When I was teaching, I used to leave conferences buzzing with ideas to try out in my classroom. Without a class of my own to go back to after an incredible two days at WE10, I thought I’d focus all my pent up teacher-energy on a blog instead, capturing my reflections on a truly fantastic conference.
***Warning: My cognitive load was severely stretched by the end of the two days, so apologies if I’ve missed out or misinterpreted anybody! Please do let me know if this is the case and I will amend. I’d also welcome any comments or thoughts you have that build on the ideas raised below***
I couldn’t write a Whole Education blog without talking about collaboration- it’s at the heart of everything WE do. We are passionate about bringing schools together to connect, network and share. Being a deliberately small network allows us to know our schools and their teams exceptionally well. It’s so exciting to be able to connect a school in the North West looking at developing their PSHE curriculum to a school in the East of England with really strong PSHE provision, from our team’s great relationships with schools (well don to Lisa Ling, Director of Secondaries, for this example!). The WE10 conference was no exception, as we saw examples throughout the conference of how beneficial sharing learning can be.
During sessions, the power of collaboration was raised again and again by our excellent speakers. Ron Berger spoke of the Japanese model for Lesson Study, in which teacher plans, observe and reflect together to improve specific aspects of teaching. Ron and his team at Expeditionary Learning (EL Learning) have themselves compiled the largest collection of ‘beautiful’ student work that is freely available. Sam Twiselton echoed the need to collaborate during the closing panel, remarking that developing teachers relies on a positive culture where talking about learning is routine.
To support effective collaboration, adequate time needs to be given for teachers to develop. Phillipa Cordingly shared CUREE’s latest research arguing that ‘specialist knowledge needs to be mobilised, with ‘identity and appreciative enquiry’ central to deep active professional growth.
This reminded me of our ‘Stand Out School Initiative’. Designed by the WE team in collaboration with WE school leaders, the initiative uses an appreciative inquiry model to help get ‘under the skin’ of a particular area of ‘stand out’ practice across 12 WE host schools.
The initiative has had a significantly positive impact on both delegates and host schools, demonstrating the profound impact of immersing yourself in focused and positive discussions with peers about the curriculum, teaching and learning. I know how busy schools are (even when I’m at my most exhausted I still don’t think I’m as exhausted as when I was ‘teacher tired’), but WE would encourage as many curious leaders and practitioners as possible to join us on upcoming visits (listed on our events page).
Belief in the ability of young people to achieve
This one seems obvious. Nobody goes into education thinking that young people can’t achieve. However as WE SEND project expert and author of Great Expectations: Leading an effective SEND strategy in schools David Bartram says, it’s about what high expectations actually look like in the classroom: are the right teachers working with the right students? Do all learners have access to appropriate support and challenge?
With the right support and guidance, Ron reminded us that young learners are capable of producing work ‘worthy of hanging in the town hall’. For example, the local board of health recently requested a copy of the report produced by Ron’s 5/6th grade class in 1991 into the quality of the local drinking water as it remains the most extensive data set available! You can read more about that project HERE.
Just some because students face greater challenges, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t access the same level of work as their peers. Ron showed an excellent example from a school in America, in which a class where over 1/3 of students did not speak English as a first language read a paper by Francis Crick and James Watson on the structure of DNA. Students could opt for different versions – some of which included space to write notes or comments that gave the gist of specific sentences- but all read the same article. Learners also had resources that helped them to visualise what they were reading, such as kinect building blocks. In doing so, learners gained a sound understanding of the structure of DNA and had equal access to learn complex vocabulary. I was reminded of this example later in the day, when Mary Myatt explained ‘skills emerge from deep engagement within the domain.’ With the combined power of complete belief in learners and setting challenging but achievable learning targets, it doesn’t surprise me that every student from this school wins a place at college.
