Saturday, 22 December 2012

The purpose of schools: Part 1

I was saddened to see that in  article about an attacked head teacher, Zita McCormick - the Head who was, sadly, assaulted - is quoted as saying:

"The school is somewhere where they just vent personal anger at public servants that are here to protect and educate their children."

Surely this phrase:
  1. Reverses the order and places "educate" secondary to protect.
  2. Runs the risk of suggesting that other people are not there to protect children - including other parents, government, etc.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Arsenal Argument

If you're not interested in football - especially English Premier League - then feel free to ignore the rest of this blog. I have given this post the title "The Arsenal Argument" in acknowledgement of a group of Arsenal supporters who took issue with my claim that Manchester City Football Club - the current premiership champions and the team I have supported since their previous glory years in 1972, although one of the disputants accused me of being a former Chelsea fan with the implication that I am a glory hunter - have a sound business plan under the current administration: that is since Sheikh Mansour took control in 2008 and began a process of investment that led, within 3 years to an FA cup win and within 4 years to a premiership win. In doing so Sheikh Mansour invested close to £1bn of his own money.

The reason I am adding this to an educational blog is it reminded me that, just as Henry Higgins lamented the inability of the English to teach their children to speak, I lament the fact that education in Britain, and in so many other countries, seems to lack the ability to instil critical thinking skills in school children.

After all there are many ways to attack the argument that Manchester City lack a sound business strategy. You could:
Question whether Sheikh Mansour is truly committed in the long term to the club - you could ask the same question about the Glazers at the Salford Club who have loaded a successful business with massive debts or about Kroenke at Arsenal who refuses to invest money;
Question whether the investment is actually sustainable - again you could ask that about any investment in football. Look at the history of Blackburn, Leeds, Rangers, etc.;
Raise the issue of Financial Fair Play - although the best analysis of this I have seen is here A lot of people who raise FFP don't actually seem to understand it;
Raise the issue of whether the business plan is bringing football success. So far it is within the owners plan of success within five years. Whether it continues to do so is unknown - we cannot comment on the future -athough the fact that so many top players want to join the club and remaing there suggests it may;
Show that there has been a continuous waste of investment over the years.

However, the "discussion" that followed owed more to Monty Python's argument sketch rather than more classical, reasoned dialogue. The fact that the "discussion" continued after I had dropped off from ennui means that what happened was the three - four? five? - Arsenal fans continued a rant and then declared success was as if Michael Palin walked out and left John Cleese saying "It isn't" ad infitum to an empty room. In addition these gentlemen, I shall grant them anonymity, failed to actually address the idea of MCFC possessing a good business plan but rather indulged in a variety of flawed arguments that were completely tangential.

However, before we consider their arguments I'd like to raise the following.

1. I have no animosity towards Arsenal as a club or a team. I have cheered them on in premiership title races, domestic and european trophies for nigh on 40 years and, even though it benefitted City, was disappointed in the manner in which, in the 2010/11 season, they came fourth in what should have been a two-horse title race. Moreover, I have a great respect for Arsene Wenger as a manager and as someone who identifies and develops talent. I was, as an examination of my social twitter timeline will show, disappointed in the Arsenal fans who called for his dismissal at the start of the season. I also think it a shame that Kroenke et al.  have been unwilling to invest sufficiently in Wenger to enable him to effectively challenge for the title since 2004. Imagine how could Arsenal could be if they'd been able to invest the proceeds of their success as Salford did.

2. In terms of ownership of clubs I would much rather see a model in the UK akin to that in the German Bundesliga where fans own 50%+1 of the available shares of the club. However, that has never been the system in the UK and, to be honest, there is no difference, financially speaking, to money raised from selling shares to that invested by one owner. Morally one can question so many of the owners of the clubs in the UK, including Sheikh Mansour, but that is a different argument.

