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Chasing the ace

ace bet business cardThis year, the annual SSAT national conference has a timely and uplifting theme: Pure imagination. Taking place over two days at the ICC in Birmingham, I was delighted to be invited to kick off the conference with a nine-minute talk. This is what I said:

Imagine if, after all this time we’ve been chasing the wrong ace. And imagine if the ace we should have been chasing is so powerful that if we were able to play it, it would trump everything. What if I told you that we all hold that ace, but do so in a deck that’s been shuffled so many times – often beyond our control – that we’ve lost sight of it. We no longer know it’s there.

Flip it

Before I share with you what I believe that ace to be, imagine if as leaders we could flip the system. We need to take back control of the agenda as system leaders and define for ourselves what we mean by sustainable school improvement. We need a system that operates from within – an inside-out approach – where schools and their community work together to decide what their core purpose is and how best to evaluate this. We no longer need to rely on being told what is best for our pupils from forces beyond our schools.

Can you imagine if we could look at our schools through a different set of lenses that enabled us to perceive our schools in a better way. Our beliefs are simply perceptions of reality, and so by wearing these lenses it allows us to see clearly what we believe to be right and proper, regardless of whatever somebody else may think from outside the organisation. For too long, we’ve been forced to look at our schools through the lens of an external regulator, and as a result, our perception of reality has been skewed. It’s time to recalibrate.

Imagine if we really could transform our schools by flipping the system and that we could do so in a way that is wholesome, values-led and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted. I wrote a book about this once and in it I concluded that the best leaders understand the need to wear a number of very different lenses. I’m going to share one of them briefly with you now.

Wear the right lens

It’s called the telescopic lens, and is perhaps the most important one of them all, for this is the lens that will help you reveal the ace. I would put it to you that we’ve all been looking at our schools through a telescope for a number of years, but unfortunately through the wrong end. As a result, we’ve been reduced to seeing our world through a narrow hole and are focusing on the wrong things. We are not seeing the big picture.

Flip the lens around, and your perception of reality changes. When used correctly, a whole new vista opens up. As with any telescope, if you use it indoors in confined spaces when things are too close up, reality will look blurred. Your perception will become distorted. A wise leader knows this and so strives always to climb high and scans not only the distant horizon, but also penetrates deep into the surrounding local community a lot closer to home.

And it is here where we’ll find the elusive ace. As a headteacher for almost two decades, I was sick of being judged as to how good I was based solely on my ability year-on-year to eke out an extra half of a percentage point here or there. There must be a better way.

Thankfully, I believe that there is, and although it starts from deep within our schools, the solution lies out there in the heart of our school communities.

The ace, revealed

It is called social capital, and this, colleagues, is your ace. By increasing the amount of social capital (or resources) each of our family members own, in so doing we increase their power and agency. The more social capital a parent has, the more connections they make and their sense of belonging within the community increases. They become more advantaged.

More importantly, they become less disadvantaged. This is important, as it now gives them a much-needed foot onto the social ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. For many of our parents – especially those new to the country, seeking asylum and unable to speak English – this represents a huge step. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Imagine the difference it would make having families that engage meaningfully with the school? Not just participate and take part – things such as assemblies and school productions, but deep, meaningful engagement at an emotional and intrinsic level.

Imagine what you could do as a teacher, if every child came to school highly motivated and wanting to learn, who were supported and encouraged at home by family members, who valued the importance of education and bought in to the school’s vision.

Imagine if these families themselves then became released from the poverty trap because your school increased their social capital. Imagine if these parents were then able to get jobs as a result of greater self-esteem, confidence, power and agency. Imagine how this would impact on the children that come to your school.

Social breakdown?

But it’s not that simple. According to a recent New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population are living in poverty. This is a shocking and damning statistic. This means that at any one time, six children in a typical classroom are living in poverty. Just think about that.

Quite rightly, Amanda Spielman has raised some serious concerns earlier this week, about the lack of support children are getting from home and are coming to school overweight and unprepared for learning. This is nothing new. Only five years ago, Sir Michael Wilshaw made similar claims. We were on the verge of ‘social breakdown,’ he said. And yet here we are in 2018 saying the same thing all over again.

