This Little Earth

So the results are in: data from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) shows a decline in literacy standards amongst pupils in Scotland. Cue the usual hand-wringing, vague promises and political point scoring that we should all have come to expect by now.

Nevermind the fact that a 2% drop in a new assessment could easily be explained by assessment judgements settling (as those involved become more comfortable with the standards), or that a single change in any set of statistics does not represent a pattern – no, these results show that our education system is on the brink of collapse, with our children being failed on a daily basis.

All of this must be very persuasive to journalists and politicians, neither of whom – as a rule – have any actual experience or knowledge of the education system beyond their own (distant) school days.The problem is that…

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Last month I wrote a blog post (an edited version of which has also been published by TESS) in response to the SQA’s pronouncement that their new appeals process had been a success. I disagreed with this assessment, arguing that the new system would in fact exacerbate the issue of educational inequality in Scotland.

To my surprise (and I’m sure entirely coincidentally) the Labour Party’s deputy leader in Scotland yesterday attempted to go on the offensive over this very issue during First Minister’s Questions. Kezia Dugdale challenged Nicola Sturgeon over the huge drop in the number of appeals, arguing that the introduction of a fee for failed appeals had resulted in a system which benefits private schools and, consequently, disadvantages everyone else.

By all rights I should have been pleased to see this issue raised in our nation’s parliament but unfortunately – and unsurprisingly – political point-scoring (on both sides) was much more important than getting to the root of the issue. It became clear almost instantly, for example, that Dugdale doesn’t actually understand how the new system works or how it differs from the old appeals procedure, and Sturgeon’s answers suggested that she isn’t any more informed than her opposition counterpart.

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This Little Earth

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) have, unsurprisingly, declared the new approach to exam appeals a success: the number of appeals has plummeted from 66’000 in 2013 to 8500 this year; successful appeals have dropped to just 2000 from 32’000 last year; and the costs to the (taxpayer funded) SQA have been slashed (having reached an eye-watering £750’000 in 2013).

On the face of it this all sounds fantastic for Scottish education – there has clearly been a massive reduction in what some term ‘speculative appeals’, ensuring a much more rigorous examination system and, if you choose to spin it this way, representing very high confidence levels within the teaching profession. What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, as it happens, because the reality is quite different. Despite the understated descriptions of this change, the new system marks a radical and retrograde step from an organisation still struggling with the implementation…

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Following on from my workshop at Pedagoo Glasgow, this is a brief outline from my session.

Click here to view the Prezi.

The presentation element of my workshop had three sections, each of which is explored below:

Philosophy

If you work in the public sector, then your work should be public

  • This may be slightly controversial because, yes, it does apply to people writing ‘How to Pass’ guides as well, but if you work in the public education system, and your professional knowledge has essentially been funded by taxpayers, then whatever material you can produce to help students should be available to everyone, everywhere, for free.

If you help others, you help yourself, which helps the pupils

  • By opening up and helping others, we become more likely to be helped by them which, consequently, makes us better teachers who are better able to help our students (and, going back to the start, puts us in a position to be of more help to other colleagues). In all honesty, I believe that a focus on openness and collaboration could have more of an impact on teaching than lesson observations, taxonomies and learning intentions ever could.

Barriers

Time

  • OK – everyone is busy, and most people agree that the last twelve months have been some of the most draining ever experienced in a classroom. As budgets are squeezed teachers are pushed closer and closer to minimum time, and that’s not even including all the ‘extra’ activities that some teachers are expected to ‘volunteer’ for. Surely, then, setting aside time for sharing materials with others is out of the question? Well – unsurprisingly – I’d argue not; in fact, I’d strongly suggest that time spent on getting into the habit of sharing should be seen more as an investment than anything else.

Skills

  • There is an entirely legitimate argument to be made by some that they simply don’t have the skills to, for example, share all of their materials on a personal website, but there are two counterpoints to be made here: firstly, you don’t have to set up your own site to share your work (more on this later); secondly, in 2014, our pupils are perfectly entitled to expect an education system capable of engaging with them on their own technological terms – us teachers expect a whole host of support material to be available at the click of a button from the SQA, Education Scotland etc. and it simply won’t do any more to deny the same treatment to our students. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the development of these 21st Century skills can go a long way in relation to the new Professional Update process.

Confidence

  • It is perfectly natural for people to worry about the quality of their work and, as a consequence, be reluctant to put themselves out there for potential criticism, but it is clearly hypocritical of us as a profession to hide behind this excuse whilst expecting precisely the opposite from our students. Every day we tell them to be brave enough to make mistakes, that only through failure will they ever progress – why should it be any different for us?

Culture

  • In reality, the fact that this workshop even took place (and that events such as PedagooGlasgow are still well outside of the mainstream of CPD) is evidence of the cultural change that is still required within education, where too often valuable material is hidden away in store cupboards, pen drives or personal servers. As the world becomes ever more connected and accessible, it becomes increasingly important that the culture within the teaching profession keeps pace.

Examples

Social media

  • More than anything else, Twitter has had a massive influence on me as a teacher, allowing me to connect with a range of colleagues holding both similar and competing views to my own. The first piece of advice I was given on my way to becoming a teacher was: “Get on Twitter and join the conversation” – four years on I cannot endorse this suggestion strongly enough.

