Monday, 26 January 2015

Grit and Growth

Continuing to post weekly assemblies, here's this week's;

Why do we limit ourselves? Why do we tend to say 'I can't' quickly before we say 'I can'?

It is something we all suffer from and it is quite possibly the one main contributing factor in limiting out potential, limiting what we can achieve. Why do we do it?

There are many different theories, but all of them point to the fact that we can do something about it if we truly want to, which is good. That we often don't try because we feel we can't do it.

Some of us limit ourselves because we've been told, time and time again that we're no good. And we start to believe it. Maybe in primary school, or in a club, we try something, fail at it, and then someone says we're no good, so we believe them and stop. When someone we respect, someone in authority, tells us that we are no good at something, we tend to believe them, particularly when the evidence points to them being right.

At school, I was told that I would never really amount to anything; a senior teacher told my parents that there was little point me doing hard A-levels as I was most likely only going to fail them & maybe I should look at a safe local job for after school. Something inside of me told me that was wrong & I knew I wanted (& was able to) achieve more, but if I'd not thought that, I would not be here now.

The trouble is, there is a myth that we only use a small part of our brain & we can't do anything about that. Even scientists in the past felt that there was a limit on our use of the brain; the concept of IQ (Intelligence Quota), formed  by psychologists just over 100 years ago, was a test used to identify students in France who would not succeed in the newly created compulsory education system. It has since been used to identify people capable of being forced into the army in the first world war and is still, today, used in the USA to identify whether or not a criminal is 'intelligent enough' to have known that what they did was wrong when they murdered someone and so deserved the death penalty or not.

And in popular culture, there's an amazing film; Lucy, with Scarlett Johansson as the lead role, who accidently takes a new drug which expands the use of her mind to 100%. A great film, but one that reinforces the limit to our use of our brain without help from drugs or stimulants.

As science develops, we are more and more able to understand how our mind works; it is clearly still by a million-fold, the most complex object in the world to date and each and every one of us has a unique set of patterns in the billions of neural pathways that make up our mind, our memories stored as electrical impulses lighting up our brains. We can now 'watch' these signals fly around the brain in real time, and watch parts of our brain light up as we perform simple tasks. We know better than ever what parts of our brain do now and how they link together. And we know one important thing now that our ancestors of 100 years ago didn't:

That the brain can grow. 

We can develop our brain, just like any muscle, and make it better; in any way we want. We don't need to look to drugs like the character Lucy, in order to do more with our brain than we do now.

So we do not have innate intelligence. You are not, intrinsically, cleverer than I am, or better than me at things. Our ability is not fixed, so if we can't do something, it's just that we've not learnt how to do that yet.

What's funny, however, is that we know this in some areas of our life. When we get a 'Game Over' message on our PlayStation, we don't think we're no good and give up. Instead, we pick up the controller and click the 'start again' button, determined to not make the same mistake again that got us kicked out of the game last time.

The trouble is, we do have innate preferences; some of us find it easier to work with words than numbers, some of us work better with images or pictures than words. These are all subtle differences that make us unique. I am not so good with languages, but it did not stop me going back to evening school to learn a foreign language even though my MFL teacher at school told me I was hopeless and couldn’t learn a language. I am not brilliant, but I can get by in France now. Because I did not believe that I couldn't do it. 

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship by the US government to visit schools in New York & Washington (The International Visiting Leaders programme), where I met some amazing students, teachers and leaders. One school in particular, in Washington, sticks in my mind - they have a huge sign in the entrance way to the school, which is seen by students, staff and visitors every day. It reads:

"If you don't understand, it's not your fault"

I think this is the most powerful statement ever. It means that, whatever you are studying, whatever you are doing, it's never, really, 'Game Over', so long as you are willing to pick up the controller again and have another go. You will certainly progress further each time and will, eventually, get there, so long as you don't give up.

But it takes one thing that is rapidly becoming a very hot topic in education & society in general. It's given an American phrase; Grit. Grit is the determination to keep on going, to not give up. To re-start the game and learn from our mistakes.

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

Monday, 12 January 2015

All that is necessary for evil to flourish

This phrase is one I have heard so many times, in so many places; when I tried to look up its origin, there are so many different versions of it that it's hard to place it.
And no wonder why - it is a phrase with so many different interpretations.

