Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: Berkhamsted (page 1 of 2)

All gone (and extras)

I am very pleased to announce that the original ticket allocation for the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted has been sold (similar to last year). As a result (because we don’t like turning people away) we have released a few more tickets on sale with the absolute closing date of the 17th March. The date is not arbitrary. We need to finalise the admin for the event and this is the latest we can leave it so if you have not bought a ticket by then…

I look forward to welcoming you and over 200 other educators to the event. See you on the 22nd!

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Making your school digitally literate – Sunday Times Festival of Education

In a few weeks I will be sharing the stage with Nic Amy and Carl Hendrick at the Sunday Times Wellington College Festival of Education. Our panel discussion will cover:

  • What does ‘digital literacy’ mean (Nic Amy)
  • Case Study: Using Google Apps to make your school digitally literate (Carl Hendrick)
  • What infrastructure/leadership is needed to make your school digitally literate? (My focus)

The session starts at 14.00 on the 21st June and lasts for 40 minutes. Do come along and say hello!


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The importance of process

It is not very often that I can get to post about a book I have read and directly relate it to school. After reading Chip and Dan Heath’s ‘Decisive’, I had no idea it would turn out that way. As I began to type the review it became clear that I could think of many instances when Chris Nicolls, the Head of  Berkhamsted Boys who is retiring after almost 40 years of service to the school, would do what the Heaths suggest without thinking about it.

I am fascinated with how decisions are made and as I tell my students in my History lessons, we humans often make decisions based on very little information or strong emotions (which can have disastrous consequences as my GCSE students pointed out as we studied the escalation of the bombing campaign in Vietnam). My fascination also stems from my desire to make better decisions for the school and my exposure to other educators who seem so sure that they are right on a policy/technology in schools/how schools work/the education system in general. As someone who is never sure that the decision I make is the ‘right’ one, I find myself asking the following questions when I read the confident pronouncements of my fellow educators:

  • How can they be so sure in their pronouncement?
  • Have they truly considered a variety of alternatives?
  • How did they arrive at this decision?

Chip and Dan Heath’s book has helped me develop a deeper appreciation of the decision making process of others and also how I can make better decisions (notice I am not saying the ‘right‘ decision).

The Heaths identify ‘Four Villains of Decision Making’:

  • Narrow framing – unduly limiting the options considered (normally posited as an either/or not an AND choice)
  • Confirmation bias – seeking out information that bolsters our belief;
  • Short-term emotion – being overwhelmed in the moment;
  • Overconfidence – having too much faith in our predictions.

Narrow framing

Some decisions in schools seems very simple and the Heaths showcase the problem of narrow framing that can hamper organisations.  When confronted with a problem that is framed in this way “Should the school focus on differentiation this year or not?”,  the idea of ‘differentiation’ is in the spotlight and viewed in isolation. A more varied and useful way might be, “Should we consider differentiation this term and then focus on stretch and challenge, or focus on feedback in lessons, or focus on personalisation which can touch upon differentiation at some point?” When confronted with a range of alternatives, it is more likely that the resulting decision is going to be more effective. This is because it forces a process whereby we simply ask “Is there a better way?” or “What else could we do?” Chris is great at asking this question. Just last week I was discussing a problem with him and was thinking more in the ‘yes’/’no’ frame. Chris suggested that we could do what I suggested AND something else. It was obvious but being caught in the narrow frame it was beyond me at that moment.

Confirmation Bias

When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their pre-existing attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

This is something we are all susceptible to and is a danger that any leadership team worthy of its name should consider especiallyy when ‘groupthink’ can take hold. Outside of leadership, this is a common problem and I was very clear when I read the feedback on #TLAB13. Some thought a session was excellent whilst others also thought it was terrible. How could such divergent views exist when they were in the same room and heard the same talk?  The variation can be explained by what people brought *with* them to the conference.

When we want something to be true, we spotlight the things that support it, and then, when we draw conclusions from those spotlighted scenes, we’ll congratulate ourselves on a reasoned decision. Oops.

Confirmation bias is one area that really intrigues me, especially how it is reinforced via social media and the reification of particular (subjective)  points of view.  Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this and another thing the Head is great at is asking for a counter view and listening carefully. He also asks uncomfortable questions from an opposing view as they force you to think carefully about your position and whether the decision has been really been thought through.

Short-term emotion

When I started as a leader in a school, I believed somewhat niavely that the ‘facts should speak for themselves’. The point I soon realised was that people agonise over decisions because they feel conflicted partly because of the issue itself and the associated feelings it has brought to the surface. Chris is great for bringing ‘distance’ into decisions as he would consult other people but also really take the time to separate the issue from his own feelings especially by ‘sleeping on it’ and then coming back to it the following day or a few days later. The Heaths advocate a technique called the 10/10/10 which frames decisions in three time frames: how will you feel about the decision in 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now? The point of thinking of decisions in three time frames is that it forces us to get some distance on the decision.


