Category Archives: The Feed

Empowered Learners & The Great Traditionalist/Progressive Debate

Too many children sleepwalk through their school life being compliant, playing by the rules and allowing a combination of children and adults to do most of the thinking and learning for them.  It’s an easy trap to fall in to (intuitively we are programmed to follow the path of least resistance) but one that, if we’re not careful, we can allow children to exist in when really we should be making sure that they work ‘at least harder than their teachers and parents’.  For many years now, schools have been moving towards a focus on the learning rather than the teaching (many schools even went to the trouble of changing the words ‘Teaching’ and ‘Learning’ around on their policies) but, in reality, unless children are consciously handed more responsibility and accountability for their learning, they will continue to rely predominately on teacher-led, direct instruction – becoming participants in (rather than the owners of) their education.

Cue a familiar conversation that plays out as follows:

Whoa, wait a minute. What’s wrong with direct instruction?

Me: There’s nothing wrong with direct instruction. It remains a really effective way of teaching children basic facts and knowledge but teaching is also more than that, so we have to look at other approaches and styles to make sure that children are really engaged in the process of learning like self-regulation and meta cognition.

That all sounds a bit like wishy washy nonsense to me Tom. My children just need to learn to behave & listen so I can fill the gaps they have in their knowledge and understanding.

Me: Yes it’s funny how so much research and great practice that takes place in schools can still manage to be perceived as ‘wishy washy nonsense’ isn’t it?’. The Education Endowment Fund carried out extensive research which shows that up to 8 months additional progress can be made in a single year by using self-regulation and meta cognition strategies yet still, we have more to do in terms of transferring this into classroom strategies and practices more consistently. It stands to reason that when children are more engaged and involved in the process, they will learn better.

That all sounds great but, at the end of the day, children need to pass tests and our appraisal targets says I have to get them through, so I’m going to do what I know works to get them there.

Me:   That’s your end of the day. My end of the day is that the 5 year olds in my school today will probably still be working into the 2070s and I need to make sure that their formative years provide them with the foundations to go on and lead a successful and happy existence in the future, not just jumping through some high stakes testing hoops to keep OFSTED at bay. But, as I’ve already pointed out (and as is backed up by substantial research), these progressive teaching methods do actually improve those test scores too.

As the writer, I get the last word this time but there’s a real debate that’s waging in education at the moment between progressive and traditional types of instruction which is important to understand.   Too often, we can see these arguments played out either in the press or through social networks which play in to the predictable media format which is to firstly find the issue of the day, and then find two people to be quoted or interviewed who have opposite views who can argue, provide readers with brief entertainment or distraction from their daily lives and then move on without finding an answer. This often then reduces a useful debate to an ‘or’ argument where approaches or teaching methods become pitched against each other such as:

The Arts or Technology?

Discrete teaching of subjects or a connected curriculum?

Group work or individual work?

Mixed ability groups or sets?

Technology in education or a complete ban on all types of devices?

Detentions or a free for all on behaviour?

PSHE as a core subject or high academic standards?

Reducing these issues to simple closed options does the debate a disservice. Professor Guy Claxton illustrates a more nuanced version in his blog describing the three ‘tribes’ in the education debate from the book, ‘Educating Ruby’, which he and Bill Lucas offer real hope and direction for those who want to see progress in education policy and practice.

In Educating Ruby, we offer a potted guide to the educational scene. Basically there are three tribes: Roms, Trads and Mods. The Romantics believe that children will blossom if we leave them alone. The Roms have almost completely died out – except in the mind of the second tribe, the Traditionalists. The Traditionalists seem to believe that all would be well if we had lots of old-fashioned grammar schools teaching Latin and algebra. They blame all educational ills on the (non-existent) Roms. If kids don’t do well at school it’s because the ‘trendy liberals’ have mucked things up – or the kids are too unintelligent (‘low-ability’) or lazy. Trads like to keep things simple, even if their beliefs are damaging or wrong. The third tribe is the Moderates, which includes the vast majority of people who work in or care about education. Where the Trads are simplistic and pugnacious, the Mods like to think and tinker (or ‘thinker’, as Michael Ondaatje put it).

