Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: TLAB14

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:


Mike Grenier (Eton College, Harrow)

Dr Steve Wilkinson (Ashlyns School, Berkhamsted)


Neal Atkin

Mumta Sharma (City of London Academy Islington, London)

Mikey Smyth (St Albans School, St Albans)


Elizabeth Carr (Presdales, Hertfordshire)

Neal Watkin (Sawston Village College, Cambridge)

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


Dawn Cox

Cristina Milos (Rome, Italy)


Staff from Dr Challoner’s Grammar School (Buckinghamshire)

Bruno Reddy (King Solomon Academy, London)


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


Laura Knight (Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire)

Crista Hazell (Bristol)

Candida Gould (Bristol)


Dan Edwards (Stephen Perse, Cambridge)

Mark Anderson (Sir Bernard Lovell School, Bristol)

Rachel Jones

Zoe Ross (Barefoot Computing)

Caroline Russell


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: 

A PDF version (with no interactive elements) can also be downloaded from Dropbox:

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

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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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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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Teaching, Learning & Assessment, Berkhamsted 2014

Happy New Year! A brief reminder that the tickets for the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted are now on sale. The £50 ticket price includes all refreshments (breakfast, coffees/snacks and lunch) and enables you to attend three workshops and two keynote sessions. We have less than 100 tickets left so don’t miss out!

The conference site and booking page can be found here:

Once again, teachers and educators from around the country (and further afield) have decided to give up their time for free to share their expertise. No-one is being paid a fee for this event and this includes the keynote speakers. All the money raised by tickets sales and any sponsorship covers the running of the day. We will provide the video of the sessions and keynotes as a resource to delegates and will be sharing elements of it via YouTube/Twitter. We also have a team of students filming/interviewing people on the day to create the conference iBook with the help of an Apple Distinguished Educator. If you know of any Media/ICT students who may be interested in taking part in this experience, please get in touch.

The principles behind the conference are simple:

  • Workshops will have a clear learning problem driving them;
  • The focus for the workshops will be on classroom practice, learning and teacher development;
  • Workshops will be interactive with workshop leaders taking you through some of the activities/research so you can experience the idea yourself;
  • Workshop leaders will be upfront about the tech/resource costs;
  • Workshop leaders will provide key ‘takeaways’ from the sessions – either in terms of ideas/resources.

Many came away from the day last year and used the word ‘inspirational’ to describe the workshop leaders/speakers. I do hope you can join us for what promises to be a great day of learning!

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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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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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