By Merlin John

Jaye Richards has a distinctive quality that makes her a very special teacher. In her school days she was a disengaged learner and she has never forgotten what it felt like.

That’s why her focus never strays from her learners and their outcomes, and why she advocates, and can implement, changes in learning: “Innovation is a real opportunity to give learners a voice and that is what has always coloured my work with innovation.”

Jaye’s job title is “principal teacher of learning and teaching” at Cathkin High School, just outside Glasgow, and her job involves her working across six cluster primaries as well as the secondary school, focusing on innovative and cutting-edge practice and its impact on achievement and attainment.

She has an uncanny knack for turning a negative into a positive. Take her instinctive and professional disdain for testing. Rather than subject her students to something likely to alienate them from their learning, she puts them in the driving seat. They research and devise the tests, undertake them, and moderate the results. And much of this is made possible by using the collaborative, ‘any time, anywhere’ nature of ICT.

Learners create their own tests, but no, they don’t go easy on each other

The learners are engaged and producing quality work. And no, they don’t go easy on each other. They aim for up to five learning outcomes but all are expected to complete three, so more able students can go further because the learning is individualised.

All the time, Jaye Richards is evaluating the work by learners done using Glow and ICT alongside those with no access, and then sharing the findings with the profession. This year she will share her latest research at the annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA). At the event she will reveal the findings of her two-year study into raising attainment and achievement using GLOW with biology classes.

This research, initially funded by the General Teaching Council for Scotland, looked at the impact of embedding ICT, delivered by GLOW, into the secondary school subject curriculum and involved tracking a biology class over two years who used GLOW for one third of their weekly class time and comparing them with the rest of their year group who did not use GLOW.

Helped by Dr Steve Draper, a senior lecturer in Glasgow University’s department of psychology with research interests in using technology to enhance learning, she also looked at other indicators of success such as time on task using ICT, measured by a classroom activity coding system. She will also be talking about the challenges arising from using Scotland’s new schools intranet, the current problems which are affecting the progress of GLOW, and offering observations about the future direction of the whole project from a classroom teachers’ point of view.

‘A leading user of Glow as well as one of its most vocal critical friends’

Jaye Richards is consistently and constructively critical of education systems. And that is a motor driving her ability to change her own practice, which has made her a leading user of Scotland’s national education network, Glow, as well as one of its most vocal critical friends. It’s the kind of criticism that, because it is from the heart and given in good faith, is ignored at peril.

Her innovation began when Jaye returned to Scotland after working as a probationer in Tenerife. “I did a lot of reading I had a lot of chance to catch up with what had been happening in Scotland for the two years I'd been away,” she says, “and I was very struck by the developments using ICT and Web 2.0 technology that actually enabled learners to have much more of a voice.

“The thinking that started me off was looking at the work of John Johnson in Sandaig Primary school in Glasgow and the work he had done with blogging and podcasting. That seemed to me to be ideal in giving children a voice to talk about how they felt they were achieving and the value of that achievement.

“This was not necessarily stuff they'd done in a classroom from an academic point of view, but also things they'd done out of school. It seemed that these technologies gave parity to the extra-curricular things they had achieved as well as those in their subject areas or their work in school.”

Like many others in Scottish schools, this was the start of the learning journey that brought in the innovation. There was no background in ICT. “I couldn't switch a computer on six years ago and my children had to show me how to do it,” she says. “I still get very frustrated by computers. You know the feeling - you press buttons and they don't work.

‘I suppose I was taught by my pupils – and that’s a good thing’

“It was particularly the blogging and the podcasting that impressed me at first and I had to learn how to do that. I had to learn the buzzwords, the jargon and the technology - and it was very much trial and error.

“But I got a group of interested second-year kids and threw out to them what I had in mind, what I thought we could do, and they threw back to me what they wanted to do and then they showed me how we could go about doing that. I suppose, really, I was taught by my pupils. I think that is a good thing actually.

“They helped me with my journey with innovation and the things that they showed me sparked me off looking at other things. I would think, 'I could use that in a lesson', and they would give me ideas. So we moved on from blogging and podcasting and I started using an interactive whiteboard and got into doing presentations and making things and animating. Then Glow came along."

In fact Jaye’s identification as a teacher rather than an ICT adept or subject specialist is what makes her so effective in helping other teachers and learners get to grips with Glow, despite her frustration with it’s lack of flexibility and what she describes as its somewhat lacklustre project management  as Learning and Teaching Scotland prepares for its next iteration as Glow 2.0.

“When Glow came along it propelled me really far forward in terms of innovation because I had to focus then on how innovation could support the learning that was taking place in everyday classrooms, and become an embedded part of that and not just an add-on or a special effect.

“I was developing my own professional learning network. I started to get into social networking primarily through blogging and people would comment on my blog and I would go and comment on theirs.

“So I'd take some of these ideas and I would throw them out to the kids and say, 'What do you think about that? How could we work that into what we are doing in science or biology or maths or whatever?’ And they'd come back with ideas, and a few other teachers would come on board, and we'd put it out for trial and error.

“It wasn’t immediate and not everybody, but certainly many, many people have started to buy into that whole way of working, of treating yourself as an equal learner with the young people that are around you all day and realising that they are a really valuable source of inspiration and information for your own learning. And what they can show you can drag you out of the realm of the digital dinosaur.”

