Education Innovation Nation blog #3 – The future of alternative learning

Context

The Inclusion Trust is a charity specialising in alternative provision for those children, who for whatever reason, found that school failed for them. It has a core team of about ten people based at its offices in Stansted Mount Fitchet, but also has a diverse international network of associates, partners and franchises. Its main project in the UK is NotSchool, long-term distance-learning for excluded young people. However it’s also working on a wide variety of projects, including; SchoolExtra, a shorter-term, three month model of NotSchool, a project on virtual science labs for the EU, working with an Italian co-operative on the employability skills of NEETs, a mobile project with the homeless, a project about learning through online avatars, and a project on inter-generational learning which features young people practicing their speaking and listening skills while helping older people with their ICT and web skills. The thing that connects this seemingly disparate and dispersed set of activities is that they are all use technology to reach the most unengaged groups, offering them personalised learning.

Ethos

The key issue for the Inclusion Trust seems to be engagement. They practice truly learner-centred approaches, starting from wherever that individual is in terms of their location, skills, knowledge and confidence. For example they work with traveller children who are only interested in driving, or one girl who is fixated solely on her horse. They then build a personalised and project-driven programme of learning from that point, using a constructivist approach, allowing each learner to generate knowledge and meaning from the interaction between their experiences and ideas. Given the various challenges facing the individuals they work with, they are passionate champions of learning for all, regardless of age, exclusion, poverty or Special Educational Needs (SEN). For instance many NotSchool learners have SEN but are not officially recognised (or funded) by having a ‘statement’, a bureaucratic and expensive process. The Inclusion Trust always seems to start by building confidence, developing and measuring soft skills in small steps, before moving on to ‘hard’ skills. They also have a strong emphasis on research, making sure that their practice is evidence-led and based on the latest, proven ideas from around the world.

Teaching approach

In the case of NotSchool, their method involves developing learning objectives for each individual, then mapping and accrediting those against different qualifications. It is a technical, manual and slow process, which their specialist staff go through for each learner. By focussing on the initial soft skills and small successes, at the pace of the student, they can slowly build up confidence for tackling the harder skills. These are not generally learners that could easily sit through a one hour exam, let alone a three hour high-stakes paper.

Technology

The Trust firmly believes in the power of technology-enabled learning, allowing them to work remotely and online with their diverse learners. They loan out simple hardware and work with each individual to help them set up a suitable and connected learning environment for themselves, a major challenge in itself for many. They focus on personalised learning, developing learning aims and helping the student to gather the relevant evidence of achievement – regardless of format. It’s not unusual for video, audio and image evidence to be used. Learners use an e-portfolio within a virtual learning environment (VLE) designed individually for them.

Challenges

The first fears raised are about the death of personalisation with the recent focus on content. The Trust feel that their learners don’t fit easily within the system and that a stricter emphasis on standards, combined with a narrower range of eligible qualifications and greater exam stress, all makes their job of engaging hard-to-reach learners even harder. For example they are unsure what ‘supervision’ or a ‘written test’ means in their particular context, where they have delicate, remote and technology-enabled interactions with learners at the margins. They also fear England risks taking a step backwards compared to the rest of the world where there is growing support for approaches that rely on technology, project-based-learning, child-centred learning, entrepreneurship and employability.

Innovation and the future

The Inclusion Trust team seem to have strong international networks, with projects in many different countries, speaking slots at conferences and a clear passion for innovative practice around the world. This appears to be a two-way process, both sharing what they are doing and learning from others. In particular they mentioned Education Fast Forward, Horizon K12 and Stan Buckley at Cambridge who is doing work on measuring soft skills.

Follow @LouisMMCoiffait on Twitter for education policy news, comment and analysis. All text is solely the opinion of the author. You can also discuss this project on Twitter using #EduInnovNation.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job)

Leave a comment

Filed under Innovation Nation

Education Innovation Nation blog #2 – A school of the future?

Context

The Cornwallis Academy, part of the Future Schools Trust with it’s excellent Skills Lab, became a ‘second wave’ academy in 2007, with HP as the original sponsor providing a £300k ‘contingency fund’. Kent Local Authority also was a sponsor to ensure they were well-integrated with the community. Kent has a high proportion of grammar schools, meaning roughly the top attaining 25% of students never reach the doors of Cornwallis. It’s a large, impressive but functional looking new building, akin to a company headquarters both inside and out. Constructed for £37m in 2011 on the site of the old school, at the same time as its sister Academy within the Trust was built. The dual-build helped to keep costs down, “two schools for the price of one” David Simons the Academy Principal tells us proudly.

