Don’t Bore Us. Get to the Chorus.

Written as part of the purpos/ed take 2 campaign of 2012.

Much of what goes on in classrooms is unbelievably dull.

Which is strange, because no one ever really planned it that way.

And it's also strange in the sense that it doesn't work. I mean, there's no point in being boring - because pretty much no-one listens. But that doesn’t stop our system grinding on, interminably. Filling children’s head with stuff that really doesn't matter, either to them or to us. And if you doubt the validity of that last thought then just cast your mind back to all the subjects that you gave up as a child, the subjects that you really didn't enjoy and were simply thrilled to leave behind. Now walk a mile in those shoes.

Much as we will hate to admit it, the evidence that children find school boring is pretty overwhelming

What is most odd about this whole classroom experience, is that we know what does work: catch their attention, keep their focus and - hey presto - learning happens. It's always worked that way.

In the early days it was lions that caught your attention. Well, either that or a lion caught you - but that tended to remove you from the gene pool, so your attention never had the chance to wander again. Whereas in 4B on a wet Wednesday afternoon your attention can wander where it damn well pleases at almost no risk to anyone but your teacher - and only then if OfStEd happen to be watching

Of course, faced with boredom, our pupils will work extraordinarily hard to keep themselves amused. There's a reason for that. Human beings don't cope with boredom terribly well. It actually shortens our lifespan.

Unfortunately, those in authority tend to label "keeping oneself amused" as "disruptive behaviour" - which is generally regarded as a "bad thing" which should be "dealt with".

But we shouldn't be dealing with the problem. We should be bypassing the problem. We should be constantly reminding ourselves that a child's entire sensory system is geared towards attention and movement and distractions and squirrels. Indeed, almost anything that might "catch the eye". Such distractions allow neurones to fire and neural pathway ways to grow.

It turns out that avoiding lions is the very essence of learning. We need to embrace that challenge. Gaming. Sport. Projects. Life. We need to embrace technology to join real learning to real problems. We need to embrace real-time learning and real-time data. We need to address the real class issue in our schools, which is the classroom.

In short, we need to stop boring and start building - building minds that are both interested and interesting.

About what, really doesn't matter.


"We were never feeling bored

'Cause we were never being boring

We had too much time to find for ourselves"

"Being Boring"


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Fail Better: Tough Luck - Tough Love - Cruel to be Kind

Fail Better

Written as part of the purpos/ed series and published in the TES in April 2011:

I think the purpose of education is to teach children how to fail.

To drive them to failure and then see what happens.

"If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sure sign that you’re not trying anything very innovative." - Woody Allen

We know that we're entering a new economic reality that is more challenging and less certain.

We know that Moore's Law and "digital Taylorism" present a credible threat to the employment prospects of our students.

And we know that students need to be more imaginative and more creative if they are to overcome these hurdles.

"It takes sixty-five thousand errors before you are qualified to make a rocket." - Werhner von Braun

We know that people who have it all just aren't happy.

We know that those with nothing to lose have everything to gain.

And we know that when you're behind in the race, and the odds are stacked against you, you dig deeper and you reach higher.

"Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." - Winston Churchill

We know that the tired, the poor, the huddled masses fight to breathe free.

We know that those with their backs to the wall, fight harder.

And yet. And yet.

We're too nice to children. We used not to be. Not to Tom Brown. Not to Oliver Twist.

Education has become progressively gentler - in a manner that has not always been helpful.

Children have moved from fear, to security, to dependency; one step too far...

Too dependent on adults; on teachers; on parents; on technology; on frameworks; on specifications...

So I think we need to find new ways for children to fail.

We need to step back; let go a little; be less helpful.

Of course, our students won't always like this approach. But I suspect that they'll learn a lot more.

And, with a bit of luck, they'll learn how to succeed.

"Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." - Samuel Becket


PS: See also: Fail faster - by Aza Raskin

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Why Schools don't need ICT

I have written an article in this month's ATL magazine that seems to be causing something of a stir.

You can read the full article here.

