….is this the moment?

The educational world has, like many other sectors, been experiencing a thorough shake up and sweeping away of familiar structures in the last couple of months. A learning experience for all concerned. As the Covid-19 crisis rumbles on there seems to be increasing evidence that these temporary measures might actually be closer to the future norms than we may care to admit.  Could this be the moment to be forced into standing education on its head and facing up to new realities and new needs? Not just the needs of the immediate requirements of medical necessity, but also of the type of education that we need right now in 2020 and the years to come? 

Here in the Netherlands we are just starting to loosen the lockdown. Primary schools have started a partial reopening this week and secondary schools look set to follow at the start of June. Temporary timetables of reduced classes will be made to perhaps give some sort of sense of a restart in the few weeks left until the summer holiday. But it also looks increasingly likely that the much longed for securities of educational familiarity might not be on offer when we return at the end of August or the beginning of September. 

What started off as temporary and emergency measures might yet rapidly take on a more permanent, or at least long lasting perspective.  Education with reduced school time blended with learning at home looks an increasingly more likely possibility.   

The school where I work have been busy for the last two to three years working on a new concept for the education that we offer.  We were, and indeed are, intending to fully launch it after the summer break. It is less dependent on the classical lesson structure of 30 children in a classroom and the teacher at the front.  There is more room for the pupils to work independently, at their own pace and level.   

The intention was of course to facilitate this independent element at school, but in the Covid-19 version of education this might very well be the section that is moved out to the home study area.  For us, as with all in education, there are important decisions to be made.  But as a school we have already made some useful and relevant steps in directions that may well prove to be extremely useful.  I does feel that the weekly developments and their effects on education are a Pandora’s box that is slowly opening with new limitations, challenges but also perhaps opportunities. Is this the time and the moment to take a critical look at what we do and how we do it? And at the same time to not be afraid to say that we have to do things differently, and indeed want to do things differently? Time will tell, but an interesting article appeared in the UK based Guardian newspaper today that touches on many of these points and raises a couple of interesting and neglected directions that are neglected areas in education philosophies.  

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/12/coronavirus-education-pandemic-natural-world-ecology

Five weeks into distant learning, the pros and the cons

Five weeks ago, after a week of school in early March where you could already feel that the Corona effect was about to burst loose, the schools in the Netherlands closed. Initially for three weeks, although for most people it was pretty clear that five weeks minimum was extremely likely as it would bring many schools up to the spring holiday.  We’ve reached that point, and holiday for me starts this weekend and runs until early May. As I write it is unclear what will happen thereafter, but that should become known sometime in the next week or so.

So, five weeks in, time for a little reflection on how it’s gone and is going. Let’s start with the negatives.

Cons:

  • I have undoubtedly put in more hours to my teaching job in a month than quite possibly ever before
  • As a result of the above, I go into the holiday hugely behind with my marking
  • I feel like I have an office job, stuck behind a desk, staring at a screen for hours on end. Which for an art teacher does come as a bit of a shock.
  • I miss massively the contact with the kids, the humour, the silliness and general classroom banter.
  • I miss the engagement with the pupils involved in their practical activities, the reaching over a shoulder to guide, coach and advise
  • It is too easy for pupils to be invisible. And herein lies the biggest potential problem. Successful and assertive ‘achievers’ will work well. The shy, the strugglers or the disadvantaged (in any number of ways) will run into more difficulties. This potential risk area, means the differences in abilities and achievements in any class is going to magnified.
  • The practical possibilities on offer to be able to work into distant learning art practical assignments are greatly reduced. I can’t really assume my pupils have access to much more than their iPad, pencil and pen at home.
  • The online lessons whilst being useful are so radically different in almost every way to the sorts of lessons I normally give.  There are possibilities here, but after these first weeks of experimentation I am only really just starting to get my head round the new format and to start to see the opportunities.  Initially you do seem to be constantly hitting your head on the difficulties.

But enough of the negatives, what about the positives….

