Congratulations on your engagement

As a teacher, of both primary age learners and adults, I’ve always been interested in making teaching engaging. There is nothing worse than sitting through an hour or more of mindless drudgery [* Insert formal CPD session or lecture of your choice here]. However, reflecting back I think there have been times when I lost sight of a coherent learning outcome or objective. In other words I was being guided by an activity or fun idea. I am sure we can all remember the ‘fun’ teacher who rattled off anecdotes and jokes but from whom we learnt nothing (it as GCSE French for me) and due to this I’ve become more interested in the idea of seductive detail in teaching. I would argue that the same general principles of this theory can be applied to broader topic teaching.

If I look back to when I taught, and then more recently working in ITE, my teaching may have been based on a ‘hook’, or would start with a nice activity. I would then work back to objectives, and success criteria and forward to the assessment. This approach may sometimes work but also runs the risk of shoe-horning. This post from Jennifer Gonzalez makes the point perfectly. So now when I watch and observe lessons, and plan my own teaching , I will keep the metaphorical “Grecian Urn” at the forefront of my mind. I really hope others can do the same, as there is no substitute for knowing your subject. This doesn’t mean remembering when Queen Victoria was born and died, but engaging deeply in how Victorian Britain played a part in globalisation, driven by economics, and the influence of colonial power, which ran contrary to attempts to reform society.

A specific example I can give for my own time in the classroom was when I planned for a school wide ‘Magic Week’. I decided that for language and literacy the year 5 class I was teaching would look at instructional texts. We read, analysed, and learnt magic tricks. We studied what characteristics effective instructions needed, and created instructions on how to do the trick for yourself, sharing with other classes lower down the school. The highlight was the end of week show during Friday assembly as one of the class executed a pretty complex card trick. The pupil correctly ‘guessed’ the card our headteacher had picked from several packs. The look on the headteacher’s face, in front of the entire school, was priceless and I am sure the pupil remembers it fondly (the moment and the trick!). But during the same week my dance lesson revolved around creating a routine for the 1970s Pilot song It’s Magic. We had a right laugh, prancing about in the sports hall, in glittery costumes, with capes and top hats (yes, I am one of those primary teachers) but on reflection this was a tenuous link, and this teaching lacked depth. This was an opportunity to teach about choreography, how the steps and music should work together, and analysis and comparison with similar songs and I missed it.

What I came to learn over time was that it is possible to deliver deep, meaningful and – dare I say it fun – learning without the distraction of raking through a sand tray looking for ‘dinosaur bones’, or exploring an ‘alien crash site’ on the school field (again something I have done myself). I am not dismissing these contexts or activities entirely but frequently they suck up teachers time, who get carried away with it, because everyone is ‘busy’. Once the teaching starts any incidental learning may be in spite of these activities, rather than because of them. A further issue is that when these examples are shared they go viral, and teachers with less knowledge or understanding see this as validation of their own way of working. And this might be a case of the Dunning-Kruger effect with the teachers who don’t know enough about pedagogy, or research, are unable to see why this is not good pedagogy.

This is something we have recently addressed on the PGDE Programme at the University of Dundee. Students learn about inter-disciplinary learning (IDL) so we utilised a video we created a few years ago to stimulate discussion. This was itself inspired by a talk given, some years ago, by Mark Priestley who has written on the challenges of teaching IDL. Mark identified some great examples and then some more tenuous examples, including the (possibly apocryphal) ‘Sausage Topic’. This inspired myself and two colleagues to film a fictional planning session between a trainee or student teacher, and two class teachers or mentors. I should stress this is a a parody and there are some sensible, coherent links, and many others that might be more forced. Feel free to decide for yourself, the video is about 17 minutes in total, although at around 9 minutes is where the planning starts to get a little silly. (We would also be happy for you to share the video or utilise it for CPD purposes.)

In the parody ‘Sausage’ example we are using what a topic web or mindmap approach – which I like as a start point, whilst also keeping the curriculum aims at the forefront of my mind. However, I have seen examples shared recently that look similar to the ‘Sausage Topic’, these include Disney inspired topics where some of the activities were not based on coherent learning objectives. Many seemed to have been ‘shoe-horned’ in by the teacher, throwing out ideas in the same way as a five year old going through a dressing up box. What was more concerning in these examples was the lack of curriculum or subject knowledge demonstrated by the teacher doing the planning. Colouring in a Minion is not art. Writing a diary entry for a day in the life of an amazon tree frog is not literacy, language or science. Making a poster about the Sustainable Development Goals isn’t… well, you get the idea. It is crucial that the planning process must start with the teachers own understanding. If you decide to teach a topic on climate change and sustainability, or global citizenship or diversity – because it is a ‘hot topic’ – then teachers must take time to understand the underpinning ideas and concepts. To do this we must carry out our own research so we know the topic well, and embrace the chance to learn with the class. This is where the work and effort comes in, not scouring Twinkl for the perfect worksheet, or spending hours constructing an elaborate Hogwarts Castle wall display in your classroom.

