Archives for September 2010

How's your memory?

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Anne McNaught | 16:24 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

And how could wrapping your kettle in sticky tape, being chased down the road by a giant eyeball, and then assaulted by an avalanche of Creme Eggs possibly help?

Welcome to the surreal world of Brainsmart... and instant enhanced memory power!

BBC Brainsmart is all about understanding how your brain works, and how to make the most of it. And last weekend BBC Scotland's Learning team were out in force at the Glasgow Science Centre's 'A Celebration of Science', sharing the knowledge...


...and causing no end of frustration, pencil chewing and forehead slapping. There were many laughs and moments of total surreality as the visitors took part in a simple memory experiment, and then learned some quick ways to improve their score radically.

There's a healthy lifestyle message to memory - if you eat well, exercise properly, and sleep plenty, your memory will definitely benefit. But that takes a bit of time. For a much more rapid whoomph in your test scores, you need to get a secret system going...

Children being taught memory techniques.

Here's what we did. First, each visitor had their arm twisted to play a round of Kim's Game. Some people got full marks, but most didn't. They were then taught one of two simple but very effective techniques for remembering things like this. Either using the linking system which involves creating an unforgettable story, or the loci system which cements the objects in your imagination to a series of places you already know.

Both techniques require you to unleash your imagination and stop worrying about whether you sound like a crazy person, so it can take a moment or two ... But when they'd got the hang of the new technique, they were presented with another 15 objects to memorise. Mostly, scores went up, and people were amazed. Ok, not always, sometimes people already had their own memory system and the new one was a distraction. But that's fine - whatever works, works. The main thing is to have confidence that you can do it. It was great to see people of all ages so enthusiastic, and the place buzzing with memory talk.

Anyone who was up for another challenge was then shepherded along for an online memory game.

Here they are - you can try for yourself:

Name that name (faces and names)
Objects in order (lists)
Name that number (pictures and numbers)

And if you feel you could improve, here are a couple of techniques that will help.

How to remember faces
Remembering numbers

Finally, if you're the sort of person who lies in bed at night and suddenly remembers a dozen things you need to do tomorrow... but can never quite make it out of bed to get a pen and paper, have a look at this. Take an imaginary walk in your mind and create memorable images of what you need to remember. For example: need to buy a new mattress? Imagine your front door has turned into one, and you bounce off it every time you try to get in the house. You may feel you're turning into a nutter... but it works!

Make My Teenager Sleep... can you?

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Anne McNaught | 17:22 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Back in March, a story hit the news about a charity, Sleep Scotland, which was about to launch a pilot project in which pupils in two Glasgow schools would be given "sleep lessons".

My ears pricked up, because I was already working on BBC Brainsmart, an interactive guide to your brain and how to make the most of it. Good sleep was one of the essentials our psychology consultant Roger Redondo had mentioned many times. If you're sleep deprived, the research says, it has a massive effect on your ability to learn, because new memories need to be consolidated or they'll fade away, and this is what your brain does while you sleep.

We're all vulnerable - but teenagers more than adults for two reasons. Firstly, teens need nine hours sleep, not just eight. Secondly, their bedrooms are round-the-clock social hubs. Many of them are awake and online or texting hours after their parents have gone to bed. Sleep is something they'd like to eliminate if possible, not increase. Are you mad?

Non-sleeping teens must be a widespread phenomenon because the Sleep Scotland project attracted media attention from around the world. Fortunately it was happening on our doorstep. Our presenter, Clare English, had a personal interest in the form of a 14 year old daughter of her own.

We made contact with the co-ordinator at one of the schools, St Paul's High School, and they were very amenable to us recording the lessons, and the pupils' reactions. We'd do a 'before' and 'after' and see what happened. The big question: can you make a teenager sleep?

School pupils sitting on desks being interviewed

Well, can you make a horse drink water? Not if he doesn't want to. That was the message coming back after the initial lessons. The pupils had learned all the theory, and many of them seemed genuinely interested. But were they prepared, in the light of all the benefits of good sleep, to actually switch off their mobile phones at night...? No.

Jane Ansell of Sleep Scotland was not deterred. Cultural change, she says, takes a long time.

