“Something I Learned Today”

Patrick Rhone reminded me today that not only is it important to remember that learning happens everyday and occurs in a variety of ways, but that it is also important to capture that learning.

A practice I have been doing often for the past couple of years is to write down at least one new thing I learned every day… It is a great reminder that, no matter how old I get, there is always the capacity to learn and grow.

Sometimes, the one thing I learn comes from reading. Sometimes, it comes from observation. Sometimes, it comes from conversation. Sometimes, when I get to the end of the day and can’t think of anything new that I learned, I go to a random page on Wikipedia and learn something for the sake of learning.

This got me thinking about student blogging. I have been using blogs with students for some time now, but with a specific subject focus, e.g.: to capture the coursework process (see the archive and sidebar) in AS and A2 Media Studies. But what if students kept a blog (public or private) with the soul purpose of capturing ‘one new thing’ they learned each day? I personally think it would provide a powerful, personal statement for each student about their learning and progress across the year, free from the constraints of individual subjects and syllabi. So much gets lost in folders and books, relegated to cupboards and bins at the end of the year. A blog would provide a permanent digital record.

Illiteracy: Ignoring the root of the problem

This post is a response to the article: ‘My pledge to end the shocking blight of illiteracy‘, written by Michael Gove, published in the London Evening Standard on Friday 10th June 2011.

For Michael Gove to recognise that there is a problem with literacy in the UK is pleasing yet also inane, in that anyone working in education could have told you the same thing. What is less pleasing but equally meaningless is his proposal to solve this “blight of illiteracy”, by testing students as young as six years old. In his words, this will “give every parent the reassurance of knowing their child will have a reading check – a literacy MoT – at the age of six.” I’m not sure what reassurance this will offer exactly? It is more likely to cause greater stress for both the parent and (more importantly) the child. What’s more it will create more form filling and data analysis for teachers, surely not the best use of their time. Without a well thought out program to tackle why young children are not reading and writing well, another test is simply pointless.

Equally worrying was the suggestion that extra funding would be provided to support the poorest students, should they be found to be under performing. While I’m not about to dispute the notion that children from poorer backgrounds are likely to struggle with reading and writing, I am not of the belief that they are the only young people who at school struggle with literacy. Many students who come from more affluent backgrounds have difficulties with reading and writing. The fact is that there are a significant number of factors that can impact on a young persons development as a reader and writer. Money is not the sole cause of illiteracy and it is not the sole answer to solving it either.

Gove and the government are (in my opinion) ignoring key issues and not getting to the root of the problem. The fact is that improving teacher training (also proposed in the article) is not a bad idea; there is always room for improvement. However, if this plan is based on a belief that teachers are not doing their jobs properly, that the current crop of teachers do not have the skills to help improve the literacy of children across the UK, then I believe this is highly misguided. I know and work alongside many excellent teachers across a wide range of departments, who are more than equipped to tackle this “blight of illiteracy”, but who have little time to address it effectively in what is an over-crowded curriculum. It is also the case that many talented teachers have fallen into the trap of teaching to the test. Exam boards have given less prevalence to the basics in order to boost results. The quality of a students spelling, punctuation and grammar counts for very little in the current AQA GCSE English curriculum and even less in English Literature. Arguably, at the present time, education is not focussed on tackling the fundamentals or addressing individual student needs – how could it be when schools are forced to be so target driven?

I’m not naive enough to believe that all teachers are perfect and must acknowledge that some teachers are not well equipped to tackle illiteracy when they can’t spell or demarcate a sentence correctly themselves? However, I do wonder why this is. Are we now seeing (in UK graduates) the by-product of ‘teach the test’ culture, created by target driven education? Are graduates accepted on to teacher training courses and awarded NQT status because so many teachers leave the profession after a few short years? Should the Government not be considering how to attract top graduates into teaching? Surely, if teachers were paid better standards would go up. It irks me to have said that. I, for one, am not in this for the money, but I don’t believe it’s that misguided to believe that a student graduating with a first in Biology is more likely to consider Medical School than a PGCE to teach Secondary school kids Science. The future career prospects (particularly financially) are far more appealing.

