Friday 21st June 2013 and the very long awaited day(s) had arrived.
I am notoriously bad with geography and direction. Two years ago, I was due to attend this conference with a colleague. He dropped out at the last minute; fear of leaving the comfort of the North East was too great! I had planned to go it alone and then my huge error dawned on me. The event is held at Wellington College so, without checking the location, I booked train tickets to Wellington.
It turns out that Wellington is not even close to Wellington College!
This kind of occurrence is sadly rather typical of me but under new philosophies around teaching, I am comforted that I can bravely model failure for my students!
This year, I moved ‘down south.’ Although I miss northern accents, lashings of vinegar on fish & chips instead of a spray and being close to the coast, I’m starting to feel pretty settled. Things were made easier when I discovered that I was only living a few miles from Wellington College- surely a journey of a meagre 13 miles could not phase me now? My pilgrimage to this lost and ‘far away land’ would finally happen!
I can now announce that I am able to report back on the wonderful speakers I had the privilege of listening to on my first day at the event. These are my interpretations of what I heard. They may not mirror the way the speaker intended their words. They may not match what other delegates took from the speakers. They will give you an insight into my reflections of the day and its events.
The first of the speakers I chose to see was @HYWEL_ROBERTS on ‘Imagineering Creativity.’ To say the fact that I recognised his name on Twitter didn’t come into my decision to go and see him speak… would be lying.
Naturally, I was late as I got lost! But boy, what a speaker! He was truly engaging, inspirational and energetic.
He referred to teachers as ‘curiosity excavators.’ A lot of what he spoke of could immediately be connected to primary school teaching.
Recently, I’ve been having discussions with colleagues about what seems to be lost for students between primary school and the age of 16 (or older) when they reach us. After listening to Hywel speak, I am convinced much of this is curiosity and creativity within young people.
Hywel seems to be a master of analogy and one of the most prominent of these, was the elephant outside the window. As teachers, if something interesting is happening outside the classroom, we bring students’ eyes back into the room and we cut down the incessant chatter about celebrities and other world events.
It doesn’t take much thinking about, to realise that reaction is crazy! How can we expect our learners to ignore an elephant striding gracefully past the classroom, flapping its ears all the while? We can’t expect it and nor should we.
Instead, what questions could we ask to bring those outside events and distractions into our lessons on a more frequent basis? In this way, we generate curiosity, we build rapport and we grow students’ wider world knowledge. Things I’m sure all of us would want in our classrooms.
This kind of behaviour is also essential if we’re aiming for ‘outstanding’ with features of ‘spaceship!’- the future grade perhaps?! I’d personally advocate that! What a marvellous word to aim for the embodiment of as a teacher! To actually be a spaceship teacher! Hannah Tyreman- Spaceship Teacher- AWESOME!
The thrust of his message was to ask ‘big fat questions.’ Either related to real world events or ‘imagineered’ ones. Big, juicy questions can truly stretch and challenge students. These can be generated from imaginary situations such as,
‘I’ve got a time machine in Guildford. What rules are we going to need if we’re going to use it safely?’
Such situations can create melodrama and tension in a good way for students. These safer creative situations can force students into deeper thinking and exploration of an issue, without fear of failure, but with the pressure to make a decision. Learning can be made urgent and important.
Create fully immersive situations with props and melodrama (not drama) and the students will be engaged and can develop their attitudes and values in the process.
These are some of the other examples to get you thinking about how you might use these kinds of situations in your own classrooms:
Give students a random environment (midway up a mountain?) and get students to think of laws for a society that you’ve described there.
A block of flats is being pulled down. Students have to work out what they would say to an old lady (who has lived there for 50 years) who must leave.
I don’t think post-16 learners are beyond this kind of creative thinking but I know they are not accustomed to it. This kind of approach can lead to the growth of empathy in our learners, skills of evaluation, discussion, collaboration and independence of thought. Aren’t these qualities things we have a duty to nurture in our learners? We need to change a passive imagination to a flexible one. Personally, I’m going to be finding as many opportunities as I can this year to insert melodrama and generate curiosity into my lessons. I’m sure we’re all going to love our journey on the time machine from a dilapidated shed in Guildford!
My next chosen session was in the lecture theatre, yes, lost again! This time though, it was because I put my trust in other teachers. Perhaps a great ‘failure’ lesson for my students- don’t ever put your trust blindly in your teacher!
