The Rinvolucri Principle

Teacher development and resource books fall into three general categories: A4 sized photocopiable books, slightly larger than regular sized paper backs with very few, if any, photocopiable bits, and then a weird sort of 10″ by 8″ sized book which is almost but not quite entirely impossible to photocopy from.

It is one of these latter that inspired this blog post: Grammar Games by Mario Rinvoluvcri. You see, I have a memory of an activity in that book, or possibly the sequel, which involved a fairly laborious photocopying of page X back to back with page Y and then cutting this up into domino type pieces. One for each pair of students in your class. In terms of leg work, this took about an hour to set up. The amount of classroom time? About a third of that.

I should add, however, that this is very possibly an inaccurate memory, and, most importantly, that those books, the first of which was published when I was nine, have got some very very good ideas in. Very good indeed. But like great albums, ELT books have got duff bits in them. Yes, even Penny Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities, the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of ELT books.

However, in memory of my memory, if not of the actual book, I long ago devised a basic principle for resource preparation, which I named, with respect, the Rinvolucri Ratio.

The Ratio is fairly straightforward. In its earliest, simplest expression, it was the ratio between the amount of preparation time and the amount of time spent in the classroom. Half an hour of copying and cutting for a five minute activity? Scores bad on the Ratio, and thus is not worth the effort. Grabbing a newspaper on the way to work and getting a whole lesson out of it with no further materials? Scores well on the ratio, and therefore is a good thing.

I have refined and revised this slightly as I have grown more experienced. In fact, it has become more of a Principle than a Ratio.

Here it is:

Preparation time should never be longer than the time in the classroom

Unless

The type of learning is going to be very valuable

Or

The resource can be easily and multiply reused within the three months after making said resource, and without taking up significant file/cupboard/shelf space.

Or

The high preparation time of the short activity can be offset by the low preparation time of a long activity.

I think that about covers it. This isn’t laziness (much) but rather a recognition that I and many teachers like me, can get bogged down with devising and preparing resources for a class. It’s practical. If you spend forty minutes typing, cutting, sorting and copying faffy bits of paper which are going to end up in the bin after five flimsy minutes of classroom time, you do have to ask yourself if this is a good use of your life? It’s different when you are training, of course. On CELTA and the like it is normal to spend twenty hours on your forty minute teaching practice, if nothing else, to realise how futile this is. My first ever lesson was based on about six weeks of evenings and weekends, and was, of course, littered with cut up cards, fluorescent slips of paper, and all the rest. Needless to say that whole thing is in the bin now.

This reminds me of a resource I used to love, and probably still would, if I hadn’t thrown it in the bin. It was a board game I devised, monopoly style, which involved students moving round the board collecting words (sorted into parts of speech) and then forming them into sentences. There were various bonus and loss squares and depending on the level, I would award points for number of sentences and sentence complexity. It took me ages to design, probably a weekend’s work, plus refining over a few months of play and practice in class.. Alas, in a move of house and job, it got damaged and bits got lost, and it never really recovered. Given that I would now have to make about three or four sets to be able to use them in my current setting, I’m not sure I would do it.

I used it lots, probably three or four times a term for about three years. The ratio was low because the time invested was paid off massively with the amount of classroom time and opportunities for learning it created. The game itself would take an hour, but there would be follow up, questions, arguments and negotiations which could set off further hours of lessons. Paper based materials and cut up bits of paper are not essentially bad, but they need to be viewed with a bit of common sense. As I said above, is it really necessary to spend all that time at a desk with a bunch of copies and a pair of scissors

Evidence, Anecdotes and bike helmets again.

Last week, Chris Boardman, Olympic cycling champion, and general ambassador for cycling in the UK went on public British TV to talk about the benefits of cycling, reducing the barriers to it and the rest. The piece showed him and the presenter riding sedately round London, with the BBC presenter wearing the full cycling monty: helmet, hi vis, lycra, the works. Chris Boardman, who has made his career on two wheels, was wearing not only normal clothes, but no hi vis stuff and crucially, no helmet. Naturally various social media went off on one, complaints were made to the BBC for Mr Boardman setting a bad example, and with gloomy predictability the calls for helmet wearing to become a legal requirement followed. Sensing a nice bit of pent up outrage the BBC followed this up with an online poll about cycling with headphones on, where a majority said cyclists shouldn’t be allowed to do so.

