True Friends of Education in Macedonia

Every now and again, I meet some special people who remind me in the most delightful of ways why I have spent the greater part of my life involved in education. Such people somehow manage to take me back to why I chose to go into teaching almost four decades ago rather than try to become the songwriter and musician that I wanted to be when I was young and naive (nothing to do with a dispiriting lack of talent, of course). I returned just a few days ago from the town of Struga on the shores of beautiful Lake Orhid in southern Macedonia, where I attended a weekend event organized by a small band of dedicated Macedonian teachers who call themselves the Friends of Education. They had invited me (and a lovely group of fellow-presenters from across Europe and the USA) to present to a gathering of around 250 teachers and educationists from across Macedonia, and some from beyond.

I have enjoyed many education and technology conferences over the years, but there was something special about this one. It wasn’t a big fancy glittering occasion. Rather, it was a wonderfully convivial, well-organized and informal get-together of people who dedicate their lives to ensuring that young people have the best start they possibly can in their lives. Of the core organizing group of around a dozen people, all but two of them are classroom teachers who, on the Monday after their conference finished, would have been back amongst their students doing the job they love (the remaining two are a professor of education and a journalist, both of whom contribute tremendously to the group).

While they are very much an organic and unified team – a team whose members clearly all love and respect each other immensely – the guiding light amongst them is the wonderful and  impressive Marina Vasileva. A teacher (and currently also a PhD candidate) from the capital city, Skopje, Marina is a warm-hearted and inspirational figure leading a group of equally warm-hearted and inspiring people!

I was able to offer the teachers assembled in Struga some thoughts about the past, present and future of the school. Predicting the future is always fraught with difficulty, but I suggested to them that we have to learn from the past if we are to understand the present and attempt to forecast the future. The future in education is one that we must not allow simply to happen – we must, as Alan Kay said all those years ago, invent our own future! I spoke about the fundamental relationship that has always existed at the heart of the school, a relationship that is changing inexorably in this age of pervasive networks and digital technologies, namely the relationship between teacher and learner. However much a teacher wants to, he or she can simply no longer be the fount of all wisdom in the classroom (of course the best teachers have always known that). It is a changing relationship that is already transforming the very concept of the school, and that will continue to reshape education in ways that we cannot possibly know fully as yet.

The learner today is a different creature in so many ways from the past, or at least now has the opportunities and the technological environment to allow themselves to direct their own learning, to grab and gather information and expertise from the surging torrents of knowledge flowing past them moment by moment today.

There are siren voices that say that the teacher’s role is somehow diminished in these changing circumstances. It is nonsense! The teacher’s role is vastly more complex and demanding than it has ever been, one in which the very best teachers know that they are now as much the ‘lead learner’ as the teacher in the classroom.

I flew out of Skopje on Monday with my head full of ideas about the possibility of talking to friends and colleagues from across Scottish education about establishing a Friends of Education Scotland. One of the core aims of this marvellous group in Macedonia is to put the continuing development of pedagogy and practice in these disruptive digital times firmly in the hands of the teachers themselves and to begin to shift teachers away from the dependence on professional development opportunities that have been for too long handed down from on high. We all know that the traditional model of CPD does not work. All teachers have always known that!

Friends of Education Scotland could be set up initially in a small, informal, friendly but purposeful way to attempt to develop a similar strategy in this country, and of course to develop strong links with the prime movers in Macedonia. Our two education systems have much to learn from each other. In time, perhaps our friends in Macedonia will see satellite groups being set up in other countries too. What an enticing prospect!

I will come back to this theme soon, as well as to some other aspects of my time in Struga. I want to share much more of what I learned there.

In the meantime, I would like to say ‘ти благодарам’ (pronounced Vee Blagodaram, meaning ‘thank you’) to all of my new friends in Macedonia. I hope to visit you all again soon.

Friends of Education
Some of the core group of ‘Friends of Education’ enjoying a chance to relax in the sunshine after the conference had ended, along with some of my fellow presenters from across the world.

Professional Self-Reflection: teachers as philosophers


This post belongs to an occasional series on teacher professional development. Previous posts include The Reflective Teacher as Reflective Learner and Teacher Professional Development in the UK: North & South.

