18 November 2016

Bryanston: a thinking school

In this week’s blog, our Deputy Head Academic, David James, takes a look at a new introduction to 'D Activities' and how it is encouraging pupils to think not only about what they learn, but also how they learn.

'D Activities' is an established part of Bryanston’s identity. Every Monday our youngest pupils engage with a range of courses that extend them beyond the (sometimes rather restricting) confines of the taught curriculum. We are now trialling a new critical thinking course called Insight (written by Ian Warwick, CEO of London Gifted and Talented) for a selection of pupils. We are asking our D pupils to look at complex areas, including identity, migration, and poverty, but through various lenses, such as education, celebrity and ambition.

At a very fundamental level we are asking them to think about how they learn, and how to reflect on not only what they are learning, but how they are learning. When you think about it, schools are very good at telling pupils what they should be learning and why, but are less interested in asking them about how they learn. This is surprising because, according to reliable evidence, developing metacognitive skills, such as reflection, planning, and self-regulation is relatively cheap for a school, and has a high impact on pupil progress.

We recently asked a selection of our D pupils a number of questions to probe areas of their understanding and educational experience that are not always discussed. These questions included:
  • How do you know if you have made progress in a subject? 
  • What attitudes in pupils and teachers promote learning? 
  • What attitudes in pupils and teachers have a negative impact on learning? 
  • What qualities should an outstanding teacher have? 

It is interesting to ask if our pupils are able to be truly objective about a school system that they have been involved in since they were very young. Can they imagine something different from the model they are currently in? An obvious example of this is their view of ascertaining how they know if they have made progress in a subject. For a number of pupils the only way progress can be measured is through testing them regularly. Of course, testing is an essential tool, but is it the only one available to a school? Perhaps instead of discussing whether or not to test, we should ask ourselves how we should test, and with what regularity. One of our pupils in their reply sensibly pointed out that testing has flaws, and principal among those is the ability to retrieve information at a set time, and under particular conditions: such things affect outcomes.

All those Ds who answered the questions felt that for pupils to get the most out of their studies they need to have a ‘positive’ attitude to studying, arrive to class ready to learn, and be ready to listen. Such attitudes are, for our pupils, essential if they are to deepen their learning. But the conditions within that classroom are also vital: poor behaviour that distracts others is universally frowned on by every pupil who wrote on the factors which have a negative impact on learning. Given that there is a consensus view of disruptive behaviour (even of the low-level variety), and an awareness of how negative an impact it has on their own progress, it is perhaps surprising that in schools around the world pupils tolerate something so unacceptable on every level.

There is also a consensus view on what qualities a teacher should exhibit to promote learning, and of course these directly link to our pupils’ views of what makes for an outstanding teacher. Responses to this question at times seemed a little daunting for any teacher to read: they ranged from possessing a great deal of patience, an ability to explain complex ideas in a straightforward (but not dumbed-down) way, kindness, being interesting, having authority and real expertise in the subject being taught, and, interestingly, for one of the D pupils asked, a willingness to look beyond examinations.

Of course, asking pupils to think about such matters is in itself interesting, but this is only a sample. However, I would guess that they are typical of their peers. Perhaps surprisingly, given the ubiquity of technology in their lives, they at no point question the role of the teacher: the internet is, for our 13-year-olds, unlikely to replace teachers (which is a relief for teachers, and a view backed up by research). Perhaps this view is a direct result of their own experiences so far: they have always had a teacher physically involved in their learning, but it does confirm what we know (but need to occasionally hear from pupils): namely, that learning is a human activity that relies on, at times, transactions that cannot be measured or researched.

Insight is part of a conversation we want to develop with our pupils: we want to listen to them, to learn from them about their own learning. In time we would hope to instigate research, and to see it influence and shape our own approaches to teaching and learning. Education stops being transformative when it travels in one direction only. For teachers to remain engaged in their own profession they have to continue to learn, from each other, from experts involved in pedagogy, and from the pupils they teach. In that way we make thinking, and learning, more visible, more understood, and for more than just the classroom.

4 November 2016

Soft rules

This week we welcome Bryanston's Head of Pastoral, Dr Preetpal Bachra, as he examines the 'soft rules' of social interaction.

The Head recently blogged about the core school rules. I always consider these to be the ‘hard rules’, i.e. those which tell you where you stand. In this blog I want to examine some of what might be termed the ‘soft rules’, especially those relating to social interaction and how these are evolving and changing.

As a general rule of thumb, I try not to forget what it was like to be a teenager and perhaps I should share a few observations from my own teenage years because, as Maya Angelou observed, 'we are more alike than we are unalike.'

At the age of 14, I became attracted to Eastern philosophy, but that may have been because I thought the yin and yang symbol was ‘cool’. John Bellaimy gives a simplistic view of it as the yin being the dark swirl and the yang being the light swirl, and each side has a dot of the opposite colour illustrating the concept that everything contains the seed of its opposite. I used to think the symbol was about balance in life but it is more to do with things not being complete opposites. Rather, things are relative to each other. We can act in certain ways but there is always the seed of the opposite that can extend from it. 

My life and how I saw the world at 14 may not be so different from how pupils see the world today, but there is a difference in how they interact with it. In my teenage years, I had one key aim, one key aspiration, and that was to be Bruce Lee. He starred in one of my favourite films of all time, Enter The Dragon, and there was one particular scene that I wanted to replicate. I would practise with my nunchakus and there were plenty of accidents. In fact, if people had videoed me then my outcomes may have found their way into the litany of ‘YouTube fails’.

The important difference is that my life was private and all those stages that I went through, I explored on my own. There are records of these stages, of course, housed in family photo albums, but none of them are in the public domain. I didn’t, and still don’t, honestly think anyone else would be interested in the goings-on in my life. Banksy, in an interview for Time Out in 2010, summed it up well, “I don't know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is a superpower.”

Today so much more of young people’s lives is on public display, and this isn’t without consequences. For example, in 2015 ChildLine conducted over 11,000 counselling sessions nationally with young people regarding online issues. And in a 2013 study for Northwestern University 29% of Facebook users surveyed reported ‘losing face’ from embarrassing content posted by friends. As a school we alert pupils to the dangers of putting themselves and their friends on public display through PSRE lessons, reminders of the support available, lectures about protecting themselves and so on.

This use of digital communication can lead to embarrassment and humiliation. The distinction between embarrassment and humiliation is that the former we bring on ourselves and the latter is brought on us by others. In 1998 a scandal broke in the US when Monica Lewinsky admitted relations with Bill Clinton, the then president. She did something that embarrassed her, but the response was intense because of how people commented.

From a psychological point of view, the comments Monica Lewinsky endured can be partly understood by the process of disassociation, i.e. the person commenting is separated from the victim and understanding the implications of their comments: they cease to remember that those people have feelings. And here is our soft rule: don’t put yourself out there. If pupils (or any of us) choose to share things that others do not want to be shared then it will humiliate them, and we take a very dim view of that.

Of course there are positives to the use of social media: the messages of support to each other; ensuring people are not left out; sharing happy times with loved ones; contact with family; the sharing of ideas to make us think and broaden our horizons, and we should remember that this is why technology has a place in our lives. It can be an incredible force for good and it should be used as such when appropriate.

However, we should all be careful what we post, be careful with other people’s privacy and not put ourselves in a position where we or our feelings, or those of others, might be abused. It is these soft, unspoken rules, along with the hard rules, that go some way to ensuring we can flourish and thrive within our own communities and the wider society in which we find ourselves.