Monday, 27 April 2015


We all know, use and have been asked then question; 'are you well?' Or it's more common; 'How are you?'

And we probably give the quick response; 'I'm fine, thanks', or possibly the grammatically incorrect 'I'm good, thanks'.

But what do we mean by that & are we, actually, being honest anyway? Are we well? Or has the question just become an unmeaning social construct, as simple as shaking hands? What would you do if you asked someone and they actually said that they weren't actually feeling so good … ?

And what does it mean to be 'well' anyway? Let's think about wellbeing in three different areas:

The most obvious one, the one definition of wellbeing that is, certainly, the oldest and most often discussed:

Physical Wellbeing

To be physically well is, I would think, a fairly obvious one. To not be ill. To not have a cold, or illness. We all know how we feel when we go down with something, be it a cold, flu, or something more serious. We know, at this level, when we are not physically well. And we have no problem seeking out help and support from professionals about this. And even to physical injury; it is clear and obvious when you have damaged something because you will probably be wearing some form of support, or showing a limp, etc.

The thing is, with physical wellbeing, on the surface, it is pretty clear whether you are well or not. And when you're not, you will most likely be quick to seek help and support.

Or is it? There is another level of physical wellbeing that is less obvious - the healthy lifestyle part of it. Are you well, in terms of eating healthy food, drinking enough water, not eating or drinking stuff you shouldn’t (like energy drinks), etc? Sandymoor is a Healthy School - we have a certificate & badge to show that we care about things like this. That is why we have banned pot noodles & similar foods in school; they are not healthy. They do not do you any good. And it's why we are continually going on about getting you to bring in bottles for water. Drinking water through the day is healthy. It contributes to you being well . . .

If all you eat is chocolate, sweets, crisps and junk like this, or have too much salt on your food, or drink energy drinks, then you are, in fact, simple, hard fact, damaging your inner body - causing damage to organs that are still growing and developing; organs that you need to be working well for the next 80+ years.

And healthy, active lifestyles are important too. All the research shows that we need to get our bodies active and working hard on a regular basis, to keep, in particular, our lungs and heart working well, It is important to get out of breath and sweaty on a regular basis, through exercise. Again, because if you don't, your heart & lungs are weakened & you need these to work well through your whole life. . .

But Physical wellbeing is only part of the story too. As a school, we have put the next category in as equally important:

Academic Wellbeing

This one doesn't appear in any lists on wellbeing you  can find on the internet, but as a school, we do believe it is important that you are 'well' academically. Succeeding in school, achieving the subjects and the grades you want &/or need, tasking responsibility for your learning and pushing yourself now, is an important element of your wellbeing. Now and into the future.

There is a direct link between how you achieve in school and elements of your future life success; Being successful in school, getting good grades has clear links to better jobs and salaries in the future. And better jobs lead to better lifestyles, with more choice for you.

But beyond that, we are trying to give you the skills to be hungry to learn new things, to be able to seek out new information and do something with it. To, in effect, be able to survive the changing world we live in, where there will be, for example, jobs you will be able to apply for that no-one in the world has yet imagined.

Doing well at school is a very important part of being well overall. We want you to be, to aspire to become the very best you can, but that requires you to have a positive attitude to that as well - education, school, doesn't happen to you, you need to participate and seize the opportunities we provide. You need to be hungry to get from us the most you can, so you can be the best you can be.

You must want to become better. But that rests on the last, and quite possibly, most important, aspect of wellbeing:

Emotional Wellbeing

Being emotionally 'well' is more complex than both the other categories put together and is much harder to define. It is also the newest of the wellbeing elements. There are still some people who deny emotional wellbeing is an issue anyhow - the old-school mentality of stiff upper lip, or just plough on and get on with things anyhow. The mental 'slap on the bottom'.

But study after study shows that mental wellbeing, emotional resilience, self-awareness and self-confidence are all keys to success and wellbeing overall. You can be a straight A student, in the peak of physical condition, but still not be well if you are not in control of your emotions or mental state.

And there is so much in this area that we do not have the time to go through. But . . .

Emotional wellbing is about being happy with yourself. Because of who you are, not because someone else wants you to be something. And that can be a friend (although I would not call someone who is only nice to you if you behave or look a certain way a friend anyhow…), or the pressures of media, from the celebrities and superstars through all the channels of social media.

Emotional wellbeing is about accepting who you are. You are good enough and you do deserve to be happy. You do not depend on others, or things, to be good enough. Accepting you for who you are, looking in the mirror and liking what you see.

