Having Moments. Reflection in action on action. Or something.

I was covering a class on Tuesday evening and I had a couple of little Moments. You know Moments? They happen when an idea hits you in the middle of a lesson, you try it and it works. It’s so good that you decide to take it away, refine it if necessary and it then slots into your general repertoire of teaching techniques. (You can call it a toolkit if you like, and put it into a “pack” but repertoire sounds way more sophisticated and less soulless-middle-management naff.)

Anyhow, those Moments. The first was a refinement of something I’ve described before: grouping students according to level by putting a letter in the corner of the handout before you give the activity to the learners, then getting them to sit with people with the same letter. This is fine when you know the group, and have a clear idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are. What it’s not so good for is when you don’t know the group, as in this case. So what I did was rather than have the letters in advance, I merely watched the students as they worked individually through the task on the handout then went round marking up the papers based on how they were doing. Arbitrarily, I used London, New York and Tokyo as my three codes, which had the rather pleasant effect of being able to say “right, here is London, here is Tokyo and here is New York” as a means to get the learners to move around the room. Thus I got the stronger students working together with an eye on an extension task (which wasn’t needed) but which gave me the chance to ask them some more analytical, challenging questions about some of the grammar, while being able to support some of the less able learners.

The second Moment was while they were working. I had a few spare copies of the handouts, a grammar review gap fill task from Instant Grammar Lessons (recomeneded by a brilliant colleague). Rather than getting the students to feedback to me, or to check their answers against a displayed version on the board, I gave each group a “master” copy of the task and got the groups to agree on set answers which they would write collaboratively on the “master”. (This had the interesting side effect of the higher level learners spending the same amount of time as the lower level learners, because they were too busy arguing over a preposition.) Only one group completed the whole thing, (interestingly not the strongest group) and the others were at different stages of the task. I then got each group to nominate a “spy” to go and check each other’s work and come back to say what they had noticed, and in this way I managed to ensure that all the learners had checked and clarified the right answers,. I closed with a plenary on the small handful of unresolved questions and problems, and then we moved into a speaking task to close.

To be fair, this “spy” idea is really something I’ve been doing for a while, but with less of a silly metaphor, perhaps. For me this was about bringing together different ideas: controlled groupings, collaborative learning and discussions, peer assessment and evaluation, all those things, and happily with very little teacher input, little by way of teacher control of the input and output but with distinct learning happening: lightbulb moments happened for a whole bunch of learners during the lesson.

I followed the lesson up with some very similar ideas the following evening with another group, and tightened up some of the stages, especially in terms of pace and time, and it became a much more effective little trick. It was also interesting applying it to a class that I already knew, and I had already made a few decisions about where I would group people. No doubt I will take this and refine and develop it a little over the next few months and they really will solidify into my practice properly.

Having Moments requires a bit of confidence: there’s a lot to be said for having the idea, noting it down, maybe then going and researching and refining it a little before then applying it, using a fairly traditional action research model, as this takes away some of the nerves around it. Arguably, as well, from a quality assurance point of view, it could be said that we should be careful in these things so that our learners get the best experience possible. Then again, sometimes the perfect time to put that idea into place is during the lesson you are teaching when the idea occurs.

By and large, and perhaps predictably, I am inclined to just jump in and see what happens in these situations: after all, you are unlikely to have massive, profound practice changing Moments, and they are likely to be smaller “tweaks” as in my example here. I like to think, however, that I would be prepared to try something quite radical if I thought it would be better for the learners. It’s a gamble, if you like, based on past experience, knowledge, and an understanding of what is happening right there in front of you. Most learners in my experience, are pretty understanding of things not working out in a lesson occasionally: nobody, after all, is perfect. And so, fear of it not working should never put you off, because even if it doesn’t it’s a valuable learning experience for you. Sometimes a lesson going wrong can be the most useful thing about it.