3. I must apologise for an error of my own. Many of the "arguments" raised by the disputants surrounded business investment from prior to 2008 and I stated that the purchase of Wayne Bridge was one of them. (I must say here I never rated Bridge as a player.) However, he was purchased in 2009. However, comments on some other players, and the stadium lease, were pre-2008.

So let us consider some of the errors in argument that took place.

1. Ad Hominem attacks. An ad hominem attack is one that attacks the disputant and not his argument. I was called a chav, a c**t and an ex-chelsea fan. I was called boring, a mug, a whore, deluded, a bore, etc. Such attacks add nothing to an argument and merely detract attention away from a weak argument.
As for pointing out that City - and City fans? - are hated. Maybe City are. Success is envied and hated. Liverpool were, Salford are, remember the chants of boring Arsenal? As for the fans - I dunno. Some maybe but if I take Salford fans as an example: some I hate, some I love. Other than some great City fans I know the best people to watch the derby games with are a couple of Salford fans. Why? No arrogance, no glory-hunting and they acknowledge the weaknesses in the team. Their are some City fans who annoy me - not just Bernard Manning and the Gallagher boys - because they fail to accept that some City players do crap. They have blind spots.

2. Points were presented as facts when they were, at best, a misrepresented concept. For example,
- Tevez pissing about on the beach raking in his salary when he walked out on the club. In fact he was not paid his salary and was subject to club fines.
- Tevez just walking back into the side having "pissed" all over the club. Again, if one examines the points being made Tevez was expected to apologise to club, Mancini and fans - which he did.
- Nasri being a bench warmer, Milner and Barry being poor investments. A quick glance at optastats blows these ideas out of the water.

3. Assumptions being passed off as facts. For example,
- Players only joining City for the money. This may, of course, be true. Let's be honest - how many people would turn down a massive pay increase? However, and again - let's be honest -  most of us value job satisfaction. There must be something about the vision presented to the players that makes the club attractive from a professional development perspective. Would you join altavista - do they exist? - if google came acalling.
- Robinho thought he was joining the Salford club. Again, oft-stated but based on what?

4. Gross generalisation. Several players were listed as being poor investments: Robinho, Santa Cruz - athough his career was hit by injuries - Wayne Bridge, Adebayor, etc. The thing is all managers make such mistakes. I could mention Arshavin - never fulfilled potential at Arsenal, Shevchenko, Veron, etc. etc. I am sure all managers would like to be the perfect talent-scout and man-manager but they aren't. Even Alex Ferguson - as much as I dislike him, he is, possibly, the best at the moment - makes mistakes. Think Hargreaves, Bebe, Veron, etc. Why good players - and RSC had a good record under Hughes at BLackburn, Adebayor starts well at many clubs before fading, etc. - fail to produce for one club before success for another is complex.

To then generalise from some poor investments - and to be honest although I think the signing of Robinho opened the door to other profile signings and may not be totally poor, Bridge, Adebayor, RSC, were bad signings - to say all signings were poor is a gross generalisations. Look at Silva, Kompany - although he was pre-Mancini, Tevez, Yaya Toure, Lescott - who was superb last season - Clichy, Nasri, Aguero. You will see that good investments outweigh the bad.

