Rethinking Homework: Too Close To Home?

2-1This week’s TES has a very interesting article on homework. This is an issue that I have been giving a great deal of thought recently, not least because I have spent the last few weeks struggling to keep up with an enormous pile of exercise books to mark. Is there a better way to ‘do’ homework? Almost certainly. Is it clear what that is? No, definitely not.

The TES article kicks off by saying that the French president, François Hollande, has declared an end to homework in France’s primary schools, and asks if it is time that we in the UK did the same thing.

According to the article, there is plenty of opposition to the concept of homework, not least from the charity Parents Outloud who believe that homework can lead to rebellion and burnout. Parents Outloud’s director, Margaret Morrissey, believes that children “spend all day at school five days a week and that should be sufficient.”

The article also highlights the concern that homework

ingrains social inequalities between pupils; clever, motivated children in higher sets or at better schools tend to be given more homework, while less able, less motivated pupils are given less. The result is a widening of the attainment gap. More advantaged children are also more likely to have a quiet place to study at home, with access to the internet, again giving them the chance to pull ahead.

What is perhaps surprising is that the evidence that supports the argument for homework is not as convincing as it might be. Professor Susan Hallam, of the Institute of Education, believes that research shows a “positive but low” correlation between doing homework and improved attainment, whilst being quick to point out that improved attainment might also be caused by other factors.

Meanwhile, Sir Robin Bosher, a former primary head and now primary director for the Harris Federation of academies, is quoted on the benefits of homework:

It’s all about feedback and the role it has in building a relationship between the pupil and the teacher. When you achieve something independently in your own time, the feedback you get from the teacher has a higher value. The acknowledgement from the teacher can raise your self-esteem.

Towards the end of the TES article, they point out that

many educationalists have indicated that technology might be quietly transforming the type of work that is set and the willingness of pupils to complete work at home. It may also relieve teachers of marking whilst still allowing them to analyse how well their pupils are doing.

All in all, the article is most thought provoking and well worth a read.

More on my personal struggles with the idea of homework in a future blogpost, but in the meantime please do share your thoughts below.

The Importance of Teaching: OFSTED’s view

Michael WilshawOn Saturday I was lucky enough to be able to attend the inaugural London Festival of Education. Whilst there, I attended a talk by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, entitled, “The Importance of Teaching: OFSTED’s View.” Since this is such a crucial issue for teachers in the UK, I have transcribed Wilshaw’s talk and posted it below:
It’s great to be here, to be invited to this Festival of Education, the first one, invited by the Institute and by Chris, and I hear it’s gone extremely well.

I’m also pleased to be here because I am a London teacher, or was a London teacher as you know, a teacher for over forty years in London, both north and south London before I got this really easy job as new Chief Inspector at OFTSED, and I thoroughly enjoyed my life as a teacher and as a head.

If somebody had said to me way back in the 60s and 70s when I started teaching that London would be achieving what it is achieving now I wouldn’t have believed it. I think there are two messages behind that.

One is that if somebody ever says, and it will be said up and down the country, this can’t be done here, it’s impossible to achieve here, we’ve got these sorts of children here, or the political difficulties are such here, don’t believe them, because it can happen, because those same sort of things were said about London when I started teaching, were said about Hackney, certainly, when I moved there ten, eleven years ago. It can be done. And that is why it’s so important that people are optimistic about the future of our education service and are determined to do what is being done day in and day out in London.

The second message that I’ve got is that if we’re going to move towards a world-class education system, and that’s what everyone in this room here wants, then we’ve got to make sure that what’s happening in London should be happening elsewhere, and there isn’t such a great variation between different parts of the country, which is staggering, and which other countries are dealing with much better than we are.

Chris mentioned the annual report which is going to come out in ten days. I can’t reveal the details of that but it will have a much more regional focus than ever before and I do urge you to read it, take it to your bed and read it for bedtime reading, look at the web tool, it’s going to be a very sophisticated web tool attached to the report this time round where you can see what’s happening in different parts of the country and draw the comparisons between London and other paths of the country.

It’s happened here in London because of good teachers and good teaching; that’s what’s happened – good teachers, good teaching, led by good people. And there are lots of things I can say about teaching and the quality of teaching but I just want to focus on one and draw some conclusions from it, and that is that good teaching is inextricably linked to good leadership. Good teaching is linked to good leadership. I’ve rarely been into a school where the leadership is lousy and seen people working collectively together.

