Catholic Interference in Education

I was asked this week to provide a reference “to testify to [a person’s] religious belief and character”. I refuse to do this, not least because I can’t testify to anyone’s religious anything but also because I am not comfortable encouraging the interference of any church group in education, in particular the Catholic Church, infamous for interfering with children.

The Scottish Catholic Education Service website has this:

The relevant legislation on the management of denominational schools in Scotland states: “A teacher appointed to any post on the staff of any such school by the education authority. . . shall be required to be approved as regards religious belief and character by representatives of the church or denominational body in whose interest the school has been conducted.”

My difficulty with this is that is goes directly against what we are trying to do in education. Indeed, lawyers advise that it is…

unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of age, sex, race, disability, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, and religion or belief

It is clear that employers have no right to discriminate on the basis of religion and that if asked, teachers should refuse to provide this information. The anachronism of church interference in education needs to end now.


Next Steps for STEM Education and Training in Scotland

This half-day seminar was one in a series of similar events around public sector services provision operated by Scotland Policy Conferences. There were two sessions across the morning, the first chaired by Iain Gray, MSP and that after coffee by Clare Adamson, MSP.

The STEM Strategy

The first session was on the Scottish Government’s STEM strategy and began with a personal view and the recent history of it by Professor Iain Hunter1. He mentioned in particular the [STEM Strategy Implementation Group] ( and summarised the STEM strategy, which was welcomed by several speakers at the seminar, as being about excellence in STEM learning, closing gaps, inspiring and connecting to the labour market. Professor Lesley Yellowlees3 and Polly Purvis4 also addressed delegates before these speakers formed the first panel for Q&A and commentary. A call for primary teachers to have more science qualifications so they can teach it (more?) was challenged, particularly in light of the narrowing of the curriculum in Scotland and the greater restrictions on accessing broad education, something I spoke about with Polly over coffee later in the morning. Societal attitudes and STEM literacy were also identified as important factors in improving engagement in STEM, particularly by girls. Creativity and confidence are the hallmarks of excellent primary science teachers, and are more important to development of STEM literate children than an extra science qualification for ITE applicants, my assertion of which during Q&A seemed to be against the zeitgeist of the seminar.

Read More

Gender stereotypes emerge early

I read a recent paper on gender stereotypes that interpreted research data from studies of 400 children which identified the emergence of gender stereotypes – the association of “brilliance = males” – from the age of about six years of age. Although this research was conducted within a US cultural context (which one was not indicated in the paper), the findings reveal that these beliefs, and the self-selection by girls of areas of interest that are not seen as “very, very smart” like physics and psychology, are inculcated culturally from an early age. The paper does not try to identify where these stereotypes are from: early years educators are implicated but it’s clear that these beliefs are deeply rooted by the time children reach secondary school. It is a huge ask of physics teachers to take responsibility for mending the gender gap in their classrooms.

Bian, L., Leslie, S.J. & Cimpian, A., 2017. Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science (New York, N.Y.), 355(6323), pp.389–391.

Why I am not renewing my TESS subscription

This week’s TES Scotland was accompanied by a separate mailing containing a flyer that in bold, red print announced ATTENTION! Action Required. The flyer went on:


I wasn’t aware, actually. Following the link to the website, there are a lot of new terms and conditions that seem to be binding me into a new contract in which I:

… agree that we at our sole discretion, without notice to you, may: (i) terminate or amend the General Terms or these Additional Terms

Er, no. Not acceptable. I will not write a blank cheque. All I want is a magazine, through my door every Friday, that I can read and throw away. I don’t want anything else, thank you, least of all an open-ended commitment to your corporate insensitivity to your customers’ needs.

Frankly, I’ve not enjoyed the changes to the TESS that have taken it from a well-staffed, relevant and useful newspaper (remember those?) to something that’s over-commercialised, London centric and off the pulse that I now merely skim and recycle. The great writers are all but gone: Douglas Blane, Liz Buie, Gregor Steele: what’s left is the best efforts of the last man standing, padded out with material from another jurisdiction. If I want to keep up with the news of what’s happening in education in Scotland, there are plenty of alternatives in the mainstream, social media and networks.

