Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Transforming Learning in a Millennial World

My keynote presentation at the BSME Annual Conference held at Yas Marina Conference Centre in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday 20th March 2019

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil - Book Summary

This is a very important book that seeks to call to account algorithm-based automated computer systems which are increasingly making decisions about a whole range of aspects of our lives. With a Harvard Doctorate in algebraic number theory, Cathy O’Neill has an insider’s of view of WMDs, having both lectured on the subject and subsequently worked for a Hedge Fund on Wall Street at the time of the 2008 crash. 
The central theme is that those designing these systems which Cathy O’Neill wittily dubs Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs) often set out with the best of intentions but that they are often very flawed. WMDs often promise efficiency, fairness and freedom from human prejudice, but in practice sacrifice fairness, justice and equality on the altars on efficiency and profit. 
The book has a simple structure working through how WMDs are making (flawed) decisions about: 
  • Banking 
  • University Entrance 
  • Online Advertising 
  • Policing and Justice 
  • Job Recruitment 
  • Hours of Employment and Shift Patterns 
  • Credit Ratings • Getting Insurance 
  • Political Elections and Social Media Advertising Campaigns 
Her fundamental criticisms of many of these WMDs are 

  1. they are opaque, 
  2. they don't take into account feedback to improve the mathematical model, and 
  3. they rarely use real data; instead they use proxies. 

The scariest example (of many in the book) was that insurance companies use credit scores as a proxy for careful driving - thus in Florida adults with clean driving records and poor credit scores paid an average of $1,552 more than the same drivers with excellent credit scores and a drunk driving conviction (p.165) Indeed, the whole chapter on credit ratings and how various organisations are using big data to evaluate our credit-worthiness is quite frightening. (Did you know that Facebook patented a type of credit rating based on our social networks? (p.155 – See ‘Could a Bank Deny Your Loan Based on Your Facebook Friends?’ Atlantic Magazine 25/09/2015). 
The losers of so many of these WMDs is that the poor and minorities who are caught in a trap from which they cannot escape, be that policing algorithms which mean that they are more likely to be stop-and-searched; or it recidivism algorithms which give them longer jail sentences, or banking and insurance algorithms which charge them more for credit or insurance cover. 
The book is ultimately a call for greater regulation of WMDs so that there is greater transparency about their assumptions and methods. This is a must read for anyone who believes in a fair civil society.

Monday, 4 March 2019

The Ethics of AI

A theory of Knowledge Lecture given on Monday 4th March 2019 to the Lower Sixth at JESS, Dubai.

Friday, 8 February 2019

“What is it about your nasal cavity that you think will help you get this job?”

First impressions count in interviews, don’t they? Most people make an extra effort with how they dress, fix their hair and do their make-up. We all know that strong posture, firm (but not-too-firm) handshake and eye-contact are the order of the day. But why does this all go out of the window when it comes to interviews on Skype?
In the dozen or so interviews which I have conducted in the past fortnight, I have looked up several noses, looked down on bald patches, spoken to cut-off heads and even been introduced to a cat! Furthermore, it’s difficult to make a connection when candidates are checking out how they look on screen or look as if they are speaking to someone over my left shoulder.
 So, given that Skype interviews are becoming increasingly common - here’s a few dos and don’ts:

  1. Take some time to adjust the height of the camera. Make sure that the screen and camera is at eye-level when you’re sitting down. 
  2. Practise speaking into the camera. Anyone who has done media training knows that the key to coming across as authentic on camera is ‘to look through the lens’. (When I’m doing a Skype interview, I have the camera on a stand just in front of the screen so that when I’m looking at the interviewer’s eyes on screen, I am looking through camera.) 
  3. Don’t sit too close to the camera. There is no reason to sit right at your desk, push back a metre or so – there is less of a sense of invading each other’s space and it makes the whole experience less intense. 
  4. Invest in an Extension Microphone. A USB extension microphone is very cheap – it will improve the sound quality and will allow you to sit further away from the camera. Don’t forget to test the sound levels. 
  5. Think about what’s behind you. A good background can make a positive impression, a busy or untidy one can be a distraction. 
  6. Avoid backlighting. The angelic halo tends to get in the way. 
  7. Never wear a headset. Do I really need to explain why? 
  8. Take time to prepare for the Interview. There’s an element of ritual about face-to-face interviews that prepares candidate for the interview (getting dressed, travel to the school, checking in with Reception, waiting for the interview). Much of this can be lost when you are fitting in a quick interview between lessons or between breakfast and heading to school. Try to arrange the Skype at a time when you have the opportunity to prepare physically and mentally.
  9. Don’t put Post-its around the screen – you wouldn’t have notes at a face-to-face interview, so why do people think that it’s acceptable on Skype? It’s so obvious and shows a lack of confidence.
    Oh, and finally, 
  10. Make sure that you’re fully dressed! You never know what might happen during the call!
This article was published in Tes 08/02/2019 as '10 steps to acing a Skype job interview'

