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Teachers and writers

The London Book Fair 2008

Teachers and writers perhaps have more in common than people realise. Yesterday I visited the London Book Fair, and that helped me to gather my thoughts on this matter....

  1. The most important element in the education system is, in my opinion, the expert teacher. You can verify this by the economist's approach of determining the marginal cost of something by taking it out of the picture completely. If you take the expert teacher out of the classroom, and replace him or her with non-expert teachers following, to all intents and purposes, a script, then I think you would very quickly see that to have been quite a costly move, whether in terms of behaviour or examination results or enthusiasm for the subject on the part of the students or whatever.    
    Note that I am not necessarily restricting myself to subject expertise. A good teacher can take a subject they know very little about and, with the help of good materials and training, do a reasonable job of teaching. The important element here is pedagogical expertise. Of course, if the teacher is an expert in both pedagogy and the subject, so much the better.    
    On the other hand, if advisers, consultants and speakers were to disappear from the educational scene, would that make a huge amount of difference? Let me rephrase that. It would make a great deal of difference, of course, but would it make a very big marginal difference? Let's put it another way: if you wanted to increase educational standards in your area, and you had to get rid of either an expert teacher or a consultant, adviser or visiting speaker, in order to balance the books, whom would you choose to get the chop?    
    Please bear in mind that I am trying to be objective here. I am myself a consultant and visiting speaker, and have been an adviser; and some of my best friends are speakers, advisers or consultants.    
    The most important element in the publishing industry is, in my opinion, the author. Publishers will argue otherwise, of course, because many books these days are not so much written as produced. The Dorling Kindersley books are an excellent example of this: lavishly illustrated, beautiful to look at, but not necessarily easy to read because of all the colours and pictures, though that's another matter and a personal opinion anyway.    
    But again, look at this at the margin. Other things being equal, if you had to cut costs by getting rid of an editor, an illustrator or an expert writer, surely your decision would not be to fire the writer?
  3. The curious thing, though, is that when it comes to trade shows, both the teacher and the writer share the ignominy of being regarded as unworthy of much attention, generally speaking. Visit the BETT show, say, with the word "teacher" on your badge, and you will not be treated as well as if you have, say, "Chief Software Buyer" displayed. The reason is obvious, of course.    
    The same obtains at shows like the London Book Fair. The "most important" people there are the ones who buy and sell rights. Authors? Don't make me laugh. As soon as exhibitors see "Author" on your badge, they either humour you as politely and briefly as possible, or else ignore you all together.    
    This is so pronounced that after it had happened to me the first time, I thought I must have developed some sort of personality defect or acute paranoia. But then the following year I tried an experiment: I asked my wife to accompany me, and she discovered exactly the same thing. Then the following year I spoke to someone who works for the UK's Society of Authors, and she said it was a common experience: authors are regarded with disdain.    
    This year I tried another experiment. Instead of "author", I described myself as a "Digital Content Provider". This was definitely a good move: I had much better conversations with people. Even so, I made a special effort to visit one particular exhibitor, but when I arrived one of the people manning the stand peered at my badge and then, clearly deciding that I was of no use to him at all, did not simply ignore me but completely turned his back to me. The man is an idiot: thousands of people read my articles, and that company is definitely one that they will never hear about from me.
  5. People's attitude to both teachers and writers is ambivalent. When I was a teacher, people used to say "I don't know how you can do that job, the way kids are today". And a moment later those same people would tell me what an easy life I had, with those short days and long holidays.    
    At the same time, everyone thinks they can do it. A doctor we met a few weeks ago said that teaching is easy because all you have to do is and at the front of the class and tell the kids what you know. That's the thing about experts: they are so adept at what they do that they make it look easy. A bit like doctors you might say.    
    So it makes you wonder why there is a teacher recruitment crisis in the UK, the job being so easy and all. A recent study shows the state of teacher recruitment in the UK to be less than optimal, whilst an article in the Times today claims that there has been a massive increase in the number of unqualified teachers practising in UK schools, with two thirds of them coming from overseas. The study referred to earlier also suggests that in information and communications technology, the number of places on post-graduate training courses will not be filled this year.    
    But you get the same thing in the field of writing. There are tons of books on the market about how to write a best-selling novel, which suggests that it must be hard to do, yet half the population is attempting to write a best-selling novel. That's anecdotal, by the way, and no doubt a huge exaggeration, but there does seem to be a large number of people who are writing a book at any given time, so they must think it's easy. In fact, you just have to look at the number of blogs that get started and go nowhere (the number is always changing, so I haven't given one, but it's a lot) to see that it's the case that lots of people think writing must be easy.    
    But both good writing and good teaching are not easy for most people, they only look "easy". I would suggest that part of the reason is that both good writing and good teaching actually take a lot of effort. Even the teacher that says he just plans his lesson on his way to the lesson has brought to bear a vast repository of knowledge and experience, and the same goes for most writers. What's the expression? 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration? I think that applies in both cases.
  7. Both teachers and writers can be precious. The second hardest thing in the world is giving negative feedback to a teacher whose lesson you have just observed. The hardest thing in the world is suggesting to a writer that she changes a few things.    
    That's why, to take the first example, I am always careful to give positive feedback followed by some suggestions. There's not usually much point in doing it another way, because the person you're talking to simply shuts down and doesn't hear anything positive or useful.    
    And to take the second example, I know that when I receive suggestions on my book chapters from an editor, I have to make a conscious effort to read the suggestions objectively, rather than as implied criticisms. But it's really hard to do.
  9. In both writing and teaching, training and experience are all-important. Yes, there are "natural" teachers, just as there are "natural" writers, but raw talent is not usually enough. I think no matter how good you are, you can always hone your craft. Indeed, one of the most common traits of experts is that by and large they think they don't really know anything, at least compared to the vast amount that they do not know.
  11. Neither teachers nor writers work well with templates. I have recently been asked to write some book chapters in a template, and found it stifled rather than released my creativity. In the end I wrote the chapters and then, just to keep the peace, reverse-engineered them so that they fitted the template. I don't think the publisher noticed.
  13. Finally, for all the reasons described, and probably more, I don't think either teachers or writers could be replaced by machines, except in very specific circumstances and under highly-specified conditions. I find it interesting that science fiction writers of old routinely predicted the use of teaching machines or robot teachers, but almost universally failed to predict the decline in smoking. It's because they focused on the technology rather than behaviour, in my opinion.    
    However, I have to say that I loved the idea propounded in one episode of The Avengers, in which a publishing company churns out novels by getting an elderly woman to play the piano. Soft, mellow sections create "gooey" passages in the book, and so on and so on. When the music playing is over, a manuscript pops out  of the side. Delicious!

