Coerced by my alarm out of a comfortable sleep, I ate breakfast whilst reading a chapter on Seneca from The Consolations Of Philosophy by Alain de Botton (as one does when one is being an edunerd on tour). Luckily, it has pictures.

Back to Wellington College I went for another day of professional learning. Though there were fewer sessions on offer today, most timeslots still had several competing panels, talks, interactive sessions and other opportunities to choose from. As it was a Sunday morning, I chose to take it easy and sauntered along to a talk by Paul Kelley (not the Australian musician – although that would have been still worth going to) on the light topic of neuroscience and it’s potential application to school education.

After an initial failed coup by my brain, which had only just itself woken up properly, I successfully remained seated despite seeing statistical graphs at 9.30am. And it was one of those moments I will look back and say I was truly thankful to have made that choice. Kelley’s exploration of new findings in neuroscience turned out to be a talk that has had a significant impact on my thinking about the future of education. Luckily, it had pictures.

Most of what he said was very much from a neuroscientist’s point of view, that being perspectives solely based on measurable data. For example, he referred to John Hattie’s research (and metaresearch) into visible thinking and how “political solutions” such as smaller class sizes, teaching assistants, performance pay and ability groupings have little to no impact on learning. I agree to some extent – and I would always give scientific studies the respect and due consideration they deserve – however based on my own experience and that of colleagues, I do have to say that there is merit in some of these things when done well and with clear educational goals that are achievable, measurable etc. I realise that’s a massive generalisation and I one the debate continues and schools find solutions that suit their context.

Having said all that, Kelley gave the audience, including Darren Murphy (@darrenmurphy) from the Hall School and Nick Dennis (@drdennis) from Essex and a prolific ICT and History advocate, much to think about. Including that in terms of scientific thinking, process and evidence, we are at a confused/unsure stage of teaching where we (educators) are basing most decisions and practices based n what we’ve us done or what is being pushed onto us by change, rather than scientific understanding of our craft.

There are several conclusions that neuroscience is telling us about our students that we probably don’t know and might not want to hear:
– the ability of students to read faces gets worse at adolescence (perhaps hinting at why Year 9s actually don’t get what you mean)
– when given the opportunity, 25,000 high school students completed university courses instead of or as well as final school-based subjects, mostly chose science and were more successful than both adult (22+) and even 18-22 year olds completing the same course at the same time. [can and should we harness this potential? I’m intrigued by the possibilities since be of my ex-students did the same thing in 2011)]
– buildings themselves impact how students learn: there needs to be brighter, less rectangular spaces for better light and acoustics which actually significantly improve optimal brain performance
– schools start at a perfect time for adult brain function, but the poorest time for adolescent brain function. An 8.30 or 9am start is optimal for very young children and those over 35. Kelley recommends reworking school hours so that after-school meetings/preparation is instead done in the morning and students begin classes later. [if this is conclusive, Kelley mentioned that schools are mentally, physically and in learning terms, damaging their students by forcing them to work to their hours!] Lockley and Foster (2012) argued that the starting time of schools and universities make us nothing less than sleep deprived.
– students learn better in the afternoon [and as I think about it, perhaps those after-lunch lessons are always that much more ratty because the kids are exhausted]

A final point that stood out to me was this statement by Kelley:

“In our working lives, we will know so much more about the brain and learning, and older learners will look back with envy.” – Paul Kelley, Education Festival, June 2012

Need to go get a drink? That was pretty heavy. Go on, I’ll wait til you come back.

With my brain buzzing and no time to debrief, I rushed through the courtyards and glass doors towards the lecture room where, just the day before, had heard some great ideas and perhaps those ideas had stuck around, breeding even better ones overnight. There was no sign of David Attenborough to explain the mating ritual of great ideas, so I consoled myself to sit and experience what Professor James Bradburne of the Palazzo Strozzi museum in Florence, Italy, had to say about museums and learning.

A Canadian by birth, Bradburne gave a highly engaging and entertaining talk on the purposes of museums to society – and in particular to children and young adults – and the ways in which Palazzo Strozzi are making positive changes to engage and excite their patrons of all ages. Similar to the talk by David Cannadine the previous day, I was in history nerd heaven. It even had pictures.