5. Totally irrelevant - although inaccurate - comments
- City buying success. Well - yes. Every successful club throughout the decades has bought success. Arsenal and salford dominated the EPL because they had the money to invest in players. Liverpool in the seventies and eighties had the success because they invested in players. Barca and Real Madrid are successful and have invested in players. This success allows further investment. Guess what? City now have money and can invest. Is this unfair? Is it heck.
- City spending more than others. Well they can now but looking back at the investment in Arsenal, Salford, Chelsea, etc. and adjusting for inflation it is actually comparable.
- City have no history? Well, this is just a joke comment surely? if by history you mean premiership history they don't but that does not mean they have no history. All clubs have history. Look at some of City's for example. 1968 - league winners, 69 - FA cup, 70 Cup winners cup and league cup - the first European and domestic double by English club, 76 league cup. Throughout 70s they were constantly challenging for league titles and trophys and then fell victim to bad business management.
-No class? Interesting. For so long they had so little class they were often described as people's second favourite club. Now they're winning they have no class.
- Wenger great at bringing on talent citing Viera, NAsri, etc. True - and acknowledged as above - but irrelevant to the argument.
-City being "given" the stadium. (not sure if this is just factually bad though.) Actually, City pay a good chunk of rent on this, and they invest in the surrounding area - check the development plans, and they support events including concerts.
- Still at least no one mentioned being bad for English football - after all we only have Hart, Lescott, Johnson, Milner, Barry, Richards in the first team let alone an academy which according to the arsenal news website is the 5th best in England (Arsenal are third and well-done to them. As I say I have no had feelings towards them.)
-Winning on goal difference. Enough said on this one.
-City not winning for 44 years and two trophies not making you a dominant force. Well no it doesn't but I never claimed it did. Nor is it relevant. (It's interesting to compare Mancini's start to one Sir Alex Ferguson who does lead the dominant force. Appointed 1986. He made several major, and expensive, signings in 87/88 but didn't win his first trophy for another year - five years in all compared to Mancini's 1.5 - and didn't win the title until 1993, having broken several transfer records on the way.) City have a young, talented squad and, if they keep them happy, the millions invested so far will pay off in success for many years.
-Parked the bus at the Emirates. Yup - they did. However, they were going through a blue patch and needed to try and get a point against what was a decent squad. So showing respect for another team is bad business management? Shall we ask about the two other Arsenal games last season?
- City's fanbase confined to Manchester. Gotta laugh at that. So local fans support their team? Why do Arsenal have a global fanbase? Why do United? Why do Liverpool? Again, success breeds success. I'm not one of those fans who derides people from other areas for supporting their club and i hope City will be able to continue to build a global fan base. (It's worth watching the City/Arsenal game from teh Bird's nest stadium - where Arsenal were outclassed by the way - to see the mix of City and Arsenal fans. On another interesting note I love this interview with Jackie Chan.)
-Viera commenting that Arsenal don't sign world-class players when he wasn't world-class when he went there. Again, this is irrelevant but it does allude to the sad fact that Arsenal are not currently financially able to compete for the signatures of current world-class players. Hopefully, Wenger will keep doing what he does so well and spotting a prospective world-class player. Unfortunately, Iithout investment from the board I cannot see them keeping.  I am afraid that I have to agree with Usmanov on this.

The bottom line is that not one of these arguments has any relationship to the idea that City have a sound business plan. They add nothing to the debate and so can be discarded.

To bring this back to the purpose of the blog - education - I think it is vital that all students recieve some training in Critical Thinking in order to avoid some of the key errors made the other night. Yes, 140 characters is difficult to sustain an argument but we need to return to basics:

1. Keep the focus of the argument in sight. It was about City's business model not past success, whether Wenger is a great manager/scout/etc.
2. Make sure you check your facts - and again I apologise for the Wayne Bridge error. The easy thing now would be to use that to construct a strawman attack on the debate but that is another fallacy.
3. Make sure your points are relevant.
4. Avoid ad hominem attacks. They do nothing except expose yourself or a weak argument.
5. Avoid generalisations.
6. Avoid passing assumptions off as facts.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Future Blog posts

I am determined that this blog needs to be regularly updated. Partly, because it forces me to reflect back on my own teaching practice. Partly, because it may, hopefully, generate discussion amongst interested parties in a way that can be mutually beneficial. Feel free to comment, of course, but lets maintain common courtesy and dignity.:)

Anyway, with this in mind I'm thinking about covering the following topics over the next few weeks.