More tests; more money; improved teacher training – none of these ideas actually begin to address the root of the problem. The fact is that the road to becoming literate begins at home. Parents have to take a lead in reading to their children, encouraging and helping them learn to read and write. The proposal in the article that bothered me more than any other was the idea that the Government (meaning the tax payer) would provide “additional funding to make sure every disadvantaged two-year-old child has 15 hours of pre-school learning every week.” Once again money is seen as the answer and more significantly there is a continuation of what I feel has been an over-arching approach to education for the last 10-15 years. That approach (an ethos if you will) is that education is the sole responsibility of the state and therefore parents are absolved of their responsibility to educate their children.

Here are some proposals of my own that I believe would actually begin to tackle the real issues. Firstly, lets stop closing public libraries. In fact, lets make sure that every community (village, town, city) has a modern, well-resourced, space where people of all walks of life can come to read, research, and learn. The disparity between people’s experiences of what a library can be is huge. Just compare my local library in Gerrards Cross with the facilities available at the library in High Wycombe. High Wycombe library, like many city libraries, offers a hugely attractive space and wealth of resources to their communities. I believe that all communities should have such a resource at their finger tips.

Chalfont St Peter library, just a couple of miles down the road from me, is under threat of closure. The minute it closes, access to affordable resources for reading/learning have been cut off from the poorest people in the community. If these smaller, local libraries were better funded and resourced, the government would not need to throw money at poor families as suggested by Gove in the article. Would it not be economically (and environmentally) more sound to improve on the facilities that already exist? Perhaps the counter argument to the proposal above is that it leaves responsibility with the local community to go and use it. I firmly believe that if you make libraries relevant to the 21st Century, that if you fund them well and make them attractive spaces people will use them. It is lack of funding and level of neglect that ultimately decides the fate of many local libraries.

Therefore, I offer a second proposal. Instead of absolving parents of their responsibility in helping their children to learn to read and write. Why not provide them with the means to do so? For those poorer families in the community, why not give a portion of their welfare to them in the form of vouchers that can only be used in local libraries to borrow books or to buy books from retailers? This would raise the profile of reading across the nation and say to parents you have a responsibility to your children to not only ensure that they are fed, clothed and well looked after; you also have a responsibility to kick-start their education. Don’t get me wrong, I know that many parents who are raising their children in difficult circumstances, realise this is part of their role. However, for those parents in difficult financial circumstances, lets help them to be able to do it.

A question needs to be asked of publishers and retailers also. Why can Romeo and Juliet be bought for a pound but The Hungry Caterpillar will set you back four or five? Surely, children’s books need to be priced so that they can be afforded by poorer families as well as those with excess income. How this could be achieved, I’m not sure but it seems that books like many other commodities are increasingly over priced and as such become accessible to those who can afford them and inaccessible to those who can’t. This is where libraries have bridged the gap but as I have said before, if libraries close, then a valuable resource is lost. Perhaps then, the Government need to provide incentives to publishers and retailers to lower the cost of books, particularly children’s books to encourage reading.

I know that some of you will be thinking that iPads and Kindle’s provide a potential solution to getting young people reading. But I am unconvinced at this stage, mainly because I refuse to buy-in to the over hyped ‘Digital Natives‘ idea coined by Marc Prensky. Prensky and the many people who buy into his ideas ignore the fact that there is a significant digital divide in UK. The divide is there because of money. In my own classes, only a very small percentage of students have iPads, Smart Phones or Kindles. The majority of them (and I work in quite an affluent area) simply do not have them. If they read, they read from regular old paper books. Until, eBook Readers and Smart Phones are so cheep that they are ubiquitous then it remains that we need to find ways to make good, old, paper books affordable for everyone.

What I am driving at is this: Illiteracy is a societal problem not an solely an education one. Gove is ignoring the root of the problem and can only see a state mandated school-based solution. We need to think more broadly and we need to move the responsibility of ‘literacy’ beyond the four walls of the classroom.

