Friday, 5 February 2021

Job rejections

Image result for job rejection

There are people, I know, who secure immediately every job they apply for. I am not one of those lucky people. I know as well as anybody the sting of disappointment that accompanies a rejection email. The sting gets worse, of course, the further along the process you get; the most painful rejections come when you've been to two or three interviews with a school, taught a lesson, done a presentation and even started to get to know some of the staff. 

Right now we're in the process of recruiting for roles at Malvern College Switzerland and so I have found myself on the other side of the fence, having to disappoint people. If you're one of those people, I feel your pain; this little post is for you. 

I've tried to list the reasons why people's applications failed to get through to the shortlist stage. This, I hope, will give a bit more insight into the process than the: 'It was a strong field' brush off that is rather too common in job application correspondence, but that helps nobody. 

You may have failed to make the shortlist because your application displayed one or more of the problems listed below. Only a tiny handful of these mistakes are immediately 'fatal' but when placed in a pool of applications without them they place your application at a disadvantage; and that, in a large field, is all it takes not to make it to the shortlist. So here we go:

Things you can fix:

  1. Not following the rubric. We said we didn't want CVs and yet you attached one. We asked you to apply by the TES and yet you emailed us direct etc.
  2. Sloppy spelling or, more common, sloppy capitalisation. This affected more applications than, as teachers, we should be happy with. I think people have become inured to a sort of digital slang that is seen as acceptable on an online form. It leaves a bad impression.
  3. Asking questions like: 'Will my sofa fit in the flat?' before having even been contacted by the school. Questions like this (and I put in this bracket questions about money) give the impression your primary interest isn't the role itself.
  4. Asking questions that are answered in the applicant pack and/or on the website.
  5. Copying and pasting a personal statement that was clearly made with another school in mind.
  6. Writing a perfunctory personal statement of only a couple of sentences in length.
  7. Not writing a personal statement at all and instead saying something like: 'My CV speaks for itself.'
  8. Leaving gaps in your employment history. However long and tedious, this part of the form needs to be filled in assiduously. You're applying for a role in a school, there will be lots of children about, so there's a non-negotiable safeguarding element to this.
  9. Not providing references at the outset. Asking us not to contact them before deferring to you is fine, but leaving that section of the form completely blank rings alarm bells.
  10. Denigrating - even obliquely - a former employer. Maybe they were horrible and you firmly occupy the moral high ground but we haven't met you yet and so for us, it's 50/50. Those aren't great odds.
  11. Leaving other gaps on the application form. If a section really doesn't apply write N/A. A blank leaves you open to the suspicion that you haven't taken sufficient care.

Things you can't (immediately) fix, but that nevertheless, all other things being equal, did factor in decision making:

  1. Not offering the right level of flexibility in terms of additional subjects taught. 
  2. Not having A-Level and GCSE experience (or having less than an otherwise equivalent candidate).
  3. Not having boarding experience (or having less than an otherwise equivalent candidate).
  4. Not having the requisite co-curricular and extra-curricular experience, or not showcasing this sufficiently.
  5. Having a career history that suggests you've moved around rather too often, never staying put anywhere for long.
  6. Not having the necessary experience of KS4 and 5. We had a lot of applicants who were excellent, but had never taught post-16.
Finally, as a startup, we have been very keen to 'get the right people on the bus' as quickly as possible so that we can begin planning for the tasks that lie ahead. This has meant that we have shortlisted for some positions - as we said we would in the application pack - before the application deadline. Annoying though this is, it is just possible that you were a perfect candidate but that we never got to see you because we'd already appointed by the time your application was submitted. Also, the need for some positions diminished, with the recruitment of teachers able to teach multiple disciplines.

So there you have it. Helpful, I hope.


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Monday, 1 February 2021

CV as a piste map

 A presentation I'm putting together requires an engaging slide to give a bit of background as to who I am. 