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Mobile Phones in Schools - Letter to the Times

Schools can only do so much in the battle to limit the amount of time that young people spend on mobile phones (‘Ban mobile phone use in schools’ 2nd February 2019). It is parents, not schools, who are responsible for purchasing mobile phones, and, whilst one can accept that children may need to carry a mobile phone as part of their personal safety, there is no need for this to be a smartphone which facilitates full, unfiltered web and social media access. In contrast, where schools allow or supply tablet devices or laptops for educational purposes, responsible institutions usually provide full web-filtering and a device management system that allows the teacher to monitor and take control of the pupil’s tablet.
Yours faithfully,
Mark S. Steed
JESS, Dubai

Published 5th February

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Growth Headset? The Use of VR and AR in Schools

The lift doors closed, and I ascended to the 45th floor. When they opened again, it was not to the ubiquitous corridor, but to a plank extending out from the building. It was a test: did I have the nerve to walk out there? I was experiencing acute anxiety and the inevitable vertigo associated with looking down from a skyscraper. I froze – I could not leave the safety of the lift. I was simply terrified. I had failed. So I removed the headset.

The Power of VR

It was at this point that I realised the power of Virtual Reality. Part of my brain knew that I was in the safety of a classroom room in the Sixth form block at my school and that the plank, in reality, was an expanse of carpet extending in front of me. Despite knowing that I was in no immediate danger, I was terrified. My senses had been hijacked by Virtual Reality and some primal sense of survival deep inside me had kicked in and try as I might I could not overcome it. The ‘Plank Experience’ has been part of our IB Diploma Psychology unit on fear and anxiety for a couple of years now. It is an extraordinary way of approaching the topic. It is one of many examples of how Virtual Reality is transforming the classroom experience of pupils.

Trips in VR

At a very basic level, Virtual Reality gives almost limitless scope for teachers to take pupils on trips anywhere in the world without leaving the grounds. A class can visit China and experience what it is like to walk up and down the crumbling steps of the Great Wall, they can take a stroll along Wall Street, gasp at the view from the top of the Burj Khalifa, or even dive the Great Barrier Reef. In the past six months, Year 7 went to Africa, Year 3 have been to the Pyramids, Year 4 visited the Vikings, Year 5 went to Ancient Greece and Year 1 even travelled into Space. All these ‘school trips’ are available in the classroom within a matter of minutes – a further bonus is that there’s no disruption to the curriculum, no additional paperwork, no buses to order, and the hi-vis jackets can stay in the cupboard. 
Over the past twenty years, we have seen videos, DVDs, classroom projectors, interactive whiteboards, 3D projectors and computer games recruited to improve the learning experience of pupils. So, is Virtual Reality just the latest in that long line of new technologies which teachers harnessed in the service of education? Is it just another gimmick to grab the attention of a new generation? It is understandable that teachers and school leaders are sceptical.

Research-backed Pedagogy

We know that each invention that is deployed in schools requires the development of an effective pedagogy which enables teachers to get the most out of the new technology. This, in turn, poses several important questions about the value and effectiveness of the new technology in promoting learning, understanding, empathy and in improving learning outcomes. With the luxury of hindsight, too many schools deployed new technologies without really knowing what they were doing or why they were doing it. History teaches us that effective implementation is facilitated by twin drivers of collaboration and research. With this in mind, the Independent Schools Council Digital Strategy Group launched an action research project last spring. The study was managed by Ian Phillips, Assistant Headteacher at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School (@IanHabs) and involved teachers and pupils from seven schools completing questionnaires and interviews on the impact of the introduction of Virtual Reality into the classroom. 