#mainedu: One module down, two to go…

Having begun the MA in Education, promising to blog my learning journey, I have found that time has been at a premium and thus blog posts have been in short supply. With that in mind, I have squared away a moment or two to provide an update.

As tweeted out earlier last week, I have completed Module 2: Assessment for Learning, achieving a distinction. I subsequently tidied up the corresponding page on this blog to include a summary of the unit; the texts that influenced my understanding and impacted on my assignments; and also added links to both my 1000 word critique of Black and Wiliam’s: ‘Inside the Black Box’ and Action Research Assignment.

While I may be finished with the module, AfL remains an area of significant interest to me. Particularly, because of the way that I have been using Google Docs with my students. Moreover, this is the focus of my School Based Enquiry, for which I continue to collect data.

Based on the feedback I received from my Module 2 tutor, I am planning a trip to Oxford Brookes University Library over the half term break to expand my reading; there are some texts that look useful but I am struggling to find in PDF format online.

Module 3: Developing eLearning began earlier this month. This module will likely prove to be the most enjoyable of the three. As an area of education that I am significantly immersed in, I hope that it will afford me the opportunity to broaden my understanding and refine some of my current practices.

In order to ensure that I don’t simply fall back on tried and tested tools however, I completed an audit of the technologies that are embedded in my current teaching practice and those that are not. It is my intention to develop a series of lessons wherein one of these technologies will be used to facilitate the learning in some way.

Reading for the module has also commenced and for me a number of the texts are old news but nevertheless I will revisit them, making the necessary notes in Evernote to use later in my assignment. We have been given the already well critiqued Prensky articles: ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’ and ‘Do They Really Think Differently?’ (Digital Natives: Part 2) to read. For some up to date debate on the concept of digital natives, these posts from Simon Bostock and Doug Belshaw are definitely worth checking out:

Finally, I hope that as the unit eveolves I will get the chance to tie in some of the material I have been reading and writing about recently with regards to learning technologies, taxonomies and literacies. Only time will tell.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe and the death of Media Studies

The Treachery of Images

Literally moments before I left work on Friday, ready to begin the half-term break, I was sat talking to my friend and colleague Greg Hodgson about literacy. I’ve just put a project together for gifted and talented Year 11 students where they will blog for ten weeks developing their writing skills. The project will encompass in-class and online workshops; seminars; tutorials and support from a professional editor and professional copy-writer. Greg and I discussed the merits of getting all students at our school blogging and how it could impact on improving literacy. What occurred to me during our conversation was that neither of us differentiate between what many refer to as traditional literacy and digital literacy. I don’t like the term digital literacy, never have, as it immediately suggests that understanding digital or media based texts is somehow different to understanding non-digital (analog) texts. The problem is that I don’t believe that. So, here’s an idea: Let’s stop talking about digital literacy and just discuss literacy after all the two are synonymous are they not?

Digital Literacy?

Films, Advertising, Websites, Blogs and Video Games all have narratives and codes that need to be understood; they all offer various meanings and representations ready to be interpreted; and they are all part of a person’s life narrative, so why on should they not be valued in the same way that Literature and Art are valued. And why are we not making sure that our children approach all texts (digital or analog) with an equal level of respect and criticism?

It’s time to ditch the prejudices; it’s time to stop talking about digital literacy as if it is something different to literacy. We shouldn’t spend time debating what digital literacy is, we should be asking why teach literacy at all? Teaching literacy is not only about getting kids to read books, it’s about teaching our children to read signs, to decipher meaning out of symbols. When those symbols and signs are communicated by road signs we value their purpose encouraging them to get driving lessons and pass their driving test. When those symbols and signs are communicated through a YouTube video or a Video Game we do not seem to value them at all. Surely, if our children are going to be able to survive in this ‘uncertain future’ that lies before them they need to be literate. And not just literate in that they can read words but that they can decipher all texts placed in front of them, analog or digital. The age of the social network, of online collaboration, of information at your finger tips is not some distant notion, it is the state in which we live now and future generations are being born into. The army is using Video Game technology to train its soldiers. Why are we all not using this technology to help prepare our children for their futures? We have a responsibility to make sure that they are literate; with the skills to understand the messages and values that are sewn up in the plethora of texts that they consume on a daily basis.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

