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‘Look Who’s Talking’ December 7, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Teaching Idea.
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This academic year an idea I had was introduced into our Enrichment programme. It’s an additional slot in our Y12 curriculum which provides an opportunity to explore an optional area of interest beyond the formal curriculum and extend your skills and expertise. At the core of my project, students produce podcasts centred on interviews with other people; their peers, other members of the school community, visitors to school and hopefully people from the wider world. There are two sides to this, the intention being that the students will develop technical skills in the creation of the podcasts and the blog posts through which they’re published, and soft skills surrounding the art of interviewing. As we near the end of the first term, we’ve explored different areas and created several podcasts under the name the group chose – ‘Look Who’s Talking‘ (perhaps I should be blogging our progress?). During a recent session however, I turned the microphone around and asked them a few questions.

I was interested in how we measure and record progress and achievement and how individuals publish that to the outside world. At age 16, is a bunch of categoric grades on a limited scale a good enough reflection of what we’re worth? Here are the slides which acted as prompts during the discussion, and here’s what the students thought:

It was my hope that we’d cover areas in which technology can provide a lead like Open Badges and e-portfolios, two areas in which I have an interest, but although we didn’t get that far, we did cover:

  • Critiquing the progress tracking sheet I used to record the activities they’d undertaken.
  • Monitoring sheets which provide a snapshot of current performance, but lack depth
  • Annual reports which provide deeper comment, although they have flaws and still fail to provide a full picture and constructive criticism
  • Audiences beyond school like potential employers, wider family circle, admissions tutors.
  • The three elements which make up the information provided: grades (and how the tests that produce them have limitations), effort and progress.
  • We need to be able to provide evidence of our experiences and skills.
  • Other mechanisms for recognising achievement or capability (in music, sport etc), Which also come with their advantages and disadvantages. Credibility, currency, validity and the capability to discriminate.

I guess where I wanted to go was, would Open Badges be seen as a useful way of credentialing their participation in the Enrichment programme. Would they have value for them in this programme or other areas which have no formal mechanism through which participation and achievements are recorded and published. But in trying to set the scene by talking about the systems we currently have, unfortunately I clearly tried to cover too much ground. So to move us forward, rather than me outlining what these systems might offer, perhaps the team could interview someone else and find out for themselves? Hmmmm….

eAssessment Scotland 2012 August 31, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, research.
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It’s a different way to spend one of your days of annual leave, but since it was the school holidays and I wouldn’t have to seek permission to be absent, I took the opportunity to attend the ‘live’ element of the eAssessment Scotland 2012 Conference. I have to confess the cost was a major factor in attracting me (free!), though the opportunity to come north of the border and visit Dundee, a city with which I have little familiarity were also strong draws.keynote

The day consisted of a series of keynotes and optional seminars/workshops so the programme I enjoyed looked like:

  • Keynote from Prof David Boud (Uni. of Technology, Sydney), on New Conceptions of Feedback
  • Seminar from a team at Edinburgh Napier Uni., on online assessments to support progression in professional practice
  • Seminar from Colin Maxwell (Carnegie College) on the challenge that MOOCs might be offering
  • Keynote from Russell Stannard (Warwick Uni.) on changing the way we provide feedback
  • Seminar from Dr Sue Timms (Bristol Uni.) outlining research into factors affecting transformation of assessment and feedback mechanisms
  • Seminar from Cherry Hopton and students (Angus College) on socialising assessment
  • Keynote from Cristina Costa (Salford Uni.) on the role of the participatory Web in providing feedback

The delegate list was dominated by colleagues from the tertiary sector, so I was slightly worried I’d turned up to a formal dinner wearing a batman costume. Though the content leaned towards tertiary, it was more than possible to find relevance for the findings and observations from that particular context in my own experiences in secondary. There are after all some universals and it is those general principles that I’ll outline from here.

