Tag Archives: Further education

Positive approaches to re-sit delivery – interpersonal and intrapersonal negotiation

Sciolism (noun): superificial knowledge or show of learning.

In  my last post, I described the re-sit GCSE phenomenon, which seemed to resonate with people who teach it. I also made claim to some success over years of teaching it, which was asking for trouble. I’ve tried to reflect on some of the things I do and hope they may help others, though the more I drew on my thoughts, the less this seemed exclusive to re-sits. Therefore, I don’t claim that these approaches are in any way a sure thing (or even original).

I’ve persuaded the college where I teach that resits should be two classes of 90 minutes, rather than one 2 or 3 hour session. This has held for the last two years and appears to improve concentration and achievement in lessons. My argument was that little learning was taking place in concentrated classes. What I mean by this is…

Almost all resit students need grammar embedded into the course. This is too often overlooked in time-intensive courses, where we teach to the next controlled assessment. What is the point of a resit? To improve ability or to get a C? Certainly the former.

Writing improvements

With two 90-min sessions, one lesson focuses solely on writing ability and control, the other on curriculum. Grammar can be embedded in more ‘engaging’ (said it) ways than the syllabus. If the GCSE should be reformed for FE it must focus on mastery, rather than teach-to-the-test. Judith Hochman‘s ‘connectives’ sentence expansion activities is an effective method of developing written ability.  We have also practised a ‘slow-writing’ approach, with a set of prompts from lessons giving students a methodical process for adjusting writing style deliberately and considering what they are about to write in advance, i.e. ‘Use a subordinating conjunction in the next sentence to add more information’.

To focus on improvement and mastery, ‘slow-editing’ guidance is introduced after writing drills, to ensure students review their work. This may be simple, i.e. ‘count the number of sentences in each paragraph‘ (to improve checks on punctuating control), or more complex, ‘include decalarative statements‘, but is designed to support checking.


GCSE resits should revisit prior knowledge formulaically. Don’t assume students know nothing and show them their gains, as it’s advantageous as a building block and to revisit as more knowledge is accrued. I  invite students to organise their prior knowledge on poster paper or Padlet if we have computer access and return to it to add more in plenaries.

Even though they may have much (or little) prior knowledge, introduce something new in every session – ideally something that would never have been done in school.


Although this is very difficult to ascertain, I at least aim to address my 16-19 students as adults in a level-fashion, rather than get some weird group-speak repeating going on (like in Machaela schools). Communication is vital in FE. A resit teacher should speak with:

  • sensitivity
  • urgency
  • respect
  • a touch of pressure

And often very directly. Though not always motivational, it’s important to be blunt sometimes, to show where expectations have not been met and that the maturity with which your students are treated (in how you communicate to them) has been let down. This is hard to explain without sounding like either a military officer or a feeble teacher whose feelings are easily  hurt, but if the rapport is established then students will perform better – and they can hear from your tone where they may lose your respect, if not your confidence.


We’re often confronted by deep existential questions: ‘what’s the point of this?’ The answers can become a bit ‘ventriloquistic‘. Some stock responses:

  • ‘You’ll be ahead of the next person in competition for a job.’
  • ‘It’s important to know your language.’
  • ‘Don’t you find it enjoyable?’
  • ‘The Government says so.’
  • ‘Low literacy is a form of poverty.’
  • ‘You failed at school.’

I might not always use all of those, but think I have at some point where students have been persistently listless. I’ve also given out letters from previously jaded students who succeeded, but some resit students are so negative or have such low confidence in themselves that in truth, I’d advise avoiding that conversation altogether (or it will go on and on). Instead:

Challenge students to see the value in it at the end of May. Promise them if they keep an open-mind the course will be stimulating and transformative. Guarantee them that the more open they are to the lessons, the easier the year will be. Assure them that the easier the year will be, the better the odds of success and (quid pro quo) the more enjoyable it will be.

If students are really inquisitive about ‘the point‘, a microistic level can help, e.g.

Targets and goals.

These are crucial for students to see the bigger picture. I routinely reference dates on the calendar to improve self-preparation, goal-orientated behaviour and organisation.

‘Why are we doing this?’

