Long road to recovery

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If you read my last post on here you would know that I spent a whole week on my back after injuring my lower back; possibly a bulging or slipped disc. The experience was very unusual for me as I have never had more than a couple of days off from school in 25 years. It gave me the chance, during my waking hours and under the influence of powerful painkillers, to read and re-read the news online and I was disgusted by the actions of Trump’s government in the US. It is true to say that the current President’s actions would be deemed to be ‘far-right’ politically here in Europe. However, he is not our President and hopefully will not be re-elected.

This blog post isn’t about politics but about back pain and recovery. As I type, I have started my second week back at school and now only take anti-inflammatory medicine. I’m well but not 100% better, yet. Let this be a cautionary tale to the tall or over-worked or those who mishandle heavy or awkward materials. Like reams of paper in the art room.

So the pinch in the sciatic nerve was diagnosed as a possible herniated or bulging disc and the pressure touched the nerve in my left leg causing excruciating pain (God help people who live with pain permanently, my sympathies are with you). The inflammation around the lower back had to be brought down using regular ice-packs (ok I’ll go do this in a minute) and Naproxen tablets twice a day. The pain dealt with using co-codamol (strong) at 4 hour intervals including through the night. The lack of sleep was approached with amitriptyline (low dose) but I did go on a double dose of this for ten days. The co-codamol knocked me out and made me groggy; my speech slurred and I was totally restless and uncomfortable. After 8 days I started to get used to it and research led me to believe that movement rather than bed rest would lead to a faster recovery. I also had a screaming taxi journey to a physiotherapist who helped with suggested posture control and improved exercises. At first I took painful short walks but gradually built them up; blessed as we have been this summer with a rare British heat-wave. By week 3 I was walking around 12km (7 and 1/2 miles) plus a day. Like a slow Forrest Gump, I walked and just kept going! The photo above is a 3km stretch that has become very familiar.

Three and a half week off and now I’m well enough to return to work. I will still see orthopaedic specialist in the summer and hopefully get a scan to see why this has happened. Thank God also for the NHS as a private appointment and scan was quoted to me at over a thousand pounds before any treatment.

Watch your back. Bend your knees. Sit up straight. I’m not kidding.





Image credit: See Mitch Joel

I had a serious rethink about social media at the end of last month that coincided with half term. The other major deadline at the end of May was compliance with the GDPR data law. If you’re not sure about this new EU regulation, you need to be as:

The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) seeks to create a harmonised data protection law framework across the EU and aims to give back to data subjects, control of their personal data, whilst imposing strict rules on those hosting and processing this data, anywhere in the world.

If you have any kind of digital web presence, such as a blog, feedback form or comments box, you will need some sort of compliance with this regulation.

Also, many of the original ‘friends/followers’ I discovered on social media about 10 years ago were becoming less active in each domain, some choosing to suspend or leave altogether. Whilst I missed their contact, I also was effected by the Facebook-trust meltdown and the exposure that social media is making all of our lives less private and we’ve never been more manipulated by tech companies. Leon (@eyebeams) is a tech enthusiast I have had several real and virtual contacts with since 2006 and he tweeted:

So these little triggers led to a drastic action; I deleted all my social media. Everything.

No Twitter, WordPress, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, Vimeo, Blogger,  You Tube, Path, Wikipedia, PBwiki, Pinterest, Tripadvisor or any other social media. I deleted without backing up and said I wouldn’t return. If you’re wondering why Facebook isn’t on my list, this is because I never really got into it. Most of the others I have used since 2005 ish and kept prett much active in all.

My off-grid/dark ops period lasted about 5 days.

Why? Mainly because I used all of these tools intensively as a teacher and as soon as the half term holiday was over, I couldn’t find my resources any longer. I needed Pinterest first as an essential tool for an art teacher. Luckily it restored almost immediately. Twitter too was and is a source for my ‘community of practice’ and I was shocked on re-entry to find 0 friends and 0 followers. A panicked search found that not everyone had left or hidden away like me and they were still there to contribute, scowl, laugh and cry. I then rebooted Tumblr as the place where I post newspaper articles to read later. WordPress (including this personal blog) had gone decisively unfortunately and seemed never to return without the help of the WordPress tech team who helped me undo my mistake. Since my social media reboot, I have also found that some of the videos I made as skills demos were only to be found on You Tube and Vimeo and there is no way of retrieving deleted video. Frantically, I have searched every usb and external hard drive to reinstate the useful stuff (some I fear lost forever).

Instagram and Flickr I will not rush to; perhaps a long period away before I recreate these if I ever do. After all, my personal content is mine and perhaps I don’t wish to give away all of my create data.

i hope you find this rebooted personal blog as useful as I have even if you’re coming across it for the first time or revisiting for a much used art lesson. Part of my rethinking is to focus on what the blog is for and about. For this I now include a brand new tag line:

art education, creative tech and ecology

I hope you enjoy it as much as me!

