The Blackhole of Social Media
Prompted by a number of parent recommendations and lured by it racing up the Netflix charts, I finally caught up with some of The Social Dilemma last weekend and it offered rather more food for thought than I anticipated.
I hold my hand up here – I am a social media user. But I am also way behind some of our Senior School pupils; I cannot get to grips with media-rich social platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat and I believe the official term for most of my Facebook use is ‘lurking’ (that and shouting at the ridiculous posts on my local Facebook page). But enough about my own use. Suffice to leave it here that I think social media platforms can be a fantastic tool to connect people young and old and conduct citizen science research. And I also think they can be insidious timewasting wormholes, twisting reality and taking young people into black holes filled with worrying misinformation.
The latter of my opinions above is where we meet The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski who is well known for his films about environmental disasters. Are we suggesting that Social Media is the new disaster waiting to engulf society? It is presented in what is described by Professor Mary Aiken as a ‘documentary drama hybrid’ and contains numerous interviews with former employees of various social media companies, who have apparently ‘now converted on some Internet superhighway to Damascus’ (ibid). Yet, despite the high drama and the stark warnings, which one could call out as hypocritical when delivered by these former silicon valley employees, there is something unsettling about watching this series.
The adult me understood the warning about usage of personal data, for example, but I know that teenagers do not generally understand fully what this could mean in terms of the post, information, photos and personal information they willingly share in what they think are closed environments.
My reflections went somewhat deeper than this though and considered the wave of mixed-messages given out by various organisations recently about how dangerous social media is. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport recently published a white paper following a consultation about online harms and is possibly as good as we have at the moment. The consensus here being that more research is needed to understand the potential harms. A quick search online shows the numerous reports giving conflicting conclusions about whether social media causes increased self-harm, anxiety, depression and confusion amongst young people or not.
So where does this leave parents, educators and most importantly young people? Well firstly, I am certain that it is counterproductive for us to demonise mobile devices and social media apps. By doing so, we risk alienating young people who will dismiss our opinions as outdated and uninformed (‘you don’t even use TikTok do you Miss?’!). But we do need to remember that, as with all other aspects of life, our jobs as parents and educators is to guide young people and set clear boundaries. It is not an easy task but in school we openly talk about social media use, what the good points are and how to protect themselves from the various different dangers that can lurk, including the unrealistic views of perfection that can be found. Parents can certainly set limits on social media use by restricting app purchases or screen time. But I would suggest that it is best not to fall into the trap of thinking that banning things is the best way to keep young people safe. Childnet advise that a Family Agreement on mobile device use is a great tool – and that means agreements for parents too! Certainly, I know a number of families already successfully make use of a set ‘family meeting’ time each week where everyone switches devices off and talks about all sorts of things, including use of devices and what is happening online. By bringing things out into the open, in a non-judgemental way, you can perhaps help your child to solve the social dilemma.
Parents may find this video of interest. It is part of a series we will be using with older students as part of our ongoing online self-awareness session.
Deputy Head (Pastoral Care & Guidance)
Thoughts from the Head – Black Lives Matter
The shocking events following the tragic death of George Floyd in the USA have rightly sparked outrage and grief across the world, causing us all to reflect on our own values and attitudes towards racism – as individuals and as members of our school community.
We are privileged to be members of a racially diverse community at Northampton High School and I am proud of the fact that we avoid stereotyping, racism and unconscious bias. Indeed, our ISI inspection report earlier this year commented on this on many occasions, stating that ‘pupils show extremely high levels of respect for each other, being sensitive to different cultural traditions’ and that they are ‘tolerant and sensitive to each other’.
I am proud, too, of the fact that our school community is so passionate about the #BlackLivesMatter agenda and that there is great appetite to increase recognition of this through curricular and other means. Our students in partnership with our senior team have already been proactive in bringing matters of race to wider school community and plans are underway to move the agenda forward.
Much is already in place of course, however, we are keen to make the spirit of #BLM an inherent part of school life in all areas. We recognise that any change will be sustainable only if it comes jointly from the students themselves, myself and the senior team.
I have been hugely appreciative of our school community’s response to the situation and would like to thank the many parents who have volunteered to join the Diversity and Inclusion Forum and the students who have willingly come forward to form a society on the same theme. With so many committed to changing the culture for current and future generations of students, both in our own setting and beyond, we really have the opportunity to make a difference.