If philosophy is the quest for wisdom then every teacher who respects the import of their vocation needs to be a philosopher as well as a teacher. The two should be indivisible, since the teacher who seeks to lead a learner to wisdom must have some personal knowledge of the possible paths to wisdom. Without such knowledge – a knowledge that must be continuously searched for and renewed, a knowledge that can never be fully realized – the teacher will never know the true value of their teaching to the learner.

The grade book, the certificates, the diplomas achieved by students can only ever be limited and fragmentary indicators of a teacher’s (and, of course, a learner’s) success. Those who choose to limit their teaching horizons to marks and test scores and qualifications will never know what it truly means to teach. Nor will they ever fully appreciate the full scope of what their students learn.

confuciusConfucius wrote:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

His opinion is still valid, of course, although I’m less sure of the order in which he presents the three paths to wisdom. Perhaps imitation is the easiest, but teaching by modelling involves the use of imitation to some extent, and it is through modelling that the teacher can begin to map the routes to wisdom for the learner. If modelling and imitation come first, then the path to wisdom is broadened and made firmer under-foot through offering practical experiential learning to students. Learning from experience plays a critical part in combining information and skills in context to create knowledge, and the meaning and form that such experiences can take are as varied as the countless subjects and disciplines themselves that comprise the broad sweep of human activity.


greek-female-thinkerConfucius, rightly, acclaims reflection as the cardinal route to wisdom. We begin to learn by imitating those who know what we also want to know. We learn even more by trying our new knowledge out in the real world in some sense. But we only truly begin to embed that knowledge within us, we only truly begin to ‘know’, when we set out to cast a critical eye over our practice and we question why we do what we do, how we do it, what works, what does not work, and how can we do better.

In teaching, as in other professions, reflection can take many forms, each as valid as the other, but each bringing a different range and kind of insight to our professional practice. A small subset might include:

  • socratesCritical self-reflection – taking the time to go back over our own teaching, either from memory, or from notes taken, or increasingly today from a video of our teaching; we do this with the aim of challenging ourselves on what went well or not, and why;
  • Collaborative reflection – working with one or more colleagues who join with you in reflecting on your teaching, perhaps having observed your lesson live, whether in situ or via live video, or having watched a recorded video of your teaching after the event; of course, this can, and perhaps should, be reciprocal – collegiate reflection can be very powerful indeed;
  • Coaching and mentoring – working with either a more experienced colleague or an external expert who watches you teach (again either by classroom observation or through the use of video) and is able to offer advice – this can be done live or in retrospect, or both. Equally, working with a colleague or colleagues to mentor/coach each other can make for very effective professional reflection. Every teacher is an expert in his or her own right!

Writing as Reflection

But one other form of self-reflection deserves to be mentioned, one that can be done in conjunction with all of the above and with any other forms of professional reflection – that is writing!

Gillie Bolton, in her book Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development (already deservedly into its 4th edition) – a book that looks at reflective practice across a broad range of professions –  states that:

Reflective writing IS the reflective process…

boltonbookBy this she means that writing for ourselves is not merely the recording of what has previously been thought. Rather, the actually process of sitting down to write about your own professional practice will help you to capture highlights (and lowlights), consider thoughts, feelings and values that came to mind either during the practice or as you reflect, and give you the means to draw out issues and ponder them at a level that cannot always be achieved by simple reflection or in discussion with others. A critical aspect of reflective writing is that we are not writing for another authority such as a manager or inspector – it should be a key component of our professional autonomy, although a component that does not preclude sharing our writing with others in any way that we are comfortable with. As Bolton writes:

In writing we pay deep attention to parts of ourselves we do not listen to often enough…Writing enables us to go through the mirror and gain perspective, rather than merely reflect on back-to-front mirrored images of self.


In this regard Bolton also promotes the power of reflexivity as an added element of professional reflection. Where reflection is an in-depth analysis of our professional practice, reflexivity is about reaching beyond analysis to find strategies for change, about questioning the very values that underpin our practice, and about developing responsible and ethical responses to any practice that is driven by our assumptions or by organisational structures or by our culturally-determined expectations. It is the mind ‘reflected back upon the mind itself’ (OED) and as such is a means by which we can ask ‘why’ just as much as we ask ‘how’.

