Mini report of the SSAT National Conference 2014, 4-5 December, Manchester Central

International experts, renowned educational thinkers, authors and practitioners contributed to the keynotes at this year’s national conference in Manchester, on 4-5 December 2014. Between them they cover a major issue in education: the world that the learners of today will enter, and how they can best be prepared for it.

The keynote speakers provided inspiring, international perspectives from a range of angles to the big questions around what we want our education system to achieve for learners.

Charles LeadbeaterAuthor and government adviser on education and creativity Charles Leadbeater asked: What kind of world will these young people face? What kinds of organisations and capabilities are best suited to meeting the challenges? What would that mean to schools?

He discussed the ‘ambiguous bounty’ of new technologies, and how industries are seeking to use them to find better ways of doing things. Organisations that thrive now are open, adaptive, innovative and purposeful. We all need to continuously rethink what we are doing; for schools it means thinking less about what we learn, and more about why.

Sherry CoutuEntrepreneur, investor and advisor to a wide range of organisations and chair of Founders4Schools Sherry Coutu, pointed out some startling statistics in stressing that the skills gap is now at crisis point. New jobs are overwhelmingly being created by companies that are less than five years old; 40% of GDP is controlled by companies less than 15 years old; on average, today’s children will have 24 jobs before they retire; and a million new STEM professionals will be needed in the UK by 2020.

To help, Founders4Schools has over 7000 entrepreneurs ready to go into schools to give advice and support in meeting these challenges.

Lord BakerAs co-founder of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, Lord (Kenneth) Baker has been instrumental in the introduction of University Technical Colleges (UTCs). Agreeing with Sherry Coutu, he stated that the biggest problem facing the next government will be the skills gap. Technical and vocational education are a vital part of filing this gap.

A good example is Austria, which has the lowest level of NEETS in Europe, he says. There, students complete the national curriculum at age 14, when technical education starts. This is the model beginning to be adopted in other European countries, and the UK should follow suit, Lord Baker maintains.

The UTC movement will have nearly 60 colleges open within two years, covering 14-18 year olds. Their curriculum is 40% ‘hands work’ and 60% academic. He recommends clusters of schools to include primaries, secondaries and UTCs and strong links to local enterprise partnerships or chambers of commerce.

They could offer ‘real choice and real opportunities’ to young people.

David McQueenInternational speaker, presenter, coach and mentor, David McQueen regards himself also as a teacher. His entertaining but thought-provoking presentation argued that students can not only direct their own learning but can lead in all aspects of their lives.

He reflected on the implications for young people’s learning, careers, advice and guidance, and social responsibility. In support of his contention that ‘you should never be afraid to take risks’ he told how former HMCI Christine Gilbert, as his headteacher, took a risk in not excluding him from school, a decision he has always appreciated.

State schools should adopt the mindset characteristic of independent schools, he says: all their students should become leaders – because it gives them a head start.

Pasi SahlbergVisiting professor of practice at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg is a world authority, not least on the implications of the OECD’s PISA studies.

He echoed widespread concern in education worldwide that ‘things are going in the wrong direction in many aspects of places… But we have an antidote.’

Developments around the world that are actually preventing improvement in education are over-emphases on: competition between schools and systems, standardisation, testing, choice, numeracy and literacy, and accountability. While some of these at least are widely accepted as useful in education, Sahlberg cogently argues why they are harmful.

By contrast, the factors that do improve education systems are equity, in which resources are focused where they are most needed; cooperation; and trust. Pasi Sahlberg showed that a correct reading of the three-year PISA studies proves the point.

Eric MazurProfessor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University, Eric Mazur is also a leading authority on peer instruction. In his presentation he asked, why is it that stellar students sometimes fail in the workplace while dropouts may succeed? One reason is that most current assessment practices are inauthentic.

They fail to assess what is really important by concentrating on regurgitation of information and rote procedures, as his experience with his Harvard students has repeatedly demonstrated.

‘It’s not about retaining the information, but knowing how to use it,’ he says: tests and examinations should mimic real life.

For example they could allow examinees to bring in whatever resources they need – even access to the internet, and even, in some cases, collaboration with other students. ‘We really need to rethink assessment,’ he concludes. ‘Otherwise we will continue to educate the followers of yesterday rather than the leaders of tomorrow.’

Sugata MitraProfessor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, Sugata Mitra addressed another aspect of new technologies and collaboration: the school in the cloud. His presentation was made jointly with students and teachers from two schools.

Groups of students working together learn more effectively than individuals on their own, he argued, convincingly demonstrating this by showing the use of the cloud to communicate between groups of students in seven schools in very different parts of the world.

They include some remote areas of India, where students are achieving very similar results to those in highly developed countries – and also within just two months learning to communicate effectively in English, a new language for them.