The teacher learning that happens in these sort of situations is arguably the best teacher learning there is. Moments like these are worth at least a few hours of teacher development workshop, and much more likely to have a long term impact on my teaching practice.

Temptation

I’ve been resisting for years now, it seems. Years and years. And yet she’s got me again, pulling me back to her, despite my best efforts. She’s been wooing me, drawing me in with her glamour and elegance, and with her subtle edge of sexy rebelliousness.

The wicked mistress here is, of course, entirely metaphorical, and her name is Technology. I think I would go so far as to say that my entire career, since my very first job, has been linked to some form of computer. That’s fifteen years, fif-bloody-teen, of going online, taking students online, using and occasionally abusing computers, the Internet, phones, tablets, MP3 players, the whole shebang, not to mention the bits and pieces that have fallen by the wayside. It has been a largely professional affair: my love of gadgetry is confined to what I can scrounge from the workplace. I am not rich enough to justify needless expenditure on the latest gadgets, and do not live amongst high end laptops and flatscreen TVs linked to tablets and various other bits. My home TV is a CRT telly I got when my Nan died years ago, my own laptop is running Windows Vista* and was bought in 2006 (it is physically dying now, to be fair). My only concession here is my phone, a fairly up to date iPhone 5s, but even that’s only possible through a contract.

So, what happened? I got tired and just a little bit bored. I had become the technology guy, the computer chap, you know, the one rushing around telling everyone about cool new this, and exciting new that, and, well, it got boring. I’m not sure when it happened, really, but I got to the point where I simply did not have the energy to be excited in front of “so what” faces any more. I also got fed up of being pigeon holed, known only for his ability to stick a computer on and show you something while rattling on about it being “cool”.

I think, as well, that there was a change to my own personal philosophy of education, insofar as I can lay claim to having one. Back in the mid-to-late 2000s it was all about online resources. It was all about this website, that CD-ROM (remember that?), these pre-prepared, teacher-centric resources. I discovered Reflect for ESOL and dogme, and started to look at those resources much more harshly. Who decides the content of resources? Who dictates the methods used in the classroom? How can we stop paying lip service to learner centredness with teacher imposed strategies like ILPs, and start to hand the control of the classroom to the learners? To my mind the technology of the later part of the 2000s was all about this kind of teacher led stuff, and wasn’t there, not really, for much else.

As well as my own personal changes, I think it was a reaction to the increasingly rabid claims of the pro-technology gang, fundamentalists to the core. Technology is Good. Education without Technology is Bad. The tipping point here was at a conference for JISC where I felt uncomfortable, almost bullied, when I argued, quite reasonably, against the assumption that technology is a pre-requisite for good teaching. The blinkeredness of the assumption was quite shocking, really. To shift metaphors briefly, I felt like a moderate Christian asking complicated questions about the nature of God and belief amongst a group of Southern Baptists.

Between probably about 2009 and 2012 I fell out of love with technology, and took active steps to avoid her. Sure, I missed her, and, true to all messy break ups, we had one night stands, flirtations, longing looks in shop windows, but by and large I kept her out of my life. And last year, really, I broke it off. I’d had enough, and didn’t care two hoots for the VLE, for tablets, for BYOD, for any of it. Me and technology, well, we were Over.

Meanwhile, of course, several years after I had been championing technology, suddenly technology was mainstream. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the action, culminating in the final forced acceptance of institutions to embrace technology through the whip cracking of FELTAG and the SFA. So I took up the attack, and proposed a piece of research this year which was founded on an inherently critical approach. Yeah, yeah, 10% online, whatever, embrace the future yadda yadda yadda.

