Mood music

radio-for-car-2167269_640Popping to Tesco this morning to get some shopping I decided to make use of the wife’s car as it is newer than mine, lighter and easier to drive.    Jumping into the car and starting the engine I was greeted by my wife’s selection of upbeat music, at notably loud volume.    I decided to be kind and not mess with her stereo, instead choosing to listed to her musical selection albeit at a lower volume less likely to be audible from space.

As I drove to Tesco I found myself cheering up as I looked out on the blue sky in between the clouds.   I even found myself rolling down the window.    Something as simple as cheery upbeat music in the car had had the effect of changing my mood.      So how could this simple change impact on well-being if it was part of your daily routine, music in the car or when doing the chores at home, music in the classroom or when marking, etc.

I have decided that before work begins once more on Monday I will create a playlist for my own car purposely selecting up beat music.

I wonder what the implications are for the use of music within the classroom in order to put students in the mood for learning.    I know I have read in various books about the impact of music on mood, emotions and learning.   I also have read various examples of how teachers are make use of this concept however like a lot of approaches which can have an impact they often disappear under the busy activities of the average school day until something brings them back to mind;  For me my drive to Tesco in my wife’s car did just that.


Research based education

researchThere has been a lot of talk over recent months and years about the importance of “research” based practice in teaching and about the importance of research evidence to back up any new technique, approach or fad.   The recent articles following the release of the TIMSS results and the articles which are likely to follow the PISA results due in a weeks time go to show the value which is being attributed to research findings, to quantifiable measures.

The issue is that the idea of a given approach or finding being validated by research make intuitive sense and therefore it seems logical if not common sense that such an approach be taken.     As such we fail to consider the full implications of research and in particular the importance of sample size within the research methodology.

We seek to identify approaches which will be transferable and applicable across the whole of education.   We seek to find those magical teaching methods and learning activities that can successfully be used independent of whether we are in a UK state school in a deprived area or a private school in the UAE.     We seek to make general statements in relation to the state of Maths education, or other subjects, in whole countries or even continents.   The sum total of all children currently in education therefore forms our overall target population.    Based on this any study of 10 schools or even 100 schools makes up a tiny, need I say insignificant, proportion of the overall target population.   Taken on face value the sample size of 600,000 students for TIMSS 2015 sounds impressive however as a percentage of all students within the age ranges covered by TIMSS across all countries involved I suspect it will be a small number.

Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking fast and slow (2014) discusses the issue of “the law of small numbers” in that, where the sample size is small there is a greater tendency for variance to occur.    He specifically mentions education and how research evidence has suggested, and I am careful to say suggested as opposed to proved, that small schools perform better than larger schools.    He then mentions contradictory evidence which suggests small schools perform worse.    The reasoning behind these contradictory findings Kahneman suggests is the fact that the small sample size used in a small school involved in these studies allows for local variance within the sample which is not mirrored across the target population.   So a small number of high achieving students in one year can result in a significantly positive average, whereas the following year a small number of low achieving students in a year can result in a significantly negative average.   Where the sample size is bigger, such as in a bigger school, the impact of a small number of students is lesser as a result of the total number of students.   So there is a greater likelihood for small schools, those with a small sample size, to appear in either the top or bottom as a result of random variation.

Taking the above into account I wonder about TIMSS 2015 and the fact that Singapore and Hong Kong are both at the top.   These each have a total population according to google of 5.4 and 7.2 million people.   How can we compare these with the UK and USA with populations of 64 and 319 million people?    The smaller sample size allows for more random variation.   Now it might be claimed that the fact they have remained at the top across different years shows this isn’t random variation however as Naseem Taleb suggests in The Black Swan, it only takes a single set of data to refute findings which countless previous data might have appeared to confirm.   TIMSS so far has only seen 6 data sets, 1 every 4 years since 1995, so maybe the next TIMSS data will be the one which provides the Black Swan.

Having given this some thought I wonder if the issue is the viewpoint we are taking which is one of education on a macro level.    Maybe the intuitive pursuit of research based practices is as valid and worthwhile as it feels however the problem lies in trying to look holistically.      Looking at practices in our own school or in a small number of local or very similar schools and at things, practices and approaches that work may be more productive.    We could still use a research based approach however it would be at a micro rather than macro level.       I can also see some linkages here to the teachmeet movement as surely it has been about grassroots teachers getting together to discuss their approaches and what works in their classrooms.

Maybe we need to stop looking for “the” answers and start focusing our energy on looking for “our” answers to the question of how we provide the students in our individual schools with the best learning experience and opportunities possible.


