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#8 Bridget James – Tech in Schools, Academic Awareness, and Why Mathematics is Important

PODCAST: Episode 8

Bridget James – Tech in Schools, Academic Awareness, and Why Mathematics is Important

In this episode of the Future Minds podcast, we spoke with a highly experienced and open-minded educator with a wealth of knowledge and passion for what she does. What a pleasure chatting with Bridget James about what can be seen as a difficult, and extremely fascinating, conversation topic such as how the traditional education model can improve.

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About Our Guest: Bidget James

Bridget James currently holds multiple positions as Deputy Head, Head of Academics, and AP Mathematics Teacher at St Cyprian’s High School. Bridget has been in education for over 22 years and strongly believes that education should be designed in such a way as to develop critical thinking skills and nurture understanding.

Bridget James

Bridget maintains that mathematics is about making connections and identifying patterns through which this understanding develops – and believes in the development of soft skills like resilience, self-management, organization, and collaboration amongst others.

Topics Discussed

  1. Traditional education vs. Homeschooling.
  2. The challenges faced by the traditional school system.
  3. Why mathematics is so important.
  4. The future of education.

Full Episode Transcription

Guest Introduction

Philip von Ziegler: In this episode, I’ll be speaking with Bridget James. Bridget currently holds multiple positions as Deputy Head of St Cyprian’s High School, Head of Academics, Head of Mathematics, and AP mathematics teacher. Bridget has been in education for over 22 years and strongly believes that education should be designed in such a way as to develop critical thinking skills and nurture understanding, as opposed to rote learning of methods.

Bridget maintains that mathematics is about making connections and identifying patterns through which this understanding develops. And believes in the development of soft skills like resilience, self-management, organisation, and collaboration, amongst others. In this episode, we cover topics such as traditional education versus homeschooling, the challenges faced by the traditional school system, why mathematics is so important, the future of education, and a range of other topics. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with Bridget, and I’m sure you will, too. Without further ado, I give you Bridget James. Bridget James, thank you for joining me.

BJ: Thank you for having me.

PvZ: For those that don’t know who you are, tell us a little bit about yourself, who you are, and what you do.

BJ: I am a maths teacher and Deputy Head of Academics at St Cyprian’s in town, that’s very briefly who I am. Yea, so I started out my teaching career just as a maths teacher, and I never intended to go into teaching. It was kind of a winding path that led me there. And also, if I was going to choose a subject to teach, it definitely wouldn’t have been mathematics. Another winding path, but through teaching it, I’ve developed a passion for the subject and for just that interacting with students.

And I think we are privileged, those of us who are in education, because you get to witness and be an integral part of this growth and development of young minds, and that for me is what it’s about. So that’s what’s driven me to move beyond just teaching and be involved in different roles, leading me to where I am now, Deputy Head of Academics.

PvZ: And what are some of those challenges that you face in the classroom? I know that in my personal education journey, I realised at school at some point near the end of my school career, that each student learns differently. And I know this is a topic of conversation in educational circles. How is that being addressed in the classroom?

BJ: I think that’s definitely one of the big challenges. And in well-resourced schools, it’s easier to address it, and in schools with smaller groups. For me, it’s around as a teacher being flexible and acknowledging that it’s not the way that you learn because you tend to teach the way that you learn. And the way that you learn is not necessarily how your students are going to learn.

So it’s around asking a lot of questions and around trying to use lots of different resources, trying to incorporate class discussion, independent work. And just trying to be in touch with where your students are so that you can identify whether they are with you or not, and you can adapt and change if you need to.

The Responsibility of the School

PvZ: And you obviously come from the unique perspective of being both a teacher and educator, as well as a parent. To what extent is school responsible for educating a child?

BJ: I think it’s a partnership. I think that it’s becoming more and more the school’s role, as you’ve more and more got single-parent families, sometimes families with no parents. And also, in our family we’re two working parents, both of us teachers, so your time is split.

