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.




Knowledge
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.

Integration
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.

Admin
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…

Realism

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….

Links

CNet Review

Donald Clark Blog – ideas and more link

How I Use Whole-Class Reading

Context first: this is a mixed age Y5/Y6 class.

I tried whole class reading instead of a guided reading carousel last year after a bit of a dip in the KS2 reading last year. And it worked, our children were more confident with the SATS questions, and they talk with great pride about the books they read. For some of the children this is the first time they’ve read whole books. 

Why whole class?

An analysis of test results – as well as the use of standardised tests across the school revealed some common themes.

  • phrasing of some of the questions – e.g. the ’find and copy one word’ or ‘find and copy a phrase which shows..’
  • struggling to scan – running out of time
  • Vocabulary (an oldie, but common theme)
With this in mind, and with a very wide range of needs within the class, I couldn’t help thinking that the carousel style of guided reading was not giving the children enough exposure to ‘good’ reading, we weren’t discussing author choice enough, or answering questions with enough depth. I started by looking at many of the people who have tried this method before me.

The Text

The first hurdle was the choice of text – as it was a whole new concept for the class I thought long and hard as I wanted something that was challenging and interesting. I wanted them to feel like we were trying something new, and potentially very challenging. We went for Treasure Island – and then built around this our literacy planning and activites. This ensured it was a key part of the classroom environment. Other texts that have worked well have been Journey to the River Sea, The Railway Children and we are currently leading Secrets of the Sun King.

The Sessions

Our School has forty minutes of reading every day. Four out of five I lead the sessions. For the other session they can read what they like.
My sessions work like this… at least 20/30 mins of reading mainly led by me although as I get to know the children better I will choose them to read paragraphs at a time. Questioning varies between vocabulary or author choice of punctuation through to ‘what would you do…?’ type questions. I focus questions on specific areas so it’s not a scattergun approach. First half term it has all been vocabulary and punctuation. You really have to work on questioning; making it non-threatening, discussion style.
Then ten, twenty minutes on a task. Usually a written task, or a few questions.

The Tasks

Vocabulary work – I give them a word they follow a practised routine with it. Synonym, antonym, dictionary definition, contextual definition, type of word and ‘context’.
A couple of written questions – linked to my oral questioning. I also give them a point value so they get used to searching for evidence if needed.
Quick creative piece e.g. a diary entry, a scene we’ve not witnessed. Drawing a scene that has been described. Aim here is story understanding – anything more and I will link these to the literacy lessons.

Some Practical Points

  • I still ‘just’ read the book to them, so sometimes they are just listening and enjoying!
  • It is really important that they get their copy of the book to take home if they wish, to reread and refer to as we answer tasks, or work on linked work. Even to read on if they want.
  • Share copies of books with local schools. Create a shared document keeping a list of the class books you buy so you can share them.
  • Be inclusive – all children can be included in this. If struggling to read, encourage them to follow and listen. Rulers help.

Starting a headship in September? Here’s advice I was given…

I will be starting my 5th year of headship in September – and I don’t need to say how quickly that time has gone. I would be being dishonest if I said that I love it – I have a mixed relationship with the job at times. It is complicated by the small school (around 80 children) in which I currently work – which means that over the last two years my teaching commitment has crept up to .6. Being so busy that I feel I am not quite functioning at my best has become the norm – I just have to be okay with that.  

I thought I would share three key pieces of advice I have been given (and you have probably been given too) over the years and see how they aged… 

  1. You must make time for yourself! An empty battery can’t power anything else. (Or variations of that theme; buckets etc.) 

To be honest this advice used to annoy me the most. I found it patronising and often felt like throwing my diary to those who said this. Why wouldn’t I want to make time for myself?! I love my life! Wouldn’t I do it if I could?! Well, it turns out I didn’t…  I moved to one of the most beautiful places in the country and barely left a square ten miles of it for a year. Then I got talking to an electrician who said to me something along the lines of ‘I’m to expensive for that, you need someone else…’. Simple advice that made me think. Am I using my time and expertise for the best here?! In a small school – was I just the most expensive painter and decorator? Was I really the best person to continually cover lunchtimes? (Note this is different to being ‘visible’ – of which I am a huge advocate). So, with the help of a brilliant governor I sat down and looked at a typical week (or so – typical is atypical to be honest). I then began to honestly review what I was actually using my time for – and then costed it. And went from there. I managed to make better use of school resources, and also made more time for the things that I amm actually good at (not many things to be fair, but I was getting tired of being a jack of all trades). This meant that I had to say right, I’m leaving at this time on a Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon is my PPA time for my class work. Coaching a teacher takes place at this time. Parent open door policies cannot apply first thing I’m afraid – and that age old one ‘Have you spoken to the class teacher? – which seemed to solve 6 out of 10 problems. Good advice which is often not acted on. Be ruthless with your time and imagine you had to pay yourself your hourly rate – are you giving the school good value for money? After all, good head teachers are hard to find!

