Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: TLAB13

Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted – review

When you get a positive review from a journalist who is widely respected, you should pass it on as the praise is due to the people leading the workshops and presenting. Merlin John visited #TLAB13 in March and this is what he had to say about the day:

Berkhamsted may be a leading English independent school but the attendees were from both sectors and from all over the UK…the presence of students was a helpful bonus and attendance affordable. The balance between inspiring keynotes and the hands-on workshops was finely tuned and the only difficulties lay in some of the choices between events – all were worth a visit…what impressed was the appropriateness of the event for its audience. Schools are so much more likely to get that right than independent commercial event organisers, no matter how sensitive they might be to teachers’ needs. Emphasis added

The workshops for #TLAB14 on March 22nd 2014 are led by educators who:

  • Have been instrumental in moving their school from special measures;
  • Work in ‘outstanding’ schools;
  • Teach and lead in independent boarding/day and Prep schools;
  • Conduct internationally recognised research in cognitive neuroscience and teacher effectiveness;
  • Support the learning of students in Pupil Referral Units.

Tickets will be on sale at the end of the month for £50. The last event was sold out. To register your interest in the interim, email

I hope to see you in March for what promises to be a fascinating day.



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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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TLAB Welcome

Text from the conference programme

Welcome to the first Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted (TLAB)!

It really is an honour to have educators from a wide variety of schools and sectors to discuss and deepen our understanding of the work that really matters in schools.  Teaching and Learning (or Learning and Teaching) is fundamental to all that we do, yet the opportunities to hear from school based practitioners can be limited.  TLAB seeks to rectify this and is part of a burgeoning movement of teacher-led professional development where we benefit from colleagues addressing the common issues in education.

These problems can seem overwhelming at times and the conference logo, designed by one of our Year 8 students, Ollie, reminds us that that they are not insurmountable.  In explaining his design decision, Ollie wrote, ‘The hand gives guidance to the growing plant, providing help to support the growth and development of the plant.  As a metaphor, the hand represents the teacher and the plant the child.’  Our job is not an easy one, yet we have the capacity to make a significant difference, as Ollie points out, to the lives of the young people under our care.  By pooling our collective wisdom through events like the one today, we can support and nurture our students more effectively than if we do it alone.

Any event relies on the generosity of others and I am very grateful that Mr Alistair Smith, Professor Bill Lucas and Dr Bill Rankin have agreed to speak to us today.  They represent different elements of the larger discussion about education and I am sure you will find what they have to say challenging and illuminating at the same time.  I also want to express my thanks to the workshop leaders who have given up their time and experience.  I am inspired by the work they do and I hope you will be too.  Thanks also to Dai Barnes, Neal Watkin, Rosie McColl and Laura Knight for their help in shaping the agenda. Rebecca Brooks also deserves a special mention for doing the essential work in orchestrating the day.

Finally, I also want to thank you.  This event was a fleeting idea when I sat down to discuss it with the Principal of my new school last summer.  A non-profit educational conference with workshops covering a variety of subject areas led by actual teachers?  Your support has made this happen and I hope the day is viewed as your day. It has been great fun to coordinate and I am confident that you will take away something that will enrich your continuing work to nurture and enable your students to flourish.

Nick Dennis

Deputy Head, Berkhamsted School

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Saturday saw the culmination of months of planning with the launch of the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted.

One of my colleagues likened the event to throwing a party and taking pleasure from seeing others have a good time. From the feedback received so far, it seems that many got something practical to take away from the event. I can only thank the workshop leaders, main speakers, students and delegates for making it work.

The question is, where do we go from here? Alistair Smith in his presentation mentioned the problematic nature of events such as this and TeachMeets because they appear to be disconnected from everything else (a topic to be addressed in a further blog post). This was never in the plan for TLAB. I felt very strongly from the beginning that what was said and done at the conference should be spread as far and wide as possible.  The first thing we intend to do is release the video from the main sessions via YouTube (with Alistair Smith’s talk  available here and Bill Lucas’ talk here). The second thing in our plan is to include the video, summaries of the workshops and their resources  into an iBook that will be available via the iTunes store. There will be no cost for this.

We are already looking ahead to next year and your feedback (via a form coming your way) is needed. A couple of things we already have in mind are a stronger Prep/Primary focus and also a distinctive leadership strand where colleagues who have ‘walked the talk’ will share their experiences. One other thing I feel very strongly about is the ability to bring young people/students to the event and we are considering the possibility of providing childcare facilities for parents.

We hope to see you next year for what promises to be a more focussed event.