I want to give you just a small anecdote from my own experience on this where a dozen or so years ago I was seconded to a special measures school, a very badly failing school in east London. Before I went in, the DCS at the time, the Director of Children’s Services, said you need to know, this is a very, very badly failing school. Everything is going wrong that you could possibly imagine can go wrong is going wrong in this school. We’re really worried about it, in fact we’re thinking of closing it. So armed with that information, I went to visit the school and see it for the first time, met as usual by the caretaker, the sort of caretaker that mentions, ‘what on earth are you doing here mate? This is just too tough to turn around,’ that sort of negativity I’ve just mentioned, ‘even the Alsatians go around in pairs here’.

Anyway, when I started there, expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t as bad as it was painted. There were a significant number of teachers, in fact most of the teachers, there were a few that weren’t of course, most of the teachers were incredibly committed to the children of that school – arrived at the school early, left late, and were doing their very, very best.

The problem wasn’t one of those teachers, but it was leadership. Leadership of that school, not just the Head and the Senior Team, weren’t pulling things together, weren’t recognising what was happening in the school, didn’t identify those really good staff, didn’t support them, and didn’t certainly promote them in the way that they should have been. They allowed, because the culture was so rotten in the school, a small number of really challenging children, very badly behaved children, to rule the roost. Consequently, those who had been pulled into that behaviour to be disruptive in class and be rude and abusive to teachers were being pulled in who normally wouldn’t be pulled in. So the culture was wrong, and the culture was wrong because the leaders did not, did not lead on culture. And that’s at the heart of what I’m going to say, which is that you can’t divorce teaching from the culture of the school, and the culture is determined by leadership.

The best leaders – and I hope lots of people, good teachers, outstanding teachers, in the school want to be leaders of our schools – the best leaders understand that you can only improve teaching if you combine a strong vision, what you want to see in the classroom, with a common sense and pragmatic approach to school organisation. In other words, no amount of abstract theorising on pedagogy and the importance of teaching will count for much unless leaders focus on what is necessary to create the conditions in which great teaching can take place.

They must ensure that schools are orderly places where children respect each other and authority and staff.

Places where newly qualified teachers and those in the early years of the profession feel protected nurtured and encouraged to remain in teaching.

If schools do not have professional tutors they should get them. I’m always amazed when I go to schools – particularly secondary schools – and ask newly qualified teachers, ‘who is the person looking after you on a daily basis?’ and that person isn’t easily identified.

Places where the average teacher, not necessarily the outstanding high performer, can do reasonably well.

Places where there is sufficient attention to policy and procedure – and detail – so that everyone understands how the school works.

And places where communication to everyone – including people working in the kitchens – is good, and they feel valued and part of the school.

Good leaders running good schools understand all this, and there are many of them in London. They know that getting all those things right matters, so that they can focus on the most important task of any leader, which is leading on teaching and learning.

Good leaders are passionate about the quality of teaching because they know it is an absolute prerequisite to raising standards. They demonstrate this passion in their own classroom practice if they happen to teach. In the power of their assemblies, when they’re on show in front of the whole school community. The best heads that I’ve worked with – and I’ve been fortunate in working with lots of good heads – took assemblies really, really importantly – they saw it as an important part of the school day, and if they were taking an assembly, they’d put a lot of time and effort into it because they were on show to the rest of the school community, not just the children but also the staff to show that they were good teachers as well.

And in their commitment to professional development – not just on one or two training days in the year, but consistently, throughout the teaching week and the year.

Good leaders foster an open door culture, where teachers are comfortable to be observed and to observe others.

Where good practice is discussed and disseminated and where performance management is seen as a positive rather than as a negative.

Good leaders recognise and reward good teaching. They celebrate it at every turn, and promote those who model good practice, no matter how young they are – this isn’t about long service, this is recognising good people and promoting them in the school and seeing them as role models for the rest.

But they’re also people, they’re also leaders, who don’t shy away from challenging underperformance in the classroom. We know what the research says. I’m sure you’ve heard it throughout today, on the progress levels of children taught by a good teacher as opposed to a poor one. The difference is equivalent to a whole year’s learning. We know what the Sutton Trust says about the impact we would have on our international league position if the ten per cent of the lowest performing teachers were brought up to the average.