The results of the study were published in November as Growth Headset: Exploring the use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Schools written by Dr James Mannion (@RethinkingJames). The most common theme to emerge from the research was that Virtual Reality technology can be used to facilitate learning in two ways: first, through visualisation and seeing in 3-D; and, secondly, by providing an interactive and more immersive learning environment which makes topics more memorable compared to textbooks. Whilst some teachers in the study expressed concerns about the logistics of using Virtual Reality in the classroom, the majority of students and teachers were able to share examples of where they felt using Virtual Reality had had a positive impact on learning, or where it is likely to have a positive impact on learning in the future. Thus, the Growth Headset report provides some initial insight into how Virtual Reality might be deployed in schools and seeks to answer some of the important questions about the place that this technology might play in schools over the coming years.

The verdict

The use of Virtual Reality in the classroom is still in its infancy but there are already signs that this is a much more powerful technology than its more passive predecessors. The lessons from the pioneers is that VR is not just another way of conveying information, but there is something distinctively powerful about the fact that the viewer is in control. This makes the experience active and so immersive that they evoke an emotional as well as a rational response. 
Virtual Reality allows the teacher to put a young person into the shoes of another person. Early adopters are divided over whether or not Virtual Reality is what Chris Milk in his TED Talk describes as the ‘ultimate empathy machine’ . Some believe that Virtual Reality has huge potential to foster greater awareness of what it is like to be a refugee or live with a disability; and that its contribution to the educational armoury will be as an effective tool for teaching empathy, a trait so often lacking in teenagers. However, some respondents in the ISC Research project expressed scepticism, as can be seen in the following exchange: 
 I’ve heard a lot of positive things about the creation of empathy, and I am very sceptical about that… [they say] it's a wonderful experience to be able to teach students to be empathetic like what's it like to live in a slum. And I feel that they just can't be right because it's a bit like giving someone a seat and saying “this is what it's like to not be able to use your legs”, or “this is what it feels like to not be able to hear”. The students will never be able to know that because that's something that's really personal and I think that we dumb down the experience by suggesting that in any way we can replicate it. It might give an insight, but it doesn't create empathy in and of itself. 

Best Practice

Going forward, we need to develop policies and protocols to disseminate best practice. For example, at JESS, we have found (the hard way) that primary children are best using Virtual Reality headsets sitting down and that that they hold the viewer to their eyes, rather than being strapped on, so that they can disengage from the experience more easily. Furthermore, as my lift experience illustrates, Virtual Reality is a very powerful tool which can elicit a whole range of emotional responses from the participants and thus needs to be used with care. Teachers need to be sensitive and alert to the potential that the experience of ‘going over the top’ from a First World War trench might be so real that it is traumatic. Lessons need to be planned so that there is time to allow children to talk about their experiences and to ‘decompress’ before heading off to their next lesson. 
One of the determining factors in whether or not Virtual Reality has an impact on wider schooling will be the extent to which industry can supply a broad range of high-quality content that starts with the curriculum rather than teachers having to appropriate apps for use in the classroom. As with so many new technologies, educational priorities must drive the technological ones. Without this, it is likely that the adoption of Virtual Reality in schools remains the preserve of a few schools with dedicated enthusiasts. 

This article was published in Tes on 29/01/2019 as Virtual reality: not the edu-fad it is made out to be?

