Sunday 9 February 2014

From Queen to Sinatra

For those who couldn't be there, what follows is the script of my keynote address at the 4th ICT and Languages Conference (#ililc4) on Sunday 9th February.  You can watch the recording of the livestream here.

From Queen to Sinatra
Putting the Pedagogy into the Technology

Under pressure to conform

Pushing down on me,
Pushing down on you,
No man ask for.
Under pressure.

We are all under pressure.  Under pressure from many angles.  Under pressure to conform to an ideal, do our job in a certain way, to be a certain kind of teacher.  We are under pressure within our own schools, from our line managers, from the senior leadership team, from the governors.  We are under pressure from constant assessment, from marking, from exams.  We are under pressure to make GCSE interesting.  We are under pressure from the new curriculum, its challenges and the planning that it requires.  We are under pressure from our students, and we are under pressure from their parents.  (Well, some of them!)

We are also under pressure from “the outside”.  Under pressure from he-who-cannot-be-named the Secretary of State for Education (and my! hasn’t he been busy this week!) and his desire that we should “stop using gimmicks and educate children properly” (Telegraph, September 2013), among other things.  We are under pressure from Ofsted, and, however much we agree or disagree with their inspection regime, from what the result of an Ofsted inspection means for our school.  We are also under pressure from business and the wider community to stop this “vicious cycle of monolingualism” to quote The Guardian.  And we are also under pressure to work even harder, to dig even deeper, to enable our students to overcome their preconceived notion that languages are not useful and that they are difficult.

I expect you can see now why I have chosen the title of this address, at least the first part.  I’ll be taking you from Queen to Sinatra, with a little nod along the way to The Buggles and Kelly Clarkson.  That’s got you all wondering, I expect!

Framing things with music is a natural thing for me - music frames my life.  I have always been a producer and a consumer of music, of diverse styles and formats.  A former colleague and dear friend once came into my classroom at lunchtime and caught me rocking out to Jamiroquai.  I had plugged my mp3 player into the whiteboard speakers and turned it up pretty loud.  Jamiroquai finished and, as my mp3 player was set to random, Abba came on next, then, coincidentally, David Bowie.  “You have a very catholic-with-a-small-c taste in music,” he said.  It’s true.  Wait and see.

So Queen and David Bowie wrote and performed a seminal song called “Under Pressure”.  We are all under pressure, as a collective, as a profession, from many sources.  I’m sure that you, like me, are under personal pressures too.  Allow me to share some of mine with you.

For half the week I am a peri.  Not a periwinkle, nothing to do with a periwig oh no.  I am a peripatetic teacher.  If I look up the word “peripatetic” in the dictionary, it tells me that I am one who walks about, who is itinerant, unsettled.  A teacher who works in more than one school, and who then, once in those schools, works in more than one classroom is definitely those things.  I am under pressure because I have no base, because I have to remember to bring everything with me each day, and because I can never guarantee that everything will work as I want it to.  Yes, photocopier, I’m talking about you.  You too, internet connection.

I feel like this little bird on South Shields beach.  I’m running along on wet sand, dangerously close to the water, aware that at any moment a big wave could come along and make me wet, and that would spoil all my plans.

In the other half of the week, when I work from home and other places too if I’m asked, I am also under pressure, to have new ideas, to make new and innovative resources, to keep abreast of everything that is happening in the world of education, because that is what I am known for, that’s how I earn my money when not in the classroom.  All these bring other pressures, on my family life, on my free time.

I suppose I am under considerable pressure from technology.  I rely on it for so much in my work.  When I started teaching in 1995 I had an OHP and a Coomber.  That was pretty much it as far as technology was concerned.  If I needed a worksheet, I got out my scissors, glue and black pen.  The challenge was to see how small I could write and how much I could get onto one sheet of paper.  When I left my secondary job in 2009 I found some of these worksheets languishing in the back of my cupboard and wondered what on earth I had been doing.  I started typing worksheets on our home computer and printing them out in 1996.  CGTimes font, no pictures.  It was to be a number of years before I had a computer in my classroom.
Things are very different now and therefore the challenges also are very different.  I do a lot of things very differently now, and technology helps me a huge amount.  But there are also many things I do the same as I did way back in 1995.  

