Nick Dennis' Blog

History, Technology, Education, Leadership

#TLAB14 iBook

It has taken a while but the #TLAB14 iBook has now been submitted to the iBook store. Created by our A Level Media students and Apple Distinguished Educator Nick Davies on the day of the conference, it captures the essence of the conference and includes some additional video footage too. You will need an iPad or a Mac with iBooks installed to view.

If you can’t wait for the iBook store version, you can download it from Dropbox: https://db.tt/3AOLkouy 

A PDF version (with no interactive elements) can also be downloaded from Dropbox: https://db.tt/Mnr94BIE

Many thanks to Nick, the students and Mike Munn for their help.

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‘Practise like you play’ – Schools History Project Conference, Leeds 11-13th July

Having done a lot of work on CPD in schools since I took over the role at Berkhamsted, I have seen a recurring theme around quality of CPD available to educators at events that are by their very nature, broad in their appeal. As a History teacher, it is great to learn about wider educational concerns but it has little direct impact on my teaching. In the ‘Pedagogical Content Knowledge’ frame, my ‘pedagogical’ knowledge may increase yet I am not able to ‘practise like I play’. Thankfully, the Schools History Project’s national conference allows me to engage with some of the best thinking about effective History teaching over three days.

I have made no secret that the Schools History Project is a major influence on my intellectual and professional development with the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference held at Berkhamsted being the most visible manifestation. And as I sat in the auditorium with 289 other History educators (including delegates from Brazil, Malta, Japan, Singapore, South Africa, Germany), I wondered if other subject areas had events like this that covered all specifications (the conference is for all teachers of History and not tied to the SHP specifications).

The highlights for me included Don Cumming’s opening address and two workshops from Christine Counsell and Dale Banham. I have admired Don’s work from afar and whilst others may have sought to use social media to celebrate their work and views, Don has continued to work for the benefit of the students under his care and the History teaching community in the North of England. Deconstructing the view that there is an ‘island story’ by close examination of the curricula used in Scotland and England and the narratives they tell by omission. We talk of the Norman invading but not of the Norman Empire. We talk of English monarchs yet do not discuss the Angevin ‘Empire’. We talk of the Vikings but not of Cnut’s rule in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In terms of stories about  Scottish History, Don identifies the bias in the narrative where the ‘English’ are seen solely as ‘conquerors’ and how we repeat this bias in England by missing out the complexity in these events (this was developed by Ian Dawson’s brilliant role-play on the importance given to Bannockburn). It really was a great opening session and showed that even when he feels like Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets, he is saying the right things.

Christine Counsell‘s session addressed a number of issues I have wanted to blog about for a while yet did not have the reading, thinking or subtlety to compose. Christine started by suggesting that we are able to read a piece of text by Simon Schama not because of ‘literacy’ but because we have substantive knowledge and knowledge of ‘second-order’ concepts in History (such as change, continuity etc). Teaching the subject well demands that we address both. Or in other words, we need to plan with ‘fingertip knowledge’ in mind as well as ‘residual knowledge’. Christine also addressed the issue of ‘measuring’ historical progress through assessments and the work of her PGCE students and former trainees is outstanding. When people suggest that University training of teachers is universally poor, I point to the Cambridge History PGCE course.

My final highlight was Dale Banham’s workshop which was pragmatic to its core with a focus on improving written work. There were so many ideas and my two key takeaways are his consistent approach to using the Cornell method of note-taking for Sixth Formers and the use of graphical organisers to help essay planning. I will certainly be using these two ideas when term resumes. I suggest you check the Schools History Project website for further information on the resources showcased by Dale.

There were also some workshop/plenary sessions where I left with more questions than when I started. Denis Shemilt and Frances Blow’s idea of ‘Big History’ and the practical application of it by Dan Nuttall and Laura Goodyer seemed to me more of a diachronic (through time) view of History rather than a reconfigured ‘Big History’. I think I need to read more about ‘Historical Frameworks’ before I can reach a genuine conclusion.