‘If you understand the terms (knowledge), you can include them in your essay points. If you include them in your essays, your essay has more cohesion and is more informed. This is part of the mark scheme of what to include. Do so and you stand a better chance at qualifying.’

At some point, you can turn this round to ask the students the point in learning activities. If they’ve bought in, the plenary of a lesson is half-written for you.


Argyris talks of Double-loop learning, which is an excellent way to view the re-sitters experience and our obligation to help them. In this model, reflection is critical in order to improve decision-making. I ensure that I have 1-to-1s as quickly as I can to build rapport with students and try to stem any funny business from them. During these meetings, however short they are, I try to broach some analysis of why the student hasn’t passed before. There are countless acceptable explanations: dyslexia, poor teaching at school, lack of interest, poor confidence, long-term illness absences, lost coursework. I try to get students to regard these past experiences as ‘reasons’, rather than excuses. This allows us to establish a contract for improved success opportunities based on personalised targets (ILPs) and gives me a prompt for that student if they’re acting-up or falling-behind.

Rather than nag, we recall what has previously gone wrong and focus on correcting the behaviour by doing something different. If, for instance, the problem is continued attendance issues (and we all have those students who keep apologising and assuring you they’ll be fine), intervene early – the course is short. Ask them how they will remedy the absence with extra work outside lessons.

Put the responsibility for problems on the student. This is not always the case. Some resit students have incredible challenges and we are not always equipped with LSAs to support us. Bitesizing the curriculum is paramount, which is again linked to…

…Targets, because I aim to create a thread-like narrative throughout the course, treating specific and core ‘threshold knowledge’ aspects as key in certain lessons (i.e. the imperative aspects of a unit – for instance the prosodic features for the Spoken Language unit). Threshold knowledge act as knots to help students pull themselves towards those targeted controlled assessment dates. The thread is ‘double-looped’ and requires continual joining-up.

What becomes integral to lessons is a continual internal referencing – looking back and forwards to train the mind on reflection and targets, knowledge learned and the point of it. Using social learning technologies is helpful to self-organising, with a spare use of push-notifications assisting with…


Re-sit students can have very poor memories, studentship qualities (attitudes) and organisation skills. Twice weekly lessons can help with constant consolidation of knowledge (if attendance is secure), but also may improve an overall ‘horizon-scanning‘ approach, treating all targets as achievements towards goals. Currently, on the old spec, the CAs helpfully designate progress in per centages, so after each unit is rushed through (and they are), I over-do the accomplishment with congratulations and ‘what a relief…never again…’, before hoodwinking them into a new challenge: ‘Right. next unit.’  Higlighting where targets have been reached is a good negotiation strategy for sustained endeavour: ‘You’re 3/4 of the way there now. Just the exam left. You’ve done the hard part. Keep going. I can see daylight’ &etc.

This post is dragging on, like most of mine. Clearly to cut-corners and deal with attendance issues, students can be helped enormously with the right resources that can almost guarantee a C for an essay, no?

  • Quote-matching activities to language features
  • true or false questions to create personalised responses summarising opions about a text
  • a ‘sparkling vocabulary’ list
  • a template of suggested phrasing, and finally
  • a clear skeletal plan of an essay

Obviously this is sciolisitic; it’s far better that students are perpetually writing draft paragraphs with frequent intensive grammar drills and tasks for long-term improvement, but…well, we’re expected to cut-corners and get kids through a 2 year course in 32 weeks, so we cut corners pretty efficiently. However, I’ll be frank: if students miss by a few marks, give them another go at it – even if they are a pain in the arse all year and your marking is piled sky high. Indeed, I would go further and show the student exactly what to include to get the assessment up to a C. If they’re a pain in the arse, I want to give them every opportunity to never have to do English with me again. ‘Controlled’ assessment, I ask you! My arse. AQA, if you’re reading, this is FE. We do things by mastery.

Also, students will always do things half-heartedly. I train focus on the controlled assessment dates by saying in the build-up (with a wee touch of anger in my voice) that it’s down to them to be sure they’re ready. At the start of lessons I measure confidence of writing the assessment based out of 10. This is reviewed at the end of lessons to gauge rough improvements and remind them of their obligations.

