Little_Mavis' rants and musings


Tracking the teacher

This seems to have caused a bit of a stir on Twitter recently so here is my two penn’orth.

As usual, I see two sides (maybe).

First one of those anecdotes that are disliked as evidence but, I assume, are fine as an illustration.

When I was in the first form of secondary school (no such thing as year 8 back then), I was doing my usual type of doodling in an English lesson. Suddenly the teacher said, loudly “Mavis Wombat, what have I just said?” I was young, I was naive, I took this at face value and dutifully reported, word for word what she had just been saying. I’ve forgotten now, obviously. Anyway, it turns out this was the wrong thing to do, and definitely not what the teacher wanted. In hindsight, I realise what I should have done was look suitably contrite and apologised. For the next week or so I had to move my desk, actually move it, to the front of the classroom right in front of her, not fiddle, not write, not draw and look at her. I don’t think it helped me to concentrate. I did notice her hair, her make-up, her fingernails.

As a teacher, I began to see the other side of things. I was constantly checking to see if the students were paying attention, and their not typing (IT lessons so PCs always available), not fiddling with their phones, (not a temptation when I was at school) and generally looking in my direction. I did explain that the problem was that I needed to see them looking and listening and I needed not to be distracted by their fiddling. I persisted, they got the message. Now as a TA, I often remove pens, pencils, rubbers, rulers etc. from children while the teacher is talking. I’m not, honestly sure they aren’t listening when they’re doing that but I do know that it distracts the teacher and the other children. It’s interesting what you see sitting in a classroom with the children, (or if you do peer observations),

So in summary, my view, for what it’s worth. Insisting on tracking the teacher is overly controlling and will possibly hinder some children because they focus on that rather than absorbing what is being said. What I would, generally, ask is for is a lack of fiddling, especially those girls who play with the hair of the girl sitting in front of them (shudder). What I’ve been trying to decide while writing this is how I would handle those children like me, who doodle while they listen and honestly, I don’t know. Because of the subject I taught it was never an issue. Can you allow one child to do it and not others? Would permission to do that be abused? I’m honestly not sure. Maybe it could be sorted by agreeing class rules with the children? (Though I realise that many consider that to be a huge mistake).

What are your views?


Leave a comment

Clearing my mind #1

I’ve had a shaky few years recently for various reasons but I think I’m getting back to my old self. I can tell this partly because I seem to be pissing more people off. I’m not saying this is a particularly good thing but it is familiar.

This means I can look back & start writing objectively about things I couldn’t write about before because they were too recent. So. I’m doing a few posts to get things off my chest. I don’t especially expect anyone to find them interesting but I can now write about them without getting upset so here we go.

Today I’m going to talk about …

Lesson Observations

I was thinking about this after reading this about Ofsted observations being not very useful in judging the quality of teaching.

Observations were the thing I hated most when I was teaching.

I came to teaching late after successful years in a variety of roles & industries – What can I say, I have itchy feet – It meant that I was used to being treated as an intelligent adult and having my judgement trusted. In teaching (at least in my experience), this isn’t the case.

We were observed twice a year. Once was by our line manager, when we were supposed to be able to negotiate which lesson was seen, and once was part of an institution-wide review. In the latter case all we were given was which half of the week we would be observed and it could be by any senior member of staff. This was meant to help prepare us for an Ofsted visit.

The first few years were fine. In those days, there were different grades for teaching & learning & 7 grades. I honestly can’t remember the grades but there were good points & points to improve. As time went on the pressure to perform well in these observations increased. As Ofsted observation grades changes, so did ours. We had grades 1-4 Excellent, Good, Satisfactory, Poor. My place of work was ahead of Ofsted in deeming Satisfactory not to be satisfactory. A Grade 3 observation grade meant a stiff talking to & re-observation. In my experience, the grade given depended as much on who was doing the observing as much as on how the lesson went.