I had always considered museums to be essential institutions for curating our past objects and perspectives gathered and saved from the sands of time. However, the way Bradburne was able to thread the development of public museums in a manner so pivotal to a good history: storytelling (such as from late 18th century France when people began to ask what to do with all the King’s stuff, and thank Clio that the voice of preservation was able to win the battle).

He argued that, as previous famous museum critics had argued, museums are places of informal but important learning. “Noone ever failed a museum”, and a patron is neither expected to have prerequisites or complete an exam and thus the experience that traditionally goes on in museums is what Falk & Derkling described in 2002 as “strong in affective learning”. That being perhaps little cognitive learning, but a very deep connection to emotions and memories. Bradburne gave the example of how the Palazzo Strozzi have regular events where sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease can come, with their family, to share ideas, thoughts and hopefully real memories over the art and installations of the museum. What an immensely moving and human connection that is.

Trying to make Palazzo Strozzi more valuable than a once-off visit, Bradburne and his team strive to give patrons not only the typical Florentine tourist experience (he called the city “renaissance Disneyland”) but a place where people want to come back to time and again. Some of the strategies included visible listening, using feedback given to the museum and making changes clear. An example I loved was how for every curator’s description of a work or installation, there was an equally prominent explanation of the work from a child. This engaged patrons in the development of the museum itself, not merely passive observers. Also, it had unintended benefits whereby some of the youngsters pointed out features not identified by the professionals! On a Cezanne, not only the description filled with quotes like “Well Cezanne sure does like green!” but also insightful comments on the composition such as how one of the figures seems to be alone in a corner and crying. Bradburne said this was something no one had thought to comment on before, and highlighted the importance of student voice in the exhibition.

Other ideas that Bradburne has found useful are activity suitcases (that can be carried around and opened at any time for kids to use as their family walks through the exhibition – result = more time for parents to engage with the museum), Follow Your Florins game whereby students have a set amount of florins (the currency used during renaissance times) and gain discounts depending on how many you gain through your visit, and postcards that some visitors spend up to 35 minutes completing as feedback to the museum or to send on to friends and family.

Finally, two comments that stood out amongst all the amazing ideas used by his institution:

“Did you learn something?” is a dumb question.

There is a false dichotomy between education and entertainment. Education can, and should as much as possible in museums, be entertaining and still a valuable learning experience.

I wonder if the Palazzo Strozzi needs a hand hosting a TeachMeet sometime…

Still with me? Nice work. We’re nearly up to midday!

I remained in the room for the presentation on Creative Learning Environments by Jacob Kragh, president of LEGO Education. And before you kill a cat through curiosity, yes we did get free Lego to play with.

Kragh argued that there is an immediate need for more dialogue in the classroom if none exists already. This would enhance creativity and inquiry which, to him, are essential skills for the world in which we live and that which students will move into whilst at school and when they leave. Creativity is often thrown around and the more skeptical amongst us imagine fingerpainting instead of essays. Leaving aside the benefits of fingerpainting, which are not up for debate, Kragh’s argument was that there needs to be systematic creativity, which for me takes a bit of the shine off like going to “accountancy entertainment”, but refers to resources that are creative in nature but analytical in practice. His point is sound and does challenge educators to think about integrating creativity into curriculum and not bolting it on thoughtlessly like a superfluous wheel to the side of a rabbit.

This led on to ideas such as:
– that there is a need for us to look at the social context of students, not just as isolated individuals learning in a vacuum
– standardised learning is simply not enough and there consideration must be made for the most effective strategies for each student (which technology can help to do)
– creative leadership is needed to equip students to leave as confident learners and people
– creative problem solving is the essential element of 21st century work
– the skill, will and thrill of learning (reflection, project work, self regulation, motivation, low entry barrier and high ceiling, giving individuals a success experience to increase desire to learn more)
– your hands know things that your mind doesn’t (kinaesthetic learning)

At one point in the talk, we were each given a plastic bag with Lego pieces in them and asked to make a duck. I’ll admit that Tom Barrett’s looked a lot more like something you’d actually see floating in a pond (alive I mean, swimming around and that) rather than my slightly malformed beaked monstrosity. I must have had a platypus in mind. What a great way to keep the audience engaged though, Kragh certainly practised what he preached even with us big kids.