I also check in with them: ‘What else do you need to cover. We have two more lessons. What do you want to know?’ Then we do it. And if they don’t say ‘owt, then they must be ready : )


We achieved about 50% in the last year of A-C English resits, not bad for an FE college as national average is reported at around 9%. I hope we improve every year and this year has already started well in terms of attendance, mainly due to improved buy-in from Vocational staff nagging about English and Maths in all sessions and a concerted emphasis of it at induction. This emphasis on the importance of literacy across college is really important, but it still doesn’t help that half the students who passed in school disappear at those times. A reformed FE qualification would see all students take some sort of class. I’ll write on proposals for this later.

Image Creative Commons courtesy: © Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons


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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 (Glogster.com), 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 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

Still in love with EU

*Caveat – while this post discusses Brexit, it is about education (eventually) and does some modest proposals, too.


Oh Brexit. The fallout continues in various shapes of dismay. I eavesdropped on an ESOL teacher in my staff room this week discussing hypothetical implications for his practice with dejection. Later we spoke about it and he revealed he’s not personally worried as he never considers it will come to pass because no politician wants to trigger Article 50. This is the remarkable thing about a community, once you’re enmeshed in one, it’s difficult to dismantle and withdraw from – even in one so divided.

I’ve heard other friends  quick to blame ‘ignorant’ Leave voters (“thick northeners” – presumably Gove, born in Edinburgh, counts among them) – a narrative that’s conveniently reinforced as ‘chavs’ are highlighted over their racism and Googling of ‘what is the EU’, while the media channels that licensed racism and ignorance throughout the campaign escape censure. This punching down of ‘ordinary’ people and Leave voters is the kind of dangerous ‘othering’ and stereotyping that causes more divisiveness and disefranchisement: the very things that UKIP used to attract disillusioned, traditional Labour voters, who bought into that whole racist rhetoric which demonised foreign workers.

Folk are social animals and always need something to cluster around, which is why UKIP became popular. Equally, we Remain voters cluster around the desperate petitions, hoping that the result won’t be upheld. We cluster around ideas and proudly remind everyone that this wasn’t our mess, because we’re of the 48% – another community. Another way a culture becomes divided – both by statistical and ideological definition.

I’ve been thinking of parallels between this ‘othering’ of Leave voters with FE. We are, in FE, the other sector, the overlooked and marginalised. Boris Johnson struggled to know us, describing us as a “secondary modern type thing”, and which forgettable ‘other’ was it in Government who apparently said to Vince Cable that no one would notice if FE was completely dissolved?

‘Othering’, as an image, is the person who walks past the homeless person without seeing them – perhaps not as ignorance but as complete unawareness that whatever it is even exists. Many people just don’t want to acknowledge that we have deep social problems, and that these are physically manifest among students in FE colleges as peripheral members of our culture. People like to blame the Brexit vote on a lack of education, which downplays our national education system hugely. ‘Brexit’ – that’s what disenfranchisement and a lack of representation gets you.

I believe that Brexit represents how we now need to re-position FE as less focused on a  vocational model and more as a Community model – one that celebrates and educates personal human virtues which are, after all, profesionally attractive, for who would want to employ a racist, except perhaps Nigel? Can we subscribe to better qualities, please? What properties does volunteerism, for example, have? Care, support, life stories, identities, participation. Any educational institution is a microcosm of society: let’s pronounce the values louder and ensure the conversation is made daily. Not British Values, as such, but community ones. Let’s reposition British values to show that globally different cultures have inherent community values that we can resonate. I think of the North American Potlatch or the Sikh Langar. Why don’t we share these to celebrate global, human values, instead of imprinting a set to a flag, which negates the qualities in lieu of patriotism and presumes to appropriate them as “ours” that the others – over there – don’t do?


European Community

Do community qualities translate to a model of education? In name, you have Garrison and Anderson’s Community of Inquiry – a framework of e-learning based on  the social, teacher and cognitive presences resident in strong online practice, but elsewhere there is little resemblance to a community. Indeed, from the 2000 conception of the CoI, it was not until Rientes and Rivers stated the importance of ’emotional presence’ in learning in a 2014 Learning Analytics report that this became recognsed as a tension of  a learner’s experience that should complement the model. We have to understand the affective, to be effective.