In Scotland Curriculum for Excellence has been criticised for not having sufficient depth or rigour. I would disagree as it has the potential to deliver great breadth and depth, but not all teachers will interpret it the same way. But this may be where things aren’t quite working, where teachers have missed the point. And, of course, teaching is hard, requiring emotional and intellectual effort. Equally I am not a fan of the way the English National Curriculum has gone in the last decade – why anyone needs to know what a fronted adverbial is I do not know – however there has also been a focus on depth and challenging learners which if done right is a good thing. I am not in any way arguing for a series of facts to be learnt, but that knowledge has a place, and conceptual understanding has a place, and experiences to explore and apply learning has a place. What doesn’t help in the debate is it being reduced to Team Experiential Learning vs Team Instructional Learning. I think most teachers would agree a balance is what is needed.

What I think we should be celebrating is how much opportunity we now have to develop education from here. The chance to share, discuss, support and learn from each other has been gathering momentum for a long time, within what I broadly term ‘grassroots’ professional development. Our access to research evidence and what works, or doesn’t, is better than ever before. The disruption of COVID-19 has also afforded space for teachers to take ownership of the profession like never before. Although we must guard against the sharing of lower value approaches or gimmicks.

So back to the original focus of this post, what can we do when planning for effective learning? From my experience of teaching, observing many lessons, and reading theory and research I would try these steps:

1. Start with the intended learning. Is it knowledge, skills, or concepts. Now put the ‘hard yards’ into knowing this, and knowing it well. Creating a knowledge organiser might help you as much as the learners. If you don’t know your subject you can’t teach as effectively.

2. Consider the learners, but resist the temptation to just do what they want. The learners don’t have your knowledge of the curriculum, or pedagogy. And remember, given true choice most wouldn’t be sitting in your company at all.

3. Try not to get distracted by setting up the context (e.g. turning your classroom into a space rocket for the sake of it etc). The same goes for creating elaborate handouts or work booklets, super whizzy PowerPoints, or obsessing over classroom aesthetics. This is something that is comforting for you – classic teacher busywork – and might get ‘ooohs and ahhhs’ from the class, or ‘likes’ on your socials when you post about it. But it might not be the best use of your time, or help the students learn.

4. Be prepared to admit what you have done, or did in the past could be better. If someone suggests another way then listen, this is a chance to see things differently, and learn from them. We ask our learners to do this so we should too.

Thanks for reading, any comments and thoughts are welcome. I think I’ll go make myself a sausage sandwich…

Give them the tech and they will teach

Teachers have a love-hate relationship with technology. Many teachers love digital tech. Other teachers are less keen on it. And some teachers may happily claim they ‘don’t do tech’.

The COVID-19 pandemic and move to online, home learning has required teachers to upskill like never before. The myriad of resources, websites, platforms, software and advice or opinion being offered is overwhelming. Personally I am ok with digi tech, and I can see how it can support learning so would describe myself as digitally literate. But, as I’ve blogged about before, I have had my moments of frustration too so I understand how other teachers may be less keen to embrace technology. I also think teachers have a responsibility to learn and develop. Through researching teacher self-directed learning I recognise the value of teachers leading their own learning. Although as we know from research into discovery learning, and teaching in general, these ideas have limitations so there needs to be some support, or guidance or structure. Asking teachers to ‘have a play about’ and learn new software may not work, and may further demotivate, especially where self-confidence is low. But then, of course, formalised directed IT training courses are notoriously problematic too, as anyone who has sat through CPD on a new software will know.

So what is the solution? I think we need to go back to the beginning, and in the same way we have minimum requirements for language and numeracy with teachers, we need the same for digital tech knowledge and skills. Alongside this we also need teachers to take ownership for learning, and part of this is ‘dog fooding‘ (a marketing term), where teachers test their own online content. A major issue, which many families and learners will have experienced during lockdown, is that just because a resource (document, PowerPoint etc) works on their own device, it might not work on a different version of the software or device. A simple approach would be to share the resources with a colleague who could test these, before releasing to learners. As teachers we are used to closing our doors and getting on with it, but we now have a chance to support and even join each other. Teachers need to be open to this, and not see it as ‘checking up’, but a chance to learn. The inspectors, administrators and school leaders also have a part to play, by backing off and giving teachers the time and space. Moving Ofsted or HMIe inspections online is NOT the answer. In fact it shouldn’t even be a question.