But there tends, if you speak to a teacher, they might say to you, it’s definitely my role as a teacher is to teach them the curriculum. And it’s the parent’s role to teach them the rest of the stuff. But you can’t separate them out, so you can’t separate out teaching, organisation and responsibility, and empathy from teaching the curriculum.

So you’ve got to build a partnership. As a school, you’ve got to build a partnership with the parents, so that they’re walking with you on the journey, and there’s clear communication. And as the teacher and the parent and the student, you understand what the end goal is, and what you need to do to get there.

Impact Of Coronavirus On The Traditional School System

PvZ: I think just on that point, one of the big challenges that has all of a sudden presented itself. You know, 2020 comes by; it’s another normal school year. All of a sudden coronavirus happens and turns the whole education sector on its head. How have you responded to that? And how has that sort of pivot or change been to enable students to continue learning?

BJ: It’s been an interesting experience because it was almost overnight. We’re, again, in a privileged situation where we have access to technology. We already had platforms in place. We use the Microsoft platform Teams, so we had all of that in place.

But it was having to take your whole teaching body, many of them that are not all on the same level. And say, right, now, as you’ve said, turn it on its head. So it was very much a steep learning curve. It was about looking at do we need to adjust what our goals are? How are we going to achieve them?

So we did a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. So the live teaching, as well as incorporating offline worksheets or videos, and creating chatrooms where the students could touch base with the teachers. But for both the students and the teachers, it’s been this very, very steep learning curve.

And it hasn’t worked for everybody, because that goes back to your learning style. So some students have adapted almost seamlessly and they’ve loved it. They didn’t want to come back to school because this was ideal. I can plan my day. I can go to class in my pajamas.

PvZ: So have students been given the choice?

BJ: So we have up until now, we’re going to move back to having everybody back at school in the new term. But up until now, we’ve been operating on a dual system. So during lockdown, when the schools were all shut, then it was completely online. And then when schools reopened, we operated on the dual system, where some of our students were overseas, or in different parts of the country. Or just their parents didn’t want to send them back to school because of comorbidities.

So we live-stream our lessons and the students who are at home can be in the classroom, can interact with the teachers, can ask questions, and be heard by the class and the teacher. But it requires quite a high level of self-management and self-regulation to do that.

And also, there’s something about being in a classroom that you miss when you’re not there. Especially, I think, when everybody’s having the same experience, it’s different, so if everybody’s at home. But if you’ve got some in the classroom with the teacher, and you’ve got some at home, there’s definitely something that gets missed by those who’re not in the classroom.

Variety of Learning Styles in Children

PvZ: You’ve obviously got children on this spectrum of learning styles. You’ve got auditory learners, you’ve got visual learners, tactile learners. And as a well-resourced school, it does become easier to cater for those different needs. For parents out there that want to be a little bit more involved in their student’s academic roadmap, or academic career, what are the things that they should look out for from the perspective of a teacher in sort of identifying these learning styles at a younger age? And is it really that important?

BJ: I think it’s essential and it’s difficult, or it can be more difficult if you don’t have a teaching background necessarily. But I often think that being a teacher is a blessing and a curse in being a parent. You tend to have different expectations because you come in with that thing of knowing what’s expected and where they’re going to.

But just watching how your child learns and watching them when they’re doing the homework, and you can pick things up. If they’re going to sit for 20 minutes and stare at their notes, and then come out and not be able to tell you what it is that they’ve learned or read, then that’s not the learning style for them.

Then it’s about experimenting. There’s so much out there, apps and all sorts of different technologies. So trying it out, and lots of it now is free. That’s the other thing that the pandemic has actually opened up, is the accessibility to it is much better. And that’s what’s helped schools as well, that it hasn’t been having to lay out huge amounts of money on technology because it’s been easily accessible.

So for me as a parent, it’s just about being aware and being involved. And not saying, well, off you go to your bedroom and now you sit and do your work. Asking them, what did you do at school? And asking them specific questions, and not being happy with a, it was fine, or it was a good, answer because that’s always the one that you’re going to get. Showing interest is important.