Our new inspection framework recognises the importance of leadership in teaching, and that is why inspectors will comment in every report – and I will throw it back if I don’t see it – comment in every report on whether the leaders have a sense of what’s going on in the classroom, and whether they’re taking professional development and performance management as seriously as they should.

As you know, inspectors will be scrutinising less paperwork and spending much more time in lessons than ever before. But they will do so without a preconceived view of what makes a good lesson.

Let me emphasise again to anyone who hasn’t heard this from me or from anyone else in OFSTED. OFSTED does not have a preferred style of teaching, does not have a preferred style of teaching. Inspectors will simply judge teaching on whether children are engaged, focused, learning, and making progress, and in the best and most outstanding lessons, being inspired by the person in front of them.

We don’t want to see lessons that are too crowded, too frenetic, and with too many activities designed simply to impress the inspector. And if that’s happened in the past, it’s wrong. We simply want to see teaching that embeds learning. Ultimately that is what matters.

Indeed, our recent Improving English forum report found a disturbing lack of extended reading and writing in English lessons, because too many teachers thought that they had to plan lessons that focused on activity rather than learning, so if teachers are going through with the class a Shakespeare text, that’s absolutely fine, and do nothing else, that’s fine. If a teacher on a wet Friday afternoon is doing a fairly boring lesson on quadratic equations but the children are learning, that’s fine as well.

So let me be very clear: our judgement on teaching will be predicated on the quality of learning and the progress that students are making. I want to emphasise this because too often I hear that OFTSED adopts a tick box, formulaic approach to lesson observation. If this has been the case before it certainly won’t be now.

Good leaders recognise that while the different methods and orthodoxies slip in and out of fashion, the qualities that help, and make excellent teachers never change. They are timeless and universal.

You’ll recognise the most important ones – an understanding that planning is important to a good lesson, but only as a framework in which the teacher can adapt to the changing dynamics of the classroom and the different needs of the children.

The ability to reflect and critically evaluate performance at the end of the lesson and at the end of the school day.

The ability to differentiate teaching styles and resources for children’s different aptitudes and abilities.
The capacity, no matter how long in teaching, to learn from others and be receptive to advice and training.

And above all an unyielding commitment – an unyielding commitment – to help every child reach their full potential.

I’m sure all you here recognise those qualities and think of many more. OFSTED will certainly recognise and give credit to staff who demonstrate these qualities when they are observed in an inspection. Not all of them, but hopefully most of them.

As I’ve said many times and I say again today, teaching at its best is a most noble and honourable profession. As Chief Inspector, I’m determined that OFSTED recognises successful teaching and those leaders who make that teaching possible.

I’m also determined that OFSTED should support those heads and leaders in schools that are less than good, particularly in this new category of ‘requires improvement’. Heads that are doing their level best in sometimes challenging circumstances to pull a school forward by focusing on what really matters. We will highlight very clearly in our inspection report on the first page and also in the section on leadership and management that these leaders are doing a great job and that the future of the school looks much brighter because the leadership is grasping the nettle. Inspectors will also be asking more searching questions of the governing boards of these schools to ensure they understand the challenges facing the head teacher and are providing the right level of professional, personal, and often emotional support.

Finally, I make no apologies for raising the bar by insisting that all schools should be good schools, and that good is the only acceptable provision for our children and young people and learners in this country. That’s what children deserve, that’s what parents want, and of course teachers want to work in good schools or schools that have the ambition to be good. That’s what teachers want.

We have a great chance of radically improving our school system because – and I’m sure if there head teachers in this room now they’ll agree with this – because we’ve got better people coming into teaching than ever before. That was always my experience over the last ten years. But the big challenge is to hold onto them. Retention is even more important than recruitment.

That’s why its so important that teacher training institutions are good, and we’ll be much more rigorous in our inspection framework of how good these places are, that assessment is good and that teaching is good. I’m not sure they’re always as good as sometimes they’ve been painted. We’ll be looking at that very carefully.

And that trainees are placed in good schools for their teaching practice, and most importantly they get their first job in a good school where they see good practice on a daily basis.

Given the demographics of our profession, with up to forty per cent of head teachers retiring within the next five years, it is vitally important that these young, talented and committed people stay in teaching and move into leadership positions more quickly, and do what I’ve just seen to be describing: creating good schools, with the right culture, which support great teaching and learning.
Thanks to Keven Bartle (@kevbartle) for making a recording of this talk available.

