As the new school year begins today, we held our opening ‘immersion’ assembly to kick start our new whole school topic: Back to the Future.
Today, the children were transported back in time to their respective periods which will provide the backdrop to the learning for the term ahead. We have travelled as far back as 1000BC to leave Year 4 in Ancient Greece, Year 2 in Victorian times and then popped back to 2015 to leave Reception and Year 6 in the current day so that they could explore the here and now and look to the future in their respective topics of Inventors and Rainforests.
The assembly gave us the opportunity to look at this scene from Back to the Future II where Marty arrives in 2015 and the prophetic Robert Zemeckis shows us the flying cars and hoverboards which have yet to materialise. We spent a few moments looking forward to 2040 and pondering what might be. If you get a few moments, I advise you to do the same! Of course, some people will say that it’s just an excuse for me to dress up as a character from one of my all-time favourite films and play Huey Lewis and the News loudly whilst everyone gets excited about our ‘time machine’ which is put together via some exciting sound effects, AV and Mrs Lutas’ smoke machine. There’s probably an element of truth to this but there’s also a bit more to it.
We know that for learning to be memorable and be retained in the long term memory, we have to engage children’s emotions. Just think back for a moment to the few memories you have from your earliest school life and I’m willing to bit that the majority are when you were scared – usually a teacher who made us feel uncomfortable and invoked those primitive fight or flight instincts in us or perhaps a performance or sporting occasion where the reptilian brain kicked in. Studies show that the most vivid autobiographical memories tend to be of emotional events, which are likely to be recalled more often and with more clarity and detail than neutral events.
Trying to create memorable experiences to ‘hang’ the learning around, is a part of our plan with the initial immersion. What will follow, is a period of investigation and enquiry where children are given ‘time for tangents’ to explore the subjects more deeply before honing in on a particular outcome later on in the term.
There is of course a third reason in creating this type of hype and enjoyment in a school. Today was the first day back after the Christmas holiday and, if we’re all honest, everyone benefits from a bit of fun and laughter to come back to and settle the nerves!
But enough for now, I have a delorean to tend to. ‘Roads. Where we’re going, we don’t need roads’.
At the end of each topic at Simon de Senlis, I ask for nominations to be made for the ‘Best of’ display. Usually, a selection of the children’s final outcomes are sent up to my office and I spend some time looking at the achievements of the children and making a final selection which are displayed in the entrance to school and online with the children congratulated in assembly. This is part of the process of ‘showcasing’ the final outcomes from the topics which has really helped to make children value the prototyping process and improve the standards of their work.
This term, I have chosen to use ‘Sway’, a new Microsoft technology which we have been trialling on ‘preview’ at Simon de Senlis to share these. It’s a really easy to use tool which I think frames the work brilliantly.
As is the way at the beginning of every new year, the world is saturated with new year’s resolutions. Everywhere you look, people are promising somebody (mainly themselves) that they want to do things better this year. Get thinner. Maintain friendships better. Spend less time on social media. Make healthier choices. Work harder and get promoted. Write more blog posts. The usual things.
Statistically (apparently), 90% of such resolutions are broken before the end of January. Does this mean that making some positive statements about what we want to change in our lives is pointless at this time of year? Maybe. Maybe not.
2014 was a great year to be a part of Simon de Senlis. Put simply, so many good things happened and, as Headteacher, it was exciting and rewarding to see staff and children develop so well and achieve great things on the sports pitches, on the dance and drama stage as well as in the classroom, test papers and OFSTED reports.
So undecided as I am as to whether New Year’s resolutions are a catalyst for change or a waste of time, here are mine:
1) Keep spending time doing the things that work well and make a difference and not be distracted by fads or bandwagons.
2) Listen more and listen better.
3) Give better feedback to children and staff in school (I’m really inspired by the growth mindset work taking place in schools at the moment and feel this is an area that I can develop my own knowledge in as well as the school).
