I made my way to the #LearningFirst conference feeling a little nervous- my Twitter feed was filled with tweets of people heading here but I didn’t know many of them and there didn’t appear to be anyone else from FE. Had I just signed up for and got very excited about a conference where I wouldn’t belong and wouldn’t learn anything?
As soon as the first speaker uttered their first words, my fears dissipated and I felt more excited than ever. I had a golden ticket for the most important conference of the year so far!
First up was Dame Alison Peacock @AlisonMPeacock herself to set the scene of the day ahead; after all, it was her positivity and goodwill of the Twitter community that had brought us this far and that was sure to continue.
Collaboration and agency were to be mentioned much more throughout the day and we were demonstrating both by coming together to discuss the issues most important to us.
Educators and leaders have been preoccupied by proving that they’re doing a good job for such a long time that they’ve placed that ahead of learning, which should always come first.
To be obsessed with numbers, boxes and ticks and applying them to a child is not the way to do things.
I’ve written a summary of each of the main parts of the day in these (7!) blogs:
There were a great number of messages floating around my mind by the end of yesterday and I wanted to ensure that what I could share with colleagues upon my return to work wasn’t just:
‘amazing, incredible, principles, assidere, Sean Harford, principles, trust, principles, listen to students’ music, yeah, we can do this!’
Whilst I have my own college in mind with these reflections, I’m sure you’ll find some that resonate with your own experiences too.
@EduCardtion shared that leading well is not about being brave- it’s about being principled.
Defining your own principles is important. You may know what they are but can you write them down? Can you articulate them to others? Can you apply them to important decision making?
I started my teaching career working with incredibly vulnerable individuals; students who had dropped out of school when they got pregnant, grown up in foster care, spent time in young offenders’ institutes… But I always had a nagging sense that I could never quite reach these young men and women because I hadn’t shared those experiences with them. I could never really understand what it would have been like to have been chucked out on the street by your parents. What I soon realised though was that what I could give them was a chance. They had chosen to step through the doors of college and register on a course for a reason- I tried never to forget that when I worked with them. However challenging their behaviour and however much they protested otherwise, I knew that some part of them wanted to make a difference to their lives- why else would they show up at college (almost every day) to learn English, maths and employability skills?
This start to my teaching career shaped my unwavering principle that every student deserves to know that we care about their success. I soon learned that this also means holding high expectations for every single one of them. It’s perhaps why I agreed with Marc @natedtrust_marc wholeheartedly in his assertion that the bar shouldn’t be lowered: we shouldn’t kill students with kindness and make allowances for their barriers. We should be giving all students the opportunity to kick down their barriers through learning. I have applied these same principles to my work with staff; and an account from @shirleyclarke_ outlined a damaging attitude I have sadly also encountered in leaders before: ‘My teachers have fixed mindsets; they’ll never change.’ ‘They won’t because of the words you’ve just used.’ Believe in what the person stood in front of you can achieve. Unconditional Positive Regard (I first heard reference to this concept by Vic Goddard @vicgoddard at #TMOxford). Alongside such regard, as we view a person’s behaviour (staff our student), we should take great care not to be jumping to assumptions about the reasons or intentions behind it. Spending time gathering the facts will mean that we can support their progress far more effectively.
Within FE, just as in many other education contexts by the sounds of it, there are a number of pressures that threaten to compromise putting the students and their learning first. There are also things that threaten the principle that everyone has the capacity to achieve; placing limits on their capabilities (consciously or unconsciously).
I think that I still need to work on my principles and how I apply them to decision making as a leader. I’m sure this will emerge as I continue to learn, experience and reflect. I am in complete admiration of any organisation where their principles are shared by every single member of staff. I’m unsure what it takes to get to this point but I’m hoping a project I’m ‘soon’ to launch with @S_Moakes will give us the chance to interview a range of leaders about how this has been achieved. If you’d like to speak to us, please get in touch!
Until principles are fully formed, I think something anyone within an education context can get behind is asking the following questions:
- Why are we doing this? How will it help learning? If it doesn’t help, should we be doing it at all?
- Who are we doing this for? Are teachers and students at the top of that list? If not, why not and should we be doing it all if they’re not?
- If it’s a decision we MUST make, how can we get it to a point where it benefits students’ learning and teachers’ work with them?
This might be a jolly good starting point for us all.
