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Matthew’s old blog posts

Get Out Of The Way: Published on: Mar 30, 2010 @ 23:06

Craig Newmark from his Wikipedia entry.

You probably haven’t heard of “Craigslist” if you don’t live in the USA. Essentially it is the small ads website that has killed all other small ads websites. In addition it has performed the small feat of killing all private and most property advertising in US newspapers. The internet entrepreneur behind this is the tremendously laid back Craig Newmark. When asking how to build a business, he famously said,  give your service users what they need to do what they want to do, and then, “get out of the way”.

This whole idea assumes that users know what they want, and that they are in charge of the experience. Craigslist, along with Facebook, and Twitter, and Google, are platforms, not solutions. They support the clients in what they want to do and reduce the control of users, even opening their platform to other people to add programmes, (or apps), that users want to use. It’s an interesting, and phenomenally successful paradigm, and it is beginning to define our modern world.

If the education service took the same view, give them what they want and then “get out of the way”, what would this mean for us? I wouldn’t pretend to know the answer to that, but I think it would do us all good to think about the model that the worlds’ current  most successful businesses use. As author Jeff Jarvis asks, “what would Google do”? What would Google, or Facebook, or Twitter or Craigslist do if they were running education instead?

Some thoughts:

  • They would simply not deal with people who didn’t want to be there! Perhaps its time to address the real failing at the heart of our system; we force people to attend. In poorer countries children walk miles to get an education, I’ll bet they are great to teach! If you don’t want to be there, go home. Eventually, the system will figure out some new ideas that will appeal to those kids and their parents. In fact most will want to go back to schools that are full of people who want to be there and who are making the schools magical and bringing academic and economic success. If you don’t want to use Facebook, you just don’t; if you abuse their rules and norms, then you are asked to leave.
  • They would provide buildings and frameworks for learning. Anyone external who had a better way of teaching something, would be allowed to fit in to the new schooling. Perhaps Tesco’s would have a module of “commercial skills and commercial marketing”. The new schools would provide rules and protocols, but stand aside and let Tesco’s do it. Only those clients/pupils who want it will access it however.
  • If learners want to use their own laptops and net access, they can. If they want to choose their own course duration, they can, if they feel ready to sit the exams, they can, if they don’t, then they choose when they want to. In other words, they want to achieve something, they know what their preferred approach is, we “get out of their way” and facilitate their needs.

A bit unrealistic, for schools? Maybe, but ask how much a frustrated high school teacher loves teaching a class of badly behaving conscripts, ask how many learners love 6 periods of command and control a day, and tell me we should ignore everything in what I’m saying. The future of education won’t look like it does at present. If it does, we should move our pension funds to countries where kids walk miles to school because they want to be there; they might just end up kicking our “—–” in economic terms.

The REAL danger of the internet in schools:  Published on: Jan 26, 2010

From ali3n_oz’s Flickr page (creative commons) site.

The world is moving too fast for schools to respond appropriately. I am referring to the relatively new challenge of the internet of course; this has become a real battleground of new thinking and old responses. No one would deny the huge influence and importance of the internet, however, very few education authorities are able to provide the kind of access that young people and children will be used to at home. This is an odd situation! When I went to “technology” lessons as a school pupil, the workshops were better than I had at home, the science labs were better quipped than I had at home, the PE gymnasiums were better than I had at home; by contrast, the internet access I have at home is often better than I can get at work or in our schools.

Larry Downes has written about the problem that arises for our legal and management processes when disruptive technologies like the internet arise . Essentially the technology is improving at an exponential rate while our laws and rules only change by increments. At present in Scottish education, our rules and laws around the use of the internet in schools have not caught up. I have no doubt that they will change to cope with the new technology, but it is happening slowly when we need it to be fast. It is worth recalling that 10 years ago, I was only just getting on the internet on a new service called “Compuserve” which used my dial up modem which I had to connect and disconnect to the audible screeches of the signal being sent down the phone line. From memory this was either 33 or 56 kilobytes per second connection. Contrast this with my current “always on”, wireless laptop access at around 3 Megabytes per second. This means that my bandwidth has increased by over 50 times over the last decade. I no longer own a TV set. I watch any programmes that interest me on my laptop. In short I have fantastic access to the world of resources, ideas and entertainment at home. I imagine that the majority of our young learners have a similar situation. Do we want our schools to provide poorer facilities than youngsters have at home? I don’t think so! Our school rules and practices are probably 5 to 10 years out of date in the context of the internet age.

The problem is simple to understand:

  • Schools have a large concentration of people looking for a lot of bandwidth over a school data connection. This results in scarcity and slowness. The result is that we are driven to ration provision by limiting access to video or other data hungry resources.
  • We have an absolute legal imperative to protect children from danger such as violence or pornography. This is best done by limiting access to a subset of known safe-sites on the internet.

The result is relatively slow connections to a limited section of the web. It is way better as an educational resource than we had ten years ago, but as I have said already, not as good as most of us have at home.

So what is the answer? One answer is to carry on as we are. The problem with this is that we are trying to deliver a new, more relevant and more technologically aware curriculum. Schools will be in danger of failing in that mission if we can only offer third rate access. Perhaps it is time to admit that the world is becoming an internet driven place and to simply open access completely in schools to everything. There are dangers in this approach, but we would be mistaken in thinking that there are no dangers in our current approach. The reality would be that the internet will very occasionally throw up something inappropriate for school use, even when being searched by a responsible person. This will also be true of the experience young people have in all but the most carefully net-nannied homes (rare). Perhaps just as we teach road safety to cope with the real world of roads, we must now teach net safety to cope with the real world of the web. I suspect the real reason why we are not ready to do this is that we are scared of our parent body becoming litigative if an inappropriate image or idea is inadvertently seen in school; this is an example of “consequence paralysis” whereby the reasonable fear of the worst case scenario means that everything is made inconvenient and limited for everyone. The danger that we are apparently less afraid of is that schools don’t actually teach appropriate web behaviours in a real setting and that young people lose respect for schools’ inferior access and therefore see schools as less relevant to their world. This is a little like the fear that parents have of letting children out to play among “stranger danger” while pushing average obesity up; this is a real danger but doesn’t feel imperative to parents in general. Thousands of heart attacks will follow, none of which will be reported in the national news. My point is that there are urgent fears and non-urgent fears; our track record of finding a balance between them is not good since we are only held accountable for the urgent ones.