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Open Public Services and Social Media

In the last week of November I spoke to the Public Policy Exchange about the effective use of Social Media in schools. I can’t say who attended or what questions they asked as the meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule. What I can reveal is a brief summary of what I discussed.

In 2011 the government published a White Paper on the future of Public Services (schools, hospitals etc and which served as the basis for the the conference). One heading stuck out for me:

The old, centralised approach to public service delivery is broken.

This line of thinking has huge implications if made into a reality. Two other quotes struck me from the White Paper and the progress update released last year:

Public services should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level.

We will ensure fair access to public services.

Within this context, how could Social Media help deliver or enhance Public Services? My view is that despite the desire to move away from centralisation, that is a fundamental function of the state (see Steven Johnson’s ‘Future Perfect’ for a recent example of this)and we should really think about how we can enhance or add to the existing delivery of centralised public services.

Why Social Media and Public Services? Brief context is needed. A recent survey of students at HE suggests that 72% of them spend at least four hours a week on social networking sites a week (25% said they spent upwards of 11 hours a week). Are Public Services ready to reach such people on their terms? Can Public Services incorporate this information into what they do?

Social Media Landscape diagram

Social Media Landscape 2012 by Fred Cavazza

As there are so many tools to think about, I limited my talk to three of the most common (Facebook, Twitter and Google +) and returned to the work of Simon Sinek for helping us to understand why, how and what Social Media can do in terms of a particular Public Service – Education. Purpose/principles are very important in any endeavour and Social Media can help schools fulfil their core purpose of providing opportunities, celebrating success and ‘living’ the idea as a organisation geared towards learning.

I provided three (nowhere near exhaustive) ways that Social Media tools can be used by schools.


On a basic level, Social Media tools can be used as reminders for students, parents and colleagues. This works for promoting events, homework etc. I showcased examples of tweets announcing public lectures, teachers/lecturers reminding students about assignments and to reminders to watch particular documentaries.

Celebrate work

On another level, Social Media can be used to celebrate work publicly and in a timely fashion. This is especially interesting as Public Services do not have the marketing budgets commercial companies to show the brilliant work that is often undocumented. I used a few examples of Sixth Form Colleges showing off their colleagues wining teaching awards, teachers showing work on walls and the picture below of a Motte & Bailey castle made by one of my Year 7 historians. This tweet was retweeted and picked up by a national organisation and when I told the pupil, he was beaming which would translate into increased effort in his lesson (benefits for all).

Motte & Bailey Castle made of cake

Amplify intelligence

The third example of how Social Media can help deliver effective Public Services was in the area of professional development. Twitter has been incredibly helpful in spreading ideas in terms of teaching and learning and I used examples of hashtags on Twitter to link professionals across the country and generate discussion  (such as #TeachMeet, #edtech and #SLTchat). Talking online is useful but what is impressive is how these discussions lead to action or physical meetings in an attempt to solve a common concern. Using TeachMeets, Meetups and the forthcoming Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted as examples, I argued that the professional development that could be generated via Social Media could be more effective and targeted than what an instiution could sometimes provide. Using the example of TeachMeets and Meetups, I made the point that people gave up their time freely to discuss issues and learn from others which in a time of reduced budgets was something to seriously consider. The use of Social Media in this way was a clear example of  Steven Johnson’s ‘Peer Progressives’ – amplifying and developing expertise through distributed networks.

How could the example of schools using Social Media apply to other Public Services? In the first instance, it could be used to celebrate the work within the institution – something that is not done enough. With so many services under public scrutiny, Social Media could be used to raise staff morale in a very cost effective way – all you need is a smartphone (and an awareness of what is appropriate). Secondly, it creates the possibility to amplify what is already good within an institution not just through publicity but also through linking with other interested groups who can provide news ways of approaching a problem. If you have a common concern as a Public Service, would it not be useful to discuss this with other colleagues in different areas of the country?

I then suggested that there were three key things to consider when thinking about Social Media in Public Services.

  1. Does your use of Social Media fit the purpose of your organisation? For education it is a natural fit but if you are constrained by budgets, does it really fit into what is the main thing your organisation does? This is the ‘why’/purpose question.
  2. Do you have a framework to help schools/other Public Services to innovate? This means being able to take managed risks and a willingness to learn from mistakes (as this will happen).
  3. Be prepared for criticism as it will come. How will you deal with a disgruntled user of public services on Social Media channels? You need to plan ahead as it will happen.

The discussion and questions were really interesting (but I can’t say anymore than that)! I want to thank for the team at the Public Policy Exchange for their hospitality and understanding (especially Alex) that I had to leave after my talk to go back and teach my Year 10 GCSE History class. Yes, my class was also thrilled about it too.

Social Media Landscape image from Fred Cavazza.

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