There is a real gap in the market for a regular news journal for education in Scotland. Here, there are plenty of engaged and articulate teachers, lecturers and leaders who could contribute relevant, critical commentary and shared experience for the rest to enjoy and benefit from. Anybody out there fancy taking that forward?

Computing: how young is too young?

TCHow does a child open a door in the modern world? Children’s worlds are increasingly driven by algorithms. At what age are they able to understand these, and use their own? We need to consider how young children learn about computing:

  • Who has the responsibility and how do we support them?
  • What resources do we have and what else do we need?
  • When is too young, when is too late?

On Wednesday 12th November at 5.30pm, the University of Edinburgh will be hosting a forum in memory of Tom Conlon which will engage with these questions through expert perspective and interaction with participants.

You are invited to join us, either:

Dr Tom Conlon had a rare ability to make an impact in many diverse arenas. As a teacher, and as a lecturer at Moray House School of Education, his influence in the field of Information Technology is widely acknowledged. This forum commemorates Tom Conlon’s unique contribution by continuing to tackle relevant and important issues in education and computing.

For more information, visit or download the flyer here.


What will education look like in 2023?

Yesterday I attended the SELMAS Annual Conference at Stirling University. The tagline for the conference was, “What will education look like in 2023?” The day was chaired by Dr. Dee Torrance. These are my notes and thoughts from the conference and I should warn you, they are quite long, certainly for a blog post.

The event took the form of four keynotes spread across the day, with opportunity to network over coffee and lunch, followed by a (too) short panel discussion. The planned “group tasks” were ditched as minor technology gremlins conspired to eat the available time (is this the future?). We were also given a presentation by senior girls from Ross High on leadership and a “bonus” session from Terry Wrigley and Danny Murphy on Terry and John Smyth’s new book: Living on the Edge: Rethinking Poverty, Class and Schooling. The keynotes were at first sight eclectic but themes emerged from the four very distinct perspectives shared by our speakers: Donna Manson, Matthew Syed, Ollie Bray and Tommy Boyle. Read More

Activity 4: Identifying priorities for research in Open Education

The activity

“Imagine you are advising a funding organisation that wishes to promote activity and research in the area of open education.
Set out the three main priorities they should address, explaining each one and providing a justification for your list.”

I’ve thought about this for a few days and tried not to peek at what others are writing in response. I’ve drawn substantially on my own experience of open learning for my own set of three priorities.

Priority 1: Is there a correlation between open learning drop-out rates and the level of study skills of initial applicants?

UntitledI left school before completing my A-levels and found myself in my late twenties as a Project Manager with responsibility for multi-million pound budgets and teams of graduate engineers. From experience with these teams, I developed a perspective on how common sense correlated with academic attainment (see graph).

As part of my work, I found myself dealing with contract terms and felt that a law degree might be useful, so I enrolled as an external student on the University of London LLB degree programme. After about two years of struggling with this, I gave it up as a bad job. I tried again with another course from the Open University, which I completed without sitting the exam. Eventually, I figured out how to study and obtained a BSc in Physics and Mathematics, also with the OU.

Recent experience with the Edinburgh University/Coursera MOOC, eLearning and Digital Cultures, showed that of the 43,000 who registered, 2,000 completed the course. I almost wrote “almost completed” but actually, I think 5% is a pretty good conversion rate given the absence of entry requirements.

So my question is this: if all 43,000 of those people had the necessary study skills required to complete the course when they signed up, how many would have completed it? Seeking to identify any correlation might encourage course providers to be clear about the expectations of students before they sign up.

Priority 2: Does open education have to be free?

dollarThe RAF used to make some wonderful posters for school physics departments. Initially, they would provide them for free to any school that asked for them. They discovered that most of these posters finished up in cupboards and back rooms. When they started charging a nominal fee (£15 a set, I think) for them, the posters almost always found their way to the walls of classrooms and corridors.