What if we asked parents to work with us on living with a real internet in schools instead of a limited one?

I imagine the following two questions illustrate the delicate nature of the debate:

  1. Would you be happy to know that your child might stumble across inappropriate content using the internet in school?
  2. Would you prefer your child to have full access to the internet at school while being taught to deal with it’s dangers by their teachers?

In effect both questions are about the same situation, but the first focuses on the urgent danger while the second focuses on the long term benefits of teaching. I believe it’s time for us to get in touch with what teachers do best, which is to teach. We don’t avoid teaching trampolining, or using jigsaws, or open-flame Bunsen burners; we teach appropriate use. Perhaps we should trust our professional teachers on this one too.

I think we are in one of those situations where we have to acknowledge that the world is imperfect. We might say that “it’s a pity the internet has so many spammers, exploiters, phishers and pornographers out there.” But the reality is that they are there. We need to accept that the internet is essential to almost every aspect of modern and global life and we can’t avoid it. Our children need us to guide them in its use.

As for the limited bandwidth? Well I expect technology will step up to the plate and give schools more and more bandwidth soon, educators need to step up to the plate to make brave and future-focussed decisions on how we use it.

More fun please: Published on: Jan 5, 2010


This may sound like an old theme, but I think the time is right to revisit it. Scottish education is in the grip of near terminal seriousness. I feel fearful saying that, because countless meetings with educators at all levels have taught me that there is a lot of mileage in taking the business of running education more seriously than the next person. The greasy pole is shinned up by accountability, compliance and audit. I therefore expect a few readers to be horrified at the implied levity when we have hard work to do. The features of the “serious” landscape include:

  • A belief that “children come first” even if teachers are unhappy; after all we run the business for the children.
  • A belief that any experimentation will risk damaging children.
  • A focus on auditing over innovating. (Yes they generally are mutually exclusive).
  • An inability to manage fears over public accountability. (We do nothing that might have even reasonable risks associated).
  • An admin burden that largely serves accountability and data collection.
  • Guilt at all levels. There is too much to do and no-one ever manages to get through it all. (Beaurocratic savants excepted. They compound the problem by getting promoted to the top levels and expecting everyone else to be the same).
  • Orthodoxies. For example, reading an HMIe study as opposed to a business book. One is seen as more essential than the other. No lesson can be good that doesn’t have learning-intentions and a Plenary.
  • A clash between individual personalities and standards. We now have precise definitions of how teachers should perform in every way, however some people cannot fit perfectly because of their personalities. This causes stress.
  • Technology is happening fast in the outside world, slowly in schools. More stress.

I could list a hundred other symptoms of the place we are in, but I’m sure you get the idea. I would also like to suggest solutions for the main ones, point by point, but this is not the place.  The central problem as I see it, is that we now live in genuinely different times and as Larry Downes, author of “The Laws of Disruption ” has pointed out, the world is changing fundamentally and rapidly, and we are trying to cope by slowing the changes in our system. This is a road to disaster, and the architects of “Curriculum for Excellence” understood this; we need to change education hugely now to fit the new rapid and global world. The problem is we are still tied institutionally to the old ways. To change things we need to be very innovative, and let me be clear, innovation is always characterised by people enjoying what they are doing. There is a balance point between staying accountable, and playing with new ideas in a non-threatening environment. We don’t have that balance right.

Our last decade has been a command and control decade, and that served a purpose for a particular time. It brought attainment improvements up to a point. It has been a few years now since it stopped doing so and the problem remains that the system is run by those who achieved successes with the controlling approach. We foolishly believe that the same approach will give us “wider achievement” gains in the way that we once had attainment gains. (Those gains never really penetrated the lower attainment levels anyway). we need leaders now who will take us into the new learning-based approach, who will build community, enthusiasm and innovation, and who will let us play a little again.

Children are not damaged by happy teachers. Happy teachers reflect and grow as opposed to the unhappy ones who learn how to pass audit while growing more cynical. If we want more innovation we better have more fun.

Cheaper, Better, Faster: Published on: Dec 2, 2009 @ 20:56

Margaret Alcorn from the CPD team pages.

The Scottish education scene is at a real crossroads. HMIe is reinventing itself (allegedly) to reflect the needs of a profession being asked to innovate instead of conform. GTC Scotland is becoming more independent in the mould of the General Medical Council, and is potentially about to usher in regular re-registration for teachers. LTS is being reviewed to what effect, no-one really seems to know. Local authorities are clawing back on expenditure and either restructuring or cutting central support services. In the midst of all of this change, the government line on our new Curriculum has held fast and steady. As of yesterday, the Education Cabinet Secretary changed to Argyll man, Mike Russell; what this will mean for the national strategic leadership, no-one knows.

Against this background of flux, there is one organisation that I have a particular interest in. The national CPD team has been the main support body for people like me, (professional learning co-ordinators in authorities), and it too finds itself in a state of change. The national team, under the leadership of Margaret Alcorn has steered the 32 local authorities through the challenges of setting up or developing their CPD provision during the last five years or so in the immediate post-McCrone landscape. I think its fair to say that most local authorities are pretty relaxed about their delivery of CPD now and have shifted their concerns from McCrone agreement implementation to an almost total focus on how to implement the new curriculum. The question for the national CPD team after this success is, “what if anything is our new role”?

I would like to suggest that this team is uniquely well placed to fulfil a new set of CPD needs for Scottish local authorities. Local authorities are facing the challenge of implementing the Curriculum for Excellence with less funding in the short to medium term, and with commensurately shrinking training catalogues. Authorities need to do what NASA in the USA had to do a decade or so ago, and that is to do more with less. “Cheaper, Better, Faster” was their slogan at the time. The thing about doing more with less of course is that you really need to know what are the most effective, focussed things you can do; this implies a high degree of knowledge about the areas of learning involved and about the systematic effect of school learning within these areas. I have argued for a long time that the Scottish education system needs to move into a more overt learning mode. The answers to the challenges of moving the curriculum forward will not be given to us by people who simply repeat old default solutions, or those who have a few good ideas, but without a real overview of how they all interlink. In short we need something like our own Scottish education embedded think-tank. This think-tank should seek out the best thinkers and refine our knowledge of how our schools work  and where the levers of change are located at a deeply analytical level. Once you understand where the levers are and the limits of their usability then you can begin to act from a position of knowledge.

