Ms Suzy Pett, Assistant Head (Teaching and Learning) at WHS, looks back at the end of the first year of the new PPE course studied by Year 10 pupils at WHS.
We are at the end of the inaugural year of our PPE course. We wanted students to look outwards and question the ideologies – political, economic, philosophical – that are influential in shaping our world. One of our school’s key objectives is for each student to “stride out’ and be prepared to “shape the society in which she lives and works’. Our PPE course has certainly helped our Year 10s become savvy and robust thinkers about on important global, national and personal issues.
The course ended with students writing their own articles on a topic of their choice. The array of interests was kaleidoscopic! Articles ranged from Kantianism vs Utilitarianism; to immigration; to beauty; to Plato; to student loans; to voting…to Trump…and everything in the middle (including, of course, the impact of Coronavirus). There is no doubt that students have developed mature, thoughtful and increasingly bold voices on these matters. Their articles were hugely impressive.
Mr James Courtenay Clack, English teacher at WHS, argues for a long summer holiday spent reading.
One of the less-heralded benefits of this sorry excuse for a year has been the absence of the daily commute. I only live a short train ride from Wimbledon, but the time that I have saved – which would normally be spent jammed up against other angst-ridden riders of the Tooting-Wimbledon bullet train, listening to Prince through tinny headphones – has been spent pondering the big questions. Mostly. Well, sometimes. Questions such as why study English? Why teach English? Why teach at all?
Moving away from the obvious one, I found that my answer to these three questions all linked back to the answer to my first question: why read? There are all sorts of reasons for both studying and teaching English as a subject, but I realised that I teach, idealistic fool that I am, because I believe in the innate good that comes from reading.
For the purpose of this article, I am going to distinguish between studying English Literature as an academic discipline and reading in general, regardless of how easily this distinction crumbles once submitted to further questioning. This is not going to be an essay in defence of the timetabled subject English (for a start, the school mandates that every student study both English and English Literature up to Y11, so there), but one in defence of reading, broadened to include anyone – student, staff member, parent – who might read this article.
So, I ask again, why read? Well firstly, because the things we find in books are as crucial to our survival as food, drink and government-mandated, socially-distanced exercise. The American poet William Carlos Williams wrote that ‘it is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there’. There are two ways of looking at this. Primarily, Williams is right, in my experience at least, that books are there to shine a light on what it means to be a human being. This oft-used phrase may sound trite, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is essentially true. Whether it is in Borges’ mythical Library of Babel (containing every book ever written and ever to be written) or just in Foyles on the Charing Cross Road, there is guaranteed to be a book on the shelves in which the feelings, tensions, crises or traumas that you currently are experiencing are explored, questioned and perhaps even resolved.
For example: I wouldn’t say that we live in a political climate ruled over by a sometimes charming, always loquacious demagogue, driven to insanity by a long-held grudge and sense of emasculation and who has enlisted the populace to follow him to a shared destruction, but when I read Ishmael’s mix of horror and fascination as Captain Ahab exhorts his crew to pursue Moby-Dick to the ends of the earth and to the ends of their lives, I can’t say that I don’t feel a slight tingle of grim recognition.
On a less epic scale, I have taken great comfort during the lockdown from reading books published in the early 1920s, in the aftermath of the devastation of the Spanish Flu. I recognise myself, scratching at the front door of my flat like a demented Cairn terrier desperate for a walk, in Clarissa Dalloway’s sheer delight at going out to buy flowers after being struck down by influenza. Do I not too feel ‘what a lark! What a plunge!’ as I leave the house and queue up outside Sainsbury’s? How wonderful to find that moment of recognition, no matter how epic or how mundane, in a book that was published nearly a hundred years ago? How reassuring to realise that for all of our differences (sadly Clarissa and I don’t also have a large Westminster townhouse in common), there is something fundamental to human experience?
These moments of recognition – the realisation that somebody else has felt or thought or experienced what we do now – can sustain us. These moments in reading, where we recognise our own feelings – whether they be of hope or anxiety, love or heartbreak, friendship or loneliness – in others, allow us to see something fundamental about ourselves. The American educator Mark Edmundson, who has written a number of amazing books defending the ideals of a liberal education, writes ‘the reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate… The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself’.
There has been much debate recently about writers telling stories that are not part of their own lived experiences. This debate is far too nuanced to unpack here, but one thing I find unsettling is the idea of staying in your lane when it comes to literature. I think the second, and perhaps most important, answer to my original question is that reading allows us not only to see our own lives reflected back to us, but also to see what life is like for people whose experiences are almost completely alien to our own. Here, the importance of reading comes not just from the content of a book (Moby-Dick, say) but from the act of reading itself. I have no real understanding of what life would be like on a 19th Century whaling voyage and, like most people, am horrified by the idea of killing whales and yet Moby-Dick is my favourite book. By reading the book, I must leave my own life behind and spend time in another one. To go back to Edmundson again, we read ‘because, as rich as the one life we have may be, one life is not enough.’