Writing for ourselves about our own professional practice, whether in a private journal or a public blog, can give us the platform we need to take our professional self-reflection to a whole new level.

Teacher as Philosopher

By reflecting on our own teaching, by thinking deeply about not only how we do things but why we do them, we become philosophers, whether or not we have explicit knowledge of the kinds of intellectual tools that an academic philosopher might possess.  By deciding to take on the noble and honoured status of teacher we should also be willing to become philosophers in our own right.

Columba Learning:
Giving a Voice to South Africa’s Youth


I have visited South Africa many times in the past, but my most recent trip, just last month, in August 2016, has undoubtedly given me a wonderful experience that no previous visit allowed me.

columba-hexagon-logoColumba Leadership is on a mission, and that mission is to give young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in South Africa the opportunity to find their own inner strengths and character, to find their voice, and in doing so to develop the skills and the confidence they need in order to become productive citizens of their country. It is a noble vision and a highly pragmatic mission that has already produced almost 4000 graduates of the programme (of whom, incredibly, around 750 are educators who have taken the brave step of joining their students on the Columba adventure). The programme has also sought to create, with no little success, a powerful multiplier effect that has enabled those 4000 graduates to extend the impact of the programme to some 70,000 learners across the expanding list of high schools in South Africa involved with Columba Leadership. It is an organization based on the precepts of Columba 1400, the Scottish social enterprise founded by Norman Drummond, and whose core and abiding purpose is a simple one:

“….to help young people realise that they already have the inner greatness and confidence to transform their own lives and those around them.”

ovalnorthIt is a mission that I had the privilege to witness at first hand when I visited one of the schools working with Columba Leadership – Oval North High School, in Cape Town – and to sit with and speak to eight astonishing young people who had completed the programme. Why astonishing? Because for an awe-inspiring morning I was able to have a conversation with eight of the most articulate, confident, intelligent, thoughtful and natural young people that I have ever met! I was able to see and hear and converse with eight highly impressive products of the Columba Leadership programme. All of these young people are now working hard in their school and in their local community to broaden the impact of their own learnings by extending their reach to their fellow school students.

Columba Leadership works in partnership with high schools across South Africa to select groups of young people to take through their programme of development. Students are selected not on any  measures of school achievement or on the basis of previous behaviours, but on the basis of an essay that each student writes explaining why they wish to join the programme. Columba insists on selecting a mix of ‘good’ students and those whose school careers have been less than successful to that point. They make a point of choosing young people who have perhaps been in trouble in various ways in the past.

I visited South Africa for 10 days in August at the invitation of Rob Taylor, Founder and Chairman of Columba Leadership, to deliver a keynote address to their annual meeting of sponsors and partners. I got to know Rob and the organization when I carried out some research for the Maitri Trust in late 2013 / early 2014 into the state of teacher education across the developing world. The Maitri Trust is a sponsor of Columba Leadership and I was able to glean some interesting and thought-provoking ideas from Rob over a number of conversations at the time.

During my visit to South Africa, I was able to spend time at Oval North High School and I had the opportunity to speak with Glen van Harte, Director of the Metro South Education District (within which Oval North sits), and a group of school principals and officials from across the district.

Mr-Kassiem2We were met in Oval North by Mr Kassiem, the school’s ebulliant principal, and I was given the honour of speaking to an assembly of the whole school community: all 1200 students and every teacher. I then had the privilege of meeting eight of the young people participating in the Columba Leadership programme. Each of them told me their story. I listened to their recollections of life before Columba, of who they were and where they thought they were going in life, of their impressions of the programme, of their newly found hopes and dreams for the future. They also spoke of what they wanted to give back – were already giving back – to the community around them. Not one of the young people displayed any egotism but all of them expressed a quiet pride in what they had achieved in terms of their own development and in terms of what their achievements were enabling them to do for others. In amongst the articulacy and thoughtfulness and intelligence of each of these young people, I was able to detect a naturalness and a quiet sense of their own worth that was immensely refreshing to behold.