 This article was first published on 16th April 2008.


Sweat The Small Stuff

I think it's great that we have visionaries and big thinkers, and I enjoy working with such people. (After all, I consider myself to be one of them!) But what we appear to have a deficiency of is people who pay attention to detail. I mean real, nitty-gritty detail. The small stuff.

But that is the stuff that makes or breaks a project or an enterprise. Don't believe me? Next time you're somewhere that seems a bit grubby, though you can't quite put your finger on it, have a look at the details. In a hotel lobby, for example, that is gleaming, and yet.... Have a look in the corners. You'll probably see that it hasn't seen a broom in ages. Or the wallpaper: there's that slight nick near the light switch....

I'm sure that we pick up on all these things on a subliminal level, but it all creates an impression. For me, when it comes to projects, such as events, or publications, the small stuff really does matter:

  • I once spent two hours trying to work out why my spreadsheet covering a project of £100,000 was 57 pence out. I figured that while the 57 pence didn't matter, it could just be symptomatic of a much larger problem. I was right, in a sense. One of the formulae was rounded up, and that was compounded as its result worked its way through the spreadsheet. It wasn't a huge deal, but it was an anomaly. I don't like anomalies.
  • I wish one of my co-workers had been as assiduous. He may then not have needed to come to me as white as a sheet to tell me that he had double-counted an income stream, with the result that rather than have £30,000 to play with, we had to make up a shortfall of £30,000.
  • A student once sent me an article for publication in the Computers in Classrooms newsletter. The title of the piece was 'Article for Computer Weekly'. I had to waste time asking him if he'd sent me a recycled article or had merely put the wrong title on the top. We got that sorted out, but he blew it when he told me he hadn't had time to spellcheck it or anything. Well, if he can't be bothered to take a pride in his work, why should I be lumbered with the job? I suggested he re-send the article when he does have the time.
  • I once failed to land a contract I thought was in the bag. I asked for feedback. They sent me an email in which they said: "It was a minor thing that kinda wasn't a minor thing: you referred to the project as TCB, when it is actually GBC" (an entirely different project that was on my mind because I'd been working on it).

We're all human, we all make mistakes. But I think there are steps that we can and must take if we are to ensure that the mistakes, and their impact if they do occur, are minimised:

  •  Pay attention to detail. Don't make the mistake shown in the cartoon here(sorry, I don't know who the copyright owner is)
  • If it's a written piece of work, spellcheck it, proofread it, and get someone else to read it.
  • If it's a spreadsheet, run it with some numbers you can handle in your head. For example, if I am messing about with percentages, I'll insert the number 100 in the appropriate cell. If the spreadsheet tells me that 50% of 100 is 127.8, I'll know something's amiss!
  • If you're citing a website, check that it still works. OK, it may be taken offline three seconds after you've sent the email, but you can't account for that. All you can do is check and double-check as much as you can before making your statement or recommendation.

I'm not asking for perfection, just for people to sweat the small stuff. It's important.

In fact, you could say that the small stuff is pretty big.


The Case For Bullet Points

So who says that bullet points are always bad? I'm referring, of course, to presentations. I think the humble bullet point has for too long been the scapegoat of dreadful presenters. Just because awful presenters use bullet points, it doesn't necessarily follow that all presentations containing bullet points will be terrible.

Perhaps this is just a bit of self-defence on my part, because I'm in the process of creating a couple of presentations which contain quite a few bullet points. Nevertheless, having sat in and also given numerous presentations, here is my take on the issue.

