The Inestimable Dr Memes

There is much talk about leadership in education these days, and there isn’t a day goes by without the publication of a book or a paper, or a tweet or a blogpost on how it should be ‘done’, or how it should be ‘done better’. It was quite refreshingly amusing therefore to come across the following description of a school ‘leader’ from an earlier age, the inestimable Dr J.S. Memes, rector of Ayr Academy from 1826-1844. If leading by example is the best form of leadership, I don’t think you could find a better example than this.

Dr John Smythe Memes, LL.D., came from Brechin, and had distinguished himself as a student at Aberdeen University, taking Latin, Greek and Divinity classes, to which he added Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry, as well as Botany and Anatomy. Initially finding employment as a tutor, he travelled during 1821 and the next two years on the continent, becoming fluent in French, Italian and German, and picking up a knowledge of several unspecified ‘Oriental languages’. He lectured to the Philosophical Society of London,contributed to the proceedings of the Astronomical Society, and interested himself also in literature and art. And so it was that this ‘gentleman of varied and elegant accomplishments’ took over as rector of Ayr Academy in February 1826 just after his 31st birthday. The Academy itself was enjoying a growing reputation, having re-fashioned itself in 1796 from the old Ayr Grammar Schule, famously attended by a young Robert Burns for a very brief period in his fourteenth year.

JDDr Memes flung himself into the work with enthusiasm. He took over classes in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Geography. He added History, Botany and English Composition with Rhetoric and Logic. He applied his skills as a draughtsman to preparing a series of large wall maps for his geography classes. He persuaded the directors to erect scaffolding so that he could personally paint two large terrestrial spheres on the ceiling of the school hall. In 1837 he introduced geographical ‘excursions into the country’. To extend the study of Natural History he acquired botanical specimens and created a botanical garden. He inspired the pupils of his senior English class to original composition and had printed two collections of their poems.

When, in 1838, the Classics and Modern Languages post became vacant, Memes convinced the directors that the remaining masters could easily cope if they ‘devote their individual attention to their classes’. In the summer of 1840 he spent six weeks in Paris, visiting six colleges, twenty-four municipal schools, the military academy and a college of education, ‘to acquire the most perfect methods of teaching the French language’. In the meantime, he was producing books on a number of subjects: A Memoir of Canova and Modern Sculpture (1828) and A History of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture (1837); Works of William Cowper (1834) and A Life of Cowper (1837); Memoirs of Josephine (1832) and a translation of Memoirs of Bonaparte (1836); with one of the earliest books on photography, Daguerre’s History and Practice of Photogenic Drawing (1839).

His enormous energies were recalled by staff and pupils alike – he was known on occasion to take extra classes as early as 6 a.m., teach for twelve hours with ‘trifling intervals’, sketch large maps for his geography classes till eight in the evening, meet with the Library Society to superintend their arrangements, and dismiss them at ten or eleven o’clock. Next morning, as early as four o’clock, he could be found working with his mathematics class, making plans of the town harbour to be exhibited at the annual examination.

Dr Memes became recognised and respected in the wider community of Ayr, and his polymathic powers were widely appreciated. He conducted evening classes in Astronomy, and gave free instruction to the  Ayr Mechanics’ Institute. When he delivered a series of Sunday evening lectures on the ‘Evidences of Christianity’ in Wallacetown chapel, all 900 seats were occupied, and people had to be turned away. He provided evidence to be presented in parliament on behalf of the Glasgow and Ayr Railway Company. His knowledge of anatomy was recognised by the Ayrshire Medico-Chirurgical Association. With a party of senior pupils he made a survey and prepared a report on the feasibility of bringing piped water from the Carrick Hills into Ayr – for which he was rewarded with a public dinner in his honour. He assisted the Sheriff of Ayr by calculating the trajectory of a bullet from an air gun. When Ayr Town Hall was struck by lightning in January 1838, Memes ‘quieted public alarm’ and earned the gratitude of the town council by climbing the steeple and assessing that the structure was safe.

Under his leadership the school continued to make steady progress, but an outbreak of cholera in 1832 meant a declining roll, and by the time he left the Academy in 1844 to take up a role as minister in Hamilton parish church, his boundless energy seemed also to be in decline. One pupil recalled how in the senior Geography class, which was held daily in the hour before lunch, Dr Memes would have a glass of wine and a biscuit brought to his room to sustain him, after which he would frequently nod off to sleep.

