Being an outstanding teacher relies on more than passing harder QTS tests

This blog was originally published by The Guardian on 12th November 2012.

The government recently announced its latest change to the teacher training programme: in order to make entry into teaching more challenging they will make the QTS skills tests more difficult by raising the pass grade over the next three years.

In order to pass, candidates will need to score the equivalent of a B at GCSE to pass. The government is also hoping to attract high achieving computer scientists into teaching by offering £20,000 scholarships. Yes we need high flying graduates if they have the correct skills to teach. However, a degree from a Russell Group university or an outstanding academic record isn’t simply a passport to good teaching.

When I took my GCSEs (nearly 20 years ago) I ‘only’ achieved a C in English and maths. Does this mean someone who achieved an A* or an A would be a better teacher? Of course not. Raising the minimum requirement to pass the QTS skills test to the equivalent of a B will not improve the quality of teaching, but only prevents potentially outstanding teachers from entering the profession.

It seems like another misguided step from Michael Gove, the education secretary, and shows he understands little about what is required to teach. It is also very shortsighted to think that the standard of teaching will improve because these tests are harder to pass.

In all honesty, why do we have a system that includes skills tests in the first place? If the prerequisite for entry onto a PGCE course includes GCSEs in both English and maths (and science if in primary training) then surely that is a better indication of your ability? Why the need for both?

During my career I have worked and trained with people who, on paper, are far more qualified than me, including the academically gifted and experienced industry professionals. Many of these people have entered the profession under the impression that qualifications, and being considered a ‘high flyer’ in their industry, will mean they will be a great teacher. Inevitably it’s a shock when they start training.

I have also seen many people who, according to their qualifications, should be outstanding, but have dropped out during their training year, failed to complete their NQT year or struggled to get teaching jobs. Why? Because it turns out, there is more to teaching than having a list of qualifications as long as your arm or how successful you are in a chosen industry. More should be made of the other qualities teachers require, that dare I say, are more important.

What qualities make an outstanding teacher?

I tweeted the following question to my followers on Twitter: “What are the most important things to look for in those wanting to train as teachers?”
I really wanted to know what other teachers around the country thought. Was I being naive in thinking that Gove was taking the wrong approach, that raising standards is as easy as raising the minimum qualifications required to train?

Below are some of the qualities I took from the Twitter response:

• The ability to build relationships, passion, a desire for learning, flexibility and being able to adapt.

• The need to enjoy working with young people and have an idea of what a career in teaching entails.

• A sense of humour in trainee teachers and the ability to see past labels.

• The ability to inspire, treat learners like equals and see the potential in all students. Teachers need to be positive, optimistic and confident.

One person tweeted that adaptability was more important than qualifications, which I thought was a great point. Not one person mentioned that trainee teachers need to be highly qualified.

The hypocrisy of Gove’s mission to improve the standard of new teachers is that academies can employ people who do not even have a formal teaching qualification to teach. On one hand Gove is saying how important it is that we only allow people to teach who have the best qualifications, and on the other hand that actually, it doesn’t matter, employ who you like.

Raising the standards of teaching is very important and I am all for it. However, we cannot lose sight of the other qualities required to teach, over and above just teachers’ qualifications.

Is it time to rebrand ICT?

This blog was originally published by The Guardian on 30th May 2012 and is an update of a previous post on this blog.

When I did my GTP several years ago I did next to no training in computing. As we all know the curriculum was very much ICT-based and that was fine with me. The skills I have very much fitted in with the curriculum I had to teach.

Things are now changing. Gove has told teachers that they don’t have to stick to the old curriculum. Over the past year and a half I have been able to teach my own curriculum anyway, as I have moved to an independent school. But it has been made very clear there is a need to teach computing in schools before KS4.

I agree this should happen, and it’s very exciting. However, it is also quite intimidating. I have spent almost seven years (including my training) teaching ICT with very little computing. Where do I go from here? Well, I have already started teaching visual programming usingKodu. I am also in the middle of writing a computer science scheme of work to be delivered next year. This will teach students how computers, smartphones and tablets work.