Technology and teachers – a complex relationship

Technology exists.  The new gadgets exist.   We feel obliged to use them.  To be a good teacher, we feel, we should buy into the technological revolution, embrace it, give ourselves over to it.  The school expects it.  Shape up or ship out.  Indeed there’s not much that technology can’t do nowadays.  It’s revolutionised the role of the teacher in not very many years.  Could technology replace teachers?  They tried it in Japan five years ago, but all has gone strangely quiet on that front since then.

In the 1960s, big, brash, colourful, loud TV put an end to the golden age of radio broadcasting.

Pictures came and broke your heart,
Put the blame on VTR.

Yes, apparently Video Killed the Radio Star.  We don’t want technology to kill the teacher’s star.  We need teachers’ charm and quirkiness, their personality and their art.  I told you there’d be a nod to The Buggles.

So our relationship with technology, as teachers, is a complex one.  On the one hand we want to use it in our lessons because that’s what everyone else seems to be doing, while on the other hand we don’t want to make ourselves redundant.

In an attempt to find out about teachers’ relationships with technology and to gauge the lay of the land, I asked the #MFLTwitterati, via SurveyMonkey, the following questions:
-Name one thing that you, as a language teacher, can do better than computers or other technology.
-Name one thing that computers or other technology can do better than you in language teaching.
Those of you who responded online or who followed the survey’s progress on Twitter will know that I was after 100 responses, which I got, so thank you so much to everyone who took the time to submit their answers.  Why 100 answers?  So we can play Pointless of course!  Or would Family Fortunes be more appropriate – this is my dilemma!  The most popular answers will give us a clear indication of the feelings of this sample of teachers, hence Family Fortunes, while the pointless answers are always going to be more individual, to indicate an individual’s relationship with technology and how it impacts on their own particular teaching style.  Anyway, I’m going to tell you the answers and some interesting facts about them.  It’s Pointless just cos I really like Pointless, as most of you doubtless know, and because Pointless always strikes me as more intellectual, like your good selves.  I’m sure that in a round about Famous Franks your answer wouldn’t be “Swiss Franc”…. 

To break with Pointless protocol, I’m going to tell you the top 3 answers first, in reverse order.  Keep track of how many points you would have won.

In joint 2nd place, 11 people said (and I bet they were chuckling as they typed this first one) translate accurately and speak.  The most popular answer, with 13, was personalise learning/adapt to students’ needs.  Computers are brilliant in lots of ways, but they can’t see the group of children we have in front of us, who have come in for the last lesson of the day from the wind, the rain and a PE lesson, and know exactly what they will need for the next hour.

Here are some other answers that received more than 1 vote:

Interact with students
Build relationships with students
Give feedback
Make students laugh
Praise students


The remaining answers received one point each:
Assess oral work
Be emotionally intelligent
Be flexible
Create a learning atmosphere in the classroom
Do actions
Give students real life experiences to relate to
Help students to make connections to content
Manage behaviour
Non-verbal communication
Provide context
Recognise talent
Teach grammar
Understand when a student has mastered a skill or concept
Work for 12 hours without having to reboot
Yes – teachers still work when there is no electricity or internet connection!

Now what leaps out at me on seeing these results, is that most of these things are things that only humans can do.  It’s not that we do them better than technology, it’s that technology can’t do a lot of them at all.  Many of them are the very things that make us human, and that make us decide to become teachers in the first place.   Nearly 20% of respondents used the words encourage, enthuse, explain, empathise, engage, inspire, motivate and praise.   About 40% of respondents mentioned something that is innately human.

Now the second question.  The results are equally as interesting while being more diverse. 
Here are the top 3 answers, again in reverse order.  
In joint second place with 7, we have give instant feedback and vocabulary drilling and the top spot, with 9, is create engaging games and resources.  
I’ll comment more on those later. 