4) Share more of the thinking and development that goes on at school via this blog.
Today was the first NorthantsBLT development day this academic year and saw a different approach to the focus and structure of historic events.
Previously, the days have focused around lots of sharing from schools with lots of opportunities to swap opinions on apps, use of online tools and ideas for using these in the classroom. This year, we have tried to focus more around the ‘B’ and the ‘L’ in BLT: Better Learning.
We were delighted to welcome Ewan McIntosh to lead the day who set up our thinking with an inspiring keynote on the theme: Visable thinking, visual learning. There were so many gems that came out of this session and here’s my reflections on a couple of things that have stuck with me throughout the day…
Design Thinking is clearly a passion of Notosh and Ewan and, having recently become familiar with the concept, I can see what an effective model this would be for structuring learning in a school. In particular, I agree that often as teachers we can hold on to the divergent creative thinking aspect and introduce learning already packaged up to children in a format we’ve decided on.
Incidentally, when I returned to school this evening, a teacher proudly brought me two pieces of ‘home learning’ that children had excelled in based on their recent visit to an Indian wedding. He told me that he couldn’t believe how much better the writing was compared to what he sees in the literacy books day in day out. When we unpicked what was different about the task, it became clear. The home learning was open ended, it was based on a real experience and children were allowed to choose which aspect of the Indian wedding they wanted to focus on, how to present it and how much to do. Both children had owned the divergent phases of the design thinking model and the results were spectacular. I’ll certainly be revisiting this model as we develop our Learning model at school.
Prototyping was another aspect that struck a chord with me. Ewan talked about 18 prototypes being an optimum number within a design phase and we were asked to reflect on how many opportunities children have to ‘prototype’ their work within a lesson or unit of work. Typical responses were possibly 1 and at best 2 but in most instances we expect learners to move straight to a finished article from a set of instructions, modelling, demonstration or explanation. If we want to develop resilient learners, we have to give them opportunities to fail, reflect and improve – something that prototyping seemed to describe well.
THE ‘TESTS Vs GENUINE LEARNING’ ARGUEMENT
Often, when you’re exposed to inspirational ideas like today, the concern for lots of colleagues is that they would love to implement some of these practices but they feel that there’s a conflict between develop genuinely great learning and the testing/progress agenda in schools.
I find myself having this discussion with colleagues a lot (and I know I’m in the minority) but I don’t think that testing conflicts with great learning. I think that if you create great learners, they are more than likely to be able to become capable readers, writers and mathematicians and take tests in their stride. If you like, success in tests is a by-product of being a great learner.
The one exception to this (I believe)is the Year 1 phonics test – something I’m yet to find a supporter of!
PARENTING CHILDREN AT SCHOOL
Today, Ewan described the age old issue of asking children what they learned at school when they got home and the standard response that parents get. All parents in the room (including myself) nodded in agreement and talked about how from 4-18, ‘nothing’ followed by a range of confrontational and avoidance behaviours is the norm in almost every household. It made me realise that we’re all stuck in this repeating cycle of asking children questions, being disappointed by the response and then bemoaning either the school or the child respectively for either not providing enough memorable learning or for not being interested in education. A thought struck me: Perhaps our questions are wrong and not the answers.
When I came home this evening, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of asking Stanley the questions that I wanted the answers to – I asked him questions that I thought he would be interested in answering. Who’s the tallest in your class? Who’s the naughtiest in your class? If you could bring any bit of your school home, which bit would it be? What’s the silliest thing that’s happened at school this week? Tonight I had a much more talkative Stanley about school and found out lots about his school day!
So today got me thinking and I hope others found it provocative too. Yet again, it reminds us that while technology is a great tool for learning, it’s the skill of teaching and a well developed approach to learning which is the key to making it effective.
Thanks to Peter and Ewan for leading today and to Helen and Gareth at the University of Northampton for providing the venue and being great hosts. Here’s to more successful BLT events in the future: Better Learning with (or without) Technology