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On our new “whitewalls” in English
Ironically, the most popular technological tool introduced to the English department this year is, in concept at least, as old as civilisation itself – and as tempting as an unguarded drum kit: it’s a floor to ceiling wall (aren’t all walls?) turned into a whiteboard.
Students and teachers have responded with a crypto-anarchic enthusiasm, as though graffiting were suddenly allowed. It’s led to large-scale, aggressively visible, wide-screed collaboration; blizzards of quotation exercises; lesson planning in an unthreateningly scruffy and editable way (wipe it off! use a different colour!). It’s the antithesis of a the clipped and pruned folders-within-folders, look-at-my-neat-links aesthetic of the digital age. This is mass scrawl. Kids are as happy to get out of their seats and play the teacher with a squeaky whiteboard pen as we were when we were 10 years old.
The outcomes are massive in every way: what could have been 20 mins slightly inert ‘planning’ or ‘discussing an idea’ has suddenly become a lurid, vibrant, kinetic, Pollock-esque snapshot of thought / debate / evidence. It’s process-as-product in the most liberating of ways. You step back and then rush forward again to sort, swipe, select and signpost. At the end, someone takes photos, loads them onto a Shared Google Drive before the tabula is rasa-ed leaving not a rack behind and the next lot come in. Even more excitingly, however, is walking into the room when it’s still there : it’s like stepping into a genius’s head.
The students are as proud as punch with what they have achieved and the teacher has usually managed to simply sit there and watch the kids slide down the long inky slide to happiness (and a spot of learning).
Our Head of Sixth Form talks about his use of “Harkness” tables and teaching at Wellington
The Mallinson Library was the venue for our departmental “Ideas Exchange” on 26th February.
The Physics Department showcased some of their experimental work.
The Geography Department proudly showed off their wonderful use of GIS technology.
The Art Department presented a range of superb student portfolios.
The PE Department were looking at a range of revision techniques.
For P&R the session focused on discussion in the classroom.
Chemistry demonstrated their use of iBooks.
For Biology, it was a chance to look at differentiation techniques.
The Mallinson Library proved to be a fantastic venue.
One thesis & five mini case studies
Last year, a team of us went on a learning tour across the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. We visited schools across different sectors, contexts and age-ranges.
Amongst our many discoveries was this: that often the most interesting schools are those with the clearest mission. From the best-funded, most rarefied private schools, to very small state primaries, to charter schools working in challenging areas of great cities, there are easily recognizable common strands to schools’ DNA. We all talk about “mission statements”; some schools live them.
In many cases, these very interesting – and often equally high achieving – schools are driven by a great single organizing principle.
Here are 5 very brief case studies of schools we visited which are clearly on a mission:
1. At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology just outside Washington DC, it’s all about science.
This school is remarkable. It is state funded (although it does a lot of development work and many of its projects and its equipment are sponsored) but it has a unique specialism and an impressively unified mission.
It is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) school and its focus is unwaveringly on project-based scientific research work. It transcends the idea of co-construction: students are the architects and authors of their own research, often conducted using cutting-edge technologies, sometimes embedded within industry and professional laboratories.
The students who showed us around exuded pride in their remarkable school (as indeed did students at all the most interesting schools we visited). TJHSST is a unique and quite extraordinary place. You can read more about it here.
TJHSST’s core skills and values are: critical inquiry and research, problem solving, intellectual curiosity, social responsibility. Expectation and common purpose are everything. For TJ, that unified mission is excellence in scientific research.
2. At Phillips Exeter Academy, one hour north of Boston, it’s all about Harkness.
Phillips Exeter has astonishing facilities. But its greatness lies not in its privilege but in its principle. And that centres on one, simple philosophy: Harkness.
All classes are taught around “Harkness” tables. Pupils and teachers learn and teach together; classes are characterized by debate and collaboration unconstrained by traditional boundaries. The quality of discussion and the responsibility the students demonstrate for their own learning are very impressive.
Students at Phillips Exeter, working together around the Harkness table, exhibit extraordinary manners and support for each other. This must also have a transformative effect on the pastoral life of the school: these students are genuinely kind to each other, they accept each other’s mistakes in lessons.
This amazing Harkness philosophy really does infuse everything that the school does and, as a result, gives Exeter students quite exceptional experiences. The Principal spoke to us about reading about “flipped classrooms”. “That’s exactly what we’ve been doing for almost 100 years,” he observed, wryly.
3. At Glasgow Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia it’s all about MYP.
MYP (the IB’s Middle Years Programme) is the agent of chain, the engine for Glasgow’s reform and improvement. It starts with the key purpose – the everyday business of teaching, learning and assessment – and ratchets up expectations from the curriculum upwards. It’s also about service learning – a key component of the MYP.