This is potentially dull stuff, so I wanted to make something that would catch people's interest. Looking around for ideas, I headed to Doug Belshaw's blog where, sure enough, he has a post about representing his CV as a London Underground map

Mmm I thought... maybe I could do the same as a piste map? So I had a go, using Keynote as he suggests. Here's the result - a bit of fun if nothing else :-)

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Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Leading in a crisis


(With thanks to Jon Standen for passing on this meme!)

Steve Munby gave an excellent presentation yesterday evening in which he presented his thoughts on school leadership in the pandemic era. He structured what he said around six principles, which I share with you here:

  1. Show up and 'walk into the wind' Crisis moments are not the time to delegate. People need the reassurance of your physical presence more than ever in times of crisis. Clear your diary and be in school alongside your staff.
  2. Focus on leadership as service. Steve suggested that rather than asking: 'What kind of leader do I want to be?' ask: 'What kind of leadership is wanted of me?' Remember that in leadership context matters - leaders need to change their style to suit the context they find themselves in. In a crisis, the chances are you'll need to adapt your leadership style for the new reality.
  3. Ask for help. Steve encouraged delegates to become 'invitational leaders' who actively look for help from others. We were encouraged to seek out mentors - people we could call on for help and advice. We were encouraged to be honest with ourselves and accept when we don't know enough. Asking for help builds trust. By revealing your own vulnerability you encourage others to reveal theirs too and to be honest with you. 
  4. Be decisive, but quick to review and amend. It's likely that in a crisis you'll make a mistake. Own up to it, be prepared to U-turn, don't soldier on just to save face. People will respect you for your honesty and humanity.
  5. Deal with the urgent, but make space for the strategic and for the future. It's easy to get engrossed in the immediate during a crisis as a leader. Steve encouraged us not to neglect the big-picture stuff. Steve referenced the work done during the darkest days of WW2 on the setting up of the NHS as an example of thinking ahead even in the midst of a crisis. If the leader him or herself doesn't have the time or the headspace for strategic thinking then there's no reason not to delegate it. The point is that strategic thinking shouldn't stop during a crisis.
  6. Be authentic. This last point hammered home the need for honesty and transparency in a crisis. It may well be that controversial or unusual things need to be carried out during a crisis. Mike stressed the importance of managing up in this sort of situation and spelling out to the Board and/or your line-managers what actions you are taking. As Mike explained, if nothing else, getting their agreement makes it harder for them to dismiss you if your solutions don't bear immediate fruit.

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Friday, 27 November 2020

Making kids cleverer

 A couple of weeks ago I gave this presentation to parents entitled 'Making Kids Cleverer':

As I explain at the start, the thrust of the arguments draw heavily on David Didau's book of the same name. The arguments centre around two things:

  1. the importance of knowledge
  2. the role of knowledge in increasing cleverness

I deal with each in turn below:

The importance of knowledge

Teachers are bombarded by advice from non-teachers about what should be taught in schools. Most commonly, a wealthy entrepreneur, who didn't do well in school themselves, argues that schools should be teaching things like creativity, innovation, collaboration. Often these things are grouped under the heading '21st Century Skills'. It all sounds so noble, so reasonable - who would not want their children to have these skills? But there are problems: 

Firstly 21st Century Skills are a conceit. There is nothing new about needing to be collaborative, creative or innovative. It has always been necessary to have these skills. 

Secondly, these skills cannot be taught in isolation; they all rest on knowledge. You cannot just walk into a class of 15-year-olds (or 35 year-olds for that matter) and ask them to come up with creative ways, say, of conducting an adenoidectomy. Being creative here requires detailed knowledge of human anatomy, of surgical history, of biochemistry, of histology and so on. And just as this is true of highly specialised throat surgery so it is true in any other field you care to mention, even the more prosaic ones. Coming up with novel ideas depends on a store of knowledge on which creativity can draw.

