from @ Exam Scot

By Melvyn Roffe


Principal, George Watson’s College

My tutee, Sebastien, sits on the orange plastic chair in front of me. He is fourteen and something is troubling him.

“So, what’s wrong Seb?” I ask.

He shrugs. But his is no ordinary teenage shrug. Sebastien’s parents are French and even at fourteen his shrugs are heavy with existential significance.

There is a pause. He is weighing up how to tell me something I need to know.

“The thing is…”, he falters. “The thing about learning is…”

“Yes?”, I say, encouragingly.

“Well, I’ve just realised it’s a bit pointless really, because the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.”

In the film version of my life, the one where I am played by George Clooney and my wife says as we leave the premiere, “a pity George isn’t as good looking as you”, in that version of my life, I stand and turn to a groaning bookshelf in my study (where this is conversation is taking place, with Sebastien seated in a leather armchair in front of a crackling fire), I pull out an impressive tome and, translating from the Ancient Greek as I go, I turn and say gravely to Sebastien: “Plato tells us that the great Socrates himself put it thus: the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”.

But this is not the film version of my life. I am not George Clooney, George Clooney is objectively better looking than me, Sebastien and I are sitting facing each other on wobbly plastic chairs in a dingy classroom, I can’t read Ancient Greek let alone translate it, and what I actually say is something like: “Everyone gets a bit down at this time of the year, Seb, so don’t worry, cheer up, it’ll soon be Christmas”.

Without his knowing it and my realising it, Sebastien has nailed the Socratic paradox. Not only does he have the shrug of a French philosopher, he holds the wisdom of the Ancients. He has indeed demonstrated the pointlessness of most learning in school. Not in the way he thinks he has, but in the way that he actually thinks.

For Sebastien has seen through the veil of the school curriculum and perceived something of the limitless human learning that lies behind it. In doing so he has realised that he will only ever grasp the tiniest scintilla of all that learning and his despair is born of his realisation. It is as if he has experienced the intellectual equivalent of the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Fortunately, Sebastien survived the trauma of his adolescent apercu, went on to do well in his exams and qualified as a doctor. I am sure he has made a great doctor: creative, thoughtful and humane.

My response to Sebastien was inadequate to the moment, but at least I kept the truth from him. I didn’t tell him then just how little the rest of his school education would encourage him to explore the profundities which he had glimpsed, or just how little his evident capacity for original thought would be valued in the examinations that would be the key to his future.

I taught him English as well as being his personal tutor. How much worse it would have been to tell him that for all my enthusing about the importance of wider reading and developing a personal engagement with the text, for all my incorporating drama techniques into my lessons and insisting that we went on regular visits to the theatre and to hear poets reading their work, the best effort to examination grade ratio would almost certainly be achieved by doing none of that.

“Don’t worry about what you don’t know, Seb,” I perhaps should have said, “learn that page of quotes from Of Mice and Men and remember what I’ve told you to say about Lenny and those rabbits. Do that and you’ll be fine.”

But I was never a very much good at promoting “strategic learning” as it came to be called. Even today, I have been known to tease my colleagues in school by saying things like, “none of my most valuable experiences at school happened in the classroom.” Which is mostly true. What is certainly true is that very few of the intellectual interests that sustained me through school and university and which remain with me in adult life derived from learning for exams. And it wasn’t even as if I was the kind of fourteen-year-old who channelled Socrates without realising it.

I think I can identify when, in England at least, “strategic learning” captured the education system.

In the 1990s, I was a Head of English and corresponded every year with our coursework moderator who lived near Porlock in Somerset. Unlike Coleridge’s original, this “person from Porlock” was no hinderance to my work. Indeed, he became a sounding board, a benign taskmaster and a mentor, unseen but appreciated nonetheless. We sent him our pupils’ portfolios and he sent back notes handwritten on Basildon Bond paper saying things like “I’ve never read Gillian Clarke before, but now I’ve read the poems your candidate wrote about, I certainly want to read more”. Even when he was disappointed, he was supportive: “Overall, the standard this year was weaker than last, but I can still tell that they’ve been taught by a crack team of enthusiasts,” I recall him writing once.

Then, one year, instead of a handwritten letter we received an indecipherable computer printout. No explanation, no feedback. Regretfully, my colleagues now referred to the “non-person of Porlock”, and we imagined him airbrushed out of existence by the exam board for the crime of being excited by the journey of learning on which our pupils were embarked.

My complaints about the soullessness of the new processes had brought only a standard response citing the requirements of fairness and rigour. But increasingly in the years that followed, moderated marks varied wildly. We noticed than when some portfolios were returned, the brief comments from the moderator betrayed a lack of sympathy with candidates’ ambition. Sometimes they simply betrayed a lack of understanding of the texts they had chosen. Little by little we felt obliged to advise candidates to be cautious and predictable in what they wrote. Little by little the “crack team of enthusiasts” became a little less enthusiastic. But grades went up most years, so that was the main thing.

Much has changed in the intervening decades, but I am not sure much has progressed. People who defend the current state of exam systems across the UK say that exams achieve fairness and rigour. And they are right, in a sense; but it does depend on what you mean by fairness and rigour.

