Language & literacy vs STEM

Trigger warning: This post is deliberately provocative. Feel free to challenge it! I want to encourage discussion and hope everyone steps backs from their personal experience to consider this issue in detail.

A while ago I joined in with a debate on Twitter about qualifications required to undertake teacher (yes I know we call it ‘education’ but that’s fit another day) training in Scotland. It became apparent that I wasn’t able to explain my view in a few tweets so I promised to blog about it – so here it is. Currently you need Higher English but not maths, or any science at all, to get on an ITE course in Scotland. There also appears to be a divide between those who argued for language or those who advocated for STEM. Arguments include that because teachers must communicate with parents a Higher English qualification is essential. I think this is a weak argument, and slightly patronising. I suspect someone who has worked in a war-zone in the forces, or in A&E on a regular basis, will have excellent communication skills that would easily transfer to schools. In comparison passing a course judged on writing essays will prepare you to write more essays. And it may even reinforce certain language or linguistic prejudices about what is ‘right’. I could go on here about verbal communication and teaching the ‘correct (middle/upper class?) speech model’.

I would like to raise another point. Education is a social science, closer to humanities and language based subjects. We get students from the natural sciences coming across to education, and entering the essay writing disciplines, and managing very well. But others find the transition understandably challenging. However I am not sure if many people successfully move the other way, from humanities, art or language based UG courses to postgraduate level STEM subjects (although there are conversion courses for medicine, which I applaud). Building on this education, especially at primary level, is dominated by people who have a background, and usually a preference for, language or humanities over STEM subjects. You also get teachers boasting they ‘don’t do’ STEM but rarely anyone saying the same about humanities or English. I am not saying one us better than the other, and in fact both are needed. So I think our teaching and assessment on ITE courses should reflect this too. What really terrifies me is the lack of basic scientific (and research) literacy amongst those in education including those working in ITE. And I think some of the arguments on this topic of language vs STEM simply highlight this issue.

Returning to the issue of qualifications I don’t think we should insist on Higher maths or science, but we shouldn’t require Higher English either. It is there as a hoop to jump through, a way to sort or sift candidates, and from my experience it may even limit the ability of our future teachers to think critically. Often students are far more worried about getting the format of a reference list ‘right’ than understanding why we need to reference at all. This is a product or output focussed approach, and runs through education like a poisonous fungal hyphae (get me, using a science inspired simile!). The same issue is reflected in the obsession with grammar ‘rules’ or spelling, which become a proxy weapon to exert superiority, is damaging education at all levels.

Oh, and I feel I should declare my own qualifications here. I don’t have maths or English at Higher or A-level, so find asking our applicants for it ever so slightly hypocritical. Of course this blog post is just my opinion, and a real scientist would reject my arguments for a lack of a tangible evidence base. But I’m a social scientist now so I can say anything I want. I just have to make sure I write it all out nicely. The end.


Another election and the return of Gove

Well for the first election in quite a while I did not wake up feeling miserable and depressed. One of the (many) reasons for the surprising Labour resurgence was tactical voting and some cooperation from broadly left parties. Like the UKIP vote the Green vote decreased, although Caroline Lucas in Brighton showed what a good politician can do, whereas UKIP have been found wanting in this respect. But the point here is that those voters dispersed to other parties and it was where these votes went that played a big part in the result. Across England there were also some interesting results and I think there were many people, with a variety of reasons, who regarded this as a chance for a protest vote, Kensington is a great point in case. In fact it seems as protest voting us now the norm although that might not be as bad a thing as it sounds. Another way of looking at this is to say people are looking at policies and making informed choices. They may also be sick of the media and politicians but still want their voices heard.