That's right of course. So we were taken aback by what happened next.

When Clare spoke to the pupils about the classes, they told us that what might get them more interested would be to do an experiment, in which they could test how much sleep affected their mental skills by playing a computer game before and after a few consecutive nights of good sleep.

We took them at their word, and returned to the school some weeks later to try it out. You can hear what happened on the programme, and read the pupils' own comments about it on the Radio Scotland website. It was astonishing. After three nights of going to bed "early", the boys' computer game scores had gone through the roof, and every single pupil was a convert to this new world of sleep.

Their schoolwork had improved too. One pupil said he was no longer struggling in maths; another said she'd become interested in chemistry now she could actually keep up.

In the words of one of the girls, "I would say to everyone out there who thinks it isn't cool to go to bed early that we didn't think so either until we tried it and if you forget about what other people think and do it for yourself you will see results."

So here's one answer to the question, how do you get a teenager to sleep? Persuade them to try it for themselves, and rope in some of their friends. Say, "No pressure. It's just a little experiment..." (and remove their laptop/mobile while they're not looking).

Make My Teenager Sleep BBC Radio Scotland, 11.30am, Wednesday 29th September and 10.30am, Sunday 3rd October. Read more about the programme in Clare English's blog post. While Claire Winter of the BBC Parent Panel asks are our children sleeping enough?.

Games and learning

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Alistair Mooney Alistair Mooney | 16:07 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

The unique multiplatform drama Legacy from BBC Scotland is available now online.

Set above and below the streets of London, Legacy combines an online adventure game and a two-part Radio 7 drama to tell the story of Jules and Harry, two 20-something siblings coming to terms with their family's shocking past. With discussions ongoing in the media industries about the role of games in education Brendan Crowther, the game's producer, talks about this sometimes fractious relationship...

Firstly, let me say that Legacy was never designed specifically to be an educational game. Instead, it takes inspiration from games like BioShock - mainstream games which tell great stories and through that introduce players to new concepts.

Great games educate in the same way as good examples other media - by providing experiences that inspire and act as a catalyst for further learning. Highly regarded novels or films teach through their sheer craft as much as their subject matter. Good content is the starting point of a journey that educates people. It's all about encouraging people to broaden their horizons and through that become more rounded individuals.

Some mainstream games have mechanics in them that actively encourage or demand learning. Scribblenauts' central mechanic is based around word association. Progression through Professor Layton is entirely dependant on solving a series of puzzles that range across language, probability and mathematics. Educators are increasingly coming around to the idea of play as a tool for teaching. The work of the Consolarium in Dundee shows how games are being used in the classroom not only as a learning tool but also as a source of subject matter for analysis and critique.

With Legacy we tried to provide a rich enough story that players were compelled to play through to the game's end and discover what happened to the protagonists. Progression through the game is dependant on completing a series of increasingly complex logic puzzles. A large part of the gameplay in Legacy is about solving object based puzzles: combine this thing with that thing to make that other thing do something interesting.

Legacy also tasks players to think laterally to solve the puzzles - it's not always immediately obvious what you have to do in each room. Only through experimentation, and frequently pausing for thought, can the player find the solution. These softer skills around analysis and problem solving can certainly be taken back into the real world and hopefully help players of the game approach everyday problems in different ways.

Any game that tries to educate exists within a broader context of someone's ongoing life experiences - learning gained simply through the act of being alive at a time when more knowledge is available to more people than ever before. Learning is not simply about lessons delivered through one-off experiences. Instead, it's about the greater sum made up of all these individual parts. For me the aim should be clear: to provide as many of these parts as we can. That is, to produce the best content we possibly can - content which inspires people to learn for the sheer pleasure of it.

Listen to the second episode of the Legacy radio drama now and play the game.

The inspectors are coming - next week?

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Seonag Mackinnon Seonag Mackinnon | 15:18 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

You know the potentially daft filming of walking we do sometimes? I had cause to arrange this after interviewing Bill Maxwell head of the education inspectorate this week about the proposed overhaul of school inspections.

