What the Game Boy can teach us about getting work to pupils.

 

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Genpui Yokoi is most famous for developing the original Game Boy, which was designed to operate on established, readily available technology already well understood by both engineers and customers. He coupled what he described as “withered technology” with “lateral thinking”, which involved finding new ways to use what already existed rather than looking to operate on the cutting edge.

Yokoi defined his approach clearly in saying “The Nintendo way of adapting technology is not to look for the state of the art but to utilize mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply.”

The principle of using well established technology in creative ways has lots to recommend it. Yokoi felt when engineers and game designers focused on progressing technologically, the design of the game often suffered. Operating with familiar platforms freed up brain-space to allow them to be much more creative with gameplay while the older technology was cheaper and reassuringly familiar to consumers.

Lateral thinking with withered technology is why the GameBoy outsold more advanced handhelds such as the Atari Lynx and the Sega GameGear.

Many of us are now considering and revising the platforms we use for online learning. For some schools with affluent tech-savvy pupils and confident staff the right bet might well be live lessons using a platform such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

For other schools operating in different contexts this might be a poor choice.

Pupils who do not have access to laptops or lack the agility to quickly pivot to new platforms and brand new ways of working may find them so at sea with logistics they find themselves unable to access or properly focus on learning.

Similarly, some schools may have lots of staff who aren’t confident quickly adapting to unfamiliar technology may find a sudden shift to new apps and programmes counterproductive, with teachers spending so much time working out how to effectively use them that the work they set suffers.

Schools in such contexts might find Yokoi’s concept of “withered technology with lateral thinking” helpful. Staff in most schools, for example, are confident using PowerPoint. This, combined with the addition of a voice-over feature, might be a sensible platform that allows planners to focus on the substantive content of a recorded lesson over connection issues or working out how to use break out rooms. Using withered technology – be it paper based low-stakes worksheets, e-mail, or textbooks with email or phone support – may also allow those following up on incomplete work to focus on substantive learning rather than spending frustrating hours coaching young people on how to set themselves up on programmes and software they’d never heard of before shutdown.

Of course lateral thinking is as important as withered technology here too. Schools choosing to go with the tried and tested will need to support teachers to find new and creative methods of working within existing technology – using the voice over feature of PowerPoint might be a good example of this.

Finally, none of this means schools should not seek to induct staff and pupils in clever new platforms but this is probably best done incrementally with old methods doing the donkey work up to the point where substantive learning is able to be the focus. If we go faster than confidence can keep up then the focus will be the delivery method over the curriculum.

If we aren’t careful with all the new options available to us there is a very real risk schools may find learning increasingly accessible to only early adopters, be they children or adults.

 

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Mission to the Moon 3: The mayor of a small town.

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

In the summer before starting at my school I went to Devon for a workshop led by Doug Lemov. The venue was a massive secondary that served almost three thousand pupils.

Coming from a school that had less than a thousand children that still seemed huge I couldn’t get my head round how such it all functioned. I had so many questions. How was it led? How could anyone keep track of what was going on? How did pastoral work? How did they do assemblies?

Fortuitously during one of the breaks I found myself having a coffee with the Head who was attending the workshop too. I tried to ask some of my questions but I wasn’t very articulate – what I said probably came across as something like: ‘just.. what.. how.. but..?”

The Head –as knowledgeable and wise as you’d hope of anyone with such a gargantuan job – interpreted my spluttering correctly – I just didn’t know where to start trying to understand.

“You can’t think of it as directive management,” she said, “it’s like being the mayor of a small town. I just can’t know everything that’s going on. I set the direction and then I have to step back. Quite often I wander past a big event or assembly I had no idea was going on. I have to ask teacher or child what it is. It’s actually brilliant.”

The mayor of a small town.

Well I loved that.

I think what the Head was saying was that her circumstances meant she had to operate a high trust model of management.

And after all what other choice did she really have? She had to have faith in her staff because without it the number of things she’d have to know about and make decisions on would overwhelm her. She had to trust decisions would be made correctly without her knowing a decision had ever been made. She had to trust that events would be organised that would benefit pupils in her school without always knowing an event had happened at all. She had to have faith good appointments would be made while having little or perhaps even no direct involvement in the recruitment process.

As I have argued hereand here I don’t think this approach should be the preserve of very large schools. There are all sorts of good reasons why a flatter, looser hierarchy and more autonomy may lead to better decision making.

