SSAT National Conference: From workload and creativity to AI and Lesson Study

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska & Pete Henshaw | Published:
Spectacular: The SSAT National Conference was punctuated with performances from schools, including students from Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School (Image: SSAT)

From advice on tackling workload and a call to arms about the importance of ideas and creativity in education to sessions on Lesson Study and AI, Dorothy Lepkowska and Pete Henshaw report from SSAT’s National Conference

What are we educating our children to be?

If in the future, technology takes over many of the jobs that used to require degree-education, then what are we educating children to be?

This was the challenge laid down to delegates at the SSAT National Conference by the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz.

During his keynote presentation, Mr Gompertz argued that subjects such as philosophy and ethics would become vital in a future dominated by technology and artificial intelligence (AI).

Equally important will be the one thing that makes humans stand apart from machines – creativity, or, as he put it, the ability to have an idea and realise it.

He said: “The SmartPhone in your pocket is 20 times more powerful than the world’s biggest super computer 20 years ago. It’s just the tip. What is going to happen over the next 20 to 30 years is absolutely extraordinary. In the 20th century, technology has taken over from brawn. In the 21st century, technology will take over from brain.

“It’s a major threat. It will take jobs for which you used to need a university degree. Lots of jobs where people needed an education will be done by computers. So what are we educating people for? It’s highly likely that in 30 to 40 years’ time there won’t be enough jobs for everybody.”

Mr Gompertz, a former director of Tate Galleries and who has just published his second book – Think Like an Artist – argued that the ability to have ideas and realise them “gives us value in the world”.

He said: “We have this fantastic facility to be able to step out of time and place and have an idea and realise it. It’s the thing that no other species or machine will be able to deliver.” However, he added: “Most people don’t think they are creative. They think somebody who is creative has a cravat or long hair or lives in Hoxton. Every human being is amazingly creative, but lots of people don’t know how to do it.”

He said that knowledge was crucial to allowing students to become creative. He pointed to Shakespeare’s collaboration and “stealing” of ideas.

“Students have to learn how to steal. It is essential to creativity. There is no such thing as a new idea. Ideas come from knowledge. No original idea, only origins. If you don’t have knowledge, you can’t have an idea. Knowledge is the most essential thing for any creative act.”

Engaging address: BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz led the opening keynote of the SSAT National Conference, arguing for the place of creativity and ideas in the curriculum

Mr Gompertz championed the importance of scepticism (not to be confused with cynicism) and the “ability to ask a really pertinent question and change the world” or the Socratic method of “exploring an idea through questioning” and “challenging assumptions”. He displayed a painting of Socrates “alive with questioning” to delegates before switching to an image of an “exam hall”.

He continued: “Education at the moment is exactly the same education that I had. The exam hall is a worry to me. Exams are isolating. If you put social media into the mix. Social media is also very isolating. Children are more and more and more isolated. And their mental health deteriorates. We are ending up sending a whole generation of young people mad.

“All schools need to be based in knowledge and teaching and learning, but we need to teach children actually what is required to be successful in the world.

“In the real world, nobody does anything alone. In the real world you have to do it collaboratively. Every act is done collaboratively. We need to teach children to work collaboratively and judge them on what they produce.

“Each and every one of us has got a slightly different way of looking at the world. If you can find that slightly different way you look at the world, that is how you are going to make your contribution.

“Artists solve problems. To understand how to think like an artist is essential. How to come up with the right ideas to solve the problems we face in the 21st century. The young people in our schools can do it. If we give them the right tools. If we teach them not to regurgitate like Google but to think like artists.”

Mr Gompertz also warned that in a future dominated by AI, subjects such as ethics and philosophy should be centre stage in our education. This is because the more that AI takes over aspects of life such as driving vehicles the more it will need to be programmed to make impossible decisions quickly in emergency situations.

He explained: “(The) world will be dictated by algorithms. What we need is people who have been trained in philosophy and ethics. Perhaps the two most important subjects in the curriculum. These are massive issues that almost nobody has taken any time to consider.”

