Reflections on the #SSAT Conference 2012

It is clear that the SSAT organisation are corralling some of the best teaching and learning academics, school leaders and teachers to lead the charge to take student learning in our education system forward into our twenty first century, not harking back to a nineteenth century ‘golden age’. The SSAT conference this week was a veritable smorgasbord of reflection, evidence based knowledge and innovation, shared by luminaries such as Dylan Wiliam, Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas etc. Like any good meeting of minds, the less well known speakers and practitioners left the most lasting impression on many. My high points were the sessions by Emily Cummins, Ewan McIntosh and Tom Sherrington (although I was inspired by those ours mentioned in this post). Now, any good review or summary would attempt to summarise the multitude of ideas in a pithy, wise thesis statement, as fallible, reductive and no doubt biased as that may be, so I will give it a go. For me – note the glaring subjectivity – the conference laid the foundations for a reinvigorated pedagogy and curriculum the puts learning and students at the heart of education – not beginning with measurable, replicable and ultimately sellable end assessments as our politicians propose.

I told you my attempt wouldn’t quite do the job – but we learn from failure and risk taking regardless! The SSAT mission statement clearly does the job equally as concisely and more successfully:

Inquire – what class-based action research and teacher-led inquiry has raised standards?
Innovate – how have schools done things differently in order to do them better?
Inspire – how have schools influenced each other’s work through our network?
Impact – what changes have been proven to make a difference to student outcomes?

How does these worthy statements translate into real action and evidence. Well, the real evidence of an education system is the learners and their success, and the two most impressive people were young people who exhibited that they had flourished as outstanding learners. Firstly, Emily Cummins (see –@emilycummins), a young woman who broke free of curriculum constraints to exhibit true independent learning – ultimately becoming a woman achieving spectacular success, from inventing the ‘Sustainable Refrigerator’ and becoming ‘Woman of the Year’. She challenged teachers and leaders to question whether their curriculum was indeed fit for purpose. Secondly, James Anderson (see @iamjsanderson), an extraordinarily talented student, who, still a teen, co-founding the app making tech company: PixelBit Apps Ltd. What was common about these brilliant leaners was that they succeeded despite the limits of a stultifying exam system – they had undertaken learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom space, they had been encouraged by key individuals, grandparents and teachers. Dr Eric Mazur, a spectacular speaker and teacher, who originated the principal of ‘flipped learning’ (see here: Full lecture or for a bitesize explanation of flipped learning here) exemplified how and why learning must reach beyond the exam, beyond the classroom and beyond the pathway being proposed currently by the DfE. If we don’t innovate the learning to reach our students and challenge the current ideology being proposed by Gove, then we will have less chance of seeing people like Emily and James flourish. The approach of SSAT in the coming year is to put forward proposals on their ‘Redesigning Schools’ project in the coming year.

Common patterns of ideas were criss-crossing across the various speeches and sessions. What was central was learners and learning. Learning as an emotional and cognitive process kept on being reiterated – indeed, we need evidence and great skill to further process and adapt our pedagogy given our ever-growing greater knowledge of this science. Gove may wish to make teaching a trade, but it is so much more than that – we must be the skilled professionals and researchers we seek, in spite of divisive politics. I expected some more focus upon learning environments and innovative technology, and there were appropriate exemplars of technology being used to enhance the learning; however, the key focus was on the students themselves as the key ‘resource’. Co-construction was a definitive message for taking our curriculum and pedagogy forward. From Tom Sherrington’s brilliant school projects that put the student at the heart of real learning (see his great blog here), to Bill Lucas’s evaluation of how well we have formed the balance within our curriculum and pedagogy:

