Could Alexa work for you?

Second blog for #WeeklyBlogChallenge17

Like many great ideas this blog was born of a comment on twitter by @pepsmccrea

I have a fascination with AI – albeit the kind of HAL AI – but still… Having yet to try Alexa at home, but surrounded by Bluetooth enabled devices and the internet I can’t wait to give it a go. In the meantime I’ve given myself some time to consider uses for this tech in schools.

It is worth mentioning first of all, that there will always be issues of privacy with an always on internet device in schools. This is something that will need to be seriously thought about, I’ve looked into it and I am unclear as to what exactly happens with the voice commands that are sent to the cloud. But – let’s imagine right now that the device is on or off – that it learns, but doesn’t save all recordings for years… (the ethic of this could be another post!) Also, learning from other voices would need to be in there.

Instantly you can see how children merely asking questions and receiving answers, facts and things may not be such a good idea… Alexa would need to have a kind of Socratic approach to answering. It cannnot be simply a high powered calculator. Ask Alexa should not just be the last thing on our ‘if you are stuck…’ list. No, Alexa will need to be a bit smarter – to learn to respond with pointers, hints and other ideas that the children could try first. Saying that however, there is much to be said for an oral account of eye-witness accounts from history, or a different explanation of fractions and decimals. Children will need to learn to listen carefully, and of course, to formualate their questions appropriately.

Some of the above issues could be solved by textbook/curricula providers having Alexa linked modules. This would mean that the children could actually say, ‘Alexa I’m stuck with Chapter two’ or ‘Alexa what does so and so mean in Question 3’. Linked with a smart board (or projector) and it could show videos or other resources. I’m imagining a virtual science experiment whereby videos from a service such as the BBC Schools, or Expresso might be genuinely useful. Google classroom links are obvious here – as this could also lead to children identifying themselves by username and getting personalised content. Again, I realise the technology is not quite there yet – but it is within reach.

Personalised Learning
This is the area that really makes me think we could see a game changer. I already find iPad apps and google classroom brilliant for SEN. An AI enabled device would be able to offer more resources and more ideas for children as mentioned above. Recording the initial teacher input, or reading aloud chapter from books. But also the formulating of questions, the dictation of ideas and the organising of their thoughts could be vitally supported by an AI enabled device. ‘Alexa record this…’ ‘Alexa read back what I just said’ A device which connected to a visualiser could, maybe, learn to read handwriting or support the child in editing. Or upload the images to google classroom and ping the teacher – link to an iPad and you have the pupil recording their words and then sharing with other apps. Again specific apps and providers could link with Alexa.

This is the most obvious area where teachers could be supported. Send to printer command; take the register; share school messages; share school calendar; check emails; read aloud lunch menus… If you use an electronic assistant at home you will realise how it could support your classroom. This is where most privacy issues will come in – you couldn’t really ask it to read aloud school emails if it then saves all the information on a server. Your school calendar probably shouldn’t be that detailed. But then… emails are similarly saved, and many schools already use google calendar or a similar device. One to think about definitely…


Again, I know there are many hurdles to this, I know that the internet connection will need to be faster than most schools currently access. There will be privacy issues, and parental worries. We will need to ensure strong, unbreakable firewalls. Other educational companies will need to get on board to make it genuinely useful…

But I think this is worth investigating – and if anyone wants to donate a few so I can get started….


CNet Review

Donald Clark Blog – ideas and more link

The Farce of KS2 Writing Moderation….

I have moderated writing assessments at Key Stage 2 for at least 7 years – I’ve always jumped at the chance because:

a) it’s great for your school to be certain

b) it makes sense to keep up with the changes and expectations

c) I always enjoy the chance to support other schools.

And it does feel like you’re supporting schools, across the four different Local Authorities I have worked it is clear that no one wants to catch others out and no one wants to put teachers in an awkward situations.

Through the years I have seen it all; the obsession with semi colons; the specific genre types; the ‘work in other books’ phase; endless conversations about independence. When moderating there can be a kind of defeatist, ‘us against them’ atmosphere, but we are usually aiming high, usually looking to get the best from our pupils. It’s never felt quite as pointless as it does now. It’s never felt as if we are just trying to get as many children to pass a line that keeps moving. And it is pointless, and really, kind ofembarrassing.