Nothing has changed, and it’s only going to get worse. We need to act now.

SSAT stage

The lost generation

These parents it seems have become a lost generation and they need our help. For many of them they are socially immobile. We perhaps only need to take such decisive action the once; the next generation I believe are all accounted for, as we have them safely tucked up in our schools. We know that these young people are well-placed to become future changemakers. Their social mobility is, by and large, locked in and assured, providing of course we are able to release the social capital for their parents.

But for our very youngest children, those starting out in primary school especially, in times of great uncertainty and austerity, never before has there been such an urgent need for schools to step up and stand out as the key driver for social change.

So here is my challenge to you: Imagine if our children came to school loaded with social capital. Mums, dads, aunties, uncles, all massively in credit and willing and able to exchange resources with each other, especially trading it up for cultural capital.

Grasp the nettle

Research has shown time and time again that when it comes to increasing a child’s life chances at school, it’s often what goes on outside the classroom in the local community and family home that has the greatest impact. Yes, I accept that a lot of this is beyond our control. But that must not detract us from trying.

It takes a bold leader to grasp this nettle and goes against all that we perceive to be true as we become entangled with an inspection framework that often detracts us from doing the right things. To many of us, our logical brain tells us that the only ace worth chasing is the one to do with inspection judgements. After all, it’s often only by wearing the right Ofsted badge that we are guaranteed a job.

But thankfully colleagues, when it comes to making bold and imaginative decisions, logic doesn’t always come into it. As a certain Albert Einstein once said, ‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.’

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Thanks to Andrea Stephens (@andream656) and Paul Foster (@pjf_paul) for the pics.

You can read more about my thoughts on social capital in a previous post here. I’ll be following this up in the new year with some practical examples of how schools can release social capital.

Five reasons why blended learning is a good thing

Twice this week I’ve taken the train to Manchester. On both occasions it was to present at two very different conferences, one on closing the attainment gap using digital technology and the other on delivering an innovative and creative curriculum. The former was opened by John Dunford in his role as DfE Pupil Premium Champion and he spoke passionately about the importance of ‘looking out and not looking up’ when seeking innovative solutions. Then there was the Primary Curriculum Review conference in which delegates were urged to take risks when designing a fit-for-purpose curriculum. But one theme for me that ran deep throughout both events was the important role digital technology will play in driving up standards. Enter Blended Learning.

Blended learning is nothing new.  Most schools do it all the time without even knowing it. At its simplest, blended learning is the combined use of online learning and offline learning. In other words, activities that take place in the virtual and real world. The virtual world requires the use of a digital device, whereas in the real world it’s to do with ‘bricks-and-mortar’ – traditional tasks that take place in and around the classroom. The trick for the teacher is to get the blend just right.

Here are 5 reasons why I believe children’s learning should be blended:

One | It fits the learning needs of all pupils. Every lesson should contain a blend of some sort. At the most basic level it involves the interactive whiteboard and exercise books.  The best lessons though always involve groups of pupils immersed either in a netbook or tablet device or both. As an inspector, I rarely see blended learning, with most ICT lessons taking place in a computer suite once or twice a week. When technology is readily available in class, teachers tend to plan for only one group to use a device during a lesson, perhaps with a TA supporting them whilst the rest of the class are on ‘bricks-and-mortar’. At some point, the group learning on devices will then blend with the real world and move onto pen and paper or discussion. The ‘Station Rotation’ method however ensures that all pupils are involved. Here, the teacher plans for groups to rotate through a variety of learning stations ranging from group discussion (in our case perhaps using a CoRT1 thinking tool or TASC wheel) to individual online or digital learning (such as Espresso, Mathletics, Blaze, RM Books or OneNote). By blending in this way, it allows all pupils to adopt different learning styles when learning online or off and to learn the pros and cons of both. This approach tends to be most commonly used during the afternoon sessions when pupils are working in their thematic books. As teachers, we need to try to ensure that every child in our school, especially those that have one-to-one devices, has the opportunity to blend their learning frequently throughout the day both at home and in class.