The Principal of GHS talked to us with enormous integrity about the process of introducing the MYP, of getting the parents on board, of changing the whole culture. She’s taken a school which was struggling and made it into a centre of learning. And she’s done this with a rigorous, unflinching focus on an academic curriculum driven by formative assessment, planning with the end in mind, service learning and learning in context. MYP provides Glasgow with the focus to achieve their mission.
For them, it’s all about the MYP.
4. At KIPP in New York City it’s all about getting students to College.
KIPP stands for the Knowledge is Power Program. “Work hard, be nice.” The message couldn’t be clearer; it’s emblazed around the school. And KIPP charter schools have one simple mission: their students go to college. In the lower Bronx where, on average, 7% of students go on to further education, KIPP sends 85%.
The students all have “college” sewn into their uniform. The philosophy is just as permanently woven into the DNA of the school. You can read more about this transformative approach here. A simple idea, simply and brilliant integrated. That’s KIPP’s mission. It’s a progamme that’s not without its problems, as those of you who have seen the documentary Waiting for Superman will attest. But, it’s a mission and it’s all about getting to College.
And it’s a mission many have benefited from.
5. At Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, it’s all about music.
The final case-study is perhaps the most interesting of them all. CLCS is a tiny charter primary school in the Boston suburb of Brighton. Entry is blind and by lottery. The school could be filled many times over. Its mission is simple: everything is infused with music. Every child plays an instrument, they sing, listen to music, practise throughout the day.
When students first join the school, they make papier-mâché instruments with their families. The care that is put into this is quite extraordinary. They then form a paper orchestra – learning respect for instruments, posture, control and team-work whilst singing the notes and holding the instruments. When they graduate to the real thing they are already in control of their bodies musically.
The student ambassadors talk with such pride (it’s there again) about their instruments, their music-making and how lucky they are to be at this school.
Conservatory Lab is inspired by the incredible work in Venezuela of El Sistema. It is remarkable. But don’t take my word for it; have a look at some of the work they do with expeditionary learning: music-infuses a 3rd Grade project on snakes; listen to their orchestra (remembering that this is a small, state primary school).
In many ways these are great schools all. But isn’t it interesting that there’s that clear organizing principle behind everything they do?
Last term, being out of school at a conference, I had to set cover.
Feeling guilty about missing my A2 English lesson (especially as this was early in the term), I made sure that they would be occupied and challenged in my absence. I asked them to come along to the classroom (in my absence) and to bring their computers (we run a BYOD programme and have school-wide Wifi) and a copy of the text we were currently studying: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
I set up a Google document that the whole class could edit, sent the link and these simple instructions: read one paragraph at a time, after reading each write two or three questions that you want answering then have a go at answering (as best you can) some of the questions that other members of the group have asked. All questions and answers were to be typed into the same shared document.
Sitting in one of the sessions at the conference, I opened the Google document on my iPad and started watching. An amazing thing happened: an extraordinarily rigorous conversation and debate started unfolding on the page in front of me. And I was able to take part: to answer questions, to challenge ideas, to affirm great readings (I know – I should have been concentrating on the conference presentation).
When I got back to school in the afternoon I caught up with some of the students who were positive and hugely enthusiastic about their ‘virtual’ lesson. The levels of engagement had been extraordinary. I was interested to see if there were further applications of this method (beyond providing virtual cover!)
The next day, Tuesday, I was being observed teaching an AS set by a New Zealand teacher looking at the use of technology in various British schools. I felt duty bound to ‘do something with tech’, and decided to repeat yesterday’s experiment.
The class were studying Robert Frost and we spent about 30 minutes reading and discussing the wonderful “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. No technology in play except paper and pens. We then ran a 20 minute “virtual conversation” along exactly the same lines as the day before: one Google doc, all students editing, questions and answers.
But why do this with all students and the teacher present in the class rather than just have a discussion? Well, here was some of the feedback from the students at the end of the lesson:
- They really liked the relative anonymity;
- They felt they could work at their own pace;
- Several commented that they could ‘go back’ to a discussion and add comments and noted that in ‘real time discussion’ the class would often already have moved on;
- They enjoyed adding to and qualifying each other’s ideas in a way they felt they wouldn’t necessarily always be able to do in conversation;
- They loved the fact that they ended the lesson with a full transcript of the questions and answers (which they reviewed for homework, before writing up a reflection on their blogs).
My New Zealand observer (another English teacher) also started taking part in the online discussion. It was almost infectious. There was a buzz of engagement in the room.
I’m not without reservations: I certainly wouldn’t do this all the time and classroom discussion will remain a key element of virtually all of my lessons. I also worry slightly about the lack of moderation (how do I help the students to understand why some responses might be more successful than others?)
