Nick Dennis' Blog

History, Technology, Education, Leadership

Tweaks for the new academic year

R2D2 as the ‘Pomodoro’ master. Image from http://www.truffleshuffle.co.uk/store/star-wars-r2d2-kitchen-timer-p-15483.html

This year, I have made a few small adjustments to my teaching. Part of it will link to my research on History teaching and Cognitive Psychology/Behavioural Economics and other aspects are just to ease organisation.

Everyone Starts With An ‘A’

After reading the RSA paper and thinking about the ideas from ‘Nudge‘, I have told all my students that the default grade is an ‘A’. It is their job to maintain it and not to ‘lose’ the grade. Where they submit work below the standard, they are given a ‘not yet’ and then specific help on what they need to do to improve to make an ‘A’ grade.

Short, low-stakes quizzes each week

Again, thinking about repetition and memory retrieval, I have started these quizzes with students from Years 9-12.

Using iTunes U and Google Classroom

I am using iTunes U with my Politics class to organise notes/videos etc. I will also be using Google Classroom with all my students to help with drafting/submission of work as part of the Everyone Starts With An ‘A’ idea.

Email for personal meetings not for questions

After reading this article, I thought the reasoning behind it seemed really sensible. Students in Y9 upwards will only get a reply from me if it is to arrange a meeting to discuss their work (which they must bring along). The benefit will be less time wasted on answering simple questions and more time actually talking to the students about work (which links to Everyone Starts With An ‘A’). My Y7 class is spared this as they think I am scary enough (I am).

Cornell notes

As a student, Cornell notes seemed a really good idea but I never really used the process. After hearing Dale Banham talking about his success with them, I thought I would trial it with my Politics class.

Using the Pomodoro technique

After taking the Coursera Mooc ‘Learning How To Learn‘, I decided to adopt the Pomodoro technique for really focussed work (with the help of my R2D2 timer). I am also suggesting it to students as a way to overcome procrastination.  I do find that I can only use the technique early in the morning before school starts or after students and staff members have gone home at the end of the day.

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Conspicuous consumption

Of the minority of teachers/educators on Twitter, there is even a smaller group who often talk about ‘research in education’  go to  many conferences to reinforce their credentials as knowledgeable teachers.  They retweet, favourite, blog & critique ‘research in education’ and sometimes, they may even use it in their teaching. They appear to be nothing more than conspicuous consumers.

This year, I am starting a graduate research project on how a ‘Mind, Brain & Education’ approach to curriculum planning and teaching in History can help students. Utilising cognitive psychology, behavioural economics & notions of good History teaching, I hope to explore how a subject focused approach can actually raise attainment and support school improvement.

A tall order. Yet, as I am fond of saying to my students, doing is better than just talking.

 

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CPD 2014-2015

 

The core principle at Saracens is that we gather talented people together, treat them unbelievably well and in return they try unbelievable hard. That is it.

Edward Griffiths, Chief Executive, Saracens Rugby Club  http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/27536258

It is no secret that we have a great set of staff here at the school because we really do try to recruit well. It is not the only measure, but our recent exam results show how hard they work with students and if we would like for that success to continue in exams, on the sports field, on a mountain or on a stage, the professional development programme should help support their growth.

I sent this year’s professional development programme to the staff today.

 

Much of the programme is being led by colleagues within the school and we have partnered with Dragonfly Training again to supply a few sessions on educational research, literacy and behaviour management. The overall price is very reasonable and it is cheaper than getting high profile speakers to launch ideas at inset days over the course of an academic year.

I want to thank my colleagues for helping to put this programme together. They are the proof that the method for creating cost-effective, varied and engaging CPD lies in utilising the ‘talent’ in front of you.

 

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And the beat goes on – The Guardian’s Secret Teacher

 In this school the beat of deceit was constant. The emphasis was not on teachers looking out for students, but rather on them protecting the school’s bank account – permission slip not included. Secret Teacher, The Guardian, 2nd August 2014

Reading the ‘Secret Teacher’ series in the Guardian always makes me feel sad and slightly frustrated. Sad because so many of the stories recount poor examples of leadership so that education in this country seems to be driven by incompetent leaders at all levels. I also feel frustration with the lack of context in the pieces due to the anonymity of the writer and the presentation of a universal problem when the writer is talking about their specific context.