At this point it would be easy for me to apply the usual clichés – they don’t make them like that any more, what happened to all the ‘characters’ in education, and so on. However, it’s probably best just to read all that again, take a deep intake of breath, and say, ‘Wow!’

Source: 750 Years of a Scottish School – Ayr Academy 1233-1983 by John Strawhorn

You Must Be Joking

funny_chemistry_teacher_quote_no_reaction_postcard-rf4872fee293747cbaf640617e0744679_vgbaq_8byvr_324A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: ‘What the hell was that all about?’…………..Boom!

Three guys stranded on a desert island find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says: ‘I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.’

Two of the funniest jokes of all time, according to a team of researchers at Oxford University, who put them to a group of students at the London School of Economics and asked them to rate them out of ten. The jokes were from a pre-selected list of course, which makes the exercise less than useless, but nevertheless, jokes, and the ability to tell them, have been a part of our popular culture since God worried that Adam would be forever lost in the Garden because men hate to ask for directions, and most jokes are just another form of storytelling, which is at the heart of learning and teaching. Right?

How often, as a teacher, have you recognised in a young person the ability to tell a good story, to hold an audience rapt for minutes on end without script or prompt, and yet were never quite sure how the talent could be developed and nurtured? Well, fear not, because an outlet for that creativity is about to present itself, in the shape of a joint project from the BBC and the National Literacy Trust.

‘Comedy Classroom – Having A Write Laugh’ will officially launch on the 19th of April, and it isn’t just for extroverts. The project organisers are calling on teachers across the UK to get their students writing comedy – whether it be stand-up, sketch-writing or simply photo captions. And being the BBC, they have a huge collection of resources to help you on your way.

Footnote: For those teachers who think that telling jokes isn’t real learning, or for those who simply like ticking boxes, here are some of the literacy outcomes which may be enhanced by undertaking such an endeavour. Have fun, but be careful not to overdo it. Learning is a serious business, after all!

Speaking:

  • Take a role within group discussions.
  • Communicate clearly and confidently with an audience.
  • Verbally evaluate the work of themselves and others.
  • Be able to participate in discussions and presentations.
  • Demonstrate they can gain, maintain and monitor the interest of the listener(s).
  • Be able to discuss words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination.

Reading:

  • Comment on the differences between spoken and non-spoken text.
  • Consider why texts can change to be applied to specific audiences.
  • Be able to prepare comedy pieces to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action.
  • Demonstrate an ability to recognise different forms of comedy writing.
  • Be able to assess the effectiveness of their own and others’ writing and suggest improvements.

Writing:

  • Communicate meaning, adapting their style where necessary.
  • Organise their ideas in an easy to understand, coherent way.
  • Demonstrate an appropriate level of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
  • Demonstrate they can draft and edit to improve their work as well as critique others’.
  • Be able to plan, draft, edit and proofread.
  • Be able to use relevant strategies to build vocabulary, grammar and structure.

See also:

 Eleven Jokes Only Smart People Will Understand

Top Ten Teacher Jokes

Best School Jokes Ever

Teacher, School and Education Jokes

 

 

You WILL Survive. Popularising Shakespeare.

tennant

David Tennant in the stunning 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet

As it happens, I am one of those boring old traditionalists who believe that no school education is complete without some experience of the genius that was William Shakespeare. After all, if the purpose of formal education includes preparing young people for a rich and fulfilling life, helping them understand their place in the world, showing them that they are not the first person ever to agonise over the complexities of human relationships, then who better to turn to for guidance?

However, Shakespeare is a bit like maths at school. Badly taught, it can have a more profound effect than when it is taught well. ‘I hated Shakespeare at school’ is almost as common a refrain as ‘I was never any good at maths…….’.

Imagine the scene. As an English teacher you find yourself in the position of trying to convince a group of young people, many of whom wouldn’t know the difference between a sonetto and a cornetto – even if they did know that the latter was not originally an ice-cream cone –  of the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You will teach them, of course, about the Italian origins of the sonnet, its traditional structure of two quatrains and a sestet (14 lines in all), the regular musical rhythm that they will come to know and understand as ‘iambic pentameter’, and you will demonstrate along the way how Shakespeare was dealing with the grand themes of love and loss, of jealousy and revenge, of lust, hatred, fear and hurt. You may give them some very useful notes, or you may even ask them to make their own. God job done.