Outside the workshops it was good to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. Thanks to Michael Riley, the SHP conference team and all the workshop leaders and plenary speakers. In a world of CPD without context, it is incredibly useful to ‘practise as we play’ before the new academic year in September.

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Teaching at the Wren Academy – Part 3

Today was my final day at the Wren Academy and as I left the school, I had more questions then answers. This is a good thing.

After my first lesson, Ruth and I had a discussion around differentiation and checking progress in the lesson. On the first point, I do differentiate the work for my students lower down the school yet I do not do as much at A Level (I currently teach Politics to the Sixth Form). This is something that I will consider carefully over the next few months as I prepare to teach Unit 2 AS Politics. On the issue of checking progress, there are a few things to ponder. Many of the ‘progress checks’ I am aware of in terms of lesson observations seem to be an example of performativity rather than a substantive check on learning (hinge questions aside). I say this because learning is not necessarily reducible to a timetabled lesson.  However, I also believe that you should know where your students are coming from and where they are now so you can point/push/cajole them in the right direction in the lesson and if there was one thing that came out of my visit to the Wren is that to really help the students and my own teaching, I should have visited a number of their lessons first and read some essays. Something to consider for next time.

I also felt a little dissatisfied because if I had taught the sequence of overview lessons the Russian Revolution to the students at Berkhamsted, I would have set them an essay. This was my fault for not really thinking through the learning process before I arrived and if this is to work well next time, I might suggest a definitive task so I can actually see where the students are and start the feedback process (a genuine collaboration).

The conversation on progress also made me reflect upon the differences in inspection regimes and the issues can be seen through the lens of Liverpool College. Earlier this year, Hans van Broekman the Head of the former independent school (now an Academy) stated that ‘joining the state sector has improved our teaching’. You can read his article in the TES here. I’ll leave you to make your own judgements about the purpose of the piece yet what came across strongly for me was that before the move, Liverpool College did not think carefully about teaching and learning. More importantly, the changes they have implemented seem to be driven by the inspection regime rather than any substantive notion of what good teaching and learning looks like. For me, this is a dangerous path because if you survey what Ofsted has stated makes good teaching and learning over the last 10 years, you will find that they are consistently inconsistent (although they seem to be doing some hard thinking of late which is very encouraging). What the Independent Schools Inspectorate has been good at is thinking about the learning they encounter and seeing how it fits within the stated aims of the school (which will help Professors Becky Francis and Merryn Hutchings who, rather worryingly, missed out the Independent Schools Inspectorate when they conducted research into the quality of teaching in the independent sector for a Sutton Trust publication) . That is not to say that the ISI system is perfect because it is not (and expect another blog post on this soon). However, what ISI is good at is recognising the accountability/quality assurance processes within the schools it visits. To my mind, Good schools (in all guises) have robust internal accountability procedures because they are driven by their core purpose.  

So, as I head off this weekend for some more CPD with 200 other History teachers at the Schools History Project Conference in Leeds, I have a few more questions to consider. A great starting point for further reading and thinking.

I want to thank Ruth, the History team and the other staff members at the Wren for their warm welcome. I would also like to thank the students for their time too. As an A Level group left a lesson today, one of them asked if I was teaching at the school next year. When I replied negatively, the student said that I should. They have no idea that they made my day.

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Teaching at the Wren Academy – Part 2

As I got in the cab on my way from the Tube (I did not want to be late) this morning, the driver freely offered his opinion on the Wren: it really is an excellent school. He has no children there but he added that some of his clients speak about the school in glowing terms. Priceless marketing. Yet as I left the school this afternoon, I worried what the funding for Sixth Form students could diminish the education it (and other schools like it) offers. The possibility that schools like the Wren may, in the future, have to increase class sizes or shed teaching staff to balance an already squeezed budget seems wrong. Those niche (within a school context)  subjects at A Level will disappear. Regardless of what some research may suggest about optimum class sizes, doing a good job with 30 A Level students in one class is wrongheaded especially when the other demands of teaching can reduce your capacity to maintain the high standards many teachers strive to achieve (and the students need). As I made the journey home and thought about the cab driver’s words, it seemed that whilst there is general praise for the work schools like Wren do from the community and the government, their ability to thrive was being stifled by the cutbacks. It reminded me (for some strange reason) of Geoffrey Howe’s words as he resigned from the Thatcher government:

It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

Geoffrey Howe, resignation speech, 1990.

