It’s been a while since I had the time to post here – I offer no excuses, merely to say that life has taken some interesting turns since the spring of 2012, all of which have conspired to keep me away from this channel. However…
Last night, unplanned until the day before, my partner and I grabbed an unexpected free night to see if tickets for the ballet were still available – they were. Delight at our good fortune became empathic disappointment for the company when we realised that the Festival Theatre was not a lot more than half full for Scottish Ballet’s Autumn Season 2012, a triple bill introduced in person by the new Artistic Director, Christopher Hampson. The audience were not diminished in their enthusiasm for the three works presented: Martin Lawrance’s Run For It, William Forsythe’s Workwithinwork and Hans van Manen’s 5 Tangos.
I’m no fan of the music of the first work, despite it being excellently played by the orchestra under Richard Honner. The dance, however, was outstandingly well executed and much as we shouldn’t have our favourites, I am always impressed by the humility and presence of Erik Cavallari. The second and third works were played to soundtrack: Forsythe’s piece was quirky and complex, with elements of good contemporary dance set against the more classical content to produce a fusion of styles. I didn’t catch the name of the more muscular (oh, what is the politically correct way to say, “not as thin as the others”?) girl whose flicks and flourishes were nothing less than stunningly well executed. If I had been able to buy a programme – Scottish Ballet are experimenting with a digital-only version of the programme – I might have been able to give her a well-deserved namecheck here.
The final presentation of 5 Tangos was every bit as exciting as a tango should be, the costumes and music giving the dancers every excuse to play out this expressive and rhythmic work with passion and flourish.
Oh, lucky us, that we got the chance to see this impressive performance: if you can go to see it, you should. It’s on in Inverness and Aberdeen next week. Book it here.
It’s one of my life’s pleasures to set the daily disappointments of weak human performance in stark contrast with the excellent. Tonight, the excellence was the Scottish Ballet production “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh.
The production is the result of a collaboration between theatre director Nancy Meckler and choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ohoa which has produced one of the most stunning dance performances I have ever seen. The sets and costume design were clever and complex, working seamlessly with the Tennessee Williams’ storyline set in the 1930′s deep south of America.
The physical expression through the movement of the dancers was impressive: classically rooted with the slickest and most evocative of contemporary signatures. The company gave of its very best, each dancer competently focusing on the whole work instead of themselves: the selfless performance of each allowed the emotion of each sequence to reach the auditorium, where tears and gasps were extracted from the audience as Williams’ study of desire and despair was given its fullest expression.
If the visual presentation were not enough, the especially commissioned music of Peter Salem added a stunning dimension to the work of the choreographer. As a whole, the event was a masterpiece of excellence for all involved: from Erik Cavalleri‘s arrogant and passionate Stanley Kowalski to Claire Robertson‘s naive and eventually deranged Blanche DuBois; from Richard Honner’s expert presentation of Salem’s music to the company dancers and backstage crew who produced a flawless production upon which the grateful audience could build what will be, for me at least, one of the most memorable theatre experiences of my life.
The April Netcraft Web Server Survey includes the usual interesting graphics showing how our world is changing, or at least, the connected First World. Apache continues to dominate the delivery of internet content, accounting for two-thirds of the two-thirds of a billion websites. You have to keep your eye on the up-and-coming, though: nginx, the work of Igor Sysoev, a Kazakh (about whom not much is presented on the web, considering his influence), has grown to serve over 10 per cent of the web pages you look at, and quite possibly more when you consider that Facebook, WordPress, SourceForge and DropBox are just a few of the big sites now running on nginx.
First, Microsoft doesn’t dominate where it really matters in computing – in the infrastructure. The infamous amount of money made by Bill Gates is sustained by the people whose purchasing intelligence is based on doing what we’ve always done. With so much in the way of alternatives to all of the Microsoft catalogue of bloated and dysfunctional software, rational buyers have plenty of choice in delivering functionality to their organisations but have so far failed to overturn the conservative inertia that keeps handing over wads of cash to the vendors of status quo.
Secondly, this is especially evident in public service. Here, despite the so-called austerity, procurement still takes place within the constraints of the stupidest of dogmas, legacies from the command economy of successive post-war socialist governments. I remember in the eighties pricing up a hammer, which in the local hardware store might have cost about three quid, for nearer three hundred by the time QA, marketing, technical specification, drawing office, stores, customer service, support, legal, commercial and documentation costs were added. We still do this in public service, judging by the Local Authority contracts being awarded recently.
Finally, innovation that leads to the success of the quietly competent solution doesn’t take place naturally in hierarchical societies like public service. The teacher who on his own time, operates stunningly effective methodologies to engage his students, who breaks the rules to connect young people with learning, or who creates a learning environment which is highly personalised to the individual pupil, if he is lucky, isn’t noticed by his head of department or his faculty leader. If he is not so fortunate, he will find himself on the end of parochial abuse worthy of Kafka or IngSoc, and have it snuffed out of him.
A friend is off to teach in Kazakhstan. He is taking a good deal of unwanted innovation with him.
Like many people, I’ve been on a lifelong journey of curiosity that began as long ago as I can recall. I remember as a young kid, my mother’s surprisingly angry reaction when I came home one day to announce that I had been accepted into a youth club, where they played table tennis for free and did other fun stuff. That was OK until she asked the name of the club: it was called “Juco’s” – short for Junior Covenanters. I had no idea what that meant at the time: I had a very clear idea what it meant after mum had explained, patiently, how other people like to control and manipulate others through deceit, in the same way that strangers offered sweeties to young children to get their victims to go with them. She said that the Baptists who ran the Jucos were a sect, a weird group of people who believed weird things. The youth club was the sweeties: I was left to imagine the horrors that awaited me should I return. My home town had more than its fair share of freaks and weirdos: I had experienced several unpleasant encounters with perverts in the parks by the time I’d got to Junior school.
By the time I was nine, my reading had extended to some of the books in the library at home, one of which was T. Lobsang Rampa’s “The Third Eye“, a story of a young acolyte growing up in the Potala in Lhasa. The idea of something existing of me, beyond the physical body I lived in, seemed natural and Rampa’s stories provided a rationale and structure for this belief. I became aware of symbolism through a series of magazines on the same bookshelf, one of which still adorns my mother’s library to this day. “Man, Myth and Magic” was an encyclopaedia of the supernatural which opened my eyes to the range of things people around the world believed in: even at that young age, although inquisitive, I was developing a corresponding sense of skepticism. My mum “read” the tea leaves and cards for local people: never for friends, she would add for mystery and authenticity, and only if her palm were crossed with a little silver. Times were hard and you had to be creative.
Since then, my journey has taken me through the myth and magic of Freemasonry, the incoherent dogma of Christianity, the heady intoxication of Sufi Islam and the ham acting of Mormonism. All of these offer a range of experience and emotional justification for faith in varying degrees. Literally in the case of the masonic: I remember the eerie darkness of the lodge room when I was raised to the third degree and symbolic death I had endured. I travelled the world as a freemason and trampled the cross in some of the most impressive architecture man has ever made, all modelled in one way or another on Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem. I published papers on the symbolism of the temple in the USA as a member of a research lodge: I crossed the boundaries of taboo when I was the first white man to visit the Negro Prince Hall lodge in Seattle in a hundred and fifty years.
I was married for a second time in a United Reformed Church, having been firmly rejected by the Church of England: the mystery of the trinity and the divinity of Christ baffled me as illogical and nonsensical: it did no less even when I was ordained into the Aaronic Priesthood of the Mormon Church. I could recite the words over the blessing of sacrament with, I was told, the “voice of God”. I understood it: I never believed it, try as I might. For a decade, I became Muslim and found in the mosque a peace not found anywhere else in man’s world. Through prayer, recitation and the resonance of the Zikr, I connected with something much bigger than me: I had experienced this feeling before in a much more atavistic way when caught up in a Zulu rally, when ten thousand Africans of one tribe went on to murder hundreds of another.
In this context of my journey to who-knows-where (and certainly not God), I have had my epiphany, although not quite on the road to Damascus – more on the road to understanding that is the endpoint, if there is such a thing, of continuing education. I have read much: earned a degree in physics and mathematics and another in education; and in recent years, studied much of the literature on how evolution works in general and the human brain in particular. Through this and much reflection, I now have my peace. There is no God: there is no life-after-death: there is no understanding of reality except that allowed and interpreted through the senses and the fantastic pattern-matcher that is the human brain.
