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June 13, 2011 / mrespiers

Dream School, Real Politics

A great deal has been written about Jamie’s Dream School but I have to admit that I am gob-smacked.

The government has invited participants from Dream School to appear before the education select committee.
I really don’t know where to begin. I want to swear, I want to shout. I want to know who’s idea this was and who then said ‘yes, that’s exactly what we need, some input from a some people who have not been trained to teach but spent a few hours trying to ‘teach’ 20 young adults who have already left school’.
If you did not see Dream School or have not heard or read about it, let me try to summarise it:
Jamie Oliver (yes, the chef and  all round good guy, super hero campaigner) decided that because he did not do well at school he would try and sort out the problems of the education system. I had high hopes for this initially. He is rich, well connected due to past campaigns and enthusiastic. I hoped for the TV equivalent of The Guardian’s ‘The School I’d Like’ campaign/project but what we got was basically celebrities with no training in rooms with young adults who had done badly at school. The school was not real, the teachers were not real, the students were not real.
And now the government wants to know what lessons they learned! This is a bad case of blurred of boundaries here. What next? The cast of Holby City are called in as part of the NHS listening exercise, John Nettles consulting with the equalities commission?
In a statement, the committee said: “Whilst Dream School had only 20 students, many of the challenges faced by them and their teachers are found across the UK and in other schools and colleges as well.” – what, like TV cameras and untrained teachers?
‘A spokeswoman conceded that while the purpose of the session is to explore behaviour, discipline and the curriculum, the MPs were also keen to connect with a wider audience than its loyal following of education specialists’. – discipline? Like the esteemed David Starkey calling a child fat? And if they wanted a wider audience what about the great teachers who contributed to the one good thing to come out the show, the dream teachers competition and films? Engaging, creative, committed and trained, what better input?
Maybe I am naive and stupid to be so amazed at this? The boundaries between politics and entertainment have been blurring for a long time before this but something else bothers me too.
Why education? Would Jamie Oliver or C4 have put untrained barristers in court or untrained doctors in surgery? Of course not. And as many teachers pointed out at the time – I’m not very good at cooking and was let down as a kid in this respect, so can I get a job at one of your restaurants please Jamie?
I don’t blame Jamie Oliver, I think his heart is in the right place and he makes some good points about giving teachers freedom and trust, but there was another problem too and one I hope the select committee pick up on. According to the roll call at the end of the series two ‘pupils’ were being supported/trained/employed by one of Jamie’s restaurants, one was hoping for an internship via Ellen MacArthur and one was being helped by Simon Callow’s agent. So perhaps one of the unintended lessons was the old adage – it’s not what you know, but who you know.
June 8, 2011 / mrespiers

What can be learned from Prime Minister’s Questions?

I have finished my first MA unit and will post about it again when I get some feedback on my first assignment. In the mean time I will use this space to articulate some thoughts on education, Sociology and a few other bits and pieces.

I just happened to stumble upon today’s PMQs. PMQs are  a great tradition and spectacle where our elected representatives probe and scrutinise our leader, or at least that is what the MPs and dewy-eyed historians would have us believe. I missed the beginning and truly hope it was a throwback to gladitorial exchanges of the past but, the 20 minutes I caught (of the allotted 30 minutes per week) went something like this:

A question that asked the PM to praise Chevron on it’s health and safety record following the recent explosion that killed four people in Pembrokeshire. Read that again. Yes it does say ‘praise’. One person remains in a critical condition in hospital.

Two questions of my own sprang to mind – 1, Is this an example of a massive multinational spin operation in motion?  and  2, Is this a good use of PMQs?

In case you are wondering the PM did indeed praise Chevron and their health and safety record.

The MP for Rugby then asked if the PM would wish the home nations rugby union teams good luck for the Rugby World Cup taking place in September. Do you see what he’s done there? Again, I asked myself what is the point of this? Does this distract us from the real issues? Is this talksport radio?

The PM said he hoped one of the home nations brought the trophy home and added a little anecdote about meeting the PM of New Zealand.

