#TLAB15: another great day of CPD for the brain.

Yesterday I attended my third #TLAB conference: TLAB15. The theme this year was “All in the mind” and once again Nick Dennis had corralled a wide range of talent to give us a Saturday to remember. For once, I chose wisely and enjoyed a sense of relationship running through my sessions as we looked at ways in which to best harness the adolescent brain to do our bidding. I also attended an exciting Leadership Panel. More of that later.

Prof Sarah Jayne Blakemore of UCL kicked the day off with a keynote addressing the social adolescent brain.

Beginning with the fact that the years 18-25 show the most common openings for the onset of schizophrenia despite utterly normal teenage years, she entertained with snippets of brainlore : Did we all know that the brain shows clear distinct behaviours despite cultural differences. Not only that but we were introduced to Adolescent Rat Alcohol Issues – who knew that rats have a couple of days of adolescence in which they drink alcohol in greater quantity when with their peers?  Shakespeare got it right it seems: Winters tale 3.3

I would there were no age between ten and three and
twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is
nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging
the ancientry, stealing, fighting-
Indeed, it is clear that the bulk of the years spent at secondary school are the period of developments of social self; of risk taking and peer influence.

Paradox of adolescence: Most healthy time of life and most prone to take risks. A pack mentality is a serious indicator of increased risk taking. this is not news to teachers or parents, but the key question is why peer effect has such a major impact on adolescent risk taking.

Experimentation exists showing adolescents as hyper sensitive to social exclusion. Fear can be a contributor to this process. We were shown a smoking analogy to illustrate the fact that a
young adolescent can been shown to alter perception more based on peers than on adults perception. This might suggest an alteration to delivery of some lessons such as PSHE AND and the like and suggests that the use of peers in y 9 &10 might be more effective than staff. Other areas were covered: Brain development continues well into 20s; Environmental conditions can effect the synaptic development/loss post puberty; Most change takes place to the prefrontal cortex thus automatic responses can be altered at his time. This area controls self control and social behaviours. Thus different cognitive strategies are required between adults and adolescents in terms of same task.

A fascinating talk which made me want to get into studying of an area which is genuinely pushing at the boundaries of knowledge. Prof. Blakemore wears her erudition lightly and is all the more impressive because of it. A great start.

The best thing about TLAB is that it is not a conventional day of CPD. We were not learning about KS3 or a new syllabus, but looking at the implications and applications of discussion. We are free to draw our own conclusions about how to use information we receive.

With this in mind, I attended Mike Grenier’s session on Slow Education.
Grenier presented the ideas around this: Rather than confirming expectations we need to take time to consider. The warm up tasks themselves were designed to force the brain into spasm – Brains want to find patterns to presuppose sequencing and save time. This is addressed at length in Stephen Pinker’s modern guide to writing:
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. We played with visual games from Chomsky: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously and the old favourite ??e one, two , three… ten, ????, ??e?n, ?in? The fact that the tow “same length” lines weren’t just added to the fun. KS5 brain teasers? Sorted. The idea is that Literary texts need to move from quick response instinctive reading to a slower reasoned approach.

Slow response to words suggests that expectations are set up and then destroyed by subsequent words. Brain does not expect green to follow colourless and thus denotation is impossible so we make metaphors. The sentence is grammatically perfect but carries no meaning. The range of discussion is enormous: word order ideas, possibility of meaning idea…. Should be an invitation for discussion and creative thought.

He moved onto Slow Reading ideas. His suggestion of a range of marks for annotation helped to create a dialogue between creative reader and creative writing. Revision programmes could be structured around this idea, especially when studying poetry or with the idea of critique of peers’ writing. Potentially exciting approach to reading and invitation for discussion. Application works well from primary to eps and throughout the school. a simple tick for understanding and a range of others: ! for surprise and excitement, ? for non understanding and a double ?? for utter bemusement, an * to suggest importance and so on. Again, I am not sure where I will use this, but that is the point. CPD as a slow burn – because we do not have to “learn” at this conference, the results can be exciting.

Another reminder for us all was the discussion of the value of silent thought. Allowing 3 or 4 minutes of silent reading and thought followed by a discussion of what one remembers strikes me as a useful way of revising my IGCSE poetry collection… The day is about the stimulus for ideas. Students are encouraged not to fear uncertainty and hope to be excited. We all should be excited by the chance to be engaged. Cloze type activities can improve or engage discussion and are not new to me – I use a Wilfred Owen Anthem task in this way – using the range Owen’s drafts to engage with discussion of the effect of lexis in a poem.

On talk,we explored the idea that Grice’s maxims are utterly applicable to good practice:
Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
We could consider in the light of the teacher-talk debate. Key is not a percentage and we should have the confidence to respond as the situation requires rather than as we think a putative inspector wishes.

In the afternoon I heard David Fawcett discussing planning and engaging with retention of information and teacher/student work balance. Rather than adding to workload we need to consider how to eliminate the need for students to receive extra lessons. He suggested that the over common “School within a school” is not an option – work life balance is destroyed and therein doubtful plausibility of success. We need to consider where our curriculum planning can include techniques to help retention. Much was based on work by Robert Bjork and ties in with the research by Daniel T Willingham. Much was familiar from my reading, but again I was forced to consider application. A sit happens, I will review my plans for a new KS3 curriculum outline with this in mind. Teaching in the right order to allow development of knowledge and engaging with regular testing to develop long term retention can be planned for. The aim is for a bend of high storage strength and easily retrieved information. I want to make these ideas explicit in my planning for the KS3 curriculum to ensure that all my staff are conscious of the need to develop this area.

