Fear and Anger

The first half of this, is a post I wrote for my short-lived cycling blog a couple of years ago, but I thought I would post it here because I think it has a bearing on teaching and learning. 


I was reflecting on riding, as you do, at 15mph down a busy road, and why, at certain times of the day in particular, pretty much all road users seem to abandon Dr Jekyll and allow Mr, or Ms Hyde to take over. In Leeds, like many big cities, this is often between the hours of 7.30 and 9 in the morning, and 4.30 and 7 in the afternoon, when the roads are at their busiest. Roads at this time of day are not, generally, happy places. It occurred to me that the anger and the rage comes not from inherent badness, or from being evil tempered in particular, but stems from fear. I get angry when someone comes past too close, or overtakes me dangerously, without paying attention to the fact that the road is too narrow. Or when someone stops suddenly, or flings their car door open while chatting on their phone, or decides not to notice me at a junction and pull out (sometimes across a clearly marked cycle lane), or when a car desperately overtakes you then pulls across in front of you to turn almost immediately after. Or when a pedestrian steps out into the cycle lane without looking, or doesn’t try to control their dog, or even look at it, when you have been ringing your bell for the last three hundred yards behind them, and the dog ambles into the middle of the shared path at the very last minute, or when people just stand there like rabbits in the spotlight while you ring and ring and ring…. I could go on, and I’m sure every cyclist, wheelchair user, pedestrian, driver, Segwayer and so on could share similar frustrations. 

 Ask anyone about travelling in the UK on the public roads to complete the sentence “It really annoys me when….” and you will get a thousand variations on those themes. There is almost certainly annoyance shared between cyclists: the MAMILs getting irate at casually dressed hipsters on a fixie, that sort of thing. But it struck me that the reason we get angry is because in almost all of the situations I mentioned above, bike tribe jokes aside, someone, and not necessarily me, could get hurt or quite possibly killed. 

This is a very frightening prospect, seeing as I’m rather fond of being able to walk, and being alive into the bargain. I’m also not a big fan of hurting other people, or their dogs. This fear is where the anger comes from. Before I sound too much like I’m about to go off an a bit of a mind trip, I did do a little google search on fear and anger, and there seems a reasonable amount of truth in the idea that anger is the “fight” response to a threat, as opposed to “flight”. Or something. Anyway, my poor research aside, to my folk psychology mind, this seems fairly reasonable and certainly explains a lot.  


I sometimes see the fight or flight anger reaction when I meet teachers who get their lesson observation graded a 3 or a 4. Sometimes it is anger and disappointment with themselves, but more often I suspect this is because they are facing possible capability procedures and thence to the potential of losing their job. Naturally, this would suggest a threat: losing your job affects your basic ability to support yourself and your family, and so the observation is linked to threat: the teacher is the cyclist, the graded observation is the white van driver on a mobile phone driving too close. It may not kill you, but it might. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the reaction for many teachers to a 3 or a 4 is anger, and an element of relief if you don’t. Sadly, for me, this gets in the way of any valuable discussions or reflections. It’s hard to think straight when you are angry, and like the threatened cyclist, a teacher with a 3 or 4 wants to vent that anger.  

Sometimes the fight gives way to flight, of course. This is a sad moment, when the teacher in question decides that the stress and the hassle is simply not worth it for what is sometimes an hourly paid teaching contract. When this happens, discourse sometimes focuses around “teaching not being the job for them” and indeed perhaps it isn’t. Sometimes, when the same things arise again and again in not only graded but also ungraded, developmental and peer observations, and the teacher is really struggling to reflect and put those reflections into practice, then perhaps teaching is not the job they should have. But it shouldn’t be because of an individual’s abIlty to deal with threat: this isn’t a lack of resilience, but this is a reaction to fear. 