VLE

  • There are various options for Virtual Learning Environments around now and, aside from Glow (which I don’t use), Edmodo is probably one of the most popular – this service allows you to share resources with your pupils and specific colleagues, thus encouraging a more open and collaborative culture.

Online communities

  • I expect that I’m largely preaching to the converted here, but I really cannot overemphasise the potential value of joining groups such as Pedagoo.org ! The other community-style service that I mentioned during the workshop was www.nationalmoderation.co.uk – an open, online resource (created by me) for sharing assessment, exemplification and teaching resources for the New Qualifications under Curriculum for Excellence.

Personal / class / department websites

  • This is the area that I believe that the most potential as it allows us to easily share whatever we feel like for free. I few months ago I decided to share all of my Nat5 Course Materials on this site and, since March, a quite incredible amount of people have viewed and downloaded the resources that I have made available (so many, in fact, that the site became one of the top Google results for search terms such as ‘National 5 English’). Based on the comments and emails I received, a huge number of these individuals were students, which just goes to show how much value our pupils could find in teachers developing a more open culture amongst ourselves.

Today, Monday the 7th of April 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, where up to a million men, women and children were slaughtered in just 100 days.

As countless innocent people were hacked, beaten, stabbed, burned and shot across Rwanda, the west refused to use the term ‘genocide’ in isolation for fear of being forced to intervene, instead referring to ‘acts of genocide‘. Countries like the UK and USA demanded that UN peacekeepers were withdrawn, not reinforced, and then sat back and watched one of the most shameful and shocking events in modern history unfold in front of their eyes.

Put simply, the fact that a minimum of 800’000 lives were extinguished in full view of the international community matters; the west’s abdication of their responsibility to the people of Rwanda (because they simply weren’t considered important enough for us to risk anything for them) matters; the hypocrisy of nations who preach human rights while ignoring human suffering matters; and, most importantly, giving students the opportunity to really understand the world in which they live matters.

Ask the average class of teenagers what they know about the Rwandan genocide and some might be able to tell you, roughly, where Rwanda is; a handful may have seen Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs; one or two might be able to tell you a little about the mass slaughter that occured; however, the vast majority are likely to have no idea what happened during those dark months in 1994.

This – for me – is important, and this year I have made an understanding of the Rwandan genocide, and the wider implications of our responsibilities to the rest of the world, the central plank in my National 5 English course. The two primary critical essay texts – ‘Spiritual Damage‘ and ‘War Photographer‘ – were selected specifically for this purpose, and an ongoing focus on the themes ideas explored in both pieces has ensured that now, at the end of the academic year, the class are in a position to provide complex, insightful and honest responses not just to the texts themselves, but also to the wider issues that they raise.

Unsurprisingly, the primary means of teaching about the genocide has been Fergal Keane’s ‘Spiritual Damage‘, a reflective essay in which he looks back on the emotional and psychological impact of what he witnessed during his time in Rwanda. Keane writes with such power and clarity that an initial response from pupils is guaranteed, and gives students a way to access the big ideas of the text through the experiences of one frightened, damaged, and incredibly brave individual. Some of Keane’s examples in the opening paragraph, where he tells us that “the smell of the dead would drift out across the warm air of the afternoon” and that “in the bushes were rags and bones and withering flesh” provide opportunities not just for complex textual analysis but also for pupils to begin to engage with the horror of what happened in Rwanda years before they were even born.

Over time, however, through analysis of the text, discussion of the ideas and viewing of supporting media (including, but not limited to, the films mentioned previously) the students begin to engage with the topic on a level that many would think impossible for a group of 14 and 15 year olds. I have read critical responses to ‘Spiritual Damage’ in which the personal and intellectual responses go beyond anything I could ever have produced when I was a pupil, and overheard spontaneous conversations about not just the text itself, but also the incomprehensibility of what occurred in that small, beautiful nation two decades ago.

Yes, there is always a risk in hoping that pupils will engage with something which, in all honesty, requires them to demonstrate a level of sensitivity and maturity which is certainly beyond their years, but young people have a limitless capacity to rise to the challenges put in front of them. What teenagers also possess, in my experience, is an inherent and beautifully simple anger at the injustice they see all around them, and that anger is what we must help them to focus if we, as teachers, wish to honestly tell ourselves that we are using our privileged professional position to try to make the world in which we live just a little bit better.

Of course, for some people, the basic question about Rwanda remains the same – why should we care about what happens “in obscure African countries” (or, indeed, in any number of remote nations whose conflicts have no apparent impact on our safe, comfortable lives)? As ever, Keane explains it better than I ever could:

“I will care about what happens in remote African countries because Rwanda has taught me to value life in a way that I never did before. The ragged peasants who died and those who did the killing belong to the same human as I do. This may be a troubling kinship but I cannot reject it.
To witness genocide is to feel not only the chill of your own mortality, but the degradation of all humanity. I am not worried if this sounds like a  sermon. I do not care if there are those who dismiss it as emotional and simplistic. It is the fruit of witness.”

I urge all of you to read ‘Spiritual Damage‘, to find out about as much as you can about the genocide in Rwanda and to consider teaching your pupils about happened in that ‘obscure African country’.

Remember that what happened in Rwanda was not just another tribal conflict, but a meticulously planned act of deliberate mass murder; remember that the victims of the genocide were exactly the same as you or I, but without the good fortune to be born in the life of privilege that we enjoy; and, most importantly of all, remember the following:


“…if we ignore evil, we become the authors of a guilty silence.”