We are now at the point where ‘independent’ has gone out of the window. Spellings from a set list (so get them up in your classroom folks!) – handwriting can be evidenced elsewhere (so let’s do some special writing in your handwriting book…). Dictionaries encouraged and no specific guidance on number of pieces or type needed. So no writing in science…

Add to this the ‘particular weakness’ – presumably designed for specific SEN – but will now be used by any SLT under pressure to get results up. We are now at peak pointless moderators.

Let’s face it – writing results are only going to go up under this system and moderators are looking complicit. A system of teacher assessments moderating by teachers?! What could go wrong?

Let’s be clear that is going wrong.

Results will go up. Children will be writing more and more using a tick list that stressed out teachers are giving them: lists of words, different characters, the odd passive phrasing, punctuation all in place. Use a dictionary, ask a friend. edit work with an adult next to you and so on. All of it makes a mockery of reaching the expected standard. It’s not even the pupils who suffer – it is our professionalism which is confined to the bin next to ‘independent work’ and ‘author style’. Oh, and secondary schools of course, who will receive a set of identikit writers who have all reached a set ‘standard’, but have a particular weakness (with handwriting gets my money) need a dictionary to spell anything and fully expect the teacher to edit all punctuation errors.

Why I’m a Chartered College mentor.

I thought I would write this post whilst the launch day of the Chartered Teacher scheme was still fresh on my mind.

For those who don’t know, the Chartered College of Teaching was launched last year – with  the aim of giving teachers support, development and a voice. This has,obviously, not been without controversy -isn’t everything controversial these days? Regardless they have started down the path to that aim. Local hubs, conferences and of course their journal ‘Impact‘ – all of which create a space for teachers to read, share and then critique for themselves peer reviewed reports and other, hopefully evidence based, practice. Of course it is early days, and one thing we can agree on is that we are still all learning about what we want from our College.

Becoming a Chartered Teacher

The Chartered Teacher qualification then is about expert teachers in the classroom. It’s about recognising continuing professional development and giving teachers the chance to take ownership of their own expertise. On their site it says that they want to raise the profile of teachers and to support them to acquire the expertise necessary to maintain excellence in teaching.

This appeals to me. Fact is we don’t, as a profession, reward those who stay in the classroom. Continuing professional development is too often about leadership. Looking for excellence in classroom practice; exploring the impact and why it works is vital work. It is already done by those schools who know, but schools are not always the best at supporting teachers. And schools, especially in rural areas, become isolated. Workload is an issue; retention is an issue; we are still being kicked around the political landscape whilst government never really address our position. It makes sense then for us to do something ourselves. Something that supports classroom teachers – gives us pride and professionalism – and supports the development of excellent practice in the classroom.


Of course there will be issues. It is a pilot. At the training day in London on Saturday, 20th Jan, this was discussed. We don’t want the first cohort to feel like guinea pigs, or to feel like their year ‘doesn’t really count’ – hence the amount of work that has gone in to the preparation for what the course contains. They talk about an element of subject, or stage, specialism and assessed pieces of work; the need for training for mentors. And the training indeed, part of being a mentor has meant that we have taken part in a series of four webinars and online discussion connected to these. Webinars with excellent speakers and vital discussion around such subjects as what we can bring to already experienced colleagues, how we as mentors can continue our professional developement and how (or if?) challenge can improve teacher practice. We also had sessions at the launch discussing expectations and aims. It has all felt very rigorous, thoroughly planned and exciting.

So, why am I mentor?

I firmly believe that we have to be the change we want to see.

I’ve spent many years bemoaning the lack of professionalism afforded to us by government, despairing when senior leaders demanded seemingly repetitive and beaurocratic tasks because it was demanded of them. As a class teacher I constantly looked for ways to improve my practice; disappointed by the disjointed training or the constantly political messages from union training. As a head teacher I despair at the messages w dare given from numerous sources and the way this adds to workload – how our teachers are not trusted and how a government change-of-mind can ruin my holiday and destroy my workload.

I’ve learnt that teachers need support, that we as a profession need to provide that support and that nothing improves your own practice than working with and mentoring colleagues!

We know this might not be perfect, but then it is never perfect and if we don’t just get started with it then it will be the next generation of school teachers (and our pupils) who suffer.

Find out more. 

Why we ALL need to improve recruitment and retention.

A new education secretary era begins – and the advent of a new education secretary alllows us to take stock of where we are and, more importantly, where we want to be.

