Top Ten Signs that We’re Back to School

Has ‘Back to School’ come as a bit of a shock? Here are my top ten signs that the lovely long Summer holiday is over and that the new school year has started. How many have happened to you?

  1. You breathe out a sigh of relief that the waistband of your work clothes still fits – and a button pops off.
  2. When you finally find your lanyard again you realise that the age gap between your staff ID photo and reality is now pushing the bounds of credulity.
  3. As a result of the ‘Summer IT Upgrade‘ your computer crashes when you try to log in (after finally remembering what your password was).
  4. When you do succeed in logging in, you find there are now 247 emails in your inbox.
  5. During the start of term INSET day you find that at least a dozen new educational acronyms (NEAs) have been invented since the end of last term.
  6. On the first day that the pupils return someone asks ‘Sir?’ / ‘Miss?’ And for a moment you wonder who they’re talking to.
  7. The bells, the bells! Your life becomes Pavlovian again.
  8. You scald yourself with your coffee, no longer having the luxury of time to let it cool down.
  9. You spend the latter half of the morning with your legs crossed because you can no longer just pop to the loo when you need to.
  10. After your first busy day, you realise with a sigh that you have to get up at THAT TIME again tomorrow… and tomorrow…

So, how many did you score out of ten at the start of this term?! Anything I missed? What would you put in your top ten?

Remember, though, what we do makes a real difference to the children we teach. And just think: some people have jobs where they actually have time to be bored!

If things are getting a bit much, you might want to have a look at my post on Workable Wellbeing.

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New Specification AS – Waiting for Results Day

I originally wrote this a few days before the 2016 AS and A Level results came out. I added the postscript after the dust had settled on results day.

I teach psychology, one on the new AS specifications taught from September 2015. This Summer’s AS exams were the first test of the new specification, my teaching of it and interpretation of the assessment criteria. That adds a little spice to the wait for results day, for teachers as well as students!

We opted for the AQA specification, and had done the AQA A specification previously. There was really good support for the new specification from this exam board and a wealth of sample assessments, Mark schemes and commentaries. The last time the specification changed, there were considerable differences in the style of some questions from the sample materials, but this wasn’t the case this time round. I’m aware, however that odd things can happen in the first year of a new exam and research commissioned by the DFE shows that the grade distributions can plateau or fall when specifications change, as for A levels in 2010 and GCSEs in 2011 (DFE RB203, March 2012). It’s this knowledge that means that, irrespective of how long I’ve been teaching, how much I prepared for the new course, how well the students performed in internal assessments or PPEs, I can’t be as sure of how they will do in the actual exams as I was the year before.

I was pleased to see that Ofqual are also aware of the issues surrounding assessment of the new qualifications and say they have taken steps to ensure standardisation across the transition, so that students examined in the first year of a new course are not penalised. They also plan to publish their analysis of the results on AS results day (you can read the Ofqual blog post on setting standards for new AS qualifications here). I haven’t been impressed with some strategies used to ‘maintain standards’ especially moving grade boundaries (as you can read in my post Beating the Bounds from last year), but I’m hoping that this move to be ahead of the curve and transparent with a prompt statistical analysis is a positive one.

So, like my students, I’ll be awaiting the results a little nervously this year – probably good for me to feel a little of what it’s like in their shoes, but I’m hoping that lessons have been from the introduction of new assessments in the past, so results will be a true indication of students’ performance.

Postscript 18/8/17

The results are now all in, I now now how my own students did in their exams and Ofqual have published their promised analysis (read it here).

Nationally, the picture seems fairly stable with a 1% increase for A grades at AS continuing a trend (although only 0.2% for psychology). In general Ofqual say the outcomes for the new AS exams were similar to those taken by 17 year olds last year.

As for my own students, much the same story. There was a slightly positive VA versus forecasts overall, so I didn’t need to worry and will have a keen bunch to embark on the first run of ‘A level Year 2’ (we decided to enter everyone for AS this time round).

I hope your experiences with the A Level & BTEC were similarly positive.

Why do education books cost so much? 

This post is a bit different, just a question: why do books on education cost so much? I’m not moaning (although I am bemoaning the fact that I just can’t afford to read all the great books out there), I just want to know the answer. I can’t make the figures add up and there doesn’t seem to be any hard information available.

