How vampiric are you?

I picked up a little book on holiday this week and read the short biography of the editor. This revealed a career path from Grammar School to Cambridge to Public School to Eton housemaster which filled me with sadness and contempt for its utter lack of imagination.

Now, I know this is judgemental and probably wildly wrong but but this judgement seemed to be underlined when I read this editor’s introduction to the book. It was safe, unadventurous and deadly dull. Having read it, I wish I hadn’t wasted those precious minutes of my life doing so.

So, here is a stereotype of a man who was good enough as a child to secure a place at a Grammar School (I did, but the year they dropped the 11-plus). At Grammar School he was successful enough to go up to Cambridge. No doubt he was inspired by his role models, his teachers. Having read languages – with the whole wide world open right before him – he becomes as teacher. Straight back to the swamp from which he had just emerged. Continue reading


… a crossword. One of the interesting things about being a producer of online material – whether that be blogs, learning resources, online community sites or crosswords, is that sometimes you get no direct response. Feedback is important so that you can gauge whether or not what you’re doing is any good. If it’s rubbish, you can consider whether it’s worth the effort doing it again. If it’s brilliant, you can be encouraged to keep doing it. If it’s in between, you can find out how to improve it.

Pixie Puzzle No8

Click the puzzle.

Some of the things I do online yield positive responses: the physics resources site I run over at gets little response online but when I meet users or engage in one-on-one email exchanges, I often get positive comments about how useful it is, and this encourages me to keep working at it. It’s a nice feeling to be making lives easier.

Sometimes, though, you can work hard to put something “out there” and get little to nothing back. Two examples: one, is the audio commentaries and reflections I publish through iTunes and AudioBoo. Although most of these get thousands of listeners, which itself is gratifying, I almost never get a response. It’s a bit like shouting at the radio. I know how that feels, I do it often enough.

The other example is the cryptic crosswords I have been publishing over the past year – 7 in total. As any cruciverbalist will tell you, these take quite a bit of effort to put together, even with the aid of the brilliant tool that I use, John Stevens’ Magnum Opus program. Despite a couple of thousand downloads, I have only ever received a handful of comments or solutions.

So. I saw a guy in Costa yesterday, settling down with the Saturday Times Crossword. He’d finished a substantial chunk of it by the time he got up to leave, so I wrote the web address of my most recent puzzle on a receipt and pressed it upon him and asked him to take a look and let me know what he thought. Bless his heart, he did so, posting the magic words, “Enjoyed the crossword…”.

You have no idea how good that made me feel. Click the puzzle if you’d like to try one.

This is a text


“… a text is the medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated.”

So runs the CfE definition of a text. Therefore, this is a physics text. In the hands of a competent physics teacher, this image, of the first electric chair, tells the story of the current wars in which Westinghouse and Tesla fought Edison over which type of current would deliver energy from the generation plant to consumers: AC or DC. Edison secretly paid Harold P Brown to design and build the electric chair, to show the lethality of alternating current. He promoted the phrase, to be “Westinghoused” to mean executed by electrocution. In the event, the first electrocution failed to kill the prisoner, William Kemmler, due to a miscalculation. Westinghouse remarked that they would have done better using an axe.

With the right text, sufficient knowledge and passion, the competent teacher can bring even the dullest curriculum alive. Consider National 4 Physics Key Area: “Advantages and disadvantages of different methods of electricity generation and distribution.”

Teaching Perspectives

tpiI was directed to something called the teaching perspectives inventory, which I had not heard of before, by a PGDE student at Moray House. She had taken the survey before starting the course to give herself an insight into her own attitudes to teaching and as a benchmark: she intends taking the survey again at the end of the year to try and gauge how much her outlook has changed as a consequence of the year. If you’re not aware, the PGDE in Scotland is a one-year professional graduate diploma at Master’s level which delivers 18 weeks in university and 18 weeks in school placement. At the end of the year, successful students progress to (paid) probation and on to full registration as teachers.

Those of you that know me will not be surprised that I couldn’t resist taking the inventory test myself, to see where I sit in the five perspectives as a fairly new university teacher. The results are interesting (click the image for the full size).