I do not believe that we are there yet but if the people with power are really serious about making state schools the ‘best in the world’, there really is a lot of work to do.

On a happier note, the Y10 lessons (on the consequences of the Cuban Missile Crisis) went well and I had some fantastic answers to the ‘who won the Cuban Missile Crisis?’ question. I also spoke to some of the students and many of them were keen to do History at A Level, a great endorsement of the work Ruth and the team have done/are doing.

I also had a quick discussion with Michael Whitworth (the Principal of Wren Academy) around lesson observations and CPD and I look forward to continuing those discussions tomorrow after my final Sixth Form lessons on Lenin’s rule.

 

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Teaching at the Wren Academy – Part 1

One of the things that interests me intensely are the stereotypes people have of the independent and state sectors. Many of these views stem from the fact that they have not set foot in some of the institutions and ‘did the work’ so they could talk with some conviction. As an aspiring Head (yes, I am considering both sectors) it also made sense for me to avoid the same accusation so I decided last year that I would spend a few days teaching at The Wren Academy which is sponsored by Berkhamsted School. I have visited the Wren before and invited them to participate in #TLAB13 and #TLAB14. Ruth, their Head of History has visited Berkhamsted a few times and we agreed that it would be great for her NQT colleagues to see an experienced A Level teacher take some lessons.

As I arrived this morning, there was a sense of dread. My first lesson (Y9)sort of worked yet I wanted to polish it/check a few things before I taught. It did not really work out that way and to be honest, it fell way beyond my own standards (and would, in my reckoning, been a ’3′ in Oftsed language). Not a great start and a timely reminder that nothing should be left to chance.

The second and third lessons went well (The Russian Revolutions 1917) and I will be seeing the 6th Form classes again on Thursday. I also helped teach an ‘enrichment’ lesson with a small group of students struggling with the Wall Street Crash with Ruth and I must say, this was my favourite part of the day. Armed with sheets of paper and text books, we discussed the causes and effects of the Depression and I was impressed with the questions and factual information they had retained from previous lessons.

At the end, Ruth and I sat down to discuss the day and lay the groundwork for tomorrow. We both agreed that the first lesson was terrible so we left it there! We then examined the observed 6th Form lesson (no judgement) and it was interesting that my point for development was to consider wider opportunities for AFL. We then discussed the tension between asking individual questions of students and small, paired discussion before asking questions. This was a useful conversation because it gave us both a chance to think about our natural inclinations in the classroom and how we could switch between these two approaches and it will certainly inform my planning for tomorrow when I teach the consequences of the Cuban Missile Crisis to Y10.

We also touched on the focus of lesson observations (they have been developmental, not judgemental, at Berkhamsted for a long time), CPD and Lesson Study. I hope I can convince Ruth and her team to present at #TLAB15…

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Berkhamsted School CPD Review

Earlier in the year I posted about the CPD programme at the school. As we draw closer to the end of the academic year, I thought I would share some of the feedback and where we plan to go next. The current CPD programme can be found below:

As with any change, there were concerns that the curent programme would be a drain on staff time. The answer then, as it is now, is that it is our duty as a responsible employer to provide high-quality training to colleagues and we planned to do this by:

  • Providing training that was specific to our context and led by current and recently retired staff; of staff providing training (which
  • Working with Dragonfly Training to fill in the knowledge/confidence ‘gaps’;
  • Provide ‘executive coaching’ to all staff;
  • Draw different members of the school community to become workshop leaders at #TLAB14.

The sessions (with refreshments provided – an important point!) ran over the course of the year. After each twilight course, I sent out a feedback form via Survey Monkey asking colleagues to rate the sessions on a ‘useful scale’ and provide additional contextual information (the scale is below):

  • Very Useful;
  • Quite Useful;
  • Unsure;
  • Not Very.