On a wider level, the GDST recognises that the organisation’s history and mission in helping girls to learn without limits – to achieve gender justice – cannot be achieved without racial justice, too. Consequently, our organisation plans to form a steering committee to work on a GDST Charter of Action that will ensure that staff, students, alumnae and parents have an opportunity to influence and contribute to the organisation’s goals and commitments in this area.
The Charter seeks to address ‘HOW we will make sure the GDST family always embodies an ethos of mutual respect and consideration; HOW we provide a safe, open and respectful working and learning environment for all; and HOW we will make sure everyone’s voice is heard as we seek to make meaningful change happen’. I very much hope that members of our community will commit to this, too.
Caroline Petryszak – 12 June 2020
Can MOOCS Support Teachers in Offering a Flexible Curriculum?
The New York Times named 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC’ or Massive Open Online Course. MOOCs moved online learning right away from the hour-long videos of classes uploaded to secure web spaces so students who missed the lesson could catch up. Eight years on and MOOCs continue to go from strength to strength with arguably the most successful being FutureLearn, backed by longstanding experts in online learning, the Open University.
Educational technology, or EdTech, has been through a variety of stages in schools. In the 1990s and early 2000s we were teaching students how to use software in the world of work. The last decade has mostly been about the tech itself. Do we want iPads, Chromebooks, Microsoft? Do we want Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) or class-sets? Should we have smartboards or not? These questions have dominated many school discussions. I am pleased to be part of the GDST community where innovation is valued and shaping EdTech pedagogy is high on the agenda. I believe it doesn’t matter what the platform or software; the main thing is that EdTech should bring the teaching and learning to life, offer choices and give flexibility in the curriculum.
As Dr Eileen Kennedy, Senior Research Associate at UCL, writes that one of the benefits of EdTech is the greater engagement achieved for school pupils though the interaction and collaboration it affords. EdTech, and specifically, MOOCs can also be hugely advantageous due to their inherent asynchronicity. It was this feature of learning anytime, anywhere, at your own pace, that led my venture into designing a FutureLearn course. The driver for this project was the need for flexibility in our curriculum. In fact it was the very flexibility of our Sixth Form curriculum that created a problem requiring a flexible solution! Northampton High School enables Sixth Form students to create a bespoke programme of study; a pick-and-mix of 3 A Levels and a range of elective courses. The Extended Project Qualification elective, for which I am responsible, is highly valued at our school as it gives students an opportunity to study independently and in-depth a topic of personal interest. It also requires a range of skills to be taught in order that students understand how to create an academic piece of work and reflect on the journey they take through the creation of the project. With such a flexible timetable and only two staff delivering the skills, we had been struggling to enable the students to attend the skills sessions needed. So a plan took shape to devise a MOOC (or in this case a SPOC – Small Personal Online Course – as it was initially only accessible to the students at Northampton High School). Video content, suitable tasks, articles and reading materials all needed to be sourced, created or adapted to fit the online learning mode of study. I decided, for example, to use first hand materials from previous EPQ students in my video content, to hopefully bring the program to life for students.
In terms of pedagogical process, designing the course was very similar to planning a traditional scheme of work. Only this time we had a range of online tools such as YouTube clips, in-house videos, self-marking quizzes and randomised peer-marked tasks to add into our resources armoury. The other notable change in terms of setting tasks was the built in discussion tools offered by FutureLearn. Collaboration and connection are vital features in successful online courses. Learning how to help students engage in meaningful discussions was probably the aspect of course design that exercised me most.
And so far, so good. Numbers of students engaging in the EPQ at Northampton High are up this year and their discussion about topic choices appear to have been aided by the online discussions. I am certain that teachers have nothing to fear from online courses; they will not make our roles redundant but are more likely enhance engagement with our subject and give more depth to discussion and collaboration when we are face to face in the classroom.
‘The quality of the pupils’ personal development is excellent’. Northampton High School ISI Report, November 2019
At Northampton High School, we place great emphasis on personal development, and this was immediately recognised by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) on their visit to the school in November 2019. This area of their inspection report considers a number of factors including pupils’ self-esteem, self-confidence, resilience, well-being, spiritual understanding, social awareness and respect and value for different cultures. The school was judged ‘excellent’ for personal development – the highest possible grade.
Personal development is a priority from the outset at Northampton High School as our Nursery girls are encouraged to develop their independence under the careful guidance of their key worker. This member of staff works closely with the parents, as do the tutors as the girls progress through the Junior School. These partnerships of care, nurture and support are vitally important, and small class sizes allow adequate time and attention for each child.
Wrap-around care and a wide range of extracurricular activities enable the girls to develop their interests and individuality from a very young age, and those in Reception to Year 6 benefit from the expertise of colleagues from the Junior and Senior Schools – as well as external facilitators – as they explore extracurricular opportunities and begin to develop a sense of self.