Two members of staff who had also participated in the Columba Leadership programme were in the room too. I was able to listen to two adults who felt no need to  exhibit any of the signs of status and authority that so many teachers in my experience feel the need to display in the presence of students. They spoke as equals with the young people and they were clearly hugely impressed by what they had seen and experienced on the programme.

6-hexagonsThe central principle of Columba seems to be that it is not for anyone else to tell a young person or a educator what kind of person they should be. Instead, the programme is designed to enable every participant to discover who they are for themselves, to find their own inner worth and their own strength of character, and to then give them the means by which they can begin to express that character and that worth, both for themselves and, more importantly, for others around them. The impressive thing about this is that the actual Columba programme is just 6 days long in terms of the training programme itself! In those 6 days, the young people are given the space, the trust and the mental and emotional tools to discover for themselves the importance of six critical leadership traits: Awareness, Focus, Creativity, Integrity, Perseverance and Service. Of course the young people then use what they have learned about themselves over an extended period of time to put their new-found knowledge, skills and capacities into practice.

Columba-Managers-smallA few days after my visit to Oval North I had the chance to meet with Columba’s group of managers at their headquarters in Johannesburg, the people who organize and run the programmes for participants, led by Tracy Hackland, CEO of Columba Leadership. Every single one had a different story to tell about where they had come from and what they wanted to achieve through their work with Columba. Every single one of them had come to Columba by a different career path and I was able see the value and the strength offered to Columba by their diversity.

From Rob and Tracy at the helm of Columba, through their impressive Communications Officer, Karselle Moodley (who made sure that every aspect of my trip ran smoothly), to the amazing group of managers and all the staff at their HQ, I found myself amongst one of the most committed, professional and visionary groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and working with.

And I even had the opportunity to see the Big 5 and more in the space of 36 hours spent at the wonderful Londolozi Game Reserve bordering the Kruger National Park. While there, I was able to speak with Dave Varty, owner of the reserve, who, along with Kate Groch of the Good Work Foundation, have set up, amongst many other efforts, a Digital Learning Centre in Londolozi for use by the rural community in the area. The desire to do good things for others, the wish to give back to the community, is undoubtedly one of the most impressive traits evident in South African society today. It is a national trait that will serve the country well into the future.

rosey_seimaI intend to write further and in greater detail of my impressions gained during the ten days I spent in South Africa, but I will leave the last word for the moment to Rosey Seima, who along with a number of other Columba Graduates has founded an organization MIC (Making Incredible Change). In a poised and heartfelt TEDx talk at Westerford High School in South Africa, Rosey said:

“Our mission statement [of MIC] is to instill the mental capacity of the youth with values and knowledge needed to bring change in our community, city, province, country, continent and the world.”

Columba Leadership has given Rosey and many thousands of other young people across South Africa the knowledge of their own true self-worth and the capacity to take that knowledge out into the world in order to make our world a better place in which to live. For all of us.

No mean feat!


Education: confronting the confusion of tongues

I’m sure that my Christian and Jewish friends see it differently, but from my secular and humanist perspective, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel is an interesting one, since it seems to be a tale of a god who feared human knowledge so much that he visited a confusion of tongues on the people of Earth to ensure that they could not understand each other. He or she or it did not seem to like the idea of humanity knowing ‘too much’. Nor, it seems, did he, she or it know that one day Google Translate would spring from human intelligence and ingenuity.

As I have watched events unfold in the political sphere in the UK and USA in particular over the past few months, I can’t help but think we are experiencing a real and surging confusion of tongues. While across both countries we share a supposed common language of discourse, people might as well be speaking a profusion of mutually-incomprehensible tongues for all the shared understanding we seem to enjoy. Today words seem to carry simultaneously an infinite range of meanings and none. And while here I point my gaze at the specific cases of the UK and USA, it is a truly global problem, and little or nothing to do with the actual languages spoken.

The post-truth era, some have called it, but that is to give the phenomenon a gloss it does not deserve, one that lays a glib veneer over crude mendacity, one that accepts a willingness to listen to the lies, know they are lies, and yet simply ignore them, laugh them off even. A wave of irrationality is promoting a general air of befuddlement and discord in people, one that results in an unwillingness to question obvious absurdities, an inclination to absorb self-evident untruths without recrimination.

