Cuts: The kind of post I don’t want to write

 It’s the holidays. I’m looking at a month or so of mostly being with my family, seeing some interesting places and generally taking the metaphorical weight off my feet. I’d been planning a blog post for this time of year about what I’d taken from last year, what I had learned, and what I was going to take forward into the new academic year. The kind of post that gets no comments, and the kind of post which I’m sure there are a few people out there would much rather I stuck to. 

I’m not going to write that post, I’m afraid. To spend a few hundred words mulling over the strengths and shortfalls of last year is simply not something I can do, because, you see, I’m not thinking about it. By now, of course, most people in FE will have heard about the Skills Funding Agency’s announcement that the ESOL plus mandation, funding paid to 47 colleges across the UK, supporting some 16,000 students has been cut. Just like that. This was funding focussed primarily on supporting students into work as far as possible, and although it wasn’t without its flaws and challenges, it was support for the language needs of learners. Yes, it was often about shoehorning “work” into beginner lessons where the employment context wasn’t always the best one for a particular language focus. Or it was about understanding the targets driven culture of JobCentrePlus, and dealing with some complex motivation issues. It wasn’t perfect. But unusually for a British government, and particularly this government, it did represent joined up thinking stretching across government departments. Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) recognise a specific need for some of their service users and work with another department, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, (BIS). 

On the same day that these cuts to language courses were announced, a high profile member of the government made the following statement: 

“we need to lift the horizons of some of our most isolated and deprived communities. At the moment we have parts of our country where opportunities remain limited; where language remains a real barrier; where too many women from minority communities remain trapped outside the workforce and where educational attainment is low. 

So we need specific action here. So I can announce today I have charged Louise Casey to carry out a review of how to boost opportunity and integration in these communities and bring Britain together as one nation. She will look at issues like how we can ensure people learn English; how we boost employment outcomes, especially for women; how state agencies can work with these communities to properly promote integration and opportunity”

This was, of course, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, accurately identifying linguistic isolation as being part of wider isolation, and indeed making it clear that he presumably believes in a role here for language learning. So on the one hand, we have the Prime Minister declaring that learning English is something to be valued, but on another we have a quango responding to the behest of a government department to cut funding to said learning. It goes on. On the same days as the cuts were announced, news also broke of a National Audit Office review of the general financial status of FE. and it wasn’t pretty reading. ( A lot of blame was pointed at forecasts and planning, with colleges not predicting accurately enough how much they were going to need. But then, most colleges try to do, indeed, are required to do, their financial planning in good time before the start of the academic year and yet the Skills Funding Agency have a great habit of springing these sorts of cuts and changes on FE sometimes apparently out of the blue. Certainly, the cut to the ESOL Plus mandation was not something that anyone I know saw coming: indeed, was perhaps even seen as a safe-ish bet for continued funding. 

Then on top of this came the announcement of a series of “area reviews” of FE colleges, with a view to merging more colleges, and developing bigger institutions which, apparently, will “enable greater specialisation…while supporting institutions that achieve excellence in teaching…English and Maths…[and] maintaining broad universal access to high quality education and training.” ( Obviously this document, in its discussion of what I assume are geographical areas, only refers to immediate economic need, rather than any consideration of longer term economic challenges, and of course no consideration at all of wider public or community needs. This is, of course, pretty much inevitable, given the clear focus of most of the government’s current priorities. 

For ESOL, it feels pretty bleak. But there are little glimmers of hope. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s claims about someone looking at the learning of English will lead to something positive for migrant and second language communities and the people who work with them. Perhaps, in some weird ironic twist, a Conservative government might actually end up giving England its first cohesive ESOL strategy, and somehow finding a way to pay for this. After all, various government departments managed to pull together about £70million in 2010-11 for Prevent ( so who’s to say that something similar couldn’t happen for ESOL? 

And the “area reviews” might bring some benefit to ESOL, especially that provision in large metropolitan areas. If, under the remit of the review, language needs are seen as priority for local and regional employers, then this too might trigger a new set of changes for the better for ESOL. 

