Learning Re-booted? WISE 2014 & Future Learning in London’s Evening Standard

I was delighted to see a 4 page ‘Special Pullout’ in last week’s edition of London’s Evening Standard, which sported the headline ‘Future Learning’.

The first article contained a summary of 100 education academics’ warning to the UK government that the content of the new curriculum is so focused on rote learning rather than learning with a comprehensible context that it risks becoming meaningless. In the article Paul Collard, CEO of Creativity, Culture and Education, who has just spoken at this year’s excellent WISE Summit in Doha, Qatar, observed that ‘We all want good results for our young people and for them to learn and develop. However, what we test is the acquisition of a narrow collection of facts, not whether we have the skills to succeed in employment, not whether we have the capacity to build and maintain, the ingredients of a fruitful adulthood… Creative teaching nurtures and develops these skills by creating a learning environment in which pupils are challenged, rather than directed, where learning is relevant to their lives.’

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The WISE Summit is the world’s premier international platform dedicated to innovation and creative action in education, so there is little surprise that organisations such as the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) have joined the chorus of dissent, including UK Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, against England’s increasing exam factory culture.

But there is nothing new here. Take a look at this clip from the 2009 film ‘We Are The People We Have Been Waiting For’ in which Bill Bryson, Sir Ken Robinson, Germaine Greer and Henry Winkler, amongst others, talk powerfully about the emptiness of the factory model of learning. Yet here, 5 years later, is the WISE Summit 2014 and The Evening Standard delivering yesterday’s news.

There are alternatives. Graham Brown-Martin, erstwhile hero of the excellent London based conference ‘Learning Without Frontiers’ continues the theme of context over content in an article encouraging a worldwide ‘classroom reboot’. Having toured the world for four months in search of the very best use of connected devices to support learning in classrooms, Graham discovered that world leaders such as High Tech High in San Diego and Essa Academy in Bolton had learnt to blend technology into the pupils’ environment. Interactive Whiteboards were ripped out and replaced with Apple TVs, courses were made available 24/7 through iTunes U and lessons were adjusted to allow longer, broader study periods.

Yet these ideas are hardly the radical reboot that Brown-Martin urges us to embrace. There are very few innovations listed in High Tech High, California that my own school in Birmingham, UK has not implemented, for a very modest outlay. TV studios, radio stations, Animations suites, 24/7 flipped learning tutorials and site wide Apple TVs (instead of IWBs) linking classes and enabling pupils to publish their ideas to their classmates are all common place for us. This is not future learning, it is already here.

Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly endorse the view expressed in this Evening Standard Special Pullout around the WISE 2014 theme of Imagine – Create – Learn. However, a reboot is going to require greater ambition than mere technological transformation, if the slow moving wheels of national government, regional sub-districts or large educational organisations are going to transform education like Brown-Martin hopes. The good news is that the real reboot required won’t cost a penny. And yet it is the most challenging demand that our education systems and organisations face and a change which they are seemingly very reluctant to embrace. The greatest reboot of the 21st century schooling agenda is the shift to an emotionally intelligent understanding of how adults working in schools can be inspired.

Imagination, Creativity and Learning are all strategic attitudes that organisations may, or may not nurture in their school staff. In previous posts I have commented on the common sense of that world-beating province, Finland, in not attempting to make individual schools outstanding, but instead to ensure that every one of its schools is at least good. Unsurprisingly, very many of their schools then became outstanding. Why is this? Largely because there was a spirit of collaboration between them, not competition, an emotional intelligence to the organisational strategic leadership of a large number of schools that is often lacking elsewhere. School leaders are not inspired by castigation, humiliation and derision. That is a very 19th century model of understanding how people work. They need inspiring and encouraging if they are to imagine new ways of achieving great heights in their own context. Is this any surprise? It shouldn’t be: we wouldn’t accept it for our students and we shouldn’t accept it for our teachers and school leaders.

