Leading 21st C learning : getting my bearings for the journey ahead…

I’ve been on a fantastic professional learning journey in recent weeks: listening and talking on the conference circuit (#lfe2012 #SSATNC12, #elconf); burying my head in my tweetdeck and the library of blogs and youtube clips that follow;  hosting a TeachMeet (#TMEssex); reading a couple of books and having the privilege of visiting some amazing schools.  All of this has brought me into contact with the ideas of some great educational thinkers (John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam, Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas, Eric Mazur, Carol Dweck, Tim Brighouse), the thoughts of some great practitioners (John Tomsett, Alex Quigley, David Didau, Vic Goddard, Tom Bennett, Christopher Waugh, Mark Anderson, Zoe Elder..)  and the ethos of some amazing schools: Saffron Walden, Passmores and Wellington.  Of course… there has also been the joy of working at my own school where magic happens every day.  (I would say that wouldn’t I… but it’s true!!!)

From all of this, I am now looking ahead.  What works? What matters? What do we need to embed further or chuck out? What might things be like in 10 or 20 years and are we on the right path?  This is my attempt to make some sense of it all…I’m taking stock.

Teaching and Learning:  Pedagogical enlightenment

There is no formula and we need to celebrate diversity in teaching:

It seems clear that many voices of reason and experience are saying this.  Read Tom Bennett’s ‘Teacher’, David Didau’s blog, Michael Wilshaw’s speech – or even my own ‘balanced diet’ blog.  There are plenty of ways to skin the learning cat! In fact, the hoop jumping, tick boxing, formulaic approach does not achieve its goals.  We should take account of the evidence and experience from academic and action research…but we won’t succeed unless we find our own style; one that helps us to form the relationships we need with our students, enables us to know their learning needs in detail and allows us the freedom to be creative and responsive in the classroom.

We’ve got be ambitious: every learning goal should be rich in challenge, aiming not to meet but to exceed potential (Hattie); we need to adopt a growth mindset (Dweck) and instil that in our students. We need to set ‘hairy audacious goals’ (Wiliam) and not be content with any student falling behind, building our school systems around that imperative.

Screen shot 2012-12-09 at 02.14.56
John Hattie’s superb Visible Learning Pt1&2 presentations from YouTube

It’s not a free-for-all: some learning strategies have proven impact: 

  • effective direct instruction is high-impact; this is timeless.  Having things explained well, (focusing on the process, not the final answer), is how we learn a lot of new things. ‘Chalk and talk’ is much derided.. but the ability to explain is a key teaching skill..and a key learning device. The KEGS experience is that for the most able students, strong subject knowledge is vital… it shapes the depth and rigour of questioning.
  • students working collaboratively: discussion of a problem, peer involvement in a task, peer assessment, peer instruction… these things improve learning to a massive degree.
  • learning aims and success criteria: when laced with challenge, if students know what it is that they are aiming at, their learning is better.(WALT and WILF.. are much derided because they become reduced to a formula;  but the concepts are still valid)
  • feedback is the key: detailed guidance on how to improve with short turnaround task repetition to act on the feedback.  Formative assessment should impact directly on subsequent work and lesson planning;
  • questioning in class should involve all students; not just taking turns. All-student response techniques are vital but this leads us to the need to do more work on asking better questions – finding questions that promote/necessitate peer discussion is the goal.
  • the idea of making learning visible (Hattie) – getting to know what and how students are thinking is powerful, linked to the Claxton/Lucas ideas of making the language of learning explicit:  ‘Going back-stage…’ – De-mystifying the whole learning process is what we should be doing; this meta-learning enhances the depth of learning in a subject.
  • ‘flipped learning’ has existed since books were invented; it’s not about technology (Eric Mazur). This is a simple idea of providing materials that enable students to pre-learn key concepts so that lessons focus on questions, feedback and peer instruction. The Mazur model demonstrates the power of peer-instruction, whereby students improve their collective understanding through discussion based on feedback to their initial responses.  This links completely to Hattie’s ‘peer involvement’ idea.

