Rants

Planning – it’s a love/hate thing.

I like planning lessons, that is, I enjoy planning lessons and thinking about what I might do in that lesson, and coming up with interesting ways of teaching something, or practising a skill, or eliciting a language point, or whatever. I like making or finding or developing a resource. I like thinking about how I am going to make sure I can keep everyone engaged and learning. I like planning.

I hate Planning. I hate the boxes, the “have you thought about whichever governmental whim you are supposed to be embedding”, the “we don’t expect extensive planning but we expect you to show us how you will differentiate for the individual needs of your students” double standards. I hate the hair splitting “ooh, your learning outcome isn’t smart enough, and if you reword ‘write 5 sentences using past simple’ as ‘use past simple to write 5 sentences’ you will be fine” (because students couldn’t give a stuff, because all they really understand is that they will be learning about past simple. Although they can’t self assess against that learning outcome until you teach them what it is…). I hate the stupid “assessment” box. Yes, it does look like I copy & paste, because I do, because I use checking in pairs, self assessing against the answers on the whiteboard, teacher marking and all the rest of it most of the time. I hate the tedious, mechanistic “input > output” simplicity a lesson plan form suggests, as if by achieving said learning outcomes, and assessing said learning outcomes means something. It doesn’t. It means the student achieved that once. Whether or not that outcome is now automatically achievable in any setting is highly unlikely.

I hate the way I find it ard to fiddle with a formal lesson plan and make changes at the last minute, even though I will happily chuck the entire lesson out at the last minute for an exciting but semi-formed idea if, and this is important, if the lesson is not being observed.

But actually, of course, what I really hate is that I have an ok set of lessons for the next few days, but they are missing something and I can’t put my finger on it. And there is no form in the world going to help me there.

Victim Blaming: Crash 2

I’ve been off work for part of this week owing to the unexpected appearance of a broken collarbone, courtesy of an equally unexpected driver pulling out of a junction presumably interpreting the words “give way” as merely optional. Naturally this has led to a wonderful set of lovely “get well soon” messages, but also one or two comments meant affectionately, but which raised a whole bunch of questions. “That bike!” said one. “Plonker” said another. (Its worth noting that both comments were followed up with lots of love and concern). What was interesting for me was that these were mild variations of the kind of victim blaming that comes up in these situations: read any article in the news on a road traffic accident involving either a pedestrian or a cyclist, and at some point will be some comment about the cyclist not wearing a helmet or hi vis or the pedestrian not using the crossing correctly, or similar comments: in short, rather than holding the perpetrator of the crime to account, at least some of the blame falls on the victim. It’s a variation of the “she was wearing a short skirt” defence of the rapist. It doesn’t matter, either, that the motorist was driving over the speed limit, or drunk, or not looking properly, there will often be a portion of blame for the accident placed on the person who was most badly affected by it. (A similar phenonomen is the amazing self driving car, as in “a Volkswagen Golf collided with a pedestrian” rather than “a motorist failed to drive responsibly and hit a pedestrian with their VW golf”: a linguistic tool which manages  to remove responsibility from the owner of a large, powerful and potentially lethal machine.) Motorists get terribly defensive about this sort of thing, which is perhaps inevitable when you combine the motorist’s usual arrogant entitlement with guilt.

What needs to be considered here is the degree to which the more vulnerable road user is responsible. Motor vehicles, lets remember, are driven by people, not, yet, by themselves. There is an element of sentience in the user, even a middle aged man in a 4×4, and they’re are not forces of nature or immovable physical objects. Therefore the person in charge of the machine should be held responsible for their actions as default, much as in the Dutch law of strict presumed liability, where anyone wishing to blame the more vulnerable road user for the accident needs to prove it. Certainly the chances of a motorist killing someone with their car (see how that sounds?) are far higher than a cyclist killing a motorist with their bike (but my word have I ever wanted to at times). Proper presumed liability would also, by the way, hold a cyclist responsible if they hit a pedestrian, so really everyone wins. Unfortunately, what we have in the UK is a presumed faith in the ability and inclinations of car drivers, and an elevation of the private motor car to a moronically untouchable state, despite the fact that the infrastructure is creaking as more and more people buy into the myth of freedom peddled by car companies and are simply too lazy to consider alternatives. (I know, you’ve got to drive. Of course you do.)

