Category Archives: Thinking skills

A journey to the Googleplex – a new way of thinking?

Should we bring the mammoth back from extinction? Can we enable a colour-blind person to hear colours? Did Charles Darwin blunder his way to his seminal “Origin of Species”? Fascinating questions which represent but a snapshot of the discussion, debate, hypotheses which filled a weekend at Science Foo Camp 2014. Sci Foo, as it is affectionately known, is now a well-established annual event hosted at Google HQ in Palo Alto, California. The hub of innovation and enterprise on the Bay offered a uniquely twenty first century backdrop to a very twenty first century gathering.

An invited audience of 250 individuals from primarily science and technology assembled to create a weekend where the audience determined the content of the event. Session after session (failed to make Science and Beyoncé but looked intriguing!) were offered spontaneously by individuals across a range of specialisms at the cutting edge of their area of expertise. The fast-fire five minute lightning talks gave the flavour of the day to come. There was more than a hint of a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musical – the guests at Sci Foo put on a show but a show where everyone had a speaking role.

Arriving at the Googleplex, I was acutely conscious that I was not a scientist, had not made some mind-shattering discovery nor was likely to do so. Yet I knew my presence at Sci Foo was designed for me to learn and to share the experience of teachers who have the responsibility to educate young people to thrive in the world imagined by those around me. Unsurprisingly the participants talked about a reality which had more than a hint of Science Fiction about it. A breakfast conversation about the potential for cyborg technology to change our lives and the ethical dimension of allowing technology to replicate our intellectual capacity touched on the very essence of our humanity.

The contrast between the world of futurists and the world of education is more than stark – it is as if two worlds existed alongside each other yet with little if any regard for the reality in either. It was fascinating that participants from the States felt that the move in their country to introduce more standardised testing was creating a learning environment which was contrary to the free form thinking they displayed. Indeed I joined one session where the debate about the challenges facing schools in both the USA and UK felt depressingly similar. There was a very strong sense that the education system in both countries was failing to educate young people in ways which prepared them for their future. The facility to be resilient, nimble thinking, persistent were deemed as important as examination results. Yet several American colleagues commented on the strong sense of failure which pervaded their school system because of the testing culture.

Sharing a coach journey with a gentleman on the last morning to Sci Foo, I learnt that – in addition to being a retired Professor of Engineering – he advised the US government back in the 1980s about how best to prepare young people for the world of work. Our discussion reminded me of the the debate in this country about how to address the needs of many young people in our country as we moved from our mighty industrial past to a post-manufacturing age. The short-lived Youth Training System (YTS) of the ’80s was an attempt to provide appropriate training yet, as with many such schemes, proved but transitory. The retired Professor is still grappling with this challenge and how best schools can prepare young people for future employment.

Reflecting on Sci Foo and many conversations which often spun off into education, it is manifest to me that we are not without ambition for our young people nor for schools. Where we appear to be failing is in our imagination of how schools can offer a crucible of learning for all. Whilst we continue to view school through the prism of our own experience, whether here or in the US, we shall never be free to think differently about education. Perhaps a healthy dose of Sci Foo thinking would help….

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My thoughts on textbooks, learning and iPads

Go back to traditional textbooks, says Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, because all that differentiation is a waste of time! In essence this was the message from Miss Truss following the publication of an OECD sponsored report which stated teachers in England spend more time preparing materials for lessons than their colleagues in other countries. And the UK is still languishing (relatively speaking) in Mathematics and English in PISA, that oft-quoted league table of attainment which casts such a long shadow over participating countries.

Textbooks appear to be king in Miss Truss’ argument because they provide core knowledge which every student should have and clearly is not being addressed through current pedagogy. Indeed we should be learning from the pedagogy which pertains in China and Japan where textbook-led lessons are the norm: “The top performers in international tests, like Shanghai and Japan, are adept at building on years of experience, at learning across the system. Schools use textbooks which children can take home to use for homework.,” Miss Truss said. Interestingly the Minister is critical of the practice whereby teachers prepare different lesson plans for groups of children in the same class – in her view the same textbook should ensure that all children achieve the standard required.

Textbooks are an interesting concept. How can one book address the learning needs of children across a range of ability? What Miss Truss alludes to are cultures of instruction where young people sit passively in lessons in large teaching groups working hard to understand the content being delivered to them. In this context a textbook makes sense – you didn’t get it first time? Take the textbook home and work it out for yourself before you return to class. Arguably this is the ultimate in independent learning. It is important therefore to note that governments in China and Japan are themselves reflecting on pedagogical practice. There are real concerns that whilst successfully educating high performing students, these same young people struggle when challenged to be creative in their approach to learning. And there are real concerns about the level of anxiety among young people in China. Back in 2011 these concerns were being publicly voiced:
“In the long run, for us to become a strong country, we need talent and great creativity,” Xiong Bingqi, an education expert at Shanghai Jiao Tong University told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “And right now, our educational system cannot accomplish this.” In fact reform of the Chinese system of education has already begun.

So the traditional textbook as a silver bullet, although enticing, is not the way forward. Young people may learn for the tests from textbooks but this does not necessarily mean they can think independently. Which takes us back to the English pedagogical approach. And I have a suggestion which is radical but I believe would make a real difference. Just imagine if every young person had an iPad. This device is a platform for access to iTunesU and iBooks – the former offering teacher-curated access to digital resources and the latter a turbo-charged book created by the teacher for their learners. This digitisation of learning answers Miss Truss’ desire for every child to have a textbook as well as the propensity of teachers in this country to ensure every child in their classroom is engaged, inspired and challenged whatever their ability. Certainly in our school we are piloting the use of such enriched resources and already can see that access to a range of resources beyond the capacity of a traditional textbook is making a real difference to the learning environment. This is real independent learning – students engage with the digital material in ways which are meaningful for them.

