Thursday, 16 October 2014

Seriously Deep - first meeting notes

Reflective notes - yes they are quite long but primarily written for my own benefit so I have a record to look back on and from which to draw inspiration.

 Seriously deep by Eberhard Weber seemed an appropriate tune to start my journey with and was a wonderful mood setter as I set off past Colliford Lake. I love the willows and canal that run past Sawyers building on the Chelmsford campus so I followed up with another Weber offering; Quiet Departure it resonated with the canal but it is also a beautiful yet largely unrecognised work and that seemed appropriate as much great research goes unrecognised and a fair bit of rubbish hits the press.

Anyway I had a surprisingly easy drive up to Chelmsford in only four and a half hours and my afternoon on campus started with a really useful discussions with timetabling and other admin staff. It was great to meet Peggy King in person at last. What a wonderful team we have in the William Harvey building.

Moving on to the Friday evening meeting.

It was great to meet the other candidates on the course and hear their initial ideas for study foci. Considering we mostly did not know each other there was some fortuitous seat choosing with people with shared interests or work contexts mostly ending up close to each other. I love it when potentially chaotic systems demonstrate valuable random clustering like that.

I enjoyed Gerry Davis and Hazel Wright's session, it really clarified the nature and structure of the course and set out some key expectations.

Bronfenbrenner was mentioned early on in relation to coherence and focus. I have met is micro-mezo-macro diagrams before and found it useful to search for them in Google images as there are many examples of interpretations of the concept into different contexts. Concentric diagrams are fairly simplistic but can be effective reminders of where focus lies. Wenger's Community of Practice diagrams have a similar structure and have been useful in considering the legitimacy of different levels of online community participation in my own work.

Coherence and focus is going to be a key target for me as my interests are so diverse from muddy learning to geology, archaeology, genetics and a host of other interests. String theory sends shivers through my scalp and the latest developments in expansion theory bringing the multiple universe model into focus just blows me away.

1st lesson:
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.

So my starting point is to write about my professional practice: 'Set the broad scene, show where the focus lies within that scene.'

My practice has been fairly diverse over the last 18 years and the changing focus has been a key factor in why I have not previously completed doctoral study. Despite a wide range of work contexts everything I have done has some relevance to my proposed topic. I am sure that reviewing my practice in detail over 5000 words will be a useful way of reconceptualising my skills and redefining my focus. I am pleased that I have kept a reflective blog and a Google website for some time now as this will help remind me of details about my professional activity.

The first meeting prompted me to reflect on why I am embarking on this journey. I have never felt a need to gain formal recognition of my practice so why do a Doctorate and head towards the potential stressful rollercoaster of a ride that many experience? From my mid 20s I always liked the idea of being a headteacher and developing an independent school, Steiner and Montessori interested me but did not seem quite right neither did mainstream. My experience on the notschool project gave me further insight into alternative approaches and seeing supposedly 'unteachable' children go on to gain first class honours degrees and even a Masters was very thought provoking - am I looking for the research qualification to provide the evidence I need to move into school leadership or would I be happier developing a long term education project? Lots to think about but I must not get distracted!

There are a fair few sources that seem to agree that funding and acknowledgement of the value of outdoor learning is a problem, these include Growing Schools, the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, the  Natural Connections project and the Forest Schools Association. I have also heard this from a wide range of education practitioners. The LINE  evidence based research via Natural Connections is gathering quantitative data to support the wide range of qualitative data about the benefits of learning outside the classroom. This is seen as one potentially effective way of legitimising the embedding of outdoor learning in teaching pedagogies. I do hope my own research will add momentum to this.

Meal time and we went to a lovely Vietnamese venue where fortunately for me the whole menu was gluten free. As can be seen below there was not a lot left when we had finished.

Saturday was led by Prof. Tim Waller who inspired confidence in that he was reassuring that we should not be influenced, in our choice of topic, by institutional vision or what we think publishers are interested in. Research focus is a personal choice based on individual interest. That reinforces the message that is part of my employment contract but it was good to hear endorsement of that view from a course director.

We were given not very long to write a paragraph about the "Professional me." The notes I made are below with some links added. 

I am an reflective and systematic educator who designs work based learning systems that are process .driven and aim to generate students who are critical reflectors and agents of change in the workplace.

One of my key interests is in analysing the complexity of systems. Beer's Viable Systems Analysis has been a key approach used to analyse my practice and to develop learning design.

I have designed learning systems which, at times, have been incompatible with my institution's vision. however; they have been appreciated by, and gained positive feedback from, many students.

I want to be someone who works with children and the practitioners associated with that field particularly in relation to learning outside the classroom. Consolidating and legitimising outdoor learning by linking creative approaches to the core curriculum is one aim. Another is to explore future gazing aspect, looking at what is and considering what might be in the future. This builds on work I have done at The Ultralab and with TELMap. 

Caring - nurturing - pedantic - flexible - visionary - explorer - researcher

collegiality - mutuality - respect

Tim illustrated incompatibility by reference to his experiences in Sweden with early years education. The key incompatibility related to risk and the comparison with the risk averse UK ethos and the contrasting approach in Sweden where risk is seen as legitimate.

Some notable features of the Swedish approach include:

  • Young children playing outdoors unsupervised;
  • making the journey to school on their own using cycle path networks; 
  • arriving home in the afternoon before parents;
  • having open access to wild place, for example; a setting with open forest to the rear where children may go unsupervised up to 1Km from the buildings. 
 I was prompted to think back to Juliet Robertson's workshop at Plymouth University where her take was that the outdoors is a risky place, we can not ensure total safety, however; by learning outdoors with children we can help them learn how to manage their risk. This is still a more risk averse approach to that deployed in Sweden. 

What I learned about the expectations of the course and about characteristics of good research practice. When we first developed the BA Learning, Technology and Research course it was described as a PhD for undergraduates. I had thought that this related particularly to two key elements:

1.  The process driven approach - learning about research strategies and applying them in the workplace to improve knowledge and behaviour.

2. The final year presentation of research findings to a workplace audience with the aim of gathering critical responses that can be later analysed to create a defense of learning - a Viva Voce approach adapted for undergraduates.