  1. Why I teach RE and Philosophy. In part this will consider how I, as a theist, can teach what should be a non-confessionary, non-conversion orientated academic subject. In part it will cover why the subjects matter as academic subjects and in part it's just why I find it interesting.
  2. Digital Evolution and teaching. This is, hopefully, going to be the focus of my MA dissertation next year. Even if I can't swing that it is something that fascinates me. It is also what should be a crucial part of the British agenda for the future. See David Puttnam's article here.
  3. The RE-silience agenda.
  4. Spiritual, moral, social and cultural developmental agenda.

This is not an exhaustive list. I'm just trying to shape my own blogging agenda. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The 60 minute discussion!

I've always been a firm believer in the idea that the heart of good RE teaching is the unpicking of, criticism of and reconstruction of ideas. One of the first rules of my classroom is "Don't accept anything at face value." (This comes third after "Listen to what other people are saying" and "Challenge the offensive and unjust idea.") Only if we are willing to subject ideas, beliefs and values - including our own - to true criticism can we develop as rational thinking people. To paraphrase Socrates "The unexamined life is not worth living." (We could get into a debate about the rationality/irrationality of faith positions but maybe another time? Or maybe on Twitter? [RPEteach] "Roll up! Roll up! solve the mysteries of the universe in 140 characters or less.)

However, if we return to our subject matter or discursive Religious and Philosophical education we find ourself in an old and venerable tradition that is global in its appeal. Consider:
  • The Talmud is essentially a discussion of the Jewish faith in the diaspora cultures.
  • TaNaKh is, itself, a response to the reexamination of Jewishness during the Babylonian exile. (I once spent the car journey from Sevenoaks to Peterborough discussing whether the Graf-Welhausen hypothesis was valid. The other two sojourners looked at us in what can only be described as bewilderment.)
  • The  Upanishads in Hinduism are a series of questions and answers.
  • The establishment of the Christian creeds were a discussion surrounding the meaning of faith - and these discussions go on.
(and this is only a surface consideration. Look at the Socratic dialogues, Boethius, Confucius, it's even there in the Gilgamesh epic.)

Why does this matter? It's quite simple. Every child that walks into my classroom brings with him or her a set of values, ideas, presuppositions and beliefs that ultimately are personal. Some, even many, of them cannot necessarily explain or justify them. A large number cannot even articulate them. Nevertheless they are the raw material for an RE lesson. These ideas are so important that for well over a decade the assessment targets for RE expect 50% of assessment to consider how students can articulate their response to issues of faith. Check this document from the QCA . By the way, as you read it note it does not support conversion, proselytisation or even that students agree with what is being taught.

So this is the situation. Students walk into classroom. They are presented with ideas. They work with these ideas. They walk out. 60 minutes gone. Job done? Not really. if we work like that we risk shallow lessons with no scope for the students to develop their own personal spiritual, moral, social and cultural understanding. (If you want to know why that matters check out the latest expectations from OFSTED. If you're sat there saying it shouldn't matter because I'm not religious try having a look at the British Humanist Association and search for RE and spiritual development. If you're a humanist and want to work to help develop quality RE teaching then get onto your local SACRE.)

So how can we ensure that the discussion promotes thoughtful and deepening discussion? Let me recommend a few pointers.

First, try and train your classes to work philosophically. Consider spending time looking at Philosophy for Children. ( or are good initial resources.) As you do this try and explore different ways of thinking about holy writings. Explore the difference between law, myth, poetry and history. (Yes, holy books do contain valid historical ideas. Here's a thought: what evidence do we have for Socrates?) Explore what is meant by symbolism in art, music, film, literature and even words. Consider teaching them critical thinking skills. Lay the groundwork for student-led enquiry.

Second, don't be afraid to let discussion be the lesson. As teacher we can, especially if in an observation framework, be afraid to step outside our pre-planned framework. However, a good discussion can tick so many OFSTED boxes. Just  make sure that you are able to link discussion to lesson objectives and justify deviation from the lesson plan. Which leads me onto ,

Third, choose your stimulus material with care. Don't show a random Simpsons episode with no consideration of it's educational value. Make sure that you are equipped with key questions that you can use to scaffold the childrens' learning.You may find that over the course of discussion they pick up on these.

