Learning at Leeds Education Festival: ‘Building hope in education’

03 Jul 2017

Learning 2

“If you want to change the world, start with yourself”

Mahatma Ghandi

It seems fitting for a final post of this academic year to celebrate the power of learning. Having read and thought about a huge amount of wonderful books and blogs this year and produced my own fair amount of dubious eduwaffle, a first visit to an education conference seems a delightful way to conclude. So, to a short stroll through the inspiring Teaching and Learning Leeds Conference 2017.

Mary Myatt: ‘High Challenge, Low Threat’ 

Having started the year waxing rather embarrassingly (a recurrent theme in this post) about how wonderful Mary Myatt’s second book, ‘Hopeful Schools’ is in this post, I was very much looking forward to hearing her talk. The five thirty Saturday morning rise and journey was quickly justified in the process of the first hour in her key note address. Five moments that particularly resonated:

  1. “Are your values lived or laminated?” A powerful question, that embraces the reality behind shiny platitudes that dominate schools across the country. It is very easy to mindlessly parrot values and ethos’s but Mary asked us to reflect on how embedded those values are throughout every element of the school.
  2. “Humans first, professionals second”: What has always struck me about Mary Myatt’s writing is the value of relationships, compassion and gratitude. It resonated throughout this talk,  highlighting the culture of noticing each other and valuing our work. If this doesn’t happen Mary highlighted how we visibly shrink in our professional capacities, losing both passion and pride in our work. To do so builds up a “bank balance of good will” and means that difficult conversations are made easier, enabling us to be both robust and kind.
  3. “We are a challenge seeking species”: What resonated from her talk is how much we want to be pushed and challenged. It is applicable both for young people and adults in the school environment. Mary talked about interviews with young people in which they outlined how they needed more demanding work: the mission is to teach from the top and not dilute work.
  4. “Ability is banned, talk about attainment”: Mary outlined an education world in which we only discuss prior attainment, and that influences our decisions in schools. She explained the dangers of ability groupings and the profound impact this has on young people moving forward.
  5. The importance of oracy: Mary highlighted why getting young people to speak in full sentences and to seek to harness the power of spoken word is vital to their academic success. The dearth in word knowledge from students can be significantly aided by our work in the classroom, how much are we unpicking words with students and growing and developing their capacity to remember them?

Mark Roberts: ‘Rethinking boys engagement’

Two new English specific discoveries have had a profound impact on my English teaching this year: the brilliant blogs from Chris Curtis and Mark Roberts. Both have had a significant impact on how I approach texts and aspects of English teaching.  Mark’s session was a fascinating and reflective narrative about his deepening understanding of how to tackle the issue of boys’ underperformance. He has very generously shared the full presentation and slides in this post, I would strongly recommend reading them. Five elements of his talk that has given me much to think about in my own practice:

  1. “What happened is I realised that all of my views on how to teach boys were actually… bollocks.” I think it is fair to suggest that we all hold myths about how boys best learn. A range of them were exposed as being gross generalisations in Mark’s session including: relevance, natural differences from girls and competition. He has clearly done extensive reading on research surrounding this and there is a plethora of additional reading in the above post.
  2. “The emphasis was not on intervention or coaching or peer mentoring or parental engagement.”  Mark took a group of fifteen students and made it his aim to get them to achieve C grades in Maths in English. It was wonderfully refreshing to hear of an approach that was not about cramming the students full of every additional moment possible, rather focussing on the value of what happens in lesson time. Even more refreshing was the fact that it worked. So what made this difference in their excellence results?
  3. “Quality feedback that encouraged lots of repetitive practice in their areas of weakness”: An interesting one that I will be exploring more next year – tapping into the direct nature of feedback: motivational and helpful in securing improvements.
  4. “Positive relationships based on effective behaviour management.” A recurring theme throughout the day: the value and importance of relationships in assisting young people to achieve their best.
  5. “Really high expectations for all pupils”: An interesting correlation to Mary Myatt’s ‘Laminated or lived’. For this to work in needs to go beyond a trite phrase that we can repeat to justify our work. As Mark’s work has highlighted –  it is what can make all the difference. What was also refreshing was Mark’s concluding insistence that his success with this cohort of students is applicable for all, moving from the focus on gender to the focus on what works for young people .

Steve Mallen: ‘Mental health in Education’  

This was a talk that genuinely moved and shocked me, and has made me seriously think about mental heath in education. Steve Mallen’s son Edward was a young man with immense potential whose life was tragically cut short at the age of eighteen. His talk was founded on the promise he made his son to seek to avert similar tragedies, a mission to improve how we approach mental health as a country. To seek to reduce this powerful and emotive talk to a list would be doing it an injustice. Instead for me it highlighted the importance of the continued conversation about mental health that involves everyone in society. As outlined on his website:

It is only by talking openly and widely about mental health that we will effect a long overdue paradigm shift in mental health perception and a change in social values.

