Tag Archives: @tlaberkhamsted

The TLABoratory

Next Saturday sees Berkhamsted School hold its third Teaching, Learning and Assessment conference (TLAB15). I have been lucky enough to attend the two before and both times came away awash with ideas and, more importantly, renewed enthusiasm for my work. Each visit has benefitted me in numerous incalculable ways; from my classroom teaching to decisions made at a departmental and even whole-school level. With tickets now sold out and the event just eight days away I feel the familiar professional curiosity of what might unfold. Based on previous experience I am sure to be in for a real treat… In fact one of the main problems I have faced each time is whose workshop to attend. However, away from the key note speeches and conundrum of which workshops to go to, I am also looking forward to the chance of chatting with everyone there. Over the last year there have been so many tweets and blogs that have influenced my work that I cannot wait to actually speak with the people who have written them.

...and to think they said this design wooden work

…and to think they said this design wooden work (image taken with permission from Nick Dennis

Just like my dilemma of choosing a workshop to attend, there will be so many people there who share my interest and, dare I say it, passion for teaching and learning that there is no way I could speak to them all. To some extent this is what I would term the laboratory of collective enthusiasm and this is the real driving force of the teaching profession. The fact that people are prepared to give up a Saturday to further their own practice and feedback to their place of work. There are plenty of displays of this dedication across the country at various events. However, I single out TLAB as it just happens to be the one that properly sparked my interest in teaching and learning and therefore I owe it a great deal.

I remember being in the audience of the keynote speeches and participating in the workshops of TLAB13 and thinking: THIS. IS. INCREDIBLE. Swiftly following this day I asked to set up a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group (TLAG – imitation is the greatest form of flattery!) at my own school and started co-ordinating a cross-curricular ideas sharing forum. In many ways recreating the TLABoratory like conditions of endeavour, curiosity and openness. This group has been operating for the last two and a half years and is a fantastic conduit for creativity and collaboration. Yes, we do not set the world on fire with what we discuss, but the accumulation of small gains is very much what education is about.

This brings me nicely onto some shameless self-publicity *pretends to hang head in shame*. I have the very enjoyable task of actually delivering a workshop this time around. The concept of this workshop is to look at the small margins of improvement – refining what works well to make it even better. The session is brazenly called “The Twenty Five Four Percents” in homage to Sir Clive Woodward and his one hundred one percents. I hope to share twenty five ideas that might enhance learning and teaching in the classroom and beyond, one hundred would have been pushing it in the 50 minutes provided! Please be forewarned, I will not be delivering earthshattering advice and no doubt a lot of what I say people do already, but most likely twice as well. In fact I fully admit that most of the ideas have roots (pun intended bearing in mind the conference logo) elsewhere. However, having the chance for some open discussion and ideas sharing is all part of the laboratory that is teaching and if I can give something, anything, back then it will be my honour to do so.

And at this point I must return to my slideshow… I have a presentation to plan!

Header image taken with permission from Berkamsted School website.


Success, Failure and Multiplication

Something that seems quite a paradox to me is the balance between helping students succeed against helping them gather independent skills for success in the future. I’m sure everyone agrees that while spoon-feeding and teaching to the test might bring better grades in a specific examination, this process certainly does not prepare students sufficiently for any other kinds of assessment or future experiences they might encounter.

However, I am certainly guilty of focusing on exam practice at certain points throughout the year whilst teaching my classes biology. In addition I am hugely in favour of having regular end of topic testing and reviewing pupil progress accordingly. This is probably due to my inclination for students to enjoy success and do well but also, and more importantly, I am trying to teach about the importance of failure and how to learn from it. On finishing eighth at the 2014 London Marathon Mo Farah was quoted as saying

“I’m not going to finish it like this. I will be back… It was pretty tough. I’m quite disappointed but you try things and if they don’t work, at least you gave it a go…you learn – life goes on”

To me this is the crux of the matter, don’t just judge something by the final measurable outcome but rather by what is gained by going through the process; failure is part of success. So although I certainly do not equate running almost full tilt around London for 26.2 miles to an end of topic test result, the actual result is just a starting point and another stop of the learning process but definitely not the end.

Mo Farah running the 2014 London Marathon (image credit here)

Mo Farah running the 2014 London Marathon (Image taken from Flickr)

Most schools do not celebrate failure quite as much as they celebrate shiny A* grades and league table success for obvious reasons. As co-ordinator of my school’s Teaching and Learning Group we have often discussed the best ways to encourage independent work and it always comes back to the balance between success and failure. In particular when and how we allow our students to fail, if at all. I doubt any school would wait until the final examinations, KS4 and KS5 are currently too important an indicator of learning. Without getting into the debate as to whether current methods of assessment in all their guises are the best way to measure ability, they are used as the main and seemingly most important indicator to many people.

So where does or can failure occur? I would suggest that the list is actually quite extensive, end of topic tests, mock exams, homework and classwork to name a few from my own teaching. Some of our students volunteer to take Higher and Extended Projects and this always seems a glorious opportunity for them to showcase their wider interests. I also believe it is a glorious opportunity to allow students to fail. Of the 60ish students that start an EPQ half will not complete it. However, those that have failed to complete the project have actually learned a good deal and had the realisation that there is not always a “rescuer” waiting in the wings.

The “rescuer” is an interesting concept introduced to me though the book The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside our Schools by Liz Wiseman, Lois Allen and Elise Foster. This book was initially recommended to me by a friend Nick Dennis who is a Deputy Head at Berkhamsted School. After beginning the book at the start of the academic year I emailed Nick straight away very enthusiastically extolling the idea that teachers can be multipliers for their students; the book went on to describe how to get more out of others by inhibiting diminishing behaviours. In March I was lucky enough to listen to Elise at the outstanding TLAB14 giving me further food for thought. An excellent example of a diminishing behaviour that immediately struck a chord with me was when asking a question how long do you give people to answer… When I reflected on my own practice I realised that I am incredibly gung-ho and expect an answer within nanoseconds often answering it myself if there is no answer forthcoming. I now wait longer, in some cases much longer, for a response and the difference is quite remarkable. Since reading the book I have noticed other diminisher traits in myself that I have always thought helped scaffold students but perhaps prevent failure and thus disrupt the learning process; it is easy to be a diminisher with the best intentions. Coming back to the example of “the rescuer” who steps in to save a student from failing, are we too quick to rush to the rescue? At this point I must paraphrase Alfred Pennyworth in the hugely successful film Batman Begins

“Why do we fall Master Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.”

Perhaps if we don’t let students fail they will never learn to get back up.

Header image created by Michael Smyth inspired by similar found widely on the internet.