A live internet connection during Professor Mitra’s presentation shows young learners’ responses to the information and support they could never have otherwise had. And it’s a space where children ‘drive their own class,’ as he puts it.

One young learner in Bengal described on screen how they have access to teachers and the ‘granny clouds’ – older people who do not teach but give advice and support over the internet.

Is this the future? I don’t know. But we don’t have a right not to give them that
Sugata Mitra

In the evening of the conference’s first day, an informal TeachMeet organised by Daniel Harvey of John Henry Newman Catholic College and Dan Roberts of Devonport High School gave some delegates’ original ideas and practical tips.

Among the comments and observations made in this lively session:

  • Teaching to the test: ‘the problem is the tests are rubbish’
  • Educational Twitter: ‘if you mention the definition of engagement, all hell breaks loose!’
  • Asking a difficult student for his permission before involving him in a class project transformed his behaviour
  • 2015 is to be the year of teaching – as will be 2016, 2017…
  • What might great teaching look like, and how can I take the next step The Goldilocks level of challenge – not too easy, not too hard, just right.

Engagement: what is it?

2040 group chair Steve Tierney reckoned a useful definition of engagement is how much time students spend on task. ‘Ten minutes is about the right time to spend on any one topic in class,’ he suggested. ‘Students can only focus for so long…. Teacher talk isn’t good or bad,’ he added. ‘It depends on what the teacher says and how they say it.’

But John Stanier of Great Torrington Community School defined engagement in more emotive terms: ‘kids need to feel understood, to have self-esteem and confidence, and to be emotionally engaged in class,’ he maintained.

And teachers need to ask themselves, ‘what am I taking into the classroom that is preventing good emotional contact?’ In order to achieve a positive impact in class, he thought, teachers needed to be able to spend 5-10 minutes per-day just sitting, doing nothing: ‘feel your breathing, feel your body, so you can go in and make those children love you!’

Teachers presenting to adult audiences

David McQueen, who had already given a stimulating, professional and highly entertaining plenary presentation on students as leaders, referred to the fact (brought out in a show of hands among delegates) that very few teachers are comfortable making public presentations on stage. The five key tips from this expert were:

  • 1. Know who your audience is: this should determine what you say and how you say it. It should also inform your estimate of the questions that might come from the audience: ‘think of what that one awkward person is going to say, and have your response ready. Remember: you’re in control.’
  • 2. Tell a story. To get yourself into the frame of mind where you can choose a suitable ‘story’, think about your favourite song, where you were when you first heard it and who you were with; or who is your hero, and why?
  • 3. Structure: a good beginning which hooks people in, then a distinct middle and end. Make three key points, and spell out the evidence for them and why they matter. Think about what action you want people to take after hearing your talk, and how you will get them to do it.
  • 4. Train your voice. David McQueen demonstrated loosening the vocal cords by tapping his throat and humming. He advised against drinking iced water or coffee before giving a talk, as these constrict the throat (caffeine also constricts blood vessels).
  • 5. Practice! ‘I spent three and a half hours practising this morning’s half-hour presentation,’ he reported. One benefit of practising: ‘sometimes you’re going to make mistakes and cock it up – and that doesn’t matter, especially if it’s in practice! Have confidence, so you can bounce back,’ he exhorted.

Finally, David McQueen suggested seeking feedback on your presentations, posing three questions: What was good? How could I improve? What was notable?

Teacher wellbeing

Martyn Reah of Ryde Academy spoke of teacher wellbeing, asking ‘is it a dream too far?’ His ambitious topic was ‘how we can create the weather in our organisations.’ He defined stress as ‘the gap between the demands of life and our perceived ability to cope.’

Simple activities performed each day can help to reduce teacher stress. Building on John Stanier’s thoughts, he suggested: build your connections, go for a walk, notice little things, learn something new, take part, do something different.

More fundamentally, ‘do what you love, love what you do’ – to reclaim your wellbeing.

Behaviour management

Laura McInerney described how she came to develop her ‘book of consequences’ detention system. The children in detention must give written answers to a set of questions, including:

  • Why are you in detention?
  • What caused the thing that got you into detention?
  • What should be done about it?

The approach is not punitive, she insisted: ‘it’s a way of me trying to understand them. It gives all of us the opportunity to calm down.’ One by one, the students bring their written answers to ‘Miss’ at her desk. ‘I write my reactions, and they take them away and consider some more.’ This can involve several stages.

The detention session finishes only when all the students’ answer papers, including follow-up questions and comments where necessary, have been completed to the teacher’s satisfaction.

If there is any talking, the teacher stops, causing delay; this causes the students to discipline each other in keeping quiet.

Side benefits of this approach are that as ‘you have it on paper, they are less likely to lie.’ A record can be useful if there is a subsequent recurrence of the undesirable behaviour.

