Limit children’s screen time, expert urges via the BBC

October 9, 2012 1 comment

The contributers to this BBC News article might need to extend their audience, or accept that this is a lost cause!

japanese school-bus

japanese school-bus

The comments at the end of the BBC article are interesting and help pose a serious question about the direction we are heading in our homes and schools (not forgetting buses!)

I’m not there yet with my thoughts on this one, but interested in everyone else’s!  Thank goodness for the e-readers, however, with their e-ink, eye friendly screens- these offer me holiday breaks from the glare of my other devices…


‘Tis the season for ‘examination-candidate bashing’!

As we approach examination season once more, yet again, as every year,  the media and the lay person conspire to contrast – negatively – the standards of education of a bygone era with those today.  I would argue that it is of no value to do so and indeed that doing so serves no useful nor, most importantly,  accurate purpose!

This is not the defensive rant of an examination teacher, although I have been that: indeed I have even held the accepted view regularly ‘yelled’ from the tabloid tops. Rather, I hope that experience and – stopping to think – (oops, is that allowed?)  make this the post of common sense.

I agree that there are certain standards which do not compare well with those of the past, prominent examples being spelling and basic grammar, as well as the ability to communicate effectively and accurately in writing.

But let’s look at the facts for a moment:

Once upon a time:

  • Not everyone went to school
  • Few people remained in school to examination level and many fewer to A’ and degree levels
  • Fewer subjects were studied, which meant more time was devoted to each subject (I had English lessons 6  times a week at what is now known as KS3, for instance, yet in my current school both GCSE Language and Literature are taught in 2.5 lessons a week.)
  • Taking each subject, and I’ll stick with English if I may, within this reduced time provision, far more needs to be covered than was ever the case in the past.  It is not enough to consider reading and writing, but a student needs to be familiar with a wider range of forms e.g. leaflets, blogs, advertisements, newspaper articles, literature in its various forms: poetry, plays, novels – both modern and of the canon.  Is it any wonder they are unable to write a confident and accurate letter? – a task we repeated on a very regular basis and they may have the opportunity to do only once or twice during their GCSE years.  They also need to be able to write about the way language is used to create meaning and to target audiences at a much more sophisticated level than was the case in the past, when our focus was on precis and comprehension.
  • As mentioned above, far more subjects are now included within the curriculum – how then is it possible to study any one area in the depth which would allow an adequate contrast with the education of the past? It is like comparing like with completely unlike and to what end?  Young people do not spell as well as they used to (those who had the opportunity – usually those fortunate enough to be educated privately or in the grammar system.)  How could they given the current breadth of curriculum requirements? However, they CAN multi-task in a way that we never could in the past: they can create effective, often inspirational materials, using a variety of ICT/ multi-media skills to target a range of audiences and they can explain how they have achieved these things. They can create websites, films,documentaries, podcasts and  manage their social lives, alomgside their studies via Twitter and Facebook!  They can manage projects, work in teams and meet long-term deadlines.

I believe it is far too easy for people of a certain age to, thoughtlessly and carelessly, mentally list what they could do at a certain age and then deride the current education system when our young people are unable to do the same.

Okay so you want them to be able to spell; what then would you remove from the curriculum to enable this to happen? Are these critics parents?  How much time do they spend at home, helping their children consolidate  what they have been taught in school?  as so often was a role played by parents in the past. Indeed many new elements of the curriculum have arisen as a direct consequence of an abdication of parental responsibility – where else did Citizenship and PCSHEE come from?

However, that is all a whole other discussion and I cannot claim to be a saint in that respect!  My final point is let’s prioritise, as a society, what skills from the past are still of value and decide what can go from our over-crowded curriculum to enable us to improve these areas.

In the meantime, let us concentrate on reversing the natural instinct to contrast negatively so that we list instead the skills that children HAVE and we, of a certain generation, have not, rather than ‘knocking’ them during this annual ‘examination-candidate bashing’ season!  Let’s face it – who is better prepared for a world that is very different from that of our bygone age?

