#TLAB15: A flash of light

At the risk of sounding slightly unhinged, there were at least three moments during #TLAB15 when I had to physically restrain myself from leaping out of my seat to hug the speakers, such was the sheer exhilaration and freedom of being able to really THINK about relevant, fascinating and oh-so-important issues, and the freedom to ask questions with the humility to know we don’t have all the answers.

I’m writing this whilst listening to Radio 4’s Sick of School. And I’m sad to say that much of what it’s saying chimes with experiences of those I’ve known, over the years. But I’m not here to write about that. I’m here to write about yesterday.

Yesterday, I could have actually sobbed when my alarm went off at 7. It had seemed like a good idea, a few months ago, to sign up to #TLAB15, a Teachers’ Conference in Berkhamsted. Frankly, I was run-down and not very well and wanted nothing more than my duvet. It was touch and go. I couldn’t have made a better decision…

TLAB

The overriding principle of this event, as for other TeachMeets, is that the true leaders are not ‘those in power’ but those of us who teach young people daily. TeachMeets offer a chance for educators and those with an interest in education to share their experiences, their research and their learning free of charge to groups of volunteers who give up their time to attend.

The theme of the day was ‘all in the mind’, and, powerfully, it brought together teachers with experts from other fields to share their research in a clear and accessible format which gave so many ideas and insights into how we – teachers and students – and the cultural, environmental and relational factors which influence this. Below, I have highlighted some of my key ‘take-home’ moments for the day. I have made regular references to websites, links, articles, books and blogs in the hope that those who are reading will be able to find a bit of ‘headspace’  to follow some of these rich trails.

The Teenage Brain; Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

Sarah used graphs and data in the most fascinating way imaginable, to show how the unique structure of teenage brain influences risk-taking, peer influence and self-consciousness. This picture was a contender for the highlight of my day

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Sarah’s TED talk on the subject is here, and is well-worth a watch: http://t.co/6EWOXrbUEe

Leadership Panel

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The next session I attended was a debate on leadership. This highlighted one of the more unique features of the day – the fact that it saw a collaboration between independent and state sectors. I was initially cynical, I admit, but what was powerful was that any possible conflict of interest was completely laid aside in favour of a whole-hearted focus on the best outcomes for our unique set of students in each of our unique settings. The panel was chaired by a new Head, Rona Mackenzie, and included three other Heads from varying contexts: Tom Sherrington, Alan Gray and Tricia Kelleher. They agreed on the importance of serving their unique communities as Headteachers, and on the importance of a shared vision by members of each community. The challenge of Headship is keeping sight of the ‘big picture’ (Tom Sherrington). It is vital to know your teachers, and to keep sight of the fact that they are the people who ‘do the magic every day’ (Tricia Kelleher). Judicious and meaningful use of data is essential – used ineffectively, it ‘can be adversarial’ (Tricia Kelleher) – in the light of fewer graded observations, schools have a real challenge in capturing and tracking performance of students and teachers.

For teachers aspiring to senior leadership, the advice included: ‘have a sense of the whole at all times’, ‘teachers know when they’re ready for the next step’. Good leaders are ‘people who can make things happen.

Finally, what can the state sector learn from the independent sector? Tom Sherrington talked of ‘the confidence to have audacious goals’ and the importance of infectious confidence.

Reculturing; Tom Boulter

The next session me question many of my assumptions and ‘sacred cows’. Tom Boulter was down to earth and cut to the chase. We need to beware of jargon in our numerous educational acronyms and initiatives.

I absolutely loved the metaphor of the ‘play pump’. Tom talked of an initiative in Africa was was pure genius-simplicity.

PlayPump

The children play on the roundabout. The roundabout links to a pump which generates fresh water. Only… it didn’t work. The children didn’t play at the right times or in the right ways. The weather wasn’t conducive to playing… And it was so hard to accept that it didn’t work, because it was such a brilliant idea. Tom went on to ask if many of our recent initiatives (and numerous acronyms) might also be ‘play pumps’ – L2L, SEAL, AfL, PELTS… Each with their own value and the very best intentions, but can we really say they’ve made a lasting different to children’s learning?

Of course, they each have their value and their use, but we need to ensure that diverse and diffuse messages don’t blur the most important goal we have: ‘are we teaching them good stuff?’ ‘Are they learning good stuff?’ Tom asked whether ‘evidence of progress’ in lessons (and over time) is the best thing to be looking for – is ‘quality of thought’ a better way of putting it?