On the morning of Friday 5 December, delegates had the chance to attend seminars with keynote speakers and leading educationalists…

In Flipped learning on a shoestring, Professor Eric Mazur posed the question: why do students not come to class prepared? In essence, he believed, it is usually not because they don’t have the skills, or are not motivated to learn, but because instructors take away the incentive to learn – often by giving them the answers.

Professor Mazur demonstrated strategies for flipping the incentive for learning to intrinsically motivate students to think in ways that engage and so lead to deep learning.

In the course of exploring the answer, he gave some top tips that could easily help teachers to get their students thinking like physicists, or like moral philosophers, or any other discipline.

The point of the approach is not to get a right answer, but to bring the thinking back into the classroom through a process of questioning and discussion that activates students as peer instructors.

Eric’s top tips for flipping the incentive for learning through fruitful discussion:

Thinking time is vital because people can’t listen and think at the same time – you tend to postpone the thinking to later in order to listen, meaning you lose vital parts of information.

The approach therefore has to be about generating engagement in the thinking process.

There is always the extrinsic driver to get the answer right, but if you can structure your teaching in such a way that your learners’ innate curiosity to understand the world is rekindled, you kick start a process of emotional investment that provides intrinsic motivation.

The workshop attendees modelled this approach:

  • They were asked a question and given an opportunity to think before selecting from a small choice of possible answers.
  • After the thinking period, delegates publicly committed to their answer.
  • They then found someone who had a different answer – this externalised the thinking process.
  • Delegates discussed how they arrived at their different answers – moving the focus away from the answer and on to the process, which, in Eric’s view, is far more important than the outcome.

The workshop was certainly buzzing after delegates had debated their understanding of the laws of physics and of moral philosophy.

Most of all, the process demonstrated how a flipped learning approach can enable learners to become emotionally invested in classroom discussions.

Over 20 ‘How to…’ workshops saw teachers and students present innovative, high impact work from their classrooms that is changing learners’ outcomes. Here’s a taster…

From reluctant learners to global authors

Colleagues from the federation of Grazebrook and Shacklewell primary schools held a fascinating workshop on how they managed to convert children from hating writing to becoming enthusiastic storytellers, with their own books published on the internet.

The presentation began with some fairly predictable video interviews in which the pupils stated, for example, ‘you just write for no reason, and you don’t really remember.’

The teachers recognised that often their writing ability lagged well behind their reading. And KS1 teacher Bradley Dardis said when he took these young people on, while their writing skills may have improved ‘their imagination was not always reflected in their writing.’

His colleague, digital learning leader Aaron Webb, added that a child who struggles with spelling tends to give up on writing; and ‘writing is all the same’: they did not distinguish between secretarial skills, neat handwriting or accuracy in punctuation.

The answer, these schools found, was to ‘give them a better way to tell a story.’ The teachers applied the SAMR model, in which work with a piece of writing is categorised in a hierarchy, with substitution at the bottom, through augmentation and modification to redefinition at the most ambitious level.

The children write their own versions of popular stories, then discuss and modify them. They could use various apps to enhance the stories with sound tracks, for example.

Aaron Webb pointed out that new technologies encourage ‘play’, which includes making mistakes, and so can lead to more creative output from the children.

Using a multimedia story called Oliver’s Vegetables encouraged the ability to think visually and textually: for instance, the pupils would have to add speech before the technology would allow the character to come to life.

After some time working in this way, the pupils’ attitudes to writing changed dramatically: ‘I want everyone to read my writing and everyone to think I’m a good writer,’ said a boy shortly after he had written a full page for the first time.

Another said, ‘I really like writing. You can get to see and your mum and dad get to see it. Maybe I’ll be an author in the future.’

The quality of writing from the previously reluctant authors impressed their teachers – but the highest praise came from Oliver’s Vegetables author Vivian French, who declared they were ‘strong writers’.

Their stories are produced and published on internet sites such as Book Creator and iBook store, and they can be downloaded just as professional authors’ can – this greatly impressed the young authors.

This mini report of the SSAT National Conference 2014 precedes the full report which will be published in 2015.

Bookings for the SSAT National Conference 2015 will open in the new year with a special early bird discount.

Academies Week, our official media partner for the National Conference 2014, produced a fantastic summary supplement for us this year. This supplement was published as part of edition 12 of Academies Week, which was sent out subscribers and delegates last Friday.

For those not familiar with Academies Week, they are a weekly newspaper dedicated to providing readers with the latest news and analysis from across the schools sector.

The newspaper includes a comprehensive mixture of news, opinion pieces, reviews, Ofsted updates, interviews and policy analysis.

Academies Week currently have a 50 per cent off offer running until the end of the year for SSAT members – that’s just £25 for an annual subscription.

Simply follow the link below to their website which explains how to subscribe and use the discount code SSAT2014.

Click here for more info on subscribing.

Please find below some links to free editions of Academies Week for you to trial.

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