Risk-taking is an essential part of development…

I have tussled with my views on eSafety since well before it was ever labelled thus! With an almost Victorian upbringing (but not age!) and no access to television nor computers, throughout my formative years, the influence of my ‘nurture’ has instinctively been to ‘lock things down’ for children, in order to keep them safe and protect them from the undesirable. It has taken me years to understand – largely through experience, research and a bit more independence of thought, that locking everything down simply won’t do.  Indeed I would argue that we place children in more danger by doing so.

Without trying to pretend that I am more knowledgeable than I am, there are some fundamental basics to learning that I think we all understand. Let’s take the development of speech as an example:

1. We learn through imitation; that is why I speak with the accent I have.

2. We learn through making mistakes and having those pointed out to us; that is why some people speak with grammatical accuracy and some do not. During the development of our speech, it is natural to make grammatical errors; such is the complex nature of speaking English that subject agreement is not always logical. Where these ‘errors’ are pointed out, speech is improved. Where it is not, ‘bad practice’ becomes embedded.

3. We learn through experimentation and risk-taking. By pushing the boundaries in our use of vocabulary and in what we read and hear, we learn what is possible and more about ‘what is out there’, extending our knowledge and understanding as we do so.

Okay, you’ve guessed where I am going with this? – over-simplified though it might be:

1. Imitation: I have less of a connection to make with this one, save to say that peer-pressure is involved – ‘My friend is on Facebook, so too must I be’ and of course, this inevitably leads to the making of mistakes.

2. Mistakes: it is natural, and within reason – desirable, for young people to make mistakes – it is a fundamental part of growing up and development. With the way in which eSafety ‘rules’ are moving in this country (as with Health and Safety before it!) we are stifling a key element of our children’s progress. We complain that they are passive and unimaginative, but we do not allow them to explore or to try things out. (Outside of eSafety, this has manifested itself in such developments as children not being allowed to play outdoors, teachers not being allowed to touch their pupils and the reduction in school trips.)

3. Experimentation and risk-taking: ‘Risk-taking’ is a bit of an educational buzz word at the moment. China does it and we don’t apparently. (Yes, I know I’m over-fond of simplification!) It has even been said that it is becoming a Core Skill. (Heather Rolfe, NIESR) By setting Risk-taking as a school objective or target, many UK Schools are setting themselves up for failure – or merely ‘fooling themselves. Increasingly, school policy is written to eliminate any possibility of risk-taking or spontaneity. In protecting ourselves, under the guise of protecting our children, creativity is plain and simply being stifled from the crib on.

Many of the ideas I appear to lambast, I do understand and sympathise with – have even held. I understand that with the changes in the law, key members of our establishments find themselves in impossibly responsible – and frightening – positions. I understand that we all want to do our best to protect the young people around us. My point is not to question this; it is to ask whether or not we have gone, and continue to go, too far in the wrong direction.

In doing so, might the horrible irony be that we are harming the majority, in order to protect from shadowy, unsavoury possibilities?

Might we be producing a generation of young people who are unable to and unwilling to take risks, so afraid have they been made to feel about the possible consequences. Instead of asking, ‘What is the worst possible thing that might happen?’ why don’t we ask, ‘What is the worst possible thing that is likely to happen?’ How much freer might we be, whereas, not to do so leads to equivalents such as not boarding a flight in case it might crash; not visiting the London Olympics lest it is the target of a bombing campaign and indeed, not eating out in case someone has poisoned the food!

Problem finding is oh so easy, but  what is the solution? I would suggest that we accept that the world out there has many similarities to the one we have always lived in and that the dangers posed by the internet etc merely magnify what has always existed. (I never sat in front of a television or computer growing up, but I need more than my 2 hands to count the number of times I was ‘flashed’ at!) I would also suggest that young people today are not quite as horrified by some of the things that horrify us as adults – they have been brought up in a very different way, with access to many different media – bringing them, on a day-to-day basis into contact with what we might not fully approve of.  Although, we may feel this in some ways to be a sad indictment of society, it is a true one and we need to work with practical realities in our efforts to prepare children for their places in the real world.

