Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: Schools History Project

Research notes

I mentioned earlier this year that I was slightly frustrated by talk about educational research in schools. So I decided to do something about it and applied to do a Masters at the University of Oxford. My original plan was to write about the research once it was completed, yet  a wonderful opportunity to discuss some of the issues in relation to History teaching specifically has changed my mind. From November, I will be posting a monthly blog on the Schools History Project website based on the readings/tasks I have been set alongside questions about how the generic/specific educational research used throughout the course might be applicable to a History classroom.  The purpose is not to tell you how to use the research but to engage in a conversation about what it might mean.

If you have any topics you would like to suggest in terms of discussion, please add them in the comments section below.

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‘Stay on the f**king bus’

I originally came across the ‘Helsinki Bus Station Theory’ earlier this year and was struck by a number of key ideas from Arno Minkkinen’s commencement speech. Rather than summarise it myself, I’ll use Oliver Burkeman’s version from the Guardian:

There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”

What hooked me at the time, and still does, is its relevance to teaching by challenging what has become a maxim and revealing a proclivity towards the ‘new’ that can be detrimental to doing great work with students and colleagues. The precept it challenges is that feedback is useful. With the work of Hattie, Berger (and many others before) now becoming a normal part of discourse when discussing education and professional development for teachers,  it seems that sometimes we forget to explain that it is the quality of the feedback that matters, especially in a world of RTs, ‘Likes’ and ‘Favourites’.  The kind of feedback we wish for our students can be missed or in extreme cases replaced by  these tiny affirmations.  As useful and helpful as these comments may be in certain contexts, they can represent feedback of the most tenuous kind (I often think about the hopefuls in televised singing contests when they are faced with the unvarnished feedback that they are not as good as they have been led to believe by family/friends in their desire to be supportive). Consequently, emboldened by these recommendations, the blogs/writing/books/talks proliferate. For every instance of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ there  lurks the spectre of ‘groupthink’.

According to Burkeman, the second aspect the metaphor illustrates is our propensity to ‘fetishise originality’. In education, this may be a new turn of phrase, a new technology, a new blog post or even a new book. The cost of chasing these new ideas, essentially taking the taxi back to the station and taking another bus, means that you will delay your progress in becoming the great, effective educator you hope to be. I was reminded of the consequences of keeping to the same route when I saw the project Dale Banham and Russell Hall are leading using Hattie’s work at the Schools History Project conference in July. Five years on after I was first introduced to the book by Dale, he is still grappling with the ideas to the benefit of  his students and his school.

I was also reminded of deliberate and thoughtful work when the Head of Boys, Chris Nicholls, retired at the end of term. I’ve already written about him in a previous post and I don’t want to embarrass him any more although I think the picture below captures some of the depth of feeling the students had for him on his final day after 38 years at one school.

Goodbye, Mr Nicholls

Goodbye, Mr Nicholls

I’m not suggesting that absorbing new ideas and ways of looking at things is wrong. They are vital for development and are essential for finding your own way yet they should be tempered by the realisation that there are no quick fixes or slogans that substantively lead to progress. Minkkinen writes:

The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while, maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north, bus 19 southwest. For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another but soon they split off as well, Irving Penn is headed elsewhere. It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.

The journey to becoming a great educator is hard and can be frustrating. However, by following Minkkinen’s exhortation to ‘stay on the fucking bus’, working hard, being reflective and possessing the courage of your convictions, which motivated you to start the journey in the first place, you may just become the great teacher you hope to be.

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The Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference on March 16th, 2013 at Berkhamsted has been a pleasure to organise. Helped by Neal Watkin, Dai Barnes and Laura Knight as a Steering Group and the workshop leaders giving their time freely, we have been able to create something which is focussed on learning and improving the craft of teaching.

I freely admit that the model for the conference comes from the Schools History Project national conference held in June/July every year. To be part of that conference is inspiring; excellent teachers freely giving up their time to share with the purpose of improving the quality of teaching for all.

Aware of the financial burdens schools are under, we deliberately picked a Saturday for the event. This would remove cover costs for people attending and also allow us to get as many great teachers sharing their experience without feeling they were sacrificing the progress of their students on a school day.

We were also very mindful about keeping the costs as low as possible. From the beginning, it was never intended to be a profit making exercise. As a result, it has been agreed that £40 for entry is about right as it will cover costs.