If fairness means that candidates get grades that correspond to their abilities and performance, it would have been a very dubious to claim that exams were fair even before the crises of Summer 2020. Some recent data in England suggest that 10-15% of candidates underperform simply because they have “a bad day”. Other research sponsored by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) had already suggested that some 25% of GCSE grades were wrong. So, in England fairness does not mean candidates getting results according to their abilities, then. And where is the evidence that it is any better in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK?

And rigour? Well, if rigour means writing predictable answers based on predictable questions using predictable turns of phrase and a predictable framework, then our exam system is a model of rigour. But it’s the rigour more of Gradgrind than Socrates. And, as the International Council of Educational Advisors (ICEA) wrote in their most recent report:

“The capacity to apply learning creatively in unfamiliar contexts is increasingly the kind of high-value skill demanded by the workplace of the future. Traditional examinations are not capable of making such assessments on their own”. (ICEA Report December 2020 p.13)

In many subjects there is a fairly brutal trade-off between fairness and real rigour. In order to be minimise marking errors you must reduce the scope for personal interpretation of a mark scheme. But in doing that you also reduce (or even eliminate) the scope for an examiner to evaluate the personal response that is the very point of a candidate studying the arts and humanities. And you therefore place a premium on teaching strategies that maximise compliance with the terms of the mark scheme rather than extending knowledge and understanding beyond it. There are no marks for being too clever.

Not that there is any absolute guarantee that grades awarded in supposedly more objective subjects such as Mathematics and the sciences are correct, let alone reflect the innate ability of candidates. The examination room is inherently unreliable in testing anything other than timekeeping, concentration, handwriting and the ability to stay silent for long periods of time. These may be useful skills in themselves and arguably they are analogues for more educationally valuable attributes. However, the focus on factual recall and the fast-paced sense of anxiety of our current examination system makes it feel like a bizarre cross between Kim’s Game and the Cresta Run. Both those activities are worthy and require undoubted skill and ability, but you wouldn’t put them together and claim that they gave you a particular insight into the intellectual capacities of a seventeen-year-old.

It remains to be seen whether we will see a post-Covid end to what the ICEA calls the “one-time sit-down high school examination” and whether latter day people from Porlock or Perth, Peebles and Portree emerge from their non-personhood to help develop the

“…. greater role for internal assessment in determining qualifications that better match the knowledge and skills demanded by wider social and economic change” (ICEA Report December 2020 p.13)

I hope that a “greater role for internal assessment” does mean a greater role for coursework, but two important questions must be addressed. Firstly, how to avoid the wasteful consumption of teachers’ and pupils’ time on assessment rather than learning. The classroom must remain a workshop where mistakes can be made, not become a showroom where only the perfect is acceptable.

And secondly, what about equity? The argument goes that a boy from a socially disadvantaged background with no access to the internet can perform as well in a sit-down examination as a girl from a well-off home with a graduate stay-at-home mum who would happily do her coursework. Maybe traditional examinations can provide something like the socially level assessment playing field of myth. But surely it is to massively misunderstand and underestimate the causes of educational disadvantage to think that this an unanswerable argument in favour of their primacy in our system.

It is depressing that we continue to find reasons to be satisfied with the safe method and the predictable outcome. Many of those reasons are honourable in themselves, but they nevertheless let children and young people down. An assessment regime that merely rewards pupils for being successful strategic learners will never enable them to be confident or responsible citizens of the intellectual world beyond the scope of our current knowledge, let alone effective contributors to the development of the future that they must shape in order to inhabit. But better assessments in whatever form will not help either unless they are seen as tools of the craft of teaching rather than the main objective of the system itself.

I wish we had the courage to embrace the infinite possibilities of human learning that Sebastien glimpsed all those years ago. For us, there need be no crisis of confidence. We can do this. We must do this. We can no longer risk our children and young people simply being consumers of pre-packaged knowledge. We desperately need them to know that learning in every discipline is a creative process and that creativity, by its nature, has no limits to what it can achieve. That should be our only strategy.

Motivated learning⤴


It’s been another week of adapting to change and I’ve spent the weekend recharging. Both my boys have now fully returned to nursery and P1, and I am eternally grateful for the early years staff who have been nothing short of heroic in their care of my wee ones. I’ve been in school four days again this week with senior phase pupils, supporting them with the completion of practical work. And as well as this, I’ve been engaging with learners at home.

For me, it’s been a joy to be back face to face teaching, despite the challenges, and pupils have made really great progress in a short time. For some, possibly more progress in a couple of in-school sessions than throughout the whole home learning period. Which I fear is not for want of effort on the teacher’s (or learners!) part, but perhaps a lack of my own understanding of this really complex issue of motivation to learn. As well as the challenges we are all facing at home during lockdown. To me this highlights the importance of the connection with their teacher and the need for the teacher to be there to guide the learning. Something which I’ve been reminding my team this week to take comfort in – learners really do need their teachers – never underestimate the value you have.

