Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Optimism is boundless

I haven't blogged for a while.  It's not as if nothing has happened, it's simply that in the daily routine of things I haven't found sufficient time to reflect on what I've been doing.  I've been visiting my mum of course - and in January and February I was doing this intensively as mum was taken into hospital following a fall.  This gave me plenty of time to learn about the current state of the NHS (2 hours for an ambulance to arrive as it was dispatched from 75 kms away, 6 hours in A&E on a trolley along with 70 other people, waiting for a CT scan, no doctor available until the following day, one A&E nurse referring to herself as the "angel of death").  Mum ended up being in hospital for 5 days even though I was told there wasn't anything medically wrong with her.  She was kept in because she was "confused".  This is not surprising as she has dementia and didn't know where she was, why she was there, who all the people were and why people kept sticking things into and onto her.  The day after she was admitted I was told she couldn't walk.  This was quite a shock to me as she had walked into the hospital the previous day.  It seems the reason she couldn't walk was because nobody had bothered to get her out of bed - not even to take her to the toilet!  She didn't eat much either.  The system seemed to be that someone brought food around and left it on a tray on her bed.  An hour later they collected the tray.  If nothing was touched, it was assumed that she wasn't hungry.  In fact my mother was probably very hungry, however if nobody encouraged her to sit up in bed and eat then clearly she didn't think of doing that for herself.  I think this is the crux of the matter.  She was "monitored" the whole time - but nobody actually did much caring.

I managed to get mum out of hospital after 5 days but unfortunately she had picked up a terrible cough from the woman next to her in the hospital (I'd been told this wasn't contageous - which obviously wasn't true.  I'd kept drawing the curtain around mum's bed, the nurses kept drawing it back).  It took almost 2 months of care and 4 rounds of antibiotics to get her back to the same level she was at before going into hospital - encouraging her to get out of bed every day, walk around, eat and so on.  Thankfully she's doing much better now.

I'd had some workshops planned for the first 3 months of the year for Consilience, but unfortunately none of these came to pass.  Thank goodness, therefore, that I managed to get some work for the IB.  In January I returned to the American School of Warsaw to support them with implementing agency.  It was great to go back to a school that I'd been to several months before for a verification visit as they were becoming a PYP school.  At the end of February I went to Qatar for a workshop called The Role of ICT.  This was a fabulous experience.  It was absolutely wonderful to collaborate on planning this workshop with Angi from Frankfurt, whom I had met in my tech coaching workshop in Amsterdam in December.  She had led this workshop before and we had some great discussions about how to bring the PYP enhancements into this workshop.  It made me appreciate how valuable collaboration is - together we were able to bounce ideas around and this led to the workshop being even better.  The week after that I was in Dubai for Building for the Future.  This was the first time this workshop had been offered so it was an honour to be invited to lead it.  The workshop is aimed at PYP Coordinators and school leaders and takes them through a design thinking process to re-envision their school's action plan.  Once again I was thankful to be able to plan this workshop collaboratively with Alyson, another workshop leader I'd met the week before in Doha, and who will herself be leading this workshop in Helsinki next weekend.