Although they are an obvious link, having now experience the opening EdD session, I now realise our integration of research principles goes much deeper than that. The course was founded on developing collegiality, mutuality and respect between students and tutors and encompases elements such as examining the nature and purpose of research, critically reviewing literature about a theory and then further exploring theory by applying it to examine their own practice in the workplace then reassessing the literature in the light of that experiential learning.

We place emphasis on understanding the nature of truth particularly in relation to the consideration of the scale and scope of their small-scale work based research. The dangers of poor semantics are something our undergraduates grapple with from semester 1 of year 1 and are intrinsic to good research practice. A model I use is that they should not construct statements such as: "My research had proved that xxx procedure is effective in the primary classroom." Far better is a statement that acknowledges the limitations of knowledge and particularly how scope and context impacts on those limitations. "This research was small-scale, it was carried out over only 4 weeks in one primary class. The findings indicate that in this context xxx practice is one that I have found to be effective in that...yyy. The weaknesses of the research were.... Plans to extend and consolidate my understanding of the efficacy of this strategy include..."

In our patchwork media and text approach every module concludes with a retrospective commentary on meta-learning. This builds in a constant cycle of reflective examination of how each student is developing their research skills.

I am glad to have the experience of tutoring such a system and am sure it will be very useful on my own research journey.

Not such a good journey home with lots of traffic on the M25 / M4 made worse by roadworks and speed limitations. I needed a rest near Exeter with a Costa coffee with two extra shots to wake me up. Train is just not particularly convenient as far as timing goes and I really don't like travelling through London. My niggling surfer's ear condition can cause vertigo on trains and changes in pressure can be painful such as when two trains pass in opposite directions at high speed it is like a hammer blow to the side of my head. The London tube is particularly uncomfortable. At least with my car I can stop whenever I need.

All in all a great experience.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Flexible study

On the BA LTR course we don’t set dates for formative assessment as the students are doing work based learning and have to fit work and study into a busy schedule. We do not even have synchronous timetabled learning schedules, interaction between students and with tutors is largely asynchronous. It is not unusual for discussions to be spread over several days or even weeks as relevant thoughts are added at times to suit individuals. Telephone or VOIP tutorials are available on a group or individual basis by negotiation with tutors. These may be in Google Hangouts, VLE discussions, G+ forums, Skype, Facetime or telephone.

In week 1 of a module students each develop an ILP to plan their study by adapting the suggested study schedules to align with their predicted workplace activities in a way that best suits them. That is an approach we have used since 2003, feedback from many students over the 11 years since we started indicates that this flexibility is very much appreciated by students and their employers. 

Anglia Ruskin University allow students up to a maximum of 20% formative feedback from tutors on their draft work for each module assignment. In our model, in order to maximise the value of formative assessment, each student decides which elements of their work they want tutors to provide the 20% feedback on and then requests that feedback as and when it is convenient for them. 

Assessment is by patchwork text and media so the modules are chunked down generally into 3 or 4 patches and a stitching section. A student with an outstanding approach to literature review (usually patch 1) shown in their semester 1 sumative feedback would not be likely to feel that they would benefit from further formative assessment of that skill in semester 2 so might focus formative requests on their experiential patches, or on the stitching which is a review of meta-learning. A student with weaknesses in all elements may well ask for a proportion of each patch to be reviewed by a tutor so they can improve across the board. Tutors may well make suggestions to individual students as to what might be a good approach for them but the choice lies with the student. This approach enables students to tailor their formative assessment to suite their own needs and also allows them to demonstrate good practice in independently managing their learning when they provide the retrospective self assessment of meta-learning in their final activity for each module. 

The form in which feedback is provided varies depending on which kind of media a student has used. On Word or PDF files adding digital annotation is straightforward using comments tools that put the comment in an extended margin with a line connecting to the element that is being commented on. The advantage of this is that a tutor comment is then directed at exactly which word, phrase or paragraph it is referring to. With some forms of media, such as video, animation or audio, direct annotation is not possible so a feedback sheet, or more usually an email message is used. Context cues are then included such as; On slide 3...  or: at point 2mins 30secs into the video....  The language of assessment criteria, learning outcomes, module suggested tasks or other scholarly practice standards/expectations is often used to show students what the expectations are. Where relevant, links to web sources such as the Anglia Harvard style templates, online study skills files, blog posts etc. are included to extend the guidance.

Why are we so flexible?
The ILP is a flexible planning document that is revised as semester progresses to show what has been achieved and what needs to be rescheduled.

During semester a teaching assistant may well have to go on a 5 day outdoor activities residential course with their class as part of their expected work duties. They are often unable to study during such a period due to long working days and/or poor internet/lack of IT equipment so need to adapt their study schedule to have a higher load on other weeks. Unexpected events such as Ofsted visits or personal/family illness can also interrupt plans. 

A student working in the DfE had occasional weeks where he was unable to study due to involvement in important government business. Our flexible approach meant he could negotiate his study around this and he was able to achieve some outstanding results, usually in the 80s, and graduated with a very good 1st class degree. He felt the degree was perhaps the only one in the country he could have done while maintaining his employment. 

I could provide many other examples of how the approach has benefited students in other work contexts going back to 2001 when working on a British Thoracic Society project where a specialist registrar commented that this approach was exactly what he needed, the time he was able to study was late; when the kids have gone to bed. Were we to have set rigid dates/times for study activities and formative assessment there would be problems for many students. As we are flexible, employers often show their appreciation by offering students study time during some working weeks to make up for times they have higher workloads and are not able to carry out study related activities.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

To show or not to show?

Some students like to see examples of work from previous students and some tutors like to provide them. One of the initial pedagogical elements devised in the Ultraversity project in 2003 was to discuss and to model good practice rather than to provide examples of it. 

I am still not keen on sharing complete assignments or even extracts from previous work with students. When I have done this in the past the result has been rather unimaginative reinterpretations of the shared assignment or in some cases students being put off / feeling stressed that they would not be able to attain the standard in the example. I also found I was doing a lot of tutor feedback that had to focus on helping students avoid potential assessment offences rather than encouraging and supporting their independent and original work. Sharing examples of mid level work in the 50% area will by its nature have errors in it that students may pick up on unless the tutor has annotated the example to highlight areas for improvement. Sharing work from the 80-100% range will provide examples with less error but this standard is not attained by many students and can provide a daunting read for students working at lower levels. I accept that for many it will be a good aspirational example, however; when that has been done I have had students contact me and say there is no way I can do that I may as well give up. For some there could well be a temptation to paraphrase bits of the work in their own assignment in an attempt to raise their grade or at the least to follow the structure rather than think out their own structure. 