Empower Definition

So back to the original point about how we can empower learners…

The empowered learner works harder than their teacher.  They spend time both in and outside of the classroom genuinely interested in their studies and asking questions of their teachers, parents and peers which consolidate their understanding and extend their thinking.   They remain curious for longer than their less empowered peers who will switch off quicker and are less keen to play an active role within the classroom. The empowered learner is able to make independent decisions about aspects of their learning (self-regulation); they are also engaged in thinking about the learning process they are involved in (meta cognition).   Having genuinely empowered learners in your class or school is a privilege and a pleasure but they don’t occur by chance or good fortune; this empowerment has (usually) been carefully permitted, delegated, authorised and unshackled skilfully by teachers using a range of progressive teaching methods.

As a self-diagnosed ‘mod’ with a tendency to ‘thinker’, I’ve pinched the three definitions (Teacher-Led, Co-construction & Child-Led) from Professor Stephen Heppell’s typically refreshing and useful post around learner-led learning research and have adapted them to describe different styles of curriculum or learning experiences which empower children in the learning process at different levels in the following table.

Co-construction

I often return to Professor Heppell’s definitions when we’re developing new ideas or looking at curriculum projects and it’s been a really helpful gauge when we’ve introduced our Design Thinking curriculum approach over the last two years at Simon de Senlis as we constantly look at where we can loosen the reins and allow children to take more of a lead, without losing the necessary rigor within the curriculum. The irony of empowering learners in UK schools is that we often allow most responsibility to our youngest learners.   At 4, children can use the toilets as and when they need to within their daily provision; by 10, usual practice is for them to have to wait until break times and by 14, the chances are that the toilets are locked until the bell goes as children can’t be trusted to use them without supervision. A similar pattern exists with learning styles – the freedom that we see our youngest learners with, gradually erodes until suddenly at 16, the common room and study periods allow it flooding back in again. Have we really got it right?

But anyway, the debate will go on. Some will say that the children should be set free and allowed to take more of a lead; others will say that the teachers know best and that if they just listened and did what they were told, things would be better. I know that I spent far too much of my own school life feeling bored and frustrated, responding to closed questions and listening to lectures, anecdotes or extracts from teacher’s unwritten autobiographies – how many children would still say the same today? Some people think that we could get so much more from the children if we tapped into their interests as starting points and allowed them flexibility in how they work; others think that the discipline they learn from a well organised and structured academic curriculum is what it’s all about. I think that there’s a bit of truth in it all and, whilst we all accept that some fads have just been fads and distractions (learning styles springs to mind), we can’t ignore necessary, well-researched change for the convenience of doing what we’ve always done.

TR

This post was originally published in the March edition of ‘The Feed’, an online educational publication by MIcrosoft Education UK. It was also published in the Guardian Partner website.

Flux Capacitors, Stopping the Boredom in Schools and Getting Started with Technology…

This post was written for and first published in November’s edition of ‘The Feed’, an online publication for schools by Microsoft Education UK.

October 2015 is a historic date for those of us who grew up to the backdrop of Michael J. Fox’s skateboard, lead guitar and time travel adventures. In part 2 of the Back to the Future trilogy, ‘Marty’ is catapulted 30 years forward from 1985 into a futuristic world, brimming with technological advances, dreamt up by the prophetic Robert Zemeckis. For many, these scenes of what 2015 might have looked like have provided food for thought and discussion over the years as well as a flurry of articles recently about what has (and hasn’t) become a reality. And now the 21st of October 2015 has been and gone and there are still no streets full of hoverboards, flying cars or automatic laces on shoes; no self-drying jackets or giant holograms outside cinemas. There are many accurate predications though such as the widespread use of technology, cashless payments, tablet devices, targeted advertising, voice enabled interactive TVs and (sadly) murkier themes around the use of guns in society, corporate greed and corruption which I won’t dwell on in this education-focused and more optimistic publication.

Whilst Marty was still riding around Hill Valley on his skateboard in 1985, I was in the First Year (Year 3 in new money) at Earls Barton Junior School, waiting weeks at a time for a turn on the rota to use the school’s single Acorn computer which sat in the corner with floppy disks and tapes, providing us with the excitement of ‘Trains’ or ‘Granny’s Garden’ to break up the sunny pre-national curriculum days of reading, music and rounders that I now look back on with affection, undoubtedly through rose-tinted glasses. Today, 30 years later, as a Headteacher I have walked around school seeing 10 year olds hold an online conference with a school in Palestine via Skype, 8 year olds programming their own online games and designing web content whilst 5 and 6 year olds talk confidently about inputs, debugging and algorithms. The world has changed beyond recognition and, overall, I think that Zemeckis called it pretty well.

