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.

What makes a good teacher as far as technology is concerned?

Path in a forestI'm interested in exploring this question,  which I have phrased very carefully. I think whether you're a teacher of information and communications technology, or someone who teaches with educational technology, there are some common denominators of what makes the teaching good. These are all my ideas and conjectures; I have stated them as though they are facts purely in order to avoid clumsy circumlocutions.

The first requirement is a willingness to experiment and take chances. You never really know whether something is going to work until you try it. A piece of software may be great when used by an individual, but not scale up very well when used with a class.

For example, I came across a program a few years ago which made commenting on a student's work very easy: it was possible to give comprehensive feedback in only 5 minutes by clicking various buttons. But that would mean 150 minutes for a class of 30 students, and a day's work for four or five classes.

Clearly, it was the sort of 'solution' you may wish to use with one or two special case students, but not with whole classes. But you wouldn't know that until you had sat down with the software and spent time using it and thinking about it.

Not everything is within the individual teacher's control. I am thinking in particular of my next requirement: the opportunity to experiment. Too many schools, in England and Wales at any rate, are so frightened of being named and shamed for not having achieved the requisite number of A*-C passes at GCSE that it takes a very brave, stupid or fortunate teacher to feel that they have the time and the support to be able to try things out, especially given the amount of stuff that has to be covered in the curriculum. I admire all those who do, and the colleagues who enable them to do so.

A third requirement is for intellectual honesty. I think one of the most difficult things to do is to admit to oneself, let alone one's colleagues, that as far as achieving X is concerned, the last 3 weeks have been less successful than one would have liked. But there are a few counters to this way of looking at things:

Firstly, adopt the scientific view: an experiment is only a failure if it yields no results at all, ie you find out nothing from it. If you get negative results, you've learnt something which will be useful to both yourself and your colleagues.

Secondly, take a cost-benefit approach. Basically, even if the experiment looks like having been a waste of time, if the benefits outweigh the costs, than it hasn't been. This is all a bit subjective, of course, but let's consider an example. Suppose the use of a website or application has added nothing to the knowledge of 29 of the students in your class, meaning that you wasted a few hours preparing the lessons based on it, and those 29 pupils have wasted the one or two lessons they spent on it. But at the same time, one student, who was thinking of quitting the course, and who has already mentally opted out, is suddenly fired up by the experience and really starts to 'get it'. It's arguable that the net gain has outweighed the net cost.

Thirdly -- and this leads on nicely from the point just made -- it may be that your success criteria need to be changed. In the example of 29 students gaining nothing in terms of learning anything new, if I was the teacher I would ask them to analyse why they gained nothing, and how the resource (or my use and teaching of it) could have been improved.

Also, academic achievement has to be balanced by other kinds of development. If the website or program added nothing to their knowledge or technical skill set, but facilitated critical thinking or collaborative working -- even though they may not have been the intended outcomes -- then I would suggest the whole thing has been very worthwhile.

A fourth requirement for good teaching is a love of the technology. That does not necessarily mean being a geek, but having a love of what the technology can enable you to do. For example, I love my digital camera. It's not good enough for professional photography, but it's good enough for me. I can slip it in my pocket or briefcase, and I use it to take shots which are either interesting in themselves, and which I could therefore use as stimulus material, or to illustrate articles.

Also, call me 'sad' and perhaps needing to get out more, but unlike a lot of people I do not find spreadsheets boring. On the contrary, I think a well-constructed spreadsheet is a thing of beauty, to be marvelled at! (I'm being serious: when I have more time I will explain myself in this regard!)

A fifth requirement is a willingness to not know everything. I think that when it comes to technology, there is every chance that at least one student, and probably all of them, will know more about at least one aspect of it than you do. That's why I have no hesitation in asking teenagers I know how you do certain things in Facebook or Blog TV. They know things I don't. I also know things they don't. What's so threatening about exchanging knowledge and ideas as equals?

Does this mean that I go along with the old chestnut about teachers being a 'guide on the side' rather than a 'sage on the stage'? No, because I think that is a false analogy or an abrogation of responsibility. I see no point in spending an inordinate amount of time encouraging kids to discover something that you could have told them in 5 seconds, so the guide on the side thing is not appropriate in all circumstances anyway.

I don't have a catchy phrase to express this idea, but the way I see it, the class is like a group of walkers going on a guided ramble. You have the leader, who knows the terrain and knows what to look out for and to point out. But at the same time each person on the walk is making sense of it all in their own individual way, and discovering other delights that the leader has not pointed out. That sounds to me more like the guide at the front than the guide on the side. I told you it wasn't very catchy.

There are other factors which make for good teaching. My fifth one is the opportunity to have excellent professional development. Note that I use the word 'development', not training. I am not sure how, in most cases, spending a day being bombarded by bullet points, which they then give you in a pack anyway, can be as useful as having an opportunity to explore and discuss ideas of your own choosing in depth. In fact, as far as feedback is concerned, the most successful training I ever provided consisted of doing absolutely nothing except provide a room, some software, and myself and a technician, to enable a group of teachers to develop their area of the school's website.

My final factor is an amalgam of what good teaching is all about anyway: a love of one's subject, a love of exploring new avenues with other people, a love of being with young people and helping them along the path, a fanatical insistence that each person achieves their own personal best, and a willingness and ability to employ a whole range of techniques, such as questioning, facilitating group work and giving meaningful and useful feedback.

I'd be interested to hear your views about what makes a good technology teacher.

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