Why teachers should take the first step

I have spoken before about the opposition to web 2.0 that I have encountered amongst teachers that I deal with in my position as a mathematics consultant.

Today I was delighted to receive an e-mail from my line manager in which he asked me to look at an Elluminate video that had been created by a forward looking teacher in our area. I was over the moon. My line manager wanted to know if I felt there was any mileage in contacting other secondary maths teachers and seeing if they would be helped by using “this new technology”.

It was as if the future was rushing towards me and here was an agent of change. I have come across a few, a Primary colleague who is very interested in blogging and also using “Scratch” with his children and a local school that uses a closed Twitter account as a means of communication with the parents.

It made me think that it is the first uncertain steps that are required. I have been blogging now for almost a year. I have been a fairly inactive member, though strong supporter, of the “Educator’s PLN”, I have now got over 750 Twitter followers and I have made a significant group of my PLN “Friends” on Facebook which has opened up even more avenues of information. I attempted, although miserably failed, in getting to a local Teachmeet a few weeks ago in Basildon, but was able to get back in time to follow the proceedings on the internet.

The more I have tried, and read and written and communicated, the more confident I have become in using the technology, applying the technology and understanding how the technology is now a major revolution in the way we live and will eventually transform the school system that I have been a small part of for over thirty years as a teacher and for a very short time as a headteacher.

But it takes the courage of taking a step into the unknown which I see so many teachers as being fearful of. They are happy with the world that they have grown up in and are afraid to explore this new world. If they enter it though they will see that it is one (to quote Ben Zander) of “endless possibility”. They are stuck in the closed world that creates only problems and not solutions.

Today it was snowing and I was working from home. I managed to follow a Tweet that led to a wonderful experiment that didn’t quite work. The link was to an interview with Dr Tom King by one of my favourite PLN influencers Shelley Terrell about “Saturn School” which was set up in the late 80’s to embrace technology and personalised learning.

What I liked about the whole “Saturn” experiment was that it happened. Someone took a step into the unknown and others followed him. The result was a school that was in many many ways ahead of its time. The step into possibility is the thing that teachers need to do. The result may be failure (whatever that is) but it is the only way that things really get to change.

So imagine my delight about this teacher who wants to take a step forward into the new communicative age and take other colleagues with her. I e-mailed back that I would be delighted to assist in whatever way I could. After all, to quote Chairman Mao “The longest journey starts with one small step”.


Sir Walt explains schools

Miniature painting, Elizabethan Period
Image via Wikipedia

When I was growing up I used to hear some brilliant comedy sketches on the radio. One of my favourite ones was by Bob Newhart and concerned an imaginary telephone call from Sir Walter Rayleigh to a Government official in L0mdon.Now I know that the telephone hadn’t been invented yet.. but  we were willing to suspend belief and that made the comedy even greater and Newhart managed to bring out the inherent  stupidity of getting some tobacco leaves and then rolling them up and putting them into a piece of paper and then setting fire to them! (To see Newhart deliver the original sketch go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7YBaiJMnik&feature=related )

I had a thought the other day when this brilliant sketch came swimming back into my consciousness (having laid dormant in the back of my mind for too many years). What would Sir Walt had said to the official about schools?

So, with deep respect and thanks to Mr Newhart, here is my take on the impossible phone call from the New World about schools.

Official: Hi Walt what have you got to tell us about this time? Oh something called schools..we have those things here Walt a few lazy aristocrats sons get beaten to a pulp by clerics and they spend all day learning Euclid and quoting passages from the Bible in Latin.

Oh, this is different.. they get all the kids to go to something called a school…. what girls as well? Oh well. They go to a great big place with loads of little box rooms and they always work with children of their own age. There is a non-clerical person who is the font of all knowledge and he or she is called the teacher and they stand in front and the children receive the wisdom.

What kind of wisdom Walt? Oh to spell correctly (that boy Shakespeare who works at the theatre down the road.. he can’t even spell his name!) to read and to write and to do really good arithmetic. It’s called the “3 R’s” is it? and that is?

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic… I can only see one R there Walt but what do I know? They can paint a bit and jump around in a hall it’s called Physical Exercise.

They are tested all the time… tests, tests, and more tests and if they’re not good enough we can put them in something called a bottom set. What do they do there Walt?

They d0 pretty pictures and they make paper aeroplanes and the teachers go mad and say that they are idiots and won’t achieve anything

We pay the teachers according to results and if their children don’t come up to scratch we fire them.

