Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Changing the game

Eighteen months ago my device of choice was the iPad. It was a running joke amongst some of my colleagues that mine never left my side. I was scornful of smart phones for the simple reason that, whilst they were great for doing things such as receiving email, they were hopeless when it came to sending it - a fault that the larger keyboard of the iPad helps to overcome. Consequently I took my iPad everywhere: It enabled me to reply to messages within minutes of receiving them; the calendar helped me keep track of meeting and appointments; it enabled me to carry (nearly) all of my textbooks around with me, along with various useful apps; it also gave me a means of sharing and editing documents on the go. I had started to find it indispensable.

The thing that has changed this, at least in part, is the iPhone 4s. Apple have referred to Siri as being a "Game changer" and I am inclined to agree - but not in the way most people think. In my opinion the "Personal Assistant" part of it is largely a gimmick - the really useful part is the voice recognition that is built into all apps using the standard keyboard. Of course voice recognition is nothing new - not even on smart phones - but it is the close integration here that makes the difference. On laptops voice recognition has gone out of favour in recent years largely due to the fact that, even at 98% accuracy, the time taken to correct mistakes makes it inconvenient compared to a traditional keyboard. But on a smart phone, with the inherent limitations of any keyboard small enough to fit on such a device, voice recognition suddenly makes document creation a reality (well, in a quiet environment it does). Sure, there are still mistakes that require correction (proof reading is essential if you are to avoid some of the embarrassing errors I've almost made!) but the time taken to correct them is small compared to how long it would take to type out the message on the phone's keyboard.

All of which brings me to an important point: ICT is currently changing extremely fast - both in terms of what we use it for and the way in which we use it to do the things we want. So why do ICT lessons in most school still focus on software packages which could very well be obsolete by the time our current pupils leave school? In my experience traditional ICT lessons are very uninspiring - the pupils who want to know already know and the ones that don't couldn't really care. Wouldn't it be better to use ICT lessons to discuss matters such as how ICT is shaping the world, its likely future and the dangers associated with ICT in a social context? Pupils can pick up all the other skills, such as spreadsheets and word processing, as and when they need them, such as when they need to start analysing data and plotting graphs in science, or to write up a laboratory report.

By the way, this Blog was dictated using Siri. (And only four mistakes - unless you happen to spot some I missed!)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The death of experiments?

When I set up my website,, it was not intended to replace experimentation in the classroom but merely to present a means of sharing good practise with colleagues in other schools. Shortly after posting my first videos, however, I stumbled across something potentially very interesting: When, on an occasion, an experiment failed to work as I had intended I turned to one of my video clips. To my surprise my pupils seemed more engaged in the video then they had been in the original experiment, even though the video was one of me performing the very same experiment in the very classroom we were in.

Now I have absolutely no intention of ever abandoning experiments, nor do I suggest that other people do the same, but this experience does suggest something very revealing: In this media obsessed age do pupils respond better to videos of experiments than to experiments performed live before they're very eyes? Perhaps it's worth giving this a little thought.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Better the devil you don't

During the past couple of years I have observed teachers delivering a variety of lessons. Surprisingly, perhaps, most of these lessons have been in subjects very different to Physics.

The idea of a non-specialist teacher observing a lesson and, furthermore, providing feedback may seem a little strange if not, even, of little benefit. My experiences, however, over the past couple of years have transformed my own opinion of this.

Let's face it, it doesn't take an expert to recognise an outstanding teacher - or, for that matter, a failing one. But can a non-specialist actually provide meaningful feedback in a subject very different to their own? Well I would argue that not only can they do so, but they might be able to offer better quality feedback than a colleague from the same department. The problem with colleagues is that they often come along with their own preconceptions about how certain topics should be taught and their own expertise in a subject can, sometimes, also blind them to the problems that the pupils may face during lessons. A non-specialist, on the other hand, may be better able to empathise with the experience of pupils and, coming without the preconceptions of the experts, may be able to make novel suggestions that wouldn't occur to other teachers.

This approach has worked very well for me over the past few years - so much so that nowadays I readily welcome non-physicists into my own lessons and, furthermore, often find their advice and feedback more helpful than that of my closest colleagues.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Why I like being lazy

About a year ago one of my colleagues told me I was working too hard. I thanked him for what I thought was a compliment upon my ability to get things done. However, he went on to explain that by doing too much for other people they were actually doing less themselves and that in doing less they were actually learning less.

The notion that by doing less you can get pupils to do more is one that is explained in Jim Smith's "The Lazy Teacher's Handbook" - it's well worth a read. All too often experienced teachers make the mistake of saying too much and providing too much guidance to pupils. Why not try doing to opposite: Shut up and back off - it has become a favourite piece of guidance that I now pass on to others. You might be surprised by how much your pupils achieve.