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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.

PurposedPSI May 2, 2011

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings.
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I’ve enjoyed reading the 500words campaign posts immensely. I even contributed to the 3×5 images. I discussed the topic over a pint whilst on holiday away with friends (some teachers, some not) and even floated the notion with a blog post in the school ICT ‘newsletter.’ And yesterday I attended the first Purposed Summit at Sheffield.

I was fortunate to enjoy some passionate speakers, stimulating discussion and innovative ideas, but … I’m still not sure I’ve quite got it. I understand the need for a discussion of the purpose of education and I celebrate raising the issue … but I don’t quite yet understand to what end? If I follow correctly, it’s to influence policy makers i.e. the government, or perhaps more correctly given the timescale of the campaign, the aspirant government. But at the risk of becoming repetitive … to what end? Is it simply to raise the level of political educational debate beyond the tired rhetoric of performance, curriculum and examinations and re-examine what education can and should be about? Or is it to go beyond the debate, suggesting possible alternate futures?

(Thanks to Kevin McLaughlin for helping me begin to come to terms with it all in this short clip which became available subsequent to me composing this post.)

I’m not a great wordsmith. I couldn’t have written a 500 word post with even a fraction the eloquence that the 60+ contributors managed. When I thought about preparing a 3×3 presentation for PurposedPSI, I really struggled to find a focus with which to answer the question – ‘What is the purpose of education.’ In the end I wondered instead about what the campaign is up against and what might act in its favour, making these notions concrete using a force-field analysis. With purposed, we seem to be at a turning point and that made me think of Janus, the Roman God of transitions or new beginnings, often symbolically represented with two heads, one looking to the past and one to the future … which seemed quite apposite! So what are the factors which will act against or provide support for, a debate on the purpose of education? Or what is the purpose of education versus what should the purpose of education be?

Change in educationSo we have a system with an inordinate preoccupation with examination results – what prominent item do we see in school newsletters, on school websites, on noticeboards, discussed in assemblies, displayed in classrooms and on corridors. What do the majority of parents first look at when considering a secondary school … if they have a choice! This is continued with accountability by and competition in league tables – schools are compared with schools, subjects with other subjects and teachers with teachers. Is there any wonder it’s at the forefront of anyone’s mind? To what end? Are students now leaving school better equipped to deal with the world they emerge into? The National Curriculum – yes students should have a core entitlement … but did they nor have that before its introduction? OK it was the exam boards who largely determined what students studied rather than the government, but surely there was greater individual choice in what subjects to pursue? With an increase in the number of single parent families and an increase in the number of families with two parents who both work, school’s role as a child-minder has become even more significant – wonder how many parents would benefit from a reduction in the length of school holidays? All but the smallest, isolated rural schools are organised to suit the needs of groups, whether it’s the whole population, year groups, subject cohorts, classes or forms … but aren’t organised around the needs of individuals.

Looking to the future are possibilities; opportunities which offer potential. Education needn’t be just about what’s inside the school security fence, five days a week between 8.30 and 4.30. Is it right for all individuals until 16 or 18 or 21? Why shouldn’t it be flexible and accessible for students when they want (need?) it during the day and throughout their lives? Can’t we begin to exploit our connectedness and access to resources to better adapt provision to learner needs?

You doubtless disagree with the length of the arrows indicating the notional importance of each factor related to others. I’m certain you’ll also have factors I didn’t think of or feel the ones I’ve included are irrelevant. But what about the overall picture? As it stands, this analysis suggests that moving forward is going to tough; the sum of the factors acting to the left outweighing those acting to the right. So which can we influence by reducing or increasing their effect? What do you think?

purpos/ed book May 1, 2011

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Resources.
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purpos/ed book

purpos/ed book

Being given a copy of the purpos/ed book at the #PurposedPSI event yesterday was a nice gesture and a most welcome surprise.

Great to have all the wonderful posts from all contributors to 500 words in one easily accessible place. In addition to thanking Doug and Andy for this smart idea, thanks go to Chris Ratcliffe at Scholastic for funding the production.

Whilst it would be nice to keep the book and refer back to the posts from time to time (a bit quicker than trawling back through all the individual posts), I’m wondering whether I can make my copy work a bit harder?

Think I’m going to be putting mine in the staffroom and pointing staff at it. Perhaps those who’d never think of reading a blog post might have a mooch as they’re munching through their bean salad. Maybe I can even entice them into giving some feedback or making a comment; who knows, they might even let me record it and post it online! Small steps Ian. Small steps.

Follow up:

purpos/ed book in staffroomAnd here it is

I’m going to be needing another copy just for me now. Maybe you’d like to do something similar? If so, there are more details how you can set about ordering yours here.

#PurposedPSI Barcamp – Student Voice May 1, 2011

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Inspiration.
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Initiated and facilitated by Peter, the group session centred on how the student voice could contribute to the #purposed debate. An eclectic mix included colleagues representing primary, secondary, independent and maintained schools, together with colleagues from business, enabled the discussion to range far and wide.

Recognising the importance of securing student input into the debate, we quickly acknowledged the possibility that undertaking this exercise might prove rather inimidating for many teachers and/or schools. Students are likely to be forthright and perhaps unguarded in what they say and the outcomes might prove uncomfortable for some. One forum through which student opinion might be enlisted is Facebook and whilst its popularity and ubiquity (at least in older students) might seem appealing, the possibility of releasing a genie gave further cause for concern and this would need to be a route taken only with the greatest care.

Clare shared a simple way she solicited student opinions, asking each of her classes to provide their answers during a lesson plenary. This was done using sticky notes which she kindly brought along and we were privileged to have the chance to read. (Hopefully she’ll get the chance to share these responses more widely later!)

Student responses to #purposed from @dailydenouement

The discussion also ranged beyond student voice to parents and that a shift in mindset might be necessary before many would even begin to consider this a topic open for debate. Many have very fixed (and perhaps narrow?) views concerning the purpose of education; lifting the lid may benefit most from initiating local initiatives within local communities.

Concern was expressed that this might be perceived as one more opportunity for a tokenistic approach to enabling student voice, yet this clearly depends on the way it is approached. The range and depth of the responses Clare’s students provided shows they clearly have opinions; we just need to find ways to allow them to express that in open and meaningful ways.

Discussion courtesy of: