The SSAT national conference has led a resounding battle cry for school leaders and teachers to wrest back the education agenda.
The event, which took place in Liverpool, was entitled Innovating Learning and presented a very different picture of the organisation historically associated with the promotion of specialist schools and academies.
The organisation, no longer funded by government, has dropped the acronym (it is now just SSAT) and is seeking to lead the profession in taking back from ministers the debate about the education, teaching and learning we need to offer students in the 21st century.
So keen is SSAT to wrest power back from Westminster that the usual ministerial invitation to its annual gathering was, last month, not forthcoming.
“We decided not to invite any politicians to this conference because we wanted it to be owned by the profession,” chief executive Sue Williamson told delegates in her opening address.
As such, the two-day event was refreshingly free of rhetoric, populated instead with speeches and workshops led by educationalists and school leaders, all presenting their arguments for how and why schooling needs to be redesigned to give students the skills they need for the modern world and workplace.
Professor Dylan Wiliam: “The important thing is that we have students leaving our classrooms with a passion learning.”
Prof Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the Institute of Education, set the tone for the conference with a stark reminder of the world for which we are preparing students.
Quoting from Gallup CEO Jim Clifton’s recent book, The Coming Jobs War, he said that the world has seven billion people, with five billion of working age and three billion who want full-time work. However, globally there are only 1.2 billion jobs.
He told delegates: “You could be the best teacher in the country but no matter how much you teach them, it will not be enough. The important thing is that we have students leaving our classrooms with a passion learning.”
As an example, he said that today, 300,000 people write apps for a living – a job that did not exist five years ago. Quoting Piaget, he added that education must be about enabling students to “know what to do when they don’t know what to do”.
Prof Wiliam was clear about the quality of our system: “Schools are better than they have ever been,” he emphasised. However, he warned that policies focused on school improvement are always going to be “relatively ineffective”.
He added: “The reason that people have made so many mistakes in school improvement is because the differences between schools are small. If 15 kids get good grades in an average school, 17 will in a good school and 13 will in a bad school.”
Professor Guy Claxton: “The way young people react to uncertainty, challenge, ambiguity is being influenced moment by moment in classrooms.”
A world-renowned authority on expandable intelligence, Prof Claxton focused on the cultivation of attitudes. Referencing skills such as risk-taking, resourcefulness, and resilience, he asked the audience: “Do you teach (students) how to ask good questions? Do you teach them to challenge the basis of our assumptions?”
He urged teachers to consider how they help their students learn these skills through everyday teaching. He said teachers must ask of every curriculum topic: “How can I use this in the services of the cultivation of strong attitudes that we all acknowledge that we should have?
“We are gradually cultivating mindsets and identities. The way they react to uncertainty, challenge, ambiguity is being influenced moment by moment in these classrooms. The vast majority of us I think are very mindful of the fact that this is at the heart of what we should be doing.”
Professor Eric Mazur (pictured above): “High-stakes assessment is pretty meaningless.”
Prof Mazur got the conference thinking in more ways than one. His development of the flipped classroom technique has led to a global phenomenon in education.
He crafted the approach in his position as Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard University in the US, but he told SecEd that the methods will work with students of secondary age too.
Flipped learning asks students to prepare for lessons by reading, or watching podcasts or videos, on a topic. They are then asked to reflect and come to class with their questions. In class, students work together, questioning and challenging each other to find the solutions and understand the concepts.
He showed a video of his model – posing a question, allowing students time to think, polling their views, encouraging peer-to-peer discussion, re-polling, and then explaining the topic – before testing it out live on the SSAT crowd with a rather taxing question about molecules.
Speaking afterwards, Prof Mazur said it is a “natural approach to learning”. He warned that as children move into secondary school they are often “pushed into the mould of passive listening”.
He said that assessment techniques had to change too: “A lot of assessment is inauthentic. It measures something rather artificial in an artificial environment. High-stakes assessment is pretty meaningless, it does not measure what we really need to measure. Plenty of people have failed the tests and do really well in life. There is no point in changing the approach to teaching unless we change the approach to testing.”