Then my hopes were raised as a Labour MP asked about the police enquiry into the phone hacking scandal and subsequent investigation of the News of the World. Again, the reponse was very brief – the police will investigate fully.  Maybe the PM did not want to dwell on this too long in case we remembered that his former director of communications had to resign earlier this year as he was implicated in the scandal as the former editor of the News of the World.

There followed a question that celebrated Nuneaton town centre and asked the PM if he would defend and protect town centres everywhere. Of course he will, he said. He will help local people to get more involved in planning and assist with business rates to avoid high streets becoming ‘identikit’. A noble cause perhaps but one that may be difficult to balance with the huge influence of the big supermarkets, especially given the PMs fondness for the way Tesco does things.

There was then some brief endorsement of yesterday’s NHS pledges and it was over.

The Sociology teacher in me was thinking what would a Marxist think of the obvious links to big business and pathetic lack of accountability? What would a Postmodernist think of the obvious style over substance and the blurring of reality and entertainment? What would a Feminist think of the almost empty chamber some 45 minutes later when Yvette Cooper wanted to debate the impact of government policy on women?

The educator in me then got sucked in to what happened next. You may think that i’m sad for getting sucked in to live coverage of parliament but I couldn’t believe that after all that pointless time wasting the chamber half emptied prior to the introduction of a 10 minute bill on Special Educational Needs. A topic of substance that was supported to a second reading. In December. Perhaps if there was less time wasted it would get done sooner? Speaking of which….

There was then a 45 minute session where various MPs repeated eachother in congratulating and celebrating the Duke of Edinburgh as he approaches his 90th birthday. Now, I have nothing against the Duke  (except perhaps the clumsy old-school racism/xenephobia) and the D of E Award is a wonderful thing, but one MP pointed out that ‘debating’ whether to support a ‘humble’ address may be out of date and I would add a waste of time. One MP recalled a quote from the Duke (reworking an old proverb) which seemed apt and also quite useful for MPs and teachers to remember:

The mind cannot absorb what the seat cannot endure.

March 23, 2011 / mrespiers

Purpos/ed – What is the point?

This post is my contribution to an ongoing project organised by, “a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education?” This was initiated by Doug Belshaw and Andy Stewart.

Please get involved.

“…what really matters is how we’re doing compared with our international competitors…”
Clegg and Cameron in the Foreword to The Importance of Teaching 2010

Somebody advised me to be controversial if I wanted to get a response to my #500 words, so here goes – Cameron and Clegg are wrong.

Education must be about more than doing better than other countries in some tests (especially if it means having to endure MPs and journalists disparaging other nations in the ‘we came 12th, beaten by Estonia!!!!’ style) Education should prepare people for a globalised life and this should include how to be successful in it but not in a simplistic league table or ‘who earns the most?’ way, but in a much broader sense as articulated by so many of the #500words. In terms of David Jennings synthesis it is about combining approaches not polarising them. Our students will be under pressure to solve society’s problems and the EBacc is probably not the preparation to do so. Developing creative lifelong learners and problem solvers will be essential but we do still need some measure of outcomes. Can we find a way to really utilise the ‘voice’ of teachers, learners and parents in more qualitative ways utilising social networks for example? Who should define the success criteria? Certainly not Cameron, Clegg or Gove.

Education is an emotional human experience. The things that live with me, whether learned in the pub or in school do so because of an emotional connection not simply due to utility. The things I remember most from school are trips, productions, relationships etc. I think I’m smarter too, in many ways, but being smarter implies something measurable and I’m not sure that my education is. It is certainly more than my certificates and grades. Each of those letters represents an emotional engagement. It’s why I chose to start a part-time MA recently. I wanted to learn more but, it’s taken more than a decade to find the MA I wanted to do, in an area I wanted to do it.

“I see that all outside compulsion is wrong, that inner compulsion is the only value.”
AS Neil

Education should be about helping people to discover their inner compulsion (or their passion and curiosity as Tom Barrett put it) and then nurturing it but I also believe that students need a core set of skills (e.g. literacies, numeracy, critical thinking) and a vital question is how to encourage students to want to learn things that experience has taught us will help them but at the same time not kill their creativity.

