Tuesday 24 December 2013

Reflections on 2013

This post was inspired by and in response to Lalita Raman's initial Reflections of 2013

What are you thankful for in the current year?
First and foremost, I am thankful that our baby boy was born happy and healthy on 27th July 2013. Moving back to the UK from Seychelles was a big decision and a daunting one; I was unsure as to whether I should do temporary/short term supply work or go for a full time contract. This decision was particularly tricky (financially) given that my wife is self-employed and we would be welcoming a new member to the family. Luckily, I found a full-time position at a school which I really love. I work with amazing people every day; they are constantly teaching me knew things and I have enjoyed sharing some of my skills with them too. I'm happy and my stress-levels are fairly low compared to what they had been at my last two places of work. I also have the support from a very knowledgeable and inspiring PLN. For all of this I am eternally grateful and thankful.

What are you proud of?
I am proud of my wife for giving birth at home without painkillers or any form of medication. It was very emotional, but I don't think we would have done it any other way.

I am proud of my students, many of whom have now graduated from University and some of them have chosen to pursue teaching as a profession. Many are still in touch and when I meet some of them in the street, they're so pleasant and mature. I think we did something (or indeed many things) right at St Marylebone School, so I am proud of what we did there in terms of educating the leaders and citizens of tomorrow. My current students also continue to amaze me with how motivated, inquisitive and imaginative they are, so I am proud of them.

I am proud that I got accepted onto Google Teacher Academy (second time lucky) and got to meet some truly inspiring people. The ideas we exchanged at GTA UK were innovative and inspiring and I look forward to applying what I've learnt.

What memories would you like to carry forward?
The happiness and relaxed culture of Seychelles-it reminds me that sometimes there are some things which are just not worth getting stressed out about. The creativity of St Marylebone and the rigour and curiosity of my current school are other positive things I'd like to carry forward.

What would you want the year 2014 to be?
A happy year, a year of change, a year of revolution. Let's not talk about resolution, what we need in many areas of our lives is revolution. One thing I learnt at GTA UK was that we cannot change the world, but we can certainly change our world. So speaking personally, I want to be less consumeristic and more realistic. I want 2014 to be a year of questioning and reflection; why am I doing things in a certain way? What if I did things differently? What can I continue to learn from others?

What can you offer to the coming year?
Free Computing resources, anything I have used I will share, as I did at the end of this term ( goo.gl/k6rM02  ). I can offer my time and advice to those willing to learn, share and exchange (about technology, computing and teaching in general) and I can offer more rejections to demands which would be "nice to do" but are not going to have significant impact on my teaching or my students' learning. I can also probably start to offer advice to parents of newborns!

I invite you also to share your reflections:
What are you thankful for in the current year?
What are you proud of?
What memories would you like to carry forward?
What would you want the year 2014 to be?
What can you offer to the coming year?

Sunday 3 November 2013

What do all outstanding teachers have in common?

What I'll be trying on the first day back Part 2!

I will start this post with a bit of pretext at the macro level. If you want to skip this, jump to paragraph 4.

I once worked in an inner-city London school, it was a non-selective school and so had a full comprehensive mix of students from the surrounding burroughs. 18 years ago, the school had 45% achieving 5 A*-C's at GCSE. For the past 10 years, the figure has been above 80%. Today the figure is 93%, yes that includes English and Maths! The headteacher once asked us the rhetorical question, "How did we turn it all around?" Answers varied from: Excellent teachers, small class sizes, a good leadership team, investing in the building, recruitment, teaching to the exam etc.

Her answer: "Whilst all of those things are important, none of it can happen without behaviour management. It doesn't matter if you recruit the most innovative and passionate teachers if bums are not on seats in lessons". In many schools across England, you can walk into a classroom before the teacher arrives and there is chaos...the teacher then has to spend 5 minutes instilling order.

Source: Multivox

There must be a way of having an orderly school with learners ready as soon as they enter a classroom. As a headteacher, she decided to find people who were strict, I will define this as teachers who could manage behaviour no-matter how challenging this was by applying a firm and fair behaviour policy, consistently every time.

She firmly believed that all kids inherently want to rebel. If you ban the use of MP3 players in lessons but allow it at break, one way of rebelling is walking into a lesson with your headphones on. However if you remove that barrier altogether by banning MP3 players within school time or within the school gates, you take that out of the equation. The mere sight of an MP3 player resulted in confiscation.

With this philosophy in mind, she set a strict uniform policy and her staff enforced it down to the minute details. It was an all-girls comprehensive and girls were only allowed to wear a blue, black or white headband. A child who might want to rebel would wear a pink hair accessory. The thing is there's a great difference in how much this rebellious act disrupts learning. In one school a child rebels by listening to music in class in another school a child rebels by wearing the wrong colour hair accessory. Clearly in the latter the impact to learning is minimal, yet students are still temporarily rebelling in the same way that any child wants to rebel at some point in their school career.