And what does all this “school” thing produce? A really able workforce ready to compete with the rest of the world! I see Walt…… let’s go back to setting fire to the leaves in the little piece of paper shall we?

Three Miracles, One Hope : Eva Kuper’s Holocaust Story

The symbolic "remains" of the railro...
Image via Wikipedia

This is a beautiful and intensely moving film. The story of Eva Kuper a tiny little Polish Jewish girl who was rescued at almost the last second from certain death from a train that was headed to Treblinka Concentration Camp. The story then tells of the wonderful nun who looked after her for three years and how she miraculously found the nun when she revisitied Poland in 2005.It is a film that should be shown in schools as it tells a great human story about awful events but shows how people risked death to help these children to survive.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


What pets teach us

The other day I was looking through an old memory stick that I have. I discovered a very short video that I had made about five years ago of my two dogs Toby and Skye (which can be seen above).

Now,as can be clearly seen, I am not now nor will ever be a serious rival to Stephen Spielberg. The video was taken with a rather cheap digital camera that had video facility. It was a bright day and the dogs wanted to go out into the garden where they could roam around and play with each other,as dogs do.

Unfortunately, a few months after I took this video Toby, who was at the time of the film 10 years of age and had had to put up with four years of Skye had a serious stroke and had to be “put down” (to use the horrible euphemism that we use at the time that we put them out of their misery).

Looking at the video gave me the chance to reflect on just how much the ownership and companionship of living and interacting with my dogs has added so much to my life. It made me think about the importance of pets in the lives of children and the way that we learn so many skills from our interaction and care of them.

As a Primary school teacher I often had hamsters in my class. It was wonderful to see the way that the clearing out if their cage became such a major event for the children. They loved to play with these little rodents and somehow managed to work out their particular idiosyncrasies, although I have to be honest and say that they all seemed alike to me.

The care of the hamster during the school holidays became a real focus of interest for the children. I had to draw lots to decide which child would look after a hamster for each week of the holiday and how they would be responsible for taking the hamster, cage and food around to the next child on the list! Failure to get chosen in the lot became a real emotional “downer” for many children and frequently there  were tears (but I suppose they were learning yet another lesson in life about the fact that we don’t win them all).

For myself,as all this pet keeping tshool was going on I was completely petless at home. It was only after I married that my wife decided that it would be a good idea to get a dog. Now I had never really had a pet in growing up. We had a cat for a few weeks but my brother developed ringworm as a reaction to the cat’s fur and we had to find the cat a new home. My mother hated dogs.. she had been set on by a dog whilst walking in a dark alleyway in London, where we lived and had a lifelong dislike and fear of dogs.

She managed to pass this fear onto me. I would often walk on the opposite side of the road if I saw a dog coming along. I did experience a few dogs as I was growing up but was very wary of them and would approach with great care.

So imagine my feelings when my wife said that she wanted a dog. I tried to make an argument for how easy our life was just then with just the two of us and how dogs are a tie. She was very single-minded though and determined to get the dog that she had always dreamed of as being a part of her life when she eventually settled down with someone.

We went on a holiday to Cornwall in the summer and she spent most of the holiday looking at everyone else’s dogs. A few weeks later we went to a short break at Ironbridge in Staffordshire. We were in a an old reconstructed Victorian village when my wife spotted a somewhat unusual looking dog. It looked like a miniature version of Lassie except that it had black and grey markings and was very very shy. We were told that it was a “Shetland Sheepdog” which was a miniature collie dog bred on the Shetland Isles where many of the animals were much smaller than their mainland equivalents.

I had always loved Lassie films and was entranced by this almost human animal that managed to rescue the people from terrible happenings. Watching Lassie on film was O.K. but here was real dog breathing and licking in front of me and I tried to stroke her but she turned away. We were told by the owner that the “Blue Merle” shelties were often very shy and in fact we were to later experience the strangeness of this particular kind of sheltie when we bought our second dog (who is now nine years of age) Skye.

It was love at first site for me. I had seen the dog that I wanted and a deal emerged between the dog wary me and my dog obsessed wife… we would get a dog as long as it was a sheltie! A few months later we travelled to Newmarket in Suffolk (about 50 miles from where we lived) and purchased a small bundle of fur, barely eight weeks old, who we called Toby and who was going to totally transform my life.

Since I am writing a blog post and not a book I haven’t got the time to go  into the many many stories that we had with Toby. Suffice to say that we lived in a brand new little two-bedroomed house and Toby managed to make holes in the wall, chew the table legs so that they had to be replaced, chew up a new and expensive rug and dig a hole under the fence at the back to take himself for a walk!