Lave and Wenger’s Community of Practice is closer, comprising joint enterprise, mutual engagement and shared repertoire as characteristic, while also validating the ‘peripheral participants’ as legitimate. Think Twitter micro-cultures (ukfechat) as a great example, but difficult to effectively reconstruct among FE learners without drilling down to fine-grained nuances of the qualities inherent in these and how they are operarationalised in design.

It’s very easy to say ‘collaborative’, but what does it look like and how does it benefit the learner?

Clusters of researchers have identified knowledge worker ‘roles’  – shown below from Reinhardt et al (2011) that may give us an idea of how ‘rotating responsibilities’ (i.e. delegated to different members in different sessions) improves holistic skills training when applied in learning activities framed around communities. It may be noted that many of these terms are ambiguous and even interchangeable, that they are what we are already doing in many regards anyway, but I would argue for a focus on the communicated channels that facilitate these actions as social and multi-voiced – distributed – rather than individual, especially in terms of assessment outcomes. FullSizeRender(1).jpg

We then move to a typology and things are starting to look a lot like the sort of ’21st century skills’ guff that I read about in the almost fictional McArthur report ‘Confronting the Challenges’ a few years ago.


This is very much focused on e-learning, as those crazy Europeans call it and in real-world terms, looks far more clerical than manual. I can’t, for example, see how an electrician student would make much sense of the Linker role above, but perhaps I need to be more imaginative. The actions can, for instance, be powerful in the curation of e-portfolios by students. The roles listed are not ideal, they’re narrowly defined and categorised. Yet it’s interesting to me how collaborative activities applied in an English syllabus could equally be categorised and labelled to give grouped work more credibility with shared repertoires, promoting the engagement that’s badly needed.

What I’d like to propose is that role-taking assumes a congregation to goals where responsibility, sharing, and co-operation are emphasised as drivers of method. We might then promote the recognition of the diversified qualities and values of separate members of our cultures as contributory to objects, rather than basing our model on inward and self-seeking individual competitiveness (or ‘Boris-ism’ as it’s now called) that would preclude inclusivity.



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Filed under Community education, EU perspectives on global representation, FE, Uncategorized

Mythology as professional and sector development

Nice TES FE article Dan. Measured, clear, well written. Some comments that have evolved into a full post:

 Myth 1: not quite clear on why this is represented as a choice between types. I can only speak for my subject, but English GCSE teaches subject knowledge and generic skills – certainly critical analysis, which you say can’t be ‘taught’. What do you mean by ‘taught’ here? If I take it as ‘engaging in sustained and repeated conversation drawing on knowledge to review texts’, much as we did in revision classes just last night, then is a form of teaching not supporting the activity – via questions, by reference back to supportive reference materials containing knowledge? Well, if not teaching, isn’t a learning of how to analyse occurring – especially the more often we have that conversation? Similarly, ‘creativity can’t be taught’. Really? Oh no, I think you use the word ‘instruction’ – well, possibly then. Different to teaching, instruction, isn’t it, since the latter is an imperative verb – an instruction as a form of command. Did George Martin teach the Beatles how to work a studio? Yes and no. He may have instructed them on what to do with a mixing desk, which they may have been able to repeat on some dubious solo albums later down the line (as knowledge). Did he bring a certain skill in his methods as part of the studio conversation – something far more difficult to observe and measure but comparable to inspiration? Certainly. Just why is ‘inspiration’ so often cited as vital to teaching in those ads on TV? Is an Art teacher just an instructor or do they inspire and enable creativity? I’d call the latter ‘teaching’: measurable, transferable, replicable, generalised – mythic – or not.

Myth 2: in English GCSE there are units – separate, it seems, but the overlaps between them are routinely made clear, so there is a constant double-loop of knowledge ‘acquired’ or ‘transmitted’ between units – and how it is applied. Not sure if this equates to ‘blocks’ as you see it here, but your point is definitely sensible and looking back and forth in the present seems a better way to synthesize objectives.