These may be tenuous straws, but they are the only straws we have to clutch at. I know I’m not the only ESOL teacher out there who is weighing up their options, but I know there will be some of my colleagues in the wider community of ESOL teachers who will have no choice. ESOL is changing, it has been changing every year since I remember being a fully fledged ESOL teacher. We are used to change, perhaps, but are these changes something we can handle? I hope so. 


Some of my results this year haven’t been very good. Pretty dire, in fact. But that’s not interesting. What is interesting, however, is that I used the phrase “my results”. Not “my learners’ results” but “my results.” Please believe me when I say I haven’t gone back and edited that for effect – I haven’t. If you like, I am effectively claiming ownership of those results. This chimes with something a colleague reminded me of yesterday about the way that a lot of the teachers I know think: if the students do well, it’s because of the students’ hard work. If they don’t, then it’s because the teacher didn’t work hard enough.

The reality, of course, is that exam success or failure is a result of learning, and learning on a course is a shared responsibility. It is the responsibility of the learners, of course, because they do the work that gets assessed, and in a controlled environment like an exam there is nothing anyone can do to help them. This is sort of the point. It is the responsibility of the teacher as well to make sure that enough learning has occurred to enable the student to pass the exam. Teachers also need to be aware when this might not be the case, and be able to adapt and make changes to ensure that the right kind of learning occurs.

When it goes wrong, it’s really really hard for everyone involved to analyse it rationally. Mostly, of course, this is because of the notion of failure and what this means for learners, particularly the potential knock on effects of failure. Fail is a tough word, and has massive negative connotations, to the extent that some people and awarding bodies avoid the word. Thus student performance “does not meet the criteria” or is “below standard”. This is a pointless idea, because the connotation of fail merely transfers itself onto whatever euphemism you apply. You may say (and I often do) “I’m sorry, you haven’t passed” but the learner knows you mean “you failed.” So you spend your time trying to unpick, just like the student does, what went wrong. Which bits went wrong in the exam, which bits could have been taught differently? Was I checking and giving enough feedback in an appropriate way?

The thing to avoid is blame. You can’t go round blaming other people, or indeed yourself. Yes, there are going to be repercussions and some stern conversations. It’s not a happy experience, after all. But there’s nothing to be gained from finger pointing, from saying “it was the student/teacher/manager/direction the wind was blowing” because this creates dishonesty and defensiveness. Much better, once the initial grief is over, is to think about what can be done now. These might be immediate plans: for example, is it worth anyone doing a resit? Or they might be more long term, birds eye view ideas. Like analysing the whole course and identifying the issues that may have led to the exams not being passed and then making changes to put into place on the next course.

Emotional responses to situations like this are hard to unpick because they are emotional. Sadness, disappointment, guilt, shame, none of them are easy to deal with, even with the cold statistical view that 30% of your students failing is also 70% of your students passing. There is sometimes a case to be made for a diva-like “oh the hell with it!” and then forgetting the whole experience: I’ve had those moments, for sure. Exams, however, are not one of these times because there is a lot at stake. This is one of those times when you need to go away and write down all the things you are going to do about it. So if anyone wants me, that’s what I’m doing.

British Values

Not for the first time, I’m glad I am a teacher and not a home office civil servant. Because I means I don’t have to make an effort to define stuff like British Values. I’m using the capital letters on purpose, you understand: I’m talking here about an official definition. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what is meant by British Values: 

  • Democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Freedom of speech
  • The rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind.

Normally, I couldn’t care less about this kind of thing except in a pub philosophy kind of way. However, now I have to take a proper, sober interest in such things not only because of the Prevent Duty, which is troublesome at best, but also because of the new common inspection framework, which states that where I work will be assessed in part on how well it “prepares learners for successful life in modern Britain, and promotes the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different backgrounds, faiths and beliefs.”

It’s interesting, and perhaps heartening, to note that ofsted use the term individual liberty, whereas the Prevent Duty guidance suggests that British values only extend to freedom of speech. But then given that one of the possible consequences of the Prevent Duty could be locking someone up, I guess that makes sense. 