We already have great think-tanks in Scotland; my own favourite is the International Futures Forum under the amazing Graham Leicester’s direction. IFF taught many of us in the public sector about the 3 stage response to increasing complexity and confusion in our system. Stage 1, deny the problem exists. Stage 2, Drive the machine harder, do more of what we did before. Stage 3, admit that you have only limited control and learn to do the best you can with the hugely complex system that you have. I have maintained that the decade of hard-inspection we are beginning to emerge from is exactly the stage 2 situation that IFF described; but now we must learn. In fact to quote Michael Fullan, “Learning is the work”. IFF and Scottish Council Foundation among others have their place now, but in truth they are not located in mainstream education and their credibility with the main body of teachers and their managers is limited. We need to place a learning agenda at the centre and for that we need our own think tank located firmly within the system. We need this now.

To return to the National CPD team, over the last 5 or so years they have amassed a great deal of goodwill and confidence from the CPD and learning leaders across the 32 authorities because they have been learning-focussed connectors of all our organisations and external thought leaders and thin- tanks; critically they have done this with no agenda other than supporting good learning. They have been COSLA located and have worked for the local authorities’ agendas rather than any single national or political one. Indeed as a small and focussed team of 5 constantly renewed secondees they have been kept so busy learning for the CPD network that they have probably never had the luxury of developing a political leaning beyond the networked learning on everyone’s behalf. So this team has a record of effectiveness in networking our national learning across all areas of school business, they are seen as politically neutral to authorities and they now have a body of internationally derived knowledge and methodologies to share. It doesn’t take a great amount of imagination to see this body move from connecting learning in the post McCrone confusion and worry, to leading a more sophisticated model of learning in the new curricular environment. How would this look?

With a remit of “more effective learning, more often for less” (to paraphrase NASA wickedly), the national CPD team could do the following things for all of us.

  1. Continue to run networking events and structures for all authorities. (Network members universally say they want this).
  2. Generate system level learning for us all about how we learn to change at this critical time. (Like IFF but more located).
  3. Identify the links between various CPD opportunities and desired outcomes for the new curricula. A plan to identify the strategic learning strands should underpin this.
  4. Act as a conduit and hub between more politically located bodies like GTCS and LTS to co-create the required new learning models to move us forward in the minimum time.
  5. Communicate through a new series of papers outlining how authorities can learn faster, more effectively with less.
  6. Broker strategically important training directly as an agency. Where essential new learning is developed, work with agencies like Government and LTS to source and direct it.

As it is the CPD team is well located with the profession and possesses the shared knowledge to take this agenda forward. Perhaps a new focus may mean that staff would be increasingly selected to support these new agendas, but as they are at present, they could do this and move it faster than we have any evidence that the big beasts of Scottish education could.

Just one personal plea. CPD for Scottish teachers means post-McCrone hour counting and course catalogues. Maybe it’s time the National CPD team became the Schools’ Professional Learning team?

Temporal Provocation 2: Published on: Nov 25, 2009 @ 13:31

Picture from:

I am doing something very pleasant as I write this; I am listening to Andy Vass talking to Argyll’s newly qualified teachers about “sanity in the classroom”. He mentioned a recent study that indicated that teaching is the third most stressful profession after the emergency services and mining/deep sea diving. This prompted me to do an interweb search on the topic and over the last decade it seems that it is reported in study after study as being in the top five most stressful professions. In the Scottish context of looking for more teacher talking and development time, this seems to me to indicate a second way that we can gain some.

I have often observed that our key organisational weakness in schools is that whenever we add a new procedure or task for teachers, we too often fail to remove some now less important task. The danger for us in the post McCrone environment is that we have a number of hours which we know teachers can work contractually and almost no school is fully able to account for all of these. The result of this is that many of our senior figures continue to insist that additional tasks, like professional discussion should be fitted into the “remaining time”. The problem is that this simply doesn’t work. Anyone who works in schools or closely with them can see that regardless of the contractual boilerplate that says we can ask teachers to meet and  learn together after the core business is over. The trouble is they are too tired and stressed.

I wish this was different, and in fact I wish I could just tell them to arrange more after hours meetings to form action-learning groups or to enjoy planning interdisciplinary curricula together, but we have been trying to do this for a few years and it isn’t working. Why would we continue to flog this deceased equine specimen? This gives us two ways forward:

1. Reduce teacher holidays and ringfence the reduction as meeting and planning time. Perhaps one week from the teacher’s holiday year would be possible to negotiate?

2. Reduce the teaching hours to free up an hour a week for teacher meeting time. We want young people to become independent learners so perhaps taking one or two hours from the teacher input side of learning and teaching could free up teacher meeting time during the school week. Imagine that the week has two one-hour study periods during which the whole school becomes a study club supervised by half the school staff with libraries and open areas opening their facilities to learner directed study. Half the staff are simultaneously planning and learning for CfE. This could be win-win. The key question is whether young people could learn the same content in 33 hours input as in 35 hours input. I think they could, if our creative timetablers can take on the challenge.

Temporal Provocation 1: Published on: Nov 17, 2009 @ 15:44

Image from Jean Snyder under Creative Commons

I have spent some time chatting with colleagues from Secondary schools this week. Anyone who regularly converses with a Secondary teacher, (and probably primary as well), will be unsurprised to hear that time is endlessly fingered as the enemy of developing practice. I doubt that there are many people in the professions who don’t struggle with the enemy of time, and my first instinct is often to think “well, that’s life, we’re all busy”. During a coaching day yesterday, a much respected colleague volunteered to discuss the Curriculum for Excellence challenges in front of 80 people to illustrate the principles of coaching; he spoke eloquently of his desire to bring more active and co-operative learning into the departmental classrooms. The enemy as he saw it, was again the temporal fiend! The writing of 200 plus reports on young learners was the current manifestation of the temporal fiend.