Regular Philosophy for Children (P4C) lessons encourage Junior School students to philosophise about images, video clips and text extracts as they learn to express concerns, create questions, to reason and to identify inconsistencies. As they work together, they learn to become clearer in their thinking, more open-minded, less self-contradictory and increasingly aware of the arguments and values of others.
PSHEE lessons tackle key issues in an age-appropriate way and whole-school assemblies often tie in with these discussions, and with current affairs. Junior School students are encouraged to talk about these themes with their parents as they develop their social awareness. As they move through Key Stage 2 they are increasingly encouraged to take on positions of responsibility and to lead and care for others through initiatives such as peer-to-peer mentoring – opportunities that they will carry into the Senior School and Sixth Form, too.
As girls mature, relationships with friends become more complex, and we prepare them for this by adopting the ‘Girls on Board’ programme in Years 5 to 9. This approach enables the girls to find their own solutions to disagreements, giving them an emotional toolkit to use independently and empowering them to take control of their own relationships. It also helps them, their parents and their teachers to understand the complexities and dynamics of girl friendships and helps in the transition from their junior to senior years.
‘The social development of pupils is excellent’. Northampton High School ISI Report, November 2019
Promoting emotional security and developing character and resilience for life are key principles in our personal development programmes. In addition to Girls on Board, there are a number of structured programmes that underpin our Senior School Wellbeing and Development practices, and these fall both within and outside the main curriculum.
The Positive™ programme promotes positive psychology in every area of school life and we teach students to use tools such as the Worry Filter™ and Emotional Barometer™. These tools help them to notice and normalise a range of feelings, whilst working through helpful techniques to move from a negative to a more positive mindset.
In Year 7, pupils are introduced to the COaCH (Confidence and Challenge) programme. This programme, spanning Years 7 to 9, provides a range of challenging activities aimed at developing confidence, resilience and leadership, alongside introducing a range of supportive services available in school.
Our PSHEE curriculum is a core element to the COaCH programme. Through these lessons we encourage students to explore, in an age appropriate way, a range of social, personal and health matters. This includes digital literacy and awareness and dealing with problems they may encounter in school and their wider lives. Getting involved in new activities and learning new skills are vital to personal development and the COaCH programme challenges students to take up at least one new activity each term from the vast list of extracurricular offerings. This gives them the opportunity to learn about themselves and others.
Our excellent pastoral structures mean that all the pupils have a range of people to turn to for day-to-day support as well as more specialist services. Form tutors meet their tutees daily for a catch-up and termly for a more detailed tutorial. Heads of Year work with the whole year group, running activities, assemblies, relaxation breakfasts and other events to promote friendship and well-being. Our Wellbeing Assistant offers a listening ear as well as bespoke mentoring and coaching sessions and group workshops on a range of wellbeing topics. We also employ a nurse to deal with day-to-day medical issues and support with chronic complaints.
In the Sixth Form, students’ personal development is driven by an active engagement in the wider community and by a bespoke programme that supports their next steps after school. Through schemes such as the Community Sports Leaders Award, Young Philanthropy and Big Sister Little Sister, students develop practical skills while actively supporting other people, whether that be through promoting sport at local primary schools, visits to nursing homes or mentoring younger girls at the High School.
The PSHEE curriculum also includes sessions that reflect on the role Sixth Form students can play in helping to support wider society through joining the Anthony Nolan register, for instance, or taking part in the Oxford University Meningitis B vaccine trial. Leadership roles throughout school are taken by Sixth Formers, who gain valuable experiences while giving back to the school community.
We support students in making decisions about life after school through a personalised, comprehensive programme. This includes visiting speakers, trips to universities and apprenticeship fairs, opportunities for work experience through the GDST Rungway app (among others), as well as a continuing, personal dialogue between students and tutors that is supplemented by PSHEE sessions on writing applications, managing finances and making informed decisions.
‘There is an excellent awareness from all pupils as to their moral obligations to each other, themselves and the school to be the best they can be each day’. Northampton High School ISI Report, November 2019
Throughout the school, personal development is enhanced by a broad curriculum that offers students the opportunity to learn in creative ways, promoting confidence and offering independent choice without compromising on academic excellence. Our students leave us as confident and forward-thinking young women with a strong sense of their own identity and a deep respect and tolerance for each other, which is a strength of the school (ISI report, 2019). The results speak for themselves.
Caroline Petryszak, 14 February 2020