In general, however, I’d say that there is nothing particularly unpleasant or exceptional about these things. I’m all up for a bit of democracy: although sometimes in this country it would be nice if there were a bit more demos in the kratos, especially after the last election. Equality of opportunity, and freedom from persecution? yes please, particularly if the British could actually achieve this. Freedom of speech is no bad thing, and I enjoy my individual liberty, thanks: however, there are limits on this freedom of speech and on my individual liberty. This is what the rule of law is about, after all. The concept that we have freedom of speech is an optimistic but probably naive one: after all there are some things I can’t say, and some people I can’t say them to. I’m generally law abiding, although I did once inadvertently steal a biro from WHSmith. Sorry. My respect for officers of the law fluctuates between when they are enforcing laws like “don’t kill people” and a sense of mistrust as a result of stories of racism and prejudice within the police, and their role in enforcing laws which I don’t agree with. There are some (very minor) laws I have been known to consciously break, for example allowing my 7 year old daughter to ride her bicycle on the pavement when the law says she should be on the road. Yes, the rule of law is largely a good thing, but there are bits which are, well, just a bit stupid, and I’m not talking about the weird medieval hangovers about how many geese you can allow to feed on a public green. 
There are a couple of problems here. For one, we hardly have a great track record on many of these things, both within the UK and internationally. Before we start preaching about not persecuting people, let’s take a good long hard look at what we have done and still do. Ok, I’m all up for accepting that some of these things are in the past, and we need to move on, learning lessons from them, but to be all high handed and noble about it? I don’t think we are quite there yet. There are significant issues with the British interpretation of democracy, such as the electoral system, which although it would have seen greater numbers of UKIP MPs, could have at least been more representative. Not to mention the entirely undemocratic matter of having a monarch and an upper House of Parliament made up of wealthy people who inherited their status and my favourite bit of House of Lords insanity, the inclusion of several members who are there because they are leaders of the Anglican Church. As for notions of tolerance and equality of opportunity, we have an awfully long way to go on these, especially when these things are being touted in something which while not being visibly anti-Islamic, is a response to a rise in Islamic extremism. 

The other problem is that I’d hardly reserve these as specifically British Values. To my mind, most of them are, if not universal, then at least generally recognised by most of the western world and significant chunks of the rest of it. Britain can’t lay claim to any of these in particular. If anything they would seem to be essential human rights, things to which we should be entitled, not Values. 
Then there is the agenda here: British or not, why should we be promoting these values? And for what purpose should we be promoting them? I’m sceptical of the claim that this is just about security and safety. As with other forms of unrest which had connections to religious and racial backgrounds, such as the riots in Bradford and Oldham ten years ago, extremism and radicalisation would seem, to my mind be a reaction to socio-economic issues, where religion and ethnicity are used by all parties to excuse and justify action, and indeed by commentators as an explanation. Notions of religion, ethnicity and radicalisation obscure these complex issues, and neat definitions of Britishness are part of this cloud. One of the communities I work has been in the news a lot recently as a place where extremists come from and religion is always the central theme, but these conveniently ignore a whole range of social and economic issues that affect that area. Consider, as well, that we are living in a period where public services and welfare support are being regularly attacked by a wealthy, privately educated political class: is it any wonder that some people may feel alienated from the government and indeed from the rest of the country? By insisting on the promotion of British Values in teaching, and indeed the application of the entire Prevent Duty, are we now being asked to paper over cracks by the same government that started banging holes in the wall? 