Well, ok. I talked about helmets before, and there is an excellent site devoted to the statistics for and against helmet wearing. And by and large, statistics would suggest that a) the public health benefits of cycling far outweigh the impact of wearing a helmet; and b) where helmet wearing has been made a legal requirement this has led to a decrease in cycling uptake. The cycling fraternity is usually quick to point out as well that in enlightened countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, helmet use is unusual and the number of cycling head injuries are lower because the infrastructure in those countries is far better for a more sustainable transport economy.

The pro-helmet lobby is a bit rubbish with its statistics and prone to a nice bit of cherry picking – especially when one considers that far more head injuries in the UK occur when people are driving or walking and yet nobody is suggesting that pedestrians or motorists wear a helmet or not listen to music. (Statistically, especially in the case of pedestrians, helmets might not be a bad idea…). The most pervasive and engaging pro helmet lobby, of course, is the personal anecdotes: genuine sad stories along the lines of “if my son had been wearing a helmet….” My possibly slightly callous answer to that is to say “yes, but if your son had been riding in an environment where the culture and road infrastructure was less aggressively pro-motorist he might not have had an accident at all.” Unfortunately you can’t fit that sort of thing into a neat headline or Facebook meme.

All well and good. I still wear a helmet, if I remember. I encourage my children to wear one. Sometimes I forget and cycle a few miles without one, but when I do I get it in the neck. For some people to is tantamount to just walking out in the street and lying down under the nearest bus.

This is all about evidence and the use of evidence. When it suits a particular social or political viewpoint, evidence is triumphantly pulled out and waved under the noses of everyone who cares to listen. When it doesn’t, however, it gets quietly ignored in favour of emotional anecdotes.

We can see a parallel here with teaching. When a piece of evidence exists in favour of a particular viewpoint it gets quickly trumpeted across various media. This happened with the Sutton Trust report “what makes great teaching” last week. Here we have a fairly big study which is generally pretty careful in its claims and suggestions. It is pretty measured stuff, but the only bit that made it into the media was the big claim that evidence suggests that discovery learning is less effective than direct instruction. It’s worth noting that this claim is made carefully in the report. First up, the direct instruction it describes is telling people stuff, yes, but also questioning them, finding out what they remember, and generally involving them in being talked at. What it isn’t is the two hour lecture that comes to mind, and which suits a nostalgic conservative view of education in the Good Old Days. And actually, discovery learning done well can be effective, but which needs lots of support and scaffolding from the teacher. Done badly, all educational interventions are rubbish.

Much the same happened with the FELTAG report. This made all sorts of good suggestions, but the only one which appears to have made any inroads into education is the suggestion that 10% of all courses become online. It’s been almost amusing to watch the handwringing that has happened by various commentators in social media about this. “But FELTAG is about more than the 10% thing! It’s about teacher development and sharing and all sorts of good things!” And they are absolutely right, but I’m not sure in which naïve universe the hand wringers are living when they think that a sector under increasing financial pressure is not going to focus on this as an opportunity to cut costs. The only time anyone ever hears of FELTAG is when it gets cited for the reason behind the 10% of courses going online. Pretty much all the good ideas about supporting and training teachers have been forgotten, because they are expensive ideas. Because the FELTAG report has an evidence base, or at least claimed to, then it gets used as a stick with which to beat staff into getting on board. I’m lucky: we have regular training days at work where we have the whole day to explore these things, and some serious time has been given over to preparing and supporting staff. I’m also pretty technologically confident, so my learning curve hasn’t been that steep. But that’s not true for every teacher in the land, not by a long shot.

The other challenge with the 10% rule is that on reading the report there appears to be no evidence to suggest that it works. The whole of FE is basically taking part in a massive experiment. It’s not been sold that way, of course, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence nationally or internationally that this is going to work. For me, when viewed that way, this becomes actually more exciting, because UK FE can be the big study cited in the rest of the world about how this worked really well on a massive scale. I hope.