I won’t name publishers, authors or titles, but there are a few recently published books I’d like to read at the moment. If you’re a teacher using social media you’ll have heard of them. They are all under 200 pages – that’s a slim volume – and apart from the cover utilise no colour printing. Each is currently priced from £16.99 to £24.99. For that same money you could get a newly published hardback novel or an all-singing, all-dancing, exam board endorsed, full colour A level textbook complete with a supporting website and possibly an app.

So why so much? I don’t begrudge anyone their fair due – authors, editors, printers, binders, retailers and publishers all deserve their cut, and I appreciate that the physical print publishing industry is having a tough time. I have, however, found it difficult to find break-downs of costs.

Zachary Crockett used his experiences working in the publishing of HE textbooks in the US to produce this breakdown in his 2013 article Why are textbooks so expensive?:

  • 5% Production costs
  • 15% Author Royalties 
  • 32% Editorial costs 
  • 15% Marketing
  • 1% Shipping
  • 22% Profit

Of course taxes will be levied on the profit and there will be other costs such as depreciation. Nevertheless, this gives us an idea of the breakdown of the wholesale price. Retailers have their own costs and profit margin so will add around 25% mark-up on the wholesale price.

I understand that books aimed at teachers are aimed at a specialised small market (although there are nearly half a million of us in the UK),  so overheads can’t be spread across large volume sales, but actual production costs are a small part of the total price, and surely editorial input is proportional to the length off a book. Presumably a slim 160 page volume requires less input than a 450 page novel? Surely the marketing budget will be proportional to the size of the market? Usually I hear about new books because someone tweets about them – often the author.

So, how do the costs work? Where does the money go? Why are education books so expensive? I’d really like to know, because if they were cheaper I’d be buying two or three of those I mentioned, rather than deciding on just one.

Seymour Papert: Computing and Creativity

Seymour Papert, mathematician, computer scientist and educational philosopher died on 31st July, aged 88. He was a passionate advocate for computing in education, not because he thought technology could provide useful teaching tools, but believed programming could unleash the creativity of children. 

Born in South Africa, Papert studied mathematics, going on to gain a PhD at Cambridge, and then to work with Jean Piaget in Geneva. He later drew on Piaget’s ideas while developing the Logo programming language and its associated floor ‘turtle’ at MIT. His aim was a simple programming language which nevertheless included the versatility to solve complex problems. The experience of Logo for many children in the 80s & 90s will have been using a physical or screen turtle to draw geometrical shapes. Papert saw this as important, giving children a way of exploring geometrical & mathematical concepts, but he  only intended this as the start. Logo was conceived to put the child in charge of this exploration; connecting the abstract to the concrete, learning creative problem solving, and gaining mastery of new technology as active developers, rather than just passive users. Sadly for many children in the UK their experience of Logo may not have gone much beyond following instructions on a worksheet to draw shapes on a screen, the antithesis of what Papert intended. For those, however, who were allowed to explore logo further, or it’s commercial inceptions such as Lego Mindstorms, a world of possibilities opened up.

Logo may no longer be the first programming language of choice in schools, but several versions are still popular and the derivative NetLogo modelling tool is still going strong. The principles (and particularly turtle graphics coding commands) live on in tools such as Scratch and text-based languages like Python. I have recently taught some computing at KS4 after a break from the subject of ten years. I’m pleased to see students captivated by the the ability that coding gives them to take charge of a task and create imaginative (and often elegant) solutions. When I look at the youngest pupils in our all-through school embarking on their journey into computing, I can only wonder at what they will be achieving the next ten years. I think we need to understand that, while we teachers may be the facilitators, it will be them taking us there, not the other way around. I believe a curriculum and pedagogy based on creative exploration would be a legacy of which Seymour Papert would approve. 

As ever, I welcome constructive comments. If you want to read more about Papert’s contribution to computing and creativity in schools, I recommend this excellent article Papert, Turtles and Creativity written in 2015 by Miles Berry. 

NetLogo is a programming language developed by Uri Wilensky at Northwestern University and is available here.

Lego MINDSTORMS is a trademark of the Lego Group.

Python is an educational programming language produced by the Python Software Foundation.

Scratch is a free first programming tool developed by the MIT Media Lab and is available here.

Image created using Logo interpreter by Joshua Bell.

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