To be honest, the basic issue that I have here is that I have no need for the concept of “British” Values. Like anyone, I have my own set of values, complex and contradictory as they may be, but I don’t particularly care about being British, English, Welsh, Scottish or whatever. On a personal level, the notion of Britishness is one I associate with bigots and racists. I feel no stirrings of celebration at the national anthem or the waving of the Union flag. The Queen is nothing more than a rich woman in a gold hat. I don’t generally get a kick out of the successes of a national sports team. I don’t have some crackpot half-witted idea that if a movie or similar cultural artefact is British that this somehow makes it better. And don’t get me started on the Britain is a Christian country thing. Really don’t. I have a growing sense of very local identity, perhaps, as my children grow up and I become more closely linked to that community, and that community is as diverse and interesting as any, and to the communities within which I work, but “British”? I have always struggled to understand what anyone means by this, or indeed to care. I make no claim to understand “British” and neither do I claim to understand British Values. So to claim what would appear to be fairly general human rights values as being especially British is simply bizarre, and all too easily read as bigotry and racism. But still, if anyone gets upset about me writing this sort of thing I can claim that I am exercising the British Value of Freedom of Speech. 

Speaking for a reason: the Last Proper Class of 2014-2015

It was my last “proper” lesson yesterday. By proper, I mean one unaffected by exams and general end of termness, as the class I question are an ESOL for employment class and have a further two days of lessons before they finish. They’ve been an interesting group to teach: seven very quiet female learners and a stronger, much more confident male learner. In this last class, however, there were only five students, very very quiet, and very hard to draw much out of in a whole class setting, and we had a three hour lesson. I sort of knew this wasn’t going to be a high energy, zingy kind of session.
Speaking tasks have always been hard with this group: when the strong male speaker was in the class he very much dominated the interactions, and his frustration was very visible when you asked one of the other students to contribute: not because he didn’t respect their opportunity to participate, but because of the inevitable pause that would happen, followed by a whispered, minimal answer from the student. I had hoped that with the strong speaker not there, this might encourage a little more vocal participation, and I really wanted to see how this could be done. This last lesson in particular did make me think about a few factors that make for decent speaking tasks.
Conversation, broadly, falls into two categories: transactional, where the participants are trying to achieve something, and interactional, where the people involved are engaging in social bonding, what I think of as a human parallel to chimpanzees picking fleas out of each other’s fur. Interactional conversation is about forming and developing social and personal interactions, rather than trying to make something happen. The second one is much harder, I think, to achieve in a second language: the social and interpersonal nuances are much harder to follow.
This is why “talk to your partner about…” so often bombs: students aren’t sure what the point of the conversation is, aren’t clear about what the conversation is trying to achieve. And so it was, to begin with, in my lesson yesterday where I gave the instruction to “tell your partner three things you are going to do this evening”. There was silence. A kind of gaping awkward silence. The group of 3 (five students, remember) finally started, triggering the pair to get started, but after a few moments the whole thing ground slowly to an uncomfortable halt.
It’s hard, at this point, not to feel frustrated, even a little angry. As a teacher who enjoys using emergent language and student talk, it’s even harder. “Come on,” you want to yell, “bloody speak. I know you’ve only shared one thing each and now you are sitting there just… Oh for crying out loud!” It’s hard not to blame the students, and a lot of trainees and indeed teachers do just that. “They just sat there!” you hear, “I gave the instruction, it was a clear task, why didn’t they do anything?”
Because the task was shit, that’s why. Yes, this class is a very quiet group. Very very quiet, in fact, not to mention shy. So my job as teacher is not to assume that they will just talk, but to design tasks that support and help them to talk.
So I made some changes.
Change 1: move some students around. At this point they’d been sitting not so much in friendship groups but in the seats they just sit in. There was no real direction to the groupings. So I shifted the stringer students together and the weaker students together. This meant that I could modify the upcoming speaking task very slightly.
Change 2: change the task. Once the students had moved, I told the groups they were going to have to find out a certain number things that they were all going to do this evening. I differentiated this by quantity (stronger had to find more things than weaker), but also because the “stronger” group were larger, this meant the task was a touch mor challenging. This was also a better speaking task. Instead of being merely communicative (“tell each other….”) it was interactive: in order for the task to be successful, they had to speak to each other. I gave a time limit, and they knew that they had to speak in order to have something to say. I added to this by saying that I would ask each group to tell me.
Change 3: remove myself. In this small class, a great lump of a teacher can be quite a domineering presence. So having set the task, I took myself off to the back of the room. This meant that the focal point of the classroom was no longer me, but instead it was the students.
I’ll admit that it was hardly a “light the blue touch paper and stand back” moment: but then I wasn’t expecting fireworks The class was still the same small group of shy, quiet students. However, after a slightly sluggish start, the conversations began, in English, about what their plans were for that evening, using, as was the point, the target language of going to or present continuous for future intentions and arrangements. After a few minutes, they had achieved the task. I returned to the front of the room, and quickly found out from each group what they had discovered.
The revised task was better, much better than the original one, and I was kicking myself for not having planned it that way. “Talk to your partner…” is just too vague and woolly. “Tell your partner 3 things about…” appears to be better, but is essentially the same thing. “Find out 3 things you have in common and be ready to tell me about them” is much better: it’s not a particularly natural conversation, but it is a focussed conversation with an aim to it. Not everyone is a natural with chit chat, myself included, and having something like a transactional type task focus removes the awkwardness of the conversation. Students have a reason to communicate, even if that reason is a slightly unnatural one. By changing the activity, the groupings and my position in the room, I got probably 100% more speaking from those students than I would otherwise expect. All in all, not a bad thing.