Of course before we get to any of this teachers also need sufficient equipment and resources to engage in this professional development. Over the last decade large sums of money have been diverted to Pupil Premium or Pupil Equity Funding. This has obviously done lots of good. But this money may also have been spent in less effective ways. In some cases we have ended up with the bizarre situation of funding being spent on promoted posts (and increased salaries) and then the same teachers being expected to pay for their own resources and materials. This is just not good enough.

In Scotland we have the national intranet GLOW, which has received much criticism over the years, but the perseverance from educational leaders has paid off and post COVID-19 it is likely the platform will be used far more and as it was initially intended. The same commitment to GLOW, including financial investment, needs to be applied to providing teachers with a decent IT, most likely a laptop, which allows them to work at home when required then connects to school systems automatically. This is not difficult, and we manage this in FE and HE so should be made a priority for schools. There could be national tech support offered, maybe in Scotland by GLOW. Then schools should also be provided with quality wi-fi, extending around the school grounds and give the option for pupils and families or carers to access this outside of normal school hours, via after school clubs or other community provision where available. The next priority should then be a system of providing the learners who need it most technology to learn outside of school hours. Glasgow Council did this on 2019, with iPads for all learners, well before COVID-19 and were criticised for it. Many people saw problems and catastrophised about lost and broken equipment. This conservative attitude is sadly common in education and results in nothing being done at all, holding progress back. Despite many in education and beyond seeing the worst the sky hasn’t fallen in, and in fact it now looks like astonishing foresight by Glasgow, as learners elsewhere try to share devices or access learning via smart phones or games consoles.

If anyone from Education Scotland, the local authorities or multi-academy trusts (in England), or leaders of individual schools reads this please consider this request…. give teachers the tools to teach and they will have a far better chance to deliver quality education our young people deserve.

Teacher CPD… that’s not the name!?

Is it professional development, or professional learning? Should it be continuous, continued, or continuing? And if it is career-long should we hyphenate, or not? This is a crucial debate that will keep many teachers awake at night. Ok, maybe not.

That said, terminology might matter more than we realise as it can carry hidden meaning and might impact on people in more ways than we think. I am particularity interested in informal (oh no, another term here to debate…) teacher professional learning or development. Whilst researching this area I have called it grassroots, I’ve called it DIY, I’ve called it teacher-initiated or teacher-led, and for a broad catch all term I’ve called it informal PD. Even as I type now I am wondering if bottom-up teacher development might be more suitable.

Why does this matter? Well most of the time I don’t think it does. I often suggest that it is the actions that mattered, and academia can get bogged down in defining terms. But then I was presenting on this topic at a CollevtivEd event and the label grassroots was discussed. I hadn’t considered this before, but it was suggested that it can be used politically, supporting a particular organisation by giving credibility, as it represents ‘real’ teachers. In turn this allows a certain agenda to be encouraged. The other issue is that people can become partisan about the name or definition, and then become defensive of it. On its own that isn’t a problem, but if it results in people becoming disillusioned, or not engaging at all, then that’s an issue. If a sense of negativity builds then suddenly informal PD starts to seem more like formal CPD, and as we know that has not always been received positively by those in teaching.

I think, as a result of this, I’ll continue to use terms interchangeably but also stop before I do, and if I can try and make sure that people share the meaning. I’ll also carefully check myself, and others, for any agenda. I also think we can consider what works in PD, formal or otherwise, and another idea discussed at the CollectivED event was Collaborative Professionalism. This is something that educators and teachers, including myself, could learn more about although the challenge may be to really reflect deeply on what it means to truly collaborate. This might not be easy in a profession, and society, where the desire to push for personal gain, whilst suggesting differently is more common than we realise.

Currently the experiences of engaging in this form of PD (especially #BrewEd, #TeachMeet and #EdCamps) are being researched by Hannah Robertson at the University of Dundee, for an MA research project. The results of this are likely to shed more light on this topic, and in the process help us work toward more of a share understanding. Once these are available I’ll share them, but I’ll also be conscious of how I refer to this important activity, that ultimately helps teachers to teach.