Whatever. There is a parallel here, as well, when the question of immigrants wanting to learn English gets discussed in the media. You read the online comments on such things, and rather than looking at the systems which have let those individuals down, the focus and the discussion  falls on whether or not the migrant wants to learn (and by association, therefore, wants to integrate) and often to the negative. There’s often a lot of “when I went on my gap year to Italy I made sure I learned Italian” rather than an acknowledgement of the difference between economically comfortable expats and refugees, spouses, and financially strained migrants, most of whom would run, and do run, to any free language classes if they were given half the chance. The insinuation is usually that the migrants are refusing to learn English, and refusing to engage with ESOL classes, when the reality is probably very different. 

In reality while there are certainly some people who won’t engage with ESOL classes, there are a lot of people who simply can’t. This might be because of some cultural or social restraint: family commitments, or, in the sadder cases, family restraints, where spouses are reluctant for their partners to develop independence beyond the immediate family. Far more probable, however, is the simple lack of money: where individuals don’t have the £400 a course, or whatever it is, to pay to learn English. After all, we are often talking about people often at the lower end of the financial ladder. Even the slight adjustment of funding rules to make full funding available to people earning at or below the tax allowance threshold of £11000 (as evidenced by their payslip) would open up classes to a whole range of people who would stand to benefit. 

What lies at the root of criticisms of migrants not learning English is simple prejudice, blaming not the current discriminatory, narrow minded and short termist system, but rather blaming the victims of that system for things beyond their control. It’s prejudicial because the criticisms are usually levelled from a point of majority privilege and power, with little or no knowledge of the situation, and a refusal to engage with or understand that situation. Like the pedestrian being blamed for not checking the road properly before crossing, or the cyclist being blamed for their own death for not wearing a hi vis vest, the immigrant being turned away from ESOL classes is being blamed for their own poverty. 

Sick of angry posts

I’m fed up. I’m fed up of posting these grumpy blog posts about the way that things are for migrants in this country. Really fed up. Except I’m going to keep posting them, in much the same way that the British press keep printing front pages like this one:


Or perhaps this one: 

Or this? 

These came through at the same time as I was completing a letter to my local school opting out of the pupil nationality census: the DfE are asking schools to gather data about not only children’s first languages at home (which is at least pedagogically useful), but also their nationality and their date of birth. 

I’m sorry, but hang on. One government department is demanding unnecessary immigration information from parents, while another is proposing that employers gather and pass on the same information about their employees, all of which is supported by the “British jobs for British people” rhetoric quoted above. Except it’s not. The country has some financial challenges, I get that, and a whole load of social problems, but as ever in this little Englander island, people are too lazy and selfish to investigate the origin of those problems, and just pin them on the nearest face that doesn’t quite fit into their narrow view of the world. And the government, not to mention their lapdogs at the Mail and the Express, are merrily riding this wave of anti-migrant feeling, pinning blame on migrants in order that nobody question their austerity plans, or the practices of them and their wealthy mates in the top 1%. 

And at the same time as the DfE is inappropriately gathering immigration information, and employers are perhaps to start acting as immigration enforcers, I am supposed to be promoting British Values and equality and diversity? I increasingly feels that I live in a country which no longer shares my values. Certainly when I talk about tolerance and respect as part of British Values to an ESOL class it sounds increasingly hollow. It never felt particularly meaningful, to be fair, but now it’s genuinely just a pretence, a show. I find it hard to believe that this is a country capable of tolerance and respect, and the notion of democracy of a country with an unelected Prime Minister is simply ludicrous. Sure, I’ll do British Values, but only because if I don’t, then I’ll get it in the neck from observers and inspectors. 