  • Used well, bullet points can enhance a presentation. If they summarise what the speaker is saying, that's a good thing is it not?
  • When I was training to be a teacher, we were told that the board at the front of the lesson should tell a story. If the writing was all over the place, climbing up and down the margins, and with no obvious logic, any pupil who went off in a daydream or came to the lesson late would be unable to pick up the thread of the lesson. Clearly, slides and boards are not the same, but I think the same sort of logic applies.
  • That brings me on to the next point. I have found that nine times out of ten when I download a presentation, it is almost completely meaningless -- even if I actually attended the session. At least some well-worded bullet points make the slides useful subsequently.
  • Although bullet points aren't the most visually compelling thing to show on a screen, they do have the advantage of being clear, assuming they are well-written of course. Contrast this with the situation in which every slide is a picture, and so as well as having to listen to the speaker you also have to try and figure out what the picture has to do with what he or she is saying. That isn't always the case, but in my experience the more intent a speaker is on demonstrating how far they have mastered the art of the 'killer presentation', the more apparently divorced from each other are the meanings of the graphics and the words. Having said that, I have been privileged to witness some brilliant graphic-intensive presentations, but I think it's difficult for a presenter to carry off.
  • As an audience member, I don't mind bullet points at all, especially if they enable me to relax and listen to what the speaker is saying instead of either trying to work out what the slide is showing or furiously scribble down notes. However…
  • I do get annoyed when the speaker proceeds to read the bullet points. Yes, by all means draw attention to the salient points, but a bit of paraphrasing doesn't come amiss.
  • I like the speaker to have more information or insights than are displayed on the screen. For me, the bullet points should act as both a launch pad and a summary. They should not merely be a substitute for thought.

When all is said and done, I think the most appropriate type of presentation is one which is suited to the audience and the topic. A presentation by an advertising agency to a potential client would probably not wear bullet points very well. In contrast, a presentation to an audience of school leaders on the issues facing them in a particular sphere could well benefit from a liberal sprinkling of bullet points. It seems to me that, like a lot of things in life in general, whether bullet points are good or bad depends on the context, the audience and how they are used.

A slightly different version of this article has been posted on the Technology and Learning website.


Cool Tools For Ed Tech Leaders: Paper

I realise that this may be a bit controversial, but for me, paper remains one of the all-time useful tools. When it comes to planning, assigning people to tasks or even doing quick calculations, paper takes a lot of beating. Surely its longevity as a medium is proof of that fact?

I like using mindmaps, and I love using spreadsheets (yes, I should get out more), but sometimes in order to see the 'big picture', these tools just don't cut it.

Recently I was preparing notes for a talk I'm giving in a few weeks. Here's my work in progress:

It makes sense to me...

I could have done that in a mindmapping program, but it would have taken me longer, and it wouldn't have been so useful.

For me, this was useful for two reasons. Firstly, the process itself was good. The physical action of drawing lines, erasing them, circling some notes and linking them to others -- all this helped me to make mental connections in a way that using a computer wouldn't have, because that immmediacy would have been lost.

Secondly, the end result was quite useful because I can see the connections at a glance, and conceptually fit new ideas into it. Again, I know a mindmapping program could achieve the same effect, and perhaps if I had the time I would re-create the diagram in such an application, but I'm quite happy with the paper version.

I'm not the only person who recognises paper as a useful tool when it comes to planning. Have a look at the video on this website to hear what Grammar Girl has to say on the subject, with three great examples.

Bottom line: aiming for a paperless society is all very well, but sometimes, for talks or complex projects, paper is one of the best tools you can use.


Tenacity: a good quality or a bad one?

One of the qualities that a subject leader must have, in my opinion, is the ability and willingness to stand one's ground. I think that this applies especially in the case of the ICT (or educational technology) leader, given the sorts of pressure he or she is often under.

For example:

  • It's perceived as expensive....

  • ... Consequently, there is often pressure to demonstrate that the investment has been worth it. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that I wonder if other subject leaders find themselves under similar scrutiny to prove, say, that the class set of textbooks 'worked'.

  • A good rule of thumb is that around 90% of staff in a school use information technology in a basic but perfectly acceptable way, and most of the other 10% (excluding you) pride themselves on not understanding any of it. Unfortunately, much of the time that small proportion tends to be more influential than their numbers suggest. I have no scientific evidence for that statement, by the way, only my (casual) perception and experience!

The word 'politicians' is not usually found sharing a sentence with the term 'role model'. However, whatever you may think of Michael Howard's 'performance' in this video clip, I think he shows an admirable ability to stick to his guns and to manage to not answer a question which he clearly does not want to answer. (At the time he was bidding for the leadership of the UK's Conservative Party, which gives his stubborness/toughness a context.)The issue here is this: leaving aside the actual issue and politics in general, does Howard demonstrate a trait which ICT leaders should seek to emulate, or not?

This article was first published on 22nd September 2009


The Pros and Cons and Safety Aspects of Social Networking

I'm preparing a talk on the pros and cons of social networking, with some tips on keeping safe. The talk is going to be to a group of 6th formers (ie 17-18 year olds).

I've been doing my own research to see how many social networks these youngsters belong to, and it turns out to be a modest 2 or 3 on average. Then I made a list of the ones I belong to, and had a bit of a shock.

I currently belong to -- wait for it -- 63 social networks. I say "currently" because I am about to join more, and look at another one without joining it, to see what they have to offer. The reason I don't wish to join the second one is that it's for teenage girls. (I'll come on to why I'd want to look into such a network in a second.)

Of course, it all depends on how you define "social networking". The website What is Social Networking says:

"Social networking is the grouping of individuals into specific groups, like small rural communities or a neighborhood subdivision, if you will."

That sounds pretty accurate, although I'm inclined to go further. I come from an Economics background, and I quite like the economist's definition of money:

"Money is as money does."

It takes a bit of getting used to at first, but actually it's a succinct version of the observation by Douglas Adams:

"If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands."