I felt both and the ‘beat of deceit’ as I read this recent Secret Teacher piece on independent sector schooling because it perpetuated a great number of half-truths. The first was used in the  advertising of the story as ‘Profit v parents’. The piece itself recounts the experience of the writer in one independent school where they were told to ignore a student’s learning needs so that the school could keep the fees generated by the student. I don’t doubt this situation happened but the sentence ‘I also realised that an independent school, which couldn’t afford special education teachers but did have newly varnished floors, was not the right place for her’ suggested that this was a universal condition rather than a particular story. From my own experience, especially as the line manager for Learning Support in two independent schools, this is not the case especially because ‘Gifted and Talented’  also comes under the umbrella of Learning Support. Significant time and resource is used to help the students and this is one of the reasons why parents do send their children to schools in the independent sector.

The second ‘beat of deceit’ was the transformation of particular ‘difficult parents’ into an unreasonable whole. We ask more questions when we feel that people are not being authentic and truthful with us and if the condition of mistrust was prevalent in the school, then I don’t blame them being awkward. It is also worth remembering that even if we disagree with parents,  the reason why some appear difficult is because they want the best for their child. The job of a good school and good leadership is to remind parents that we also want the best for their child and with our collective experience of raising and educating hundreds if not thousands of children, we have a lot to bring to the discussion. It is only by working together can we effectively support the child and as I always add in such discussions (in both sectors) that one of the reasons why they selected the school over other places is because they thought it was a good place for their child. Being honest about the child’s learning needs helps the school and the parents make the right choice for the child.

The piece also raised again the issue of anonymous blogging and the tension at the heart of it. Writing anonymously does afford the writer to speak out against a powerful opponent without fear of reprisal (legal or loss of job) yet it also allows trolling, the perpetuation of half-truths and a lack human recognition. In a world already coloured by stereotypes, the piece’s pretence to universality is disappointing. By pushing the universal strand and reducing complexity, the ‘beat of deceit’ continues and allows others to march along without question.

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iBook and #TLAB15

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at #TLAB14

Cognitive Neuroscientist and TED talker Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at #TLAB14

After sharing the download link to the iBook produced by Berkhamsted students at the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted (#TLAB14), I am pleased to announce that it is now available directly from Apple on the iBook Store. The book does include exclusive video and pictures from the day so I thoroughly recommend it!

I also thought that it was worth sharing with you some of the workshop leaders at #TLAB15:

English

Mike Grenier (Eton College, Harrow)

Dr Steve Wilkinson (Ashlyns School, Berkhamsted)

Science

Neal Atkin

Mumta Sharma (City of London Academy Islington, London)

Mikey Smyth (St Albans School, St Albans)

History

Elizabeth Carr (Presdales, Hertfordshire)

Neal Watkin (Sawston Village College, Cambridge)

Don Cumming and Dan Lyndon (Holmfirth High, West Yorkshire & Broomfield School, London)

Humanities

Dawn Cox

Cristina Milos (Rome, Italy)

Maths

Staff from Dr Challoner’s Grammar School (Buckinghamshire)

Bruno Reddy (King Solomon Academy, London)

Leadership

Tom Sherrington (Highbury Grove, London)

Mark Steed (Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire)

Whole School

Ken Brechin (Cramlington Learning Village, Northumberland)

Darren Mead (Cramlington Learning Village, Northumberland)

David Fawcett

MFL

Laura Knight (Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire)

Crista Hazell (Bristol)

Candida Gould (Bristol)

ICT/Computing

Dan Edwards (Stephen Perse, Cambridge)

Mark Anderson (Sir Bernard Lovell School, Bristol)

Rachel Jones

Zoe Ross (Barefoot Computing)

Caroline Russell

Arts

Martin Said (XP School, Doncaster)

More workshops (and the keynote speakers) will be announced at the start of the new academic year but as you can see, we have an eclectic and exciting group of educators leading workshops at the conference. We aim to keep the price at £50 (which includes a fabulous lunch and snacks throughout the day). If you want to register your interest for #TLAB15, go to this page. If you want to find out the purpose/principles of the conference, click here.

I look forward to seeing you in March!

 

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#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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