Why we need to slow things down

Not far from where I live lies the Shropshire town of Ludlow. It’s known for many things – food, medieval architecture, a castle to name but three. But what many people don’t know is that it is the UK’s first Cittaslow town. Cittaslow is a movement that originated in Italy as a rally cry against all things fast-produced. It has since evolved into a cultural trend known as the ‘slow movement’.

This trend has now crossed over into education. Last weekend, the Sunday Times ran an article in which it claims that more and more schools are turning to ‘slow education’ in the belief that deep understanding cannot be achieved by rushing. To quote from the article:

“The movement is a new approach to learning inspired by a book called In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré, a Canadian journalist. Slow education’s academic guru is the British-born Maurice Holt, emeritus professor of education at the University of Colorado Denver. In Britain it is promoted by Mike Grenier, an English teacher and housemaster at Eton College. Its backers believe that how children learn is as important as tests and targets.”

The notion of teaching children how best to learn is a controversial one and there are many protagonists out there who take the view that it’s a wasteful fancy. As a headteacher I have grappled with this very conundrum for many years. Getting the balance right between traditional instructional teaching methods and a more progressive child-led approach is incredibly difficult. Not surprisingly, ex-HMCI Sir Chris Woodhead wades in expressing his concern in the article that the slow education movement’s approach (quite often it seems with an over-reliance on project-based learning) is a throwback to the 1970s and is an attack on the government’s agenda to raise standards. As a result, concludes Mr. Woodhead, we have created a generation of children (of which I am one) with gaping holes in their factual knowledge.

The challenge for the slow education movement is to get the balance right between the need to raise standards and being held accountable whilst at the same time removing the stress and pressures of hot-housing and testing. Can we create a system that has both? Can high stakes and league tables sit alongside creativity and nurture? We need to find a way that promotes the values of a slow education but at the same time provide opportunities that – according to Mr. Woodhead – allow students to submit to a body of external knowledge.

The Slow Education movement’s website acknowledges this but feels that we’ve already crossed the divide:

“Are you a teacher or head of a school who feels testing has gone too far? Do you wonder about life after levels? We within the Slow Education movement believe we are at a critical moment. There is a need to reclaim the importance of quality, creative teaching which enables students to think independently and cope with the challenges of life today.”

It’s certainly a worthwhile call to arms. However, as much as I subscribe to their underlying principles, I can’t help but think that in order to enable students to ‘cope with the challenges of life today’ then they need to be able to operate effectively within a frenetic and fast-paced environment. It’s a double-edge sword.

Three ways then to slow things down in your school:

1. Project-based learning. Often much-maligned but when used effectively and is purposeful and based on a child’s interests it allows pupils to engage in deep learning. I’ve written about PBL in a previous blog in which I emphasised the fact that PBL needs to promote critical thinking. Most importantly, it’s essential that learners acquire and apply relevant new knowledge. Where it goes wrong is when children have not been taught to think independently and so PBL simply serves as an activity to keep pupils busy. So yes, if delivered incorrectly, it serves no purpose and I can see why Woodhead raises concerns. However, providing PBL sits within a whole-school framework and is planned for meticulously ensuring that it promotes a broad and balanced curriculum, then as a tool for sustained school improvement, it’s highly recommended.

2. Learning in Depth. As a concept it’s very simple: To ensure that over the course of a child’s time in a school, no other pupil in the world is more expert about a specific body of knowledge than that child. Children in Reception are assigned a specific topic, such as ‘Pirates’, ‘Submarine World’, ‘Insects’ to name but a few. They then spend the next seven years mastering all that there is to know about the concept. The pupils lead the learning and have total control about their lines of enquiry. Once per term we run LiD days where children spend the day in mixed age classes (all the ‘Amphibians’ learn together from age 5 to 11). Facilitated by a teacher or teaching assistant, the pupils apply all their research, enquiry and thinking skills to master their learning and to take on the mantle of the expert. The fact that pupils have seven years to remain interested, inspired and enthused requires a slow pace with ample resilience, perseverance and determination on the learner’s part. It also requires excellent teachers who are able to take on the role of coach. Most importantly, pupils’ work is not assessed by a teacher and the only feedback they receive is from their peers through critique. Finally, for it to work well, pupils must be taught how to think, assess their work and that of their peers and to think actively in a social context. All of this needs to operate within an experiential and immersive curriculum that is sufficiently tight to ensure breadth, balance and rigour whilst at the same time being loose enough to allow for creativity and adaptability. You can learn more about Learning in Depth by watching its creator Professor Kieran Egan explain it here.

3. Ditch timetables. We seem to have a national obsession in primary schools with blocking learning into manageable bite-sized chunks so that we can create timetables to keep management and Ofsted happy. Remember those ridiculous calculations that we had to do for Ofsted back in the 1990s to show how many minutes of history or geography we were teaching per week? Woe betide any school that was a minute short. Numeracy and literacy hours didn’t help matters either. I understand that we have to stop learning at certain points during the day to eat and to go home. But other than that, leave them be. If your class are on task, in a state of flow and fully immersed in their learning then let them get on with it. It’s only managers that love timetables. Leaders don’t. So be bold and do away with them and go for a flexible timetable approach instead.