So, applied to social networking: if it looks like a social network and people behave in it as though it were a social network, then it's probably a social network.

On that basis I have lumped together a whole load of applications that enable me to post messages, see other people's messages, comment on those messages, share files and follow or befriend people. In other words, I've included social bookmarking applications, video sharing websites, general social networks like Facebook, specific or focused social networks like Wired Journalists, and what I suppose we might call quasi-social networks like Friends Reunited.

Why is any of this important? Before I go into that, let me just explain why I'd want to look at a teenage girls social network -- and I can assure you that it is not for the sort of reasons you might think! I was reading in an article on social networking in Information Age about the benefits to business of social networking, and it mentioned a site called BeingGirl, maintained by Procter and Gamble. The article states:

"The same technologies can be applied in a marketing capacity. Involving customers and prospects in a community built around products and brands is proving to be a powerful way to maintain loyalty and engagement. 

Procter & Gamble is one notable leader here with its BeingGirl website. The social network provides an environment in which young girls discuss and get answers on many of the awkward topics that arise as they enter their early teenage years, with P&G introducing marketing material for its relevant products at pertinent points."

So I am interested in questions like, does this look like a genuinely useful site for girls? What's the product placement actually like? Is one of the things we should be educating kids about the fact that product placement goes on (including in television programmes)?

I'm coming at this from a number of angles.

Firstly, I see nothing wrong in companies deciding to start a social network in order to engender customer loyalty. Ten years ago I signed up to The Beano website. The Beano is a comic which has been part of the British comic landscape for what seems like forever, and is full of cartoon strips that are so stupid as to be hilarious. Now, the Beano website had all sorts of silly features on it, and it was just a good laugh. And it was an example of product placement.

Another example: I myself started a social networking site called ICT in Education. I stopped promoting it or nurturing it because I felt that it was actually diverting attention from my main website -- although I haven't shut it down because there are nearly 200 members who may be upset if I did so. Given that I often mentioned my articles in discussions where I felt such a reference would be useful to people, that was a vehicle for product placement too.

Secondly, issues like product placement have always been important. Or, to put it more generally, media literacy has always been important to teach. Right from the time I started teaching I made it clear to my students that they should always look not just at what is being said, but who is saying it, and what they're not saying. Nothing new about that.

Thirdly, if people find a social networking site like BeingGirl useful and helpful, and the products are good, that's what's known as "good customer service" isn't it?

So what does this have to do with my talk?

Well, it seems to me that a question like "What are the pros and cons of social networks?", and the supplemental question "And how do you keep safe in them?" raise a number of issues. Taking the first one first:

  • The answer will differ according to whom you ask. The advantage of BeingGirl for P & G is, presumably, marketing opportunities and (hopefully) customer loyalty. The advantage for a young girl is the facility for discussing issues and getting advice.

In addition, the answer will depend on:

  • The exact nature of the social network.
  • How active it is.
  • Who belongs to it.
  • What sort of facilities it offers.
  • The quality of the information posted on it.
  • The quality of the discussions posted on it.
  • The quality of the resources that people share on it.

As for the pros and cons of social networking sites in general, for me it's the same as the pros and cons of social networking, ie interacting with other people, per se.

The answer to the second question, about safety, must partly depend on how one defines "safety". Everyone seems to think in terms of sexual predators, but without wishing to denigrate the importance of that in any way, it does strike me as a somewhat narrow definition. What about identity theft? What about safety from economic predators?

(I was looking at a website this morning on which people can post their stories and articles and earn a share of the advertising revenue. The "small print" says that the site owners reserve the exclusive right to use your work forever, and also to do with it as they like, including chopping it up, featuring it anywhere they like, and so on. Loads of people have posted their stuff on this site, thereby depriving themselves of other sources of income from that work in the future. I hope their earnings from the advertising revenue compensate them for that cost. Shouldn't we be making sure that youngsters are aware of the importance of not selling the family jewellery as it were?)

What about protecting your reputation, or ensuring the "safety" of your future job prospects?

As for why I belong to so many: it's because they mostly do different things. Where I am a member of two or three that do the same thing, it's because I like to try things out. And, to be honest, I'm active in only about three or four of them. Let's face it: if I were active in all of them I'd be spending at least a day a week socially networking online!

I guess that's one of the big disadvantages of social networking: it can be so time-consuming!

This article was first published on 3rd February 2009.


Web 2.0 For Rookies: Proving Professional Development

An interesting issue arising from people's use of Web 2.0 applications like Twitter, Facebook and social networks is that casual or informal learning has now become embedded in people's working lives. In the past, there was a fairly clear division between the kind of learning you experienced by chatting with colleagues in the staffroom or watching a TV programme on the one hand, and going on a course (usually for a day or a series of evenings) on the other. Recording the former never really came into it, and recording the latter is fairly straightforward: you just need to decide how you're going to do so, as discussed in a 5 Minute Tip on the subject.

But the landscape has changed now. Many people, myself included, tend to either have a stream of tweets constantly going on in the background, using 3rd party tools like Tweetdeck, or make a point of checking their Twitter stream, Facebook messages and so on at certain points during the day. Given that on most occasions you are bound to see a message containing information that is likely to prove useful, I think it's legitimate to regard these tools as an integral part of one's professional development. If so, the question is, how can you record that for the purpose of being able to complete the part of an application form which asks what training courses you've been on, or what professional development you've had, over the last X years.