My dominant perspective according to the analysis is Nurturing: “Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, not the head”. I like this. It is characterised by phrases like, “learners [...] are working on issues or problems without fear of failure”, “their achievement is a product of their own effort and ability”, “[teachers promote] a climate of caring and trust”, and “[t]heir assessments of learning consider individual growth as well as absolute achievement”.

I am recessive in Transmission: “Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter”. I think I like this too. My role as I see it is substantially about developing people and their attitudes, over content. In the survey, I am sure I was a little fuzzy with the responses, still being a recent secondary classroom teacher of physics. Although I have a responsibility to challenge student teachers to assess, challenge and develop their physics understanding (and to continue to do so), my more significant task is in areas like pedagogy, complexity, social justice and professional responsibility.

The other three perspectives (Apprenticeship, Development and Social Reform) sit around the mean. I’m not alarmed by this, although my conscience pricks itself when it comes to Development, “Effective teaching must be planned and conducted from the learner’s point of view.”, because it’s one of my mantras. Perhaps my response to the survey brings this out as below dominant because I put this principle into practice by proxy: in my mind as I do my job, above the needs of the students in front of me, are the needs of the young people they will teach. Controversially, my role has been defined by some as “gatekeeper”, the one who prevents ineffective teachers from making it to the classroom.

There’s more to reflect on here, I think. If you are an educator, you might give it a try yourself?

EDIT: There’s more information on teaching perspectives in Pratt, D. D. (2002). Good teaching: one size fits all?, which includes this:

Perspectives are neither good nor bad. They are simply philosophical orientations to knowledge, learning, and the role and responsibility of being a teacher. Therefore it is important to remember that each of these perspectives represents a legitimate view of teaching when enacted appropriately.



The power of the individual

A teacher, relatively new to Social Media networks for professional development and education, posted this with a link to an interesting but not uncommon “test” of the power of Twitter:


We’ve seen these kinds of thing before, and they are a standard gimmick for presenters of CPD workshops on the use of social media. Do these tricks represent power, however? I think they demonstrate something: connectivity, reach, that the new “community” isn’t restricted by geography or even timezone. By themselves, they do not demonstrate power. What is power? Whether you take the common usage or a stricter scientific definition, one could characterise “power” as the ability to change things.

Now, perhaps through jealousy or feelings of inadequacy, or maybe it’s just my age (I should be buying a Harley), I’m deeply suspicious of philanthropy. I regard the motivations of those who would throw money around with suspicion. The arrogance of those who, through whatever means have found themselves with serious amounts of money, then pityingly and patronisingly share life-changing amounts of it with the “poor” or “disadvantaged”, has always irritated me. If we had a fairer society, these benefactors wouldn’t have such disgusting wealth in the first place, and nor would those who needed the help, need it as much, if at all. More to the point, the pet projects and politics of the philanthropist wouldn’t prevail unfairly over more objective criteria.

cullaloe_2013-04-03So, in studying OER (Open Educational Resources) in the h817open mooc, it is mentioned in passing that, “Many OER projects have received funding from bodies such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation“. My own experience in state education made me flinch at reading this. Whether open or not, I have seen that almost all educational resources used in public (state) schools are developed by the class teacher – often on their own time and at their own expense. Hours of time are spent preparing differentiated and engaging resources, often laminated and produced in expensive coloured paperstock, or set up as an online resource for all to use. The latter, as often as not, because the school-provided system is so awful and difficult to use as to become rendered useless. (I’m trying to get this written without mentioning GLOW. Ooops.). All of this, provided in a billion small acts of philanthropy, in those extra unpaid hours and the extra ten- or twenty-dollar expenses not reclaimed.

I read Bill Hewlett’s biography with admiration and recognition that yes, he was a lovely man who leaves a lovely legacy. I have a positive regard for his company (I still carry around an HP-15C from the 80′s). I just find that philanthropy is an unpleasant basis to built a sustainable society upon.

Reflections on an effect of schooling


A reader, presumably a teacher, wrote in response to a question I asked recently  about experiences in school. My question related to how closely the ethos of the school should match that of the teaching staff. What I was particularly getting at was whether or not it is right that state education provision should be interfered with by the Catholic Church, which assumes a position of anachronistic influence in the appointment of teachers in Scotland.