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In my session with Ewan McIntosh (see his website), an ex-teacher, who brought that crucial viewpoint from the world outside of education that we very much need if we are to avoid naval gazing, I reflected very much about an idea/problem that Ewan proposed we look into and attempt to solve. My problem/idea was student motivation. For me, it is at the root of much of the talk from every expert speaker. Are we preparing our students for a world we cannot even imagine; in the words of Piaget, are we imbuing them with that key life skill:“Knowing what to do when you you don’t know what to do”? A few years ago I wrote passionately about a GCSE student named Craig (before I knew blogging was invented!) and how he had developed a learned helplessness and how I felt culpable as his teacher. A few years on, I feel we are far more canny with our students and we are teaching them better in my school, but the insoluble problem is still the lack of intrinsic student motivation for many – the hard reality that we are still working harder than they are in many ways! It is working for us in terms of league tables and external judgements, but I don’t think it is working for all of our students. If will not make our nation of children ready for tomorrow and the complex world in which they will live.

Student motivation is such a gargantuan problem that it may seem foolish to even broach it, but I will do so anyway! I am conscious the problems and potential solutions would encompass a book and not a couple of paragraphs, but permit me to summarise. The problems are legion: from our high stakes testing model and our punitive external school judgements; to the politicisation of education that ignores evidence, the profession and the students; to our habits as teachers in repeating the paradigms of how we were taught in a connected world which bears no relation to our youth; to a culture that promotes consumer values of instant gratification, an aversion to boredom and effort, with an attendant ideology that the end justifies the means in terms of educating students for schools and DfE statistics, and not for the intrinsic love of learning, or providing the authentic learning skills for a future we cannot quite imagine. The solutions – well, I humbly admit that I am wholly foxed by the issue! I would like to think that the people and sessions in this conference have advanced my thinking so that I may make practical advancements for developing the curriculum for my students and our faculty.

The answers of course start with the students and their learning. We must stop putting the cart before the horse, as Brian Lightman articulated. We must workWITH the students: co-constructing learning; adapting and personalising the curriculum to meet the changing needs of our students (the ‘flipped learning’ model is one of the many methods) in reaching them by building real learning, with real audiences – not some atomised task by proxy. We must use a language that encourages a growth mindset and promotes good habits of thinking. We must build resilience by encouraging risk taking and accepting failure on the pathway to ultimate success – helping students learn how to learn – not as a bolt on quick-fix, but as a way of thinking and learning. We must connect with technology in a real, flexible and frequent way. Even more importantly, we must connect the chain of people: the golden triangle of students, parents and teachers.

The devil is of course in the detail, and this blog is simply about quick reflections, so I don’t offer detailed examples or answers – but of course, schools are innovating and, quite frankly, ignoring national directives and making the learning real and are making the students better motivated – which leads to the desired outcomes even hardened, cynical politicians desire. Of course, there are no silver bullet solutions here, the answers will be rooted in the school contexts and the people in unique school scenarios; but, crucially, a commitment to searching out those answers is the
thing. In the coming year, SSAT is clearly committed to synthesising these ideas with great experts and brilliant practical teachers and leaders at the chalkface – collaborating and connecting to create what Bill Lucas described the “great pedagogical shift”. The buffering stresses of the daily jobs and the criticisms by politicians etc. cannot shift us from keeping the learning the main thing, from working hard to imbue students with the crucial intrinsic motivation and helping them ‘know what to do when they do not know what to do’.

My favourite quote of the conference was made by the sage Dylan Wiliam and it is about teachers, but fundamentally, it gets to the root of improving learning for students, thereby improving the motivation of students – which is crucial in sowing the very seeds of future success:

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam

My favourite image of the conference was from Tom Sherrington’s brilliant talk about co-construction and being bold enough to inspire students to own their learning, provoke their own leadership and questioning and to learn with real motivation:

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The problem is complex – great minds in this conference are busy tackling it, teachers and leaders are working with them too. I feel simply privileged to be there listening in! We all can and must join them, or be left at the behest of ignorant politicians without having challenged them. We must show our passion for students and for helping them learn by undertaking deliberate practice. I must stop reflecting – I need to get planning – I have students to motivate!

P.S. Thank you to all the kind people who said hello and talked to me during the conference – very much inspiring for me to share my time with you!

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

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