March has been a busy month - After Doha and Dubai, Alyson and I went to Dartford in Kent to do a Leading the Learning workshop for leaders in the Leigh Academy Trust schools - all of which are applying to become PYP Candidate schools.  This will effectively double the number of PYP schools in the UK.  I'm loving the way that learning is changing in these schools - and can only reflect on how this is totally different from many other schools in the UK.  Yes, I have actually done some teaching in UK schools now, having signed up with 3 supply teaching agencies.  I've enjoyed this work a lot, but it has certainly shown me some of the real problems facing schools in the UK today.  These can be summed up in several ways:
  • The content seems quite boring - so students are not really that engaged. There are a lot of things that 8 year olds don't really need to know.  In my opinion being able to identify an adverbial phrase and write one, for example, doesn't lead to students becoming better writers.  The focus is on remembering and maybe a little on understanding, but there is almost no emphasis on application or higher order thinking skills such as analysis, evaluation or creativity.  Because the curriculum is so content based, very little is transferable.
  • There doesn't seem to be a lot of differentiation, often it's a case of teaching to the middle.  There are a lot of photocopied worksheets, some of which appear to be little more than "busy work".  In only one school I've been in so far was there any student voice and choice about how they would show their understanding.
  • Many students lack ambition or aspiration (and some of the teachers lack this too).
  • Children with special needs are often not getting the support they need.
I've thought a lot about this over the past few weeks.  What has gone wrong?  It was quite telling that in many schools in the staff toilets there were signs up about mental health and about counselling services.  Perhaps it's because of the experiences in those schools that it was such a refreshing change to go to some UK schools that are considering a different approach.

Tomorrow I set off for Dublin.  I'm a consultant to a PYP candidate school there.  I'm so looking forward to this - I love seeing schools at the start of their PYP journey!  I've also got some PYP workshops coming up next month in South Africa, and the following month in Spain.  Looking forward to next school year I have another workshop in Doha, hopefully some more in the UK, and in Germany and Austria, and a school visit to Sweden.  I'm also going to doing further training as a consultant and school visitor team leader.  I'm doing my best to stay afloat!

I was prompted to write this post today after watching a video on Facebook this morning, I think it was called Life is Good. This was the message: "pessimism is corrosive, realism lacks imagination, but optimism is boundless". For me, in this difficult year, optimism is a choice and it takes courage, but it's the only way forward.

Photo: taken by me following a photography workshop in Haddenham last Saturday.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The importance of reflection in learner agency

In the past few PYP workshops I've led, both face to face and online, I've been asked about why reflection has been removed as one of the key concepts.  The reason I've given is that reflection is fully integrated within the learning process, and interwoven with other aspects of the programme such as the learner profile and approaches to learning.  With the PYP Enhancements emphasising agency, it's been interesting to consider the role reflection plays in learner agency.  With this in mind I'd like to share a quote from Lori Phillips, the Director of Teaching and Learning at Knowledgeworks:
We know learner agency is important for our students to develop: to learn to advocate for themselves, to make choices, to practice self-awareness and an understanding of themselves as learners. But even though we want our students to take ownership and be agents of their own learning, many of our traditional teaching structures prevent this from happening. It isn’t just about offering students choices, but being intentional about those choices, trusting our students to make the right choice – and being prepared to reflect and learn with them when they don’t. 
Lori outlines how, if the choices students make don't work out as anticipated, reflection helps them consider how to make better choices next time.  She also writes about developing structures with students to enable them to make good choices and most importantly of all, how when offering students choices teachers should consider the needs of the students as having a higher priority than the needs of the task.

I took a look into PYP: From principles into practice today to pull together the understandings about importance of reflection and learner agency. Students with a strong sense of self-efficacy also have a strong sense of agency. To foster self efficacy, teachers can:
  • build in time for reflection to enhance students’ awareness about the success of their efforts and ways to improve in the future 
  • provide time for reflection at all stages of learning—before, during and after inquiries. 
  • promote a range of tools for reflection and ensure that reflection activities are responsive and varied 
  • provide the structure and language for reflection 
  • co-construct success criteria and provide reflection opportunities that include students' self-assessment of their learning 
  • provide effective feedback that offers opportunities for reflection and action 
What do you do to promote student reflection? How does this lead to greater student agency?

Photo Credit: jjjj56cp Flickr via Compfight cc

Monday, January 28, 2019

What should teachers know?

