Of Dragons and other myths

So I have the whole school plus a good number of parents in Assembly today.  I have told the story of St George and the Dragon (possibly not wholly as legend would have it) and, as is usual, I get hands in the air from the children wishing to contribute further and ask questions.  One in particular, lets call them X, has a hand raised and is keen to be called to speak.  Now X has a fine, enquiring mind, is articulate and insightful, so asking them to speak in Friday Assembly is bound to lead to a deep and profound discussion…I wasn’t disappointed!

“Do Dragons really exist?”

20+ staff, 30+ parents, 160 children from 3 to 11.  I am asked to comment on something that relates not only to Dragons but to the fundamental belief in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, God and whatever it is that lives under your bed!  I paused for a moment…

I’ll leave my personal religious, Scientific and spiritual beliefs aside for now.  Fundamentally, I am a primary educator and a parent. So I answered as best I could:  “Perhaps they do,” I said, realising that this is too easy a way out and would not satisfy X’s need to understand.  X is 9.  So I went on: “We don’t know for sure that they DON’T exist, so there is enough doubt for us to believe that dragons might exist.  There is a grain of truth in legends and it is impossible for us to know the true origins of the story.”

I could tell that this was unsatisfactory   X raised a hand again.  They spoke: “Perhaps they didn’t know what the creature was and so they gave it a name to help the people understand what they didn’t know.”

I certainly could not have said it better myself.

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On duties…

We are preparing to host a day devoted to esafety. In doing so we will be inviting our parents to an evening session devoted to the knowledge that they need to possess and the role that they play in shaping children’s attitudes towards the use of ICT and mobile technology in school, home and family life. As a primer, this BBC news piece highlights important tensions and useful resources in the ongoing debate about very young children and their engagement with tech.

Recent discussions with staff at schools about defining duties within Education for Social Responsibility, of which more anon, lead us to recognise what is needed is a more honest appraisal of the roles and influence of teachers and parents in the lives of our children. And when it comes to the newness of digital tools at our disposal, we need to open our eyes to the possibilities and the pitfalls and not shy away from debate. Reason, good sense and centuries of sound educational theory will not be blown away in the sweep of a gesture across a tablet screen! So, crucially and inevitably it is adults – parents and teachers – that must model the appropriate behaviour and level of engagement. No mean feat, either for adults who themselves are keen and enthusiastic users of digital technology for work or leisure or those who abhor or who are even ambivalent to its subtle charms!

I am a parent of a 4 year old (boy) who can and does use iPhone and iPad. From an educator’s point of view I know he can engage with it ‘cleanly’, clearly developing skills and knowledge when using good ‘apps’ or watching, for exmple, Sesame Street on YouTube (carefully monitored). However there is also a good deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth – ours and his – about moderating access. Yet we know, we hope we know, that we are balancing this access with all that is good and right and wholesome in the life of a 4 year old such as his books, bikes and buddies.

And perhaps this is what has always vexed parents, the eternal question: am I doing the right thing? Ultimately this question cannot be answered, yet it must be one we remain unafraid to ask, either as parents or educators. Of ourselves or each other.

ESR in-service training

I have had the privilege of being able to visit 2 schools recently at the invitation of their Heads. At Barfield and Aldenham Prep I had the opportunity to facilitate training and familiarisation with Education for Social Responsibility (ESR). The aim is to enable staff teams to reflect on their current provision and start the process of considering how this can be developed to embrace a more effective approach. This is very simple: 15 minutes of talk from me on the background followed by 30 minutes of group activity – a circus of mind mapping areas of the schools current provision associated with each of the 6 elements of ESR – finishing off with 15 minutes (more or less) of Q & A.

At both schools I met incredibly engaged and enthusiastic staff teams, who exemplify the unique blend of knowledge, experience and diversity of views found independent schools. There are, of course, those for whom the discussion of anything different is anathema. However, as this was the first time that we have been able to present ESR to whole schools, the feedback from all parties is both insightful and valuable, allowing us to recognise more precisely what ESR can mean to our schools.

Some key questions arose which are important to reflect upon as we share experiences across IAPS. It was so exhilarating to be able to debate and discuss deeper issues about the purpose of education.

What is “new” about ESR?
The subtitle to the name is “one day they’ll call it education”. ESR is not about peddling a panacea or a prescribed curriculum, promoting new materials or dictating a direction. What is new is the opportunity to hold a dialogue within our schools and across our association about the purpose of education, it’s relevance and efficacy for children facing a rapidly changing world. There is inherent danger in naming any initiative as our tendency is to categorise, sort, label and compare. So a core purpose of ESR is to enable us to recognise just what our core purpose is.