On reflection, I am inclined to see this as an utterly impractical situation. Many will indulge in my first instinct of accepting that professional teachers should be really busy, but really, this is lazy thinking in my view. We want teachers to do a particularly important job for us, and that is to teach young people in ways that will prepare them for a complex and challenging world. Satisfaction that they are suitably busy is crazy, we require effectiveness from them, rather than business for its own sake. In the new curricular reality, we require teachers to innovate, and to transmit entrepreneurial zeal for learning to our future society, can they do this if they are unable to learn. The kind of learning I refer to is of course heavily time dependant. Teachers must talk to each other, watch each other, coach each other, talk with parents and learners as well as rewriting courses to include the methodologies that they believe will give young people a better learning experience. The excellent colleague from yesterday is focussed on co-operative learning and Dylan William’s and Paul Black’s formative assessment ideas. He needs some time to do this.

Schools need to be innovative in their organisational approaches. In my view this is something they find particularly difficult. Schools are “serious” environments that feel the weight of their public responsibility; the result is that any system that has acceptance with the public will become impossible to vary from due to public expectations. In essence, schools are scared to change anything that upsets stakeholders. The problem is that the system is clearly not delivering the learning time that teachers need at present. Making any changes will require courage, but also a framework of ideas and values that will drive the risk-taking that is necessary.

If we accept that teachers need to spend more time learning, then some creativity will be required around changing our working practices to make this possible. No changes in our organisational approaches will result in no changes in our teacher innovation and learning. I thought it might be fun to present some provocations, light heartedly presented as “temporal provocations” to get us thinking a little differently.

To get the ball rolling, I would like to start on the thorny issue of teachers writing reports. In Secondaries, a subject team may have to write a few hundred reports for a particular year group. It is a task that no-one disputes the purpose of; clearly parents need to know how their children are progressing and to be appraised of any issues in time to help with them. Equally, I know of no teachers who relish the task, and if I remember my own report writing days, frankly I found myself repeating stock phrases and writing clichés to fill the box on the reporting form. Perhaps it’s time to stop asking teachers to write reports. It’s interesting to draw a parallel with the Scottish new teacher arrangements in which all of the portfolio and “profile” of evidence is managed by the new teacher, with the supporting or mentoring teacher signing off on the process. I still find that teachers are surprised that the new teacher is in charge of what they traditionally see as their own reporting domain. Perhaps it is time to ask young people and parents to manage their own reporting process. In the secondary context this could free up massive amounts of time and give ownership of the reporting process to the people who have to act on it. In coaching, we believe strongly that people act on decisions they make about themselves, and indeed may actively push back against decisions that others try to make for them. Why does reporting then still follow what Professor John MacBeath once described as the “Just William” reporting approach where William carries home the report that he has had no stake in creating. McBeath described it as a “sword of Damocles” above his head, hardly then a formative experience. So current reporting formats might just be a waste of time that schools have become addicted to. Let’s insist that no teacher writes any more reports unless it’s to add some specific information that the young learner or parent needs.

They should write their own reports, no, really they should!

Mac V’s PC in schools: Published on: Nov 14, 2009 @ 17:07

It is with some trepidation that I enter this debate. In truth I have never fully understood the almost religous fervour that drives people, particularly on the Macintosh side to be so vociferous about their opinions. In case you don’t know what the issue is, many teachers learned their computing skills using the only decent Graphical User Interface available during the post BBC microcomputer era, the Apple Mac. I count myself as one of them and the little square screened Mac + and laser printer was the bringer of a revolution in the Port Glasgow science department where I worked. I loved it. But then a strange thing happened; some people began to become evangelists and born again Mac purists. Let’s call them “Macolytes”. They actually put the stickers that came with Apple products on household products or their classroom windows in the way that eager Christians sport fish stickers everywhere. PC’s quietly developed and generally it’s true to say, lagged behind the Apple, except for a brief period round about Windows 2000 when employees of Motorola, famously started choosing PC’s over the Macs that they were building the processors for. However the Mac was a slicker machine after this wake-up call spurred them forward again. However, the PC has been a more than viable machine throughout this decade and schools face an inevitable dilemna about whether to choose Macs or PC’s when purchasing hardware. So which way do you choose?

Can I say right away that I have no desire to answer this question, but instead just want to make a plea for a new approach to the debate. Some nailing of my colours to the mast might help you judge me, I bought a new laptop about 3 weeks ago. I bought a Sony Vaio for £599. I seriously considered a Macbook Pro at around a £1000. The Macbook was beautiful and has a stunning finish and style. The Sony is striking as well but is plastic rather than slick aluminium. They are both core 2 duo processors, the Sony has a much larger hard drive and a 15″ screen instead of 14″. Truthfull either would have done me, but I thought the £400 saving was significant enough to make me stick with the PC side. Additionally I would have had to buy some Mac software that I already own for the PC. I could have had a less “stylish” brand than the Vaio such as an Acer for £100 to £150 less, but I’ll be honest enough to admit that I like my computing and I’m a little vain about my machine. So that was my choice, and I’m happy with it. The keyboard on this Sony is fantastic and typing this article on it is a joy. Do I feel that a purchaser of the Macbook Pro that I rejected as too expensive is foolish? Of course not; its a lovely machine and a great Operating System and a wise choice if you enjoy Macintosh computing in particular. What I’m saying is that PC’s are generally cheaper.

Does this mean they are inferior? Interesting question. I’ll paraphrase my favourite podcaster, Leo Laporte who runs the This Week in Tech Network and who has advised the technologically challenged to choose a Mac during the 3 years I have faithfully listened to his tech podcasts. OnMacBreak Weekly, he said (2 weeks ago),  a friend of his was choosing a Dell with the new Windows 7 over the Mac he initially recommended him. After a debate with the MacBreak guests, he asserted that his friend would find no critical or significant difference as a general user. Let me restate this for clarity; he wanted him to choose the Mac, but said that it wouldn’t make any great difference to him and the machine in question was about a third of the price of the Macbook he recommended. So that’s where we are.