Nevertheless, I will definitely be using this relatively simple tool again. A class collaborating on one document is powerful. It’s a good example of technology letting me do something I couldn’t do a few years ago with, hopefully, tangible benefits for students’ understanding and engagement.
How do you feel when you hear the word ‘lecture’? How do you imagine your students feel? Sometimes, we hope, inspired and enthused; quite often, though, is it more likely that they feel suspicious and wary?
And yet the lecture or talk is such an effective means of communicating a message to a large audience with relative clarity and speed. We want students, across the full age-range of our school, to enjoy and appreciate lectures. And we already have lots of successful and well-attended talks.
However, we also want the idea of listening to a talk to be sometimes as exciting a night out as a concert or musical.
So, in the spirit of leveraging intellectual aspiration and increasing excitement about the world of ideas, we’ve devised a programme of evening events each featuring 4 micro-lectures, each exactly 10 minutes long. We were partly driven by the conviction that many much longer lectures could be delivered in 10 minutes with more careful planning and focused consideration of purpose and audience; partly, by the attraction of the concise and precise. The brief for the speakers is simple: take one central intellectual idea and play around with it for 10 minutes.
Our inspirations will be pretty obvious to most of you; however, we wanted to develop a powerful in-house brand that was personal to Wellington. And in searching for that brand we stumbled upon this visual pun, which has rather stuck: WellingTEN.
It was also important, we thought, that each evening of talks should include a range of speakers and a range of topics. We brought in our visiting philosopher and astronomer but we also put teachers – from all departments – and, latterly, students up on the stage as well. All have risen to the challenge most impressively. It’s been competitive in the very best ways; and it’s amazing how many of our teachers and students want to put themselves on the spot and deliver one of these micro-lectures.
So far we’ve listened to talks as diverse as: The most frustrating discovery in the history of Science; The fourth dimension; Crossed out: the importance of writing wrongs; Philosophy shopping: an antidote to economic gloom; Fifty shades of frivolity; Being green – it’s black and white; Blinded by sight: sometimes not seeing is believing; Pockets of silence: How does Art communicate?; There’s no such thing as a dirty book, it’s just the way you read it: Ovid and the Poetry of Exile; Redefining leadership for social change; The apple that changed the world; Euphemism: Why we hardly ever say what we really mean.
The sparky title is another aspect of our marketing of the evening. As is the overall timing. All out, all over in less than an hour. It’s important to be concise and precise. The evenings are also genuinely inter-disciplinary.
What about the practicalities? Well, so far, we’ve:
- run the events on a Friday evening from 7.30 – 8.30 in our theatre
- had music playing in the auditorium as the audience arrives
- taken time with the set (as you can hopefully see from the photos)
- wired the speakers up with head-mounted microphones
- used a large digital countdown timer in front of the lectern which changes from green to amber to red for the last minute
- ensured the evening is hosted by a charismatic student who fields one or two questions at the end of each talk
- worked carefully on the branding (and one of our students has made a wonderful video ident)
Is the 10-minute rule a gimmick? Yes, and no. It certainly adds a ‘Countdown’ quality to the event. However, the intellectual discipline required to bring a considered argument in on time – to the second – is not to be dismissed lightly. One or two have argued that the timer is a distraction; we’ve been amazed, though, at how articulately the students are able to summarize the theses of these talks (especially in comparison with how much they remember from more traditional lecture formats).
The audiences have loved the shows. We’ve put students, visiting experts and teachers on stage with an equal billing and this has been a great success.
We set out to make lectures more fun, to associate an exciting night out with being intellectually stimulated in a number of different disciplines. After a year of WellingTENs, how do we think we’re doing? Judging by the audience numbers and their feedback: remarkably well. We think we might just have stumbled upon a great formula.
Last summer I spent seven weeks at Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire. I was there to learn about their unique classroom experiment: Harkness.
Harkness means beautiful tables. But it’s not just about the tables; there’s an amazing philosophy too.
I worked with Harvard Varsity Knowles, a 35-years’ veteran of teaching around these tables. He recounts with authority the early days of Harkness development. On 9th April 1930 the philanthropist Edward Harkness wrote to Exeter’s Principal Lewis Perry. He had given a substantial donation to the Academy and was thinking about how it might be used:
“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”
The result was the Harkness table: oval or round in shape to ensure all could look one another in the eye, its great smooth plane connecting students and teacher in mutual investigation. The principles underpinning the pedagogy are simple: teacher as facilitator; students as collaborative learners. Students work best when they forget the teacher is there; they own the issues being discussed and the learning that follows.
This is still true today. Every Exeter classroom is a Harkness classroom; every lesson is taught according to the original specifications of its benefactor. Students arrive at the lesson having laid the groundwork for their explorations through independent reading and research. Journal keeping is commonplace. At Wellington we call homework “Prep”. Here I saw prep as genuine preparation for the lessons.
