• At Northwood College for Girls we held our first ‘teach meet’, where a group of teachers and experts in their fields came together to discuss our thoughts on current research. I cannot thank them enough for their contributions as they have all directly inspired this blog.

    For our first meeting we examined Lucy Crehan’s ‘Cleverlands’. The book documents the author’s journey around the world, examining the education system in some of the countries that score the highest PISA test results; something that the UK is renowned for underperforming in. I stumbled on this book by accident and what a pleasant accident it has been. I signed up to a teaching and learning CPD where Lucy is the keynote speaker, so thought, ‘better read the book!’ Well, just a couple of chapters in and I was relaying my excitement at the interesting research based ideas that I was discovering; and as an all through school, the exciting prospect that we could embrace some of these ideas. From this a ‘Teach Meet’ was born, to give us the chance to really unpick the information and discuss new possibilities.

    To facilitate the ‘teach meet’ I selected a few chapters from the book, which provide a range of ideas and also a range of cultures. We began in Finland. Finland is unique in many ways, but as an all through school, their approach to when they start school and setting/streaming are of particular interest. In Finland, students do not begin formal education until they are between 6.5 – 7.5 years. However, this is not to say they are left in the wilderness until then – although their curriculum of learning through play means that sometime they are. This generated lots of rich discussion as some of our girls start school at the age of three, and Finland’s apparent ‘late start’ produce some pretty impressive results.

    According to the book, the late start reduces inattention and hyperactivity, boys who started later had better mental health at 18 and girls were less likely to become pregnant in their teenage years! Furthermore, the Finnish attitude to reading is impressive, with annual library borrowing figures of an average of 18 books per person – more than any other country in the world. However, it is clear that their success is very much linked to a high quality pre-school programme, as evidence suggests that an early start (2-3) can lead to better intellectual and social development and preschool is particularly beneficial for disadvantaged children.

    Finland’s second chapter – selection and setting – generated further discussion. In 1963, Finland moved away from a two tiered system that divided students from 10 years old. These were seen as ‘better’ schools or vocational school. Instead, students choose an academic or vocational route at 15-16 years, meaning that all students  have the same education for nine years rather than four. This is supported through evidence that suggests that countries who select later reduce inequality in secondary school, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds do better. In fact, the evidence from Hanushek and Woessmann shows that there was no negative effect of late selection on any group, even the brightest 5%. Now this nugget of information dominated discussion, as one of our GDST schools has decided to follow a similar path by removing streaming. Could this be a move for Northwood too? Well, as one teacher explained, ‘if you are trying to teach someone tennis, you don’t put them with a group of people equally bad at tennis and expect them to improve’. Which again resonated.

    There is much evidence to suggest that in mixed ability groups, those who are ‘weaker’ are pulled up by those who are ‘brighter’ and those who are ‘brighter’ deepen their understanding by supporting the ‘weaker’ student – there was some discussion over whether this really stretches our brightest or disadvantages or even bores them. But this made me think, as we are moving to a ‘Mastery’ curriculum in the UK where deep knowledge of one topic is valued over a length of shallow knowledge, and Primary schools are being told they are not allowed to cover anything from Key Stage 3, even if it is an attempt to ‘stretch’ the brightest; then wouldn’t this approach also support our changing perception of education in the UK?

    This in turn, led to discussions on differentiation, which transported us to China. In China they have very much adopted a Growth Mindset and the Confucian way of thinking: “Learning does not privilege anyone, and neither does it discriminate against anyone. Everyone is capable of seeking and achieving knowledge, regardless of one’s inborn capability and social circumstances.” What made me connect Finland and China is the fact that the book charts Lucy talking to a Chinese teacher who had visited the UK and thought it odd how students are given different levels of maths, explaining that those with ‘easy’ maths will never keep up. Again, this made us question, does differentiation by task (as well as setting) disadvantage and cap our students learning, rather than support them? If we want the girls to believe that everyone can achieve mastery knowledge, shouldn’t we start from the top and support all in getting there? My teacher training was very much about differentiation by task, and the thought of even calling differentiation by outcome differentiation would be an insult to your training – this really caused pause for thought.

