Learning to be Independent

“It’s ridiculous to think that kids can be trusted to learn things on their own.” Teacher, anon.

A couple of months ago I wrote about a primary school in Scotland which had embarked on some very interesting ‘joined-up’ learning, and I have often written or spoken about the challenges which secondary schools face when attempting to do the same thing. By definition, when your starting point is a structure which is built around a number of subject departments, when time is allocated to those subjects on the basis of their perceived importance in the hierarchy, and where young people move around from one to the next in the course of the school day, it is always going to be difficult to provide experiences which add up to a coherent whole. Add to that the enormous pressure to produce better and better exam results at the exit point, and the opportunities for real student choice, self-directed learning and learning based on outcomes rather than inputs are going to be restricted, to put it mildly. So is it possible for every secondary school to accommodate the needs of every young person? Can they support and challenge the more creative, the non-conformists, the independent thinkers? And is it reasonable to expect them to deliver learning which is relevant, joined up and personal in every case? Do we need to think about alternative school models, or should we begin by looking at the possibility of creating ‘ a school within a school’ as they have done in this bold experiment at Monument  Mountain Regional High School in Berkshire County, Massachusetts? Incidentally, if you listen carefully you will realise that the quote at the top of the blogpost is taken from near the beginning of the video.

My thanks, as so often, to Kenny Pieper for bringing the film to my attention. If you haven’t found Kenny’s blog yet, you’re in for a treat.


Literacy, Film and the Scottish Survey

Moving image texts, in the form of cinema, and later, television, have been with us for a long time. So much so that it is difficult to imagine a world without them. And moving image texts have been used in education since the middle of the last century. I still vaguely remember trooping in to our school dining hall in the mid-1960s to watch Peter Brook’s wonderful black and white adaptation of Lord of the Flies (not to be confused with the awful 1990 remake which has the English public school boys replaced with American marine cadets). In those days, however, and to a great extent today still, the film or the television programme in class was used to enhance or supplement the ‘real’ text ie the book, or simply as an alternative means of communicating the lesson – a substitute teacher. The idea that moving image texts were valid in themselves, and were worthy of study, was reserved to a few enthusiasts and placed in the box marked ‘Media Studies’.

Not any more. In a bold move, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), working on behalf of the Scottish Government, has been engaged over the past eighteen months in developing reading tasks based on moving image texts, for inclusion in the new-look Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy. The SSLN replaces the old  Scottish Survey of Achievement and assumes a much more significant role in the post 5-14 landscape. A small, random sample of pupils from EVERY school in the country in P4, P7 and S2 will be assigned a series of short tasks, the results of which should provide a snapshot of literacy levels across the country. Crucially, however, the anonymous nature of the survey and the size of the sample (no more than twelve pupils per school in S2 and much fewer in primary) will make it impossible to compare schools or compile the much-vilified ‘league tables’ of old. The tasks will assess performance in literacy using a wide variety of texts, including moving image texts, as defined by Curriculum for Excellence:-

texts not only include those presented in traditional written or print form, but also orally, electronically or on film

The moving image tasks have been written by experienced and enthusiastic practitioners – thereby exposing another myth, that national assessments are written by SQA staff – and they have already been piloted  with great success. Feedback from pupils and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. Having worked with the development team, the SQA granted me exclusive permission to publish a sample task which was developed for early trials but which will NOT be used in the actual survey. This Level 1 task (P4, age eight) is based on the short extract from the film ‘Babe’. As you will see from the task booklet, the ability to ‘read’ the extract depends on some awareness of the language and grammar of moving image, but does not require any kind of specialist vocabulary. Download the task booklet here.

Further Resources

For some excellent teaching materials and short films to use in the classroom check out the following websites:

Moving Image Education www.movingimageeducation.org

Film Education www.filmeducation.org

Scotland on Screen www.scotlandonscreen.co.uk

Languages on Screen www.languagesonscreen.org.uk

Open Culture www.openculture.com

Film Studies for Free www.filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com

Movie Clips and Movie Scenes www.movieclips.com

Docscene – Scottish Documentary www.scottishdocinstitute.com

BBC Film Network www.bbc.co.uk/filmnetwork

BBC Learning Zone Scotland www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/learning/learningzone

National Film Board of Canada www.nfb.ca

Vimeo www.vimeo.com

Scottish Screen www.scottishscreen.com

British Film Institute www.bfi.org.uk

Reading By Numbers

The English Education Secretary Michael Gove caused huge controversy this week (not for the first time) when he boldly proclaimed that every 11 year-old should be reading 50 books a year. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he meant ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if all 11 year-olds read 50 books a year’. The problem is that he has no idea how to bring that about, or even how to begin to encourage such a scenario, and being part of a government determined to close public libraries certainly isn’t going to help. The clue to his thinking is in the word ‘should’ and in the arbitrary choice of 50 as a target number of books. Is it based on the notion of one book per week with two weeks off for good behaviour? The ‘should’ of course is based on a model of education which is centred on instruction, telling young people what is good for them, rather than fostering a real love of reading, which takes time, dedication, a fairly detailed knowledge of the individual child’s likes and needs, and a love of reading on the part of the teacher.

If anyone with access to Mr Gove happens to read this post, perhaps next time you see him you could lean over and whisper in his ear the title of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. Were he to add this to his reading list – assuming he himself reads at least 50 books a year – he might begin to understand the effort and dedication it takes on the part of those teachers who are already developing young readers and pay them a bit more respect. However, if he is determined to turn young people off reading for life simply by imposing targets, here are a few more pieces of advice he might give any teacher trying to create reluctant readers:-

•Don’t ever talk about books
•Keep books out of sight to prevent theft
•Make sure books are well-worn and unattractive (see above)
•Never read aloud to children
•Make sure the furniture is hard and uncomfortable and all fluorescent lights are on
•Always have the class reading the same book at the same pace
•Make it clear that comics and graphic novels are not ‘proper reading’
•Prepare plenty of worksheets and insist that they write a book review every time they finish a book
•Never ask kids about their hobbies and interests
•Don’t allow them to bring their own books to school
See also Kenny Pieper’s excellent blogpost Things To Do In Ten Minutes