I beseech you, in the bowels of Christthink it possible that you may be mistaken

I first heard this Oliver Cromwell quote as an A Level Politics student at Tower Hamlets Sixth Form Centre. I remember thinking it sounded ‘cool’ and used it to sound clever when asked to do something at home for the next few months which was not very effective I can tell you (my understanding of Cromwell was also limited and I realised later that he was not great at taking his own advice). The problem we face in making decisions in schools is that we think it is right one. Whenever I believe I have an answer (not the only one) to a problem, Cromwell’s words via my A Level Politics teacher come to the forefront and force me to reconsider.

The Heaths suggest that one way around the issue of overconfidence is to conduct a ‘pre-mortem’ and ask the question: It is 12 months from now and our total project was a total fiasco. It blew up in our faces. Why did it fail? By outlining all the potential problems in this way, plans can be adjusted to take potential pitfalls into account and create ‘tripwires’ that alert you to issues and lead to different actions to keep the project/policy/decision on track. Chris asked the other Deputy Head and I to think about something he had been wrestling with. He clearly *knows* the school and its culture in a way that I can’t even begin to grasp yet here he was asking whether it really was the right decision and asking for our help by working the problem backwards.

There is much more to this book and I do recommend you read it. Apart from making me think more carefully about decision making at school and adjusting plans for next academic year, it brought into stark relief the leadership qualities and processes of the Head. It also proves that sometimes you don’t need to read a book when you work with someone like Chris Nicholls; you just need to listen, watch and absorb as much as you can.


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Date for #TLAB14

I found the day to be well structured, thoughtful and thought provoking. I very much enjoyed the day and would like to congratulate the organisers. Even the catering was good. Please thank everyone on my behalf.


Totally and utterly inspirational. I loved it. I am so grateful you put the event on and I am bussing my staff in next year!


The best CPD one-off day I’ve been to.


81 different schools, 3 HE providers and 4 Education Consultants attended #TLAB13.  Nearly 70% of schools were from the maintained sector and colleagues came from as far as Belgium for the sold out event.

Next year we aim to improve and we have listened carefully to the feedback.

I can confirm the date for next year’s conference is the 22nd March 2014 (so no rugby conflicts!) and we have a few tweaks/special guests planned for the day. I am very pleased that Elise Foster, one of the co-authors of The Multiplier Effect, has agreed to give a keynote. More information will be forthcoming in September.

Look out for the #TLAB13 iBook next week!


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Berkhamsted Walk

My charity activity this year (last year I raised money for another charity by walking along Hadrian’s Wall)  is to raise money for the Children’s Society by taking part in the Berkhamsted Walk on the 12th May. The charity helps young people in a variety of forms and I intend to do the 18 mile ‘challenge walk’ (with my friend Iain keeping the pace). Updates will be through twitter and I hope to take some great pictures of  Berkhamsted and the National Trust Ashridge Estate as I go. If you feel you can contribute via a donation, then please do via my JustGiving Page. Otherwise, moral support is very welcome – you could also join me!

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The Indispensable Man – a lesson for the potential ‘Diminisher’.

I have written about my use of ‘Multipliers‘ as a framework for thinking about all the work I do with colleagues inside and outside school and in one sense, #TLAB13 can be seen as one big ‘Multiplier’ experiment.  The Principal of my school, Mark Steed, posted this on Twitter a few days ago and it is worth sharing especially because the temptation to become a ‘Diminisher’ seems to grow when people are complimentary about the work you do or things seem to be going well. I thought it was particularly apt and I hope you gain something too.

Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You’re the best qualified in the room,

Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example
Is do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable man.

Saxon White Kessinger

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Rewarding progress

This week I was talking to someone about starting a new job and stressed the importance of the trying to understand the culture of a school before implementing huge changes. One general indicator is the school motto and in my case, it has really given focus to the work since September. The translation of the Berkhamsted motto reads ‘greatness increases with praise’ and for me, it represents one of the core values and has helped me to get to grips with, and also ask questions of, the way we do things.

With a focus on academic progress, I wondered at the start of the year what the motto would mean in relation to student academic reports and with Carol Dweck firmly in mind, I sought to align the reality of reports with this idea. It was very easy because I began to see the reports as a process rather than a thing in itself, allowing me to move away from the lopsided view where effort is seen as relatively meaningless. The method was straightforward. Measure the progress students made from one report set to another (we have two reports a term). How? Alongside the achievement grade, we also have three effort categories:

  • Classwork
  • Homework
  • Behaviour in Class.

In each category, every student is rated as either:

  • 4 – exceeding expectations;
  • 3 – meeting expectations;
  • 2 – falling short of expectations;
  • 1 – causing concern.