One year I had been given the second half of the week as my “time slot” I knew full well that some teachers managed to elicit hints about which lesson would be observed but I had none. By Thursday evening nothing had happened and I was getting very tense. On Friday I taught what were probably my three most challenging classes. I taught IT across the board to students who did not want to, and “had not signed up to” do IT (good luck to all those FE teachers who will be delivering GCSE resits to unwilling kids who failed them in school). On Friday morning I had two Performing Arts groups followed by a Sports Study group. I was delivering the same content to them all, although it would be delivered to the two kinds of students in very different ways. I had prepared a lesson which ticked all the boxes on the list of “How to deliver a Grade 1 lesson” which had been handed out the previous week. I had printed copied of the Scheme of Work, lesson plan, copies of handouts, a character profile of the students with their additional needs.

Of course, I hoped I would be observed in the first lesson as they were usually the more co-operative of the groups and Sports Studies students on the graveyard shift on Friday was always, shall we say, demanding.

No-one turned up to observe the first lesson. “Oh good” I thought optimistically. I can iron out any kinks. The class behaved appallingly. I suspect they simply picked up on my tension. Performing Arts students could be charming, mercurial, sensitive and infuriating. Often all at the same time.

The class were awful. Simply awful. I don’t believe there was anything wrong with the lesson but they were having one of those days. I kept thinking ahead to the next class who were generally less co-operative and how that lesson would be even worse, and the afternoon………..

Eventually, I burst into tears. There, in the classroom, in front of the students. I was mortified. It was bad enough crying in the loo or in the staffroom but in a classroom? In front of students? It was unthinkable.

The class were wonderful. They calmed down. Sympathised, behaved (*mostly) for the rest of the lesson, and, miraculously made no attempt to make capital from my distress. In a rather twisted way I could blame my distress on the fact that my mum had died a few weeks before and I suppose, in hindsight, that did have an effect, but truthfully, the cause of my distress was the stress of waiting to be observed and criticised.

The observer came to the next lesson. It was OK, not brilliant. I was still too shaky. No idea what grade it was given, I’ve obviously blanked that out.

Other than that, my worst experience was when I did a lovely lesson for an observation. The kids worked hard, learned stuff, enjoyed themselves. The observer enjoyed herself & told me so. When the report came back, my manager told me I had been given a grade 1 but they believed it was really a grade 2 because of a couple of improvements listed. Grade 2 went on my record. I was so cowed by the whole business by then I didn’t even go back to the original observer to ask. I think that was the point at which I realised it was time to go. I was obviously never going to win.

….Oh, no, there was an even worse occasion when I changed everything I was going to do in a vain and misguided effort to do what I thought was wanted and the class just refused (quite understandably) to co-operate at all. By then it was all too late and I was a dead woman walking anyway.

It is possible to have good experiences of observations where the focus is support rather than judgement. I had a wonderful staff mentor who came in and helped me to identify what I was doing right and what I could improve and how. If all observations were like that I would support them wholeheartedly. Sadly, they seem to be far more about bringing teachers into line and people pushing their own favourite styles & theories. I hope the way they are done improves. I don’t think that will happen.


Are “Learning Styles” redundant?

I know learning styles as such have been discredited, even though they are still peddled in places and insisted upon in some schools, but different people do absorb information  in different ways.

One of the things is disliked about my PGCE was when the Psychology lecturer put the information on the board in the form of a mind-map. I disliked them; I also disliked presentations where we were given the handouts after the presentation so that we would concentrate at the time rather than reading the handout.

I like my information in lists. This seems to be a long standing preference as I discovered when I was clearing out the cupboard under the stairs recently. I found some O Level English Lit work. Apparently, back then, I lost marks for giving my answers in the form of “notes” (numbered lists) instead of in continuous prose.

I also like using presentation handouts to make additional notes on during the presentation. Writing down the extra information that I find interesting or useful helps me to remember more.

When I taught IT Key Skills, I was teaching the same skills and basic knowledge to a wide audience ranging from A level students to Musical Theatre students by way of Art and Sports Studies. This meant I needed a range of content and approaches to deal with the different interests and requirements of each group. (and for my own sanity). I had fought off concerted efforts from various members of the management team to deliver a standard course and assignment as this seemed to run counter to the purpose of Key Skills. Also it would be terminally boring.

