Sunday, 26 August 2012

Sophistication, smugness and sampling it all

I've had an awesome first day back today with an INSET led by the rightly well-known and -regarded Paul Ginnis (, @paulginnis) and a number of the materials and examples he showed us set me thinking and offered something new - as good INSET ought, but so rarely fails, to do.

Over the past year I've been trying to be adventurous with one particularly trailblazing set, a mixed-ability year 10 Psychology class with a great attitude to learning. The adventurousness has taken two forms - firstly, essentially no written work (see my prior blogpost or the Guardian's shortform of the same), and secondly - and what I'm going to focus on here - a heavily experimental, practical, group-working, out-of-the-classroom-much-of-the-time approach. I've been incredibly impressed, feeling very optimistic about their results all summer, and a class median of B on GCSE papers sat in year 10, and including 3 A* grades in a class of 14, has affirmed the quality of their learning and the energy and commitment they have brought to it. But watching Ginnis's presentation today has made me wonder if I'm so busy being pleased about the new ideas I've already tried that I'm not embracing others I might be starting to experiment with too. Let me start with the thing I think I'm doing well - for the purpose of showing it's not enough in itself. Like all alternative approaches, there's plenty of other people in other places doing it - even if you didn't know the name it has come to be known by in training circles. I've just always thought of it as practical or research or experimental work in Psychology, but Ginnis's labelling of it as "Problem-driven learning" is fairly neat. The idea is to start with the big question, allowing intrigue, interest, and desire to solve to drive the engine of the content learning. In practical Psychology lessons, this takes the form of asking them, on a given syllabus topic, what they'd like to know about it, how they'd like to research it - what evidence would they want to go after, what big question answer? Why do boys and girls do differently on this? What else do they think differently on? Are there set meanings to set forms of body language? How would we find that out? Three weeks down the line we often have some compelling data and clear conclusions after designing and executing experiments real researchers have been impressed with. I watched the Gifted group of this class of 14-year-olds report one of their self-designed projects to first year university psychologists this year, who were gobsmacked by how outclassed it made them feel. The big problems and the big picture and so motivating that they set in context how easy much of the related curriculum material is - so students tear at a rate of knots through the specified curriculum as mere foundation work to explore what they really want to know about at a higher level. Although most marked at the top end, the benefits have been clear across the whole ability spectrum.

So why am I so dissatisfied with this practice, then? Both senior colleagues and trailblazing peers with whose own innovations I am impressed have remarked positively, and the results have been impressive - and I was never under any impression that I was doing something no-one else was attempting, only something rare - but watching Ginnis talk through a whole range of innovative approaches, it strikes me that I'm doing little or none of this other stuff. Scoring one goal, even a spectacular one, doesn't win the match; one swallow does not a summer make and all that. Worse yet - and here's the crux - the very same peer colleagues with whom I have mutually-supportive conversations about our respective innovations are in many cases doing these things already: that's their innovation, as mine is mine. We've shared one another's trailblazing in moral support terms but actually not really learnt from one another, not cross-implemented. I'm great at problem-driven learning; but I don't flip the classroom (provide online resources teaching theory, then using classroom time to do, close-supported, conventional "homework") very much; I rarely reverse (exploratory work first, theory in retrospect.) Suddenly it strikes me that using - depending on - one such innovative technique is intellectually lazy and potentially low-geared in teaching terms. If you are a model classroom-flipper - if you design brilliant theory material for them to pre-access - you would be even better if you were a reverser (in the Ginnis terminology) too: if you allowed the exploration work first, you could be crafting more apt flipped materials as you saw them struggle and fail with certain concepts as they went. If like me you always provide good opportunity for problem-driven learning at the end of the unit - a kind of reward for rattling through the content to get to the big stuff - why always do it in that order? Couldn't I start with the briefest covering of the topic area, invite the problem-driven project work to happen there at the start, and be doing a kind of reversing at the same time? Couldn't I be used that coaching time, with a randomly withdrawn group, to create the flipped material as others completed experimental work to a university standard? (I'd have a link to YouTube to show you that here - if I was doing this, which I'm not - yet!) And there are a dozen more techniques, so work out your own unfulfilled combinations of game-like / theory of fun, choice, externalised teaching and so forth. The point is the more you innovate, the more you enhance each innovation; as each trick is mastered, add other layers. And I've not been doing this, it suddenly strikes me, with the best class I've had in years.

Now the school year is hard, long, and the longer it gets, the harder; and the defence of my failure to innovate further or pick up yet more new ideas is (a) it's a big ask to keep reinventing yourself all the time and (b) most teachers would be pretty impressed with those two big changes to my practice at the same time anyway (dare I breathe that many teachers might need to try both a bit more?) But this will not do. Even if it is not smug being proud of taking, and making successful, approaches which are new to you and relatively new to the school - I hope it's not - you can't stop at one or two changes which work. The most common death of good initiative and research evidence is when it is robotically systematised, so I don't want everyone forced to try my approaches; the next most common abuse of a good idea is when teachers attempt too many changes at once, and either mangle all of them, or develop an overload aversion as a result of the stress resulting and therefore reject and allow to lapse developments in their practice which they'd have naturally embraced given a more organic route of change. But I'm not talking about these (depressingly regular) cases: I'm talking about changes I have chosen to make and explore myself, supported by a flexible and interested Senior Team, on a timescale of my choosing. And that flexibility, combined with this good INSET (and, dare I say, a long holiday) have made me the one who decides that's what's going on already may be fine, may be great, but it's not good enough - something new and more is needed. I don't know yet what it will be - flipping more consciously, reversing more often, adding better visualisations, video work, or quiz- or mystery-like components to the learning I oversee - but something will come out of this. It's not enough to be good and adventurous at just one or two things. Reinvention needs to be lock and stock, as well as barrel.

There's no magic wand about it. Constant self-refreshment and renewal is difficult in most lives and especially hard in an emotionally-draining field like teaching. Too much INSET and training in schools is suicide-inducingly procedural or (perhaps worse) a masquerade of inspiring "practice-changing" developments whilst being at best third-rate recycling and more commonly packaged orthodoxy in demoralising management speak. Real vision about change, real energy to motivate expansion and experimentation, and real examples of success making new ideas work in a breadth of contexts - this is rare, delightful, and frankly surprising. So, Bravo, Mr. Ginnis. I'm switching the congratulations to you because my best class and I have had our pat on the back already this year, both in the form of enjoying the learning and getting strong results from it; it's time for us, and from my point of view, me in particular, to question, challenge and extend anew - to not just rest on the laurels of one effective innovation I think my classroom is leading in - but to start experimenting with the others too; others where I know, if I'm honest, that I've known about but failed to try. Onward and upward - just where good INSET should send you. And Headteachers and Principals everywhere, remember this: you get about a fortnight once a year, about now and not again, to invest this training time in inspiration and daring propositions rather than house business - keep its use to that purpose, and see the gain. Give leeway and foster innovation in your staff and they'll find those new successes you are hoping for. What's next?