Following a similar idea at my previous school, I created an average effort grade (culled from all the numbers in all subjects) for report set one and report set two, checking if there was any positive movement from the first set to the next. What this allowed me to do was pick four students (two girls, two boys) who made improvements. I also selected the two students (one girl, one boy) who had the best overall average effort grade over both reports. The result is that we have 24 students from Years 7-10 going to a reward breakfast with the Heads of School (we are a ‘diamond school’ with separate schools for girls and boys) tomorrow morning (Year 11 are rewarded on achievement in mock examinations). The impact has been instant. Students feel they are getting somewhere and that their work is recognised, even if it may not equal the highest achievement grade (nor should it, as learning can be a messy business). For others, it was an unexpected boost at a time when they really needed it.

Informing students around the campuses has been a highlight this week (especially as sometimes I have very tough conversations with them).   They feel valued and understand that ‘doing well’ at school is more than just grades but also the effort they put into their work. Seeing them hurry to lessons with a smile shows that in taking care of the details, mottos can be ‘living’ things. After all, who doesn’t like being appreciated for their efforts?


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Berkhamsted IT Open Day, 12th Feb

We are running an IT Open Day this year after many requests from schools to come see our network infrastructure and talk about iPad/Google Apps use.

The day will have two main strands: technical and teaching/strategy. Draft agenda below:

Tickets at £50 (£45 for early bird discount) can be ordered from hereThe agenda and further details will be available on the ticketing page. Look forward to seeing you in February!

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Conference Update #1

I love good news especially when I know others (as well as myself) will benefit. This weekend I had two good pieces of news which I am really pleased to relay.

The first piece is that Alistair Smith, author of Accelerated LearningLearning to Learn, the Secrets of Successful Schools and renowned trainer has agreed to speak at the Teaching, Learning & Assessment conference at Berkhamsted School on the 16th March 2013.

The second piece of good news is that Professor Bill Lucas, co-author (with Guy Claxton) of New Kinds of Smart, The Learning Powered School  and co-director of Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester has also agreed to speak.

With workshops run by outstanding teachers from across the country alongside distinctive and challenging key speakers, we believe that the conference will be a unique learning experience for attendees with lots of practical, effective ideas. Ticket prices and details about booking will appear on the blog and the Berkhamsted School website in October. What I can reveal is that the event price will be pleasing to everyone!

Places will be limited on the Saturday to make the workshops manageable so please bear this in mind when tickets are released. To enhance the weekend and to provide as much collaboration as possible, we will also be holding a TeachMeet on Friday 15th March which will be free to everyone. Further details will also be released in the next few months.

The response to the call for workshop proposals has been fantastic and we are still looking for more suggestions. If you would consider presenting a workshop or would like further information, please sign up to our Google Form on the original announcement post.

We look forward to seeing you on the 16th March! Stay tuned for further updates….

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Are you a ‘Multiplier’?

Multiple image of a man

As the new term approaches, many of us are filled with hope and a little dread about the new school year. For me, and a few others, not only does it bring new students and new colleagues, but also new schools and I formally start as Deputy Head at Berkhamsted School. As an introduction and welcome to the school, the Principal sent me a book at the start of the summer break that he thought would give me an idea about the leadership style the school is in the process of developing. Reading the Wall Street Journal bestseller ‘Multipliers’ by Liz Wiseman (with Greg McKeown) offered an insight into the school but also made me reflect very carefully on my own leadership journey.

The premise for the book is based on the idea that ‘some leaders make us better and smarter’ and as a result, working for these kinds of managers/leaders allows us to perform in ways that use the very best of our thinking and to give our maximum effort. Other types of leaders are ‘diminishers’ who limit the contributions of colleagues and leave untapped the intellectual resources in an organisation. For Wiseman and McKeown, the characteristics of a ‘multiplier’ include an ability to:

  • look for talent everywhere by finding the ‘genius’ within people and connecting them with opportunities and removing the barriers (which can include the leader who attracts them);
  • create an intense environment that requires people’s best thinking and work by creating the space for others to work in and not by dominating the discussion;
  • challenge and define an opportunity which causes people to stretch and develop by showing the need for change by asking hard questions;
  • drive sound decisions through rigourous debate;
  • give other people ownership for results.

Reading the book certainly made me think about my leadership development and what it is like to work for a ‘multiplier’. I previously mentioned a Deputy Head I worked with who was most certainly a ‘multiplier‘ and it was clear that people were drawn to him because he demanded the best thinking when confronting problems and issues. It also made me think clearly about instances where the choices I made did not help me utilise the intelligence of those around me from colleagues to students. It is not usual for business books to resonate so clearly in terms of education but the five bullet points distinguishing a ‘multiplier’ would easily translate into what a great teacher would do. This has also occurred to Wiseman as she contacted me to let me know that work on book focussed solely on education was in the pipeline. I look forward to it and would recommend that you read ‘Multipliers’ in the interim and pass it on to colleagues. It really will make you think about how you work with colleagues and students as you start the new academic year.

Image: darwinjus on Flickr

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