Here are some more responses which received more than one vote:
Be accessible 24/7
Authentic material
Pictures / visuals / graphics
Authentic audio
Grammar drilling (interestingly lower on the list than vocabulary drilling)
Connect with culture
Authentic video

Motivate students
Assess quickly and accurately
Engage students
Store data
One-to-one work with students
Access to up-to-date language
Different voices for listening
Promote independence
Allow students to work at their own pace
Find facts quickly

There were again a number of responses that received one vote, which I’ll quickly run through for you.   Remember that these are things that teachers think technology can do better than them:
Entertain students
Be creative
Record and playback
Pause and rewind
Present and rework a text
Check unknown vocabulary
Reach all kinds of learners
Assess all learners simultaneously
Listen to all learners and record them simultaneously
Media-rich content

Although the answers to this second question were more diverse, there were some striking common themes.  12 people mentioned speed.  10 people mentioned feedback.  9 people used the word authentic.  And 8 people mentioned student independence.  All in all, 30% of respondents alluded to the convenience and to the labour-saving and time-saving aspects of technology.  So does technology do these things better than us, or just quicker than us, and for more hours in the day?  It certainly enables us to reach more students at a time, to spread ourselves more thinly, to record 30 students at once, for 30 students at once to practise a certain point and get feedback on it.  One interesting comment made in a response was that students will take repeated negative comments from a computer but not from a teacher.  And this reminds us of the theme of the answers to the first question, which were all about human interaction, relationships and emotion.

Do it your way

The consensus of opinion appears to be, then, that technology saves us time and allows us to reach more students at once, and not necessarily during school time.  It can instantly access authentic materials, so important to bring our subject to life, that it would take us many hours and trips abroad to collect.  It can also be seen that teachers provide the human touch, the nurturing and caring side, that, however advanced computers are now, they can still not provide.  Our teacher-pupil relationship is unique and cannot be replaced by a machine.  As teachers we interact with our students on a personal level, and we also enable  students to interact with each other.  Using technology is often more solitary.   Students need teachers to start them off on their learning journey, to point them in the right direction and, of course, to select the right tools to enhance and enrich their learning, whether those tools be tablets or Tarsias. 

Technology can, and has, opened doors, expanded minds, and changed the world.  But it’s just one part of our toolkit as teachers.  I think it’s important to use low-tech and other toys as a respite from tech-fatigue.  Will Death by PowerPoint give way to Death by Technology?  It all comes down to what can technology do better than a teacher, rather than instead of a teacher?  We need to use it to enhance our skills and our favourite activities, not to replace them.

Here’s what I think I can do better than technology and what it can do better than me.  I don't use it for the sake of it, but because I think it makes my job as a teacher easier and better.  My relationship with technology is indicative of my teaching style.  I will try to split it into the two distinct areas, but there always going to be some grey areas and overlaps.

What can I do better than technology?

I can admire the children’s photos and souvenirs from Spain and the handfuls of Euros that they bring in to show me.  I can give them a high-five when they have a particularly good lesson.  I can cheer when they finally get it.  (I remember playing Cluedo with a lower ability Year 5 French class, and it was taking a long time to get the answer.  They finally got it right and I shouted “Yeeeeeeeees!”  just as the Head and a visitor walked past.)  I can give them a hug and a smile when they are feeling down or when they draw me (yet another) picture.  I can make them laugh, like when playing Kim’s Game with Year 2.  All I did was pretend to shoot the numbers away – 1, 2, 3, bang!

I can speak the language better than technology.  I am a living, breathing language speaker, the closest that the children are likely to get to a real French person or a real Spanish person.  I can speak it spontaneously, I can slow down when necessary, I can repeat when necessary.  I can carefully structure our class speaking activities to be clear through repetition of core phrases.  However, in the primary sector especially, there are colleagues who do not have the same confidence.  There are many computer-based tools out there that will help them to improve, or in some cases do the speaking for them.  There’s one of those grey areas I was talking about.

I can plan better than technology can.  I know what suits the children in the class better than some generic, off-the-peg plan.  I know what we did last lesson, what they found easy, what needs more work.  I know what sort of activities the children like and don’t like.  As long as Year 4 French get to play Round the World they are pleased.  Year 5 Spanish yearn to work in groups.  The more singing Year 2 Spanish do, the happier they are.  I can select resources that I know are suitable for the children in the class.  Not what a publisher says are suitable for the children in the class.

