What I’ve learned this week

There are other blog posts brewing that need a few images and tidying up but I thought I’d finish this week with a couple of things I have learned this week:

1. Google has a very interesting public data service where you can retrieve figures on a large number of subjects (many are US but some Europe trends available). It will come in handy for the data visualisation lesson I have planned for next week.

2. I honestly didnt know that MS Access 2003 had a chart wizard for creating simple visualisations of information in it’s database. Using it in the same lesson described above.

3. I learned that our school has still not shared details of an extra in-service day with staff, parents or pupils! Other schools in the authority had circulated this by the end of week 2. It is in 3 weeks. How is this exemplifying good communication between school and home?!

4. There is a scarcity of jobs available at the moment. This isnt news but Ive learned that simply wanting and waiting will not make change happen. To move on I may have to create my own role, especially if my bosses subscribe to my blog!!

5. I learned that hard work does sometimes pay off. Last year’s exam results were a huge improvement for our department and this was achieved with a staff shortage and a brilliant, if overworked, team. Basically, we did ace (oh yes and the pupils) and I want to share that, thanks.

6. I’ve learned that I am to be given management time despite not being a Principal Teacher. The extra time is welcome but I now want to learn what is expected from this time. Job for next week.

7. Cpd course providers may be finding it tough at the moment, especially if other authorities also revoke travel expenses. The alternative is to share and enhance the profile of free CPD in your school or local cluster, or to pay your own way if the course is worth it. This week I’ve been advertising #ukedchat and Twitter to school colleagues as well as applying for meaningful courses and calculating the cost.

8. Pupils have amazing ideas when they are engaged and when you remove the possibility of failure. My S2 class came up with so many ideas for a school tour (P7 transition resource) I filled every gap on my smartboard!

Making data beautiful: Data visualisation

I’m currently creating and teaching a brand new unit in S4 which combines Intermediate 1 Information & The Internet and Intermediate 2 Database Systems. The reason I am doing this is because an ex-colleague and I decided to align two separate courses (I’ve now managed to align access 3 to our grand plan too, but that took all of 20 minutes) to make computing as relevant as possible and to allow space in the curriculum for lots of active learning. I’m sure that it is not going to be perfect first time around but the planning makes more sense and should allow the classes to be split on activity without feeling they are tackling different units (as they were last year!)

I’m currently rewriting the section on database form creation and reporting and just by chance saw a link to David McCandless’ TED talk on the Twitter main page yesterday morning. David is a journalist and information analyst who creates striking visualisations of contrasting data sets, for example this one comparing the amount of CO2 generated by the Icelandic volcano earlier this year against the amount of CO2 that would have been generated by the grounded airplanes.

Simple but effective and it inspired me to use data visualisation as the focus for report creation rather than the staid drill and practice generation of Access reports. These pupils have previously studied multimedia and the design methodology associated- I had already planned to echo this in the lessons on database form creation – but now my mind is racing with ideas for more local examples following David McCandless’ style of presentation. It could also be used in conjunction with a lesson on the freedom of information act with Higher Information Systems pupils to pull relevant, challenging data sets for visualisation. I am excited by the possibilities this field has to offer and hope that, after watching David’s TED talk embedded below, you will too.

http://www.ted.com/talks/david_mccandless_the_beauty_of_data_visualization.html

(thanks http://en.support.wordpress.com/videos/ted-talks/)

Sharing the responsibility: You can’t and shouldn’t do it all

I’m on the train, this time for leisure. I have about three hours to fill on my way to Glasgow where I’m due to meet up with a friend from Switzerland who is on tour with his Sensational Alex Harvey tribute band called, unsurprisingly, Not The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. The sun is out but for a change the carriages are cool and the conductor directed me to a quiet place on the train. Well ok it was until Dundee anyway!

I made use of some of the time by thinking about my timetable for this session and, in particular, the classes I share with my colleagues. In the past shared classes have typically followed on from lesson to lesson with each teacher trying to ensure that all outcomes have been achieved at the end of each lesson. It is not always possible and when it works with one class it could be an entirely different tale with another. This can work well but it is always easier to carry on teaching from your own unfinished lesson if necessary.

In the past my colleagues and I have adjusted our lessons and timings “on the fly” and evenly shared admin responsibilities such as coursework marking, prelim setting and reporting. In essence we have relied on each other for support and worked entirely on professional trust.

When the department is stable and staff are permanent this is usually not an issue. However I was nearly burnt out by the additional admin required when sharing a class with a temporary teacher. Simply getting information about which practical task each child was on was a struggle, sometimes additional material I had developed to make that teacher’s life easier remained untaught. I suffered, the pupils suffered, and when the temporary teacher left there was a lot of work for both of us to do to catch up. It was a situation I hadn’t experienced before and left an outcome I never want to experience again!

Last week I was talking to my partner, an English teacher in another secondary school, about how her subject and department organise shared classes. She was amazed that our responsibilities weren’t written down and managed by our principal teacher (or in my case our faculty head). These casual admin arrangements were something I had never questioned in four years at my current school as there had never been any problems with them until the aforementioned temporary teacher.