Overall, there was an 83% approval for the CPD programme (combining the ‘Useful/Quite Useful” categories). 12% was rated as not useful and 5% were unsure. On the ‘Not Useful’ figures, most of these came from one session where the presenter had a different idea to what we wanted. As for the ‘Unsure’ figure, I saw no reason to be alarmed. One reason behind this approach is a rejection of the simple ’cause and (perceived) effect’ of CPD provision. This is neatly summed up in Steven Johnson’s book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ and the notion of ‘Slow Hunches’. In it, Johnson argues that there are many ‘hunches’ yet they come together through ‘liquid networks’ such as the web, cities and complete ideas. In this sense, if we as a school can help nourish this sense of ambiguity through mutual conservations/observations/further sessions, then it will work. The NTEN is interested in evaluating the impact of CPD and I look forward to see how they handle the idea of ‘slow hunches’ in their research. 

NTEN also forms part of our programme next year. The first inset day and the first two twilight sessions in the first half of the Autumn (Michaelmas) term are given over to Lesson Study. This planning time will allow staff to prepare lessons within departments together and then observe the learning that has occured as a result of the joint planning. The potential ‘friction’ for this is reduced because it fits within our already existing mutual observation programme and it is the only twilight session on offer during the first half of term.

As was the case this year, staff are expected to attend four internal sessions. The other two sessions will be within our ‘pathways’:

  • Head of Department (HoD);
  • Deputy Head of Department;
  • Head of House (HoH);
  • Deputy Head of House;
  • NQT/GTP
  • General.

The programme as a whole has also been adjusted to cover ‘NQT to Retiree’ including sessions on financial planning for retiring members of staff and more linked sessions so single CPD activities will be eliminated. We have also augmented the ‘pathways’ by including a number of externally provided and validated courses such as Prince2 Project Management, the Independent Schools Qualification in Academic Management (ISQAM) run by HMC/GSA and the IoE for HoDs and the Emerging Leaders’ Programme run by Ashridge Business School as part of the Astra Learning Alliance for HoHs and aspiring leaders.

The one area where last year’s programme was deficient was the focus on subject knowledge. This will partly be addressed by the introduction of ‘masterclasses’ where academics will be invited to come and provide a short lecture/seminars for subject departments.  Having already asked for areas to cover I will be contacting HE providers over the next few weeks and asking them to suggest academics we can work with to introduce the latest research/new developments in their fields. For anyone planning CPD in their school, this is relatively easy to set up. University researchers now have to show ‘impact’ for the Research Excellence Framework (20% of the grading is based on this) and working with schools is an easy way to demonstrate this.

Of course, #TLAB15 will also form part of the CPD programme and so will the ‘CPD of the week’ emails and providing books for staff members to read.

With our new ‘grid’ appraisal process now in place and a new CPD booking/logging system to be released shortly, it should be a very interesting year for professional development at Berkhamsted.

 

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Lead like a ‘Multiplier’

People often talk of knowledge or skills in education as if there is a battle between them with no resolution in sight. As I sat in Chapel on Monday morning and listened to the guest preacher, I focused on a word I have not heard in a long time (certainly at school). Phronesis. Loosely translated, it means practical wisdom and this was the focus for a talk I gave at the weekend.

On Saturday, I travelled to Bristol Grammar School to be part of the Pedagoo South West event. The main thrust of my workshop seemed to be one just on great leadership using the ‘Multipliers’ model we use at Berkhamsted. Yet it really stemmed from a discontent about the lack of wisdom in schools, on Twitter and in blogs when discussing education. The origin was a serious of tweets from a revered Senior Leader on Twitter when they were at the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference on the 22nd March.  As this person sat in the conference hall and listened to Elise Foster, they tweeted this:

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In one sense, this seems like a fair question. However, they tweeted this a few minutes later:

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I wondered what they were really trying to do. Where they really interested in what Elise had to say or had they made their mind up already and asked a question they already had an answer to?