To pick another example, in my Caribbean Literature elective with Y11 and Y13, I have asked my class to put themselves in the shoes of indentured Indian labourers in Trinidad, a Saint Lucian fisherman who works in the same waters into which the bodies of his ancestors were thrown during the Middle Passage and an apparently mad woman who is locked in the attic by her uncaring husband. All of these things are so beyond our own lived experiences that reading becomes an exercise in extending empathy.
It is no secret that we experience the world in different ways and that at this moment, the world seems particularly divided. No matter what the cause of these divides – whether it be how we experience race, gender, sexuality, or class; our views on Brexit or Trump or globalisation – there is always something to be gained from looking at the world through somebody else’s eyes. You might also just find that a person born to a different time, race, gender or political disposition has felt or thought something that you thought only you had.
So, that is why we read. Lucky then, that the government has just reopened the book shops in time for the summer holidays.
Miss Lucinda Gilchrist, Head of English, considers the virtues of being ‘stuck’, and how this can help pupils tackle challenging tasks with more confidence.
A growth mindset and being ‘stuck’
Carol Dweck’s influential work on growth mindset has become common parlance across schools now, and we know that helping pupils develop grit, perseverance and resilience is key to supporting them in their learning. A growth mindset is one in which ability is seen as ‘changeable’, and which ‘can be developed through learning’ (Dweck, 2006), rather than innate or fixed. As teachers, we want pupils to be able to reframe their thinking about things they struggle with to develop a growth mindset. We therefore provide scaffolds and supports to ease pupils into the ‘zone of proximal development’ and enable them to see smaller successes on the path to larger ones.
However, small and incremental scaffolds may actually serve to make them more reliant on the support from their teachers than on their own reasoning. An example of this: as part of some of my MA action research, I declared ‘war’ on the PEE/PEA structure, which I knew pupils had become too reliant on and which was making their writing too mechanical, and many of them simply relied on another acronym they had learnt in the past. By easing pupils into a task too gently, we run this risk: ‘if a task does not puzzle us at all, then it is not a problem; it is just an exercise’.
We therefore sometimes need to remove even more of the support structures, and defamiliarise pupils even further in order to make them less reliant on the scaffolds we put in place, and make them more aware of the ways in which they can get themselves unstuck, helping them to understand what to do when they don’t know what to do. We can expose them to challenges which they might consider beyond their ‘zone of proximal development’ – be this a new style of Mathematics problem, an unusual context for a theory in the Sciences, or a piece of music unlike anything they’ve heard before.
An example from English – analysing ‘unseen’ texts
Many students of English Literature at KS4 are anxious about the concept of ‘unseen’ – the part of the examination where pupils have to write an essay about a text they have never seen before. It’s particularly challenging with poetry: a poem is often by nature oblique and abstract, resisting an easy answer. While this is what we love about poetry, it can be frustrating for some pupils who want the ‘right’ answer! Pupils who find developing their own interpretations of texts hard sometimes rely on ‘getting’ the notes about texts, and thereby the ‘right’ answer, rather than developing the habits they need to be able to respond to any text, whether one they have encountered before or not. This is understandable: while English teachers will argue that all texts are ‘unseen’ before they are studied, pupils can become used to the scaffold of discussing with pairs or small groups, and the reassurance that, at the end, the teacher would eventually confirm the ‘right’ response by guiding the discussion and asking purposeful questions.
As Angela Duckworth says in Grit, ‘We prefer our excellence fully formed’ (2016). We would prefer to show the world the successful final outcome, rather than the training and experimenting, which means that committing pen to paper and articulating an interpretation of an unseen poem, or even just verbally expressing an idea in class discussion, could make unseen poetry a locus of fear and failure where pupils may feel intimidated by the myth that some people just ‘get it’ and others don’t, rather than seeing it as an enjoyable challenge. When I surveyed my Year 10 class about what they felt the biggest challenges in responding to unseen poetry were, several of their responses focused on the idea of a fixed, or correct interpretation – they were concerned about “analysing the text correctly” or finding “the right message/s of the poem”. While many of them commented that they liked “reading new poems” and to have a “fresh start and use things we’ve learnt from other poems”, it is interesting that the pressure to ‘get it right’ still prevails.
So I decided to give my pupils a challenge which would deliberately make them feel stuck. As a starter activity just as we started our unseen poetry unit, I gave them a poem which was on a Cambridge University end of year examination in 2014, and which consists only of punctuation:
They were definitely daunted by this – in a survey after the lesson I asked them how they felt when they saw it:
I felt a bit out of my depth, I struggled to analyse any of it
Quite stuck for words… I wasn’t really sure where to start seeing as we had no context and there were no words so how were you able to deduce anything from it?