Two | It allows the classroom to be flipped. Now that every pupil in Years 4, 5 and 6 has their own tablet device, flipped learning is achievable. Teachers should plan to flip the classroom at every opportunity when sending the devices home. Flipping the classroom involves pupils learning new content at home by completing specific tasks on their devices. They are structured in such a way that the pupil needs to explore and question their own understanding, perhaps through a video clip, pre-recorded task, Photosynth clip etc. It may also involve the simple researching of facts and information as a pre-requisite to starting a new topic, perhaps using RM Books following a non-fiction virtual loan. One obvious use is Photosynth prior to going on a school trip, getting the pupils to interrogate, perhaps, a picture of a Castle. In the past we’ve adopted a similar approach when requiring pupils to complete a wiki on ‘everything you know about (new topic)’ prior to the new term, often during the school holiday. Having completed the flipped task, pupils then have the opportunity of practising and refining their skills in class where the teacher is able to coach and facilitate as well as correcting misconceptions. As the children’s skills improve, face-to-face feedback at this stage is crucial, something that would not be possible when practising at home. In essence, it ensures that low level Bloom thinking is done at home so that the higher order skills can be used where they matter most.

Three | It ensures pupils are lead learners. When using the Station Rotation model, the teacher will invariably decide when the groups rotate (a bit like the old integrated day model). However, it is far more effective to allow the child to make the choice as to when to blend by choosing either bricks-and-mortar or a digital device. This teaches learners to ‘digiflex’ and understand that some tasks are better suited to a laptop or tablet and some aren’t. Pupils need to learn the limitations of technology in the same way we teach them that there is more than one way to calculate a sum. Having a device with a pre-recorded activity on it (video clip or audio) allows groups to go straight on task at the start of the lesson with the teacher moving away from ‘Sage on the Stage’ to ‘Guide by the Side’. (It’s also a lot quicker than preparing and photocopying worksheets.) The children soon learn that they have to take the lead, knowing that if stuck, a quick search of the virtual world is likely to find a solution. The same applies to when learning at home. When learning outside the classroom, perhaps on a trip, their device opens up doors that would not otherwise be possible. For example, by allowing learners to record video clips and dump them into OneNote immediately gives the child a sense of ownership and lead.

Four | It ensures learning is imaginative. We know from the visit to our school by Professor Egan that ‘the more we know about something, the more imaginative we can be about it.’ This is why we are introducing Learning in Depth across the school. At our training day at the start of term we all acknowledged the key role online research can play in ensuring our pupils master their learning. However, a significant proportion of the pupils’ research and quest for knowledge will involve using more traditional methods. It’s crucial that we get the blend correct and that pupils have opportunities not only to research using a blended approach but to also capture and record their learning on both real and digital platforms. More importantly, the one-to-one devices allow for the classroom to be flipped so that the pupils can do all the research and fact-finding at home and then receive face-to-face support in class in regard to organising, refining and presenting their ideas. I’m sure also that our parents will appreciate it as well, as (like me) it’s unlikely they will have many books at home on the subject of Dust. Once again, RM books plays a key role here.

Five | It’s the future. Online learning is here to stay. All our pupils will be engaging in online courses by time they leave high school. It’s likely that for our youngest pupils, almost all of their learning will take place in a virtual world. So whether we like it or not, we have a duty to prepare our learners for the future. You only have to look at the emergence of the knowledge economy as the fastest growing world market. MOOC pioneers (Massive Open Online Courses) are popping up everywhere, with India being one of the fastest growing markets, second only to the US. The recently launched FutureLearn Mooc sees the UK enter the market with 21 universities (Birmingham included) offering free public online courses on a number of devices, mobile phones included. Moocs by themselves of course are not blended in that they rely exclusively on the virtual world. Thankfully the University of Oxford has already acknowledged that a Mooc needs to be blended with more time in the classroom if deep learning is to take place.

So if we want to close the attainment gap, make good use of Pupil Premium funding and produce a world-class curriculum, blended learning has to feature strongly. Be it online or offline, in the bedroom or classroom, all our pupils need to experience a blended approach to learning if they are to stand out in the knowledge economy and keep ahead of the race.