If education is valuable, surely it has to be given a value? How many of those 43,000 would have signed up if there was a five-dollar registration fee? My own thoughts are that people value things that they pay for. I have often suggested that disruptive pupils would be a lot less so, and their parents much keener on ensuring this, if they handed over a pound every time they crossed the classroom threshold. Would this deny access to education for anyone? In the classroom, those who “can’t afford” to buy a pencil often have £300 mobile devices in their pockets. If you’re signing up for a mooc, you’re doing it on more than a few quid’s worth of computer equipment.

Should there be a registration fee as a matter of course (no pun intended) for all open courses?

Priority 3: How valid is peer assessment?

One of the most interesting things about following the community dialogues in learning communities is that there is rarely anything robustly critical ever said. Sugata Mitra suggests that there is an important place for learners for the “grandmother”, one who offers encouragement and praise to the student when things are produced or the study get hard. Whilst I don’t disagree with him at all (and I’m a big fan of Alfie Kohn and Carol Dweck’s findings that praise should be for effort, not outcome), I wonder if this leads to a false overstatement of the quality of work produced in the context of peer-assessed learning communities?

Within the open learning environment, is peer assessment skewed towards the award of praise, even where none is due? Are we afraid of critical commentary and grading because we’re too polite? As a consequence of this, does open learning that is peer assessed result in a driving down of quality?

Openness in Education – a visual representation (take 2)

OK, I’m sorry it’s a bit hashy but I thought I’d try and make a video scribe thing using just the basics: camera, paper and pen, and iMovie. I’m actually quite pleased with how it turned out – like the freedom that you don’t get with commercial videoscribing software – but it took ages. Like all Saturday afternoon. See the previous post for an explanation as to why I did this activity all over again.

Feedback welcome! Oh, and in case you were sharp enough to miss the bit I cut off the bottom, it should read, “Data mining reveals deeper connections implicit within the semantic web”.

Openness in Education – a visual representation (updated)

Activity 3 in the Open Education mooc is to create a visual representation that defines “Openness in Education” by drawing on some of the concepts in Weller and Anderson. I chose to try a storywriting tool for this task after having struggled to think of a neat way of presenting the ideas without audio. My drawing skills aren’t up to much, so settled on storybird, which uses the work of artists on the site to put together a children’s storybook.

You can play it full screen to make it easier to read the text.

UPDATE: After a few days, the storybird people have pulled my representation from public viewing because “This story seems to be more suited to being published in a CLASS ACCOUNT”. This doesn’t suit my purpose at all, unfortunately, so I have wasted a great deal of time on Storybird for nothing. Yes, I’m annoyed. Watch out for a version 2  of the task shortly.

The story I have put together begins with Harold Wilson’s idea which created the Open University, to whom I am grateful for my degree in Physics and Mathematics, upon which I have built a career, now in education. This career is concerned not only with pedagogy and the subjects I love, but also with the emerging revolution in technology-enabled networks which are bringing education to a massive population who would, in the traditional model of education, be forever condemned to social immobility.

Looking to the past: EDCMOOC Week 1

solitaryHow was the first week for you?

You would think that on a course with over 40,000 registered students, the experience of participation would seem something other than solitary. Yet, this is how it has been for me: snooping in voyeuristically upon snippets of twitter conversation, trying out and rejecting the Google+ stream, or casting about the coursera pages. Even the Google hangout, which I watched as an embedded YouTube feed, felt like an hour watching five people giving presentations, podcast-style, to an internet audience with some random pickup from the twitter hashtag. This isn’t to criticise: the feeds, hangout and other official pages have been useful in getting me focused on the task of engaging with the course.