 To bring this back to cycling, if I may. One of the reasons many people cite for not cycling to work, or for not cycling generally, is because they are frightened. It’s a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy: the fewer cyclists are on the road, the more the motorist feels they have a monopoly on the space between the pavements, the more aggressively they will approach cyclists, and the more frightening it is for cyclists. Do new and inexperienced teachers feel similarly discouraged when they get their graded observation? If they do, are there people being discouraged from teaching who might otherwise be fantastic at it? How many of our current crop of “outstanding” teachers would now be in that position had they not had time to develop and improve in their profession? I have to be honest and say that I’m not entirely sure that inexperienced me of the early 2000s would have coped, although perhaps that’s not exactly an argument in my favour. 

 Is there an answer here? Of course, the immediate thought is to ditch the graded observation and leave it there. But there are issues around quality assurance, around capacity to improve and about what the students are getting. The graded observation is a blunt-edged weapon for either achieving improvement or for carefully ejecting teachers who are struggling to improve. I still hold that peer observation improves quality all round far more effectively than grading, but I don’t think it can be used to replace quality assurance observations. If you start to make it part of the quality assurance process, the imposition of a power dynamic into the feedback essentially takes away one threat and replaces it with another. But you could easily remove the grade, but keep the observation, and as I think I have argued before, this means that nobody gets the divisive and inaccurate accolade of being an “outstanding” teacher, and everybody gets something to work on. Teacher learning, like all learning is not a straight line, but one which ebbs and flows, and which needs support and encouragement: remove the one lesson grade and teacher learning comes to the forefront. 

Some forward thinking institutions already do this, and with positive results. I hope that this becomes the norm, although ofsted seem to be pretty resistant to abandoning the practice of grading individual lessons in FE. Perhaps  when that happens things will start to change, but my faith in ofsted to innovate is shallow at best. And then we may have systems in place that genuinely improve the skills of teachers, and thus, of course, the learning  of students. 

Outcomes, Evidence and Assessment

Let me start with an apology and a clarification. First, I’ve blogged about learning outcomes quite recently, and, although I think I’ve taken a slightly different tack here, there may be some repetition. Sorry. The clarification is for those colleagues who I promised that I wouldn’t say anything about what they said about this: I haven’t, and I promise that any resemblance is purely coincidental. No, this came out of a discussion with a colleague who was struggling with phrasing learning outcomes, and in particular trying to get past the idea of writing an outcome which was not just a description of the task, but rather a statement of evidence of a transferable skill: i.e. what had the students learned as a result of the task. I am starting, as well, with certain assumptions about learning outcomes. First, that they should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed). Secondly, when successfully completed, a learning outcome should demonstrate to the teacher that the learners have learned something. 
Take these, for example:
1. Learners will be able to use present perfect.
2. Learners will be able to use present perfect to describe past experiences.
3. Learners will be able to use present perfect in five sentences describing their past experiences.
Outcome 1, essentially, is the thing you are trying to achieve. This is what you want students to be able to do. However, outcome 2 is better because present perfect has a number of different usages in English, and this is clearer.  God help me, but it is more Specific. 
Outcome number three, however, ticks all five of the sacred SMART requirements. It is specific, in that evokes a precise use of a particular grammar structure, it is measurable by simple inclusion of a number, it is certainly Achievable, assuming that the lesson is for Entry level 3 ESOL, it is Relevant, in that being able to describe what one has done in one’s working life is a helpful thing to be able to do, and if this were an ESOL for employment class, this would be easily something which would suit. I don’t need to explain the time frame, do I? 
So let’s say that, for the sake of argument, this is the outcome of a lesson. So far so good, right? I mean, it’s SMART, there is clear evidence of having achieved said outcome, it’s pretty good, right? They have demonstrated that they can do those things. 
By writing those sentences, however, does this mean that the learners will have demonstrated that they know how to use the grammatical structure? Can we assume with any certainty that subsequently the learner will be able to take that point and reapply it in another context? Essentially, is the grammar a known thing? 
This is where it gets challenging. In literal terms, the writer of the outcome is only claiming that they the learners can make those 5 sentences: not that the learners will know the grammar. I don’t think, as well, that anyone would really assume that they did know the grammar at this point, only that they are further along the path of being able to do it. If that’s the case, however, then what is the point of the super specific learning outcome? How does it help anyone? If we as teachers are acknowledging that this is a bit fake in terms of what the students have done, then where is the value of learners reflecting on this as a means of marking their achievement? Perhaps they, and we, might that they managed to do it but would like to work on the grammar a bit more, but then really we are thinking not about the evidence of the learning outcome, but rather the vaguer, more woolly aim, like outcome 2 above. 
But what about skills development? In principle a learning outcome should be a statement of the transferable skill learned. And taking SMART as our touchstone, a learning outcome can be easily formed for a skill like listen for gist, or read for detail. “Read a text and extract 5 details”. Except it’s not that simple. All you can ever say for sure that the learners will have evidenced here is that they can read one text and extract 5 details from that text alone. They have certainly had practice in that skill and be developing it, but you couldn’t say for sure that they will now be able to read any text appropriate for the level and extract 5 details. Because of the need to measure the achievement, a language skills outcome can only ever be a description of the aim of the task in one lesson, not a statement of a transferable skill. When you ask the question “has learning happened?” it all gets a bit tricky to define. 
What about pure communicative outcomes like “ask for information at the bus station” or be able to tell someone 5 things about jobs you have had” ESOL, and indeed ELT generally is blessed/cursed with the challenges of marrying up functions, skills, lexis and grammar in course design, and success at a communicative function can be achieved without the “right” grammar for the job. One of the challenges of getting students past the Entry 3 (B1 on CEFR) threshold in a target language setting is dealing with the fact that they can often get by pretty well. Thus success at speaking is hard to measure without taking into account the grammar bring used. An outcome like “tell someone 5 things about jobs you have had” could be achieved by pretty much any learner in any class at Entry 3 or above but may not use present perfect, or indeed any tense structure in English which refers to the past. “I work for 5 year at Batley Beds. I work now for Batley Beds.” gets the idea across, albeit inelegantly. 