Educating Rota

When you visit the DfE offices in London you are greeted by a wall of portraits of every Secretary of State for Education since 1945. There are a lot of framed pictures. Since the Second World War there have been 34 different incumbents, equivalent to an average tenure for each new Education Secretary of just under 2 years. Michael Gove therefore lives a very charmed life having served twice the average term this coming May. In my career alone, I’ve seen off a dozen secretaries. When Gove finally departs it will be an unlucky 13 (for him anyway). In any walk of life, this constitutes high staff turnover. It certainly wouldn’t wash in any of our schools if we were trying to build capacity and sustain long-term improvement.

Education has always been a political merry-go-round. It’s no surprise therefore that initiatives come and go about as regularly as Secretaries of State. I do at times feel some sympathy for a new Education Secretary who is desperate to prove his or her worth by coming up with an idea that is truly original or ground-breaking. They simply don’t exist, unless of course the idea is hare-brained and ill contrived (and I won’t go there).  I’m sure we can all recall ‘new’ government initiatives, only to realise that we did them 20 years ago. It really does feel at times as if there is a Secret Initiative Rota somewhere that all Education Secretaries turn to when stuck for ideas to see which one has come back to the top.

Thankfully, all of the best ideas have come from schools. There is one out there though that hasn’t appeared on any rota for over a hundred years (probably because it’s never actually gone). It’s called Project-Based Learning. A quick search of twitter and you’ll find hundreds of excellent schools all extolling – quite rightly – the virtues of PBL. The term is rarely mentioned in a tweet without the inevitable hashtagged inclusion of #enquiry or #flip or #P4C. In fact any strategy involving 21st century learning deserves to sit at the top table with #PBL.

What may surprise you though is that PBL is perhaps the ultimate merry-go-round fad, originating not within the past few years but back in the nineties – the 1890s to be precise. The Victorians do not immediately emerge as a lead contender as the protagonists of modern-day enquiry-based learning. Instead, images of Mr Gradgrind spring to mind instructing pupils that if it didn’t have forty teeth then it couldn’t possibly be a horse.  For Gradgrind though, learning is all about knowing. PBL on the other hand is all about doing something with the knowing. John Dewey in 1897 first used the term PBL as a pedagogical approach that served to counteract the Dickensian notion of learning by rote. The role of the teacher was to act as facilitator, coach, influencer and to not force-feed facts.

According to Dewey’s 1897 definition, project-based learning:

  • is based on real world problems
  • must capture students’ interest based on choice
  • needs to provoke serious thinking
  • ensures students acquire and apply new knowledge
  • must solve a problem or challenge

However, this is no longer enough if learners are to acquire the necessary 21st century skills. This is why it’s essential to incorporate digital technology, flipped/blended learning and collaboration tools such as TASC wheels in which pupils complete learning challenges by Thinking Actively in a Social Context. All of this needs to sit within the context of a creative curriculum that is real, immersive and purposeful and continually builds learning power.

Interestingly, PBL is not about doing projects. It’s about learning  new skills and concepts as if they were a project. When learning about how to measure angles, instead of being shown how to do it by the teacher in a lesson, the learner tackles it in the same way they would a project on dinosaurs or sport. A PBL approach allows pupils to learn about angles through enquiry, application, collaboration, reasoning, imitation, critique etc.  Of course the child needs to be taught the skill of measuring an angle, but PBL allows the learning to be placed within a real, purposeful and challenging context, perhaps as part of a flipped classroom. And herein of course lies its weakness: To do so takes time and time is something teachers simply don’t have in the current national curriculum with its many pressures and limitations (take SPAG for example). Why adopt a PBL approach when it’s a lot quicker to simply show them how to do it, complete a worksheet and move on? Perhaps Gradgrind was right after all.

So does PBL have a place in a knowledge-driven curriculum? One of the advantages of being an academy means that we can design our own thematic curriculum around a series of learning challenges that demand project-based learning. Take Professor Kiran Egan’s Learning in Depth for example which we are currently developing in school. At the heart of LiD lies the concept of mastery learning in which pupils become experts on a subject. During their time in school they research and learn all there is to know about their assigned area using their 21st century thinking skills. They keep the same theme for their entire time at school. This ensures that pupils encounter the necessary grit, struggle and discipline in their learning. The Joy of Being Stuck is at the heart of powerful and deep-rooted understanding.

PBL is all well and good. But it does have its limitations, not least ensuring breadth of coverage, the teaching of maths (very difficult to do within PBL despite my angles example) and the ability to assess outcomes accurately. Other concerns are that it lacks rigour and is too utilitarian in that in order to maintain a group’s status quo it is pitched at the average level of a group and thus lacks challenge for all pupils.

A discussion is called for. PBL is not about advocating the importance of teaching skills over knowledge or vice versa (if indeed the two are different). It’s not about preferring any given teaching style. There is plenty of room within PBL to go whichever way you want. The stakes are high and perhaps with an Ofsted visit looming PBL actually serves to disadvantage a teacher who is eager to demonstrate outstanding teaching outcomes within a 25 minute window. As an inspector myself I am very clear that it does not. I always let out a silent cheer when I walk into a lesson and see it set up around PBL.

Let’s hope Project-Based Learning is here to stay. As pedagogies go, PBL has clearly stood the test of time and has even managed to re-invent itself with the use of blended learning and digital technology.  Instead, there are a great many other fads that we need to turn our attention to ensuring they don’t stick around until the next Secretary of State (let alone another century or so). I am reminded of Julie Walters’ character, when meeting her teacher for the first time in Willy Russell’s stage comedy and film, Educating Rita: ‘My mind’s full of junk isn’t it? It needs a good clear out.’

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.