This was explained by Schema Building – illustrated by Hawaii. Can students do this about all our texts/topics? To help them we need to build in development of retrieval via desirable difficulties (Bjork).The idea is that new knowledge requires prior knowledge to enable learning to take place. Thus planning should probably engage with ensuring that knowledge is incremental. I also like the idea of pretesting at the beginning of the module to see what is known and to begin the learning process. A brief discussion of interleaving: breaking up units to teach in sections completed the session.

The day ended with another Professor: Professor Barbara Oakley discussing Learning how to Learn.

This was about getting in touch with self and with students’ selves and asking “How did you do it?” The question based on Oakley’s background as a non maths and non technical student who became a professor of engineering.

How do we learn? Oakley presented a simplified brain function: focused and diffuse – and used a Pinball machine on a brain analogy. The Focused Mode will develop patterns based on familiarity and the Diffuse Mode has fewer patterns and thus can be used to get engaged with new topics. This took me back to the discussion about slow reading from earlier in the day. Students need to realise that it is ok to stop. This relates to the feeling of banging ones head against a brick wall. Dali and Edison were presented as examples of using the diffuse mode successfully. The idea of a key or a ball bearing being held while relaxing in the diffused mode was used to show ideas slowly merging into focus. Ideally we need to consciously recognise the two different modes. Oakley’s simplifications were helpful and encouraged easy assimilation of neuroscience by a total layman.

She also addressed procrastination. This is a response often caused by literal brain-pain when faced by the unknown. There is a strike choice: Avoid or persevere. Overlong procrastination is damaging. The Pomodoro technique can help: Set a timer and remove all external stimulus to allow utter focus in 25 minutes. At the end of this time a totally mindless activity must take place for a short period of time. It is important not to focus on finishing a task. Once the focus shifts to worrying about focus itself, let it return to task.

Sleep is vital for learning. Apparently, sleep allows brain cells to shrink and the toxins created during wakeful thought can clear away. Sleep also allows neurone to develop new synapses which alter the potential of the brain to take on and use information. I have no idea if this is true, but I see no reason to doubt anything I heard.

Oakley’s 10 tips are attached below.

oakley tips

I was encouraged to learn that poor memory is often a sign of creativity since there is a constant development and replacement of information. Slow thinking can be a positive boon… Allows time to develop thinking.

In the morning I had also attended a Leadership panel discussion between Tom Sherringham, Alan Gray and Tricia Kelleher, chaired by Dr Rona MacKenzie. A wide range of discussion was forthcoming. My particular interest was in the OFSTED discussions. Sherringham’s assertion that “outstanding” should be removed seem utterly sensible. Not only is it a given that that there will be schools currently carrying “outstanding” from inspections long ago that have fallen from grace, but the subjectivity of observation showed to exist by Professor Coe at Durham University suggests that there really is little safety in such nomenclature. It also seems evident that gaming can alter the perception of inspectors and, more importantly, that since all schools can improve, it is fallacious to suggest that a school has somehow reached nirvana. He suggests two types of school – the good and the bad. Discussion was lively around this area and showed up the benefit of a discussion spanning Maintained and Private sectors.

So, are Leaders born or made? Future leaders are visible from day 1. Allowing autonomy is key to this as is allowing stress. A leader must get to know the personalities and characters of their teachers. In addition development objectives should be explicit and focus in development rather than targets. Retention of staff is key to developing a successful school. There is a need to create a culture where people wish to stay. Sherringham commented that targets should allow feedback without judgement of the individual. It can help if targets are set which do not rely on data and result pressure. Kelleher added that the focus of the leader should not be on inspections. The inspection should be about the whole school rather than individual teachers. Remove the pressure from the staff and allow creativity and development to thrive. Gray added that leadership should develop a wish to lead. This can be risky and leader has to be on hand.

It was felt that Middle leaders need to show willingness to move beyond own area and look for opportunity to shine. Don’t wait to be invited, look for own opportunity was the clear message from all three of the panel. Know yourself. Gray noted that he had no wish to micromanage and to have ML with a willingness to inspire was important. He suggested the us of “We” at interview- to show a willingness to be part of the new team.

When asked about learning from either sector either way, Sherringham was impressed by the audacity of leadership in independent Sector whilst Kelleher commented that the maintained sector often has the more imaginative and exciting teaching.

I value these conferences and will be signing up for #TLAB16 as soon as I can. No review could be complete without recognition of @NickDennis who has run the three conferences so far and who is stepping down as the conference looks to broaden its base by engaging with two other local schools/organisations Astra And Chesham Grammar. It goes from strength to strength and shows the simplistic thought behind calls for Private schools to share their expertise or face loss of status. The flow goes in both directions and when removed form politics it flows strongly. Days such as this allow this to happen. As Dennis said in his opening address – “we all do the same job”.