We do this walking as it is one way to provide pictures introducing the next interviewee in your report. But when a camera is on you it can be a challenge for you and your guest to walk in a natural way.

We managed to put one foot in front of the other successfully this day outside the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow.

That was until Bill mentioned that schools could receive just one week's notice of inspection.

I stopped in my tracks. Surely this would cause ructions? Tell me what you think. But I immediately imagined that some might be outraged or despondent at the thought of so little time to prepare.

However calls to contacts in education suggested the reverse. They anticipate that staff may welcome just one week of pressure rather than three.

Less chance that the council will draft in painters and decorators as staff clear out cupboards then burn the midnight oil preparing new lessons to extract excellent work from children to put on the wall.

Besides, it's argued, many staff despise this window dressing. They believe an HMIE report would offer a more credible impression of what a school is really like if the preparation period were truncated.

I am told about a notoriously poor English teacher alleged to provide a good living for private tutors in her area. She apparently produced a dazzling array of lesson plans in glossy folders when the inspectors called and received a rave review from inspectors - much to the chagrin of her colleagues.

I am told about a primary head teacher who sent the children's jotters home and asked parents to ensure they were all covered with pretty wrapping paper.

These practices might stop under the new style inspections. But is there still not a risk schools come under too much pressure if notice is just seven days?

As for the proposed end to regular inspections every six to seven years - the end of Buggins' turn. Is the prospect of greater intervals unless alarms bells ring because of attainment and achievement records or communications from parents and education staff a good thing. Answers on a postcard please. (Better make it cyberspace communications.)

Mike Russell at SLF 2010

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Alistair Mooney Alistair Mooney | 16:48 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

For me, Day 1 at the Scottish Learning Festival was as buzzy and positive as I hoped. Mike Russell set the tone. I believe in his personal interest in education and teaching. And the future does look full of bright possibilities.

Mind you, it's great to look ahead, while teachers have real issues and worries to deal with today. Here's a flavour of his speech, and some of the questions from the floor, and from after the event.

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Not being one of the negative media types that he spoke about, I'm interested in both the realities and the hopes and dreams of the future. Therefore I would encourage everyone with an interest to hear his call to engage for education.

The whole of Mike Russell's speech will be available on the SLF website shortly.

Glasgow University calls for graduate contribution

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Seonag Mackinnon Seonag Mackinnon | 14:17 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

No parents are likely to love you for suggesting either they or their weans should pay towards the cost of university degrees.

Professor Anton Muscatelli, principal of Glasgow University is in the eyes of some a brave man for breaking ranks with his counterparts in other Scottish universities to say what he believes needs to be said publicly: in the current financial climate, future graduates may need to pay something back to the university when they leave.

In the eyes of others he may appear a bounder.

Down south students currently pay around £3,000 a year for tuition. The vast majority pay it after graduation once they're earning. It's little comfort that this is only a contribution to the real cost of a degree and that in years to come this may seem like a bargain compared to charges of £5-7,000 expected before long.

To many it seems obvious and right that university degrees should never come with a price tag. But for some years Scottish university principals have privately been very worried. Right now much of their funding comes from the public purse. But the country is skint and big cuts in public spending are expected.

Soundings indicate most Scottish principals fear unless they can tap into a new funding stream - some kind of charge or tax levied on graduates - our universities will progressively be left trailing.

Scotland has traditionally been eminent in higher education, but last week an authoritative survey of universities worldwide indicated placed only one Scottish university among the top 100 institutions in the world.

Poorer pupils in Scotland already make fewer applications to university than those who are better off. Would the prospect of a fee on graduation lower this figure even further? Or can - as some argue - a bigger budget for student grants and loans overcome that disincentive?

SLF 2010: Cabinet Secretary's keynote

Claire O'Gallagher Claire O'Gallagher | 13:02 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The hall was packed for Mike Russell's keynote speech to the Scottish Learning Festival this morning, with the assembled crowds speculating long before Mr Russell's arrival about what they were about to hear.

Could he possibly tell them anything positive in this seemingly bleak time of financial crisis and job shortages? Would he offer solutions to some of the concerns raised by teachers about the new curriculum implementation?