Over-filtering and blocking access to numerous sites in our schools, keeps us in a legally sound position, but morally, we are doing our pupils no service whatsoever – we merely ‘push’ the problem outside of the school building, intensifying it as we do so. (The increased use of VLEs is forcing us to reconsider this position – and fast.) As teachers, many of us know what the issues are – parents often don’t. We have the curriculum relevance in our schools to be able to educate in these areas. I am a real fan of the 360 eSafety Self Review tool by the South West Grid for Learning:  It seems to work on the very sensible premise that the higher the ‘mark’ your school gains, the less you are likely to have ‘locked down’.  And the reason for that? You will have educated your students to make educated and sensible choices for themselves, freeing them up to take personal responsibility for their actions. What is the point in preventing them from accessing certain sites at school, when they can walk out of the door to the classroom and access it from their unfiltered smartphones? With these devices, they can access it on the bus on the way home and also from the pcs which they have in their bedrooms. This is where the true potential danger lies; that because of our policies and approach, children have neither the experience, nor education to make sensible decisions and their mistakes can become ‘big’ and public very quickly.

Much better to open up, for instance, a low-key chat facility in school, allow them to access YouTube – so useful in so many ways – but all this on a monitored network, where low-level mistakes can be picked up at an early stage and  consequences gradually made clear – all within a safe and controlled environment and with  full communication with parents about what the school is trying to achieve.

With proper planning, effective monitoring, a well-communicated AUP and clear sanctions, all this is possible and desirable. Let them take risks, I say!

Say thank-you!


I am one of the targets of this suggestion!

In our busy working lives, it is so easy to focus on what is going wrong, what is preventing us from doing what we need to do, going where we need to be. In other words, those things that frustrate and irritate us most.

Why is it when things go wrong, we are quick to complain, attack and ascribe blame?  This can manifest itself in many forms ranging from direct confrontation, muttering in corners and even road rage! (I’m not so guilty of that; when other drivers upset me, I draw breath and imagine they are on their desperate way to their mother’s funeral!)

Why then are we so slow to praise? – or to do so openly.   Have you ever thought or said something like this: “I did mean to thank her, but I didn’t have time.”  or, “Oh, I should have thanked him for doing that.”  Often the thank-you is in my head, or the praise is there, but the person concerned is spoken of and not to.

I say ‘thank-you’ all day long for the little things, like someone holding open a door and I do get ‘door rage’ when I hold open the door for someone else and they don’t say ‘thank-you’.  The mother’s funeral scenario just doesn’t seem to work in this instance – I just thing everyone should know better; this should be a basic instinct!  Hey, we all have our rage triggers and this one is mine!

I know that when someone thanks me, something bright, warm and ‘fuzzy’ happens inside my mind, thus my not so New Year’s resolution is to remember to thank people for all those things that they do, especially when they don’t have to do them!

I’m sure this was written for my daughter!

I’m not sure if it’s okay to keep poaching ideas from other people and sticking them in my blog, but it does make it so much easier!  I read this in today’s i newspaper – also in The Independent and it made me chuckle – we could all do with a bit of light relief after last night’s storm.

I have a daughter due home from uni, this weekend so it did strike a particular chord:

Deborah Ross: Students home for Christmas? There’s fun in store for you!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

If you ask me, I have thought of another new game for university students and this is also a fine game and a splendid game and this game is played when you come home for Christmas and haven’t seen your mother for months, and it is called, “IF YOU DON’T PUSH PAST HER TO GET AT THE FRIDGE, IT WON’T KILL YOU”.

It is such a simple game that any student can play it, if they’ve a mind. Or a sensitive bone in their body. Or remember all the hours the mother has put in being in goal or playing dinosaurs or attending all those nativity plays during which the one child who knows all the lines shouts them into the faces of the others.