There was a panel of speakers this time and it was a much more sombre affair- far less smiling and laughter in this darkened room. The environment I was in only further confirmed my long-standing belief that classroom environment is essential to students feeling comfortable, inspired and engaged.
The first two speakers introduced themselves and I immediately switched off. It was dull and so I dived into my emails and Twitter. I was lost there for a while until… Martin Bean began to speak. It was as though he had directly entered my head and said, ‘Hannah, I’m what you’ve been waiting for…’ No. Not in that way! In the sense that I could now disengage with my device and re-engage with the room and its words!
This discussion was centered around the theme of online learning and what place it has in a 21st century classroom.
Martin suggested that there is, ‘no place for restricted methods or outdated practices.’ He said that there existed, ‘great and lousy online learning but that great learning is the key.’
Rohan Silva suggested quite worryingly that, ‘All the innovation is coming from the states in EdTech.’ He also said, (I think I can rightly attribute this to him. Note to self: better note-making tomorrow!) ‘We can’t just take offline content and put it online- we need the interactivity to support it.’
Daphne Koller was a grower. I concluded from her points that flipped/ blended learning is the way forward for now. At least as a transition towards even more online learning content. Personally, I’ve had excellent experiences with my foray into flipped learning thus far. My students have enjoyed pausing my videos at home, taking their learning at their own pace and have valued the opportunity for deeper discussion in class as a result.
Online learning means that students can take what they want, when they want it. They can differentiate for themselves and become independent as there’s no ‘you’ to rely upon. They have the material and questions/ tasks to complete. Yet the discussion lesson afterwards is essential to provide the support their learning.
Martin then spoke again and made some marvellously insightful points!
There is no way any business would plunge its employees into a new way of working without putting full training in place beforehand to ensure it could be a success. If teaching is any different then the same results will be achieved- online learning won’t be a success without reasonable support for staff.
Handwritten exams are mad- upon leaving education- students will not use a pen, they will use a PC. Rote learning is mad- upon leaving education- students will not need to rote learn facts, they will Google it!
We shouldn’t be concerned with the possible lack of emotional connection students may have with a video. How many times have you cried or laughed at a movie? All your video needs is good direction, great lighting and a fabulous star in the lead role- YOU!
The final thought for you: A classroom shouldn’t be an aeroplane for learners. Students shouldn’t file on board in rows, sit facing the front, remain seated at all times and turn all electronic devices off. Let’s take learning beyond the artificial situation of a classroom and into the real life, 21st century world!
My third session was a doddle to find; at the end of a wonderfully smelling garden! Oh what a joy it must be, to learn in a place such as this! It was at this session, I had my only proper conversation with a fellow delegate. I often find at these events that I like to enjoy them in solitary confinement among the crowds but this guy was friendly and he bigged up the speaker… a lot… perhaps too much. This session to me was what I’d like to call ‘Slumdog Millionaire syndrome.’ I had such big expectations, especially as the room filled so beyond capacity that an additional session for later on in the day had to be laid on. Despite my high expectations not quite being met, he spoke a lot of sense and I gained some ideas from it.
Professor Guy Claxton spoke about the need for teachers to change their spots. He questioned how we might be able to promote attitudes for life in the classroom. We needed to move from skills that would fit a ’19th century clerk’ to attitudes that a ’21st century explorer’ might display. This, he referred to as ‘mind training.’
By the way we deliver the curriculum, we need to generate habits of mind that are more positive for life outside of the classroom. Collaboration, resilience and independence of mind are central habits. He said that it’s not what is taught- but how. Alongside this, there should be a major shift from skills to attitudes and values. A skill can easily be something you can do (play the flute/ speak French) but not something that is necessarily part of your daily existence.
He warned of the possibility that students could flounder at University or in work because they felt they couldn’t cope with life outside of the support of school. We have a responsibility to teach them to ‘flounder intelligently.’ Coping strategies are crucial.
The content of the curriculum should be seen as an exercise machine to develop strength in crucial areas of independence, creativity and communication.
‘Building Learning Power’ works, or so Guy suggested. He quoted a six year old student, who said that, ‘she won’t think a question is hard and skip it. She works at it because after school, she won’t be able to skip something difficult.’ This is the kind of resilience our students should be developing.
I then attended a somewhat disappointing session on studying English in the sixth form. He confirmed many of the positive elements of studying English that I know to be true. He then suggested some texts for study, yet omitted contemporary fiction. Personally, I think this is a grave mistake and I perhaps unfairly dismissed him in return for this decision.