Having given this a lot of thought over the years, I've come to the conclusion that recording professional development in the Web 2.0 sphere is not possible in the same way it is when recording ordinary training courses. If you were to note down every useful tweet or message, or even simply the dates on which you received useful tweets, you would give yourself a nervous breakdown and cause the person reading your application form to die of boredom.

It seems to me that the best way of recording, and proving, professional development in the Web 2.0 world is as follows:

  • If you go to a conference seminar, like the ones at the BETT Show,you can usually pick up a certificate of attendance. Do so.
  • If you 'attend' an online discussion, such as the Classroom 2.0 Live talk I spoke at ask the organisers for proof of your attendance (the Classroom Live folk do this automatically if you indicate that you'd like it).
  • Record your attendance at such events as the ones described so far.
  • Keep a weekly journal listing, in broad terms, the things you've learnt or come across that week. This can be in the form of a blog or eportfolio, as suggested by Andy Hutt and Ray Tolley respectively in response to the 5 Minute Tip already referred to, or as annotated social bookmarks (which may be able to be set up to appear on a blog automatically).
  • Ensure that somewhere in the application form you make it known that you're a member of such networks and therefore have a rich and varied informal learning experience.

Bottom line: I think it's important to bear in mind that what the application reader is looking for is not likely to be a list of every single professional development opportunity you've taken advantage of -- which could mitigate against you if you give the impression that you never have time to do any actual work. They're almost certainly looking for evidence that you're up-to-date with developments in your subject area, and that you know what's going on and what the issues are.


Computers in Classrooms Post-BETT Special

The promised post-BETT special has now been published, here. It contains contributions from a host of educational ICT writers and bloggers.

Here is the table of contents:

  • Safer Internet Day
  • The Next Generation Quiz
  • The Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book
  • Web 2.0 For Rookies
  • The Learning and Technology World Forum
  • Louise McDonough on Her First BETT
  • The Home Access Programme
  • My BETT
  • Educational Technology Taskforce Launched
  • BETT: A True British Export
  • New Computer Basics Course Launched
  • WOW! Moments from BETT 2010
  • Technology Exemplar Network to be Doubled
  • The Minister's Opening Speech at BETT
  • Dawn Hallybone Talks About Teachers Presenting
  • BETT Stats
  • Doug Woods on What Was NOT There
  • The BETT Awards 2010
  • Too Much Emphasis on Technology?
  • National Education Network Reporting...
  • Seminar: Breaking the Bonds of Learning, featuring Stephen Heppell, Angela McFarlane, Max Wainwright and Tim Rylands
  • Steve Beard Discovers A New Game
  • Seminar: Power Up: How ICT is Transforming BSF Schools, featuring Steve Moss
  • A Projector with no Bulb
  • The Unconference
  • Virtual Learning Environments
  • Mirandamod Discussions
  • Gerald Haigh on the Assistive Technology Party
  • Paul Haigh's Views
  • Merlin John Liked...
  • The Politics Game
  • NComputing: Virtual Desktops

It makes for a good selection of views about the BETT Show and what was hot and what not! Apologies to Paul Haigh and Sean Carragher for inadvertently omitting their Twitter details, and to everyone for addressing them, in the subject line, as FNAME SNAME. Had I remembered to include the brackets, they would have seen their names instead! Thanks to Mark Chambers, Chair of Naace, for pointing out my error!


5 Minute Tip: Keeping a Professional Development Record

5 Minute TipWhat have you learnt today? Most people do not keep good records of their professional development, and many heads of department or curriculum leaders in education keep none for their staff. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to manage the departmental training needs effectively.

Virtually every application form these days asks for details of courses attended, or of relevant courses, attended within the last x years. Maintaining such a list on a computer is easy-peasy. If you're a team leader, like a head of department, you ought to encourage your staff to maintain their own records, and you should also keep a departmental record, for reasons given below.

First, consider the individual's records.

Individual Records: Table It

The method I'd recommend using is to create a table in a word processor, with the following column headings:

  • Course title

  • Course topic

  • Run by

  • Date(s)

You may prefer to use a spreadsheet rather than a word processor, since a spreadsheet will “see” dates as dates, whereas a word processor will “see” them as text.

By entering the details in a table, you can sort it according to course topic or date (or possibly both at the same time).

When entering the date, do so in this format: yyyy-mm-dd, eg 2007-06-12. There are two advantages of doing it like this:

  • It is easy to sort the data into chronological order.

  • There will be no confusion between UK and USA conventions, eg 12/06/2007 means 12th June to someone in the UK, and 6th December to someone in the USA.

If you use a spreadsheet like Excel, you can use the custom date format feature (Highlight the relevant cells, and then click on Format-Cells-Custom) to create this format. If you do, then if you enter the date as, say, 12 June 2010, it will automatically convert to the correct format. Incidentally, I've looked into the Google Docs spreadsheet, and when you enter a date in the way I've suggested it automatically converts it to the 'normal' format, which is rather frustrating.

Team or Departmental Record

Why is it important to maintain a record of training for your whole team ?

  • Without knowing your staff's skills, you cannot be fully confident in what you, as a team, can offer.

  • By maintaining a group record, you can identify gaps in the training needs of the team as a whole

  • It will enable you to support your individual team members' professional development, be it by recommending courses for them, or writing references for them.

In fact, one criteria of good practice (eg for the ICT Mark) is that there is a professional development 'map' for the whole school.