Giving Bad Whiteboard

When we do CELTA teaching practice we have a space on the lesson planning forms for a whiteboard plan. It’s a funny space: four roughy 5x3inch rectangles labelled 1-4. It’s also, for the last few years, been more or less ignored in favour of printouts of IWBs or PowerPoint Presentations. My regular readers, all three of them, will be reminded of my occasional ire towards all things interactive, but this is not one of those times. Rather this is about how learning to make good use of a regular whiteboard is actually a useful thing, and many of the things that make good whiteboard can also be used to make good PowerPoint or good IWB. The reality of things is that you may or may not have an IWB or even access to PowerPoint, but you will almost certainly have access to some form of regular whiteboard, and I think they need to be used well. 

So here, in proper controversial style, is a list of the things that I try to remember when I am freestyling on a whiteboard. You can call them “dos and don’ts” if you like, or God forbid, good practice. But I’ll stick with “stuff I try to remember”. 

1. Have a basic shape in your head. Essentially, for me, a normal landscape rectangular board is a square with two columns, one down each sideline the board. You may prefer one column, or the size of the board may dictate that only one is realistic, but I work on the ideal principle of two. If I am being very organised, one of the columns is used for vocab, the other for grammar, or something like that, but essentially these side columns are where you write stuff to remember across the lesson with space in the middle which can be rubbed out regularly. 

2. Have more than one colour pen. You don’t need a rainbow, like the CELTA trainee I saw once with eight colours: two is enough, four is plenty. The reason? Highlighting. If I am writing up a key sentence to demonstrate a grammar point, for example, I will write the key bits of the grammar in a different colour to the rest of the sentence. Then I can use this colour to write up the rule once it has been elicited. You could use one of the colours to write vocabulary you need students to remember, or simply to make different bits stand out. 

3. Learn to draw, but don’t worry about it. I once attended a workshop on “cartooning for teachers” which was very interesting and gave me some basic techniques. Most useful of all, however, was the message that all you have to do is get the idea across. Take a reindeer, to use a real example from my own teaching: basically it’s got four legs and antlers. So I do a sort of generic four legged animal shape and stick antlers on it. It works. Some things are better if you can use google images: the difference between a bee and a wasp is a million times easier that way. But you can get most ideas across with some very simple line drawings.  

4. Remember that a board includes your commentary on it. You may not be able to draw, but at the same time as drawing or writing, you are probably also explaining or eliciting with questions. To use my reindeer example above, I would probably be talking about Santa, about sleighs, maybe Rudolph, (because, let’s face it, when else does the word reindeer ever come up in class?) and reinforcing the whole “antler” thing with demonstrations and hand movements. 