Scotland was one place where the Conservatives had some good news and the broadly left SNP were rejected in several places for the Tories. Whatever people in the SNP say this was in no small part due to annoyance with talk of IndyRef 2 and being blamed for mishandling policy at Holyrood. I am not entirely happy with how the SNP are handling education. But because this was a Westminster election I didn’t factor this in to my decision. I couldn’t vote Green where I live as they didn’t stand a candidate. I considered voting Labour, partly to boost the overall vote share for Corbyn, who I think had been great during the campaign. However I decided I had a straight choice between Lib Dem and SNP. Either party, I reasoned, would challenge the Tories so it didn’t really matter. I even considered flipping a coin to decide. I had heard some good things of Stephen Gethins the sitting MP in North East Fife so eventually voted for him. So imagine my surprise when I heard, on election results morning, that there were only 2 votes between the two lead candidates. In fact if I’d voted Lib Dem then it would have been a dead heat… and in this case the returning officer would, and I’m not making this up, flip a coin to decide the winner. This has never happened before, although ironically given my indecisiveness, it seems I came very close to making this happen!

Since Thursday the fall out from this very interesting election has resulted in everyone now knowing a lot more about the DUP, and politics in Northern Ireland, and plenty of humble pie consumption from those who underestimated Jeremy Corbyn. The right wing tabloids have, unsurprisingly, turned on Theresa May, and Donald Trump suddenly seems less keen to visit (although I think it might be quite fun now). Then today a minor cabinet reshuffle has landed Michael Gove in the role of Environment Secretary. Having endured him as education secretary I am wondering what his new ideas might involve. A fishing Academy chain maybe? Free Farms anyone? And perhaps every house in the country will be sent a copy of his own thoughts on Fracking… quite how the next few years will pan out is anyone’s guess. But it is certainly an interesting time to be alive.

Gardening in Tayport and relevant school science

I have been living in Scotland for four and a half years and before moving here I did quite a bit of gardening. When I lived in Newcastle I had a nice vegetable plot and even kept chickens but since moving north haven’t had the same space and the growing season is a little shorter. I have added a small vegetable bed in the garden at my current house in Tayport but have only planted some salad crops and a few roof vegetables. I’m hoping the sandy soil will be good for parsnips, but won’t know till the winter. So I was really pleased to find that Tayport has an excellent community garden. This is a new project and has generated great interest in the village and recently they hosted a superb family open day. Everyone was really friendly and welcoming and I bumped into a work colleague who was doing face painting.

Richard Holme Tayport Plant

Vegetable patch in the Tayport garden

The local community have really embraced this project and links to the local school seem really strong with former teachers and scientists who live in the area supporting the school staff. Sadly opportunities like this are sometimes difficult for schools to access but I am convinced that a strong local community makes it so much easier. Once this is established the young people and their friends and families can continue and ensure projects are maintained. One of the real challenges for these sort of projects is that they do not become overly managed or controlled. From what I can see of the Tayport project this is certainly not the case here.

Tayport plant

A multi-talented local resident getting involved in the open day

One of the things I was really interested in was the links to science and how this was being applied in the garden. There was a really interesting display covering soil testing and showed some of the work that had been done by a volunteer who is also a professional scientist. This was great as the people visiting the garden, including the local school pupils and teachers, could learn about why science is so important in areas like horticulture. When I taught as a primary school teacher I carried out a project exploring marine ecosystems, funded by a grant from the Royal Society for Science, and I am sure that a project linking science of soil testing and application to growing yields would be supported by this fund. We may put a project application together, with the local Primary school in the future. If anyone reading this wants to know more about developing such a project you can read the case study or I’d be happy to let you know what we did.
Tayport plant

Soil test results at the PLANT project Tayport

For me the best thing about the display, and the work being done by the school at the garden, was this was not contrived and of real, practical benefit. Sometimes primary school science can be overly simplistic (e.g. learning names of planets) or lacking relevance (e.g. extracting DNA from saliva) but this example showed that, with a bit of effort, it doesn’t have to be. Returning to my own garden, and my parsnips, perhaps I should have tested the soil. But I’ll have to get some pointers from the staff and students at the Tayport garden first!