Freaked out, how was I meant to be able to understand a poem with no words!These phrases echo exactly the sort of being ‘stuck’ feeling I’m sure we’ve all experienced when encountering something unfamiliar. The pupils spent some time on their own examining and annotating the poem, and then in a Teams video call we discussed the kinds of clues they could look for to help them understand the poem – although there weren’t words, they gradually began to use the information they did have, and came up with some insightful ideas, utilising the ideas about the structure and clues from the punctuation marks to try and gain some meaning from the poem. Here are some of the ideas from the Meeting Chat:
They were beginning to notice some really interesting ideas: the open-ended nature of the poem because of the unfinished last section, the implications of the punctuation marks which were there, and the fact that the lines were bracketed, suggesting some sort of devaluing of whatever words might have been inside them. I then revealed the title of the poem: ‘Tipp-Ex Sonata’, and explained that the poet, Koos Kombuis, was a South African performer and writer. With additional context, and using another pupil’s observation about apartheid, they then made some even more impressive deductions:
They had got very close to what Koos Kombuis had said about the poem himself: that it’s a protest against censorship of anti-apartheid voices in South Africa. So far, so good: the pupils had proved that they could reframe their thinking and use different clues to help them analyse the poem.
I then showed the pupils a poem in German:
This, naturally presented pupils with a different problem. However, they could identify rhyme and internal rhymes, alliteration and sound iconicity, and when they heard the poem aloud they could hear the regular, almost monotonous iambic pentameter. They identified that the first and last words of the poem were the same (although one is a pronoun and the other is a verb, they were using the right sort of reasoning!), and made an interesting point about the poem having a cyclical structure as a result. We spoke about how these gave the impression of something enclosed or making repeated movements – and of course, they were actually very close! This poem, ‘Der Panther’ by Rainer Maria Rilke, is about a panther, trapped in a cage and moving around in tiny circles as his mind calcifies. Without realising it, and without knowing any of the words, the pupils managed to understand this poem at a surprisingly deep level.
I then asked the pupils their feelings about unseen poetry, having attempted these two poems which would have been certainly at best uncomfortable, and at worst enough to make them feel ‘stuck’:
I like analysing unconventional poems, because you can interpret it on a much broader range, rather than analysing the meaning of words and literary devices.
less confused and a bit more confident in my capability to analysis texts
it made me more confident in understanding different ways to analyse and use other methods to deduce a message from a poem
Slightly reassured that annotations aren’t all there is to a poem and you can find other key elements elsewhere.
After these activities, I feel like I have a better approach to unseen poetry, and am able to discover the writer’s meaning without context or the internet.
now I understand that there is more than just the words on the page that can be understood.
it makes it a lot clearer because I now know there are other ways to look at a poem, for example after looking at “der panther” it made me realise I could’ve looked at the rhyming structure or words that rhyme in order to get a sense of the poem.These pupils’ responses suggest that putting them out of their comfort zone and possibly dangerously close to their ‘panic zone’, actually made them understand that there were more tools available to them than the most obvious ones. (It is particularly gratifying to see that at least one has learnt they don’t need to consult Google!) Not only is unseen poetry now less daunting, because they had successfully engaged with something even more unfamiliar, but they had also deepened their understanding of a greater range of devices which poets use to create meaning.This is a really useful strategy for helping pupils engage with something which they might feel daunted by, especially when it’s a new topic. Another example is from a Year 13 lesson when we started Chaucer: I was concerned that my class would be daunted by Middle English when they encountered it for the first time, so gave them versions of a text in Old English dating from the 10th and 11th century, and then the same text in Middle English from the 14th century, at which point the pupils began to recognise trends and similarities in the language and structure, eventually identifying it as the Lord’s Prayer, before I provided a more familiar 16th century translation. Making these connections helped pupils feel less alienated by Middle English and more confident to approach Chaucer.
At WHS, we are fortunate enough to teach thoughtful, perceptive and independent students, and it’s encouraging to see the ways that they engage with really tricky material, and begin to see that, if they can tackle an undergraduate exam text in Year 10, they can tackle any poem! The same strategy could be used in many subjects – a piece of artwork which doesn’t look like what someone might assume to be ‘art’, a piece of music which challenges the expectations of a particular genre, data which might seem to buck a trend in science subjects. These lessons are memorable as well: one of the girls in my Year 13 class signed up for my elective module on Sociolinguistics on the strength of the introduction to Middle English activity which she had enjoyed several months earlier! By challenging pupils’ expectations and perceptions of their own limitations, they are able to see their subjects in a broader light than the examination syllabi, make connections with wider experiences, and learn a valuable lesson about what to do when they don’t know what to do.
References and Further Reading
Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit:Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, Vermillion.
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books.
Isabelle (Year 9) looks at the potential of quantum computing, delivering an informative video and article outlining this fascinating innovation.
