piatok 29. januára 2016

The Spirit of Community

The Pavilion of Winchester College

Warning: Intro contains concepts (possibly) geeky and too British
A groundsman is a mysterious human-like entity originating on the Isles. A groundsman is invariably male, and their perceived age vary between late teenage and weather-worn elder. They prosper in the countryside, although some have founds their good living conditions in cities. In this aspect groundsmen resemble vodniks (the vodyanoi) - though their cohabitation with humans is peaceful and they go largely unrecognised.
Groundsman have found their unique niche as keepers of sports grounds. Their skills at ensuring grass grows orderly in all seasons, soil dries or keeps moist and persuading moles and their relatives to move away from the grounds are unrivalled. These - apparently mystical powers - have earned groundsmen respect and sometimes reverence by humans. Curiously, even the arrogant and irreverent sports people (including footballers!) have been known to pay homage to groundsmen.

The Groundsman of Winchester College has decided to retire recently. Yesterday the College community gathered to express their thanks for 46 years for work and care. And what a gathering it was! Headmaster, gardeners, Second Master, sports people, Bursar, fund-raisers, secretaries and assistants past and present... Some in their suits, others in work clothes, some with their dogs.

There was tea, sandwiches, snacks and a dry witty speech of thanks by the Bursar. The groundsman then said a few words of his own. Funnily enough many people believed the gathering was so large because the Groundsman served for such unprecedented span of time. I beg to differ: they have come (some from hospital) to pay homage to a man who earned their affection and respect by his work and commitment. If one wanted to witness the bonds within Winchester College community, this was the chance.

Somewhat geeky addendum
If you have heard of the ball-tracking (Hawk-eye) technology in sports, you might like to know it originated in this part of the world - Hampshire. The cricket grounds around Winchester were the place of first tests of this technology. This just confirms the obvious - Winchester College groundsman was not just an ordinary man, a mere glorified gardener working on football pitch...

streda 27. januára 2016

Curiosity and exercising judgement

An exciting book based on John's work with British Olympiad team.
During the prep session on Monday morning, I overheard this:
JPC: You're not going away to use a computer, are you?
S: I am, sir.
JPC: Are you required to use a computer?
S: No, sir.
JPC: Why do you need it then?
S: Sir, I want to run a chemistry simulation on ...
JPS: Okie, dokie.
It would have been much easier to say no - especially as the conversation took place in the Mugging Hall with all Y1 and Y2 students present. Relenting also required (I dare say) changing you the initial attitude.

"I guess we are physicists because we like thinking about problems. Some people don't. But I do enjoy keeping an interesting problem in my mind for free time, or for holidays. I try to solve it then. And yes, sometimes we get caught thinking about one of them. You were thinking about physics weren't you?"
I am still not sure what makes a physicist, but I admit I have been guilty of thinking too much. Often. I quite like it, though.

pondelok 25. januára 2016

Rules - creating, and communicating

Imagine these contain school rules! (source: wikimedia commons)
Internal school rules are unloved. In spite of that, they (have to) exist. A very practical question is how to draft and communicate them.

I have seen a bit of fighting in schools about rules. The reasons were simple: either the rules were drafted badly, not communicated well, or they were simply too many. (I leave aside the sad case where rules are ignored by both teachers and students in tacit agreement and other similar cases of institutionalised hypocrisy.)

I saw part of the process at Winchester College. I have mentioned do not be seen, do not be heard phone rule at Winchester before. Apparently a related malaise (being shut off) can be linked to using phones and headphones for listening to music. A few people raised concerns about this, and action was taken. I cannot track the whole process, but I am aware of these steps:

  1. Headphones were identified as something a problem.
  2. Their use was reviewed in light of existing rules, and their spirit.
  3. A clarification on their use (oh, England!) was drafted by school leadership.
  4. House Prefects (representing students) were consulted and listened to.
  5. Housemasters (senior faculty) were briefed and consulted.
  6. Housemasters were asked to brief students in their houses.
  7. School Faculty will be briefed and the rule will be enforced (expected in future).
Headphones are not the most important educational issue. Still, serious attention was paid to it by the Winchester College leadership in order for the effect to be positive - and that included Second Master and Principal working on this.

Good culture is built on attention to detail. Winchester College has shown some of theirs. I suppose one could take a leaf out of their book.
Update (evening): I witnessed the reaction to announcement of the rule in one of the houses. Nor enthusiastic, nor supportive, but measured.

piatok 22. januára 2016

Fancy fooling around with a hammer?

P.R.: Winchester College Mill
Design and Technology guru Simon Tarrant told me a fascinating story. He had students work on experimental design. Do it on your own, use any tools, any available materials. Do not over-think it. Use a prep session to reflect on application of what you were doing. Tell the rest of the class what you have done afterwards.  

A student gets a bamboo stick. Boys like sticks, and he comes into class with it. Eventually he decides to paint it black: a black bamboo stick is definitely more impressive. Next class as there is little you can do with the stick further he starts playing with styrofoam. (I am not sure it was the trademark variety.) Perhaps he finds it less exciting than the stick, so he switches to arduino chips next time. He does some work with them, learns to set up a few basic things. Then time to present their small project to others comes. The boy stands up and says: I have a simple tool for detecting floods. Take a bamboo stick, styrofoam, and an arduino...

There are two aspects I find notable in this story. The channelling of enthusiasm (yes, stick!) was an important factor. The other was the need to do reflection.