Ethos

Dr Chris Gerry, former Principal and now Advisor, appears to be the original driving force behind the Trust. He has a clear vision about what the future is likely to look like (a more social and collaborative workplace/society), and what young people should learn in order to thrive in it (strong interpersonal skills and self-reliance). He has a reputation for horizon scanning, travelling the world looking for new ideas and research, with a particular interest in the psychology behind learning. Part of this is about engaging, supporting and accelerating learning, for example at Cornwallis KS3 and KS4 is completed in four years instead of five, and Year 11 students are members of the 6th Form. However this is about far more than exam success, with the school currently testing a Yale University model for learning emotional intelligence skills. Students are taught and encouraged to verbalise their feelings, for instance the phrase ‘self-regulation’ is used by staff instead of ‘behaviour’, the latter being seen to imply a judgement whereas the former places the onus back on the child. This is a common theme you pick up from speaking to staff, with the responsibility for learning commonly placed with the students, who are able to earn the freedom to adapt their environment and their learning to suit themselves. This approach clearly requires planning and risk-taking, but the rewards in terms of student engagement were obvious to see.

Teachers

So much radical change must clearly be unsettling at times for both students and staff, though the latter repeatedly used the phrase ‘nurturing community’ to describe the atmosphere. Senior staff explained that teachers initially needed plenty of close support as they ‘re-learnt’ some of the fundamental approaches to teaching, but that once they were comfortable with the new environment and practices, they could be more creative and had more freedom than ever before. There is a constant cycle of snapshot observations (up to two an hour) by senior staff and teachers act as ‘facilitators’ in teams of two or three, teaching groups of up to sixty children. Even junior staff emphasised the long-term, loyal relationships they develop with both the school and each other. David the Principal was promoted up from within the school after joining as Head of IT. Staff also seemed to thrive on the excitement of doing something bold and different, believing in their mission to truly equip their learners for the 21st Century. This was echoed by some of the students I spoke to, who described how jealous their friends from other schools were.

Design thinking

One of the main reasons why Cornwallis is innovative is its approach to the school’s built environment. They are pioneers of ‘plazas’, huge open spaces within the school created by knocking through internal walls. Each year group have their own area like this, which other years cannot enter. These ‘mini-schools’ within the school reminded me of a collegiate university, a smaller and more supportive community, perfect for building confidence. This is echoed by the individual lockers each student has, their own safe place where they can keep their possessions and charge their school-provided laptop. Within these mini-schools the students seemed to have more ‘earned autonomy’ and confidence than I ever remembered from my school days. They seemed free to move around the different environments within each plaza at will, able to sit where they wanted and change the flexible spaces around them (technology, furniture, lighting, blinds etc). I also got the impression that they were proud of their space within this shiny new school.

Research and insight

Another important element of the design thinking behind the school, is the on-going cycle of evaluation and research in order to provide insights that are fed back into the evolving school strategy. Chris has set up a Skills Lab attached to the Trust, conducting in-depth research projects such as an ethnographic study of the different ‘tribes’ within Year 8, a ‘lively’ year. At the moment this mainly involves professional researchers but the plan is to engage staff more and more in this activity, both in developing a Teacher Training toolkit for new joiners and as part of ongoing CPD. Student voice is an important part of this process, with data about student attitudes and emotions built into day-to-day data collection.

Technology

There is clearly a pervasive use of technology across the whole school, with about 8% of the school budget used on the exciting hardware that you see all around you. On arrival you peer through the windows and see banks of ‘video walls’ (think six huge flat screen TV’s connected together and on wheels). Each student is loaned a laptop and each plaza is equipped with a flexible multi-media system for multiple screens, projectors, microphones, speakers and even mood lighting! Everybody has an ID smart card that allows for quick data gathering, access control to both lockers and doors, a cashless purchasing system for food and drink, and follow-me printing to try and save paper. Although there is training on each system staff admitted that students were often the experts, but that the culture of the school allowed them to be open about what they did not know, even asking students for help. However you’d be mistaken to think the technology is the focus at Cornwallis; it took nearly an hour of speaking to staff and students before it was even mentioned. It is clearly just seen as a tool by most, something running in the background. They seem to work with a huge range of suppliers to suit their needs at different times; often developing bespoke systems themselves where those needs are not met. For me the really innovative use of technology was in the ‘back-end’ data gathering and analysis systems. They are building a constantly evolving and rich picture of each student, teacher, year group and school. Their databases include far more than just attainment data, with emotional and social information, resource usage data, and future plans to include social media information like sentiment analysis. They try to present these ‘intelligent metrics’ in usable forms for students, parents, teachers and senior staff – using it to help inform decisions.