Like many others before me, I asked some people what they thought: My nephew (5yrs old) said school is for playing. My niece (8yrs old) said it is for ‘learning numbers to buy stuff and spelling’. When I asked about the next 8 years she replied ‘I’m not sure, they don’t tell us what we’re doing tomorrow’. When I asked if she enjoyed it she said she did but most don’t, ‘my boyfriend says it’s like prison’. I think they may all be right.

A final thought – how many of those involved so far can honestly say they represent the views of the disengaged, the ones that education has failed, those without the easy bridge? How do we broaden the debate to include them?

March 9, 2011 / mrespiers

Weeks 4+5 – Spaces

Circle, Bath, UK – a new kind of hospital

Let me get something clear from the outset. I would rather have a great teacher in a falling down building than a falling down teacher in a great building.

However, I also know what it is like to teach in a classroom that leaks when it rains, is too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter and was temporary about 30 years ago. I know the pride, excitement and engagement that a new building can instil in staff and students alike but, don’t take my word for it:

Pointing to the National Foundation for Educational Research’s May 2008 report, the CBI reported that exam results in BSF schools improved at more than four times the rate compared with other schools. In addition, the NFER found that 30% of pupils felt safer, bullying and vandalism had decreased (by 23% and 51% respectively).

So, what now? Mr Justice Holman described education secretary Michael Gove’s actions over the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative last year as “so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power”. Gove was told he acted unlawfully in his lack of consultation but, BSF has gone. Gove still gets to decide what happens and it won’t be the re-building or refurbishment of every school in the country.

BSF had issues, it was costly and slow for example. So slow and bureaucratic in fact that some projects struggled to get firms to bid for them. But BSF offered so much.

I was lucky enough to work in a school that embraced the broader ideas of BSF.

We began to ask the students about how the space around them affected their learning. We started to develop links to the curriculum and were genuinely excited about engaging students in real maths, design, technology, science etc utilising the architects, builders, surveyors etc that would be on site. We began professional dialogue amongst staff about what learning would look like in the future. We extended this dialogue to parents and governors and the local community. We went to visit schools and universities but also offices and other well designed buildings to see how the building acted as a tool (see week 1 post – Tool Academy).

We had started planning how we would use our new (or refurbished) tools to engage and excite our students and that process is now continuing without me and without the BSF programme. And that is the key. Thinking creatively, engaging in dialogue, sharing best practice and listening to the students is even more important now.

This is where my small rant ends and the links to my MA begin. BSF was not just about buildings, it was about a process and an opportunity and it was also about technology. Over the last week or two I have been reading Mike Sharples on Mobile Learning and James Gee on Affinity Spaces and it has been interesting to see how their ideas explain, challenge or complement what was happening in my previous school and what is happening in education in a broader sense.

Sharples and Gee offer us a tool kit of theory, concepts and success criteria to help us to think creatively, engage in dialogue and ask some important questions.
How many school leadership teams have defined what they mean by mobile learning let alone how they will evaluate the impact of it?
How many classrooms still rely upon a text-book or the teacher as the main ‘portal’ to learning and how do they compare to the other ‘portals’ that our students are used to?
How many of these ‘portals’ are banned in our schools?
How many teachers know which of their students are ‘generators’ of content in digital spaces? How could they use this information wisely?
How do our students learn when they are not in a classroom and what can we learn from that?
How do our students view their identity in school and how does this compare to elsewhere?
Which affinity spaces are they in and what can we learn from them?
How do we define our learning spaces?

I think Gee puts it best:

“So what? What does it matter that schools don’t use affinity spaces? Why should they?” At this point I can only state a hypothesis in answer to these questions. Young people today are confronted with and enter more and more affinity spaces. They see a different and arguably powerful vision of learning, affiliation, and identity when they do so. Learning becomes both a personal and unique trajectory through a complex space of opportunities (i.e., a person’s own unique movement through various affinity spaces over time) and a social journey as one shares aspects of that trajectory with others (who may be very different from oneself and inhabit otherwise quite different spaces) for a shorter or longer time before moving on. What these young
people see in school may pale by comparison. It may seem to lack the imagination that infuses the non-school aspects of their lives (XXX 2003). At the very least, they may demand an argument for “Why school?”.

