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"


created at
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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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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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Independent Schools Conference

316534237_0af30c7be1_m.jpgI'm chairing a session tomorrow at the Independent Schools Annual Conference. We're looking at the threats and opportunities presented by Social Networks within a schools' context - so primarily YouTube, MySpace, Bebo and Facebook.

It should be a good session: we have Dr Zoe Hilton and Emily Knee, both from the NSPCC - who are experts in child-protection issues.

And then we have Antony Mayfield from iCrossing, who is a specialist in the interactions of People and Brands through the medium of Social Networks.

I'm guessing we'll be faced by a bunch of Heads who think that Social Networks are just a threat, pure and simple - but I'm hoping that I'll be wrong...

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Learn Mandarin

Historically the British have always mastered communication with johnny foreigner by simply using English - but speaking a little slower and a little louder.

I'm not sure that will work with the new Chinese who now outnumber us by approximately 25 to one.

In just five years, the number of non-Chinese people learning Mandarin Chinese has soared to 30 million. What is fuelling this expansion, and will it change the status of English as a global language?

Shanghai-born lawyer Kailan Shu Lucas of Chinese Learning Centre organises lessons in Mandarin, the main Chinese language, for pupils in London - and she is very busy.

She now co-ordinates lessons for 12 London schools. She believes that in most cases, having their children study the language is a career calculation made by the parents.

"Parents nowadays think that in 10-20 years' time, when their children are in adulthood, China will be even bigger - and so learning Chinese will be a very helpful tool," she told BBC World Service's Analysis programme. "This will be a very useful, important language to learn."

[Most of those] parents are from the finance industry where China is "a big thing." "That influences the parents' thoughts," Kailan added. "They want their children to learn Chinese and be more versatile in terms of job prospects in the future."

The hope, presumably, is that if you can't beat them - you can at least join them.

You can make a start to learning Chinese here, with the BBC.

Link: BBC World.

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Sentient Developments: Must know terms for today's intelligentsia

I fell upon this quote from Carl Sagan whilst browsing Sentient Developments:

"The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps."

Which particularly struck me as I had only just finished listening to the latest podcast from the UK thinktank Demos.

Over at Demos (who are also in MySpace now), Hannah Green and Celia Hannon have been working on a project funded by the National College for School Leadership called Their Space: Education for a Digital Generation.

Paul Miller has been involved:

I helped out a bit with the research for the project and it’s been fascinating to work on. Hannah and Celia have done a brilliant job at bringing it all together and writing what I think is one of the best Demos reports for quite a while.

The piece basically takes apart the myth of ‘digital danger’ for teens. It suggests that schools in particular should have a lot more faith in kids ability to navigate the online world and should rearrange the way that IT is taught to put the kids in charge. The findings (which are all about kids in the UK) mesh neatly with things we’d learned about the US from danah boyd’s work.

The report caught my eye because the findings almost exactly mirror the talk I've been giving to Independent school audiences up and down the country for the last two years.

As ever, so much of the issue is encapsulated by Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Meanwhile - over at Sentient Developments

At the dawn of European humanism, Florentines believed that reading Dante while ignoring science was ridiculous. Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo both recognized the great importance of understanding science, technology and engineering.

Despite these trail-blazers, not much has changed since then; a startling number of so-called 'intellectuals' remain grossly ignorant of pending technologies and the revealing sciences

They go on to offer a list of "must-know-terms" that includes the following:

  • accelerating change
  • augmented reality
  • human enhancement
  • molecular assembler
  • neural interface device
  • open source
  • participatory panopticon
  • political globalization
  • quantum computation
  • radical Luddism
  • remedial ecology
  • Simulation Argument
  • Singularity
  • ubiquitous surveillance
  • virtual reality

Great stuff. Go and read the full list. I'll test you later...

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