The mac generation in schools have risen to run ICT services in schools, and in my view, often now skew the buying decisions towards Macintosh because of their own preferences. Many of these people do not keep up to date with what has changed in the PC world, and I think they should. (My own dear friend Alison, another Macolyte, recently showed me the miracle of a photo slide show with background music, asserting that this functionality was specific to the Mac, when PC users have also been doing this for years as well.) I have had mac users tell me up to about a year ago that they choose Mac because of the 8 letter file name limit on PC’s and because only a Mac is drag’n’drop! (Just in case some of the more extreme Macolytes are reading this, it hasn’t been true for over a decade).  So in the interests of balance and truth, I think its worth looking at what has changed or is helpful to the debate:

1. Windows 7: Microsoft’s new OS is hot. I have been using the release canditate for a few months with no issues, and have now updated my three machines at home to the newly released software. It is stable, the desktop is tidier and faster in use. The optimisations  have sped everything up and the reviewers who don’t like it are thinner on the ground than blades of grass among my moss. The hardware drivers are the same is the not-so-popular Windows Vista, so we won’t have to go through waiting for the printer and hardware manufacturers to write new drivers. Many people in education are still enduring Windows XP. My own desktop machine at work is running XP, so tied up in network security that I can’t do anything without stopping to shave between opening programmes, and it’s an 8 year old OS. This Sony that I am on in my house with my wireless broadband is flying. It’s slick, fast and fun to use.

2. Windows Live: Macolytes will tell you that the differentiation is that the Mac’s ilife suite of applications is so wonderful that nothing on the PC side is worth looking at. I agree that the Mac side is great, but please stay abreast of what’s happening on Windows Live. Microsoft is very careful about not bundling too much software with windows because they are a near monopoly and theywill  get into massive anti-trust trouble if they bundle their own equivalent of ilife. They get round this by putting their equivalent on Windows Live. You sign up for your free Windows Live account, and they give you a free 25GB cloud computing drive, and free downloadable apps like photo management and editing as well as a very well reviewed video editing programme among other apps. The quality of this software is excellent and I wish that Microsoft bundled it in Windows but I understand that they can’t for legal reasons. Interestingly some vendors such as Sony do it for you and bundle it anyway because they can do this legaly. The point is, it’s genuinely good stuff. Don’t knock it until you have tried it. e.g Windows live movie maker.

3. My own dear colleague Maggie, another Macolyte, found it odd that I have chosen a PC because I enjoy creative hobbies like Music making and photography. The two applications I use and love are “Photoshop Lightroom” and “Cubase”. The point is that these are identical on Mac and PC. They work the same, they cost the same, they look the same and they run on the same processors. I actually use applications when I create, not a computer, and I can use any machine with a nice trackpad, screen and keyboard.

4. It’s a browser now anyway. I have had so many chats with friends about how they distribute their computing time between applications and the overwhelming response I hear is “I mostly spend time in the browser”. Regardless of the machine, connect me to the web and open Firefox for me, and I can get what I need to do done. I’m writing this entry in a browser, not a word processor. If I need a word processor I can use google apps, or Widows office live anyway. Computing is moving to the cloud rapidly. Apps are moving online and data storage is moving online, and I’ll access this new world through my browser, not my Mac or my PC.

5. The young people we are teaching don’t care. They love technology and love playing with it to create or learn. They use PC’s at home 9 times out of 10 whereas there primary school experience might be 50/50. They don’t make those decisions, teachers do. Teachers seem to care, but learners will take whatever you give them and create learning magic. My question is about whether all teachers actually know what’s available on both platforms.

6. The false dichotomy. Mac versus PC is a false question to address anyway. The cheapest way for us to work around this is to buy cheap hardware OS-free, and download the stunning (I’m not using this phrase lightly) Ubuntu Linux. Any young person will fly with a decent laptop and this OS on it. But do teachers have the knowledge to do this?

7. The virus question. Still a valid criticism of PC’s. Not as big a problem as it once was however. The security model in Windows Vista and now Windows 7 is really good, and Microsoft have finally done what they should always have done and released their own free security software which is light, unobtrusive and effective. I haven’t had a virus since I used windows 3.11. Using no antivirus is the real problem, not using Windows. (My personal view is that you should use the new Microsoft one, not Norton or Mcafee; these are overkill and can slow down your working with their endless security warnings and scans.)

So in summary, I’m I knocking the Mac? Absolutely not. It’s clearly a great system and I like it. Am I saying that PC’s are better? Of course not. I am saying that Windows 7 machines are close enough that there is little practical difference. Am I saying that cheapest is always best? No, I think a mixed economy is probable the best solution. So what am I saying? I’m saying that the debate is frighteningly short of being an informed or balanced one.

Keir Bloomer – National Treasure: Published on: Nov 12, 2009 @ 0:30

My own portrait of Keir

It’s not often I’ll write such an unashamedly praising entry as this, but I feel motivated to do so today. I was able to attend the 1st day of theTapestry conference and was treated to two talks by the iconic Howard Gardner, one by the evergreen Brian Boyd and one by the now peerlessKeir Bloomer. I shouldn’t omit to mention the african/celtic music written by Nigel Osborne and performed by Scottish School students. (1300 plus would you believe)? All in all a good day but…..

In the morning, Howard Gardner spoke about the “synthesising mind” from his recent and excellent book, “5 minds for the future”. In truth he was pretty interesting and had a relaxed, easy delivery. I enjoyed his talk, but in truth didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed reading his book. Over coffee with a few of my school based colleagues however, we agreed that it had been thought provoking. and got to the heart of our new Curriculum for Excellence. We further agreed that his “basics of pedagogy and learning” content would be really great for teachers to revisit as they get to grips with the new challenges. That’s the end of my praise however. In the afternoon, Gardner gave a 2nd talk that had my eyes drooping and those of my colleagues and as far as I could see, pretty much everyone in the hall. His talk was self indulgent, rambling, light on content and so dissapointing.

Let me contrast this with Keir Bloomer’s talk. Keir spoke for anything up to 320 hours but it felt like 15 minutes. His style of presentation was relaxed, beautifully structured and utterly convincing. His slides and illustrations were well selected and flowed perfectly along with the talk. A great touch was the slides that said additional things, revealed line-by-line without Keir reading them out while he maintained an eloquent flow. He was hugely well read, and chose all the right references to set the challenge facing education, as well as the necessary insights about how we might “learn to change”. The audience was spellbound, and I was left wondering why Keir isn’t running the whole national programme more directly. In my view there are only a handful of people in Scotland who could, and Keir is at the head of that small list.