The price covers talks by Alistair Smith, Professor Bill Lucas and Dr Bill Rankin. In their own right, each one is an excellent speaker and you would be very fortunate to hear just one of them at a conference priced five times the amount we have settled for. Each speaker was invited specifically because they have a deep appreciation of the learning process and the practicalities that need to be considered if students are to progress.

The price also includes three workshops by excellent teachers and I would urge you all to break out of your subject areas for at least one session so you can benefit from the talent and wisdom of people who are ambitious for their students and who work very hard to improve their own professional learning.

The price also includes breakfast, lunch, refreshments and other resources for you to take away on the day. We are still working on elements and further announcements will come appear on the conference website next week where tickets can also be bought (there will be limited numbers).

I do hope that you will be able to join in this celebration of collaboration, learning, teachers and teaching next March.


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#SHP12 Reflections

My Saturday evening wear at SHP - Viking mask

My Saturday evening wear at SHP

On my way back from the national Schools History Project conference, I read this passage in Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan’s ‘Professional Capital’:

‘People are motivated by good ideas tied to action; they are energized even more by pursuing action with others; they are spurred on still further by learning from their mistakes; and they are ultimately propelled by actions that make an impact’. p.7

For me, this neatly described the ongoing attraction of a conference in its 24th year; people are drawn to and spurred on by actions which make a difference in classroom across the country. The conference is unique as far as I know; classroom practitioners mingle with subject advisers, publishers, academics and trainers with the express purpose of improving historical understanding and buying into the key principles of the Schools History Project:

  • History should be meaningful
  • Historical enquiry should be the bedrock of learning
  • Studies should take the long view to enhance chronological understanding
  • Diversity in terms of content, approaches to study and peoples is important
  • Local history should play a key role in the historical education of young people
  • History should be fun and rigorous.

Everything that followed from Michael Riley’s opening address tied to the core principles which he outlined and not just limited to the workshops but also in the spaces in-between; the coffee areas, the dining hall and the pub. I was surprised and delighted with the new faces at the conference and there seems to be a growing shift in the age of attendees which bodes well for the continuation of what is possibly the longest serving curriculum development project in the world.

Dr Michael Riley – SHP Director

I presented two sessions and I thought the first one was poor by my usual standards. Everything I normally do before giving presentations I did not/was not able to do (I have a routine, like athletes do). As a result, I felt that is was middling at best. I then spent most of lunch and the Saturday afternoon/evening ironing out the technical/logistical issues. As a result, the second session on Sunday felt a lot better. One key learning takeaway for me? Make sure that all equipment is set up for me (especially when using around 50k worth of kit loaned by Apple) and if not possible, limit your ambition! I would like to thank Leonie and Mike at Apple for their help in arranging the iPads and Macbooks for the conference. We should all keep an eye out for some exciting things coming from English Heritage and the National Archives on the mobile learning front…

As usual, Don Cumming and Dan Lyndon‘s session showed the positive power of collaboration in the classroom and how it can be used to solve genuine historical issues. Their enthusiasm and deep understanding of learning left me lots of things to think about. Donald and Don’s campaign for Olaudah Equiano’s Blue Plaque is something I would urge you to get involved in. The only other session I was able to attend was the brilliantly practical workshop by Tim Jenner and Paul Nightingale on using sources. The argue that source skills should not be taught as a ‘bolt-on’ but should become familiar to students through  I liked how they used the ‘splat’ game to get students to hit inferences created by the class/teacher. I loved their idea of cutting up a source and asking the students to recreate what they think it is and then at the end of the lesson, compare with the original. The example they used in the workshop was ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ with the images cut up. Our group created an image to conform to our expectations of ‘normal’ which seemed plausible. As the lesson progresses, the students are asked to move the images around to reflect the learning. I thought this was particularly powerful as it meant that students could then explain why the church appears upside down and in the sky due to the nature of the religious upheaval rather than just guess at it when they see the source for the first time. I will certainly be using their ideas in all my lessons next year.


The World Turned Upside Down – in pieces

A TeachMeet was also held this year and once again, I cannot thank the contributors enough (some did not know they were presenting until I twisted their arms when they walked into the room)! Feedback was great with attendees loving the rapid-fire nature of the presentations.