Close encounters of the nautical kind

There has been lots of attention given to the potential positive impact of lockdown on climate and nature. We have seen reduced car journeys and cancelled flights, and this was something we could never have anticipated. Hopefully, after lockdown, people will change their habits and the environment will benefit. This may, in turn, allow nature to recover some of the terrible losses of the last few hundred years, caused directly by the action of humans. This may be helped by people reconnecting with nature in a way they had not done before, or had long forgotten.

I love being outdoors, and am lucky enough to live somewhere that give plenty of opportunities for this. This last few months, like many other people, I’ve enjoyed exploring the local area, and really noticing life around me. I also enjoy swimming and as the pools are closed I’ve been getting exercise by swimming in the River Tay, which I can see from my flat. This requires a degree of care as the tides can be strong, and the water rather cold. There is also a few other fellow (non-human) swimmers to be aware of, which I’ll return to shortly (trigger warning for anyone not keen on jellyfish).

A good way to stay safe in the water, especially when swimming solo, is to know the environment, so I watch the tides and pay attention to the way it changes. Living by the water I also spend a lot of time watching, and observing the signs of nature. I’ve been lucky enough to spot seals, a wide range of bird life, and last year an otter (video below). However, my favourite sighting by a long way are the dolphins, and the joy of spotting one breaking the surface never diminishes. I’ve watched them a lot this summer, and they come very close to the shore. It seems the best time to see them is at high tide, especially when this coincides with early evening (video at the end of this post). Whenever I see them it reminds me that, despite the damage humans are doing to the planet there are still many things worth saving.

Tayport otter, in the river next to my flat.

The ecosystems we inhabit are finely balanced and a variety of creatures and organisms are required. The same food source, of fish and crustaceans, that attract the dolphins also encourage jellyfish. Having spent many hours swimming I have only had the odd close encounter, and when I did it was usually painless. This changed last week when I swim straight through a Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (see below). This species isn’t that common around Britain but does visit the coast of Scotland in the summer. It can reach an impressive size, with bright red colouring. It also has a pretty nasty sting. Luckily it isn’t dangerous, just very painful, and after taking painkillers and a hot shower the pain from my brush with my sea dwelling neighbour began to subside. I can’t be cross with the jellyfish, it was just doing what it does, trying to feed and protect itself. But I’ll try to be more careful in future. (And yes mum, if you are reading this, I should probably wear a wetsuit too…)

This got me thinking more about how we exist alongside the creatures with which we share habitats. There has also been some suggestions that jellyfish numbers are on the rise. But as the BBC reported a few years ago this might not be the case. Having shared this slightly surprising finding with a proper scientist (thanks Kaska), who did some desk research, it seems jellyfish might be on the rise in some places, and this is possibly due to human activity. As a teacher I am always on the look out for ideas and if you want to learn more about these creatures the Oceania organisation have some great resources available.

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish in the River Tay, looking for food, or an unsuspecting swimmer.

This is a good example of how we can all learn more about our environment and also why it is important to have good scientific evidence about nature, so we can try and mitigate the impact of human activity. The post Covid-19 world presents that chance, we just have to take it. Ecosystems are so finely balanced that, as conditions change, the impact elsewhere can be felt (literally in my case) in ways we cannot predict. The pandemic has allowed some of us to really understand better our relationship planet, I really hope we don’t waste the opportunity to make things better. We also need to be careful, really careful, with all the species on the planet, even the stingy and biting ones… We need to monitor those in decline, and try to understand the impact this may have. But most importantly we have to act. This might be reducing our carbon footprint or engaging in some conservation work, either way this is too good an opportunity to waste.

If you want to see seals, dolphins, or even the lovely jellyfish then Tayport Harbour, or the common near the caravan site, is a great place to come. Look for the dolphins by watching for the dorsal fins. If you are lucky you might see them jumping too. If you are interested in open water swimming do some research, there are loads of great websites available.

Dolphins in the Tay, filmed on camera phone.

Doing nothing is not an option

The issue of diversity in education, and wider society, is something I’ve been aware of for a very long time. I remember watching with interest a storyline on homophobia on Grange Hill in the 1980s. I also have a strong memory of my father (a teacher) calling out racists at a non-league football game when I was around 10 years old. This was a formative moment in my life. What I didn’t realise then was that I was extremely privileged. As a white, middle-class, heterosexual, male I hold all the aces. I was blissfully unaware I would never need to battle the bigotry that many other people face in their lives. Even with my comprehension school background I am extremely privileged.