Is this enough? Like many ICT teachers I do not have a lot of curriculum time compared to other subjects. It would be a shame if state schools were forced to drop ICT and only deliver computing because of a lack of time. In fact, we would be doing our students a disservice.

Like many others I need guidance.

My biggest worry is programming. The reason I didn’t choose programming at university was because I find it very difficult. For me it is like learning a new language. I am very much of the opinion programming is not for everyone. Although, I understand it is very important.

I am sure there are other teachers like me who do not program. If the government want programming in schools they are going to need to stump up some money for training courses.

There is a danger that if teachers need retraining, courses will be supplied by large corporations like Microsoft or Google. Can we trust them to give teachers the training they need or will they simply take the money and create training that directly benefits them?

However, over the last few weeks I have been using Codecademy to learn Java Script and to become more proficient in HTML and CSS. This is free and has been fantastic. Hopefully, this will allow me to deliver more programming next year. Perhaps we do not need to pay for training and we can train ourselves?

If all students were taught to be programmers throughout their school lives would we find masses of them out of work? There are only so many jobs available. The people who will benefit the most will be those paid to write computing courses.

There has to be room for both ICT and computer science.

Students should able to choose between the two, certainly at KS4 or 5. After all students are able to choose which languages they learn or sciences they study.

We need both to be exciting and engaging. Teachers in different schools need to be sharing resources and schemes of work. Many are already, certainly the teachers I know. If we are to change the way ICT is perceived we need to be constantly evolving. If we want to incorporate computer science into schools we need innovative ways to teach it communicated to all.

Conferences like the Guardian Teacher Network’s Teaching Computer Science in Schools are important ways for people in education to get together and discuss what the future holds. These are great as long as teachers are allowed to get time out of school. I fear many may not.

I would also very much like to rebrand ICT, for me it is old fashioned. Perhaps “digital literacy” would be more appropriate?

There are several teachers who I follow on Twitter working on Digital Studies. Is that the rebrand we need? I don’t think there is one answer but I would certainly like to rebrand ICT at my school.

In conclusion, I am looking forward to including computer science into my curriculum. It is intimidating but a great opportunity for personal development. Now I must find the time to teach myself what I now must deliver. Finding the time in an already incredibly busy job may be toughest task of all.

The Power of Twitter in Education

TwitterThis blog was originally published by The Guardian on 31st March 2012.

I signed up for Twitter several years ago but struggled to understand the point. What is it? What is it for? What information can I share in 140 characters? I did what millions of other people do: followed famous people, sportsmen, rappers, comedians and actors. Much of the time, it turned out, they didn’t have anything that interesting to say and, after a few weeks, I gave up on it.

Then, as the site grew in popularity, I decided to give it another chance. I had about 30 followers, mostly my friends. Every few days I would tweet about what I was doing and share songs, music videos and news articles and now and again I would tweet one of the many musicians I followed. Good fun but not particularly productive.

As time went on I began to take tweeting more seriously, posting more about technology and educational issues. If I saw an interesting news article, I would tweet it. I followed people more relevant to my profession, mainly users tweeting about politics, education and technology. The more I read, the more I retweeted. I started to gain more followers, which encouraged me to tweet more.

I began to understand what Twitter was about and what a fantastic resource it was for a teacher.

In fact, Twitter is the reason I am writing this blog. Back in January, when the education secretary was, it seemed, washing his hands of ICTat BETT, I lost it on Twitter. I have never been a fan of Michael Gove – after all, he seems to be doing everything in his power to destroy the teaching profession as we know it with his badly-thought-through policies and ill-informed rhetoric.

But this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. An hour or so after I tweeted my disapproval, though, some good news: @GuardianTeachgot in touch and asked me to write a blog based on my tweets. I was hugely excited and spent that evening channelling my fury into a post on the subject. Then, the day after it was published, I received another message on Twitter, this time from Sky News. They wanted me to do a live interview.

All this from a few tweets? Yes – Twitter really is that powerful.

