Author Archives: Callum Mitchell

On Probation – Early Thoughts

A term and a bit in to teaching in a Scottish secondary school, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it so far. I had a year with my own classes in Japan before I started my PGDE, so that’s probably made the transition a bit easier than it may have otherwise been. I often felt frustrated during my student year that I felt obliged to teach classes in the style of the teacher I was taking over from. There was also the nagging thought that, if I was to get on the wrong side of the wrong person, then I wouldn’t pass. Having more autonomy this year has made life a little bit less stressful.

I would say that the workload is certainly manageable. Not teaching a full timetable obviously helps. Even so I think you have to make time for yourself at evenings and weekends. The work is potentially endless, and the line has to be drawn somewhere. Teaching in Japan has also offered perspective. Teachers there will work 12 hour days 6 days a week routinely, and have only a few weeks off each year. I think of what my old colleagues would say if they heard me moaning about my lot over here!

In terms of the day to day in the classroom, I thoroughly enjoy it. There’s no formula, but varied lessons, treating the students with respect and being warm but strict are my starting points. I always try to remember what a privilege it is to be, literally, “teaching Scotland’s future” (!)

What I have found a little bit uncomfortable about this year is that, once it’s been established that you’re a competent teacher, the onus shifts to “extras”. With reference to securing the elusive permanent job, emphasis is placed on your communication, organisation and management of “whole school” activities. It does feel strange that, after a period of time where your classroom skills have been quite intensely developed and evaluated, you finally secure your place in the teaching profession by what you achieve outside of the classroom.

I’ve mentioned this elsewhere before, but I do feel that teaching (at least in the UK) is quite an unusual profession in that, for your entire career, you can feasibly never see anyone else doing the same job as you! I guess the transition to full time employment is the beginning of that. Employers have scant information on what teachers can do in the classroom so have to select people based on other factors.

From the point of view of a probationer, it’s a difficult situation because you sometimes feel as if the best way to get along is to devote a disproportionate amount of your time to extracurricular activities and just keep things ticking over in the classroom. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the probation year was intended to be. It is, after all, a dedicated teacher training programme. When I finally look back on my probation year, I imagine that being able to strike the balance between what I did inside and outside the classroom will have been the greatest challenge.

More to follow later in the year….

Sceptical SOLOing

I’ve had mixed emotions towards “Learning Intentions” since I was introduced to them. Of course they can help focus the mind on what is to be achieved in a lesson, but they’ve always seemed a bit functional to me: “Here’s the boxes you need to tick by the end of the lesson.” This is perhaps felt more acutely in science where much emphasis is placed on inquiry and discovery. Outlining beforehand what you’re going to discover doesn’t quite seem to fit. In fact, it’s anti-science in a lot of ways.

My own experiences of learning intentions so far have not been particularly positive. Trainee teachers are encouraged to display them at the beginning of a lesson then again at the end. Do you spend 5 minutes at the start of every lesson asking students to copy them down? Do you give them learning intentions for a whole topic? Do you just stick them up on Powerpoint and run through them briefly? I tended to favour the latter as have most teachers I’ve observed. How about at the end of the lesson? Invariably I found that when you habitually displayed them again at the end students, who should be carefully reflecting on their learning, appeared to have undergone a kind of Pavlovian conditioning; the reappearance of “State that… Describe….” meant that it was nearly bell time, get the jacket on.

What to do? From a teaching point of view, I build my lessons after making learning intentions in the style of SOLO (see below). There’s been much said about SOLO elsewhere (check out Tait Coles & David Didau), so I’m not going to dwell on the ins and outs. I simplified the language a little bit and did an exercise with each of my classes at the start of term to familiarise them with the terms. I wanted to instil the idea that they should be striving to move from shallow (UNI) to deep learning (REL & EX AB) in all lessons.

The next issue was if and how to display the learning intentions to the students. As said previously, cursorily displaying them at the start and end of lessons seemed ineffective to me. If they were going to work then the students need to be referring to them throughout the lesson. A powerpoint slide? Could you display if for the whole lesson? Copying down wastes time.  A print out of the learning intentions for the whole topic? Would surely stymie the teacher’s flexibility if the learning intentions are set out many lessons in advance? To me it seems the ideal situation would be to have an additional (maybe small) whiteboard alongside your main smartboard/whiteboard. The SOLO learning intentions could be written on the smaller board, be on display permanently and not interfere with anything else.  At the moment I have them on a section of my whiteboard, and try and have them on display for as much of the lesson as possible.