And it has really got me thinking. About learning. About motivation to learn. About assessing learning. And about what we prioritise in our return to school.

Reflecting on my 14 year old self and how I myself might’ve coped with learning from home, I most likely would have been studious, timetable colour-coded and worked as hard as I possibly could to do my best. Was this a pressure from my school? Not particularly. Did my parents put pressure on me to do well? No. I think they only ever asked me to try my best. And I suppose, my ‘best’ was what motivated me. And that achievement, spurred me on to want to do better and to continue to improve. But I know others for whine that wouldn’t have been the case.

So I want to unpick this through my blog this week.

What is it that motivates young people to learn? What drives them to become more knowledgable or be better than they were yesterday? And what can we do to understand this in an effort to increase the motivation of our learners? In every school across the country, I reckon there are huge numbers of highly motivated students, and also those who could do with more motivation. How can we help motivate those who need it most?


A huge part in this, is my belief that as teachers we are there to support all of our pupils to achieve success. Success was what motivated me as a learner. That feeling of accomplishment was the drive I needed to continue to improve. It feels good when we ‘get it.’ Yet, often this desire for pupil success translates into making tasks too easy. Not challenging learners, when indeed pupils love a challenge. Our job is to support and scaffold the learning to make it achievable. And whilst simplifying tasks will allow students to experience success, I fear that this is at the cost of not allowing the young person to experience a feeling of pride. Instead we should aim for ‘High challenge, low threat.’ As Mary Myatt @MaryMyatt talks about.


This low threat aspect, highlights the need for trust and a strong relationship between the novice learner and the expert teacher. I would suggest that we can’t do learning on our own.

No significant learning can take place without a significant relationship.’ James Comer tells us.

I’m a strong believer in this. Pupils must trust that we are there to support them and have their best interests at heart. Young people can very easily tell when this is not genuine. They need to feel safe in order to take risks in their learning. We want them to make mistakes so that we can learn from them. Misconceptions are often the best opportunities to learn. We want them to struggle so that they feel accomplishment. And a good teacher builds this relationship to ensure that learners feel like they ‘belong’ in a learning situation in order for them to thrive. Is the online classroom simply too unfamiliar to students despite our best efforts to ‘dissolve the screen’?


A contentious issue is obviously the assessment aspect. Whilst our education system in Scotland is still entrenched in, and values summative assessment, within an arguably flawed model, there is always going to be the motivation of exam results. But I would argue that for many, this just isn’t a positive driver in motivation. Because we all know that learning doesn’t equal performance on any given day. Learning is much more than a snapshot assessed by an exam. Learning is a change in long term memory. It’s moving the thinking from the working memory to the long term memory so that it becomes automatic and understood. So exams don’t always accurately reflect learning. Think of those who often ‘cram’ the night before exams. Or those who fall apart on the day of an important assessment.

The last two weeks in Scotland, have seen learners return to school to complete practical work for assessment evidence. Whilst I welcome the opportunity to work with the young people in school, and feel it’s important for pupils to have these opportunities to work in school, I do worry that this suggests a panicked decision by the government, in which the focus is on the destination and the tick list, not on the journey and the progression. ‘Getting stuff done’ as opposed to embedding real routines for learning. It again highlights the obsession for evidence. And yes, evidence is important but is this our priority right now? And how can we address this?

I feel that if we were to focus on motivating pupils to learn, not just to pass exams, we would be making huge in-roads with this. The passing exams would be a by-product of this. But this is no mean feat. It is a huge undertaking to shift the mindset of learners and teachers, placing a focus on deep learning rather than ‘getting through it.’ Have we become obsessed with what Mary Myatt describes as the ‘curse of content coverage?’ Read here I would argue that whilst we are still rushing to gather evidence and get ‘through courses’ rather than a long term goal of highly motivated learners, then yes we will struggle to close the motivation gap.

This week I finished reading Peps McCrea’s @Pepsmccrea wonderful book ‘Motivated Teaching.’ Read a blog post about this here. This gave me lots to think about and I would really recommend this to anyone who wants to explore motivation in more depth. It really is a fascinating area and one which Peps discusses with much more clarity than I am able to do justice.

So as we focus our attention on the return to school over the next few weeks and months, I really hope that we don’t all rush back into ‘covering the course’ to get stuff done. And instead return to school mindful of the factors which drive motivation. Is this an opportunity to pause, consider what our learners really need in order to ensure they are in a place which maximises the opportunity to learn? I hope we will consider well-being, connection, success and motivation. Because my thinking is that if we get these elements right, and continue to focus on ‘learning,’ everything else will fall into place.

Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

The last leg⤴

from @ lenabellina

On Tuesday, I attended the most brilliant session run by my professional association, School Leaders Scotland, on the theme of ‘Remote Learning – lessons learned and what’s next’.

We heard from a representative of Education Scotland who told us about reports and feedback data arising from consultations with schools, families and pupils and also from schools on all that had been achieved since January and what we might do next to refine the learning offer in the period leading up to the full re-opening of school buildings. https://education.gov.scot/improvement/supporting-remote-learning/national-overviews/national-overview-of-practice-reports/

It is maybe ironic that this event took place on the afternoon that the First Minister then announced a phased return to start on 15th March which APPEARED to suggest the need for more children and staff in buildings…. but with both her announcement and the event fresh in my mind, I penned the following.