    Furthermore, China’s focus on praise and effort was very humbling. As a school, we have girls who are so driven by success and focussed on academic achievement, that if they don’t do as well as they want, it will knock them for six. Yet in China, failure is not an issue, what matters is that you tried and that you learnt from it. Lucy draws upon some excellent research; Stevenson and Stigler conducted an experiment on persistence comparing East Asians and European Americans. Both groups were presented with an impossible Maths question to see how long it would take for them to give up, however, the experiment had to be cancelled as the Japanese students would not give up, which caused some distress to the teachers. This proves that East Asians not only persist longer, but are also more likely to seek challenge, and are even spurred on to work harder in the face of failure – the opposite to European American students.

    This got us talking about motivational differences (as well as cultural ones). It is very much the view that ‘effort’ is not something to be celebrated, in fact, in my days at school it was very much the running joke that those who got the ‘effort’ prize had the pity prize for quite simply not being clever enough. But how do we change this mindset? If we adopt the Confucian way, we know that effort and persistent effort will lead to success. However, in the UK there is still a huge belief that academic success is key, and therefore failure is not an option. Again, if we are going to use this book to inspire how we move forward as a school, changing our girls’ perceptions on failure and effort will be key.

    Perhaps we need to adopt China’s graduation encouragement cards which read ‘congratulations on your hard work’ and focus on self-improvement, rather than selecting students who simply ‘excel’ at a subject? Part of me even wonders if we can create safe environments for failure, but then questions is, how do we manage that if this has the potential to disengage them rather than motivate them. As one of the teachers pointed out, what we must remember is that none of these educational reforms happened overnight, it took Finland ten years just to get the reform approved, and there are still reports of schools who ‘speak’ of education in the ‘old’ way. China’s growth mindset derives from a long historical and political
    context too; for us, as an independent school we need to acknowledge our context; there is a certain ‘status-quo’ that we must stick to. But what I was most struck by is the clear consensus that each one of us wants what is best for our girls and perhaps we do need to be brave and be bold in what next steps we take in order to do them justice. So let the ‘drip-feeding’ of new, research based ideas begin!

    Mrs J Hughes,
    Head of Cognitive Learning

The Leap of Faith

  • March marked our second Teach Meet at NWC, where I was once again blown away by my colleagues’ passion for Teaching and Learning, as well as their thoughtful reflections on the material we were discussing. Again, I cannot thank them enough for their contributions as they have all directly inspired this blog. For tonight’s meeting we looked at a couple of areas that are very topical in the educational world, as well as being at the forefront of research and pedagogy: Cognitive Load and Digital approaches. All very exciting (and research based), so then why the title ‘The Leap of Faith’? What became clear from the articles and our discussions, was that often our teaching is ‘what we know’ and we employ strategies that keep us comfortable. But ‘comfort’ doesn’t always result in progress, or high attainment. It’s for this reason that as teachers, we perhaps need to take some ‘leaps of faith’ in our teaching strategies that will make us uncomfortable in the short term, but will also bring results.

    The first article that we explored was ‘Using Cognitive Load Theory to improve slideshow presentations’ by Andy Tharby. I decided to open the discussion by being brutally honest, I have committed many of the ‘Teaching Sins’ that are referred to in this article, the main one being ‘death by PowerPoint’ and PowerPoints filled with too much information. Since subjects in KS4 and 5, have been going through educational reforms and an increase in subject content, the default for many teachers has been ‘let’s cram everything our students need to know onto the PPTs slides’, but learning is not simply acquired through reading from a PowerPoint. So why do we do it? For most, it is the ‘comfort blanket’ of knowing that all the information is there, and therefore at ours and the students’ disposal. Yet, research tells us that this isn’t the most effective way to teach. Cognitive Load Theory, developed from psychologist John Sweller, refers to the types of information held in our working memory at one time (1994) and tells us that over populated, busy, clunky or animated presentations have a detrimental impact on students learning. If our working memory is overloaded; it becomes difficult to transfer information into our working memory. Imagine pouring a whole packet of skittles into a milk bottle at the same time, only so many skittles are going to go in, the rest will simple fall to the floor. This is the same as our overloaded PowerPoints, only so much of the information is going to end up stored in the memory of our students.

