Brave New World

I would guess this is by far the most significant post I have written since I started the blog, as today I announce to the world that I will be leaving Learning and Teaching Scotland in early July and stepping out into the world on my own as an independent learning consultant. Finally, I will actually be The Literacy Adviser, and the title of the blog will be a reality rather than a statement of intent. I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and while it’s too early to establish whether I have finally grown up or not, the prospect of being completely independent is at once daunting and hugely exciting.

Having been an English teacher, a Principal Teacher, Staff Tutor, Depute Headteacher, and latterly an Education Manager at LTS, the time has come for me to really put myself to the test and see whether I actually have the knowledge and skills which I have been claiming all that time. Again, after working for just over thirty years in the public sector, for the first time in my life I will be selling my wares in the educational market place, but to paraphrase Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, we’re all selling ourselves in one way or another. The market is depressed at the moment of course, but it is something of a paradox that only by investing in teacher training and education generally will the country be able to move out of recession. And just in case I forget what the education business is all about, I’m planning to do some supply teaching as well.

If one or more of the following statements applies to you, then you need to contact me as soon as possible to discuss what I can do for you (see, I’m warming to it already):-

  • I have just taken on a responsibility for developing literacy in my area of work
  • My staff need to have a better awareness of Curriculum for Excellence
  • I would like to explore Moving Image Education but don’t know where to start
  • We need to improve our literacy results in P6/ P7/ S1/ S2
  • Our school cluster would like to develop reading strategies to improve transition from primary to secondary
  • I would like to explore the use of new technologies but I don’t have the time and I’m a bit scared of it all
  • I know we should involve our parents more but we never seem to get to it
  • I need to develop a better understanding of literacy as “the responsibilty of all” within my school
  • I am organising an event and I need a first-class presenter/facilitator/chairperson
  • In preparation for the new literacy qualification, we want to look at how to develop e-portfolios


I hope that gives you a flavour of what I am about. Over the coming weeks and months I will be using the blog to upload resources, advertise events and share what insights I have gained into the vision of Curriculum for Excellence. In the meantime, here is a brief summary of some of the areas I will be working in, and where I can offer support and advice to teachers, schools, local authorities and others:-

Reading Strategies to Improve Literacy

Improving literacy is a key feature of most education improvement plans, yet there is often a lack of clarity about how it can be achieved. Motivation, and understanding the key strategies involved in developing higher order reading skills, are the route to success. Over the past couple of years I have been looking at what some of the world’s leading thinkers have been saying about reading development and at the key strategies we employ as we move from acquiring basic reading skills to becoming sophisticated readers. These strategies are often regarded as “instinctive” but in order to be effective they need to be made explicit to learners, and before they can be made explicit, teachers need to be aware of what they are and how they can be developed.

 Improving the Transition from Primary to Secondary

HMIE’s Improving Scottish Education report in January 2009 had some fairly damning comments about the primary-secondary transition, confirming that in the first year of secondary school young people are still too often “passive observers in lessons”, and going on to say that “while many schools recognise that improving links with primary schools helps progression in learning, too many do not build on what has been achieved in P7.” While we are now very good at the social aspects of transition from primary to secondary, we are failing to build on prior learning when young people enter secondary school. Developing a common pedagogy, especially around literacy, can change all that.

 Improving Literacy through Moving Image Education

I have recently joined Scottish Screen’s core group of Lead Practitioners in Moving Image Education. This is an area which has huge potential for teachers as they come to terms with the re-definition of “texts” in Curriculum for Excellence – using the kind of texts which most of us engage with on a daily basis viz., short films. Through an understanding of the film-making process and through working collaboratively, young people develop the “traditional” literacy skills of talking and listening, reading and writing, while at the same time developing critical thinking skills and a better awareness of modern media.                                           

 Using Web 2.0 technologies to Improve Learning and Teaching

Working in Learning and Teaching Scotland has given me the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills and knowledge of new technologies, internet and networking tools – such as Blogging, Wikis, Twitter, Delicious and a host of others – which can make learning and teaching much more fun and effective, and at no extra cost! Finding the right resources for the modern-day classroom need not be an issue if you know where to look, and with a few simple lessons teachers and learners can become part of a global learning network.

