With every new year at school, there always seems to be a new system or other which claims to be better at doing something that didn’t seem a problem the year before. After tinkering with OneNote in the classroom last year, I’m going all in and there seems to be a general murmuring amongst the, genuinely delightful, pupils I teach as to ‘what’s the point’. What was wrong with paper for our prep and writing stuff on a whiteboard?
At its best, it offers the flexibility to teach and support the students in a way that is just not possible with a paper and pen. Here are three examples.
As I write information on the board, I can be wherever I want in the classroom. I’m not the smallest of people so the first advantage is getting me out of the way. But if I position myself at the back of the classroom, or in amongst the students, or sitting next to the student who’s struggling, it gives me the flexibility to adapt my teaching. The latter case is particularly powerful. How often does a student want to ask that quiet question to clarify something, but would rather not ask it in front of the entire class.
The second example is on the speed of feedback. Students can complete homework on the night it’s set and I can mark it before the next lesson. I don’t have to remember to collect it in or give it back, and they don’t have to remember to bring it to the lesson or hand it in. I’m sure every teacher at some stage has tried to get a class to hand in their work the next day, even when they don’t normally have a lesson. I certainly did, and tried nobly for a few weeks before giving up and accepting that I’d have to teach the next lesson ‘blind’ as to what their homework may have shown me as to their understanding. A spin off of this electronic marking is that the students seem to respond to what I’ve written much more, correcting work spontaneously, but its early days to suggest this is sustained.
The third is on the richness of media. It’s easy to paste onto their work a worked example, or a custom made ‘This is what you could do to improve’ stamp, or an audio recording of feedback. They could also record an audio question they wanted to ask, or even record them explaining an answer orally (the prospect for languages here is obvious). From bringing in diagrams from the internet, pasting graphs from Excel – it does seem a very natural way to bring all these things together.
Does it have its faults? Of course it does. The lack of a defined time slots for them to do it and me to mark it means that I mark in dribs and drabs, or start marking before they have finished it. The flexibility of structure means that sometimes a page of work ends up with all sorts of scrawling over it, from my comments, to their corrections but it seems much more organic and more representative of a real conversation that might be taking place, but which we don’t have time do every time. The key thing though is that it allows me to do things that I couldn’t do without the technology, which I think is the acid test of whether something is worth persevering with and so I’ll keep on using it.
From September 2014 Wellington College will enter a two year partnership with Research Schools International led by Harvard Graduate School of Education Faculty to explore the broader topic of independent learning, specifically the areas of Growth Mindsets, Resilience, Grit and Active Learning. We will also be working closely alongside partner schools from our Teaching School Alliance in this process.
The initial direction of the project was decided in the Summer term 2014 through consultation with all staff at the College by a survey conducted by Harvard.
The project has three broad stages:
1. A comprehensive literature review of main areas and dissemination to staff.
This will be presented by Harvard GSE faculty to all staff and will provide the starting point for our enquiry. Strands and emerging themes from this review will be used to facilitate discussion at both a school and network level. Engaging with the wider evidence base is a vital part of this process and means examining not only what has been written in the field to date promoting independent learning but also examining its criticism, and alternative perspectives.
2. Collection of baseline data from all students, detailing exactly where students are in terms of the four areas outlined above. This will be in the form of a quantitative and qualitative survey designed by Harvard to capture students attitudes and mindsets to independent learning. The survey will be trialled with a group of student research fellows to test efficacy and appropriateness.
It is important that we have a big enough sample size so we will collect baseline data from three additional school from our Teaching School Alliance.
The findings of this research will be analysed by Harvard GSE and delivered to schools in Summer 2015 to inform choice of interventions in year 2.
3. Trial and evaluate interventions.
Based on the baseline data and what we have learned about independent learning, we will decide in consultation with Harvard GSE and our partner schools what interventions we might trial in year 2 to facilitate independent learning, to inform teaching practice and to improve student outcomes. These interventions will be then trialled and evaluated for impact and efficacy. It is planned to use multiple approaches including a randomised controlled trial.