In my own authority of Argyll and Bute, Keir has worked with us extensively to help us to develop our own programme of implementation for the curriculum. As a part of this consultancy, my colleagues and I have heard Keir deliver his analysis and challenges for the new curriculum easily a dozen times, and I have never tired of it. He is in short, a national treasure and I think the government should make more of his talents.

Thank heavens, a financial crisis: Published on: Nov 1, 2009 @ 17:44

My own fun photocollage, “cash flow”.

What a crazy title for a blog posting I’m sure you’re thinking. After a weekend of reflecting on the budgetary situation in Scottish Education I have come to the conclusion that it is a good thing. Please don’t think I’m suggesting that the cuts in school budgets to frankly pathetic levels are a good thing, because they are not and I bitterly regret that they are occuring so widely. Nor am I suggesting that it is a good thing that headteachers in small schools are looking over their shoulder to check whether their beloved schools remain financially viable. I am not a tiny bit happy that my colleagues in development, support and directorate services are waiting to see how the budget settlement will affect job security and the structure of local authorities. All of the aforementioned are trying hard to do a good job and don’t particularly deserve the stress of the recession induced crisis. So where is my optimism coming from and what justification can there be for it?

I don’t believe there is much evidence for radical and transformative change in our education system nationally. I concede it exists, but in small pockets indeed and often scratching the surface will reveal that some radical change in circumstances underpins it. One example of a school that has made radical change is Islay High in my own beloved authority area of Argyll and Bute. They have a combined upper school timetable with the irratating and stupid arrangement of young people by age thrown out. Young people learn together in groups depending on chosen pathway and stage of development instead and it is in my view fantastic. What underpins this is the interesting mindset that a relatively remote island school can develop. Add to this some visionary leadership from their headteacher and some fabulous people within the consciously distributed leadership structure of the school who are encouraged to think big and think radically if it works, and we have a recipe for effective change. Oh and there is the small matter of a large cash injection during the “schools of ambition” programme. One way or another, this is an unusual change story, but not yet a common one. My desire is to have many more schools thinking differently since young people need to be prepared urgently for a different world – a very different world and our current schools are only preparing some young people for it, not all young people. Do I believe that the current approaches to adopting the “Curriculum for Excellence” nationally will deliver this? Well, the best I can say is maybe, but not nearly fast enough. So enter the fiscal crisis.

I didn’t order it, and I don’t particularly want it, but it will do us good. We need to change how we work because we can’t afford to work the same way. We need fewer schools operating under capacity, we need smaller central support and leadership teams, we need schools to come up with radically different ways of working with less money for a little while at least (Fewer well paid SMT members supervising low level paperwork anyone?). That much we have known for quite a few years now, but other than in a few creative pockets we are seeing very little change; but you know what, now we are about to see some forced change. This is an opportunity to be creative and we had better grab it with both hands. What choice do we have?

And as a parting incentive, don’t forget that one of the problems we face, not enough private sector growth in Scotland with an overpopulated public sector is a direct reflection of the skills and beliefs that our schools have failed to engender structured as they are. Scotland has to earn its way out of the financial crisis and we have to teach young people to have the skills and confidences they need to do this. It’s in their interests and ours.

Rational or irrational?: Published on: Oct 26, 2009 @ 17:43

I have just read the depressing fact that 60% of UK adults think that creationism should be taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution. Let me declare my hand from the outset; I am an atheist and a rationalist in most things as well as a “humanist” by inclination and affiliation. But all of us, regardless, should take note of this shocking statistic and think what it means.

Lets be clear, there is no rival theory to Darwin’s elegant ideas on evolution. Time has only found more and more links between species and shown us more and more link-stages in complex organs like the eye across progressively more primitive species. The only thing that would destroy the theory of evolution is an organ or organism for which no reasonable evolutionary pathway could be found; the truth is no such unreasonable pathway has been found. 250 years of thinking and searching underpin this statement and while the theory is not yet perfect, it is pretty damn close. It is in short, the only viable theory and only the dangerously stupid would deny it after looking at the evidence. One problem with the theory is that it is complex and the intellectually lazy might prefer easy belief to the tough thinking involved in reading a well researched and presented work like “the blind watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins.

The contrary view, creationism, or its “fig leaf” title Intelligent Design, says that a god/creator designed it all. I will not question whether you find this an attractive idea or not, but whether you are religiously inclined or not, you have no scrap of reasonable evidence to support this view. Biblical references do not constitute the level of highly scrutinised evidence that science must produce before pronouncing a theory to be reasonable. My concern is that scientists have worked hard in their thousands over 250 years to seek evidence, criticise each others work, and forge a solid theory from the foundry of thought, hard work and experimentation. They have produced a theory which can be taught in our schools and explained as a reasonable and valid explanation. Intelligent design is merely belief. Will we start giving the study of ghosts, and astrology a reasonable place on our school curriculums as well. As ever, when religious people ask for something unreasonable, we are scared to say no as a society. Well as Billy Connolly said about astrology and year 2000 doomsday predictions on breakfast TV, “let’s put this Sh.te to bed for once and all”.

Schools have to teach the rational, and offer it up for critical examination to young people. A theory or idea may prove wrong in the future, but everyone should feel free to criticise and modify it using evidence, not irrational belief. It is essential that we teach rational thinking in our schools, because this has always been the basis for societal progress. Rational humanists have a reasoned approach to living together peacefully in the future world, sadly, as the worlds terrorist hotspots illustrate, some religions can’t always say the same.

The Insularity of Education: Published on: Oct 20, 2009 @ 13:33

“The Howwood Illuminations” by me! My little corner of creativity:-)

I am a proponent of creativity and innovation. The problem is that everything we know about the conditions required to maximise our creative activity tell us that we need a lot of “provocation”. Provocation is a word that Edward De Bono used to describe external challenges to our thinking that force us away from known solutions. One example of this is asking people to design a new suspension system for a car while imagining that the car will have square wheels. Of course no-one really intends to make a square car, but the visualising of the square wheel and thinking through the consequences is the “provocation” that might bring a breakthrough in thinking that will make suspension better for round wheeled cars. If you want to know more about the theory, then I urge you to read De Bono’s Lateral thinking.

