Festival Feedback – A few snippets

What with all the end of term fun and frolics, I have not had a chance to share as much from the Festival of Education as I had hoped.  So, to make up for this, here are a few pearls of wisdom from various presentations I made it to …

Putting Evidence to Work – Kevan Collins

Kevan spoke about the work of the Education Endowment Fund (EEF).  This organisation is keen to reduce the impact of fanciful fads on educational thinking by collecting evidence to establish how effective different approaches to pedagogy really are.  It has taken the idea of effect sizes, which John Hattie’s work is currently the best known example of, and taken it a step further by relating the impact of a certain approach to the investment it requires.  The Foundation’s work is still in its infancy, but based on their work to date, the most cost effective ways of advancing pupil’s learning are providing better feedback and equipping pupils with more ability to self-regulate – both ideas which are already high on our agenda! Good to know we’re on the right track here!

Accidental Learning – Hywel Roberts

Drawing on his own diverse educational work, Hywel recently published a book called “Oops – helping children learn accidentally“, and in his festival presentation he shared just a few of the insights contained in this book.  What struck me most about this session was the way in which Hywel practised what he preaches, modelling with his audience of educators the sort of approaches which have made him a very successful educator himself.  I’m now half way through the book, which is highly readable, and I can honestly say that every page has given me something to think about.  Yesterday the RE staff kindly indulged me as I tried out his “Chilean Miners” hook, and I certainly enjoyed our session – I can’t wait to use this and other suggestions from Hywel in the classroom next year.  It would be unfair on Hywel to share all his ideas here, so … buy his book!

What’s worth learning these days? – Guy Claxton

Having looked at Guy’s work on Building Learning Power, I was curious to find out how he would answer the question posed in his presentation title.  In actual fact Guy said very little about what should be learned, and a great deal about how learning should take place.  A lot of what he said struck a chord with Dweck’s ideas on Growth mindets.  Again, it was good to know we’re on the ball with this one. He also shared a couple of thought-provoking quotes:

“Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” – Piaget

“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition.  Certainty is a rideiculous one.” – Voltaire

The phrase that stuck most in my mind though was one shared with Guy by an Oxford admissions tutor, who said that when interviewing student applicants he deliberately asked questions designed to make them flounder, just to see whether they could “flounder intelligently”.  And in this lies the answer to Guy’s question: if we are to produce truly reflective and articulate students, then we need to give them any opportunity we can to develop these skills – in other words, everything is worth learning …

The Teenage Brain – Sarah-Jane Blakemore

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could ever understand how any brain works, especially a teenage brain, but Sarah’s illuminating talk made it clear that neuroscientists are constantly discovering more.  She covered a lot of ground, and I cannot possibly do justice to it all here, so here are a just few interesting points to ponder …

Adolescents are three times more likely to take risks when in the company of their peers.  Most have a particular fear of being excluded from that peer group, and in order to prevent this from happening they may well take risks in a bid to retain their credibility, such as smoking or driving too fast.

When people are tested on their ability to see something from someone else’s visual perspective, the average adult makes errors 40% of the time, but youngsters between the ages of 9 and 14 make errors 75% of the time.  This is because their brains are basically different at this point in their lives, not just because it’s a skill they have yet to acquire.

Because their brains are different, teenagers have markedly less ability than they will go on to develop as adults when it comes to:

  • self-control
  • planning
  • problem-solving
  • decision-making
  • self-awareness
  • social interaction

Teenagers are not just being awkward!  Their brains are still developing and are highly malleable at this age.  This is very sensitive period in their development, and they are heavily influenced by their environment.  Risk-taking and susceptibility to the influence of their peers are both very notable … but this need not mean teenagers are unmanageable!

Festival feedback – growing a love of learning

At the Sunday Times Festival of Education I was immediately drawn to this session by its title, with its reference to something we’d all like to be doing: growing a love of learning.  When I read the outline, I knew I had to get to it: “Ways to foster growth mindsets, creativity, resilience, and learning skills in your school”.  All of this in just one session?  This was something I had to see!

I arrived a few minutes early and made myself comfortable.  When someone sat next to me, I turned to him and said “This speaker’s come all the way from Scotland to give this session – that’s pretty impressive”, to which he replied “Well, I’ve some all the way from Australia to be at this Festival – and it’s all been great so far.”

It turned out that there were many other people keen to hear from David Starbuck (maybe, like the person who introduced him, they had confused him with David Starkey, but I very much doubt it!): there were soon over 100 people crammed into a room in which there was only space for 40 chairs.

David Starbuck

If this was at all daunting for David, it certainly didn’t show: he delivered a really engaging presentation which covered an immense amount of ground in a very short time.