Fourth, get everyone involved in the discussions. There are so many ways to do this. (A good resource I'd recommend is Paul Ginnis; A teacher's toolkit.) Three simple things you might try.

  • Think/pair/share. Each student thinks about this/her own ideas. They then discuss it with a neighbour, then another pair and then the class. The trick here is to make sure that the ideas are written down at each stage of discussion.
  • Use lolly sticks. Write each students name on a lollipop stick and draw names at random when you want to draw people into the discussion. Some people put the stick back in the pile after a response. Personally I don't since it makes sure each child responds.
  • Take a soft ball into the room. You throw it at student A as you throw out a question. They respond and pose another question. They throw this question and the ball at student B and so on.
Fifth, and this is most important, make sure that you scaffold your questions up so that you are not just focusing on questions of knowledge. You need to be looking to move onto getting the students to question for themselves, to analyse symbolism, meaning and impact and to connect what they are considering to their own beliefs and values. (Look at Bloom's Taxonomy for suggested ways of approaching this. I will look at this in a later blog.)

Finally, remember that you are control. Have your key questions thought out before hand. Challenge student thinking. Don't let them get away with lazy answers. They may believe what they believe because their parents do but get them to think about why that may/may not be the best way. (so many atheists and agnostics are just following the religious tradition of their parents. Have you noticed that?) Above and beyond anything else make sure that your discussion leads towards the meeting of your preset learning objectives.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Looking forward to a new year.

So here we are almost at the end of another year. Three days to go to the much-anticipated summer break.

Actually, it's not for me. Our school begins its new academic year two weeks before the summer break. Ostensibly it gives the timetable a chance to bed down - which it does, I suppose. What it also means is that we have two weeks in which we can put in place a transition to the next year without overloading ourselves with assessment.

More importantly, with no year 7 or 12 students and no formal assessment, it does give a chance to reflect and look at how we can move forward.

Every year I tell myself that I will be more organised, more literacy focused, better displays, etc. This year, however, I am doing something about it.

  • My classroom is tidy. I have junked the stuff that I know I will not use. I have got rid of the decade old resources that do not fit the curriculum. I have, miracle of miracles, even tidied up the virtual dumping ground that is my area on the system. I even have a display up focusing on year 13 philosophy. Not only has this happened but the RPE classrooms in general are tidy and organised.

  • We are in the position of moving from 90 to 60 minute lessons - something I disagree with and will deal with at another time - which is compelling us to review our schemes of work. Excellent! No pressure! However, this has given us the chance to look at what we teach and how we teach it. Consequently, we are adding new modules - we have more time, you see. I have added in some more pure philosophy KS3 work. We are reconsidering how we deliver the subject. Slicker, more focused lessons is the key. We are focusing on changing the way we assess student progress - less vague assessments, more focused level descriptors.

  • Finally, and more excitingly, we are revamping A-level philosophy and doing so in a more organic way. If you don't know the pure philosophy specification from AQA the final unit focuses through a key text. So the plan now is to work backwards from this text - Descartes: meditations on first philosophy - and embed the text in all A2 schemes of work. At AS then all work needs to be focused towards this. Thrilling stuff! The idea, of course, is that students will, unlike in prior years, be more au fait with key philosophical texts.

I need to make sure that we don't get overburdened so we have a timetable for improvement of SOWs with colleagues taking ownership of key schemes of work. Will it work? Watch this space.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

A reflection on Tony Ghaye

Over the last few weeks when I've spent winter ensconced in a B&B I've been reading Tony Ghaye's book "Teaching and Learning through Reflective practice." It's very much a book aimed at NQTS and I don't intend to give a book review. However, I did extract a few useful snippets. The interesting thing is that it reminded me of a comment made by PGCE tutors in the dim and distant.

"A good teacher is a reflective teacher.

The minute you stop reflecting

your teaching begins to die."

