Let’s Focus on the Individual (yes, this time, really)

It occurs to me whilst I am trawling through inspection frameworks (That’s Estyn on this side of the border) and evolving documents such as the School Effectiveness Profile that our institutional approach is going to take a long time to budge.

To many this is a statement of the blindingly obvious, but it does contrast fairly sharply with what has happened in modern business practice. If I want to buy a new car, I don’t ask “Well, who has the best car factory?” – I’m not sure there is even a best car factory league table. I ask “Who has the best car for my purposes?”. The point I am making is that my measure is the car, not the factory. And if one company has consistently good reports for cars, that must surely say something about the production facilities and the company itself.

Now that arrangement seems quite sensible – the dog wags the tail and everyone understands.

So why do we do the opposite for schools? We devise a plethora of criteria for measuring the institution (about 80 on the document I am looking at), that look at a multitude of dimensions, such as leadership, quality of teaching and learning, community engagement etc. To measure these, we understandably spend significant sums on training Inspectors to achieve rigour and consistency, and publish the results for all to see. And yes, the attainment of pupils is a significant factor. So what’s the problem?

Increasingly, I feel this is now a second best option. Education for me is about the individual child and his or her experience of learning and growing. With so much focus on the institution, it is so easy to lose sight of this, even with the best of intentions. Our success as schools or colleges should surely be reflections of the success of our young people. And yet beyond academic attainment, we measure very little about the progress they make. This is because measuring GCSEs, A levels and NVQs is relatively easy. Measuring the soft issues like self-esteem, communication skills, creativity and ingenuity is hard.

And yet it has never been so crucial to be able to do this. It is increasingly these soft skills that distinguish job applicants and empower individuals to achieve in a connected world.

So we need to put as much effort into changing the educational experience at the individual level as we do at the institutional level and measuring all the ways that children progress – including the tough ‘soft’ stuff. Then we will be able to truly measure our schools in terms of the progress of our pupils.

And remember that it takes many people lots of time, effort and money to make positive changes to an institution. But just one teacher, even one intervention can make the world of difference to one pupil. So let’s not forget that we can transform our schools one pupil at a time as well.

Towards better learning with VLEs

There is a fairly well-trodden path taken by most teachers as they grapple with learning environments.

In the first stage, a shared area is used to store resources and files that a teacher wants students to have access to.  Many of these will be existing files, presentations, spreadsheets and the like.  For those new to VLEs, this is a necessary step and in any event at least serves to introduce the concept of shared web-spaces.

A further stage relates to some sequencing of these resources, together with further descriptions and instructions.  This starts to create a learning path and often results in something akin to an electronic scheme of work.  Such sites can be made to look very inviting, illustrated with images and populated with web links, presentations, files and perhaps the odd video.  They succeed in making resources available flexibly over the internet and stringing them together to create a study path.  There are many examples of this on the internet.

But to my mind, a VLE could and should be doing much more than this.  A VLE has the potential to help us better address some of the most fundamental limitations we experience in the classroom to do with differentiation, learning styles and pedagogy.

A colleague in Monmouthshire, Nick Collins, has some powerful ideas around this theme.  Nick advocates the idea of using a VLE in a much more fluid way.  In addition to sequencing content delivery in a traditional way, the VLE could be used to provide a framework for whole activities, either for individuals or in groups.  These may be set up prior to a lesson, or even used ‘on the fly’, pointing learners to new activities as required.  Nick uses the term ‘Digital Assistants’ (not to be confused with PDAs) because the idea is that these activities become an extension of the teacher in the classroom.  They allow a teacher to respond with a wider repertoire of resources and activities than would normally be the case, or to quickly provide extension activities (say) to a group able to work under their own steam while providing closer support to others. 

Nick identifies two requirements for this to work.  Firstly, good access to the VLE in class which means notebooks or similar, space on the desk to put them and wireless access.  Secondly, suitable resources and activities that can quickly be deployed.

On the second issue, Nick believes as do I, that these resources need to be engaging and quality assured, but also easily modified by teachers to suit their needs.  The latter has been a problem in the past.  Often, highly expensive animated resources cannot be edited and so teachers have little ‘ownership’.  Nick is doing some very interesting work with Digital Workshops in Banbury, developing a version of Opus for VLEs.  This would allow for the easy development of interactive material by (non-programming) teachers, which could then beshared, altered and re-purposed as required.