Write Once, Read Many

It is inefficient and unreasonable to expect people to keep two sets of records. Therefore, you might be tempted to create one central record to which people can contribute. (If you use a spreadsheet, you could have a different worksheet for each person.) However, the problem with this approach is that each person's record can be seen by everyone else, and even if everyone says they don't mind, a new member of staff may do.

The answer, I think, is to ask your colleagues to enter the information in the relevant area of the information management system, and have the data exported to a spreadsheet that can be accessed only by yourself, as long as any legal constraints are abided by (check with your personnel or legal department).

If there are any objections to your having access to individual people's records, then maintain a group record that does not have people's names. This will still help you identify gaps in overall training needs, which is its main purpose. In fact, if you're going to do that, you may as well use something like Google Docs because it just makes access and updating a whole lot easier.

Of course, the obvious disadvantage of that approach is that without knowing who the individual records belong to, it will eventually prove impossible to believe in their accuracy, because you won't know who has updated it and who hasn't. I think this is a clear case of where an overall school policy needs to be decided upon by the senior leadership team, and then adhered to by all staff.

Wait! What IS CPD?

Good question. These days, it's not just formal courses and conferences, but online conferences, blogs, websites, Twitter, Ning communities and all sorts of other informal learning opportunities, especially online. You cannot keep formal records of informal learning without changing the very nature of the professional development involved. What you need to do instead is to encourage members of your team to inform you when they have benefited from some form of informal professional development.

Perhaps even more importantly, they should be encouraged to keep their own records, at least in general terms, so that they do not 'lose' the information. I'll look at this in other 5 Minute Tip.


Efficiency? Don't Make Me Laugh!

One of the reasons always advocated for adopting technology is that it leads to efficiency gains. In other words, it (supposedly) helps you do what you already were doing, but faster, cheaper or easier.

I wonder if this is actually true, as opposed to a convenient white lie with which we console ourselves? Has anybody undertaken a Total Cost of Ownership type of analysis which looks not only at the financial costs of ownership but also the social and economic costs? If anybody were to do so, I imagine we would have to re-evaluate our investment in time, energy and money into technology.

This may sound an odd way to open an article by an educational ICT specialist (and one who loves technology). But I think these issues should be addressed.

Take three examples. Firstly, I've been working on a couple of presentations. Each presentation will last an hour. I have to allow ten minutes for questions, so once I've allowed for five minutes at the start being introduced and saying 'Good Morning', I'm left with 45 minutes to fill. That is, a total of an hour and a half.

So far, preparing for these presentations has taken nearly three days.

Part of the reason is that I like to be well-prepared. As the old saying goes, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression, so I always like to have the problem of trying to pack in as much as I can rather than the opposite one of hoping that nobody will notice if I start talking incredibly slowly in order to drag it out.

A little light reading...But another part of the reason is that it is now so easy to keep finding new sources of information to read and consider. The photograph represents the amount of reading I've done so far. Admittedly, this includes a few books, but the rest of it is, by and large, printed from the internet. In  fact, only this morning I accidently came across yet another article I think I ought to read.

Now, if I'd had to do all this research in my local library, as I used to before the web was invented, I would have stopped long ago. There comes a point where the likely benefit of reading one more article is outweighed by the cost (however measured) of acquiring it. That point is reached much sooner when you have to physically move from your home to a library (and possibly cart a load of stuff home afterwards).

What we have here is a modern manifestation of Say's Law, which states that supply creates its own demand. The reason I'm acquiring all this reading material is that it's so easily available. Perhaps too easily available.

Another example is in the field of writing. It is so easy to rewrite stuff that it's almost impossible to exercise the self-discipline required to say "That is now good enough." When trying a different turn of phrase, or looking up a nice quotation, or finding an appropriate illustration (or, in my case for this article, actually creating one) is so easy, the temptation is to keep on and on tweaking in the vain hope of achieving perfection.

Thirdly, lesson preparation has been made far more time-consuming now than it ever used to be, for all the reasons I've rehearsed so far. Worksheets and other resources tend to be more interactive, colourful, neat and engaging than ever. But I wonder if the gains in terms of students' learning are enough to justify the huge increase in person-hours that computer availability has led to?

(I'm sure I won't be the only person to be able to recount that some of my best lessons were the ones I thought of on the way in to work or even, sometimes, the ones in which I allowed a chance comment or question by a student dictate the content of the entire lesson, because the moment was there and had to be seized.)

Being able to answer such questions does not mean advocating a return to the steam age. But it strikes me that it would represent a much more honest appraisal of the relative costs and benefits of access to computer technology.

This is important, for two sets of people: teachers, because it's a workload issue, and students, who need to learn how to evaluate the effectiveness of technology. They should understand such matters both because it's all part of being digitally literate, and because otherwise it will become a workload issue for them too.

What all this boils down to is an economics argument. We tend to work, especially in education, on the basis of the well-known saying, 'If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing properly.'

This is almost never the case.

Think of it in terms of exam grades. If you advise your students to work as hard as they can to attain a grade A in your subject, the extra hours they spend doing so could mean their obtaining a lower grade in other subjects. Looked at from a higher perspective, what's better: one grade A and four grade Gs, or two grade Bs and three grade Cs?

Think of it in terms of lesson preparation. If you prepare one group's lessons absolutely perfectly, at the cost of being almost completely unprepared for all the others, would that be acceptable?

