Silence on Radio 4

What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Driving about on various errands yesterday I found myself listening to ‘word of mouth’ a program about language presented by the excellent Michael Rosen.  This week was ‘silence’, and it started with a really interesting interview with a maths teacher on how he used it in his classroom, which wasn’t the stereotypical way one might expect.

It’s possible to listen again for a week, but unfortunately there’s no podcast.

Teacher Driven? Ambition in E-Learning and Engagement

This is the last post I’ll make about the really excellent SSAT conference I attended a week ago on “Raising achievement through embedding learning technologies”. At this conference I met some really interesting people and heard some enthusiastic and engaging discussions on now to improve learning through the use of technology.

Several of the talks got me thinking about what drives innovation and high standards in schools.  As I was listening to these inspiring people I thought of the SSAT (this site is not sponsored by the SSAT by the way, its just that quite a lot of their stuff is pretty good!) DVD on Embedding Formative Assessment.  Dylan Wiliam, who appears in several videos on the DVD,  explains that by and large you do well if you’re in a classroom where the teacher is working well, that the an important factor in differences in attainment between pupils is the teacher who teaches them.

This seemed to ring true for me whilst listening to Mark Richardson (who I’ve already posted about), who saw making films as a way of helping his students to learn (and not just something cool to do with technology), and for Mark Clarkson, who spoke about helping teachers solve problems and change the way things work with pupils in their own classrooms.  Mark C gave us the example of using hand held PDAs loaded with books to encourage boys to read more.  Dominic Tester from Costello Technology college wants to go beyond the government / BECTA requirement for ‘online reporting’ to parents by 2010, driven by the need for the school to engage parents in the learning of their children.

The theme really struck with me I’ve posted before (ad infinitum) about having solutions imposed from above, and also spent hours on inset where I teach staff how to use various packages, and I’m not sure about the impact of either.  The examples above might help us explain why my hard work might have achieved less (so far!) than I might have hoped – they were all driven by the needs and the ambition of the teachers.

In order to help teachers drive innovation and improvement we need, yes to inspire them, but aslo to say ‘yes you can’ when they come to us with a need.  Most importantly though we need to start where they are.  The very nice man in charge of the whole day, Paul Hynes, programme leader for new tech at the SSAT, held up a NCSL hierarchy of activities using ICT.  You have probably seen it, it’s by Martin Blows (2005) and shows a latter of increasing engagement and deeper learning.  Blow’s argument is that the further away one gets from ‘exchange’ (swapping traditional practices with ICT), and the nearer to ’empower’ (empowering learners to take control of their own learning), the better.

Broadly I think I agree.  However, what the conference last week taught me (amongst many other things) is that we have to start where the teachers are right now.  Exchange is a great place to start, with the ambition of moving further as soon as we’re able.  It also seems to me that exhange can sometimes also be empowering, because some traditional practices are themselves very effective in empowering learners to take control of their learning.   As an example I’d like to humbly offer my prototype google docs form which attempts to assess pupil’s attitudes to the learning that they’ve just done, and to find out what they’re planning to do next.

The right tools (Full Marks)

I was at the SSAT conference on embedding learning last week, and it really fired my imagination, and one thing in particular has been rolling around my brain, the issue of ‘having the right tools’.  If you have met me at an event you’ll probably know that I’m a passionate believer in good software, that well made tools can not only make work easier, but inspire people to new things.  I’ve never been in agreement with BECTA’s proposition that ‘platforms don’t matter’ – that all that matters is what you do with them.  BECTA might not be able to bring itself to recommend one platform or another, and I think it might have done more harm than good with its infamous ‘approved’ but not really ‘approved’ list of VLEs, but I certainly have strong views.

What I’m less hung up on now is how awful the platform is that we have at school.  It’s soooo bad that it is frankly an irrelevance, its use is restricted to page creation for hardy souls that don’t mind links randomly breaking, or working without version control.  As I said, I’m not so hung up about this imposition from the LEA, its ad-hoc, creaky and un-intuitive technology and its huuuuge cost (I think, I can’t actually find out how much it costs my school)…. Anyhoo.