I can't say I've stopped reflecting over the years but maybe the focus of the reflection has been more geared towards crisis management or box-ticking. Maybe, just maybe, I need to return to basics and consider some of the fundamentals surrounding my teaching.

Some of the questions posited, and addressed, by Ghaye surround the value-laden nature of teaching. I'm not sure if teaching was ever non-value-laden. Until the age of 18 my education was spent in Catholic schools which were, inevitably, focused through the Catholic ethos. However, it seems to me that there is an increasing emphasis on values even to the extent of this pervading the latest list of teacher standard.

So what are my values as a teacher? I could go all trite and cliched and talk about achieving the best, setting a role-model, etc. but what does that mean? Focusing on one aspect of teaching - classroom practice - here are my thoughts.

Of course one wants success for one's students. One want's them to achieve to their highest level. However, for me as an RE teacher achievement essentially transcends mere academic grade-grabbing. RE is, essentially, a subject concerned with the holistic development of the child - perhaps in ways that other subjects cannot achieve. For example, we address:

  • Spiritual development

  • Moral development

  • Cultural development

  • Social development

We are not purely there to teach students what different religions think or believe. We are there, as a consideration of the assessment criteria for RE show, to challenge students in their personal responses to the ideas under consideration. We are there to enable them to make sense of a very complicated multicultural milieu at a time of their life when they are exploring what it means to be human.

For me this is the most fundamental value in teaching RE. I must provide a role-model for how students can address these questions without patronising, condemning or coercing.

Am I successful? The answer has to be yes and no. I could only be 100% successful if 100% of students enjoyed, engaged with and succeeded in the subject. However, there are success indicators that suggest partial success.

  • Former students come up to me in the street and greet me with joy and gratitude. (Some surprising me in the process.

  • Lesson observations continually comment on the engagement and atmosphere from the majority of students.

  • I am usually satisfied with how classroom discussions and debates go on.

Unfortunately, that is not the end. I want to move the teaching on and so need to consider different ways of developing. I am limited, somewhat, by the constraints of various curricula. However, I would like to:

  • DEvelop opportunities for learning outside the classroom.

  • I want to push the development of SMSC development in the academy - a major strand in the latest OFSTED framework.

  • The resources in RE need moving beyond the textual without reducing RE to the study of modern culture.

All material for future blog posts.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Personalised excellence plan

Having been graded as Satisfactory (3) on my recent observation - well, ok, it was a borderline 2/3 - I now have to have a personalised excellence plan to push me to a solid 2. I now find myself with mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand I am positive - let's be honest this was my agenda without Academy intervention anyway. On the other hand, there is always a downside, and -possibly because of all the other nonsense in life - I am feeling rather "meh" about it.

This is rather daft. I am not far of having demonstrated a good lesson and I know I can do so but it's as if I'm buying into the OFSTED idea that satisfactory ain't satisfactory.

There were so many strengths - differentiation, data use, relationships, atmosphere, pushing for higher order skills with a very able class.

Areas for development.

All students to show good progress.

I'm told that two things let this down.

First, not all students completed all sections of the grid. So next time students will have less information to work with. Actually, I'm not too happy with this as it provides a limit on the learning that can happen. On the flip side - observation is about ticking boxes

Second, the end of the lesson was a bit rushed so students did not fully have the time to show what they had done.

Pace and timing

Actually, this has always been a strength of mine. I think that where this comes from is that with this very able group the students felt I left the important activities until right at the end and therefore they couldn't really engage.

There were other comments that, to be honest, I find a bit specious. For example, too many resources, student understanding of learning objectives, etc. However, there are ways to flag up these things in lesson planning.

So to return to my feelings. The negative side of things does, I feel, come from the sense of running to stand still. I improve one thing and another gets highlighted. On the other hand I could get round that by choosing safe lessons.

Action plan:

  1. Discussion with excellent teachers

  2. Observation of excellent teachers

  3. Identification and use of academic work to inform praxis.