No, wait. Let’s look at the driver here: inevitably, and perhaps reasonably from a certain perspective, this is not about effective practice, and never was. This is about money saving. Nobody apart from a few enthusiasts wanted technology: it was expensive, unwieldy, hard work to implement, required mental changes, staff development and so on. Nobody wanted it. Never mind the impact of the technology on the learning: despite the best efforts of JISC and LSIS, technology was always going to remain at the sidelines of institutional practices: empty, unenforced words in policy documents. Suddenly, of course, there is the mandate to save money through 10% online study and everyone wants in. The shift for teacher development also has moved from the carrot of “look at this exciting thing that will really engage your learners” to the stick of “put 10% of your course online or we are going to have to start talking redundancies”. Never a positive motivating factor, that one.

Talk about red rag to a bull. Wait a minute, I wanted to say, has anyone EVER actually asked students what they think? Has anyone sat down and said “hello, 17 year old motor vehicle engineering student, are you a digitally literate, technologically confident person who expects significant chunks of learning to take place online?” Has anyone ever spoken to adults with low levels of any literacy, never mind digital skills and literacy? Again, the driver here is financial, not the learners. The old trope “learners expect technology these days” is more or less taken as a given, but is it actually true? I wasn’t so sure, particularly with the adults I usually encounter. I put a research proposal together and have got some money to find out.

Now, the initial side effect of this was to look at my own practices, and do you know what? I’d never really broken it off with dear old technology at all. I have been BYODing away, VLE all over the place. I thought I had said goodbye, but there she was, part of my life all the time. What’s crucial, however, is that I’d been letting learners take the lead on this. If they were struggling with a word, I’d get them to check spelling using predictive text on an old phone, or download a dictionary app on a smartphone. I’d point them to websites to get further language practice, get them to engage with social media, all sorts of things. The technology had crept into the classroom via a couple of mindset changes (“Phones on!”) and was quietly, naturally, embedding itself. This was not because learners were expecting it as part of their learning, but because technology supplied the answer to a problem. No dictionary in the classroom, and three flights of steps to the dictionary cupboard? Go online.

Technology is no longer there because I am making it be there, but because it is part of the scenery. Technology, for me, is not innovative, it is just a thing we use. Even amongst a low level ESOL class, smartphones are almost as ubiquitous as pencils. And like pencils, digital technology is sometimes the best tool for the job, and sometimes it isn’t. My mindset has changed, as has the technology. I am no longer blindly, crazily in love, but the love has grown and matured into something else.

Technology: all is forgiven. Let’s make a fresh start.

******

*i always seem to end up buying the shit version of Windows that comes out before a really solid, popular version. Before Vista I had a PC running Windows ME, which was so poor nobody has ever heard of it.

Urban Myths & Comic Sans

I don’t hate comic sans. I don’t like it very much but I don’t hate it. It’s relative ugliness is not that big a deal, really, and, well, it’s a font, right? However, what does annoy me about it is the use of it in educational circles outside of primary schools (who generally use Sassoon or similar), and the reasons for this. This led, as is common with these things, to a bit of a staff room chat the other day.

The most common argument I’ve heard, apart from “I just like it,” is that it is easier to read for learners with dyslexia or those learners with lower levels of literacy. It’s worth clarifying at this point that dyslexia is not the same as having a low level of literacy. Someone who has a low level of literacy may or may not have dyslexia, (and indeed vice versa). These are complex things, and while there may be occasional correlations here, these do not mean they are the same.

So, anyway, I thought I might go and look it up in the Internet. As you do. And a little rummage found a couple of interesting pieces amongst the numerous “graphic designers hate comic sans” sites. The most telling and authoritative was the information from the British Dyslexia association‘s Tech blog, who you rather think should know what they are talking about. They suggsest that feedback from their users offers comic sans as a good font, but only because it is simple and sans serif, not for any reason tremendously unique to that specific font. Otherwise they are pretty ambivalent. It’s worth noting that they point out that not only is it “not considered professional in the publishing or academic worlds” but also that “some adults consider it looks childish.” On the same page they also suggest that the choice of font “may not be a burning issue” indicating that other factors (size, spacing, line length) are just as important. It’s worth noting that the main British Dyslexia Association site uses a fairly regular looking sans serif, Roman font as a standard, but, and this is a crucial observation, with the opportunity to reformat the site with a pretty extensive set of options in the “accessibility” link. On another site I found it refers to a study, (you can find the study here) which suggested that a font designed with dyslexia in mind fared badly. The study didn’t even look at Comic Sans, suggesting perhaps that the font didn’t particularly register as an appropriate font for analysis.