Do you think your mother ever considered this quality entertainment? Do you think she would have attended if it weren’t for you? Do you think she would have said to herself: “I must book tickets so I can see one child who knows all the lines shouting them into the faces of the others? I would hate to miss that?” Do you?

Anyway, there are only two instructions to this game, and the first is:

1) Don’t push past your mother to get at the fridge, it won’t kill you. (According to the British Medical Association, not a single death has yet been linked with not pushing past your mother to get at the fridge, or even an instance of cramp.)

You may wish, however, to play variations on this instruction, which include:

* Don’t push past your mother to get at the fridge and then complain: “Haven’t you done a shop-up?”

* Don’t push past your mother to get at the fridge, complain she hasn’t done a shop-up, drink the entire carton of Tropicana at the fridge door, and then burp so lustily that your mother is all but blown across the kitchen.

And the second instruction is this:

2) Do kiss her on the cheek and say “Hi, you all right?”, which is all she wants, although if you also wish to tell her about your sex life and how much you are drinking exactly and whether you are doing drugs or actually attending lectures, it will save her from having to bombard you with questions at a later date. (Not so sure about this instruction – although it would save all that eavesdropping on telephone conversations and mad, usually false accusations!)

I hope you will enjoy this game and, if so, you may wish to look out for other games in the series like “Don’t Just Dump Your Stuff In The Hall” and “What? You Think Taking It Upstairs Is Going To Kill You?”. There was a suggestion, at some point, that taking your stuff upstairs could lead to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but even this has lately been disproved.

I could add so many more rules to this game but will stick to just a few:

“Is it going to kill you to put your dishes in the dishwasher?” or indeed, “Would it be a real issue to lift that upturned yoghurt carton – yes, the one that isn’t quite empty – from your bedroom carpet?”

“If you’d like me to hoover your room, you need to clear a space on the floor?”

“Okay, so we’re back to taking about you then; I’d forgotten that your well-being depended on the recurrent theme being Me, Me Me!!!

“It absolutely will affect your future well-being if you do not delete that photo from facebook!”  Never mind your future, you will have a sore behind as soon as your grandmother sees it!”

Only joking, L, my dear – can’t wait to see you and the fridge will be stocked full, and don’t worry.  I’ll stand well back so as not to block your entry!

(Must remember to switch off the facility to comment on this post before she gets to it!)

Computer Science: the new English Language?

December 7, 2011 2 comments

The last thing I have time for tonight is writing a blog, but this one is bursting through my pores, so if I want to sleep, it has to be given its voice!

The odd thing is that I didn’t even think I had much to say on this topic and yes, I agree the title is somewhat obscure.  Hopefully, whatever falls on the page tonight will make the link less tenuous.

Michael Gove recently stated that, “the ICT curriculum in the past has been written for a subject that is changing all the time. I think that what we should have is computer science in the future.” 

Call me uninformed, but I’m struggling to see how one clause follows the other in this statement.  So humour me while I break it down for my own benefit:

  1. “The ICT curriculum in the past has been written for a subject that is changing all the time.”  Yes, that’s true, so is the point that the curriculum has not kept abreast of the changes in ICT?  Fine, that seems to be the truth and its irrelevance and lack of rigour are in part to blame for the fact that I haven’t been allowed to introduce the subject at examination level in MpoW.
  2. “I think that what we should have is computer science in the future.”  Okay and why not? There is clearly a dearth of availability of Computer Science teaching in UK schools and making it more widely available will please those in the Gaming industries, amongst others.

But I still can’t see why one clause follows the other. 

Why does it have to be one in place of the other?  Surely these are two quite separate, if complementary subject areas?  Is this not like suggesting that English Language teaching is the future, in place of English Literature?  (Ha, link made, but still a little tenuous, I accept!)