Well, sometimes, and for some kids, yes. But, consider the potential difference it could make if you were to ask them to ‘be Shakespeare’ for a while. Write a sonnet as if your life depended on it, which his almost certainly did.

‘Too hard!’ they cry.

Well, OK. The language is challenging, 400 years down the line, the themes a bit adult. But how about if you started by actually giving them the content, and asking them to ‘translate it’ into a sonnet? Which is exactly what Erik Didriksen has done in ‘Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favourite Songs’ from publishers Fourth Estate.  Starting with songs from modern-day pop artists like Beyonce´and Taylor Swift, Didreksen has re-written them as Shakespeare might have done. And here’s the real payback, one of the things we struggle to impress upon modern-day students of the great man – the themes don’t really change!

Gaynor

Gloria Gaynor is given a Shakespearean make-over in Erik Didriksen’s ‘Pop Sonnets’

This technique, which is sometimes referred to in film education as ‘generic translation’ (see previous post here), can be a very useful strategy when trying to develop a better understanding of any text, as it allows the reader to think about what it would look like from the inside, in a different context and for a different audience, while demanding that they look more closely at the conventions of the genre.

Footnote:- While writing this blogpost I just happened to discover this excellent collection of resources from TES for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

See also Shakespeare’s Words

 

 

 

 

Are Literacy And Learning the Same Thing?

There are very few references to literacy these days which don’t have an adjectival prefix – digital literacy, financial literacy, emotional literacy etc. – which makes me wonder whether literacy has simply become a synonym for learning. Which also makes me wonder whether, when we talk about literacy in the traditional and narrow sense, we shouldn’t call it what it is i.e. the ability to read, or to write grammatically, or to spell a specified list of words without reference to a dictionary or spellchecker. Is it possible to have such a range of definitions of ‘literacy’, or does the word ultimately become meaningless? I guess that is my thought for the day.

brecht

Curriculum for Integrity

This blogpost is re-published with kind permission from its author, Matthew Boyle. The original can be found on his own blog, Each and Every Dog. Well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in learning and teaching.

commonweal1 I had the great pleasure of attending a “thinking and creating” day organised by the Common Weal, “think and do tank” and chaired by the very engaging and upbeat Katie Gallogly-Swan. They described the day as a “policy lab” with the explicit aim of connecting academics and experts in education with “interested citizens” to “ask some of the big questions” and to help shape policy for Scotland going forward.

The day began with us considering the questions that mattered most to us and which we felt were fundamental to improving education. The central chosen question, underpinning it all was “what is the purpose of education for the nation?” The other popular questions were:

  • How can the final qualifications system be made to better serve the needs of all?
  • How can equality for all be more clearly baked-in to everything that we do?
  • What should be done to help the system realise its ambition to implement the Curriculum for Excellence?

I am sure everyone took their own strong conclusions and learning from the very rich and open plenary that knitted up the day’s discussion, but I left further reinforced in my view that what is needed is a “strategy for integrity” to ensure that the “Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)” means more in practice than at present! The day coalesced around an early proposition by Bill Boyd (Literacy Adviser), that CfE was already an excellent and well-consulted plan for an egalitarian, effective and individualised education experience; Bill simultaneously conceded that our implementation has left much to be desired, with the model being hindered by traditional forces such as SQA examinations which seem to pay little heed to the aspirations of the new curriculum, or inspection which seemed to hold back innovation.

The new curriculum is based to a significant degree on “The Treasure Within (UNESCO)” with its four pillars of learning:

Learning to know: to provide the cognitive tools required to better comprehend the world and its complexities, and to provide an appropriate and adequate foundation for future learning.

Learning to do: to provide the skills that would enable individuals to effectively participate in the global economy and society.

Learning to be: to provide self analytical and social skills to enable individuals to develop to their fullest potential psycho-socially, affectively as well as physically, for a all-round ‘complete person.

Learning to live together: to expose individuals to the values implicit within human rights, democratic principles, intercultural understanding and respect and peace at all levels of society and human relationships to enable individuals and societies to live in peace and harmony.