At the risk of sounding as if I'm advocating low standards (which I most definitely am not), I think we have to try to develop, and inculcate into students, the idea of 'good enough'. It's OK for things to be 'good enough': they don't have to be perfect.

Being a techno-addict (a boy who likes his toys), I imagine a technological solution. Perhaps a macro that will actually prevent you from working on a document any longer once a particular length of time has been spent on it. It would be easy to write.

Indeed, there is a free text editor that does something similar. Write or Die seeks to cure writer's block or slow writing by becoming more and more noisy and unpleasant as time limps on. It's almost impossible to continue in the circumstances it creates.

A technological solution to a problem caused by our inability to exercise self-discipline in our use of technology? I like it!


Mulla Nasrudin's Donkey: A Workload Issue

What can a story about a traditional Persian folk hero teach us about management? In this article, I look at the Mullah's experiment with improving his donkey's running costs, and the lessons we can learn from it.

Mullah Nasrudin decided to reduce his outgoings by reducing the amount of food his donkey ate. Sensibly, he didn't suddenly halve his donkey's food intake, but gave him a little bit less each day. After a few weeks, the donkey dropped dead from starvation.

What a shame", said Mullah Nasrudin. "If only he had lived: I was almost at the point where I'd trained him to live on nothing at all.

So what can we learn from this, from a management perspective?

  • Don't keep incrementally reducing your workers' "food". I have noticed, as have others, that it is becoming more and more difficult in England for teachers to be allowed out of school to attend courses. I'm not sure how you can expect teachers to willingly embrace and experiment with new ideas, and learn from colleagues in other schools, if you constantly reduce the opportunities for them to do so.

And if you tell me that they can do more and more of this stuff online, then I will respond that:

(a) face-to-face is still much better than online for some things;

(b) online interactions should be seen as complimentary to face-to-face, not a substitute; and

(c) when are you expecting teachers to do it anyway? In their own time? Many do, but that's no reason to build it in as an expectation.

  • Don't keep incrementally adding to to people's workload. Asking them to do more and more with the same resources is exactly the same, in effect, as reducing their food intake. It's true that many teachers willing take on more and more anyway, but eventually something will "give", such as their health.

I recall one staff meeting in which the boss said that he was really pleased with the progress being made. He said people were coming in early and staying late, and sometimes even coming in at weekends, and that as a result we were meeting all the targets in our strategic plan.

However, he was very concerned about the increase in the amount of short-term absence, with people taking two or three days off because of a migraine or a cold, and that he was therefore going to be bringing in a new sickness procedure to put a stop to it. Who said that Dilbert was just a comic strip?

  • Part of our "food" is the expression "Thank you". Many people will take on all sorts of things in return for a genuine expression of thanks. I don't think you need to go over the top, like taking all your team to Barcelona for a week. But saying "thanks", supporting them if they are are having problems and, yes, having an end of term/semester meal -- all of those things count.

Staff are not donkeys. Managers should avoid being like Mullah Nasrudin!


Less Waffle, Please

One of the things that educators, especially teachers, are really good at is talking. That's not intended as a criticism, just an observation. Talking is what the job is all about, regardless of what people say about becoming a guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage. Whether it's giving instructions, explaining a point, or teasing out of a student what she or he really understands, talking is what we do best.

But as in every other aspect of life, there are times when you can have too much of a good thing, and here is a case in point. I recently questioned the usefulness of a 'book' called the Field Guide for Change Agents, on the grounds that it's not a guide at all and contains no strategic advice whatsoever. This attracted two comments to the effect that the process by which the 'guide' was produced was really good in itself.

I don't doubt it, although I have to wonder why it took a whole room full of people an hour to produce a 47 page book consisting of quotations and pictures. Be that as it may, what we have here is the following, as far as I can tell:

  • A bunch of people think we need change.
  • It's not that clear what change they'd like to see, or why it's necessary, but still.
  • A book has been produced full of quotations about how wonderful we all are and how marvellous change is.

Nowhere in the book does it give much indication of how to bring that change about, except for a few slides along the lines of 'foster collaboration'. That's in a section called  The Change Agent Toolkit -- another misnomer: imagine if you went to your local DIY store and bought what you thought was a set of screwdrivers, only to discover when you got home that all it contained was vague bits of advice  instead of the tools and instructions on how to use them. The fact that this 'book' is free doesn't really negate that argument in my opinion.

If you're going to have a book of inspirational quotes, why not call it a book of inspirational quotes? But if you're going to produce a guide or a toolkit, then do that.

Reading this 'guide' reminds me of this cartoon:

More detail, please

(Sorry, I don't know to whom to attribute it.)

That, in turn, reminds me of all the worst team 'leaders' I have ever worked for. They would say, at the end of a meeting, "OK, so by next month X will have happened." And I would say, "How? By Divine Intervention?"

I have the utmost respect for the people who took part in producing this 'guide', and I'm sure the process was useful in many respects. But as a product, I have to say that, for me at least, the guide has questionable value.


Review of the Field Guide for Change Agents

I've been thinking a lot about change management recently. I think about it a lot anyway, but at the moment I am preparing a presentation I'm giving next month.

And so it was that I eagerly opened the Field Guide for Change Agents, which I heard about through Stephen Downes' OLDaily newsletter.

Now, I don't mean to sound too pedantic or critical, but it's not a field guide at all, at least not in the sense that I understand by the term. It looks pretty, and there are lots of inspirational-sounding quotations, but no real strategic guidance.