It is a simple task: the admin work associated with each shared class is assigned to each teacher based on the percentage of time they see the class. Then the two teachers discuss and adapt the arrangements if necessary and WRITE THEM DOWN. I can’t believe I teach the importance of agreed documentation in software development and never considered applying this to my own role. Do as I say not as I do strikes again.

So I’ve changed (and may yet hit myself on the back of the head ala NCIS). I apologise to my nerves that it took me this long. I now want to recommend each teacher considers the importance of this simple task and passes on this knowledge to others. Knowing at the start of the school session that you have half the amount of reports to write than you previously thought or that you can spread out your appointments at parents evening or just that everyone in your department is on the same page means that you can get on with teaching your class unhindered.

Failure is good: Twitter changed my thinking

The first day back at work is a challenge. The routine has been broken for six weeks and all teachers, even the best teachers, alter their habits. Note that I didn’t say “pick up bad habits” because if you’re reading this from the outside (i.e. you don’t work in education) our bad habits tend to be things like working late into the night during a school term, getting possessive over cups in the staffroom, drinking too much coffee. During our recuperation these bad habits drift away for a while, but they always come back.

So a failure at some point today is inevitable. I take it as a good sign that my failure appeared at the beginning of my day – the unset inset alarm! It’s always more complicated with family and the resulting panic instantly sent our stress levels (myself and my partner both work in education) through the roof. In the past I have rocketed out of the door and would run (uphill) to make my train – I’ve never missed it in two and a half years. If it had been a day where my students could be arriving to an empty classroom my decision may have been different but today I stopped, took a deep breath and thought about the impact of following the trend: I would arrive at the station (in 10 minutes or less) feeling rushed, stressed and out of sorts. My partner would be left with the chaos of feeding and organising two young children before getting herself ready and driving to work in the opposite direction. She would arrive rushed, stressed and out of sorts too!

I made a decision: who would I let down more by not making that train? My work colleagues and managers who were due to collect in the assembly hall at 8:45am to refocus on another school year or my partner and family who I’d just spent a lovely summer with? It was quite easy – I stopped pulling on my jacket and got stuck in to helping out. This made their morning routine less rushed and stressful and in turn my partner kindly drove me to the station to make the next train in good time. I bought my season ticket and sat on the platform working out the rest of my day. I knew that the consequence of my decision was that I would arrive at least five minutes late for the inset day but the advantage was I would arrive calm, prepared and therefore more productive. I had made the best out of the situation.

Some of you reading this may be wondering why I’m sharing this, or perhaps stating the obvious choice. Some of you might be questioning my professionalism! I’m not afraid to hold my hands up to a failure – nobody should! Can I also explain that it’s not in my nature now to wait, I’m nearly always in a hurry to do something – to tick another task off the to-do list – and I will try to succeed at something until it is no longer possible due to events out-with my control. Something wired in my head instantly makes it feel wrong to choose to miss that train. But I do it anyway – that’s new.

I think it’s the Twitter effect. About a year ago I joined Twitter while looking for websites, blogs and books on Games Based Learning for my CPD. I followed a few people who were heavily immersed in the world of GBL. They recommended and talked to others, my Twitter PLN grew. They made me think differently.

Via my Twitter PLN @stevebunce (a worthy #ff any day of the week) introduced me to the works of author and enterpreneur Seth Godin. I’m listening to one of his audiobooks at the moment: “Tribes – We need you to lead us” (visit this link for a free legit copy). As I was travelling to work, late but unstressed, Seth said something which really had an impact:

“Sit in, lean back… but don’t do nothing”

This phrase may have inspired @colport when he first used the hash tag #ukedchat to provide a more local focus to teachers participating in the worldwide #edchat. I was vaguely aware of #edchat but as it usually took place while I slept it didn’t appeal to me. #ukedchat takes place on Thursday evenings between 8 and 9pm and the tweets posted using that hash tag are then archived for posterity (because now it is so busy you need to read up on the posts you’ve missed later!). Ian Addison is one of a number of people who blogged about #ukedchat and nicely sums up the effect of this frenetic discussion:

“I still get people wondering why I take part in CPD outside of normal hours, but you know what? #ukedchat and Twitter make me think a lot harder about my teaching than any course I’ve ever attended.”

I agree with his statement but want to add that it does more than make me think harder about my work, it has impacted how I interact with others. I think the most affecting thing about Twitter and #ukedchat in particular is the generosity and openness of those involved. Everyone shares their ideas – good or bad. Failures are as welcome as success stories. This overwhelming goodwill is infectious and I found that when I returned to school I was less inclined to be protective of my resources, teaching methods, ideas and opinions – that’s new too. I recommend you try #ukedchat if you are involved in education in any way. Whether pitching in to the conversation or sitting back to reflect, if you’re involved you have chosen not to do nothing.