The response I got was set in a different context altogether and rather struck a chord with me, so I thought I’d share it with you. Quote:

I have been asked by many different people one question: “…would you want to work at that school [again]?” And I say to each and every one of them, no. They don’t seem to understand this. “But it is a nice school, good facilities, etc etc etc.” There are a few things that I didn’t like about it there. One of which is how it looks like to me that all sense of individuality is just taken away from these [pupils]. They have to act in a certain way, they have to be a certain way, they even have to have their hair a certain way, and I just didn’t like it. I could see the progression through the years and how every single year they went up in the year, it appeared as if some part of them was missing. It didn’t sit right with me. I want my pupils to have personality, I want them to be individual and all different. I don’t want to teach the same [pupil] over and over and over again. That is why I will not be going back to that school. I am grateful for what they did for me, but I’m happy that it’s over.

So, who is right? Should a school be able to appoint staff who fit well with their ethos and principles? Should they only be able to do so if the school operates outside of the publicly-funded provision of education?

The Prestige

[flv: 320 196]© Warner Brothers (mp4 (8MB))

Who needs a teacher when you’ve got Khan Academy?

maxAccording to the strapline at the head of this website, “Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine, should be”. The operative word here is can. The context and threat is the increasing use of video lectures and tutorials in delivering learning. The more paranoid teacher will wake up cold-sweating in the night from dreams of having been replaced by online video, screaming Kirk-like: “KHAN! KHAAAN!”. Worse, of having been assimilated within the technology.

The explosive interest in TED and the like reveals a world-wide hunger to know stuff: to learn new things and to keep up with the latest discoveries. The contemporaneous growth in the availability of broadband internet access has fed this demand and the relative inexpense of hand held and tablet video platforms has fuelled the explosion. The attraction is, of course, that users (I don’t like the term, “consumers” of data) can access a vast range of online material at their own convenience: in video bite-sized chunks in the train, the toilet, the traffic jam. As these slices of opportunity to access video get shorter, they fit in the spaces between all the other activities of the day and night like grains of sand in a jar of peas.

Get with it, man, MOOCs are the future

This proliferation of opportunity has led to the MOOC – the Massively Open Online Course – and the packaging of chunks of online reading and viewing into a complete short course has great appeal, judging by the uptake.


Dear Charles Atlas, I have completed your excellent “he-man” course. I look forward to receiving my muscles.

The problem with moocs, however, is that they are massive and open. The course creators rely on large numbers of participants self-organising around social networks to create “vibrant communities” in a paradigm of students supporting and encouraging each other. The reality I have found in the mooc I am following is that the cacophony of the many drowns out the quality of the few. Thirty thousand voices shouting, “look at me!” over the lone quiet voice whispering, “look at this”. This has been of such concern to one mooc educator that they walked away. As a student, I have found that the contributions of the community do contain incisive, stimulating, funny, challenging and articulate contributions but you have to wade through the other 95% to find these. This has become so frustrating that I am now looking less at other contributions, in favour of concentrating the available time on the course materials alone.

Who needs teachers?

Bad ones? Nobody. Mediocre ones? No, thanks. Give me Khan. A book. Anything else. The ones that bring you to the penny dropping, the light coming on, the rush, the boom, the click, the whatever-happens-in-your-head-when-you-finally-get-it? Now you’re talking.

So what is it about the teacher that cannot be replaced by a machine? What makes them so magical? The clue is in the video clip at the top of this post. The magician knows how to manage expectations, create perceptions and deliver a satisfying climax to a sequence of events. Most importantly, he knows all about the observer’s perspective: the entire sequence is designed to achieve an effect in the audience.

The magical teacher plans, organises, details and delivers the learning with a full and detailed understanding of the student experience and perspective. He or she understands that the stages in the lesson have resonance with the stages of magic described by Michael Cain. The Pledge begins in prior learning and relevant context. The Turn is a hook, perhaps new knowledge or skills, something interesting or engaging, full of promise and misconception. The Prestige is the moment when understanding reveals itself – the flourish, the step from dark into light, the feeling that fills your heart, the satisfaction. It takes place in the Zone of Proximal Development.