Pro’s:

  • First, and most importantly of all, education is continuing, the form is different, but something is certainly happening!
  • The digital know-how and experience of virtually all teachers is coming on in leaps and bounds, instead of it being just the realm of the enthusiasts. I sense that the incredibly difficult to arrange art department meetings might be moving to a digital arrangement next year.
  • The pupils are actually turning up on time and doing the assignments at the required moments (at least in my experience)
  • The pupils are also rapidly picking up the necessary skills to work in new digital areas.
  • The pupils don’t seem to moan any more…..but maybe that’s because their microphones are turned off!
  • The one on one contact with pupils is interestingly different.  In the course of the week there’s quite a lot of messaging and chatting with individual pupils about assignments that are being worked on.  This is chatty and friendly and feels somehow different both to the rather awkwardly written emails I sometimes get or the face to face contact in the classroom.  They’ve started wishing me a good weekend, saying that they enjoyed an assignment, some have even asked for extra homework…..this is all rather uncharted and very interesting territory!

I certainly wouldn’t go as far as to say that distant learning is the future of mainstream education. But this is a learning experience for all, and there are undoubtedly things that should be kept in and built on when we do eventually get back into the classroom.

Well it’s a daily rhythm of sorts

The normal working week for me had a regular pattern. There was the time at home at the start of the week preparing for my teaching role in the middle and later part of the week.  School days were long with lengthy travel time at the beginning and end of the teaching day. There were the weekends where the very best was done to make them feel, well, like a weekend.

The last four weeks, like for just about everyone else, has felt very different. I’ve just been reading an article, I think in the Guardian, that said that the education world has been rising to the Corona challenge.  I have a daughter studying at art school in the Netherlands, a brother teaching in the UK and another teaching at a university in Malaysia. Added to this my wife teaches at a university of applied science her in the Netherlands and then there is me, a secondary school teacher. Maybe, just maybe, I’m better placed than most to offer an opinion on the efforts going on in the educational world.

I would certainly feel a large amount of agreement with that newspaper article, education is rising to the challenge.  The urgency of the situation was rapidly clear. The online possibilities were ready, although for most, a little unexplored, to have a serious go at engaging and serving the stay at home pupils. 

A learning curve of dizzying steepness was leapt at.  Teams, Skype, Zoom, Moodles and any number of other online learning opportunities and facilities have been thrown into place.  A process of teacher education that under normal circumstances that would have been spread out over numerous after school sessions spread over months has been picked up and run with.

Have I ever had so many emails, apps, chats and video meetings?  And we really are only at the start of actually providing a form of online teaching of our numerous classes.  This week I am starting with classes of up to 33 pupils online together in a Teams group together. I’m curious to see how it goes. I have to say, that although I’m missing the personal contact, I’m not sure how the online classroom might measure up in filling this gap.

Teachers the world over are undoubtedly putting in plenty of extra time and effort.  I’m also curious to see whether this is being matched by our pupils. At this stage that is rather the great unknown factor. Can they work effectively with us only digitally standing over them. Time will tell. What will be the payback for a one, two, three-month dip in the educational service that we normally provide?

Amongst all this my weekly rhythm has changed, I’m starting to recognize something of a vague pattern. It is hours in front of the computer screen, apping on my phone, writing new material adjusted for the online context, marking, guiding colleagues, liaising with the school leadership, following online teaching courses and so on. 

It’s starting early, finishing late. Technically my job is only 60% full-time. Educational hours always tend to run out of control, now more than ever. But I try to intersperse the screen time with other things to break it up and create rhythm in the days rather than lapsing into a sort of even continuum. For me that means a walk or going out running in the nearby woods. Thank goodness that these things are still an option for me.  Family time and fragmented through it all when the moment presents itself, some painting and drawing.

A future blog post will dive into the theme of online appropriate and stimulating assignments that might work the best.

How did this happen?

I rounded off my attempt at language learning at school with an O level English (GCSE) grade C. I always enjoyed my English lessons, it’s just that I never felt very good at them. I was a slow learner, didn’t read a novel until I was nineteen and often muddled up words. With that in mind, that grade C perhaps wasn’t too bad.

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Yet, through the course of the years I have ended up becoming a language teacher through the back door as it were. First and foremost, I consider myself an artist and art teacher, but increasingly I realize that my engagement through language, via the artistic route in a playful and creative way has rather become my thing. Could it be that my earlier struggles with English at school, followed by my struggles to learn Dutch when I moved to the Netherlands has actually made me a better language instructor? Maybe, it certainly gives me an empathy and understanding of how my pupils must, at times, feel.