My POV is more important than yours

Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 16.22.39This is a blog post about framing reality and facts as if up for debate. I don’t know if it is a phenomenon of social media or the abundance of available facts at our fingertips in the age of the Internet and streaming videos but facts seem to be insignificant these days in comparison to personal opinion. On many social media platforms we are encouraged to ‘shout from the rooftops’ our point of view (POV), opinion or angle like a newspaper editorial intended for a microseconds viewing. Indeed, microblogging on Twitter or even this blog encourages me to have my say on a topic and when it’s out there, its there forever. However personal reflection may be intended, it comes into greyer territory when presented as fact or truth about a topic and this presented on the Internet has the added danger of justifying someone else’s bent opinion.

Here is a few examples:

1 The Trump White House memorandum on federal climate science

The memo presented three options without endorsing any of them: conducting a “red team/blue team” exercise to “highlight uncertainties in climate science”; more formally reviewing the science under the Administrative Procedure Act; or deciding to just “ignore, and not seek to characterize or question, the science being conducted by Federal agencies and outside entities.”

In a leaked internal memo from last week, the White House considered ‘debating’ established climate science, casting doubt on scientists’ conclusions, or just ignoring them. Accepting any findings of scientific experts is not an option they’re willing to consider, preferring instead to ignore reality. Why? Because the Trump administration has no plans to cut carbon pollution and has been taking every possible step to undo established climate policies and increase pollution from the coal and oil industries, prioritising short-term corporate profits above all else.

2 In central Birmingham this weekend there was the UK’s first Flat Earth convention, a weekend of lectures and workshops designed to provide believers with opportunities to engage with others who subscribe to the same hypothesis: that the Earth is not a globe, as most of us think, but some kind of plane, with edges. Around 200 people have paid to attend. The American community is big and brash and filled with personalities vying for public influence. There, Flat Earthers have secured airtime on almost every major television network, sometimes primetime slots, and the movement has been lent credibility by celebrity support. Much can be found in You Tube presentations where each presenter denounces conventional science as flawed, if not entirely fabricated, and offers alternative hypotheses. Contrary to thousands of years of accepted science whereas  Aristotle claimed the world was a sphere some time around 350BC, we now have the likes of rapper, BoB and ex-cricketer and TV personality, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff to admire for their flat as a pancake crackpotism.

3 Anything in favour of Brexit.


In education, we might use a dramatic approach like Mantle of the Expert¹ which is based on the premise that treating children as responsible experts increases their engagement and confidence. It is meant as dramatic-inquiry, where students research and find their opinions based on fact. More recently, this has led to confrontations with students who question historical facts (“that’s just your opinion”) or your own expertise as a teacher (“I think I deserve a better mark” – see my last post about how this is being facilitated by the Department for Education). However, we are being bombarded with denialism and alternative-fact propaganda or exist only within our echo chamber or self-filtered social media bubbles. Read Matthew D’Ancona’s Post Truth² or Tom Nichols’ Death of Expertise where he expresses the concern that the average citizen’s base knowledge is so low it has crashed through the floor of “uninformed”, passed “misinformed” on the way down, and is now plummeting to “aggressively wrong”.  He says that people don’t just believe “dumb things”, but actively resist any new information that might threaten these beliefs. In summary, he cautions us all to be more discriminating – to check sources scrupulously for veracity and for political motivations.

This blog (and any tweets I might post) are meant just to reflect on my thoughts and not represent truth in the wider sense. Anyone who stumbles on a something I have written should really look up the issues for themselves and make up their own minds (I might even read about it by way of a conversation opener).

Further reading:

Book Review Tom Nichols’ Death of Expertise the conversation.com, July 6, 2017
3 ways to break out of your social media bubble, Mozilla blog, March 19, 2018
Finally, a bus that tells the harsh truth about Brexit, iNews, Tuesday February 20th 2018

¹ The Mantle of the Expert explained

² Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back by Matthew D’Ancona

Is the Earth flat? Meet the people questioning science, The Guardian, Sun 27 May 2018

Trump administration refuses to consider that 97% of climate scientists could be right, The Guardian, Tue 29 May 2018

Marks are in (don’t tell the kids)

Exam results can often enable flight in young people. Not really.

Things are a little different this year for centre-assessed coursework and examinations; particularly for us in Art and Design. For the first time, the Joint Council for Qualification (JCQ) has instructed schools to issue pre-moderated (but internally standardised) marks for GCSE and A levels. Contrary to my post title, we must tell the kids.