And the more I think about this, the more this really annoys me. People with privilege, trying to convince you how bad they had it, is undermining those who battle inequality every day. Look back, I just did it in the last paragraph, I couldn’t help but mention my old comprehension school. I’ve also seen academics earning salaries of well over £50k+ a year claiming they are working class (because their parents were) and how they struggle. This devalues genuine discrimination, and real lack of privilege. Now before I go on I know this is complex area, and there are serious challenges for white, male, low income students in parts of the UK. So what I am saying is if you have privilege, of any sort, acknowledge it. Then think about how you can change this.

One of the reasons I’ve not written on this topic earlier is because I wasn’t sure what to say. Yesterday I watched the DiverseEd discussion online and now regret that approach. I realised that with my inherent privilege that by saying or doing nothing I was contributing to this situation. People doing nothing for decades, or centuries, has allowed this situation to perpetuate. Staying silent is not acceptable. It is far better to engage and listen, and if you get it wrong then acknowledge this, and learn and engage some more. This might not be comfortable but we have to do it.

So from the DiverseEd discussions I took some key messages, and more importantly actions. First we can make sure BAME, LGBT, and disability are meaningfully represented in teaching, whether this is in school or HE. Don’t add tokenistic activities like anti-racism weeks, then return to what we do normally. Don’t stick up a poster about modern slavery, then teach colonialist interpretations of history. Don’t buy books for your class with strong female leads, put them on the shelf, and teach a topic entirely based around Harry Potter, or one of the David Walliams books which has stereotyped characters. Changing this might take time, and effort, but that’s what is needed. Then discuss this with your learners, and point out the issues with these texts, let them pupils discuss and debate this. Don’t hide the learners from it.

I work in higher education, so what can we do? Well in the university senior leaders are heavily over-represented by the male, stale, pale brigade. One such individual recently told a meeting that they didn’t like the phrase ‘decolonising the curriculum’. I was shocked, but I said nothing. On reflection I struggle to think of one single old, white man in these senior roles who has been any more impressive than most of my colleagues, students or pupils I taught in primary. This is not good enough. But no one ever challenges this. If there is diversity lower down the hierarchy it is likely they are the people doing the real work. This is particularly insidious. This is the Emperor’s new clothes being played out everyday in the Ivory Towers of Academia. So we should call it out.

I am now embarrassed how little I have done over the years to challenge the issues. For those of us who have privilege, of any sort, these problems in society is our responsibility. As a white, middle-class, male I have a chance to make the other white, middle-class male listen. Passivity is not an option. It is time to be an ally. And if you think this isn’t your responsibility, or worse that a statue is more important than real people then you should take a good look at yourself.

My first action is to learn more about being an ally. I am also I’ll start by diversifying my Twitter feed, and be proactive with my Professional Learning Network. I am going to read posts on these issues and educate myself, starting with this one on being an Upstander, not a Bystander. Now if you have privilege please stop procrastinating and go do something. We have a responsibility to live these principles. Every. Single. Day.

My indoor pond

I recently read this amusing blog post from Kathleen. I have a real love of a proper wildlife pond and I spent many happy hours as a child watching and fishing around looking for different creatures ranging from toads and newts to pond skaters and water beetles, desperately hoping to find a dragon fly larvae. This was one reason why, when I decided to get classroom pets, I went for newts and toads. They now live in my flat, and as I don’t have a garden, they act as my little indoor pond.

I decided to record a video blog, or vlog, explains a bit about this subject. I should stress that the animals were captive bred, not taken from the wild (you should not do this). I did lots and lots of reading and research into looking after them properly. Feel free to send any questions or comments.

You can watch the vlog here:

Are you reading me?

Just before the schools closed, if you can remember that time, it was World Book Day, and I started writing this post. Given what is going on now I decided to put it on hold, but having read a great blog post from Paul Watson (@paulwat5) and in particular what he’d learnt about class novels, I thought I’d put this post out. This topic also seems timely as we may have more time right now to settle down with a good book. I also believe that reading is an important part of primary education, but like many things in teaching needs considering with nuance.

Considering World Book Day, and I won’t get in to the debate about dressing up, this got me thinking about how much attention we give to reading, especially in primary schools. In some ways it receives attention like no other curriculum area. This extends into wider society and at times makes me feel slightly uneasy. Before I go on I want to stress that reading is phenomenally important. There is no doubt how important reading is. So I’ll stress this again I believe reading is really, REALLY important. However, there are times when I feel as if we are trying too hard and as an area of the curriculum reading occupies an elevated position above all else. I’ll try and explain what I mean. But please remember I think reading is VERY important.

