The critical friend – a reply to Mark Clarkson

One of the most important things to have when you’re setting out on a new project, especially one that’s hopefully going to break new ground, is a critical friend. Someone who can look at an idea and say ‘yes, but…’. Not in a negative way, but to make sure you do really have the answers, and hopefully point out the pitfalls you might have missed.

In that context, I’m hugely grateful to Mark Clarkson, who dropped me an email via the blog after the latest ICT plan post with a series of questions that he had. I’ve checked with Mark, and he’s happy for me to publish his email here, along with my replies which are in italics.


Hello Dave,

In the absence of an email address for you I thought I would put down some comments and questions here.

I sometimes worry about appearing negative, but I like to play devil’s advocate. some of these concerns are my own and others are concerns that I suspect I would have to respond to from others if I were to shamelessly steal your curriculum model.

Under the proposed framework:

How do you structure a lesson? Starters, plenaries, checkpoints for learning, etc. I appreciate that you can build different tasks into each badge, but starters and plenaries in particular help students to focus on and reflect on their learning. What would a child do as they entered the room? Just log on and crack on?

Good question. Hadn’t really thought of that one! Certainly a starter in the traditional sense wouldn’t work. However, if we accept that the point of a starter is to activate prior knowledge, and the purpose of a plenary is to reflect on and consolidate what has been learned, then I wonder if that couldn’t be a role fulfilled by a reflective journal part of their portfolio? Perhaps a standard starter could be to read through and discuss their last post, and the final few minutes of the lesson be given over to updating their journal on what they’ve achieved, and their plans for future lessons? That said, as I type, I can already think of some yr 7 students who struggle with literacy having trouble managing that. I wonder if we could allow audio reflection too – maybe audioboos at the end of the lesson which they can listen to again at the start? Then we’re in to a technical issue, because we’re moving away from what we’ve already got…

Anyway, I think the point I’m trying to make is that the new model would need to include a chance to reconnect with prior learning and a change to reflect and record progress at the end of each lesson. That may well not look like a traditional starter or plenary now though.

How do you make sure that students are studying a broad and balanced curriculum? If a pupil decides they want to do image editing and animation lots, but never touch a spreadsheet, how do you encourage,
nay force, them to do so? While I’m not a huge fan of forcing kids to do things, there are certain topics that they really must tackle. And just doing the bits they enjoy isn’t necessarily effective.

From the outset it was envisaged that some parts would be compulsory. Exactly what, and how that will break down is something we’ll flesh out after half term, and I imagine would vary from school to school

What do you do with the child who chooses to work at glacial speed, despite the fact they could be working much better? It’s hard to quantifiably measure progress if a pupil is working on one huge badge as opposed to his neighbour who has completed 6 trivial ones.

The other part of the answer to the previous question, as well as to this, is mentoring. We’ve been doing a lot of work in our school recently about form tutors taking on a more mentoring role, and I would suspect there would need to be some element in that in this new look ICT teacher. Badges achieved, and working towards would need to be easily viewable somewhere by the class teacher which would help identifying any who were slipping behind. Again, we might be in a good position at our school because we already report progress toward target (as opposed to current attainment) once a half term, so we have to know which students are slipping behind, and be doing something about it.

How do you report to parents? Tell them the badges earned? Convert it into a level? What about reporting for the school / LA? I need to demonstrate 2 sublevels of progress to my DHT. I’m not sure he’d accept being shown the 4 badges they’ve made.

Again, I suspect this would vary from school to school. We only report on progress towards end of level attainment at the moment (and it’s a new system that seems to be working pretty well, so other than a few tweeks I can’t see it changing soon). That said, I don’t see why the work produced for earning certain badges couldn’t be linked to a level – that would need to be built in at the design stage to be most effective though.
As for reporting to parents – if part of the pilot involves students developing their own web presence to publish some of their work, well that’s what we’ll point them to. As a parent, I’d far rather see something my kids had created than be told the level that it was worth!

What will you do for performance management? While innovative approaches to teaching and learning might be great for the kids, your observer / reviewer may see things differently. At a time when every SLT I know is quaking in fear of OFSTED, they may not look favourably on this level of risk taking. For example, have you shown that every pupil is explicitly being taught literacy, have you shown over a 20 minute period that every pupil has made progress? Tail wagging the dog arguments aside (because it’s usually me making them), I’m loathe to throw my reputation with my SLT down the pan if I can help it.

Again, this would have to come with SLT approval. We’ve just come out of a very successful inspection, and into a management restructure (no more Heads of Departments from Sept, but Learning Managers, overseeing a group of departments). In addition we’re a school that’s built it’s reputation in the last few years for being innovative and trying new things. Add to the mix that we’re in Wales, where I think the relationship between schools and ESTYN is probably less antagonistic than that between OFSTED and the English schools.

For all of that, I’m not suggesting this for the sake of it. I genuinely believed that ICT has a specific set of issues right now, especially with the growing gap between top and bottom achievers on entry, as well as access to technology in the home. Ultimately, it would be up to us to make that point to students, parents and every other professional that came through our door. The concern that had crossed my mind actually wasn’t about PMF, it was about our PGCE students. 

Literacy and Numeracy would have to built into this (they are two of the three Assembly priorities for education at the moment). I’m currently thinking for example that all submitted work would need to hit a level of SPAG, and probably there would be one or more badges for use of technology by students with ALN or who struggle with literacy in some way. One of the people on my ‘to talk to’ list is our schools Dyslexia teacher about what are appropriate expectations for students. 

How do you deal with the pupils who WANT to be taught by a teacher, rather than self-paced, self-directed learning? I’m all for variety and opportunity, but we also have a responsibility to support those kids who need more than a PC and some tutorials to get them going. I suspect that many of the twitter-y teachers ARE self-paced and self-directed, but I also think that we’re in the minority (both of teachers and more-so of the general populous).

It’s an interesting point. I think my response to that would be that we have a duty to encourage our students to be lifelong, independent learners. That means, while some may not like the break from the traditional teaching, they should be helped and supported to be able to access it. Many of my ICT lessons this year have been much more about students exploring technology and less about me showing them how to do it. That’s one of the reasons I’m so convinced this idea can work!

How do you manage group / individual work? You might get a clique of 4 kids who do everything together and some individuals who want to do everything independently. Again, allowing pupils to learn in their own
way is good, but they also need to get out of their comfort zones on occasion. A pupil who likes to do everything with others needs to learn to work independently, and vice-versa. Those life skills go beyond subject knowledge but are a huge part of our role as teachers.

Another one I hadn’t considered. We I do very little group work in ICT at the moment. It’s something I’ll bring up with the others when we have our first planning meeting after half term.

And that’ll do for now 😉

Hope I’ve not depressed you too much, as that’s not my intention. I’d be interested to hear your responses though, and I’m happy to offer a hand and a willing ear in terms of beating the kinks out of it.


Again, can I express my thanks to Mark for taking the time to email, and highlighting some really important stuff to consider. To borrow one of his phrases, beating as many kinks out of this as possible before it goes to the pilot stage is going to be vital. I think it’s clear from the above that I really don’t have all the answers yet, but a growing list of questions which I’m looking forward trying to find answers to after half term!

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