  1. This [insert problem that has arisen that morning] won’t matter in six months. Just sort it and leave it!

It’s weird – I have a kind of ‘inverse reaction’ to the perceived seriousness of an issue. A huge police-involved safeguarding issue and I was calm as a cucumber ready to call meetings and to speak to children. Behavioural issues – acted without a thought. But, a phone call about the homework policy, or a slight off-message chat with a member of staff and I could be a wreck for hours, days even. Constantly going over the situation.. Was the policy up to date? Had I really said that?! And so on… Luckily I have some amazing Headteachers around me (and some who were not so willing to help… trust your instinct here and avoid those) and one fab one, who had the misfortune to call after one such problem arose and was almost ruthless in her dismissiveness.  I was a bit taken aback – but she was absolutely right. And that really is all to say about this. You might need someone to talk through a few issues – and it helps to have brilliant staff at school that you can use to get a perspective but really, as the Persian wise man said ‘this too shall pass’. 

  1. Always be reasonable – by taking a reasonable stance you put others in the position of being unreasonable. 

My brilliant mentor said this to me – and whilst it may sound a bit unrealistic it has kept me sane in a number of situations. It can be easy to want the upper hand in a dispute – or to just put your foot down about something because, after all, you are the head teacher! But really – is it worth it? Compromise is often harder to do, but if you can be reasonable about something then do. Whoever is causing the conflict. It can help to take a moment and consider, simply, what the reasonable thing to do would be… 

 

Other advice was handed out over the years as well – and I may look over those in the next post! Would love to hear advice you have been given, and how it worked for you.

Can Ed Tech save our schools?

Spoiler: no!

Hinds calls for Ed Tech Revolution  in Schools 

Education Technology is something of a hobby of mine. Trying new things in the classroom is something I enjoy and, as the head of a small school that is isolated, utilising technology to the best of our ability has definitely saved us time and money. It is with some cautious optimism then that I read Hinds latest proclamation. Technology in the classroom can provide genuine educational experiences that bring to life curriculum areas – it does support good assessment practice and it can be used to provide targeted support to those children who may need it.  Then I read a bit more of his ideas and I really want to remind him of some key points… 

Education Technology companies are not the best placed to ‘bring tech’ to schools. You never start with the tool and create the problem to fit it. If there is a problem you have – then fine – but do not ask  ‘ed tech companies’ to look at how they can solve problems in the classroom. This way lies lots of wasted money – interactive whiteboards are probably the best example of this. There are definitely some fab examples of interactive whiteboard use up and down the country, but many would be fine as just a projector.

Technology does not automatically save on workload.  In fact school leaders should be reminded that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. This is the issue with electronic assessment systems, or online feedback ideas – often they work for one teacher who may need something, but for those teachers who had a system already they just add to the workload. Forcing all teachers or all schools to follow the same system will not save on time and will add to the very increasing list of training to do. In a school with problematic internet access then it will just slow down even more if a cloud based SIMS system is used. Schools that rush in with technology will suffer with teachers who are not confident and leaders who don’t have time to share their vision. 

New tech always cost money – regardless if the actual ‘product’ is super cheap or even free. Laptops need to be upgraded regularly – those desktops that still run on Windows XP need to be discarded safely – headphones disappear and get broken – licenses for anti virus need upgrading. Internet costs reviewing regularly and so on. You can never really on cheap IT solutions and schools do not have spare money sitting around to make these ‘solutions’ work. 

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve written about apps I’ve used in the class, I’m a fan of MOOCs and I regularly take part in online coaching, mentoring and training. There can be no doubt that edtech has made some real improvements to the availability and ease of use of education. But the Education Minister needs to be aware that his words will give sales reps up and down the country the freedom to push more yet unwanted rubbish onto schools. The answer to all of this of course is for the government to stop tinkering – to put their efforts into raising the funding schools receive at the base level rather than added extras and incentives. To allow those best placed to decide what to do with their resources and how to use technology. 

Of course, this whole announcement does not really come with any money, but it gives a message to tech companies that schools need something that do not. And it means that school leaders feel under pressure to be doing something with ‘edtech’.

 

Why every new Headteacher needs a mentor.

It’s that time of year again, July draws to a close and though we plan August, we inevitably start to think about September. We contemplate new positions and, as is only natural, we seek advice from those already in that position. I’ve been fortunate enough to have four years in my first headship position now and I always read those ‘new to headship’ advice columns with a wry smile. Of course get to know your school, yep, you need to build your team. Spend time in the classroom – every classroom -and naturally ask questions of your governors. And do all of this at a slow pace. No point at all in rushing. All of this seems to make sense.  One thing often overlooked is the importance of a mentor. 

I have always sought out mentors. And I’ve always asked, using that language, if someone will mentor me. I don’t always connect them with my current role but they are always people think differently to me – have a different outlook or a different attitude. To that end I think you should search out your own mentor as a new head. I don’t think using your own previous headteacher would work, as the chances are you have already learnt their mannerisms and know their advice automatically. They may also be super busy, and you need people who can commit to a regular time and don’t clock watch too much.