But perhaps more significant is the robustness and self-belief that it has built…..a kind of ‘the things that don’t kill you make you stronger’ philosophy. I notice it in my pupils. Teaching them through immersion in the target language, especially at the phase when they are struggling to keep up with the language being used, isn’t a comfortable feeling.  At times it is well outside of the comfort zone. But it is getting past this and the feeling of achievement that accompanies it that is, the not insignificant by-product of learning language through immersion. With it comes a new found confidence and belief.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I presented a workshop about innovative approaches in content and language integrated learning (CLIL) situations. Much is said in education about the search for teaching methods and practices that challenge our pupils. The argument being that challenge the pupils and they will respond with an increased motivation to learn. It is a compelling argument, especially when you see just how much of a language a 12 year can master in the course of a year of bilingual education.

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Maybe, just maybe, if I had had the luxury of a bilingual education in my teenage years, I might be a little less surprised about having become, rather accidentally, a language teacher of sorts myself.

Cartoons: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Differentiation in the art room – are there things for other departments to learn?

I recently exchanged a number of mails with a former student of mine. She didn’t follow an arts related curriculum in her last years at school choosing a much more science related timetable. Eventually she left school to go to university to study physics and, if I remember rightly, astronomy.  During our digital exchange, quite unprovoked my me, she said that she and some of her fellow university students had been discussing the state of education recently, and had come to the conclusion that not all was really as it should be.

It short, at a distance of maybe three or four years, since they left, they had concluded that the secondary school education they had experienced had fallen short in a number of ways. She identified a number of areas:

  • The amount of time that is wasted sitting in lessons where you really are ready to move on with the teaching focusing on points that you have already fully grasped
  • The little opportunity there is to pursue themes and areas that genuinely interest you
  • The lack of challenge that there is in much of the teaching that is on offer. 

A bottom line to this discussion was one of the lack differentiation in the classroom. Differentiation as a theme has been a bit of an teaching hot potato of late, generating a lot of discussion along with moves towards more personalized forms of education. Matching education that you provide to the diversity of individuals in the class, the varying abilities and styles of learning being the aim. Whether my ex-pupil is aware of the background educational discussion I’m not sure.  But her point was, that whilst at school, a great deal of time was used and wasted (in her experience) solving fifteen maths problems when she was sure that after five she already understood what was necessary and was ready to move on (a perhaps over-simplification, but one she used to make her point). Others in the class may well have needed all fifteen, but ,in this case, she didn’t.  There lies the challenge for the teacher, how do you organize and practically cope with diversity when you are faced with a class of thirty individuals?

Alongside this observation she made an interesting point, and one that I’ve often thought about. In the art room, whilst working on a practical assignment, differentiation often happens almost automatically. You set a painting or drawing assignment and the more talented and able in the class simply challenge themselves more, both technically and creatively, than those less so. Pupils seem to have a good idea of their abilities, they try (generally) to push up against them to make small improvements, but have a reasonable idea of what are realistic aims for themselves. The result is a sort of sliding scale where, at least in theory, differentiation occurs with the pupils themselves controlling where their own learning boundaries lie.

This does sound a little to good to be true, but it is a process that I recognize and see occurring in my classroom. It begs the question, and this was my ex-pupils question too, how could you simulate something similar in other subject areas?

  • Less front on, one size fits all, traditional/classical educational approaches
  • Lesson material that incorporates a more elastic quality that stretches and challenges the pupils to challenge themselves
  • Different lesson material that incorporates a more exploration, challenge and, dare I say it, use of creativity in all subject areas
  • Digital text books that adjust want they offer depending on the strengths of the pupil
  • Timetables that are a little less rigid and along pupils more space to better cater for their strengths and weaknesses.

The school where I teach is in the process of investigating how we might incorporate a number of these types of ideas into a more personalized form of education, it is at least nice to think that we have the support of at least one ex-pupil in doing so.

Just how bad were you at French?