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The fixated and narrow approach of the GERM model of education, much criticised by Pasi Sahlberg and Yong Zhao, is the context in which school leaders are struggling. Incessant grade watching, or ‘weighing the pig’, does not improve the calculated risk taking, imaginative creation and improvement of world class schools. The content of the various programmes the schools deliver is quite irrelevant in contrast to this far more important lever on school improvement. Are the leaders and teachers free to fail, to improve and to achieve better? And are they positively or only negatively encouraged to continually improve and innovate? If the whole spirit of the organisation and its context is not positive then it will embody limited future vision, the school improvement will have a glass ceiling or it will produce highly articulate, superbly qualified, yet ineffective future employees.

This is the reboot that is required: breathtakingly ambitious, well supported and nurtured leadership, which cascades that same context and those same qualities to all staff and students. All the technology in High Tech High pales in to insignificance compared to the transformative effect of this kind of support from provinces, school districts or para-organisations on school leaders and teachers. Chicago’s failed attempt at leveraging improvement through the wholesale distribution of iPads is testimony to that.

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Dr Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, chairman of WISE, observes that ‘When you look at what is going on on the world today, it is clear that the need for innovation in education has never been so urgent. This means we need to think bigger and show more determination in our quest to bring innovation to the field of education.’ I am sure that that sentiment is right. However, the important qualification is that the innovation so badly needed is not centred on technology, as important as that is to modern engagement.

Instead, innovation can only be delivered by giving schools and school leaders the energy, encouragement and inspiration to keep taking risks. After all, the winner is not the one that takes least knocks, but the one who keeps getting up again. Let us hope that all educational leadership groups, wherever they are, embrace this WISE understanding of school leaders’ contexts and truly inspire them to achieve greatness.

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As Stavros Yiannouka, CEO of WISE, says, ‘No doubt the education challenges faced by communities around the globe are varied, complex and daunting. However, WISE is confident that as we sort our priorities to supporting creativity in all facets of our education systems, and as we encourage partnership and collaboration, we can make a great difference in building the future of education.’

True Learning: A Change of Perspective

Autumn time in England is always a lovely and beautiful season. Golden leaves falling from trees nestling in amongst that rare obsession of the English: conkers. I think it might be my favourite season of all.

Last Autumn I had a fascinating discussion with my son about acorns. He had picked one up and we had examined it for a while before I nonchalantly mentioned that from this tiny acorn a mighty oak might grow. He looked hard at the acorn before asking, “So a whole oak tree is inside this acorn?” I loved his question for the simplicity and profundity of its view of the world. In a way of course the answer is yes… and no. Our afternoon walk soon became embroiled in discussions about what really was, or was not, true. A lifetime investigating shades of grey beckons.


I was reminded of this discussion during a coaching course that I run for my colleagues in our school. Over ten days across the year we discuss many aspects of how we can coach and mentor one another to improve our professional performance and one of the sessions deals specifically with the notion of truth. To disrupt my colleagues’ firm understanding of the notion of truth we examine visual phenomena where what is seemingly true is seen to not be quite what it seems, causing us to doubt what our senses tell us. From that vantage point we turn to examine other ‘facts’ that we regarded as irrefutably true and discover that they too may not be the reliable cornerstones of truth that we once believed. For some, this is a very challenging notion, shaking their core belief in the veridical nature of experience.

This journey into iconoclasm is hard won with adults, since our beliefs have been forged over many hours of experience. We tend to take as facts those phenomena that our behaviour and habits have exposed us to during our life. Yet, with a firm enough shift in our perception, we see these facts with new eyes, often feeling astounded that we can now see the world in a different way. A great provocation here is the TED talk of England-based American neuroscientist Beau Lotto, whose visual illusions will reveal the workings of your brain and the missteps of your mind.

However, a paradigm shift leading to a new view of reality is a common experience for a young child. Their world is not so encumbered by layers of habitual expectation. Their concepts are more malleable, their exploration of the world more predisposed to disruptive influence. Yet, as they grow older and learn to fit more snugly with the assumptions and presuppositions of their environment, this openness to perceptual shift can wane, until, perish the thought, they become just like us.

Perhaps one of our most important jobs as educators then is to stay that process, to maintain a ready acceptance of alternative perspectives in the minds of our students, to support their exploration of the old and new, with a mind open to all possibilities.