Whilst there is overlap between the two subjects and they are often taught by the same teacher, they are each intrinsically valuable – and separate. Where would we be without our studies of literature, of characters from other times and cultures and of their relationships with each other?  However, often meaning and our ability to empathise is enhanced by looking at the language of the piece – how it is constructed and shaped.   An understanding of both subject areas helps to make a valuable whole.

Often, there is an intellectual snobbery about the study of the English Language with only a few continuing this at a higher level –but no-one is suggesting that because it can be more rigorous and challenging as one’s studies progress, that it should replace the teaching of literature!  After all Chaucer, Wordsworth, Shakespeare – they are all dead: it is an outdated syllabus which hasn’t kept up with the times!  That is pretty much an equivalent to Gove’s argument.

No, rather it is recognised that there is a richness, depth and breadth to literature which should never be dismissed – nor in my view made optional, as it so often is, particularly at KS4.

Back to ICT – this should never be abandoned in favour of Computer Science.  Again, there tends to be an intellectual snobbery which emanates from those who hold tight to their Computer Science degrees.  Skilled and specialised they might be, but in my experience, they are often lacking in the C of ICT – communication skills!  (A wild generalisation, I know!)   That C, however, is very important in our modern world and if we take Bloom’s Taxonomy, revised to incorporate digital elements, we can see that ICT is fundamental in being able to deliver this capability – from the lower order communications skills such as texting and emailing right up to the higher order collaboration, negotiating and debating, we can see that the highest order thinking skills can be achieved through the effective teaching of ICT.

The National Curriculum Programme of Study states: “The increasing use of technology in all aspects of society makes confident, creative and productive use of ICT an essential skill for life. ICT capability encompasses not only the mastery of technical skills and techniques, but also the understanding to apply these skills purposefully, safely and responsibly in learning, everyday life and employment. ICT capability is fundamental to participation and engagement in modern society. ICT can be used to find, develop, analyse and present information, as well as to model situations and solve problems.” 

Really, what is there to argue with here?  Does this sound like a subject we can afford to ditch?

What can be argued – and the Computer Scientists DO legitimately argue, is that ICT is not often taught well.  It is rarely taught by specialists – and along with subjects such as PCSHEE- suffers as a consequence.  In addition, teaching is historically towards a qualification which is poorly constructed and tends not reward students who demonstrate higher level skills and thinking.

This does not mean it is not a valid subject.  Poor national qualifications, poor provision and poor teaching do not invalidate ICT as a subject.

What examination bodies and schools must do is recognise the value and importance of ICT.  Do we want our students to go out into the world with the fear and lack of confidence in technology that we see their teachers and parents exhibit in their attempts to function adequately in the modern world?  Technology is not going to go away.

To return to Gove’s comment about ICT  being a subject which is changing all the time, well what better subject within which to incorporate the teaching of and development of independence and transferable skills? 

ICT should be taught to all and at every Key Stage.  Computer Science should be taught more widely – agreed, but in reality, this is likely to be suited to a somewhat narrower body of students, those with a particular and more intellectual interest in the Science behind the practical and more general application of the subject.

both these subjects can and should exist,  as do English Literature and Language in the best of schools: complementing and enriching each other.  ICT should be at the ‘core’ of this relationship: studied by all, helping to deepen and enrich the study of Computer Science where this is chosen.

My appeal to anyone out there who organises, conducts or attends meetings

November 24, 2011 6 comments

Where do I begin with this one?  My feelings about meetings are that often, a great deal is said, very little is decided, very few actions are agreed upon, and virtually nothing is followed up.

I have attended staff meetings, working party meetings, committee meetings, group meetings, department meetings, and more, over a period of  over 20 years, not only at MPoW, but those that preceded it and elsewhere. I’m pretty sure that these are not unique experiences, but endemic in modern institutions.  (How many hours of my life have been lost to meetings? To travel too far down this route of reflection would lead to despair, so let me digress no further!)

To structure my appeal,  I shall revert to my favourite writing form when under stress – The List!