The other challenge here is that dyslexia is a complex concept which can manifest itself differently for different people. So even if the evidence for comic sans were conclusive, it might well be that the learner in your class with dyslexia may not in fact be helped by that particular adjustment. It would seem more useful, to my mind, to have some sort of open source document file format which allows for the content creator to fix the document so it is impossible to change the content, like a pdf, but allows the reader to change the font style, size, spacing, background colour and so on according to the individual needs of the reader. Now that would be awesome.

Either way, it’s not looking tremendously convincing for the use of Comic Sans as a help for learners with dyslexia. So what about literacy and language teaching? I should be on more comfortable ground here, this being my thing, so to speak.

Well, again, a little rummage around the Internet and I got, well, nothing much. As with dyslexia there wouldn’t appear to be much out there in terms of solid evidence, mostly there were lots of “literacy educators like it” comments. These pointed out the shape of the lower case a, and of the lower case g, but none of these are unique to Comic Sans. There are several others, including Century Gothic, which have the same sorts of shapes to the letters, although I personally find the roundness of Century Gothic a little tough going. There is a font I personally quite like called Andika. It was designed with literacy education in mind, and to me it looks like a sort of grown up version of Comic Sans, or perhaps the love child of Comic Sans and Calibri, I’m not sure. It looks the part though, somehow hitting lots of criteria for ease of reading but without looking like it was designed for five year olds.

That said, however, there is another issue with making all our texts so learner friendly in this way. The vast majority of fonts used in the real world are not governed by the needs of learners and the diktats of education, but rather the tastes and habits of typographers and designers. The upshot of this is that the lower case a that your learners encounter outside of class, even outside of your handouts, is likely to be the one with the funny hat on. Lower case g may have weird squiggling descenders on it. Typefaces come in all shapes and sizes, and really is it in the best interests of our learners to mollycoddle our learners in this way? Perhaps there’s a value where literacy in any language is low, but beyond Entry 1, I remain unconvinced.

My own habits tend towards a fairly large sized Calibri, because a) it’s sans serif and easy on the eye, and b) it’s the default and I’m lazy. But genuinely, I think it’s quite nice: curvier and more elegant than Arial, a bit less squat looking than Tahoma and Verdana. It ticks the boxes, and works well. I like Andika for learners at the lower end of the literacy scale.

But I avoid Comic Sans. Not perhaps to the extent that I would change something out of it, although I have done, but I don’t usually consciously use it. I find it infantile, annoying, unattractive and unprofessional. It’s good for cat posters, perhaps. The evidence is scanty at best, and the whole area is really not very well researched enough to make any great claims one way or the other.

However, like so much in education the “comic sans is good for dyslexia and literacy” idea has proven hard to shift in the face of this lack of evidence. This is a bit of a depressing habit, especially in FE, where all sorts of things hang on in spite of evidence, or in spite of an absence of evidence . It has become one of those things that “everyone knows”. As in “everyone knows you should use Comic Sans for dyslexia.”  It’s like a massive urban myth, the “friend of a friend told me” school of educational theory, and like many urban myths it has roots in a version of reality, but a very strained link to fact. So maybe next time you reach for the Comic Sans you might want to wait a minute and think.

Wait time: a reflection on an “innovation”?

Now there’s a pompous title to get the world going, no? Look, I can hear you all cry, he’s going to do a snidey “this is all great, but…” thing, like he usually does. Sorry to disappoint. I’m going to try to be fairly straight on this one, no curve balls, no “howevers”.

