TLA Berkhamsted – the keynotes

Three great keynotes throughout the day, but I most enjoyed Alistair Smith & Bill Rankin for the reasons below.

Alistair Smith’s (@alatalite) keynote ‘50’000 chunks: how we become experts’

I thought Alistair’s whole talk and presentation style was excellent. A great mix of well-grounded theory (‘here comes the science bit’), honest evaluations of real school practice, and humour.

One of the first things that resonated with me was the statement “Expertise differs from experience”. So often longevity can be misinterpreted as mutually coexistent with wisdom. I come from a department where from my very first days as an NQT my boss would demand excellence and place opportunities for development my way; such as large-scale projects, creating schemes of work, mentoring others, running new trips, applying for awards, etc,. I know from speaking to others, and from looking over my own C.V., that I have been very spoilt with opportunities and as such have developed a wide range of skills and experience within a short space of time – a wider and deeper experience perhaps than many who have more years than me in service, but who not been given these opportunities, or who have let themselves stagnate.

Now I’m not saying I’m an expert. Anyone who knows me or who reads this blog regularly knows that I describe myself as ‘just a bit better than average’. Equally I am not saying that I am better in any way than someone with more years’ experience. Schools should value those with commitment and years: experience is often invaluable – as these people should really have become experts in their own right in terms of results and relationships. However, longevity does not equal expertise, or even experience. You know how if you live somewhere for a long time you eventually stop seeing the little details and wonders around you? Same with spending too long in the same school or the same role perhaps, there is the danger that you might stop to see the little details or stop pushing for that excellence or for new challenges.

Alistair put his ‘Requirements for an Expert School’ slide on display (see image) Alistair Smith - expert schoolsand asked delegates to stay standing until they felt the criteria no longer matched their own school, then to sit down. It was sad how many schools sat down at the ‘Teaching and Learning number one priority within the development plan’ and having T&L identified strategies in place. Does this say a lot about schools? Surely it’s obvious to have these priorities and strategies? This led on nicely to his discussion about Ofsted and school priorities. That schools sometimes confuse an ‘Ofsted One’ with ‘Real One’ – SLT perhaps focusing school policy, development plans and energy upon the drive to achieve that elusive Ofsted outstanding category rather than focusing on delivering consistent real world outstanding experiences to every single student every day. If we focus on the real core needs of learners, and on excellent teaching and learning then surely the rest will follow? Schools should be child-centred, not Ofsted-centred : “we need learner-led, not Ofsted-led education”.

Alistair summed up this message with his warning to ‘beware the Ofsted Whisperers’

Ofsted whisperers

and gave glowing examples of schools where SLT have refused to mention Ofsted at any time. Bill Lord @joga5 tweeted that “@alatalite ‘s presentation has the beautiful mix of making you feel uncomfortable and yet driving you forward” – and this is true;

it was inspirational but challenging. Plus it ended with an image of a sparkly necklace, so what’s not to like?! 😉
Bill Rankin’s (@rankinw) keynote ‘Building sustainable learning’:

Bill’s style was thoroughly entertaining. Despite obviously being very knowledgeable and experienced, he didn’t take himself too seriously and had a great sense of humour. By this point in the day I’d pretty much exhausted my phone with tweeting and taking pictures from the other sessions I’d been to, which left me unable to take so many notes – however it was memorable and thought provoking.

He kicked off with talking about the power of online communities and how anyone can enter and be part of something bigger, the idea of removing barriers and encouraging freer exchange of information. This struck a chord as I remembered a conversation I’d had with my sister about crowd-sourcing and how charities & organisations are using this as means of engaging online communities in terms of accelerating simple data entry and for scientific purposes. I haven’t investigated how reliable / scientifically beneficial these groups are but the premise is that regular Joe Citizen can access the internet and follow mundane procedures that are time-consuming but in enough quantity prove useful to researchers. If this is of interest to you, or if you fancy getting your students involved in a ‘real project’ that could be of ‘real life use’, then there are these:

1) – a range of science projects from ocean floors to astronomy

2) – help analyse climatic information

3) – the scientists, software developers and educators behind all the zooniverse projects

Similarly, my sister mentioned the Cancer Research hackathon that created Gene Run – that a smartphone app is being created that enables the public to access and interpret genetic information that would take scientists forever to analyse, but that through sheer mass numbers of ‘civilian analysts’ on their apps could speed up the mundane data processing and thus free up scientists to do the tricky part and actually find a cure. Cancer Research is something close to my heart; my dad has a clock ticking with his own illness. So it seems logical for researchers / charities to embrace technology and start using the ever-present mass market of tech consumers for something greater. Crowd-sourcing as a benefit for the greater good? Online communities allowing each individual to be part of something bigger? If this could be the case, then as educators don’t we have a responsibility to encourage learners to a) want to be part of something bigger, and b) be able to access online information and communities safely? FYI, If you are wanting more info on e-safety / online learning then check out – or you can see my pieces here.

Bill showed a graph (image) Bill Rankin's brain activitythat allegedly shows results for brain activity in a teenager during discrete times of the day. This, if true, is rather alarming. That learners’ own physiology reflects the fact that in lessons they are not engaged. I get the chance to speak to a large number of children across all age and attitude groups, and to speak to various staff in my role and this reflects the feedback prevalent from many that at present a lot of learners are not ‘misbehaving’, not ‘kicking off’, but are just passive. Not disengaged in a ‘naughty’ way, but in an un-stimulated way. And clearly this needs to change.  It is not enough to be satisfied that learners ‘sat still, were quiet and completed activities’ – this doesn’t mean a child is engaged or enthralled. And surely that’s what we should be aiming for? That learners actually are enthralled, captivated, can’t get enough. Not passive and compliant but switched on, enthused, invigorated.

This led on to his analogy between classrooms and cornfields; that cornfields are often lacking biological variety and interaction because of monoculture in the aim of mass production. The analogy being that schools can easily fall into the same trap: that through being measured by, and fixated with, results, schools are driven to ‘churn out’ learners –acting like a conveyor belt to mass-produce an end product (a child who has achieved set standard) rather than being as concerned with holistic experiences. Again, the danger that it is too easy (and too little) for our aim to only ever be on results in terms of pieces of paper, that our aim should be broader. And I guess this links to Alistair’s warning – beware the Ofsted whisperers again. I got into a few twitter conversations about this after Bill’s thought-provoking statement “Is the stuff that’s easy to measure actually the stuff we want to be measuring?” And I totally agree. There is the danger of producing ‘monoculture learners’. Mike McSharry on twitter likened it to car specs – that measuring is all about performance, but that you wouldn’t choose your next car based on a spec certificate alone. Likewise the learner and education. It’s not just about measurable performance. Education and the job of educators is more holistic, experiential – not just results but ‘soft skills’, life skills, instilling a love of learning, etc, – it’s about real life.

Now please don’t misinterpret what has turned into an essay / rant. I am not saying results aren’t important, or worth measuring. They are. See me on exam morning or results day and I’m a nervous wreck. But that’s not because I want the results for myself or to please SLT/Ofsted. It’s because I want children to get what they deserve and to have come out of school with a good experience. A poor experience means that they have been cheated. That poor experience could be in terms of academic disappointment if I don’t support them enough, in terms of lack of social skills, lack of experience of the real world, lack of real life understanding, lack of a love of learning, etc,. But that’s why I do the job, and it frustrates me when I see it not happening (either in my own classroom if I’m not up to scratch, or elsewhere) because it is cheapening what children deserve.

Again, what came through strongly in all the keynotes (including Bill Lucas too) was that what we do needs to be more learner-led (pity then that Gove et al don’t consult the consumers themselves 😉 ) and child-centred. Then the rest should fall into place.

It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from Narnia, when Aslan breathes upon a stone giant to wake him back from the spell:

“It’s all right!” shouted Aslan joyously, “Once the feet are put right, all the rest of him will follow.” C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe

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