We can get The Pledge and the Turn of learning by ourselves, given the resources. The irreplaceable teacher brings us The Prestige.

Review, reflect, restore.

If you’re reading this before 28th June 2012 and you know the significance of that date, you might be wondering what has prompted this premature return to public life.

I and my bosom must debate awhile,
And then I would no other company.

The answer is that an opportunity has arisen which requires me to consider what it is that I have done of value as an educator, beyond the job I am paid to do.

That consideration isn’t an easy one without spending some time digging back through diaries and online resources, many of which are no longer publicly available. I have spent that time over the Easter break and have found it extraordinarily interesting. For one thing, it seems I have done a lot – more than I could casually remember – around but outside of the job which pays the rent. For another, it has revalidated what I do as a professional in the place it matters most to me: in my own mind.

So here it is, complete as it need be for now. As the dusk settles on this long day of exile, I hope and trust that I will be able to proceed with confidence that my intentions are evident and my passions and interest undiminished.

Non nobis, non nobis, Domine
Sed nomini tuo da gloriam.

Use of Social Media

This post is written at a time when my CPD log is switched off from public viewing, just over halfway through a 12-month period in which I have had to massively curtail my levels of online activity.

In May 2011, a disciplinary investigation was launched against me by my head teacher following allegations made by a pupil that I had used inappropriate language in the classroom. The investigation was widened to other classes and further extended into my online activity, which went from this CPD log and across several channels I operated, including teaching blogs, student resource sites, a wiki, a moodle site, extending to personal accounts (using pseudonyms) like twitter, LinkedIn and their associated applications like Foursquare, Flickr, Blipfoto.

The principal outcome, upheld on appeal to the local authority, was the issuance of a final written warning for having breached the GTCS code of professional conduct and having potentially brought the council into disrepute. No referral was made to the GTCS and no specific reference to COPAC was given.

There were a number of secondary outcomes: I shut down almost all of my online activity immediately and deleted several accounts; I resigned from the NASUWT; my lawyer advised that the cost of legal action either for constructive dismissal or judicial review was prohibitive.

I learned from this process several things.

  • There is no protection against malicious accusation.
  • There is no protection against incompetence in following procedures.
  • Union membership for teachers is a waste of money: their representation amounts to mitigation and not defence on principle.
  • The GTCS code of professional conduct is subject to interpretation by employers, not the GTCS.

The most recent illustration of this is the GTCS issuing of their guidance on social media and the extended interpretation by a head teacher to mean that:

“all teachers are expected to conduct themselves in ways which cannot be construed as unbecoming of a registered teacher or of potentially bringing their school or employer into disrepute. This includes choice of language and inferences made on online messageboards and the posting of images or other materials”

which it doesn’t, according to legal opinion I have obtained.

Self-evaluation against the SFR

At an in-service training day, teachers were given the time and encouragement to review themselves against the Standard for Full Registration (SFR), used to qualify those entering the teaching profession in Scotland as the set of benchmarks and standards which must be met in order achieve full (as opposed to probationary) registration with the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

My initial reaction might have been one of indignation, having met all of the standards 7 years ago and gained 7 years of teaching experience and professional development since then. However, it is well known that COSLA has submitted to the McCormick review a suggestion that all teachers should be required to be re-accredited against this standard as part of the CPD framework they propose.

Re-accreditation is not a new idea. The GTCS has been working intelligently and sensitively towards this demand for some time now, and Tony Finn has written about it in the most recent Teaching Scotland magazine published by the GTCS. Given that it’s coming one way or another, even if not in the form mooted by COSLA, I thought I’d do it.

I am happy to report that at least as far as I can judge myself in these matters, I still do meet all of the detailed requirements to a decent standard, with some small but specific areas where I might do something different to more closely satisfy the written requirement. I’m not going to share the details of these on this public forum at the moment, nor specifically how I am going to change my practice. The self-assessment has been useful and informative and a next step might be to try and involve a “critical friend” in a further review of how well I meet the SFR.

The GTCS website has the outline of the SFR, and on the same page you can download the full standard, the initial teacher standard and the code of professional conduct.

2 hours, briefing and completing the self-appraisal.