Ron Berger at XP eventLearning expedition: Ron Berger with Amna, Cameron and Geraldine Norman from Matthew Moss High School, Rochdale, Berkhamsted, XP and Campsmount signpost the way forward for inspirational CPD  

Pity the poor teacher. What other profession, apart from the civil service, has to work to a fresh agenda virtually every time a new government comes in? Then there are technology trends: interactive whiteboards for every class; iPads for all; and who needs teachers, ask media sources, when the internet has spawned MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) being pioneered by universities?

The good news is that, rather than allowing trends to drive their agendas, smart schools are developing their own learning agendas and positioning ICT to enable and accelerate them just where it should happen – in schools.

Ben McBeanBen McBeanWhen Community School in Cornwall brought its teachers together for an ‘overnighter’ CPD (continuing professional development) session some time ago it recruited its own sources of inspiration. Local former paratrooper and war hero Ben McBean who, one year after losing an arm and a leg to a bomb in Afghanistan, ran the London Marathon, and Professor Sugata Mitra, famous for his research into children’s ability to create self-organising systems of learning from his “hole in the wall’ computer project to his $1m TED Award).

Between them, these two covered the gamut of human expectations and, yes, it was inspiring. Ben McBean’s refusal to allow adversity to curtail his hopes and prospects has massive implications for anyone working with young people. He also tells his story well, with the freshness of a young man not long out of school who sees his adventure of a lifetime turn upside down in one of the most hostile places on earth for an occupying army.

'A double whammy to any thoughts of 'Oh, my kids couldn’t do that'

Sugata MitraProfessor Sugata MitraAlong with Sugata Mitra’s well-chronicled insights into what children are capable of when limiting expectations are removed and they are set up to work together, helped deliver a double whammy to any thoughts of “Oh, my kids couldn’t do that.” The joint impact of the presentations was profound and dominated the discussions at the dinner which followed.

The next morning, in a hands-on session led by Microsoft’s Partners in Learning organiser Stuart Ball, the teachers worked together in groups. Fired up by the previous evening’s experiences, they used free Web 2.0 tools for projects thrown up at random by UK educator John Davitt’s challenging Learning Event Generator, a kind of ‘fruit machine of learning’. Set it off and it pulls random elements together to create ambitious challenges. Like “Do global warming as a 1930s radio broadcast”. CPD settingIdyllic setting: CPD with a viewThis was inspiring too, as was the teachers’ creativity in rising to what sometimes seemed off-the-wall tasks. The outcomes were imaginative, effective, engaging and sometimes hilarious and totally unexpected. Anyone who has ever sat through a turgid CPD session would have been inspired to have a try.

As CPD events go it was certainly memorable, even for a non-teacher guest. As was the setting, a clifftop hotel in Cornwall with excellent views and reasonable prices. Also impressive was the presence of teachers from other schools, something intended to extend, which all added up to an imaginative and replicable model for school-organised CPD that was also affordable despite featuring high-profile guests.

Why does a school like upscale its CPD so purposefully and creatively? Headteacher Isobel Bryce explains: "There are two main reasons why we have adopted a large scale approach to CPD and why we have now had three very successful residential conferences over the past five years. The first reason has been to do with trying to find the most cost effective way of using the school’s CPD budget, ensuring maximum impact for as many staff and, ultimately, students, as possible. The second reason was that during the school’s last two Ofsted Inspections, we were told that we did not have to look outside the school to find exemplary practice. The inspectors recognised that we had a significant number of staff, both teaching and support, who were willing and able to share creative and imaginative ideas for improving classroom practice.

Students started asking, ‘Have you lot been on a course or something?'

Isobel's Isobel Bryce"We have structured all three of our residential conferences in the same way – finding inspirational, thought-provoking keynote speakers for the Friday evening slots and then following that up with ‘hands on’ practical tasks and activities on the Saturday mornings. The only way to describe how staff feel at the end of the 24 hours is ‘buzzing’, with everyone keen to get back to school on the Monday and try out some of the new ideas. The first time we held one of these conferences the impact felt back at school was so strong that the students started commenting and saying, ‘Have you lot been on a course or something, because we’ve never done things like this before!’