So how do we write “good” learning outcomes for an ESOL class? Speaking personally, and very definitely outside my usual role, I don’t think we can. The nature of an “evidenceable” learning outcome necessarily restricts us to what is achieved in the classroom, and simply does not allow us to make general comments as to the wider learning.  A very wise man once suggested to me that rather than focussing on specific measurability, and to avoid producing fake evidence like “write 5 sentences using present perfect”a more honest and realistic phrasing would be “be better able to use present perfect to talk about past experiences”. This is perhaps an objective rather than an outcome, but it places the onus on the teacher to monitor carefully the students’ language production. This is, of course, what good teachers do: assessment of language production in a classroom is not simply through the achievement of learning outcomes, but a continual steady process. Language teachers, or at least the decent ones, don’t issue a task and then sit back and wait for the results to roll in before providing assessment feedback, but rather tend to patrol a room suggesting and monitoring students. Formative assessment is not solely through quizzes or (oh God, this makes my heart sink on an ESOL lesson plan) “Q&A”. It is a process which starts at the beginning of the lesson and which continues throughout. Using a selection of learning outcomes which purport to demonstrate learning is essentially false because in a language class you are always measuring learning in a hundred different ways. It would be impossible to realistically record all of this when planning, and very probably pointless. 
Measurable learning outcomes seem based in a model of teaching where learning occurs as a result of direct input, and an for me an ESOL class doesn’t work on these terms. Because the thing being taught is usually the same as the thing being used to teach, evidence, as suggested by Hattie, for the effectiveness of direct instruction supported by questioning is largely irrelevant: there is no point in direct instruction if the people you are instructing can’t understand what you are saying. No, rather, there is still a place in an ESOL class for collaborative work and scaffolding: development of language ability in adults is through using that ability in combination with finding out and only occasionally being told about it. Development of that ability is not always directly evidenceable, and even where it is, the reliability of that evidence is highly questionable.
Perhaps we need to turn our back on the input/output behaviourism of the learning outcome. Forget SMART and be a little more laid back. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fit in with the prevailing educational wind in post 16 learning in the UK. But then, one of the challenges of teaching ESOL in an FE context that we are a bit of a misfit, lauded and celebrated when colleges want to brag about their diversity, but in terms of funding, time tabling and classroom practice, we are a bit of a pain. But then I wouldn’t have that any other way. 