To help students keep track of what they needed to put in their portfolio I checklistproduced a checklist. It went in the front of their file.

The external verifier objected to these. She said students should be using the official log books. We did, but we actually filled these in at the very end under strict supervision using exact guidance as they were generally incomprehensible to the students. So, we continued to use my checklist but removed them before the verifier’s visit.

Some students (noticeably Art, Media and Performing Arts students) preferred a more visual, holistic way of doing this so I produced an alternative.

diagramI also removed these before verifier visits as I assumed the same would apply. One sheet was left in accidentally and, amazingly, (to me) she loved them. Said we should give them to everybody. So we did. Some students used them, some preferred the check lists, though we still removed these. You could make a good guess as to which they would prefer. Diagram with arty types (as above), checklist with A level students, especially the scientists. There was, of course overlap. I supplied the students with what they wanted.

I still prefer lists, but at least I can see that the two are the same information presented in different ways but tailored to the needs of the student.

In constructing different ways of presenting the information, I learned to organise my thoughts in ways other than the list based format.

What does this tell us?

  • Different students do absorb information in different ways. Presenting information to them in only one way may disadvantage some, especially if the teacher uses only the method they prefer.
  • Not everyone recognises that the information you are giving out in different forms is the same so presenting it like this is non-obvious way of reinforcing
  • You always to what the external verifier wants.

Leave a comment

Grade inflation. A personal view

This is a personal experience of teaching. It has a bearing on what is happening with English GCSE grades and why I hope eventually some good will come of it. It is going to be difficult because I am exposing my inadequacies and failures to you all, but then, you already know I am far from perfect.

I went into teaching in FE in 2000 after bailing out of a Primary PGCE because I was having difficulty with behaviour and I was unhappy at what we were expecting small children to do in schools. I was probably not cut out to teach small children anyway and it was the year they introduced the (now abandoned) Literacy & Numeracy strategies.

Someone at the time suggested I try FE. I was handicapped in this by having my degree in Chemistry (which I had not used for many years) and no qualification in IT, which is what I had actually done as a job for 15 years or so.  I spoke about it in an earlier blog here.

When teaching IT Key Skills, I was new to teaching so I didn’t come with all the baggage that came from teaching old vocational qualifications such as GNVQ. I read the specifications and tried to do what was described, to teach IT which was useful in a real world situation and submit evidence from the students’ main subjects as evidence that they had the required skills.

After the first year, I became the co-ordinator for IT Key Skills across college. I was encouraged by the head of Maths & Science to produce an assignment that all students taking the qualification would do to “ensure consistency & make  marking easier” I argued against it. Oh the cheek of it, but I was used to doing a job where my skills and experience were valued so I didn’t realise this wasn’t the done thing. Instead, I produced generic schemes of work that other teachers could use, samples of completed portfolios, I worked with students and teachers to find out what different groups needed to know and which work would be suitable for their portfolio. I had an especially good relationship with the Sport department.

The HOD wrote an assignment for the Maths (Application of Number) Key Skill which was for all students. When the Maths portfolios were seen by an external verifier, they were downgraded from Level 2 to Level 1.

One year when I had some new teachers delivering the course, I was asked to explain why the pass rates for one teacher were higher than those of another. I explained that Teacher A had many portfolios that I considered to be borderline, Teacher B’s student portfolios were excellent and “spot on”. (Remember, I was not actually in charge of these other teachers, I just co-ordinated). I was told that “spot on” was unnecessary; we should be aiming for “just enough to obtain a pass and no more”. This was by a very senior member of the management team. I was not happy with this, but passed appropriate messages on. In all the time I was co-ordinating Key Skills IT, not one single portfolio that we passed was rejected by the external verifier and our pass rates were at least double the National Average, (small boast there), although it was surprisingly difficult to find the national average as the pass rate was astoundingly low since many teachers did not take the qualification seriously. This of course was mainly because the results were not counted in any league table and were not considered by universities. The college delivered them because they attracted a good level of funding. I taught them because I believed that if done properly they were genuinely valuable to students. The students (bless their little cotton socks) told me this once I’d finished encouraging, berating, goading them into understanding how to use IT efficiently and apply it to their work elsewhere.