Expensive solution? Yes. But what price do we place on education? As the late Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Surely this should be motivation enough.

Has the school library a future in the digital age?

The concept of a school library in a digital age is challenging. With the capacity to download books onto a range of digital devices there is every possibility the library could look superfluous to youngsters growing up today. Why would you want to visit a room which is essentially about storage and distribution?

This question has exercised the mind of my school because senior school students are already equipped with iPads. We had to consider what for many teachers is the unthinkable – is the library an anachronism? A resource to be discarded as no longer fit for purpose?

If we view the library as purely a function of lending books this is indeed the case. However, we felt very strongly that the library is more than a facilitating process – it has cultural significance which matters. The library can inspire. It is with good reason that the great Library of Alexandria is remembered today as a fulcrum of intellectual curiosity and invention. It was here that Archimedes invented the screw-shaped water pump; Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the Earth, and Euclid discovered the rules of geometry.

The Renaissance witnessed the exponential growth in libraries with the invention of printing. What interests me is not just the explosion of the printed word but the inspirational library spaces created to curate them. The Vatican Library is illustrative of the artistry of the Renaissance and the sense that this is not just a repository for books but an iconic crucible for learning. This grand purpose underpins the modern British Library which offers the visitor a unique experience.

So what does this mean for a school? It means a great deal. It is my belief that the library has the capacity to enjoy its own renaissance. Because of the digital revolution it is no longer just about the printed book. As a space, it is about inspiring young people.

The design brief for the libraries in our junior and senior schools is premised on inspiration. In the junior school the task was to create a space all about the power of the story. The story courtyard complements a room which is configured to invite children to engage and explore. It invites them into a world all about the imagination. In both spaces there will be cultural signifiers – the lamp post in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” or a disappearing White Rabbit. Signifiers referencing children’s literature which are integral to the power of the story.

 A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636


A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636

The senior school library continues the journey. Here we aim to combine the power of the story with a concept premised on the Cabinet of Curiosities. Curiosity in its purest sense where a student’s learning is entirely unrelated to examination specifications and is encouraging learning for its own sake. The first Cabinet being mooted relates to an evening next term where the films of Charlie Chaplin will provide both entertainment and a cultural reference point. Our Curator of the Cabinet of Curiosities is tasked with supporting this with the curation of a range of objects which will stimulate interest and encourage inquiry. Our approach is unashamedly about inspiring a love of learning.

The digital age therefore far from sounding the death knell of school libraries offers schools an opportunity to create their own distinctive library space. Libraries have a history of offering inspiration – they also have a future.

Mr Michael Gove – provocative and wrong

What do the Blob, Mr Men and Guardian education writers have in common? They all appear somewhere in Michael Gove’s pantheon of disapproval. The Education Secretary’s latest speech about the problems besetting education is classic Gove. It is very engaging, thought provoking and entertaining. His view on raising the bar of aspiration for all young people is absolutely right. Yet his method is so wrong.

As principal of an academic school where aspiration is part of our DNA, I really do get Gove’s passion for excellence. However, what mystifies me is his very personal take on what should matter in the pursuit of excellence. Gove referenced George Elliot’s Middlemarch as illustrative of the kind of book a 17 year old should be reading for pleasure. This struck a chord with me. As a 13 year old back in the last century I was so inspired by a BBC mini series of “War and Peace” starring Anthony Hopkins and Alan Dobie that I read the trilogy. Whilst I cannot claim to have truly appreciated this classic piece of literature, I knew I was reading something very special which helped awaken in me a life long love of history. I am sure Gove would approve of such cultural aspiration from a working class daughter of Irish immigrants. Yet I should never have even considered reading such a vast tome without the stimulus of the TV series.

TolstoyAnd this is the point. Just as the medium of television opened up the world of Tolstoy to me, today television is one of just a multitude of possibilities for engaging the young. Their cultural landscape is hugely varied. What interests them? Well, I think sober study of classic literature and dry narrative history do not register highly. Young people need an approach which connects with them and the values in their world.

As such, Gove’s dismissive attitude to cultural references which are decidedly low brow entirely miss the point. Mr Men? Disney? Why not if they contribute to understanding and learning. It is not about denigrating, it is about creating. Why not a rap in Latin? Blind Date in the court of Henry VIII? iPad puppet pals for any number of learning opportunities? All tried and trusted approaches in one academic school in Cambridge.

Rather than looking to the familiar, everyone involved in education should be thinking differently about learning. The digital world is a game changer. And we must change with it. If Angry Birds, the staple digital game of many youngsters, inspires a young person to learn coding surely that is a desirable outcome? If the Garage Band app provides a creative platform for an aspiring young musician isn’t this to be applauded? Both activities can be deemed distractions – but they need not be.

We are on the nursery slopes of digital learning. The potential for transformation of the conventional educational paradigm is extraordinary. Yet none of this registers in the world of the Secretary of State for Education. It strikes me that Gove’s well meaning attempts to promote excellence for all young people is being enacted in a parallel universe. The Aunt
Sallies highlighted in Mr Gove’s recent speech will be as nothing compared to future digital “distractions” – sorry, learning.

Final thought. A delegation of teachers from an academic school in Singapore visited us recently to learn about our experience of iPads. I thought that the principal and her staff would be focused on the use of iPads to improve academic attainment. After all, Singapore is flying high in Gove’s favourite international league table, PISA. I was surprised and encouraged to learn that this particular school was, like us, concerned with the holistic nature of education and how the digital revolution impacted upon young people.

We felt a real connection with the educators who worked in a school on the other side of the world. Therefore it is disappointing that the educational policy in this country feels like we are living in a foreign country.