Though the event sponsors were largely companies providing products which offer technological solutions or support for assessment, I felt the ‘e’ that headed the conference title was small both in actuality and in its intrusion into the main theme of the conference. The focus was clearly on assessment and more especially (if you look at the three keynotes) on formative assessment processes. As Sue Timms’ findings showed, assessment is a rather ornery beast, not keen on being pulled in another direction. When you couple that with technological enhancements, you’re in some ways doubling the factors which some might use to resist any form of transformation, rather than potentially making life easier or more importantly, learning more effective. We saw plenty of examples of new ways in which assessment can be enabled, enhanced or extended through the use of technology. Though we also saw people in organisations (Napier & Angus) who had the freedom to change their assessment regimes in such a way as to provide positive experiences for their learners, it is here where the major problem pops up for me. In the secondary sector, the major influence on assessment strategies is the examination system. High-stakes, summative, largely externally assessed, behind closed doors and most importantly of all, entangled with accountability, of schools and the teachers within them. In the minds of the majority who work under those constraints, there is neither room, nor incentive for innovative or transformative forms of assessment. It will come as no surprise that there is also a minority who experiment with interesting alternative forms of assessment and are often also those experimenting with new technologies. It’s not that ‘e’ and assessment go together (though in the context of the conference, they clearly do!), it’s more that the educators for whom these things are important are the ‘tinkerers’ and explorers who want to know if there is anything better out there. They’re open to new ideas, enjoy a challenge and are prepared to fly in the face of convention. If the progress many of them are achieving is to gain wider acceptance, I feel that the constraints the ‘system’ is imposing (whether actual or perceived) need loosening so the actors in this arena feel empowered to explore more progressive assessment techniques. Sadly, that politicians of whatever hue continue to use data from traditional assessments as their weapon of choice doubtless means that progress will be … steady.

(For ‘steady’ read glacial!)

On a separate issue, it was great to hook up with friends from north of the border, Colin Maxwell, David Noble & John Johnston and also to hear about Doug Belshaw’s new exploits.

Do we change the seat covers … or buy a new car? March 23, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings.
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Just this week Russell Pollock tweeted:

How do you feel about the format of the traditional school week? Do you think it should change? Time, days, format, location? Please respond (http://twitter.com/#!/RussellPollock/status/183078043642892289)

I only caught the tail-end of quite an extended exchange on this theme and may well have missed some of the responses, but it certainly got me thinking.


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo by DanieVDM: http://flickr.com/photos/dvdmerwe/243335354/

After stepping back a little, I suspect that tweaking the school week is merely nibbling at the edges. After all, how much wiggle room is there? Start or finish each day a little earlier or later. Change the period length – 5 x 1 hour periods to 6 x 50 minute periods for example … or go to a two-week timetable? Steal a few minutes from the dinner break? I’ve seen and experienced pretty much all of these during my career and I have to say, they made very little difference. Perhaps it’s because the timetable, structure and curriculum remained in essentially the same rigid format. As such they were there to satisfy the needs of the organisation (school) far more than the needs of the learners. It’s about being able to deploy resources (human and physical) as efficiently as possible, rather than providing learning opportunities geared to the needs of individual learners. If there are any senior leaders reading this for whom the vein on the temple has just started throbbing, I’m not suggesting that their students’ needs aren’t paramount to them, but that the whole system provides multiple levels of constraint. For example:

  • Exam times are fixed in the school year, so each student has to be at the right place in their learning in order to perform at their best. Wouldn’t it make more sense if students could sit exams when they were ready? For some that might be a year earlier, whilst other might need a little longer. If you’re in the IT industry and studying for Microsoft, Cisco, Adobe or any of the other vendor qualifications, you sit the exam when you’re ready, not at specific times in the year. Is it too much of a stretch to think we could do something similar in school-centred education? Why are exams (in the UK) in January and June? (I’ll come back to that one)
  • In recent years, the curriculum has to a large extent become fixed; controlled by the National Curriculum as directed by the Government. At age 14, students notionally have a choice of subjects, though in reality the shackles are still on as prescribed by having to study core subjects (English, Maths etc), then often selecting from groups of optional topics which exclude certain combinations. This is to ‘encourage’ students into a generalist rather than specialist curriculum and to allow the school once more to manage its resources efficiently. I’d be incredibly surprised if a school accommodated a student choosing Theatre Studies, Music, Media Studies and Drama together with the core … and maybe that’s right.
  • School days begin around 8.30, + or – a bit, ending similarly around 3.30. This is almost universal for all students for whom compulsory education applies. There is no notion that actually the school day might stretch between 8 am and 8 pm, with attendance being required for a proportion of that. Whilst this degree of flexibility is neither likely to be appropriate nor desirable for younger children, for older ones, perhaps not at the best in the early hours, there may be benefits to be gained. I wonder to what extent education is about child-minding for working parents or that schools don’t offer longer, more flexible opening hours because of increased costs?
  • The school year. Why do we still cling on to a schedule which demands periods of frenetic, high-intensity activity, followed by periods of relative calm and recuperation? We cram a phenomenal amount into 6/7 week half-terms, follow it with a much needed break, then repeat six times a year. And there’s the 6 week summer break – does it really need to be that long? Would it not make more sense to smooth out those peaks and troughs by exploring other ways of providing students with their 190 school days per annum? Or even whether 190 days ‘on site’ is entirely appropriate for the whole student population? Might a four day week actually suit some students better? What if (again mainly for older ones?) some days in the week required compulsory attendance, whilst others offered optional study/sport/arts/visits?


    cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by comedy_nose: http://flickr.com/photos/comedynose/4906846651/

  • Exams themselves. The formal, state-mandated examination system drives far too much of the agenda for schools and students. It is the external examination schedule which determines the order and structure of the school year with an inordinate proportion of time given over to exam prep, whether in loss of lessons for revision/practice papers or for mock exam week(s). How much ‘real’ learning is lost to chasing exam results to satisfy Ofsted inspectors or league table positions. The reason why schools can’t encourage or allow their students to access learning pathways, perhaps more appropriate to their needs, which offer different modes of accreditation (vendor qualifications, skills-based certification, Badges) or open, non-accredited ‘courses’ (P2P University, MOOCs and various other open courses from MIT, Yale, the OU etc) is that they don’t carry a ‘points tariff’ the school can use in chasing its league table position.

So to answer Russell’s original question, I’m not fond of the traditional school week. But I don’t think ‘the week’ is the right unit to address; I think we should go for the school year … together with the curriculum and the assessment system. It’s a big debate and a good reason to get involved in initiatives like Purpos/ed. And when we’ve sorted that out, we can take the rest of the weekend off.

As well as the quality, feel the WIDTH … August 21, 2011

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Musings.
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For some while now I’ve felt that the ICT many students in school are exposed to, struggles to represent the ICT those students experience in their everyday lives, nor that with which they might need to become comfortable and facile as they move into higher education, work or adulthood. In school they seem to learn about and with the usual industry-standard applications, yet occupy a

Width warning

from ell brown on Flickr

world where Internet connectivity and mobile devices provide access to untold riches across a range of applications to support their work, learning and play. But our schemes of work (and the specifications which drive them?) seem to limit and restrict, rather than liberate. Given the formal nature of our assessment systems and the need to obtain nationally recognised qualifications, perhaps that’s hardly surprising.

I’ve been mulling over for some while now the means by which we might extend the range of ICT opportunities we provide for our learners. To offer chances beyond the formal system … which by its very nature struggles to respond to the rapidly developing environment that is ICT. But how?
There were certain factors which I felt were important to incorporate:

  • Participation by students should be voluntary.
  • It should work alongside and with our current ICT provision, yet not impact on the workload of the colleagues teaching it. Consequently this would likely need to be some form of supported self-study (with some element of self-evaluation?).
  • The areas covered should explore new tools and the new affordances they bring.
  • The architecture should be extensible in the sense that new ‘modules’ can be added as needed to further extend and enhance provision.
  • Tasks undertaken should link with other areas of the students’ studies, providing authentic opportunities to develop skills.
  • There may be lessons to learn from the principles of gaming, both in providing motivation to participate, degree of challenge and monitoring and rewarding progress.
  • The facility to develop communities of practice should be an integral aspect, so that students support (and assess?) each other.

Now let’s consider Jenny, a Y9 (14 yr old) student who has been set a homework task by a teacher. The class have been working on a group activity over the past few lessons and the teacher wants them to summarise and present their findings … they’re often asked to do this in different subjects. Sometimes they get a choice of which medium they use, digital or not and sometimes they’re told to do it in a certain way. Jenny can produce a PowerPoint presentation standing on her head; she’s been developing her skills since Y5. So have the rest of her group. But they always struggle when it come to dividing the labour; should they all work on different slides then bring them together. Or should they take different roles, someone collecting imagery, someone else writing the text and someone else editing it all together? What’s more, they’ve not yet mastered the techniques which the PP platform offers for team working and collaboration (well, that’s not in any of the schemes of work so they wouldn’t have). Perhaps there’s an alternative technology which might set their presentation apart from the others, or one which offers greater potential for collaboration, synchronous or otherwise.

It’s to provide support for this kind of situation that I want to work on. Provide an environment from which students can extend their learning of ICT skills beyond that which they normally encounter. Somewhere they might go to address a shortcoming they might have or even just out of interest and curiosity … or even maybe just for fun!

Lots of thinking still to do so any thoughts you have, do please drop them in the comments. Am I just being fanciful?