Professor Tanya Byron: “Children who believe in themselves will learn.”
Risk-taking was at the heart of Prof Byron’s presentation. She asked delegates: “How are we supposed to develop and improve young people to unleash their potential if they are not allow to take risks?”
She said that today children are raised “in captivity” and are “denied opportunities to take risks”.
The focus on all-or-nothing examinations and the message that if you fail you are not good enough is damaging, she said. “The messages that (young people) are taking on board, particularly through education, is if you fail, you are not good enough – you cannot fail. How do they build resilience?
“It’s very difficult to think about how to get children to develop meta-cognition skills when they are under so much pressure to get grades. Emotional intelligence is really what we need to be pushing hard. Children who believe in themselves will learn.”
Brian Lightman: “How can we possibly achieve a world-class system if we going to label schools which are on a journey as ‘bad’?”
Mr Lightman urged schools to focus on “partnership and collaboration”; and for school leaders to be “courageous”. He said that Ofsted “outstanding” schools have weaknesses just as those which are not have strengths, and it is about collaboration: “How can we possibly achieve a world-class system if we going to label schools which are on a journey as ‘bad’? And how are we going to motivate the committed staff who work in those schools?
“We have to be in a better place than this and recognise that the key to success is to share our strengths and weaknesses, and that requires us courageously to challenge the pressure of competition.”
He said that courageous leaders take risks and make mistakes. He added: “They are not scared to challenge policy-makers and tell them when they are wrong.”
Professor Bill Lucas: “There are some capabilities that really matter and our job is to identify them and cultivate them.”
“What are we not noticing?” Prof Lucas asked. It is the many decisions that teachers take day-in, day-out that can make a difference, he said. Speaking to SecEd before his address, he added: “(Teachers) should be really good ‘noticers’ of what’s going on and good readers of the literacy of classroom behaviour. They know that telling is not enough, they know they have to provide a range of experiences which will allow kids to try and reflect. It’s about the many choices that teachers make, day-in, day-out.”
He said teachers have to have a “drop-down menu” of approaches to unlock learning for students.
On stage, he explained further: “There are a range of possible methods (of learning) and … we need to know which of these we need in which subject and in which context. For example, learning on the fly, learning by reflecting, by competing or by being coached.”
He attacked the concept of “about-itis” – when we spend 95 per cent of lesson time telling students how to do it, and only five per cent doing it. He also urged teachers to recognise when “we need to do less and be further away” from the student. And for them to model the questioning attitudes that they want to see in their charges.
Prof Lucas and Prof Claxton, who both work with the University of Winchester’s Centre for Real-World Learning, have set up the Expansive Education Network to help young people develop the capabilities to thrive in complex and uncertain times. Prof Lucas added: “We are saying that there are some capabilities that really matter and that our job is to identify them and cultivate them, and we are saying that they are cultivatable.”
The SSAT’s Redesigning Schooling campaign is aimed at developing a vision for schooling that “equips students for life in the digital age and for taking their place in the global workspace”.
Launching the campaign, chief executive Sue Williamson, said: “Many of us have been spoon-fed our approaches to schooling for so long that we have lost our collective instinct for self-determination. We have forgotten how to lead. We’re a ‘done-to’ profession that works hard to implement policies that we know are the wrong ones.”
The campaign is hosting regional symposia across the country in March focusing on issues including the purpose of education and the skills and knowledge needed by students today. They will also address approaches to teaching, curriculum, qualifications, vocational education, funding, and accountability and inspection.
The intention is to publish a series of pamphlets containing key recommendations in the summer term.
Ms Williamson added: “Our plan is to assemble a vision for schooling that’s led by the education profession based on high-quality practice and research. We need to stop leaving the vision to government and start developing our own plan.”
For details on the campaign and the regional symposia, visit www.redesigningschooling.org.uk