Rethinking Assessment: Closing the Gap

teacher-marking_1455046cThere’s been a great deal of discussion in my school recently about the kind of feedback that teachers should provide to pupils when marking written work. The debate continues to rage between those who believe that pupils should not, under any circumstances, be given a mark for completed work, just a comment, and those who think that a mark should be given at all costs. I’m stuck somewhere between those two posts at present; I can see the argument that if a mark is provided, pupils will skip over the teacher’s written feedback quickly and not pay attention to it, but I also think that when completing examination-style work, a mark is vital.

I do wonder, however, whether the feedback that we teachers provide our pupils with is always as useful as it could be. What is the value of a comment such as “Good!” or “Excellent!” if it does not also provide some suggestion as to how a pupil can progress further? And if a constructive comment is provided, such as “make sure you start each paragraph of your essay starting with a clear point,” how do we know that our pupils actually understand what we mean and will heed this advice and act on in next time they complete a written task?

Last year, I created a “History Progress Sheet” in an attempt to ensure my pupils digested the feedback I provide when I mark their work. In this table they record the date, the title of the piece of work, their mark, a summary of my comment, and a short personal reflection (one or two sentences) about how they can improve their work in future. This has generally proven to be very useful indeed; it compels my pupils to read my comment and to provide a response to it. Over time, it provides pupils (and me) with a quick and easy to read guide to the progress they’re making. Each time I set a piece of work, my pupils are asked to look back over their progress sheet and to try to take on board previous comments when completing their new task.

Of course, this is all well and good in theory. Unfortunately, as with many of these initiatives teachers develop, in the day-to-day busyness of the classroom, it can sometimes be forgotten. My school has lessons of just thirty five minutes, and by the time pupils have arrived five minutes late to the lesson, I’ve got them settled and focused and distributed exercise books, I can sometimes feel pressurised to get on with the main body of the lesson, not least because we have a lot of content to cover.

I’ve been challenged to think more carefully about my written feedback to pupils by this post on Tom Sherrington’s excellent website that I have recently discovered via Twitter. In this post Tom describes a visit to Saffron Walden County High School to observe their approach to marking and feedback. Saffron Walden call this, ‘closing the gap’. This simply means that pupils are required to act on the feedback that they have been given by their teachers. Teacher comments are often shorter but pupils have to address issues raised by feedback straight away. In humanities subject like my own, this involved redrafting work to take account of feedback.

Now, this is nothing new, and I’m sure that many of us often ask our pupils to redraft work if we feel that it is unsatisfactory or particularly weak. What does strike me as quite revolutionary, however, is embedding this notion of ‘closing the gap’ so wholeheartedly into assessment policy. Redrafting is not something reserved for those who have not invested sufficient time or have somehow failed; redrafting is something that is routinely done, by all pupils, in order to raise standards.

‘Closing the gap’ seems to be an excellent exercise and I have no doubt could radically improve the quality of children’s work. It also ensures that pupils read teachers’ written feedback on their work – and indeed, that teachers are required to write useful, constructive comments that direct a pupil how they can improve their work.

Since reading Tom’s post, I have been giving serious consideration to how I can incorporate ‘close the gap’ into my own assessment strategy. In order for this to happen, it is clear that some ‘content coverage’ time will be lost, which, in a subject such as history, could potentially be a real issue. I am convinced, however, that time invested in ‘closing the gap’ will be far from wasted; indeed, providing pupils with the opportunity to critically reflect on their own work and to respond constructively to teacher feedback seems like an excellent way to promote their learning. I would far rather that my pupils learnt a little less content but had a mastery of the skills required to write an essay and complete source work exercises.

I wonder if my Head of Department will agree…

Rethinking Assessment: Essay Self Assessment

3773861315_5200510f5b_oHow do we use assessment to improve the quality of our pupils’ work? This is one of those questions that is often at the forefront of teachers’ minds. There can be nothing more discouraging than spending a lesson going through in detail how to complete a piece of work well, only for our students to hand in assignments that fall short of the standard we had hoped for. Sometimes it can seem that our pupils are simply ignoring our advice. It can be very exasperating for us, as teachers, and I have no doubt that it can be similarly exasperating for our pupils, many of whom no doubt believed that they had submitted a high quality piece of work.

So what is the answer to this quandary?