Then there are the educators who maintain that we only need to focus on '21st Century Skills' because in the 21st Century you can Google everything else (if you think I'm creating a straw man here, have a look here - plenty of people, educators amongst them believe this stuff). The truth is, anyone who's ever asked a Year 9 class to 'go away and research x' will know how inefficient this way of learning is. Children cannot access the material about x on the internet because they don't have the vocabulary or the pre-existing mental hooks on which to hang their research. Direct instruction of new material, carefully modelled in small sequential steps by a teacher-expert is a much more effective way of getting children to learn. Dylan Wiliam explains this superbly here. If you were ever in any doubt about the importance of learning things by heart, you won't be after watching this little clip:

Lastly, there are the futurologists who maintain that we should be shoe-horning into the curriculum the latest and most expensive baubles from the tech industry. Their argument is that not acculturating children to the latest set of VR-googles, phablets or smartphones is an act of gross negligence. But this argument is quickly undermined by pointing out that only a couple of decades ago, state-of-the-art education looked like this:


So we needn't worry too much about 21st Century Skills -certainly not to the point of trying to teach them in isolation - and we should have the humility to accept that what is state of the art today, won't be tomorrow. What we should be teaching in schools is the material that has stood the test of time. People who advocate teaching children the accumulated wisdom of the ages often quote Matthew Arnold, who argued for passing on:

...the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits...

In terms of choosing what actually counts as the 'best which has been thought and said' Didau points towards the Lindy effect and the observation that it is the most durable knowledge and ideas that will be most useful in the future:

What this means for educators is that the sort of knowledge that is likely to be of most use to our students in the future is the sort of knowledge that was also useful to our ancestors in the past. This requires a bit of mental effort to assimilate because most of us are, myself very much included, are attracted to novelty and modernity. But it's hard to argue with the logic of Lindy's observation and the weight of evidence that supports it. What it means in practical terms is that teachers should be passing on the knowledge and ideas that have stood the test of time in their subjects. Fortuitously, in England at least, subject specialists collaborated with the government to put together in the form of the National Curriculum lists of essential knowledge that should be passed on in the various subject disciplines. The first listed aim of the National Curriculum co-opts Matthew Arnold as seen in bold below:

The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

There is scope for teaching other things, of course, but teachers shouldn't be ashamed of championing knowledge - in the form of the accumulated wisdom of subject specialists - as the foundation of a good education.

The relevance of knowledge to cleverness

Hopefully, by now you are convinced of the efficacy of a fairly traditional, knowledge-based curriculum as likely to be the most future-proof of all the various curricula that schools might pursue. But we have yet to explain how increasing children's knowledge (or as Dylan Wiliam has it, the contents of their long term memory) makes them cleverer.

One illustration of the importance of knowledge comes from an experiment in which expert chess players and novices were asked to memorise the positions of chess pieces on a board. Where pieces were in positions that could occur in an actual game of chess, the chess experts did better on the memorisation task than the novices. But where chess pieces were placed randomly on the board the difference between the experts and the novices diminished almost to nothing. Expert chess players are at an advantage in the first case because they have memorised knowledge about possible sequences of play. They're at no particular advantage, though, where pieces are in positions that are not possible in the course of normal play:


As in chess, so in other fields of human expertise. In order to become expert at something you need to know a lot about it, and your knowledge needs to have been memorised to the point where it's become part of your psyche and can be recalled with little or no effort. If it requires effort to recall the knowledge space in the limited confines of working memory will be used up. This means that, if tasks can be completed at all, they will be slow, halting and prone to error. Since an important aspect of being clever is the speed of cogitation failure to have the knowledge to act upon in long-term memory is a serious handicap.