I feel that this is the writing our learners will more likely be able to connect with as it is based in their own experiences. Don’t read my intentions wrong at this point. I am not one who dismisses any kind of fiction at all (maybe with the exception of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey: purely though sheer pigheaded- ness.)
I think if an individual can connect with a text, then that’s an event to be celebrated. Personally, I dislike prattling on about books I like. I’ll often find that others haven’t read them or don’t like them but won’t feel they can admit to it. And so ensues a rather awkward and fruitless conversation.
Reading is a very individual thing and I think it’s an awfully difficult challenge to ‘sell’ our personal choices of literature. All we can aim for as teachers is a nice wide range of exposure so that our learners can discover writers and texts that speak to them the most.
I headed to lunch, hungry for more speakers and even hungrier for some tasty food. We followed the scent of a barbecue and queued for what seemed like a century. The food was delicious and well worth waiting for, after all it had been supplied by Sodexo. No teachers, not the Sodexo we know and not so much love, but ‘Sodexo Independent;’ those that supply schools such as Wellington College. The salad bar was decorated by carefully placed bunches of asparagus for goodness sake! It turns out that there are certain kinds of education and certain kinds of food to match!
I was returned to full tummy satisfaction and so I headed to listen to a discussion about ‘what makes good teachers great?’
I didn’t learn anything new but was reminded that a great teacher is one with a positive relationship with their learners. They are one who challenges, questions, is organised, is rigorous and has high expectations. What I was most interested in was that this discussion would incorporate the view of a number of students. What I was left disappointed by was that these students had obviously been cherry picked and prepped within an each of their lives.
Some of the key points of view were:
You have to have a child at heart.
Be a risk taker and an entertainer in equal measure.
You need to be at the top of your professional game and some!
Adapt your teaching style to engage.
Be flexible, kind, fair, just and empathetic.
When asked if teachers should break the rules, a student suggested that they should, but only to a point as otherwise students will see they can break the rules too. So, be a risk-taker, to a point. You’ll probably only realise what that point is when havoc is reigning in your classroom.
The same student suggested that making things difficult for students is important but that it should be done secretly, so that students don’t realise it. How great would stealth teaching look alongside being a spaceship teacher?!
Another student, who had been moved to a PRU, said that some teachers weren’t connecting with him but that great teachers would see that his concentration was being lost and did something about it.
Challenging material shouldn’t just be avoided to make something interesting but challenge should be measured. If material is already difficult and then more challenge is added, students feel unable to cope with it. Challenge is crucial as something can’t JUST be fun- there has to be something else to it.
Structure is important to lessons. Something I know has been missing far too frequently in my lessons this year. One of the students described some of my lessons this year in a nutshell- ‘In some lessons, teachers have too much fun. It becomes wild and when it goes too far, there’s no structure and it can get out of hand.’ Well all I can say is at least I’ve recognised that- one more step I’ve taken towards greatness!
One of the teachers present said that she knows the teachers when observing as much as she knows the students. She knows their past grades and their targets. This wouldn’t be enough with our students to build rapport and I’d suggest it’s exactly the same with teachers. Knowing their ‘data’ isn’t nearly enough to be considered ‘great’ in my eyes!
The final two messages were the strongest in helping me consider what a ‘great’ teacher is:
A teacher who is organised with a path forward is important. This path should exist, rather than a survival strategy from one lesson to the next.
Creativity shouldn’t be lost through over-planning.
I dashed from this into a frenzy of indecision.
There wasn’t any particular session that stood out for me. In the end, I headed to see Ellen MacArthur speak. She was an inspirational speaker and wonderful to listen to her learning journey. What really stood out, was that she worked towards a dream all her life. Nothing prevented her from achieving that goal. This kind of resilience is what I’d love the young people I work with to have. This, along with her unwavering belief in the fulfillment of her dream. I wonder how many of my students are able to dream big and truly believe in it. It’s a sad world if this kind of hope is lost.
Now to the final speaker of the day, a man that needs no introduction: Mr Gove. Security gathered, bags were checked, and I fully expected more than a bit of drama.
He was interviewed by David Aaronovitch of The Times. Both men were incredibly intelligent, articulate and quick witted. David didn’t give him a hard enough time on the decisions being made (although how hard could it really have got in a tent full of teachers?) I didn’t leave hating him.
Politics wasn’t what I wanted out of this first day of CPD. What I got was some wonderful inspiration in beautiful surroundings. I couldn’t wait to return for day two.