The teaching and education community on Twitter is truly inspirational. I have learnt so much from reading tweets posted by all kinds of people working across the sector. Many of the resources, ideas and technologies I have read about I have been able to use in my classroom and school. In turn, I share my ideas and resources.

Twitter is a fantastic collaborative tool. As teachers, how often do we get to visit other schools? In my experience, very rarely. Twitter has enabled me to collaborate with teachers in schools across the country. Combine this with cloud services such as DropBox and Google Docs and you can create and share resources and ideas quickly and easily.

The site is also a great place for discussion. It is amazing how creative you can be in 140 characters. Teachers, academics, technologists and other experts come together on Twitter to chat and discuss a whole range of topics – you can follow and contribute to these discussions by using hash tags.

When used responsibly Twitter can be incredibly useful to students, too. I held a senior assembly last month focusing on how students could benefit from using the site. It will be interesting to find out how many have started to do so.

There are some downsides. Twitter does have a problem with spam, which won’t ruin your enjoyment or detract from the site’s usefulness but can be a tad annoying. And every now and again you can be followed by a fake account. These are easy to spot most of the time as they will have posted very few tweets and won’t have many followers, if any at all. Generally these accounts are accompanied by a photo of a scantily clad woman and are easily blocked – although they often disappear after a few days if you ignore them. The biggest downside for me, and this is very much a personal opinion, is how addictive I find the site.

If you are on Twitter already, I am sure you can think of many more ways the site could be used as an education resource. And if you haven’t signed up yet, give it a go. You won’t regret it.

How much will digital textbooks shake up education?

iBooks AuthorThis blog was originally published by The Guardian on 18th February 2012.

I am going to admit something right now: I am a bit of a fan of Apple products. I have a MacBook, an iPhone and an iPad 2 and always look forward to the next announcement to come out of Cupertino. When I heard that the keynote speech last month would involve an education-based announcement, I was particularly excited – there was a lot of talk on the web around the idea of digital textbooks and I was intrigued as to what the company had come up with.

For once, the internet buzz had got it right. Apple announced iBooks 2, digital textbooks and iBooks Author. I tracked down the keynote video onYou Tube and it was a typical Apple promotional video: cheesy and packed with the usual spin but undoubtedly exciting and well made. My initial thought was that this could change everything. I immediately downloaded Life on Earth so I could see for myself.

So what does a digital textbook look like? Well, fantastic, on the evidence of LoE. Opening with an inspiring, attention-grabbing video, it is incredibly immersive. The content is excellent with plenty of text and images. There are more videos to watch, imbedded interactive Keynote presentations and a quiz at the end of the second chapter. It was certainly a very satisfying experience and I would have loved to have had one of these when I was at school many moons ago. Could digital textbooks be the future?

Many students dislike having to carry around piles of heavy books – in fact sometimes they dislike doing it so much they purposely leave them at home! Digital textbooks would make this a problem of the past. Students would only need to bring an iPad to school, something that many are doing anyway in some educational institutions.

Another big problem with textbooks, as we all know, is that they are often out of date as soon as they are printed but going digital would negate the need to constantly purchase the most up-to-date physical version of a text. With Apple’s latest technology, textbooks can be revised via an update in iBooks. This has got to be a good thing.

For me, though, the most exciting part of this announcement was the release of iBooks Author. This is available for free via the Mac App store. It allows Mac users to create their own interactive books and submit them to the iBookstore or share them with other iPad users. This could afford teachers the ability to build interactive schemes of work for students to download, I thought; to create immersive training resources or personalised school textbooks in a quick and easy way.

Unfortunately, it is not all good news and there are some obvious drawbacks.

Digital textbooks and books created using iBooks Author can only be viewed on the iPad. This could be a bit shortsighted by Apple, mainly because the tablet is an unarguably expensive bit of kit and many students and schools will not be able to afford them. Schools are already struggling with their budgets and iPads will not be top of the list of things to buy. This may lead to a technological gap between schools.