Efficiency

Another unique aspect of the Cornwallis model, one that might excite Ministers more than parents, is how efficient it could be. Hundreds of international visitors visit the school each year, learning about how money is saved, space is utilised, tasks are automated, data is analysed and teaching time is freed up. Taken together, the latter three factors can allow teachers to really focus on where they can make the biggest difference. Staff seemed surprised that more visitors from the UK had not done the same.

Challenges

There were clearly a few teething issues with the new building, technology and practices – but these all seemed very minor, just issues for the staff and students to tackle and work around. For instance the issue of personal student profiles, social media and privacy was a delicate and iterative one as staff and students learnt how to behave in this environment, for example when writing on one another’s profile ‘walls’. However senior staff seemed far more concerned with the policy changes around them, feeling that England was taking a step backwards compared to other countries. In particular they felt that the narrowing and raising of what ‘success’ meant would disproportionately impact on their learners, forcing them to do more ‘traditional’ teaching and high-pressure testing in academic subjects, risking higher disengagement. They felt this made a mockery of their supposed ‘new freedoms’. They also referenced the increased pressure from parents and the recession.

Innovation and the future

When asked where they got ideas from, senior staff mentioned the KIPP schools in the States, Knowlesley up in Yorkshire and Project-based-learning approaches. For them the future is blended learning, in and out of school, involving whole families and communities. Finally I asked them who else does what they do, who else is as innovative? They just looked at each other and shrugged.

Follow @LouisMMCoiffait on Twitter for education policy news, comment and analysis. All text is solely the opinion of the author. You can also discuss this project on Twitter using #EduInnovNation.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job)

Leave a comment

Filed under Innovation Nation

Life after levels – presenting some ideas on primary testing

Some of the team recently gave a presentation about the challenges (and potential opportunity) of recent changes to primary school assessment, with press coverage in the Independent. This is a tricky topic and one where feelings are running high amongst the profession. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job)

Leave a comment

Filed under British schools

Education Innovation Nation blog #1 – An introduction

This ‘blogumentary’ series features a series of site visits to a wide range of innovative education providers, looking for positive and inspiring stories. These different organisations are picked because they’re not afraid to do things differently and others use them as examples of exciting new practice. On each visit we’ll try to meet with learners, educators and managers to ask them the following five key questions;

  1. what are the things you do best?
  2. who helps you do what you do?
  3. what makes you innovative and unique?
  4. how do you use technology?
  5. what are the challenges and barriers you face?

It’s a mix of reportage and light-touch qualitative research, wherever possible including rich media such as videos and photos. We’ll run a blog on our website about each visit, then at the end collate key themes, findings and recommendations from all of the visits into some kind of output; event, paper or similar.

If you know of an organisation doing ground-breaking work then please get in touch and let us know more about it.

You can also discuss on Twitter using the #EduInnovNation hashtag.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job)

Leave a comment

Filed under British schools, Innovation Nation

Learning as we teach: e-books, an overview

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job in November 2013)

I recently had the pleasure of presenting at a Pearson conference on e-books about the opportunities and challenges this emergent technology represents.

This presentation covers seven key areas.
1. A little context
2. Caution – emergent technology
3. What are e-books anyway?
4. pro’s & con’s (according to the evidence)
5. e-book features
6. Teaching and learning (new pedagogies)
7. What can you do?
8. What does the future hold for e-books?

Please share your views using the comments function or by getting in touch.

Leave a comment

Filed under Future HE trends, Global HE, HE in England

Fair access to higher education

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job in Oct 2013)

I just had the opportunity of presenting at the inaugural ‘World Congress on Access to Post-Secondary Education’ in Montreal. It was my first attempt at a synthesis of four projects that the Pearson Think Tank is involved in; on rising tuition fees, school-based careers guidance, university admissions and open education data. In different ways all of these projects explore the ‘wicked problem’ (complex, evolving and interdependent) of fair access to higher education.

The work highlights three of the common barriers that restrict fair access to higher education;
1) Information asymmetry
2) Unequal distribution of resources
3) Variable and sometimes unequal access

As well as three potential solutions that have been developed over the course of the projects:
1) Deliver truly personalised information and support
2) Develop sustainable local learning ecosystems
3) Make appropriate use of open data

This is an emerging strand of thinking so please do share your feedback.

Leave a comment

Filed under Future HE trends, HE in England