I am very taken with the ‘Digital Assistant’ notion.  It begins to paint a tangible picture of how we could be using VLEs to do something much more than merely automate a scheme of work.  I can see how, with suitable preparation and resources, we could make a step change in the level of flexibility we have to truly support learners as individuals.

Stage not Age

It was a privilege a little while ago to spend some time with Adam Williams, Principal of the John Cabot Academy in Bristol.  The Academy is well known because of it’s innovative practice and achievements for students.  Look on the OFSTED site or TeacherTube, for example.

In particular, I was interested in the practicalities of implementing vertical tutor groups and classes, or teaching by ‘stage not age’.

The Academy is organised into four Communities (houses), named of course by the students.  On four afternoons of the week, key departments will host all of Year groups 9,10 and 11 from one Community.  How the department organises students during the afternoon is then up to them.  But the idea is clear – to allow for students to move through the GCSE programme at a pace that suits them, rather than on a fixed schedule by age.

The result is that classes may comprise students of mixed age (obviously).  But also the Academy has changed it’s use of space to give flexibility over the size of classes and how they work together or in groups.  So some classrooms have been knocked through (tastefully) to generate a larger area.  Within this area, traditional classes may take place, or one teacher may lead for a while a much larger group, supported by other teachers and support staff.  In some parts of the Academy, break out areas and ‘project’ rooms are provided for group work.  The technology and art areas even have informal seating areas, low tables and sofas.

There are many ramifications from even this one aspect of the innovative practice at John Cabot.  Timetabling, lesson planning, team teaching, class management and class ‘control’.  But for me, the impressive feat is that here is a situation in which it is really happening.  And what underpins all of this is a very clear set of shared values and culture.  Much effort is placed on developing those shared values, and of course that critically involves the students.  Students have many formal and informal ways of influencing decision making in the Academy.  This creates the social contract which is necessary to implement some of these innovations.  So students can use mobile phones without classes being constantly interrupted. Different activities and even lessons can take place in the same space and students remain sufficiently focused. 

My interpretation of this is that John Cabot has moved somewhat along a path from organisation for control, towards organisation for co-operation.  But this has been hard-won through a genuine buy-in to ‘learner voice’ and establishing those all important shared values.

Flexibility through curriculum remodelling

A significant barrier to transforming learning in secondary schools is the lack of manoeuvering space.  The timetable is packed, so the knock-on effects of change are hard to accommodate.  Staff non-contact time is minimal and so re-organising delivery is constrained and time for re-training limited.  Indeed, so many aspects of school organisation, culture and even the physical space are a result of continued honing over many decades to prioritise a traditional agenda. 

It was therefore refreshing to discuss with Jim Wynn of Cisco some ideas he is working on for curriculum remodelling and how they can potentially create some space for manoeuvre.  In essence, we consider afresh all the varied ways we can now meet a curriculum need. Of course we include ‘traditional’ techniques, but we can also draw on so many new possibilities, including different media, different levels of interactivity, the use of independent study or peer group learning or investigative learning.  The list goes on.  What I really liked about Jim’s approach was his lucidity and the simplicity of how to actually go about this.  Make a table, put the objectives along the top and the possible activities down the side.  There will be many activities possible for each objective.  Now stand back, and consider new pathways and new ways of organising people, time and space to follow these pathways.

It’s not rocket science, says Jim.  So what is new?  It is that many of these new activities now be mediated in the virtual world.  Even activities involving collaboration may take place using tools such as email, chat, bulletin boards, blogs and the like.  Indeed, isn’t this often the way collaboration takes place in industry?  I am also reminded of Alan November’s notion of Authentic Audience, and the power technology has to include ‘real’ people in the educational process as well as us teachers!  This can be particularly motivating for learners.

And what of the benefits?  If just some of these activities can take place in the virtual, we create some flexibility for ourselves.  This allows use to look at those issues of timetabling, space and use of staff – and perhaps do something differently.

I am reminded of those picture puzzles with the sliding tiles (I’m sure they have a name).  One space is essential, but I’m not even sure we have this at present.  Maybe Jim’s ideas can create one or even more of the spaces needed to permit the more flexible approach required if we really are serious about transforming learning in and out of our schools.