Although some aspects of cleverness are inherited, this research shows that cleverness can be increased. Consider these two babies - one lucky, the other less so:


The great news for teachers is that the unlucky baby can more than make up for the disadvantages he has inherited providing he is given a wholesome diet of knowledge and guided towards getting this knowledge into his long-term memory. School can make all the difference and no-one need be defined by their genes. The key is that education needs to focus on helping children know culturally important information. Beguiling, though the alternatives might be they are a distraction. And it's the most disadvantaged, as ever, who have most to lose from well-meaning teachers prioritising the wrong things. The English teacher, Joe Kirby, sums this up far better than I could, so I'll let him have the last word:

The opportunity cost of allowing my pupils to focus on supposedly relevant topics they already know about like celebrities, TV and social networking, is that it limits my time to help them catch up with richer kids who get rich cultural knowledge at home. The opportunity cost of spending entire lessons making posters and trailers, doing enquiry circles and opinion positioning, carousel groupwork and fun games is that they have less time to focus on broadening their horizons by reading and writing about the greatest literature, (auto)biographies and speeches ever written. Given that poorer kids start secondary school thousands of words behind richer kids in vocabulary, it seems to me that we are widening the gap if English in disadvantaged schools is taught without an unrelenting focus on explicit knowledge of context, novels, plays, poems, grammar, rhetoric, spelling and vocabulary. 

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Thursday, 19 November 2020

Device solutions in international schools

In this post, I'll be pulling together some models for the use of devices in schools and making some comparisons. This is a complex area of school management, so for the sake of clarity and brevity, I'll be restricting myself specifically to devices, not to other pieces of hardware. Although I will need to refer to software, I'll only do so in so far is it is tied into some devices.

Since I rolled out BYOD at Oswestry back in 2012, a lot has changed. Technology has moved on and many schools have moved on to the second or third iteration of their chosen solution. Some schools have made expensive mistakes, betting on solutions which quickly became superseded. Some, through accident or design, have avoided costly hardware solutions and remain blank canvasses. I hope this post will be useful to senior leaders weighing up the pros and cons of different device solutions for their schools.

Jargon-buster

Unfortunately, like most things IT-related, there are some acronyms it's useful to know about before diving into the detail. In relation to device-use in schools here are the ones you're likely to come across:

BYOD - bring your own device. Pupils (and/or teachers) may bring their own device into school to connect to the network.

CYOD - choose your own device. Pupils/teachers may choose their own device from a range of school-ordained options.

DNBYOD - do not bring your own device. Schools provide pupils/teachers with a device which they use for the duration of their time in school. There are two variations of DNBYOD (also, confusingly, sometimes dubbed YWYT - use what you are told!):

COPE - company owned, personally enabled
COBO - company owned, business only

The spectrum of control

In terms of a school's control over the devices, there is a spectrum along which the solutions above fall, best visualised diagrammatically:

Who are the main players?

Essentially there are three main 'ecosystems' which schools can choose to inhabit. Alternatively, they can choose to hedge their bets and allow for all three (or any combination thereof) to co-exist. Each ecosystem has its own quirks, as summarised below:

Apple Microsoft Google
👍🏽 Seen as premium. 👍🏽 The ecosystem works on any device.
👍🏽 The ecosystem works on any device.
👍🏽 Proprietary devices are of high quality.

👍🏽 Proprietary devices are Surface Books which as both tablets and laptops.

👍🏽 Proprietary devices are Chromebooks, most of which are relatively low-cost.
👍🏽 If embraced in its entirety probably the 'slickest' of the options. iPads have advantages in primary settings - simple to use, light etc.

👍🏽 Familiar to most people, particularly to those who've been using computers for a long time.

👍🏽 Built for the cloud, probably still the best solution for leveraging the cloud’s advantages.
👎🏽 Locked down ecosystem – only Apple Devices can be used (iPads, MacBooks etc.) 👎🏽 Familiarity breeds misuse. Old-school computer types are too easily able to stick to bad habits.

👎🏽 Chromebooks are a bit cumbersome for the very youngest children. Android tablets are another possible solution, but this means (cf Apple) multiple devices.
👎🏽 A steep learning curve for most schools. 👎🏽 Devices tend to be lower-quality - ‘plasticky’ would best describe them.