5. Board work can be an organic, growing process. Rather than the fixed “here is the information” encouraged by PowerPoint, and, albeit to a lesser extent, by a pre-prepared IWB slideshow, a whiteboard allows you elicit example language from the students, then build up the grammar analysis through questioning and checking. I have to be honest and say that that stage of a lesson is probably my absolute favourite part, and probably the hardest bit to learn how to do.

Taking a sentence from a student, or from a text, then breaking it down and putting it back together, checking with all the students, getting them to work out the rules and the systems, either as a whole class, or increasingly, for me, by getting the students to discuss together in small groups first, is the crucial bit, and if you get that hit wrong, everything afterwards tends to fall apart. I’m not dismissing the rest of the lesson, not at all, because it takes skill to devise practise activities and knowledge and experience to select the language practice tasks, and to plan and set up the warm up activities, and these bits of the lesson, particularly the language practice opportunities, are absolutely vital. However, those bits, somehow, are very often “set it up and off you go”, whereas creating and developing and eliciting and building up language analysis has a degree of spontaneity and risk. I think, as well, that getting a language idea across is somehow the essence of what we do as language teachers (cue angry dissent: I told you this wasn’t a best practice list…)

6. Easel type whiteboards are rubbish. Rubbish rubbish rubbish. They don’t even have a place in executive meeting rooms these days. 

7. In the event where you have to clean off the board (for example because your employer thinks diddy whiteboards are acceptable) but it has lots of useful information on it, check with the students first. If they haven’t written down notes, then make time for them to do so. Alternatively, or as well, get them to take a photo of the board, and do so yourself so you can share it electronically if you want to. This also serves as a good prompt for the next lesson when you want to revisit the language. 

8. Don’t just sling words up in random fashion. At the very least try to aim for a nice list to one side, even if you are doing nothing else with the thing. 

9. Consider this: if you are using PowerPoint or an IWB, and you know which vocabulary you are going to use or which sentences you are going to need to to illustrate your point, then plan it into your presentation, rather than using the board. That said, I do think planning all the animations so that the core elements appear when necessary is a massive drag that takes about half an hour to work out and fouls up horribly when you forget the sequence of animations/reveals, compare to a few quick sentences and lines on the board, but it does mean you avoid mess. An IWB can avert some of this, but God help you if you slightly cock up a line and can’t move it without moving significant chunks of the rest of the text. 

Hmm. I think that’s it. I should probably go back through and replace the guidebook “you” with a more personal “I” but I can’t be bothered. You know that there’s no such thing as best practice, and that I am hardly the one to tell you what it is. I don’t think that IWBs and PowerPoint are useless, or that they have no place. They can be used and used well but in a different way and with different considerations. Using a regular whiteboard, however, is something of a dying art, particularly in the technology obsessed educational establishments of the UK and the US, and yet they are still present in most of the world, and indeed in lots of settings in technologized countries: teach in a community centre in the UK, for example, or in a workplace setting. So it’s worth knowing how to use them. 

Nothing New or Innovative Here. 

You know, it really is very tempting to think of notions of blended learning as cobblers. Or at least as old non-cobblers rehashed as cobblers. Because if you take a careful look at it, blended learning, hardly a “new” concept at 15+ years old, is either simple old fashioned correspondence courses, or it’s even simpler, more old fashioned homework.
Let me explain. I’ve been looking into what blended learning is and what it has meant and the general consensual definition is that it’s a combination of some online learning and some face to face learning. Sometimes the online element is considered discrete from the face to face element – essentially a correspondence course by computer alongside a face to face course; or the online elements and the face to face elements are linked, perhaps after the manner of the absence of innovation that is flipped learning, in which case the online element is basically homework. 

However, distance learning by correspondence and homework are, in themselves, not necessarily bad things. Lots of people have successfully learned by distance learning, and a lot of people have gained a lot from homework. All blended learning does is take these perfectly serviceable ideas and chuck them on a web server. What you end up with is the usual “it’s innovative” cry that gets attached to doing stuff on a computer. Paper based multiple choice gap fill? Boring. Multiple choice drop down box on a website? Innovative. Give instructions verbally? Sooooo 20th century. Send them by text? Wow! 