The obstacles: economics, mindsets and institutional structures

One of Jaye Richards' obstacles to innovation has been time but "that’s got better as my own skills have improved and my own networking abilities improved". She warns that despite the buzz about learning and teaching in Scotland, "Times are tough." There are cutbacks in staff and resources and it can be hard to maintain the enthusiasm and motivation and to engage teachers in using ICT. "A lot of it is how we can do what we're doing better and more efficiently I suppose," she adds.

What has changed in professional life forever is the personal learning network she has been able to build through tools like Twitter. "The ability I have now with technology, and the skills I have with online networking, have saved me enormous amounts of time in terms of what I need to know and what I'd like to know. And it's also saved me from having to sit through endless twilight sessions of 'death by PowerPoint' because the CPD that I now access is appropriate and targeted. It's sparky, to the point and is always in a format that I enjoy and that appeals to me and engages me. It's CPD on my terms now. It's not provided for me; I have accessed it and I think that's a big difference."

"For years in education it's been about 'delivering' things. It's been about doing things to people, providing things for people. And my journey through innovation and through using innovative practice, techniques and my skills acquisition has all been about shifting the balance of power...

"Shifting the balance of power back to the learners and allowing them to directly influence the way that they want to learn, what they want to learn and how they want to learn it – that's what allows that innovation to happen. It's a mutual journey through learning.”

Part of Jaye’s current role involves working across sectors within a learning community: “It's about creating an environment where learners can come together and learn off each other but also contribute to everything that's going on. I think all the original research about how communities of practice bring people together with common aims to share knowledge and move forward is a very good model for schools that are coming together as groups.”

‘We create, we share, we collaborate, we communicate’

What’s required to move learning on is a cultural and institutional shift, says Jaye. “Innovation and technology can play a big part in breaking those barriers down and we've seen that with the networking that goes on with Twitter and Facebook within education circles. It’s very rarely that I am in a situation where I don't have Twitter running in the background. Whether it’s in my class, at home, cooking tea or taking the kids to karate. It’s always on somewhere because I like to follow what’s going on and what people are saying and I like to be able to dip in - I get so much from that.

“We need to move on. We're in the 21st Century now and the industrial age is gone. We're in the age of communication. We create, we share, we collaborate, we communicate.” It’s crucial for education to shift to bottom-up approaches from top-down, she warns.

At the Scottish Learning Festival in September she said that this was crucial for Glow to shift from being something that has been delivered to teachers and learners. Now is the time to be brave and open it up to learners so that they could drive its development too: “Rather than ‘us’ create Glow groups and sites, why can't they do it? My students have done that very effectively to support their learning. They've created their own Glow groups, they've taught lessons to the rest of the class and they've all learnt off each other with me just guiding them.”

“I have to be mindful they've got to get through a syllabus, they've got to cover certain learning outcomes  - so in my journeys around the room and chatting to them I am trying to make sure that they are seeing that picture. They are also doing it in a way that suits them and suits the others around them.

‘I never in a million years dreamt that I would want to be a teacher‘

“I never in a million years, ever, ever dreamt that I could possibly be or would want to be a teacher. It would have been the last thing in the world that I would ever have imagined me ending up as. And I fell into it purely by accident because, even at university in my thirties, I would never have gone into teaching. When I finished my degree I was going to do some post-grad stuff and they suggested that I did a teacher training course because if I did that and I went back to university to do a research degree then I would be quite well-equipped to tutor.

“I went on teaching practice and when I got into the classroom I thought “Wow, this is what I want to do.’ It hit me like a train and I remembered school and thought I could do it in a way that students might like. I'd never do it in the way that was done to me - because it was done to me.”

Therein lies the key to her focus on hierarchies and how they can hold back the change that is being called for from the bottom to the top of education systems worldwide. "There is too much of a hierarchy and that needs to be broken down,” she says. “Technology is starting to do that. Innovation is starting to do that. Twitter has been a huge tool in breaking down those hierarchies. More and more people are coming forward now and doing stuff, talking about it and trying to change, agitating for change within their own individual establishment.”

Jaye Richards is conscious of the step change required in education. Quoting a favourite source of inspiration, Stephen Heppell, on the current state of play, Jaye says: “’It's the death of education and the dawn of learning.’ And that just about sums up my philosophy. I wish I had said that, and I welcome the death of education, at least the 19th century model we appear to have spent the whole of the 20th century trying to perfect."

Conditions for innovation

  • If you are going to be an innovator you need to engage with your peers.
  • You need to engage with your students.
  • You need to be open, adaptable and constructively critical.
  • Above all you need to question everything and everybody.
  • We are very accepting of what we are told from on high and I think this hierarchical pyramid that we have in education needs to be turned right on its head – it’s time for bottom-up rather than top-down.

Sources of inspiration

Stephen Heppell for his thinking and inspiration
Paulo Freire
– Not with us now, but still a strategist for the 21st century
Andrew Brown
– beautiful simplicity of approach and thinks the unthinkable
Derek Robertson
and Ollie Bray – True visionaries. Men of their time, and of the future
John Connell
– For taking a vision of how things could be and bringing it to life so very well
Con Morris – For being so passionate about teachers’ professional development

More information

Jaye Richards’ blog
Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA)

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