👎🏽 Some of the more advanced functionality of the Apple/Microsoft suite of programmes is not available in G-suite.
👎🏽 No single device solution if you want inkability users need both a MacBook and an iPad plus a stylus etc. 👎🏽 Less popular as a solution for very young children as there is a degree of complexity in getting set up etc. 👎🏽 Not the best solution for computer scientists (complicated workarounds needed for programming in certain languages etc.)
👎🏽 Expensive.

👎🏽 Moderately expensive.



Some people will want to point out that there are other alternatives and that this table is not exhaustive. It is true that if you object to the commercialisation of education, or to the concentration of power in the hands of just three American Tech companies, then you could take the red pill and opt for entirely open source software run on any machines of your choice. There are schools that have done this - here for example - but I suspect it's fraught with technical and logistical problems. Also, in its own way, it is just as loaded with contentious political and moral judgement as is deciding to stay mainstream. Open source enthusiasts will roll their eyes, but for the purposes of this post, I'm discussing mainstream options only.

Practicalities

There are multiple solutions to the device conundrum in schools. The more I've researched this, the more I've realised most schools have hybrid systems: some have BYOD for pupils, but not for staff; some have CYOD for younger children, but BYOD for older ones; some insist on Apple devices in one part of the school, but not in others, and so the permutations go on, ad infinitum...

The schools where the neatest solutions exist (i.e. one platform all the way through) tend to be those with limited age categories. It is relatively easy to introduce the Microsoft Surface, say, in a 13-18 school. Making this decision would be harder in a K-12 school where the needs of younger children are different and handing them a Surface to use for their school work might not be appropriate. As most international schools are K-12, most have hybrid systems. But if simplicity's your thing, it is probably the Apple solution (MacBook + iPad) which best caters for the needs of children of any age.

In Thailand, were you to go down the CYOD/DNBYOD route, these are the main contenders. I've included some models and prices to aid comparison:


Metric Dell Apple MS Surface
Price/unit - staff Dell 5300 13-inch ฿35,500
or Dell 5300 13-inch tablet ฿42,000
MacbookPro 13-inch ฿55,900 Surface i5-8250U/128GB/8GB ฿39,990
or Surface i5-8250U/256GB/8GB ฿51,990
Price/unit - pupils Dell 5300 13-inch ฿35,500 Macbook 12-inch ฿46,100 SurfaceGo with keyboard ฿19,680
Service agreement Onsite service with spare parts (4 years) No onsite service, 1-year warranty for spare parts No onsite service, 1-year warranty for replacement
Inkable? Yes No Yes
Pros Excellent service agreement
Inkable - saves paper
Excellent MDM solution - a one-stop-shop
Cost-effective
Not locked into any software Ecosystem
The closest thing that exists to a single solution for everything
Staff already likely to be familiar with MS-Windows
Seen as flagship/top of the range
Ties in with iPads where these are already used
Good for high-end users (artists etc.)
Lightweight, fast
More of a 'statement' than Dell machines
Familiarity with Microsoft
Inkable - saves paper
Cons Some students will still want Apple machines(!)
Not a 'cool' flagship
Relatively low build quality
Service agreement not as good as Dell
The most expensive option
Most staff would need retraining
Apple does not provide onsite support
Needs separate MDM solution at additional cost
Ties students into Microsoft a little more than a 'Vanilla PC'
Have poor reliability record
Most staff would need retraining
Microsoft does not provide onsite support

The model we have in place at the moment at Harrow Bangkok is a hybrid. As if often the case with these things in schools, it has evolved organically. What we've arrived at is as follows:

  • Ages 9 and below (UK Year 4 and below) - DNBYOD, school iPads and desktop PCs available for teachers and pupils to use in the classroom as required.
  • Ages 10 to 14 (UK Years 6 to 9) - CYOD, choose an iPad whilst desktop PCs are available for teachers and pupils to use in the classroom as required. Desktop Macs are provided in the Art and Design Departments and for Music Technology.
  • Ages 14 and above (UK Years 10 and above) - BYOD, bring a device with a keyboard to school for using in lessons as required. Desktop Macs are provided in the Art and Design Departments and for Music Technology.
  • Teachers are supplied with a Dell laptop, the newest versions of which (Latitude 7390) are inkable.