Anyway, what’s your point blogger? It worries me hugely that in education we have the deadly combination of more internally generated literature than any of us can realistically keep up with and a majority of conscientious educators who attempt to keep up with it. Government and HMIe between them ensure that my desk has a stack of ten to fifteen “essential documents” that tell me, despite what HMIe constantly claim to the contrary, what “good practice” in education is. This, in a time of requests for innovation is a recipe for failure. Central documents should be cut now to a minimum, with only “Building the curriculum” documents and similar frameworks being on our must read list. It would be good now to read some great new outside sources. I really don’t care what you read, as long as it gets you thinking new thoughts, and challenges your assumptions about what we do at present.

My current favourite journals are “Scientific American – Mind”, “New Scientist”, “Wired Magazine (UK edition now available)”.

My recent influential reads are “Business Stripped Bare” by Richard Branson and “The six secrets of change” by Michael Fullan. I would have to include “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins as my most recent read; excellent and thought provoking.

In the audio world, I listen to “This Week in Tech” podcast. They discuss lots of current thinking in web 2.0 and technology business news. From listening to this I have become really convinced that we could learn from how Google works and apply some of their thinking to education.

We won’t move on from the same old ideas folks. The right way to do it might be stifling us all. What sources are getting your creative juices flowing?

The Brain that Changes Itself: Published on: Oct 18, 2009 @ 15:40

Norman Doidge from his book website

I was lucky enough to be invited to a lecture for a small group of people organised by Scottish Enterprise and held in Anniesland College. I found the talk incredibly thought provoking and have been considering it ever since. The talk was given by Norman Doidge, a psychologist and psychiatrist who is developing an interest in neuroscience. His specific interest is in the relatively young area of neuroplasticity. Dr Doidge presented a number of case studies illustrating the ability of the human brain to heal itself when given some new stimulus or even targeted exercises. Dr Doidge asserts that manyof our therapeutic interventions are based on a belief that the brain once damaged or if not functioning correctly, will remain in this state. Our therapies therefore become palliative and provide support, not cure. The evidence presented was dramatic. He showed videos of people learning to “see” using cameras linked to sensor arrays on their tongues, people with chronic balance disorders learning to stand upright without falling after a training intervention using position sensors (accelerometers) linked to a similar tongue electrode, and most interestingly for educators, young people learning to read and write who were previously considered deficient. If you want to know more about this exciting work, then you should check out the Arrowsmith School in Canada. Have a look at the video on the page.

The exciting thing about the work of Barbara Arrowsmith, is that it is diagnostic and targeted with the intention of fixing the young persons problem. As Dr Doidge points out, a task like reading is not simple. It may involve a number of brain functions, motor movement of the eye, language recognition through a visual processing area, use of the speech area even if you are not actually speaking aloud, presumably a comprehension or higher processing area. Some of these functions may be problematic only in one side of the brain! If any one of these links in the chain are not functioning well, then the young learner will seem “deficient” and may find themselves on the receiving end of an education system that attempts to help them within their learning disability, but not to fix them! Barbara Arrowsmith’s school attempts to diagnose the problem, and then runs a short programme of training for the brain to repair that function if at all possible. There are a number of real successes that fundamentally challenge the morality of just helping young people to cope, but not repairing their cognitive function so that they can actually thrive again with all the life opportunities that that implies.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, but I saw enough of interest to convince me that some of our educators who specialise in the area of “Additional Support Needs” should learn what is happening at the Arrowsmith school. I have a real sense that much of our learning support is too primitive; perhaps its time we challenged the assumptions that underpin many of the low expectations that learners who are struggling in schools experience.

The book that Norman Doidge has written is called “The Brain that Changes Itself”. Could be worth a read?

More heat than light: Published on: Oct 14, 2009 @ 23:46

Photo by London Evening Standard

I despair of a real learning conversation about the future of education ever happening in the glare of our appalling media culture. Today Terry Leahy, the chief executive of Tesco was quoted as a critic of “woefully low standards from our school leavers” (Presumably UK wide?). He was scathing about the various distractions to schools and teachers that distracted them from teaching. He wasn’t alone, the Confederation of British Industry waded in with the statistic that 40% of employers agreed. What should we make of this?

First of all the government via a spokesperson asserted that standards have never been higher in secondary schools.  The National Union of Teachers ploughed in to the fray with an assertion that he was “plainly wrong”, and somewhat bizarrely went on to state that schools could benefit from the same levels of funding as the private sector; Is it just me or does this add nothing helpful to our joint learning? It was only the analysis of BBC correspondent Kim Catcheside that got me thinking sensibly, and it was buried in a side box of the BBC news site. Many people will never get beyond the main text and in my experience will either side with the schools or with the employers. Will this help us? Not in my view. We need the grown up and thoughtful response that is so hard to make in an emotional world.

Terry Leahy is not wrong. He is our customer in a very real way. Not only does he speak as head of the UK’s largest private employer, but the BBC analysis reminds us that the cohort he is referring to is largely the 16 year old school leaver. From this group an analysis reveals approximately 40% failure to achieve GCSE Maths and English. Mr Leahy is reporting on a group who are not shining in Maths or English. 17% of employers report having to provide remedial learning in literacy and numeracy. He raised concerns about work attitudes and skills as well, but I am unclear on what precisely he referred to. Suffice to say it is reasonable for him to be concerned. We are providing education, we claim to be a reflective profession, are we concerned that the feedback is not what we want? Apparently we want to tell the complainant that he doesn’t understand.

The government predictably only wants to report short term gains under their tenure. Our media and immature political system makes it impossible for a government to say, “Well we’re disappointed to hear these views as we know that overall standards are up, but we’ll get round the table and learn from all our partners how we can address this need”. They can’t say that because no government, and in fact very few leaders in the UK are allowed to learn from experience or error; we simply pillory for all errors to gain political advantage. The real response should be a learning one; we need to involve young people, employers, parents and educators in some urgent learning to continue improving how we support this cohort in gaining essential skills. No blame, just an acknowledgement that this is good learning.

As for the union, I won’t deny unions do a good job, but I despair of their ability to move into the same learning mode, taking on board feedback and having an open exploration of options that might involve the admission that teachers could work in better ways. They are simply not free to do this. (This is why I profoundly believe that unions should deal with employment rights, and teachers should have a professional body that speaks intelligently and reflectively on their behalf). This would help teachers to get more involved in higher level thinking that moves our system forward.

