Sunday, November 15, 2009

A-level playing field looking patchy

Learning or cramfests?

Reached that time in life when my kids are off to 6th form college and have to knuckle down, and narrow down, in terms of subjects, which is a shame. No one really know what they want to do at 15, and if they do, it’s a probably a bad sign. If the answer is a doctor or lawyer, you can bet good money that a pushy parent has his or her hand up their offspring’s spineless back.

The good news is that A-Levels have been around since 1951 and are simply the de facto qualifications for UK Universities, with some cache on an international scale, as they are used by lots of Commonwealth countries. The bad news is that the A-level system is cripplingly restricted as it forces young people into 3 subjects far too early. Despite the Curriculum 2000 split into As and A2, you get students who are often one-sided, either Maths/Physics/other science OR English/Psychology /other arts. It’s this Manichean aspect of the system I don’t like. You see this in the culture. There’s the anti-science brigade versus the anti-arts brigade. Then there’s the ‘fill their heads with this stuff as quickly as possible’ approach to most subjects. It’s a cramfest.


The Scottish system is in one way better but in another a complete disaster. Their Highers, where students take 4/5/6 subjects usually give them more breadth. It’s a system I went through 35 years ago and hasn’t changed a bit. The downside is still the same; the stupidity of the lost sixth year, when most students switch off (University positions secured on Higher results). It’s a waste of time for no mother reason that lazy politics - preserving 4 year degrees in Scottish Universities.

International Baccalaureate

What a joy, then, to find an approach that is better than all of this, the International Baccalaureate. This has the right blend of breadth and depth, knowledge and skills, arts and science. Here’s the deal. You commit to doing:

3 Higher level courses and 2 Standard

Maths, English, Science and a language compulsory

Lots of choices in other subjects (philosophy, psychology, history)

150 hours of community, creative or active work over the two years

4000 word essay on a subject you’re passionate about

core theory of knowledge course

This is recognised by universities worldwide, and the smart ones see the benefit in the rounded education the student receives, preparing themselves for University, and life. I spoke to a bunch of these kids at Varndean College in Brighton, in both their first and second years of study and have never, ever, come across a more enthusiastic bunch of learners in my life. They absolutely love their course. It’s hard work, they say, but the classes are small, the work interesting and projects inspiring. The course also attracts a wider mix of students, with more international breadth. Some were quite keen on studying abroad. They seemed way wiser than the A-level herd I spoke to that same evening. Far more confident in the fact that they were ‘learning’ rather than completing a series of separate and unrelated qualifications. It stops kids taking pure analytic courses or a set of oddball A-levels, presenting a balanced set of options with a solid analytic approach. It's about the learner, not the qualifications.

We’re stuck with these dated, national systems, struggling to translate credits from one country to another, yet here’s a solution staring us in the face. I hope at least one of my lads will take this course. He’s keen, but it’s his decision.

Footnote: Welsh Baccalaureate

Interesting to see Wales take a lead, of sorts, here, ahead of England, Scotland and N Ireland, by introducing their own Baccalaureate. Available at three levels, Basic, Intermediate and Advanced, studies from the Universities of Nottingham and Bath have been positive, producing a wider, more skills-based approach to pre-University qualifications. However, it lacks the core subject approach that the IB offers, and has less traction as a qualification, even in the UK.

Friday, November 13, 2009

E-learning Age Awards

Award ceremonies can be the worst and best of times. I’ve been to lots and the one’s I’ve enjoyed the most have been those that descended into chaos! Easily the best was way back in the early 90s where Willie Rushton told a horrifically sexist joke (based on the name of the host organisation -BIVA) and was booed by most of the women in the room. Bread rolls were thrown and the whole thing descended into farce. My second favourite was last year’s WOLCE awards, where Marcus Brigstocke had a hilarious time congratulating non-deserving companies like RBS on their ‘Understanding Business’ e-learning programme. It started late so the audience was as at peak point of drunkenness, where all are at one with the world and everything seems funny. The hotel, somewhere in Birmingham, was seedy, tacky and slightly odorous, as only cheap British hotels can be. The poached pears were as hard as marble. So, I was hoping for some welcome anarchy last night, as I trooped off by train, with Clive Shepherd, to the Sheraton in London, for the E-learning Age Awards. As the WOLCE awards have collapsed, this is now the premier UK awards night, and deservedly so. The number of entries was up and the mood seemed buoyant.

Caspian’s double triumph

I have to declare an interest here (as I’m on their Board) but well done to Caspian. a Gold Award for best games/simulation in learning (for Royal Navy), as well as a Silver for Most Innovative New Product, 'ThinkingWorlds'. It takes some doing to get two awards on the one night for both your content and the tool you created to make that content. We had three of team who helped create the programme and tool at the table (down from Newcastle) and they deserved this. I also had time to talk to the wonderful ‘Queen of Tools’ Jane Hart, who was sitting next to me at the table. We’re speaking together at Online Educa, which should be fun. Check out her incredibly useful tools site.