The usual themes were all there: change; responsibility; quality of teaching. However, the Cabinet Secretary did appear to be in the mood for qualifying some of these ideas, telling teachers:

"Sometimes teachers rightly complain of too rapid churn of ideas and schemes over the years. I tend to agree with them - over the last generation, there has been too much re-invention of the wheel, and too much change for change sake."

He went on to say that a jump in the world education league tables would be a "bonus - not an end", that there is a real move "away from rigidity to flexibility and creativity: the hallmark of Curriculum for Excellence".

It was undoubtedly a rousing speech, focusing on the genuine positives, such as his declaration that "we have some of the best teachers in the world - most of our schools are wonderful places to learn and great places to be." There were, of course, some political notes to the address where Mr Russell pointed out that the new curriculum had been born from "consensus"; that is, that it had cross-party support.

I was live-tweeting from the hall, along with a few enthusiastic teachers and the General Teaching Council of Scotland. At one point, people were so overwhelmed by this unrelenting positivity that they started asking "when is the 'but' coming?" It did come, in the form of the financial situation. Local authorities were warned that they will have to rely on Head Teachers more, and teachers were asked to "think different and then do different."

I think many practitioners would say they already are, with fewer resources, less time and more to consider. However, these are undoubtedly hard times for all concerned.

The feedback on Twitter for Mr Russell was largely positive - although the biggest applause in the hall was reserved for Paul Campbell from Strathclyde University, a student teacher who raised the question of jobs for Newly Qualified Teachers.

If you were with me in the hall this morning, I'd love to hear what you made of it. I'll be tweeting and blogging more from the Scottish Learning Festival and its associated TeachMeet this evening, so keep an eye on this page for the latest from the SECC.

Scottish Learning Festival 2010

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Alistair Mooney Alistair Mooney | 14:39 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Scottish Learning Festival rolls round again this week. As ever there'll be tonnes to see and do, from the opening address from Mike Russell and the other keynote presentations, to fun and games with the chaps from the Consolarium. And your pick of the huge range of seminars - from teachers sharing ideas and experiences to updates from the land of Curriculum for Excellence and Glow. It's SLF's 11th year and my 9th. And I'm jolly looking forward to it.


So what else to expect? I'm sure Heather 'no longer' the weather will be there promising that the Scottish Learning Festival 2010 will be bigger and better than ever before. And she's even taking a turn to present her own seminar this year with a look at Climate Change as a Context for Learning. Mike Russell will be Curriculum for Excellencing it to the max. Last year there was some great singing and dancing before the cabinet secretary's presentation and I fully expected Fiona Hyslop to come out doing cartwheels. I hope there'll be time for questions if no gymnastics.

I'm looking forward to taking the easy stroll for BBC types across the bridge to the SECC. And I always feel a great sense of comfort settling down for presentations as the swirly tune kicks in, sounding remarkably like the Verve's Bitter Sweet Symphony (itself sampled from Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of the Rolling Stones' The Last Time, copyright fans).

Last year I walked out of my first seminar early, and some presentations can be a bit hit and miss, but it's great to hear what is, and what has been, going on in classrooms all over the country. Some really inspiring stuff. Every year I come away with a headful of ideas and a bagful of freebies. There's always buzz and positivity, and it's nice to get an annual boost of both.

Claire will be sharing her thoughts from both days. And look out for twitter updates at #slf10, #slf2010, and from Wednesday's TeachMeet at #tmslf10 and #tmslf2010. See you there.

A Scottish lottery?

Claire O'Gallagher Claire O'Gallagher | 13:12 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

I've been following the programmes on the BBC2 School Season so far, and I'm really enjoying them. Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys is a really entertaining look at the gender gap and possible solutions to the problem of engaging boys in learning, and it's on tonight. I was so gutted when the boys lost their class debate last week after working so hard, so I hope they fare better this time.

The Big School Lottery has thrown up some questions for me though. It was a real insight into the intricacies of the English system. The pressure that the 11-plus exams created for some of the kids featured in the show, and their worry about which school they would get in to, isn't something that played a part in my own education here in Scotland. Placing requests were used so that you could go to the same school as your pals, or in my case, to the school that was easiest to get to. I don't remember there being this panic over different schools.