The closing paragraphs read as follows:

Our schools are now a desert swept with the winds of yesterday's technology; meanwhile our students can be found drinking from an oasis of smartphones, smart apps and smart interfaces. They have answers to questions we haven't even dared to ask. They outsmart us at every turn.

Teenagers upgrade their mobile phone every 12 months. Even the socially disadvantaged are one step ahead of their school's ICT. That's not a problem. That's a huge opportunity schools should grasp. It's an opportunity to save money and upgrade our thinking about ICT.

Even last year's smartphone will operate as a calculator. And a book reader. It will translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and can differentiate Sin(x). It can pinpoint both the Battle of Hastings and the Belt of Orion. It will act as a word processor, a piano and a spirit level. Not bad for a bit of kit that your school didn't purchase and doesn't maintain.

Schools don't need ICT. It's coming through our doors every day. We just need to adopt and adapt a little bit.

Unfortunately, you can't leave comments on the ATL pages.

But feel free to comment here. Or on Twitter - I'm @IanYorston.

You can follow much of the debate that was prompted by my article from this thoughtful response by The Angry Technician.

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Teams, Technocrats and Technophobes

We all want to use technology to its best advantage. We live in the 21st Century. We're technocrats. We practically invented the modern world. But there are people out there who are slowing us down. They're called technophobes. We need to do something.

1. Make them Care

Most technophobes have trouble relating to the inflated rhetoric of technocrats.

Technophobes are not won over by talk of multimedia or social networks. Technophobes want to identify genuine, measurable, advantages.

Technophobes don't want to be won over. They won't donate their time to learning our tools. We have to find them time - make it worth their while.

2. A Foreign Language

Most technocrats speak a language guaranteed to alienate the technophobes.

Technocrats use terms like "bandwidth" and "embedded tools".

Technocrats act as if everything from the past is bad; classrooms, books - that sort of stuff.

Technocrats seem to think that everything new and technology-rich is automatically good.

Technophobes view such language with great suspicion; they pride themselves on demanding serious, rigorous learning from students, steering clear of the latest educational innovations.

Technocrats rarely sympathize with technophobes or understand their issues. Technocrats have a different viewpoint. We are also far more tolerant of technical glitches and frustrations. We rarely understand technophobes or how they learn. We find it very difficult to help technophobes.

3. Make it a Team Game

Technophobes don't have time to "mess around." They do not enjoy surprises. They don't appreciate confusion. They don't like taking risks. They value their class time.

Technophobes need tools that plays to their strengths and support their teaching.

They want technology that works. First time. Every time. Technology that doesn't challenge their authority.

At heart they don't trust the technology. They see networks crashing and software stalling. If they are to throw themselves at the mercy of technology, they want someone at their side when everything goes wrong.

Actually, they don't want someone at their side. They want someone out in front. They don't want to walk into battle alone. They want to be part of a team.

And, as we all know, it's amazing what teams can do.


This post draws heavily on an article by Jamie McKenzie from 1999 at

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Thoughts on Exam Questions

Exam HallI was on the team that analysed UK GCSE Science questions from Summer 2008. It was a depressing experience - and our findings made for sorry stories in the media. In practice, the outcome should have surprised no-one; the Royal Society of Chemistry have been making warning noises for some time.

One of my colleagues on that team was Ken Zetie who is Head of Physics at St Paul's Boys School in London. He set one of the GCSE papers to his son, aged 8, with the inevitable discovery that, yes, even a child could do these exams.

He also reflected on the experience here.

One particular discovery we made was that a number of questions were accessible to candidates who had not even studied the subject. Other questions required little understanding - simply the ability to plug numbers into a formula.

Now consider that in some subjects, languages for example, candidates are allowed reference materials such as dictionaries.

Add a little bit of technology to that mix and I present you with a hierarchy of exam questions:

1. Can the question be done without the candidate having been to lessons at all ?

2. Can the question be done by simply rearranging information available from the exam paper itself (eg: plugging numbers into a given formula) ?

