Thursday, 28 March 2013

Welcome to the New Jerusalem

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
(William Blake, 1804)

The year is 2013 and it’s Eastertime again, the season when most of us heed the call to purchase gaudily packaged chocolate eggs and only dimly recollect that great heroic act of self-sacrifice at Golgotha upon which the entire Christian faith is founded.

So with the recent appointment of Justin Welby as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, there is predictably much talk of the challenges that will face him as leader of the Church of England in an increasingly secular society.

According to the 2001 Census, 71% of people described themselves as Christian, thus allowing the Church to claim that Britain was still a "Christian country". However, this figure had diminished to 59% by 2011. When combined with the 2007 survey by the Christian charity Tearfund which suggested that only 10% of the UK population attend church on a weekly basis, one might be forgiven for concluding that Christianity is in terminal decline.

This downward trend in Christian observance also seems to be an integral feature within our schools. A 2011 survey conducted on behalf of BBC local radio discovered that 64% of the 500 parents surveyed reported that their children did not attend daily acts of collective worship as is required by law in all maintained schools in England.

But ironically, even if the statistics seem to suggest that we are losing our sense of godliness and are resigned to viewing ourselves merely as consumers and producers rather than spiritual beings, Christian ideals are more deeply enshrined within our political and social structures than ever before. Owing to a system of taxation which redistributes wealth by enforcing that those with a sufficient income contribute to the well-being of those who have little or none, our society can proudly boast the following unprecedented moral achievements:

• A free state education system
• The NHS
• The Health and Safety Executive
• Social services
• Social security
• Old Age Pensions
• An impartial judiciary guaranteeing civil liberties
• An impartial police force
• Universal suffrage and free and fair elections
• Freedom of speech
• Multiculturalism
• A whole raft of legislation designed to outlaw any type of prejudice or discrimination based on such factors as race, religion, age, gender or disability

And, of course, the list could go on!

Admittedly, none of the above accomplishments has reached perfection, and unfairness and inequality are still rife within our society. But just take a moment to consider what life was like for ordinary families, say, 150 years ago when the percentage of the population who regularly attended church was considerably higher.

Actually, it’s not difficult to find such a window into the past. The misery and hardships of the millions of Victorian poor are amply mirrored by the miseries and hardships of the many hundreds of millions of men, women and children who tragically struggle for survival on or below the poverty line in the developing countries of today.

It has taken a long time for humanity to reach the moral pinnacle of the modern welfare state and, although too often derided, the social progress that we have attained is more impressive than any of the obviously flashier displays of human triumph such as the Internet, satellites or the ‘man on the Moon’.

Sadly, our ultra-civilised civilisation, our New Jerusalem, is built on the edge of a precipice. The prosperity which funds all of our great humanitarian endeavours has been created through technological innovations which have enabled us to harvest ever more of the Earth’s resources. Unfortunately, this same exploitation of our once “green and pleasant” planet stands on the verge of destroying it, global warming being just one such imminent threat. Technology may yet come to our salvation, but it all hangs in an uncomfortably delicate balance.

Nevertheless, it does seem a peculiar paradox that as our society becomes ever more compassionate, God seems to have become increasingly more remote.

So what is the spiritual state of the nation that faces our new Archbishop? Secular? Perhaps. Unchristian? Certainly not!

In the words of William Cowper, another of our highly celebrated English poets, 'God moves in mysterious ways…'

Activities for Secondary R.E., P.S.H.E. and English

Read the above article with your students and then use the following list of questions as stimulus for a class discussion and/or individual/paired research.

If conducting research, each individual or group might focus on just one or two of the issues below in order to provide for a more informed class debate.

1. Does religion have any place in a modern society? Does it matter if we don’t see ourselves as spiritual beings anymore?
2. Is the United Kingdom a ‘Christian country’? Explain your reasons.
3. Do you think of Easter as primarily a religious or secular holiday?
4. Should schools encourage acts of collective Christian worships – e.g. religious assemblies? Explain your reasons.
5. Is there such a thing as the meaning of life? If so, what do you think it is?
6. Which of Christ’s teachings are enshrined within our social structures?