He passionately outlined the issues that face schools and young people at the moment: lack of training, lack of knowledge in teaching content and a funding lottery. I completely agreed with his concluding statement: “No school is to be accorded “good” or “outstanding” Ofsted status without a comprehensive and accredited mental and emotional education and stewardship profile.” For whatever reason the situation with mental health is a ticking time bomb, one we need to immediately address. The information that he shared highlighted how we are not moving quickly enough as a society to seek to improve the situation. This is a talk that will stay with me for a very long time – one in which I felt much admiration for Steve Mallen’s desire to prevent future tragedies that shattered his own life.

Alex Quigley: ‘Confidence in the Face of Adversity’. 

To return to theme of embarrassment: I may well have confessed my admiration to Alex Quigley in the gent’s toilets and quite possibly professed how much I loved his book ‘The Confident Teacher’.  Although extremely gracious and polite, clearly Alex was internally questioning my sanity and edging quickly towards the door.  Anyway, I again wrote on how excellent a read his book is at the start of the year here and was looking forward to his presentation. Five things that made me think in his inspiring and passionate talk:

  1. “We are a spectacularly undertrained profession”: I have always found this a central element to Alex’s writing: the importance of finding time to reflect, learn, grow and develop. Without this we are not arming ourselves with strategies to seek to improve for our students. Instead, as Alex highlighted, the concern is instead we are just generating more stress and anxiety for young people by projecting our own fears about the challenges of education.
  2. “What are the language expectations that a child faces?” Much of Alex’s presentation was focussed on the challenges in reading that young people face. His account of following a young man on his range of lessons on a school day was fascinating and really made me reflect. Young people are learning tourists and face huge challenges in content as they make their way through the school day. We are also, as he highlighted, “cursed ” by not seeing what young people face in their position as novices.
  3. The notion of the iceberg that ran through his talk. Alex highlighted how as professionals we need to look beyond the surface area and consider exactly what young people need to do in order to be successful. This detracts from the data and mock exams obsessions, instead looking at what will make learning stick for young people.
  4. The value of words. This post perfectly by Alex perfectly sums this up: ‘What is in a word. Etymology for every teacher’. It was a recurring theme again throughout the day, the notion of making vocabulary memorable for young people. Alex gave a fascinating example of the origins of Ghost to highlight just how interesting this can be for young people to unpick.
  5. The focus on memory. Alex’s book is great for this, with lots of practical strategies for supporting student’s development of memory. He highlighted the importance of giving young people tools to foster their memory, using his own low stakes quizzes that he repeats at the start of lessons as examples. Memory was a ubiquitous topic at the conference, and it was great to see Mary Myatt recommend Peps Mccrae’s excellent ‘Memorable Teaching‘ in her talk. This has had a huge impact in my teaching this year, I wrote about using strategies from it in this post. 

‘Louisa Enstone – Reclaiming writing: The writing teacher’s workshop’

Clutching an English Literature degree has always made me feel rather insecure about teaching the process of creative writing. I am not particularly wonderful at it myself (as the panic I felt about writing during Louisa’s session further proved to me!) and find it tricky to develop student’s confidence with it. This final session for me (unfortunately a previous Geordie arrangement meant I had to begrudgingly miss two final sessions), has inspired me with a number of ideas:

  1.  “Writing is about minimalism”: lovely and apt way of describing writing that I will now be sharing with young people. It embodies how writing is painfully slow and how alien this concept is to students and how they need guided and steered to do it effectively.
  2. “Start with your voice”: I love this notion, that quality writing can be empowered for young people by allowing them to discover their own inner creativity and write through themselves. Louisa ran us through a number of writing tasks, including a description of ourselves to reveal character traits and a description of one of our idiosyncratic quirks. She did this all by cultivating a delightful creative atmosphere which stripped away any sense of insecurity or fear of sharing – much to consider for creative a classroom culture that builds openness about writing.
  3. “The teacher as writer”. Louisa made it clear how much she writes and talks about writing with young people: how she models every aspect of the approach. She showed our group a paragraph that she had re-crafted with young people, a powerful approach in developing the clarity of their own writing. Her passion was clear to see throughout her session – a perfect tool to inspire young writers.
  4. Characterisation. One that is very tricky to teach young people, how to create interesting characters. Louisa suggested young people describing a character they know from their own reading in a new setting. This means they already have a sense of that individual and can authentically create them. This again strips away the uncertainty and means they are free to experiment with writing.
  5. Characters on card. This was a fantastic idea to widen young people’s ability to write about people, with character profiles outlined on people shaped cards. Students are presented with the cards and asked to write about their characters in different scenarios. Deceptively simple, but a method that I know students would enjoy and write well from.

The festival was a hugely rewarding and worthwhile experience,  would strongly recommend getting yourself to Leeds next year, or indeed your nearest education conference. It has certainly fuelled my own tired spirits for the last couple of weeks of term and is a reminder of just how passionate, committed and proud teachers are of their profession. The concluding slide on Alex Quigley’s session from Margaret Mead appears particularly apt: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

On that delightfully optimistic note, I have a two week school trip to India in a couple of weeks to prepare both physically and mentally for. Thank you for reading, have a lovely, restful summer holiday when it eventually arrives. One of India’s finest can have the opening and closing remarks:



Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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