Mental Health Awareness at School

PvZ: On that point of showing interest and being aware. I think a lot of parents, put it like this. A lot of teachers see things that parents might not necessarily see in their kids. And I think coming from the perspective of an educator at an all-girls school. Teenage years, a troublesome time for boys and for girls. coronaviruses has thrown a spanner in the works for everybody.

To what extent has mental health, and mental health awareness, guided the way in which you interact with students? And the way in which the school prepares to get kids back into the classroom? To get them back into the swing of things? Is that a focus?

BJ: Absolutely, I think, even before this, mental health has become, over the last five or so years, become less of there’s always been that stigma to it. So it’s been brought more out into the open, and it’s become more acceptable to talk about it. And something like what we’ve experienced this year has really put it in focus because you have taken away that sense of being connected.

And as human beings, that’s what we need, we need that sense that we’re connected. And now you’re expecting people to, particularly in lockdown, to sit in their bedrooms and work on their own without that sense of being connected. And another phrase that’s been thrown around a lot when the students have come back to school, has been that the fun has been taken out of school.

And there’s been times when I wanted to sit down and cry. You have the students sitting in these rows, separated from one another, and there are screens, and they’re wearing a mask and they’re wearing a visor. And even though you’re in the classroom with them, you can’t connect with them. So it’s about trying to bring a little bit more of the fun back into it and not be so serious, but also to be aware of where they’re at. And keep that communication, both with them and with their parents, open.

So as teachers we spend eight hours with our students and many parents might only spend a couple of hours a day. I spend more time with my students that I spend with my own child so that his teachers know more about him, where he is, necessarily, than I might know. So I need that communication from the school because they’ve got their finger, they should have their finger on the pulse, hopefully.

PvZ: It’s something that I haven’t really thought about until the other day. I drove past the primary school and I saw kids playing in the courtyard, chasing each other, but everyone was wearing masks. And I was struck on an emotional level. I was like, this is wrong. I mean, these kids are running around with masks and visors. How have kids adapted?

BJ: Look, I think, I work with the older students, so children are naturally more flexible than adults; they adapt easier. It’s been harder, the older the students are, the harder it’s been. And again, it’s that sense of loss, and particularly at exit years, like Grade 7s and matrics, there’s a huge sense of loss. But I think they’re more resilient than adults necessarily, so they’ve just got on with it.

Bridget’s Definition of a Successful Education

PvZ: Speaking about those exciting years, we’re still operating in a traditional education system. The sort of Edwardian, outcome-based model of education that channels you to tertiary education. You go to university; you get a degree and that’s sort of the path that you’re expected to follow.

Naturally, things have changed and people’s opinions on what the right path is, have changed. How do you see a successful education, sort of pre-university and then going into university?

BJ: It’s not a simple question.

PvZ: It’s a complex question.

BJ: It’s a very complex question! For me, the end goal of school for many people is you need to get a decent result so that you can get into university. And when I left school, that was it – you had to go to university. I think that that is no longer really the case unless you’re looking at very specific courses of study. If you’re going into engineering, or if you’re going into the health sciences where you definitely have to have a degree.

But for me, a successful education, number one, is one that doesn’t end. So it’s not a case of you’re going to finish matric, or you’re going to finish a three-year degree, or three-year course, or two-year course, and now your education is done.

It’s not. We are and always should have been, but more so now, need to see ourselves as lifelong learners. And if you tell that to any Matric student or Grade 7, they’re going to be horrified, because they want it to end, and go out and go on to the next thing. But it’s around being open to the fact that I need to continue learning. So if you can have a student who leaves whichever exit year it is, still wanting to learn, that’s one indication of success.

And the other thing is about skills. It’s not so much about knowledge. I mean, knowledge is you push a button and you’ve got knowledge at your hands, but you need to be able to interpret that knowledge. So it’s around the skills. Is the school providing you, or the university, providing you with the skills to be able to access that, to be able to understand it? So the interpretation of whether education has been successful really depends on who’s doing the interpreting. So for me, it’s around, are you coming out more inquisitive? Are you coming out enjoying learning and wanting to learn more?