Reducing workload in our schools

Seeking feedback from staff, trusting our teachers more, cutting down inspection preparation and tackling excessive marking are all leadership strategies that could cut workload and improve retention rates in schools.

A panel discussion at the SSAT National Conference in December tackled the challenge of reducing teacher workload.

A poll run among delegates before the debate found that the blame for high workload was mainly put on Ofsted (36 per cent) and the Department for Education (29 per cent). And 48 per cent said that workload in their school was “bad” and that they were “losing teachers”.

However, the four-strong panel said that the blame for high workloads lay across the spectrum – on Ofsted and the DfE, but also on school leaders and, sometimes, teachers themselves.

When asked in the poll, the delegates said their most popular strategies to tackle workload were marking reduction (38 per cent), wellbeing days or staff days off (15 per cent), no out-of-hours emails (14 per cent), and centralised lesson planning (10 per cent).

The first of four panellists taking part in the debate, David Lowbridge-Ellis, deputy headteacher at Barr Beacon School in the West Midlands, said he had made good progress by tackling teachers’ marking workload and email use – the two things that “take the most time”.

Taking English as an example, he told delegates: “It’s 40,000 words every time a teacher takes in an exam paper. We need to start grappling with the numbers and realise how long it takes. Time is our most valuable commodity.”

However, he said it was vital that leaders followed through on their workload reduction strategies and kept an eye on their teachers, who can sometimes be their own worst enemies.

“If my teachers leave the building Friday at 4pm carrying bags of marking I would be worried about them. It’s a note for me to speak to them on Monday morning. A big part of my job is to filter out a lot of stuff that comes in externally so I can let my teachers get on and teach. Whatever policy you set in school, you have to make sure that the process follows through.

“Teachers themselves can actually be responsible for some of their workload issues. For example, I will happily sit on my computer until 10:30pm at night perfecting that worksheet because I am enjoying it.”

For Ani Magill, chief executive of the Xavier Catholic Education Trust, workload responsibility lies with the DfE and senior leaders. She criticised the Education and Skills Funding Agency for the burdens placed on school finance and management teams, which she said were “gobbling up budget”.

She urged school leaders to trust their teachers more and highlighted lesson planning as an area where huge gains could be made by collaboration and the sharing of resources: “Right now as we’re sat here, across the country there will be thousands of teachers planning, sitting there with a blank sheet of paper. Our job as leaders is that we have to work together more to provide teachers with everything they need in order to be the best they possibly can be.”

Ms Magill also challenged school leaders, asking them whether they knew what was the biggest workload problem for each of their teachers.

She explained: “Do we as leaders know exactly what it is that is causing each individual member of staff stress and what we could do about it?”

She suggests putting sticky notes on chairs at staff meetings and asking staff to write down “one thing we could do to cause you less stress” and “one thing that stresses you”.

She added: “(By doing this) we identified a whole raft of areas that we could improve. I think that we need to keep getting feedback from people.”

The third panel member, Jack Worth, lead economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research, has recently completed a major research project into the recruitment and retention of teachers.

One key finding, he told delegates, was the role of line management in teacher retention: “Where teachers say they are not supported by their line manager they are much more likely to say they are not managing their workload effectively,” he said.

Finally, Luke Tryl, director of corporate strategy at Ofsted, said that in the process of developing the new framework, part of the work being undertaken by Ofsted is to look at reducing the workload associated with inspection (for more on the new framework, see the news pages). He explained: “There will always be some workload associated with inspection, but what we can try and tackle is all of the stuff beforehand that goes into the preparation.”

He emphasised Ofsted’s position that they do not need to see data presented in a particular way. He added: “We say time and time again – don’t have Mocksteds, do not do triple marking.”

A pilot project using AI to reduce workload

The SSAT is to collaborate with a UK edtech company to try to reduce teacher workload using artificial intelligence (AI).

The organisation is partnering with CENTURY Tech to explore how AI, big data and neuroscience can offer pupils a more personalised learning experience, while cutting the working week for teachers.