I will persist with that throughout the year and see how the classes progress. My learning intentions?

“Predict whether or not learning intentions are effective.”

“Explain how learning intentions are effective.”

This is where it gets awkward for me. In a process of discovery should I be intending to learn something specifically or just see where the journey takes me? How do I judge what success is? Going through a workbook for the Enzyme section of the Int-2 Biology I’ve found that I need to teach the activities backwards as the students are informed what is going to happen in the experiments that follow. How dull is that? That’s the issue for me. There’s always the danger that you turn an interesting process into a functional one.

Organising Resources – How?

cross-posted from

A website which:

  • is used by almost every teacher
  • has a simple interface
  • can be accessed on all platforms – mobile, desktop, internet
  • allows you to share content with other users
  • allows you to share all kinds of content (MS office docs, PDFs, websites, games, etc)
  • has unlimited storage
  • is organised by topic for Curriculum for Excellence

It doesn’t exist. Does it? At least I haven’t found it. The above is my mad, utopic vision of resource heaven. In the meantime, I’ve been trying the best I can to organise the digital mountain of stuff that I’m beginning to accumulate. It seems now that a teacher’s filing cabinet is often more likely to be digital than the big grey thing that sits beside the classroom door. Be interested to hear how others keep on top of it (not the real one). I don’t imagine it’s a topic at the cutting edge of pedagogy, but important nevertheless. Maintenance.

So the stuff….. My first stop was my desktop where I managed to consolidate everything into a single folder entitled “Teaching”; within that I have folders for different subjects e.g. “Biology”, within them folders for different levels e.g. “National 4”; within them folder for different units e.g. “Life in Earth”, etc, etc before you finally hit the jackpot and find a duff-looking powerpoint you hastily prepared 9 months ago. The whole thing is currently at 2.8GB and backed up on a memory stick and dropbox. Fair enough. That’s the files tamed for now.

The mighty teaching folder

As well as the files though there are the many websites I use for information, animations, videos, games and so on. Over the course of the last year it’s been a case of “I’ll just bookmark that and think about what to do with it later.” Similarly, I’ve “favorited” a large number of tweets with links to useful websites. Now, with a bit more time on my hands, I’m trying to get all this organised into one place. Where though?

Last night, I had a look around the net to try and find a good place to gather everything together. I’d previously used Delicious, which I used years ago then stopped. It’s not a bad option, but I feel it’s looking a little dates now and I wanted to try something new. Eventually, I plumped for It’s straightforward: set up a topic e.g Biology, stick the “scoop-it” icon in your web-browser, click the icon when you want to bookmark the website you’re reading, tag the website if you wish. The website has its downfalls, for example, you’re only allowed a maximum of 5 topics, which is a bit limiting. At the moment, I’ve set up Biology, Chemistry, Physics, General Science and Education. Beyond that, you just have to separate websites by tags.

Anyone like to recommend anything similar they’ve found useful?

Social Networking – not about to toddle off

Cross-posted from


Social networking’s been on my mind this week as I’ve finally got my blog up and running, discussed Edmodo at the Glasgow Science Festival and had one of those “watch what you’re doing online” talks from the EIS in the final week of my PGDE. Then of course there was Martha!



The council’s response(s) seems to me to sum up the ambivalence and apprehension surrounding the use of social networking in schools. I learned on Tuesday for example that the “educational Facebook”, Edmodo is able to be accessed in some authorities but not others. There’s a culture of fear surrounding these websites at the moment and we’re only starting out with this stuff. If we think that digital communication is becoming a big part of living now, let’s see where we are in 10 years. Would anyone bet against the next “Martha” being an articulate young person who decides to review the lessons they’re being taught? That will test the mettle.


What about the advice given to teachers regarding their online presence? The prevailing view appears to be “hide”. I wonder if this is sustainable? We’re moving into a time when a person’s online persona, in terms of identity, relationships and even employability, is going to be as important as their real self. From the teacher huckled for complaining about his HT to the celebrity receiving hatemail for being sexist, the whole of society is grappling with that just now.

