Friday, 27 February 2015

Montaigne Society Cambridge Trip

Chris explains how learning happens at Cambridge

An excellent trip to Cambridge yesterday. The Montaigne Society visited St Catherine's College where Chris (the School's Liaison Officer) introduced them to what learning was like at the university, both through an informative presentation and also getting a Ph.D Theology student to give a sample lecture. There was also a trip to the very impressive Fitzwilliam Museum which has amazing collections of all kinds of things to ignite curiosity.

Whilst any applications might be a few years off, it is clear that many of the students managed to see a glimpse of where there learning could ultimately take them, and hopefully makes the key messages we are trying to impart at Oakham, resonate to an even greater extent.

George Smith (Clipsham) followed this with an excellent presentation today in the Society's weekly gathering. He chose his genuine academic passion of palaeontology and did a fantastic job at introducing us to both his own journey; how he became so engaged in this area of study; and also theories about whether Jurassic Park would be at all possible and whether the Loch Ness Monster could exist. Along the way, we certainly got to share in his immense enthusiasm for the topic and it was abundantly clear that extensive research and critical thinking were both key foundations to the success of the talk.

Friday, 6 February 2015

A variety of teaching and learning news...

A bit of an update of various exciting things for today's post.

1. Four 7th Formers did an AMAZING presentation to the 1st Form about "what I wish I would have known about learning when I was in 1st Form?" Ella Brahmachari, Erol Guvenor, Bea Wignall and Kiera Thomas all promoted taking responsibility, fully engaging, looking out for the subjects you enjoy to push further, and also persevering with the ones that you find difficult. Speaking with some of the 1st Form afterwards, they got so much from listening to the older students and it is definitely more convincing to hear those messages from Oakhamians who have been through the same journey that they are embarking upon, rather than from me all of the time.

2. The Montaigne Society continues apace. Patrick Holmes and Xavier Thomason did a fantastic presentation today on how computer games fulfil human psychological need. They demonstrated this through showing particular games and how they are attractive due to them catering for - for example - our longing for relatedness, autonomy and competence. Again, quite an amazing level of thinking for this age group. Personally I am excited by the research two 5th Form girls are carrying out into religious symbolism in Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis, but then I would be!

3. Hopefully our 7th Form are picking up on the new initiative of "Student Impact Reports". These are a handy way to compile the key targets and practical steps to achieve these in order to make maximum progress. In a teaching and learning sense, this is excellent practice as it focuses the mind on the few aspects that will have (as the name suggest) maximum impact.

4. Just last week, Sue Brindley came for a second visit from Cambridge and met up with some of our CamStar teachers. She is a wealth of knowledge and speaking about teaching with her for just ten minutes gives a whole array of ideas about not only teaching itself, but how to evaluate its success properly.

And plenty more as well - there is certainly no such thing as a "slow term" at Oakham.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Doing it for themselves...

Such a brilliant lesson with 1st Form today! We have been introducing the year group to "FOSIL", which is Oakham School's framework for guiding student's independent research. Today I saw the first fruits and the start of something really special. Basically, FOSIL breaks up the research process from the initial point of connecting with a topic or question by thinking about what is already known, then wondering and raising smaller questions that will guide the research process. This is then followed by investigating using different resources and at that point reaching a logical conclusion based on this research. This is then followed by presenting the research and conclusion (whether through essays or presentations) and finally a reflection on how it has all gone, and where you could go to next. When we talk about LHO (Learning Habits at Oakham) this is it in its purest form. It both teaches students the skills they need and then expects them to practise them until they will become second nature.

I am quite determined that these students will all be able to meaningfully investigate information and critically think about it so that when they do reach exam-age (and beyond), they will not want to be spoon-fed answers, but will have been encouraged to take themselves seriously as a learner and have automatically high expectations of the leading part that they should have in their learning.

I have been trying it out recently with the lovely 1G, looking at the question: "Is following the Eightfold Path (Buddhism) the best way to live your life?". We have worked through the stages and the students have wowed me with their ability to think up interesting questions and intelligently pursue answers through using both print and Internet resources.

Initially some had the habitual "rush to the powerpoint", but after some talking through and guiding from me, I am seeing far more noting and discussion of information prior to actually jumping to an uninformed conclusion, sadly something seen too much in most schools, and in society. These students, through really applying themselves and living up to the high expectations of taking a lead in their own learning are developing crucial tools to not only achieve excellent academic grades, but more importantly (in my view) be able to follow their interests and become genuinely knowledgable about whatever they choose to investigate. What a great way to spend a Tuesday afternoon!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Is it just a gimmick?

...on Friday, I find out.

Let me explain. I am fascinated with the interplay between "traditional" (often a word for tried and tested - sometimes a word for the woefully unexamined) and "progressive" classroom practice. I mostly argue that these are falsely dichotomised and actually, we should just do what works (according to your aims and objectives as a teacher and as a school). When thinking of what is often called "progressive" teaching practice, I am always careful to try and spot a gimmick, over something that can genuinely enhance learning.

And yet, such a seemingly gimmicky thing came to my mind when I was planning out a lesson looking at Plato's suggested virtues of a philosopher. Last year, I taught the section in the default style for a philosophy classroom (and rightly so) which is through socratic dialogue with my class. They read in advance, were hit with some written questions at the beginning of the lesson to gauge their understanding - which was good - and then we explored the concepts and delved deeper through discussion. Normally works. It didn't. I believe that unless something has reached the long-term memory, it may have once been understood, but not learnt, and as the term went by I kept asking questions, assuming a detailed knowledge of the virtues, but it became apparent that they had simply not gone in. The teaching (and the learning) had failed.