3. Can the question be done (in the time available) if the candidate has access to Wikipedia ?

4. Can the question be done (in the time available) if the candidate has access to WolframAlpha ? (If you haven't yet tried WolframAlpha then you really, really need to click on that link. Or this one).

5. Could you only do the question if you had a genuine understanding of the subject being examined ?

Wikipedia LogoWell, presumably ALL exam questions should be written to meet level 5 ?

Unfortunately, even a year on from our depressing experience, it seems the UK exam boards have yet to rise to the challenge. The latest "re-writes" are still regarded as too easy.

So there is still plenty to be done. And schools like my own will continue to use the International GCSEs in preference to the UK exams - an option that is finally being opened up to the UK state sector

But, looking to the future, what does this mean for the future of education in the face of Moore's Law and ever-improving "Knowledge Engines".

Time to think again.

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Rethinking the Classroom - Educating Hunters and Farmers

Words and ideas lifted from Seth Godin and Thom Hartmann.

Godin is the author of Tribes, which I can highly recommend.


10,000 years ago, civilization forked.

Farming was invented and the way people spent their time was changed forever.

Farming is a very different activity from hunting. Farmers spend time working and planning and worrying. They worry about the weather. They make smart choices about seeds and breeding.

Hunters, on the other hand, spend an awful lot of time just watching and waiting. And waiting and watching. With occasional moments of distraction. And brief periods of frenzied panic.

Some people are better at one activity than another. And then tend to approach life rather differently as a result. Farmers like meetings and plans. Hunters want to try stuff and see what happens.

Farmers want to avoid epic failure. Hunters want a high-stakes mission. Farmers like Facebook. Hunters like Google.

Traditional schooling doesn't really suit Hunters. A child who has innate hunting skills is easily distracted, because noticing small movements in the landscape is exactly what you'd need to do if you were hunting.

Scan and scan and scan and scan and POUNCE.

In school, you'll find that same distracted child can drop everything and focus like a laser - when it matters.

The "farmer", on the other hand, is particularly good at tilling the fields of endless homework problems, each one a bit like the other. Just don't ask him to change gears instantly.

Of course, forcing "hunters" to sit quietly in a school designed to teach farming doesn't make a lot of sense.

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Ouch: Virtual Learning Environments are Expensive and Ineffective

Wow. According to the BBC, Ofsted have produced a hard-hitting assessment on the costs (high) and benefits (err, very few apparently) of the VLEs that we are all supposed to be purchasing.

Some of the quotes:

  • The use of online materials to help students with their lessons has been "slow to take off".

  • In many schools and colleges VLEs are still on a "cottage industry" scale.

  • The benefits to learners are so far "not yet obvious".

  • "Despite expectations", dating back some 3 or 4 years, the arrival of these online support services for learners are "still in the early stages of development".

Here at Radley, we bypassed a formal VLE and went for a simple school-wide wiki - using CourseForum software. Much simpler. Surprisingly powerful. And it works.

BBC Education

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You get an ology, you're a scientist

Lots of students are doing public exams at the moment.

One of them (thanks James) sent me this:

From Randall Munroe's hugely entertaining xkcd - a site which not only offers "romance, sarcasm, maths and language", but also makes very clever use of img tags if you mouseover his cartoons.

All of which led me back to this tv ad from the late 1980s

The ad, created by agency J Walter Thompson, is priceless and was the watercooler moment of its time - making "you got an ology" a veritable catch phrase.

The ad also has a wonderful outro:

"It's the teachers who are wrong. You know, they can't mark. A lot of them can't see..."

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Education, Education, Education

The older I get, the more I'm convinced that Tony Blair got just one thing right and then utterly failed to stay focused - to whit Education, Education, Education.

It applies to Foreign Policy just as much as to Drugs, Unemployment, Social Disorder and Third World aid. The Fukuyama thesis wasn't just about Western Democracies - it was about delivering sufficient Education to get people as far as those Democratic assumptions.

Part of the framework of Europe's enduring peace has been the rise and rise of effective education.


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