20 January 2017

Take a digital pause

This week we welcome Dr Preetpal Bachra, who reminds of the need to take a break from our digital devices. 

The iPhone recently celebrated its tenth birthday and in those ten years many of us have become dependent on our smartphones. They help us stay in touch, organise our day, capture and share memories, remember things, generally, manage our lives. But are we in danger of allowing technology to dictate our lives too?

I can see all the positives of digital technology; the increased ability to reach out to people, interact with family members and friends who are further away, learn something new and buy things quickly and conveniently. The downside to this is that organisations collect your data and can work out your preferences. They can sell you products or tempt you with things you never realised you needed. In short, it can seem that technology is using us, rather than the other way around.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t use technology, BUT it should be on our terms. We should all be able to do the things we want to do and that means we have to take responsibility for ourselves. How many times can pupils get distracted because someone has messaged them, or a notification has popped up? It seems like we are allowing other people to have an impact on our lives, that they are always calling our name through messages and notifications, and we are letting them.

Why do we let digital communication take control of us, though? It’s reminiscent of something from my childhood – stickers. I grew up wanting stickers to ensure I completed my Panini 1984 Division 1 Football Sticker Album. It still applies with my FitBit and achieving badges. You may see others walking around constantly checking their wrists thinking, “How many more until I reach 10,000 steps?” For pupils, the equivalent might be getting likes on Facebook or maintaining streaks on Snapchat.

It is all about approval. What would you do for a sticker? Well, the result is increasing levels of anxiety, mental health issues and social tension not social cohesion. A sense of competitiveness can emerge to have the most likes, followers or shares, or even the most picture-perfect online presence. The pictures and messages posted on Snapchat, Instagram or any other social network don’t always tell the whole story – they tend to be the ‘best bits’ that have been edited and filtered to portray a particular image. Quite often we see what appear to be the perfect lives of others online and compare these to our own lives without the same positive filter. The result? A poor comparison in most cases.

So, my advice to pupils, and indeed us all, is our phones or laptops should not adversely affect our learning or our lives, but enhance them. Leave it in the house, turn it off, but let go of it for a while. Write things out if you can, but if you use a laptop then use it just for that.

Read … slowly.

Go for a walk … slowly.

And take the time to interact face to face.

2 December 2016

Do nothing, Christmas is coming!

In this week’s blog the School Chaplain, Canon Andrew Haviland, suggests we regain our sense of perspective amid the frenzied approach to Christmas.

As I write the Black Friday sales have been and gone, and the Christmas countdown is well underway. The frenzied activity leading up to 25 December is wonderfully exciting. Here at Bryanston, a huge Christmas tree is already dominating the main hall and in millions of homes, schools and businesses across the world people are starting their preparations. Christmas is rightly a great opportunity to decorate, get in touch and to celebrate with family and friends. 

However, for many the preparations can be tough. There are people who are struggling to get everything done, there are those who are finding it hard to make ends meet and there are those who are anxious about being alone when so many others seem to be enjoying themselves. We need to do what we can for all those who will find it difficult and challenging. As a school we know that we can make such a difference when we put our minds to it. This term as a community we have raised a huge amount of money during the Charities Fair, given boxes of food to the Blandford Foodbank at our Harvest Festival, reached out to those who might be on their own through our Tuesday Club, remembered the sacrifice of those who enable us to live in a free country at Remembrance Day and much more.

There is a small book that I discovered a few years ago (and have mentioned before) entitled Do Nothing, Christmas is Coming. How can anyone suggest such a thing – there is so much to do!

What this book dares to suggest is that during this season we should try and slow down. We try so hard to get everything just right for Christmas, but at times we can lose our sense of perspective. Let’s think of Mary and Joseph. Were they ready? Not really. She was engaged but also a pregnant teenager trying to get to Bethlehem. The place where Jesus was born was far from ideal, an unhygienic stable was not the best place to give birth. The shepherds who came to visit the new born baby came straight from the fields with no time to change into their Sunday best. After a few days Joseph and Mary had to flee Bethlehem under threat of death from Herod and became refugees in Egypt for a time. All this was hardly well prepared.

Perhaps what this book is suggesting is that we do the things that really matter and not try too hard to make everything perfect. The world was certainly not ready for Jesus’ arrival, but he came anyway.