Listening to the students’ music
As well as ensuring students and their learning are at the heart of every decision made; there were many references made throughout the day to the way in which they should lead assessment and the measuring of their own progress. I felt this could apply to FE in a number of ways:
- Regular BRAG rating could be carried out by the student. Instead of us telling them where they’re at- they’re telling us, which I feel will be far more informative for supporting their learning journey. I’m aware that some of our students would need guidance in doing this and the teacher could therefore engage in a professional dialogue with the student about why they’ve selected a particular rating of their current (bearing in mind it will not be remotely linear) progress (this is if BRAG is even the right way of measuring their progress).
- Just as with BRAG rating, could the student track their own progress through assessment points from the start of the year? This way, they have a better understanding of where they’re at because the information has all been placed directly in their hands. This could then inform the setting of their own targets too.
- Rather than us collecting evidence for their qualifications throughout the year, could we get students into a position where they’re maintaining their own e-portfolio of progress? They can track the key learning moments, challenges, and breakthroughs for themselves. I love the idea of students presenting these in a ‘learner-led review’ style event each term.
- The formation of a student council could mean that leaders of the college are being informed on a regular basis of the progress being made across the college- from students’ points of view. They could also help to contribute to case studies of individual progress in each area of the college.
All of these activities would help leaders and teachers to gain a sense of the progress being made by our students, without the need for endless reports reducing learning to nothing but a number. We’d be able to see the student sitting behind each of those numbers in greater clarity.
Assessment has its roots in Latin, namely ‘assessus ‘ meaning ‘a sitting by’, where the past participle means ‘to sit beside.’
The etymology of the word ‘assessment’ was referenced throughout the day and it occurred to me that it could apply to the assessment of our teachers just as much as our students. Through the college’s new developmental observation framework, we have turned this ‘assessment’ of progress into a professional dialogue between one educator and another about the learning taking place for their students. This is a discussion that should take place not as something done to another but done together and beside each other. It will be important for us to ensure that we don’t lose sight of this as it develops over the coming academic year.
An emotional realisation
Hearing from a range of colleagues yesterday who work in inspirational and principled environments that put students first left me with tears in my eyes on more than one occasion. I am aware the days like this often edit out all the day to day realities of a role in education and I’m seeing just the tasty top layer but…it reminded me of my ‘why’.
Since entering a leadership role, things have felt different for me. They were bound to- I now occupy a very different place to the classroom. It was at this conference that I realised why. As a teacher, it was always #LearningFirst. I was always able, no matter what leaders suggested, to put the students and their learning first. They were my sole focus and I did the other things I was asked to dutifully but I knew they didn’t impact on students’ learning and so I never gave them too much of my time or concern. I worried about what mattered: how each of my students was progressing with their learning and how I could influence that. In many ways, some of the qualifications I taught on gave me the freedom to do that.
As a leader, it’s a continual battle to put #LearningFirst because you’re that much closer to other influences on what we all do. The music of external pressures is that much more deafening and the fear that causes can easily distract you from what it’s really all about. I’ve been out of the classroom since November and I intend to be back in one for the new academic year. This will help to reduce the distance between my role and their learning reality but it is through listening to the students’ music and allowing it to drown out the sound of the other music that will bring us back to sitting beside one another once more.
Taking learning further…
I’m more than used to further education being missing from national conferences I attend. Alison kindly included FE at her opening of the day (perhaps partly due to my tweet at the start of the day- as I’m pretty sure I was the only attendee representing FE therefore she wasn’t referencing a very large contingent when she said it…) Just as I’m used to, the remainder of the day made references to phonics, key stages, levels and schools. There were also many references to co-agency and collaboration throughout the day though: necessary ingredients for building confidence and professional learning between us all and I include FE as part of this. We may not have had levels but study programmes mean that we certainly need to look at other ways of measuring progress (beyond a student’s main qualification) and the way in which we assess and track learning faces many of the pressures the rest of the sector has to contend with. So, to anyone from the FE sector reading this: it’s not the school sector’s battle to fight, we need to fight for principled education together; putting #LearningFirst.
This video is of the second half of the day (from 24.45 onwards and represents the green group’s afternoon therefore a few different speakers to the ones I heard from):
Now only two questions remain:
1- Have you joined the #LearningFirst movement yet? (Click here to do so)
2- What was in Sean Harford’s notebook and what will he be doing with it?
Tweeted by @eduCardtion