Learning Independently – Together

“School is broken and everyone knows it. Public schools from kindergarten to graduation have been crumbling for decades, dropout rates are high, and test scores are low. The value – in every sense – of a college education and degree is hotly contested in the news every day. Students face unprecedented debt in an economy with a dwindling middle class and lessening opportunities for social mobility. This has a significant effect on lives and the economy itself.”

KioThus begins, controversially, Don’t Go Back To School – A Handbook for Learning Everything by the American writer, teacher and graduate school dropout Kio Stark, a comprehensive examination of the alternatives to long-established and formal educational pathways. I should point out before proceeding further that ‘school’ in this context is used to denote formal education in the broadest (American) sense, and mainly in the context of higher education, rather than ‘high school’ or ‘secondary school’ as we in the UK would understand it.

The text consists largely of a series of interviews with successful entrepreneurs – over 100 of them – who have, for a variety of reasons, eschewed expensive university courses in favour of independent learning. And herein lies the interesting element of the book for me – Stark’s definition of ‘independent learning’.

“Independent learning suggests ideas such as ‘self-taught’ or ‘autodidact’. These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools. Almost all of the people I interviewed talked about the importance of connections they forged to communities and experts, and access to other learners. Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.”

The author goes on to reveal from her research four important features of almost every form of learning outside school:

  • It isn’t done alone
  • For many professionals, credentials aren’t necessary, and the processes for attaining credentials are changing
  • The most effective, satisfying learning is learning which is more likely to happen out of school
  • People who are happiest with their learning process and most effective at learning new things – in any educational environment – are people who are learning for the right reasons and who reflect on their own way of learning to figure out which processes and methods work best for them.

The final section of the book provides practical advice on where to find online collaborative learning systems, free and low-cost online learning platforms including MOOCs (see below), how to access scholarly publishing and academic research, and a ‘further reading’ list.

By coincidence rather than consequence, and as a firm believer that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks, I made the bold move last week of signing up to take part in my first ever MOOC, which, for the uninitiated, stands for ‘massive, open, online course’, or, as Wikipedia would have it, ‘an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants.’

This particular course, E-learning and Digital Cultures, is being offered by the University of Edinburgh and Coursera, one of the biggest of the MOOC providers, and runs for 5 weeks through November and December, with a commitment of 5-7 hours a week. The course tutors promise that it is ‘not about e-learning’ but ‘an invitation to view online educational practices through a particular lens – that of popular and digital culture’.

“E-learning and Digital Cultures is aimed at teachers, learning technologists, and people with a general interest in education who want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age. The course is about how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through “narratives”, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology. We’ll explore some of the most engaging perspectives on digital culture in its popular and academic forms, and we’ll consider how our practices as teachers and learners are informed by the difference of the digital. We’ll look at how learning and literacy is represented in popular digital-, (or cyber-) culture, and explore how that connects with the visions and initiatives we are seeing unfold in our approaches to digital education.”

The plan is to take my friend Inanimate Alice along to find out where she stands in relation to e-learning, and indeed digital culture. Having just returned from an interesting and fruitful tour of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Dutch Game Garden, we are keen to explore further how Alice’s personal journey could be used as the starting point for engaging young people (particularly girls) in the creative industries, and how this relates to the current seismic shift in publishing trends.

Should be fun, and I will of course be reporting back. After all, there really is no such thing as a free education, is there?

Footnote. In the course of writing this blogpost, and with half an eye on Twitter, as you do, my attention was drawn to this post by Will Gayhart on The Death of Graduate Schools of Education.

 

An Independent Media for Scotland?

literacyadviser:

One of the interesting aspects of the – temporarily derailed – Scottish campaign for independence has been the exposure of institutionalised bias in the UK mainstream media and the consequent flourishing of citizen journalism, a trend which looks set to continue worldwide. Here, Bella Caledonia, one of the more successful online news channels, outlines the ways in which we, as citizens, can now write and broadcast the news rather than simply consume it.

Originally posted on independence - autonomy - self-determination:

we-are-citizen-journalism

One result of the independence campaign has been that power has been exposed. Which politicians and businesses share a common interest, how the media operates and how information is distorted and ideas abused as all been opened up.