There will be a launch event for this partnership on September 10th at Wellington College with a presentation from Harvard GSE faculty including Christina Hinton and Bruno Della Chiesa. All are welcome.
There will be a launch event for this partnership on September 10th at Wellington College with a presentation from Harvard GSE faculty including Christina Hinton and Bruno Della Chiesa.
A couple of years ago we were lucky enough to get to work with Google at The Sunday Times/ Wellington College Festival of Education to design a unit of work in English.
They were a delight to work with because, fundamentally, they clearly cared about education. And one key element of their interest in our Education Festival was that they wanted to do something which would involve our children. There were several questions that needed answering: most obviously, what would interest (and challenge) them? And perhaps just as importantly, what could they work on which could be linked to a set of core skills, as well as be transferred to other subjects?
We took a risk: three 3rd Form MYP classes were studying The Road, the dystopian novel by the American novelist Cormac McCarthy. It’s a difficult, sometimes unbearably moving novel, and it does not flinch from scrutinizing many of life’s most fundamental moral choices in stripped-down, brutal language. For this group of 13 year olds this is the most complex novel most of them will have read.
We went to Google and said that we wanted to work with them on a project which would be focused on The Road, and which would bring in new technology, but only if that technology extended the students’ learning: in other words, if it was gratuitous, or done for the sake of promoting a brand, we wouldn’t use it. The learning was the priority, the technology secondary. It was with a little trepidation that we emailed this message to Google. Their response was immediate: ‘we’re completely cool with that’ they said.
And so we set to work. One important decision we made was to bring in @tombarrett, a Google-certified teacher, who could show us the real potential of Google tools. We then asked all the pupils to write letters of application for this role outlining why they should be part of the team (a useful exercise in itself). We chose 14 pupils and over a whole day mapped out ideas for the project with Tom. Several trips to Google HQ in London followed so that our pupils could get a sense of the ethos of the company, as well as their high expectations of the project.
Through close collaborative planning, using tools such as Google Maps, Google Plus, Docs, Sketch Up, Google Sites, embedded clips from YouTube, as well as other tools (such as Skitch and Garage Band) the pupils were able to construct a diverse, interactive website which explored McCarthy’s novel in a number of different ways, but each extended their learning, and each approach developed skills which could be transferred to other subjects.
When the Education Festival kicked off our pupils were installed in the Google classroom and it was clear that for many of those attending they were one of the highlights of the two days: they explained clearly and perceptively the choices they had made in designing the site to the many adults who wanted to know more. And in so doing they made crucial transition: they were no longer students but, through their learning, had become teachers.
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).
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?
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:
Yesterday evening at Wellington College the academic staff took part in a learning ‘ideas exchange’. We all set up displays around the library to showcase what we do that is interesting or innovative, and then took an hour to wander around, chat, and find out about best practice across the College. It was a bit like attending a mini convention, with displays, constructive showing off, and the odd glass of wine.
For example, here is our slide from Philosophy and Religion:
Our theme was the different ways in which you can run a discussion with students; we chose just six of many different possible examples. Some of the most interesting conversations I had were with colleagues teaching maths and science, who wondered how the concept of ‘discussion’ could apply in subjects for which debate and discourse is not as important as theoretical understanding. It challenged us to think about what a meaningful discussion could be and how it could work in science in a non-contrived way. I certainly learned a lot from thinking about this cross application.
The ideas exchange is a totally brilliant idea for professional learning. By making the process sociable and making it into an event, the levels of engagement went right up. It also opens the eyes to how much brilliant education is going on, on your own doorstep!
My highlights include: GIS mapping (Geography), medical diagnostic activities (Biology), and really pushing the youngest students with texts (Classics).
If you are an educator, I would strongly recommend that you consider running an ideas exchange in your school or college. I hope that we will hold further such events at Wellington in the near future.