I am not a head teacher, although I am an aspiring one. I am not writing on behalf of my employer and I do not propose or suggest that this will or should happen in the school where I work. But I do have significant experience of risk assessment, timetabling and teaching in secondary schools. I also went from the event with the SLS to speak at an incredible event organised by a consortium of schools in Aberdeen focusing on the positives to be taken from the pandemic for young people, the focus for educators in a post pandemic world and predictions of exciting opportunities that may emerge.


With my heading buzzing with inspiration and ideas, I penned these thoughts on what I think could be possible and practical for secondary schools who have worked so incredibly hard to establish an online offer that is fit for purpose for most pupils who are still living within a global pandemic that has caused significant risk to life.

Key considerations when looking at the return to school.

What is the purpose of having all pupils back in school before Easter?

Do we have a clear sense of this from the government and chief medical advisors?

It would appear from all the reports that have been produced by education Scotland that social isolation is a major concern and that getting pupils into school is very much about their well-being and a need for face-to-face in the flesh connection with other peers and staff.

However we also need to consider the fact that the core purpose of teaching and learning at this stage can successfully be addressed for the majority of secondary pupils through the continuation of what is a very well evidenced and successful virtual learning experience which we know works in terms of scheduling staff and pupils.

We know that delivery of the online offer, with most pupils and staff working from home as part of COVID-19 mitigation is fit for purpose, based on the recent surveys conducted at national level and the implementation of subsequent refinements.

Generation of evidence for SQA purposes

It seems that some politicians, staff or schools feel that there need to be full classes of pupils back in classrooms do to assessments or tasks that will generate evidence for the SQA. However the two metre distancing rule means that this is not going to be practical.

(There is an assumption here that measures have already been taken to allow small groups of pupils to attend school for the purposes of the assessment of practical subjects).

It would seem preferable that materials are given to pupils for these non-practical assessments that can be undertaken at home. Whilst this will not be under exam conditions, schools have already set a precedent for this by students completing and submitting work from home. The element of trust around this method has already been established and therefore could be easily replicated in other subjects. So, for example, if a maths paper is to be done at home, pupils and possibly a supervising parent could simply be asked to sign a declaration that the assessment was done without help or supervision. An alternative would be for us to ask the pupil to video themselves completing the work but this may not be necessary at this stage, given that there is no requirement for any evidence to be produced under exam conditions this year.

A further alternative is to suggest that the two week period before Easter is not to be used for these purposes and that if staff wish to give pupils a paper assessment in a classroom with staff supervision, they will need to leave this until after Easter when we hope that the two metre distancing rule may be relaxed. There will always be a risk that this is never actually possible, should another lockdown or stricter mitigation measures be imposed.

We need to be absolutely clear that staff indicate which pupils, if any. need to be in school for the purposes of support or assessment at this stage.

If we assume that the worst case scenario is that full classes will not be in the building at the same time for the rest of this session, we need to know if there are any senior phase pupils who would because of this have no assessment evidence that would enable them to get a national qualification.

If there are identified disadvantaged or disengaged pupils or pupils with other additional support needs who we know need to be in the building with an adult in order to produce assessment evidence, we must find a way of prioritising getting them in for those purposes over the coming weeks, possibly adapting and using Easter study support offers.

Schools could therefore continue exactly as they are now but invite each year group into school for one day a week of each of the two full weeks before Easter; for example S1 Mondays, S2 Tuesdays, S3 Wednesdays, S4 Thursdays and S5 and 6 Fridays.

(In fact this could possibly work by doing it for just one of the two full weeks leading up to Easter, if that is all that staffing allows.)

The purpose of these days would be Connect, Communicate and be Curious.

Each year group would have activities and information shared with them on their day that is pertinent to where they are in their learning journey.

There could be a session on the practicalities of the 2m rule and mask wearing for all pupils, training / refresher information in use of lateral flow testing kits for senior phase pupils and then a focus for each year group on achievements, celebration of success and looking ahead to what comes next in their learning journeys.

Pupils in relevant years could also have input around the options processes.

In addition the day should be an opportunity to look forward with hope and optimism and for staff to ensure pupils that we are confident about how we will work together to help them re-focus and continue with their learning as they gradually return to spending more time in the school building over the coming weeks and months.

Some of this could be done in a large space with two metre distancing, mask wearing and ventilation in place such as school hall and gym or even in outdoor spaces, as long as this is permitted within our risk assessment based on latest COVID-19 mitigation guidance.

At other times the school could be divided up into areas and SLT/ support staff/ other staff as available could supervise across the classes where pupils would be spread out at desks two metres apart.

The smaller breakout groupings would allow staff to connect with individual pupils in a smaller setting and take stock/be curious about how the pupils seem and what their needs might be moving forward.

This would be demanding on the staff facilitating these activities and it would need to be considered how they would be given breaks and rest time during the day.

