BIG questions in education
Currently so much is changing in education: the attainment goalposts, the assessment framework, the exam content, the inspection criteria, the tools available to a teacher, pay and conditions and the organisation of the school system, Teaching Schools, a new National Curriculum … the list of initiatives is seemingly endless. Which leads to one, overarching question for schools, how can all this change be made positive for students?
Bohunt Education Trust (BET) is seeking to turn the turmoil in to educational innovation that has a positive impact on its students and staff. There have been two key steps to doing this:
- Prioritise which questions are most important for each of its schools.
- Focus more on how you answer those questions than the ‘what’ of the answer.
BET’s vision is to create students who are game-changers capable of leading, innovating and disrupting in whatever field they choose to go in to. Outstanding exam grades are part of this, but they are certainly not all of it; there is also the need for students to have the right skills (technical and ‘soft’) and attitudes. Therefore, for BET, the key questions that need to be answered are:
- How can we engender self-esteem, self-confidence, positive attitudes, ambition and ‘soft’ (we would argue for the term ‘hard’) skills such as creativity, communication and teamwork in our young people?
- How do we build the intrinsic motivation of our learners?
- How do we improve students’ memorisation so they are able to excel in terminal exams?
These aren’t new questions for the Trust; if you look at one of its schools, Bohunt School in Liphook, the Outdoor Programme for over 600 children a year, specific lessons on Growth Mindset, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) Curriculum and an emphasis on enquiry and Challenge Based Learning shows the history of innovation in this area. The fact that this work hasn’t, yet, led to concrete answers is of no worry to BET as how its schools, staff and students go about finding the answers is as important as the answers themselves.
Change Teams have, since 2010, helped embed the culture of partnership working at an operational level. All staff are assigned to cross-curricular Change Teams and have accountable, timetabled periods (additional free periods) in which to implement the School Improvement Plan (SIP). The leaders of the Teams receive high quality coaching in order to maximise impact. Furthermore, each Change Team was given £1000 to spend on whatever they liked (training, speakers, biscuits). The Change Teams mean that all staff are designing and doing the ‘how’ of the SIP. They don’t feel done unto, they can make sure that the initiatives are grounded in the reality and it encourages creativity and innovation. Furthermore, from a succession point of view, it allows members of staff at all levels, from NQT to Head of Faculty to be involved with Whole School Change.
The Change Teams work on a wide variety of areas: the CLIL and iGCSE Change Teams had a very curriculum focused remit; the Partnerships Change Team works with Primary Schools to ensure transition is really strong, the Language for Learning Change Team looked at how teachers were using questioning, praise and commands to improve progress etc.
PPD Change Team
In September 2014 the focus of the Change Team time changed. There are still teams looking to deliver key areas of the School Improvement Plan such as STEM, transition and immersion language teaching, but the amount of time spent on these activities is reduced. The time has been given over to answering the key questions above. Staff are working in small teams, called Collaborative Learning Clusters, headed up by a member of the Pedagogy, Practice & Differentiation (PPD) Team, with the aim of answering one of the key questions.
The small groups work together in a style similar to the lesson study model: one week co-planning, one week observation, one week reflection, one week strategy and then repeat. However, unlike the lesson study model, the focus is on educational innovation in one of the areas, rather than in an area of the teachers’ own choosing; the lead teacher is bringing research to the small group and they are then working out how best to integrate that better practice in to their teaching. They are acting their way into new ways of thinking.
The work of the small groups and the PPD team is then supported by INSET days and twilight professional development sessions, which allow groups extended periods of time to discuss progress, attend workshops and take part in training on aspects like coaching.
A key question for the leaders of the PPD Change Team was on how you measure the success of the various approaches to answering the key questions. Action Research is useful, but the rigour of the technique is variable to say the least. Instead, considering the focus of this work is really on the process of answering the questions, rather than on the answers themselves, the success is being monitored by learning logs and an innovative recording technique that uses cameras.
We already know micro-teaching works. Professor John Hattie’s ground-breaking study ‘Visible Learning’ ranks the use of video evaluation in the top-5 most effective strategies we can deploy. Bill Gates in one of his TED Talks argued strongly for the use of cameras (http://goo.gl/2U2QU7), but at a whole class level. This can certainly be useful, but when the philosophy of education is about Challenge Based Learning, Enquiry, intrinsic motivation and groups of students collaborating, possibly with support through Guided Learning from the teacher, whole class level video and audio can miss things: the nuance of language that encourages or discourages students, resilience, higher level thinking and the importance of students taking roles within a group for example. Moreover, as research by Robert Coe and Robert Bjork is highlighting, whole-class observation practices tend to pick up on preferred proxies such as ‘discussion’ or ‘group work’, but the correlation between these and genuine learning-over-time is complex and frequently tenuous.
Use of Go Pro cameras, usually more at home mounted on the tips of surfboards and attached to sky-diving helmets, is transforming the way BET teachers observe. Staff are able to use multiple cameras, coupled with high-quality shotgun microphones, to really hone lesson studies in ways that suit their focus or learning-hypothesis. By placing discreet cameras on tables in the classroom teachers are able to ‘join’ particular individuals or groups students and listen in on the ways they talk, interact and learn. Students very quickly forget the cameras are there. Teachers get a direct, immediate and unique insight into the effectiveness of approaches at student-eye level. Through collaborative reflections on the videos, teams of teachers then determine how best to help the students to progress, both academically and also in terms of ‘soft’ (hard!) skills and attitudes.
High level research
Again, following this theme of the variability of school based Action Research, Bohunt has engaged with outside organisations to ensure high quality results that allow Bohunt to make meaningful cost versus impact decisions. Currently BET is involved with:
- The Centre for Real World Learning at Winchester University on how to embed Engineering Habits of Mind in to a STEM Curriculum as well as Science and Maths lessons. This is a two year project that follows on from their joint report with the Royal Academy of Engineering.
- The Institute of Engineering and BBC on the impact of Chinese teaching methods versus Bohunt’s. This four week trial will see 50 students following a Chinese school day and being taught by Chinese teachers. The results will be shown in a three part documentary on BBC2 in the summer.
Yes, BET does want to know the answers to how you develop students with excellent memory skills, intrinsic motivation and highly developed ‘soft’ skills. However, the change to get there needs to be positive on the way to the answer as well as on arrival and, for that reason, how that change is designed and actioned is as important than the actions themselves. Change Teams, Collaborative Learning Clusters and high level research ensures that BET’s ethos of innovation, their vision of the highest expectations and their keystone pedagogies of Enquiry and Guided Learning are lived by all every week, rather than just being a paper based activity.
Philip Avery, Director of Learning & Strategy
Bohunt Education Trust
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