This has been translated and modernised by our own curriculum which clearly targets the following (among other outcomes):

  • personalisation and choice, although you could argue that that is only a limited version where the factory model of schooling allows.
  • Interdisciplinary learning (IDL), although ten years on, strong examples of this “real application of learning” are in only the minority of schools.
  • Breadth and depth of learning, which are quite untestable and a bit “mom’s apple pie” in scope and ambition anyway, so what they have led to is no change.
  • An exam system to declutter the curriculum and to reflect the more joined-up learning that young people are now undertaking, which teachers are preparing learners for by cutting up old, pre CfE papers, since much of what is in the new exams is similar to the old!

I largely agree with Bill that CfE contains good things, largely agreed on by teachers and society, some of it clearly too woolly and contradictory, but that we are simply not delivering it in the way it’s authors and contributors intended. Perhaps now, as a possible conclusion from the policy lab, it is time for us to refocus on delivery, not rewrites, and attempt to deliver a Curriculum with Integrity! If we believe the examination tail has too long wagged the learning dog, then we must redesign the exams to reflect that belief. If we believe IDL is a major delivery mode of our curriculum then we must break down some of the subject silos at all levels and deliver integrated project-based learning. If we believe individualisation matters, then we must have personal choices available throughout regardless of the inconvenience to our current models.

A delivery strategy to do what we say we value might just be the saving of a good curriculum that we are failing to deliver; CfI instead of CfE anyone?

What Would It Be Like To Be A Duck?

daffy_005_copyYesterday I had the pleasure of doing nothing for quite a long time, sitting in the sun beside Lake Banyoles, or L’Estany de Banyoles, here in Catalonia. It was the site of the rowing regatta at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and it really is quite a spectacular setting. An excited group of children, probably around the age of four or five, were chattering about the prospect of swimming in the lake, which they were just about to do, and throwing the odd scrap of pizza and chips to the ducks which were plentiful along the edge of the lake. ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ asked one of the children, eliciting a few giggles. Yes, what WOULD it be like to be a duck. What a great question! Not, ‘Oh look at those ducks, aren’t they cute?’ but ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ She may as well have asked ‘What is it that makes us human?’ because essentially that is what they set about discussing. What do they eat? How do they eat it? Can they feel cold? What do they think about? Do they get bored? I was reminded of the episode in The Catcher in the Rye when the hero, Holden Caulfield, is walking in Central Park, and he speculates about where the ducks go in winter.

Children always ask the best questions. Which is not to say that they always know what needs to be learned, or that the formal curriculum should be just one big extended session of sitting around reflecting on the nature of the universe, but rather, that as teachers we should reflect on our role and the relationship between learning and enquiry, and remember that real learning comes out of a need and a hunger to know stuff. Good teaching is often about providing young people with the best experiences or texts you can find, asking THEM to ask all the important questions, then setting out together to learn as much as you can.

Further thoughts on kids and questioning from a previous article: More Questions, Fewer Answers

If you are looking for some great questions to stimulate discussion, the following sources will provide you with an endless supply. Don’t blame me if you get lost in them for ever.

Fermi Questions – named after the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who was well known for solving problems which left others baffled.

Little Book of Thunks – a great source of questions to stimulate thinking and discussion.

Philosophy for Kids – ideas to generate discussion and critical thinking.

The Critical Thinking Community – where teachers can learn about the development of critical thinking skills.

L'Estany de Banyoles

L’Estany de Banyoles

Creating A Level Playing Field

level-playing-field

“It is often said that greater equality is impossible because people are not equal. But that is a confusion: equality does not mean being the same. People did not become the same when the principle of equality before the law was established. Nor – as is often claimed – does reducing material inequality mean lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity.”

The Spirit Level’. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. 2009

One of the most urgent educational issues facing Scotland and the rest of the UK at the moment is the apparent ‘attainment gap’ in literacy between those from poor backgrounds and those from better-off families. Papers have been written, funding has been re-directed, conferences held, and yet the problem seems to be worsening rather than improving (for a definitive description of the problem see this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report from May 2014). With so many committed and capable professionals involved in addressing the issue, how can that be the case?