And with that core set of soft skills, that ability to self-regulate, the ability to organise, the ability to collaborate, to be resilient. If you’re coming out with those, or the foundation of those because they’re never fully developed. Then you’ve got a successful start of your education.

The Traditional Educator’s Opinion on Homeschooling

PvZ: So coronavirus has led a lot of people around the world to make a very difficult decision, and that decision is whether or not to homeschool their kids, or whether or not to apply some sort of a blended approach. What are your thoughts on homeschooling?

BJ: I’m not a fan. I think that online learning is good, and there’s a lot about it that we can incorporate into traditional education and adopt their blended approach. With regards to homeschooling, I believe for myself personally that it would work better for older students. I’ve found that the younger students struggle. They struggle, particularly if they’re left on their own. So if you have a facilitator, or you’re part of a homeschooling group or community, then it’s a different story, because then you’ve still got that interaction.

But if it’s just going to be a case of the parent is going to homeschool their child on their own, they don’t necessarily have the skills. And although they can upskill themselves, that student is missing the interaction. So, yea, I think a blended approach is a better way to go.

And it’s also around interrogating, what’s the reason? Why do you want to homeschool? So some students don’t function optimally in a schooling environment; it’s not designed for them. It’s again, this education historically has been this one-size-fits-all, and one size definitely doesn’t fit all. So, for some students, homeschool might work, but then you’ve got to bring in other elements. You’ve got to find ways to include the social interaction.

PvZ: Sure.

BJ: Bring in the opportunities for discussion. Bring in other learning experiences. For me, personally, it’s not something I would do with my child, but that might be because I’m a teacher and in education, I don’t know.

The Classroom of the Future

PvZ: What, in your mind, does the classroom of 2030 look like?

BJ: I have no idea! I don’t know. I think-

PvZ: I think that’s probably the most honest and accurate answer.

BJ: Yea, I think for me to sit here and go, this is what it’s going to look like, I don’t know.

PvZ: What do you hope it looks like?

BJ: I would hope it doesn’t look like today’s classroom, because the classroom of 2020 looks a lot like the classroom of 1990 and a lot like, you know, going back. I would hope that it involves the incorporation of more technology. That it involves maybe a shift from our traditional pen-and-paper assessment because that’s something that has kept the traditional education system going, because ultimately that’s where you’re headed. At the end of matric, you have that high-stakes pen-and-paper exam.

So the argument is always, well, you can do all of this different stuff in class, but the students have got to do well in that high-stakes exam. So for me, it would be amazing if we could shift away from that, and find a different way to assess. And there are schools internationally who are doing that already. That you assess on an e-portfolio or a body of work that’s not written tests. It could be some tests and quizzes, or it could be big projects. It could be essays, blogs, whatever it is, but you are assessing in a different way. And that’s where I would hope that it’s headed.

Bridget’s Passions Related to Education

PvZ: As it relates to education, what are you most passionate about?

BJ: Enabling or teaching, it’s going to sound terrible, teaching students how to think. But maybe creating an environment in which they’re able to develop their thinking, and to think about how they think. So for me, that’s the big thing. It’s not just around putting information on a piece of paper. It’s around actually being able to interrogate it and understand why things work.

And also understand, when you’re thinking about something when you’re trying to solve a problem, what is the process that’s going on in your head? Actually, to make it visible, so you talk about visible thinking. Can you show me how you came to that conclusion? Can you explain your thought process to me? Because if you can explain your thought process to me, then you understand.

PvZ: I absolutely agree with you, and I wish that was something that was emphasized more when I was at school. I was fortunate enough to do quite well academically, and I went to university, UCT. And I went the actuarial science route, but not by my own choosing; this was a path that was sort of chosen for me. And only in the second year did I the first time reflect back on the decision to study science, and say, am I really enjoying this? And is this something that I actually actively chose to do?

Having had a look at some of the courses that were out there, I wish that I’d started off with a PPE, which is Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. The idea being that if you study PPE as an undergrad, you know how the other world works at a political level. You know how people think in terms of psychology. You know how the world works on a financial level and economics.