Myth 3: I’m curious what defines personalised learning here? Own pace? Choice of subject or modules? Personalised feedback? Not sure I get it, ‘personally’ speaking. Secondly, are you drawing evidence results from schools? I would say that that’s an uneven and uneasy comparison – after all, pupils undertaking 8- 10 subjects in schools, say, is very different to college students undertaking 3 subjects, where more personalisation can be afforded – and is arguably more necessary and required (Leese, 2010, Bingham and O’Hara, 2007). Indeed, don’t OFSTED approve of mutliple activities taking place in classrooms, rather than one steamrollered practice?

Myth 4: As above, ‘student control over learning’ is ambiguous: do we mean the curriculum content and outcome, or the methods? And as above, it most certainly requires a degree of maturity, which perhaps Hattie has not accounted for when looking at schools studies. I would argue that to change any current paradigm of ‘submission to transmission’ to one more self-determined and Heutagogical in nature (I concede that this itself is arguably a myth and ‘buzz term’) there may need to be more onus placed on student control over learning – obviously not on a dramatic holistic scale, but it is already happening (See FELTAG or the Futurelearn Blended Learning course, for great examples utilising technology). It doesn’t mean students are left in a void; in fact, it’s often virtually the opposite. The methods may be less standardised and more innovative, so may not have an evidence base – yet. It doesn’t make them myths.

You quote the ETF at the end of your article, “Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.” Lovely stuff.

Are we as professionals afforded some opportunity for innovation that allows that to happen – rather than subscribing to or being prescribed with what is tried and tested?

Yes, evidence informed practice, but within the syllabus and classrooms, intervention and agency helps to shape our professional identity, our own teaching autonomy and perhaps even the sector much more. That may certainly be better than FE trying to replicate effect sizes and methods from school contexts where the variables are far different.

Here’s a myth, but one I buy into: school-leaving FE students are at a threshold of adulthood (Salisbury, J., & Jephcote, M. (2008), whether university, apprenticeship or employment, and require a different form of teaching and learning than what operates in schools to make that transition more challenging and more easy (Kirkpatrick and Mulligan 2002; Lawrence (2005). Challenging, so that different educational experiences and expectations are grounded habitually and easier, so that the transition into those transcended ‘real-world’ domains (or university) has less abrasion (Askham, 2008). FE is the bridge and must look less and less like school-based institutional practice, otherwise (I propose) aspirations for those whom school has been an unpleasant journey will atrophy.

This is a much wider and more complex argument than I’ve summarised here, but we know that many FE students are disengaged, peripheral or at risk of becoming NEET. Many want to go beyond what the curriculum teaches them. In order to aspire to this as institutions and promote greater self-efficacy in students, I would argue that some self-determination is possible, negotiated as it is with a college department, but I don’t mean wholesale: just  more akin to coursework options. This can be enabled and fitted to curriculum objectives, so that, for example, a Horticulture or Motor Maintenance student is able to specialise more in an area of their greatest interest with stronger formative assessment and feedback throughout the process, rather than on the basis of summative assessment, which is often what this evidence approached research is based upon.

“To refer to some of these methods as myths may come as a surprise to some – but it shouldn’t. It is widely recognised that nothing is conclusive when it comes to education; something can work for everyone and everything can work for someone.” – Here, Here.


Askham, P. 2008. Context and identity: Exploring adult learners’ experiences of higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education 32, no. 1: 85–97.

Bingham, R. and M. O’Hara. 2007. Widening participation in early years degrees: ‘I realised I could, and would, do this – and I have!’. Journal of Further and Higher Education 31, no. 4: 311–21.

Kirkpatrick, A., and D. Mulligan. 2002. Cultures of learning: Critical reading in the social and applied  sciences. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 25, no. 2: 73–100.

Lawrence, J. 2005. Reconceptualising attrition and retention: Integrating theoretical, research and student perspectives. Studies in Learning, Evaluation and Development 2, no. 3: 16–33.

Leese, M. 2010. Bridging the gap: Supporting student transitions into higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education 34, no. 2: 239–51.

Salisbury, J., & Jephcote, M. (2008). Initial encounters of an FE kind. Research in Post‐Compulsory Education, 13(2), 149-162.