In arriving at this blindingly obvious but horribly obfuscated truth, I have reached a deeper happiness, a more reverent appreciation of this amazing universe, and a sweeter connection with life, than I have in any of the experiences which both brought me here and prevented me from arriving earlier.
Allahu Akhbar. Rationality and truth are greater.
Jim Al-Khalili has a fascinating series running on BBC Radio at the moment, called the Life Scientific. I was listening to the podcast of his interview with Steven Pinker, the psychologist and author. One theme that came up was violence: Al-Khalili asked Pinker to explain his assertion that violence isn’t caused by low self-esteem but is associated with too much self-esteem, contrary to received wisdom and much restorative practice training I have seen. Pinker explains:
A big predictor of violence is a sense of narcissistic entitlement. If you believe that you are brilliant, you’re a super achiever, you’re more moral than everyone else based on nothing but that belief then it’s very easily punctured by reality. In which case you think of the person who exposes your weaknesses as a mortal enemy who has to be suppressed by force…
This is no idle assertion. Pinker’s view is based in his professionally-qualified reading of the research conducted by Roy Baumeister into the self-esteem of violent people. Al-Khalili goes on:
…all the time and effort that governments have put into trying to boost say the low self-esteem of people in deprived areas with high unemployment, in ethnic minorities, in an attempt to reduce the chance of violence erupting in these sorts of riots, do you think that’s looking in the wrong direction, that’s misguided?
Pinker’s reply is that this is a waste of time. I have to agree from my own experience of violence in the workplace, in particular places of learning, the self-esteem of violent thugs is “off the scale”.
Beware Greeks bearing gifts… (Virgil)
…especially if they’re your gifts (HeadieBob)
The West has come a long way from the adversity of the post-war era. We’re healthy, wealthy and have developed high expectations. So much so that we have forgotten that we are responsible for our own prosperity. When somebody with an agenda suggests that somebody is trying to take away our entitlements, we react to defend them, in the same way that we close the gap in a traffic queue to prevent somebody else taking our road space.
The TUC have an agenda. They want a return to socialist government and the pleasures for the union movement that brings. They are keen to promote the indignation of public sector workers who are having to bear their share of the financial hardship the country is facing. They have asked, through your unions, that you strike on Wednesday in protest. My take on this is in today’s audioboo, Go to work on Wednesday (mp3).
Take control of your own lives. Go to work on Wednesday.
One assumes that it’s the Secretary of State for Education, Mike Russell, who is the one guy who really knows what’s happening in the development of the new curriculum in Scotland. He consults and listens, surely. He knows that teachers are struggling to cope with the daily pressures of inclusion, closure of career paths, erosion of remuneration and the prospect of a massively unpopular industrial dispute before Christmas. He surely knows they are reluctant to rock the boat and yet there are still dissenting voices, blowing whistles on the utter failure of the education system to make anything other than superficial progress towards implementation of CfE. He surely knows that schools are backing away from the revised Highers and running scared of the new Nat 4 and 5′s and the God-knows-what is happening in their schools in the bit between S1 and S5. A tune springs to mind.
He ain’t got no distractions
Can’t hear those buzzers and bells
Don’t see lights a flashin’
Plays by sense of smell
Always gets a replay
Never tilts at all
Maybe not. Check out the latest Advice and Information Resource from the LTS, which claims that it “offers responses to some key issues around the implementation of CfE”. According to one source who’s read it:
All those folks who used to work for Pravda, TASS, Novosti, Izvestia and the like? I reckon they all learned English and are now living and working here.
Goodness. What does he mean? Well, here are a couple of snippets from the document which might be what he’s referring to.
We will continue to promote and share information with parents on the wider aims and benefits of Curriculum for Excellence, including examples of where it is making a difference to the lives and outcomes for young people.
… yet parents remain massively ignorant. During the recent online consultation on the future of GLOW (#eduscotict), the parental voice was represented by one – yes, one, parent contributor.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and national partners are working with all audience groups to ensure they have all the information they need about the new qualifications.