    Our working memory is merely the capacity of ‘intrinsic, extraneous and germane load’ and the one we have the most control over as teachers, is ‘extraneous’. Extraneous load refers to how material is presented, as we can only hold a limited number of items at once – between 3 and 5 for young adults (Cowan, 2010) – therefore we should be really thinking about how much we pack onto a PowerPoint presentation. What is really important is how we teach, not what we teach. This led us onto a discussion about the impact that ‘flipped learning’ could have; we could reduce ‘extraneous load’ as this meant that rather than spending valuable classroom time simply ‘giving’ information, and could maximise ‘germane load’, the productive thinking that causes our students to form and consolidate long term memories (this is real ‘learning’, the goal of teaching). If we give the information, then from this there is more room to build in learning experiences which allow for creativity, discussion, enquiry, debate and then application. This research was also supported by the second article we looked at, ‘How multimedia can improve learning and instruction’ by Richard E Mayer, which is based on an extract from Dunlosky J and Rawson K, The Cambridge Handbook on Cognition and Education. Here, the evidence suggest that people learn better from ‘narration and graphics simultaneously’, and has the biggest impact on learning. This also got us onto a discussion about the presentation of our lessons and how we could strip back our worksheets. Here came the next ‘leap of faith’. We know our girls also like the comfort blanket of having a printed copy, electronic copy, textbook and anything else that contains course materials to be handed over to them, so that they can read and highlight. In fact, girls have grumbled when this isn’t the case, and so our desire to please them means that we just hand it over willingly. But, we need to take that ‘leap’ and trust that we know what real learning looks like, and that this is not simply re-reading or highlighting, a strategy that we all know doesn’t have a significant impact on their learning.

    Image result for leap of faith

    Here our discussion took another route, note taking. If we are going to reduce the materials we give the girls, we need to trust that they have the ability to make effective notes. So what should these notes look like, and how can we ensure students have all the information? This was a particularly interesting avenue as two of the members of staff present were American (not Canadian) and so had note taking taught as part of their education. In Year 12 our girls have an EPQ session on ‘The Cornell Method’, but in reality, this is too late in their academic path to be teaching this. Most of them have already established learning habits, and although they might not be the most effective, they are just as reluctant to change as we teachers are. Here, our members from Junior School mentioned how they do teach a couple of session on note taking in Years 4 and 5, but equally acknowledged that they didn’t think it was revisited enough. So for this ‘leap’ we need to consider embedding a ‘how to take notes’ element into the Senior School from Year 7 to ensure that our girls are confident in taking their own notes in an effective and efficient format.

    Our final route, and perhaps the ‘biggest’ potential ‘leap’, was looking at Blended Learning. The article ‘Interweaving traditional and digital approaches: The development of blended learning at Sandringham School’ happened to be written by an old colleague of mine, Fergal Moane, who I worked with on the Blended Learning programme and staff CPD at that school, Blended Learning is the ‘thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online learning experiences’ (Garrison and Kanuka, 2004, pp.96-7). It is called ‘blended’ to emphasis the fact that technology can be a tool to enhance learning, it has a time and a place (much like a calculator) and is certainly not a substitute for real teaching. Sandringham introduced a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model, and provided funding for families that needed financial support, thus all parents agreed to provide their children with devices.

    A question asked about how we at Sandringham selected the specific applications for our digital toolkit. We identified which tools were ‘essential’ and so these applications were expected to be on every students’ device. Furthermore, we decided on applications which were essential for Teaching and Learning, such as Padlet, then at a whole staff inset, we asked departments to identify which applications were most useful for them. Giving staff ownership over what apps they wanted to use really supported engagement with digital usage in the classroom. Furthermore, for this ‘leap of faith’ to be as successful as the one taken by Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade, we must ensure that there is quality CPD and time to allow staff to explore the applications that can enhance our students learning potential. So, at NWC we are seeking to provide CPD in a sample of key digital tools that will really be able to enhance the learning experience of our girls, whilst still maintaining that this is simply complimentary to the fantastic teaching strategies that are already in place.

    The article referenced a student survey of the first year group who had been part of the Blended Learning pedagogy from its conception to GCSE. In this survey, 80% reported that they thought having devices at school had enhanced their learning, and implies that devices can support student engagement in the classroom. In fact, this is something that I have noticed, when I tell the girls to go get the iPads there is a sense of excitement. However, I was asked, why did 20% not think it had helped? Well, as I left Sandringham with this cohort, I can’t say I saw the result analysis, but based on my experience, I can speculate that the 20% could be due to the inevitable distraction that technology (well, social media) brings. At this point, another colleague queried whether this pedagogy contradicts what we are telling the girls about limiting their screen time, which is a valid point as we are trying to encourage good study habits, such as taking a break from social media. But in reality, we cannot ignore the growing exposure that our girls and future generations will have to the digital world. But equally, this exposure won’t all be bad either. The jobs of the future will require our girls to be digitally literate and resilient. Furthermore, as educators, isn’t it our responsibility to ensure that they know not only the positives of the digital world, but also the dangers and the responsibilities that come with having technology at their fingertips? If we ignore the digital era, we are short-changing our girls. Not one of us want to walk into a classroom where our girls are hunched over looking into the screen of a device. We want to see real engagement with their learning, independence and enquiry. That’s why, Northwood College’s plans for a digital strategy as an organic one, fills me with real excitement. This ‘leap of faith’ is a leap into the future and one which open up so much potential for our girls.