When Ron first proudly announced that every student in the school won a place at college, I was taken aback. Aimee, a student from Ansford Academy in Somerset, had opened the day with an impressive keynote arguing young people should not all be forced down the path of university, which I completely agreed with. For the first time, I was sceptical of Ron Berger! However, he clarified that winning college places and going to college are two very different things. All young people should have the choice to go to college, and no young person should ever think that they’re ‘not a college kid’. Whether they choose to go to college, work or start an apprenticeship is up to them, but students leaving school know that the world is always open to them.
To put it another way, the conference gave the clear message that young people are capable of so much more than we realise; a point echoed by charity CEO and Social Mobility Commissioner Saeed Atcha. He commented during the panel session on social mobility, “be careful when you question ambition… give your young people a voice.” Young people have the ability to achieve incredible things. What they need is the unwavering belief of adults; adults that can help them find and pursue their passions in learning, life and work.
One thing that really stuck with me was a challenging discussion on whether we, as educators, could be accused of hypocrisy when it comes to taking risks. We fear that learners today are too frightened of failure, yet as teachers and leaders how many of us are the same? Co-Director of The Big Education Trust, Liz Robinson, challenged the way we talk about school leadership; what a shame it is that being innovative and offering a whole education is seen as breaking the mould and needing ‘bravery’ or ‘courage’. If we expect learners to take risks in their learning, that shouldn’t it be the norm for us to do so too?
I really enjoyed hearing from innovative e-commerce company Next Jump in the ‘Future of Work’ session. When hiring new staff, applicants are asked to complete a project rather than a test. They then have an opportunity to discuss their reflections before completing the project again. Next Jump values mistakes if those making them reflect and learn from them. As a profession, can we learn from Next Jump’s approach and become more developmental, more innovative, and take more (measured, calculated) risks?
Some schools and Trusts are already encouraging this attitude. Jason Scrimshire from LiFE Academy Trust told us that his CEO encourages the team to be ‘mavericks with integrity’; taking measured risks and learning from the results.
Later in the session there was conversation around the real vs. perceived barriers to making systemic change happen in schools. Speakers and delegates challenged us – Is there an issue of learned helplessness in the education system that has become a barrier to necessary risk-taking? The challenges of our high-stakes accountability system are well known – but have we become overly cautious and unwilling to take leaps of faith?
Sir Mark Grundy, CEO of Collegiate Academy, responded to this challenge in the closing session on Day 1. He has been involved in conversations around the new Ofsted framework. Having led Shireland through bold and innovative experiments with curriculum and technology, he implored Whole Education leaders at the conference to be braver with their curriculum and pedagogy choices – and argued that if you are innovative or take risks for the right reasons, in a sensible way, and can confidently tell the story of the decisions you’ve taken and why, the risks are much less significant than we fear.
Reading through WE10 tweets afterwards, I was reminded of how strongly the importance of character development came across throughout the conference.
There’s no better way I could put it than to quote Ron Berger’s keynote.
The quality of her character
The quality of her work”
Developing character is not an add-on but should be an integral part of a learner’s everyday experience of school life. Professor of Developmental Psychology, Robin Banerjee, explained that children are constantly learning – they don’t get their character from discrete lessons but from all their interactions throughout their lives: in every lesson, every day, at lunch, in the playground and at home. If we want children who are kind and cooperative then these qualities should be a central part of the curriculum – and everything we do in school. Only through putting the character values that are important to us at the heart of what we do can we consistently and explicitly ensure we are developing positive social and emotional skills in our learners.
Building in a culture that properly supports character development and wellbeing is essential if schools want to provide a truly ‘whole education’. Developing this kind of culture can take years but I really liked one simple idea that Ron Berger mentioned during his Day Two Masterclass. Ron told us about a school that spent a month exploring the different ways exit tickets could be used. They found success by asking learners to write down the name of a student they were worried about. Simple, but a good example of a small action that contributes to creating a character-focused school.
…what about you?
There is so much more I could talk about from the conference. I’d love to hear what your main takeaways were. You can join the conversation by Tweeting: @wholeeducation or #WE10conf, by commenting below, or by emailing me.
Again, thank you to the wonderful speakers, delegates and fellow WE team members who made WE10 two of the best days I’ve ever had in the world of education.