If you need some help with that, I recommend you turn to an expert: the 6 year old son of a good friend of mine, Australia-based Design Thinker and Educator, Tom Barrett. His son wrote, via his father, a great book of questions that will make you view the world in a new way. Follow his lead, if you dare.

Educating the whole child in the 21st century: where or when does learning end?

Educating the ‘whole child’ has long been an area of keen interest for teachers and parents around the world 12. However the rise of the GERM model across the world, led by the systems of the USA and UK, but increasingly affecting Australia, New Zealand and parts of Canada, has caused global educators to search again for an alternative to the high stakes test strategy . One such leader is Pasi Sahlberg, who travels the world extolling the virtues of the Finnish education system, with its whole-child approach, in contrast to those promoted in other parts of the western education world.

However, beyond this debate over the merits of learning experiences versus test-measured processes, lies the reality of the student’s experience within and beyond the school day. Whatever the pedagogical construction of the school or the values displayed in the school’s balance of curriculum and assessment, the child’s innate learning continues. Yet, if we do not attend to the child’s whole learning experience, beyond 3pm, we leave unattended some of their most valuable learning moments.

Of course, some provinces and states have already allowed for this oversight. Shanghai’s results in the PISA tests have been questioned by some and it is certainly true that of the children that were included in the tests, considerable out of school hours tuition was undertaken to the extent that one wonders whether the test indicates quality of schooling or simply cultural/parental/socio-economic work ethic? Whatever the case, this sort of tutor based attention to out of hours learning experience is not what I am concerned with in this post.

Instead, I am interested in the incidental effects of online activity that many children engage in at some point in the day. In the video clip below, Nicholas Carr talks about the importance of having some reflective time away from technology to allow the crucial memory consolidation that is required to deepen understanding and embed learning (see more here). Those of you who follow my blog regularly will know what a passionate advocate I am of digital learning, however, I suggest that in this technologically infused world, there is a new spin on what it means to educate the whole child. Whilst technology is undeniably a powerful learning tool, the opportunity to stop, reflect, think and mull over aspects of our learning can be compromised by the proliferation of beeps, tones, vibrations and pokes that emanate from our technology. In this sense, educating the whole child means considering the patterns of behaviour that they should nurture across the whole of their conscious time, both in and out of school. Learning to intersperse intense short bursts of activity with time for reflection and assimilation applies to mental, physical and digital activities.

Without doubt, a 21st century learning environment should place at arm’s length a wide range of technology, and the skills to use them appropriately, so that students can use technology to maximise their global impact and also to interact with the global community. In that sense of ‘arm’s length’ I mean that technology should be within easy and ubiquitous reach.

However, technology must also be at arm’s length in a very different sense, in so far as the learning experience of children should not always be open to intrusion by technology. Sometimes as learners we just need to be able to dwell on a difficult or intransigent problem, and that is very difficult to achieve if our electronic companions are constantly distracting us.

Only if we get the balance right between close and distant proximity will we effectively support learning in its technologically enhanced and reflective wholeness.

Skoolbo: the best education app in (and for) the world

Many schools around the world have used Mathletics, the creation of Australian educator and EduTech entrepreneur, Shane Hill. Well the technology has moved on and equally Shane’s ambition to support learners worldwide has moved on with it. His latest creation, Skoolbo, is one of the greatest apps you are likely to stumble across.

Skoolbo looks like a game. It is a game, and a competitive one at that, with each player competing against the recorded performance of another child and a computer generated competitor. It features very high quality graphics, the kind that are only normally seen in high end games such as Skylanders so the children that use it are immediately familiar and impressed by the visual appeal of the game. The child can customise their own avatar and then navigate various race courses, dance competitions or terrains by correctly answering a series of literacy or numeracy questions. The engine driving Skoolbo is a sophisticated algorithm that adjusts to the ability of the player, regardless of age and revises previous topics to ensure that knowledge is embedded. As the players succeed they accumulate points and can trade these in for game enhancements such as suits, vehicles and so on.

What’s more the game is very eSafety aware. The ‘bo-coins’ have no real currency value and cannot be purchased with real money. There are no in app purchases and although players appear to be competing live against each other, they are in fact competing against a recording of another child’s performance. There is no direct contact therefore and no way of the player being contacted by anyone else. It is ingeniously and perfectly sealed from the outside world whilst giving the impression of live competition.