From Donald Trump’s proto-fascistic belligerence and his breathtaking lack of basic humanity, to the range of exaggerations and self-evident untruths that were peddled by both sides of the Brexit argument, we seem to have populations that are no longer willing, or able, to reflect on and analyze the torrent of absurdity, fabrication, embellishment and hyperbole that has disgraced, and continues to disgrace, the sphere of public discourse over the past few months in both countries. Most disturbing has been the willingness of so many people in both countries to accept and condone outpourings of racist bile, too many examples in which politicians have preached fear, hostility and intolerance in relation to the ‘other’.

The defence against ignorance is, of course, education. (It is also, it has to be said, a defence against reliance on an arbitrary and spiteful god, but that is another issue.)

Given the place we seem to have found ourselves in, socially and politically, and given that education in its broadest sense – personal, familial, institutional, cultural, ethical – is the bulwark against ignorance and false argument, how should those in the formal structures of education – teachers, schools, universities, administrators, policy-makers, etc – those at least who value truth, knowledge and enlightenment, respond to the situation? The young people we are teaching today will be the voters, the politicians, the government officials, the parents, of tomorrow, and it is surely part of our responsibility to strive to give our students the intellectual tools and the personal strength of character to recognize and question the assertions of politicians.

I fear in this age, in which too many parts of formal education are too intent on promulgating targets and testing and measurement of the un-measurable, we are shifting our collective gaze away from what is truly important for our children and young people. We are trying to build workers for the global economy when we should be nurturing a love of truth and a willingness to question authority in all its guises, whether well-meant or malevolent.

The late Jerome Bruner wrote:

Pedagogical theory is not only technical but cultural, ideological and political. If it is to have any impact, it must be self-consciously all of these.

He was so right! Today, we need to recognize Bruner’s truth and act on it, without flinching and without compromise.

Our young people, and our futures, depend on it.



Play, Neoteny & Convivial Learning


A number of years ago, I gave a talk entitled ‘The Joy of Learning’ to the Australian College of Educators in the impressive setting of Geelong College, a few miles south-west of Melbourne. In my presentation I spoke about Convivial Learning, an idea that I had derived from just a few short phrases offered by Ivan Illich in his book ‘Tools for Conviviality’. I am currently working on my own book in which I will  elaborate extensively on the bare-bones definition that I offered for Convivial Learning in Geelong.

Illich defined conviviality as:

…individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value….I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment.

That powerful notion of individual freedom realized in personal interdependence’ was the kernel that sparked my attempt to describe a kind of education that starts from respect for the autonomy of every learner but that simultaneously recognizes the ineluctable interdependence that defines our humanity. We are autonomous as learners, ultimately, and yet we are at our most creative when our autonomy is mediated by our intercourse with our fellow human beings. All of this chimes perfectly with my own philosophy of learning distilled into I Am Learner.

One component (amongst a number) that I am building into my discussion of conviviality in education is that of play. Many, of course, have written about play in relation to education, most commonly focused on early years education. Two writers and thinkers who have influenced me greatly with respect to this critical ingredient of our basic humanity, both of whom look at the nature and necessity of play in the round, far beyond the realm of education, are Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in the USA, and, here in Scotland, our own Pat Kane, musician, writer, activist, and author of a superb book, The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. It is a book that every educator should read and ponder.

I began that talk in Geelong by showing an excerpt from a TED talk by Dr Brown, in which he used an example from nature to demonstrate the power of play. The excerpt is worth watching.

In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, published in 2009, he writes:

Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?

To achieve the truly convivial in education, we have to permit and indeed encourage all learners (ALL learners, not just the youngest) to play. We must enable every learner to engage fully in the purest expressions of their humanity and their individuality by playing. An education that does not acknowledge the power of play is no education at all. Dr Brown introduced me to the concept of Neoteny, which is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. It is a term with some very specific meanings in developmental biology, especially around paedomorphism (a term I would not want our squalid tabloid newspapers to get hold of in case they send their ignorant vigilantes to beat up some evolutionary biologists). Brown  argues persuasively that is our species’ predilection towards neoteny that has allowed us to adapt to diverse environments across the world and to enhance our capacity for coexistence with our fellow humans throughout our history. It has:

…allowed us to come down out of the trees and live anywhere on the planet. We are designed by nature to an evolution to continue to play throughout life. Lifelong play is central to our continued well-being, adaptation and social cohesiveness. Neoteny has fostered civilizations, the arts, and music…

It does come with some drawbacks, though  – he quotes the psychiatrist Erik Erikson:

It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a lifelong residue of emotional immaturity in him.