Technological Determinism

Block 1 of the course is concerned with how digital culture or digital education can be viewed as utopian or dystopian. Information Technology is described in these views as having built-in properties which are either democratising or de-democratising. This influence of technology is seen as driving social structure and cultural values: further, technology has been said to develop along predictable paths with society organising itself to support and develop the technology once introduced. The film Bendito Machine III characterises this view of technological determinism within the setting that the technology is provided by some higher power: it is as if the technology is something divine or other-worldly. I am reminded of Arthur C Clarke’s third law of prediction:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Whereas Bendito Machine III acknowledged the erosion of social interactions caused by the introduction of new technologies, the second film, Inbox, celebrates that new interactions are made possible by new channels of communication. These channels seem to lend themselves to serendipitous meetings and, despite the occasional tech failure (the ripping of the bag – it had to be the boy, didn’t it?), a happy ending is had. This utopian view of the development of communication is what makes me appreciate the age I live in: the channels are rich and manifold and I can choose to participate in them or not. When I do, my life is often (although not always) enriched.

Technology is different, or a natural development?

The third film Thursday, depicts a couple living in a technologically dominated world but I can’t help feeling that it isn’t the technology itself that represents the “differentness” Correa-Martians_vs._Thunder_Childfrom nature. For me, the technology is just one aspect or manifestation of a more general urbanisation, itself a product of the evolution of our species and its habits. When we moved from being hunter-gatherers to settlements and the adaptation of the environment instead of adaptation to the environment, did we establish the behaviours of natural adaptation that lead inevitably to the development of technologies like the iPhone? The final film of four, New Media, looks like the opening sequence to a film like “War of the Worlds” about conflict on Earth with superior aliens and their machines of (our) destruction. The nightmare cameo of the alien pipe connected into the human figure is evocative but no less so than the plume of smoke which for me heralded the beginning of man’s fight back against the superior power – maybe I’ve seen too many of these. I look for Thunderchild.

Readings: Chandler

The reading by Daniel Chandler is a kind of idiot guide to Technological Determinism and I think it told me a lot more about social science (and why Brian Cox suggests that social science is an oxymoron) than it did anything else. A couple of examples will illustrate my take on this.

Nature vs Nurture

I’ve been reading articles on nature vs nurture for over thirty years now, since I joined Mensa – a vanity society of people who know what shape comes next. I think it’s a populist media habit to try and stir up the passion (increasing circulation) by offering two “opposing” choices and nature and nurture have been favourites for those choices for a long time. The argument is evidently false and oversimplistic: in trying to decide which of genetic or environmental is a deterministic cause of influence, the combination of these two is ignored as an invalid choice. Consider, however, the device on which you are reading this: is it the hardware (what it’s made of physically – its nature) or the software (the programmed instructions it is following – how it has learned to behave) that decides how well it works for you?

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

This interesting “hypothesis” (it never was such a thing) is said to assert that thinking itself is restricted by the language of the thinker. I have no problem with this idea if the linguistic processes represent how the brain is programmed, including the semantics and structure, grammar and resolution of the language. In exactly the same way a different operating system can dramatically affect what a computing device can do – take your old Dell laptop and replace Windows with Ubuntu to see what I mean.


If technology push is evolution, then demand pull is Intelligent Design. I prefer the former as a model, although design improvements can be market-driven (but demand is not synonymous with market here). Demand all you like, there’s no technology going to iron your shirts for you. In describing reductionism, Chandler suggests that technological determinism focuses on causality – whether is it mono-causal or “independent variable” suggests that there is something scientific in this argument but this isn’t science: it’s scientific method, yes, but that’s a different thing from science.

So, is technological determinism a “thing”? I think it’s a phenomenon, something that we can describe and define in human terms without actually making it real, in the same way as we can define evolution. These are constructs that allow us to talk about them – features of our language, only.

Free will and the quantum

Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas which, given enough time, turns into people (H. Hiebert)

Adaptation and evolution is the manifestation of random variation in subatomic phenomena. They are inherent in the physics of the universe. Technology, like urbanisation, is the manifestation of our continuing evolution as a species. The truly amazing thing to notice is that man is not the only species doing it, and with 17 billion Earth-sized exoplanets just in our own Galaxy, the possibilities are beyond imagination.


Perhaps a consideration in a narrower context: education.