From curriculum borders to learning horizons

Watching a ‘Horizon’ programme on how illusions shed light on how the senses operate, I experienced the familiar sense of feeling that the fairly arbitrary distinctions we make between ‘subjects’ in school are as illusory as some of the common-sense perceptions we cling to, but that empirical observation reveal to be false.

I like being an English teacher, but, on the whole I don’t much enjoy the inter- subject rivalry that tends to characterise secondary school life, albeit usually at a fairly lighthearted level. You see, really I want to be able to bring everything I learn about into my teaching practice. And I want to be able to lend the particular areas of expertise I may have picked up, and borrow in turn those of others, in the service of richer, deeper, broader learning experiences that I and my students can share.

How to do that in the confines of a rigid timetable and a curriculum geared towards discretely examined subject areas is difficult to engineer. On a personal level, I try to do a little of it simply by making connections. For example when teaching about the way language and perception may interact I find myself talking about the relationship between the wavelength of light and the perception of colour, showing how the ‘white’ of an interactive whiteboard, and the ‘black’ parts of an image projected onto it are in fact the same (in fact the ‘black’ is actually slightly brighter than the ‘white’ as some light from the projector still bleeds through onto the ‘black’ areas).

That kind of exploration fascinates me, and I think that the insights being gained in perceptual psychology are directly applicable to, say, literary criticism. Obviously that, in itself, is hardly a new idea. ‘English’ at university level has long been the site, at some places at least, of interdisciplinary innovation, but that has filtered down to school level, if at all, in very weakened form.

That I was watching that ‘Horizon’ programme on BBC iplayer on my phone while lying in bed several days after it was first broadcast, and was then able immediately to begin composing this response on that same handheld device, before uploading it for potentially anyone to read also acts as a reminder that ways of learning, thinking about that learning, and developing and disseminating the products of that learning are changing in ways that the education system as currently constituted is only beginning to take the first lumbering cognisance of.

(And in the current political climate it may even be lumbering in quite the wrong direction…

Toothpaste For Dinner – 2,600+ comics by Drew – Updates daily at midnight


Well, look: if you’re going to subscribe to this despite it obviously just being a ‘sandbox’ for me to try things out, then I guess I may as well throw you the odd titbit, at least.

Don’t expect me to stop doing tedious test posts and stuff, though. Like I’ve said before; the real content is elsewhere (though I suppose I do have to face the dark thought that maybe test posts are more interesting than the stuff I want people to read.

Ed reform day

I saw on twitter that Tom Whitby had put out a call for bloggers to write a post on Ed reform today, and to collate the posts on a wallwisher wall.

At first I thought that this was likely to be a Stateside dominated venture, probably with a specific US context in mind. Then it occurred to me that even if that was the case, the mere fact that I knew about it illustrated that national boundaries are much less of a barrier than they once were. This was brought home last week when my developing writers in year 8 were thrilled to find that their tentative first pieces on our class blog had drawn – thanks to my publicising it on twitter – an audience of readers from around the globe.

So, I mentally planned a post that was to include reference to the value of global online connections, both to teachers and students. It would also have ranged (again, it’s a recurring theme for me) over the difficulties that crop up in trying to foster independent and collaborative learning using the wealth of tools that technology has made available.

However my plans were scuppered when my 8+ year old cable modem finally gave up the ghost this evening. A common worry, and reason for avoiding tech for some teachers, is that it can easily fail. Yet, despite my broadband Internet access failing completely for the first time in years, this blog post is here. Shorter, less carefully written, minus inline links, and with a different focus than it might have had otherwise. But nevertheless incontrovertibly here.

I am still connected by my phone. I was able to use it to troubleshoot the initial modem problem, then call Virgin media (in India,as it happens) to get a new modem ordered. I am using it now to write and post this blog. Our students will be using similar technology tomorrow to access sites that we have blocked for their ‘safety’, and on which they will find few models of responsible behaviour because we have largely withdrawn from their online spaces out of fear of ‘safeguarding’ issues. In the meantime they will he struggling to use computers that take an age to load up, before prematurely losing battery power, and that have their utility further denuded by a confused and ineffectual filtering policy that denies access to some of the most wonderful learning materials that human creativity and ingenuity has produced.

Hard-pressed technicians are running to stand still to keep systems operating that have not been designed with the needs of learners in mind. In the meantime, a cpd trainer, running a ‘learning to learn’ session refers again to the ‘Shift Happens’ video that our school staff were shown perhaps five years ago, around the time of our last such cpd session.

Yes. Shift happens, whether we want it to or not. Whether we embrace it or not. But if we are not actively a part of making and shaping that shift, there is a danger that suddenly we will find that we, and the young people it is our responsibility to guide, have had the ground shifted from beneath us.

(and it’s not just about technological shift; it can also be about matters as simple as shifting furniture, or as profound as shifting the way we think.

Paradise will be a kind of library

Or so Jose Louis Borges imagined.

If Borges is looking down now from his bookish paradise on my town of Doncaster, then I guess he’d be equating it with Dante’s eighth circle of hell, which houses, among other things, the souls of thieves, as our library service is being systematically stripped: a process that started long before the current round of public sector cuts.

One of my students, Olivia, alerted me recently to one of the most startling manifestations of this cultural vandalism. The number of qualified librarians employed in Doncaster Library Service (covering the geographically largest metropolitan borough in the country) has dropped from 26 to 2.

I just sneaked under the wire in completing a well-hidden consultation survey that finishes tomorrow, on the archaic council website, having only discovered it thanks to the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign.

As a teacher I regularly encounter students who are unable to access at home the online resources I (and many of their classmates) take for granted. I advise them to go to their local library where internet access is free. I regularly have students who are wanting to pursue language investigations or extended projects on topics that require material unavailable in the school library. I advise them to seek the expertise of the information professionals at their local library.

For many of them, such advice is already futile as they are likely to find the door of their library closed at the sort of times a student is likely to be able to access it.

Council budget cuts are sadly inevitable, and libraries are a soft target. But the softer the target, the more damage is done when it is hit.

(So: use your local library and get involved in the Save Doncaster’s Libraries campaign.