    As our Teach Meet drew to a close, one thing was clear, we all really want what is best for our girls. We know that there are many challenges that face them such as huge specifications, perfectionist tendencies (which are often counter intuitive to learning) and the unknown of the digital world. Yet we as their teachers, who are constantly reflecting on practice and research, are in a position where we can take a ‘leap of faith’ and adapt our practice to support their learning. Change can often be synonymous with fear, especially when we have been doing something a certain way for so long. However, once that fear is overcome, the character, independence and intellect that our girls will develop, will set them up as those who will take ‘the leap of faith’ in the future.

    Mrs Hughes, Head of Cognitive Learning

Are we setting ourselves up to fail?

  • Failure is a word synonymous with negativity (like the infamous red pen…) but is failure really all that bad? This blog comes to you thanks to another wonderful colleague who introduced me to the book ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Mathew Syed. This book looks at why mindset is so important for success, and why failure is not something we should fear, but rather something we should embrace. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself”. Although this book is not specific to education, there was so much here that resonated, as our girls are very much motivated by success, however, failure is seen as something to fear and often a barrier to learning. So to make this blog meaningful, I hope to pull out some practical strategies that we could use which have been inspired by this book.

    “The history of science, like the history of all human ideas, is a history of error…. But science is one of the very few human activities- perhaps the only one- in which errors are systematically criticised and fairly often, in time, corrected. This is why we can say that, in science, we learn from our mistakes and why we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress” (Karl Popper, 1965)


    Failure vs Feedback

    As teachers we know the significance of feedback, but what is the difference between failure and feedback? If a student submits a work that is 40/40 then is there any feedback to improve their work? Technically no…. Here is when we would challenge them further. But when they achieve 35/40, they certainly haven’t failed, but they will need feedback in order to improve, this is why it is important that all students ‘get it wrong’ at some point. This is also why so many teachers are now moving away from simply ‘grading’ work or grading it at all. What is meaningful is the feedback you give, highlighting errors, misconceptions and then giving the scaffolding that will allow our students to move forward. This has manifested in many ways (and acronyms) such as DIRT, ReAct, Next Steps etc. But what is important is that you challenge students to act on their error. Therefore, meaningful feedback must move beyond ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ to include a task which gets them to engage with their EBI. The impact of this is so important that it is effective to set time aside in a lesson for students to complete these tasks.

    Take for example, the car company Toyota, a highly successful business that uses instant feedback (and failure) to constantly ensure standards of their product and to avoid producing products that aren’t up to standard. If anyone on the production line is having a problem, or observes an error, they pull a cord which halts production across the plant. Senior executives then rush over to see what has gone wrong and help. Well this got me thinking, sometimes it’s not until an end of unit exam or assessment that you notice that a student (or sometimes multiple students) have misunderstood a key concept. By this point they have in their mind made a ‘high stakes’ error whereas if we had this Toyota pull cord, the error could be addressed whilst still at a ‘low stakes’ level in the class. (Matthew Syed, pg 53). To embrace this idea, I have started using a similar concept with my exam classes. When introducing a new concept or text, I issue them ‘bells’. This way, when there is something they are unsure of or need clarifying again, the simply ring the bell. However, before simply giving them the answer, it is effective to ask them questions which will tease the answer out (often to their annoyance) and try to get the other students to suggest a solution.


    Marginal gains and creative leaps

    Throughout Black Box Thinking, there are lots of examples of businesses which have a successful mindset, therefore, there is a lot that we as educators can learn from their successes and in some cases their failures. The book talks about marginal gains and how businesses will roll out prototypes as early as possible to get market research (and essentially, instant feedback), from this they will change and adapt. Even businesses that are considered successful still carry out market research to ensure they are meeting the growing needs of their customers and then adapt from the feedback. These are marginal gains and these bring about progress. But only some progress.