If we first of all look to the horror of the awful incidents in Paris, where so many innocent people, going about their ordinary day, found themselves cruelly targeted by cowards (to call them terrorists is too good for them). There were examples of good people not doing nothing and trying to stop the deaths, but in the face, literally, of semi-automatic weapons in the hands of trained people, there is not a lot anyone could have done.

But terrorism spreads, like a disease, when people fear others because they are different. When tolerance is lost, we put our barriers up and look to fight.

Whilst it is still early days, the three people who felt they needed to take up arms and kill cartoonists and shoppers in a supermarket did so because they felt they did not belong in the society where they grew up. And that is at least in part because people turned their backs on them. That is no excuse for what they did and they were turned into killers by cold, manipulative terrorists, who seek to stop our way of being, who feel that our lifestyles are offensive to their God. But if they had people they called friends in their society, would they, could they, have turned their guns on people who looked like their neighbours, their friends?

All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

And of course, there's our response - do we say that, because it happened in France, that it is of no concern of ours? The news is full of the increased risk of similar attacks now in our country, and in every western country. There are, apparently, dozens, if not hundreds, of people in this country alone who feel isolated, excluded, left out, to the pitch where they look elsewhere to be made to feel welcomed, to feel at home. And then they find those people turn them, twist them, and send them back to cause havoc and fear.

Why? Our society is one of the most unequal in the world, with a larger gap between those who 'have' and those who 'have not' wider than almost anywhere.

In our compassionate society, where the principles of looking after those who need help are enshrined in law, it is our duty to not do nothing. Because people need our help.

Bur sometimes fear drives us to do nothing. Sometimes, we turn our back because we don’t want to get involved, or because we don’t want the bother.

All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

But what about closer to home? Here in school? All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

As a school we believe, with a passion, that each and every one of you is important, equally and has a huge potential inside of you and that it is our duty to help you realise this and release your potential. Doing nothing is not an option to the staff who work here, because they all believe that it is an important thing, the most important thing, we do. And they most certainly do not do nothing. . .

What about you? I've spoken time and time again about the importance of you being on board, on the journey. Part of the solution. . .

When we work together, as a community, we help and support each other to be bigger, stronger, better than we ever could be on our own.

And yet time and time again, things go wrong. People fall out. Fights happen. And no-one wants to get involved. Because of the outdated feeling that 'we don't tell'. 'No-one likes a grass'.

It's actually so alien to me, that idea. If there is someone who is making another person's life miserable, and you know it, but don't tell someone? How is that, in any frame of reference, a good idea? It is, in fact, the living example of the phrase I've been quoting:

All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

But being a grass is seen as a bad thing. How about I re-phrase it in another light: Telling someone about something wrong is a moral duty - it is helping to make the world a better place, make the school a safer place. It is rooting out 'evil' & turning the spotlight on it.

Maybe, just maybe, in Paris, if a neighbour or someone had said something about the men who felt they could stop free speech by killing cartoonists, then maybe those men and women, those fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, other people's children would still be alive today, getting on with their lives, maybe sitting having a coffee, planning a treat or holiday.

All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

When you think twice about doing something or saying something when you see something bad going on, think again and do the brave thing, the moral thing, the right thing & make a difference

Monday, 5 January 2015

New Year Resolutions

Like most people, I set myself some resolutions for 2015; one of them was to 'blog' more, starting with my weekly assemblies. So I am aiming to post online my Monday assemblies shortly after the students have heard them... Here is this weeks:

 New Year Resolutions

First of all, welcome back & Happy New Year! I hope the Christmas break has provided you with the chance to rest and spend time with family. New Year is a funny festival, traditionally a time where we reflect on the year gone and make some resolutions for the year ahead. Pretty much the whole world now celebrates this marker on the 1st January, to the point where it's difficult to believe that it could be anything else. But I read this morning that there is a Scottish island, the remotest part of the British Isles, that still celebrates festivals dating back to ancient Norse times and so will celebrate their 'New Year' tomorrow!

And, of course, there's the famous Chinese New Year, an ancient calendar that is based on the Moon's cycles, rather than the Sun. This year, the Chinese will be celebrating their new year (or Spring Festival) on February 19th and we will move from the year of the horse into the year of the goat.