One way or the other, it does fit a particular need at a particular time, it fits trends and fashions and what people are interested in. Ditto the cherry picking of the Sutton Trust Report, and much of the discussion around helmet use for cyclists. Evidence is there, yes, but it’s usually filtered through the censors of fashion and policy, and so needs to be viewed as sceptically as the rest.

Becoming an ICT teacher

Probably my biggest shift in the last two years has been a from being an ESOL teacher to becoming an ICT teacher for ESOL students: indeed, the majority of my contact with ESOL learners at the moment is as an ICT teacher, rather than as an English teacher. I come to this with mixed emotions: there are good sides and there are less than good sides.

What I like about it, for example, is that it’s a bit of a change – apart from anything, it’s a fun challenge to work out how to make functional ICT interesting. This, I have to say is no mean feat given how desperately tedious and, well, functional the ICT syllabus is. I have drawn on my ESOL experience a little here, but also on my own ICT learning – nothing in functional ICT is learnable for its own sake, really. Where I have been shown something techie which I genuinely have gone “wow, cool” about but then not needed or had opportunity to make use of, then it has gone into the great recycling bin of forgetfulness. I think that when teaching ICT, you need to set it in a context or a situation, and make it interesting that way. The other benefit to this, of course, is that the lessons can be differentiated more easily – the formatting for a tri-fold leaflet is significantly harder to think about than a poster, but the content can be more or less the same; or in a session on spreadsheets you might have one person working on just entering data, another on entering data and adding formulas and another doing both then making a chart.

It’s a different type of knowledge to the type of knowledge I’m used to, I think. Language is a fairly subtle blend of skills and knowledge, which are quite tricky to ever completely segregate. In ICT, however, most things are fairly simple. The essential motor skills are pretty straightforward, and for me most of practical functional ICT is essentially about knowing specific sequences of actions to achieve a particular end. Click that, move that, double click there, click-copy-paste-drag etc. Things can get more complicated, of course: were we to go deeper into computer technology, we would encounter commands and conditions in programming. Alternatively, drawing back out from the dry functionality we encounter social and personal issues: health and safety, of course, but also those aspects of digital literacy that revolve around data ownership, personal privacy and so on. These latter ideas lend themselves very easily to a discussion or reading lesson in the ESOL model, and then allow you to cover the practical elements by having students prepare a leaflet or presentation using the appropriate software, or accessing data to inform the discussion with online research or in the format of a spreadsheet.

Where I am less happy is in the syllabus. I’ve already described it as dry and tedious: and it is. Functional Skills exams and syllabi are by their nature pretty dull and boring, be they English, maths or ICT, and it’s the teacher’s job to make them engaging, often for learners who may not want to engage. Some people would have you believe that stuff on a computer is a form of motivational alchemy. I wonder if it is the elearning fraternity (gender specific term intended) trying to protect their status as innovators, perhaps. Either way, ICT is not immune to being seen as dull: once you get past social media and the rest, the functional windows and office software focus of the subject doesn’t hold interest for long.

Another thing I noticed last year were the huge gaps in my own knowledge, and my knowledge of structuring learning in ICT. As I may have said before, most of the learners I now teach have, technically speaking, greater evidence of ICT knowledge than I do. The challenge for me is structuring and scaffolding learning. I don’t have the subject knowledge or the teaching/learning experience to properly scaffold learning in ICT. It’s growing, of course, and next year I’ll be better than this year. Apart from anything else, I keep getting caught out by the relative ease of the exams for which learners have been entered.

So could I ever make a full transition from ESOL to ICT? Probably not. ICT certainly fails to excite me in the same way as language teaching and learning does: probably the most interesting elements are the social/privacy aspects of the web. For the time being, it remains just an interesting extension of the teaching I have been doing for some time: using ICT to develop language skills, only with a specific ICT syllabus attached. As daft as it might sound, it just ain’t grammar.