"Interestingly, it was probably Ben McBean’s address which was the most memorable and the one which probably did the most to strengthen the positive ‘can do’ attitude within the school. The keynotes we have had on the use of new technologies have been brilliant, including that of Stephen Heppell at our conference in 2012, but in terms of changing hearts and minds, and creating a really dynamic and unified staff team, it was Ben’s message that really hit home.

"One member of staff present at that particular conference was head of year Mark Feldwick. He has just led his Year 11 cohort to the highest levels of GCSE success that the school has ever known. His comment on results day showed more than a passing reference to Ben McBean and his year group’s results were definitely affected by the messages he regularly gave them about self-expectation: ‘Amazing. It goes to show that excellence is a choice. These guys made it happen because they wanted it to. I am so proud of them.’"

Berkhamsted's TLA open house builds bridges

Bill RankinProfessor Bill RankinEarlier this year Berkhamsted School, one of the oldest English independent schools, staged its own TLA (Teaching, Learning and Assessment) event. Learning was the focus; ICT was a clear context. It featured ‘learning to learn’ expert Alistair Smith (now working on one of the world's biggest school improvement projects – in Malaysia with Frog and Google), Professor Bill Lucas (pictured right, co-author of New Kinds of Smart) and, from the USA, Dr Bill Rankin (@rankinw on Twitter), a leading advocate of learning with mobile devices.

There were workshops led by names familiar to anyone who follows education networks on Twitter – like 'guerilla geographer' David Rogers, 'learning spy' David Didau, Bill Lord and a number of Berkamsted's own staff, including Laura Knight, along with The Unreasonable Man, Ian Yorston who is director of digital strategy at Radley College, full of smart observations on learning with technology amd often unreasonably witty too. Berkhamsted may be a leading English independent school but the attendees were from both sectors and from all over the UK. The school campus was more than adequate for the purpose, the presence of students was a helpful bonus and attendance affordable.

Nick DennisBerkhamstead's Nick DennisThe balance between inspiring keynotes and the hands-on workshops was finely tuned and the only difficulties lay in some of the choices between events – all were worth a visit. As with the event, what impressed was the appropriateness of the event for its audience. Schools are so much more likely to get that right than independent commercial event organisers, no matter how sensitive they might be to teachers' needs.

Deputy headteacher Nick Dennis (@nickdennis on Twitter), who organised the event, reflected afterwards: “My experience at the Schools History Project conference taught me that there is a real need for conferences where the workshops focus on the work that really matters – with students. Many of the education events around tend to be ‘opinion’ pieces about the Government, senior leadership teams and the secretary of state for education.

"These things do have their place but I wanted to focus on the things that are often missed and what is good about many schools in the UK – people doing a great job educating the next generation.


'Good teaching and learning is not bound to any institution or sector'

"I also wanted to bring together educators from all sectors to think about these issues as good teaching and learning is not bound to any institution or particular sector.

“My last aim was to make the conference as affordable as possible and be non-profit. I felt very strongly about this and our principal, Mark Steed, agreed with me. I have been to events charging upwards of £200 pounds for the day to listen to one ‘expert’ and felt that this was extreme, especially for a school-based event.”

Nick Dennis said that the response both before and after the event had been “immense”. “There are always things to improve on but when you hear people say that this is the best day conference they have been to in 30 years of teaching, you know you are doing something right!

“The real point of running an event like this is to tap into the genius of your network, inside or outside the school. There are incredibly gifted and dedicated colleagues doing work with students in our schools who have the skills and integrity to help us to become more effective educators. We know who they are yet they are never given the stage to share their work. Holding a conference like this not only benefits colleagues internally but also allows you to pool the collective wisdom of the network to help you become better.”

Expeditionary learning that spans the globe – to Doncaster's new XP school

Campsmount AcademyPerhaps the most impressive school coup came this summer, however, when XP, a new free school in Doncaster, brought together more than 130 teachers from some 40 schools across England, through interest generated online by just one tweet from its founder and chair of governors, Gwyn ap Harri (of newfound Grand Designs fame). He brought over from the US Ron Berger, chief program officer for the non-profit school improvement network, Expeditionary Learning, a national grouping of more than 160 public project-based schools in 30 states.