The second problem is the amount of hard drive space these books use. Life on Earth is a near-1GB download and that’s just for two chapters. The complete volume could take up most of a 16GB iPad: not a lot of good when you want to buy several textbooks.

Finally, there is the issue with the iBooks Author end-user license agreement. It’s quite a hefty topic to discuss fully here and in itself is probably another blog for another day but I would certainly advise you to read this article on 9to5mac.com. I am not sure how I feel about this aspect of Apple’s announcement but it is certainly causing some controversy.

Is this really the digital revolution that Apple would lead us to believe? Or is simply an update of CD-ROM textbooks on an expensive mobile device? Is this something students will buy into or am I looking at it from the perspective of someone who grew up without mobile proliferation and Google?

What do you think? Please share your opinions and thoughts on digital textbooks and iBooks Author in the comment field on this blog.

Is Gove washing his hands of ICT?

Michael Gove

This blog was originally published by The Guardian on 13th January 2012.

Like many ICT teachers across the country I waited with some trepidation to hear Michael Gove’s speech. Many questions were running through my head. What will he say? What will he do? Am I qualified to continue teaching the subject I love? Will I still have a job? The press had put thousands of ICT teachers into a panic. They had labelled ICT teaching as boring. We were told that we were failing our students. This upset many of us and painted us in a bad light to students, parents and schools. There were some seriously angry tweets the morning before Michael Gove’s announcement at Wednesdays BETT conference. But did I jump the gun?

Before Gove’s speech, he had spoken on how the current ICT curriculum in state schools was simply not good enough. We were told that we should drop ICT and all students should be studying computer science and learning to code. Whilst I agree that more computer science and coding should be taught, I don’t see it as something that should take precedence over the more creative aspects of ICT. Surely there is room for both in the curriculum?

This is why Gove’s speech took me by surprise.

His speech started well, it was well researched and informative. Then he hit us with it. As of September state schools will no longer have to stick to the ICT curriculum. This was great news. The current curriculum is tired, restricting and out of date. Finally teachers can be free to innovate and move forward. Then I read between the lines. Michael Gove and the government are simply washing their hands of ICT. By taking away control and government influence he is simply saying “get on with it”.

This opinion is echoed by Mike Matthews (@mikematthewsCDN) who is a Head of ICT at a state school on the south coast in his blog.

“There are some positives in this speech and some good will come out of it, it always does. However, I would say that Michael Gove, under the pretence of setting ICT free, has in fact, simply cut the subject loose. Abandoning it to fend for itself against private industry and interest who only see pound signs not exam results”.

The majority of us have been “getting on with it” for years. Independent and state schools are full of innovative and inspiring teachers that continue to push the boundaries and have done so for a long time. I rewrite or amend schemes of work at the beginning of every academic year. At my school we are teaching students to blog, design apps for mobile devices in groups and creating screen mock-ups. We are teaching students how smart phones, tablets and many more technologies work. We are using students to help teach HTML coding to their peers. This is just a small selection of what we deliver to our students. Schools across the country are doing the same, it just seems to go unrecognised.

As much as ICT teachers appreciate their newfound “freedom” it does come with some problems. Problems I thought Gove was going to address. Those innovative teachers will continue to innovate; those uninspiring teachers will continue to deliver substandard lessons. In fact there is now even less motivation for them to improve their teaching. Why? Because it will not longer be monitored, technically they will no longer have to meet the minimum requirements of the national curriculum.

In my opinion this will also encourage schools to use even more non-specialist teachers. Some non-specialist are fantastic, they are enthusiastic and keen to learn. However, some find having to teach ICT as a bore and therefore deliver uninspiring lessons. Why spend the money to pay for specialist to deliver a subject that no one will be accountable for?

The most worrying problem is that not all students will learn the same thing. Some students, in some schools will have an outstanding, varied, exciting digital education. Some unfortunately will not.

In conclusion we should thank Gove for letting teachers free of the constraints of the national curriculum. However, we would all benefit from reading between the lines.

Let’s continue being the best that we can be and work together to share the resources that we create in order to ensure that all students are prepared for the future.