And here we have the whole problem. Schools are measured by results. If they meet their targets, the targets are raised. If they fail to meet them they are criticised and punished, now by being forcibly converted into academies. Are we really surprised that schools concentrating on getting students to produce work which is “just enough to obtain a grade C”? since that is the prime measure.

According to Warwick Mansell in an effort to counteract grade inflation, Ofqual would redraw grade boundaries as required although

 under Ofqual’s rules, there could be an increase in the proportions gaining top grades (At GCSE) but only if the boards’ statistics on the underlying ability levels of the candidates suggest the cohort is more able this year.

 Interestingly, however, Ofqual’s paper shows that the main method for calculating the prior ability of the cohort is key stage 2 results for that year group.

Now this seems to suggest that there could be no value added by teachers in secondary education and that a child’s ability in GCSE is entirely governed by how well they performed at Key Stage 2. And since Ofqual would also control A level grade inflation based on GCSE results they would also depend on what the children did in Primary school. Quite a burden for Primary teachers.

The college eventually dropped Key Skills IT because of pressure on IT rooms and reduced funding and I started teaching BTEC IT. The college had a reputation for obtaining high grades in this, well above the National Average. It took me a while to find my feet teaching foundation and intermediate level IT students instead of Level 2 Key Skills to Level 3 students. My main job before was finding the hook to get all sorts of students interested in IT and understand how it could apply to their circumstances. Once I’d done that they were willing to learn. Now the problem was to do with confidence, getting the students to focus and working out how the system worked. The first year was mixed and difficult, but we got through. The second year the colleague I was working with went off on long term sick leave and I was more or less left running the level 1 and 2 courses with another teacher coming from another site for some lessons.

I think we did well under difficult circumstances with some extremely challenging students. All those that stayed the course passed, though some with only a Pass grade rather than a Merit or Distinction.  I honestly thought I’d done quite well. I felt the students achieved the grades they deserved and all had passed. However, the number of students obtaining “only” a Pass had caused arguments in the past. There was great pressure for students to achieve more than a Pass grade. Other teachers had experienced the same problem. We felt strongly that students who worked hard to produce distinction level work deserved to obtain a higher grade than someone who did “just enough” to meet the criteria and only with a teacher standing over them. We said it was also unfair to potential employers who would not be able to separate out candidates by their results and that it devalued the qualification. This applied whether we were measuring ability or hard work. The following year I had a level 3 class added to my timetable and I saw how the high grades were obtained. Lots and lots of guidance. Writing frames in the form of questions which could be answered in one sentence and similar support. The students were meeting the criteria but many with no initiative of their own. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is how it should work.

After time off with stress, mainly due to the struggle to constantly deliver new courses and units and write new assignments, I put this into practice. I thought it was more appropriate for levels 1 & 2 than for A level equivalent qualifications and in any case, I was given no choice. My performance review (after I returned from sick leave) said I must improve grades and I must have lessons graded 2 or better. There were other targets but I really can’t remember what these were as (looking back) I was still pretty unwell. Eventually, my students did all pass at level 1 (a pass/fail qualification) even those who struggled to conform to college rules and who had little confidence in themselves.

At BTEC Level 2 every student got a Merit or Distinction Grade. This was mainly because they were a much harder working set of students than I had last year. They actually wanted to succeed. When they had met the Pass criteria they came and asked what they needed to do to get a Merit rather than asking if they could go home now. I had no problems with their all getting high grades. They deserved them.

Unfortunately in the middle of all this, some of my many lesson observations were not graded as “good”, partly because I panicked whenever my manager walked into my classroom. I was told I was being moved to capability proceedings, I resigned. I could not face another year of obtaining “high grades” for students however much or little effort they were prepared to put in.