Processs, Product and The Perfect Lesson Planning Form

I’ve been experimenting with the five minute lesson plan recently. I’m not in the mood to add links, but it is very easy to come by: just Google it. Basically it’s a single page lesson planning proforma with lots of boxes and arrows which you complete by hand. It’s been formally approved at college as a possible lesson plan for observations, so I thought I would give it a try. To be honest, it’s got a bit of work to go on it. Most of the page is taken up with stuff about the lesson, leaving not much room for detail about what is going to happen in the lesson itself, which for me rather defeats the object. I mean, the point of a lesson plan is to help you to decide what is going to happen in the lesson and when it is going to happen. The clue is in the name, right? Well, perhaps.

The Big Kahuna Form
This is the traditional full fat one you use for lesson observations. You know, it probably has lots of boxes for things like learning outcomes, timing, teacher activity, learner activity, differentiation, assessment, self evaluation/reflection (which I usually just delete: why use a box when you have a blog?). It’s probably got some checklists on it for things like equality and diversity, embedding maths and English, all that stuff. The thing I like about this is its ability to spell out to an observer precisely why I am doing something in class. LOOK, it says, THIS IS THE DIFFERENTIATION BIT. AND THIS IS WHERE I AM EMBEDDING SOME MATHS. AND THIS IS THE ASSESSMENT BIT. AND IT’S NOT JUST A LUCKY ACCIDENT. This is what this plan is for, for me, anyway.

The Five Minute Lesson Plan
If the Big Kahuna is full fat, this is semi-skimmed. There’s still space for stuff like assessment and differentiation, but you’re supposed to be able to fill it in by hand, in no more than five minutes. A nice idea, and I think with a bit of tweaking, this could work, although I like the idea of a lesson plan for an observation being a bit more “in your face” in its approach to showing an observer why you are doing things. When done well, it gives them, and you, nowhere to hide.

The Blank Piece of Paper Plan
Also known as the “back of yesterday’s handout” plan, or the “tapped out using the Notes app on my phone on the train” plan. You are probably thinking that for me, most formal lesson plans for are not so much there for my benefit, as for the benefit of showing to an observer that I know what I am doing. You’d be right: my preferred planning document is indeed a blank piece of paper. Usually it starts off as a few bullet points, aims in the top margin if necessary, then decorated with swirls and arrows and comments and extra bits, and crossings out and so on.

The No Piece of Paper Plan

This is where the lesson arrives fully formed in your head,or simply that the stages are so clear, or familiar, there is just no point in writing them down. It’s unusual, for me. Like I say, the process of writing helps me to plan. But for some people this can work and does work well.

Processes & Products

There is a distinction here between planning as a process and a plan as product. Planning on a blank piece of paper is a process, a way of thinking through what is going to happen, whereas the formal plan is more often a product. I’m not allowed to pace the office talking to myself, which is my other way of thinking things through (*call me an auditory-kinaesthetic learner, however, and you and I will have to step outside for a Quiet Chat) so I am limited to scrawling notes on pieces of paper. Very often I will never look at the plan during the lesson: it is the act of planning which is important for me, not the plan itself. That said, I don’t do one plan for the observer and another for me, because that, to be honest, is just stupid. If you can find time to do this then you can find time to plan a better lesson. If the situation requires a full fat plan, then I plan straight onto there and print it out for the lesson.

I suspect that no plan suits everybody all the time, partly because if there were it would have made its way round the world by now. This, for me, is a good thing, because it shows up the diversity of not only the different types of lessons and learners we teach, but also the diversity of who we are as teachers. What works for me may not work for you. What works for me teaching a teacher training session may not work for me when I am teaching an ESOL class. What works for me with Level 2 ESOL may not work for me with Beginners.What works for me on Monday may not work for me on Thursday.

Isn’t that wonderful?


Faith and Stuff

“We weren’t supposed to be, we learned too much at school, now we can’t help but think the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about.”