A few years ago I shared an extract from a previous student's work in a reflective practice module that focuses on double loop learning.  The same double loop diagram was used by a fair proportion of students in their draft work and attributed to Argyris when it had actually been devised by the student who created the example piece I used. It was based on Argyris but was a variation and labelled as "After Argyris". I had to surmise that either none of them had read the original publication or they had done so and assumed that the diagram in the example came from a publication they had not found. Although there are sections in that module that would appear by nature to be unique, in that they are drawn from students workplace experiences where they identify significant events and apply a critical incident analysis to them, it was disappointing to see some close parallels in some student's work where critical incident analysis was remarkably similar​ to the example work in either the approach to using technology or the actual event and reflections on it. Of course in such situations it is difficult to be sure what has happened as similar incidents do occur, particularly in schools, and people do come up with similar ideas for how they can be creative with technologies but that year there was remarkably less variation between student assignments that was usual for that module.

Core literature review narrative is a particularly problematic area. Having read a successful student's lit review a student tasked with reviewing largely similar sources will find it difficult to avoid writing similar patterns of interpretation to the example piece, this may well be something they are not conscious of doing but occasionally it can be a purposeful copy. Analysing which it is can be extremely difficult and time consuming for tutors and other staff whose role it is to scrutinise work for academic offences. Either way there can be a problem when a student has slightly misinterpreted an author and others then follow that example thinking their correct interpretation must be incorrect. There is also the value that students gain from finding literature beyond what is provided in the reading list. Where an extract or complete lit review is shared students then all tend to include the extended reading that is visible i the example work rather than going on their own treasure hunt for literature gems and analysing what they find themselves.

In a final year module when I first provided an example of a flow chart type map of the scope of the impact of a student's major project work on herself and her workplace several students used that as a template for their own maps. The categorisation in the example was not suited to most students workplaces or major projects but nonetheless many attempted to align their map with it and the result was weaker than if they had had to conceptualise their own map from scratch. I would also argue that the learning they gained was also lower. 

I don't travel with my laptop very often but I when I do I am aware that there is a risk of losing it, I was once jostled and felt a hand try to take my bag when getting on a tube train, I actually ended up on the floor still gripping my bag. Since that incident I decided not to retain any student's work after marking has been completed unless there are special circumstances that would provoke me to do so. 

There are study skills resources provided by Anglia Ruskin University that give good ideas for improving work via generic resources and that set out expected standards at each level of study. The generic and module specific assessment criteria for each module are also an indication of what is required. Tutor feedback on draft work will ensure students know what to do to achieve a sufficient standard and tutor involvement in peer review discussions is another way we help students ensure they meet criteria and raise their standards. I have found that students do appreciate overarching advice and I tend to provide hints and tips as to how they need to raise their game as they progress to each new year. For example explaining that at level 5 the work has to move well away from descriptive or imitative narrative and they need to develop the ability to critically deconstruct what they read and develop a narrative that presents logical and persuasive arguments. We expect that over the year students will develop a concise and precise writing style that uses an extended vocabulary appropriate to the field of study. There should be no ambiguity or vagueness unless this is an intentional part of the assignment such as that which might be inherent in interview data they have gathered or in an alternative literacy piece where there is a clear reason to be vague such as in a play transcript with a character who is portrayed to illustrate the problems that vagueness caused during a significant event in the workplace.  Students are also expected to demonstrate the ability to discern when to use an impersonal and when a personal voice. There is an expectation that Harvard referencing will be perfectly in-line with the current version required by the university and that is demonstrated on the library templates. 

The study skills resources on the student part of the Anglia Ruskin University web site provide excellent information about strategies to develop scholarly practice. The pages about good writing strategies are comprehensive and very useful.​​

Students can also look to the literature in peer reviewed journals and academic blogs for good examples of academic writing - not all are well written, some are convoluted and overly complex but that is generally easy to identify. 

Setting Word, PowerPoint etc. to check a formal style of writing will identify more errors, such as; when you have used a passive voice. A passive voice is a sentence where you put the author's name or a key point at the end of a sentence rather than early on. It does get rather repetitive if every reference to a source is placed at the end of sentences and the flow of the narrative tends to be weaker. For example in the screen shot below you can see that I wrote a passive sentence then spell checked it, Word notes that and offers an active construction:

Below is a formulaic example that attempts to model one approach to the construction of critical narrative appropriate for level 5:

A, B and C seem to concur in finding this strategy valuable in that A suggests xxx and B aligns with that where she mentions xxx. Z set out to challenge the concept but was unable to sustain a challenge and did come to conclusions xxxx that all align with both A and B. It could be argued that D's findings xxxxx are a challenge to the concept but, unlike A, B and C, his research was rather limited in scope and in my opinion he does not provide a persuasive counter argument because xxxx. In my workplace we have used a strategy based on the work of B and it does seem effective in that xxxx. My initial feeling at this point is that the concept seems well founded... I now intend to explore this further by applying the strategy to xxx aspect of my own practice.

This has not been refined for writing style / syntax. What I have tried to get across in that formula is the combination of components; explanation, comparison, contrast, critique, link of theory to workplace practice, a tentative statement of stance and an intention to explore further through personal experiential learning. ​

There is a lot that can be done without sharing previous student's work and risking the pitfalls that can lead students into.

Flipping what?

A bit of a ramble I forgot to publish ages ago.

Flipping is everywhere just now, flipped classrooms, flipped learning, flipped academics. I know I am an old grouch but I am not particularly keen on the label, I have not really seen much new in it, just a new label for processes that have been used in learning for decades if not centuries.

Pupils doing lesson content in advance at home then discussing what they have learned with the teacher is something I did as a pupil way back in the 60/70s except many teachers called it homework and some brighter ones called it research. There were some teachers who would just give us sums to do or ask us to read or write about something then not take it much further but a fair few seemed to set research tasks then in class would revisit what we had found out with us, sometimes that would be in the form of a weekly class debate about a topic or 'show and tell' type activities that then involved discussing what was shown and told and giving it deeper relevance or wider context through group dialogue.