Granny's Garden on the Acorn...
Granny’s Garden on the Acorn…

Rarely is the future accurately predicted when it comes to technology and in schools this is particularly true. If we were to head back just 10 years from today in a Delorean, we’d be reminded of a world where the Government gave schools e-learning credits to spend on technology which were used up readily like Tesco clubcard points; Headteachers scouring through the catalogues to see what gadgets might transform their still largely-analogue schools. At this time, classrooms were unlikely to have more than the odd few desktops and the now obligatory screen or board was a new addition; having individual class cameras with rechargeable batteries was fairly forward-thinking and the explosion of handheld devices was still lurking ominously in the shadow of the much-heralded IT suite. The Government of the day was still dreaming up the statutory targets for schools around every child having access to a learning platform with parental access (which were never enforced or checked on) and the march towards this online future fizzled out predictably, partly due to a change of Governments but mostly because there were no obvious benefits to learners of these expensive and complex side-shows.

Even in more recent years, predictions about how technology is used in schools have been more often about automation in the classroom. How could tasks be allocated? How could tests be auto-marked? How could assignments be managed? In the future, would we even need teachers as we know them, as online quizzes and class voting systems enjoyed a brief spell of being in vogue? Wiggle the flux capacitor a bit and we’re back to 2015 and whilst the efficiency of technology has clearly played an important part in improving the effectiveness of school business and communication, it’s not this mechanical aspect where we’ve found any real impact in learning. The explosion of communication and social media in recent years has led us to richer pastures with opportunities to create, collaborate and publish now revealing themselves as the areas where learning can really be made better.

At October’s #RedefineLearn conference in London, this thinking was distilled provocatively by Mark Sparvell who challenged us to ‘Use Technology to humanise learning, not digitise the curriculum’, a call to action which echoes the never-more-relevant work of Michael Fullan who talks about harnessing the ‘pull effect’ of technology as a way to combat the widespread disengagement of learners in modern day schools. Global research shows us that enjoyment and engagement levels decrease with every year a child spends at school so that by the age of 16, only 40% of children are intellectually engaged in their schooling (Jenkins, 2013; Willims et al., 2009). Technology must be used thoughtfully to help reverse these depressing truths around school engagement. The challenge is, as Fullan and Langworthy write, that “Education under these terms needs to be radically rethought — partly to stop the boredom, but mostly to blow the lid off learning, whereby students and teachers as partners become captivated by education day in and day out.”

So (partly) with this call to action ringing in my ears, we’ve started the school year by announcing a series of #RedefineLearn conferences which will be held at Simon de Senlis over the course of this academic year. Sponsored by Microsoft, these are free and are aimed at all school leaders or teachers who would like to join the debate around the place of technology to improve learning. They include hands-on sessions with devices as well as opportunities to see the school in action and exchange ideas with colleagues from other schools. What these sessions have taught me so far is that as well as the obvious need for developing a school vision around learning and practice, schools still have lots of questions about upgrading hardware, procurement and deployment as they wrestle with the practicalities of updating their infrastructures within tight budget constraints.

Redefine Learn
Images from our Redefining Learning Conferences at Simon de Senlis…

So in the spirit of keeping it simple, here are some answers to some questions that I was asked by a group of school leaders who attended the #RedefineLearn workshop at Simon de Senlis earlier this month which are focused on getting started – particularly if you’re new to a school or have decided that the time has come to update the technology but aren’t sure where to start. Unfortunately, there are no Deloreans, freebies or shortcuts to get there quickly but with a clear vision, a pragmatic strategy and plenty of patience, it’s possible.

Where do I start?

At the very beginning! When I joined Simon de Senlis Primary in September 2012, the technology picture was one that many schools will still recognise. There was an aging server and an IT suite that was so slow logging into the network that staff had stopped using it. A handful of iPads were scattered around the school and the staff laptops were old. Everywhere I looked there was someone else telling me that we needed to ‘update the laptops’.