Edushare blogging and conformity

A bit of a ‘stooshie’ kicked off on Twitter a week or so back, and I wasn’t sure about blogging on this topic. After some contemplation, given the fact that transparency is something I value and all this is in the public domain, I’ve decided to publish this post. Also I invite, indeed welcome, comment on this topiceven if this challenges my view (especially from those mentioned).

So what was the issue? Over the last couple of years education students at Dundee University have been encouraged to write blogs, mainly led by my colleague Derek Roberston, although other staff have been involved too. The original rationale was to encourage reflection, analysis and greater confidence in expressing opinions and debating ideas about education, in a public forum. This is quite a step forward as in my experience teachers, particularly in the primary sector, are not always been keen on voicing opinions openly. The blogs are hosted on Glow (Scotland’s educational intranet) and syndicated using the #edushare tag. The results have been quite remarkable as a good proportion of students have really taken to this, some with real enthusiasm, despite there being no formal requirement to do so. Of course staff, including Derek, have encouraged this but I really like the unforced nature of the blogs, which also act as a portfolio tracking progress (unlike the GTCS professional update process, which is ‘signed off’ by a manger every 5 years). Derek had been Tweeting about Glow and the blogs and in doing so he drew attention from beyond our University. He has also blogged about this and how it has influenced the culture of the students.

And this brings us to the ‘shooshie’. Derek was challenged, by Andrew Old a teacher who also blogs, about the issue of conformity within the University of Dundee and lack of originality in the #Edushare blogs. Andrew argued that ‘You get dozens of trainees all saying the same things. Not a good advert for an academic institution.‘ I could see why he may have thought this as there are multiple blog posts on similar topics, but as the undergraduate course has 60+ students per year and they get the same lectures, this isn’t really surprising. Andrew then went on to suggest that students weren’t able to challenge the common view. But what came next was very interesting. One of the students (Sharon) joined the debate, signposting their own blog as evidence. I hope you’d agree this is not what you’d expect from a ‘trainee’ who had been subjected to enforced institutional conformity.

It isn’t surprising that Andrew put this view forward as he curates a blog (The Echo Chamber) which explicitly aims to challenge the usually progressive view of education put forward by many. Personally I see this presence of a counter point as being important, whether you agree with the position or not. In my last post I mentioned how I’d be made aware of criticism of a theoretical  model of digital technology (SAMR) which I’d tweeted about. Ironically it was Derek that alerted me to the criticism. But he did this in a constructive manner (I do know him personally, so maybe that helped) and the way in which others then contributed to the debate allowed me to enhance and deepen my understanding. In his doctoral thesis on the Twitter and leadership Tim Jefferis classes this phenomenon as ‘unresolved tensions’. Perhaps as Twitter, and social media in general, evolves as a professional development tool facing up to these tensions will lead to education becoming more open, honest and transparent.

Anyway regardless of the outcome of this current debate I think, as a lecturer and teacher, I’ve learnt plenty from this experience. Firstly the #edushare blogs are having an impact because people beyond Dundee University have noticed them, and engaging with them to a degree which they feel they can challenge them. Secondly although the criticism from Andrew could have knocked the confidence of the student bloggers I think it may have the opposite effect by getting them talking about this issue, with some clearly wanting to show this is not the case. But most importantly I am going to think about how I approach teacher education (maybe there are times where ‘group think’ prevails?). And how we deal with this to become even better in future. I’ve already started by discussing this Twitter debate with a group of PG education students, some of whom had seen the debate unfold. However I stopped short of telling them what I thought because I need to trust them to do the thinking for themselves.  And who knows, they might blog about it later…

Twitter for teacher CPD and STEM teaching in primary

As a teacher educator I’m really interested in the potential of social media for CPD. The way colleagues and students have engaged with this especially this year has been amazing. Recently I have been reading a PhD thesis on this very topic by Tim Jefferis. I was made aware of Tim’s work through my own PhD research so I might write about this later. But I think Tim’s research is well worth reading and not just because it is extremely accessible. One of Tim’s findings was that the tweeps (tweeting teachers) in his study embraced the opportunity to debate ideas and liked being challenged. I find this open, even courageous attitude refreshing. I recently experienced this sort of debate first hand, whilst discussing digital technology theory on twitter, and am convinced such experiences are helping me develop as a researcher and as a more resiliant learner. In the example below, within a few seconds of tweeting, I was able to engage with several very well-informed professionals. My own understanding was taken forward far faster than if I’d been researching this area on my own.