Pulp – Mis-shapes

You will be glad to know that I have no plans to come over all Dawkins at you: your faith, like the absence of mine, is an entirely personal affair, and none of my business. That’s a hint, by the way, for anyone ready to save my soul with a comment…

No, this isn’t a post about that kind of faith. This is a post about teacher faith. You see, not so long ago I was a keen enthusiastic little trainee on a part time training course and there were all these people telling me stuff. Stuff that would make me a good teacher, stuff that I needed to do to pass the course. That sort of stuff. Then I did DELTA, and learned shitloads of stuff. And I believed every single word, referenced or not. Because they were trainers and they knew their stuff, right? And then later on I started working in the public sector and managers told me stuff, and people said that certain stuff was best practice and that I should do that stuff because OFSTED said it was good stuff. I was a true believer. I listened, I absorbed, I followed the True Path of the Righteous.

I can pinpoint, to within a few months, the arrival of my professional scepticism. It was around September 2004, and it was the insistence that setting targets helped ESOL learners learn English. It was my first encounter with the “because it’s good practice” non-argument, and when pushed for a better explanation, nobody could come up with anything. (Still waiting for the research to prove it, by the way.) Suddenly all these authority figures saying stuff began to sound, well, unauthoritative. I asked for evidence, politely, and was politely rebuffed. So I tried to find out for myself, and I found a big fat heap of nothing. Lots of “best practice guidelines”, lots of advice, and a tiny little bit of not very informative “how to” guidance, but nothing that said “this works because this research and this study said so.” I started to look around at all the other stuff I’d been told over the years, looking for evidence for all sorts and by golly was it interesting. Some of it was there, some of it wasn’t, but for an awful lot of things I’d been told was good practice had little or no evidence base. The whole house of cards started to look very rickety indeed.

We place a lot of faith and trust in our teachers. Necessarily so. ESOL students trust that we are telling the truth when we say that we use some for positive statements and any for negatives (I have some apples, I don’t have any bananas) even though it later turns out that this is not really the rule as it is used. (I like most pop music, but I don’t like some of it. I like any coffee, I’m not fussy). It’s an uncomfortable way to phrase it, but sometimes teachers lie to learners in order to make a complex thing less complex, more easily understandable, and this is what happens on initial teacher training courses: we simplify and tell lies so that some basic level understanding can be established before the teachers go off and discover that more or less everything they’ve learned is not wrong, as such, but is almost certainly not much more than a useful guideline.

Asking difficult questions like “who says so?” however, tends not to make you very popular. Nobody likes a smart Alec, after all. You get accused of all sorts when you ask questions: accused of being disrespectful, of being a cynic, of mocking, of not being aspirational, as well as quiet but stern reminders of your place in the grand scheme of things. People who ask questions make life difficult. I have had trainee teachers in the past who ask awkward, challenging, perceptive and generally brilliant questions of you. So far, these trainees have been, without exception, the strongest trainees on their respective courses, and the most successful subsequently. But when they ask those questions it’s bloody annoying, and so it should be. After all, you are getting your beliefs challenged, and that’s hard, but the benefits are endless. It forces you to go away and examine your position much more carefully and thoroughly, and either you come back stronger, and with greater evidence or support, or you come back humbled and your mind broadened. The worst thing you can ever do to people in this situation is dismiss them with “it just is” statements like “it’s good practice” because that’s deeply patronising. You may as well just pat them on the bottom and say “don’t you worry your pretty little head about it”.

Like I’ve written before, there’s nothing absolute in teaching, nothing fixed, although absolutes are which new teachers might find reassuring. Perhaps atheism and religious belief is not the right parallel here: they depend on absolute beliefs. Perhaps agnosticism is the better parallel: we can never fully know for sure, and we are always learning and changing as teachers in face of the evidence as it occurs before us. Any faith we do have must be a flexible faith, one which is open to new thoughts, new developments and interpretations. We must never assume that something is right, at least not on face value, and even where the evidence does exist we must still analyse it and think about how well it can apply to our own contexts of teaching and learning.


Sometimes I think that this teaching lark is all about questions. Take CELTA, for example: trainees (and trainers) spend hours agonising over concept checking questions, , ICQs, and questions to draw the meaning: they all cause a headache for new teachers (along with labelling stages of a lesson, although this is like moving your head slightly to show you are using the mirrors in your driving test, and you never ever need to do again).