So in my ideal world, the various UK governments would be sitting round a table with teachers, learners, think-tanks, parents and enjoying the Tesco boardroom’s hospitality as they all admit that it’s a tough problem and that they are more likely to create something better together.

I heard a light hearted comment on Twitter that “Tesco would be running schools soon”. Well why not. Perhaps they might bring some new thinking to the table. Presumably they would hire expert teachers to teach (like us!), and avoid having the senior leaders supervising dinner queues and filling in endless low level tedious paperwork. If they could get those senior leaders walking the classrooms and leading pedagogical practice how would that be so bad! I presume they could just give these irritating computers for schools vouchers directly to their own schools!

Gregmeet – Just show me the gain!: Published on: Oct 13, 2009 @ 23:02

Greg Whitby telling us that he doesn’t care how learners choose to do it, as long as they can “show him the gain”! (My picture)

I was a guest of Learning and Teaching Scotland today at the quirkily named “gregmeet”. The eponymous gentleman is the “Executive Director of Schools and leads a system of approximately 80 Catholic schools serving the Catholic community of greater Western Sydney.” Greg is a visionary leader of learning and has been named in at least one award as “Australia’s most innovative educator”.

Greg was an easy and intimate presenter and so it was a pleasure as he took us through his philosophy of leading education in the Sydney area. (Despite his Catholic credentials, his thinking is quite universal and entirely about good learning). His Aussieness did break through in a number of charming ways and at least two of the B**** words interspersed his stories; he knows how to speak to a Glasgow audience.

Check Greg’s site and his thought provoking blog.

I took no notes, and so now five hours later, I thought it would be good to capture what has stayed with me as I have digested his message:

Overall, Greg was refreshingly in-line with a lot of good leadership theory that is influencing many of us at present. For example, he is scathing about rigid programmes; he prefers to define outcomes and to leave students and teachers to achieve these in their own way. Could Scottish education learn from this? My sense is that we are beginning to devolve that kind of creative control to teachers in little ways, but if we don’t like how they use it, we tend to control the agenda again.

Greg was solid on the view that teachers have to be learning professionals. He lambasted those wasters who were proud of their lack of academic reading in a manner that would have cheered one Brian Boyd, regular scourge of the non-reflective teacher. He suggested that they “find another sandpit to play in”! He went further though, stating that those who lead and those who comment-on and by implication monitor pedagogy should be in classrooms themselves. The challenge to the Scottish system here is clear, with teacher trainers, headteachers and my own Quality Improvement Officer colleagues in range of his critical arrows.

Greg had much to say about letting learners define their own preferred learning tools whether they be Facebook or their smartphones; Greg is clear that our obsession with laptops is not sufficient. He is also critical of overly controlling web filtering, although he is comfortable with filtering that stops the “real nasty stuff”. Again, we are all over the place on this question across Scotland. We certainly have no uniform pedagogy in terms of implementing the new web tools. Some authorities are progressive while others have “grey men in suits saying no to anything that hasn’t been ordered in advance on a teaching plan (triplicate signed)”. I think it’s time we had some national leadership on this based on progressive and evidence based thinking. How about it LTS? Where is your voice on this?

Timetables for learning along with the factory model of teaching by age were ridiculed in turn. Greg favours a future with learning-teams in schools. defining desired outcomes and arranging or brokering opportunities to attain what the learners need. He went even further than the usual proponents of this view by suggesting that the curricula once in place would inevitably lead to assessment, assessment timetables and teaching to the curriculum; he seemed to be suggesting that there is a lot of real-learning as part of the natural interaction between teachers and learners. Essentially his summary said that “schools are boring” and since surveys continue to tell us this, then he is annoyed that we continue to ignore what young people consistently tell us. Waken up to this he says, “before we lose relevance and in turn our influence”

Greg answered lots of questions which he tended to label as hard questions in his amusing way. The question I wanted to ask but didn’t as only a Scottish educator could have a worthwhile stab at an answer is:

“How many visionary leaders are driving our system forward here”? Answers anyone?

Young Leaders Impress: Published on: Oct 12, 2009 @ 21:13

Above: The dots show the spread of personality traits across 20 young leaders in Islay High School. These differences explain a little of why no two people ever seem to see a task in the same way!

Last Thursday I had an incredible day in Islay High as a guest of the S6 “student leadership” group. Never a school to do things the traditional way, Islay has had its sixth-year students adopt leadership roles around the school. They help with general supervision of younger learners as well as running events and initiatives for the school. The school has taken the view that a body of useful talent such as this group constitutes, need to be nurtured and trained in leadership itself. The group have been involved in a number of leadership training events. I was with them on Thursday to explore “team building” theory  and to help them in thinking about their own teamwork as a Student Leadership team.

I covered personality, talent and current theories of talent management. We went on to explore the 9 team traits while specifically applying this to their own team. As we worked through these team-development basics, I was struck by how easily they grasped and explored the concepts that we associate strongly with the world of adult work and adult teams. Likewise, I was amazed by how absolutely similar the challenges that their team faced in terms of their own team-growth were to those of adult teams I have worked with. Their team was facing the challenge of having different team members with vastly different personalities and talents in the same way that adult teams do. They understand the issues, and have planned some actions that will improve team communication while helping people with different styles to work together with less friction. They were a joy to work with; humorous and insightful, and to reiterate, just like the adult groups I work with.

So I’m left with two thoughts percolating as a result of my Islay High Visit:

1. Senior learners in schools can enjoy leadership learning and will be much better prepared for the world of work whatever they aspire to do.

2. We are not doing nearly enough to equip young people with leadership and management knowledge in most schools.

Perhaps schools themselves don’t have a body of knowledge about leadership and team development. Perhaps the new gold standard of the Scottish Qualification for Headship is concentrated on too few people in a school, and those who are learning are unlikely to have the time to cascade their learning to others including interested student groups?

There is a newly announced SQA leadership qualification which might be a vehicle to carry us into this area for young people, staff and senior leaders. The modern world will be easier to navigate for those who understand how teams work together and fix problems together regardless of whether you aspire to lead such teams or work in them.

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