Schools are being asked to come forward to follow a programme of blended and flipped learning between January and Easter next year, using CENTURY’s technology.

The move follows a keynote speech given by Priya Lakhani, the company’s founder, at the SSAT National Conference, during which she argued how the technology could improve performance by an average of 30 per cent, while saving teachers up to six hours a week.

The flipped classroom reverses the traditional learning environment by delivering instructional content, often online, outside of the classroom. It moves activities that may have traditionally been considered homework into the classroom. Blended learning meanwhile combines online digital media and resources with traditional classroom methods.

Participating schools will need to commit to implementing the pilot across an entire year group with a focus on science lessons, and to deliver at least three blended lessons per class using CENTURY’s learning platform, and two flipped bits of homework per class. They will also be expected to provide feedback to SSAT for evaluation and agree to be included in a case study to be published for the 2019 SSAT National Conference in December.

The project will evaluate the impact on teacher workload and on different groups of pupils, as well as how it affects formative assessment. It will also help to identify the leadership and management challenges for school leaders.

Sue Williamson, chief executive of SSAT, said: “We are committed to working with schools and other stakeholders to ensure that all young people leave school fully prepared to lead fulfilled and purposeful lives.

“This is a grand ambition and one that can only be achieved through strong and principled leadership, working in partnership and continual review of practice and policy.”

She said there would be a focus on teacher workload: “The school system is losing too many teachers and one of the main reasons for this is teacher workload. We need to create greater time for teachers to focus on greater personalisation of learning.”

Schools are being invited to volunteer for the pilot and the SSAT plans to select schools that represent a “diverse array of educational institutions across the country”.
They will be supported by CENTURY who will work with school staff to ensure they are confident using the platform.

During her address, Ms Lakhani, who is a former barrister and teacher, spoke about machine learning and how it might help to solve some of the problems facing the education system. She said in many schools the adoption of technology meant little more than moving from “using a blackboard to a whiteboard, and that’s pretty much it”.

Helping hand? Priya Lakhani, founder of CENTURY Tech, believes that artificial intelligence can play a significant role in reducing workload in schools

Ms Lakhani said robots would never run schools, but they could do automatic tasks and make good decisions to augment teaching. “There is no machine that will replace a teacher,” she said. “If there a job that is not going to be replaced by artificial intelligence, then it is teaching. No machine can have that one-to-one interaction that a child has with their teacher, and you know that. But what it can do is super-charge the teaching workforce.”

Ms Lakhani demonstrated how a machine can analyse the learning of individual pupils, calculating what they are learning, how well, and any gaps in knowledge. It can also identify pupils’ special needs to help schools personalise learning.”

  • Schools interested in taking part in the pilot are asked to email

Rejecting the exam factory: Creative curriculum design

When Brooke Weston Academy opened as one of the first City Technology Colleges in the early 1990s, its aim was to provide a quality education in an otherwise “educational blackspot”.

“Corby relied for many years on the steel industry and when that went into decline there was a really issue with social deprivation,” explained Becks Waterson, the school’s vice-principal. “Too few young people were going to university.

“The main mission of the new school was to become a catalyst for social rejuvenation. So, our curriculum over the past 20 years has been highly academic, and it had to be to raise aspiration.”

Ms Waterson described the Northamptonshire school as “very business-like”. The school day and terms are longer than in most schools, and the summer holiday shorter, so knowledge is retained. By the time Brooke Weston pupils leave in year 11, they have done an additional year at school compared with their peers elsewhere.

More than 70 per cent of pupils do the EBacc, and the traditional curriculum has largely worked for its pupils. But senior leaders were becoming concerned at the currency pupils were taking away.

“We started to look at year 7s to try to anticipate what they would be like in years 11 and 13,” Ms Waterson told the SSAT delegates, during a session entitled “Creating curious learners with creative curriculum design”.

“When we spoke to students who had left the school, they appeared to lack confidence, courage and swagger and when visitors came to the school they were shy and lacked that inner confidence.”

Senior leaders began to re-evaluate the needs of the students. They were being catered for academically, but what about character building?