But that middle P, that philosophy, is something so important, I believe, in terms of sort of generating and developing your own self-awareness. My question is, why is philosophy not taught at school? Because surely philosophy is that entry point into understanding why you think, how you think, and developing your critical thinking faculties.

BJ: It’s going to be another one that I’m going to say I don’t know! Yea, I absolutely agree. There are various different programs to bring philosophy into schools, which is also important. That, again, working with the thinking and getting students to think differently about things.

But, no, I agree with you, and I think that probably because we’re still stuck in this the powers-that-be, in this traditional form of education. Where there’s a set curriculum and you’re teaching that curriculum, and then you’re going to assess that curriculum. And that percentage at the end of the day is going to tell you how much of that curriculum you understand.

And the truth is that all that percentage at the end of the day tells you is how much you understood at the time you took that test. It doesn’t tell you anything else. So you can go and test yourself again six months later and you might get a completely different result. Yea, so I agree, but I wouldn’t know why it’s not, but it would be good if it was brought in.

A National Curriculum vs. The Development of a Global Curriculum

PvZ: Sure. On the point of curriculums, South Africa obviously has its own curriculum. A lot of nations have a national curriculum that they abide by. But as the digital economy grows, and technology enables us to communicate and transact online in this holistic global space, how important is a national curriculum versus the development of a global curriculum?

BJ: I think that a global curriculum is incredibly important, but what we mustn’t forget is the inequality in which we find ourselves. So it’s a luxury, which it shouldn’t be, education is a luxury. So when you sit with that level of inequality, that idea of that global curriculum becomes a little bit almost like a dream that one can’t get to. And that unfortunately then deepens that sense of inequality, so that national curriculum acts as that benchmark across. So, everybody, this is the minimum level that you have to attain.

For me, again, on a personal level, if we could move towards something that was broader and more relevant globally, that would be a win-win.

PvZ: So on that point, if you had a magic wand-

BJ: [laugh]

PvZ: And you could make one change to the current education system. And I know that’s sort of a loaded question because the education system encapsulates both hyperprivileged and underprivileged communities. But what change would you make?

BJ: I think take away that limit of time. The fact that you have to finish teaching a set curriculum within a set amount of time. You have to assess in a set amount of time. If you gave a task to a group of students and you allowed them as much time as they wanted to do it. And you managed to keep them motivated, I would predict that you would get a standard of work beyond anything that we would normally experience.

Because they’re not hampered by, I have to produce it in this amount of time. I have to write this test or this essay in an hour. It gives them the time to think and the time to reflect and a time to go and look for other resources. So for me, that idea of that limit, of I must teach this in the set time, I must assess in this set time. If we could take that out, that would make a huge difference.

PvZ: That’s a very interesting point. As an educator, you’re obviously faced with disciplinary challenges at school. Children inhibit that learning process, or that education process, by being difficult in class. What one thing can parents teach their kids to make that classroom experience more pleasant, both for other students as well as for the teacher, and ultimately for that student?

BJ: Again, it’s complex because it’s very seldom when you have a student who is disruptive or ‘difficult’, I don’t like to use the term difficult, but difficult. There’s always going to be an underlying reason. So it’s very seldom that there’s going to be a student who’s disruptive, or is not engaged, just because they don’t want to.

And if you take that into consideration, then it’s difficult to say what the parents must teach that student so that that doesn’t happen. Because often what’s happening in the class can be related to what’s happening at home. So maybe there are difficulties or challenges at home. Maybe the student has their own barriers or difficulties in learning, and those then manifest in this behavior that is undesirable.

So often our first instinct is to tackle the behavior and go, well, why aren’t you listening? Why is your work late, or why are you being disruptive? Instead of looking at and going, what is the underlying cause for it? So for me, it’s not so much what the parents must be doing at home, but it’s around working together as teachers, school and parent, to have a look and say, well, what is the underlying cause here, and how can we address it?