There would also need to consider their other needs such as childcare.

There would need to be a shared understanding that the staff in school for the facilitation of these days would not be available to deliver their online teaching;, pupils, parents and carers would need to know that for the two weeks leading up to Easter the staff in school doing the Connect, Communicate and Be Curious days would not be delivering online. In fact, the communication strategy around this and the justification would be a crucial factor in its success.

One major consideration would be around ensuring that S6 pupils and any other leavers need to be given an opportunity to come together and process the fact that their last year in school has been so different to what they had hoped for. It will be an opportunity to talk to them about and alleviate their fears and anxieties regarding the future but also for them to plan some sort of marking of leaving school.

This potential solution would ensure that the human rights of adults working in schools to remain healthy and safe can be balanced with articles 28 and 29 (right to and goal of education), 15 (freedom of association) and 24 (health) of the UNCRC.

On the 15th March, there will still be a very uneven playing field for staff returning to secondary schools; some may have had one vaccine dose, some two and some none.

Where our risk assessments, as far I as understand, still have the risks related to COVID-19 for those working in secondary schools at red level (as advised by the Health and Safety Executive) unless mitigation measures can be very strictly enforced, we surely can’t risk doing anything else than proceed with caution?

But what do I know?

Would taking a raft approach help us think about the transition back to campus?⤴


Photo by Tomasz Urbaszek on Unsplash

As we enter March this year, it is hard to believe that it’s almost been a year since we went into lockdown. Although we start this March with a bit more optimism particularly around vaccines, despite what many people want to think, “this” isn’t over yet. Over the weekend Auckland went back into a 7 day lock down.

I think this should sent a warning to us here in the UK. We have been no where near as successful as New Zealand in containing the spread of COVID-19. Yes, we are doing really well in terms of vaccine roll out, but that’s not a cure, there is still a lot of research to be gathered around the longer term impacts of the vaccines, their longevity and actual impact on transmission and suppression. Despite what many want to think, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of lockdowns.

As we prepare to move out of the highest levels of lockdown, schools here in Scotland have already started their phased return, and think about moving back on campus, the natural temptation is to plan for more face to face teaching, for that return to “normal”, to the spaces and places we’ve all missed for the last year. To bring our communities of learning back together in the “real” world.

However, I think it might be an idea to consider how to deal with short, sharp lockdowns and taking a what I’m calling a RAFT (rapid and flexible teaching scenarios) approach to design.

There is something in my head about a life raft metaphor too with this. Online learning has provided lots of learning life-rafts but there is the overwhelming desire to get back on to dry land. But as the lockdown in New Zealand (and there have been similar ones in other cities/countries) has shown we might have more shorter, local, lockdowns to come. So how can we deal with that?

Well maybe by simply by asking: could this activity/assessment/module be completed if we had to go back into lockdown at short notice? Are all the resources available online? Have I got at least 4 weeks teaching prepared in advance? Do students have clear signposting and support around what they are expected to do and where they should do it? Have I got established communication channels to let students know of any changes at short notice? Not rocket science, and a lot of this is already in place, so it would be tragic to loose what has been learned over the last year and just go back to “normal”. Let’s move forward with truly blended, flexible approaches.

Some musings about time management and organisation⤴

from @ lenabellina

So, the book about me and ADHD certainly won’t be coming any time soon. The roller coaster of highs, lows and revelations that has been my life since my diagnosis in December means that I have been simultaneously enjoying new freedoms and holding on for dear life.

There is certainly no time for starting on a book. However, I have had a few Eureka moments and don’t want to lose them so thought I’d add them to my blog as and when I remember. And of course, the fact that I am doing this RIGHT NOW when the deadline outlined below is looming is just typical……..

I have just written this on Facebook:

Here’s a weird thing about my ADHD.
When I am involved with stuff with other people (eg directing and producing school productions, planning and delivering programmes of teaching or having a strategic vision for a class, department or school and staying true to it over time), I am pretty damn good, I think, and have evidence to back that up.
When I have a thing that involves just me, I can’t manage my time, put it off and then have terrible anxiety when I have to get it done at the last minute.
Today I am trying to record a presentation for a conference that I have had MONTHS to do and is due TOMORROW.
See you on the other side. I hope.

And is another thing I shared earlier in the week on Twitter:

Today I sought a bit of help. It wasn’t a big thing, other than in my head.
I am literally Dory when it comes to remembering I need to ask for help sometimes.
That expression “note to self”
Is fine, except when you have ADHD and keep losing the notes.