    Eric Mazur and his incredible learning platform
    Eric Mazur and his incredible learning platform
  • I’m a massive advocate for homework but it needs to be re-defined and re-configured.  Pre-learning that helps ‘flipped learning’ or providing straightforward opportunities to practice are things that work. The more open-ended, unstructured or challenging a task is, the more consideration needs to be given to a student’s learning environment at home; if there is no-one to help when they get stuck… it can be counter-productive.  This suggests thinking is needed around supported self-study – providing an in-school or online environment where the inter-lesson work can be done successfully.  (See my post about what Hattie says on homework – which he commented on himself.)

I think our Teaching and Learning Statement is about right… the question is how we put it all into practice in the classroom:

The KEGS one-page Teaching and Learning jigsaw.
The KEGS one-page Teaching and Learning jigsaw.

Leadership of learning:

I like to think that I do prioritise this in my work, but I want to go further.  (John Tomsett’s recent post is superb on this.) At #LFE2012, Hattie was emphatic in stressing that we need to focus on teachers, not teaching.  We need teachers with the right attitude, teachers with a growth mindset (as well as students), teachers willing to learn and continually improve.

Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie both emphasise teacher development as the key
Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie both emphasise teacher development as the key

At #SSATNC12 Dylan Wiliam said exactly the same thing.  He suggested that recruiting ‘the brightest and the best’ is a mistake;  we need teachers who are most willing to engage in professional learning – ie those with the greatest capacity for self improvement.  I’d suggest these overlap to a large degree but the thinking is different.  Wiliam also suggested that ‘strengths and areas for development’ is a blind alley; we should be asking teachers to get better at what they are already good at. Finally, Wiiam stressed the power of teachers working collaboratively and I love this phrase: “as a team not in a team” which chimes with Hattie.  (See this excellent post exchange from Alex Quigley on Hattie’s definition of passion)

So my action points on all of this are:

  • To re-affirm my commitment to ‘rainforest’ thinking around CPD: no more one-size fits all CPD – and the importance of our Teaching and Learning Workshops.  We are on the right lines with this.
  • More time and emphasis on team planning and team review of student progress, where teams look at evidence (ie not just numerical data) on the impact of teaching and use that to inform their own practice, seeing it as a evidence of their own effectiveness.
  • To explore the idea of the role of the challenger…Wiliam bemoans ‘serial polite turn-taking’ in meetings. However if meetings have an appointed role of ‘challenger’, this legitimises challenge: Why are we doing this? What is the impact? How could we do it better? Instead of the ‘how lovely and hard-working we all are’ approach.
  • To continue to explore the balance of increasing trust and autonomy – enabling teachers to do what they choose and feel is right – with increasing challenge and accountability for making an impact – asking for evidence of impact.


Is our curriculum at odds with the prevailing wisdom on pedagogy?
Is our curriculum at odds with the prevailing wisdom on pedagogy?

Guy Claxton, Bill Lucas, Tanya Byron and Tim Brighouse, make a lot of sense and should have a greater influence on current discourse on the curriculum. Away from the absurd knowledge-skills dichotomy, there is a curriculum out there that would enable students more scope for creative risk-taking, self-expression and the opportunity to carve out a path that matches their interests – and that isn’t just a bunch of bolted-on collapsed timetable days.  (No more skate-boarding lessons.. but more metaphorical skateboarding! )

My school’s curriculum meets our needs by and large, but we struggle to fit everything in.  A grand re-think is needed.  Are we too linear, too boxed in by historical timetabling structures and the idea that all students should have the same experience?  Should students have more choice at a younger age?  Some big questions.  Specific points of action:

  • I’m committed to giving language learning the time it needs: 4 hours per week in one language; it works and is one of the most exciting curriculum developments I have ever seen
  • I want to find a way for coding and computer science in general to feature more strongly
  • I will resist all pressure to diminish the status of Arts versus EBacc subjects, whatever direction DFE policy takes.
  • I will try to expand the role of co-construction where students lead the curriculum – as in our Project 9 initiative.


Digital library, social media, mobile technology: It's our new reality.
Digital library, social media, mobile technology: It’s our new reality.

The consensus on this is absolute.  Technology in education isn’t about technology at all: it is all about pedagogy and curriculum.  The possibilities are unlimited and we are on a path that leads inexorably to greater integration of interactions that are social and explicitly educational. This is modern life.  The Wellington conference confirmed ideas from Mark Anderson and Daniel Edwards that  ‘internet enabled devices’ need to become standard bits of kit  and that we need to be heading for the cloud. The culture of banning and restricting, to me, is simply backward.  It is a clip-on tie solution.. that can’t last long.