I have been reading (or re-reading) a lot of Stuart Hall of late and what keeps me going back to his work is his drive to understand the world in its complexity so that he and others could intervene effectively. Asking questions for Hall was not a quest for Sophia (theoretical wisdom), but there was a practical aim (Phronesis). The goal was wisdom, or to be exact, practical wisdom. To gain such practical wisdom, one has to ask questions and more specifically, the right kind of questions. For Hall this was a lifelong struggle which brought him in to conflict with Marxist theory, the traditional method of political critique. For Hall, orthodox Marxism was not enough and in recounting his struggle against this group and the ideas they had, Hall likened it to

…wrestling with the angels – a metaphor you can take as literally as you like.

I framed the talk/workshop as something akin to this as I would be going against revered tweeters/senior leaders/bloggers on Twitter and would not use the usual suspects to help make my case. No Willingham, Bjork or other bloggers. Just good old fashioned reading, thinking and doing (the work) to drive what I had to say. Simply put, it was an exercise in Phronesis. If Socrates and Pierre Abelard agree that wisdom can be gained by asking questions, I asked what questions the following leaders asked themselves in the situations I flashed up on the screen. The Headteacher who arranged a mock Ofsted inspection without apparently telling anyone (not even the Senior Leadership Team). Then Stephen Munby, Head of Comberton Village College who stated:

Tight values, loose control: get the values right, get good people, find opportunities and let it go.

What type of questions (if any) did Steve Fairclough, the Head of Abbotsholme School ask when he stated in a public meeting that teachers should ‘fear failure’ as it was a good thing. Were these the same type of questions which Caroline Hoddinott, Head of Haybridge School asked when she declared, ‘we keep really focussed on core purpose’? I then referred to the question asked by the Senior Leader on Twitter and their subsequent response. I suggested that in this instance, the questions that exemplified poor leadership were poorly formed or were the result of ‘disciplinary questions’ where the person asking the question already knows the answer they are looking for and uses the power of the question to exclude people or ideas (or to be so sure that they do not check themselves). As a school leader or educator interacting with other Twitter/Blogging/Teaching folk, I suggested that this was a very poor way to understand and intervene. I went on to identify a second type of question, an ‘authentic question’, where the person asking seeks to genuinely understand, dig deeper and gain the wisdom to intervene in an effective way. I suggested that an ‘authentic question’ is what a ‘Multiplier’ approach to leadership can foster and that it affords us the capacity to intervene effectively in a complex world because our business was with human beings, not things. For me, being a ‘Multiplier’ starts with the key question: are you the genius or are you the genius maker?

In the ‘Multiplier’ books, they identify types of ‘diminisher’ – the people who do not utilise the intelligence of the people around them.

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As interesting (and cringeworthy in terms of recognition) as these ‘pure’ types are, they are not genuinely ‘human’, so I suggested that they were not really the problem. It was the more human ‘Accidental Diminishers’, the ones who thought they were helping but did not realise the effect they were having on those around them, that were the problem.

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I highlighted two of these. The first was the ‘Always On’ person. This person would go to conferences and events like Pedagoo, TLAB14 and TeachMeets and come back with new ideas. Then they would go to another conference and change their mind. I mentioned Senior Leaders are guilty on this especially when it comes to technology.

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The problem with switching every week is that leave people in confusion and so people shrink around them. One way to overcome this problem was to ‘Play Fewer Chips’ by giving yourself a budget of ‘poker chips’ in a meeting with each chip representing a comment or contribution. They would be used wisely so you say fewer things, but being more effective in what was said.

Another way to overcome the ‘Always On’ persona was to give someone else ’51% of the vote’ whereby you would hand responsibility to someone else and say they had ’51% of the vote’ but 100% accountability. I mentioned that at Berkhamsted the academic cluster group meetings are chaired in a rotating fashion by the HoDs and they decide the agenda and run the meeting. I also mentioned our ICT strategy group which includes mostly senior management. It is chaired by a HoD.