Tom talked powerfully of the danger of too many priorities; focus on the few things that matter, he suggested and avoid ‘noisy feedback’ and too many messages. So, what makes the difference? These are the key factors, at Tom’s school:

  • Clear and appropriate learning intentions
  • Tasks and activities which help students to learn
  • Success criteria and use of models
  • Feedback that moves students on

Tom also suggested that there’s no shame or harm in keeping it simple and playing it safe if the strategies we’re using in our classrooms are effective for our particular students. He blogs about this here:

http://thinkingonlearning.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/not-rolling-dice-in-praise-of-safe.html

Tom also discussed lesson feedback and the importance of reaching agreement, of being specific and clear, of reaching agreement… because what’s it worth if the teacher doesn’t go away and respond to it, and if they don’t agree, they won’t do that.

Finally, Tom spoke of the value of ‘headspace’ and of teacher time to reflect and learn for themselves. The power of Tom’s talk was that it raised more questions than answers; questions that have stayed with me since, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. He ended with possibly the hardest issue of all; the need to reduce teacher workload. As in the rest of the talk, Tom practised the humility he preached – there’s no easy answer.

‘Hook them into Learning’; Crista Hazell and Candida Gould

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I then returned to my spiritual classroom home to a session on teaching Modern Foreign Language run by two exuberant and inspiring Heads of Languages. There were tons of ideas, including fabulous goody-bags of resources; enough to really spice up my own teaching, and plenty that’s relevant and easily applicable for teachers across the curriculum.

With absolutely wonderful, minimalist, use of Powerpoint, they gave me enough ideas to keep me thinking for months.

Costume and dressing up for role plays can inspire the most reluctant learners to speak in front of the class, and the very powerful ‘no opt-out’ rule creates a culture where even the most reluctant students will see active engagement as part of their routine.

So often, genius is in simplicity; these independent learning challenges are easy to create (love the coloured lolly-sticks!) and encourage the kind of autonomy so many of us are aiming to instil in our students.

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The most powerful concept in this presentation was the idea of ‘grit’. This slide was SO powerful…

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Crista and Candida have – extremely generously – shared their full presentation here:

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/15426838/Hook%20them%20into%20Languages_Presentation%20TLAB2015%20copy/Hook%20them%20into%20Languages_Presentation%20TLAB2015.pdf

‘Learning how to Learn’; Dr Barbara Oakley

The day ended with a talk from a woman who describes herself on Twitter as ‘a female Indiana Jones’. She’s a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University who, as it happens, ‘flunked’ Maths and Science at school. Her talk on making learning stick, was utterly compelling and another example of where high-quality academic research has real meaning and relevance beyond universities.

Her talk echoed many of the key ideas around Growth Mindset and Spaced Learning. I was particularly struck by the distinction between ‘focused learning’ and ‘diffuse learning’ and the image of the brain as a pinball machine:

focuseddiffuse

She spoke of the power of 25 minutes focused learned by a short period of distance; of physical exercise and sleep; of repetition, practice and frequent testing, with lots of extremely practical and widely applicable examples, which I think would work with many of our students, as well as with ourselves.

If you don’t repeat learning frequently, the risk is that the ‘metabolic vampires’ come and suck away the knowledge before it has ‘stuck’.

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Our challenge is to turn learning in a ‘library of chunks’ or ‘ribbons of thinking’ which our students are ultimately able to pull easily to mind.

She has written a book on the subject, A Mind for Numbers: http://www.sixwatergrog.com/2014/09/learning-how-to-learn-with-barbara.html

There is also a brilliant-looking free online course which allows you to explore these techniques for yourself:

https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

If you’re forgetful, Barbara says, you’re almost certainly creative. If you’re a slower thinker, you’re less likely to be rash and impulsive. In short, we all go about things differently and Barbara’s sheer joy in the richness and diversity of the human mind was quite infectious.

Barbara ended her talk with a quote which has stayed with me, about passion, patience and challenged our preconceptions about ourselves, our strengths and our abilities:

‘Passion is a double-edged sword. Some things take longer to learn. Don’t just follow your passions, broaden your passions, ad your life will get all the richer.’

And finally (really, finally)…

Despite the huge pressures on our profession, to join 200 other teachers, leaders and LSAs at #TLAB15 was a humbling and truly wonderful experience. I can’t remember the last time I felt more excited and privileged to be part of the teaching profession in the UK. A special thank you to Nick Dennis for bringing the whole thing together.

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