Levels

I got briefly* involved last week in a little discussion on Twitter on the theme of levels and streaming in learning, and it made me think about this as it applies to my job. There is an argument from the schools sector that the negative impact of children feeling demotivated and disillusioned outweighs any benefits of being taught in a clearly focussed way appropriate for their level of ability. What is crucial for me, and I think for some of the people involved in the discussion, I don’t think it’s a theory that applies to post-16 education. That sort of analysis doesn’t work, because the sector is so very different. To start with the majority of post-16 education is always sorted by level. A skilled and talented 16 year old may progress quickly from level 1 to level 2 in a vocational area within one year, but they are always divided by level, not age group. Ability and knowledge are the primary dividers in pretty much every aspect of post compulsory education. Age patterns exist, of course: the majority of learners on a Level 1 mechanical engineering course are arguably more likely to be mid to late teens, for example, but this is to do with funding which favours that age group, and the realistic ability (in terms of more complex wider commitments) of older learners to commit to that sort of course. I think there is probably the perception for an adult learner that that kind of course is for 16-19 year olds, although clearly no institution would discriminate against an older person who had the means and the inclination to do a course.

So thinking then about functional skills and adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL: could these work with mixed levels? They do, and they have done for many years, although this has generally been a decision based on economy rather than pedagogy. I teach a class in the community which is currently across two entry levels (E1 & E2), and I even briefly considered taking on beginners as well, not because I have any grand ideas about learner well being or that they could all learn from each other, but because the reality of the situation is that the class hasn’t attracted the numbers we would have liked and the opportunity for the learners would be taken away from them due to simple lack of value for money in funding terms. Pedagogy has an impact as well: I teach a subject where student-student interactions are vital, and in that context, a class of eight E1-E2 learners is much easier to manage than four E1.

Economics aside, however, and things become a little more clear cut. In an adult setting learners are less likely to suffer from on-course demotivation based on their ability. Learners are often aware of their abilities, ESOL learners doubly so because it is apparent in almost every interaction outside their home. My experience suggests that in the public sector ESOL context,  learners more often underestimate rather than overestimate their abilities. (This is an interesting contrast to the weekly “I three weeks in England, I certificate advanced, yes?” conversations I recall from private sector EFL teaching.)

So really, the self-esteem issues are generally not issues, or at least not issues that mixed level groupings would remedy. Arguably, for an entry level learner who lacks confidence, it could be said that they might feel more disheartened by being in a group with someone who is very clearly more capable. There is certainly enough exposure to high levels to engender motivation as learners form social groups outside of the classrooms and within communities.

The other issue is that in the setting of ESOL and functional skills, a “single level” already represents a range of abilities: what we classify as Entry level 3 could represent people who have just scraped past Entry 2**, people who have been at that level for a year or two and appear to be plateauing, and people who only need to pass one component of the assessment in order to progress to Level 1.

The levels are fairly arbitrary in their divisions: who is to say that a given skill or language area is evidence of a particular level. However, arbitrary or not, a level suggests a selection of knowledge and skills to be learned, and it’s the rare learner who has full mastery of those when they pass the relevant exam*, so a revisit and a review of those is no bad thing. But from a planning perspective it gives the teacher an idea of what to teach, of the gaps missing, and of what is reasonable to expect for that group of learners to learn, and teaching within that level makes it much easier to manage the class, to keep all the learners as engaged, stretched and challenged as much as possible without having to perform magical plate spinning differentiation.

So. Levels. Basically, when it comes to older learners and adults, they aren’t a bad ideas, because the social setting, the contexts, and the reasons for learning are profoundly different. Intake practices are based around ability level, and the management of the courses would become radically different if we take the simplistic school approach of grouping by age. The diversity and the breadth of the FE context would make this simply impossible anyway – the only realistic way to organise these courses has to be around levels.