Recruitment and retention is a huge issue right now.

One that impacts on education at all levels, and crucially, one that threatens to get worse as we won’t feel the full lack of trainees for a couple of years. Many open letters have been written, conversations had and suggestions put forward – pay raises, less holiday, workload ‘promises’.

We now need to take some of the responsibility for this crisis –  Local Authorities and MATs and the culture that we have all created – whilst the argument that it is (or was) OFSTED driven still hangs around there is much that schools can do now to help turn the tide. We need to act braver, take responsibility for our own work choices and trust each other. As professionals.

Perpetuating Our Own Myths

Ofsted released their own ‘myths‘ documents and subsequent updates a couple of years ago now. They are attempting to ensure that they are not unduly adding to workload, or to the stress on teachers. This has seen some effectiveness – leadership teams in schools seem to be taking this on – rumbles throughout the system suggest that marking expectations, for example, are being reduced. ‘Wellbeing’ – possibly a fair bit of hype with this, but at least a conversation is taking place.

Trust is the key concept here.

For schools to effectively tackle workload leaders of all types need to stop double and triple checking everything done and intervene only when there is need. Schools where planning is handed in before teaching and in some places after once it is evaluated. Schools where marking is checked weekly, where book scrutiny demand a minimum amount of writing each week, where assessment data is decimalised and expected every half term.

Don’t get me wrong – we need standards and we need to strive for our pupils but we also need realism. We need to encourage open conversation so that teachers feel they can query school systems, can make suggestions and, most importantly, ask for help. This kind of culture comes from the top. Cutting staff meetings, reducing marking expectations, demanding data less frequently are all side effects of this culture, but they don’t necessarily create it. To create this culture you need to announce it – you need to actually tell teachers they are trusted. Book scrutiny, lesson observations, pupil interviews – whatever forms part of your strategic calendar all need to take place in an open manner – with teaching staff involved, not just closed door senior teams. Teachers need to be part of the system, not just be recipients of judgments.

What can change tomorrow:

– your next ‘judgement forming’ action needs to be open and shared with staff. Why are you doing it? What do you want to see? What are the criteria.. etc. Etc.

– senior staff: try just taking the class for a lesson or series of lessons, best way to learn about standards, expectations, behaviour routines etc.

– if there is an issue, and you are looking to rapidly improve standards give staff mentors that they can talk to. Don’t just give a list of things to improve and then a ‘we’ll be back in two weeks’. Give the reasons why changes will impact standards.

– regularly review policies such as your marking and teaching and learning with teaching staff. Try to get honest impact assessments – what does it mean for pupils? What does it mean for staff time? Etc. Etc. Does consistency mean consistency or does it  mean a couple of staff members working all hours and some staf members only  doing what they know will be looked at? Be honest!

– not use performance management to set data targets for class teachers. Data is, after all, a school wide product.

– don’t demand assessment data half termly. No need at all.

Again, all of these things rely on trust – and until we as a profession can honestly, and openly, talk about colleagues with a sense of professional trust rather than bickering and distrust.

Have you tried a MOOC?

When studying Education Technology a few years back MOOCS were just becoming commonplace – and like everything in the edu-tech space was being hailed by some as the technology that would transform education. (See various articles here).

If you haven’t heard MOOCS are Massive Online Open Courses – courses led by Universities (or similar), open to all for no cost and wholly online. There were notable courses that got the ball rolling – Medical courses from Harvard and a large scale artificial intelligence course at Stanford that attracted over 150,000 students back in 2009. Nowadays you can look at MOOCS in almost all areas of study – and for teachers it is rich pickings for CPD and subject specific courses.

The discussion rumbles on of course – we cannnot say that MOOCS have had the impact on education that we thought they might do – and there is no doubt big differences in the courses with quality, dropout rate and student satisfaction. The judgement of MOOCS also remains somewhat controversial. A course that attracts over 100,000 people from across the world will mean different things to different people and we cannot judge their success on drop out rates alone.

However there is something to be said for trying some of these courses for yourself. Take part in a short MOOC and you will be expected to take part in weekly activities (watching and commenting on a video say) – quizzes – peer feedback on comments and ‘essays’. You may be expected to watch interviews via video and then answer questions, or complete tasks using apps and upload results.