My action points:

  • Get over the discipline issues and the constraints.  I like the idea of ‘devices on the table, not in your pocket; use them, don’t hide them’. I want to get to the heart of our network restrictions on mobile devices because we may be being far too cautious.
  • I want to know more about Googledocs and cloud based workflow. I see a revolution coming.  I think I’ve glimpsed the summit but we’re in the foothills…. it is exciting but also slightly daunting.  In 10 years time, we need to be fully immersed in the cloud. Make that 5 years.
  • I want more of my staff to be engaged in the online community that Twitter supports.  Arguably, people like Martin Burrett (@ICTMagic) and Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit) have had more direct impact on teacher CPD than any single individual before them.  However, it is the dynamic community aspect that has the greatest power.


Foyer installation at Passmores representing the school's ethos: the journey rather than the arrival.
Foyer installation at Passmores representing the school’s ethos: the journey rather than the arrival. Each trophy celebrates an attitude to learning.

My recent school visits to Passmores in Harlow, Saffron Walden County High School and Wellington College all cemented my belief in ‘ethos’ as the driver for success in schools.  I feel it is true in my own school.  At Passmores, the ethos is palpable amongst students and in the staffroom; every child is being pushed and nurtured at the same time with a kind of tough love and relentless focus on raising aspirations. And it works. At SWCHS, the ethos was evident in the staff CPD session: a deep and strong culture of collaborative professional learning.  At Wellington it is all about thinking on a grand scale; resources are not a problem.. but you still need the vision and we can learn from that.

For me, this affirms my commitment to ethos-enhancing activities in my school.  We do this well with students.  I want to do more with staff….so that they feel that they have an even greater stake in shaping the school’s future direction.

To round up, none of this is about the exams our students sit, or the nature of inspections, our place in the performance tables, school structures, pay scales or constraints on school finance.  It is about the things we can control regardless; the things that really matter.  An important question for the system is whether we measure what we value, or merely value what we can measure  – or whether we can accept that many of the things we value can’t be measured? This means we need courage to do what we think is right regardless.  The realities of the system we are in may or may not support our goals.. but I’m determined not to allow them to dictate our values.

My big moment, wrapping up the keynotes at SSAT National Conference from 1.00
My big moment, and a call to arms, wrapping up the keynotes at SSAT National Conference from 1.00min


  1. “Raising aspirations” was the key phrase in this post for me, though I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph. I seem to be going round blogs at the moment quoting Hector from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys: ‘Pass it on’.


  2. Trying to hit a multi-dimensional, moving target is tough. It is great to read the struggle to put this together. Like everyone, there’ll be more thinking, trialling, modifying and reflective evaluation. Every teacher has to become a researcher and share outcomes. That positive ethos, modelled through engaged staff will have impact. It might also be a case of letting some go ahead to map out the territory, to prove that it’s possible. Then it can be described from within, not a good idea imported.

    Good luck Tom.


  3. A great post and then I read to the last section on ethos and it got even better. All the contemporary pedagogy in the world won’t amount to hill of brand unless the community believes!


  4. A great post and then I read to the last section on ethos and it got even better. All the contemporary pedagogy in the world won’t amount to hill of brand unless the community believes!


  5. I really enjoyed this article, particuarly your action points at the end of each paragraph aimed reminding yourself of what mattters most to you as a head to stay centred in what you believe in, amongst the hullabaloo of current changes. The actions around the curriculum are spot on; we are all going to need to back the Arts, no matter what.
    Keep up the good work!


  6. RAs every I find your posts thoughtful reads. I agree that the key is a culture in a school where teachers are trusted and have autonomy in the classroom. In return we all need to be reflective practitioner who research and read to continually improve our practice. Various things I have seen recently have made me consider the impact of lesson observations. We have increased then significantly this year. Senior and middle leaders observing and feeding back with strengths and areas for development. There has been plenty of paired observations for standardisation. On the face of it looks good but I Wonder about the impact. I have found (as you would expect) people put more time into planning and deliver differently. As a consequence and discussion about next steps in developing their teaching can be irrelevant if the lesson observed wasn’t a usual one. We give an ofsted grade for the lesson, I find many staff are like the kids – more concerned about the grade than how to get better. Any thoughts on how to use observations to develop the growth mindset in teachers?


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