I can explain better than technology.  I have learned during these 19 years of experience how best to explain the concept of gender, for example.  Just groups of words that behave differently, it’s Latin’s fault, the words masculine and feminine are just labels, they could have other labels.  And Year 3 are happy with that.
I can answer all those little questions that they have while they are working, tailor the explanation to the individual child, knowing what they already know.  More often than not, I get them to explain it to me, and they find out they do really know the answer after all.  If the children are working at the computer, it’s more often than not still the teacher who has to do the explaining, n’est-ce pas?

I can sing better than technology.  And I don’t stop halfway through to buffer.  To cough or sneeze, yes, but not to buffer.  The only problem is, though, that I don’t play the guitar.  I would love to be able to play the guitar – just imagine all the singing I could do in class then!  But stringed instruments and me have never got along.  I much prefer anything percussive.  In the late 90s we had a very talented secondary teacher in Sunderland who could take a karaoke track and put her own French words to it.  The students would then sing it and do all sorts of fabulous choreographed moves.  Inspired by this, I purchased a karaoke cassette (yes, cassette) and set to work on creating my own masterpiece.  The first track on the cassette was Gina G’s Ooh aah Just a little bit, and I think I got as far as

Je me lève a little bit
Je me lave a little bit more

before I gave up.  So thank goodness for Songsmith, a downloadable piece of software which enables me to go about it in a different way, and accompany my own songs without the need for a guitar.  You need some knowledge of keys and chord progressions to make it work, but you get a really professional result.  I make up a lot of my own songs, but I also use plenty from elsewhere.  Where would we be without YouTube, and all the other websites that are such a rich source of authentic music?  But we must always remember that technology can’t do whacky actions and look like a goon in front of the children and make them laugh.

What can technology do better than me? 

As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t use much tech during lesson time at the moment, as I can’t guarantee that when I get there it will be working.  Here is the kit that I carry around with me all the time:
USBs for all the computers that aren’t up to date enough to cope with Box and Dropbox
My trusty camera for photographing children’s work ready for my records and for the school blog
My Flip camera (usually attached to my Gorillapod) ready for recording puppet work and so on
My beaten-up Olympus voice recorder, with built-in USB, often used for recording the children singing

You’re probably thinking, “Oh, how delightfully quaint! I would use my phone/tablet for all such things.”   Well in both my schools teachers aren’t allowed to have their phones on in the classroom, and anyway I wouldn’t want my emails and tweets pinging up while the children are working!  I have just started experimenting with using my ancient Android Vega tablet in the classroom (they aren’t getting their hands on the Xperia!), but not enough that I can speak about it with any credibility here.

This tech is better than me at recording the children’s spoken work (given that I can’t record it at all!) and photographing work is much easier and quicker than scanning or colour-photocopying endless pieces of paper.   The children are used to me doing this, so much so that one Year 6 boy said just this week, “Miss, I want to take this mini-book home.  Can you take a photo to put in my book?”   So technology enables me to record the children’s work, to celebrate it and keep it for assessment evidence.   It’s much easier to store mp3 files and jpgs than it is a pile of cassettes (dossiers sonores, those were the days….) and pieces of paper.

Technology is infinitely better at bringing culture into the classroom than I am.  I can’t be the only teacher who, in the olden days, went on school trips abroad or on holiday and went into frantic-teacher mode, picking up anything and everything with French writing on it, raiding the discount catalogues at the supermarket, swiping estate agencies’ brochures and buying large quantities of postcards.  Strangely, most of it ended up being unused.  The internet helps us to see real life in the countries whose languages we are teaching, often in real time.  We can have face to face contact with a classroom of students in another country via Skype.  We can send information to penpals far away at the touch of a button, at no cost, with no extra stationery.  When I first started Comenius projects in 1998 I never dreamed that this would be possible.