In the recent past, especially in the Wilshaw years, this was an unfashionable view to take. Strong leadership – for whatever reason – was too hastily assumed to mean a sort of command economy. Good leaders were leaders who made all the decisions. They wrote strict policies with lots of non-negotiables. They directed leaders at lower leaders to ensure close adherence to these policies. They had lots of long meetings. They were supposed to be all-seeing and all-knowing.  In reality – of course – their omniscience and omnipotence were illusions because even in a small school it isn’t ever possible to really know even a fraction of what is going on minute-to-minute, which made many decisions actually pretty arbitrary.

It may or may not be uncharitable of me to suspect that in many places, at least to some extent, it didn’t actually matter whether control was real or not – the point became to appear to be in control.

The Covid19 crisis is exposing the flaws in prescriptive top-down management styles even further.

It just isn’t possible to know exactly what is going on with everyone, no matter how many phone-calls or Teams meetings you organise. It isn’t possible to know every decision everyone has to make given the daily flood of new information. Without resorting to extremely risky and perhaps even ethically dubious monitoring approaches management can’t know what’s going on in every online lesson. They can’t know whether a feedback policy is being closely adhered to. They can’t be sure every member of staff is working for eight hours a day and they can’t be sure this is even possible given the extra responsibilities so many of us have picked up.

A high trust model seems right to me at the moment. The role of SLTs should be a hand on the tiller – setting a clear direction and then leaving it up to others closer to the issues to work out how to chart sensible courses towards an aligned destination. We should working in the background to facilitate good decision making, whether this is providing training and technology or acting as sounding boards for subject, support and pastoral experts. We should be listening and connecting people to others who have potential solutions to common obstacles and problems.

And when we do this it is astonishing how pragmatic, creative and innovative people can be. Every day I hear about incredible work. I hear about solutions to problems I didn’t even know were problems. I catch snippets of conversation and fragments of emails I’m copied in to that reveal the true depth of just how much is going on and how effectively staff at all levels are working.

I love being the mayor of my small town.

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Mission to the Moon 2: How do we organise work during shutdown?

 

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Photo by Callum Hilton on Pexels.com

A few months ago I wrote a blog post on how in most circumstances the most sensible thing SLT can do when making decisions is to devolve them to the lowest possible level.

My argument was that people closest to a problem are those best placed to solve it because they have the fullest grasp of it.

I’ve been thinking about this because part of my job is to decide on an approach to remote working and learning during the shutdown period.

I’ve been thinking about how much work it is reasonable to expect people to do in these strange times.

One obstacle to adopting a consistent approach is that the circumstances of my staff and pupils are so different; one teacher may be locked down alone with a fast internet connection and the technical savvy to livestream lessons from their study, while another may be a single parent with three pre-school children and an elderly relative. Similarly one pupil may have their own bedroom and laptop while another may share an aged cracked tablet and bedroom with four siblings – developing an approach encompassing such diverse circumstances is tough.

One way to do it might be for me to send out some strict non-negotiables.

I could tell all my staff that their individual circumstances are their own problem and that they need to do what I tell them to do without making excuses.

I could do the same for pupils – I could send a letter home to all parents and carers saying something along the lines of “this is not a holiday and every hour your child doesn’t do any work means they are an hour behind!”

My colleagues would all hate me and many would probably leave. Lots of families would hate me too and perhaps some would be really upset. But I could do it. I could even double down, telling everyone leadership is tough and this is what strong looks like.

I could do this, but I am not going to.

A second way of addressing this issue might to use data. I could design a questionnaire grilling people on their individual circumstances and then put all the information on spreadsheets, which I could then use to make a central work schedule. The biggest advantage of this would be that I would have a in impressive document to show to people – “Look!” I could say. “Yellow means they are at home but doing childcare, but this could be interrupted if essential. Green means available to work – you’ll notice that Ms Kidd has an hour of availability after her children are in bed every night, so I make sure we get work to her by six. I’m keeping a record of people with lots of red.”

Of course this would give my staff no flexibility for if circumstances change, or if a child refuses to go to sleep when they are put to bed, and it would probably also make them hate me, but I could do it.

But I will not.

