Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Problem with Re-sits (and liver)

When I was a kid certain things were not to my liking: liver, for one. Good god. That lasts to this day. It was usually dished up with onions under some dubious gravy, to disguise the grey organ of some unknown and unfortunate creature that once opened revealed a ventricle or five. Far too cultured a taste for my palette. Many times I’d get the ‘sit-at-the-table-’til-it’s-gone’ treatment, but I could play that game and I’d sit for hours doodling games and stories in my imagination in a battle of will against my poor Mum. Sometimes she’d return and find the plate clean. How my old spaniel Sheba ate well back then.

Other things became staple in adult life: brocolli, wholegrain bread, tofu. We develop culinary tastes, but not always.

I’ve been teaching this resit English for several years now, before it became policy. I’ve got quite good at the corner-cutting needed for the time-intensive course and having based my PhD research with the resit demographic in FE, I have some insight into students’ behaviours, attitudes and challenges. I am fairly effective at what I do and our college results far exceed the poor statistical success nationally in FE to reach the golden C of a pass. I’ll follow this post with others highlighting strategies and approaches, but this post is designed to describe the situations and challenges and call for a rethink.

Many FE teachers around the country report the same issues: attendance, resistance, a ‘turn-up’ attitude that doesn’t translate to actually being productive, low confidence and self-belief. Those last are paramount to improving both mindsets and behaviour and can see increased engagement, but it’s not easy. Sometimes even making a breakthrough and establishing a rapport with a school-leaving student is lost in subsequent lessons when attendance again diminishes.

And it’s not just resistant attitudes by capable students that makes it challenging; students with low-literacy levels, who may overcome the thresholds of antipathy outlined, but who are still unable to write a compound sentence clearly given the limited time to properly develop. It’s heart-breaking to observe the ‘types’ who are bright-eyed and polite, but whose self-esteem is shot through from years of failed schooling. Many have already been stigmatised and many just go through the motions.We risk compounding failure.

I suppose I’m describing typical experiences, not just associated with resits. The challenge to FE and its staff is clear: the headlines of low success in resits does little for the image of a sector already tarnished and chronically underfunded.

The damage of consolidating failure with bad practice is potentially disastrous to students. I would like to see a research project that tracks reasons for leaving FE, as I suspect the resit may contribute to an inability to retain students on vocational courses.

Sure, this is second-guessing things, but FE students are exceptional because they commonly have realities that school students don’t have: jobs, children, being carers to others, from low-income families and deprived areas: students at an age and significant crossroads in their lives. Migrant students. Homeless students. Adults in groups with 16 year olds. Students who work at the college. Students with emotional difficulties. Home-taught students. High-ability students. All clustered together – and we get to brand them all with a shiny General Certificate of Secondary Education in Level 2 literacy.

Colleges are supportive and inclusive environments – beacons of opportunity in socially deprived areas.  I bet every college has those few characters in circular motion who seem to be there for years.  Is it because they keep failing a year, keep coming back, are on “the wrong course” again, is it because the world outside is devoid of opportunities, or because they have nowhere else to go.

‘Reciting Donne will help’, some crony says, who knows nothing about struggle.

But they cannot read or see the point. They are in a deep-seated existental crisis.

‘They’ll have to learn to like liver. I ate it three times a day at Harrow.’

Despite best intentions, this menu doesn’t help where they are in the present moment. I’m not decrying literacy development. It’s clearly necessary and while I love literature, it’s only one aspect of how to improve standards. Literacy is everything, so why present it as a GCSE? To a selective few who happened to ‘fail’ it at school (for whatever reason)?

A familiar refrain in college corridors: “I’ve got to go to English/Maths.” Music to your ears, despite the compulsive modal verb, because – yes, they’re going to attend! While one goes off to the chippy or to smoke in the car park, the other one turns up, like a somnambulist, refusing to take off his coat or communicate.