Anyhow, there’s this thing called wait time. This is an idea that isn’t terribly new – it’s been knocking around in the literature for years, and I’ve been aware of it for ages. However, it’s only really in the last couple of years that I’ve started to make use of it, and only in the last six months I’ve really put it into place properly.

The theory behind it, in essence, is as follows. In most cases, the teacher asks a group of learners a question, then either jumps on the first hand that shoots up, the first voice that shouts out, or, if they are trying to be a bit more sophisticated, nominating some unfortunate soul who was hoping like hell the teacher wouldn’t ask them, because they don’t know the answer or don’t want to stick out like a swotty show off, or, maybe, are just a bit shy. This nomination could be randomised: break out the lolly sticks or swirling PowerPoint name selector. But either way, someone gets put on the spot, with the teacher expecting an answer. You see it in ESOL classes on a bigger scale: the teacher asks the whole class a question like “what are some words for fruit and vegetables?” You get three or four students supplying predictable answers, and then the teacher tediously writes up a bunch of vocab that the class already know, before realising that it all needs to be rubbed off for the next part of the lesson, rendering the entire activity largely wasted.

Bleurgh. Boooooooring. Even if you jazz it up with an interactive whiteboard it’s still boooooooring, (although interactive whiteboards are pretty dull objects at the best of times).

The point, anyway, is this. In your class you dispense with the lollipops and the random name generator. You stop those coasting learners leaving the hard work to the big mouths (that was my education all the way through: I was Captain Coaster in pretty much every subject.) and you shut up those same big mouths who dominate every single lesson. You do this by building in “wait time”. Wait time is, as the name suggests, a section of time between asking a question and getting an answer where learners either individually or collaboratively think of an answer to the question, before feeding it back to the rest of the group.

This is how it could work. On an individual level, wait time at its most simple, you refuse to accept answers and tell the whole class to think of an answer in the space of time given. Personally I wouldn’t want this to be much more than ten seconds, but that’s very much me disliking extensive periods of silence, not to mention the distinct risk of everyone drifting off into their own private worlds. Then you either nominate a learner, or use some sort of technological interface to find out what everyone thinks: Socrative or PollEverywhere would be useful, or you could be wild and crazy and get everyone to write it down on a mini whiteboard, which they can then hold up. If you like a nice classroom gimmick, you could use coloured cards like green/red for yes/no or true/false questions (and perhaps also an “amber” card for not sure).

Like I said, however, I’m fond of a little noise in my classrooms. I get all itchy and restless if students are just sitting and working quietly. So I have been making this collaborative rather than individual. It’s worked well in grammar lessons, where learners have been exposed to examples of the language in a reading or listening task, and then I want to ask concept questions to get them to think about what the meaning and form of the grammar. Rather than verbally ask the question, I have been putting them on a PowerPoint slide and then asking learners to work in small groups to discuss what they think is the answer. I’ve been varying the time, depending on the complexity and challenge of the question asked, and while learners have been discussing their answers I’ve been walking round and listening and talking to the students. At the end I’ve had the groups write their ideas on mini whiteboards or sharing back to me at the front, depending on how much extra explanation and whole class discussion I think has been necessary.

And I like it. Lots. In my classes, this has meant that my explanations have been minimal, but personalised where I have had to explain in detail. You also feel more confident that everyone is engaging with the language, participating in the discussion, and it’s much less difficult for shy or reluctant contributors because they are only talking to two or three other students. The instructions are quite easy, and on one occasion I didn’t even need to tell the class what to do after the second one: they just had the question on the board and started discussing. Students have been working it all out for themselves, sharing ideas and, crucially in an ESOL class, interacting in English, developing their general speaking skills on the side.

Like I said, at the beginning, this isn’t a new idea. I’m not being an amazing innovator here. But it’s sort of new to me, and I like it. It’s also a fairly unusual experience writing a non-snarky blog post, and I’ve quite enjoyed that too.