So, asking questions. Arguably this is the most useful tool in the teachers arsenal, and for some people, the hardest to master. Given time and practice, mind you, and it becomes something you do more or less out of habit.

Here’s how you do it, based on a CELTA teaching practice I saw, focussing on using and and, most importantly, but with a group of Entry 1 students:

Put up the following two sentences:

I have an ipad _______ I have an iphone.

Then point at the first sentence. “Is this yes or no?” (or “positive and negative” if you like). Students say “Yes”

Then repeat with the second sentence.

Indicate this on the board with a tick by each sentence.

“Are they the same?”


Ask: “How can I make this one sentence?”  and/or “What word can I put here to make one sentence?”

This should elicit I have an ipad and I have an iphone.

Then we follow more or less the same procedure but with some changes:

I have an ipad _______ I don’t have an xbox.

Point at the first sentence. “Is this yes or no?” (or “positive and negative” if you like). Students say “Yes”.

Point at the second sentence. “Is this yes or no?”. Students say “no”.

Take a deep breath: this is a crucial bit.

“Are the sentences the same?”


Ask, again: “How can I make this one sentence?”  and/or “What word can I put here to make one sentence?”

I have an ipad but I don’t have an xbox.

This may not work. You may want to try “Can I use and?” to guide them a little.

Obviously, the students may still not have a clue, so you may have to tell them here, although I reckon you should have got there by now.

You then follow this up with some more questions. Write up:

I have an iPad but I have a computer.

Questions are then asked more or less as above, but this time you finish with “is this right?” The real trick now comes with making sure all the students have understood, so you get all of them to answer the question, for example, by saying “if you think it’s right, put up your hand” or getting them to write yes or no on a mini whiteboard or piece of paper. The point being that this questioning now has a different purpose, which is to ascertain whether or it the students have understood the language in the first place. Depending on the level, of course, you may want to ask some students to explain why.

This seems like a lot of fuss, and believe me the explaining of this takes much longer than the actual doing of it. However, the point of this kerfuffle is this – by asking questions like this, you are taking all the bits of knowledge that the students already have (in this case, notions of positive and negative, how these are formed, and the idea of joining two simple sentences using some form of conjunction) and start to link these all together in a structured way. The fact that you are asking questions means as well you are demanding that the students engage with you in order to do this.

Now, I’ve got to admit to a little bit of annoyance with the CELTA fetish of asking instruction checking questions, and indeed sometimes concept checking questions, when there is no need for it. I’d much rather see clear instructions and 90% of the class get on with it while the teacher helps those who have struggled, rather than ritualistically asking stuff like “can you tell me what we are going to do?” and “are you going to write in the gaps?” and the whole class sit there in a state of confusion.

It’s also this sort of thing that irritates the living shits out of me when people waffle on about higher order questioning. It’s a bug bear of mine. Higher order questioning is about meta-awareness and sometimes, indeed very often this is totally unnecessary and no indicator at all as to whether or not they can actually use the language. Give me some speakers of Slavic languages in a Level 1 class, and I will give you a whole bunch of people who can explain the rules around definite and indefinite articles, discuss very clearly the reasons why we use them, hypothetical situations where we might not use them and so on, a whole stack of higher order stuff, but they still say “I went to supermarket and I bought apple.” You can wave Bloom’s Taxonomy at me all you like, but higher order questioning is not going to help those learners learn articles, because there are other things at play here, and more than simply presentation.

What they need is practice, and that, of course, is a whole other question.

Unplugged ICT

It occurred to me today that one of the reasons the learners in my ESOL & ICT class struggle with the functional ICT stuff is that they don’t get the analogy. Like Word is a piece of paper, PowerPoint a series of posters or slides, and Excel is the work of the devil. So I thought I would re emphasise the analogy a bit with the class this morning, and we did an ICT lesson without the students making use of digital technology.