A few years before Dr Brown wrote his book, Pat Kane positioned his concept of The Play Ethic in explicit opposition to the work ethic that has been seen as ‘the cornerstone of industrial modernity for over 250 years.’ In the early 19th century, Thomas Carlyle could write:

Labour is life…in idleness alone is there perpetual despair.

In these few words is distilled the very essence of the industrial revolution, the very ‘spirit of capitalism’ that Weber described in his great work on the Protestant Ethic. My five decades and more in education, from my very first days in primary school onwards, have taught me that the work ethic has long been, and I believe remains, the unfaltering backdrop to institutional education. Anyone doubting this only needs to look at the relentless focus on ‘impact’ in schooling – whether it’s at the thoughtful end of the spectrum, typified by the likes of Hattie’s Visible Learning, or at the Gradgrind end,  typified by government interventions the world over designed to force standards and targets and pointless testing down the throats of teachers and students.

But nurturing the playful in learning – creating opportunities for ludic learning – is central to any notions of conviviality in the sense of individual freedom realized in personal interdependence. And here – as Pat Kane emphasizes, we cannot simply define play as games or sport or just plain having fun. It is about so much more than any trivial or frivolous definition of play. Play enables us to bring together all the mental, physical, creative, artistic, joyful and meaningful characteristics of what it is that makes us human, and to apply our whole selves to how we live and work and, of course, learn. It is the kind of play that I see encapsulated, for instance, in the Maker Movement that is starting to take a hold across the world of education: makerspaces, where they are established according to the free and open and learner-directed philosophy at the heart of the Maker Movement, are basically letting learners play. They tinker, they experiment, they make (and make mistakes), they direct their own activity in creative intercourse with their peers, they get help when they need it, they ask for some teaching when it is needed (though not always from those with the formal designation of teacher), and they teach others around them. Makerspaces are just one of a host of wonderful, playful, learner-liberating ideas that are beginning to grow across the work-ethic-focused education systems of the world.

As Pat Kane wrote:

The play ethic, like the work ethic, is intended to be a kind of social mythology – a constellation of meanings, a set of values and sensibilities, an inclusive rhetoric – which can help us draw energy and purpose from the irreconcilable tensions of our dynamic age. If the more conservative and controlling leaders in politics and business could begin to at least acknowledge the playful ferment all around them – rather than raise their fiery cross against it – then it’s not inconceivable that reform could take place, with policies and strategies forged around a play-based rather than a work-based agenda.

Old-Scottish-ClassroomWhen I read that phrase ‘conservative and controlling leaders’ from my perspective as an educator, I look around the world of formal education and all I see is a solid phalanx of politicians and business people and other social ‘leaders’  who are undeniably conservative whatever their political affiliations. I find it hard to ascribe truly radical views on education really to any of our political, economic or social leaders today. Whether from Right, Left or Centre, whether socially conservative or liberal, whether Green or Climate-Change-Denier, from all across the ideological continuum, there are really very few if any in power who have ever had even a single truly radical thought about schooling, about education in general and about learning and teaching. I can take Pat Kane’s general point above about the work ethic being at the centre of our global polity and I can undoubtedly place it squarely in the laps of those who decide and manage education policy across most countries in the world, almost without exception.

Pat Kane is, of course, wholly correct to set work in opposition to play, a polarity that is so especially accurate in the context of education. It is our obsession with the work ethic that continues to thwart the potential of play in teaching and learning, an obsession that also has to be neutralized if we are to begin to nurture those truly convivial aspects of education that I will be setting out in my book.

However, it does interest me that Stuart Brown contends that:

The opposite of play is not work; it is depression.