We only have to look to René Magritte’s painting ‘The Treachery of Images‘ [1928-29] to see that this argument has existed for 40 years, before video games grabbed our attention and 60 years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Magritte illustrates the duality that all texts, whether made up of words or images, pose for us. In his painting Magritte is commenting on the process of signification; the basis of communication in that all images have more than a single layer of meaning by their very nature; that all texts offer representations and therefore are open to interpretation. This (IMO) is the fundamental reason that literacy should be at the heart of any school curriculum and is the basis for my belief that separating literacies into “analog” and “digital” is actually a banality that should be avoided. It does not matter what the text is, what matters is that we have the skills to be able to understand it.

Understanding the mirror

We can look to more recent theorists to see that the purpose and need for literacy is only increasing. As our world has become more and more saturated by modern media, only expedited by the rapid development of the World Wide Web, theorists have been warning of a need to be more literate no matter what form the text takes.

Dominic Strinati in ‘An Introduction to the theories of popular culture‘ [1995], states: “The mass media…were once thought of as holding up a mirror to, and thereby reflecting, a wider social reality. Now that reality is only definable in terms of surface reflection of the mirror.” Strinati is suggesting that the way in which we understand our world is through the media that we consume. This raises an important consideration, particularly for teachers. If as Strinati suggests that reality is born out of the mirror then we surely have a responsibility to help our students understand the mirror, whether it’s a magazine article, TV news segment or web page.

Jean Baudrillard, ten years earlier, in is his book ‘Simulacra and Simulation‘ [1985], sets out an even deeper fundamental reason that we should teach young people to be critical and question their perceived reality. Baudrillard suggests that modern culture/society is made up from both simulations (copies of real places and things) that become real through perception and simulacra (copies without an original).

For example, the film Jurassic Park, presents through CGI and animatronics a highly convincing simulation of dinosaurs which we as the audience accept even though we have never seen a real live dinosaur. We accept the copy (simulacra) as reality although there is no original for it to have been copied from.

If simulated Media form our reality then we must ensure that young people are equipped to recognise this and question the texts from which they are forming their understanding. What if dinosaurs bore no resemblance to their CGI counterparts? For many the film will have become a key source in their understanding of the dinosaur, yet it is a lie, a false creation, a guess?

Is it acceptable to allow prejudice to continue? Literature and Art are valued and therefore worthy of study and criticism. Should films and websites not be valued in the same way and come under the same level of scrutiny?

The death of Media Studies?

The problem is that we often accept the notion that there is a difference between literacy and digital literacy. Perhaps the development of Media Studies as a discreet subject is partly to blame for this? Much of the discussion about digital literacy is confused with concepts such as ‘media literacy’. The problem here being that there seems to be a deeply held belief that being “media literate” means being able to create and edit video, be eSafe and use a computer effectively (isn’t that ICT?). This need to categorise literacy, chunking it, ignores the messages that Magritte, Baudrillard and Strinati have been trying to draw our attention to. Being literate is about reading, about perception, about being critical. These skills are necessary in any and all subjects

What’s more, all forms of media require us to read, perceive and be critical and we can encounter them at any time and within any subject. Just as it should not fall to ‘English teachers’ to be the soul authority when it comes to reading Shakespeare and writing stories why should it be that ‘Media Studies teachers’ are expected to be the soul authorities when it comes to understanding Films, Video Games and the World Wide Web? If the answer to this means the death of Media Studies as a distinct subject then so be it as the study of “the Media” ought not be separate from the study of Literature, Science, History, Religion or Philosophy, as the texts that make up a Media Studies curriculum all have a place in any and all of the other subjects found within the school curriculum.

A 21st century definition of Literate

Media literacy, eLiteracy, digital literacy are terms that I believe do nothing more than cause confusion. There should be only literacy. Plain and simple. Most dictionaries state that to be ‘literate’ is to be able to “read and write“. I think that this is out dated, I believe that a more fitting definition is as follows:

Literate: to have the ability to understand, criticise, and (re)create any text, analog or digital.