The second ‘Accidental Diminisher’ was the ‘Rescuer’.

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This is the person who would step in to remove burdens that people brought them. The problem with this approach is that by taking away responsibility, you weaken the reputations of the people who you have helped and people come to depend on you. One way around this is to ask people when they present a problem what the solution is. They usually have an idea yet may not feel able to express it.

If you lead like a ‘Multiplier’, your school/colleagues begin to grow and it attracts others.

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I did mention that this sounds like a nice idea. I then asked the delegates to answer the questions below in relation to someone at work they really get on with.

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Once everyone thought about this and then discussed it, I asked them to think about someone they did not necessarily like or get on with. This hard task is central to being a ‘Multiplier’. It is only when you ask questions to comprehend the complexity of the world/your colleagues, that you earn the wisdom to utilise their intelligence and skills at the highest point to achieve great things.

Finally, I gave an example of the appraisal system in use at Berkhamsted. No one was really happy with the system we had so we decided to change it. After working on the framework for a while, we gave ownership to a group of HoDs who refined, changed and then ultimately convinced the other HoDs to adopt it. We are still in the process of refining the whole process but a detailed series of posts on it can be found here.

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I then introduced the delegates to Mr Baer from ‘The Multiplier Effect’:

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I also used Pierre Abelard’s words to suggest, once again, that questioning was they key to wisdom:

PedagooSW copy.033Now, I am not sure of truth claims but questioning leads us to a better place. I ended the presentation with challenge/question for Monday morning. Are you the genius or are you the genius maker? If we really seek to comprehend the world around us and to make it better, why just rely on one brain? If we are in the ‘human business’, maybe we should follow Woodrow Wilson’s advice:

PedagooSW copy.034 After a few questions, I returned to the idea of diminishing questions in terms of the ‘Where’s the research’ question. I showed them a version of the ‘Multipliers’ research design and asked them check it out for themselves in the book.

I want to thank Mark, Robert, BSG, Rachel and all the delegates/speakers at PedagooSW. I also need to thank Threepwood for being a ‘good egg’ and refining many of the ideas.

The original presentation can be found on Slideshare.

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Pedagoo South West – Lead like a ‘Multiplier’

I am presenting at the upcoming Pedagoo South West event (#PedagooSW) on the 14th June in Bristol. You can sign up for the day by clicking here.

My workshop is based on the ‘Multipliers’ idea from Liz Wiseman and the book ‘The Multiplier Effect’. The outline is below is adapted from the book:

Do you work in a school/interact with people online who are smart but shut down the smarts of others? These ‘Diminishers’ are  idea killers and energy sappers. They are the ones that desperately need to prove they are the smartest person in the room. But for them to be big, others have to be small. These teachers/leaders/bloggers consume so much space that they leave little room for others to contribute. They create stress and pressure that can shut down good ideas…on the other side of the continuum are leaders/teachers/colleagues/bloggers who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. People get ‘smarter’ around them because they are given permission to think. These people are ‘Multipliers’. Learn how to be more like a Multiplier in your school with some practical ideas and a few tips to deal with Diminishers too!

I’ll also be talking how the recent use of the words ‘research base’ is a diminishing effect and how to deal with it. I’ll see you on the 16th!

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Shades of Hirsch

The educational standpoint from which this book is written may be accurately described as neither “traditional” nor “progressive”. It is pragmatic. Both educational traditionalists and progressivists have tended to be far too dogmatic, polemical and theory-ridden to be reliable beacons for public policy. The pragmatist tries to avoid simplification and facile opposition…Premature polarization of viewpoints is the chief device by which the educational community maintains the intellectual status quo. ED Hirsch, The Schools We Need, p.7-8 (my emphasis in bold)