It takes me onto thoughts of SAMR. Essentially this is the idea that technology use in education goes through distinct stages:

  • Substitution, where technology merely does the same as a non-tech method, but brings nothing to it. 
  • Augmentation, where the technology does the same as non-tech but also adds something to the process. 
  • Modification, where using the technology changes the activity. 
  • Redefinition, where the technology creates a whole new type of activity which would have been unimaginable without it. 

There’s a neat definition on this site, with some neat videos: although the Google Drive example is probably not the best example, although it is easiest to explain. 

So far so clever. It seems to suggest a link with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and you can tell that whoever thought of it clearly had the ideas first and the name second, because it hardly trips off the tongue. It’s a nice idea too, and one which should encourage us to experiment with technology more, and think about the effect it has.
However, I have to be honest and say at my initial reaction was annoyance. A little bit, I have to be honest, was a knee jerk reaction to educational initialisms and acronyms. But there was more to it than that. Like Bloom’s taxonomy as it was originally stated, SAMR seems to suggest a hierarchy of changes, where the SA stuff is somehow perceived as less valuable than the MR sections, much like the idea when discussing Bloom that somehow knowledge is less valuable than being able to synthesise and evaluate. Bloom, happily, is being presented more frequently as a wheel rather than a pyramid, although the divisive hierarchical notions of “higher order” and “lower order” thinking persist. 

However, it occurred to me that I was reading SAMR wrong. It’s not meant as a goad or an encouragement, and Modification and Redefinition are not intended to be taken as better than Substitution or Augmentation, or even of not using the technology at all. No, these are descriptive terms only, and can be used just as easily to justify a technology not being used. Is there a cognitive or learning benefit to the application of technology? That’s the real question. 

And thus we come back to blended learning. How does it fare under SAMR? Let’s think about the two models of blended learning. 

Is there a benefit to the technologicalisation of the distance learning model? I think there is: having the learning materials quite literally to hand at all times through your mobile devices could be a benefit to some learners. Technology lends itself to easily available multimedia: rather than films on TV restricted to weird times of the day, you can have films on demand. You can have instant feedback on certain types of task, collaboration with people all over the world and so on. Indeed, the breadth of reach and relative cheapness of digital technology means that some elements might run which might otherwise not happen. Whether students engage with this sort of thing is a whole other question: even with monitored assessment in the form of quizzes and so on, the temptation, unless it’s absolutely fascinating, and the student 100% motivated, is to try to work out how to game the system. I know that’s what I have done for every bit of mandatory online training ever. I usually start with the final assessment task, then look up (or simply Google) the bits I can’t work out, rather than actually engage with every single piece of said online training. I suspect that this doesn’t lead to brilliant learning, but I do think that a clever online learning designer would take this tendency/temptation into account. Sadly, they don’t seem to have done this yet. 

And the closely linked homework model? Crikey yes. A web link to an interactive task which can be done on the bus or during a break, quick written feedback on digitally submitted writing (even by email!), flexibility of being able to do homework without needing a piece of paper, the (for some) added motivation of a bit of whizzy graphics, quick right/wrong feedback on a quiz meaning that students can think about where and why they made mistakes before coming into class to discuss just those questions. 

The other question to ask, however, is whether either of these models is actually better than a 100% face to face learning. My gut feeling, and my belief, is that they aren’t. For me, face to face learning trumps any kind of online learning simply because of the speed, ease and naturalness of the classroom interactions, although homework can be used to augment that process. Any idea that blended learning is better is often based around assumptions that classrooms are places where teachers stand and talk at or demonstrate to students and students absorb, perhaps with a bit of questioning. My own classroom practices as an ESOL teacher aren’t based on this: rather they are based on notions of enabling and promoting spoken interaction, of discussion and questioning, and for me, the technology simply cannot replace that. Not yet, and maybe not ever. 