Piers Lea

I’ve known Piers for 20 odd years and he’s as nice a man as you’d ever hope to meet, and thoroughly deserved his Outstanding Achievement Award. Piers is the CEO of LINE which has seen a surge in sales over the last four years. He has some really talented people in his team with Keith, Sean, Bruce, Fi, Andrew et al. These guys really know their stuff. Again I’ll declare an interest, as I’ve been working with Piers over the last few years helping to open up the defence sector and bringing in some fresh blood, such as Ken Robertson (best proposal writer in the business) and John Helmer (best e-learning marketing person in the business. Just a word of praise for David Wilson, who was shortlisted. He’s sure to win this some time soon, as he’s been a key figure in the industry in terms of objective analysis.


You can’t keep us Brighton boys down! So a big congratulations to Charles, Lars, Virginia and the rest of the excellent Brightwave team, for winning Production Company of the Year. Their table was curiously packed with kilted Scotsmen (from Sky TV), as they have an office in Scotland. Good people doing good work. And check out Lars blog – it’s quality stuff.


Good to see my old company Epic get back on track, after its disastrous dalliance with the hapless Huveaux. Great to see Roy Evans, of the British Army, and the Epic team, Nick and Vicky, get the Gold for best mobile application. I’ve blogged about these excellent projects before, on the Nintendo and iPods, as they’re way beyond the often fuzzy mobile learning projects you find in education. These teach numeracy, Arabic and Pashtun, to young soldiers on the frontline. It’s not often you can say that e-learning may be saving lives – ask Roy, he knows. Let’s hope there’s more from Roy and the Epic team. Strange footnote to this one. I was collared by Jonathon and Naomi, of Epic, for being rude in my blog about some quango person in their Oxford debate. They were a little confused as I haven’t written anything about the debate in my blog (I think). I did, in fact, make one short comment on Clive’s blog about her banal views. Lighten up guys – it’s only a blog!


More Brighton success with Kineo coming in for an award for something. Nice to see Mark Harrison swan up to the stage dressed even shabbier than me! Well done to Steve, Stephen, Mark and Matt. These guys are working their proverbial bollocks off to build their business and continue their meteoric rise with over 50 staff and new offices in the US. Go Kineo!


A word also for Gavin Cooney of Learnosity who won a Gold for Most Innovative Tool. Gavin, who’s a prodigious social networker, online and offline, will no doubt put this new sobriquet to good use. He’s another lovely guy with, he tells me, only one suit. Clive and myself look forward to working with him in Ireland in the new year.


All in all, a good evening. The right folks seemed to win the right awards. No, sorry, hold that ending……I forgot to mention The Royal Bank of Scotland, who won the Gold Award for (wait for it) ‘Meeting the Needs of Compliance for an External regulator or an Internal Workforce’. Have the judges been locked up in solitary confinement for the last year? This is the company who we’re all bailing out, as they failed to comply with anything, even normal standards of decency. Maybe a Platinum Award for the ‘Most Non-compliant, Arrogant, Wasteful, Incompetent and Greedy Behaviour of any Bank in the History of Banking Award’ would have been more appropriate. Sorry, let’s get back to business. A good comedian would have ripped into this one, and maybe that’s what the event needs next year to take it to the next level – some comic chaos!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

INSET days – 7 reasons to scrap them

Parents get pretty annoyed every time an ‘INSET’ day comes along. What other organisation simply closes shop and refuses to deal with all of its customers or clients five days a year? Imagine phoning up the school and saying, ‘Listen, my work is having a training evening next week, could you look after my kid for me, until I get home?’

Here’s seven reasons to scrap them:
  1. Organisations don’t throw customers out of the door for an entire day of training
  2. Extra cost/load on parents in terms of childcare is significant
  3. Kids lose about a week of schooling a year
  4. No convincing research evidence that INSET days have any beneficial effects
  5. Some are not training and used as catch-ups for work
  6. Many are hotchpotches of faddish, non-empirical training
  7. Many are ill-planned, dull and irrelevant
Other organisations don’t throw customers out of the door for an entire day to do training
Imagine banks, hospitals, shops, police forces, fire services – almost every other service, closing down for five days a year with a simple notice saying ‘staff training’. It’s unimaginable.
The extra cost/load on parents in terms of childcare is significant
People don’t find it easy to cope with teacher training days. Additional childcare, often at a cost that huts people on low pay, is the cost to the community.
Kids lose about a week of schooling a year
Schools have 5 INSET days a year, resulting in a significant amount of lost teaching. Imagine the fuss if parents suggested that we should be allowed to take our kids out of school, for five separate days, of our choosing.
No research evidence that INSET days have any beneficial effects
Prof Dylan Wiliam, from the Institute of Education thinks that INSET days are largely a waste of time as there’s no real evaluation of their effect and no conving research showing they work.
Some are not training and used as catch-ups for work
INSET days are not supposed to be work catch-up days, but are often treated as such. This is clear from teacher forums.
Many are hotchpotches of faddish, non-empirical training
INSET days are used to introduce theories from outside ‘mom and pop’ training companies that are often out of date, untested and nothing short of snakeoil. Brain Gym, Mozart Effect, L/R brain theories, Gardner’s MI, Learning Styles….the list is huge.
Many are ill-planned, dull and irrelevant
We have to go to stupid, boring, meetings that last all day and often are a total waste of my time” (from teacher’s forum). This sort of reaction is not unusual from teachers.
And why not simply latch these days on to the start or end of holidays? Why pop them into the middle of terms? The problem here is that the timetabling is at the discretion of the school. What’s not generally known is that, the regulations state that attendance outside the regular required hours at INSET days is not obligatory. In other words, they needn’t attend at all!
Who knows? It seems to be a pretty scrappy affair but evidence from teacher’s forums is pretty disturbing. Here’s the first post on the subject from the TES and there’s lots like these in teacher forums:
I am just looking to get a feel for what other schools do with support staff on inset days. Until recently we were left to our own devices which was great as we were able to catch up on work but under a "Whole Staff" ethos we are "invited" to attend training. The problem is that we do not find the training offered to be relevant to our job roles and, at times, is completely incomprehensible to us! We are also informed that failure to attend our allocated training session is a disciplinary issue which does wonders for the morale. We would be happy to attend targetting training but curriculum INSET is a nonsense for us and we'd rather be clearing the decks!
Online CPD is the way forward. Encourage teachers to join professional networks, especially on social media. They'll see the flourishing communities of Teachmeets, ResearchEd and so on. Go one step further and do a MOOC - there's lots in this area. Anything but those awful round table and flipchart sessions.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Gardner's 'Multiple Intelligences' seductive nonsense?