The setting itself was inspiring, Campsmount, a Co-operative Academy in Doncaster. Campsmount came to national attention through a calamity – the original school was destroyed by fire (see "The school they couldn't Kill – 'We are Campsmount'"). Within days the school was back in virtual action thanks to social networking, and its creative drive has never stopped, resulting in a wonderful campus set in the leafy outskirts of the town, a perfect location for an event for a school which is yet to be built. It identified and celebrated the benchmarks and expectations for XP and pulled in other educators and learners who are already on that journey along with those who wish to join.

Ron Berger illustrated his presentation entirely with children’s work to demonstrate how, with challenging, 'deep learning’ projects, continuing improvement, peer review and a real audience rather than just a single teacher, children’s achievements can soar. He started with his own YouTube video “Critique and descriptive  feedback: The Story of Austin’s Butterfly” (see below).

It’s a video that get’s to the heart of Ron Berger’s work. To produce good work, no one – child or adult – can afford to think of their first effort as a completed, one-off production. The best work should be re-edited and reworked until it reaches a satisfactory level, and peer review and critique is an integral part of that process.

In fact the entire introductory presentation by Ron Berger was based on learners’ work. There could be no doubt of its authenticity, effectiveness or replicability. There were examples from his own and other schools in the US, and the most effective examples of this project-based approach involved real work for real audiences so that children’s tasks were not mere exercises that had little validity outside a classroom.

Like the children’s involvement in state programmes to create a “census” of certain species. Their data fed into an official state survey and was sometimes queried by officialdom. Which provided a fresh lesson – how to challenge officially held views, and with good manners and diplomacy. And they were successful - state officials accepted new habitats for some of the amphibians the students tracked. And student comments like “We have been working as real scientists, not just doing science," underlined the importance of their work.

High expectations are central. All of Ron Berger’s students are expected to leave school with qualifications that give them an open door to higher education – whether they wish to attend or not. That will always be an option for them, whether they choose to take it when they leave school is up to them.

Amna's message to teachers: 'Be harsh. It's not going to help us if you are kind'

For those who think that this approach to learning might be a US phenomenon, there were also demonstrations of how it's already being adopted here in the UK. Learners and teachers from Matthew Moss High School, Rochdale, and Cramlington Learning Village, Northumberland (which stages its own annual learning festival), took part in a panel presentation which followed Ron Berger's. Peer critique is finding its way into the curriculum at both schools, and the most passionate advocates were the children themselves. It was a fascinating, convincing debate chaired by Campsmount assistant head Jamie Portman.

Amna, from Matthew Moss High School, explained the importance of critique most clearly and humourously as she described how the scales of underachievement fell from her eyes in secondary school. "In the beginning, when I was in primary school, teachers were always trying to be nice with their comments. They never actually thought about how they would impact on our learning. They wanted to make us feel good, and it was good in some ways. So if I was  doing some work like Austin's [butterfly] and I was on the first draft they would tell me, 'Oh, it's great, it's amazing. Wow, you're so talented.' But they never told me how to improve on it, how to make a second draft so I never got out of my comfort zone and unleashed my full ability...

She said that she finished primary school thinking, "You only need to do something once." Critiquing and drafting and redrafting at Matthew Moss came as a shock to her as she had never experienced anything like it. She worked hard on her first project and realised "Critique is vital for a learner to improve. All through primary school I did not improve on anything – even though I was absorbing things I wasn't becoming better in my own things... I realised that you can always keep improving your limits, and keep raising that mark."

Her message for teachers was blunt: "Be harsh. It's not going to help us if you are kind to us. You need to be realistic here... Be harsh and be truthful (but don't swear!). Be honest and say what you think of it because that is what helps us as students." (Amna's full comment is well worth listening to.)