What we propose is a media buycott. While a boycott withdraws money from specific companies or countries, a buycott redirects funds to specific companies or projects. A boycott is a negative, a buycott is a positive. We’d like to lay out what our role in a new media landscape looks like, and ask for your support to make it happen.

The importance of a more diverse open media has never been clearer. There is massive imbalance across print and broadcast output in Scotland.

Don’t believe us. Paul Mason, Newsnight’s former economics editor (now at Channel 4 News) has said of the state broadcaster: “Not since Iraq have I seen BBC News working…

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The Power To Make A Difference

It may sound like romantic tosh, but I’m sure most teachers, if not all of them, enter the profession to try to make a difference to the lives of those they teach. I certainly did. I grew up on a council estate in a semi-rural area of south-west Scotland. I was the first of my family ever to go to university, and I could only afford it because of a generous government grant. One of the biggest influences in my life at that time was an inspirational teacher called Bob Bates. He used to read aloud to us, books like Animal Farm and Lucky Jim and Of Mice and Men, and we were captivated. He was never overtly political, but it was undoubtedly a political message; literature, and education generally, have the power to transform lives. Which is why I could never really understand expressions like ‘you shouldn’t mix politics and sport’ or ‘let’s keep politics out of this’. Politics are an integral part of who we are, what defines us as adults, so the idea of keeping our politics out of our teaching did not make any sense to me. I should add, however, that this is not the same a saying that we should be presenting young people with a singular view of the world, or that we should not be prepared to have our convictions challenged, but simply that if you try to leave the political aspects of your character at the door of the classroom then you leave part of your soul with it.

The Scottish Independence campaign as seen by Banksy

The Scottish Independence campaign as seen by Banksy?

Those of you who follow the blog on a regular basis, and especially those of you who live in the UK, will have realised by now that what I am leading to here is the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the most important decision facing our nation in over 300 years. I have set out my own reasons for voting YES below, and you can follow my curated history of coverage of the referendum, Scottish Independence – The Quiet Revolution – on Scoop.it by clicking on this link. If you are a fan of Pinterest I have also been collecting some of the hundreds of pro-independence posters which have become a feature of the campaign. Again, click on the link and you will find them.

One of the most significant, and controversial, aspects of the referendum is the decision to give voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds (see also Literacy, Democracy and Responsible Citizens). Why it should be controversial is something of a puzzle to me, since it is entirely in keeping with aspects of citizenship in the Scottish curriculum, yet while there is almost universal agreement with the notion of teaching citizenship, a significant number of adults still seem reluctant to accept the idea of actually granting it to those very young people they wish to see behaving more responsibly. I have heard more than a few worrying stories about debate being closed down in schools rather than encouraged, and many local authorities, while ostensibly trying to  ensure impartiality, are frightening teachers into avoiding the topic altogether. This is not the way to develop a healthy democracy.

The referendum decision is one for the people who live and work in Scotland alone, but the consequences will affect all of those who live in the UK, so it is something which should be on the agenda in schools the length and breadth of the British Isles, and possibly beyond. If you are a teacher and interested in setting up a discussion or debate, you may want to check out these links, where you will find plenty of material to get you started. You will need to get off the mark quickly though; the referendum takes place just a fortnight from now, on Thursday the 18th of September!

Political Literacy and the Independence Referendum. Education Scotland

How to Teach the Referendum on Scottish Independence. Guardian Teacher Network

Further Reading:

Common Weal: A Discussion Paper on the development of a vision for Scotland. Jimmy Reid Foundation

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland (Kindle). Scottish Government

11 Reasons A Yes Vote Will Improve Democracy. National Collective

The Wee Blue Book: The Facts The Papers Leave Out. Wings Over Scotland

Blossom: What Scotland Needs To Flourish (Kindle). Lesley Riddoch

Road To Referendum: The Essential Guide To The Scottish Referendum (Kindle). Iain Mc Whirter

Video:

Our Time. First Minister Alex Salmond

Aye Talks. Dr Phillipa Whitford, Consultant Breast Surgeon

The Bigger The LIe: Media Bias In The Scottish Independence Referendum. John Robertson

Yes Scotland Playlist

Websites:

Wings Over Scotland

Bella Caledonia

Newsnet Scotland

Business For Scotland

Yes Scotland

Common Weal Logo: All Of Us First

Common Weal Logo: All Of Us First

Why I Will Be Voting YES

I personally have done reasonably well as part of the UK, so why am I voting Yes?