The first stage was to make the link clear in the form of the learning outcomes. This was indeed one of those lessons where I wanted to be absolutely explicit about why we were doing things and what we were going to achieve. This was not least because the label on the lesson said “ESOL and ICT” and I was worried the students would complain.

So we opened with an activity that my colleague Cathy thought up for a workshop we delivered on Twitter for teacher CPD many many moons ago. I had the students write a question (about English) on a sticky note, then pin it to the nearest large flat surface This, with wonderful irony, was the interactive whiteboard, initially showing nothing, although I later switched it on to display questions as a prompt for discussion. They then had to respond to or comment on one other person’s question, then check for responses to their question, then comment again, and so on. I let it run for a bit until it started to sag, and then elicited the parallel between the activity and social media. I then got all the students to discuss how their interactions were different in our toy social network.


There were some good insights:

“There is more time to think.”
“I have two faces.”
“We are more comfortable.”
“We use special language.”
“We are more harsh, more honest.”

Based on these reflections, each group then brainstormed some social media advice. This advice then formed the basis of a poster, but her the instruction was simple: make the poster but you must not write directly on the main sheet of paper. All writing must be done on coloured paper which you can cut out any way you like. The point being, of course, that this would get them to focus on layout, on moving and manipulating text, literally cutting and pasting.

The results of the poster task were terrific – students thinking hard about layout, just as I had hoped. The plenary question, then, was to identify how these ideas applied to using Word and PowerPoint, and structuring a page, where we raised issues like clarity, text size, and not obscuring images, all of which are part of the assessment for functional ICT.

I think this was probably my favourite lesson so far for ESOL & ICT: more satisfying, somehow. Not because it was “unplugged”, although I think everyone enjoyed the novelty and got a lot from it. No, I think it was more because I think it was the first time I’ve really focussed on specific ICT skills, with focused, pre-specified ICT outcomes, rather than on a more task-based approach, where the class are working towards an end product like a leaflet or a poster. I don’t think there’s anything terribly wrong with that approach, mind you, because it allows lots of differentiation to happen quite easily, and in each of those lessons I’ve been able to show everybody something new. One of the reasons for the task-based lessons, I think, is my own confidence in the subject. I’m a new ICT teacher, after all, with no formal training or qualifications in the subject, so I find it easier to identify what learning outcomes arise as part of a task than to attempt to be prescriptive about what will be learned in a given session, with all the implications there for differentiation. But this worked out, so I think I shall have to try this prescription on for a bit, and see how we get on. God help me, but I may even have to start writing out formal lesson plans…

Whiteboards again

I think I can trace my general indifference towards interactive whiteboards to an observation I carried out about four years ago. The teacher, who has since gone on to great things, was using an interactive whiteboard. She had the students completing some sort of matching task on the board, with the students coming up to move a word to its matching image on the board. Yes, I thought, very flash, but what on earth are the other students doing while they watch one of their colleagues stand up, waaaaaallllkk to the front of the room, fumble with the IWB pen, drag it into position, then waaaaaaaallllk back again, and sit down. The other students not involved in this rather tedious activity were just sitting there, watching other people do something. I’ve seen it since then too, on more than one occasion, and watched the students either agog with awe at this amazing technology, or, more likely, a bit bored.

First up, I’ve got to admit that this wasn’t the best way to be using it, and in the discussion afterwards the teacher and I both acknowledged the entire absence of pace, energy and only the most token of polite engagement from the rest of the class. There are things you can do to enable students to engage with the IWB.

You can have students working in groups then sending up representatives to work on the board. This is especially possible with new developments in IWB technology which enables two students to write at the same time, although I have to admit I’ve never been able to make that work properly,

You can have one student come up and be the board user, although I hate the idea of having a “special” student coming up to do something like that, as if it’s a prize for swottiness, a bit like being the milk monitor.

You can get the whole class to cluster round the board, so that the board works like a large multi user iPad. This is probably only going to work with smaller groups, but it’s a nice idea, and probably my favourite. I’ve had classes work on a text as a whole group before.

It is possible to have the class come up one at a time, but this only really works if the rest of the class are currently engaged in something else, rather than watching the board. I did this once where the students were doing a reading task, and as the students finished, I sent them up to complete the answers on the board so that the rest of the group could check the rest of the answers later.