… yes, and I have consulted widely with all interested stakeholders when researching this article.
As all 32 local authorities have signed up to use Glow, there are no known issues of access.
… apart from the private sector and the whole of FE/HE and the significant number of state school teachers who have either rarely, or never, logged into GLOW.
Mr. Russell, if you are reading this, can I suggest you commission some proper scientific-quality research into the extent of implementation of CfE and the attitudes of teachers – please, not through the hierarchy who are lying to you – to the new curriculum. HeadieBob may not have been quite so tongue-in-cheek when he suggests that we ditch the whole scheme and outsource to EDEXCEL.
We are some considerable way along the path to the introduction of a new curriculum in Scotland. The SQA development timeline suggests that the new curriculum has been introduced, yet no teacher I have spoken to has seen anything other than some vague headline statements for the national 4 and 5 qualifications, which are the equivalents of the current Intermediate 1/General and Intermediate 2/Credit courses. At a recent gathering of science teachers, a show of hands showed a range of models for schools, including:
- General science in S1/2; 8 subjects at Nat 4 in S3; 6 subjects at Nat 5 in S4; 5 subjects at Higher in S5
- General science in S1; Nat 4 in S2; Nat 5 in S3; 2-year Highers in S4/5
- General science in S1/2/3; 6 subjects at Nat 4/5 bilevel or common course in S4; 5 Highers in S5
- Haven’t got a Scooby-Doo
A significant number of schools, or at least the teachers who are to implement the new curriculum, are in the Scooby group: of just less than a hundred teachers polled, about 25.
This is the truth behind the SQA’s project chart (pdf) showing how we’re doing: it is either naive or disingenuous to say the least. We are not all working on a common understanding as to how this new curriculum is going to work. There are going to be widely varying curricular models and many children are going to be significantly disadvantaged by this not least through restriction of access to science courses.
Worse, the SQA plan seems to assume that all of the development is going to take place in the 14 months between the publication of the arrangements and the latest possible start for pupils sitting the new assessments. Judging by the failure of the lower school implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, which I have yet to see operating in any school that I have spoken to, this is the big scary Scooby-Doo style monster in the room. Schools are not implementing CfE and they will not have time to produce courses for the new qualifications, either. Why not? Because nobody is being asked to. Teachers are expected to be doing something towards implementation, but when? In the non-contact time? In the extra 20-odd working days of the year secured for the Local Authorities by the SNCT? Is anyone going to address this before Scottish Education becomes a bitter, quivering wreck?
To use the analogy of pregnancy, the project to deliver the baby is not in trouble despite the apparent lack of progress after 8 months. We can still finish successfully on time. All we need is another 8 women.
The TESS are running a feature on the developments in the use of ICT in education in Scotland, due to be published in a couple of weeks’ time. Following on from the #eduscotict summit, I thought I’d set out some of my perspectives on the topic, to try and draw comment and further inform those in Scottish Education who are trying to make informed decisions about where we go from here.
At the summit, there was some debate around what GLOW – the national schools intranet – should be. For myself, I’d like to see GLOW provide a core set of features that all in Scottish education can utilise – including the important private sector schools as well as FE and HE providers, who make substantial investments in development of the curriculum for the benefit of all who have a stake in it.
Before I set out this core functionality, it’s worth considering in a little more detail what “ICT in education” means. The phrase itself is frequently used without sufficient specificity as to the job ICT is to do, often without challenging whether or not it is purposeful, reaffirming the dogma that it’s just “a Good Thing”. I see three areas where ICT has a powerful part to play.
We have a National Curriculum in Scotland. It is subject to review and amendment at all levels at the moment, which provides us with a unique opportunity to standardise course content in such a way as to enable students to take responsibility for their own learning, without having to pace themselves in lock step with whoever they happen to have been classed with. The development of course materials which are available on demand would release pupils from the tyranny of the timetable, the variability in the class environment and quality of teaching, and not bring the education system to a complete stop in times of crisis, such as when it snows (or when teachers go on strike).
There are many platforms available for delivering online courseware, not least Moodle, which is used to deliver almost six million courses worldwide. Institutions such as MIT provide extensive catalogues of open courseware.