Put quite simply, I don’t want to grow up in a country where an increasing number of our children are being brought up in poverty, where a new food bank opens every four days, where immigrants are treated with suspicion, where replacing nuclear weapons is more important than repairing roads, and where over 2,000 of our elderly population died needlessly last winter because they couldn’t afford to heat their houses.

I don’t belong to a political party. Never have. But this referendum is not a choice between one political party and another. It is not about any individual politician or political leader. It is about one thing and one thing only – whether you think decisions about Scotland are best taken by the people of Scotland or whether you think they should be taken for us at Westminster? The ‘democratic deficit’ means that in only 13 of the past 35 years did Scotland get the government at Westminster that it voted for – and we know how that turned out. Anybody remember Tony Blair and Gordon Brown?

On the other hand, let’s have a look at the current Scottish Government’s record. Acting within the constraints of Westminster cuts (Scotland’s budget is allocated via a ‘block grant’ from the UK Treasury) they have introduced free prescriptions, free healthcare for the elderly, free bus travel for over-60s, in addition to free university tuition fees – education based on the ability to learn, not on the ability to pay. Scotland already has its own separate education system, legal system and National Health Service (separate in terms of policy but reliant on London spending decisions). These services stand comparison not only with the rest of the UK but with the rest of the world. Scotland has more universities per head of population in the top 200 than any other nation.

So, if we are capable of running education, the law and the health service for ourselves, then why would we be incapable of defending ourselves, running our own welfare service or managing our own money? Another glaring example of the democratic deficit in Scotland is on the issue of nuclear weapons – opposed by around 80% of Scots, yet imposed by all the main political parties at Westminster, at a cost of something in the order of 100 billion pounds. Just imagine how that money could be spent to benefit the everyday lives of the people of this country.

Westminster isn’t working for the people of Scotland. The current coalition government’s so-called ‘austerity programme’ is a choice, not an inevitability. It is a myth to say that we are a poor country. There is an abundance of money in the UK, it is how the wealth is distributed that is the problem – did you know that there are currently around 280,000 millionaires in Britain? The UK is currently the 4th most unequal country in the developed world. As a result of Westminster cuts, ONE IN FOUR children in Scotland is living in poverty, and that figure is closer to ONE IN TWO in some parts of Glasgow. Smart education policies can compensate to some extent for inequalities, but only full economic powers can allow us to tackle the underlying issues. Last year there were over 2,400 excess winter deaths among the elderly in this country, double the rate of colder EU countries, and 49% of pensioners are currently living in fuel poverty. These are truly shocking statistics.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the solution lies not in hoping for a change of government, or heart, at Westminster, but by voting to stand on our own two feet and to choose a different route, a different future. Independence is not a new concept; it is normality for most people. There are just over 200 independent countries in the world. Three quarters of them have only been independent since 1900, and many of them are smaller than Scotland.

With control of our own affairs Scotland can potentially be a world leader – not in terms of bombs, or threats, or posturing on the world stage, but in areas like renewable energy, and in making a significant contribution to protecting the future of the planet. As an example, the largest tidal energy project in Europe is just about to get underway in the Pentland Firth. When completed it will power 40% of homes in the Highlands. At a time when scientists are warning about the dangers of global warming, think how much potential there is out there, not only for Scotland to become self-sufficient in energy, but to be a net exporter of energy to other countries, and to lead the way in tackling climate change.

So the question is not whether we are big enough, or smart enough, or whether we can afford it. There is only one question to be answered. Do you think decisions about Scotland should be made by the people who live and work in Scotland, or do you think they should be made by Westminster, in the House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords? This is not about ‘separating’, or turning our backs on our friends and neighbours. It is about standing on our own two feet and making our own decisions. It’s about hope, not fear. It’s about the future, not the past. It’s about ambition, not tradition. It’s about fairness, not about wealth.