However, whenever it's celebrated, around the world, we mark the turning of the Earth in its continuing cycle around the Sun. Since we last celebrated New Year, we have travelled 586,920,000 miles (From ).

 In our dim and distant past, we would meet together to celebrate the fact that the days are getting longer again and we will not be thrown into continual darkness - the time around early January marks the point at which it is just beginning to be possible to notice the longer days without modern instruments to time things. Rituals would be performed (including at various times, human sacrifice) to celebrate the fact that Spring may be just round the corner again; in our modern times, our rituals include fireworks and standing in groups singing a song in an old Scottish dialect that hardly anyone knows the words to, let along the meaning…

 But at the heart of the festival lies an important theme; that of renewal and hope. New Year stems from a time when hope was hard to come by at this time of year, with no electricity to light lamps or double glazing to keep out the cold winter storms - imagine spending this time of year in a tent or cardboard box, homeless…

 So we celebrate the fact that we have done more than survive the year, that we are different to who we were a year ago. Hopefully better, definitely older.

A lot happens in a year - 12 months ago, we were still firmly in the temporaries (now completely gone, with virtually no trace of us ever being there), and the Foundation 1 students were still in Primary School, looking forward to their SATs. . .

 In the world, we lost a plane in Malaysia, still missing today, with all 239 people on board still missing, Oscar Pistorius (the famous para-olympian, with the nickname of Blade runner), was arrested and convicted of killing his girlfriend, we lost one of the greatest comedians of all time, Robbie Williams, and Ebola became a disease we all suddenly know about, having ravaged through several West African countries, killing well over 8,000 to date.

What about your year? When I think about mine, I can easily think through a huge number of highlights, and feel that it has been a very good year. I hope you can too.

And then, finally, there's the tradition of setting New Year's Resolutions. A whole industry has grown around this, helping us set them and keep them. Most of the New Year's Resolutions set, if you take the headlines in the papers and magazines, focus around getting fitter, slimmer or in other ways more beautiful. And according to studies, well over 90% of resolutions made last week will be forgotten or broken before the end of this one.

Which is a shame, because the habit of setting yourself goals and targets to improve is a very good one. As I have said before, doing nothing, not changing, not growing, is not an option in this modern world - if you stay put, stay with your current ways of doing things and being, the world around you will leave you behind.

So I have set myself some resolutions; some to do with being healthier, and maybe getting a bit fitter this year, and some to grow my mind.
I was interviewed over the holiday by Microsoft & the interview features in a blog, written by the Vice President of Microsoft, responsible for global education, Anthony Salcito, Vice President – Worldwide Education :

One of my resolutions is to blog more, including these assemblies, on the school's blog - check it out (if you don't have anything more interesting to do…)!

 When setting any targets, it is important to make them very clear & specific - something you can visualise and see happening. It's also important that they are measurable - just saying to yourself that you will work harder is not a good example, therefore - imagining yourself working harder is not a good, motivating image, and it's not something to be easily measured.

 It also has to be something attainable, or achievable - something you can actually achieve. There is no point aiming to achieve something that is completely out of reach - there's no point, for example, in myself aiming to look like George Clooney by the end of the year. . .

It also has to be relevant - something that is going to be useful to you, and achievable in a specific time frame.

 So, what are your new year's resolutions? Pathways students - you are now well on the road of your examinable courses, with some very important work being completed this term. Foundation 2 students, it's Options time, where we will be asking you to make firm your choices of courses for next year. These are choices that will impact the rest of your lives and need to be taken seriously. Foundation 1 students, this term, this year, sees you completing a huge chunk of the foundation subject material, setting the ground for the rest of your school careers.

Time can never be stopped and our lives move forwards, whether we want it to or not. We grow older and the world changes around us. We have a choice to make; to fight the change and to try to hold back time, or to embrace the fact that the future is ahead of us and move forwards, determined to make a difference.

 What will your New Year's resolutions be? One of our students, Jonathan Follett, has taken up flying & has his first lesson this coming weekend - if he perseveres at this, he will obtain his flying license before he gets to drive a car! Well done Jonathan!!