We need to know the potential of quantum computing, the powerful approach to computation that our world is moving into.
There are endless ways in which we can use quantum computing. The first is from a biological aspect. A mysterious aspect of this subject are enzymes and understanding these can help to produce medicines for various major diseases. However, we don’t know a lot about enzymes due to their incredibly complex structures. Normal computers are also unable to model such a complex structure, so we need a different solution: a quantum computer. Quantum computers could predict this structure, along with several other properties.
This is just one example, but quantum computers could resolve so many problems in healthcare and can be applied to several different industries such as finance, transportation, chemicals and cybersecurity. The promise is that quantum computers can solve problems which we have pondered for years in a matter of a few hours.
And yes, it will take years, perhaps decades for this to develop in a way where the value is significant enough for many businesses, however it is important to know how it would work and what it could solve. Then, businesses can truly use quantum computers to their full potential.
How does a quantum computer work?
It is hard for the ‘normal’ computers that we use daily to solve complex problems. But this quantum computer has to potential to be able to solve specific, very complex problems, fast. It won’t replace our ‘normal’ computers; it will improve research. But here are two differences that make these quantum computers so powerful:
1. Our ‘normal’ computers use binary numbers – bits. They are made up of two number (one and off): one and zero. But these quantum computers are designed to use ‘qubits’, which can also represent a combination of one and zero.
2. 2. Our ‘normal’ computer can manage one calculation and one input. But the quantum computers can manage more. This gives the quantum computers their speed – they will be able to process multiple calculations simultaneously, with several inputs.
So, let’s combine this: if we have ‘n’ qubits, then the quantum computer is able to process many at once. That is fast and powerful.
Classical computing has the skill to find one particular result. However, a quantum computer is able to bring it down to a small range, which is so much faster. Afterwards, we can then use a classical computer to find one particular result, but it would take much longer to only use classical computers. The idea is there, but there are challenges which stop us from developing this so far.
We describe something as volatile if something is unstable. Qubits are volatile. In the ‘normal’ computers today, we have a bit which is 1 or 0. It is important that this bit on a computer chip does not interfere with other bits on the same computer chip, and we have managed to do this. However, the quantum computers would need to develop a structure where the qubits can interact with each other, so that they can process several calculations and inputs at once.
What then makes these qubits so volatile is that we need to be able to control these interactions. We need to allow them to interact, while still ensuring that no inputs are changed or deleted, which would harm the accuracy. This is a technical difficulty.
So, what happens now? The idea of quantum computing has been around since 1980, but only at the end of 2019 was there proof that it was really possible.
Mrs Claire Baty, Head of French, looks at the idea of teachers being life-long learners, and the benefits this affords in our classrooms.
It’s widely accepted that learning something new can enhance your quality of life, give you confidence, have a positive impact on your mental health and above all be fun. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever” (Ghandi). Yet learning from scratch, purely for the cognitive challenge, is something that most of us rarely do.
As a French teacher, my focus has always been on imparting knowledge; enthusing and, I hope, inspiring my students to learn this language that I have spent years studying. I encourage my students to be curious beyond the curriculum. I ask Key Stage 3 to look up extra words to extend their topic specific vocabulary beyond the confines of the textbook. I set Key Stage 4 longer, more authentic reading and listening texts to decipher, hoping to instil a desire to build upon their knowledge. I expect Key Stage 5 to indulge in research into cultural, literary and historical topics beyond the course. I hope that they do this with the same sense of pleasure that I feel when doing the exact same thing. Yet, I haven’t taken into consideration that for my students, especially those in Years 7-11, they are not yet fluent in this language. French is still new to them. When I read the news in French or look up a word from a novel I am reading, none of it is new, I am merely building on years of study, whereas my students are starting from scratch.
So to become the pupil again and experience language learning from the perspective of the student in the MFL classroom, was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Learning Mandarin alongside a class of Year 8 students is enlightening in so many ways. Not only have I learnt how to introduce myself and family in Mandarin, I have found myself reconsidering how we learn language and the effectiveness of our methods for the students that we teach.
The reality of learning a new language
Chinese is a fundamentally different language to the European languages that I am familiar with but, if I am totally honest, I expected to find it easy to make progress quickly, after all I am a linguist, a languages teacher and a motivated student with the advantage of knowing how to learn a language. In reality, it is proving less obvious than I had first thought!
My desire to always get it right has a direct impact on my confidence and self-consciousness when speaking in Mandarin. Even when I know the word I am profoundly aware of the lack of authenticity of my pronunciation. What is more, I was completely unprepared for how difficult it is to multi-task during a classroom based lesson. Copying vocabulary from the board, whilst listening to the sound of the word and trying to remember the meaning all at the same time as being prepared to answer a question from the teacher requires an agility of mind that is hard to achieve. But, perhaps most surprisingly for a linguist, is how hard I find it to recall new vocabulary from one lesson to the next without considerable pre-lesson preparation and sneaky glancing at notes! As a teacher, I often find myself saying to my French classes “but we saw this word last lesson in exercise X, page Y”. I now understand first-hand how difficult instant retrieval of vocabulary is, but also how important it is if you want to progress in a language.