We began with a bit of neuroscience. The brain creates neural pathways to store knowledge: each time we “revisit” a certain idea, these pathways are reinforced and we are subsequently able to recall that idea more easily.  However, the brain is processing so much information that it has to filter out a lot of it.  As an example of this, we might never have noticed a certain make of car, but then a friend buys one and suddenly we start noticing that type of car everywhere: because this information was previously of little relevance to us, we did not register it.  As teachers, we must be mindful of the fact that everyone has the same ability to form neural pathways, and that those who seem to be less proficient learners are in fact just filtering out more information.  To overcome this, we need to make their brains more receptive, which is where Growth Mindsets come in.  For more information on this, see our page on developing resilience by clicking here.

David talked about the need not only to use the sort of language which encourages Growth Mindsets, but also to truly embrace the philosophy that underlies it.  If we as teachers adhere to the traditional notion that there are some things which some pupils will simply never be able to do, this will affect the way we plan our teaching and generally interact with the pupils.  Referring to this as “professional congruence”, David quoted Dweck’s assertion that  “when teachers and students adopt a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth takes plenty of time, effort and mutual support.”  David pointed out that therefore we should aim to foster a Growth Mindset in every member of the school community, including the staff.  Leading on from this, David suggested that schools should nurture a “creative culture” within all aspects of school life by encouraging more risk taking, collaboration, and personalisation.

Clearly this is a very brief summary of a pacey and invigoration presentation.  I leave you with just one last thought, as it resonated with an issue I have heard many teachers complaining about over the years: why is it that when pupils are taught something in one subject, they then seem unable to apply it in others.  I have often referred to this as “compartmentalised learning”, and have shared the frustration of my colleagues.   David talked about the “learning locale”: he quoted research which has shown that learning is often linked to the location in which it takes place.  We’ve all experienced this sort of association – a notable example being when we hear a song which reminds us of a certain place we once heard it in.  This is why it is no good if we only try to nurture Growth Mindsets in certain areas of the school curriculum: to truly make a difference, this has to be a whole-school philosophy.

If you’d like to know more about David’s approach to learning, you can read his own blog here – well worth a look!

Festival Feedback – Is AfL wrong?

For me, this was one of the must-see sessions at the festival.  When it was introduced however, Dylan Wiliam observed that: “they say there is nothing like a good introduction … and that was nothing like a good introduction”.  He was right.  Perhaps Dylan Wiliam and David Didau didn’t really need introducing, but I’d like to see if I can do a better job.

If you’re a teacher, it is highly likely that elements of your classroom practice are based on research carried out by Dylan Wiliam.  He originally began his working life as a Maths teacher, but now – nearly 40 years later – he is the Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the KCL Institute of Education.  Much of his recent work has focused on the use of assessment to support learning.  In 1998 he co-authored, with Paul Black, a major review of the research evidence on formative assessment.  Their findings have had a significant influence over government policy, and over the way in which teachers have been encouraged to use Assessment for Learning (AfL).  You can see him in action and learn more about his work here.

In March this year, David Didau wrote this blog, proposing that Assessment for Learning might be all wrong.  Better known to some as @LearningSpy, David Didau is a practising teacher and author of the best-selling book “The Perfect English Lesson”.  His blog is one of the most widely-followed educational blogs in the world, so it was not too surprising that Dylan Wiliam duly responded to his comments.  I enjoyed following this emerging debate, and there was no way I could possibly miss this live showdown in the Old Gym at Wellington College …

Wiliam & Didau

Looking at the picture above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these two are going at it hammer and tongs.  Actually, Dylan (left) has just said “Are you going to start?”, and David (right) has just said “Pardon?”.  There was no blood-letting at this debate, but more a friendly comparison of broadly similar views.  Some interesting points to emerge …

  • AfL tends to check short-term learning, and only rarely establishes that something has well and truly been mastered.  A good way for schools to address this would be for them to build more “spaced learning” into the curriculum (for more on this, see David’s blog here).
  • According to one study in New Zealand, 80% of the feedback pupils receive is from their peers, and 80% of that feedback is bad.  The book which contains this survey was highly-recommended by David Didau: “The Hidden Lives of Learners” by Graham Nutall.  Self-assessment is also notoriously unreliable unless carefully managed.
  • The most important aspect to effective feedback is the relationship between the pupil and the teacher.  If this is based on trust and respect, they will give one another feedback which really counts, and which therefore results in effective long-term learning.
  • Learning from mistakes has been proven to result in better long-term recall than getting things right the first time.  Therefore teachers should not wrap their students up in comfortable learning blankets, but should make activities challenging, not only so that pupils have to think harder but also so that they are more likely to make the sort of mistakes which help them to learn.
  • Students actually do much more learning when unsupervised than when receiving direct instruction, so teachers need to make sure they are well-equipped with effective independent learning skills.