We have the opportunity – perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – to create the kind of Scotland we want to see in the world – a greener, fairer, more democratic Scotland. As singer-songwriter and political commentator Pat Kane said: “You’ve got the chance to stand on this earth and say: I built a better society. I decided to do that, for myself, for my children, for future generations. And all it needed was a cross in the right box.”

Don’t Blame Boo Radley

 

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. It is one of many great books, and it happens to be written by an American. It is one of many great books written in the English language, and it happens to be written by an American, and it happens to be written by a woman. You see, great books are written in many languages, by writers male and female, of many nationalities. One of the key roles of teachers is to introduce young people to great books, at the appropriate times, and in accordance with their developing love of reading and awareness of the world. By now, I hope, you are all nodding in agreement.

So when an English Education Secretary says that young people are not reading enough, that they are not reading difficult enough books, and that he wants to make sure that they are reading ‘a wide range of texts’, what is there to disagree with? Well quite a lot , actually. Michael Gove’s announced changes to the literature requirement for GCSE English caused more than a little anger this week, with media channels, writers, bloggers and commentators rushing to proclaim that he had ‘banned’ American literature from English schools, including one or two which had become classroom staples for recent generations. (see To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove Orders More Brit Lit).

In reality, what he had actually done was to set out a minimum requirement for anyone studying GCSE Literature  – a Shakespeare play; poetry from 1789, including the Romantics; a 19th-century novel; and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914, to be precise. Besides believing that this would provide a much-needed injection of his favourite ingredient, ‘rigour’,  he further defended the changes by adding, “Beyond this, exam boards have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting (sic), and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose” and that teachers had welcomed a “specification that allows for Keats and Heaney, Shakespeare and Miller, the Brontes and Pinter.” (see Michael Gove Attacks ‘Fictitious’ Claims He Has Banned US Books From School).

The telling word in this statement is ‘allows’. Of course, the syllabus ‘allows’ for the reading and study of any other works of literature, but TIME doesn’t. In reality, overstretched teachers will stick to the texts which are guaranteed to come up in the exam, because they will ultimately be judged by their students’ results. I have written before about this effect (see Of Mice and Flies: Death by Examination), and how it leads to the demise of reading rather than its further development. Reading for pleasure and enlightenment gives way to learning how to write ‘critical’ essays and preparing for the test. Not that we in Scotland have anything to be complacent about here. Admittedly there are fewer restrictions on the choice of texts which young people can use in response to exam questions (see National 5 English Course Assessment Specifications) , but the introduction of a compulsory Scottish text in national courses recently was a mistake, and I say that as someone with a deep regard for Scottish culture and who has read, taught and enjoyed a considerable number of Scottish texts, both fiction and non-fiction. If this is indeed social engineering, as some would claim, then the fact that we are not quite in the Govean league of social engineering is nothing really to be proud of.

You see, there are two important principles at stake here. The first is that it is not the role of politicians to determine what young people read. If it was then we may as well make teachers redundant, send reading lists home to parents and their

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel.

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel.

kids, and let them get on with it. If Michael Gove had really wanted young people to read more widely, then what he should have done was to remove the specified texts completely from the exam requirements, then teachers (and students) would truly have to argue the merits of their chosen texts. Nor should it be the role of examination boards to determine what young people read. As I said earlier, that belongs to the trained professional, the teacher. And that is the second important  principle.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Postscript: Michael Gove’s announcement had two immediate effects. Three of the four main examining bodies in England immediately removed the aforementioned American authors from their list of specified texts, and sales of To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon increased significantly.

Letter To An Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier at Paddington Station. Photo by Dom Agius.

The Unknown Soldier at Paddington Station. Photo by Dom Agius.

This summer a new kind of war memorial will be made by people from all over the UK. ‘Letter To An Unknown Soldier’ is a project commissioned by 14-18 NOW – a nationwide cultural programme designed to mark the centenary of World War One – and inspired by the statue which stands on Platform 1 of Paddington Station in London. Representing the millions of soldiers who died in that terrible conflict, the statue depicts an ordinary soldier, in battle dress, reading a letter. The project organisers want YOU, and your students, to contribute to the memorial by writing that letter. Every letter received will be published online, alongside some which have been written already by distinguished writers such as Malorie Blackman, David Almond, Andrew Motion, Val McDermid, Melvin Burgess, Owen Sheers, Liz Lochhead and Sita Brahmachari.