Last summer I was reading an article by Daniel T. Willingham entitled Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think.  The author argued that many teachers are unaware of the latest findings about how children think and learn, in particular he cited studies showing that many teachers erroneously believe that children have learning styles dominated by the senses (eg visual learners) and that motor-coordination exercises can improve the interaction of the brain's left and right hemispheres.  When asked about learning, teachers frequently refer to their craft, which is not the same as referring to the up-to-date principles of psychology - despite the fact that many teacher training programmes require some courses to be taken in educational psychology, where trainee teachers learn such things as how knowledge is constucted as well as the work of theorists such as Piaget, Vyotsky and Bruner.  In fact, many educators complain that their training is overly theoretical and not of much practical use.

I was interested to read the argument by Willingham against the current mode of teacher training:  he claims that teachers without this prepraration are indistinguishable from those who get it.  I've thought about this argument this week, as my mother has been in hospital.  I've observed nurses come around and check her constantly - scanning ID codes on her wrists and ankles before taking various measurements such as temperature, blood pressure and so on.  Time was also taken up in entering all this data onto a computer that was pushed on a cart from bed to bed. Incredibly, in the days my mother was in hospital she got worse and worse, picking up an infection from another person in the ward, and losing the use of her legs and eventually needing to be spoon-fed because she wouldn't pick up her cutlery.  What my mother needed was human care - she went in for a CT scan because she had had 3 falls in 6 days and doctors were worried she had banged her head (there was actually nothing medically wrong with her).  What she did not need was to be admitted to the hospital and put into a bed and left there being monitored day after day.  Eventually the hospital gave me a carers badge - allowing me to visit the whole day, outside of the 3 hours of visiting times - which meant I could encourage her to get out of bed, sit in a chair, walk to the toilet and feed herself - things the nurses didn't have time to do.  My sister-in-law who had trained as a nurse put this down to the way nursing training has changed - nowadays you need a degree to be a nurse, whereas previously you needed more hands-on experience.  I started to think about the parallels that could be drawn with teaching as well, where teacher training emphasises theory more than practical knowledge.  This argument points out that teaching is a skill - one that requires doing to gain proficieny.  From my own experience, I know that my "teaching practice" school placements were more valuable to my growth as a teacher than the lectures in the unversity - however research does not show that these apprenticeships lead to better student outcomes.

Willingham suggests that the best way to improve student outcomes is to focus on how students learn - accurate beliefs about learning will influence the decisions teachers make.  Such accurate beliefs, drawn from observation, can have direct classroom application.  Here's one for example:  memory is more enduring if practice is distributed in time, not massed.  What this means in practical terms is that the same amount of time devoted to a lesson will be more efficient if it is distributed across many days.  This is something that can be observed.  In addition some theories later turn out to be wrong - only by conducting observations of students in the classroom can a teacher fully appreciate how students learn.  A good example is given of wildly different theoretical approaches to student motivation:  the behaiourist one of rewards -v- punishment and the humanist theory focused on agency and autonomy.  Teacher training may introduce both of these theories, even though they are incompatible.  Classroom observations, however, will show students respond to both rewards and choice.

A further argument in this article is that teachers do not get enough practice with the principles they learn in order to make them useful.  Teachers need to see these principles in context and they need to be able to discuss their ideas with mentors and coaches.  Willingham is not advocating getting rid of the child psychology courses that pre-service teachers have to take, but he does suggest more data is needed: are these psychological principles retained by teachers, do teachers know how to use them, and are they using them?  Only then will be be able to gauge the educational impact of these principles by comparing student outcomes of those teachers who use them and those who do not.

Photo Credit: All4Ed Flickr via Compfight cc

Technology in the PYP: fostering multiliteracies

I'm preparing for a workshop about technology in the PYP that will take place in Doha next month, and so I'm digging deep into the new digital resource recently published by the IB PYP: From principles into practice.  The technology section of this resource begins with describing the difference between technology integration and implementation.  I've written a blog post about the difference between the two just over four years ago, so will simply outline the thinking from the new resource here:
Integration is about pedagogy and ways of thinking ... implementation is about the tools, infrastructure and other resources used to support learning and teaching.
Technology in the PYP is seen in broad terms:  it includes tools such as pencils, books, laptops, iPads and online resources.  Students can develop critical and creative thinking through technology, and alongside these, technology can include coding, information and communication, design and innovation.