If this is how I am feeling, when the language classroom is my ‘zone’, then how do my students feel? As teachers, do we ask too much of them each day or do they adapt to the demands placed upon them as learners and I am just out of practice?
How is second language taught?
Due to the closure of schools in March, my experience of learning Mandarin has moved from face-to-face classroom learning to independent textbook exercises, remote virtual learning and online platforms such as Duolingo, inadvertently placing me in a good position to consider this question.
In the MFL classroom we learn by rote, repetition, hearing others, practising, being creative with the language, revisiting previous knowledge. Independent access to a textbook is valuable to a point but then you need an expert to answer questions (and I have lots of questions!). Remote learning has become part of the ‘classroom’ experience and unexpectedly for me, the sense of anonymity created by initials in black squares during a TEAMS video conference has actually helped me to feel more confident when speaking in Mandarin and more inclined to take a risk. I wonder if my French students feel the same.
But what about all the online platforms available that claim they are the best way to learn a language? These applications offer a totally different approach to language learning. Often providing minimal explanation of key words or grammar, the focus is clearly on lots of practice, which means you get things wrong – all the time! To some extent this mimics how a child might learn a language; seeing and hearing words in context with lots of repetition. Whilst I must admit that these platforms are addictive because of their gaming style, I find myself wanting greater explanation. I want to read the notes, make my own notes, learn the information before attempting the exercise, whereas Duolingo seems determined to force me to have a go and risk getting it wrong.
What about the role of online translators? I have spent most of my working life warning students of the pitfalls of ‘Google Translate’. Every language teacher can give numerous examples of student’s work containing glaring and often comical errors, yet now that I am a beginner learner of Mandarin who is frustrated that the textbook glossary doesn’t contain the word I want to use, I find myself turning to Google Translate more and more frequently and with a surprising level of success. Perhaps the key here is that I am also a linguist and language teacher and hence know what pitfalls to look out for. But this does support what language teachers have been forced to accept; that A.I has transformed machine-based translation and Google Translate is no longer the enemy it once was. I agree whole heartedly with my colleague, Adèle Venter who, in her article Approaches to using online language tools and AI to aid language learning, says that students need to be taught how to use these tools rather than being told not to use them at all.
How does this affect my teaching?
What have I learnt from this whole experience, apart from being able to introduce myself and family in Chinese? Can learning a new language make me a better French teacher?
Knowing how to learn helps you learn. I am at an advantage over my fellow Mandarin students, not because I am innately any better than them at Mandarin, but because I know how to take notes, revise vocabulary and practise the language independently. Activities aimed at improving pupil’s metacognitive skills must be a significant part of the classroom experience.
It is also clear that retrieval practice needs to be a priority in every lesson. Ross Morrison-McGill (TeacherToolkit) makes an interesting link with the ‘knowledge’ test for London black cab drivers. According to his article Why do London cab drivers know so much? “spaced practice and interleaving” are the key to memory. I would also agree with Andy Tharby who comments in his article Memory Platforms that quizzing is a far more powerful tool to retrieval than re-reading notes or listening to teacher explanations. The latter create what he refers to as an ‘illusion of fluency’ – we think we know when in fact the knowledge doesn’t stick. Effective starter activities that encourage the transfer of knowledge from one lesson to another, one topic to another need to be incorporated into every lesson.
Students need time in lessons to reflect, to consider what they are learning, to form and then ultimately ask questions and to consolidate their learning. Being overwhelmed, tired even anxious can all stem from a feeling of busyness that comes from having a distracted mind. We feel busy because we are in the habit of doing one thing while thinking about the next (mindful.org) Giving students time to process and complete the task I am asking of them during a lesson could lead to much deeper understanding and as a result, greater confidence.
I am not learning Mandarin because I have immediate plans to travel to China, nor do I need to use the language every day to communicate at home or at work (although I can see how it would be beneficial), I am learning purely for the sake of learning something new. It’s exciting to be able to do something that I couldn’t do 10 months ago. The change of perspective that has been afforded to me by becoming the pupil rather than the teacher is invaluable and I am excited to consider what I will change about my own classroom practice as a result.
Suzanne East, Head of Year 12 at WHS, looks at how listening can empower us as teachers and learners.
I am a talker, and I suspect that is true of many teachers. We get a buzz from sharing our passions for our subject, from explaining and answering questions and from solving problems. But increasingly my attention has been drawn to the importance of listening as a vital way to genuinely shift our focus away from ourselves, our opinions and assumptions; forcing us to notice what is really happening for our students, what they are learning and the journey they are making as they engage with the information we are presenting.