Unicorn Rainbow Puke by fumalcon is licensed under the Creative Commons – Attribution – Share Alike license.








Filed under education, FE, Learning technologies, Pedagogical practice, Uncategorized

Shrinking down and bitesizing

In support of essay writing for the re-sit GCSE, bite sizing content is a simplifying method of making things tangible to others. I am writing to advocate replication of form for writing, showing step by step how I hope to achieve more congitive discussion in students moving from whole class group to small, co-operative discussions to individual tasks. I use the context of the Spoken Language Study unit.

FE students of the GCSE re-sit appear to favour the ‘more brains are better than one’ approach of co-operative working. With analysis of text, we start with some situated cognition to create relevance of the significance of Prosody: highlighting real world contexts and reflecting on uses of those functions in individually conceivable and relevant contexts: job interviews, naturally; hanging out; talking to parents; talking to friends parents; talking to teachers; answering a police officer; being in court; working in a call centre, etc.  This allows some subjectivity and dramturgy, i.e. ‘how would you respond if….?’ There’s a lot of contextual validity for this unit, which helps make these relatable and to improve comprehension.

I stress the questions ‘how’ and ‘why’ to make things tangible. We are working on the spoken language unit, so:

How does Malala Yousafzai (or whomever) use spoken language features to make her speech impressive.

Why does she do those things?

I break the mark scheme down into a series of easier questions as sub-heading to respond to:

  • Who is the audience? How do we know?
  • Is the audience engaged? How do you know?
  • Is the speech impressive to you (or not)? Why?
  • How do you use similar speech patterns in different contexts?

We use a table for analysis, where students fill in notes as they watch videos and record the times of incidence. The notes, in combination with those answers, is halfway to compiling an essay.

So far, we’ve repeated this method over and over with videos linked to each vocation course: Gordon Ramsey training chefs, the Rafa Benitez rant compared to Kevin Keegans, make-up TV adverts and tutorials, etc. This gets them in the groove for the main event (Malala).

The downsizing method appears more effective to promote gradual independence. Nothing original here. It goes from whole class analysis and discussions, which FE students seem to find most palattable, to smaller group discussions, to individual analysis, repeated several times in short video-lead drills. At the moment, we literally repeat these methods over and over for reinforcement, with a lot of explaining that this method is designed to coerce students to work things through by themselves, ultimately. In the first and second instance, the teacher may complement the students’ notes with tips to connect to the marking criteria, on widening discussion, and on writing-up.

Through this spoken language unit, it’s been far easier to handle outbursts and behavioural cconflicts, by tuning attention of ‘volume, intonation, stress’ to the immediate moment, e.g “I noticed a lot of giggling when Billy answered the question with a monosyllabic response. Why is that?” (‘We feel awkward, like you’) and “Why have I hesitated for two minutes here?” (‘You’re waiting for us to be quiet.’).

Finally, using Strategic Communicative Actions (truth statements) helps scale up analytical data to justify responses, e.g.

‘True or false: Malala uses contractions in her speech to emphasise clarity of her words.’

NB: this last has not been tested yet; usually they are simpler, such as:

‘A policeman may talk slowly to show his control and authority. True or False?’ This is followed with the question ‘why do you say that?’ to stimulate discourse. Ideally, you arrange T/F questions to culminate in a more discursive answer, such as ‘It depends…’

That’s it. Working so far, I hope. I can see how this method can be transferable to online learning, but the initial group discussion stages are imperative to encourage discussion as first response and generate ideas. This would be difficult to establish at this level online as face-to-face is still a domain of assurance and allows more spontaneity in soccratic questioning responses to live ideas.





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‘The Container and the Contained’ – further probing of the reGCSE problem

Reading an intriguing paper by Hadfield and Atherton lead me to the work of psychoanalyst Wilfried Bion this week and a parallel to my own research on disengaged students use of online social networks to support communities of practice with FE re-sit students.

I’m writing for reflexive purposes, so might go all pop-pyschology here, but I’m seeking an overlap to the Continuum of Engagement that I’m devising.

Bion’s idea is explained as metaphor. For me, metaphors are wallpaper – unhelpful decorations that obscure the actual, leading us further from what we wish to show. Nevertheless, as tools of language they are vehicles of the abstract (to mix wallpapers).