“What kind of world are we trying to represent?”

I was at the regional NATECLA YH day conference this week, and the final plenary was from Heather Buchanan of Leeds Beckett University talking about the uses and abuses of global coursebooks.

It was an interesting and indeed controversial topic, particularly to a group of people who probably rarely follow a single coursebooks, preferring out of necessity or expectation, to pick and choose published work, or develop our own materials. I’m not going to weigh in on the coursebook/no coursebook argument, although I do challenge those ESOL managers who think we should have a full year scheme of work at the start of the academic year to tell me why we shouldn’t just follow a fixed coursebook which we adapt to the class.

No, the thing which really resonated from Heather’s talk was the comment at the title of this post: “What kind of world are we trying to represent?”

I make a lot of my own materials, and devise my own activities, and I started to think: what kind of messages do I send to my learners based on my selection of texts to read, approaches to take? Do I, as an ESOL teacher, have an agenda?

Well, yes, I do. If pushed I would argue something along the lines of slightly leftwing woolly liberal, focussed on the needs and lives of the learners. Or something (woolly, remember) but I wonder how much of this comes out in the choices of themes, topics and texts which I bring into the classroom. For one, that sentence says a lot: “texts that I bring into the classroom”. They are often texts that appeal to me, as well as hopefully appealing to the learners. Certainly in theme these are often a lighter touch than perhaps my higher ideals would prefer: articles about lorries getting stuck under bridges, web quests about local events. But then I do sometimes select texts on more complex issues: for example I have a reading and speaking activity based on the Tony Martin case where a man was sentenced to jail for shooting a burglar, or controversial variations on the balloon debate, like the Amnesty task from OneStopEnglish. Interestingly, however, on more controversial topics, I realise, on reflection, that I tend to situate these outside the learners’ own experiences. I have avoided too much explicit discussion of the activities of right wing activists in the UK, especially when this applies to local issues. I have helped learners engage with local issues, for example helping them to write letters to their local MP to protest against the proposed closure of A&E services at the local hospital, and supported learners on an individual basis on their personal plans and progression, jobs and so on.

Where I have felt less comfortable perhaps has been the direct nanny-state teaching of social and moral standpoints. The main problem I had with PSD last year was based on this. Who am I to comments on an individual’s approach to personal health without them initiating that discussion? Yet I would support a learner if they came to me with a personal problem. But not for me the eatwell plate. I approach many of the citizenship materials with a critical, cautious eye: could I define a good citizen? Probably not. Do I think that the NIACE materials helped to define this? Not really, but then they were never meant to. The most recent life in the uk test guidance is excruciating in its literal whitewash of history, and the raising in importance of this history.

I am not a sports fan, and tend to avoid sport related texts and sport based resources. This is silly, as many learners do like sport, and this would be a great source for some really interesting language. I am a music fan, but again, I tend not to use this as a source for my learners’ learning, although this time it is perhaps the nature of the music which makes me reluctant to share with learners. I am also a book and film fan, and sometimes this does make its way into the classroom, perhaps because they are much more clearly and obviously usable.

In short, then, the world I tend to represent to learners is bound up with the identity of who I am and what I feel and believe about the world. Is this true of all teachers? I assume it probably is, and equally that it is hard to step outside of that world when preparing texts, no matter how much you would argue for learner-centredness. For myself, I know I could do more to get learners involved by, for example, bringing in a text each to analyse, or a question to answer. I attempted to do this for a while in my low level community based class, by getting them to talk about the people they know in the form of people “maps” but this has had to fall to the wayside as the class is slowly shedding learners.

This,I guess, is the challenge for all materials writers, and that the world we need to try to represent is the one which learners can engage with and/or relate to. It helps, of course, if we can engage with that world: easier for those of us who share cultural links and heritage with the learners, perhaps. Sometimes my own lifestyle feels like it exists in some sort of parallel universe to the lives of the learners I teach, and the challenge there is to bridge that gap, to link the lives and challenges of our learners to our own lives and challenges, and share in the way that we deal with our different challenges.