I won’t do it because my belief is that real life is complicated at the best of times and more complicated than it has been in living memory now. I won’t do it because I believe my staff are hardworking, committed professionals and caring people who are doing the best they can in the circumstances in which they find themselves. I will not presume to know more about these circumstances than the people living in them.

So instead we are clear about what people should be working on and ask they do their best to get this done. Where deadlines are necessary (and sometimes they are) we ask people to let us know if they can’t meet them. We meet virtually a lot. We ask that people talk to each other and not do everything over email. We ask people to proactively tell us about the obstacles they are facing so we can understand and make adjustments.

This is an approach we extend to our pupils too. When I first began thinking about distance learning I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether we’d set work to consolidate previous learning or work that introduced new material. I now realise my paradigm was wrong – what might be appropriate for a foundation group in Y7 might be entirely inappropriate for a highly achieving class in Y10, and that it would be impossible for me to know what was right for every class.

The people best placed to decide which classes do what – indeed the only people who can – are those closest to them; their teachers.

This is also why it is entirely farcical for one school to criticise the approach taken by another when all our circumstances and contexts are so different.

Instead of having a policy then, we have principles and things to consider. Instead of having directives we have suggestions and training. We don’t tell people to use BBC Bitesize or Oak National – we show them where the resources can be found and ask them to use what they think worth using. We keep oversight of this through the pleasant, collegiate conversations that are a hallmark of the way we work at my school.

We praise, challenge, share ideas and connect people working on similar problems together.

The only thing we insist on is that pupils are set work and that there is the opportunity for feedback for those pupils who want it.

It’s an approach based on trust. I think it works and hope nobody hates me.

Is it inconsistent? Well yes. But given we’re living in the most inconsistent times anyone can remember perhaps this is just as well.

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What about pupils at turnaround schools?

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Ofqual released its guidance on how GCSE grades for the 2020 cohort would be awarded on Friday.

This has caused much controversy and debate. 

I think awarding 9-1 GCSE grades this year is a mistake.

Rather than go into all the reasons I think this, I’ll point towards this thread by Alex Ford, and towards Matt Pinkett’s brave and clever tweeting on how bias is likely to compromise the accuracy of teacher judgement.

I agree with all of what both have said.

While I understand the reasons for it, awarding of GCSE grades as if this were a normal sort of year is a flawed idea and should not be happening.

But it is.

Calculated grades are the bet we’ve gone with, and were it even possible to reverse the decision then the confusion and further uncertainty this would cause would make it a bad idea.

We have little choice but to make the best of it then.

Again, I have very little to add here. This blog by Kristian Shanks, and this one by Chris Baker offer helpful advice on how to make the best of a bad job.

Like everyone else I’ll be doing my very best to follow the instructions ethically and accurately, and hoping very much by doing so the pupils at my school will get what they deserve in the summer.

But I am anxious because Ofqual guidance suggests there is a chance the results of some schools may be moderated down because in previous years their exam results have been worse than how pupils would have done had they sat exams this year.

I understand why this check has been put in place.

Given we are committed to the idea this year’s results should have parity with results in previous years, there is the likelihood if teachers predictions were not moderated then results across the country would be higher than in previous years.

This inflation would make higher grades worth less and so disadvantage the entire cohort.

I get it.

But this leaves us with a very big problem for pupils at schools which have genuinely improved significantly.

How can these schools make sure their pupils do not get lower grades than they would have got had they sat exams in the summer?

If Ofqual is to realise its aim in replicating the spread of results from previous years then it needs a mechanism to find schools which have improved rapidly, because every year there are schools that do and were it to let pupils at these schools slip through the net then it will have failed in its aim to replicate a normal year.

Before going on it is important to recognise how manifestly inadequate the suggestion pupils in such schools should have to sit exams in the autumn is. By this time pupils will already be on Post 16 courses and the idea they subject themselves to exams in every subject in which they were ‘calculated’ to have done worse than they would have done after months out of school, having never finished their course is cruel.

Instead Ofqual must provide a straightforward appeals process for any school believing the moderation process has resulted in an inappropriate spread of results for its pupils. Ofqual, if I have understood the guidance right, has already suggested it will do this and I eagerly wait for news on what this will look like.

I hope it is rigorous. I hope it is smart enough to work out which schools might be trying it on and which have evidence that demonstrates awarding grades to children based on the poorer performance of other children would be a great injustice.

For now I’m content to leave things here.