In the last few years I have taken part in three MOOCS – I studied coding for a school specific thing, a course with Newcastle Uni about Hadrian’s Wall (when I moved to it!) and more recently a brilliant one at Stansted about the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism. I heartily recommend trying them. The best MOOCS have some things in common of course –  and a good MOOC will have:

  • Weekly targets – expect some kind of interaction each week. Most MOOCS won’t be very long, and will expect a few hours of your time at least.
  • Interaction amongst those taking part and wih some of the course tutors (or facilitators) via a forum.
  • A mixture of media – interviews as well as video clips, graphics and text. Taking full advantage of the technology available.
  • Finishing certificate. I am a sucker for a ‘finish’ – and whether it is via percentage attendance, judging your writing via peer feedback or completion of quizzes the best MOOCS have worked out how to give you data driven feedback for your work.
  • They are ‘live’ – that is to say that they are not ‘at your own place’ but ongoing with deadlines.

If you’re looking for something a bit different for the new year – give one a go – I’ve already signed up for an astronomy course about habitable moons…

And, if you have tried one, let me know in the comments!

Further Reading:

What is a successful MOOC? -The Atlantic

List of MOOCS for teachers at Future Learn.

Moocs will Transform Higher Education – But Not How We Think – TImes Higher Ed


As many of you know, I have had the pleasure of working across the country – and currently in Cumbria. Given the chance to bring together more colleagues from the North of England I jumped at it. Please take a look at the group blog below – and sign up if you are interested!

Exciting things come from colleagues supporting one another!


Northern education is talked about frequently. Northern educators, on the other hand, are talked to rather less frequently. We are regularly told about the deficiencies of the education we offer; we are less regularly listened to about the challenges that shape the education we offer.
This is unjust.
We do not deny there are improvements to be made. We do not deny that change needs to happen. But we reasonably expect to have a voice of our own when discussing how these things might be achieved.
We are as skilled, as passionate, as well-informed as our colleagues in other areas of the country – we deserve to have our voice heard. And too often it feels as if it is not, with discussion and access always based far away from the villages, town and cities that we teach in.
This needs to change.
And so, we propose the creation of a Northern Education Forum. We’ve put together a Google Form for those who may wish to register their initial interest in being involved. The details of its remit, its membership, and its role will be fleshed out over the coming weeks.
But in the meantime, we have one simple question:
You in?

Sarah Ledger
Amy Forrester
Rebecca Stacey
Lisa Pettifer
Michael Merrick

New Teacher Advice

A few tweets doing the round for this – and a few responses (some more tongue in cheek that others…. )

Here’s mine – and forgive me, but it is Primary Teacher aimed!

  • Best way to get to know your children is by teaching them – get straight into your routines and straight into all those great lessons you are raring to try!
  • Don’t waste time with a ‘what did you do over the holidays piece’ – see ideas for writing here.
  • Get straight into routines for presentation and your classroom. If you are not sure what they should be right now ask a colleague – but introduce something. I went massively overboard on ‘rotas’ in my first year teaching – child monitors for everything!!
  • Explicitly model presentation requirements – with older children get them to model them to you.
  • Children love helping! They do! Use this by all means but don’t let it eat into learning time.
  • Make sure when you are talking, they are listening. You are the expert remember, be proud of this. No fiddling!!
  • Get a good class book on the go – it calms tempers and can bring the class back to focus.
  • Listen to them read – no matter how old they are – even in Y6 I had a class list up and aimed to listen to all the children at least twice a week… it forms relationships and really helps with vocab.

Getting to know your school:

  • Have a chat with your head of year or deputy about what is expected in lessons and ask to see some of their sessions.
  • Use your PPA and NQT time wisely – think about what you are not so confident about teaching and brush up on that. Whether it is observing others or reading.
  • Sit in some of the sessions you are allowed to leave – I mean music classes, PE PPA cover, assemblies whatever – watching other adults with your class is a valuable lesson.
  • The SENCO is another good person to spend some time with. Look at how t paperwork is filled in and get to know any targets for your children.
  • Talk to staff! I mean all the staff. Not only about your children (some will behave very differently during lunchtime!) – but also the office staff (do you know what to do if you run out of something?), the cleaner (do they want you to put chairs on table at the end of the day?).  Take a bit of time to find out!

Above all try and enjoy yourself – every school is different but there will always be someone who can help, and if not join in on twitter. No problem is too small. Promise.