During this time of lock down this has been brought into sharper focus as we realise what we miss by not being able to see and hear our pupils in person. I think many of us have experienced that unsettling feeling of talking into the void, calling out for any pupil to respond! This has added to my intention to ensure that I bring good quality listening to my school life once we return.
Concerns about the quality of listening may be a reaction to the Twitter generation which seems to demand that we constantly project our thoughts and ideas out into the world – this demand to be seen and heard where perhaps nobody is doing the listening. But we have long been aware that it is easier to notice and respond to the louder and more obvious messages that can be presented by students. Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” reminded us of what we may miss if we don’t stop to make sure that all voices are heard, and of our obligation as teachers to ensure that no one is overlooked.
Attending mindfulness sessions with MiSP and again in courses with the Positive Group, I started to realise the difference between my usual listening style and what really thoughtful and attentive listening can be. The requirement to stop and to observe your surroundings is closely linked to the need to listen as well. To stop sending messages out and to take time to notice what is actually being said. Practising this stillness and trying to observe the moment was both a relief and a revelation. Accepting that I don’t have to respond to everything straight away, fighting the urge to jump in when listening even to a simple story, and noticing my instinct to mould what I hear to fit my own experience and expectation was a real eye opener.
One listening activity many of you may have tried is that of working in pairs to sit silently for between 1 to 3 minutes whilst the partner describes a situation, perhaps a simple event like a holiday or a more emotional experience such as a recent frustration or disappointment. In either case it is revealing to notice the desire as a listener to interrupt, join in and comment, rather than allowing the story to be and remain that of the storyteller. Feeling that listening to each other is a skill our girls will also need to develop, and we have tried this with Y12.
We asked them to sit back to back in pairs to listen for one minute to their partner and then to repeat back what they had heard. Giving time to listen to the end of the story and then telling the account back allows a sense of mutual understanding to grow and holds a mirror to the mistakes we often make in our everyday interactions. By actually doing this exercise the girls were able to start to experience this for themselves and to acknowledge their own behaviours. We know that many friendship issues arise from not listening honestly to each other and the damage done by quick reactions to a message on social media which can then take months of unpicking to repair the hurt caused.
Encouraging girls to listen fully to the whole story, to think before they act, and to go back and check with each other to see if they have understood correctly, are all useful tools in diffusing potentially viral misunderstandings. Despite all our efforts to be more inclusive and to accept diversity, we also live in a social media age which encourages swift reactions with a quick “like” or “dislike”. It is our responsibility as educators to highlight the potentially damaging impact of this and to explore the advantage of allowing space to consider the nuanced motivations that contribute to individual actions and decisions. We explored this further with our Sixth Form using the three chairs activity, in which the same situation was described from the perspective of the protagonist, victim and a fly on the wall. In my group the fairly trivial example of Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter led to a surprisingly rich discussion on the different motivations for bullying.
We want our students to be able to open up to us and we want to help them to live happier and more fulfilled lives. From our greater age, we can look back at the challenges of teenage life and see where we could have done it better, but that is not what any student wants to hear; we have to be careful to make sure the conversation remains focussed on the student and not on us or our ability to problem solve quickly.
Neuroscientist Sarah Jayne-Blackmore has spoken and written many times on the nature of the adolescent brain and reasons why it leads to greater risk-taking behaviour, and how this behaviour is significantly influenced by peer group approval. We want to influence our students and encourage them to make what we consider the best decisions, but the evidence suggests that they are not going to hear us unless we really take time to listen and understand what is important to them. We allocate time to one to one conversations with form tutors in the sixth form, but successfully managing these is not easy and tutors need to be skilful in creating a situation of trust in which a student can really open up. Mark Wilmore, one of our tutors with many years of experience as a Samaritan, training as a Counsellor and also as a sixth form tutor, shared his top tips for these conversations:
Check in & boundaries
Have an agenda
Try to avoid closed questions
Use challenge where appropriate
Keep a written record
Making it obvious to the student that these conversations are important – that they deserve proper time and attention and that we are genuinely listening to their experience and their story – are vital in building a successful relationship. Body language and preparation will tell the student far more than words, so making sure you have time to genuinely be there for them is vital, as they will be quick to assume that we are not really interested and then any words of wisdom we have will fall on stony ground.
It is also an important part of a student’s development to struggle and to find their own solutions to problems. We need to empower them with the confidence to know that they can make the change for themselves and that they have the skills that they will need. Rachel Simmonds says in Enough As She Is that “suffering is key to our children’s learning” and “that the price of some of our most important life lessons-the ones that make us wiser, tougher, and more capable-is pain, even heart-break” (Simmonds p200). This isn’t to leave them on their own, but to be with them and give them space to sound out their own solutions so that next time they know they will manage better.