All members of the learning community are technology teachers:  it's everyone's responsibility to support students in developing technology literacy, competence and confidence through the integration of technology.  It's not just a case of developing knowledge and skills, using technology to extend learning and encouraging students to use technology to create new solutions to challenges, it's also everyone's responsibility to support students in making ethical choices when using technology and to help students understand and become responsible digital citizens.  As the IB's mission is to create a better and more peaceful world, it's also important to consider how technology can both enrich and harm, to discuss rights and responsibilities and to work with parents to help students make informed and appropriate decisions when using technology.

In order to integrate technology effectively, schools and teachers need to foster a shared understanding about the value of technology in teaching and learning, as well as encouraging agency of all members of the learning community, accessibility to learners, adaptability, and to consider how technology can support intercultural understanding, global engagement and multilingualism.  Technology supports the development of multiliteracies, for example digital literacy (knowing and using a range of digital devices), media literacy (knowing how to access, analyse, evaluate and create media), information literacy (finding and using information and data), critical literacy and design literacy.  Technology literacy encourages multimodality as both teachers and students can use any modes of expression such as print, images, animations, sounds and so on to communicate ideas and content.  Design thinking can move students beyond following instructions to find creative and innovative solutions to address opportunities and challenges.

As I plan for this upcoming PYP workshop I'm considering how best technology can help transform learning and help learners and teachers to develop an understanding of the learner profile, international mindedness and their place within a technology-rich global society.

Photo Credit: PLANETART Flickr via Compfight cc

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Cockney in the country

I was born in London and spent my first 18 years living in the "big city" and then, when I went off to university, chose to study at the "northern powerhouse" of Leeds.  Most of my life I've lived in cities - I've enjoyed them for the culture, the busyness - the fact that there is always something going on, always life.  London, Leeds, Miami, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Mumbai ... and now Sutton in the Isle.  When I decided to move back to the UK to care for my mother I had no plans of living in the countryside; I started looking for places to live in nearby towns - but most were above my budget.  I ended up finding a country cottage, and gradually things started to fall into place.  Since August I have been forced to learn many new things - how to grow vegetables, how to cook them - and to relearn things I hadn't done for years such as driving, lighting a wood fire and cleaning the house!

It's very dark here and quiet at night.  I thought I'd be uneasy with that, but actually I have found that I sleep much better - in particular not having to wake up before 6am for work.  I tend to wake up when it gets light - and now that it's winter here that is actually quite late.

However I do miss work - or more to the point I miss a regular income.  For 37 years I knew the date that my monthly salary would arrive in my bank.  Now it's all very hit and miss.  I've done some online workshops, some face-to-face ones, some school visits and so on.  For each of these it seems I have to wait ages to be paid - and that's a worry, because the bills keep on coming at regular times every month.  Another thing I find I'm having to do is to "drum up custom" for months in advance.  I've never been good a blowing my own trumpet, at marketing myself, but I know that this is a skill I need to learn.  I expected the first year of self-employment as a consultant would be tough - but I never expected it to be this tough: to be at the point where I've had to opt to have a tooth out because I cannot afford a root canal, for example.  But I do try to do small things that make a difference - for example I always have fresh flowers on the table and can make the same old sweaters look a bit different with colourful scarves and cheap jewellery.  My "office" is now outside in the garden and it's great to work to the sound of birdsong.