Technology is much better than me at keeping track of all the useful websites that I find or whose links I am sent.  I used to paste the URLs into a Word document, usually with few or no words about what the site was about, and then come back to it and find it impossible to use.  Delicious, the online bookmarking site, enables me to save and easily retrieve all such links.  It makes my work quicker and it is much more convenient than a Word document.  And I actually use it, regularly.

Are you a head of department?  You wouldn’t want me in your department.  I’m the one who has all the crazy ideas and makes all the resources, but also the one who never keeps up with marking and who is rubbish at record-keeping.  I’ve been trying extra-extra-extra-hard since September to keep on top of it all, and am doing much better.  Not brilliantly, but much better.  Mainly down to a new and improved way of recording what the children can do.

Now that we are level-less, I use a series of “I can” statements to assess what the children can do. 
When you hover over the black boxes at the top, it shows you which I can statement it is.  If I have one piece of evidence that the child can do that, I enter a “1” in the box.  The box turns red.  If they do it again, I put in a “2” and the box goes yellow.  3 times and the box goes green.  This shows me also what is harder to assess and record.  For example “I can count from 16 to 31” has no records.  It has obliged me, though, to think of a way in which the children can peer assess this so that I don’t have to listen to all 30 of them individually.  In just one hour a week I simply don’t have the time.

Technology is better at drawing than me and can do it much quicker.  I’m not a bad drawer, but I can make better images using my computer which are then easier to use and manipulate.  I can make a series of faces, for example, in the same time that it would take me to draw by hand and scan just a couple.

Technology can make better resources than me.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  The computer wouldn’t know what to do if my brain didn’t have some kind of input at the beginning of the creative process.   I’ve already described my ancient handwritten worksheets.  Creating a resource on the computer makes it so much nicer, and, if you’re me, so much more legible.  You can add pictures, fancy fonts, illustrations…  And even better, you don’t have to store them in a filing cabinet!  You don’t have to have huge lever arch files full of pieces of paper in your cupboard!  My hard drive not only stores resources better than me, it files them and arranges them better, as long as I am sensible enough to give the file a recognisable name and put it in the right place when I save it.  Using various online and downloadable pieces of software I can make games for the children to play at home and in school.  Content Generator, Australian Languages Online and Quia are invaluable and easy to use.

And last but by no means least, technology is better at sharing than me.  It’s not that I was no good at sharing earlier on in my career, it’s just that the only people I could really share with were the people in my department, by giving them a copy of the worksheet I had just made.  Thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web and Web 2.0 I can, and do, share my resources with teachers from as close as Durham or as far away as Sydney.  I love Twitter and the support and camaraderie offered by the #MFLTwitterati.  I mentioned to Lisa not very long ago that Twitter is the only place where people share with me as much as I share with them.   Just about every resource I’ve made since 2004 is on MFL Sunderland, freely available to anyone who wants to download and use it.  What do you do with yours?  Everyone has something that somebody else will find useful, so blog it, tweet it, upload it, share it!


And now, the end is near,
And so I face the final curtain.
My friends, I’ll say it clear,
I’ll state my case of which I’m certain.

So that’s me and technology, and our complex relationship.   If I didn’t have modern technology to help with me with my work, I’d still be able to do it, but it would be a lot harder, a lot less fun and a lot less interesting.  If I were Kelly Clarkson I would sing to technology:

My life would suck without you.

Technology and I help each other to get the job done.  My teaching style is the way it is because I use technology judiciously and sensibly when it can do things better.  The things I can do better, I still do.  

You know what works best in your classroom.  We all have our own style.  So we all need to have the courage of our convictions and resist the pressure to conform to someone else’s ideal.  We should have the confidence to stick with our own style and to add technology only as we see fit.  Only if it will do the job better than us.  Only if it will enhance our own natural, shining ability. 

Magpie whatever you can and wherever you can, and most of all, in the face of all who put us under pressure, have the confidence to say:

I faced it all
And I stood tall
And did it My Way.

Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. Words fail me, that was brilliant (just watched the streaming) As another 'peri' teaching 3 languages in 2 primary schools, it really struck a chord! Thank-you.