Why has this change been made? According to the JCQ:

This requirement is to enable candidates to request a review of the centre’s marking prior to the marks being submitted to the awarding body, should they wish to do so, and will facilitate the operation of a fair review process.

It is up to individual schools or MATs to manage this process, and in many cases it has been left to the teacher assessors to decide how and when this will be done providing there is sufficient time for a review to take place. Again, the guidance stipulates only that a review takes place by someone with sufficient subject knowledge independent of the original assessment.

In recent weeks, students of art and design should have been informed of both component 1 coursework marks and component 2 exam marks. All without any reference to grades or boundary levels as this is the first assessment of its kind.

So what?

Many GCSE and A level art courses take a great deal of time to assess and internally standardise and the deadline is either 15th May or 31st May depending on the exam board the school has chosen. This new requirement has meant that an earlier deadline was necessary in order to allow for a written appeal request and an independent review. The consensus is that this year’s assessment has been rushed and meaningless marks given to students. Now that students have seen their centre marks they can either (a) shrug and say wait and see what the boundaries are for each grade or if the external moderator moves grades or (b) request a review in writing.

If they choose option (a) marks can be adjusted by the external moderator by up to 20 marks (although there is a tolerance of two or three they never tell you about). When they get their results in August they could approach the school or academy for a re-mark (despite already having had the new opportunity to challenge). This costs time and delays for everyone and maybe this is the exact thing that JCQ were trying to avoid in the first place.

If they choose option (b), the art teacher has to find someone to look at the work, possibly re-marking it. Who is sufficiently knowledgeable? D and T staff maybe or colleagues working on quid-pro-quo from a neighbouring school.

What is this actually all about?

At face value it seems to be an element of ‘parent power’ designed to give mum and dad a level of inspection of these obviously biased teachers. Is it to demonstrate that the regular reporting teachers are obliged to send to parents about pupil progress actually has some parallel in marks internally awarded? Perhaps it is to dam the deluge of re-marking that takes place in the first weeks of September, the cost implications and lost time that comes about when a student is unhappy with a grade. It does seem to be an undermining of trust and the professionalism of teacher assessment and I am surprised the teaching unions have not questioned its introduction.

One thing is for sure; we have all done a lot of very rapid marking this year in order to comply and I do worry about how this will enable accuracy.


JCQ: Review of marking

JCQ: Informing candidates of centre assessed marks

JCQ: Review of marking suggested policy template

Final ascent

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I blogged about the exam process in March, in a post entitled Half Way There accompanied by an illustration of a mountain summit. To (ab)use the same metaphor, we are about to complete this component; a final ascent. Indeed, we have only weeks left to complete coursework too.

This year is unusual though. At my academy we are a team of two (for 90 candidates) and are not given time off timetable to standardise assessments. In the past few years we have tended to put in long hours each evening and submit marks electronically as close to the deadline as possible (for us, 31st May). However, due to a central change instigated by ‘parent power’ I suspect, we are to release our standardised marks to students prior to electronic submission. The implication is that students/parents may challenge the marks awarded if they feel necessary. We will need to allow time for this to take place and subsequently any re-assessment by an independent third party who can confirm original marks or agree with students/parents that marks were not awarded accurately.

This bizarre situation has presumably arisen because students felt they were penalised by harsh marking? Not only has this caused to bring the marking forward by two weeks from exam board deadlines, it penalises working time for the students and causes extra turmoil for exam administrators, teachers and the students themselves. If marks are judged overly harsh (surely an overly lenient marks isn’t an issue!), who is deemed ‘accurate’ enough to re-standardise? Would all marks need to go up by a certain amount? When the exam board moderator comes in and brings marks down again, who is at fault?

For the most part, the majority of art teachers try to mark accurately and by working with another member of staff regularly standardise marks. This is an unnecessary extra burden this year and will not give indication of final grade boundaries as these are set after the national picture emerges. So parents will be none-the-wiser if their child has been awarded a 5 or a 4. What a waste of time.

Let’s hope students ignore this stupidity and strive to do their best and attain their own personal challenge; mountain or molehill.



Half way there


In our art exam season, we have reached the half-way point to the terminal exam phase. The end is in sight!

The exam is currently known as Component 2 (not really terminal at all) but this name changes regularly. Students get the impression that the 10 hour exam in art and design is the final aspect and most important part in that it will culminate everything they have learned and skills developed during their course. This is, in part, true. However, it is the preparation and development toward the 10 hours session that is far more important and worthy of marks. To do well across the four assessment objectives is to hit evidence pointers in the prep (at my academy we are using sketchbooks for this but it needn’t be constrictive). This can really account for 75% of the marks and this is before they sit the ten hours. I think it is a psychological challenge. When they start studying a GCSE in art and design (or looking at information booklets before opting) they almost ask about the dreaded ten hours! Perhaps it is also the idea that exams must be difficult, hard and under restricted circumstances that a ten hour exam sound so scary. It is in fact, just a controlled assessment period; three hours consecutive at the start and the remaining can be chunked.  The exam board like to tell us that they have seen murals submitted as final outcomes with before and after the ten hour periods illustrating what work has been undertaken as part of the controlled assessment.

