Sir John Jones: magic weaving

June 2016 – University of Sussex

Some key ideas from the talk given by Sir John Jones to a large group of trainee teachers at Sussex University this summer. It was remarkably inspiring.

“Magic weaving”

The three most important words to an educator should be ‘children, children, children’, nothing else too catchy or well-thought out just tell it like it is straight from the heart. Most educators would say they join the profession to ‘make a difference’ and Sir John Jones would generally agree that this matters. However, bigger factors influence the success of our endeavours as educators. Babies are born (fairly frequently apparently) into a ‘demographic’ (a family, a postcode and an income level) and life begins. For some, this is a happy journey but for others, it’s a daily struggle against the odds. It’s not fair. One in four children in the UK lives in poverty. One and a half million children live in a house where no adult has worked. Sir John described four battlegrounds that these children face over the next few years:

  • Cognitive – in a professional family a four-year-old will have been exposed to over 40 million words. Adults will hold conversations over the dinner table and read books together. In a deprived area, the likelihood is only 10 million words and lower levels of literacy. Society wrongly confuses this gap with ability. Not fair.
  • Emotional – in a professional family, children will get on average twelve encouragements to every one discouragement. A huge impact on self-esteem. At the other end of the spectrum in benefit street, one encouragement is met with two discouragements. Not fair.
  • Aspiration – society distinguishes the aspirations of children from wealthier backgrounds as ‘high’ and those from poorer backgrounds as ‘low’. Sir John suggests we use the words ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ instead.
  • Expectation – most wealthier children would expect to attend university. Those from poorer backgrounds have never heard of a university. He reveled in the fact that at a Bolton Academy, where he is a governor, 15 students went on to University last year. The first members of their families ever to have attended University. Boy did they party.

He went on to quote Nelson Mandela:

“It is only through learning that the son of a miner can become the manager of the mine and it is only through learning that the daughter of a cleaner can become a doctor and it is only through learning that the child of a farm worker can become the president of a proud nation.”

The future of the planet lies in the palms of the hands of those adults that have dedicated their lives to young people – the magic weavers.

Sir John skillfully and passionately described the context in which teachers are required to perform. It was not a political statement. It clarified the importance of the role of the teacher as a route to social justice.

“The keeper of dreams”

Everyone should have one of those teachers. The ones that made school better or even bearable. I remember mine, Mrs Yorke. A maths teacher from the old school. She taught we learnt. We practised and we got really good at it. We would do anything for her. Sir John described a conversation with a teacher who was inspired by one of her teachers. A teacher who was there on a wet and windy November afternoon to see her one and only netball hattrick. The teacher who said I’ll look after your self-belief until you’re ready to take it back. She was the one person who a year after her mum’s death, whilst she was still at school, came up to her and whispered in her ear “Are you okay? I’m here if you need me.”

Working in a school is a supreme act of faith he went on to say. Never quite knowing what children have become. Sir John then described four gifts that teachers provide to young people:

  • opportunity – skills and expertise that teachers talk about in interviews should be brought into schools and used whether it’s embroidery, cooking, golf or playing the piano. Plant a seed.
  • passion – create passionate children by putting passionate adults in front of them. Passion gives you a desire to do more. A desire to do more gives you an appetite for discovery. Be enthralled by learning.
  • time – given unselfishly – teachers are good at this!
  • world class teaching – plant the seeds and allow children to fly.

“You’re hired!”

Sir John revealed key elements of his interview process. Before saying a word, he would look deep into the candidate’s eyes and look for passion. He knew when it was absent too. The look of a ‘velociraptor’ who doesn’t like children. Not good. The next thing he looks for is warmth. A warm heart of someone who cares.Not someone who brings fear and trepidation to a class. Next on the list, it was ‘fire in the belly’. Stand up for what you believe, push the boundaries and tell people what gets up your nose. Then, an unconditional positive regard. Liking all children is key even the ones who are tough. He described a school where some of the children were definitely unloved. An OfSTED inspector arrived for a visit but somehow ended up coming through one of the back doors only to be nearly knocked over by a group of teenagers leaving the school building. He asked one of the girls at the back, “What’s going on here?” She replied, “There’s a big inspection going on today so they’re sending all the dickheads home!” Out of the mouths of babes. The final attribute Sir John was looking for was a relentless pursuit of excellence. Doing small things brilliantly and relentlessly. There’s always a better way.