And this is an article I found that scared me beyond belief because it feels so pertinent but has also made me seek a bit more help around how to handle it:


Those who fought: Representing HIV/AIDS activism on Wikipedia⤴


LGBT History month is almost over but before the month draws to a close I want to highlight the brilliant work of the HIV Scotland Wikpedia editathon that took place at the end of January.  The event was supported by the University’s indefatigable Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew, and organised by the University’s Disabled Staff Network and Staff Pride Network, who were keen to run another editathon following the success of their previous Pride editathon on LGBT+ Books in Scotland and Beyond.  (I’m proud to have created a page for the controversial lesbian magazine Quim as part of that event.)  I suggested HIV / AIDS activism in Scotland as a potential topic as I’d noticed previously that this important history was almost entirely missing from the encyclopaedia.  Scottish AIDS Monitor and PHACE West had no articles at all, and although an article already existed for Derek Ogg, it only touched on his legal career and made no mention of his prominent AIDS activism.  This omission was all the more glaring in light of the belated public conversation about the impact of the AIDS pandemic sparked by the broadcast of Russell T Davis’ series It’s a Sin.  The Network were keen to address this omission and HIV Scotland also came on board to support the event, and I’m pleased to say that six new articles were created and several others improved. You can find out more about the articles created on the event dashboard here: HIV Scotland Editathon.

As part of the event, I wrote an article about Scottish AIDS Monitor, an organisation I first came into contact with in 1992 at an event at the Tramway which coincided with their seminal exhibition Read My Lips: New York AIDS Polemics.  That event and exhibition, which featured works by Gran Fury, Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torress and others, left a huge impression on me.  I was aware of the AIDS pandemic, growing up in the 1980s it was impossible to ignore, even in the Outer Hebrides. Who could forget the stigmatising horror of the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign?  But it was Read My Lips that really brought home to me the deeply personal impact of all those lost lives, the fight for justice and recognition, and the importance of organisations like SAM in raising awareness, providing support and promoting safe sex.

Read My Lips: New York AIDS Polemics

Returning to It’s a Sin, the second article I wrote this month was a biography of Jill Nalder, the actress and activist who inspired the character of Jill Baxter and who played her mother in the series. I know that there has been some criticism of the series for stereotyping women as carers, and for centering the experiences of a woman whose own sexuality and relationships are elided from the show.  While there’s a discussion to be had there, I think it’s important to acknowledge the many many “ordinary” women who played an important role in awareness raising, fund raising, befriending and yes, caring for, people living with AIDS from the earliest years of the pandemic. 

I still have a copy of the Read My Lips exhibition catalogue, which includes a transcript of Vito Russo‘s seminal speech, Why We Fight, from a 1988 ACT UP demonstration.  These lines really resonated with me. 

“AIDS is really a test of us, as a people. When future generations ask what we did in this crisis, we’re going to have to tell them that we were out here today. And we have to leave the legacy to those generations of people who will come after us.

Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day comes — when that day has come and gone, there’ll be people alive on this earth — gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free.”

Wikipedia is the fifth most visited website in the world, with aspirations to provide “free access to the sum of all human knowledge”.   For this reason more than any other it’s critically important that the history of HIV and AIDS activism is represented on the encyclopaedia.  So that those generations that come after will be able understand the legacy and the courage of those who stood up and fought. 

Digital Learning in the pandemic and beyond – embracing a bit of radical uncertainty⤴


This week I was delighted to have been invited to give a vision talk to start the Digital Learning in the Pandemic and Beyond half day conference organised by TechPathWays London and ALT. Over the morning there were a series of great presentations from Techpathways around the work they are doing with schools, from Jane Secker and Chris Morrisson about copyright and online learning, and Alistair McNaught about accessibility.

I used embracing radical uncertainty as a hook for my talk. Over the past 11 months we have all lived through huge changes in how we live, work and interact with each other. In terms of education, there has been a massive shift in delivery, which has put a spotlight on the increasing digital and socio-economic divide in our society. In the UK we take universal access to education as a given, however if you don’t have access to suitable devices and more importantly can’t pay for the data needed, then you can’t access education in an equitable way. As we move forward with schools opening up, we have to learn from what has happened, and not forget that divide. Despite what politicians say, I suspect that there may be other lock downs, perhaps more local and shorter, but if that does happen we need to be ready and able for equitable, flexible learning.

With all that has happened over the past year, if this isn’t the time to be thinking about radical change to education then I don’t know when is. Our children and young people deserve more than “catch up”. They don’t need to be constantly reminded of how much they have missed. They need to be given the opportunity to be part of the discussions about what we all experienced over the last year. They need to see that education is something that is done with them, not to them. We need to be having some radical, open discussions about what is really needed to move forward to ensure that our students can be part the radical solutions needed to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the even more pressing issues of climate change.

My slides are below and as soon as the recording is available I’ll add the link here too.

Knowledge AND skills??!⤴


Can we have our cake and eat it?! As a hungry art and design teacher with a sweet tooth, I really hope so.

There has been much debate about the idea of knowledge or skills, of knowledge preceding skills and whether a skill is simply procedural knowledge. This week a brilliant conversation took place on EdClub (I missed it because I fell asleep fully dressed putting little one to bed and woke up at 3.30am!). However Pritesh Raichura @Mr_Raichura captured his thoughts and summarised the nuanced debate brilliantly here. I won’t even attempt to compete with Pritesh’s knowledgeable and fascinating read (he’s far more experienced than I am on this) but I do think it’s interesting to consider how this impacts me as an art and design teacher.