I have seen a lot of educational apps which are either not very educational or are just a money spinning venture. Many of them are quite disheartening in their commercialisation and monetisation of learning, although we pay this fee because we are so keen to harness the seductive power of learning environments such as this to support the rigorous embedding of literacy and numeracy fundamentals. However, this app is free! It is funded partly by a collaborative investment by Microsoft and also by the option to buy a premier account for parents, which allows more sophisticated reporting. Failure to take up this option does not affect the game at all, so it can still be freely adopted by the child either way, at no cost whatsoever. Furthermore, it works on all popular platforms and looks great on mobile devices.

My 6 year old son is absolutely captivated by the game. He loves that he can play a game which has all the features of other games he plays, whilst knowing that he is consolidating his learning. I am quite captivated by it too, to tell the truth. I think that every school should sign up to it. I met Shane over dinner recently and was very impressed with his enthusiasm, altruism and big heart. His product, Skoolbo, delivers on these fine attributes in every way. Install it on your system and watch your children’s learning take off.

Creating great learning opportunities for life: just do it!


A much loved Chair of Governors once said to me, “ You only have one speed – fast!”. She and I both knew that that was exactly what our school improvement plan needed, so all was well. Of course, I am much more nuanced than that and some decisions, processes or results are very definitely ‘slow-cook’ creations. However, there is more than an element of truth to what she said.

I have been reflecting recently on what that sense of urgency which informs so much of my professional (and personal) life is all about. As ever, the wonderful Sir Ken Robinson is able to speak his grounded wisdom in to this quest and the video clip below sums up neatly what it would take others a long time to express.

It may be my age, but time seems to move so quickly nowadays and I am very aware that as a school leader I do not have long to make a lasting impression upon children’s lives, and that the time they spend at school is vital to giving them the tools to make great choices throughout the rest of their life. There is no excuse for not taking the quickest route possible to securing great outcomes for children and young adults, after all, that is what we came into education to do, isn’t it? To that end, Sir Ken’s exhortation to live life and, quite simply, to get on with it, is not only inspirational it is also crucial.

As Nike implores, just do it!

A truly engaging whiteboard

Here at my school we have been doing some ground breaking work on Project Based Learning. Our version is a unique combination of Design Thinking,  aspects of traditional project based learning and Australia’s Negotiated Learning.

At a previous school, I had worked with the photography company Ward-Hendry to produce the now famous ‘Hotboard’. However, as my thinking on Project Based Learning developed, we found in my present school that the Hotboard did not quite meet our needs for supporting pedagogy. It was still a fantastic way of facilitating interactive display, but we wanted it to live up to the Australian notion of the classroom as a third teacher, and it could not do that.

Cue the brilliant team at Ward-Hendry. Once again we had a concept meeting, discussing what we wanted to achieve in terms of enabling flexible thinking and learning, for children of all ages. We wanted a tool that was not ‘technological’ but which could enable engagement of the highest order, allowing children to annotate, adapt and revise their ideas, sharing their thinking in a collaborative way, without losing the need for neat, clean visual attributes.

They created for us the ‘Engagement Hotboard’. It is now, quite simply, an essential part of each and everyone of our classrooms. Take a look at it below and then get one for your classroom. It will change the way that you, and the children you teach, think.

iPhone 6 etc: Start with Why…

Even the mere mention of Apple technology prompts division. Nowadays that division is between iPhone and Android followers, but ‘back in the day’ it was between PC and Mac advocates. I have never really understood why this company provokes such passionate debate (even though I am avowedly a Mac fan and believe that it is clearly better than PCs etc…). I would have thought there were far more important issues in the world to be passionate about, but, I guess each must chose their own course.

Nevertheless, I am very interested in the direction of the Apple, Inc.

Under Steve jobs, the messianic, genius architect of Apple’s resurrection, the classic ‘One more thing…’ of his Cupertino product announcements became almost cultish. There was feverish excitement as the crowd of Apple employees / tech journalists awaited the big reveal. This unquestioning reverence was no doubt part of what repulsed the Anti-Apple brigade, but putting partisanship to one side, those events were very interesting social phenomena and could not be attributed solely to American zeal surely?