February 15, 2011 / mrespiers

Week 3 – ‘Knowledge 2.0-Tensions and Challenges’

My thoughts and reading were inspired by Nina Bonderup Dohn this week and from a practical teaching and learning point of view the ideas really hit home some of the issues we face particularly in the UK right now with the ‘tensions and challenges’ that Gove presents us with.

Ok, let me try and get some things straight in my head from a theoretical point of view first and then try and apply some of them.

what exists in a world
how we know what we know
the reasons why things are as they are

Teleology is about explaining something with reference to an end purpose. From the Greek ‘telos’ meaning “end” and ‘logos’ meaning “reason”.
or applied to education…..
one of the ‘tensions’ referred to is that education is traditionally about an ‘extrinsic finality’ (getting a certificate, getting a grade, getting a job, getting into university, getting praised etc) and Web 2.0 practices are about ‘intrinsic finality’ (communicating for the sake of it, writing a blog that nobody will read! etc)
So traditional educational competence is seen, ontologically, as a thing that can be possessed, acquired and passed on whereas Web 2.0 competence:

“…first and foremost is ‘competence in participating’.”
Nina Bonderup Dohn – 2008, pg 650, Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Networked Learning

Obviously, people use Web 2.0 tools for certain external purposes and many learn for the sake of it but, the idea is that there is a tension between different notions of ‘purpose’ and different conceptions of what knowledge is or should be.

So, as a teacher how do I marry these things together? How do I work within a system that focuses on the extrinsic (league tables, SATs etc) whilst preparing the students for a world in which the intrinsic Web 2.0 skills becomes more and more important?

Nina Bonderup Dohn highlights some key ‘tensions and challenges’ such as traditional educational practice viewing collaboration as cheating whereas collaboration is seen as an integral part of Web 2.0 practice. This links in well with another area of ‘tension’ – evaluation. What is to be evaluated? How and who by? This is an area that I will return to in a later post as it so vast and controversial.

In short, much of this comes down to, what is the point of education? and many answers, ideas and discussions are taking place all the time in classrooms all over the world. Many innovative and thoughful educators are challenging the status quo and using the ubiquitous technology to engage and motivate their students.

Denmark has already trialled exams in which students can use the internet ( and if you are not sure where to start I can highly recommend searching #edtech on twitter or following some of the contributors to

February 10, 2011 / mrespiers

Week 2 (a bit late) – Communities of practice

“A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.”
Henrik Ibsen.

In the last week or two my reading and discussions have been focused upon ‘communities of practice’ and the work of Etienne Wenger. This has been serendipitous as during the same period I have become involved in a new community (
which has helped me to make sense of Wenger’s approach, (more of which below).

A ‘community of practice’ is not simply a group with shared goals, values or ideas. Neither is it bounded by geography or socal group. You don’t necessarily even need to ‘know’ the other people in the community.

“Practice is about meaning as an experience of everyday life” (Wenger, 1998, p52)

So, communities of practice are about engaging in an active process of development with the potential for many voices to be heard and synthesised. Wenger identified ‘three dimensions of the relation by which practice is the source of coherence of a community’:

Mutual engagement – doing things together, relationships, diversity, community maintenance
Joint entreprise – negotiated and shared goals, mutual accountability, within a social, cultural and historical context
Shared repertoire – styles, actions, discourses, tools, artefacts

I do not intend to explore this in more detail now, except to link my thoughts on this to my new involvement with purpos/ed which started with a request for people on twitter (@purposeducation #purposed #500words) to finish the sentence ‘I think the purpose of education is….’. This was the start of a mutual engagement and has been built on some existing relationships but, even more so, on new and diverse ones. I have never met any of the people in the community face to face, I don’t even know where most of them are.

At the time of writing there were 510 followers of @purposeducation and the slots to write a blog post of #500words were taken in the first few days. It wasn’t long before people had discussed and then started translating the site into other languages.

I have not seen it written anywhere and it is quite presumptious of me, but I think the current situation in the UK education system (see Gove quote from my last post) has been a big influence on all those involved and provides a specific context. The ‘kickstarters’ of the campaign/community/group @dajbelshaw and @andystew have provided a starting point and an outline of the 3 year plan building up to the next election but, more specific goals and methods are still to be negotiated.