The ability to read, to access information and knowledge, or for enjoyment, has undoubtedly transformed humanity. Although it should also be recognised that many civilisations did pretty well before this development. Perhaps in several hundred years reading printed word might not be as vital as it is now. We will be able to communicate with people verbally around the world, even in other languages as real time translation systems evolve. Already shorter communication can be achieved via emojis or gifs. Again I’m not saying this will replace reading but will supplement how we communicate and is a wonderful opportunity to understand the world, and each other, better.

A bit of (slow) reading

My argument is reading is held, by some, above all else. If you can’t, or (and this is where I get uneasy) choose not to read, then you are silently judged. The reasons aren’t discussed, the implicit ‘goodness’ of being an enthusiastic reader is unquestionably accepted. And this is where I start to feel a little uncomfortable. I can read, and think for myself, but when I see posts about the best fiction books people have read recently, or pledges to read even more, I start to feel guilty and panicked. I think that perhaps I should be reading more, so I put aside some time and ‘do my reading’. Occasionally I look around my otherwise empty flat for an approving glance from someone! When I do read for pleasure it can take ages to finish a book, and there are times when I’m not entirely sure of how much pleasure there is in a guilt induced process like this.

Some books I’ve read, and some others which I haven’t (& I’m now feeling guilty about).

No other pastime seems to illicit the same emotive response as reading. It is held in such high esteem that I worry about the negative impact this might have on people who struggle to read, or who prefer to access information or entertainment in other ways. We can watch films, documentaries, listen to podcasts, or scan online content and get similar enjoyment or enlightenment. But for some people it is less admirable than ploughing through a great work of literature, which was foraged after a few hours in a charity shop.

Going back to the blog post from Paul Watson he gives his view, based on experience and reflection, of how to teach reading well. The takeaway message is that Paul has invested time, thought and effort in getting this right for himself and the learners. I hope this approach will go a long way to changing the simplistic way we sometimes view reading, and whether we are ‘good’ readers, or not. Oh, and thanks for reading this 🙂.

Online teaching & learning – the first few days

A week ago most UK teachers were desperately trying to prepare for teaching and supporting learners remotely. As HE lecturers some of us have a little more experience of this, whereas as I suspect the challenges faced by many teachers and learners in schools is very new. We are now a few days in and a picture is beginning to emerge of how schools and teachers are approaching this. From a relatively small sample of online conversations and observations I thought I’d share how teachers and schools are managing the situation.

Some schools and teachers have set up systems and even clear daily timetables. They have thought in advance about what they wanted to do, and the argument about a clear timetable is this provides much needed structure. One school set up a virtual school, with a carefully thought out daily plan, posts and updates are scheduled, but learners can also return to these later. Teachers and learners without technology borrowed this from the school. The virtually school day is shorter, and it seems this approach is working well. Underlying this seems to be a clear management strategy, which has allowed teachers to learn within this system.

Living rooms have become virtual schools, for teachers and learners.

Of course the formal timetable approach also has some downsides. There are examples of schools who sent home an adjusted 9-3:30 timetable, then have been posting lots of activities or worksheets. In these cases it seems as if the school and leadership hasn’t had the time to think through what they are trying to achieve, and given the circumstances this is understandable. The advice, if using this method, that seems to be emerging is take it easy, don’t overload learners, family members or yourselves.

An alternative approach seems to be teachers and schools who are taking a more relaxed view, they sent home some activities, but are not putting huge pressure on the learners to complete tasks at certain times, or follow a regimented routine. The downside here is that in some cases the learners and their families may actually be looking for a little more structure. Obviously context here is key, and schools are best placed to know what the learners need.

One of the major issues amid all this is how we communicate effectively. Many other homes do not have the access to technology to support multiple learners. In Scotland most people are using the online intranet for schools, called Glow. This often maligned resource is now being put under a huge amount of pressure as thousands of users try and access it and upload work. Despite some issues I think it is just about coping so far, and my advice is have patience, especially if trying to upload files. I would also suggest getting your own informal support network, or PLC working, google and queries and get on Twitter, even if you have resisted it, #edutwitter will help you!

Adjusting to teaching remotely takes a while, and requires good technology.

The final observation is that some staff are struggling with the technology. This may be down to knowledge and skills or because leadership or the local authority (in Scotland anyway) having fixed rules. In one authority all devices have been set to only work into school. So where staff and pupils are trying to work using their own personal equipment, lots more tech sits locked up in schools. None of this could have ever been predicted and it is very easy to criticise, which is not the intention. It seems family members, friends, school staff and the learners themselves are doing really well. There is one final thing I am sure of, this entire experience will have allowed us to learn like never before.