Steve Jobs at Cupertino

I am sure that one of the key elements to Jobs’ success as a leader or even social game-changer was that his pronouncements started with ‘why?’. Each product he introduced was founded on the notion of ‘why’ the public would really want it. Famously, on launching the iPhone, jobs said, “Today we are going to change the way you communicate.” Jobs understood that people would only buy the iPhone if it appealed to their desire to ‘do things better’, they would only buy into it if they understood ‘why’ they really needed to. No matter how good things are people want change if it is for the better and Steve Jobs understood this.

Jobs’ phrase plays around my mind: today we are going to change…

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we were able to say in our schools, “Today we are going to change learning and life chances in our community.” Or if we were able to say to our students and pupils when they arrive in school one day, “Today we are going to change your future.”?

How did Jobs help Apple to be such a game-changing company? Well in part it was because he started by asking ‘why’ anyone would want this particular new product. He didn’t detail what it could do, how it was built, how fast it was or how slim it was. He just asked himself and his design team, why? Crucially then, everything they then did had to contribute to addressing  the ‘why’.

At our school, we use the same question to sharpen our own thinking about any innovation or aspect of our school life. How does it contribute to what we do, what does it benefit that is crucial to children’s learning, why does it make perfect sense for us to take this step?

There will of course be miles of column inches spilt over the new Apple Watch or the merits of iOS8 and iPhone 6, but the success of the products will ultimately rest on whether the case has been made as to why anyone would want these latest gadgets.

Just so in our schools. The success of our organisation, the effectiveness of our innovations, the enduring legacy of lifelong learning and excellence that we provide for each child, will depend on whether we have made the case to colleagues, parents and students alike about ‘why’ we do what we do.


The Sunday Times Festival of Education 2014

If you ever have the opportunity, I would urge you to attend the Sunday Times Festival of Education. Not only will you have the opportunity to drink in the sumptuous surroundings of Wellington College, one of England’s finest independent schools, but you will also be able to feed on the wide ranging views and opinions of education that do not always see the light of day at other conferences. It would be fair to say that ‘EduFest’, as it is known, does not necessarily boast the most obvious line up of leadership-inspiring speakers that one or two other events offer, such as the CfBT/NAHT/ASCL conference (which was also excellent and as held just one week earlier). However, the line up is nonetheless eye-catching as it is perhaps a little more subversive, tangential, even unpredictable and therefore just as stimulating as more conventional programmes. Perhaps because of this, it offers a more open-minded, stimulating environment for thinking and reflecting upon the possibilities for schools that are restless in the pursuit of excellence in all that hey do.

The irrepressible Russell Prue, of Anderton Tiger Radio, provided the official Festival Radio again this year and interviewed me during the first day. You can hear the interview here or on Russell’s sound cloud.

Part 1: Using Radio

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Six Principles for Principals #2

In my previous post, I considered Benjamin Zander’s idea of being ‘fascinated’ by the hurdles that we encounter in striving to be an ‘A’ grade teacher / leader / learner. In this post, I extend the idea into my second principle for principals: living in to possibilities.

Professor Dylan Wiliam makes the simple point that the graphs of school improvement are, in large part, quite flat. The distance between the vast majority of schools is statistically quite slight.

Dylan Wiliam data

However, in order to track our progress along this somewhat flat gradient, we have resorted to creating additional ways to level our students and pupils to enable us to chart progress. The problem with this approach is that it is not consonant with the way in which children learn. Wiliam and Black were very clear when they worked so hard all those years ago to support our understanding of levels at ends of Key Stages. They said that at Year 2 a child should achieve Level 2 and at Year 6 a child should achieve Level 4. In between, they observed that children would progress at all sorts of different rates. So the process that we all invented of Year 4 pupils being a Level 3B etc etc were simply figments of our imaginations, much to the frustration of the Professors who had never intended us to do this with data and targets.

WIliam and Black

In the UK, we are just about to embark upon another journey with regard to our understanding of levels, in so far as our secretary of state has announced the demise of levels. Who knows what we will do to replace them, but it is sure to be something that we won’t get quite right as we struggle to shrug off the vestiges of levelling from times past. It seems to me that this issue is addressed by the focus within my second principle for principals. If we are to live in to possibilities, then we must be able to see that possibility.