“We would like our teachers to …..”

A plea from children to their teachers. Sir John described some fundamental needs from a child’s perspective.

  1. Have a great relationship with us. We’ve got to spend lots of time with you. It’s no good for our self-esteem if you don’t really like being with us. It has long-lasting effects on our cognitive and emotional status.
  2. Ask me brilliant questions, abstract questions to which there is no right or wrong answer. About 80-90% of questions asked in a classroom are answered correctly first time.
  3. Let me learn independently.
  4. Don’t tell us how to do it.
  5. Let me learn with my friends.
  6. Tell me how I’m doing. John Hattie says this is important!
  7. Have high expectations of me. Believe in me!
  8. Give me challenging work.

Sir John ended with a reminder about telling good stories because all good teachers are good storytellers. Make it RING. Relevant, Interesting, Naughty and a Giggle. He described the American teacher who was asked out of the blue by one her more persistent students, “Mrs Johnson! How many times did you have sex with your husband last week?” He defied anyone not to see a ‘win-lose’ situation but being the true professional she ignored the question and carried on with the lesson, choosing to act not react. The boy asked again. He said, “Mrs Johnson, are you ignoring me?” She replied, “No! I’m still counting.” One-nil to the teacher. Humour is very powerful in the right context. The poor boy is still in therapy.

This was a heartwarming, stimulating and insightful talk. If you get a chance to see Sir John Jones talk then make a date. You will not be disappointed. Thanks to Jo Tregenza, Head of ITT at University of Sussex, for organizing and my invitation. @sirjohnfjones 

Blended Learning Approaches in Science

I was delighted to be invited to present at the Education Show this month in Birmingham in the Maths and Science Theatre. I based my presentation around the use of IntoScience in my classroom and how it enhances practical elements of science teaching. IntoScience is fairly new on the science noticeboard but I have been fortunate enough to run a few trials with my year 7 and 8 students over the last 6 months.

I have found IntoScience to be easy to use, intuitive and most certainly engaging on many different levels. I explained in my presentation that ‘blended learning approaches’ are important in the modern classroom because that’s where students are at. It is where they will be in two, five and ten years time. Allowing them to manipulate technology and use it to enhance their learning is crucial.

The ‘virtual world’ that IntoScience provides brings a natural safety net for students to make mistakes and take risks. How else could you run car crash tests at 100 km/h or create your own planets in a goldilocks zone? IntoScience provides a range of virtual investigations that just can’t be done in most classrooms. The other major advantage is that students can work with IntoScience at home on their own devices in their own time. This ‘flipped’ model means students return to the classroom and develop a deeper understanding having reviewed the content in their own time. Persisting with this model has brought great rewards to students in my classroom. They are used to working on projects at home and they come to lessons well prepared (training essential!).

These are a few screenshots from the Crash Test Dummies activity in the Familiar Forces Topic. I can’t replicate this in the classroom (safely!). What I can do is introduce familiar forces in a practical way using film canister ‘rockets’ and balloons with some ideas about balanced and unbalanced forces, then students use IntoScience to explore. They can collect data, interpret results, analyse them using graphs, make predictions and suggest further investigations. They can do this either in the classroom on a set of tablets or they can do it at home. The best bit is that I can see their answers, suggest improvements and track their progress through a reporting tool. I can also compare with other classes to see where they are up to.

These activities are principally aimed at KS3 but the coverage of these activities against KS2 National Curriculum outcomes is excellent. They also support revision and consolidation at KS4. Each set of activities contains a ‘mid’ and ‘end challenge which tests their understanding as they go. Again, I can track their progress and identify areas of strength and weakness.