Emotional wellbeing is about being in charge. Do not let anyone else control you, put you down or stop you doing what you believe in. They are not a friend and are not someone to listen to.

Emotional wellbeing is about being resilient. In a world with anytime, anywhere access, where we expect to get things now, rather than have to wait, it can be difficult to believe, but things worth having are worth waiting for. You cannot be everything you aspire to right here, right now. You need to work at it, persevere and keep trying. There's a great phrase that says if you have not failed, you've never tried to do something worthwhile, because things worthwhile are hard.

So, are you well? The good news is that you are in control. If you are well, in all areas, then go you! Hats off to you! You have achieved it all; Can you please tell me (& everyone else) how you did it? And write a book about it - there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, or books out there on how to be happy. . .

But if you're like the rest of us, struggling in one, or even all three, of these areas, then that is absolutely fine - you're human and alive. And in control. The trick is to sit down and work out what you are not happy about and then do something about it. And remember that you don't have to ever do it alone. It is not a failure to admit that you need help, in any of these areas. After all, as I said, we will all seek help in the first category - Physical Wellbeing. Why not in the other two?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


This week's assembly was on the topic of collaboration and working together:

There's a phrase that has been around since forever; one that comes up time and time again, but probably most recently in the popular media through the US version of the X factor. You may remember (if you watch it) the girl group - Fifth Harmony?

The phrase is :

We're better together

And it doesn't matter that it's so well known, so 'true' that we tend to ignore it. In fact, it is the most important concept out there & is, in fact, even more fundamental to the school's ethos than my usual mantra of 'Respect' & trust …

Because the fact is we are not alone, we do not work, we could not survive, if we were truly alone. No one person could live a modern life, with all its trimmings, on their own - no one person can know the sum totality of human knowledge, from medicine to engineering to agriculture.

We rely on others all the time. We are a social animal. We always have been and always will. From the first time we came down from the trees, our distant ancestors worked out that they could defend themselves against the wild animals by working together & they could feed themselves better by working as a team to hunt. Society is based on the principle of division of labour, where different people in the group take on different roles.

We are better together.

The very word, society, comes from a Latin word, socii, which directly translates to the English word - allies. People who co-operate to help a group achieve something they could not achieve alone. Like, for example, the collection of countries that grouped together in the first half of the 1940's to defeat Nazi Germany.

Our school community is a society; we work best when we work together. Like the wider society, there's not one person who can do everything to keep the school running smoothly & the staff all work closely together to help this. The result is that you all have the best possible opportunity to become the very best you can be.

And that's the point; there's so much more in the phrase 'Better Together' than just passively letting others get on with their lives. We have to actively work together, co-operate and collaborate to help others be the best they can be, so that we become the best we can be.

Collaboration is key.

It is also one of six identified social skills that are already crucial and will only become more important in the work place of the future. Your workplace.

For the record, the 6 social skills identified are:

  • Collaboration
  • Knowledge Construction
  • Self-regulation
  • Real-world problem-solving & innovation
  • The use of ICT
  • Skilled communication
But collaboration is the really important one.
In so many ways, we are programmed to compete, to try to outdo each other and overcome others to be 'the best'. And I'm not saying that competition is bad; quite the opposite - competition is a good, healthy thing and there are loads of situations where there can be only one winner, so to develop the skills of competition are also crucial, but we have those, almost built into our DNA, so don't need to spend too much time on these.

The problem is when we try to compete when there is no race, no competition to participate in. When there is no one winner, only losers. That's when collaboration is crucial.

In the classroom, for example. Here at Sandymoor, we have tables in clusters, where you work alongside and around colleagues. There is no competition there; or at least there shouldn't be… If someone on your table doesn't know something, there is nothing to be gained from gloating and letting them struggle, whereas if you help them, they can then carry on and learn and grow. And the flip side? Well, when you need help because you don't understand something, they will be more inclined to help you too. As a result, everyone gets better. Win-win, if you ask me.

There's another great phrase I use time and time again, which also emphasises the importance of collaboration;

Shoulders of giants

It dates back almost 900 years, where a French philosopher first wrote it down, but I heard it by reading about one of my heroes - the famous Physicist; Isaac Newton. Both used it in the same context, to say that we can only see further, understand more, than those before us because we are standing on their shoulders, using their knowledge and understanding to make sense of what we are seeing. We are like dwarves, seeing further only because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

We become bigger, better, by working with others, working alongside them and helping them as they help us. Our ancient ancestors learnt that, when attacked in their caves by packs of wild animals, so why is it sometimes so hard to do it now?