Flipping peer review? I feel that traditional peer review prior to publication can sometimes be of benefit but I do not think it is a necessary precursor to sharing what has been learned. It does not always 'validate' a publication with sufficient rigour. I know I am far from alone in having received feedback from two isolated reviewers that directly contradict each other. Presenting, or accepting, any research or learning as a valid truth is not great practice in my opinion. Presenting it as a stimulus for further research or for debate is a more sensible approach. Many peer reviewed papers have turned out to be way off the mark, many have turned out to have less than valid agendas particularly in Health related fields where huge profits can be achieved by influencing consumer patterns. As has been said peer review can include bias, self-interest etc. The peer reviewers, the media then the public may well not look deeply enough at what has influenced the research and whether the data collection and analysis was fair and rigorous. Millions of people mistakenly start to drink red wine, eat wonder foods, take supplements, cut out foods etc. sometimes this is a reaction to publicity that is based on weak or biased research. The viral take up of end of the world scenarios in relation to the supposed ending of time on the Mayan calendar in 2012 is a good example of that. Using the internet it was very easy to search out details about the Mayan approach to dividing time periods but many media publications and many people did not bother. It seems to be a characteristic of much of humanity to accept what seems credible and not to want to have adopted illusions overturned in favour of more logical conclusions. 'I believe in Father Christmas' is another that much of the western world like to accept. I have never promoted that belief with my children but neither have I challenged it, my most recent ones have reached an age where they realised it is all smoke and mirrors and are now pondering on why adults promote fallacy. They seem to be concluding it is for fun and entertainment, to have a lever to help them control behaviour, well done them for working that out, hopefully they will make the link to commercial gain soon enough and one day translate that learning into deeper and wider understanding of the nature of truth and illusion.

Some of my undergraduate students have reported finding more value in the debate that ensues when "...academics brain dump at the end of the day into YouTube, or on their blogs..." and other academics, practitioners and students then discuss what was published using the comments fields. In many instances I have to agree with them, informal publication is often about the now, it is at the cutting edge, it is not spurious but based on evolving reflections and new findings that may well be waiting to be reviewed and formally published. The delay between research findings being consolidated and the paper being written, then reviewed, then published, can lead to papers being out of date by the time they reach the journals. When a less formal publication is publicly peer reviewed by a range of academics and in a place where the author can join in with the conversation, it is fresh at the time of publication and there can be more value and validity than when a potential journal publication is reviewed by just two isolated academics and published a year or more later. In my experience a fair bit of literature based research is largely only of value if what is written is then considered in the light of experiential learning or used as a precursor to action based research. It can help us find out what others think they know but then we need to test whether the theory holds water in our personal context.

If learning styles / preferences got past the peer reviewers then I have little faith in the process. All I see is poorly designed questionnaires and weak psuedo-scientific theory. It has been hugely popular and lasted way longer than Brain Gym did. Often misinterpreted to the extent that is is detrimental to children.

Rather disappointed to find that many peer reviewed journals do not publish much in the way of negative findings. Perhaps they need to flip their criteria. I guess that is sort of understandable as "I tried X and it did not work." is not much of a read but particularly in health related research this can be critical information that is of huge value to others. Listening to a researcher a few weeks ago he posited that when a hypothesis is not supported by the research the hypothesis may often be altered. This is particularly the case when a different benefit to what was expected is uncovered. For example a hypothesis that xx treatment will cure baldness is unlikely to be published if the trial does not lead to positive results so there is impetus to change the hypothesis to show the research set out with a different aim. If there is sufficient incidental data it may turn into something like: "xx treatment has a positive effect in alleviating dandruff." I guess there is a feeling that it is better to be seen to find out what you set out to discover than to be seen to have disproved your hypothesis then noticed an unexpected benefit pattern in the data. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Identity and control

I enjoyed watching the program about LEAP on 27 August but really could not understand why a girl with pink hair was targeted when others had dyed hair and a teacher had many tattoos. it wasn't a huge issue but is one I feel strongly about and feel that is very important with children in difficult circumstances in particular. When I queried it in Twitter this was the response:

I have to agree every school needs rules and boundaries to protect children but do feel this rule is pointless. Rules that don't create a positive outcome can be dropped, its not hard to do that; you just stop having the rule. Given some schools do let teachers have tattoos they must feel there is no detrimental effect so why can't all? If some children can dye their hair black or blonde or burgundy why is there a problem with pink or green or red or a rainbow?  I can't see any harm in that.  I taught and marked a module last year where 1st year undergraduate students had to build a Google web site as part of their study. One was very pink because " projects who I am". Some girls clearly love being in pink, feel more comfortable, more themselves and with the imposition of uniform (another aspect I disagree with) all they have left is fingernails and hair to colour. What purpose is achieved; what disasters avoided; what gain for children and staff by limiting hair colour? I hated being in uniform as it made me look like someone who I was not and that was confusing and distracting. I struggle to map and recall faces so it was hard for me to know who was who. The rules should be designed to inspire children, to help them enjoy their time in school and provoke them to want to attend school. Denying the ability to be an individual, to project who they feel they are seems pointless. 

During my PGCE study I started to plait, then dreadlock, my already long hair, by the time I was working as a teacher I had multi-coloured dreadlocks with several wraps and more than a few seashells tied into it. They were tiny ones miniature scallops and cowries gathered from Gwenver my favourite surfing beach. I was not aware of anyone disproving, I felt it actually helped develop good relations with children as they found that interesting and so were interested in me. At that time it was popular for boys to have a long thin plait at the back of otherwise short hair, I don't recall any of the schools I worked in having a problem with that either. 

Why did I want to look like that? I didn't really think about it, it was just what I needed to be at the time. I was exploring being an artist at the time and maybe I was making myself into some sort of Art. The sea shells kept me in touch with the sea, I was surfing a lot back then often 7 days a week and 4-10 hours in the water was helping me cope with life, I felt awkward and clumsy out of the water, graceful and filled with power when in it. This photo of myself my daughter and my first son is the only one I have on my hard drive from then and was taken just before I dyed it. Unfortunately caught during a blink. 