The project is lead by writer and theatre director Neil Bartlett, and Canadian author Kate Pullinger, who were keen to come up with something truly original:-

“For us, the creators of the project, it is important to move away from the usual imagery associated with war and commemoration – cenotaphs, poppies, the silence that falls over us all on Remembrance Day. What we’d like instead is to hear what you think – what you really think. If you were able to speak to the unknown soldier now, with all we’ve learned since 1914, with all your experience of life and death to hand, what would you say? We are especially keen to hear the voices of what young people think and we very much hope that schools will embrace the project across the curriculum.”

It is very easy for schools to take part in the project, and some very clear lesson plans have been created for use in a number of curriculum areas such as English, history, citizenship, creative

Surviving letters from 'The Great War'

Surviving letters from The Great War

writing and drama. These are designed to provide teachers with a context in which they can encourage young people to reflect on such an important part of their history, and to contribute their own short piece of creative writing towards a national collection. Having their work published online, in the company of established writers and poets, provides students with an added incentive, All letters received will eventually be housed as a national archive in the British Library for the benefit of future generations.

Letters can be written online, or they can be written, scanned and uploaded. Alternatively, they can be performed to camera and submitted online, or written in the conventional manner and posted to the organisers, any time between now and the

deadline of 4th August (the date of the declaration of war in 1914). Letters will be published from 28th June and will be fully searchable by name, theme, geographical region or age group.

The face of The Unknown Soldier. Image by Dom Agius.

The face of The Unknown Soldier. Image by Dom Agius.

Organisers are also keen that schools which intend to participate should contact them via unknownsoldier@1418NOW.org.uk and tell them how they are planning to take the project forward.

 

For more information, and to download the age-appropriate lesson packs, visit the 14-18 NOW website at http://www.1418NOW.org.uk/letter. You will find the classroom resources under the ‘MORE’ section.

 

Twitter: @letter1418

Facebook:www.facebook.com/letter1418

End Of An Era

teacherWell, I’ve gone and done it. As of today, I am officially an ‘ex-teacher’. I decided to cancel my registration to the GTCS (General Teaching Council Scotland) since I hadn’t actually taught in a school for the best part of the last decade. After a few years with Learning and Teaching Scotland (now Education Scotland) I have been working independently, while holding on to my teaching registration ‘in case of emergency’ as it were. Realistically, I am never going to teach kids again, but I intend to work with and support teachers for a good few years to come, so don’t dare use the ‘R’ word in my company if you don’t mind. It’s such an old-fashioned concept these days.

To mark this momentous occasion I received two letters from the GTCS in the post today. Unfortunately neither contained the gold watch I jokingly referred to when I spoke to the young woman on the other end of the phone on Wednesday. However, I did appreciate the sentiment contained in the first of them.

“Dear Mr Boyd,

On behalf of the GTCS, I would like to thank you for the time you have given to the teaching profession in Scotland. One of our aims is to ensure the highest standard of teaching and learning in our schools. Your commitment has helped make this possible and has no doubt contributed significantly to improving the prospects and opportunities for the young people whom you have taught.”

Over the course of more than thirty years in the classroom I would like to think there is some truth in this, and the thing which gives me most satisfaction is the number of ex-pupils I meet frequently around my home town who want to reminisce about ‘the time you……….’ etc etc. Not once, after all that time, has any of these conversations been other than positive, funny or heart-felt.

The other letter, in case you were still wondering, began as follows.

“Dear Mr Boyd,

I am writing to inform you that your annual registration fee of £50 is due for payment. As we have Direct Debit instructions held on your record, the payment will be deducted on or around 27th May 2014. If the payment is successful, your record will be automatically updated to show that the registration fee has been paid. If for any reason the direct Debit is not successful, we will write out to provide you with alterblamenative payment methods.”

It would be easy to sink into a slough of depression at this point, and to conclude that one is indeed only a number in an over-bureaucratic system, but that would be to exaggerate greatly the case. There is no other profession which comes close to that of the teacher.It is indeed an honour and a privilege, and the greatest rewards don’t come in the form of gold watches but in the appreciation from those who matter most.