I’ve been thinking about assessment for some time, and have tried in recent weeks to develop new and improved mechanisms for providing meaningful feedback to my pupils. I’ve produced “assessment tracking sheets” for my pupils, have overhauled the system of marks that I use, and tried to further develop my use of self- and peer-assessment. I’ve felt that this has all been a move in the right direction, and have had useful conversations with my pupils as a consequence (even if there is still a tendency amongst some to regard peer-assessment as an excuse for me not to mark their books)!

I still did not feel, however, that I was getting close to my goal of using assessment to significantly bolster pupil performance. Sticking a mark scheme in front of a pupil and asking them to mark their neighbour’s work produced somewhat erratic results, and also ate up a great deal of lesson time. Whilst the school’s senior management believed such an exercise was a tremendous example of “Assessment for Learning,” in my view it was fundamentally flawed, since whilst some pupils found it a useful exercise, I was not convinced that it was leading to a great deal of learning.

I was particularly inspired last week, however, by a blog post I read by Miles MacFarlane. In this post he summed up the assessment philosophy in his own school in the statement:

Efficacious learners honestly reflect, self-evaluate, and assess their own work against criteria they understand. They are independent and reflect meaningfully on both their content mastery and their skills as learners.

One particular element of the assessment cycle at Miles’ school particularly caught my attention. Miles says that before completing a task, students and their teachers

Explore the characteristics of exemplary models of the product they are creating. These characteristics form the criteria by which they will assess their own work.

Miles continues:

Throughout an activity, students consult the criteria to see whether their product meets the requirements. They are also encouraged to add value by going beyond the criteria. Before submitting their completed work, students self-assess against the criteria and reflect on their learning processes and strategies. Teachers respond to student assessments providing feedback on both the product and their learning strategies.

Spurred on by this post, I have created a self-assessment proforma for essay writing that I am trialling with one class at the moment. This proforma provides a checklist of the key elements of an outstanding essay, broken down into the key components, (introduction, main body, conclusion and general points.) This checklist is intended to reinforce what is required of a good essay in a simple, straightforward way that can be easily understood by my pupils. The intention is that once they have finished writing their essay, they tick the box indicating that they have included each of these elements in their essay. If pupils are able to tick all the boxes, then they should be reasonably confident that their work is of a high standard. If they are unable to, then they are advised to edit and amend their work so that they are able to complete the checklist more fully.

Also on the self-assessment proforma is a copy of the mark scheme issued by the examination board for essay work. Pupils are asked to read through this scheme and to grade their essay accordingly, before commenting on why they have given their essay this mark, and what they would do differently next time in order to produce an even better essay.

This is the first time I have used this particular proforma, and I have yet to see how well my pupils are able to use it. I am looking forward, however, to marking their essays and reviewing their self-assessment. If it works then I am confident that it will lead to a much greater understanding amongst my pupils about what makes a good essay, and enable them to dramatically improve the quality of their own work. If this, or a similar tool, is used regularly, then hopefully I will see a sustained improvement in the quality of all of my pupils’ work.

Have you developed any assessment tools that have enabled you to promote and develop the learning of your pupils? Please do share them below!

OFSTED: What does a good teacher look like?

RETRANSMITTED ADDING 0930 TIME TO EMBARGO. Embargoed to 0930 Thursday February 9. Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw during a visit to Fairlawn Primary School, in Honor Oak, south east London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday February 8, 2012. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Most teachers live in fear of OFSTED, and with an inspection imminent in my school, I can readily identify with that feeling at the moment! I was reassured, therefore, to read this blog post recently which reports the answer Michael Wilshaw, the Head of OFSTED, gave when asked to describe a good teacher.

Wilshaw commented two teachers in his previous school were successful,

because they developed a style of teaching with which they were comfortable, not complacent… and which they knew worked. It worked because children really enjoyed their lessons; were engaged; were focused; learnt a great deal and made real progress.

He went on to say,

For me a good lesson is about what works… So this is a plea, this evening, for pragmatism not ideology in the way we judge the quality of teaching.

We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense. Too much direction is as bad as too little.