Interpreting Bion’s concept of the Container and the Contained from Hadfield and Atherton, I now illustrate the relationship between teacher and student in the FE re-sit scenario, with three manifestations possible:

  1. Commensality: literally: eating and drinking at the same table. Things occur without tension “existing in parallel but not interacting” (8: 2011). Kind of like those students who, often at the outset of a course, sit there pretending you don’t exist as you impart objectives, then finally (sometimes after weeks) look at you as if you just walked through the wall at some point and seem to realise what’s going on around their ears (a curriculum, a classroom lesson). May say a lot about my teaching, but this does happen to me. Their expression is one I have never come across on this planet – something between the surprise of ‘there’s a small rodent in my waste basket‘ and the hostility of ‘are you talking to me?’ (Travis Bickle).
  2. Parasitism: rather than the biological meaning (of a virus) or the sociological implication (of the royal family), this actually means that “one element destroys the other” (Ibid). Now, my college might be in a fairly rough area, but this may be over-brewing the salad of the wallpaper metaphor, here. The authors do clarify that this scenario is interchangeable: the container (teacher) can destroy the contained (student) or vice-versa. Preferable as the first one is in such an event, no one wants to see either situation occur. We might less dramatically consider this as the teacher who leaves the profession due to stress or (significantly given the context of this FE problem of students having to re-sit English and Maths when they innocently signed up for Plumbing) disengagement altogether from the institution – and requisite consequences all round. The final possibility is:
  3. Symbiosis: Described as “aspirational” by the [seemingly disappointed] authors, who cite Bion: “In the symbiotic relationship, there is a confrontation and the result is growth-producing though that growth may not be discerned without some difficulty.” This is more like it: blood, sweat and tears, affective resilience, character-building, transformation, learning even.

The problem is that the contained become disaffected far too easily, as a sense of failure and its characteristic properties of anxiety and apathy are endemic in our re-sit system.

As ever, the recommendation is to assuage that anxiety, encourage mistakes even. This should be simple, given that every educational institution operates in systems so attuned to failure that it is encultured from management to the canteen lady’s watery tea, until it’s entire weight crushes the confidence from the inert student, no?

Failure has become institutionalised, and yet success is always shown up as best practice. No pressure, though!

And no wonder there is such divergence by students from the compulsory re-sit ‘choices’ – while we rub our crows feet about the NEETs on our streets.

There has to be a point to this post.Well, my point is  – again – that the re-sit dangerously risks complete disengagement from college, at large. Sure, the stats show we need literacy improvement, but it doesn’t have to look anything like a GCSE, Lennie.

The authors recommend the following sensible alternatives – many of which may be qualified as method and alleviate tensions of repeated failure that the current compulsory mechanism of the re-GCSE problem represents:

  • Enquiry learning
  • Action Learning (sets)
  • Problem-based learning
  • Negotiated contract based study

I would add Project-based learning and digital curation (portfolios, examples of work or self-tracking procedures that reflect more authentic based process and product). These may be realised through much non-examination based self-evaluation, to inculcate reflection on how we learn over what we learnt. There may also be more collaborative work and collaborative assessment, aligned to lifelong learning, procedural knowledge – or knowledge working –  and workplace models. (See, Institute for the Future at the University of Phoenix (IFTF, 2011) or the Assessment & Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATCS21S) at the University of Melbourne, which advocates ‘learning in digital networks’ for examples of how Mode 2 Knowledge is summarised in situ).

There is far more ownership and potential alignment with vocational courses within these approaches. The recent Blended Learning MOOC from Learning Futures showed examples of how technologies can enable and facilitate these work-based practices and result in tangible products. All of which require literacy (and most likely Maths in some form), which can be simultaneously run in drilled grammar workshops. At FE and in vocational levels, these are surely better fits than Steinbeck’s beautiful human condition in the Great Depression, again.