I offer below – freely and with heightened hope,  my personal list of what tend to be the features of the VERY FEW good meetings I have attended in my time:

  1. Clarity for all attendees about what type of meeting it is, for example, is this a meeting about problem-solving, decision-making, management, feedback, information, planning or a combination of these?
  2. An agenda, published well in advance of the meeting.  (The consequence of not doing so means you ‘invite’ attendees to arrive unprepared; you also offer the floor to those who love the sound of their own voices and silence the true thinkers – those who prefer / need to think and reflect before coming to any conclusion or offering contributions. Is that what you want?)
  3. An agenda that is manageable in the time.  (Don’t put things on the agenda that simply cannot be covered in the time you have available.  Don’t put an item on the agenda where there is no time to debate or discuss it – you KNOW if the item is likely to generate debate – you do, really, you do!)
  4. Where possible, host the meeting in a comfortable environment, with a layout which encourages rather than stifles debate and discussion.
  5. Start on time.  (I’m sorry, but as far as I’m concerned, my time is precious – there are always other things I could be doing with it.  If a meeting is supposed to start at 4pm, it should start at 4pm.  Don’t you know it’s rude to be late?  Likewise, the meeting should finish on time.  Don’t assume that other people are free to continue just because you are. That is treating attendees in the same manner as those cold callers who phone when you are eating dinner and assume you are keen to discuss your energy tariff or Sky account without the courtesy of asking if you are free to talk!)
  6. A chairperson who is well-prepared and capable of remaining focused, as well as being strong and confident enough to deal with contradictory opinions.
  7. Maintain focus on the agenda: (as I’ve said – but I need you to hear! – my time is precious and I’m sure yours is too.  Don’t digress, don’t waffle, stick to the point and work towards making those actions / decisions, or whatever it is that the meeting’s aim dictates.)
  8. Don’t be afraid of controversy or problematic discussions. ( If these don’t happen in the meeting, they will take place behind closed office doors, and ‘issues’ will escalate.  It is best to confront difficulty openly, within a framework of courteous discussion.  People should feel able to disagree, but this can be done professionally.)
  9. Someone appointed to take minutes – and given advance warning of this.  (Asking someone to take minutes during the meeting will truly irritate them and potentially add to their stress levels.  If you are anything like me, you want to ‘get your head in the right place’ for taking minutes – and maybe even come prepared with your highly sophisticated minute-taking equipment!!)
  10. Where decision-making is required, avoid involving too many parties. ( This leads to delayed action and frustration.)
  11. Follow-up on last minutes /actions:  people need to be held accountable. ( Individuals need to accept ownership for decisions made; actions need to be followed up and reviewed.  Otherwise what’s the point?  Of course the minutes should be published as soon after the meeting as possible and never, never on the day of the next meeting!)
  12. Assuming number 2, above, is in place, encourage debate from all parties where appropriate – (don’t allow the loud-mouths to dominate – they often have the least to ‘say’.)
  13. Consider the frequency of the meetings:( people tend to anticipate meetings as they do a large filling in a front tooth.  However, this is because they attend so many poor and ineffective meetings!   It is stressful to attend meetings with overfull, unmanageable agendas.  If you need more meeting time, don’t ‘shy away’ from organising more.  Much better to have more frequent, but well planned-meetings where things ‘get done’.  This is a  satisfying and constructive use of  everyone’s time).

And a final rebellious thought for those who attend, rather than conduct meetings: are you prepared to tolerate losing hours of your life to ‘shoddy’ meeting engagements?  Why not speak out and insist upon, at the very least, some basic meeting standards?  Of course, real life can get in the way of a good meeting and we must be understanding of this reality – it is persistent bad practice we must resist!

Certainly, my outburst has made me feel better already – blood pressure levels have gradually reduced, number by number, as my list has progressed!  I would welcome your comments below.

“A little rebellion now and then… is a medicine necessary for the sound health of meetings.” – Thomas Jefferson (with a very minor tweak by me!)

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