So, there you have it. I am officially a shit teacher. I can only guarantee good grades for students if they contribute to this. The light at the end of the tunnel is that maybe when the dust settles after the grossly unfair moving of the finishing post mid-year we can all accept that results won’t and shouldn’t rise constantly. The vast majority of teachers will always do their best for students. The emphasis on results and qualifications above all else hinders this, because teachers will be “encouraged” and coerced into enabling their students to do “just enough” to meet the required criteria for whatever grade they are aimed at under threat of losing performance pay or even their job. I fought against this view for years and finally lost the fight. I wanted to educate my students in the way that was best for them and in a way that helped them to know and understand rather than to just deliver an assignment that met the criteria.

Please remember. This may not happen everywhere, I may just have been exceptionally unlucky with my experience. I did have several years of working hard, obtaining good results and being confident that my students left me better equipped than when they started. And with a qualification, even if it wasn’t especially valued.

Of course teachers are upset, they worked within the system as it is with the knowledge they had and under the constraints and demands of successive governments. They were effectively betrayed. I actually think this needed to be done. But not in the underhand way it was. Maybe I could go back to being a teacher without compromising my conscience and still help students to achieve as well as they can.

Leave a comment

Please read the question

Quick post. Too long for a tweet but wanted to say it.

If I have a problem using software, or IT equipment, I start by looking on-line. I look both on official help sites and in user forums. So very, very often, I find that other people, often many other people, give an answer to something that isn’t the problem. Sometimes, they even preface their reply by “What you really mean is………….”  This  is a perfect example. This is followed by the original poster attempting to clarify something that is already perfectly clear. Other people jump in, some who have obviously clearly understood and others who simply repeat the first answer as if it is something new.

In all of this, the original query gets lost, someone closes the thread or marks the query as solved and the EVERYTHING starts all over again.

Usually towards the end OF THE THREAD, a developer pops up and says that whatever you want to do cannot be done, but it is on their development list. Finally, you look at the date of the thread and see this whole sorry mess has been going on since 2007.

Since people like Facebook, Twitter & Mozilla are so keen on keeping their developers busy and providing us with more and yet more changes, improvements and additional functionality, would it be too much to ask them to look at what their users have been plaintively requesting for years.

And people who like to answer these appeals for help, please READ THE FUCKING QUESTION PROPERLY

1 Comment

Valentine’s day lesson

I used to teach IT post-16 Level 1. If you don’t understand the jargon, level 1 is where kids come to college having managed to achieve hardly anything at High School. They acquire a qualification which is (or at least was – thank you Mr Gove) equivalent to 4 GCSEs grades D – F. Oh they did also do English & Maths courses/qualifications in case you were worried.

The reasons they hadn’t done this at school were varied. Some had severe dyslexia or other learning difficulties. Many had behavioural issues. Some had physical illnesses. Also family problems, exclusion….you can imagine. So, not A level kids.

A couple of years ago one unit covered Internet & Email. Yes, I know you all use the Internet & email (obvious really) but how many of even intelligent & educated people like you use it properly.

The lesson involved comparing different forms of communication today. Mobile phones, land lines, email, skype, even actual letter writing. They worked in groups looking at advantages & disadvantages of each. I got some wonderful suggestions

Email would be good for Valentine cards because

  • You can send the same card to many people easily
  • You can include a photo

Landlines would be good because

  • You can hide your number
  • They can hear what you sound like

Cards are good because

  • You don’t have to sign them
  • You can tie a ribbon round them to keep them

Who says romance is dead?

Leave a comment

Computing in Schools

I’m a bit fed up of the furore about how “ICT” in schools isn’t proper programming but just messing around with Microsoft products.

You know what? That’s right. Mainly because it’s ICT and not Computing. To be fair, I didn’t understand before I began teaching either.

To give a bit of background, my original degree was in Chemistry. In my first job, I actually used what I knew. Subsequent jobs moved further and further away from this. When we moved north I took a short course in computer programming. We learned Cobol & RPG. (I’d previously done some programming in ALGOL at uni – using punch cards submitted to the Computer lab to be run overnight (sigh).