Saturday, 26 January 2019

A Short Guide to Overseas Teaching Contracts

As more teachers consider a time working abroad, here's a simple guide to how teaching contracts work in international schools and some insights into what to look for before signing on the dotted line . . . . 
  1. Fixed Term Contracts are the norm – most international schools offer an initial contract of two years which can be renewed either annually or every two years. But be aware that there is not the same job security overseas as there is the UK, although in some countries ex-pats do accrue more employment rights after a period of time (often 5 years). It is usual for there to be a number penalties if the teacher breaks contract by not completing the agreed period, such as a penalty of a month’s salary and the right to any end of service benefits. 
  2. Beware the difference between “Overseas” and “Local” Contracts. “Overseas Contracts” are contracts where the teacher gets a salary and also receives a benefits package (flights, medical, housing etc. – see below); whereas teachers on a “Local Contract” will only get the salary. Local contracts are a way in which schools can save money by employing the spouse of someone who is working in the country who has a full overseas package. Teachers should make sure that they are clear about the nature of the terms of the job offer before they sign a contract.
  3. How does Sponsorship work? Many countries overseas have a requirement that the employee has to be sponsored in order to get a residency or work visa. The School will usually sponsor teachers, unless they are sponsored by their spouse (as in the case of a local contract). Any teacher who has a spouse or children should check whether the school will sponsor their family or whether the teacher will be responsible for them, which can be an additional cost. 
  4. Is there a Pension? What are the End of Service Benefits? Teachers working in the UK benefit from a pension scheme to which both the teacher and the school contribute - this is not the case overseas. Instead, teachers are paid a “gratuity” or lump sum on completing their contract (some countries pay this at the end of each contract, some pay it at the end of service). Typically, the gratuity is worth 3 weeks or a month’s salary for each year of service. Beware that this is usually only calculated on basic salary and not on any bonuses or other allowances.
  5. What should I look for in a Benefits Package? There are five key benefits which any teacher moving overseas should consider. 
    1) Medical Insurance – Coming from a country where private medicine is a luxury, it is easy to forget that ex-pats are responsible for putting their own medical insurance in place. Schools will usually pay for this – indeed in many countries it is a requirement for employees to provide a basic level of cover. However, it is worth new teachers getting details of the insurance provision and ensuring that this is adequate. Anyone moving abroad with a family should check that the school’s medical provision for dependants is sufficient. 
    2) Accommodation Allowance – Some schools will provide school accommodation, at least for the first year of contract. Thereafter many offer an “Accommodation Allowance” - It is worth doing some research into what level of accommodation the housing allowance can afford. 
    3) School fees for Children – Unlike the UK, most educational systems overseas are fee-paying and the costs can be quite considerable. Most international schools give either a significant discount (75%+) or up to two free places for children of teachers in the school. Anyone moving abroad with a family should do the sums before they sign a contract. 
    4) Flight Allowances - It is usual for international schools to pay for the flight out at the start of the contract and the flight home at the end. Beware that, in many countries, the return flight will not be paid if the teacher breaks contract or moves to a different school in the same country. Furthermore, most schools will provide an annual flight allowance to allow the teacher to return home each summer. 
    5) Relocation allowance. Moving overseas can be very expensive. In addition to flights, some schools will provide an allowance for shipping personal items and even furniture. The old adage “time spent in reconnaissance is rarely wasted” is ever true. Although some international schools are beacons of best practice, it is a world with less regulation, and sharp practice is not uncommon. For example, some will increase bonuses and allowances in order to keep the basic salary low, in order to pay out a reduced gratuity at the end of service. 
Anyone looking to move abroad should do his/her “due diligence”: find out about the country and research the school. Teachers heading to British curriculum schools overseas would be well advised to move to schools which are in COBIS membership and have a British Schools Overseas (BSO) Inspection report.

This article was published in Tes 'What you need to know about overseas teaching contracts ' 26/01/2019

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Some tips on how to get a job in a British School Overseas.

January is the time when teachers in International schools need to decide whether or not to extend their contracts and that’s the reason why this week’s Tes is flooded with advertisements for international school posts for a September start. Here's some insights into the questions that International schools will be asking themselves when shortlisting and interviewing.