Try it.
Rather than fighting others, putting them down to make yourself look bigger, or refusing to help someone because you don't like them, try reaching out and helping them. At the very least, you never know when you might need them to repay the favour.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Digital Exercise Books

In the modern world, we use technology to replace old ways of doing things all the time,from the introduction of cordless telephones, through to mobile phones and, of course, the replacement of the typewriter with the computer.

But as we can see from the diagram (called the SAMR model of technology integration), simply replacing how we've done things in the past is the lowest level of utilising the power of modern technology.

And we can clearly see the changes, moving towards augmentation, with text messaging, and tools like PowerPoint changing how we present and communicate, but these are 'just' enhancements to how things have always been done, rather than actually changing how things are done - transformation. That's not saying that this is a bad thing, but it is frequently cited as a reason why technology in education is costly and has limited impact. It is only when we go into true transformation that we can begin to see the true impact of technology on education.

At Sandymoor, we were set up with the strap line of being a 'Fresh Approach to Education' and everything we do is explored from the beginning, asking if this is the best way to do something, or just the 'normal' way things are done. This has led to us keeping a lot of things the way they are normally done - we are not into throwing out the baby with the bath water, after all! We even have some very traditional systems, like a house system, prefects and formal assemblies. But where we see a benefit for doing things differently, we embrace the change, and plan to embed the change in how we do things. The use of technology is firmly in this bracket, because we believe that we can only prepare our students for their future by embracing technology and transforming learning through technology.

One of the first things a visitor to the school notices is the fact that we don't have traditional whiteboards on the walls and have no 'Interactive Whiteboards' (IWBs) anywhere. This is because these tools are firmly in the bracket of substitution (or, in the case of the outdated IWB, occasional augmentation); from blackboard & chalk to whiteboard & pen, then to 'interactive' whiteboard, with digital pens. And yes, students could interact with these whiteboards, but surely that's what students have always done when asked to come and write on the board? There is no transformation there! And there really is no difference in a student copying out from a teacher's chalked writing or a writing from a board pen - there is still the relatively mindless, static copying out of information, the student passive and the teacher the active in the act.

But from this summer term, we are taking the transformation on to the next level. We have rolled out digital exercise books to all students. These are in the form of OneNote ClassBooks, integrated into our Office 365 ecosystem. Students can access their digital exercise books from any web-enabled device, giving them full freedom to use their own personal devices. We are enforcing a system where each student has to bring with them a device to lessons; these can be their own device, or a leased, or loaned device through the school, but they need to have something to access their digital exercise book.

So, how does this transform the learning experience? Well, the ClassBook provides a whole range of additional ways for engagement and collaboration. First of all, the ClassBook allows the students to add text, video and audio to their notes, making their work much more multi-media focussed. We already have, for example, students creating audio notes in Spanish for their homework, so they can practice their vocabulary without being embarrassed by their peers. It also enables teachers to provide much richer feedback; with audio notes replacing the red (or if trendy, green) pen. It also allows students to record videos or pictures of experiments in science, or instructions in technology.

There are also collaboration spaces, where students can work together on projects, copying the finished work into their own space for posterity at the end. And to cap it all, the teacher has a whole section that becomes, in effect, a living, growing text book, where class notes, additional material and extension work available for all students to access.

And if a student wants to work on paper, or forgets their device? Simple - they can quickly and easily upload a photo of their work into their ClassBook, again keeping it for posterity. This happens to make marking so much easier too; the teacher doesn't have to carry home stacks of exercise books as everything is online in their ClassBook.

So many young people struggle with handwriting, and the handwriting becomes a barrier to learning, something that causes barriers to go up; in these cases, the technology opens doors for students, as opposed to closing them.

Some will say that this is all well and good, but is at the cost of traditional skills. Not necessarily; handwriting is still an important skill to develop and one that the use of digital exercise books enhances, rather than degrades. This is because we can separate the skill from the content - when handwriting is being taught, this becomes the focus and rather than being assumed to be taught can become something that is explicitly developed. The same for grammar and spelling, where it can be easier to see, and correct, without impacting on the content. The development of spelling and grammatical skills is not degraded by the use of technology. Again, by the fact that we separate the knowledge & understanding from the skills development, we can spend more quality time focussing on and enhancing student understanding of the importance of grammar & spelling.