I am tired of posting this sort of thing, but I can’t promise it’ll stop, not for some time to come. 

The Long Game

This week, where I work is holding an Employability Week, an event where things like mock interviews, careers advice, talks from local employers and so on are being widely promoted and offered, as well as a focus on employability in lessons, as well as through blended learning. This is a great opportunity for students to develop their skills in these settings, and to get a taste of how things might be when they have finished their courses. All for the good, really.

It makes me realise, as well, that unlike say general primary and secondary education, and universities (traditionally, anyway) the world of further education is profoundly and directly linked to the world of work. A quick scan through any college prospectus will show that the vast majority of courses are primarily focussed on getting students into specific employment routes. It follows, not unreasonably, that for most teachers in this setting, the purpose of education is to gain employment, and thus the primary mindset of the FE college is, also not unreasonably, to focus on employment. Certainly much of the political and managerial discourse around further education is its role in getting young people (rarely adults) into employment, and strengthening those links with employers. Look at the area reviews, for example, which unrepentantly ignore community development (this document, for example, fails to refer to, or indeed even mention the word community, or this guidance which occasionally glosses it quickly).

This priority in discourse is somewhat telling. It’s sometimes hard not to think of the “local communities” aspect of FE as the poor and annoying little sibling who everyone would rather shut up and go away, but feel duty bound to invite to Christmas dinner. But this is perhaps just a symptom of the “quick win targets” mindset of public funding. Observable, measurable impact must be demonstrated within an agreed timescale, and this is generally “as soon as possible”. Funding for community education isn’t a quick win in business terms, unlike, say, funding a course which produces X number of qualified students, of whom Y percent go into employment. You see it in OFSTED as well, with a growing focus on “progression”: what happens to students when they leave the course? In terms of meeting the needs of the local community beyond employment, this is nigh on impossible to gauge, and if you rely on the simplistic input-output of economic benefit then really community learning is almost certainly going to fail.

But then why should it have to succeed in these terms? A far better metaphor for this kind of learning is not an economy, but rather the development of an ecology. We should be talking about growth in environmental terms: an evolution where investment now in the learning of communities leads to gains in a future which is perhaps not immediately foreseeable. Impact is a long game, not a short term SMART target, but apply the rules of a long game and things get terribly complicated and multilayered, which doesn’t make for sexy government reports or news articles. Play the long game as well and you have to ask: how many bright and breezy young people with level 2 or 3 in whatever remain bright and breezy and fully employed in the long term? By then, of course, they are stuck, because they have nowhere to go to change careers, get support with their children’s education, apart from overstretched charities and underfunded adult education departments. They have their path set out by a narrow minded, short termist government, a path which could very well become a rut. But hey, as long as they are employed (if….) and contributing to the economy, who cares? 

Working for the Man

I started writing this on the first day of a new government and I am sad to say that ultimately, I work for them. It’s a scary thought, really, but an accurate one. My salary is drawn from public money, paid to college from the state. This means that I am, as they say, working for the Man. And the Man, as I mentioned before, has a different idea about what my job is for than I do. This is, of course, politics again. The government have, and will continue to have, an impact on what I do not only in terms of how the courses I teach are funded, but on what my role within those courses is, and what is within my remit. 