Team Trad vs Team Prog (No, you’re a troll…)

I’ve written before about the value, and potential of twitter for teacher CPD. For movements like TeachMeets, ResearchED, Pedagoo and #BrewEd Twitter is invaluable. Events can be publicised, teachers can share ideas, and professional networks can be built. But the democratising potential of Twitter is, paradoxically one of the weak points. This is best illustrated with the battles between Traditionalist (Trads) and Progressives (Progs).

Subjects such as behaviour management, research in education, or direct instruction vs enquiry learning can lead to heated exchanges. At times this can deteriorate, quickly, in to people taking sides who then through around accusations or insults. Watching these interactions unfold I’ve had to resist the urge to recommend a spell in an isolation booth, or suggest some restorative justice, depending on which side of the argument these educators sit. If someone on either side goes too far there can be a ‘pile on’ with the partisan supporters rushing to defend, or in the worst case examples, attack the other side.

At times these edutwitter spats become demoralising and so I’ve unfollowed people at either end of the Trad/Prog continuum. However, more recently I’ve started to take a more pragmatic position, refollowing so that from a distance I watch and try and understand both perspectives. This is the objectivity that comes as second nature to those in the natural sciences. But in our social science and the education sector it is so very challenging, if possible at all, to step back from beliefs, values.

In the past I was very certain of what was ‘right’ and coming from a politically leftist view would dismiss anything, or anyone, to the right of the political centre ground as being a step away from fascism. I learnt the hard way by applying this to individuals, and seeing the polarisation around Brexit has troubled me more. It is a version of this that I see in the Trad vs Prog debates. I’m sure those on each extreme are certain they are right too, and in education probably come from a good place. What I’m less sure of is how this either helps or hinders debate and discussion. When these ‘spats’ get really bad it can lead to accusations that the opponents are trolling… and then the school yard name calling begins: “You’re a troll!”, “No YOU are a TROLL!”. At this point I imagine each side being hauled into a headteachers office and given a dose of the nurturing relationship building, or tough love sanctions that they had probably been arguing about.

Over the last few years as I studied and researched I realised how little I really knew about the subjects I was investigating. This has made me even more confident about my uncertainty. At the back of my mind I am constantly questioning if there may be another way of viewing an issue. Research evidence in education is phenomenally complex and I’m ok with this. I also think this is subtly different from worrying that I am ‘wrong’ because I might not be accepted, or I might not belong, which might be part of the issue when people worry about imposter syndrome.

So going back to the issue of educational Trads vs Progs, I’ve largely resisted the urge to join in on either side, or to follow the sensible advice to block or mute. I have gradually come to recognise the importance of listening, and trying to understand their positions. However, I also feel people should be able to question and challenge. But this is very difficult when people are convinced that they are right, and it is the other side who are the trolls. Will this be resolved anytime soon, probably not. If you have thoughts or comments on this I’d love to hear them. And if you disagree with me, then that’s ok…

Facing your fears and learning from them

The academic year has just started for the latest group of PGDE students at the University of Dundee and I imagine that as the year progresses there will be times when they will be apprehensive about placements, assignments, or the other day-to-day challenges whilst becoming a teacher. It is important that lecturers, and mentor teachers understand this. I teach primary science pedagogy and this is an area where some students have concerns, and can suffer anxiety. As a result I try hard to deliver this carefully and pitch the level so as not to disengage the students. However there have been times in the past where I have forgotten what it is like to be a beginning, or preservice, teacher.

Last weekend, although in a quite different situation, I was reminded what it is like to be apprehensive, and how that can quickly lead to panic and fear. Along with several friends I attempted a challenging hike, called the Ring of Steall, which turned out to be a valuable learning opportunity. Given the level of challenge of the walk we had been planning the trip for a long time. Last year we all headed to Fort William but due to late snow fall we had to cancel the attempt and climbed Ben Nevis instead. The pay off that time was that had a phenomenal view of the four snow-capped Munros that make up the Ring of Steall. This encouraged us and we rescheduled for the August bank holiday weekend this year, we planned ahead, did lots of research, and got in some physical training. In the week leading up to the walk two of us spent several days gradually increasing our walking distances and climbs.