Peter Morrisson

Monday, 25 March 2013

Sociology - Keeping students challenged

Currently in school I am co-leading staff CPD on ‘Challenge’ across the curriculum. The focus of this project is raising the level of challenge for students at all stages of the lesson.

We are using Mike Hughes’ 4 part lesson structure as a basis for this – Context and Challenge, Receiving New Information, Making Sense of Information and Reflecting and Reviewing. By using a range of activities the aim is that throughout the 4 stages (which can of course repeat during one lesson, or span a series of lessons) the level of challenge will be ‘flowing’ with the students actively involved in their learning.
So, how do we get our Sociologists into the ‘Flow’? The key is perhaps variety, but also getting them involved in the process by using learning language to introduce tasks. For example: “Use page 117, Read the section on Racism in Wider Society, then:

1. Translate John Rex’s idea into a picture;
2. Summarise Noon’s study into no more than 20 words.” Instead of saying: “Read page 117 and make notes.”

The idea being that the students are then more actively involved in the process, and are ‘making sense’ of the information. I like this strategy as it takes seconds to alter the wording of tasks in this way! Others to try might be Reduce x into no more than x words; Identify the most important argument from the paragraph; Transform the theory into a flow chart.
A few other ideas:

Placemat Consensus: I used this for Secularisation on A2. Students draw a grid (avoids printer issues!) as below, in a 4 each student takes a section and adds as many ideas as they can in answer to a given question (eg. Is Secularisation happening worldwide?). The group then share their ideas and come to a ‘consensus’ about which are the best / most popular / most important / common and put them in the middle to feedback to the class.

Washing Line – tie some string between two chairs or two plastic bottles, the students can either write key info on post-its or you can provide them with info in small pieces, they then need to paper-clip them onto the washing line in order of importance / how much impact factors have / which sociologists most accurate etc. This activity can also be done as an opinion line, with each student representing a factor to save resources, or simply lining up according to their opinion on a question and justifying their place.

Build a Body – this is a good way of practising note-making and research skills but they think it’s something much more exciting…. Using some large paper, students are in groups and they draw around one group member. They then need to ‘annotate’ the body with the relevant information summarised from text books etc, along the way they need to prioritise the information, placing the most important/relevant info or factors with most impact, at the head and so on. This could work well for factors influencing educational achievement at AS, eg ‘Which factors both in and out of school would influence a Pakistani working class girl and her GCSE scores.’

Esther Zarifi
Esther Zarifi has taught RE (Philosophy and Ethics) and Sociology for 8 years at a 13-18 school in a small town outside Newcastle upon Tyne.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Business: Tips for students studying AQA Unit 3: Strategies for Success

AQA Unit 3: ‘Strategies for Success’ requires A-Level students to have a full understanding of strategy in terms of finance, marketing, operations and human resources. Typically the case will be based upon a strategic decision that the business might take. The theory behind the exam is extensive; however, the following are a few key areas that from my experience need to be pushed heavily with students.

1. Making effective use of the case study is paramount. I would expect no student to even attempt the questions before understanding the real underlying issues from the case study. The use of well-placed selective arguments focused on the question means that students should spend around 10-15 minutes really understanding the case study before attempting to answer even the first question. Students need this time to plan and become more selective in identifying their key points. The use of a SWOT analysis has been particularly effective in previous years. I have often asked students to place an ‘S’ next to case evidence where a competitive advantage can be seen, an ‘W’ next to internal factors of weakness that may provide them with a competitive disadvantage, an ‘O’ next to external opportunities and a ‘T’ next to those threats that are outside of the control of the business. The need to be really selective is vital. What are the main issues that really jump out at you? Students will need to only select a few points here for deeper analysis. Often I have asked my group to break the question down and catalogue the elements of the case study in list format in terms of importance that most precisely provide the examiner with what they are looking for.