  1. ‘Will this candidate cope with the demands of living and working abroad?’ There is little doubt that an overseas posting has additional challenges to working in, say, a different part of the UK. There are significant relocation costs for schools in recruiting a teacher from the UK, so schools will want to be confident that the candidate will complete the (typical) initial two-year contract and not leave the school in the lurch after the first month. Candidates need to show that they are able to cope with living at a significant distance from family and friends. Interviewers undoubtedly find it reassuring when candidates have lived or worked abroad, even if it is only for a few months on a gap year. It can also be helpful if the candidate has some sort of local support network in the form of friends or family working in the same city as the international school. 
  2. ‘Does the candidate know what the city/country is like?’ There is always an element of a leap of faith about moving abroad, but interviewers will want to be satisfied that candidates have done their homework and have some idea of the context to which they are applying. It is undoubtedly an advantage to have visited the city/country even on holiday. Indeed, anyone thinking of moving abroad might want to invest in their relocation project by planning holidays around visiting potential work locations. 
  3. ‘Is the candidate sensitive to cultural differences?’ Anyone living and working abroad needs to be comfortable with having respect for local customs and traditions. This is particularly important in parts of the Middle East where, for example, local attitudes to dress code and to alcohol can be very different to those in the UK. Furthermore, most international schools have culturally diverse student population and teachers need to be able to sensitive to this in the classroom.
  4. ‘Does the candidate have experience of teaching students for whom English is not a first language?’ Whilst teaching in English is the norm in International schools it is very common for a majority of students to be working in a second language. This brings additional challenges for teachers and, whilst schools are not looking for every teacher to be TESOL trained, schools are attracted to teachers who have experience of working with EAL students.
  5. ‘How much relevant experience does the candidate have?’ There are mechanisms for supporting and ratifying Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) in British schools overseas, however most international schools prefer to appoint teachers with at least 2- or 3-years relevant experience. Any NQTs applying should abroad check the level of support that their chosen international school can provide before accepting the post.
A version of this article was published by Tes on 08/01/2019 Teaching abroad: five questions you need to consider 

Thursday, 29 November 2018

How to build a #FutureSchool: The key to Digital Transformation in Schools

This presentation outlines why schools should undertake digital transformation and how to do it, The presentation was given at the ISC Digital Strategy Conference at Radley College Oxon UK on Thursday 29th November.


Thursday, 15 November 2018

UK Education PLC simply cannot complete in a Global Marketplace.

Teacher recruitment is top of the agenda for the senior leadership teams in most schools in the UK, but what hasn't been recognised in the debates in the UK media is that Britain is not alone in struggling to find suitably qualified school leaders and teachers to stand in front of classes. There is a worldwide teacher recruitment crisis at every level from classroom teachers through to school Principals: middle and senior leaders are in short supply, and specialist teachers in STEM subjects are at a premium.
Despite all the chest-beating depression about the state of UK education at home, the British education system is held in the highest esteem around the world. UK education is one of the great British exports with the number of English medium K12 International schools growing from 2,584 schools in 2000, to 9,626 in 2018 (up 372% – source ISC Research, May 2018).
UK trained teachers are increasingly in demand and short supply around the world. 
The UK Government seems slow on the uptake that the teacher recruitment crisis is a global rather than a local challenge and are yet to recognise that it is not well placed to complete with the packages on offer around the world. Britain immigration policies make it difficult for talented teachers around the world to move to the UK; and the levels of taxation and the cost of living mean that teachers’ salaries in the UK mean that it is too expensive. There simply are better options out there. Let me illustrate: A UK teacher on U3 earns £40,570 in England and Wales (£48,244 in Inner London); even on U3 with a maximum TLR1 (£13,288) a teacher earns £53,858 (£61,532 in Inner London). After tax, this means that in Inner London a U3 teacher is taking home £35,997.40 per annum and a colleague on U3 + TLR1 is earning £43,704.44 p.a. In contrast, equivalent classroom teachers in Dubai can be on a package of over AED 400,000 p.a., which is over £80,000 p.a. tax free. The living costs in Dubai are comparable to that of living in London, and the lifestyle is, arguably, significantly better. The contrast is even greater in senior leadership roles. Turning further East, salaries are even better with schools in Hong Kong and mainland China are offering even better annual packages.

Teaching abroad has become much more normal as commercial school chains (such as Nord Anglia and GEMS) have spread their reach, and as UK Independent Schools have established franchise schools around the world (e.g. Dulwich International, Harrow International). Today, working overseas, far from being seen as a hardship posting, increasingly is considered a desirable career move. These factors have meant that working abroad has never been a more attractive career step for teachers. Some estimates but a figure of 15,000 on the number of teachers leaving each year to teach outside the UK. As yet, not much has been done to persuade teachers to stay. And the problem is only going to get worse. 

The rapid expansion of UK curriculum schools around the world is set to continue and this means that British curriculum international schools will be looking to recruit an estimated 180,974 more staff within the next 5 years and 428,963 staff within the next ten [ISC Research Data – May 2018]. This expansion will create even more opportunities for British teachers abroad . . . and place an even greater strain on teacher recruitment and retention in the UK.

A version of this article appeared in the Tes 13/11/2018 Double your money abroad: why the recruitment crisis is a global issue.