My big concern was that I am not good with heights, in fact I wrote about this and stressful situations a while back. As a result, earlier this year I started indoor climbing and was making real progress and can now look back down from a 10 metre high wall with increased confidence. The day before our walk two of us climbed Ben Nevis, and physically I felt great, walking up and down in under 6 hours. At the summit where, due to a lack of snow, some walkers stood on the edge of the north face marvelling at the drop. I suddenly felt really uneasy. This was very different from the climbing wall, and the sheer drop of hundreds of metres made me question how I would manage on the Ring of Steall. And although this walk is completed by many people every year it has a certain Tolkeinesque quest quality about it, especially given the landscape.

Setting off, in high spirits, on a glorious summer day.

The day of the walk came and the stunning weather meant we had perfect conditions. The five of us had spent the night before going over the route, deciding where the challenges would be and what to do at certain points. The guidance notes included details of the sheer ridges, and which sections would be most challenging. And a boulder where you need to step out, and around a sheer drop, with no foothold. Great, I thought, that sounds lovely. We got an early night and woke ready to take on the walk in glorious sunshine. I had not slept well as thoughts of sheer drops and exposed ridges, and that boulder, ran through my mind. The video we had all watched in preparation made it all seem like it would be too much. But, I told myself, it would be ok, and my friend with the most experience of walking in such circumstances, like the Alps, reassured me that these videos often look worse than reality.

We began walking at 8am and reached the fantastic Steall Falls in good time, crossing the river on the wire bridge was straightforward, and I was feeling good. The foot of the falls also proved difficult, but we all got over, even though some were wetter than others. We traversed some really boggy ground, and I was enjoying the challenge, but it took a while before we reached the base of the first climb. I was thinking positively especially as I’d been encouraging some of my friends across the river (I’m far more comfortable when I can see the ground, even if it is underwater!). What I did think is that this first section has been harder than I had expected, and perhaps the ridges would too.

Chris conquering the rope bridge.

The first peak is An Gearanach and after an hour and a half walking and a bit of scrambling we approached the peak. My friends were doing great. But I was very quiet. Every time I glanced back I felt dizzy. I was holding the side of the hill as we traversed the steep path. It must have looked quite amusing to anyone else. My friends strolling along whilst I leaned into the solid ground for security. Now I knew this was not rationale. Lots of people climb this route and science tells me I would not fall off unless something very unusual, like an earthquake, happened. But that thought of ‘if’ was enough to maintain a high level of personal anxiety.

Eoin, showing more enthusiasm for the first peak than I did.

We reached the first peak and my friends stood on the edge and took in the magnificent views. I lay, face down, in the middle of the tiny plateau. To quote my friends later I was “hugging the mountain for security”. As we rested the anxiety mounted as I could see the route ahead along a terrifying exposed ridge. The glorious conditions made it so much worse, I think I’d have been happier with heavy cloud cover. My main worry was I might freeze on one of the ridges, and the Mountain Rescue would have to come and get me. I thought that if I turned back I might freeze on the descent, which was going to be worse as I would be looking down the hill. I made up my mind, and said I was going down. I said I would go on my own but my friends wouldn’t allow it. So after a short discussion Ian sacrificed the chance to accomplish something we’d been planning for years.

Ian, reaching out to touch Ben Nevis, just before he guided be back to safety.

So our intrepid group split, with Ian and I (Merry and Pippin in the Tolkien metaphor) going our own way, whilst the other three headed off to complete the journey – just without the end goal of throwing away a magic ring. Getting down wasn’t that easy, but we kept seeing people running, yes running, the route in preparation for the Ring of Steall Sky Race. This blew my mind, and gave me further thought for reflection, especially when applied to how experienced teachers must seem to beginning or preservice teachers. We finally reached the bottom and rested by the falls, watching families enjoy the crystal clear waters. The difference in how I felt, compared to a couple of hours earlier was marked, and made importance of ‘safe places’ in other walks of life too.

The walk back to our car was pleasant and we were pretty tired by the end, having still covered 7 miles including a considerable climb. We met up with the other three a few hours later and they were exhausted but really pleased to have finished the challenge. We headed back for a well earned pint and to reflect on the day. My friends shared their photos and agreed I’d made the right decision to turn back, especially as some of the ridges were really challenging. I think I would really like to try ridge walking again, to try and overcome this fear, but the real learning for me was how we deal with situations that cause high stress and anxiety. And in future if I think someone is in that position I can try to handle this with sensitivity that my friends did, and pitch how and when to encourage and push someone. I learnt a lot about myself that day, but a huge amount from my friends too.

If you want to see the highlights of the day, and track the route, Steve used a great app called Relive to put this video together. (And I think it would be a good teaching resource… so just a little more learning for me.)