I also miss a ready-made social life.  In international schools overseas you are surrounded by people in a similar situation to yourself - and even when things are tough (as they were in my first few years in India) there are people sharing that toughness with you.  Now I've moved to a village where I know nobody - where friendship groups have already been established for years (decades!) and - let's be honest - my world views are completely different from the views of the 97% of local residents who were born and brought up here.  It's hard to fit in.  I've joined a yoga class and a walking group, but have yet to meet many people of my own age group and life experience, and people who enjoy similar (cultural) things that I do.  But there is stuff going on.  I've visited local artists in their homes and studios, been to a jazz evening, even been to the local church to sing some Christmas carols.  In the summer there was a picnic in the park with fireworks and some heavy metal bands.  You just have to work harder to find these things and you often have to go to them by yourself (which has never really been a problem for me as I've travelled a lot by myself and generally people do talk to you if you are by yourself there).

It's not all doom and gloom.  It's great that I can see and support mum several days a week.  London is only an hour away on the train - and both my children now live there.  I see much more of family than ever before, even though I see much less of friends.  And I've done a huge amount of online workshops - which has been my lifeline as I talk with educators around the world every day.  In July I had the time to write a book - which has now been published.  I could never have found the time for that if I'd been in full time work.

But as this year comes to an end I know it's time to take stock.  It has been good to have so much time, but I now need to start working towards a sustainable income.  Basically I need to find a job that gives me regular money each month - at least enough to pay the bills, buy food and put petrol in the car, and at the same time gives me some time to still support mum.  I've thought about supply teaching - but that hasn't seemed to work out.  I've thought about online teaching or online recruitment - maybe there is still something there.  I've thought about trying to do more IB workshops and consultancies.  I've thought about writing another book.

There are some hard lessons I've learned as well.  I've learned that some people that I thought were trustworthy really are not.  In fact I've been treated really disrespectfully and unprofessionally by people who should definitely have known better.  I've had to learn to forgive people who don't even want to be forgiven - because I have to move on and not drag bitterness with me.

In general 2018 has been a tough year for me, and I'm glad it's coming to an end.  I'm hoping that 2019 will be a better year, and that I will continue to learn and to grow and to be the best person I can be, and that I will continue to share that growth with others.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Technology and sleep

When I lived in Mumbai I was in a book club, and one of the group was our school's nurse.  She recommended we read the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.  Even though I left the school, I decided I'd read the book anyway and I'm glad I did - it was fascinating.  In particular I was interested in the research around how technology impacts sleep.   All too often I've heard parents and colleagues complain that technology in the bedrooms is robbing us of our sleep - and in fact I've always told parents to keep students' devices out of their children's bedrooms at night.  There's plenty of evidence about the harmful effects of LED-emitting devices - however, as Matthew Walker points out, there's no putting the technological genie back into the bottle, so what we need to do is find ways to use technology to our advantage.

One such use of technology might be to track our sleep and circadian rhythms.  Walker argues that when we can do this accurately we can also use technology to monitor our networked devices such as thermostats and lighting to give us the optimal conditions for sleep.  We could even programme in a natural lull and rise in temperature across the night that is in harmony with our body's rhythm.

A second interesting use of technology could be to use it with our electric lights.  Many of us are overexposed to blue-dominant LED light in the evening, which suppresses melatonin and delays our feelings of sleepiness.  Walker argues that we could soon be at the point where we can engineer LED bulbs with filters that can vary the wavelength of light they emit - enabling us to use warm yellow colours in the evening, which are less harmful to the body's melatonin production.  These bulbs could be paired with individuals' sleep trackers so that over the course of an evening they could gradually lessen the blue light in the home as the evening progresses, or even as someone moves from room to room.  In the morning the opposite can happen - with blue light being emitted to shut off the melatonin and help us to wake up faster and more alert.  The idea is that this technology could also be useful in helping to overcome jetlag, for example, and even to help in cars by emitting blue light during the morning commute, since the highest drowsy-driving accidents occur in the early mornings.

Like everything, technology has its opportunities and challenges.  The impact of technology on sleep has been well documented - perhaps now it's time for us to take back the control to ensure that technology can be proactively used for good.

