Note to Teacher

I was looking through an old notebook* the other day when I came across a couple of quotations which had slipped out of the ageing hard drive on top of my shoulders, but made the same impact when I read them again as they had when I first heard them straight from the horses’ mouths as it were. The first was from Anton Colella, the then Chief Executive of SQA, speaking at a Principal Assessors’ Conference in Edinburgh in March 2006, when he said, “SQA qualifications serve the curriculum, the curriculum does not serve qualifications.”

Just a few months before, in November 2005, Peter Peacock the Education Minister, spoke at the Association of Headteachers Annual Conference, telling delegates, “Assessment needs to reflect and support learning priorities. We need to assess what we teach and not teach what we are about to assess. We need to make sure that arrangement is right now and into the future.” He repeated the message in the same month to an International Conference, also in Edinburgh, telling the audience, “There is a danger that in Scotland, the exams system reaches down to year one in secondary and pulls pupils through a particular route rather than teachers being given more freedom to teach…..we’ve got to have further dialogue in Scotland about how we get the balance right.”

Four years on, and much “further dialogue” later, it seems that we are still, to a great extent, teaching what we are about to assess, and the exam system is still very much reaching down to year one in secondary. Why should that be the case? Have too many of our teachers lost the desire or the ability to have “the freedom to teach”? Are they too scared that someone in authority – HMIE? SQA? QIO? Headteacher? – is going to blame them for their “failures” rather than praise them for their successes? Whatever the reason, if we are to make any progress towards the transformational change that the majority of those in Scottish education appear to be looking for, that burden of exam results as the ultimate goal must be removed. Here’s a suggestion for starters. Let’s try a ban on any mention of formal exams at least until the end of S3, and make sure that all our systems of accountability reflect the seriousness with which we mean it.

* Notebook in this context refers not to an electronic device but to an old science notebook printed by Andrew Whyte & Son Ltd., Edinburgh. It is one of many notebooks I still scribble in, and they come in all shapes and sizes, some hardback and some with soft covers, lined and plain paper, spiral bound or with fine Italian leather. I use them most often for recording quotations and I have done for a very long time. If you haven’t already discovered it, TK Max is the best, and the cheapest, place to find them.


Sam, The Spaceship and Me

For the past few days I have been playing games, or one game to be precise, to explore some of the possibilities for using it in the context of improving literacy in the classroom. Samorost is a free online adventure/puzzle game created by Jakub Dvorsky while he was a student at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague; it is produced by his freelance Flash and web design agency Amanita Design. I first heard of the game from Andrew Brown at Learning and Teaching Scotland, who are doing some really interesting development work on Games-Based Learning.  I am also indebted to Dave Terron at Elgin Academy who has used the game in his English classes to very good effect, and to Kim Pericles, a primary teacher in Sydney, Australia who has used the game with her students for some time now – you can see some of their creative writing by clicking here.Samo_1

The object of the game is to direct the main character, a small white gnome-like humanoid (let’s call him Sam), through a series of visually stunning landscapes, by clicking the mouse on various objects in the correct sequence, and to help him avert a collision between his home planet and another planet/spaceship which is hurtling towards it. In the sequel, Samorost 2,  the gnome goes on a longer quest to save his kidnapped dog and return home safely.

Both games are played out against a uniquely atmospheric soundtrack, which is another of the game’s attractions, and against a backdrop of surreal worlds which combine natural beauty, spooky underground caves and a kind of post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland. Another positive is you can have endless attempts to solve the many puzzles which are put in front of you, and no matter what you do you can’t be killed. The problem-solving element of the game is difficult, at least for me, which probably means it is suitable for 12 or 13-year olds, and I could imagine it being used in a variety of contexts within the curriculum to develop listening and talking, writing, collaborative working and problem solving skills. Here are just a few ideas for discussion and other activities which immediately come to mind:-


Group Discussion-Who is this character? What is happening here? What is going to happen? What should we do next? What would happen if….? What would happen in real life if…..?

Writing – freeze the frame at almost any point in the game and ask students to describe what they see. Ask them to create and describe their own “world” to include as an extra level in the game. Tell the story from the point of view of another “character”. Write detailed instructions for someone else to play the game. Write instructions to play a game they are familiar with, including board games and street games. Write another adventure for Sam and/or his dog.

Art and Design

Discuss the design of the game in terms of colour, form, detail, tones, texture and pattern. Describe what it is that makes the game visually appealling. Design and draw a new character/landscape/object/ planet  for the game. Design a new game. Make a board game version of Samorost. Make a short animation of one of the levels of the game.Samo_5


Play the soundtrack without the visuals and ask students to describe what they think is happening (music tracks are available from iTunes). Identify instruments used on the soundtrack. Explore music relating to outer space/the planets/other worlds and to suggest alternative soundtracks (Space Oddity? Lost in Space? The Planets? Star Wars Theme? War of the Worlds?). Compose and play an alternative soundtrack.

Science/Planet Earth

How many animal and plant species can you identify? Find out as much as you can about them and find out how they depend on each other for survival. How many different ways are there of creating energy in the game? Examine any of the means of transport that the gnome uses in the game and explain how it works. There are numerous opportunities at various points in the game to examine and discuss the concepts of ecology,evaporation, distillation, gravity, flow, substance, compound, circulation, motion, suction, current, voltage and quite a few others.


Sam_3There are a number of “machines” in the game, most of them in the Heath Robinson style of design. However, they provide excellent opportunities to discuss such things as valves, pulleys, thermostats, pressure and combustion. You could ask students to build a simple version of the ski lift or the metal ball which lowers Sam into the underworld in Samorost 2 or to design and build a new rocket for Sam.

Social Studies

How much do we know about Sam’s planet? How does it differ from the other planets he travels to? Are there any clues as to what era we might be in? What kind of society does this seem to be? What can we tell about the creatures who kidnap the dog?   Is there life on other planets? Debate the merits and demerits of space travel in the 21st century.

These are just a few ideas but if you have any more, or indeed if you are already using the game I would be delighted to hear from you.