Hadfield P and Atherton J (2008) “Beyond compliance: accountability assessment and anxiety, and curricular structures to help students engage with troublesome knowledge” Paper presented at 16th Improving Student Learning; through the curriculum conference, University of Durham
UK, 1-3 September 2008



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Conversation is not Dead – using threads for discourse

This may go against the grain of those versed in dialogues and rhetoric based on classical systems, but debating – as far as I can see it – is dependent on the ability of people to frame contributions synchronously. A huge affordance of Technologies for Learning is the asynchonous: being able to self-edit and convey exactly what we want to communicate carefully. This is helpful, since it saves time and tangents in discourse, where others deviate by leaping on mistakes made by some in articulating points succinctly.

Discussion threads, such as wall posts, around VLEs or MOOCS or on Twitter, tend to be asynchonous, people can return to them and they are continuous. This helps let people in who cannot think on their feet and who may be shy to contribute in oral discussions. Threads can have impact on inclusive practice via mobile dialogue sustained over time in continuous dialogues through social media. A theoretical formula for online discussion threads aimed towards learning goals follows that arises originally from Habermas Theory of Commuicative Actions (1981), which categorised communciation types in how we negotiate the social world.

Warren and Wakefield‘s Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions builds on Habermas’ original premises:

  • Normative actions – best understood as ‘norms’ or regulated behaviours, conduct, or what a teacher outlines for correct procedure and expectation, i.e. ‘no swearing in the thread, keep contributions focused and/or responsive to others comments, challenge but justify providing further information where possible, etc.’. A contract of obligation and agreement is established; though fairly standard, if negotiated with students, this can have empowering and equalising functions.
  • Strategic actions – directions of what to do phrased as imperatives (i.e. ‘submit proposal by Friday’) from teacher to student group. According to Warren and Wakefield, they are framed with two resulting options: Accept/Reject. These actions reinforce the authority of the instructor in a sense, since if the imperative is accepted, then the student recognises it as ‘useful’ to their objects. In my analysis of social networks for learning, these are the primary responsibilities of a teacher, but more advanced students can support the context, activity and peers by issuing clarification, reminder notifications, or tips to others on how best to be organised or complete work.
  • Constative actions – this is where dialogue forms into discussion threads, with members posting ‘claims to truth’ which can lead to rejection and counter-claims, aimed at realising the negotiation and constructive critique of theoretical understanding between agents in challenging validity and providing evidence or further discourse. An instructor should have a discrete presence, acting as mediator as required and helping to summarise or seek clarification; this is probably served best where an instructor begins by posing truth claims, i.e. ‘Romeo and Juliet are responsible for all the subsequent violence in the play’.
  • Dramaturgical communicative actions – individualised expressions of what Habermas labelled Lifeworld: the internal realities of member agents. In Warren and Stein’s (2008) view, these may take shape as creative materials arising reflectively from the dialogue, framed around subjective experience but integrating and applying what has been discussed into multimodal literacies (posters, poems, art works). We may possibly see these as User Generated Content in other formats and prgrammes, or as assessable objects arising from Activity.

Much of this is based on classroom practice and the actions appear limited. I would add to this by recommending a Problem-based real world communicative actions approach, particularly in FE, vocational or HE, so scenarios become the context for discussion, i.e. for teacher training ‘the use of social media enables greater differentiation with summative assessment of programmes of study’ as a truth claim, but accompanied by a list of profiles of learners with tangible difficulties, such as students with dyslexia, second-language learners, students wishing to personalise assignments, those who have difficulty with attendance, etc.

Further, inclusivity to this could be enhanced through applying the Thinking Circles restorative practices, particularly in early stages with the promotion of all members to make a formal greeting, response , contribution or by acknowledging the presence of all members, in line with the first stage of Gilly Salmon‘s model of e-learning, so that discussions don’t become galleries of disrespect, like the House of Commons (based very much on the Oxbridge models of ‘He who scoffs loudest to the shrillest jeers’). This can enable curation of discussions by members themselves, rather than the teacher, and encourage the confidence of lurkers or ‘legitimate peripheral participants‘ who, in an oral classroom discursive context, may become frozen as spectators to others dominance.

Wakefield and Warren – Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions: Social Media as Educational Tool, from Using Social Media Effectively in the Classroom, 2013, by Kay Kyeong-ju Seo (Routledge).





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Filed under Communities of Practice, Learning technologies, Mobile Learning, Philosophy, Uncategorized