Firstly, I don’t think it it has to be one or the other. I’m learning that so many things in life are a strange dichotomy of extremes. But they can exist in harmony. I’m anxious about the return to school next week, but I’m also hugely excited to welcome back our young people. I’m extremely passionate about learning and teaching, but at the same time I hugely value relationships and nurture. And so it is with knowledge and skills. In my opinion, we need both.

Secondly, I’ve not always thought this. At fact at one point I was very against the notion of a practical subject being about knowledge. My thinking on this has most definitely been challenged. But the more I read and learn, the more my thinking evolves. And this is based on my experience in the classroom. It’s ok for our practice to adapt as our understanding increases.

Ten years ago I might have been sceptical of the part knowledge would play in Art and design. After all, we are a practical subject. Hands on, often hugely subjective and very skills-based. Much of the learning which takes place within an art and design department features at the top of Blooms Taxonomy – high order thinking skills such as creating, evaluating and analysing artworks and design. And in my opinion, that is exactly how it should be. So I’m not about to suggest removing all creativity within the subject and making pupils spend periods writing and memorising facts instead of drawing and designing. Our subject will always be practical.

However, back then, my inexperience and lack of understanding might have caused me to write off the need for strong subject knowledge. Perhaps this was because I worried it would distract learners from developing creativity or experiential learning. But having done lots of reading and seen the benefits firsthand for learners in both my Art and design and photography classes, I’m now convinced that to achieve success in the high order skills, learners need the strong foundational knowledge and understanding to support their explorations. Knowledge plays an important part in improving learners’ ability to successfully recall knowledge and in doing so, aid their creativity.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard young people tell me ‘Miss I can’t paint.’ It’s always a challenge to me to show them that everyone can learn to draw and paint. But I understand that young people come to us with different skills and for some, drawing and painting does come far more easily. For the young people who struggle with painting, breaking the skill down and giving them chunked knowledge to help, is absolutely vital for them to experience success.

The knowledge that when we add water to watercolour paint, the colour lightens, is so vital to being able to use this art material. By explicitly teaching this, young people can use this to improve their practical skill. I think this has always been the way I’ve taught, and in fact I’m sure many other art teachers do. But it’s not been until recently that I have really considered the explicit knowledge I was teaching young people in order for them to build a skill. And I think this is more important than ever to give all young people the chance to succeed. It’s our job!!! After all we are the experts.

This has been amplified during home learning. And something all tired teachers at the moment should take comfort in. Yes we are vital for the connection and the relationships we build, but also in skilful way we can break down learning and knowledge in ways that young people can make use of in their practical work. Consider the confident, skilled artists who have coped well regardless of whether we are in the physical classroom beside them. Then consider those already facing challenge, who find drawing difficult, who lack confidence, can’t simply experiment to become a better drawer. They need the expert knowledge which their teacher imparts. They need the foundational knowledge of how to measure, how to see, and how to record. They need taught this and then for it to be modelled. Yes, there is the argument that this is not creativity but I would argue that by giving the young person a step up the ladder, their confidence and motivation to experiment creatively is enhanced and leads to a greater chance of them wanting to experiment. Young people are often very reluctant to explore artistic freedom if they already lack confidence in their ability. I see this as the way to foster creativity by giving them the tools and knowledge to have the best chance to succeed. The desirable difficulty concept is highlighted here. Once confidence and knowledge is established, they are best placed to move into the realms of creativity and often

It’s important to point out I am all for creativity, expression and individuality. But I do think learners find that increasingly challenging. If we are able to give them the building blocks of knowledge about seeing, observing, measuring and recording early on, in my opinion they are far better placed use that knowledge to develop their own skills.

Maybe I’m too easily influenced, maybe I need to have more conviction in one theory or evidence base, rather than sit mid way between two differing viewpoints. But I’m not sure that having such a fixed mindset that one or other is best, really benefits our young people. Surely we should be tapping into all evidence out there to provide the very best experience and learning for all young people? I’m always learning. And happy to be challenged in any of my thoughts. Because ultimately it will help me to get better. And that is what we should all be striving towards.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week ahead, especially all the practical subject teachers in Scotland returning to our classrooms.

Ski-in, Ski-out in Dundee⤴

from @ Graeme’s Blog

This article was published on PlanetSKI on 17th February 2021. Click here for the published article:

The view down the former golf course towards the Tay and Fife beyond

We all recognise that guy skiing through the resort in the evening.  We’ve spotted him on our way to dinner.  We’ve wondered just how lost he must have got to still be on skis at this time, our own kit long since discarded in boot rooms and strewn over chalet radiators.  We’ve even seen him on our way home from dinner as we shuffle over compacted ice, weighed down by too much Tartiflette.  But we’ve never seen him on the streets of a Scottish suburb on a Tuesday evening.  Until now.  

With over 1 metre of snow falling to low levels in much of eastern Scotland last week, I had the rare pleasure of skiing to and from my own front door several days in a row.  Granted, there was no hallowed couloir or Lofotenesque summit-to-sea descent. But the satisfaction of exploring my local area on skis, seeing the routes of my daily lockdown walks transformed under a blanket of fresh powder, put this once-in-a-decade ski experience firmly in my top ten things-to-do-on-skis.  