I have tried the two 5 hour day style and whilst this is convenient for school timetable disruption, it doesn’t work for some students. If they’re having a bad day or week, then they may have just fluffed 25% of the Component 2. It does get it out the way so Component 1 (aka coursework) can be revisited. For the past few years I have chunked it into lessons over a three week period with only the initial three hours having a single cover requirement where they will miss another subject (usually core, much to their annoyance).

Another aspect is that students often step-up to the terminal exam; a bit of nervous adrenaline does wonders for focussing the mind and steadying the hand for some. Mine have a habit of making wonderful final outcomes even if their prep isn’t up to much. That is the point of this post; we are half-way there. They should have a 3/4 filled sketchbook and some study sheets by now with a clear and logical path to their final outcome in a few weeks time.


Let’s see what comes back this week; having a few snow days certainly didn’t help though.


Active/Passive and AI

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18th c. Tranquillizing Chair (L) and Contemporary Virtual Reality Chair (R)

You may have read, as I have, that automation technologies such as machine learning and robotics are potentially taking a greater role in everyday life and that this will one day create a major concern for the human workforce.

In a recent radio interview on Artificial Intelligence and future employment, it was argued that our near continental neighbours employ robotics with AI to make their actual work hours more efficient so that they work less hard and for less hours as a benefit. Surely, said the interviewer, there are less humans employed as a consequence of integrating robotic elements? “Of course!” exclaimed the interviewee. AI/robots will enable us to have more leisure time is the inference, but if we are not gainfully employed, we will not be earning financial credit to spend on leisure activities. The radio article went on to describe the industries where AI is already appearing and some surprising potential areas where AI would be more effective than human counterparts (brain surgery for instance).

As they rolled off a list of employment that can be better performed by AI/robots, I sighed a huge relief when they said creative industries (and educational sectors where creativity is inherent) are difficult to provide necessary algorithms and programmable behaviours. Art, drama, music and dance teachers may well be safe in employment  where maths and English teachers may not! This may have more to do with learning models than programmability.

Active Learning: involves the learning by being engaged in the instructional process by means of such activities as exploring, analysing, communicating, creating, reflecting, or actually using new information or experiences.

Practical lessons are inherently active in their structure and I would include physical education, design technology and the sciences to the arts list above as active practical subjects. There is a bit of chatter recently about chalk-and-talk, drill-and-kill methods of delivery for knowledge-rich subjects. This has been championed by a certain leading free school whose book has become a defacto stand-in for the mysterious ‘what Ofsted wants’. Unfortunately, passive learning models only fit in with some E-Baccalaureate subjects.

Passive learning is a method of learning or instruction where students receive information from the instructor and internalise it, and “where the learner receives no feedback from the instructor”.

There’s a contradiction. When you talk to many teenagers about how they spend their self-elected free time, they don’t spend much time in front of a TV, playing computer games or out and about mischief-making as some would expect. Many teenagers don’t venture out (certainly not after dark due to perceived dangers) unless sanctioned by parents (some examples: dancing, rugby, swimming, the gym are a few suggested by my Year 9 and 10s). At home, they might have a TV in their room but more likely they are on tablets and phones, usually social media, frequently on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. The addictive nature of instant feedback (through likes) is a hidden world of popularity contests and peer pressure, also frequently the darker side too of bullying and coercion. But also, students tell me how they have learned specific new things in their view. One said she taught herself biology watching You Tube. Another demonstrated her new skill of playing the ukulele; again via You Tube videos. The mysterious You Tube teachers who are educating our kids in the ways of professional make-up are also teaching them maths and demonstrating art skills. This crosses into all curriculum subject areas at times. It is necessarily passive though as reliant on a screen/device. Virtual reality and haptic devices that simulate feedback will be more immersive, just as the Wii controller was replaced by the Xbox Kinect.

Haptic or kinaesthetic communication recreates the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions.

As predicted by Pixar’s Wall-E

Scroll back up to my original illustration for this blog post; a comparison of the passivity inherent in the tranquilizing chair and a current VR chair. Interesting then that the tranquilizing chair may look absolutely fearsome, but it was actually created by Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) as a more humane alternative to the straightjacket. So, a possible dystopian future where our well-behaved youth are willingly strapped-in to haptically enabled VR delivery system could lead to fulfilling leisure time for teachers who can run rings around ’em.