I don’t mean to force my agenda, or my ideals onto learners, (although I would challenge learners on any issues of equality), but I think that this comes through nonetheless. Perhaps this is a bad thing, but then again, perhaps not. More importantly, perhaps, is the question of whether we can avoid letting our own personal, social, cultural and political agendas come through in our teaching. I rather doubt we can.

The “New” Professional Standards

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, hence the title, and the frankly unpalatable length of this post, for which I can only apologise. I would like to take us back to May when the Education and Training Foundation published the Professional Standards for teachers in FE. They are a concise set of standards, although the appealing concision of the two page document is a little undone by a 22 page set of guidance notes which expands on them. I basing this primarily on the main standards, although the “amplification of the standards” in the guidance are also occasionally illuminating in what they highlight.

It may surprise you that I quite like them. I have no general qualms with them, and no issues in particular with the concept of professional standards. I like that the fact that they are short: this makes them multiply applicable and on the face of it at least, suggest no specific approach to teaching and learning. There’s a lot of trust and faith in practitioners which is no bad thing.

It’s an interesting set of standards, however, for someone like me who has a bit of a historical interest in the notion of professionalism and the role of a professional organisation. So I thought I might go through them and make sense of them.

The first section is “Professional Values and Attributes” and this is what they are:

Develop your own judgement of what works and does not work in your teaching and training
1 Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners
2 Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs
3 Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through your enthusiasm and knowledge
4 Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn
5 Value and promote social and cultural diversity, equality of opportunity and inclusion
6 Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners

So far so happy. There’s nothing here which is desperately innovative or remarkable, nor terribly controversial either. What is interesting here, however, is what it doesn’t say. Critical reflection is crucial to developing as a teacher, and I wholeheartedly agree. However, these values and attributes imply that this is only permissible in one direction: towards you the practitioner. By omission, then, this could be seen to suggest that it is not considered professional to critically reflect on the practices of leadership teams, of OFSTED and of wider organisations, policy makers and government. There is mention of “collaborative relationships with colleagues” which could (should?) suggest constructively critical working relationships, perhaps, but this is a single point made once at this stage. Perhaps more about this will be uncovered as we progress.

Onto the second section “Professional knowledge and understanding”

Develop deep and critically informed knowledge and understanding in theory and practice
7 Maintain and update knowledge of your subject and/or vocational area
8 Maintain and update your knowledge of educational research to develop evidence-based practice
9 Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment
drawing on research and other evidence
10 Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning
11 Manage and promote positive learner behaviour
12 Understand the teaching and professional role and your responsibilities

Again, there’s nothing here I think I particularly disagree with, although I am (perhaps optimistically) assuming that “knowledge of educational research to develop evidence based practice” means more than “read a bit of Geoff Petty’s book”. I’m intrigued by the statement “research and other evidence” as well: other evidence like what, exactly? OFSTED’s random pronouncements on “best practice”?

The Guidance isn’t tremendously helpful on what it means by “professional responsibilities” in point 12, except to say that we need to be aware of them, and a reference to equality and diversity (something which runs throughout the document). There is a slightly clearer reference in the Guidance to this: “keeping yourself thoroughly up-to-date on organisational requirements and rules” suggesting that the “responsibilities” are defined by your employer. On one level this could be interpreted quite negatively: perhaps there is a need for an independently defined set of “responsibilities” for a teacher in FE. I’m not so sure, however. In practice, I think that allowing organisations to develop and define roles and responsibilities is useful: different elements of FE, even different departments within a college, work in different ways, and the role of a tutor is different in those contexts. Anyway, organisations have always defined this, so there is nothing astonishingly new or tremendously innovative here.

The final section is entitled “Professional skills”, and this is perhaps the most interesting section.