Over the past few years we've mulled over becoming an Apple school and we've toyed with the idea of rolling out Microsoft Surfaces etc. But when it has come down to the nuts and bolts, no one solution has been the right fit for the whole school. As a result, we've made a strength out of not having committed ourselves too firmly to any particular platform. Although the array of choices can be bewildering at times, pupils leave our school not having had any particular system foisted on them. They go out into the world with the flexibility to embrace whatever computer system best fits the projects they find themselves working on.

I'd love to hear how things work in your school, particularly if you work in a K-12 international school. Do you have a similar setup? What have you found that works? 

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Saturday, 10 October 2020

What does excellence look like?


I was asked the other day what I thought excellence in a school looked like. I'm embarrassed to say that I turned my answer into a diatribe against trying to bottle, spread and legislate for excellence. I should have put a more positive spin on things. 

But the point I was rather clumsily trying to make is that by definition excellence is unusual. School leaders often stifle it by doing the sort of things that well-meaning leaders do: setting targets, collecting data, rewarding conformity. It's also devilishly difficult to define. It's a cop-out, but it is true that you 'know it when you see it'.

Here's what I might have said excellence looks like given a bit more time to think about it. Excellence looks like:
  1. A swim coach returning late one afternoon with his team, deep in the middle of the holiday, with the campus otherwise deserted, proudly clutching his beloved team's trophy. No extra pay, no time off in lieu, just done for the love of the thing.
  2. The dancing of fingers effortlessly over a Macbook, as if it were a musical instrument, to put the finishing touches to a fiendishly complex data scraping widget.
  3. Demonstrating vocal techniques whilst simultaneously playing the piano with breathtaking beauty and precision. All the while peppering the rehearsal with wit, interesting asides, and an effortless command of the room.
  4. A senior leader chairing a difficult and fractious meeting with consummate calm and professionalism. Reading the emotional signals, steering the conversation gently, and drawing things to a close with firm but good-humoured authority.
  5. A 10-year-old pupil, and non-native English speaker, reading out the letters of words with high-speed perfection: onomatopoeia, sesquipedalian, vicissitudes... This in front of eight-hundred people and without the slightest twinge of nervousness.
  6. A Year 12 girl playing the cello with such feeling and emotion that a room of full of excited teenagers was left silenced and covered in goose-bumps.
  7. The furrowed brow of an Upper Sixth further mathematician, who 'thinks she's found a mistake on the exam paper'.
  8. A Y11 boy, no notes in hand - and seemingly no preparation, commanding a room for a full ten minutes with the most remarkable piece of oratory I have ever seen or heard. Truly world-class. Unbelievable.
  9. An evening lecture given by a history of art teacher - a modest and quiet man, near retirement and never having put himself forward for high office. Everyone left that room - myself very much included - with their eyes opened to huge new vistas of knowledge, desperate to know more. 
There's my little selection. I'd love to know yours.

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Thursday, 8 October 2020

Does it make the car go faster?


Frank Williams, founder of the Williams Formula One team, purportedly used to ask this question of any proposed change or innovation:

Does it make the car go faster? 

I love the simplicity of this. It encourages a laser-like focus and chimes with Occam's Razor one of my favourite management heuristics.

Too often in schools, we get distracted by things that don't matter: things that either make no difference to the main effort or that positively detract from it. The recent work I've been doing on Harrow Bangkok's vision and mission has really brought this home to me. 

If staff are doing things that don't contribute to the mission, then they should be told/allowed to stop. An educational equivalent of William's aphorism might be:

Does this help children learn?

Apply that question to everything you do in school do and see what you're left with. It's quite a humbling exercise.


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