On the micro level, if you walk into any classroom of an outstanding teacher who generally delivers good or outstanding lessons. What do they have in common? If it's one thing that I've noticed in my 7 years of teaching it is this; they all exercise complete control of the classroom environment. Students know what is expected, "how things are run" as it were. They know exactly what is and what is not acceptable and that is because the teacher executes a behaviour management policy fairly and consistently. That is all. On top of that the teachers will differentiate, ensure marking is timely, actionable and specific, use a variety of assessment strategies, use lots of praise and constantly challenge their students of course. However, as a new teacher, I certainly remember focussing on all these other things, ticking all the boxes on the Ofsted-ready lesson plan. In hindsight, I should have started the year focussing on one thing- behaviour management. My school had a behaviour management policy, perhaps at times it wasn't explicit enough. Indeed, I have been in schools where there isn't a behaviour management policy or it is just very fluffy. If this is the case, you need to develop your own. Be explicit, train the students in it, be fair and consistent in its application. Even if "student X" is normally a "nice kid", if they talk when you are talking, you have to give a detention. They may cry and it may hurt you inside a little the first time you have to do this, but it will pay dividends later in the year. Why? You may ask. Why does my classroom need to run consistently like a machine? And does this mean there will be a room full of compliant robots with no creativity?

No. Quite the opposite in fact. Structure liberates.  If you want to see this in action, visit a dance or drama class at any leading school. The routines, rituals and behaviour management is always solid. Yet the students are able to be happy and creative learners all the same. When students know what is expected of them, they do not need to expend emotional or thinking time deliberating their actions and behaviours. They know what is expected of their behaviour, so they can focus on their learning. They can go from remembering and understanding all the way up to Analysing, Evaluating and Creating much quicker and their learning is much richer.

Indeed, differentiated worksheets and creative lessons cannot work without a controlled environment. It took me six years of teaching to realise this. I thought teaching was all about "teaching engaging lessons". In a way I was partly right, but in order to get there I needed to manage behaviour and exercise full control of my classroom first. "Engagement" is a dangerous aim to have and in an inner-city environment, you think that engagement is your ultimate means for success. "If I can engage everyone with exciting content and delivery, then students can learn and make progress". I still believe in this somewhat, but it is not the be-all and end all to an outstanding teacher.

I wanted to write this in August in time for teachers starting in September. If I were to give advice to any teacher starting a new school or simply a new year. I'd tell them that for the first 2 weeks, focus simply on behaviour and learning names. The lesson activities which introduce your subject are important, but without total engagement and control, it doesn't matter how fancy your slides are that you spent 6 hours preparing. Tom Bennett's top ten behaviour tips is essential reading if you don't have a week to read a book. Likewise, all his resources are worth dipping in to.

These two documents from Edutopia are also worth printing out and reading on your commute to school (unless you drive of course!)

10 Tips for Classroom Management (PDF)


If you are a member of SLT, help your teachers by designing an explicit behaviour policy that cannot be misinterpreted. Sweat the small stuff and make sure that teachers are applying it consistently. It will make your school a more pleasant place to be in and no, it won't hamper creativity. My first inner-city London school had a Performing Arts specialism and was recently awarded "Teaching school" status. There was no lack of creativity there and no, I don't think it  will impact negatively on student happiness and well-being. It makes perfect sense when you look at Maslow's hierarchy.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Students cannot attain self-actualization, they cannot learn effectively and efficiently unless they feel safe first. Consistent behaviour management through rules and routines ensures a safe learning environment in which teachers can teach.

If there is anything more important than behaviour management, I'd love to hear your views. I under-valued this aspect of teaching for so long because I didn't want to be the strict/mean teacher. However, having applied my school's extensive behaviour policy this year, I'm happier and the students are happier and we're making great progress together. It's a refreshing change!

Tuesday 15 October 2013

What does classroom innovation look like in your subject?

In my first year of teaching, I had the fortune of working with an exceptionally creative staff body. I was inspired practically every day by the innovation at the performing arts school. Some things I tried and they failed, but I failed in a safe environment, my line manager was forgiving and encouraging and that empowered me to innovate some more. Whilst my environment changed over the next 6 years of my teaching career, I was still inspired to innovate and create engaging lessons:

But the big question is how do we innovate? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would argue that creativity leads to happiness and it generally leads to flow and great innovation. As a dancer, I learnt that in order to create something original, we need to combine two (sometimes unrelated) elements. Nothing is truly new or original on its own, but in combination we can truly create and innovate. This lead to my first innovation in my first term of teaching, "Teaching spreadsheets through dance"

There are those that disagree that this style of constructive learning is beneficial, Harry Webb whilst commenting on an excellent post about Direct Instruction vs Constructivism states:

"...Constructivism also has damaging effects other than those associated with minimal guidance. It delegitimises the teacher as an expert. Teachers see themselves as needing to ‘engage’ students with ‘relevant’ and ‘authentic’ tasks; a sort of ‘customer knows best’ mentality. This pulls teachers away from focusing on cognitively taxing problems and forces them to introduce potentially distracting contexts. It also creates debilitating levels of guilt around a failure to deliver on nebulous concepts such as differentiation."