Hard Evidence

There is now a strong push on the need for “hard” evidence to prove the impact of technology but also of teaching strategies and other things within education.    Firstly, I wonder what is “soft” evidence however lets park that for now.

Thinking about this I can see where the emphasis on the need for standardized tests has come from as this is hard evidence of the impact of the  educational strategies a given country has undertaken.    But we know it is not that simple as I and many others have previously blogged.

Another impact of this need for “hard” evidence is that teachers seek to ensure they have proof of what they have done.   This leads to the need for forms, checklists and other documents to be created and completed which in turn leads to an increasing workload, another issue which is constantly under discussion.    The need for evidence results in the increased administrative workload.

beakersTaking a scientific standpoint “Hard” evidence, in my opinion, relates to something which is provable by repeatable experiment, however I admit that this is very simplistic and that a full blog or even book could be dedicated to the discussion of hard evidence.

My issue here is that of the number of variables which go into the use of learning technologies, or a particular learning strategy, in the classroom.    These include prevailing national culture, national views on education, available resources, school leadership aims and approaches, teacher qualifications, teacher experience, technologies being used, purpose for the use of technology, etc, and this is just the very tip of the iceberg.   How can any evidence therefore be considered as hard?   It may be that it is “harder” than another source of evidence however, especially where we are looking at generalization on a world or even national level, there will never be any certainty of the ability to replicate a given study and its results.    Having read Talebs The Black Swan I realize it is highly likely that it would be possible to disprove any given study with little effort after all it takes a large number of common studies with the same outcomes to prove something however requires only a single study with contradictory outcomes to disprove it.

Now I am not suggesting that we should stop examining whether given approaches have provable impact.    We must try and check that the actions we take are having a positive impact as otherwise we may undertake initiatives which have no impact or even a negative impact on student learning.   We must however accept that there are unlikely to be educational practices which are so generalizable as to have truly hard evidence which supports their impact.


Differentiation, resilience and motivation

I recently read a post on StaffRm regarding Differentiation (read it here ) which I believe to be a very complex subject that can be boiled down and simplified to “knowing the student”.     The post made a very interesting point with regards catering to students needs, and in particular the areas which they need to develop.   The suggestion was that by repeatedly adjusting learning to accommodate these needs we might in fact encourage students to not address areas for improvement and therefore compound the issue at hand.

This got me thinking about all of the other things we should develop or encourage in students.   We want to develop 21st century skills including collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.    Taking critical thinking we might provide students with a framework with which to question a particular situation or scenario thereby scaffolding the learning activity.     If we consistently provide these questions and frameworks students may come to believe these are the only questions and therefore miss other questions which may be appropriate to a given situation.

Having recently read Drive by Daniel Pink I also wonder what the impact of this constant scaffolding would have on students intrinsic motivation.    To a student it may appear that every time a task may appear at the outset to be difficult, that the teacher has put differentiation in place to make is easier and more achievable.     Also every time a task turns out to be difficult during the completion of the task itself, that the teacher will step in and put in place supporting measures, frameworks, etc to make things more achievable for the student.    The teacher here is doing the hard work so from the point of view of the student there is no need to be motivated to overcome any difficulties in hand, as the teacher can be expected to step in.

We also seek to make our students more resilient however how are students likely to become more resilient when we limit the challenges and difficulties they have to overcome.

I wonder whether the above points towards two different perspectives on education.   One perspective being the importance of attainment, and therefore the need to provide all students an equal opportunity to achieve through providing support and differentiation.    The other perspective focuses on preparing students for the future where they will come across challenge of significantly varying degrees.   Here focus is not on making the challenge easier or more achievable but on asking how can we overcome the challenge.   The focus is on the students and on developing the skills within them to overcome difficulties, the motivation to keep going in the face of challenge and the resilience to not give up.


I believe the answer here lies between the two perspectives however I feel it is a worthwhile exercise to consider which of the two you tend more towards and what you as a teacher could do to offer a more appropriately balanced educational experience for students.  I know I will be giving this some thoughts myself.




I just finished watching the season finale of Teen Wolf (and yes I know that possibly isn’t something I should be admitting) which has been a bit of a chaotic season.   In all honesty I am not quite sure that I fully understand all that has happened during this season however I have sat and watched it.   It kept me glued because of its unpredictability.

When looking at teaching and learning we emphasize the features which a so called “good” lesson should contain.   It should be appropriately differentiated, it should develop 21st century skills, it should foster individual and collaborative learning, it should encourage resilience and develop character, it should include a global dimension, etc.