After that I worked for ten years or so in programming or software support using various languages before starting to teach adults in FE. We covered CLAIT, IBT2 and a City & Guilds qualification. These were all designed to teach people how to use proprietary software to enhance employment prospects. It did. I was also asked to teach the now defunct Key Skills qualification when it came out. This was also about using IT and was designed to give students competence in using various bits of software to help them with their main courses. The evidence they produced for their portfolio was ideally taken from work for a main subject. (A piece of design work from graphic designers, an essay for English students, a spreadsheet of results for Biologists). Not all places did it this way. In fact I had to fight to do it like this where I was working. Management favoured a single task that everyone would do so that we had more control over output and that sort of shows what the problem has been with schools.

When Key Skill IT first started, a GCSE Grade C or above would exempt you from the course. All other FE students were supposed to take it (there were similar qualifications in English & Maths for those without the GCSEs) They were a proxy for the GCSE for some higher education courses and jobs. Same level as GCSE but more focussed on the stuff that was considered useful. In theory, High Schools were meant to provide IT instruction, though not necessarily GCSE, up to 16. In practice many didn’t, leaving students poorly prepared for using ICT to produce work for A Level or vocational courses in sixth-form. Over time, other qualifications appeared that could act as a “proxy” for this qualification, such as DIDA. These courses had units which could be taken in various combinations to get different levels of the qualification. but included no programming. GCSE ICT isn’t about programming either.

I imagine these qualifications were created with the average employer in mind. None of them required that you used Microsoft products but these were often used because that’s what the schools had installed. At my college, the network manager would not allow any other software to be installed. A teacher wanted to install Apache Extensions to help the students with the Web Design part of their BTEC course. His exact words were “Not on my system”.

Clear so far? All kids expected to do enough training in using ICT so as to be employable and be able to use ICT to do their other work. I did my damndest to do that (with very good results) & produced a whole lot of kids who could do reasonable word processing, spreadsheets, internet searching, file management and so on. What they subsequently did with that depended on their subjects which varied from Sport Studies, through Performing Arts and Art to A levels of all kinds.

You didn’t do this if you took a BTEC in ICT or did A level ICT or Computing though Computing AS level was not a proxy for Key Skills (it didn’t cover the same subject matter).

BTEC is a wide ranging qualification available at level 2 You can choose from 36 different units (GCSE level) or level 3 (choose from 43 units) which can be the equivalent of 1, 2 or 3 A levels (depending on how many units you cover) and have a different slant depending on which units. The full list of units is here. Not surprisingly, colleges choose units which will attract students and fit with the competencies of their staff. Games design units are very popular. There are also programming, networking and customer support units in this. Students are usually guided towards BTECs if they have less than stellar results at GCSE.

Some schools offer BTEC ICT at level 2 but the range of units offered is usually more restricted than in FE.

A Levels are available in both ICT & Computing. When prospective students came to look around the college we used to give them a handout explaining the difference between Computing & ICT. Basically ICT is using it Computing is understanding and creating it. My college stopped offering Computing A level a few years ago because it believed the grades achieved were not high enough.

And finally to Gove (you didn’t really think I’d forgotten him did you?)

  • Computing is available, usually in sixth form not in schools
  • ICT is using things not writing them
  • Schools delivered ICT because it was designed to help with other subjects & provide skills business said it wanted
  • Many teachers are not able to deliver good standard IT skills
  • Microsoft products are used mostly because skills in those are what employers want
  • Many IT teachers would love to teach more up-to-date skills but are prevented by what is available/affordable

What do I think? Change may be good. I am not convinced that everyone needs to be able to programme. I do think everyone needs to be able to use software correctly. I don’t trust non-ICT teachers to do this (yet) I’ve had to teach vast numbers of students that every formula in Excel doesn’t have to begin with “=SUM”. But that is improving.

I do think Computing in some form (like other specialist subjects such as Media & Music Tech) should be offered at GCSE level with appropriately qualified teachers to deliver them. How this will square with Gove’s desire for everyone to use up most of the space in their GCSE timetable with “traditional” subjects, I don’t know.

I just wish this was not reported as “schools letting pupils down” Schools are doing what they feel is most likely to meet the targets set by successive governments, and these are not always in children’s best interests.