2. Often a case will ask you whether to adopt a plan or not. Possibly as with many past papers, a new management team has been installed in the business to provide a new strategic focus. Students must be able to assess the likelihood of that particular plan becoming a success. Drill down into areas of the case looking at liquidity, cash flow, Ansoffs matrix, profitability, efficiency, management capability, and competitive offering amongst other areas. With my groups previously, I have asked them to ‘reverse engineer’ the question, by simply asking them ‘What should you not include in the answer?’ By asking my business students this question it allows for a discussion within the group as to what are the most important aspects of the case, by breaking down those elements that are of least importance.

3. When completing Ratios or Investment Appraisal, students must take account of the case study and its qualitative theory and not just the quantative data that is produced from completing a formula. Of course it is vital that students can quickly and efficiently calculate ARR, Payback and NPV and provide understanding of theory behind the methods. However, their work must always be supported with the written case. For example, a student may say an organisation with above 50% gearing is overly leveraged with debt, but have they truly considered the main aims and objectives of the firm. What type of organisation are they? Many firms are able to work with high levels of gearing and this can even provide benefits for shareholders.

4. The impact of external market forces will run through the exam like a stick of rock as the case study will focus on attractiveness of the market. Students will need to have a real understanding of the influence of such forces. Accordingly, as students prepare their revision it is vital that they focus on the role of Porter’s five forces model and bring in the underlying economic drivers that will shape the market within the case study. There are plenty of great materials online for students to develop their understanding of Michael Porter; in particular the following video from Harvard Business is an excellent resource:

5. Often I have found that those middle learners who are prone to use generality and unstructured responses need to be shown how to retain focus in their answers. In particular, these students must be required to plan all of their answers before getting stuck in. This often allows them to keep their responses in the context of the case study. In particular, with the final question students must not ‘sit on the fence’. Recommendations are often the most difficult for these students as occasionally they lack the confidence here to deliver a final decision. A lesson spent on the final question only is often a lesson well spent.

Daniel Baker

Monday, 18 March 2013

Secondary Maths - Visualising the Mean

I was working recently with Mr Davaasuren. He had written some teaching material about averages and we were looking together at what he had done. We discussed some of the issues involved in helping students to understand about mode, median, mean and range.
The next morning we met again and he asked if I would like to see the model he had made the night before. You can see it in the photograph

It consists of six transparent vertical tubes with a scale next to each one. The tubes are all connected via a further horizontal tube at the bottom. 

The tubes can be filled with coloured water and there is a stopper to go in the top of each one. Mr Davaasuren carved the stoppers from erasers.

This is how it works. Suppose you have the six numbers, say 16, 18, 12, 7, 16 and 9.

First fill the tubes to the level of the lowest number, in this case 7. Since they are all connected they will all fill to the same level.

Put a stopper in the fourth tube. The level of this will stay at 7. Add liquid to bring the rest up to 9. Stopper the sixth tube. Continue in this way until the levels in each tube are the six numbers in order and there is a stopper in each tube.

First we can demonstrate the range. It is simply the difference between the highest and lowest levels.

Next the mode. There are two tubes at the same level, so that is the mode.

Next the median. Find the highest and the lowest (18 and 7) and “discard” those. That leaves 16, 12, 9 and 16. Now discard the highest and lowest of those (one of the 16s and 9). That leaves the 12 and a 16. The median is halfway between the two. We can find this by removing the stoppers from those two tubes. The levels will even up so that they are both on 14.

Finally the mean. Remove all the stoppers and the liquid in every tube will adjust to the same level – 13 – and this is the mean.

Isn’t that brilliant? Range, mode, median and mean all demonstrated at the same time. Along the way it shows why the mode might not be a good choice of average and the fact that the median for an even set of numbers if the mean of the two middle numbers.

You could also use it to discuss what happens if you change the scales. Suppose, for example, you add 10 to every number on each scale. How does that affect the range, mode, median and mean? What if you add a different number? What happens if you multiply every number by 2? Or some other number?

Mr Davaasuren intends to make a video of his Mean Machine in action and put it on a website so that teachers will be able to show it in their classrooms. Unfortunately the website is in Mongolian and unless you have a working knowledge of that language you will have difficulty using it. On the other hand, if you have some plastic tubing laying around in your garage you might be able to make your own Mean Machine.