Develop your expertise and skills to ensure the best outcomes for learners
13 Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression
14 Plan and deliver effective learning programmes for diverse groups or individuals in a safe and inclusive environment
15 Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use
16 Address the mathematics and English needs of learners and work creatively to overcome
individual barriers to learning
17 Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals
that stretch and challenge
18 Apply appropriate and fair methods of assessment and provide constructive and timely
feedback to support progression and achievement
19 Maintain and update your teaching and training expertise and vocational skills through
collaboration with employers
20 Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration
with others

Starting at the end, we come back to collaboration, but this time it does suggest a degree of criticism: after all, how does one improve the quality of ones organisation without looking at it with a critical eye. This critical eye is presumably only to be focused on your own organisation, not on government, OFSTED and other organisations. I find this a little disturbing: government and OFSTED have their own agendas and their own opinions, not all of which are right or best for the sector. Should we not be pointing a critical eye in their direction, and should the sector not be challenging them? Perhaps it is, but the hackneyed line that FE is the Cinderella sector is true, because it is looked down upon by its two ugly sisters of school education and HE, because it is often ignored by the wicked stepmother of government and its quangos, but does this mean that FE should be sitting around waiting for a fairy godmother to find us a handsome prince? (I so hate the Cinderella story on so many levels).

Anyway, back to the standards: the remaining standards on professional knowledge are focused on practice, and despite making no claims to defining good practice, we can draw some conclusions here. These are as follows:

A) Learners learn best when they are meta-aware of their learning: that they have specific goals to work towards, and reflecting on those goals.

B) Technology improves learning.

C) Learning and assessment are two separate things.

D) Effective feedback is important.

Again, nothing new or terribly innovative here, most of which I have been over before in various settings, but basically: (A) and (B) are sometimes true for some learners in some contexts, (C) is not always true, because formative assessment is part of learning, but in the current discourse learning and assessment are generally considered to be separate, and (D) quite frankly, is a bit of a no-brainer (cf. formative assessment).

In some ways, B stands out for me because it arises elsewhere in the Guidance, under point 4: “Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.” There are three points here, the first of which mentions classroom strategies and techniques, but he other two are: “finding ways to use technology to underpin learning wherever it can add value or extend the learning context” and “using learning technology to improve learners’ chances of reaching their potential”. It’s a little disconcerting to note that in recent discourse in education the primary mode of innovation seems to be around the inclusion of digital technology, and that other kinds of innovation in classroom practice is not really considered as such.

Standards like this are always hard to draw up and if anything these are controversial for their lack of controversy. There is little there that hasn’t been said or done before by LSIS or IFL. Perhaps it is their concision which is the problem: how do you engage with such broad sweeps of the brush? I know that they have passed me by, for the most part, saying nothing new to me, and very little new to the general FE teaching community.

Then again, is that perhaps the point? By reflecting what practitioners already do, do they much more effectively unite the teaching community in FE? IFL tried this way back in their (often similar) definitions of professionalism but stuck the 30 hours CPD thing on top. Unfortunately, as FELTAG are finding with the increasingly notorious 10% blended learning, this was the only thing anyone focussed on. The ETF standards are much less stark: there are no specific numbers in any of it. In some ways this could be interpreted as lacking robustness, but as soon as you start quantifying this sort of thing, you get onto increasingly rocky ground.

Quantified or not, however, there is a lot of fairly straightforward and sensible stuff in these standards. Equality and diversity is recognised throughout, and there is a lot of positive support for personal and collaborative development. There is a general sense that the best development comes not from some advanced practitioner/consultant/manager telling you what is “best practice” (a phrase happily absent in the standards, you will note) but rather through working together. This places the emphasis on action research, peer observations, and raises the value of those staff room discussions about what is and isn’t working in class. To my mind, this shift from top down cascading of “best practice” to critical joint practice development is no bad thing at all.

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