That is a notion that I will keep very much in mind as I continue to consider and shape and scribble down all of my ideas on what convivial learning looks like. Play will be there at the heart of my thinking, and thinkers such as Dr Stuart Brown and Pat Kane, and a host of others, will help me pull together the many and disparate strands that define convivial learning.

More anon….

Teacher Professional Development in the UK: North and South

While geopolitically, England and Scotland appear to be on quite different trajectories after the Brexit referendum, at least we seem to be of one mind when it comes our respective approaches to teacher professional development.

The Department of Education in Whitehall today published a much-awaited document: “Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development“. This offers a detailed description of the standard that teachers south of the border are expected to meet with respect to their own professional learning, growth and development throughout their careers. The document begins with a clear statement of how important teachers are to national well-being:

As the most important profession for our nation’s future, teachers need considerable knowledge and skill, which need to be developed as their careers progress.

The paper sets out the key elements of the standard:

  1. Professional development should have a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes.
  2. Professional development should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise.
  3. Professional development should include collaboration and expert challenge.
  4. Professional development programmes should be sustained over time.
  5. Professional development must be prioritised by school leadership.

At the heart of the paper there is a clear focus on the concept of teacher self-reflection, on the need for every teacher to look continually at their own practice in relation to their impact on learners. So, for example, it states:

Professional development that aims to change teachers’ practice is most effective when it includes collaborative activities with a focus on the intended pupil outcomes. In particular, effective professional development:

  • builds-in peer support for problem solving;
  • includes focussed discussion about practice and supporting groups of pupils with similar needs;
  • challenges existing practice, by raising expectations and bringing in new perspectives; and,
  • includes support from someone in a coaching and/or mentoring role to provide modelling and challenge.

North of the border, GTC Scotland set out its guidance on this critical topic back in 2012, in The Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning. This defines the standard in terms of four elements:

  • GTCSPRDProfessional Actions
  • Professional Skills and Abilities
  • Professional Knowledge and Understanding
  • Professional Values and Personal Commitment

The paper lays out clearly and describes in some detail the main components of each of the above. Every teacher, once they have achieved the standard for full registration at the start of their careers, must continue to grow professionally. They should, it states:

…continue to develop their expertise and experience across all areas of their professional practice through appropriate and sustained career-long professional learning.

Like its English counterpart above, a similar concept of teacher self-reflection lies at the heart of the GTCS paper. So, for example, it asks teachers to:

  • develop skills of rigorous and critical self-evaluation, reflection and enquiry including how to investigate and evidence impact on learners and professional practice;
  • commit to on-going career-long professional learning, including postgraduate study as appropriate;
  • lead and contribute to the professional learning of all colleagues, including students and probationers.

Teachers in Scotland and in England have very clear respective standards to live by in their professional practice, and headteachers across the UK should be working each and every day to ensure that their teaching staff are given the time, the resources, and – most critically – the required professional trust and autonomy to enable them to continue to grow and meet these exacting standards.

The Guardian Takes Sugata Mitra to Task…


…..and gets it completely wrong!

Peter Wilby, whose Guardian writings on education I usually have some respect for, seems to fall heavily into the trap of believing that right can only be distinguished from wrong in education through academic research. On Sugata Mitra and his work (the Hole in the Wall Project and now his School in the Cloud centred on self-organised learning), Wilby feels that:

…his claims need to be tested by properly controlled experiments that allow for the galvanising effects temporarily created by any new idea…

He finishes his piece with this:

…Mitra seems to argue – it can be hard to tell whether he’s exaggerating for dramatic effect – that we should transform the whole basis of schooling. And to convince us of that, I fear, he needs far better evidence than he has or seems likely to get.

Wilby, I’m afraid, has got this somewhat arse about elbow. Mitra has carried out the work he carried out and he has come to his now well publicized conclusions, and has made his name and his reputation through that initial set of experiments and his subsequent work. Whether he is right or wrong is not for him to settle on behalf of sceptics such as Wilby and others; it is now up to the sceptics themselves to prove him wrong by whatever means they choose.