After we left the Lego learning lecture room, I met with a few fellow rogue TeachMeeters Jasmine Reynold (@JReynold), Nick Dennis, Darren Murphy, Andy Green-Howard and others (please forgive if I didn’t get your name in!) in the Spirituality room where we discussed everything from new apps useful for flipping classrooms to the nature of English school systems to 1:1 laptop programs. It’s interesting to see how different preferences for particular types of technologies determine many of our decisions. We learned much from each other and I went away feeling just as uplifted as any of the other sessions that day. It yet again highlighted the role of informal, peer to peer learning that compliments even the most prestigious of educational events.

Then I ate lunch. During which I met two teachers who were happy to chat about what they’d learned and I happened to let them know about TeachMeets and how to get involved. For those readers who don’t know, check out http://www.teachmeet.org.uk for UK based events, or http://www.teachmeet.net for Aussie ones. We also have links to international TeachMeet groups.

The next session was chosen again to whet my history appetite, and was called Holocaust and human behaviour – why do some people become perpetrators?.

Using an account of local police in Poland in 1942, the audience was to try to establish what they believe motivated the young German soldiers to either accept or reject the order to join a raid of Jewish Poles in the area with the purpose of sending them to their deaths. Interestingly, in this case, the commanding officer had indeed given them the choice to obey or to abstain from carrying out the order from Berlin. I guessed that only ten of the group would have chosen not to participate, seeing as two SS captains were in the company. However, it was more like twenty. This was pleasing, though when we were told it was a company of hundreds, it was quite striking to think how few of the group felt they could take their commander’s offer.

The final two sessions I attended were What sort of schools do we need? and Why become a teacher?. The first was interesting but did at times fall back on to the old public vs private debate, which is more contentious in England at the moment as the government is putting some schools up for tender to the highest bidder (yes, anyone can bid!) and turn them into academies that both have little government support and no real government supervision. I’ve struggled through this trip to bring myself out of the belief that a nation or state system needs to have some government oversight for all schools in its jurisdiction. Not to be punitive or aggressive in its intervention, but to make sure every student is gaining a somewhat comparable experience based on, for example, a common academic core curriculum.

The new head of Ascham school in Sydney, Helen Wright, happened to be on the panel and made a good case for the independence of schools (no matter what type: government or non-government) to enable schools to make decisions in their own context. What makes a great school, she argues, is a combination of the following characteristics:
1. Responsive to students
2. Led by outstanding educators
3. Strong social and moral purpose.

No politics there, no religious overtones or funding suggestions. I think those are three characteristics any school can live up to when given the freedom to achieve them, rather than factory-like quotas and anxiety-inducing political demands.

In Helen’s words, schools need to be

A) extraordinarily well funded; and
B) free of political interference

It’s interesting that whilst all of society clearly believes schools to be critical, essential parts of social development and economic sustainability, there is little in the way of money where these never-shut mouths are.

Another question raised was What are schools for? which linked nicely for me back to David Cannadine’s research.

Some thoughts included:

Schools exist to create an innovative, creative and dynamic society. To value all members of society, schools should open doors for all of them in work and in leisure. Curriculum needs to follow the child and not the other way around (I bet he was sitting in on Kelley’s lecture earlier!)

Overwhelmingly the panel agreed that there needs to be trust placed with educators so that they can lead their schools, as schools are so much more than factories for producing marks and statistics.

The final session of the day was led by three young men new to the profession after trying their hand in others. Going through the TeachFirst initiative (which I suspect may have been the sponsor of that session), they told their experiences of job dissatisfaction which led them to become part of the noble profession. Crispin Bonham-Carter, actor and brother to Helena, made an interesting case for more non-teachers to give it a go.

I’m not totally convinced they were the best to explain the nature of teaching and give wide-ranging advice to some in the audience who were clearly keen to make the move. In fact, one teacher in the audience gave some of the best advice and she was a primary teacher of over 40 years. The addition of this voice to the panel would have made the session more dynamic. However, always interesting to listen to others’ experiences.

Overall, the Education festival was, for me, a stimulating and challenging event that I hope will allow me to contribute more meaningfully to the profession.

Also, after the day was done and Darren Murphy and I went for a quick post-conference drink, Alan O’Donohoe (@teknoteacher) had us do a little interview about TeachMeet and Raspberry Pi. If you’d like to listen, go to this link.

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