A visitor to Dundee might easily miss Camperdown Country Park, one of the city’s hidden jewels.  So-named after a battle during the French Revolutionary War, it has long been known amongst locals as a place to walk in ancient woodland, take photos of the iconic 19th century mansion house or, until recently, play golf.  It has been tipped as a potential location for the next Eden Project.  What it is not generally known for is being an off-piste mecca of giant powder pillows and tree skiing. Now don’t get me wrong, the La Grave of Scotland it is not.  But after a skin up through snow-laden pines, the park’s gentle incline and impressive views towards the River Tay and Fife made for a surprisingly exciting couple of short ski-tours; the perfect antidote to long work-at-home sessions stuck at a laptop screen in the spare room.  Regrettably, the only après available was a solitary can of IPA lurking at the back of the fridge. 

Judging by a quick scroll on social media, I was not alone. At some point during lockdown every mountain-lover, even the most noble among us, has come close to un-friending someone who lives in the Alps or the Highlands and can access the peaks we crave without breaking travel restrictions.  But suddenly, and for a few precious days, this joy was shared across most of the country.  The Pentland Hills surrounding Edinburgh, the Ochils near Stirling and the Lammermuirs to the south:  for the first time in a decade, Scotland’s low-level hills, normally no more adventurous than an afternoon with the local Ramblers’ committee will allow, were turned into ski resorts.  Across the country, skiers and boarders, desperate for some turns and deprived of almost two seasons’ worth of trips, burst out into whatever local greenspace they could find.  Only it wasn’t green.  Local parks, forest trails and basically any public space that wasn’t completely flat, it seemed, got a mention on British Backcountry. 

Skinning back up through Camperdown, her century-old trees weighed down in white, it seemed to me that the most natural way to move through this stunning environment was on skis. It was only in returning to the civilization of my village and skiing past the Co-op that I started to feel awkwardly out of place and drew more than a couple of raised eyebrows from neighbours walking dogs (and at least one dog).  With temperatures nestling well below zero, the snow stayed cold and the blue skies and sunshine that accompanied the high pressure from the east made it feel like we had stolen a little bit of the Alps. For reasons unknown, this pleasure felt guilty. 

Tree skiing in Templeton Woods

But, like everything stolen, eventually it must be given back.  With milder air moving in the big thaw has begun and lower-level terrain has turned into a muddy mess redolent of the slushiest ‘back to resort’ ski run on the last week of the season.  Spring is about to be sprung.  But it brings light too, and not just in terms of the lengthening days.  

This recent snowfall came on the back of what has been a decidedly good winter in Scotland.  Cold conditions have prevailed since December and, while a low-level thaw means that there will certainly be no more skiing on the golf course, it should mean some much-needed consolidation of the snowpack higher up.  There will be a loss of cover on the lower mountain, but the constant new falls had led to very unstable conditions with high avalanche risks sustained over the week in some of Scotland’s most popular touring areas.  

Snow is forecast to fall above 500m later this week and the mountains will not exit full winter mode just yet.  In years with comparable levels of winter snowfall, the spring touring has always been excellent.  In 2010 many of Scotland’s corries had deep snow accumulations well into May and Cairngorm Mountain ran a rope-tow on Midsummer’s Day. 

We just might be lucky.  Travel restrictions might just be eased before the last of the white stuff has gone.  So long as you don’t mind a bit of walking or mountain-biking to start your day, it looks like there will be excellent turns to be found on the Scottish mountains for a while yet. 

I, for one, can’t wait to put my ski boots back on the first chance I get.  But I know it will be a long time before I’m ever again doing so at my own front door.   

Skinning along in front of Camperdown Mansion House

Permission to have fun⤴


I was told this week that we’re only meant to be dong work that is essential. Now, if this is true, then I know that it’s being said for good reasons – that our senior management are saying this out of a concern for staff – out of a wish to give people permission only to do what is needed and not to worry that they are not doing enough.

But the person who told me about this had understood it in another way. in their interpretation, we are not allowed to do anything that is not essential work – and they were feeling guilty for doing something that they enjoyed, but that was not considered essential.

I might have forgotten about this, but a couple of other conversations this week have got me thinking about it, and realising how important it is, especially right now, that we give ourselves permission to do things that are not essential – that we give ourselves permission to enjoy our work and our leisure time.

I know this – I write about it in my PhD and I practice it every day. CLMOOC and DS106 are good for me – they are serious fun. I laugh a lot, and learn a lot. But I still find it hard to give myself permission to spend time at work on things that are not visibly, immediately useful. This week, thanks to conversations with friends, I realised that I have been feeling guilty about any time I spent doing things I enjoy. If I’m not constantly working on things that I can show to others, then I’ve been worrying that others will think that I am not pulling my weight. And, of course, I am not the only one feeling like this.

So this weekend, as I chip away at my thesis, I want to remind everyone that it’s ok to enjoy your work, its absolutely fine to do some things that are not essential but that are enjoyable, and that we all need to give ourselves permission to have fun, serious or not.