How is this different from what I have done for X years?
Excellent practice and pastoral care is immutable. There are, as was pointed out in discussion, ways of enabling children to develop and learn that have not and will not change. As became clear through the mind mapping excercise, the schools began to realise just how much they are all ready doing that embraces ESR.

What examples can be given of what can enhance our provision?
This is, at the moment, perhaps the biggest challenge. SEEd, WWF, Eco Schools and the Co-Operative, amongst many others, have spent years developing materials that support schools in finding a way to address an Education for Social Responsibility. However, emerging from the answer to the last question, the answer to this one lies within. Current practice and staff experience often provides the best examples. I have been curating supporting resources (www.storify.com/EfSR) and know that as ESR is shared, more of these examples will come to light and work to support schools looking to address their development.

I would like to thank the Heads and Staff of Aldenham and Barfield for their time, their candour and their wealth of knowledge. Education for Social Responsibility is stronger and more focused because of their input.

It’s good to talk

A couple of years ago, Ian Yorston concluded an exhilarating and challenging presentation at the IAPS conference with the chilling statement “Create the software or be the software”. His assertion was that our teaching of ICT has to develop beyond using programmes to creating programmes; understanding how to create software so that our students will be better equipped to relate to the world. After 4 days of a Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) diploma course, it has dawned on me that there is another way of looking at Ian’s statement. Not with the attention on ICT but on human communication and relationships.

Learn the programme or be the programme. With a science background, I’m not given to hyperbole and remain healthily sceptical until proof is available. That is why I wanted to explore NLP further. I now recognise that it has received very poor PR largely due to its misuse and promotion by “trainers” and “consultants” who lack authenticity and indeed, in some cases, the necessary training. Whatever the criticism of it, at a fundamental level NLP provides tools to understand how we process our experiences of the world around us through our perceptual systems (senses, neurological preferences) to create “programmes” with which we interact with that world. It also enables us to better understand other people and communicate with them more effectively.

By continuing to improve our understanding of others and of how to form more effective relationships we will become better as both individuals and as a society – humans are inherent,y social organisms. The tools of communication (both verbal and non-verbal) are available to all of us as are the frameworks for development, whether this is NLP or otherwise. We need to learn to use these tools and then perhaps we will be better at interacting with our increasingly complex world.

So you can’t run?

With thanks to Andy Falconer for highlighting this Washington Post Article by Bill Gates on measuring Teacher Performance. It points to
this video of Tom Brady, 3 time Super Bowl winning Quarterback for the New England Patriots, being assessed for the 2000 NFL draft. The video shows Mr Brady going through drills to highlight foot speed and agility. Clearly this is an area that is not a strength yet how necessary is Tom Brady’s foot speed to claim those Super Bowl rings, MVP awards and many other plaudits? Not really, is the answer.

Bill Gate’s point is that teachers should not be measured or indeed held to account over a narrow range of parameters. There is a great deal more to high performance teaching and delivering high quality learning experiences than just subject knowledge, the ability to get pupils through assessments or being au fait with the latest initiatives, gadgets, software or whim of your Head!

It gives us something to think about as school leaders. The best teachers do not always please everybody. Someone who can appear effective may be adept at impressing parents or governors but may lack key competencies that flatlines pupil progress. Others, managing to rub everyone up the wrong way and give Heads grey hairs, have an intuitive knowledge of children, masterful classroom management and drive up standards through high expectations and excellent rapport with pupils.

The process of learning is complex. Teaching equally so. The measurement of performance is therefore little short of impossible in terms of fairness if reliant on the outcome of pupil assessment tests. Children’s rates of cognitive and emotional development vary and absolute measures are an incomplete picture of what has occurred within the classroom.

What is needed is a more rich and nuanced approach to understanding the effectiveness of teachers. As Bill Gates says:

The fact is, teachers want to be accountable to their students. What the country needs are thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems that include multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results.

As school leaders, as Heads, we need to recognise that central to our role is gathering such information and acting as a facilitator for the professional development and aspirations of the educators that work in our schools. We can guide and direct the ‘flight path’ of school development and by doing so ensure that the children in our care are being given the very best chance to grow as people socially, emotionally and academically.

Oh yes, and Tom Brady is married to Giselle Bündchen too.