In Gardner’s 2003 paper in the American Educational Research Association, Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years, he states,
I have come to realize that once one releases an idea – “meme” – into the world, one cannot completely control its behaviour – anymore than one can control those products of our genes we call children.
Absolutely. One of the problems with Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences’ was its seductiveness. A teacher could simply say, everyone’s smart, we’re all just smart in different ways. There’s a truth in this, in terms of a narrowly academic curriculum, but when adopted as ‘science’ in schools, Multiple Intelligences can be a dumbing-down, destructive force. In general people confuse the critique of single IQ scores as a measure of intelligence, with Gardner’s theory, as if he were the final world on the matter. He is not.
Not neuroscience
First, teachers who quote and use the theory are unlikely to have fully understood its status and further development by Gardner himself. Few will have understood that it is not supported in the world of neuroscience, despite the perception by educators that it arose from there. Gardner’s first book, Frames of the Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (2003) laid out the first version of the theory, followed 16 years later by a reformulation in Intelligence Reframed (1999), then again in Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years (2003). Few have followed its development after 1983 or the critiques and Gardner’s subsequent distancing of the theory from brain science.
Lynn Waterhouse laid out the lack of scientific evidence for the theory in Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review in Educational Psychologist, a paper to which Gardner felt duty bound to respond. In fact, in response to the absence of neurological evidence for his separate 'intelligence' components, Gardner had to redefine his intelligences as “composites of fine-grained neurological subprocesses but not those subprocesses themselves”(Gardner and Moran, 2006). In fact, many areas of learning such as reason, emotion, action, music, language and so on are characterised by their overlapping, dispersed and complex patterns of activity in the brain, as shown in brain scans. Islands of functional specificity are extremely rare. In short, Gardner suffers from conceptual invention and simplicity. Brain science simply does not support the theory.
Gardener himself admits that the science has yet to come, but teachers assume it’s already there and that the theory arose from the science. Big mistake. Pickering and Howard-Jones found that teachers associate multiple intelligences with neuroscience, but as Howard-Jones states in his recent BECTA report, “In terms of the science, however, it seems an unhelpful simplification as no clearly defined set of capabilities arises from either the biological or psychological research”.

Training's the problem
The problem seems to be the culture of in-service training ( a fact confirmed in the Howard-Jones survey), as the most quoted source for such myths. It would seem that a rather lazy culture of oddball suppliers and ‘psychology for dummies’ INSET days has led to this sad state of affairs. There's an army of small teams of trainers peddling this snake-oil. They cull populist, fashionable theories, string them together in PowerPoint presentations, and the ever-popular 'workshops' and so the meme is virally spread, not only through the minds of teachers, but to our children who suffer from the misconceptions of their teachers. We all agree that teachers don't have a lot of spare time, so why waste it on this rubbish? Their time would surely be better spent on real brain science, where real increases in the productivity of learning are possible, not tomorrow but now.
Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of the Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. (New York, Basic Books).
Gardner, H. (1999) Intelligence Reframed. (New York, Basic Books).
Gardner, H. (2003) "Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years." American Educational Research Association.
Gardner, H., and Moran, S. (2006) The Science of Multiple Intelligences Theory: A Response to Lynn Waterhouse, Educational Psychologist, 41.4, 227-32.
Pickering, S.J., and Howard-Jones, P. (2007) Educators' Views on the Role of Neuroscience in Education: Findings from a Study of UK and International Perspectives, Mind, Brain and Education, 1.3, 109-13.
Waterhouse L. (2006) Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review, Educational Psychologist, 41.4, 207-25.