One thing I would caution though: they are unlikely to prove him wrong (or right, for that matter) through ‘traditional’ academic research. Why? Because as I have argued in this blog previously (Education: an ever-swirling vortex of ideas), education is simply not a science and is not therefore amenable to the application of the scientific method to research. Education is, fundamentally, a humanity. As I wrote:

It is a field of study and a domain of practice that can, and ought to, involve us in seeking insights from the broadest range of disciplines: philosophy, psychology, pedagogy (of course), sociology, the history of ideas, politics, social anthropology, cultural studies, media studies, and pretty much any other domain from which we can glean some understanding of the nature of what it means to be human.

Even the work of the sainted Piaget, mentioned by Wilby in the piece, has faced many criticisms over the years since he published his findings on the fixed stages of development (as he saw them) that all children go through. Researchers since have criticised, for example, the difficulties caused by the lack of precision in much of his terminology, the lack of evidence for his claims that the cognitive capacity of children at different stages of development are qualitatively different, the possibility of cultural specificity in the children that he observed in his experiments, and many others besides. The point is not that researchers since have proved Piaget right or wrong; it is that each succeeding piece of research has added to the information and data that we can employ to argue about the generality and the detail of his original findings. Educational researchers simply have to face up to the fact that they do not work with material – namely learners and teachers and pedagogy – that can be manipulated in any truly consistent or predictable ways to produce predictable (and replicable) outcomes.

Sugata Mitra, whether you question his findings or not, and whether or not you retain any doubts about the nature of the work that went into those findings, has certainly contributed, and continues to contribute, to that debate. His work is a provocative and contentious element of that swirling vortex of ideas that is education. It is not up to him to prove himself right or wrong – that is for others to attempt.

To me, education is an argument, and it will always be thus. Sugata Mitra’s work is, to say the least, an interesting and fascinating component of that argument.

Columba Leadership: inspiring South Africa’s leaders of tomorrow

In just a few weeks from now, in August, I have the great pleasure, and no little honour, of travelling to South Africa, a country that I have visited often, and one that I have great affection for. I have been invited by Columba Leadership to speak to their annual gathering of partners and sponsors in Johannesburg, and I am looking forward immensely to the triple pleasure of seeing South Africa again, of meeting some good friends there that I have not seen for a few years, and, most of all, of being able to meet and share thoughts and ideas with Rob Taylor and his great team at Columba.6-hexagons

Columba’s characteristically understated website is an unassuming gateway to an organization that is bringing hope to many young people across South Africa by giving them the personal tools and skills and knowledge that they need to be principled and effective leaders in their communities and in their country. With its origins in Columba 1400 in Scotland, Rob Taylor and his team have been working assiduously and successfully with schools across South Africa for a number of years now to give young people the self-belief to help them become truly effective leaders.

Their model of leadership is rich and multi-faceted, and eschews all of those reductive and crude notions of the domineering and high-handed leader that so many in businesses and public sector organizations seem to try their best constantly to live down to. rob-taylorInstead, the young people selected to undertake the programme of development, are introduced, through a range of high-quality experiences, to the six core values of leadership that Columba build their idea of leadership around, namely: awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service.

A great example of the work of Columba Leadership, and some insight into what it means for the young people involved,  can be seen in Manyananga High School in Mpumalanga, in the North-East of South Africa. The video below says so much more about the work of this wonderful organization than any words from me here.

I can’t wait to set foot on South African soil once again, and to see the work of Columba Leadership at first hand.

Jerome Bruner on Pedagogy


Pedagogical theory is not only technical but cultural, ideological and political. If it is to have any impact, it must be self-consciously all of these.

So wrote Jerome Bruner in his book, Relevance of Education. He died last weekend, on 5th June, aged 100, in the same city in which he was born: New York City.

His wise words should be recited daily by every teacher, every student teacher and every teacher educator, and ought to be emblazoned on the hearts of all those of us who have anything to do with education. Anyone who views teaching as purely a craft, a neutral and objective conglomeration of techniques and systems and methodologies, is just plain wrong.

The classroom (or any space, physical or virtual, where teaching and learning take place) is a space in which people’s lives can be enhanced or diminished, in which young people in particular can flourish or be crushed. With that truth in mind, every teacher who cherishes and upholds that honoured status of teacher knows the validity of Bruner’s words.