In PSHE earlier this year we invited the Samaritans in to talk with Y12. Hearing the accounts of these masters of listening without judgement, the ones that those who are feeling most isolated and rejected turn to were truly inspiring. But they emphasised that the skills of listening were something that we should all practise in our relationships to help avoid people becoming isolated in the first place. Their campaign Shush “wants to encourage people to listen to the really important things their friends, family and colleagues need to tell them, and to devote some time and attention to being better listeners” (Samaritans). This was a powerful session, which left us all awed by the potential impact each one of us can make by just taking the time to stop and listen and allowing others to be heard.
Rachel Evans, Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, writes a personal reflection on the past two months as WHS planned and implemented our Guided Home Learning programme, and considers what lies ahead.
It’s 16th March and I’m getting ready to leave school, knowing that I’m unlikely to be back at my desk with its view of the cherry blossom for a good while. My husband has called to say he has a temperature and cough, meaning self-isolation for my household. I gather some freebie cloth bags from BETT and cram them with everything I think I might need, leaving behind a stack of library books – I come to regret this later! Within a week I’m being video-called by a colleague who holds his phone aloft so that I can see and hear the whole school singing our school song as we close the site, and Mrs Lunnon says “Whatever happens, however long this is, be brilliant.” It all seems rather unreal.
As the Covid-19 crisis mounted in late February and early March, along with other schools across the world we began to plan how we could continue teaching and learning as our staff and students scattered to their homes. We have been committed for the past 5 years to integrating technology for teaching and learning – both in terms of hardware, with our BYOD scheme and Junior iPads, and software, as a Microsoft Showcase School. Nevertheless, the challenges of this unprecedented situation are significant, and like all use of technology in education, go far beyond simply having the right tech in place.
Back in January, Suzy Pett (Assistant Head Teaching & Learning) and I had been privileged to speak at the BETT educational technology show and share our WHS digital philosophy with a wider audience. What has struck me as we have rolled out our Guided Home Learning programme is how those values have been tried and tested in this unprecedented situation. Edtech should be an excellent tool, seamless and most importantly authentic. How did these principles guide us in practice?
An excellent tool
We’re always clear that we have a ‘pedagogy first’ approach to using technology and we’re careful to select software and systems that deliver value, rather than being gimmicky or distracting. This was helpful as we considered what ‘home learning’ would look like in practice. Teams allows video-conferencing, something we had only tentatively explored before between colleagues. Now we made the decision to offer at least some ‘live’ lessons remotely, and added in the practical details – the way we’d use Teams announcements to start lessons, our protocols for video conference lessons, and how our existing use of OneNote would fit into this model.
In the Junior years, we began with simple Firefly pages, then worked over Easter to move to a more interactive offering. Choosing Firefly Tasks was straightforward, while Flipgrid would offer some interaction between the girls and chances for personalised video feedback for every pupil from her teachers.
What skills did teachers need to feel confident and secure with these new features of familiar systems, and with some entirely new apps? We created a common approach to ‘lessons’ so that staff and students alike would have clear expectations and a consistent experience with a clear framework of skills to learn. We ran in-person training sessions for all staff, and then, after the site closed, online training in Teams (sometimes about Teams, which can be surreal!). We all became inexpert videographers, finding ad-hoc ways to make, edit and share videos of tips, and training sessions. We were grateful for Microsoft’s extensive support materials, and our GDST sister schools and other professional networks of colleagues, to share ideas and pool materials.
As the weeks have gone by there have of course been peaks and troughs in the experiences of all concerned – both technical and human. On the first Monday as pupils across the world stayed at home, both Teams and Firefly faltered. We are all at the mercy of our home wi-fi connections with most providers having outages at times. No software or system is perfect, and we are often pushing at the edges of the original design and use cases which are mostly based on being together in physical school. Teachers and parents alike feel the pressure of combining childcare, home learning and full-time jobs. But we do believe that alongside a plethora of subject-specific online resources, these systems have enabled us to continue with teaching and learning that has been effective, productive and not too impossible to manage for students, staff or parents.
Feedback and listening to the community in the first week led us to deliver new advice for teachers – we began to move away from trying to replicate an offline experience in an online environment. (There was much discussion of synchronous and asynchronous learning – terms bandied about which were unknown to non-experts the week before!) A video call in Teams can’t feel like a lesson – you can’t see everyone at once and interactions quickly feel stilted and frustrating. But making use of the chat, the thumbs-up emoji, limiting the time on the call and following up with text-based chat or collaborative work in OneNote makes all the difference. We started working differently: taking the pedagogical aim – for instance, the benefit of small group discussions in a lesson – and working out how to deliver that effectively in Teams – by having group channels with the teacher dropping in to listen and give feedback. We encouraged teachers to break away from the screen as well, for everyone’s wellbeing and to bring the variety of types of work they would to a ‘real life’ lesson.