Although there was pressure from everyone to buy new devices, we realised that it was pointless until we had upgraded the broadband and installed an enterprise standard Wi-Fi solution. The first year’s budget was spent on these upgrades and updating the oldest staff devices. It wasn’t until Year 2 that we started to really invest in new devices for staff. My advice to anyone is to fix the infrastructure first before looking at buying in more devices.

How do we fund it?

There’s no easy answer to this one – particularly with the decrease in capital budgets in recent years. It has to be staged over a number of budgets with a plan around which areas of school to impact on first. There are still some Local Authorities where capital loans are available with either zero or very low interest rates which are worth looking at if you can afford the 3 or 5 year commitment to repayment.

The good news is that the cost has come down significantly. When I priced up 60 laptops and our Local Authority Learning Platform in 2012, the cost including storage was around £30,000. This summer, with more cost effective Windows 10 devices and free Office 365, we have been able to achieve the same solution for just over £10,000. With the cloud now our main storage site, we’ve also taken out the cost of on-site servers and the maintenance of these which is a worthwhile saving.

So who gets the devices first?

I’m an advocate for flooding a year group or department at a time rather than sharing out new technologies on a rota. If classes still only get to use devices once or twice a week, there’s no way that daily practice will change so I’d prefer to see a year group where they get access all the time so that children get used to having technology as just another classroom resource like the paint brushes, numicon and pencils. At Simon de Senlis, we started with Years 5 and 6 and then targeted different year groups as and when the budget allowed. One thing I would recommend is to allocate sets to individual classes which works much better in my experience than shared trolleys where there can be more issues around devices not being returned, charged or stored securely – having clear ownership means that children and staff tend to care and look after the kit better.

Which devices should we buy?

We have a variety of different devices across school at Simon de Senlis and part of the rationale for having a ‘mixed-economy’ is so that children can choose the right tool for the job which all run on the common platform of Windows 10 and Office 365. Smaller tablets are used for capturing media, having quick access to content online and for online games and applications whereas notebooks and laptops are more effective when producing writing, creating multi-media content or coding. It’s good to have some more powerful devices in school for more complex working but the vast majority of work carried out is based online and therefore can be achieved without breaking the bank. In my experience, the cheapest rarely offers best value though and our choice has been for mid-range student devices to increase longevity and higher-spec teacher devices to keep the staff productive.

So should we get rid of the IT suite?

If you can afford the space, replacement and maintenance, I think that dedicated suites are still a really valuable resource, particularly for specific curriculum areas such as computing where all children need simultaneous access to programmes or cloud applications. They do offer more stability and reliability than laptops but they don’t change practice in the classroom.
How do we set up our devices… on the server or as stand alone machines?

To avoid the slow startup times that can be associated with a server, we’ve set student devices up as stand alone and then children log into their Office 365 accounts or other cloud applications as and when they need to open, save or edit content. This means that as soon as you switch on the device, you’re online and so get that instant interaction with the web that we now expect and demand. In Windows 10, staff and students are also able to login with their Office 365 IDs which is another great way to have children interact with their documents and online.

I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet; but your kids are going to love it… Marty was 30 years ahead of his time and it's a good reminder that whilst we need to have an eye and one foot in the future, we also need to make sure that our attention is focused around the realities of the here and now when implementing new technologies and change in a school.  Some of us who have been trying to introduce technology in schools for some time will recognise the glazed looks that enthusiastic and avid 'expertise' can create in a staffroom and so we must do better at simplifying the processes, expectations and technology itself if we are to avoid having to shuffle awkwardly out of CPD sessions muttering something about how the kids will love it, even if you're not ready for it yet.
I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet; but your kids are going to love it…
Marty was 30 years ahead of his time and it’s a good reminder that whilst we need to have an eye and one foot in the future, we also need to make sure that our attention is focused around the realities of the here and now when implementing new technologies and change in a school. Some of us who have been trying to introduce technology in schools for some time will recognise the glazed looks that enthusiastic and avid ‘expertise’ can create in a staffroom and so we must do better at simplifying the processes, expectations and technology itself if we are to avoid having to shuffle awkwardly out of CPD sessions muttering something about how the kids will love it, even if you’re not ready for it yet.