I knew that I was pushing my luck. The weather had been stunning for two whole days in London and, like Melbourne, the weather could change through at three of the four seasons by midday. On waking in Oxford, I peeked out my little room’s window like what I imagine little Oxford kids do when willing it to snow – or not – before school.

Blue. The sky was, again magnificently again, blue!

So I took advantage and made my way walking to the bus stop to jump on with the locals into Town. After about thirty strides I was accosted suddenly by the appearance of the gates of a gorgeous school, the Headington School, which I had missed the previous night on the taxi trip. I’ll be the first to admit that it was probably there, I just didn’t see it. It looked like a manor from insert-period-film-here and another example of what schools can achieve with a bit of cash and self-determination. If only all schools could enjoy such environments. Some day.

After being told off by the bus driver for not knowing to say “Single to Town” rather than “Morning mate, can I get a ticket into the town centre please?”, I watched a mixture of very old and very new architecture flow past the window over Headington Hill and down into Oxford proper.

Like a good tourist I hopped on a sightseeing bus and donned my embarrassingly red, plastic-bag-born headphones, instantly intellectually seduced by the history and soul of Oxford.

Famous colleges, residence to some very eminent historians (including several Crusades historians I had been introducing to my students in our History Extension course over the last few years) and literally too many significant and influential individuals throughout the last thousand years to name. I had to laugh at the fact that Bob Hawke (Aus PM 1983-1991) got a gong in the tour narration, in the context of being a Rhodes Scholar. Don’t fret though, I didn’t start chanting Aussie Aussie Aussie…

The Bodelien library, Magdalen and St John’s colleges, the High (not just High Street like most towns), the Examinaton halls, Botanic gardens (originally used only by physicians but now also organic chemists and others) and so much more. Oxford is an ideal place for learning. I hope my envy isn’t too sinful.

An interesting aspect that the recorded voice explained was the learning approach at Oxford revolves around the tutorial system whereby students meet with a tutor regularly either 1-to-1 or as a very small group and defend their positions based on readings and their understanding of the masses of information compiled over hundreds of years at Oxford. Is that essentially a flipped classroom approach? It certainly appealed to me. The shame of it is that all students still sit extended written examinations, in full academic dress (which was actually pretty cool to see as they walked around Oxford either nervously apprehensive, clearly relieved or, in several cases, riding a bike – one guy even in a top hat). Because graduations were also going on I wasn’t able to ambush any of my history heroes in the History Department building, but I’ll get in there one day (as a visitor).

Later I thought about how odd it is that governments here (and elsewhere) have such a heavy demand on teachers for measurable (ie economically thrifty and documented) teaching and learning strategies when the pinnacle of learning at Oxford is based on independent learning, mentoring and collaborative debate and discussion. It’s not that it’s because they are adults and can “handle it”. There are plenty of young people who benefit from the same approach much more so than an industrialised and standardised classroom settings that either by systemic or societal pressures or by intrinsic belief.

Aside from a deluge of historic information washing over me from every medieval window, cobbled street or Norman hill (one of which still stands so as to show how William the Conqueror consolidated Norman rule through devastatingly effective military strategy), the main purpose of my visit was to scavenge for ideas about learning or CPD. By meeting Tom Boulter (@tomboulter), I certainly had my mind in overdrive. We met in a great pub called the Angel and Greyhound just outside the city centre.

Tom teaches in Oxfordshire and is Assistant Head, Learning and Teaching, at an outstanding (Ofsted appraised) school that is known around the place for its successes. We spoke about English, behaviour, the class/economic disparity of education, peer coaching and many other things in an intense chat that lasted two hours and two pints. A key idea Tom explained to me was SOLO taxonomic thinking for kids. This stands for Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes.

Essentially, a student moves through five stages of understanding about a subject:
1. Pre-Structural
2. Unistructural
3. Multistructural
4. Relational
5. Extended Abstract

You can google it for more information, but essentially the SOLO method helps students move from a fairly random and informal understanding of a subject to a complex and multi-faceted understanding based on the connections they themselves make. I look forward to using it in class – with hexagons! Tom’s strategy was to have students write ideas for an essay on hexagonal pieces of paper and try to make increasingly complex connections between the ideas.

For example, you might need to write an essay that in a film that Character, Setting, Dialogue and Music are all important, but by literally linking these ideas and testing your argument about those links, students develop a much richer understanding if how to build deep arguments in relation to that subject. Character and Setting may work, but perhaps Character is more clearly expressed through Dialogue and so on. Having students verbally explain these connections and then write about them makes a damn good essay.

Moving through the steps above using this strategy is quite powerful.

I also raised the idea of teacher engagement with Tom. I’m of the firm belief that we need to find ways to effectively engage teachers in their own professional development so as to promote lifelong learning in a meaningful way. Still chewing over that idea, but TeachMeets will hopefully act as a conduit for teacher engagement. We can’t expect people to be at their best when they don’t feel engaged.

Also, you can look at the product of his school’s success with a flipped classroom approach on their YouTube channel. http://www.youtube.com/cherwellonline

After a long walk back to my little hotel on the west side of Oxford, and waving goodbye to Tom as he cycled past, I got the feeling I need to return some day. To visit Tom at his school, to see more of the town and the university and to try to intellectually accost some historians. In a friendly way.

So a few things I have thought today:
– teacher need to be engaged to be effective at what they do
– teachers all over the world are making effective changes to how they teach with great impact
– learning should try as much as possible to be about what’s happening in the mind of the student, not at the front of the room or in between.
– Oxford just ticks all the history nerd boxes… with the pen of C S Lewis and his ilk.

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