Our wonderful teaching staff have a high confidence level with the technology because we use it every day, and that has allowed them to experiment and explore. This week, the Head of German and I have figured out how to add subtitles or voiceover in a foreign language to an existing film clip with the software we have or free apps. We’ve got some ideas and learnt some new stuff, and we know the girls will come up with even more. Everyone is rising to the challenge of exploring and integrating new tools and new ideas – whether that’s a deeper knowledge of systems we used already, or brand new work.
Early in our planning, Fionnuala Kennedy, our Senior Deputy Head, came up with the three words to sum up our approach – clarity, consistency and connection.
Connection – use the technology at our disposal to stay connected with each other in as human a way as possible.
Whenever I speak about our digital strategy, I always put authentic first in the list. Our vision for digital technology embedded in our school life is a holistic and human-centred one. I talk about the need for the use of technology in schools to respect teachers’ professional judgements and their personal approaches. More technology is not necessarily better: teachers must choose their own path and my role is to encourage, guide, facilitate. Now we were all going off to our own homes to interact with one another entirely via screen, and one size did have to fit all in order to allow us a safe, consistent and calm remote learning experience. My peers on Twitter were jubilant that for digital specialists, our time had come! I wasn’t so sure it was that simple.
I shouldn’t have worried. Our Wimbledonian spirit has meant that although we are all working in an unfamiliar and more standardised way, individuality has triumphed. Ms Phillips taught a remote sewing class, by voice and whiteboard from Teams; Dr Neumann encouraged her class to go outside, get a flower, dissect and photograph it; Spanish classes made board games; English classes acted out their text with soft toys; music groups made amusing remote ensemble videos; Junior girls in STEAM club explained their wacky home science experiments on Flipgrid. In among the functional necessity of online learning our authenticity and creativity has shone through.
Back in January at BETT, I quoted Georgia, a Year 13 student, talking about collaborating with her peers online:
“you’re helping others, they are helping you… It adds a new dimension to learning that doesn’t make it seem so stifled.”
This has turned out to be as true as ever. It’s been superb to see even the Year 5 and 6 girls who are new to using Teams and OneNote not only collaborating, but problem-solving and encouraging one another and their teachers in a warm and kind community.
What have we learned? And what comes next?
Although it feels a great deal longer, we have been away from our much-loved school building for 26 school days, as I write this. In a period characterised by fast-paced and ever-changing decision making, it’s salutary to pause and listen before we start thinking about the lessons we may have learned. We still have the challenge ahead of returning to our school site with social distancing in place. It’s clearer than ever that this is a marathon not a sprint, and that we’re all learning as we go. Nevertheless, I’d like to share a few themes that seem to me to have emerged already.
Humility & Openness
Hardly anyone responsible for planning or delivering the remote learning taking place in schools throughout the world is an expert in the pedagogy and science of online or distance learning. It’s not part of our usual skill set. Remote learning is not like learning in a classroom and the two are not interchangeable. What those of us in education have achieved in the past eight weeks is our very best effort to ensure that learning is sustained for our students during a global crisis and unprecedented social lockdown. We’ve used our pedagogical expertise, and our deep knowledge of and care for our students and teachers to create a programme that works in our own context.
What we should do as we plan for the next academic year is make sure that we draw on expertise in the fields of online learning, instructional design and distance learning. We can then design new timetables, develop and modify our schemes of work, and put in place appropriate technology and courses to ensure that we can move to even more pedagogically robust guided home learning should we need to do so again. We can learn lessons from this experience and open up to new ideas for the future. A flexible, creative and exciting way of thinking about ‘school’ may lie ahead.
Wellbeing & Community
We must remember that for all the cheerful social media sharing of birdsong and baking bread, for many people in our society this period may have been incredibly difficult – for reasons of economic disadvantage, personal risk of illness, mental health challenges and bereavement. Supporting the wellbeing of our own community and looking outwards to help others wherever we can – as our staff and girls have done wonderfully – has been paramount.
Within the school, finding ways to keep us connected digitally, both serious and fun, has been a privilege. Seeing staff and students create video assemblies, online quizzes, and share music and art have all been a joy. One of our students wrote:
“when watching the assembly this morning from Mrs Lunnon, I saw the views of the video rising. It was so satisfying and empowering to watch all the WHS seniors watching the same video as me at the same time.”
We may not want to abandon these entirely when we return to our school site, for the sense of connection they can offer.
International & National Collaboration
In this most global of crises, seeing the education community come together across the world has been inspiring. Through the Microsoft network, schools have shared their experiences and ideas. The value of online interaction and our new ease with video call technology has opened our eyes to new possibilities – with friends in our international and local partner schools, and closer to home in our GDST family. This, as Jane Lunnon noted in The Telegraph this week, is a real opportunity to arise from this challenge. Sharing experiences, ideas and resources, working collaboratively, and learning with and from one another may be a positive outcome from this crisis.