Still Working for the Man: Employability and Professional Voice

Employability, say ofsted, in their role as lackeys of the government and interpreters of policy, is the thing. We must prepare all students for the world of work, they say, they must all get jobs, become employees, make money and contribute to the economy. So it is that we leap joyfully bearing discussions about jobs, reading about wage slips and CV writing activities into a small outreach class of people who, for any number of reasons, are not thinking all that hard about employment. I am being, of course, more than a little facetious. It has a certain logic, budget deficit or no budget deficit, and actually gaining or improving employment employment is indeed what many learners want. Certainly, the more we can enable learners to make the full use of their capabilities (remember my civil engineer?) then the better it is for everyone. Win win.
Yeah…. Yeah but. 
For one, not every learner is necessarily looking for or planning to work, and many learners are already in work, and very happy with that work. So if we engineer a course specifically around ensuring economic output, sorry, I mean, achieving employment, then to what extent are teaching a course which meets the needs and aspirations of the learners? What if a learners aspirations are to support their family and community in other ways than simply making money for them? The “must teach employability” directive is making a clear value judgement about integrational and community aspirations, in that it suggests that these aren’t the right kind of aspirations to have. To my mind, the ethos of adult ESOL provision is for a far more wide ranging and open-minded provision, acknowledging a range of motivations and aspirations above and beyond simply getting a job, but this is being eroded by a government and their inspectorate who clearly don’t believe in it. 
The second issue is that of definition. It can very easily be argued for any ESOL learner, but particularly those at a beginner level, that learning any English is likely to improve their employment, yet to be observed not somehow making this link explicit is likely to lead to negative feedback. The concept of employability skills is either very narrow (interviews, CVs, work based interactions, form filling, contracts, etc.) or very broad (doing anything that will get you a job). I teach on ESOL for employability courses, and in this context the directive  to make the course content employment focussed is pretty much built in, yet even here the argument still holds that learning language structures and developing language skills is part of improving an individual’s employability. Indeed, it should be argued to the bean counters and the inspectors that this is not laziness, nor a sense of “can’t be bothered” but rather that there are reasons for this. 
Is there a danger of a creeping timidity in ESOL which means we won’t turn round and make this very reasoned and reasonable case when OFSTED come. This is about funding again: the negative impact of the cuts is not just on learners, but also on the ability for ESOL teachers to maintain a cohesive professional voice. When there is less money to be had, we are more conscious of the priorities of those who control the money, and this in turn could lead to reduced professional autonomy and the capacity to innovate: it is much safer for the our students’ classes and indeed for our jobs if we buckle down, fit in, and do as we are told, rather than ask questions and suggest innovation. Instead of coming at inspectors on the offensive, with professional integrity and with conviction, it is much easier to take a defensive stance, or even of servility and submission. Oh Great Inspector! At your command, employability will be shoehorned at every opportunity into my community class of people who are ineligible to work. It will be evidenced that my learners are only learning English in a work based context, even though that may not be the most effective, most interesting or most motivating context for that particular language point. Oh Inspector, Arbiter of Right and Wrong and Voice of the Treasury. Far be it from me, a mere teacher who is doing this job every day and didn’t pack it in ten years ago to become a consultant, to have any opinion about good practice. 
Perhaps I’m being unfair about inspectors, and indeed Ofsted in general, although I’m not sure that they deserve “fair” just on principle. Blog hyperbole aside, you have to ask questions about someone who sets out to become an inspector (question 1: Why? Question 2: No, really, why?) and the concerns about the politicisation of Ofsted are nothing new or unique. And there is at least an occasional display of awareness that education has roles other than merely churning out safe little employees, although I’m not convinced. And indeed, who can blame ESOL teachers for not wanting to rock the boat, pedagogically speaking: the best we can hope for in the next five years is neglect and an absence of change, after all. 
It remains, of course, that we are all working for the Man. The Man has tight reins and a big stick and he is not afraid to use them: He knows what He wants and where He wants to go. 

The carrots, I’m afraid, have all been eaten.