As a new head, ask your governors to shortlist people who may be able to help. Work out what your needs as a mentee are – do you want someone with precious experience in the role? Someone who can offer specific experience -e.g. financial aspect or local knowledge. Perhaps you know someone who you think would be perfect already? In which case ensure that it is a formal arrangement – it can’t just be a friendly chat. You need to feel safe, and feel that you are supported.

  • Set a regular time to meet
  • Discuss boundaries with phone calls (or ’emergencies’)
  • Make sure they have the time- this is often what goes wrong with full time Headteachers.
  • Make your expectations clear – have you identified an area of your role that you are not as confident with?
  • Protect the mentoring time – no matter how busy you are. You need at least half an hour, and it can be via the phone.

On a more personal note, my mentor sadly passed away this year. It caused me to reflect both professionally and personally on the gains from this relationship and just how fortunate I was to find such a brilliant influence on, not just my career, but my life as a Headteacher. An exceptionally calm and stabilising influence – able to condense experience into optimistic advice which made sense, not just soundbites and platitudes. Not necessarily someone who everyone agreed with, but principled and with a long view who could bring things into perspective when needed.

I identified that my need would be more about my own reaction to adversity – I needed a calm and experienced voice who would help me to realise that what I was tackling was, usually, nothing out of the ordinary. I didn’t need someone to remind me to check data; to ensure the website was Ofsted compliant or that progress was good. I was doing all that to myself already. Looking back at my first couple of years as a Headteacher I realise just how important that calm voice was. Our regular meetings (no matter what else I was dealing with) were incredibly supportive and, importantly, made me realise that I had to look after myself.  

It is hard in our profession to make space and time to reflect, especially with another, just as dedicated, professional, but it is a habit worth forming. 

Why I’m not sure about a women-only NPQH.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. I’m worried this will be a step backwards for equality and understanding – a short term gain that will only fuel the misunderstandings and lack of empathy.

There have been excellent articles written (see links below) which outline some of the key reasons. The need for role models and mentors is something I constantly struggle with, although I have had excellent role models from both genders during my career. I understand how tough it can be for women who never get that ‘tap on the shoulder’ – for women who are ignored. A need for a meeting of sympathetic mothers who are struggling with the same issues; like-minded discussions around childcare and empathy at work. Or, how a female only NPQH will develop confidence, will cover the same content but will offer more female role models.

I worry we are shooting ourselves in the foot. After all female leaders will be managing men, and prospective male leaders will be managing women. Issues such as childcare and managing time need to be discussed with both genders, preferably at the same time, so reactions and experiences can be shared. Conscious and unconscious bias need to be a part of leadership discussions for both genders – again in a surrounding where dialogue can be shared, can be monitored, ensured that both genders are heard. Prospective leaders need to know the impact of decisions and need to understand these issues – these are issues that need to be in the NPQH full stop, and it is here that efforts should be maintained. We risk the view that these issues become female issues – or that women won’t discuss them with male leaders and male staff. Leadership training, much like good PSHE provision in school, should offer space for these areas. Not close them off. If this pattern is followed would the result be single-gender cohorts for all?

Of course I’m not saying that mixed gender NPQH misses out these things – it may do, of course, which is an issue in itself. More than that however there may become a perception that a female only NPQH will do ‘more’ of these issues. We will create a female-only space that is discussing things that directly affect the men we lead and the boys we teach. Women will then be forced to choose – a course which seemingly supports and challenges these, or one which doesn’t?  The offering of female role models is also problematic to me – as experiences differ vastly from one person to the next – looking for a role model which reflects to closely your own experience is, I feel, a mistake. Inspiration is needed from everywhere and we all need to recognise the challenges; not just gender, but class, geography, family etc etc that we all experience. If you narrow your world view, you narrow how far you can go in it. My most empathetic and challenging mentor was male and I credit that ‘tap in the shoulder’ that nudged me forwards to a brilliant female Head Teacher. Likewise I have seen leaders of both genders belittle and devalue their staff.

Headteachers need the confidence to speak up, in front of anyone regardless of gender, this is true. It is also true that situations occur where women feel their opinion is not valued, where we have to support one another, echo others’ thoughts and generally ‘keep an eye out’ for one another. Whilst the WomenEd 10% braver mantra goes some way to developing this, developing leaders need to meet others who handle difficult conversations differently, regardless of gender. Learn from the experience of others. Leaders will always have to tackle difficulties and leadership training should help with this. For all candidates. It may be the case that male candidates need support with this or need support to recognise any unconscious bias they may themselves be displaying. It may that we need generic bias training for all leaders – including volunteers such as governors – but I don’t think a female only NPQH will help with these broader issues. It may indeed hinder the experience of those who only draw on female voices, missing the issues that men experience as they go through the process.

I am open to convincing though – and would love to hear others’ thoughts. I don’t think we can say that men can’t have an opinion, though I haven’t seen many. We need to build a professional qualification that is fit for the future rather than echoing current mistakes. Calling out those leadership course that don’t offer a range of empathetic voices.

Links:

TES Article

Hopeful Headteacher Blog

Julie Hunter – Why a Women Only NPQH

 

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.