What is learning?

I have been a teacher for over 30 years. It has been my passion. I have always strived to learn more about the craft, to improve it and to develop it. I have been privileged to attend conferences around the world hoping to learn more about this craft. But today I attended a lecture at the IB Global Conference in Vienna that stopped me in my tracks. A lecture by Will Richardson. He challenged us, as teachers, to define excellent learning. As he predicted it wasn’t easy. For too long I have thought about high performance teaching and what that looked like, rather than focus on what high performance learning looks like. I had always assumed that excellent teaching led to high quality learning. I had not thought consciously what makes excellent learning?

In schools, these days, excellent learning is increasingly measured by scores in a test. Pupils ask what do I have to do to get higher marks in the test? How do I get the A *? Is that good learning? As a teacher I was proud if I had inspired future geographers, proud if they wanted to pursue an area we had discussed in class and came back the next day with material they had found. But to me it was ancillary benefit to my teaching – my performance as a teacher was measured by the performance of my pupils in their final exams.

Richardson, however, argued that productive learning was wanting to learn more, if you don’t want to learn more, then that is unproductive learning. If you learn just to pass the test, you will forget what you have learned as soon as you have passed the test. Unproductive learning.

It made me think. As teachers are we valued for teaching pupils to want to learn more or are we valued for teaching them to pass the test? In an increasingly complex world into which the girls are moving, their capacity to thrive will depend on their lifelong commitment to want to learn. We need to develop “learning animals”, help them to find a passion, encourage them to want to learn deeply, to want to learn more. Learning is not waiting to be taught, it’s about being curious to find out more.

Our role as educators is not to fill empty vessels but to ignite fires. By focusing on passing the test we can fail to ignite the fire. The one competitive skill that will set the girls apart is the skill of being able to and wanting to continually learn. It is not an ancillary benefit of teaching, it is the sole purpose of teaching and is the one thing that cannot be measured by the test.

Celebrating the IB

On Wednesday evening I went to an event in London celebrating the 50th anniversary of the International Baccalaureate (IB). I was very proud to be in the audience and very proud to be a Head of an IB school. I felt privileged that we were part of an educational family whose philosophy is “to develop young people…to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”. Never before have I felt this philosophy so apt in a world that is becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

The IB has a distinct pedagogy and at BGS we embrace this in all our teaching, not just in the diploma lessons. A pedagogy that focuses on concepts, issues and ideas that cross disciplinary, cultural and national and geographical boundaries. An education that is challenging, internationally focused and balanced, equipping students with the academic skills needed for university, further education and their chosen profession. An education that supports the development of values and life skills needed to live a fulfilled and purposeful life.

As a Head, I am always asked why I support the IB so much. Why would I not? Why would I not support an education that is framed by educational research and underpinned by a defined set of principals; an education that is free from political interference, an education that develops not just subject specialists but also competent and active citizens?

Over the years, I have become increasingly concerned by the UK education system. A system which seems to value more the jumping through of exam hoops, a system that encourages teachers to teach to the test, a system that encourages pupils to hoover up information rather than to question it, to be shoe horned into answering questions in a specific way that meets the examination criteria rather than to think laterally or creatively. An examination system that does not prepare them for the world they are moving into, instead a system that is rewarding a skill set that will make them increasingly unemployable.

Having been in schools where there has been no alternative to the A Levels it is a pleasure to be in a school where we can offer our students a model that frees them from these shackles. As Anthony Seldon said at this 50th anniversary the IB offers its students a much greater educational emphasis upon individual initiative, personal responsibility, imagination and problem-solving, all skills future employment will require. It teaches students how to become human beings, to have a soul, emotionally, creatively not just cognitively.

The IB, although 50 years old, is still ahead of the game. It becomes the beacon that others follow. I am just delighted that we are part of an education system that is leading the way and I will continue to champion it.

The joys of seasonality in education

I love the start of a new school year. It has a rhythm, an order, a structure. The days are getting shorter bringing a crispness to the air, but there is still enough warmth on my back to remind me of the joys of summer and the reassurance that the cold winter mornings are still some months away. It is the seasonality that I love about the school year. It brings a certainty, a knowledge, a familiarity of what is going to happen in the weeks ahead, yet the real joy is that it is never the same experience.

Armed with these thoughts I made my yearly pilgrimage to Edale last week. An outdoor centre in the Peak District, which is the home for our Year 10 students every second weekend in September. It is part of their introduction to their GCSE course. The girls work together in teams, trying out activities that are designed to take them out of their comfort zone. Activities that range from rock climbing, abseiling, weasling to high ropes and night walks. I have written about it, often.