Well the answer to that is really pretty bad. Mrs Hunt did her best, but for me in the flatlands of the Fens in East Anglia it just wasn’t happening.  I was generally a pretty good pupil at school but languages (even English, where I was a particularly slow reader) weren’t my thing.

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The irony is, I’m now bilingual, read a great deal, and although first and foremost an art teacher, I am also a language teacher…..specialised in CLIL (content and language integrated learning). With the CLIL approach my art skills are combined with my language knowledge in helping my Dutch pupils learn about art and the English language simultaneously.  How did that occur? It wasn’t a great plan, it just kind of happened and I’ve found great enjoyment in it, to the extent that, CLIL Magazine asked me to explain my perspective on this strange turn of events!

CLIL Magazine 2016 (Page 10)

The Dutch like to talk about a ‘taalknobbel‘ (a language bobble/lump??!), something that people who are good at languages are supposed to have and others (like me) don’t have.  When I was a teenager nobody would have said that I had a taalknobbel, yet here I am writing about language learning strategies and using them constantly in my art lessons with 12-17 year olds.

So what is the lesson here?  I would certainly start by saying that just because you struggle with language when you are 12 it doesn’t follow that you are a lost cause. To be honest, and I know that many will disagree with me, I think the way languages are generally taught in schools is where the problem (at least for me) lies.

The structural deconstruction of language in order to learn vocabulary, grammar and other elements of language simply made it too abstract and confusing for me.  Essentially the way I learnt Dutch was through immersion and being constantly surrounded by it.  It became a more real thing and learning to speak it became a more intuitive issue.  It is in this area that the CLIL approach to language scores, and it could also be the very reason why I seem to be quite good at it.

 

25 years of bilingual education in the Netherlands

The Netherlands isn’t the only place in the world where you can encounter bilingual education. There are many countries where, for varying reasons, this approach of teaching is used. It offers an array of subject areas taught in a non-native language for the learner. The aim is the speeding up and adding an extra depth to language acquisition. It is a broad approach that has its strength in immersion in the target language for the large of every school day.

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What is certainly true of the Dutch language experiment with secondary education is that it very definitely no longer an experiment. It is now established and embedded widely across the whole country with around 130 secondary schools offering the bilingual approach and pilot programs in primary education underway.

Yesterday the European Platform, the organisation that oversees and coordinates the bilingual schools, marked the occasion with an afternoon of presentations and reflections on the project so far, and a look towards the future. It seems a healthy future, as one of the contributors pointed out, many educational initiatives come and go, but the bilingual star in the Netherlands seems to continue to rise.

One of the reasons for this success might well be the fact that it is largely a bottom up initiative, starting with schools who decide that they want to join the process, rather than an organisation (or government) telling schools that they have to join. It remains a branch of education that is peopled by teachers and school leaders who want to be involved.

My own bilingual experience goes back fifteen years. In a sense I was in the right place at the right time. I arrived in the Netherlands in the early 1990s and five years later got my teacher training qualification just at the moment that the bilingual train was really starting to pick up momentum. I left the course and walked straight into my first bilingual teaching job. I was a rare commodity, a native speaker of English, qualified to teach a subject other than English (art in my case).

In the meantime, now twenty five years on, there probably aren’t that many teachers in the country who have taught as many bilingual classes as I have. My ‘native speaker’ credentials mean that I don’t ever have to teach a Dutch language art class, a benefit of working in a large bilingual department. If there is a weak link in the whole set up within the schools it is that the quest for native speakers to join and strengthen the departments is a constant hunt and not an easy one to be successful in.

I wrote two posts ago about the enthusiastic meeting I chaired for the European Platform of bilingual art teachers. They were a group of people who by offering to teach the bilingual classes have in effect said, yes, “I am prepared to do more than just teach my subject content, I am prepared to take on more and teach a language at the same time”. It says sometime about the mind-set of my Dutch colleagues who take this step, it is a fairly thick extra layer on top of regular classes. I have this too of course, but with the extra luxury that it is my first language, but like it or not, I am to a significant degree a language teacher.  Having struggled hugely at school with French and German, and yet now being able to speak Dutch fluently, I am also an example as to why immersion is the best method of language acquisition.