Monday, 19 January 2015

International Education Leaders' Briefing 2015

On the 18th January, I was honoured to be a speaker at the Microsoft Education Leaders' Briefing; the ELB is a forum for presenting the latest thoughts on the integration of technology and education and they are attended by people from across the globe. We had been invited to participate in this as one of the UK's 6 Global Showcase Schools, identified by Microsoft as being world innovators in the use of technology to change young people's life's for the better.

Below is the text of my presentation:

Good Morning & Thank you. My name is Andy Howard and I have now been teaching for 25 years! An awful lot has changed in that time, but an awful lot has remained the same. I now find myself as Principal of Sandymoor School, one of only 6 UK schools to have been awarded Global Showcase School status by Microsoft for our innovative approach to education and the use of ICT in education.

Sandymoor School is a brand new school; we were founded under the government's Free Schools programme, a mechanism that allowed schools to be set up in response to local need and without the control of local government. An initiative based on the Scandinavian Free School & US Charter School models.  

Three years ago, we opened in temporary cabins, steel boxes bolted together and fitted out with basic services. It did not stop us having strong ambitions for our students and we grew. 18 months ago, work started on a brand new building, where I worked with architects to match our vision and our ambitions. We now have a building that would qualify for the Internet of Things - a smart building … … CO2 measurement & Temperature sensors in all rooms,  lights that dim if it's bright outside, etc.

We are pretty much unique - a brand new school, built entirely from the ground up, metaphorically as well as literally, proposed and founded by 5 local parents, ordinary people, mums and dads who just wanted to make a difference.

There are very few opportunities these days to be involved in the start of something as big, as ambitious, as grand as starting a brand new school! Our founders are still very much involved in the school, all being on the governing body and very actively taking interest in their school. The school sits in a relatively new suburb of the New Town of Runcorn. A twin of Milton Keynes, Runcorn was built after the second world war to provide housing to the bombed out estates of Liverpool. Still growing today, the suburb of Sandymoor is the last growth area for the town. Sandymoor currently has around 900 houses, but is part of the government's house building strategy and is scheduled to grow to over 2,000 homes over the short term. The vast majority of the homes in Sandymoor are classed as medium density, higher status family homes & they are very sought after houses.

To the west of the school, we have, however, housing estates built when volume was the only measure for housing and some of the estates within a mile of the school rank as some of the most deprived communities in the UK.

One of the school's great strengths is our diversity and our school community. We have students from all backgrounds in the school and almost all of them local. Over 70% of our young people live within a mile of the school. In an area of the UK where social mobility is at its worst, we are an example of aspiration, with high standards of academic, social and personal development expected from all our community.

One final piece of our local setting is our proximity to the world-renowned Daresbury Science and Innovation Centre; the home of the Particle Accelerator and still a world leader in scientific innovation.

The founders set a very strong and ambitious vision for the school; to be an 11-18 school, producing intelligent, employable global citizens that demonstrate social competence, a desire for learning and respect for each other and the world around us.

And there is so much in this statement:

In a world where we cannot predict 6 months ahead, we are, as educators, trying to do the impossible. We are having to prepare our young people to do jobs that don’t even exist yet, using technologies that haven't been invented yet, solving problems we don’t even know about yet.

And with technology as it is, we are now living in a global village, with communication around the world virtually instantaneous, news beamed around the world as it happens and workers engaged in collaboration with colleagues in almost any continent. How do we prepare our young for this?

With all of that, and the world they are inheriting from us, they also need to be more socially aware, more tolerant and accepting of others than ever before. Xenophobia and fear is driving a wedge between people and we need to be providing opportunities for our young to learn from our mistakes and build a better future.

Now, I am not a technologist, never have been and never will be. I am an educationalist. Passionate about helping our young to be the best they can be. And I believe that the only way we will be able to do this, in our world, is through engaging fully with technology.

Our ICT strategy has this as its opening statement:

ICT alone will not transform learning, but learning will not be transformed without it.

This is their world, immersed in technology, the world at their fingertips. We need to embrace this world of theirs and engage with them on their territory.

Blended learning, where technology is used, when (& only when) it is better than other means. When it allows us to do things previously unimagined.

Young people, all over the world, are fundamentally no different to how they've always been; shy, uncertain, desperate to be different, individual, determined to grow up before they are ready and ultimately complex, amazing and totally unpredictable.

But they now live out their lives as much, if not more online, in the digital world. They are the digital natives, whilst we are immigrants in this brave new world.

However, just because they are the natives, it does not mean that they will embrace every new initiative, or 'learn more' just because it's delivered using technology. That is the mistake that has been made so many times before, with the results that there are numerous research papers that state that technology does not improve student outcomes.

In fact, they will defend their territory as fiercely as any pack of lions seeing off a rival group. Why on earth would they want to allow into their social world the dull duty of learning without a fight?