But that’s more or less it, really, in terms of getting the students to interact with an interactive whiteboard. It actually doesn’t matter what kind of activity it is, because the nature, the size and the position of an IWB means that the types of interactions with it are severely limited, and in fact the most striking use of an IWB would be in the hands of a teacher who has the confidence and experience of using it.

I have to admit, I’m not one of those teachers. Or rather I am one of those teachers, but somehow I haven’t really warmed to them. I quite like using it for drag and drop type stuff, like checking a paper based matching activity, for example, or for revealing and hiding bits of text or images, that sort of thing, but that’s kind of it, really. There are other aspects to it which I find tremendously useful. Things like being able to flip through PowerPoint slides without having to stand by the computer – a small thing perhaps, but it changes the way you work with PowerPoint in a classroom context. Things like being able to have a pdf or word document up of the task the students have been doing and being able to write into it as if it were a piece of paper (and this being much much easier than it ever was on an OHP). Being able to control a video or audio recording without using the mouse. Things like being able to look up a word quickly using image search and then paste that image into a file which the students can quickly access via VLE, although this is being rendered less useful now by the fact that many learners now have Internet access via a smartphone. Why google it for them when they can google it themselves?

And it is that last point which may well end up killing the “interactive” part of the interactive whiteboard. In some lessons, where the students have their own devices, the whiteboard is nothing more than the teacher’s device and the students have control of theirs. Certainly mobile web services like Socrative and PollEverywhere have pretty much killed those awful clunky voting systems that took stupid amounts of time to set up, given their negligible impact on the classroom. That said, some sort of IWB app where the board content also appears remotely on students devices, and can be manipulated from that end would be terrifyingly interesting to explore. It probably already exists, and if it doesn’t the development teams at Promethean and Smart Technologies are probably busy trying to crack it.

I don’t care, particularly, that students don’t interact with the IWB: I think it’s a lot of fuss for minimal positive impact, and often a massive negative impact on pace and engagement. Things would be much easier, of course, if I didn’t have to face the very real prospect of someone who knows little or nothing about using an interactive whiteboard, or worse someone who is so entranced by technology that they can’t see any drawbacks, criticising me for only using it as a projector screen when that was a clear and conscious decision given the size and nature of the class, and the focus and methodology of the lesson. That, however, is a more general point: no observer ever has the right to say that anyone should be using any resource or indeed any technique unless that observer can say precisely why and how it would have made the learning in the lesson better. (Thats probably a whole other blog post right there).

As for my old fashioned whiteboard? Take that from my classroom over my dead body, and I mean that. It’s very telling that the most common way I use the IWB is simply as a digital version of a regular whiteboard: i.e. a surface to write on. This is often not out of choice, but rather because classroom designers now tend to place the IWB centrally in most classrooms, and certainly in the ones I use, it is the most visible display surface in the room. I would still swap an interactive whiteboard for a massive regular one, possibly more so now that this can be augmented with student-based handheld devices like phones and tablets.

I love the ease of use, the smooth writing, the comfortableness of a whiteboard. I love the flexibility of a big white space that can be divided and played with as much as you liked with very little preparation. I love that you can get ideas and content from students as the lesson develops, and you neither have to type it laboriously or leave it scrawled on the board because the interface and the handwriting recognition on the IWB sucks. I love that you can get five or six students writing on a board all at the same time. I love the way that you can build a lesson across a single large whiteboard and then at the end of it see the way that the learning evolved across the lesson. And I love that know almost everyone has a small digital camera and can take pictures of the board in case they missed something.

If I was in charge, I would have two boards, roughly 8ft by 4ft, next to each other with the IWB recessed into the wall so it doesn’t obscure the other. That would be about right for me. I may not love the “interactive” touch screen stuff of the IWB, but I have come to get very used to having PowerPoint on hand, being able to play videos and manipulating texts that the students have as handouts. I’m not sure how easily I could give that up entirely: I’d miss those things most. But given the choice, put a gun to my head, and I think I would go for the old fashioned board. Just.