There is also a range of ‘locations’ within the application that take students (in the form of their personalised avatar) around an Asian woodland, exploring biodiversity, an Observatory, exploring the solar system and a Monorail, where they fix things to get the station up and running again. The wow factor is in the final ‘location’ which is a true-to-life replica of the Jenolan Caves (a must-see, field trip staple in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales). In the caves, students can explore and collect ‘inquiry points’ as they investigate humidity, temperature and oxygen levels inside the caves. The opportunities for students to explore new environments are numerous.

My presentation also referred to ‘The 3rd Degree’. This is an absolute winner with the students. They can play each other in real time as they try to score points with their science knowledge. There are four levels of difficulty: easy, medium, hard and extreme. Answering questions correctly unlocks higher point questions. Students have 90 seconds to do their best and beat any opponent that might be in the same game. They could end up playing a live game with students from another school too!

In summary, IntoScience is an essential part of my Year 8 planning. This year group require careful planning – they are just at that age – and I have two groups with a majority of activity thirsty boys. These activities and the level of competition and engagement they offer are crucial to successful outcomes.

Science in Primary Schools

“The look on their faces as 30 rockets launched simultaneously into the sky was priceless! This is what science is all about.” – Year 4 teacher Mike

My new role this term has given me the opportunity to support science teaching in local Primary schools. Having taught secondary school science for twenty years, it is a privilege to be invited into a classroom as an ‘expert’. The real expert is the Year 4 teacher who knows his 8 and 9-year-olds better than I do. He knows their strengths and weaknesses, their habits and histories and what makes them tick. Mike has planned his lesson according to a scheme of lessons from Empiribox. It’s number one in the Forces Unit. The first part is an old trick. The glass full of water, square of plastic on top and then turn it upside down. Thankfully it does what it’s supposed to! It’s air pressure pushing against the water isn’t it. Of course it is! The lesson continues with a pair of Magdeburg Spheres (two flat rubber circles with metal hooks on the outside). Squeeze them together and ask the students to pull them apart. They can’t. Not even with a huge grimace from an 8-year-old boy. The question asked is “What keeps them together?” First response is glue, second response is a vacuum. Nope. It’s air pressure again! Then Mike prepares for his pièce de résistance: the egg into the conical flask. This requires a little more equipment and no shortage of composure. Mike is ably assisted by Kim, a TA, trained this month in practical science by Empiribox (part of their package). She knows what to look for and how to make it work. With a bit of careful timing and encouragement, the egg drops into the flask and then squeezes out again after some warming with a Bunsen burner. The question is asked and this time students can confidently suggest it is air pressure pushing the egg in and out of the flask. Great result. Misconceptions blown out of the water.

Mike uses my experience as a sounding board, a quick check that he’s on the right lines. The questioning is entirely developmental and students build their understanding and trust of the concept of air pressure and forces. Mike is encouraged by their responses and goes for the big finale. Thirty film canisters with a splash of water. Thirty students ready to put a vitamin C tablet in and click on the lid. Thirty students standing back with safety goggles. Off they go and the look on their faces is priceless! Mike is speechless. Kim is quietly smug that another lesson has gone off successfully thanks to her calm sense of organisation and the knowledge that Empiribox are just a phone call away if she needs help.

It is a privilege to see this in action. I will continue to work with each of their teachers and support the teaching and learning. The growth in confidence of the teachers is phenomenal too. They talk to each other, share ideas and iron out any tricky questions. The Head, Richard, is totally confident of the outcomes. “The impact on the school has been immense. Students talk about their science lessons all the time. There was a real lack of practical science in our school and we wanted to change that. Using Empiribox has made it possible. The training is high quality and the resources including lesson plans are first class. The impact on literacy and numeracy will also be enormous.”

Empribox provides the equipment, accredited CPD for staff and additional resources including detailed lesson plans and risk assessments. The cost is generally less than £1 per pupil per week but there is a generous referral scheme to offset some of the costs. It effectively means pupils are doing practical science every week. The long-term benefits for our country are far-reaching. There is a lack of students taking science at A-Level. Fact. Particularly girls. We can address this by inspiring young people to take up careers in science. This means better quality training for primary school teachers particularly in science and better resources for the classroom.

More rocket science next week! Can’t wait!

Empiribox are here www.empiribox.org