And that's why, I think, we at Sandymoor are starting to get it right. By being a brand new school, we have been able to think carefully about everything we have done; imagine it completely anew and ensure that every element of Sandymoor is fit for purpose as a 21st Century School.

We start every planning exercise with a blank sheet of paper and ask the question; what do we want this to look like, in the modern world. We do not automatically assume that the way things have been done before are still fit for purpose. Where they are, we use them, but only after testing them against our vision.

What do we want a 21st century student to do, to be, to experience? How do we help them adapt their skills to make them accept the use of technology in their world?

And that has to influence, in fact shape, the whole infrastructure.

First of all, we are all, now, used to looking up the answer to something at the click of a button, the swipe of a finger. So a teacher is no longer the gatekeeper of knowledge, the expert and deliverer of understanding. It is no longer valid to have the teacher stand at the front of a room, delivering material to students. The whiteboard, let alone the interactive whiteboard, is redundant, because I can look up the answer to a question faster than you can write the question on a board.

At Sandymoor, we have twin projectors at right angles to each other, which project directly onto the wall, painted in an ultra-matt, green-tinged cream, which is, according to research, a much easier surface to read off, without glare from a bright white surface. And the twin projection system means that the learning experience is an all-encompassing, immersive one.

There is no traditional 'front of class', with no teachers' desk, either, which means that the classroom environment has a much more collaborative atmosphere; my teachers are very much more 'Guides on the Side', as opposed to 'Sages on the Stage'.

Getting rid of whiteboards entirely, which in their time replaced the old black chalk board, is a clear sign that we are starting to use technology to completely redefine education, rather than mere modification of old habits.

But we also have to think about what, in fact, the point of school is in the modern world. What place does the teacher have, now? If they are no longer the gatekeeper of knowledge, then they do have to adapt completely to a completely different role, that of guide and mentor, helping the student to find their way, develop their understanding and grow in independence.

The most transformational invention of the last 50 years has to be the internet, the 'Cloud', and it is to the cloud that we have looked to ensure that we are building for the future, ensuring capacity.

Collaboration is key here; working together, in collaborative spaces, we grow and share and experience more than we ever can in isolation.

But we always have to come back to what is most important; the young people we are all doing this for. How do we ensure that everything we do will help them grow and succeed in their future, especially when we can't see what their future looks like?

 By building a structure, in the cloud, using collaborative spaces, we ensure that outcomes are clear and impact is strong. Students work together, with teachers, to learn off each other, learn how to learn and develop the skills for future growth.

The skills they need, adaptability, mental flexibility, and perseverance, are all developed in a curriculum focussed around collaborating in online spaces. Students can bring in their own devices, regardless of make or model. Our wifi is designed around public space capacity, with 1-1 infrastructure being not ambitious enough for us (I, personally, have 4 devices that connect to wifi with me today), so we have a complex wifi network capable of dealing with any device a student could bring in and capacity for over 3,000 separate device connections.

We need to meet students where they are, so one over-riding principle for me is what I call device agnosicity. Any systems we use in school need to be accessible by whatever the student will bring in. For us, Office 365 exemplifies this.

Against popular convention, as I have said, our students have been resistant to embracing this, but for two reasons;

First of all, as I've said before, it is trespassing on their territory. We need to tread carefully, and not assume that they want us in their space. We need to set out our case, let them accept the need first and foremost. We have done this by assuming a very business-like environment. All our students have the same access & expectations on them as my staff. Homework, project deadlines, meetings, etc., are all set with students via calendar invites. We don’t have student planners. Communication between staff & student is via email, with the same expectations for reading and action. There is no skin on our systems - we don't treat them like children; there is no dancing frog or comic sans fonts in sight. . . (Did Facebook create a young-person centric version, with silly characters or simple fonts?)

And then secondly, we expect them to take responsibility, to accept that they are part of the solution, that they have to actively participate rather than just be passive recipients of learning. That is hard work. But it is important, because it’s about behaviour modification, about teaching them to take responsibility, whilst there is a safety blanket around them to ensure they don't get hurt. 

But they are still children and while the social domain is very firmly theirs, we need to help and support them, which means we need to be active in their domain. Tools such as Yammer, in the Office 365 environment, are perfect for this, bringing the social into the workplace.

There is also, however, the flip side of the coin and that is the teachers themselves.

We need to ensure that we don’t forget that there is a behavioural management change required here too. If we are going to truly instigate transformation, we need to support, encourage and if necessary cajole teachers into learning new ways to be as well. There is always a workload increase when something new is implemented, but it is important to ensure that there is a clear pathway to smarter not harder ways of working.

Ultimately, however, it needs a strong vision, clearly focussed, with the modern student at the heart, to ensure that we truly transform education. And it does need transformation, if not revolution, across the world - we are failing so many young people and politicians talk about percentage improvements in test scores, without really recognising that every percentage point that fails is a real student who learns that they are not a success. . .

Technology will not transform learning, but without it learning will not be transformed.

Thank you

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