TeachMeet SHP12 attendees


The plenary sessions I attended were led by Richard McFahn and Neil Bates, Ben Walsh and Chris Culpin. I really enjoyed all of them, albeit for very different reasons. Richard and Neil’s session gave you pratical tips to take away and use, Ben (the ‘Silver Fox’ of History teaching – he sure is a handsome man!) left me laughing about the pressures we face as history teachers with some great clips to illustrate his points. This was my favourite as it showed how dangerous a very small amount of historical knowledge can be:

Saturday’s entertainment, as ever, was supplied by Ian Dawson. Making the point that Anglo-Saxon history is important (yet takes little time in the school curriculum), Ian showed us through militant Witans, jovial, shameless Vikings and an inspired King Alfred (played by Chris Culpin) that we really are missing a huge part of history when we leap from the Romans to the Normans (there was even a quick rendition of Monty Python’s ‘What have the Romans done for us?’ sketch).

Chris Culpin’s talk resonated with me as he is clearly focused on core purpose and principles and this was the running thread of the conference for me. It is clear that for over 40 years, the Schools History Project has worked hard at staying true to their principles and it was a challenge to me as I thought I may not be able to attend the conference next year due to the new role at Berkhamsted. I now think this was wrongheaded of me to even entertain this idea. Why would a senior leader in a school pass up the opportunity to see in action an educational organisation that operates so tightly and effectively within its principles and promotes high quality staff development?

Say ‘hello’ when you see me next year.

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Goodbye to all that – Apple RTC events April 19th, May 31st and July 6-8th 2012

And so it begins – my final participation in the Apple Regional Training Centre events at Felsted this academic year. My colleague and new Assistant Head, Sarah Capewell, will be taking over the running of the Apple RTC at Felsted and will be available to discuss how to make the best use of tools to support learning. What you will get from Sarah is a learning focussed approach with a keen eye for detail (she is, after all, a Classicist!) and she has some exciting projects in the pipeline for the next few years. If you would like to attend the final two events at Felsted where Sarah and I will be leading the sessions together, please go to this page and sign up. My final appearance as a Felsted employee/Apple RTC Manager will be at the national Schools History Project Conference in Leeds in July where I will be showcasing some of the work at Felsted using History as a focus.

Reflecting on the journey over the last few years as an Apple RTC, there are a few things that I have learned which spring to mind (a longer post will no doubt appear in the last few days):

  • Technology amplifies professional knowledge. Poor professional knowledge of the learning process is still poor when technology is used to just ‘engage’ students. And it shows. Clearly.
  • Excellent integration of technology in the learning process requires deep thinking about the learning that needs to take place. Sometimes, the best way to use technology is not to use it. Yes, you can be an excellent teacher without using technology in your lesson but if you are an excellent teacher, you will most probably be looking for other ways to develop your excellence and technology may help you.
  • For all the keynote talks about improving schools using technology or new approaches to learning or 21st century skills (and I have no idea what these skills are as they sound very similar to previous skills in my opinion), implementing these ideas is not easy; they all require hard work. I’ll say it again. It requires hard work, being disciplined and rigourous. Then again, if you are a teacher or in education, you know that supporting young people develop can be hard work but you do it anyway. The key thing is that after a while, the effort lessens and your capacity to use the technological tools at your disposal improves.
  • A tool in itself does not transform education or ‘change the game’. Transformation and ‘game changing’ happens because someone has thought carefully and explored ways in which the tool can be used to help learning. The human dimension is integral but gets neglected or obscured by the focus on the tool.

Next academic year I take up the post of Deputy Head (Academic) at Berkhamsted School which is not an Apple Regional Training Centre. However, there are a number of excellent practitioners using ICT there and I am looking forward to working with Laura Knight (director of eLearning) and Rosie McColl amongst others. They and others are doing some amazing work with iPads and Google Apps and I can safely say that if you would like to visit and see the work in action, you are more than welcome.

Despite being the public ‘voice/face’ of the Apple RTC, the success of the relationship with Apple and the events themselves are down to a number of people. They are too numerous to mention here (and they will get their personal recognition in other ways) but I can say that without their help, Felsted would not be the successful RTC it is, and will continue to be, with Sarah’s stewardship. Finally, I must thank you, readers, for turning up. There is no point in holding training events if people see no value in them, which strangely enough, occurs when things are free! We have been privileged to host colleagues from Devon, the North, the Midlands and closer to home in Essex. Your questions and experience has validated what we believe and has also challenged us to be better. So, if you haven’t had the opportunity to visit, learn and share with us at the Apple RTC, please do. It is not long before I have to say goodbye to all of that at Felsted.

Image: Lanier67@Flickr

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