My hope and prayer for this Advent, as we lead ever quickly to Christmas Day, is that we can all slow down just a little, take our time to focus on things that really matter and those we love, and to help those who have so very little. If we can do that then maybe, just maybe, the true Christmas gift, the message of love of God through Jesus, can sustain the world even more effectively in 2017.

18 November 2016

Bryanston: a thinking school

In this week’s blog, our Deputy Head Academic, David James, takes a look at a new introduction to 'D Activities' and how it is encouraging pupils to think not only about what they learn, but also how they learn.

'D Activities' is an established part of Bryanston’s identity. Every Monday our youngest pupils engage with a range of courses that extend them beyond the (sometimes rather restricting) confines of the taught curriculum. We are now trialling a new critical thinking course called Insight (written by Ian Warwick, CEO of London Gifted and Talented) for a selection of pupils. We are asking our D pupils to look at complex areas, including identity, migration, and poverty, but through various lenses, such as education, celebrity and ambition.

At a very fundamental level we are asking them to think about how they learn, and how to reflect on not only what they are learning, but how they are learning. When you think about it, schools are very good at telling pupils what they should be learning and why, but are less interested in asking them about how they learn. This is surprising because, according to reliable evidence, developing metacognitive skills, such as reflection, planning, and self-regulation is relatively cheap for a school, and has a high impact on pupil progress.

We recently asked a selection of our D pupils a number of questions to probe areas of their understanding and educational experience that are not always discussed. These questions included:
  • How do you know if you have made progress in a subject? 
  • What attitudes in pupils and teachers promote learning? 
  • What attitudes in pupils and teachers have a negative impact on learning? 
  • What qualities should an outstanding teacher have? 

It is interesting to ask if our pupils are able to be truly objective about a school system that they have been involved in since they were very young. Can they imagine something different from the model they are currently in? An obvious example of this is their view of ascertaining how they know if they have made progress in a subject. For a number of pupils the only way progress can be measured is through testing them regularly. Of course, testing is an essential tool, but is it the only one available to a school? Perhaps instead of discussing whether or not to test, we should ask ourselves how we should test, and with what regularity. One of our pupils in their reply sensibly pointed out that testing has flaws, and principal among those is the ability to retrieve information at a set time, and under particular conditions: such things affect outcomes.

All those Ds who answered the questions felt that for pupils to get the most out of their studies they need to have a ‘positive’ attitude to studying, arrive to class ready to learn, and be ready to listen. Such attitudes are, for our pupils, essential if they are to deepen their learning. But the conditions within that classroom are also vital: poor behaviour that distracts others is universally frowned on by every pupil who wrote on the factors which have a negative impact on learning. Given that there is a consensus view of disruptive behaviour (even of the low-level variety), and an awareness of how negative an impact it has on their own progress, it is perhaps surprising that in schools around the world pupils tolerate something so unacceptable on every level.

There is also a consensus view on what qualities a teacher should exhibit to promote learning, and of course these directly link to our pupils’ views of what makes for an outstanding teacher. Responses to this question at times seemed a little daunting for any teacher to read: they ranged from possessing a great deal of patience, an ability to explain complex ideas in a straightforward (but not dumbed-down) way, kindness, being interesting, having authority and real expertise in the subject being taught, and, interestingly, for one of the D pupils asked, a willingness to look beyond examinations.

Of course, asking pupils to think about such matters is in itself interesting, but this is only a sample. However, I would guess that they are typical of their peers. Perhaps surprisingly, given the ubiquity of technology in their lives, they at no point question the role of the teacher: the internet is, for our 13-year-olds, unlikely to replace teachers (which is a relief for teachers, and a view backed up by research). Perhaps this view is a direct result of their own experiences so far: they have always had a teacher physically involved in their learning, but it does confirm what we know (but need to occasionally hear from pupils): namely, that learning is a human activity that relies on, at times, transactions that cannot be measured or researched.

Insight is part of a conversation we want to develop with our pupils: we want to listen to them, to learn from them about their own learning. In time we would hope to instigate research, and to see it influence and shape our own approaches to teaching and learning. Education stops being transformative when it travels in one direction only. For teachers to remain engaged in their own profession they have to continue to learn, from each other, from experts involved in pedagogy, and from the pupils they teach. In that way we make thinking, and learning, more visible, more understood, and for more than just the classroom.