In a Harkness lesson the teacher often rarely comments. And many struggle. As one teacher told me: “My own enthusiasms are sometimes hard to contain. Put another way: my ego is always ready to get between the students and their explorations.” Teacher contributions are carefully tailored. At Exeter they call this “listening pedagogy”. Teachers challenge; then they listen as open-minded witnesses to the students’ conversations.
The teacher makes observations and asks questions. But they do not tell the students what to think. They focus on how the student is learning rather than obsessing over what they are learning. The students sense the growing respect the teacher has for their ideas and over time the students feel safe and nurtured. An ‘answer’ becomes merely one solution to a problem, one result of a thoughtful process.
The first time I saw Harv Knowles teach, he used this analogy: exploring a text in English is like walking into a darkened room. At first it might seem like all is obscured from sight, but after a while shapes and textures begin to appear. The students have to let their eyes grow accustomed to their new environment and work together to make sense of the fabric of their surroundings. The teacher has to resist the temptation to turn on the light.
I now use Harkness in all my classes. Not every lesson is a Harkness lesson (yet) but I aim to create a cultural shift over time. Word on Harkness is spreading within our community: our eyes will soon grow accustomed to the possibilities that lie ahead.
You might find these links interesting:
Wellington’s Deputy Head writes … Although I fundamentally believe that being a teacher is the best job that anyone, anywhere could have, (especially being an English teacher), there are times – generally round about the third week of January, when it hasn’t stopped raining for about 2 months, when almost everyone is battling with some school-wide virus of some sort and when everything you look at is grey, that one is most at risk of forgetting this fact.
On Wednesday this week, I was forcibly reminded, of why, whatever the weather, teaching is like lemsip maxi strength for the soul. Like most schools, at Wellington College, we are committed to training our staff and we do this in weekly inset (inservice training) sessions – mysteriously re-named even less poetically – as CPD – continuing professional development. Until quite recently, we followed the traditional method here – all teaching staff rock up at 5 on a Wednesday, listen to a session in a room about something significant and perhaps, (if we were lucky), inspiring, take notes (some of us), ask some questions… head off at 6 with resolutions to do things differently from that day forward. (By the next day, one had simply lapsed back into the status quo…)
Now, however, we take a different approach. Given the amount of staff time CPD demands (130 teachers / an hour a week: 130 hours of staff time every single week), it dawned on us that it might be an idea to put as much effort and creativity into crafting our staff training as we do into, say, planning a lesson! And that’s what we did. Led by our visionary Director of Teaching and Learning, we started to think critically, reflectively and imaginatively about our cpd sessions. Gone are the whole staff lectures. In their place are bespoke, small-group opt-in sessions – workshops / seminars / hands on and demand driven. Inspired by lesson study, observation and research. Radically different – with buy-in, engagement and commitment from those who attend.
Even better than these though was this week’s offering – yes whole school, but a world away from the dry chalk and talk sessions of the past. Instead, at 5.00pm last Wednesday, every single department was given a nook or pod or cranny in the library, to “show off” something innovative or interesting that they used when teaching or delivering their subjects. We wanted to see what they were most proud of, or tickled by, or pleased with as a department. That was what they brought along. Such a simple notion – sharing of good practice, in a very hands on way, across all the academic departments in one place for one hour. What transpired was a carnival of clever ideas… mostly run by the Heads of Department – and our library was transformed into a smorgasbord of pedagogic innovation.
To drift from the English teachers waxing eloquent about the transformative power of Google docs, to hear the actual music emanating from the Physics department’s functioning speaker, made out of silver foil, two magnets and a rubber band; to listen to the Biology Department’s fiendish “medical role play” for revising the liver (it’s all about having consultants who can look at their notes as well as junior doctors who may not) and to the Head of Geography delighting in the simply astonishing versatility of geo-mapping software (story maps for English / joint History and Geography First World War mapping… and it just looks so beautiful…) – to do all of this, to move from one fun, engaging and clever idea to another was to feel, frankly, that I was in the presence of greatness.
Not just because my colleagues are all great (although of course they are !), but more, because the collective impact of an event like this, is to in effect embody the whole process of learning and thinking about learning. It was as if we had somehow, between us conjured “pedagogy” into life at Wellington and were all of us confronting it together, in all its creativity and variety and scope.
It was, quite simply, a marvellous experience. Challenging, exciting, energising and great fun. A hugely entertaining way of sharing good practice (and jelly babies – thanks to the librarians for those!) – and of reminding all of us why teaching and being teachers, is the very best way of earning a living and one of the best counters to the grey skies of winter.