Wilshaw then made five points about being a good teacher:

  1. Planning is everything, but at the same time lesson planning should be a framework to give flexibility, not a rigid plan to be adhered to at all costs;
  2. Teachers need to be reflective. Plans should be adapted when things don’t go well, and amended after the lesson. Teachers should talk a lot about their teaching to others, should be willing to go into other teachers’ classrooms, and be willing for their colleagues to come into theirs;
  3. Teachers should be perceptive, and understand the dynamics of a classroom. They should be highly interventionist and know how to dictate the pace of a lesson;
  4. Teachers should understand that nothing is taught unless it is learned. Success should be measured on whether children are learning and making progress;
  5. Teachers should be resilient people who are able to withstand the slings and arrows and occasional paper dart unflinchingly. The best teachers should make sure children know who is in charge and responsible for setting the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Wilshaw also described what OFSTED do not want to see:

We do not want to see teaching simply designed to impress the inspectors. We don’t want to see lessons which are more about classroom entertainment and promoting the personality of the teacher than embedding children’s learning in a meaningful way.

I don’t know about you, but I find that extremely reassuring!

What do you think of Wilshaw’s comments? Do share your thoughts below!


Twelve Characteristics Of A Top Performing Teacher

888748-anglican-church-grammar-school-headmaster-jonathan-hensmanWhat are the characteristics of a great teacher? This is a question that preoccupies those of us who aspire to be outstanding educators!

Jonathan Hensman, the Headmaster of Anglican Church Grammar School in Australia, offers his answer to this question in the May 2012 issue of Independence.

According to him, a top performing teacher:

  1. Adds value to the whole community of a school, and nurtures those around them;
  2. Gets involved in the wider life of a school, such as drama, music, sport, clubs, and weekend and holiday expeditions;
  3. Has a positive personality and gets on well with those around them;
  4. Has an extraordinary work ethic;
  5. Has personal convictions about the purpose of life and its values;
  6. Looks for opportunities to interact with students outside the classroom;
  7. Creates opportunities, seeking out the chance to contribute to school life, in the classroom and beyond;
  8. Possesses a heart and is generally refreshing company, willing to give time to students or parents;
  9. Feel priviliged to be a teacher, believing they have a special role to play in society;
  10. Is willing to speak out about controversial matters and are recognised as being credible because they understand the cultural context of the school;
  11. Has high expectations of themselves and their students and strives to get the best from their students by using their personality, work ethic and convictions rather than by coercion;
  12. Regards educating as more than a job, and for some, it may be a calling in a spiritual sense.

Hensman recognises the role the Head Teacher plays as “enabler” of top performing teachers, stating:

It is the responsibility of the Head to establish the culture of the school. A Head should be a role model, facilitator and encourager… Heads must create an environment for top performers to thrive, in order for them to continue to grow and develop.

What do you think are the characteristics of a top performing teacher? Do let me know in the comments below!

Source: Independence: The Journal of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia, Volume 37, Number 1, May 2012.

Time to Rethink Learning?

bw_teacher_pupil_blackboardIt is often said that we live in a time of great change. It seems that pretty much every week a new technological innovation is launched that we are promised will transform our lives. It is true that many of these new developments do indeed have a profound impact on our lives.

Back in 1997, when I was sitting my A’ Levels, the world wide web, at least in the understanding of the general public, was very much in its infancy. Some organisations, including the BBC, were promoting their new web sites to those who were lucky enough to have an internet-enabled PC. Generally such a computer would be equipped with a 56K modem that emitted strange noises whilst dialing, took several minutes to load a simple website, and prevented anyone else from using the phone.

During my time in the Sixth Form I was given my first email address ( – but knew of no-one else whom I could contact.

Also whilst in the Sixth Form, I was given permission to use my father’s mobile phone whilst undertaking my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme hikes. This massive, brick shaped piece of technology, complete with pull-out aerial, was frequently commented on, since mobile phones were still something of a rarity. Signal was generally poor, and out in the Surrey countryside, it proved very difficult to make calls.

Technology has progressed rapidly

Since those days, technology has progressed rapidly. Websites have become extraordinarily common place, with around 644 million online in March 2012. It’s not just the number of sites that has seen a dramatic increase, however. Usability has also seen a marked improvement. Back in 1997, the BBC website was next to useless. Now, in 2012, on the same website, we can catch up with our favourite television shows, watch what is currently being broadcast live, and much more. We can also use the internet to watch films, buy books, do our grocery shopping, play games, manage our finances, find our next home, check out holiday destinations, and more. This is largely a consequence of the huge improvement in the speed – and quality – of the internet connections to our homes. Gone (thank goodness) are the slow, dial up modems of old, replaced by high speed connections of up to 40 Mbs, an astonishing 700+ times faster than the speeds we were getting in the late 1990s.