Over the last few years much has been said about the work of ED Hirsch and how his work should be applied to schools in England. Among the BBC reports, numerous articles and books about the man, his work and inspired analysis, one sorry description has characterised the debate; progressive education versus traditional education. I have always been suspicious of such extreme descriptions because the social world is a lot more complicated than these descriptions appear. Despite the intentions of many to move the debate from an ‘either/or’ to an ‘and’, we seem to have settled into a familiar groove of stereotyping. The use of Hirsch’s ideas have appeared to gain traction in certain (influential) circles and this really interests me. As Stuart Hall said in terms of using Antonio Gramsci’s work in relation to examining social life here, these ideas must be,

…delicately disinterred from their concrete and specific historical embeddedness and transplanted to new soil with considerable care and patience. Stuart Hall, Critical Dialogues p. 413

It is obvious that Hirsch attempts to ground his analysis of what is wrong with US education in the historical and culturally specific circumstances he is in. However, it seems that in the application of Hirsch’s ideas to the context of England, his careful constructions have been removed and transposed clumsily into the present context.

Let me give you an example. Hirsch bemoans the lack of uniformity between schools in the US because it seems that there is no formal, unified school inspection service (this is carried out by the constituent States). His case is striking because in England, we have Ofsted yet this seems to be neglected in discussing a ‘Hirschian’ analysis of education in England.

What is really interesting is how Hirsch treats the traditional/progressive binary pairing. In one sense, Hirsch’s work is clearly a form of dialectic (not that he would trumpet this idea in the US) and he seeks to move beyond the reductionist and dominating ideas of progressive thought by reintroducing a focus on knowledge. He does not suggest that skills are unimportant;  he makes the case that they should not have primacy in education. Ultimately, he is after a sense of balance. He also does not reject ‘progressive’ ideas and teaching methods:

Pragmatists like me reject the polar opposition between naturalistic [progressive] and artificial [traditional] modes of teaching, and prefer a mixture of naturalistic and more direct instructional methods. The Schools We Need, p.51 (my emphasis in bold)

 

But within the context of focused and guided instruction, almost anything goes, and what works best with one group of students may not work best with another group with similar backgrounds in the very same building…my own general preference, and one followed by good teachers in many lands, is for what might be called “dramatised instruction”. The class period can be formed into a little drama with a beginning, middle and end, well directed but not rigidly scripted by the teacher. The beginning sets up the question to be answered, the knowledge to be mastered, or the skill to be gained; the middle consists of a lot of back-and-forth between student and student, student and teacher; and the end consists of a feeling of closure and accomplishment. The Schools We Need, p.174

I find the last quote fascinating because it describes many activities which have been labelled and dismissed as ‘progressive’. Hirsch’s carefully considered study has been ‘glommed’ onto education in the UK to serve a particular and narrow agenda. The richness of his analysis (and the faults) have been reduced to score political points and frankly, reduce the level of debate to one which means that we cannot move forward. My suggestion is to go and read the book (and his others) for yourself. You will quickly find that despite their claims to be inspired by Hirsch, subsequent representations of his thought are just shades. They flatter to be careful analyses, yet they never capturing the richness, subtlety and concrete embeddedness of Hirsch’s thought.

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Enquiring Minds – The Road to Learning

I rarely speak at conferences these days because I am too involved with school and also feel that I do not want to end up as one of the conference speakers who says the same thing again and again. I must admit that when asked by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Schools Libraries Group (SLG) to open their national conference in Derbyshire, I was concerned that I would merely be replicating the talk I gave at Wellington College on a similar theme.

I was reassured by the fact that I was given a brief around the theme of ‘Enquiring Minds – The Road to Learning’.

As a pragmatist, I like to start presentations by going through what we believe is the reality of the situation we are facing. In this instance, namely reports of libraries closing down, education being affected and how reading is declining because of the use of technology.  I summed up by using Sven Birkerts’ ‘The Gutenberg Elegies’ where he says of technology:

I’ve been to the crossroads and I’ve seen the devil there.

For all the eloquence in Birkerts book, I believe that this is too simplistic a position to take and I wanted to delegates to think critically over the weekend about what they will hear and to provide them with a sense of agency over the helplessness portrayed in the media. The first thinker I used was Professor Stuart Hall who argued that you must understand the complexity of a situation if you are to intervene effectively. The ‘bad news’ stories are too simplistic and if the delegates really wanted to make a difference, they should adopt Hall’s (after Gramsci) ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ way of thinking when dealing with such crude representations.