Could it be that, in a few years’ time, the advice given to teachers is completely turned on its head? Maybe we’ll enter a period where the authorities encourage teachers to be more visible online; traditionally teachers are called on to be role models in the way that they conduct themselves in and out of the classroom. Online role models too?

Teachers have always told students bit and pieces about their lives, and everyone’s had one who told you a bit more than you needed to know or bored you with their holiday photos. What is going to be shared online is going to take that to another level, and there will be people who go too far. It’s not going to go away though.

Perhaps the guidance given to the PGDE class of 2016 will be “don’t post everything about your life, post bits and pieces, don’t actively make connections with students, but you have some autonomy, be there if you wish to be and be professional.” More and more of life is going to be played out online. A point will be reached where the educational authorities will have to ask themselves:  “Do teachers close up their lives online and leave their students to it or do they help show them the way?”

Jobs for Probationers: A Brief Analysis

cross posted from


The GTCS Survey

Every spring and autumn the GTCS surveys post-probation teachers in Scotland to find out their circumstances. As someone who will, shortly, be one of these post-probation teachers, the surveys (and their reporting by the media) have intrigued me the past couple of years.

Job prospects for teachers in Scotland have been much discussed recently with many accounts of hundreds applying for one job. As a scientist I’m not really into the ol’ anecdotal evidence, so decided to have a look at the actual figures myself. All the data for the past few years is available on the GTCS website under “publications”.


The survey is sent to all teachers just out of their probation year. Obviously, for the results to be reliable you’d like to have as many people responding as possible. How many are responding? Below is a graph of respondents and the total number of teachers with FT permanent jobs.

This year’s response is the lowest ever (23%). It’s hard to speculate on why the number of people responding is half of what it was 3 years ago. Some may say that it’s due to job prospects improving, but the number of post-probationers in a FT permanent job is much the same now as it was in 2009.

Primary v Secondary

The media tends to quote the whole number of teachers in FT employment rather than in primary and secondary. It’s worth picking apart the two sectors as there is quite a difference in prospects.

March 2010 aside, the surveys have found that the number of secondary teachers in FT permanent employment has been well ahead of those in the primary sector: this year 41% compared to 19%.

The Herald ran an editorial today on the “casualisation of the teaching profession”, expressing concern that more and more teachers were working temporary contracts. The data above shows there has been a steady increase in temporary FT employment of secondary post-probationers in the past few years. In the primary sector the survey reports a dramatic increase in the number of NQTs in temporary employment (45% FT, 12% PT and 3% supply).

What next?

It would seem that job prospects for probation teachers are on the turn, although more are having to settle for temporary contracts. Just over 2 years ago, Mike Russell announced that teacher training places were to be cut by 57% in the primary sector and 10% in the secondary sector. The impact of that on post-probationer employment should start to be seen in the autumn 2012 survey. Could be dramatic.

Independent Learning (to the max)

I recently came across a TED talk given by Sugata Mitra, a Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University. He reckoned there are places in every country where good teachers are rarely found. (In Scotland, we can wonder about the range of job applicants some Glasgow schools receive compared to their counterparts in East Ren.) Mitra was dealing with extremes: rural and slum areas of his home country of India where many children didn’t even attend school. He set out to answer the question of whether he could get kids to learn without guidance from teachers or indeed a school setting.

What he did was set up computers with internet access in public locations, left them then came back after a few months. The kids living in these areas hadn’t encountered a computer before. When he returned, he found that the children had organised themselves into small groups and worked together to become, basically, computer literate. In his next study, he found that Tamil-speaking children could teach themselves (and each other) biotechnology in English so effectively that they achieved similar test scores to children taught the same subject in the local state school. His work inspired Vikas Swarup to write “Q&A” which was later made into “Slumdog Millionaire”.

Mitra moved to England after this work and has looked to integrate these kinds of teaching strategies into mainstream education. “Self-Organised Learning Environments” (SOLEs) are small groups of children sat around one computer connected to the internet. They may talk to each other and other groups, using the internet to answer open ended questions set by the teacher e.g. “how does an iPad know where it is?” (You can even ask these questions in another language – translating into English can kick off their inquiry) The teacher acts as a mediator, encouraging and guiding the students in their discovery process.