 From Inputs to Outcomes – Making Sense of the Literacy and English Framework

As one of the original writing team for the Literacy and English Framework, I have a comprehensive understanding of the thinking behind the Experiences and Outcomes, and of Curriculum for Excellence generally. I have presented extensively on various aspects of Curriculum for Excellence over the past couple of years to a wide range of audiences. Whether you are looking at specific outcomes, beginning to look at interdisciplinary approaches, or trying to ensure that literacy is at the centre of learning and teaching in your area of responsibility, I can offer you unrivalled support and advice.

The Wordle is Out!

This is a simple application I’ve discovered recently, and already it’s being used by a great number of people. Like most of the new technology available to us now it’s also entirely free and easy to access and use. A wordle is a graphic representation of a piece of text; I have even heard it described as “word art”. The one at the bottom of the next column is a snapshot of my blog – the more often a word appears in the blog the bigger and more prominent the word in the picture. You get the idea. You key into a box a piece of text or the URL of your blog or web page and a “word cloud” is generated, which can then be downloaded, printed or shared with others. The colour, font and layout of the wordle can be altered with a click of the mouse!

Thanks to digitalmaverick for the presentation below which illustrates the potential of Wordle.

Immediately I can think of a number of uses for this simple device in the classroom. For example:-

  • Summarise a discussion by noting the key words, typing them into Wordle and displaying the result on screen
  • Create your own poem in Wordle and print out in colour for display in the classroom
  • Preview the main themes of a short story or novel by copying and pasting an extract into Wordle and discussing the resulting picture
  • Copy and paste a complex examination piece into Wordle to create an immediate summary of the text before looking at the questions in more detail

 I’m sure you can think of more uses of your own. Please share them so that we can build a really useful tool for teachers. Then go create your own at

The Dog Ate My Homework

Today, as on any other school day, in homes and schools up and down the country, in every country in the civilised world, arguments will be raging about homework – homework forgotten, homework undone, homework too difficult, homework irrelevant. Books have been compiled of the best homework excuses, some of them feasible (I put it in my shirt pocket and my mum put the shirt in the washing) and some of them more fanciful (I didn’t want to add to the teacher’s workload, or I was kidnapped by terrorists and they have only just released me so I didn’t have time).

In “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing” the American educationist and parental adviser Alfie Kohn argues that, contrary to the popular belief that homework improves attainment and promotes self-discipline, when faced with homework which is too demanding or incomprehensible it can undermine a child’s self-belief, erode self-confidence and cause long-term psychological damage. This of course is in direct opposition to those who are convinced that homework makes the difference between success and failure by reinforcing and embedding the learning which has taken place during the school day. Kohn argues that such beliefs are based on serious misconceptions about learning, a disproportionate emphasis on competition and a basic mistrust of children and young people. One thing is certain, and that is that homework is the biggest source of conflict between pupils and teachers bar none.
The case for has been advanced by people like Dr Julian Stern of Hull University, who, in his book “Getting the Buggers to do Their Homework” reinforces the “Bash Street Kids” image of the relationship between teachers and their classes, where a constant battle is taking place between the forces of good and evil. The appropriately named Stern provides a range of techniques and tasks to “motivate even the laziest student”, arguing that properly structured homework can add the equivalent of one year’s study to a student’s full-time education, a remarkably precise boast with no scientific basis whatsoever.
One thing is certain, and that is the conflict which the homework ritual causes between teacher and pupil and pupil and parent, a price which (amazingly) is still routinely accepted as a small price to pay for the assumed advancement in terms of learning.

One of the best school homework policies I have seen consists of a single paragraph, which reads as follows:-

“Our staff and pupils are engaged daily in experiences, activities and projects which are genuinely exciting, challenging and meaningful. We are constantly discovering new things about ourselves and the world. Working collaboratively and in a spirit of mutual respect, we look forward each day to sharing our discoveries, and take pride in developing our skills. Consequently, we see homework as something which is a natural extension of what happens in the classroom (although we wouldn’t normally use the term “work”, preferring instead the words learning or discovery or exploration) and the only expectation of staff in this respect is that they constantly reinforce the connections between the learning which happens during the school day and the learning which happens in other settings.”

Actually I made that last bit up. No such homework policy exists – as far as I am aware! However, I am sure that there are many schools, headteachers and teachers who subscribe to the spirit of that statement, and many parents who would prefer their children to be educated in that kind of environment. So let’s be a bit more bold in saying so. The burden of proof should be with those who still believe in the homework fairy to demonstrate that it promotes real learning.