*”briefly” as in “lurked and made on comment”

**nobody actually thinks that once learners pass an exam they are actually fully competent at that level, right?

You are not alone

It sometimes feels like you are very much on your own as a teacher. You know, even though you are teaching a whole bunch of people, there is a divide of sorts in the room between “you the teacher” and “them the students”. That divide is always going to be there because you have different roles and different responsibilities in that classroom space. So it can seem a bit of a lonely calling, even though this is, of course, one of the pleasures of the job. After all, significant chunks of the day you are left to do your own thing with little supervision and lots of freedom. Nevertheless, at pinch points, particular stressed times, you feel the need to be, well, not alone. Those times when that student is ranting at you about some random college diktat that you don’t really understand yourself; when that class of 16-18s is totally going off on one, spiralling irretrievably out of control; when the internet connection goes down in the middle of a class entirely predicated on the use of the web; when you walk into class and the students say “we did that yesterday with the other teacher”; when the meticulously planned activity for which you had such high hopes as a surefire winner takes three seconds and bombs horribly; or when that fateful email pops up in your inbox announcing the imminent arrival of graded observation. Right at those times, it feels like it is just you, and you alone.

It is also at these times that it is easiest to forget that teachers are part of a community. The cry is more often “What can Ido about this?” rather than “who can help me with this?”

There is the immediate community of your staff room, into which, if you are lucky, you can run during a class and someone will be able to give you that quick fix solution: some wise or merely convenient soul who says “try this” and who saves the day. Sometimes you mention that you are struggling with something or other, and you get enough ideas or suggestions to solve that problem ten times over. I get it that not all staff rooms are like this, and where this hasn’t been the case the community of teachers is weaker and the quality and confidence inevitably reduced. When we talk shop in social settings, this is all part of that community, sometimes sharing ideas, but more often than not simply a kind of communal psychic hug. Then there are the wider settings, Twitter, Facebook, all those things, social networks forming an extension of the staff room, up to and including the hugging. You can call it a PLN, but I call it hugs.

It’s not all lovey love-ins, mind you. I’ve worked with various people with whom I have had some fairly profound differences of opinion and approach, and this has been nothing but productive. We have had quite vocal arguments at times, but always with a sense of respect, knowing that however bonkers we think each other to be, we are all doing the best we can for out learners. My opinions and approaches have been challenged, as have theirs, and my practices, and I hope theirs, have developed for the better as a result. Challenge is important: it makes you question your practices, clarify them, or reject them. This is all good.

If we get it right our classroom practice is the tip of this huge iceberg of support. From our initial trainers to our current colleagues, to that random teacher from the other side of the world, they all inform our practices on a day to day basis. As a result, out teaching practice is an amalgam of our ideas and those of others. We are alone, yes, but we are all alone together.

You can put that last sentence on a cat poster if you like….

Blended Learning: A pre-research reflection

I have been lucky enough to get a grant from those kind folks at the Education & Training Foundation to carry out a piece of research. The focus of my research is on student feelings about blended learning, their perceptions of its impact and on the issues they may have themselves in terms of their own digital literacy and in terms of access to the necessary technology.

The reason I chose this topic is likely to be clear to regular readers of my blog. I think that I would probably describe myself not as an e-learning enthusiast but rather an e-learning pragmatist. There is a value – my own experimentations and reflections are enough for me to feel comfortable saying this, but unlike the enthusiast I am unconvinced of its ability to work as a universal standard of best practice.

It’s like this. In my mind there are two basic tropes in education: the evangelists and refuseniks (who I rather amusingly saw referred to as “the crossed arms brigade” the other week).

The evangelists are the enthusiasts, the ones who are convinced of the amazing ability of technology to transform all learning for all learners all the time. While they may concede that the technology does need to be used well, for the evangelist the absence of technology in the classroom is A Bad Thing. We, they cry, are the innovators and the game changers. I say evangelists for a very specific reason: theirs is a stance of absolute, unquestioning and unshakeable faith, and this stance can be just as annoying as the uninvited religious doorstepper: it is simply not possible to say “yes, but…” to them, and any even slight acknowledgement of having a positive experience with ICT is seized upon with delight, just as a the doorstepper will seize upon any moment of doubt in your religious opinions.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the refusenik. This is the person who has been doing it that way for years and sees no reason to change. It was good enough for me at school in 1965, good enough for me when I started teaching in 1983, and it’s good enough for me now. (Those dates, by the way, are no indicator – I’ve met refuseniks who started teaching after I did, and evangelists who started their evangelising on a Spectrum 48k.) The refusenik is the traditionalist, the conservative. For them, if it ain’t broke… This stance is just as annoying, for almost the mirror image reason, as the evangelist: where the evangelist annoys because they are so stubbornly fixed upon technology as panacea, the refusenik simply won’t acknowledge any value to technology. They are both stubbornly fixed in a single viewpoint.