If they did, they would appreciate that there really is not a ‘Road to Learning’ but a variety of paths we could take, like EP Thompson suggested when viewing the changing dynamic of Cold War politics in 1982;

We could roll up the map of the Cold War and could travel without maps for  while

By moving beyond the simplistic and reductionist tendencies of media representations, delegates could find a way to intervene effectively and make a genuine difference.

From Book to Text

Using an idea stolen from Bill Rankin, I showcased that the book in codex format was seen as a disruptive piece of technology and that the meaning of libraries also changed over time. Because of the apparent threat of technology, the response by librarians and defenders of reading has been to fetishise the book in codex format and forget that it is really the text that is important. I also illustrated that books in themselves have not always been emancipatory and I gave the example of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary which marginalised certain words and led to the creation of the ‘canon’ and ‘Standard English’ rather than just representing it (this is based on the work of Professor Tony Crowley).

By seeing the complexity of the book in codex format and focusing on the text rather than the format, we can now begin to appreciate technology is not necessarily an enemy in itself. I gave examples of the Expresso Book Machine, the work my students have done on Hans J Massaquoi and the Black Death as examples where the digital and physical codex format can happily work together to support learning and reading. The emerging field of ‘Digital Humanities’ also offers us a glimpse of the blurring that can occur when the text is given prominence rather than the format. Finally, I mentioned the book ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’ written by my friend Camilla Macpherson as unique blend of the digital and codex form because QR codes were placed in the book so the reader could experience the art discussed in the novel.

Schooling to Education

Secondly, I talked of the limiting view of education we labour under and that we needed to take a more expansive view than Ofsted criteria. I find Mick Water’s diagram from his book ‘Thinking Allowed‘ to be very helpful:

Schooling versus education

Essentially, I suggested that we needed to move away from the narrow focus on exams to a more expansive (and historically rich) notion of education. I gave the example of Berkhamsted using Key Performance Indicators to focus on education such as the number of students representing the school at sport, spend a night out camping, how many have taken part in drama productions and much more. These things are not examined as such but they make a good education and the humanists of the 15th & 16th Century would have recognised this broader meaning.

MOOCs offer an example of education beyond the exam hall to support learning (my colleague Dr Steve Redman is working on a Physics MOOC which will be released shortly). I also highlighted the Higher Project Qualification which we run in Year 9, the growing focus on Project Based Learning and the culture of drafting and how librarians could and should be part of this conversation in schools as they have a lot to offer in terms of research skills and directing students and staff to wider sources of knowledge.

From knowing to ‘Dare to Know’

My final point was not the usual plea for ’21st Century Learning’ where we can ‘look stuff up’ but a return to what Immanuel Kant suggested was the motto for the Enlightenment. This humanist desire to ask searching questions in the process of ‘becoming’ allows us to become more open to world in its complexity and I used an Invisible Gorilla Experiment video to showcase what happens when you think you know something. I also showed some of the work Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her colleagues are doing from her talk at the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted.  The ‘Director’ experiment highlights how hard it is to see someone else’s point of view and that our ‘knowledge’ can sometimes stop us from being very effective.  One way to overcome this is through great professional development and I urged librarians to become more engaged with CPD at schools as they have access to resources and research teachers need, yet do not know how to get hold of.

My final thought was to suggest that there are no ‘quick fixes’ to the problems we face. Only by going beyond the ‘set’ paths and seeing the world in its complexity, we have a chance to make a difference.

After the keynote we moved into ‘Question Time’ which was fascinating as we had a very diverse panel including students. The young lady (in Year 10) who sat next to me was very impressive and I had a very enjoyable conversation with Claire Fox on the way to the train station.

I want to thank Sue for the invitation, the delegates for their warmth/kind words and Hannah for her help in pushing me beyond ‘Standard English’.

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