“There were some hard reflections about how to proceed and some tough conversations were needed with senior and middle leaders,” said Matt Rodger, the assistant principal.

“There was a real cultural shift, and many staff voiced their concerns about proposed change. Why were we trying to fix something that wasn’t broken?

“But we had to ask ourselves whether what we were doing was fit-for-purpose and fit for our times and future times. We were teaching young people who would retire from a workplace that is currently unrecognisable to us, and it became clear that certain skills, characteristics and behaviours were going to be more prized than academic achievements.”

So the school decided to focus more on developing character – things like independence, risk-taking and creativity needed to be introduced amid the “uncomfortable truth”, said Mr Rodger, that “our curriculum did not allow young people to discover creativity; our curriculum was a monotony; we thought that creativity could be embraced through the strict parameters of art or drama”.

Once the decision had been taken, the trick was to introduce a creative element without compromising standards. Another challenge was fitting them into the school day.

Staff began by removing one lesson a week of English for year 7s, reducing them from four to three lessons. An hour a week was created of enrichment, where year 7 did creative and imaginative activities that were loosely connected to subject areas. So, pupils designed and created a functioning allotment, created political parties, staged art exhibitions and learned how to use video and editing equipment. Time was also spent explicitly drip-feeding more varied vocabulary into the curriculum.

“Some of our students are word-poor and we wanted to instil better use of language, because we believe this is a great social leveller,” Mr Rodger explained. “The idea was that word knowledge is also world knowledge, which they will need to have the rich tapestry of experience from which to be creative.”

One lesson focused on idioms and the history of phrases such as “burying the hatchet”. Pupils also learned that the word “ghost” is spelled as it is because Caxton’s Flemish assistant at his printing press inserted an ‘h’ to make it look more like his own language.

“We were teaching one work but all of a sudden in became an exploration into language, history and culture,” Mr Rodger added. Anecdotal evidence from teachers suggests that students making connections and conscious word choice across curriculum is improving.

A third exercise was collapsing the timetable several times a year so pupils could attend residentials, involving activities that allowed “blue-sky thinking” and initiatives on saving the world.

“We were perceived as an exam factory, but our pupils totally enjoy the changes we’ve made,” Ms Waterson added.

Lesson Study in action

Staff at Riverside School in East London are using a Japanese model of teacher-led research as their main form of CPD. The system, Lesson Study, was outlined by senior leaders from the school during a session called “Loosen up with Lesson Study”.

It relies on teachers working together to target an identified area for development in pupil learning. Using existing evidence, they research, plan, and teach and observe a series of lessons, using on-going discussion and reflection to track and refine their interventions.

The process is overseen by an external subject specialist, called a koshi, or knowledgeable other, who offers advice and can distil existing research evidence to make it accessible to teachers.

The session at SSAT was presented by headteacher Andy Roberts and assistant head David Wylde, who outlined how Lesson Study has become a major source of CPD at the school following a visit to Japan to find out how it works.

Lesson Study has seven main components. Staff must identify a research focus, and then work in groups to carry out what is known as kyozai kenkyu, which means they study the relevant materials to the research theme.

A teacher will then teach a lesson using interventions or techniques based on their research. The lesson is observed by colleagues, who will collect evidence of pupil learning. Afterwards, they will discuss the evidence and find out what they have learned. Subsequent research lessons are planned that draw on the findings of these discussions and develop the approaches.

At this stage, the koshi is invited to contribute and advise. At Riverside School, academics from universities are invited to fulfil this role wherever possible, although colleagues are also trained up to do it. Koshis can be hard to find in a system which is not geared up to this way of working.

Opportunities are also created for teachers in other subjects to draw on the findings of the Lesson Study groups.

Mr Wylde said the process was time-consuming but effective. Every department has an additional hour a week timetabled (at the same time) to carry out the CPD, which is paid for through Pupil Premium.

“We really value lesson study and I would argue it has established inquiry-led practice among teachers and practitioners,” he said. “There are several different versions out there and schools might need to make adjustments. We try to be as true as possible to the authentic Japanese model.”


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