štvrtok 21. januára 2016

Music makes world smaller (v2)

I heard Nicholas Wilks, the Second Master (Deputy Head) of Winchester, speak about the existential dilemmas of heroines in the novels of George Eliot to students in the Chapel yesterday. Little did I know we would talk about music and life the following day. This version of the text also includes corrections that Mr Nicholas graciously offered.

I did conduct that concert in Rudolfinum in Prague in Augsut 2004. I was then Musical Director of the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra. We were not sure if we would get a good audience - you never really know with youth orchestra concerts. We had a good crowd  in the end.

I was not at Winchester College then. In fact, I joined Winchester as Master of Music the following autumn.

Back in 1998 the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra also went to South Africa. We were the first British youth orchestra to do so after the fall of apartheid.

Winchester College pupils have also visited South Africa (we took St Michael’s Choir our junior chapel choir there in 2006) and we have taken two trips to Colombia (Bogota and Cartagena), and played with their youth orchestras on a few occasions. One of the community concerts started half an hour late, and somebody selling ice creams in the square outside the church kept hitting bells outside every now and then. Still, it was great concert.

I read English at university, then took on a post-graduate teaching course in London. Eventually, I decided to study music - conducting. I was not sure what I wanted to focus on, but did I want to study music. I taught part-time to support myself while studying music - these were busy days. I think it is right to do what excites you. Applying for the post of the Director of Music here was one such thing. Becoming Second Master has been another wonderful opportunity to explore new and exciting possibilities in the field of education.

Music is excellent for building and maintaining focus. You cannot be on your phone when listening to music – it needs all your attention. It also builds endurance and resilience. Whenever my youth orchestra players complained about their workload, I could point to their South American counterparts who travel miles across Bogota to practice for 2-3 hours every single day.

People have been trying to improve the lives kids living in Raplock, Stirling through involving them in the youth orchestra programme based on the Venezuelan model, El Sistema. Some cynical newspaper reports speculated when this project was set up that giving musical instruments to those kids would result in them selling them immediately and using the proceeds to buy drugs. How wrong they have been proved. This has not happened, and the lives of the children and their families have been transformed through the sense of mutual co-operation and respect which music generates.  

Music offers a unique means of communication. It is a very different way - especially in education, which tends to be exclusively verbal. Music is not: you communicate through notes, through music. Also, whenever you play with others, you need to get it right together, to listen, to cooperate. These are wonderfully rewarding disciplines. And then there is the audience. Music is your way of communicating with them. This is a two-way street: you give them music, they give you something back. Good musicians will always be listening to their audience as much as the audience is listening to them. 
St Michael’s Choir, Winchester College,  in South Africa

utorok 19. januára 2016

Staggered access to technology for students?

I guess I am not the only person who has trouble keeping focus in the digital age. Our work on desktops and laptops involves roughly a dozen open browser tabs (I have only 8 now), with music often on. In many cases, getting away from the computer and being involved in the real interaction with real people helps to break that pattern or at least it used to. Smart phones with data packages have changed that somewhat. When I feel I am bored or have twenty seconds to spare, I inexorably tend to check emails or news. While people tell me I should not consider myself a yardstick for anyone, I do think I am part of the mainstream in this.

Phones are a particular blight in education. A distraction, a tool for cheating, a gateway to cyber and real-world harm and at the same time small, portable and with practically unlimited power. (If you feel like doubting this, know that students will carry power bank on treks to keep their smartphones alive.) I do not ignore the positives they bring, yet I am afraid the overall balance might not be positive.

Winchester College implements a consistent policy of staggering access to electronic devices for its students. Youngest students get their phones for a very limited time a day, and are not allowed to use laptops. Correspondingly, they are not assigned work that requires the use of a computer. Older students can use laptops and are allowed to use phones more. However, since phones are particularly disruptive (imagine a phone call), cannot be seen, cannot be heard policy is applied on campus, as well as in the Houses.

The implementation of rules like those is not easy. What would you do about electronic readers ("kindles")? Which types or models qualify as a pure reader (educators approve of them), and which as a tablet (educators are not fans at all).

Oh, the joys of technology! (The author has a laptop, smart phone, a dumb phone and two kindles on his Winchester trip.)

pondelok 18. januára 2016

A chat with Lars Rokkjaer

We met the Danish educator, education innovator and negotiator Lars Rokkjaer almost two months back, so confabulation will fill in some blanks. This piece thus does not aspire to accuracy.

My impressions of L.R.
Distant. Pensive. Idiosyncratic. Reflective. Intense. Positive

Current educational philosophy and its historical roots
Because of our culture (e.g. Soren Kierkegaard), we believe in giving choice to pupils and students, as well as in making sure they understand the responsibility their choices bear. If you do feel (prepared) to participate in a class (due to emotions, motivation), we respect your decision to stay out. If you are in, you show your willingness to learn and contribute.

Connection to self-knowledge and self-awareness
Such approach involves self-knowledge, and we nurture this in our whole curriculum.

State and education in the Protestant tradition
We (the Danish) have always believed that the state cannot control the whole education system. As a result, since 19th century our laws have allowed independent schools to open.

My memory seems to echo make sure you know what you are doing and why.

Education and negotiations
I make effort understand them – as humans – and then their interests. When they recognise that, we can look for a solution.

Thanks to Ľubka V. for connecting us with Lars.