Take political action, for example. One of the reactions to the most recent set of funding cuts was the production of some excellent teaching materials, which in turn supported and suggested positive political action on the part not only of teachers but also of students. This took the form of letters, of emails, of students engaging actively with the political system of the country they live on issues which are important to them. On this sort of thing I have no problems with supporting students to engage with legal protests, and I think that not only are these things important on a political level, but also as a great opportunity to develop language skills. 
There is a limit to this. If I took an issue to the classroom, or if a learner raised an issue, and it turned out that none of the learners was terribly interested in that issue, then it would be wrong of me to insist that the learners take part in action. If I took news of savage funding cuts to a class and the general reaction was “so what?” then what right do I have as a teacher to force that on the students, even though I am fully aware of the impact it may have. I do believe that students have a right to know about this sort of thing, but the choice of taking action remains with the students. Whether the government like the idea of my students knowing about their shabby approach to funding in FE is neither here nor there, indeed, I would be more than happy to irritate a few ministers, quite frankly, and in several cases would gladly do more than merely irritate. 
You can tell I don’t like the new government, can’t you? Not that I would go beyond the law on this one, of course, but I have taken and may well, in the future, choose to take action against governments. But my own antithesis to government is casting a further friction in my role as teacher, particularly with the roll out of the Prevent programme. Prevent, in case you need to know, a wider UK Home Office strategy which aims, as the name suggests, to identify and stop potential extremism and radicalisation within the UK, in part through training and supporting non-security services. A cynical person would argue, perhaps, that this is the government using education, health and social care professionals as de facto security services, (these services have been border guards for some time, after all) although the language of Prevent is about stopping individuals from harming themselves and others. Either way, I’m not sure I feel comfortable with the morality of the role, and certainly not with my own ability to make judgements on these things. It’s ambiguous at best: after all, to what extent can certain behaviours be clearly described as suggesting or leading to radicalisation?  Am I radical for my profound dislike of the Conservative party, particularly the prominent figures of Cameron, Osborne, May and Gove? I don’t think these are radical, (arguably quite normal, given that the Tories got in with a minority of the national vote) but they are strongly anti-government and a learner who expressed similar views wouldn’t, for me, get mentally flagged up as being some sort of extremist. Religious extremism would be every harder to spot: for this atheist, even moderate religious belief is a pretty radical jump
Even if it were that straightforward, there remain questions of trust and faith in a what should be a fairly objective professional relationship. Does it change something in the working relationship that you have with your students if they think you might report them for showing evidence of radicalisation? I think so. 
This comes back to the teacher’s role. It’s tempting to say “I am just an English teacher” and that is very much the basis of my perception of my role. However, we are becoming increasingly forced into positions where we are having a wider impact: teaching ESOL for employment, for example, comes with the uncomfortable awareness that if a learner doesn’t attend a certain percentage they may well have their benefits stopped (and let’s face it, with benefits cuts being imminent, job centre plus staff will be looking for any excuse). Yes, the learners know this, and by not attending they have responsibility for that risk, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable. ESOL teachers have been almost border guards for some years now, checking learners eligibility for funding, and now we are being asked to step in as de facto security services. I would want to be able to discuss worries I have about a learner without the possibility or the responsibility that this would somehow be reported up to the proper security services. It is this direct link that worries me, and which creates the possibility of mistrust. Ultimately, however, I’m not entirely sure where I stand on Prevent. I think it runs the risk of creating issues of challenging trust and responsibility for teachers, and is unlikely to deal with the problem that it sets out to solve. Anyone smart enough to outwit their families and friends is unlikely to blab to their teacher, after all. 
I’m not saying we should create an apolitical landscape in our classrooms – for one, it would be impossible. We should embrace the political diversity of the classroom much as we do the religious, racial and sexual diversity, and not bowdlerise the curriculum. Learners should be encouraged to look critically at the issues in hand and to explore the ways they can do so safely and without harming themselves and others. ESOL is about enabling and empowering, and an inability to participate in political action is the challenge for many, not the extremism of a tiny, if dangerous, minority. That we may enable learners to challenge the status quo, however much this may be within the legal boundaries of the UK, may not be appealing to certain parts of the government who would no doubt much rather we peddle some sort of Little-Englander mentality where one knows one’s place, and doesn’t ask difficult questions. Sadly, for them, however, this government employee will continue to encourage students to participate, to challenge and to ask questions. 