Of course, that is only a very brief overview of a discussion which lasted for half an hour, but there’s still plenty to think about there.

If you would like to know more about all of this, David has posted his own reflections on the Festival here, and Dylan has duly added his comments.


A Festival … for Education?!

I have rarely, if ever, felt so empowered to improve my own teaching and to help others improve theirs.  I have just spent two days at the Sunday Times Festival of Education, and it was simply amazing.

I have to be honest and say that festivals are not normally my kind of thing.  In my limited experience of them, they seem to have involved standing in long queues waiting for something that falls somewhat short of satisfying – a band that’s barely audible or visible, a burger that’s barely cooked, or a chance to use a toilet that’s simply unbearable.  So, I must admit that I almost binned the Festival flyer without even reading it.  So glad I didn’t …

Festival of Education

This was a whole different type of festival.  For a start, it was hosted by Wellington College: a totally amazing venue with fantastic facilities.  I was really impressed by how well-organised everything was: there was so much going on, and yet everything went so smoothly.  Well, almost everything … Michael Gove was “struck in traffic” and kept us all waiting for over an hour.  Wellington College to the rescue!  The headmaster, Dr Anthony Seldon, conducted an impromptu interview with Jimmy Mulville, whose children are at the school.  Jimmy is best known for creating the TV series “Have I got news for you”, and he shared various amusing anecdotes about the guests who have appeared on the show.  One delegate left in disgust, and it transpired that she was the wife of Alistair Campbell, who had just been characterised as someone in need of a little humanising.  The rest of us were unaware of this as we laughed at Jimmy’s largely gentle humour.  We were then treated to a second impromptu interview with one of TV’s “Tough Young Teachers” and with the creator of the “Teach First” programme which was featured in this. The atmosphere was already much improved by this point, but then Dr Seldon and various sponsors cracked open a few cases of wine, and we all found we weren’t so bothered about Gove’s late arrival after all …

And when the great man did appear.  He did not get booed, slow-clapped or hissed at, and he did not treat his audience of educators with thinly-veiled contempt, all of which I had feared I might witness.  Instead there followed an hour of respectful questions and answers in which Gove revealed a far greater grasp of education than I had previously credited him with, and far greater respect for teachers too.  I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that he won over his audience entirely, but he certainly made a much better impression on us than I would ever have expected.

There was a fantastic vibe at the whole event: I spoke with a diverse range of people with all sorts of different interests in education, and yet we all seemed to be equally excited about learning, and equally stimulated to improve our practice.  The positivity of everyone I met was a great advert for the profession, and left me feeling truly invigorated – which is no mean feat at this stage in the year!

In due course I hope to share insights from the various workshops, lectures and panel events I attended.  There was so much to see, hear and do, that I had to forego many opportunities I know I would have enjoyed.  I would have been really interested to hear Michael Wilshaw, Kenneth Baker, Estelle Morris, David Blunkett, Melvyn Bragg, Andrew Adonis, Ruby Wax, David Baddiel, Ian Livingstone, Lauren Child, Rob Coe, Rachel Jones, Dan Edwards, Geoff Barton, Laura McInerney, Kris Boulton, Joe Kirby, Tom Sherrington and of course Johhny Ball (a childhood hero of mine).   Richard Dawkins and David Starky were also at the Festival.

So, who did I get to see, and what were they talking about?

Putting Evidence to work – Kevan Collins

Helping Children find words – Hywel Roberts

What’s worth learning today? – Guy Claxton

How not to get sacked – Jeremy Sutcliffe, Brian Lightman, Christine Goodyear, Stuart Westley, Dame Alison Peacock & Tim Hands

The Trivium – Martin Robinson

Is AfL wrong? – Dylan Wiliam and David Didau

Military ethos: better outcomes for young people – Shaun Bailey

Growing a love of learning in your school – David Starbuck

The teenage brain – Sarah-Jane Blakemore

How stories teach children to think – Pete Worley

How do we develop the world’s best teachers? – David Weston

Forum on teenage mental health – Rachel Kelly, Charlie Taylor, Tanya Byron & Ian Morris

How to demonstrate progress – Claire Gadsby

That’s a lot of food for thought!  I was exhausted by the end of each day – but totally buzzing at the same time.  If you’d like to know more about any of the above sessions, I do plan to share, in bitesize chunks, a little of what I learned from all these fantastic people …