Get them in, close the door, pick up from last week, except…you have half a dozen new students who have swerved the course since September. In February. You have 6-7 students with high levels of learning difficulties and no LSA funding because funding cuts means no money for vital support. You have students with anxiety who can’t speak publically. You have students who can’t afford a pen. You have students who plagiarise and believe it’s their work; students with anger management issues; students with authority issues, framed as teachers, because schooling humiliated them. You have students who are passionate and practical, innovative and creative and who excel in workshops, but who loathe the written word and classrooms and who refuse to lift a finger. You have three students determined to pass. You have one who is realistically capable. You have 13 weeks until the exam and your agency staff teacher just quit and your colleague is an NQT delivering one of the hardest courses going to students on the periphery of being NEET.

We must do everything we can to retain our students, because FE is cohesive to communities. While it may sound dramatic, the GCSE resit may detrimentally impact on that if students leave us because of it. It is an ineffective method of educational development where conventional contexts have failed.

Hattie shows the negation to success of retention (holding back a student for a year) – and not only success, but the long-term damage to self-esteem. While FE re-sitting is different to holding students back a year, I would claim a correlation is plausible. I am not suggesting for a second that we disregard students numeracy and literacy skills, but the re-sit policy needs to be reviewed – with empathy in mind. A dignified approach needs to be presented, for staff and students, in order that our colleges remain cherished places – not least for those scarred by schooling.

How about a three year literacy course for ALL FE students, so we don’t have the divisive turn in the corridor that reinforces ‘English’ with negativity? How about a personalised course, in shorter lesson units, which see grammatical instruction support credit-attained project-based learning approaches that can be accomplised in mutlimodal forms throughout a year and presented as portfolio? How about more freedom from timetables, so this doesn’t impact negatively on vocational courses? How about assessment not preciated on examination, but as formative and mastery (in keeping with proper literacy development and the mastery approaches of vocational training). How about aligning content less to the pallete of those who know, but give a wider choice of menu? How about we stop using words like ‘got to’, which is pejorative and demeaning.

‘I’m sorry Mrs Cameron, but Michael has not been attending his vocational classes. In order to continue doing Latin he has to complete Plumbing Level 2.’

‘But Michael doesn’t like lasagne, he only eats liver.’

Poor Michael.

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Filed under FE, vocational education

The problem with curating

There was some kerfuffle this year over the issue of students designing posters. Students in a short case study I wrote on blended learning participated at a stage of the case study with multimodal poster design (, incorporating research data, classroom annotated notes, videos, images and frameworks of syllabus knowledge.

The activity ticked the ed-tech boxes: collaborative, active, creative – students were mobile: out of the classroom compiling data, returning to the PC workshop to put it together with an enthusiasm that was uncharacteristic of that group (who were resitting English GCSE students).  The tasks were authentic, as students made observational studies of language in ‘real world’ contexts, conducted Vox Pop interviews and surveys and posted the results on to ever-growing posters. At some point, a pause in this fervour was required where enough content was accumulated. Perhaps it came too late as the students surveyed their work with confusion.

Curating – a  buzzword born of the culture and transposed to the classroom – is fashionable and fits with ideas of educational technologies, whence a central inquiry (as in Sutra’s – misguided- SOLE theory) has a plethora of sources cloistered to it from distributed hubs. Unfortunately, when the fun stops and essays – threads of thought structured into balanced perspectives, summaries and conclusions – begin, synthesis of so much disseminated knowledge becomes complex and students can easily revert to complancency.

This is the problem with, say, Padlet, as I see it. Students happily suspend details in documents of pretty colours and fonts.So much copied text, so many links, random photos and screenshots – but …so what?

The pixel becomes a postage stamp, the stamp becomes a poster, the poster becomes a quilt; as the whole grows, so the fine-grained nuanced detail simultaneously shrinks.

Revisiting such documents reminds me of a drunken night in China when I was 22. Staying at a hostel, myself and some other travelers were invited by the owner (via a bottle of scotch and several cans of paints) to create a mural on his cafe wall. Earnestly and diligently we obliged, becoming fevered in our endeavour, thinking ourselves like Boticelli creating a timeless fresco, painting late into the night before retiring to bed. In the morning… woah, the results were …like regurgitated whisky graffitied in technicolour on a subway wall. I can still recall the owners crestfallen face as he walked in, before he saw the funny side. Then invited us to leave.