Resources are shared right across Scotland by and for teachers, not least the TESS: secondary subject groups (e.g. Physics or Computing) organise themselves to offer community resource-sharing facilities.
We are beginning to realise the benefits of using computer technologies for assessment. The SQA are at a very early stage of investigating e-assessment and there are now practitioners using e-portfolios as a vehicle for assessment and self-assessment in the primary and secondary sectors.
I remember sitting my first e-assessment in 1997, on my way to securing accreditation as a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer. It was one of the hardest assessments I have ever sat and scary, not just because of its difficulty but also because it was adaptive: it responded to my answers to determine if I had sufficiently demonstrated competence.
Last of my three but quite possibly the most important, is the ability of teachers to engage with pupils using social media. This is a bit of a minefield because of the hysterical phobia employers have of being seen to endorse “inappropriate” contacts between those in vulnerable positions and those who have a duty of care. The GTCS code of professional conduct (COPAC) is unhelpfully vague about where the boundaries lie, and attempts at clarification show staggering ignorance of the safeguards present in database-recorded dialogue over social media compared to unwitnessed whispered exchanges in a corridor or cupboard.
Pupils appreciate the opportunity to approach teachers with impunity: this cannot be done in the school or classroom setting. Here is a safe, and with appropriate ground rules around child protection, confidential channel of engagement between teacher and student. Getting your NAB results via a Facebook direct message the minute they are available is of much greater value than having to wait over a long weekend.
The core facility
So, what should GLOW offer at its core? I suggest that the unified and secure login is a sufficient minimum, with an authenticated API to allow outside developers – many of whom will be the teachers developing our new courses for CfE, Nat 4 and 5, and the new Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications – to provide content, assessment and informal channels of engagement in a similar way to existing sites and services that instead of requiring endless registrations, allow users to gain access using their (for example) Facebook login.
There is no need for the government to specify and procure proprietary VLE’s, blogs and networks: Andrew Brown has gone a long way to breaking open the commercial lock-in through the introduction of WordPress-based Glow Blogs and this is a welcome step in the right direction. It’s not beyond possibility to extend this to a Future GLOW that has a lightweight core, with the richer, more dynamic features of continuously developing media that are constantly changing, to be leveraged for the benefit of pupils, at the hands of capable experts who are teachers themselves. We know what we’re doing. Give us the opportunity to do it.
I’ve never been the kind of guy that has huge numbers of mates – my closest friends have never numbered more than a handful. I have, however, always had a wide group of people in my personal and professional networks: people upon whom I can call for help or advice in times of need.
You’ll be my friend, a friend indeed
A friend in need
Is a pain in the ass
Once upon a time, connecting with your network was restricted to face-to-face contact, in the workplace, the pub or the local community. Fortunately we live in this amazing modern world and networks are wide, diverse and rich in texture and complexity. A case in point is Twitter: Neil Winton (@nwinton) had a question this week requiring a quick, one line response that could fit into 140 characters. He got it within a minute of posting the question.
Sometimes, however, questions or problems are more complex than this. A friend – Peter, a physics teacher elsewhere in Scotland – had issues which were bothering him which he felt needed to be talked out. 140 characters wouldn’t be sufficient to outline the problem (related to engagement and motivation of pupils), let alone describe the nuances of the school, the pupils and the environment which are all relevant considerations before anyone could come up with a useful set of ideas or strategies to help him out. So, we spent the best part of an hour on the ‘phone: talking out the issues, the factors, sharing ideas and experience in such a way that we could both benefit (and in turn, the students in our respective schools).
The social media networks are powerful: not just for getting quick crowd-sourced ideas or answers to questions, but also for providing access to richer channels of engagement. Peter called me having obtained my number from a professional resources site we both use, itself a social network of sorts. These richer channels are essential for intelligent solving of complex problems – the kind of problems educators have to deal with every day.
In this week’s audioboo, I suggest that it would be good to have had the conversation I had with Peter in my own school, with the colleagues I work with in common context. With the pressures on teachers’ time these days, a powerful investment would be in the time and opportunity for teachers in schools to be able to talk to each other.