Of course, a huge part of this is the fact that Scotland no longer has a comprehensive and grammar system. There's your local school, a faith school alternative in some cases, or an independent school.

But there do appear to be exceptions to this rule. Schools such as Jordanhill School in Glasgow have strict catchment area entry which means that families have to move into the local area to ensure their child attends the school. St Ninians High in East Renfrewshire has been in the news as a result of legal action by parents concerned about redrawn boundary lines.

Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the English way of applying to schools becomes the Scottish norm - but having watched the programme, I hope it doesn't happen any time soon.

More pupils = less time

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Seonag Mackinnon Seonag Mackinnon | 16:29 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Could it be RIP to the dream of no more than 18 pupils to each P1-3 class across Scotland?

Teachers may be mourning that for most the chances are now slim of being able to spend those extra few moments with each individual child.

It was a key policy for the SNP in the run-up to the last Scottish elections.

Tomorrow Mike Russell, the education secretary, will put forward in Holyrood Parliament a proposal that classes should be legally capped in early primary - but at 25 pupils - and only in P1.

You may have heard we live in a different world now. The country is skint. That makes it difficult to deliver on a policy which is very expensive.

Opposition parties maintain it is so ambitious a policy that it was always in danger of not being delivered.

Earlier this year the Scottish government scaled down its ambition, inviting local authorities to aim for the time being to have 20 per cent in classes of 18, rather than 100 per cent.

Now if anything classes may expand as cash-strapped local councils try to make savings.

Callers to phone-in programmes often cite that there were almost 50 in their primary classes. Classes in Africa can have up to 100 children. It's hard to explain to the general public that teaching methods here in 2010 are different.

Staff now juggle active learning and personal learning plans and they strive to meet the needs of children who need additional support for learning.

These polices remain but teachers may feel in a tough financial climate they do not have the class sizes many feel are necessary to make these policies meaningful.

Class size matters

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Alistair Mooney Alistair Mooney | 15:48 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The prickly problem of class sizes is back in the news. The 2007 SNP manifesto stated "We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less to give children more time with their teacher at this vital stage of their development."

Education secretary Mike Russell insisted that progress is being made towards this goal when he was interviewed on this morning's Good Morning Scotland, speaking about the government's plans to bring in a legal limit of 25 pupils for primary one classes.

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Brian Taylor suggests they must try harder.

Scottish teachers work longest classroom hours

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Seonag Mackinnon Seonag Mackinnon | 14:33 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

Could it be there is a whooping and a hollering in staff rooms this week at a survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development?

Sections of the public have an idea that teachers are out of the school gate almost as quickly as the pupils. And believe that long before many other workers are homeward bound, teachers are watching Countdown on TV.

This survey indicates (I know because I had to plough through it - almost 500 pages since you ask) that teachers in Scotland spend more time in the classroom than the vast majority of their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Contact time takes up 60% of their contracted hours.

These are valuable points to highlight the next time anyone tries to suggest teachers should do more of their marking and preparing after the school bell has rung.

Another possible cause for good cheer - pay compares quite well. Secondary staff here with 15 years experience scrape into the top quarter of the international salary range. And primary teachers in Scotland are unusual in having the same salaries as secondary staff.

Those facts may not be of great comfort however if local councils try - as is widely expected - to impose a pay freeze on the profession next year.

A Highland education

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Bruce Munro Bruce Munro | 16:45 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Inverness became Scotland's fifth city in 2000 and while it's got a lot of the trappings you'd expect from a city, it's not home to a university.

But all that might change soon.

The University of the Highlands and Islands - a partnership of colleges and other institutions across the region - has submitted a bid for full university status.

A Scotsman reader suggested that the institution has a wider role to play in Highland life than just the education of the population, arguing that the UHI needs to exist in order to stop "young people from heading to Glasgow as fast as their legs can carry them".

It's nearly ten years since I left the Highlands to go to university in Glasgow. I don't think it's fair to say I left as fast as my legs would carry me - when I left school, if you wanted to go on to higher education the only option was to move away.

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