    However, they also need to take a ‘creative leap’ in order to be truly successful. This could just be an entrepreneur taking the leap to invest all their savings into a new idea. It needs to be based on research but there still needs to be that leap of faith. For example, Blockbuster was using the concept of marginal gains to grow the company, they tweaked their design, changed the lay out, introduced Blu-ray and so on. However, in 2000 they had the opportunity to buy Netflix but they didn’t, and as we all now know, in 2013 they went into liquidation as the business platform was obsolete. This is the exciting (and scary) part of innovation, we don’t know what way new technologies are going to take us. But we certainly need to take that creative leap if we want to stay ahead.

    So how can we implement this in schools, well in terms of whole school, there is the creative leap around digital technology. The research out there to say it supports learning, although present, is limited. On a classroom level, we could pose our students ‘the impossible exam question’, this will put them out of their comfort zone and be far from what they were expecting. Again we must remember that it is OK for things to be hard and even uncomfortable, but this will bring progress.


    Fostering creativity

    Failure can also spark more creativity, for example, in a case study on ‘brainstorming’; there were three groups asked to come up with ideas. One was told to write anything down and no one was allowed to criticise their ideas, the second group was given no rules at all and the third was told to actively point out the flaws in each other’s work. The results showed that the third group not only came up with the most ideas but also came up with the most creative. (Jonah Lehrer, 2012). So now, when setting a ‘brainstorming’ or as I like to call it ‘mind dump’ task, ask the students to make sure they point out any flaws in each other’s thinking/ideas.

    Another interesting study was one that looked at word association. Typical word association is not very creative, I say blue, you say sky… and so on. However, when participants were shown ‘blue’ and the word ‘green’ was said much more creative associations were made. (Jonah Lehrer, 2012) Now, word association doesn’t have much use in academics, but as a P4C starter or even just a ‘brain gym’ starter to any lesson, this could unlock much more creative ideas in the classroom.


    Creating Mindset ‘Growth’

    It is true that some brighter students often ‘shy’ away from challenging tasks, the fear of getting it wrong and not being seen as intelligent is too greater risk. This concept has been supported by the research of Carol Dweck (1975) who carried out research on 11/12 year olds. In an experiment, students were given eight simple tasks and four easy tasks. Those with a ‘Fixed Mindset’ blamed their intelligence or other factors they believed were beyond their control, whereas those with a ‘Growth Mindset’ saw the difficult tasks as a challenge and something to grow from. From this task, those with a ‘Fixed Mindset’ could be seen to adopt negative learning habits, whereas those who had a ‘Growth Mindset’ developed better habits and even improved their learning.

    However, Angela Lee Duckworth (2007) who wanted to research into whether we can measure ‘grit’, carried out a questionnaire on Spelling Bee students. She found that those who scored highly, did so because rather than focus on what they do know, they focus on what they don’t know (they asked, what words can’t I spell?). This is the ‘mindset’ that we as teachers want to encourage, how we do this though, is a bit more difficult.

    One suggestion is that in lessons we could remove the option of ‘challenge’ tasks and just have it as a task. If we want to provide all students the opportunity to succeed, then they all need the opportunities in front of them. This is also why differentiation has become something that I feel is rather unproductive, and encourages the wrong sort of mindset. If we start pigeonholing our students into just grades and levels, then how can they develop the mindset that they can achieve beyond this? Rather than differentiation, we should simply have ‘high expectations’, this doesn’t mean an authoritarian teaching approach, but rather the belief that all students can achieve, it just may take some longer than others.



    Education should allow students to experiment and experience, to fail and to flourish. I know its cheesy, but James Dyson quite famously acknowledges that he made 5,127 prototypes before his final design, and he hasn’t stopped there…. Success takes long term application and no one is instantly ‘talented’. Education needs to embrace the importance of failure, we must try new things and take risks. Heather Hanbury, former Head of Wimbledon High School said: “If we wish to fulfil our potential as individuals and organisations, we must redefine failure.” (BBC News, 2012). Which is why Wimbledon High School held a day of ‘failure workshops’, perhaps Northwood could have a ‘failure week’ where we expect our girl to challenge themselves in a safe, low steaks environment so that the fear of failure becomes less. At Northwood we are lucky to be an all through school which means we can work to build an ethos of acceptance when we make mistakes. We cannot change the system of exams (yet) where failure is punished and success is rewarded. But we can reward effort and processes as we prepare our students for their exams.

    Miss Hughes, Head of Cognitive Learning