“Just do what you normally do”

This post started in November, based on a conversation we were having in the staff room. We were talking about graded observation, and the idea that the lesson you are observed teaching should be a “normal” lesson, with, perhaps, a bit of extra paperwork to evidence your thinking (essentially, the same as showing your workings out in Maths at school), and not a special “observation” lesson. I’m being very specific, and perhaps I should clarify: we’re not talking purely developmental obs, but a graded observation for quality assurance purposes. 


So, given the context, is it good advice? Honestly? Yes and no. 

Yes? 

Yes, because you would be quite stupid to try anything brand new in an graded observation lesson. If you aren’t really using a particular strategy or technique but believe, for whatever reason, that the observer “expects” to see certain practices, then rolling it out for that lesson alone runs a very high chance of failing. I don’t think it necessarily WILL fail, of course: it depends on the nature of the strategy you are trying, if you have faith in that strategy, faith in the learners to roll with it, and faith in your ability to pull it off. Sadly, a graded observation is high stakes, and the impact of getting less than a two for the lesson is profound in terms of the impact on your career. This makes it dangerous to risk doing something which may not work during an observation, and so any kind of untried innovation in this context is a danger. This is a shame, of course, because an observation of you trying something new by an experienced colleague or manager has the potential to be incredibly helpful, developmental and all round beneficial, and would lead to an improvement in quality. Of course, decent colleges will support and promote peer observation for teacher learning, but this is most often as an aside to the main graded observation. 

Then again, no. 

No, because in fact you do do things special in an observation. You might be a little brisker with timings, more explicitly careful with differentiation, particularly in planning. You might plan a whole lot more tightly and carefully. I don’t see any problem with this either: it’s good from time to time, to be more disciplined and controlled. One of the benefits of this kind of observation is that it’s a good way of making you pull your metaphorical socks up, in terms of both doing a bit of proper focussed lesson planning, and also making sure you haven’t slacked off on your long term planning and paperwork. 

No, because if the observation window hadn’t been there, you might have chosen to do something a bit different. You might have had, in that particular observation window, an opportunity to try something completely different, to innovate and explore, and your “normal” practice would have been to experiment. However, it makes sense to plan activities and resources which you are confident will work with you, with your learners and within the theme of the lesson, and not those things which might work, but which you are still developing. 

You might have a behaviourally challenging class of learners and choose an individualised workshoppy method with lots of individual and small group work over whole class teaching, because you know they are easier to manage and respond better to that, and because although you have been developing ways of managing whole class teaching with them, you don’t really feel that confident doing it just yet. You cover the same thing as you planned to cover, but you play to your strengths and the strengths of your learners and you avoid risk. This is the major challenge with graded observations: the link to capability doesn’t necessarily promote innovation but runs the significant risk of stifling it. 

Grading a lesson is a summative process, after all, not a formative one, with clear consequences to that process. In many respects, gaming this system is inevitable, and thinking that teachers won’t and don’t game it suggests a naive faith in a flawed system. It’s like not expecting someone to prepare for an exam. 

Even the best (legitimate) exam prep depends on your ability on the day. Similarly, success or failure in any observation, graded or not, it essentially boils down to what happens on the day. You can have the best lesson plan in the world, a marvellous set of trackers and schemes, ILPs that the students are waving around under your nose and asking questions about their targets. You can have checked the observer’s teaching timetable, found out about their personal foibles and fancies, spent time making sure that you do all the “right” things and making sure that students are all doing the “right” things. (Whatever you happen to think the “right” things are.)

And it could still bomb. A couple of misjudged outcomes, a smattering of mistimed activities, a stage you’ve forgotten, or a piece of differentiated activity that you forgot to put into play, a bus breakdown making half your students late, all those things could still happen. Or you realise as the lesson begins that you misjudged how the tasks were going to run, but for one reason or another it’s too late to rethink things. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. 

But you still try and game it, and while there is a grade with consequences attached, who wouldn’t? There are rules to the game, and ways to play it. Graded observation becomes not about doing what you normally do, but doing what you need to do to play the game, if not to win, then at least to not lose. 


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.