In the absence of more detail about the appeals process, which I expect to be forthcoming, it would be silly of me to get all het up and angry.

I really hope there is a process. I really hope it is fair as it can be.

And if it isn’t I hope those working at rapidly improving schools do not let this go. I hope they, politely, constructively and relentlessly pursue all avenues. I hope they refuse to be paternally told an injustice hurting children at their schools is inevitable and to be endured for the greater good.

I hope they don’t need to fight that hard.

But if there is no fair process I hope pupils at schools affected know the reason their teachers never gave up was because of how much they believed in them.

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How I make teaching videos

This post explains how I make teaching videos. I’ll be using the last video I made, found here, as my working example.

The first thing to be clear about is if you don’t want to make YouTube videos then you absolutely should not.

This is not a teaching responsibility.

It is time consuming and labour intensive. If you don’t have much time for whatever reason then this guide is unlikely to be helpful.

Stop reading and look elsewhere – there are much quicker methods.

I start by making sure my subject knowledge is solid. For any short video you’ll need to know a lot more than you’ll  deliver, because what you’re making can only ever be a summary.

For my “Did 1066 change much in England?” video, my general subject knowledge was already pretty strong.

I’ve taught the topic for many years and read reasonably widely about it. This subject knowledge allowed me to come up with an authentic structure pretty quickly – which in this case is around change and continuity.

I find it also worth considering what topics or foci will give the video most utility – covering a fairly big topic that roves over quite a lot of stuff usually works better than a video focused on one discrete aspect of a curriculum, which you’re likely to find you can only use once a year.

Very niche videos are also not particularly helpful to pupils who want to revise. Again, strong subject knowledge makes decisions about what to cover easier.

Next, I spent a bit of time reminding myself of the basic stuff, using websites such as BBC Bitesize and Wikipedia. While I’ve taught this topic a lot I haven’t recently.

Twenty minutes online is usually enough to get back up to speed.

At this point I’m usually ready to mock up a paper draft of what my board will look like:

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I don’t think about illustrations at all while making up this draft. It’s just to create a narrative structure that organises the information logically.

Once I’ve done this I mock up a similar draft on a whiteboard:

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I do this because I’ve found sometimes what works quite well on paper just sort of doesn’t when it is enlarged. It’s while making up this draft I begin to consider, but only consider illustrations. What’s simple to draw and could represent a burning village? How do I show that French enters the language along with other influences that were already there? Can I use an image to do a bit more work than my delivery?

Once this is all done I proceed in one of two ways, with my choice depending on the topic, how I’m feeling and how much time I have.

  1. Straight to video.

First, make up your neat board.

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Carefully consider colour and image, thinking about how illustrations and layout reinforce messages and don’t detract from them.

Remember a really bad drawing, or a drawing supposed to look like something that actually looks like something else can be really distracting, causing your viewers to lose focus.  It really isn’t necessary for the illustrations to be works of art – efficiency and clarity are much, much more important. For example, my drawings of England are usually simple triangles.

Do not expect too much of yourself to begin with – my illustrations have improved but this is because over time I’ve done lots so have built up a sort of bank of icons I use consistently.

Once the board is finished it’s possible to go straight to explanation and filming. This is the way in which most of my videos – but not actually this one – are made.

It’s sensible to take some time to make sure lighting is right (watch out for glare on the board), and the camera (my phone camera works fine) is mounted somewhere safe and steady. There is little more frustrating than finishing a video only to find it compromised by camera wobble or annoying autofocus issues. Also think about the angle of the camera – once you begin delivering you will naturally look towards it and if it is off centre, this will look weird when played back.e

Remember although the video doesn’t have to have professional production values, young people today have pretty good photography and videoing skills, and may be less forgiving of niggles than was the case in the past.

Practise. Go slow. Work through each stage of your board work. If you make a mistake, if it is minor, practise continuing anyway. Aim for good not perfect or you’ll never get to the end.

Once you feel you’re ready begin videoing. Expect there to be a lot of takes. You won’t get it right first time. Once you have a complete video, watch it back. Are you happy? Can you be bothered doing it again? Is it good enough?

If not repeat. If yes, post to whatever platform you’re using to share it.

  1. Script and autocue.

This is the method I used to create the 1066 video I’m using as an example. For this write out a word for word script. This can really help with making sure what you’re delivering is tight and focused. As you write remember this is a script for what you’ll actually say, not a blog post or academic essay – your register should not be as formal – it should feel like you are teaching a class.