My first marriage had turned into a nightmare, I was just about managing to stay alive, was largely reclusive as far as friends goes and perhaps hiding behind my hair helped me go out in public and have the confidence to be in a school. I know I felt very exposed having short hair a few years earlier, my long hair felt like protection. Whatever was going on in my mind the key was that I could function and even walk tall and proud at times. I was also under-eating to an extent that became dangerous although that was more to do with not realising how many calories I was burning in the sea and blaming hunger pains on gut infection picked up from the sea..or so I thought at the time. Given the mess some children's lives are in I have every sympathy with them wanting to project personality, when life is out of control your body is one thing you can control and that can lead to being able to survive tough times and even to have some self-confidence.

Thinking back to my own school days in the 60s/70s I had friends with large multi-coloured mohicans, shaved heads, Dr Martin boots, fluorescent socks, girls and boys with multi-coloured nails and eye make up that projected their affinity with Alice Cooper or Marc Bolan etc. I remember one boy coming in with an Aladdin Sane face make up on the last days of school. Why in the world do these things need to be restricted? Let children celebrate and project who they are, let them be the person they feel confident being and they might well respect your respect for their individuality. Out of mutual  respect comes many good things; strong relationships, children who feel good about them selves and will listen and behave well. 

A few honest words to that girl such as: "Wow! look at you that's so cool, good colour choice it really suites you." could well have filled her with positive emotions and that is worth way more than rejecting who she wants to be and risking loss of respect and resentment that can often be projected through disruptive behaviour as they know that arguing their case verbally and gently will just bring out the old "Rules is rules" line that really just says we have no idea why this rule is in place and I am not going to even think about whether its a sensible one or not because we need to control you and you need to accept that regardless of whether it makes sense. 

 Looking pretty in pink hair is way better than using an eating disorder or being disruptive to exert control. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


Having recommended to students that they consider using a public blog as a learning journal for undergraduate and post-graduate study its time to start doing the same myself as I embark on a journey through the EdD course lead by Gerry Davis at Anglia Ruskin University. I am very much looking forward to working with Gerry, Prof. Tim Waller and the rest of the team on this journey. 

My interview was planned to be done via via Skype but despite having a connection at home that has reached 30Mbps on occasion over the last few days it was only limping along when most needed so we switched to telephone and I posted the info below to help answer some of the questions I was asked. 

There is a growing body of research in relation to the benefits of increasing children's exposure to being outdoors in natural environments. Approaches such as that promoted by the Forest School Association are often founded on developing a natural relationship with the natural environment. Use of technologies is largely limited to non digital tools. In contrast other outdoor learning approaches may embrace the use of portable digital technologies to some degree even to the extent where the technology is the reason for going outside. There is a need for schools to understand the benefits of each in supporting curriculum related activities and consider how to achieve a good balance between these approaches. When a school invests in creating or enhancing a natural environment area for Forest School activities I can see validity in arguments in favour of keeping it as a special place for natural learning with minimal technology use but I also agree there can be a lot of benefit for using the same place as a context for exploring what can be done with digital technologies outdoors. Having discussed attitudes towards technologies with a fair few Forest School practitioners one of the key reservations seems to be the intrusion factor and whether bringing portable technologies into play disrupts the immersion in the natural experience.

The number 1. use of portable technologies would currently appear to be capturing photographs of outdoor experiences, finds and made artifacts. That children are keen on this kind of record keeping is clear; memories are good but a photo is more easily shared and proves the memory.

Citizen science is starting to expand and there are now many initiatives such as iRecord Ladybird and the big butterfly count, most have Apps which enable anyone, who has a smart phone or tablet, to identify an insect, plant or larger wildlife by photographing it and rapidly comparing it with a database. They can learn about it from the stored information and then upload a photo of the sighting or tag it via a counter that automatically has location data attached to it. Somewhere in the depths of a university a new dot appears on a map and the scientific data has expanded.

There are many similar initiatives including We have moved a long way from scribbling on soggy or muddy notepads. The potential to use portable technologies to contribute to real world research in the field may offer benefits in terms of increasing motivation to learn, developing ICT skills, developing curriculum knowledge and learning how to capture and present information.

Making woodland creatures is a common Forest School activity and one that is also often done back at the classroom where found materials are used to create art; the artifacts are often record by photographs.

The opportunity to go one step further and digitally bring critters to life does not seem to be a common approach although I hope to find more data about this as I progress. Below is a first attempt stop motion video made by a dyslexic 10 year old who finds conveying stories via text frustrating yet had the patience to take 124 still images and process them for a few seconds of story - a task that took almost 3 hours using a Nikon P600 with very little adult input. 


There are many flaws but there was also a lot of learning; the tangible evidence in the video enabled errors to be identified and new plans for a second shoot to be formed. 

Improvements identified by the child:
Turn the date / time stamp off on the camera.
Need a larger more stable tripod. This was done using a mini tripod that was not really up to supporting a bridge camera. 
Camera and tripod slowly moved during shooting - Use the inbuilt wi-fi to link to a smart phone for taking the pics without having to touch the camera. 
More frames per second needed / smaller movements between shots.
Storyboard needed.
Can I do this by just using my iPod? 

A barrage of ideas for future projects followed, ambition ignores practicalities - the key ambition is a full length rendering of Les Miserables using made critters and scenes. The project is unlikely to be fulfilled in the short term but has stimulated deep thinking about solving technical and artistic problems as well as a sense of self worth and pride in achievement, the latter is potentially the most important gain although not one easily recorded by current metrics.

There is growing concern that there are many benefits gained by children which are not easy to measure or which do not feature in government targets or assessment methods. As a result of the above video there are ICT and Art skills that could be ticked off but the mechanism to record the more difficult to quantify deeper learning that forms characters and inspires children to aspire to bright futures is largely lacking. This is an area that outdoor learning practitioners and researchers at the Plymouth University 2014 Walk the Talk conference identified as a pressing need that should be addressed. It is also implicit in the wording of the leaving letter sent to Barrowford school pupils that went viral and gained positive TV coverage:

An exploration of the use of portable digital technologies in outdoor learning. 
Who? Children and teaching staff.
What? Portable technologies and outdoors. 
Where? School grounds and wider natural environment.
When? During and outside of school.
How? The research will identify a limited set of approaches feasible to use with children and explore the impact of these through practical application in schools.
Why? The research will be designed to uncover barriers and benefits associated with the practical approaches that are explored and to develop a system for articulating these.