Learning Difficulties in Students

So if it’s a barrier to learning, what can we put in place, both at home and at school, to support that student so that they are able to learn? So if you have a student who is ADD, or who has a processing difficulty, a classroom is a nightmare. And you’re expecting them to sit and to concentrate, particularly boys.

PvZ: And they end up being very anxious.

BJ: And they end up being anxious, or they end up acting out, being disruptive, because I can’t do this. My brain doesn’t work that way. And if you have a student who is experiencing challenges at home, whether it’s personal, or whether it’s high levels of anxiety, or financial, whatever it is. That’s going to manifest because they’re coming into school not feeling secure. And now they’re expected to sit and to work and to be normal, and things aren’t normal in their lives.

So for me, it’s around trying to figure out what is the underlying cause. And again, in a privileged school, it’s easier to do that because you’re better resourced. You’ve maybe got 20 kids in a class. If you’re sitting in a school with 40 kids or 60 kids in a class, how do you do that as a teacher?

And then often those communities are the communities that are most at risk, and those students are therefore most at risk. And therein those communities you often find your biggest challenges as far as behavior goes. But it’s not because the child, the student, doesn’t want to learn. It’s just because they’re dealing with all these other things and now they’re expected to sit and to learn at the same time.

PvZ: Oh, I agree. I love what you say about finding that underlying cause because I think far too many parents or educators or medical professionals, whoever’s responsible, sort of default to prescribing medication without really assessing that underlying cause. And I think the long-term effects of the types of medication that get prescribed, certainly does more bad than good.

BJ: Look, there’s a place for medication, but it can’t be the first. It can’t be something you just run to. It’s like if you have a cold and just say, well, I’m just going to go and take the first box off the shelf. You’re never going to do that; you’re going to figure out what the problem is first.

So that’s got to be the same in education; try and figure out what the problem is. And it’s sounds simple and it’s not. And then try and look at ways to support the student. Otherwise, you lose them, and far too many students drop out of the education system, partly because of that.

Importance of Maths

PvZ: How and why is maths so important?

BJ: I think mathematics surrounds us; we can’t escape it. So, again, it’s that age-old question that you teach something in class and the hand goes up, and it’s where am I going to use this? So it’s important because it teaches us how to think. It teaches us how to solve problems, and it also teaches us resilience and perseverance. So we go beyond just the curriculum, there’s all these underlying skills.

But then that goes back to how it’s taught. So if it’s going to be taught as a set of algorithms and a set of rules and methods, then we lose the understanding; we lose the benefit of it. But if you’re able to teach it in a way where you create opportunities for understanding and for questioning and for developing other problem-solving skills, then ultimately, you’re seeing students leave school with this ability to solve problems. Not just mathematics problems, but anything that comes their way, because it’s a set of skills which you learn when you’re trying to solve a problem in maths.

PvZ: What do you believe about education that most people may disagree with?

BJ: I’ve alluded to it already. I don’t believe that we should have marks, and that sounds very odd coming from a Head of Academics. If we could move away from that traditional mark system, I think we would see an education system that creates a lot more opportunity for developing thinking and for freedom of thought without the fear of marks.

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in assessment, but just in a different way. So for me, it’s moving away from this mark-orientated system. And my worst of all is averages, class averages, and grade averages, and what is my child’s average? At the end of the day, what does an average mean? Or how has my child performed in comparison to his or her classmates, or to other schools’ ranking?

You’ve got me on a complete … but it’s this idea of we must rank students, we must rank schools. Ultimately, it should be around looking at the individual and you should get to a stage where you’re able to look at yourself. What have I learned? How have I developed? Where are my strengths, where are my weaknesses, or my areas that I need to develop in? And what do I need to do? How can I reflect on how I can grow and develop more?

And a mark doesn’t tell me that. You’ve got to have a look at your assessment and see what are the areas that I need to improve on. And 70% or 80% a piece of paper doesn’t tell me anything.

PvZ: Both thoughtful and thought-provoking, and that’s a perfect way to end the podcast.

BJ: Thank you.

PvZ: So thank you so much for your time. I really, really enjoyed it.

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