Unfortunately I don’t think all teachers are like this and some are fearful of being ‘wrong’ so shy away from challenges. A good example is with the teaching of STEM subjects in primary school. This issue was being debated via the #scotedchat earlier tonight where I argued that there is a fear of science and maths subject teaching and a reluctance from some primary teachers to address this. Whilst tweeting I offered to give examples of topics where conceptual understanding was particularly problematic (see below). Examples include teaching the topics of ‘space’, ‘sound’ or ‘floating and sinking’ (i.e. density) which are often covered in early years but without a sensible rationale.

When I see floating and sinking taught this usually translates into a lesson based around making something that floats, or sinks, probably with placticine. But the concept of density requires an understanding of mass and volume. When applied to floating and sinking an understanding of forces (gravity, air resistance, up thrust) is also important. These are all fairly simple ideas for any adult, educated to degree level, to comprehend but the teacher must have a sound understanding so these can be introduced to learners in a carefully considered manner. So lots of thinking and planning is needed. And this requires intellectual and attitudinal effort so in reality teachers (who are under a variety of pressures) opt for a water tray and a few toy boats. 

I really hope this situation will change and would argue the way teachers and students are engaging with social media, and taking responsibility for their own development, is a huge step in the right direction. If you want some evidence of this why not check out the #uodedu Twitter posts or visit some of the Edushare blogs written by Dundee University education students and staff.

Top down educational leadership in Scotland

A big story in Scottish education broke last year as the SNP government decided to change the policy on primary school testing. Details are still emerging but this is likely to lead to a lot of discussion among those involved in education over the coming years. Most recently a series of benchmarks, that match to Curriculum for Excellence Experiences and Outcomes have been published. The feeling amongst some in education is that these benchmarks have been published to prepare the ground for the standardised tests.

The announcements on this issue have not been well received and a former colleague (previously a head teacher) predicted strike action from the teaching unions. There have also been questions raised about how widely the government consulted on the decision. This led to some great investigative journalism which in turn raised serious questions about the true reason (ideology?) for the new policy. Having worked in England under the OFSTED regime, and mandatory SATs testing, I feel I am able to comment on some of the downsides of the proposal. I did not like the idea of subjecting young learners to the pressure of formalised testing conditions. Nor did I see any value in these scores being made widely available. I quickly realised that children (and the adults in their lives) learnt where they had been placed among their peers. The academic sorting starts early in the English education system.

The controversial SATs test exam booklets. Easily recognisable to any primary teacher in England

Alongside this, on a more local level, in Dundee the council has recently invested heavily in a commercial programme of synthetic phonics. This appears to be following the Westminster government lead who began pushing such schemes and systems some years ago. The author and former Children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, is an outspoken critic. He explains why in this short video and the general idea of synthetic phonics is that pupils learn to read by way of highly procedural, even formulaic resources. The delivery agent (probably a teacher) has to follow the scheme exactly, so the producers say, or it won’t work. In fact the guidance is so clear it is not obvious if a teacher is needed to deliver these schemes at all. Critics and cynics argue these schemes are designed primarily to make a profit and they remove the opportunity for teachers to use their judgement making the process of education (and therefore attainment?) far easier to manage (or control?). Furthermore evidence of any long term success is debated. Despite this Dundee Council have spent over £375,000 on this project and of that expenditure more than £195,000 has gone on the purchase of the resources alone (information obtained via another FOI request last year). In many cases this is simply replacing an existing phonics or reading scheme a school was already using. Of course the scheme may work by plugging the gaps which would be left by an otherwise poorly performing teacher who simply does not understand how to teach language and literacy (and maybe teacher educators need to some responsibility here so I hold my hand up). Unfortunately other solutions that may tackle this underlying problem are likely to involve time, hard work and may not be particularly easy for the teachers or school managers involved. Teacher performance management is notoriously challenging (few teachers who become senior managers have experience in this area and it can be a very unpleasant process) and quality teacher professional development takes time and commitment from all involved.