I know this will stimulate responses of a “oh and now local authorities can just get computers in to replace teachers”, but it should rather be thought of as good evidence that we can give students more control over their learning, that they can learn from each other and that learning is best achieved by discovering, inquiring, making mistakes, “doing”. A perennial problem is the low achievers in our classrooms. Some boys may be dismissed at being “good at football and at Xbox”, but hang on, that’s still learning isn’t it? How many of us have learned how to effectively spring an offside trap or complete Call of Duty 3? Outside of school, kids learn constantly so what’s going on with the significant minority who struggle when they get into classrooms? It would be naïve to say sticking them in front of a computer is going to cure all their educational ills, but Mitra’s work is a  reminder not to underestimate what kids can achieve on their own and when they assist each other. It’s also a warning to educators: imagine being the teacher whose students are getting the same grades as the streetkids teaching themselves?

Sugata Mitra links:!/sugatam


After writing this, I noticed that another pedagoo-er (Kenny O’Donnell @Kenny73) has also been inspired by ‘Hole in the Wall’ and has even tried similar himself:

The Pick of the #pedagoofriday Tweets 20.4.12

A selection of this week’s #pedagoofriday tweets.

The CPD of the future: so accessible you can pick up an innovative teaching strategy when you’ve got your netbook on your knee on a Friday night whilst watching the Simpsons, eating a Chinese carry out and drinking red wine.

Receiving my own ActiView; using it to examine parts of leaves and plants on the IWB then to evaluate learners' art. #pedagoofriday
P4 at UphallPS have begun some games based learning about Africa - #pedagoofriday
Robert Drummond
Still buzzing from P3 'measure treasure hunt' around the school this afternoon! Kids were so creative with their findings 🙂 #pedagoofriday
Danielle McNulty
#pedagoofriday highers peer-review prelim tasked 2 explain 2 partner where they lost marks/why – great higher order thinking & discussion
Gareth Surgey
#PedagooFriday Uploaded some films made by primary pupils with myself and a colleague to our website
Julie Sutherland
Planted lettuce, broccoli, carrots, peas, peppers, courgettes and potatoes in our garden! (now hoping something grows!) #pedagoofriday
Kirsty Forbes
Used #Glow Science films this week in your classroom? Share the best bits with other Scottish teachers here! #pedagoofriday
My new S2 are really enthusiastic about having to learn about photo manipulation for homework! #pedagoofriday
Neil Winton
A great start to a new term. 1 minute challenge Inspired by a post I read on @ #pedagoofriday #sharing #edchat
Lisa Warner
#pedagoofriday Began literacy research project with S1 and S2. Mediating the process leads to focused, clear research.
Judith Weston

New world, same old study plan

At this time of year, as courses are completed and exams loom closer, the focus for many secondary teachers shifts to revision. This often amounts to a couple of lessons on past papers and *shudder* mind maps before students are despatched to study-leave knowing that they’ll get good grades if they would only “read their notes.” Now, I left school when there weren’t quite as many distractions as there are today and, even then, the prospect of spending an evening in my room with only a tattered school jotter and a textbook for company was hardly enticing. For today’s teenage Twitter-ers, BBM-ers, Facebook-ers, checking-mobile-every-2-minute-ers it’s no doubt comparable to staring at a wall for an hour. Yet yet yet. Why not though? It’s what we were doing in 1994, and we did alright. Problem is….. this isn’t 1994.

As well as that approach to studying being archaic, it’s also directionless. Students may be applauded when they make study plans, but they usually consist of English 2-3pm; Chemistry 3-4pm, etc. I believe that teachers should be providing much more guidance for home study. Of course, the  jotter and past papers shouldn’t be thrown out of the window, but there are a ton of resources available and they should be utilised. The teacher has to be the filter though, directing students to e.g. websites, videos and providing activities that can form an interesting programme of study for a 21st century child. Jotters and textbooks may have got us this far, but the way that people access information has changed since most of us were at school: it’s fast, it’s flicking between screens, it’s scanning, it’s 3 minutes of this, then 2 minutes of that. There’s much to be said for having the discipline to sit down and read something for an hour, but many adults struggle to do this now without checking their mobile or favourite internet pages every few minutes. Expecting children to do so is unrealistic. It’s 2012. Sod “read your notes.” Give them something that will actually make them want to study.