Photo Credit: Jason-Morrison Flickr via Compfight cc

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sleep and school start times

Since moving back to the UK I've been living in a village.  It's stating the obvious, I think, to say that village life is very different from living in Mumbai, a city of 22 million people.  For me one of the biggest differences I've noticed is in the way I sleep.  During my 6 years in India I don't think I slept very well.  For the first 3 years I lived in an extremely noisy neighbourhood, and even when the people were not noisy there was always the street dogs that would fight at night and keep me awake.  As well as this I found it was often quite light at night - and of course there was the very early morning alarm clock that got me up for work - my start time was 7.40 am.

Now that I'm not working in a school my sleep is much more under my control.  I go to bed when I feel tired, and I wake up without an alarm.  In addition it is very dark and very quiet.  My body and general feeling of wellbeing has certainly improved with better quality sleep, and it's got me thinking about how sleep, or a lack of it, impacts our students - and what we can do about it.

I was recently reading that more than 80% of high schools in the USA start before 8.15 am - and in fact almost 50% of those start before 7.20 am (which was actually my start time when I worked in Thailand).  Because many students get the bus to school, pick ups from home can start as early as 5.45 am, meaning that many students are getting up at around 5.15 am, five days a week for years on end, resulting in chronic sleep deprivation for most adolescents, and associated mental health issues that include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and suicide.   Digging a little deeper into this, the real problem seems to be a lack of REM sleep (the sleep we experience in the final hours of our sleep) that is responsible for our stable or unstable mental states.  While 100 years ago students woke up without an alarm clock for a school that started at 9 am, now almost no-one does.

Here's the interesting thing:  studies have shown that no matter what age, the longer a child sleeps the more intellectual gifted they are (Genetic Studies of Genius, Terman).  It seems that Terman believed that the movement towards an earlier and earlier school start is damaging the intellectual growth of students.  Ironically, as the USA pushes school start times earlier and earlier, in Europe the opposite has happened.

Japanese studies have also linked sleep to memory - showing that delaying school start times can be transformative.  In the USA a test was done in Edina, Minnesota when school start times were shifted an hour later (to 8.30 from 7.25).  Before the shift, SAT average scores were 605.  After the shift, these rose to 761.  Similar results were observed for Math SAT scores: from 683 to 739.  These studies indicate that allowing students more sleep is beneficial.

These results are even more extreme when considering socio-economic status.  Low income families are less likely to be taken to school in a car (often because many of these parents need to get themselves to work) and therefore are more likely to travel on a school bus.  For those children they have to wake up earlier than those driven by their parents, and so disadvantaged children become more disadvantaged as they routinely obtain less sleep than children from more affluent families.

Another interesting by-product of a later school start time is a later finishing time.  This is also seen as beneficial as it protects teenagers from the "danger window" of 3.00 - 6.00 pm when schools have finished but parents have not yet returned home - an unsupervised and vulnerable period of time for involvement in crime and alcohol abuse.  A later school start time reduces this window and therefore also reduces the potential for these outcomes.

Here's another interesting study:  In Minnesota when school times were pushed from a 7.30 start to an 8.00 am start, there was a 60% reduction in traffic accidents in drivers aged 16 - 18.  In Wyoming a shift in start times from 7.35 to 8.55 am resulted in a 70% reduction in traffic accidents in 16 - 18 year old drivers.

There are also links between sleep deficiency and ADHD, in fact many of the symptoms that lead to a diagnosis of ADHD are exactly those caused by a lack of sleep.  Unfortunately, drugs such as Ritalin which are prescribed for ADHD are drugs that prevent sleep - which may exacerbate the issue.

Now here's my question (since this is a blog about technology and education):  is technology robbing us of sleep - or can technology help us to track our sleep and then intervene so that we get more benefit from sleep, and then less of a negative impact on our brain's ability to study.  Let's see if I can answer that question in my next blog post.

All studies mentioned in this post are from the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

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