So I guess whether it's useful or not will depend on what you need at the time. I've bookmarked it for those times when I need an inspirational quote about change. But if you're in a job where you need to bring about a fundamental change on a whole school level, or even on a smaller scale, I doubt that you'd find this of much use at all.


Cool Tools for Ed Tech Leaders: TaskCoach

In this series I will be looking at tools that leaders of educational technology or ICT may find useful. In fact, anyone who needs to do project management should take the time to explore them.

TaskCoach is a task management application, and has a number of things going for it. But first, what does it actually do?

TaskCoachIt helps you organise tasks. You can have categories, which contain tasks, and within tasks you can have 'efforts'. I'm making it sound a lot more complicated than it really is! So let me describe how I use it.

I work for several clients, and so it's important for me to keep track of how much time I spend on various activities.

For example, let's suppose that for Client A I look for resources on the internet, represent them at meetings, and write a blog update once a week.

One of my categories in TaskCoach is therefore 'Client A', and there will be three tasks within that category, corresponding to the activities I've just described. I've configured these tasks with an hourly rate of pay.

Every time I work on one of the tasks I start a new 'effort'. That records how long I spend on the work, and because it knows what the hourly rate is it will calculate how much I've earned from that work. At the end of the month, I can easily see how long I have spent on each activity and therefore how much to invoice the client.

Moreover, should the client want me to, I can itemise the work not only by how much I've done per day, but even by each individual effort. For example, I can show that I worked for three hours from 6 am till 9, and then a further three hours from 2 till 5, or I can just indicate that I worked for 6 hours on that day. I could also view my efforts by weekly or monthly totals.

The only two things that are not that great are the export function, which seems to export the data in a text summary format, whereas the most useful option would be a detailed format that could be imported into a spreadsheet. The other is that I have, somehow, detached a window of the program from the rest of it, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how to stitch it all back together again! But that's a minor inconvenience.

If you don't work for yourself but work for an organisation, the hourly rate feature, or the budget facility (which lets you allocate a budget to the whole task), would still be useful.

Even if you don't charge clients for your time, there is still an imputed cost that is usually worth being aware of.

So what does this program have going for it?

  • It's easy to use.
  • It's accurate.
  • Tasks can be colour-coded.
  • It's free.

 It's been in alpha version forever as far as I can tell, but I haven't had any major disasters with it so far. It's available in versions for Windows, Mac, Linux iPhone and iTouch.

If you know of any tools that do a similar job, please leave a comment telling us about it.


Web 2.0 For Rookies: Commenting

If there is one thing which really characterises Web 2.0, it’s the ability to comment on people’s work. Commenting is what can, or at least should, make a conversation possible. In this article I’d like to look at comments from both an educational and an etiquette point of view.


I’ve been to several presentations in which the speaker shows a screenshot of someone’s MySpace page indicating that they’ve received 1500 comments about something they’ve posted. My take on this is as follows:

  • How can anyone read, let alone respond to, 1500 comments?
  • If most of the comments are ‘Wow’, or ‘Cool’, how does that benefit the originator of the post, except for giving them an ego boost?

A more important, but more difficult to measure, criterion is how much influence your post has. Shelly Terrell made the following observation in a response to one of my articles:

I have used these posts at various times so just because I'm not commenting on them doesn't necessarily mean they weren't useful.

I’ve sometimes had people say to me, months after I’ve written an article that nobody commented on, that they found it useful.

Also, it’s now possible to read an article in one place and comment about it in another. I typically see comments about my articles on othert blogs, in Twitter and on Facebook. It’s possible, through the magic of RSS feeds, to collate various streams into one place and display it on your website. I find that looks a bit too messy for my liking.

Something I have done in order to keep track of when I or my articles are mentioned anywhere is to set up a Google Alert and a Twitter alert. These let me know, by email, whenever my name is mentioned on the internet.

It seems to me that used wisely, comments on students’ work could form part of your assessment for learning approach. The key to success in this respect is as follows:

  • Be aware of when comments are posted.
  • Discuss the comments, and what might be learnt from them.
  • Work out suitable responses whilst taking into account e-safety and time management issues.


I have set myself the following rules:

  • I always try to respond to comments. If someone has gone to the trouble of making a comment, the least I can do is acknowledge it.
  • I never post anything which is likely to offend people, such as swear words.
  • If someone makes a sensible-sounding comment, but has a website like ‘’, I won’t publish it.
  • If someone tries to advertise their services in a comment, when the service has nothing to do with the subject in hand, I won’t publish it. Sometimes, I’ll even report it as spam.
  • I never respond to trolls, which is the name given to people who are just plain nasty. They have no interest in furthering the conversation, and usually hide behind a wall of anonymity. If you get targetted by a troll, it’s a compliment in a way because these people only attack those who are patently better than themselves, ie more educated or more informed. The common advice is: don’t feed the trolls. That is, don’t give them any attention. Here is a great post on this subject:

Trolls, meatheads and my mom

I like this video too:

Don’t feed the trolls

That video is a good thing to show to pupils to convey the effects of cyberbullying (because that’s what trollism is) on people.

I also love this feisty response to troll comments. Go to the YouTube site itself for the lyrics.


I found this on the Grammar Girl site about making comments online. It’s a great post and you should definitely read it with your students.

I’d love to know what you think of my comments on comments – but nice ones only please!