Mobile phone technology has also undergone a series of rapid transformations since 1997, beginning with the adoption of digital technology, then 2G phones, followed shortly by 3G fully internet enabled phones, and now the current adoption of 4G ultra fast internet phones. The mobile phones of today have little in common with the phones of 1997, however; the Apple iPhone and Google’s Android have turned simple call-and-text devices into fully fledged computers. The phones we carry with us today enable us to check our email, surf the net, take photographs, record video, listen to music, track our exercise, get directions when driving, read books. The list is almost endless.

Email has also seen significant improvement, with the likes of GMail, Hotmail, and more recently offering pretty much unlimited storage and all kinds of useful tools to help us cope with the deluge of email we all seem to be subject to these days. Email is now the tip of the social iceberg, however. What no one could have foreseen in 1997 was the development of social networks, most noticeably Facebook and Twitter. Facebook enables us to communicate with friends in a way that has revolutionised how humans interact. As of October 2012, this giant behemoth of the internet reached over 1 billion monthly active users. Twitter, the social network that is frequently derided as the pointless realm of narcissists, had also managed to clock up 500 million users by February 2012 (media

The impact of these developments on our lives has been profound. In the fifteen years since I left school in 1997 the world has changed, if not beyond all recognition, in significant ways that have impacted on the lives of us all. The way we work has been transformed. The way we spend our free time has changed hugely. The way we interact has been totally revolutionised. Even if you’re one of the increasingly rare people who does not have an internet connection, is not a Facebook user, and has no interest in acquiring a mobile phone, the changes that have been ushered in during the course of the last decade and a half will have impacted on your life. Election campaigns have been helped – or hindered – by social networking. Government policies have been amended as a consequence of online petitions. Revolutions and riots have been organised through Twitter. Our world, our society, our species, our personal identity is changing, for better or for worse, as a direct result of these changes.

Those of us who work in education have seen profound changes in the lives of those whom we teach. Many of our pupils own mobile phones. Significant numbers have their own Facebook or Twitter accounts (despite Facebook’s policy of limiting account registration to those over 13, many younger children are registered on the site). One of the most common evening activities, amongst those I teach at least, is to talk over Skype. Some teachers will hear our pupils bandying around names and phrases that we are simply not familiar with, names like Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and others which I can’t remember because they just don’t mean anything to me at all.

These are children for whom life is very, very different to those of us who were in their place a decade or two ago. These are also children who will go on to live in a world that we cannot even begin to imagine.

We need to see major change in the world of education

Our schools have tried to tackle these changes in different ways. Devices that are seen as a potential distraction to learning, such as mobile phones, are frequently banned in schools, as are handheld gaming devices, and frequently e-readers like Kindles. Websites like Facebook are usually blocked by our schools’ internet filters.

Schools have tried to keep trace of the huge technological changes by increasing the number of computers available in labs, and sometimes by introducing class sets of laptops or tablets. Classrooms are being fitted out with expensive interactive whiteboards and digital projectors.

It is my experience, however, as a teacher of eight years, that schools are simply not changing fast enough. One of the most significant reasons for this is that we simply have not stopped to rethink just what the role and function of our schools should be in this new, rapidly developing age. I’m certainly not one of those people who will accuse our schools of being stuck in a nineteenth-century Dickensian model, but it is still frequently the case that education is about sticking an adult in front of a group of children and telling them lots of “stuff” that they need to know in order to pass exams, which are supposed to show future employers how clever and capable they are. The means of conveying this “stuff” may have got flashier and more glitzy, but teachers are still expected to communicate a body of knowledge to our charges.

It is my belief that this has to change. We need to see major transformations occurring in the world of education, in the same way that every other aspect of our society has been transformed. What is needed, though, is not just the adoption of more technology, but a comprehensive review of what it means to educate and be educated. We need to look beyond just our schools and look at what underpins our entire education system. What is required is a major rethink of learning itself. What is learning? What does it mean to learn? What do we need to learn? How do we learn? What is the impact of our changing world on what and how we learn?

I don’t claim to have any of the answers to these questions, but I hope through this project to attempt to rethink learning.