Once your script is finished then make up your board in the exactly the same way I described in Method 1: Straight to Video. If you are going to script it’s much better to do board-work after, so it follows your narrative.

Then find a piece of autocue software. There are lots of free versions of these on the internet. For this video I used this one, which allows you to adjust the speed. Experiment with a few speeds to find one that feels natural.

Set up your computer somewhere central to the board, and make sure your camera is mounted on or near it. For the 1066 video I actually Gaffer-Taped my phone to my computer. This is important as you’ll need to be looking in the same direction.

Even with autocue you’ll still need to practise a lot – this is because you’ll need to work out when to refer to board work and experiment with body language and tone. It’s likely through this practising process you’ll find you need to make revisions to your script too.

And that’s it! Good luck. This is clearly an awful lot of work and it is really important to again be clear this is absolutely not for everyone, and should not be an expectation of anyone.

While I hope my videos are useful to pupils, making them is a hobby of mine. I enjoy it, but that this is the first I’ve made in three years. My eldest daughter is now just over three. This tells you all you need to know about how time consuming they are to do properly.

Two final hints:

  1. Makes sure there is enough storage space on your device. Doing a really good explanation and then finding it didn’t record all the way through is heart-breaking.
  2. Put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on your door.

Unless you want one of your videos to contain a child shouting “Mrs Hodges says I need a new book!”

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“I have never lived so merrily”

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I am sure I am not the only person to be re-reading Samuel Pepy’s diary, and most particularly the parts concerned with his experiences of the Great Plague.

Some of it feels utterly alien. Some of it feels eerily prescient. While the death toll is far above anything we can envisage, the images of a depopulated London stumbling to a halt feel all too familiar. Pepy’s writes of ‘nobody but poor wretches in the streets’, ‘no boats upon the River’, and records the mass closing of theatres and sporting events.

All sad. All very relatable.

So it is something of a surprise to learn Pepy’s himself wasn’t unhappy during the Plague. In fact quite the opposite. While he does show compassion for victims, this alongside a macabre obsession with the mechanics of it all.

Eventually, Pepy’s writes ‘I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time’.

Was Pepy’s some sort of psychopath? Is it possible to be happy in a very unhappy time? Is it even allowed?

Of course he wasn’t. Yes. Of course it is.

Pepy’s is being honest and human. Being human – as all of us already know – means experiencing and reconciling contradictory emotions.

It is healthy to acknowledge and pay respectful attention to suffering without wearing sackcloth and gnashing teeth. Indeed, living our lives in a state of vicarious sadness leads to despondency and makes it harder for us to assist those who need help during this difficult time. It is perfectly possible to enjoy more time with your family, while writing letters to those who are isolated and lonely.

It is important we remember this. While – to my taste at least – it is not the right time for grandiose, viciously gleeful predictions about how this crisis will reconfigure society for the better, taking time to recognise ways in which small changes to our own lives might improve them can be a helpful way to stay positive and keep going.

For me the changes to my work pattern mean I will be at home more. I’ll have longer with my wife and two daughters. As of today all my family is in good health. I’ll get to run in open fields and won’t need to wear a tie every day. It is spring and somehow the sky seems bluer than I remember it being at this time of year.

These are small things but I’m going to take time to appreciate them and I won’t feel guilty.

 

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Lots of little chats

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Once you notice the first one you see them everywhere.

Lots of little chats.

A small figure and a bigger one walking – seemingly aimlessly- around the campus gardens.

A child and an adult sitting side by side on the bench outside the Humanities Block.

A boy sitting next to the Vice Principal in an empty assembly hall.

Lots of little chats.

It’s our most vulnerable pupils, the hardest to reach, those who’ve in the past have been sometimes outrageously rude to the adult now sitting and talking to them.

They aren’t being rude now. Their eyes flick between the adult and the floor. They are listening.

“Are you OK? How are things at home? Will you come to school? Who will you go to if things go wrong? What are you worried about?”

Mumbled replies, whispers. A tear every now and again.

Nobody had ordered these little chats. There has been no edict. This is in nobody’s job description. It’s what happens when stability and systems begin to unspool and what’s left is quiet, strong love. Two humans who love each other, one big, one small.

Lots of little chats.

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