One possibility of course is that the problem is too great for schools alone to overcome, and that unless we address the societal inequalities which lie at the heart of the problem, inequalities which mean we are still talking about kids from ‘poor backgrounds’ as if poor backgrounds were a fact of life, like Benjamin Franklin’s death and taxes, any gains in closing that gap will be marginal and, for many kids, too late. The scale of the problem facing us was graphically illustrated in Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s best-selling book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, published in 2009, which claims to demonstrate through extensive study of all available data, the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption”.

Highlighting the effects of inequality on each of eleven different health and social problems – physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being – the study looks at how outcomes in all of these areas are significantly worse in more unequal rich* countries.

One of the more interesting aspects of Pickett and Wilkinson’s study however, is that, in those countries with the greatest wealth inequality, not only do those at the bottom end of the social scale suffer poorer outcomes, almost everyone does, including those from more affluent backgrounds. Conversely, in more equal societies, everyone benefits:

“It is often assumed that the desire to raise national standards of performance in fields such as education is quite separate from the desire to reduce educational inequalities within a society. But the truth may be almost the opposite of this. It looks as if the achievement of higher national standards of educational performance may actually DEPEND on reducing the gradient in educational achievement in each country . Douglas Willms, Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, has provided striking illustrations of this. In Figure 8.4 (see below) we show the relationship between adult literacy scores from the International Adult Literacy Survey and their parents’ level of education in Finland, Belgium, the UK and the USA. This figure suggests that even if your parents are well-educated – and so presumably of high social status – the country you live in makes some difference to your educational success. But for those lower down the social scale with less well-educated parents, it makes a very much larger difference.

An important point to note, looking at these four countries, is the steepness of the social gradient – steepest in the USA and the UK, where inequality is high, flatter in Finland and Belgium, which are more equal. It is also clear that an important influence on the average literacy scores – on national levels of achievement – in each of these countries is the steepness of the social gradient. The USA and UK will have low average scores, pulled down across the social gradient.”

Fig 8.4

According to Pickett and Wilkinson’s findings, not only is there a greater difference in attainment between rich and poor in more unequal countries, but there is the cyclical effect of low self-esteem to take into account. Where young people are given the ‘impression’ that they are less capable, even when they aren’t, their performance in assessments will invariably reflect this. Consider this story which the authors include in the text.

“Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 to 12-year-old boys from scattered rural villages in India, and set them the task of solving mazes. First, the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other’s caste. Under this condition the low-caste boys did just as well with the mazes as the high-caste boys, indeed slightly better. Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father’s and grandfather’s names, and caste. After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how well they did – the performance of the low-caste boys dropped significantly. This is striking evidence that performance and behaviour in an educational task can be profoundly affected by the way we feel we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior, our abilities are diminished.”

This is a key point, worth remembering when assigning names, letters or other labels to classes or groups of children within a school setting, and while differentiating young people according to ability, no matter your intentions.

The Spirit Level. Summary of Chapter 8 Educational Performance

  • the biggest influence on educational attainment is family background
  • parental involvement in education is crucial
  • children do better if their parents have higher incomes/ have achieved higher education, if they have a place to study at home and if education is valued
  • international education scores are closely related to income inequality
  • the lower you are on the social scale, the greater the difference the country you reside in makes to your chances of success
  • a stimulating social environment is essential for early childhood development – this is more difficult to achieve for parents suffering from poverty, stress or lack of support
  • societies can improve the quality of early childhood education by implementing family allowances, parental leave from work, tax benefits, programmes to promote better work/life balance, and high standards of early childhood education
  • there is much evidence to support the idea that educational performance is greatly influenced by the way we are perceived by others
  • inequality directly affects educational achievement because it impacts aspirations, norms and values for people who are lower down the social ladder

But where does all that leave us, as teachers of literacy in one of the most unequal of the richest societies in the world? If you accept the findings of the Pickett and Wilkinson studies – and many don’t, despite the weight of evidence to support them – of course you continue to support and develop the literacy skills of ALL those young people for whom you have some kind of responsibility. You give extra support to those who need it most, as good teachers have always done. The bigger question is, do you have another responsibility, to be an active campaigner for social justice, for the creation of a more equal society? You tell me.

(*The authors begin by observing that as countries develop, the social problems associated with their poverty are eliminated – but only up to a point. The improvement does not continue indefinitely. Beyond a certain point the increase in GDP per head does not result in a significant increase in life expectancy).

Footnote: As I write, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron has announced measures to ‘re-define poverty’ in the UK (read the full story here).