When he arrived he cried all night. I spent hours going up and down the stairs. We then had the problem of puppy training. We were both complete novices with a dog and this little bundle of fur ran rings around us (as well as herding us together as was his sheepdog way).

But slowly and surely we learned to cope with his ways and he became an important part of my life. I had to walk him (I have always walked our dogs). He would be there waiting on the ledge in front of our bay windows as I returned from school every day.When the children had given me a rough time (or more frequently the headteacher) I could take him out for an instant walk to unwind and also have him cuddle up next to me when I felt that I just wanted to cry.

We had an idyllic life in some ways with the wonderful Toby for six years and then my wife had another of her brainwaves. “Toby is getting older now… why don’t we get him a companion?” Now I wasn’t too set on this idea. It meant two dogs for me to walk and it may not be what Toby would have liked. But my wife is very persistent when she has an idea in her head and so, after a few months we went to Suffolk again and took home a bi-merle, black, grey and white sheltie dog called Skye.

Toby had always been such a loving and playful dog. Skye, we were to learn, was a very different kettle of fish. He was obstinate, strong-willed and unlike Toby, he didn’t like people (except us, who he adored). He could be quite aggressive when people came in to see us and nipped a few people in his time. (In fact we have probably lost quite a few friends because of him).

But what we learned from having Skye is what people with children learn. That every dog, like every child, has their own personality and that you need to look for their strengths as well as try to curtail their weaknesses. Skye was there for us when we went through the incredible pain of losing our beloved Toby. I had not really wanted another dog but I was so pleased that he was there to come home to after we returned absolutely distraught from the Vets, after Toby had been given his final injection.

Like Toby, I have learned so much from Skye. He is, as I said above, a very very loving dog to us, his owners. He loves to come up on the couch when I am watching television and I sit there stroking him. He will roll over onto his back and let you tickle his tummy. He loves affection and gives a lot back. At the moment, as I write, we are having a new toilet put into the house and we have had to put him into kennels so that he won’t be disturbed by all the comings and goings. When he isn’t with us we miss him loads and we are only too painfully aware that,at nine years of age, he may not be with us for too many years to come.

Looking back I am so glad that I have had the privilege of looking after my dogs. I have learned so much from them and they have enriched my life in a way that I would never have felt possible. We learn so much from our pets and they are really important in our lives. This is my lifelong learning blog and I have enjoyed writing this piece more than practically anything that I have ever written about education… because it is real and because it related directly to my experience. Teachers need to be aware of this when they give children boring things to write about…. let them express what they are passionate about and the words will flow.

The key importance of information literacy

The video above is one of the all=time classic “April Fool” jokes. It was made by the B.B.C. and had Richard Dimbleby, a highly respected journalist as its narrator.

From the very beginning it smacks of authenticity. There were in fact millions of people, watching the (then) very popular T.V. current affairs programme “Panorama”  (including my parents but not myself as I believe that I was safely tucked up in bed at the time!).

I remember many years after the film became famous as one of the all time hoaxes that my father said that he had initially thought it was real but had swiftly understood that it was a hoax because of the date (broadcast April 1st) and the subject matter.

There were though a large number of people who were taken in by it all. It does help us to understand that fiction can be clothed in the authentic guise of fact. Nowhere does this have a greater effect and implication at the moment than the authenticity (or otherwise) of websites.

Alan November has an excellent guide to teaching  “Information Literacy“. I took a link from the home age, which is full of interesting links to  areas such as How to Read a Web Address, Find the Publisher of a Website and  What is the History of a Website

The section I found most interesting though was Websites to Validate

This was a really good selection of websites that contain information that is bogus dressed up as very authentic fact. I have actually been in a local primary school where the I.T. teacher had got the children to look at the The Pacific North-West Tree Octopus . He told me that many of the children were completely sold on the information and really got into writing details about the Octopus!
I think that this underlies the dangers of children accepting all they read on the web as fact. Whereas the Octopus site is fun and so is the marvellous Victorian Robots mock history site. November also relates two sites that have a more sinister implication to their so-called “truth”. He asks teachers to look at:

Martin Luther King: http://www.martinlutherking.org
This seemingly innocent web site address calls for the abolition of Martin Luther King Day and promotes White Pride. Content is inappropriate for all ages.

Stormfront: http://www.stormfront.org
The publishers of this site also host the Martin Luther King site. It may be blocked by an Internet filter.

The implications of the need to teach “Information Literacy” are immense. I did not see too much on this subject in the recently released White Paper on the future of education here in the U.K. I really feel that it should be a key item on any curriculum and that to neglect it can lead to dangerous consequences.