“I Can’t Be Arsed”

image-2-2I recently spent a day teaching Maths at a school in Sussex. I’m not quite sure why; I am a History teacher, and Maths has never been a great strength. It turned out, though, that teaching Maths to bottom set GCSE students is not particularly difficult. Even with my limited mental arithmetic skills, I was still streets ahead of the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I was teaching. The reason? Whilst I recognise that Maths is not something that I enjoy or am good at, when I’m asked a question I know that with a little effort on my part, I can normally come up with an answer. The kids I saw in Sussex lacked any willingness at all to even attempt an answer. The response that I heard time and time again during that day was, “I can’t be arsed.”

There was one particular student sixteen year old student who was struggling to calculate what 3 x is, when x = 3. I explained that to get the answer all that was required was to multiply three by three. When that simple equation left him baffled, I suggest that we looked at it another way, 3 + 3 + 3. I asked him what 3 + 3 is, to which he responded that he didn’t know. I advised him to think about it rather than simply saying “I don’t know,” because with a little bit of thought, he might come up with the right answer. His response was, “I can’t be arsed.”

I’d love to say that this attitude is very rare, but as a teacher I have seen it far too often. During that single day in Sussex, I must have heard it a dozen times. Whilst working at a “difficult” school in south Essex, I heard it a similar number of times every day for six months. Even teaching at a “posh” exclusive boarding school in Sussex, I often heard it. Rather than stopping, engaging their brains, reflecting on what the answer could be, students simply come out with “I can’t be arsed” in the hope that the problem will go away, or that someone else will simply tell them the answer.

Even when teaching intelligent, hardworking students, the perception often seems to be that my role, as teacher, is simply to provide my pupils with knowledge, to tell them the answers to the questions that will confront them in a future examination, to minimise the amount of effort that they have to invest in discovering knowledge, reflecting on what that knowledge means, and critically analysing the data they have before them.

I find this situation very worrying indeed. Whether it’s as a consequence of poor parenting, inadequate teaching, or the tendency to spend leisure hours engaged in mind-rotting activities such as playing computer games or watching trash on television, the number of people who have no commitment to basic thought seems to be rapidly increasing, particularly amongst our young people. Schools, private and state, “good” and “bad” seem to be failing in their responsibility to help future generations to think.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps in a service society such as the one we have in the UK today, it is best to prepare our young people for the mundanity of a life stacking shelves in Tesco according to a plan devised by someone sitting in an office somewhere in Hertfordshire. Perhaps there is no need for someone who works in a call centre to have the ability to think for themselves when their job simply involves following a script that appears on a screen in front of them. Perhaps by encouraging thinking we’re actually harming our young people, since when they encounter the realities of life they’ll find it much easier if they don’t think.

Perhaps drumming free thinking out of people in these circumstances is a good idea. But if we want to drag our economy out of recession by promoting entrepreneurship, if we want to encourage scientific research, if we want to encourage a new generation of film makers, writers, and artists, if we want to ensure that our society does not simply stagnate and die under an enormous cloud of apathy, drumming free thinking out of people is the worst possible thing that we could do.

It’s not free thinking but this “I can’t be arsed” attitude that must be drummed out of our children, and the sooner the better. We must not drip feed them answers. We must not do everything for them. We need to make life more difficult, not easier. When they can’t answer a question, we must press them to think about it and come up with a response, to take a risk that whilst it might not be correct, it might be. We must raise our expectations of what all of our children are capable of, and continually press them to do better. Teachers – poor quality work should never be acceptable; students should be made to do it again, to invest more time and effort in producing their homework to come up with something that they can be proud of.

We must encourage our young people to take up pursuits that encourage rather than hinder thought. Throw away the Playstations, switch off the television sets, and start encouraging a love of literature, (perhaps if we could encourage people to read, the libraries would not now be under threat), of art, of music, of theatre. Yes, Shakespeare or Mozart might be difficult to understand, they might require some thought, but does that mean we shouldn’t bother with them? Let’s get our children involved in Scouts, or Guides. Let’s invest the money we would have spent on computer games in piano lessons, or ballet classes. Let’s encourage our children to join the orchestra at school, or the debating society, or the French cultural society.

Above all, let’s challenge our children. Let’s encourage them to think, to take an interest in life and the world around them. Let’s show them that thinking is not difficult, and is never too difficult. And let’s drum this “can’t be arsed” attitude of them right now, for the good of our society.