Some of the people I heard talk on Wednesday last at The SSAT conference are making me think that the VLE is not the foundation stone of e-learning in a school (though a decent one would make things a LOT easier thanks).  I’m coming around to the idea that we can afford to ignore it (apart, as I say, from the cost).  I’ve already posted about Mark Richardson from and his conviction that most children have access to technologies that will allow them to make films, without extra cost.  Two other marks, Mark Toombs from Woolmer Hill Technology College, and Mark Clarkson, Egglescliffe School took me further down this road during that day.

Mark Clarkson spoke persuasively about free and very cheap ways of innovating teaching and learning using ICT, using technology such as refurbished handhelds, free tools such as etherpad and voicethread (thanks to an amazing example by Ant Heald), Mark also used a wiki to collate student work as well as his own thinking.  I’ll say more about the particular insights that Mark brought in a later post.

Mark Toombes also discussed homework and mobile phones.  His philosophy was certainly one of ‘bringing in the outside world’, and of using pieces of technology to meet communication needs in his school.  During the day I talked with delegates about the excellent and  At school we’ve been using and google docs to distribute information, but also experimenting with creative ways of closing the feedback loops between school, pupils, parents and teachers.

Of course, it would be great to have a flexible, powerful, easy to use VLE, hub or clearing house, which managed identities, pushed out information and could act as a virtual gathering place for the whole learning community, wouldn’t it.  The point is that it’s not a necessary condition for moving forward.

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Films for Learning

filmsforlearningAbout 5 years ago I was working with a friend, Dan Raven-Ellison, on using video in the classroom using mobile phones. The whole thing was quite hard really, and if I’m honest, we didn’t really get our heads around how we could make mobiles work.  Vodafone generously lent us a dozen high spec mobiles and we set out to lend them to pupils, so that they could make films with them.

Dan’s idea was sound, but, basically, it didn’t work for me. It didn’t work partly because I didn’t think carefully enough about how it was going to work, and instead focused on the technicalities of uploading and downloading and editing.   Of course in those days mobiles didn’t capture in standard formats, we had to convert them.   The pupils didn’t have computers at home that were powerful enough to edit video, even if they got over the problems of conversion.   So, we’d have to hunt for a PC suite in school and then waste hours downloading footage, converting it and watching the students edit it.

Most importantly, I didn’t help them understand what videos like these might be used for, how they might be well made, and I didn’t really integrate them into my teaching and the students’ learning.  I thought we’d have to teach them how, and assumed that they’d work out the why themselves.

So, I was really excited when I visited Mark Richardson’s talk at the recent SSAT conference on “raising achievement through embedding learning technologies”.  Mark’s realistic, but very enthusiastic approach, and his clear thinking, really “moved me on”.  I was very impressed with the idea that, whilst most problems of downloading and the technicalities of editing could be easily solved by most children, they still need teaching about how and why to make a good film.  This means that digital literacy is much more than being able to ‘do stuff’ with computers, and that, contrary to the myth of the digital native, the role of teachers’ is more important today than ever.  It also chimed deeply with my prejudice against teaching ‘packages’, which change rapidly.  Instead we should teach concepts, ideas, and foster an attitude of experiment.

Freed from the burden of teaching technicalities, we can focus on learning objectives, clarify our thinking about why using video with these students for this topic at this stage in their learning will offer benefits.  Then we can communicate this thinking to our pupils, sell the activity as a learning activity, rather than (as well as) something fun. Along the way we can devise success criteria around skills of communication, argument, presentation, team working and production.

All of this means ‘HOMEWORK’!   One of the themes that kept emerging, for me, throughout the conference was the possibility of sidestepping the problems we all face of ‘finding a computer suite’.  Then we have to justify our time in there by spending the whole of it with our pupils staring at screens, rather than interacting with each other, or (god forbid) the highly expert and expensively trained teacher in the room.  Let them stare at screens and use ICT for communication at home, whilst they’re in school let us plan, talk, decide, listen and organise our ideas.

Mark Richardson teaches at The Thomas Hardye School in Dorset.  He also runs the website ‘Films for Learning’ (, with the help and (really quite large as it happens) generosity of Microsoft it should be added.  On this site students and teachers can upload and comment on each others’ films.  The site is moderated, so should be ‘filter friendly’.  Mark is looking for volunteers to help him moderate films and develop the site, if you’re interested you can contact him on  When you visit look out especially for the biology teachers explaining cloning, and the film made by three of Mark’s students on the train to visit London.

When I’ve got around to joining I’ll upload my increasingly dated video on Castles near Newbury – which as it’s pre-beard will amuse my pupils!