At this point I am just scoping the potential focus for my project, a lot of reading and talking will happen  over the coming year to develop a more cohesive proposal. 

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Refining the assignment: telling the story.

This info was aimed at undergraduate students approaching the stage of reviewing and refining work in the weeks approaching the submission deadline for their major project. 
The final activity before preparing your files for handing in should be a thorough spelling and grammar check to ensure no errors were introduced in last minute changes such as copy pasting phrases within a paragraph into a better order. You should also check your citations and References are in line with Anglia regulations while doing your last checks.
Below are some general thoughts on refining UMP assignments: 

Its getting rather late to be checking that you have done what the module guide requires but you should remember not lose sight of that. 

You need to show that you have set out on, and completed, a well planned and purposeful learning journey. The account should include reference to meeting Anglia Ruskin ethics guidelines. The required documentation for this should be in your appendices. 

When presenting your assignment you need to check you have told a cohesive story, its not quite a simple as needing a ‘beginning - middle – end’ structure but that is a good framework to check for on the level of the whole project, each chapter, your paragraphs and sentences. 

Whichever option you chose your narrative should show that you have applied your planned approach to achieve a systematic and objective exploration of your topic. Your research question/s provide a focus within the topic, the themes and issues you explored should have relevance; they should clearly be part of your attempt to address your research question/s. The research question/s should be a particular focus in your conclusion.

Reference to a range of perspectives and the wider context can help develop a more complete story. Where there are differing perspectives or opinions you should show you have compared and contrasted views of key authors and taken into account practitioner perspectives or analysis of personally collected data where relevant. You should ensure that the assessor can see that you understand both the local environment and the wider ecosystem in which the research is set. Have you provided sufficient evidence of local detail and wider context? Getting the balance right will help you construct a clear and cohesive story.
For example:
  • A case study of assessment practice in an educational institution can provide insight into a local environment.
  • A review of assessment policy documentation could provide insight into relevant factors from the wider context that govern such institutions. 
  • Analysis of recent government statements could indicate possible future developments and how that could influence local environments. 

Exploring any one of those as an information source is interesting but bringing them together provides a more holistic perspective. 

A strong conclusion is important, this should refer to information presented in earlier chapters but should not repeat it. In the concluding section you will present a commentary that discusses key themes and findings that emerged from your research and how these are connected to the research question/s. This is an opportunity to show that you can construct informed evidence based statements that convey what you have discovered. You are unlikely to have found a perfect answer to your research question/s, however; what you should be able to demonstrate is a graduate level engagement with the research question/s that extended your knowledge base about the project topic. 

Once you have got to the end go back and check your introduction does introduce the assignment you ended up writing.

Are you over the word count? 
Have you checked Assessment regulation 6.63 for what can be excluded from the count? You should see the regulations in Misspelled Wordmy.anglia.

Have you checked the study skills documents for info on precise and concise writing and on what is key to a story and what can be left out?

Have you said: 
"I found that Doctor Henrietta Red Herring, a renowned and respected psychologist and educator in the United States of America, wrote a book in 1999 called: 'I don’t need a title here but I will put it in anyway.' In this book in Chapter 2 she says…" 

Or have you said: 
"Herring (1999, pp22-35) suggested…" 

The latter will generally be sufficient unless you have been instructed to provide detailed background information. 

Check your style and reduce to the essence. 

If your ‘final draft’ is still over the word count you could try colour coding using the highlight tool, this will help identify priority areas for editing and those that you can leave alone. This does take time and you might find that after trying it for a page or so you can then stop such detailed highlighting and just see the main priorities and address them. 

some ideas are below:

What is
essential? – Pale green - pale because you don't need to check it again
What is important? – Stronger green - stronger because if you have done all you can to reduce amber and red bits these are the nest bits to try and reduce.

What is interesting/relevant but not essential to the main focus of the module - Pale amber - of the priority areas this is the least important as tangential comments can evidence transfer of knowledge or extensions to learning.
What might be overly descriptive? - Pale amber, reducing description should be done. Cut down descriptive words, change to more analytical text or remove. 

What is repetition? – Strong amber - This must be addressed, repetition is seen as a weakness.

What is not relevant? - Red 

Check each highlighted bit in your assignment again then delete everything in red. 

The stronger highlight colours are the areas where you are most likely to be able to reduce words without impacting negatively on the value of what is written as far as assessment goes. For example; where you have identified repetition you might combine statements to produce 1 succinct statement then consider where it is best placed in the narrative and where you can now refer back to that original statement rather than repeating it in a different form. Where you are overly descriptive cut out all but key detail, then address the engineering of the narrative, cut out superlative adjectives and adverb clauses. Sometimes a long sentence can be shortened by breaking it down into several shorter sentences. Just the act of removing the linking words should do that - and, furthermore, because, additionally, they also...

Some draft text:
Smith (2002) reports that his study findings suggest that time spent learning outside the classroom reduces stress in primary age children, he also mentions several other benefits identified in the study including opportunities for exercise, strengthening the immune system and collaborative social learning and many more from which he constructs a strong argument in favour of developing policy to promote higher levels of learning outside the classroom

Repetition noted and prioritised with strike through, overly descriptive terms identified:
Smith (2002) reports that his study findings suggest that time spent learning outside the classroom reduces stress in primary age children, he also mentions several other benefits identified in the study including opportunities for exercise, strengthening the immune system and collaborative social learning and many more from which he constructs a strong argument in favour of developing policy to promote higher levels of learning outside the classroom

Final text:
Smith argues in favour of developing primary school policy to promote higher levels of learning outside the classroom. His 2002 study found this reduces stress and improves fitness while strengthening the immune system.

Don’t forget the spelling and grammar and referencing check I​ mentioned back at the start.

Depending on your course you may be required to have your assignment bound, if this is the case it is very important not to leave binding until the last day in case the binders are over stretched - it would be a shame to miss the deadline or to have to hand in unbound work. 