A text book from the Ruth Miskin Read, Write, Inc scheme

Of course these top down interventions in education may be the result of an underlying ideology. Many people have begun to question the ruling SNP government approach to various policy areas, including education. This idea of increased centralisation is being closely examined even by people who support the SNP. Of course to many people this may seem sensible as it allows standardisation and closer scrutiny and control. However, the downside could be a lack of autonomy, ownership and ultimately may result in feelings of disempowerment. So what is driving this agenda? Well it is not easy relinquishing control and some teachers might not want the responsibility. This approach requires trust from both sides. Unfortunately, from my personal experience, two ‘professions’ who find the concept of trust, and letting go of control difficult (if not impossible) are teachers and politicians. And I suspect this debate is only just getting started.


Scholarship and research in teaching

Having previously blogged during a research seminar, and found this of value, I thought I’d try this again so this post is based on notes I made during a seminar discussing the topic of scholarship. The session was being led by Professor Brian Hudson from the University of Sussex and there were a range of people from lecturer to dean level in attendance from a variety of disciplines including teaching, community education and education psychology. The discussion began with a consideration of the nature of scholarship, research and the tensions of balancing this with administrative and mangerial roles. It quickly became apparent that a shared understanding of the term scholarship was an issue. What was less clear was why people had these different views and interpretations. I suggested that even using social media, and reading relevant tweets, could feed in to this process. Although I got the feeling not everyone in attendance agreed but that is no bad thing as debate can facilitate the learning process.

As the session developed the first key point, for me, was that scholarly attributes (Andresen, 2000) start with critical reflectivity and should be seen as a habit of mind. This is followed by engagement in public coversation and scrutiny, as everyday practice, and an underpinning spirit of curiosity – motivation or drive – or an ethic of enquiry. This seemed fairly clear but got me thinking if this is obvious to everyone (academics and students) and more importantly, if not how is this approach encouraged or fostered without being forced or imposed. 


Brian Hudson leading the discussion on scholarship

The discussions moved on to research focussing on maths teaching. Brian made reference to a text by Mason et al. (2010) which highlights the value of mathematicians getting stuck. I was aware of the text and agreed with this view (having overcome maths anxiety myself) but Brian explained that even higher level advanced maths scholars encounter this. Suddenly I made a connection. Through engagement with Twitter I’d been following a physics PhD student from St Andrews University. His regular reference to getting stuck then finally overcoming difficult maths problems made this idea real for me. I even thought I could share this with education students or young learners in school. I also think this also links well to the need for teachers taking personal responsibility, and ownership of their professional development, and the importance of teacher agency. 

There have been some great examples of autonomous professional learning here at the University of Dundee, in the School of Education and Social Work, such as a book club initiated by a staff member and taken forward with input from the students, which was very well attended by at the first session this year. This year PGDE students have also set up their own study groups to support essay writing and a theory discussion group. For staff there are plans for a journal club which could prove to be very helpful. At Strathclyde University the students run a very popular CPD society and they organise events including TeachMeets.


University of Dundeee, Education Book Club

So what did I make of the scholarship session? Well I may argue that the session was a great example of scholarship in action as I and others present critically evaluated our ideas and hopefully have been motivated to go on and inquire more. And for anyone still struggling with the concept of scholarship, I hope they are just temporarily stuck, and like Mason’s mathematicians will embrace this feeling then strive to overcome it. 


Scholarship in action


Andresen, L. W. (2000) A Useable, Trans-disciplinary Conception of Scholarship, Higher Education Research & Development, vol. 19, No. 2, 137-153.

Mason, J., Burton, L. and Stacey, K. (2010) Thinking Mathematically, Harlow: Prentice Hall.