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The problem is, with our jobs, that we are caught in the moment. Trapped by the unrelenting pressures that weigh in on us, that prevent us from seeing where we are going. We are caught in existential angst about our immediate impact and purpose. However, we all know that as leaders we must never lose sight of where we are going of course, but sometimes that can just be blurred and confused: we can’t see the destination clearly.

where are you going

And even if we can manage to keep sight of where we are heading to, bridging the gap so that we translate where we currently are and where we thought we were heading is all but impossible. This familiar situation is referred to many as being ‘caught in the moment’. Great leaders help others to break the hypnotic paralysis that is brought about by being caught in the moment, the tidal wave of unrelenting workload that makes ‘now’ feel like forever. So how do they break that hold? Through understanding the sunset.


There is something captivating about watching the sunset on the horizon. Have you ever done it? If not, try to this summer. Go somewhere quiet and allow yourself to be absorbed by it. Then you will experience the sensation of cognitive paralysis (but in a positive and peaceful way). What you will notice is that there comes a point, which great leaders bring about for their colleagues. A moment when the  ‘blip’ happens. One moment the sun was still there and then… it’s gone! The paralysis evaporates. Great leaders bring people to that moment to help them overcome the focus on the ‘moment’ that prevents progress towards their true purpose.


I always think of the journey that colleagues must go on in the contextualisation of their current experience within their longer term goals as akin to a diver returning slowly to the surface from a deep dive. In the depths of the ocean, the surface can be such a distant goal that it disappears from the diver’s vision. But when surfacing, the end goal is to reach the surface and to see how to get there the diver must assess how far to move from where he or she is currently. This is more than just breaking a problem down into bite sized chunks. Instead it is seeing every step from here as a constituent step towards the end goal. The diver is not just taking a step of 5 metres, is not just enjoying the journey, but is moving 5 metres towards the surface. So the journey as a whole is constantly in the diver’s mind.

Great leaders help their colleagues see everything they do within the context of this destination rather than becoming transfixed with the moment they are in.

Six Principles for Principals #1

Only recently Nobody asked me (and not for the first time) to do some thinking about school improvement and leadership and to identify a core of ideas that I felt were important to share with Anybody. Here is what I would have replied to Somebody:

1. Only work with Outstanding colleagues

Of course there is a whole debate isn’t there about who has the right to label anyone outstanding and on what apolitical basis (I doubt very much whether some members of OfSTED would meet that last qualification, but that’s a story for another time). Nevertheless, I think that the plain English version of this statement is true and its realisation best exemplified by Benjamin Zander.



Benjamin Zander famously gives his students an ‘A’ grade at the start of his courses, then asks them to write a letter dated a year later, describing exactly what they did to merit that ‘A’ grade. Crucially he urges his students to then fall ‘passionately in love with that person’. What a wonderful message. 

His belief is that expectation is a crushing lever on ambition, which leads to a downward spiral of despair at the sad state of affairs. Instead, he advocates an optimistic declaration in the face of failure of ‘How fascinating!’. This approach to risk taking, ambition and pushing the boundaries demands an element of courage, but also the assured understanding that failure is only failure if it is the last thing you do. If we learn from failure and try again, then it just a crucial stepping stone on our journey of success.



 Of course, Mr Zander does not accept any old Joe in to his orchestra, but demands the highest of standards. This is the caveat that helps school leaders sleep at night. It is not that he revises his ‘A’ grade, but that he works with those that are hungry to achieve it. Many of us have colleagues that are hard working, but that is not enough to be an ‘A’ grade. What is required is hard work on the right things. The process of identifying the right areas to work can be tortuous and is best done in discussion, I would say through coaching (more on that in a later post).


But equally important is the belief and self-belief that a colleague can live in to the possibility of the ‘A’ grade and the determination by all concerned that they will do so. Only then will the wonderful sculpture that exists in all rock be allowed to emerge. So the question is, for you as a school leader, do you have that belief and determination? If so, get your chisel out, a masterpiece awaits your liberating and empowering leadership.