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Cambridgeshire Forest Schools Conference

Cambridgeshire Forest School conference 10 November at Grafton Water.

My workshop aimed to stimulate discussion as to the value of using technologies in FSA settings.

 I am certainly not a techno-geek wanting to promote the latest gadgets but I do see portable digital technologies as potentially valuable learning tools in the outdoors. I also think that technology free experiences can have profound benefits.  As they become more pervasive I think one of our key issues is deciding when and where to use or abandon such technologies. In situations where we decide to use them outdoors it is also important to consider how to use them safely, imaginatively and effectively. 

My background includes a lot of experience of working outdoors with children and working with digital technologies in the classroom and in a wide range of online learning contexts. Like many teachers most of what I have done has been purposefully linked to curriculum such as; taking digital cameras into the field and using them to catalyse the learning experience by placing the children in the role of scientific explorer / journalist and giving them tools they can use to capture and share their experience. The current set of mobile or portable technologies evolved rapidly, we have gone from  from a field notebook and pencil to increasingly high definition digital cameras and today apps such as iRecord Ladybird that enable anyone, who has a smart phone or tablet, to identify an insect by photographing it and rapidly comparing it with a database. They can learn about it from the stored information and then upload a photo of the sighting that automatically has location data attached to it. Somewhere in the depths of a university a new dot appears on a map and the scientific data has expanded.

There are many similar initiatives including We have moved a long way from scribbling on soggy or muddy notepads. The potential to use portable technologies to contribute to real world research in the field may offer benefits in terms of increasing motivation to learn, developing ICT skills, developing curriculum knowledge and learning how to capture and present information.

I talked to Chris Holland about natural musical instruments on the day before the workshop. Over on the the totally natural end of the scale are those lovely dry remains of branches still attached to a tree or on the ground, old tree stumps, stones, pinecones. It seems natural to improve what is already there, wood can be size/tone ordered and hung on twine or rope to make a xylophone, each piece of wood can be modified to make a tuned xylophone. A vast diversity of instruments have evolved some with sophisticated engineering. Those shown below could all be used for song and dance as well as communicating at a distance, they were the mobile phones of the day. All are usually welcomed around a camp fire. 

Below is one of the photos taken at the Spring conference, almost everyone has some tech with them that could be used to record images, video and text notes or use apps to contribute to citizen science projects. We only had a few minutes outdoors but phones started to sprout ears or had natural things put on them. I don't know whether they were becoming part of nature or what this meant to each of us but it was a thought provoking 5 minutes for me.

Mobile devices have stunning capacity for creating and recording sounds. A growing proportion of professional music / video is made by people in different parts of the world making individual recordings and collaboratively building a complex multi tracked and high quality song / video without ever meeting. For a group of creative 13 year olds recording and mixing sounds is just a thing they would do for fun. For them using their phones to communicate and to make music is as natural as as playing together on real instruments. A day of recording natural and played / sung sounds and mixing music round a campfire might not initially appeal to many practitioners but might be a good hook to encourage children to spend time in their natural environment. There are many interpretations of what is natural, how do you feel when you go out without a mobile phone; is that a natural thing to do? 

This is a tree that was just crying out to be hugged and played on.

Hug the tree or grasp the iPad; how compatible are digital technologies and the Forest Schools ethos? Are you stuck with a dilemma - do you have a firm commitment to one way or the other or do you do a bit of wholegrain and a bit of light? As far as school curriculums go it makes sense to take technologies outside at times to enhance topic based learning and to develop technological proficiency. In those situations the technologies can be the reason to go outside or a useful tool to augment other activity. In other outdoor experiences it is the outdoors that is centre stage and children who are constantly connected to their mobile devices are unlikely to be sufficiently connected to nature. News that they are going to have a Zero Digital Devices Day might  not raise any cheers from older children but once they are immersed in outdoor activities the loss will soon fade and the need to be self reliant can be thought provoking.

Tuff cases are not expensive new devices are.

 One of the issues I meet time and time again is how intrusive technology is. Considering a technology such as a Djembe they are fairly intrusive in that they are heavy to lug around and can be loud when played - can be heard perhaps 5 km away on a still day.  In comparison as far as size and noise goes most mobile devices and cameras are not intrusive, many mobile devices are small and light. If you wanted the same digital tech in the field 10 years ago you would have been carrying a digital still camera, a video camera and a top end laptop. Connectivity would have been limited. Today a small device in your pocket can record HD video, good stills, high quality audio and typed or screen written field notes as well as linking to the vast amount of reference information on the www and the user has the potential to upload automatically geolocated information gathered in the field or any other outgoing communication. 

Then there is the potential to chat with friends anywhere any time, it is no wonder children develop attachment to their devices.These technologies have changed how people interact with the world around them and each other. To an observer watching a child tapping away at a screen or talking into one they appear antisocial devices and the word 'isolation' is often attached to them. To those using the devices they are a portal to a highly social experience. I recently listened to 4 boys playing Minecraft they were in each others' digital worlds in a constant communal dialogue agreeing on strategies for building new landscapes, helping each other find their way round places they had never been and building new castles. Huge bridges, forests, lakes and rivers wind through volcanic mountains, thee are towers miles high supporting rambling tree houses. Anyone in the game can destroy anything in the landscape but nothing gets destroyed unless they all agree to do a demolition job together. Several other children in the village were also in the same landscape. Conversations were very similar to the snatches that wafted through the wooded river valley earlier in the day as they played together in the real world. What looks like isolation to an observer can be a highly social experience where valuable skills are learned and deployed. While in Minecraft notifications of text conversations pop up and arrangements are made to meet friends in the park in 30 mins and a potential swimming trip at the weekend is discussed. The computer in their pockets is also coordinating their real world social interactions. That is a lot of attachment to give up when you head into the woods. 

The two photos that follow are from Chris Holland's latest eBook "I love my world" and are used with Chris's permission.

The first shows a map of each person's found things. It is not easy to get adults to keep still sometimes but it is much harder to keep little ones still long enough for a photo. The effort is worth it to capture such a lovely artefact to remind them of the activity and days or weeks later to use to try and remember who owns which feet.

Twiggy sculptures.