I would strongly disagree with Harry Webb who states that Direct Instruction should be used for all new content, I used constructivism for new content and combined with some direct instruction later on, it had a dramatic effect. All students achieved 1+ grade of value added and that same set scored 100% A-C in their GCSE ICT exam, most notably they were all comfortable using spreadsheets throughout their school career.

Indeed, students themselves may innovate and in turn lead us teachers to re-evaluate our teaching and curriculum as was the case when a student demonstrated to the class how to make a game us presentation software, in this case, Powerpoint:

At times however, innovation does not look pretty. Indeed it can simply be deciding to teach using a very didactic form of Direct Instruction as was the case in these revision sessions. To make them a bit more accessible and to maximise time:learning ratio, we could also do these as Vlogs:


I wont really get into the flipped classroom debate here but I can say that that it worked well with my GCSE classes who were very much engaged by the multimedia nature of the Vlogs. I'd be interested to hear how other people have innovated in their respective subjects and perhaps we could all learn a bit more from each other as we combine and re-apply these techniques.

Monday 7 October 2013

What can teachers learn from Stephen Covey and chess grandmasters?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

At our school, we have staff enrichment (i.e. CPD) every Monday. During these CPD sessions, we are sometimes able to choose from a menu of sessions. One session was entitled "How to be an effective form tutor" another was entitled "How to manage your time more effectively". It was September, we had just had a baby boy 2 months ago and I was getting by on 3-6 hours broken sleep in a day; surprisingly, I was very productive however unsurprisingly, I still opted for the second session!

What did I learn. Two things, first of all, there are only certain things we can control in our life. Whilst working as a door-to-door book salesman,  I learnt a phrase "control the controllables". Our Sales leader had obviously read Covey:

Source: Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1999)

We must sort ourself out and accomplish private victories before we can accomplish greater public victories. One of those private victories and one which is related to numbers 1-3 above is managing our own time and strategic planning.

This ties into the second thing I learnt about time management. We should try to plan well in advance, having a strategic overview and also planning by the week rather than by the day. As a result we minimise the number of things in the top left corner AKA Crisis Corner.

Source: www.island94.org Adapted from Stephen Covey

How many of us simply let the important things build up until they become urgent and start to seriously stress us out?

 Source: Flickr FJTUrban

A few days later it hit me, the teacher who delivered our CPD (yes, most of our CPD is delivered by our own staff) is an avid chess player. Perhaps there was a link between chess and time management as a teacher. Like teaching, chess is a game of strategy. You have to have an end goal, i.e. where you want your students to be at the end of the term/year. Likewise, whilst it helps to know your opponent in chess, it helps to know your classes and students so that you can plan your tactics carefully. I make no comparison to battlefields and the front-line though!

Similarly, the sequences of moves/lessons strike me as another parallel. And finally, as Covey advises us to plan by the week to avoid crises, in chess if we simply play one move at a time, one lesson at a time, one day at a time, we'll soon find ourselves in moments of stress and crisis as too many things hit us at once. Perhaps, we should all be teaching like a chess grandmaster. We could have set strategies, plan our moves (lessons) well in advance perhaps several moves ahead with a medium and long term goal in mind. We could have a backup plan should our students go off track or make an unanticipated move(ment) in progress. With all this in place, I believe it is less likely that we will get caught out. Instead we will spend more of our time in "The Zone", planning and delivering good and outstanding lessons, rather than flailing around fighting small fires in the bottom left corner or dealing with larger fires in the top left.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts. Am I just stating the obvious or does the analogy help us manage our time more effectively as teachers?

Friday 28 December 2012

Useful websites for IGCSE ICT

IGCSE ICT, run by a former teacher from ISS Mahé. The site covers all theory and practical aspects in detail.

The ICT Lounge offers straightforward material for the IGCSE. Some of the files open as seperate PDF's. Useful for revision and self-study purposes.

Friday 26 October 2012

Around the world in a week

For the last week of half-term, lessons were planned on the theme of "Around the world in a week". This involved students rotating around different countries each day (sometimes more than 1 a day). Here they would learn a bit about a country's culture and participate in some learning, be it in new languages, arts, crafts, cooking, maths or experiments. It was a huge success and this video shows some of the highlights. The week ended with a MUFTI day and a cake sale.