I would really appreciate any feedback from this post.

Children: the innocent pawns in the education debate

Today the Government here in the U.K. published its White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”.

Now I am not going to get into the debate on the rights and wrong of the Paper (I have written about my views in earlier blog posts). No, I am going to bemoan the fact that in any educational experiment whether we go forward towards a brave new dawn or backwards to “basics” the children are the innocent “victims” of politicians.

I am not saying that the politicians do not genuinely believe what they are crowing about. The problem is that they do. They really feel that they and they alone, have the answer to the big question.. what makes for the best education for the children in our country?

But it is in the schools where the political ideas play out. So we lurch from one big idea to another, one curriculum to another, on set of teaching norms to another. The children just go to school. They do not consider the big questions..as with most things in their life, they are at our mercy. We do not ask them if they would like to go to school.. or to study mathematics or have morning assemblies.

We pack their lunch boxes and get them ready for their day.We hope that they will learn, we want them to have fun, to enjoy the experience of going to school. To most children the school day is about the games they play in the playground at breaktime.

Today, I spent a lovely morning at a local primary school where I have worked at least one morning a week for two and half years. The Year 6 (grade 5) class was learning about World War 2 and I was trying to teach multiplication to my group. The teacher put on a video about D-Day , June 6th 1944.  The music was grave and the pictures were stark and dramatic. The children in my group shuffled uneasily as they listened to the video coming from the room next door.

After a while, one of them said, “Mr Bellamy, do you mind if we watch the video?”

I said “yes” and had, four, entranced children really learning about their past and one of the significant events of the last hundred years. I did not consider the bigger picture when I let them watch. I considered the children and their voices and their feelings… I wonder how many politicians are prepared to do that? I suspect very few.


Why skepticism is important

I was reading Mark Moran’s excellent article about “The Bixby Letter” in the Finding Dulcinea blog. It made me think about the importance of not taking so-called “facts” for granted and the way that education is often seen as a matter of irrefutable fact being spoon fed to children who need to know them.

Now there may be some irrefutable facts such as water being made up of hydrogen and oxygen and the River Nile floating out to the Mediterranean Sea. But as the Bixby letter proves there are a lot of “facts” that need to be looked into.

I loved the way that history was looked at as being analogous to a detective looking for clues and then double checking to make sure of the voracity of the information that they manage to find.

The point is well made that education based on a collection on facts, dates, places and times is purely about training the memory. I have to admit that I always found dates a problem and would spend many many hours trying to commit these “facts” to my rather poor memory.

But there is essentially a bigger question here. What kind of thinking do we require our children to do at school.Is it to learn a body of “information” or do we want to develop a healthy skepticism (as the Bixby blog states).

I feel that the answer from the leading edge companies around the world would be the latter. They want employees who do not accept that there is a definitive answer to all things and that there is a different and possibly better way. They want innovation not stagnation and they know they have to compete in a world where more and more countries (even China!!) are endeavouring to produce the type of student who challenges the status quo (as long as its not political in China).

So why do our schools persevere with a “Mr Gradgrind” attitude to education thus:

Mr. Gradgrind, whose voice is “dictatorial”, opens the novel by stating “Now, what I want is facts” at his school in Coketown. He is a man of “facts and calculations.” He interrogates one of his pupils, Sissy, whose father is involved with the circus, the members of which are “Fancy” in comparison to Gradgrind’s espousal of “Fact.” Since her father rides and tends to horses, Gradgrind offers Sissy the definition of horse. She is rebuffed for not being able to define a horse factually; her classmate Bitzer does, however, provide a more zoological profile description and factual definition. She does not learn easily, and is censured for suggesting that she would carpet a floor with pictures of flowers “So you would carpet your room—or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband—with representations of flowers, would you? Why would you?” She is taught to disregard Fancy altogether. It is Fancy Vs Fact. (my emphasis…. quote from Wikipedia).

I would contend that schools find facts measurable and many are not comfortable with “fancy” but the skeptical, imaginative person will inherit and thrive in Dan Pink’s “right brain centred” new world  that we have moved into (see his article “Revenge of the Right Brain“).

I think that it will take many years for our schools and more importantly our politicians to catch up with this but I feel they undoubtedly will one day. Well done to Mark Moran for continuing to focus our attention on the skills we will need to have and for his continuing efforts as CEO of “Finding Dulcinea” to provide the sort of search engine (i.e. Sweetsearch and the materials on the main “Finding Dulcinea” site.