This year I have my class in a Biology lab, which is interesting for us seeking wisdom in abstraction. But it is also very good, because this wonderful room has a skeleton in it. In one of those "mad idea" moments I decided that rather than teach this in the same way (admittedly to different students) they were going to identify the virtues from the text, select a relevant quotation, and then come up with a critical point about it (why it is/is not necessary for a ruler to have this quality... or something). Then these were put on various coloured card and conceptually linked to a part of anatomy and stuck there. The attempt was to get them to process the ideas more thoroughly and in different ways, in a simple attempt to make them more memorable. I have no truck whatsoever with "learning styles" - we all learn different things in different ways and are not exclusively "visual" etc... but perhaps the blend of Sharpie pens, a 3D skeleton and a bit of movement might raise this apparently forgettable piece of the text up the cognitive retention priority.

The initial signs have been good, and I brought the virtues into a subsequent lesson, and I was impressed with the clarity and speed with which the class appeared to remember them. The real test is Friday, where without any priming, after a significant break, I will start by asking them to remind me of the key virtues of the skeleton/philosopher ruler. If they initially forget, think of the anatomy and trace back the links they previously made... we'll see.  

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Montaigne Society

The Montaigne Society is a group of 4th Form students who have chosen to devote Friday activities time to progressing their academic interests beyond the curriculum. I am lucky enough to oversee the group, and the sessions are a mix of interesting discussion of current affairs and open questions, and also the research process - looking into areas of personal interest. The culmination of this research is a presentation back to the society. Through the presentation the particular academic interest is shared, and points are raised and discussed.

On Friday, Ben Dimbleby presented to the group on the history of weaponry, looking at their development and commenting on the historical context in which key inventions were made. His aim was to research a topic in depth that had the joint appeal of indulging his interest in mechanical engineering and also his attraction to "The Enlightenment" period of History. It was, quite simply, stunning. Ben's depth of knowledge allowed him to talk around the subject and answer questions asked by the rest of the group with dexterity and skill. It was agreed that none of us would have shared this interest particularly at the beginning, but we were all thoroughly absorbed in the topic, showing that genuine academic interest, when expressed clearly, is thoroughly infectious.

The nurturing of such interests and the development of the skills of presenting and participating in high level academic discourse are the key aims of the Montaigne Society, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing how the group's interests develop throughout this year. I will regularly report back on the blog about the other talks that are made by the students.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Music and Learning

Tonight I am on duty with the Seventh Form. Sitting in School House, Old Hall, I am supervising some Round House girls and School House boys doing prep, and it is fascinating to see what working habits they have. Obviously, at the age they are independence is not just encouraged, but expected. Whilst I will always give my advice about good ways to work, I would draw the line at now saying "do this in this way" / "don't do it like this". My current musing is about listening to music. As you can see, many of them do like to listen to music whilst completing work.

I have read research that suggests classical music boosts engagement yet anything with lyrics distracts; I have also seen studies that support the thesis that "each to their own" - it simply depends on how your brain is wired.

My thinking tonight is that students here are optionally congregating in Old Hall to work together, and they seem to find benefit in this arrangement - preferable to simply shutting themselves away in their room, However, the music still provides a cut off from being self-conscious or aware of what others are doing in this space. Perhaps the combination of communal working, but with the music acting as a barrier to potential distraction gives the students the best of two worlds.

After being the disruptive influence in the room, and asking them what they are listening to and why they like it, the overwhelming consensus is that they think it enhances focus, removes distraction, and allows them to be more absorbed in a task. The style of music seemed to be "relaxing" types.

I think this is an interesting question for schools to engage with. Should more classrooms involve music when working independently? how do we best advise students about where to work? what age should they take these decisions?

Oh, there was one student who was not listening to music (Kristina), and when I asked her why she preferred not to listen to music, the answer was: "sir, I forgot my headphones"... oh well!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014


It is time to shake the dust off this particular blog! In truth, so much has been happening, that my intention of regular reporting has somewhat slipped since the start of term; but it is always good to reassess priorities, and the opportunity to share the exciting developments at Oakham is not only worth some designated time, but will be enjoyable as well!

Today I would like to introduce any readers to CamStar. Having worked in developing teaching and learning for more than seven years now, I am always looking for a way for really great staff development to take place, and I believe that CamStar is one of them. So, what is it? CamStar is a network of schools and teachers co-ordinated by Cambridge University who are all involved in researching - finding evidence for - what works in the classroom. Members do this through planning an "intervention" (a teaching and learning strategy) which has the aim of answering a specific question: so, "how can verbal feedback improve evaluation essays?"; or "Can regular low stakes testing improve long term memory?". Then the intervention is carried out, evidence gathered and conclusions made. These are shared at both school and sometimes national (or international!) conferences. At their best, a new strategy can be shown to be effective and then shared with the community.

More than thirty Oakham teachers are involved and it is very exciting to see the range of research interests. Letters informing parents of the students who will be in classes that CamStar projects are aimed at will go out in January, and I will certainly regularly report back on how the projects are developing.

To end this post, the following quote from educationalist Tom Bennet sets out the case for why it is so important that teachers do seek their own solid justification to inform approaches in the classroom:

“My suggestion: we don't wait for the grown-ups to make everything better. We carry on doing what we've begun to do: mobilise, organise and improvise. Teachers and school leaders are, to a great extent, leaders of the culture within which they inhabit. Brain Gym may have been dropped on us from a height, but we didn't have to do it. As teachers, we take responsibility for our own development, and get involved in the movements that undercut the traditional hierarchies"

Very inspiring, and a great avenue to develop teaching and learning at Oakham!