As we attempt to do these things this might encourage a formulaic approach.   Working in some schools in the middle east I noticed a tendency for differentiation to have become almost synonymous with differentiated worksheets in some schools.    In an attempt to meet the requirements a single approach had been identified, in this case a worksheet with easy and then extended questions.

It is possible that as we endeavor to improve through identifying the things which should be in lessons we remove some of the variability in lessons.

Thinking of my own school experiences I remember a number of unique events for those teachers who I consider to have been my best teachers.   These events are remembered largely due to their uniqueness.   I remember the English teacher who removed all the tables from the class and had us sitting in a circle, something that was very uncommon at the time.    I remember the health and safety session in DT involving a rubber glove filled with tomato sauce and a bandsaw.

If we remove the variability will lessons be so engaging?   In seeking to ensure all lessons contain the elements which we deem to be important will we end up delivering lessons which are largely the same and therefore not as engaging?  Will the quest for systemic improvement lead to formulaic learning experiences which are un-engaging and the norm?

Ultimately if lessons are equated to a roll of a dice, we want to prevent students receiving a low score from their roll; a poor learning experience.    Given this we want to try to ensure that each roll results in a higher score, better learning experience, however will rolling loaded dice ultimately result in negative results despite higher scores?


Seeking creativity

Posting number 10 of #29daysofwriting and todays post is a musing on creativity in schools.

Today I attended an IT event at my school where colleagues explained the EdTech journey the school has been on.   I am not long in the school hence have largely came in late in the day.   Within part of the presentation a colleague identified the pedagogical reasons behind the selection of the core apps to be used across the school, citing a number of areas which largely corresponded to the 4 Cs (Collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking) plus a few other points.

This got me thinking about creativity and how we might go about developing creativity in our students.


Makerspaces might be one opportunity to develop creativity in that this puts students in a position where they have various resources available to them to solve a problem or to create something.    Taken as a single event a makerspace session largely taps into a students inherent creativity rather than further developing what they have.   If they are not very creative then they will struggle.   That said, students generally have the potential for creativity especially in their younger years.    The opportunity to work in teams, collaboratively, may impact on creativity possibly as they gain access to new ideas through working together.   Also the repeated use of makerspaces may help in developing a students tendency towards being creative however I am not sure how it might help in making students “more” creative.

I wonder about the act of teaching creativity, or more accurately of teaching about how we think and therefore how ideas which may be considered to be “creative” might be hidden from us due to the way we think.      I have read De Bonos book on divergent thinking and I wonder about how some of the example activities contained within might be used with students.   I believe building an awareness of how we think and how we learn might help students in developing their ability to think creatively, and outside of the box.

We talk about developing creative students however can we put our finger on where we are doing this, how we are teaching or facilitating learning which develops creativity?



Reporting and feedback.


We are currently in the process of finalizing the half term reports ready to get these sent out to parents very soon.   The purpose of the reports is to provide parents with a view of the areas of strength, areas for improvement and suggested actions which their children should undertake to achieve their potential.   The reports are also aimed at providing the students with the same information so that they can act accordingly.

Basically parental reports amount to student feedback albeit with parents also receiving the feedback for their children.

When looking at feedback in a more general way, as it is used with the normal teaching and learning, teachers have very much started to make use of technology.    This includes electronic submission of work and then electronic feedback.    The reason for the application of technology within this area being that technology facilitates quicker feedback and this, the time between the activity and feedback being received, has been identified as an important factor in the success of feedback.   Students can receive feedback without waiting for the next Math lesson for example and therefore act on it sooner.   As such by using technology teacher feedback can be more effective.

Technology also allows us to vary the format of feedback.   Some students may be happy to receive annotations on their work while other students want verbal feedback.   Some students will benefit from verbal feedback plus a video of a worked example while other teachers would prefer a video of their teacher annotating their work and narrating their feedback.    Technology allows for a variety of different formats of feedback plus even for mixed media feedback to be provided.

Technology allows for feedback to be provided as and when required as opposed to being a fixed points within the year.     A teacher can monitor student work via Google drive or one drive, providing feedback on the work as it develops instead of waiting until it is submitted.   This saves time as feedback is timely and therefore prevents students going too far off courses and requiring significant rework to be undertaken.

In summary, technology:

  • Allows for quicker more responsive feedback
  • Allows for varied forms of feedback.
  • Allows for more dynamic feedback to be issue on an “on-demand” basis.

Despite the above advances of feedback in the classroom we still insist in writing and sending home termly reports.     Isn’t it about time we started using the same technology we use in our feedback within our progress reporting?

Photo courtesy of Amboo213 on Flickr