Gwyn ap HarriGwyn ap HarriGwyn ap Harri, a former teacher whose frustration with the futility of traditional marking motivated him to create realsmart, the highly regarded assessment software, explained: "At XP, our school is based on sound, traditional values such as mutual respect and working hard, but the method of curriculum delivery is in the form of learning expeditions rather than discrete subject lessons. The learning will kick off with an exciting cross-curricular theme with driving questions that take the children from enquiry and research, through creating products with real-world community outcomes, and culminating in an exhibition of learning to an authentic audience.

“The academic rigour comes through reverse engineering the skills, knowledge and experience needed to be successful at GCSE level, right back to the start of the Year 7 expeditions, with progress being tracked for each student at regular milestones. Student work is drafted, critiqued and redrafted along with regular reflection to allow the students to create beautiful work they are proud of.

“As you can imagine, to pull this off, we need great technology to underpin this pedagogy. It can be done with pen and paper and a lot of hard work, but we try to be smarter than that. The kids will learn everywhere, so we will support mobile devices to capture learning wherever it occurs but, importantly, we need to put this evidence somewhere useful, and this is where their realsmart portfolios come into their own. All this diverse evidence is mapped against standards and competencies, and can be revisited even years later when they prepare for their exams."

Policy is dead so smart schools do it for themselves

The schools featured here are not the only ones developing rich strategies for learning and teaching and CPD, but they are certainly in the vanguard and are happy to share rather than compete in this new climate of austerity. And what is consistent across all of them is that, even though they are all leaders in the field of technology, the clear focus is on the learning and teaching with the ICT seen as integral. So much so that there is very little discussion of technology itself.

In common with other schools doing great things with technology, they start out with the pedagogy they want to use for their children's learning and then select the most appropriate technology (that's also the story behind the excellent Essa Academy, although many think it's Apple and iPods/iPads). There are clear messages about the role of the teacher which is increasingly about being more expert in the one thing that can push up standards – the learning and teaching.

The smart schools now see that the general role of a teacher isn't that he or she should be fluent with whiteboards, iPads, the cloud or whatever. It's that they can engage kids with great learning (the digital classrooms frees them to do more of that) and use whatever digital tools they need. The change of emphasis is important. As Gwyn ap Harri explains, “This type of learning doesn't just stop with the kids at XP; our whole organisation is structured around learning. Our teachers will be expected to continually study their pedagogy, academically validating our approach, and as an organisation we will be sharing our learning through technology, such as on our website, in Google hangouts and on Twitter. I'm really proud that the first thing we did was bring one of the world's best educators to Doncaster and allow around 130 teachers from more than 40 schools to benefit from this. Obviously, we filmed the entire event and will be sharing this with the world. And that, my friend, is how we roll at XP..."

Bob HarrisonBob HarrisonAnd that, of course, is how more and more schools are rollling as they understand that they will get very little in the way of national leadership and support. Schools, increasingly and thankfully, are doing it for themselves. Even for a non-teaching guest these three events were unforgettable, packed with insight, creativity and sharing of the very best practice. Each was different but all give a clear indication of what can be achieved with educators at the helm. Toshiba's education adviser Bob Harrison who also chairs the Department for Education's expert group on computing and the Teaching Schools' Technology Advisory Board, welcomes this trend. "These are great examples of what confident schools can do to help themselves," he said. "It's about strategic vision, leadership and will rather than money. The big challenge is sharing the experience.

"The days of Harnessing Technology strategies, ring-fenced funding and local and national state interventions appear to be over. That means schools have got to help themselves to help each other which is not easy in a competitive climate. Schools now have to do it for themselves.

The most effective forms of CPD I have seen in schools in recent years have been a combination of TeachMeets, student digital leaders and teachers' social media networks like Twitter. When working with a school vision that has learning and teaching at the centre they are incredibly powerful. Top-down has failed and the best bottom-up is brilliant"

More information Community School  
Berkhamsted School 
Campsmount (see "The school they couldn't Kill – 'We are Campsmount'")
More on Ron Berger at Xp's "Who is Ron Berger?"  
Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo 
Learning Event Generator also available as LEG app for 69p from App Store