Twitter and blogs are the main tools so far, facebook and some sort of ‘unconference’ are going to come to the fore soon and then who knows where or how? It is a great idea and I am pleased to be a part of it. Take a look and maybe get involved.

“Whatever it takes to make mutual engagement possible is an essential component of practice” (Wenger, 1998, p74)

Some initial thoughts on Wenger’s theory:

3 positives:

•It is quite a positive theory as it focuses upon mutuality, sharing, etc (which also links well with the ideas of Web 2.0)
•It provides a very useful framework to analyse and try to understand learning in contemporary formal and informal situations.
•It is an active theory of learning and doing that appeals to me as a teacher and as a learner.
Some questions:

•Does it always have to be about ‘gradual achievement’? What about communities of practice for revolutionary change?
•What about issues of inequality and power? i.e. do some have more power to influence the community and therefore the learning?
•Could it be applied to a more formal structure? What examples of this are there?

January 31, 2011 / mrespiers

Week 1 – Tool Academy

‘Men have become the tools of their tools.’ Henry David Thoreau

Hello world and hello to my fellow students on the MA in Education, Technology and Society,

This is my first real attempt at a blog and I would really appreciate comments and feedback on the content and the style/organisation.

After my first seminar I have been reflecting (rambling) about 3 key questions: What is Learning? What is Community? What is Identity?
I do not propose to answer these questions definitively but rather to organise my thoughts and possibly pose some more questions.

Learning is not simply the acquisition of knowledge and skills and there is an interdependent relationship between these three concepts. The shared values and beliefs of a given community can have a significant impact upon the learning and identiity of the individuals within it and vice versa. One of my fellow students described how much pressure there was to become an accountant or an engineer in the community that he grew up in and how this shaped what he had learned and to an extent his identity.

Obviously the relationship between learning, community and identity is not simplistic and will be explored in more detail as the course develops but one of the key themes from week one and from my subsequent reading has been the idea of learning as a complex process or activity or as Saljo (1997) puts it:

“…learning is the simultaneous transformation of social practices and of individuals. Just as new technologies and new intellectual tools transform social practices, so do they transform individuals who walk away with a new set of instruments by means of which they can relate to the world”

From language, writing and printing to calculators, computers and the internet tools are used to learn but are also imbued with learning (how were they made, adapted etc) They have transformed socal practices and individuals. Why do I need to be able to do mental maths if I carry a computer in my pocket? Why do I need to remember the date of the Battle of Hastings when I have Wikipedia? Or as the excellent Ian Gilbert puts it ‘Why do I need a teacher when i’ve got Google?’ (

I know from being in the classroom for 10 years that there are very good answers to these questions but a vital part of them is how do we learn how to use tools and how do we use tools to learn and in addition, from this weeks discussions, how tools represent learning as an activity and a non-linear process. I wonder how Minister for Education, Michael Gove would respond to this given this quote when Shadow Education Secretary and his recent moves toward a core curriculum:

“Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages. That’s the best training of the mind and that’s how children will be able to compete.”

I don’t pretend to know what year Gove thinks it is and I am not saying he is a Luddite but Henry David Thoreau’s quote above has come to be associated with ‘techno-fear’ (and ironically there is ‘facebook’ group of the same name acting as “a ‘support group’ for people who are amused, amazed and even alarmed at the ever increasing impact and influence of technology in our lives”). From my point of view one of the key things that I have reflected upon this week has been the idea that tools shape us and we shape tools and that one of my aims as an educator and a student is to discover ways to make our tools work for us and especially for our young learners so that they are able to get the best out of them and themselves.
(Please read this great blog post for a satirical view of how the tools are not really the issue

I hope you are still with me and I hope that my first post has not been too much of a rambling mess. I am learning how to use this new tool and part of my identity is here and other parts of it will develop as this MA and this blog does. I hope you, my new community, can help me to explore and apply these ideas over the coming weeks and months. In the interim have a think about how much your identities shape your communities and how your learning produces and is a product of both and let me know what you come up with.