's value added score as more grade As are notched up by A-level students. It also adjusts scores downwards for bigger colleges because their students on average go for more qualifications and notch up more A-level points.

Having just done my annual write-up of my department's statistical data, I was stunned to read about this. We use ALIS (A-level Information System) which gives us a residual (a number around 1) which if it's greater than 1 is a Good Thing, and if it's below 1 is a Bad Thing. There's also an S (if it's statistically significant) and a three year trend. And then we also use the sparkly new ALPS (A-level Performance System) which gives us a single number, a ranking from 1 to 9, which is colour-coded, red being 'hot' (good department! Well done!) and blue being 'cold' (Bad department! Naughty teachers!) I haven't yet come across CVA, unless it's the same as 'distance travelled' which takes the form of a pretty graph.

The basic idea of any VA system is to take a large amount of data and then compare the progress made by students between testing landmarks (SATs, GCSEs, A-levels) with the average for the country in general. This data can be used to help work out if a student is progressing, or to try and indicate if a teacher, department or school are producing grades that are lower or higher than the national average (either to help them discern how effective their teaching is, or to incentivise them, or to provide a label for the general public.) But like any statistic they have a dark side. VA is much, much better than raw results when trying to evaluate education; but because the way these statistics are created is based on specific statistical judgements, the different systems give contradictory results. If you are not careful you are 'working the numbers' just as much as you do when going for exam statistics.

I confess even I, with my reasonably high level of mathematical literacy and freakish obsession with data don't understand the true meaning of the numbers. And now here's another VA system and it conflicts with the ones we use. I see a crisis looming, not least when I have to add another set of statistics to my already bloated SAR...

Friday, December 01, 2006

A-level reform

Sorry I didn't blog about this when it was announced yesterday. Did anyone know it was coming? I'd heard about some aspects of the change but some were out of the blue for me. I've been supervising exams all day so you would have thought I would have used the time to mull over a profound reply; but in fact I spent it honing a useful new acronym which I will reveal in a moment.

So... what have we got?

1) The extended project. Knew about that one - seen the draft proposals too. As far as I can see, everyone at the moment more or less agrees that coursework is becoming meaningless because of a) the Internet and b) the drive to improve results, which means students' work is endlessly remarked and deadlines endlessly extended. So how does throwing a project into the mix improve the situation - surely it'll have the same weaknesses as coursework?

2) The specialised diplomas. Seen some of these too, specifically one to do with computer games, animation and multimedia. Here's the thing. There are many kids who want to be computer games designers or web designers because they like playing computer games and surfing the web. If they are going to be any use to the industry, they need to be mathematically literate and learn hardcore progamming, system design etc. In other words some A-levels, or an established rigourous vocational programming course like BTEC or similar. Does the computer industry really want a load of students who for one reason or another were not able to study hard maths or programming courses and were steered into these new diplomas instead? I can only comment on what I know.

3) The A*. Fine. No problem. Quite happy with that. For all I honestly care, divide the A-level grades into A-J or any other arbitrary number of grades. All I know is that
a) I will carry on teaching as hard as I can and
b) there will be benchmarks and league tables and some grades will be more important to the reputation of an institution than others (currently it's A-B, it used to be A-C, no doubt it will be A*- A before too long) The real issue about standards is tied up with resits and modularisation.

4) The International Baccalaureate. Well, the qualification would seem to be a good thing in itself but we know that we'll end up with a two or three tier system. We couldn't even tolerate having both polytechnics and universities, we had to rename so they were all the same... we're not going to be able to resist the temptation to label the IB as 'better' than A-levels. And unless you live in a megalopolis, the illusion of 'choice' is usually deceptive.

All this is very nice. However, we need to remember that all these reforms will play out in the light of the defining feature of our wonderful UK education system. Which is of course... league tables.

1) The extended project will be delivered in such a way that the results are as high as possible with minimum risk of failure. Colleges and schools will make sure that students choose projects that will safely guarantee good marks. So no risk, no flair. And if they aren't good enough, maybe they will need to be draft marked... and if you don't hand them in on time... we're not going to let you fail your A-levels for that, now, are we...

2) Diplomas. One question. Will they get better grades (using whatever agreed point equivalency they dream up) than A-levels? We're doing them.

3) A-levels just gained an extra grade that only the best of the best should earn? Right now, let's see your action plan for increasing the number of students gaining an A* in your subject.

4) The IB. Yes, it will be offered. And the pass rate will go up and up and up until people are complaining that the standards are dropping. Becuase the teachers will work and work until they find ways of delivering it with maximum exam success; and students who aren't likely to pass it will be steered elsewhere.

Will it solve the problems? Ultimately no.


Because of league tables, stupid