Image result for botticelli fresco creative commons

Yet I admire the watching the attention to detail and energy which students have spent in constructing posters and padlets, but there is often little purpose in process and content becomes extraneous. It’s difficult sometimes to still such enthusiasm. I’ve learned the hard way that cognitive dissonance is easily embedded in such content-heavy activities; students quickly become disorientated when trying to make sense of what has simply become a critical mass of information. This disorientation is (partly) what I call Social Media Fatigue, which has problematic consequences on self-esteem and sustained effort.

This is not to say there’s no point in curation activities. Representations of webs of information does not necessarily enable a schema, but can draw attention to salient detail where highlighted – selective curating. Mayer has written extensively of the cognitive impact of multimedia on memory, but a problem is Mayer takes a view of the learner as passive receptacle to multimedia information being presented to them as inducted. Mayer also frames his research entirely on long-term memory over other paradigms. Would the architecture involved in the active process of constructed content (by students) produce different results, especially where guided with proper signalling principles as instructed in a staged, rather than ‘throw-everything-at-the-wall’, process? Some recommendations for curating follow.


Recommendations that follow the bit before

  • Curation is a method of archiving, but need to come with packaging instructions – as much for the signposting help of visitors as for those revisiting the collection at a later date and needing organisational pointers. A focused headline of what content is to be about will train the student’s attention of what to include.
  • This might include ‘think-aloud’ activity accompanying students curation: e.g.students recording voice-overs, explaining what they are posting and why as they post the content. Audio recording can be done with Padlet or Explain Everywhere, but is too often an underused feature. “I’m posting this link as it includes a helpful example of how to apply the prosodics framework in other examples of analysis. I can use this in my own essay” and so on.
  • Co-curation is another approach, where the teacher either posts first or guides what they want to see. This reduces redundant material, resulting in a specific structured approach, which reflects the desired ordering and organisation of content. For example, if the canvas is destined to support an essay, it may reflect a mapping of ideas, with systematic directions. “Open a dialogue box and show which quotes to include in paragraph 1 as Steinbeck characterising Lennie. Accompany with matching depictions of Lennie from stills of the film to illustrate your quote. Now open dialogue boxes containing alternative quotes representing Lennie.”
  • A poster that becomes a mindmap of curated knowledge, research and ideas can be reordered by students into an essay structure or presentation, like one of those old-fashioned toy puzzles. In Padlet, structure can be reorganised easily through slide manouevring. Making it look more like the finished article of a staid-old essay can help improve selection of content for the final product and mastery of editing.

Image result for slide puzzle game creative commons image

  • Size is important, so students vote-up what they perceive as the more important content and reflect this in larger boxes, or by use of colours to highlight significance. However, use of space and continguity on the curation canvas is highly important for navigation, so care must be exercised that the visual organisation is not disorientating where different sizes and colours are used. Arrows and/or numbering linking content should also help with ordering.
  • Scale-back and edit: revisit the padlet or poster and be judicious of what is extraneous, what can be treated to the magic bin symbol. This can result in a healthy debate of ownership of purposeful over pointless content.
  • Navigating rich textual information is not straightforward, so summaries of highlighted information (while superficial to undertones) are helpful for curated content, with links to further information provided that explain (in audio recordings) what can be found and used in those sources.
  • For long-term memory fanatics, testing of what was embedded as content into the poster or padlet is a feasible means of reinforcement, sort of like those old games where you put objects on a table and remove one and test observation and recall, but digital. As a starter: “Let’s recall what we have on our padlet so far.” Again, it would be worthwhile focusing students’ attention to ‘why’ certain content was on the poster – what is the link to the central question?
  • Finally, one of the affordances of such technologies as Padlet is it’s collaborative functioning, so named labels of curators contributions will enable some analytics of who did what. I tend to think smaller groups help, rather than whole class creations which can be messier.

I think there is something in this post of overcoming other aspects of Social Media Fatigue – that of the ‘copy-and-paste’ approaches that students take, which sees a lack of interaction with ideas and knowledge where ‘content’ is separated from process (both practical and internalised definitions of the word). Better understanding of how students use and respond to content is the key to successful learning (and teaching), rather than simply churning information over like topsoil. Clearly, there are more undertones to this, involving questioning and rich discussion. This post hasn’t sought to address that, which requires a more complex dialogue.

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Filed under Curating, education, English re-sit, FE, Learning technologies, Padlet, Uncategorized