Many of the following photographs were taken by or of my own children. In a school setting or outdoor residential where one camera is shared between several or many children it can be difficult to work out who took which photo when they get back and want to blog or print them. If children are each given a small rounded stone and paint or write on it their initials or a pattern or other identifying mark, this can be placed in a photo so there are no arguments.

I recently did some voluntary work as a Barefoot computing facilitator introducing school staff to the new curriculum changes and how they could build these into every day teaching including outdoor learning sessions.

1)Information technology - Within this strand, pupils will learn to create programs, systems and a range of content. Examples in the classroom will include researching for a project, publishing content (this could be producing a blog, or sharing Powerpoint presentations), producing graphs to represent data etc. 

2)Digital Literacy – Within this strand, pupils will learn to use and express themselves, and develop their ideas through information and communication technology. In practice this could mean helping pupils understand the risks and benefits of interacting online, and helping them to shape their behaviours to be a good digital citizen. This could be discussing with pupils what makes a good password and why it is important to keep your passwords secret, how to make the best of using social media, effective search techniques or tips to write a good email.

3)Computer Science – Within this strand, pupils will be taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work and how to put this knowledge to use through programming. 

Forest school activities are ideal for developing understanding of concepts such as algorithms and debugging. These concepts cam be taught as part of computational thinking without the use of digital devices. Developing a set of ordered and systematic instructions for tasks such as building and lighting a fire, creating a den or a recipe for outdoor food are good ways of developing understanding of what an algorithm is. These critters look great in a photo but they were made by my 10 year old for a stop motion animation he wanted to do.  He used a Nikon P600 linked to an iPhone by WiFi, he took 128 stills moving things a little at a time then compiled them in iPhoto to make the animation. It is far from perfect but he was very proud of it and demonstrated some good self assessment / problem solving so he knows how to do it better next time. There is a world of difference between a still and animation they really come to life. He watched a Fast Show clip "Just a tiny amount"about an animation years ago and had always wanted to try it himself. Having done so we discussed the outcome analysing the result as a debugging exercise and he was able to identify what strategies were needed to create a better result next time. 

Setting the camera to not show the time data was the most obvious but the stability and the need to use a tripod were also noted.

"Look what I did - take a picture of me and Sandy Wizard NOW!" 

Most children and adults appreciate a record of special moments. Last year my boys were a few hundred meters off shore having canoed out to a reef. We didn't have a waterproof camera so our only camera was back on the beach when they encountered a friendly cormorant that was more than happy to dry it wings a metre or so from where they were standing. Fortunately it stayed for ages and I was able to paddle back and get our camera to capture the moment but the boys wished they had a waterproof camera especially when it let them follow it underwater. 

In outdoor settings there are many opportunities to have special moments, unfortunately mobile phones and tablets are not cheap and are fragile so they are often not allowed on field trips or in local outdoor learning situations. It is often the teacher or other staff / helpers who are tasked with recording a school trip. That is better than no record but teachers are often very preoccupied with ensuring all goes well and the capturing of a record may be sporadic. A tough shockproof and waterproof camera would make it feasible for children to capture special moments and a record of good times.

 Sandy message for a Christmas card

Seaweed Christmas tree

Design my perfect seaside house: a three children beach project in Galicia

Every house needs a dragon in the garden

One of those catch it quick moments

 Lighting up icicles.

Same place but using a flash.

Who knows when a dragon might fly past when you are in the wild.
 Without a camera there is no proof!

Two photos of the same view near St Neot taken by a 12 year old to illustrate wide angle and zoom.

Zoom in and distant animals in what looked like empty fields come into view, the remnants of old ridge and furrow field working can also be seen. 

A £110 camera with a zoom lens can reveal detail the eye can not see. Functionality has increased and costs have reduced over the last few years.

Hand held shot with the same camera. Its not perfect but the young man who took it was fascinated by the relief on the craters near the edges. 23 photos to get one that worked, no tripod with us so improvisation was needed and developing leaning / breath holding strategies improved the shots - so problem solving and perseverance skills also coming into play.

 What did we find?

What can you see in a fire? Most children spot the strange and entirely natural sprite like shape on the right made by the flames. This is a single frame taken from some experiments with videoing flames from a large bonfire and used as a banner on the Notschool project learning resources site.

Get in close with Macro, a hand held photo by a 13 yr old.

Three photos taken by a 9 year old. 
Swallowtail caterpillar.

Elephant Head Hawk Moth caterpillar

Red Admiral caterpillar 

Learning about editing photos and how it affects resolution. A close up detail of a grim face.

A young prickly visitor in our back garden captured by a 12 yr old.

Zooming in on mum the parasites on her ears are clearly visible although not so obvious in real life.

School made scarecrow on slug deterrent duties.

Here is what I saw happening.

This is what he was wondering at, one tree 5 trunks, he decided that perhaps all were from separate seeds that then fused at the base as the saplings grew. This was uploaded to Google Earth so adding an extra edge to the value and pride gained from a simple snap.

Danger danger. Spotted on the cliff path lear Looe and taken by a 12yr old with an iPhone on zoom. Taking the photo helps to embed the image and so remember it for future encounters.

A short lived phenomenon in the grounds of Petworth House that encapsulated both Science and Art.

Our den in in woods near Rudgwick.

Exploring a river near Golitha falls this was a hundred meters or so of gentle bobbing along, he was first enticed in by things on the bottom such as the sparkles of mica flakes. What was missing was a tough underwater ready camera so a proper view of the mica sparkles could have been captured.

It is very important to check out places you intend taking young children outdoors, although many of them will instinctively spot things that are not right, that doesn't mean they won't try and find out what happens when you use a broken thing.

How do you know who took what? These are number stones but could become 'me stones' by using initials painted on in acrylic or using acrylic markers. Placing their stone in a photo or video will help show who took what and avoid conflicting claims. 

A waterproof camera is useful.

Revisiting the same location where the cormorant encounter took place but this time with a GoPro the boys took video of cliff jumping

And further out some pics of the deeper blue world.

On the end of an extendable 'selfie stick' a GoPro becomes an excellent tool for reaching places that are normally out of reach. This can be particularly valuable for small children or anyone in a wheelchair or with other mobility difficulties as it helps to gain a higher level perspective such as looking over walls.

12 year old exploring how to use a GoPro on a stick in the Eden Project.