These are, of course, deliberately provocative extremes, but  in the black-and-white discourse of blended learning and CPD, these are sometimes the only two possible roles you can be cast in (although you are allowed to aspire to be an evangelist – “I’m all right at using technology X, but I’m not like Fred, he’s so good with technology”).

There are two issues here: one is the polarising of these approaches to technology and the other is the equation of innovation with technology use.

Actually there are three, but the third one is the biggie, so we’ll come to that later.

The reality of teaching is that we are all on a continuum somewhere between the evangelists and the crossed arms brigade. I would probably place myself at about two-thirds, perhaps three quarters of the way to an evangelist.

Innovation, of course, can and should go beyond the application of technology. Unfortunately, however, using technology has long been synonymous with “cool” and it is this sexiness which makes it very appealing. It’s big hits, instant wins, observable changes – bang – the students are using ipads! They are bringing their own devices! Pow! They are using the VLE! Kerpow! Enthusiastically embracing technology is sometimes seen as the only kind of innovation, suggesting that now the development of learning and teaching expertise relies purely on the application of technology to that process, and really it isn’t. There are other advances, other developments. Technology is just one form of innovation.

The third issue, the really big one, however, is nothing to do with teachers. It’s to do with learners. I have to stop really and ask a question. Has anyone ever asked students what they think? FELTAG certainly didn’t appear to credit many actual students in their report, apart from a brief nod to the NUS. Certainly learner voice was notable by its absence in the report (although lots of good things were said about learning and about teachers). Nobody seems to have gone out and found out what students are capable of, what skills they have, how much support they need in using this technology, and, crucially, whether they think it will help them learn. It reminds me of when I was on a debate panel on whether technology made for a better lesson – there were two students next to me, one of whom was arguing against. I felt deeply sorry for him because he was unimpressed by all this technology use, and yet the general air in the room (full of educators, teachers and so on) was pretty close to “stupid boy, you don’t know what’s good for you.” (Considering I was arguing the same point, for a short time things felt a little hostile.)

But before the refuseniks come rushing in with joy, this doesn’t mean that students don’t want technology in their learning. I suspect they don’t want you friending them on Facebook, but they may well want it. They may want more online and less face to face, or they may want things the other way round. The issue is not around whether they do or don’t, but rather that in the general discourse around technology and blended learning, assumptions have been made about learners but nobody seems to have asked them. And that, ultimately, is what I want to find out. What do they know? What can they do? What, as blended learners, do they expect?

Just teaching: why I love Wednesdays

I love Wednesdays. I arrive at work at about 12pm, having categorically not worked the morning due to being Daddy and doing the school run, an arrangement my employer has been lovely enough to allow for the last five years. Then I start teaching at 12.45. I have two two hour ICT classes for ESOL 16-18s, then an hour before I teach a lovely Level 1 ESOL evening class from 6 til 8.30. Train times being what they are, I generally end up then having half an hour or so to kill, where I catch up on odd bits of admin, before catching a 9.30 train and getting home at about 10.15. 

It is my favourite day. The 16-18s are challenging but interesting, with no major behaviour issues as far as I can tell, and I finally have head space to explore ICT teaching, and try to do a halfway decent job of it. The level 1 class are massively diverse, with a whole range of needs and challenges. And the best thing? I am teaching, just teaching, all blessed day long. Emails go ignored, urgent requests for this, that and the other can go hang, I can, by and large, legitimately ignore admin for the whole day. I don’t have to worry about action plans, pro formas, meetings, policies, standards, mission statements, KPIs, any of it. I can just go into classes and enjoy. The only  VLE courses I need to care about are my own, the only reflections of any relevance are on my own teaching, and the only good practice that concerns me is mine.

I am tired by the end, and my last hour of teaching sometimes has a slight caffeine-fuelled manic edge to it, but that’s no bad thing for an ESOL class of an evening. But basically because I just get to do my favourite work thing all day, I love Wednesdays.