Friday 19 October 2012

5 free sites to learn programming and computer science

Code Avengers http://www.codeavengers.com/
Javascript, HTML, CSS

Learn Javascript (and they have recently added HTML/CSS). They even have a rap/theme tune which is quite catchy. Great for kids and adults alike.

Code academy http://www.codecademy.com/

Python, Javascript, Ruby, JQuery, HTML CSS
Probably more geared towards 16+/Adults as there's less of the animated kids graphics in there.

edX: https://www.edx.org/ 
Certified university level courses in Programming, Saas, Computer graphics etc

Free lessons from MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, University of Texas. You even get a free certificate from HarvardX, MITX etc. What more could you ask for?

Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/ 

Purely for the love of learning, you can learn a huge range of subjects


A huge range of free courses including:
    Biology & Life Sciences
    Computer Science: Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Vision
    Computer Science: Systems, Security, Networking
    Economics & Finance
    Electrical and Materials Engineering
    Health and Society & Medical Ethics
    Information, Technology, and Design
    Physical & Earth Sciences

    Business & Management
    Computer Science: Programming & Software Engineering
    Computer Science: Theory
    Food and Nutrition
    Humanities and Social Sciences
    Music, Film, and Audio Engineering
    Statistics, Data Analysis, and Scientific Computing

University of Cambridge: http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/freshers/raspberrypi/tutorials/os/
Build an operating system using a Raspberry Pi

Tuesday 25 September 2012

How culture affects teaching, learning and attention spans

I haven't blogged for a while here as I recently moved away from the busy hustle and bustle of London to take up a teaching post in Seychelles. One thing became apparent very quickly, Seychelles is like 1970's Britain in many ways. You can read more about this on my Seychelles blog. In short:

1) People know their neighbours and say hello to everyone in the street
2) You have to do your grocery shopping in three different shops as there are no big supermarket chains
3) Everyone is less-distracted and less stressed-out.

What on earth has this got to do with learning? I was not alone in my search for sanity and serenity, I was joined by 5 other teachers from the UK. The first thing we all remarked on was the length of time Seychellois students could concentrate for. At the London school where I was teaching for 6 years, I would usually cap most learning tasks to 15 mins max. Even the main of a lesson would have plenty of mini-plenaries, not for OFSTED's sake (diagnostic marking, AFL etc), but purely because many students would lose focus otherwise. This was in an outstanding school by the way, where behaviour needed to be managed, but would never be regularly disruptive.

In Seychelles, students happily work for 20-30 mins on any given task; silent-reading for English,  intensive spreadsheet work or programming in ICT, writing up notes in response to a texts/sources in History. Students are much more willing to help each other too. There is a genuine sense of community and little sense of aggressive competition or ego. When asked to identify a series of logo's for a logo design lesson, half the class could not identify the Nike logo.

When an English teacher read out some famous blurbs from biographies such as Didier Drogba, Beyonce and Rihanna, the students were blank. They had vaguely heard of these celebrities, but were not at all concerned with keeping up-to-date with their gossip. Tom Cruise was recently sat in a café  on the neighbouring island of La Digue. Nobody bothered him at all. Passers-by could not care less.

Another teacher also recently modelled world aid and economies using biscuits. Dividing students onto tables which represented different countries. Some countries had more biscuits to start with and others less. He asked them how they would feel if a country took asked to have a load of biscuits as they didn't have any but then that country never repaid them back. A student simply responded "That's OK, we don't mind". There were many other analogies done in that lesson such as population density and famine, but the students responded quite coldly. This lesson, when delivered in the UK was graded as "Outstanding". Perhaps the Seychellois students were not used to such innovative/creative teaching methods that we (have to) employ in the west to keep our students engaged. They have been used to reading text books and answering questions and so this is what they know and do well.

It is fair to say that local and national culture has a huge part to play on teaching and learning style. Seychellois students do not have the same stimuli as students in the UK/USA/Europe. They are not constantly playing with their phones, apps, twitter etc. They do not need constant stimulation through flashing lights. The amount of time spent on video games is quite low, the time spent outside playing volleyball, running, playing football is much greater. So in many cases, Seychelles is like 1970's Britain. But things are slowly changing. The country recently had fibre optic broadband laid down and some households are using USB Internet dongles. I wonder how long it will take before student's attention spans diminish from 30 mins to 3mins. Or whether it will happen at all. As the world flattens, I don't have an answer, but am happy to be teaching in a productive environment and will slowly phase in those crazy/create lessons. Teaching spreadsheets through dance may have to wait!