Students often find it hard to understand why the mean is defined in the way it is. I think this visualisation of evening out the different levels is a superb way to visualise it. It made me wonder if there are other tricky mathematical topics which could be explained easily if we just had the right visual aid. Any suggestions anybody?

Chris Pearce

Monday, 11 March 2013

Law - Using Forums to Build Students’ Analytical Skills

For this activity you will need:
  • Access to an VLE such as Moodle
  • A group of willing students.
  • The 'carrot' in the activity is the idea that whatever comes out of the forums will form the basis for the students own individual essays or assessments which follow on form the Forum.
When opening any Forum for use in an educational context it is wise to set ground rules.

My Own Ground Rules for Working In Forums
  • The forum is to be time-limited. After the allocated time it will be made available as an archive but not for on-going contributions. This gives a sense of urgency to the task.
  • All students must participate and make at least (three) postings. You can tell students that part of the overall assessment grade will depend on their contribution in the forum.
  • A posting can be an original idea or a development of another students posting.
  • All postings, being public, must show a certain level of respect and be generally supportive. Any criticism must not be personalised or sarcastic, etc.
Example Task

Often it works best to take students into a computer room for the initial launch of the forum. This will definitely speed things up and hopefully create the  initial ‘buzz’ needed for students to return to the forum in their own time.

Teacher ‘seeds’ the forum with some initial comments and questions.

From my own subject - law - on a topic of reforming the law or murder I might ask:
  • How satisfactory is it that we are relying on an ancient definition of such a serious crime?
  • What issues are there arising from the definition?
  • Is the Mens Rea for murder clear?
  • What about recent cases about assisting a loved one to die or euthanasia – how satisfactory is the law?
  • How might we consider reforming the law?
And so on...

Each prompt forms a thread within the Forum and students join in as many threads are they are willing and able to join.

Advantages of this Technique

  • It leaves a permanent record of a discussion.
  • It allows students to construct their own knowledge according to their own interest.
  • It allows students across several groups to collaborate when they would normally be limited to the class group.
  • It allows students to add in comments at any time.

The technique allows students to work collaboratively for a limited period of time and then use the resource to build an Individual piece of work. It works.

Nigel Briggs

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Prose poetry: comparing texts

On the blog this week is a very modern exemplar of that unusual genre of literature, the prose poem. The term originates from the famous French poet, Baudelaire, who described his 1869 publication, ‘Paris Spleen’, as ‘Little Poems in Prose’.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a prose poem as: "a work in prose that has some of the technical or literary qualities of a poem (such as regular rhythm, definitely patterned structure, or emotional or imaginative heightening) but that is set on a page as prose."

‘Chessiderata’ opens with a deliberate parody of Max Ehrmann’s famous prose poem, 'Desiderata'. Both pieces are overtly philosophical but whereas ‘Desiderata’ offers an unashamedly optimistic perspective on the Universe, ‘Chessiderata’ explores the darker side of life through the medium of the ancient war game of chess.

You might wish to read both of these texts with your students and then ask them to:

  1. Analyse the ways in which ‘Chessiderata’ conforms to the prose poem genre.
  2. Explain how the title, ‘Chessiderata’, and the accompanying picture are effective and how they link to the text.
  3. Explain some of the thoughts and feelings that the author of ‘Chessiderata’ expresses about life.
  4. Compare ‘Chessiderata’ with ‘Desiderata’ in terms of attitudes, use of language and structure.
  5. Write a prose poem of your own in which you reflect upon an aspect of life which is of fundamental importance to you.

Copyright Brian Mitchell
This activity can be used to introduce students at KS3 to different types of literature and extend their abilities as critical readers. It is also suitable as preparation for the comparative and analytical components of GCSE.

Download: Chessiderata

Read: Desiderata

Peter Morrisson

Peter Morrisson is a teacher, author and director of animated films. He currently lectures at the Isle of Man College of Further and Higher Education.