Each year the experience is different. Each year, a new set of girls, a new set of staff who calm my nerves and sense of anticipation as I take part in activities that do not come naturally to me. Each year, the girls reassure me, cajole me and encourage me to believe I can get through cracks that are not designed for my body, climb up a rock face that to my mind is sheer and take that leap of faith as you step back over what I can only describe as a cliff.

The girls are always kind. We all understand that each of us have different skills and if we are to succeed we have to pool our talent together and make the best of the situation. Their company is always delightful as they chatter away, praise where it is due and reassure when it is needed. So as the weekend approaches and those familiar feelings of nervousness return, I reassure myself that the girls will be kind and supportive as they always are, but the manner in which they do so is always different and I look forward to spending time in their company.

Dads4Daughters

Unsurprising at a Global Forum on Girls’ Education the focus was on gender equality. How do we as educators encourage girls to lead, to be treated as equals, to be able to access the same opportunities as the boys? It was not about being better than men, but how we could work together to ensure the daughters had the same opportunities as their sons. Billie Jean King, in the final presentation of the conference, highlighted her traction with male CEOs when she asked about their daughters, their granddaughters.

One initiative that was discussed at the conference was introduced by St Paul’s Girls’ School – Dads4Daughters. An initiative that harnesses the fathers in the school to go out and make a difference in their work place, to make the working environment more equal for girls. We know that fathers want the best for their daughters. They have invested heavily in their education, they have encouraged them to work effectively at school, cheered them on at the sports field and in the concert auditorium, but now as their daughters come to the next biggest hurdle- the work place – the question being asked is what could they do in their workplaces to enable these young women, their daughters to thrive.

Time and time again research shows that diversity makes the workplace more effective, more productive. The critical mass is 30% of women in boardrooms, as directors, in politics, in courts, in senior leadership role across all sectors. This ensures the workplace is connected to different voices and hears different perspectives on how to do things.

So this initiative asks dads to consider four questions:

Can you imagine your daughter working in your workplace?

What would you like her to achieve?

Is that possible in your workplace?

Can you imagine her as CEO, if not why not?

The initiative encourages dads to start having these conversations with their daughters within their school communities, at an event, where they can share their perspectives,  talk about what they are doing and to listen to the experiences of young alumnae. It engages both daughters and their fathers in understanding the unconscious bias that exists and how it can be tackled positively, and to look at an established work culture which could prove challenging for both daughters and sons.

Dads4Daughters Day is next March – it is an initiative I would love to get behind. I know our fathers at BGS want the best for their daughters and if anything I have learned from this conference is that we all have to work together to ensure we achieve gender equality.

What makes good leaders?

What struck me most at the Global Forum on Girls Education were the conversations about leadership. Throughout the three days we had inspiring women and men talk about what makes a good leader. Entrepreneur Halla Tomasdottir reminded us that leadership was not about running an organisation well, it was about being the catalyst for change. To be a leader you do not have to be head of an organisation, a headmistress, a head girl, to be a leader you had to be effective in bringing about change in the right way.

Professor of Leadership, Conor Naill believes that to be a great leader you needed to be honest. You needed to be yourself, not be what you think you should be. This idea of authenticity seemed to radiate out from the conference, not only for us as leaders but to instil it in the pupils we teach. Halle Tomasdottir reiterated it with her statement “be sincerely you and live by your principles” because, the standard of the organisation is the standard you walk by. Naill also said that leaders needed to be forward thinking and by that he meant that when there was a problem, a leader was one who looked for a solution, a person who looked to make it better, recognising that it is the problems that make us grow and in solving them we grow as people.

He shared excellent advice. He urged us to keep a journal, a reflection of the day, take five minutes to document your experience of the day. If time did not allow this, then every morning spend one minute thinking about the day ahead, beginning your thoughts with “Today is about…To him it was about positive leadership, leading whole lives with purpose and joy.

Gail Kelly, businesswoman and former CEO of Westpac, picked up this theme, she felt strongly that if you choose to be positive in life you will be happier and people around you will be happier too. We all have the capacity to choose and in leading positive lives we are modelling it for others. We need to be authentic, connected and believe in the dignity of each human being, and in the power of each individual to make a difference. As leaders it is our responsibility to allow individuals to flourish and enabling them to make this difference.

However, it is equally important to recognise that in leadership things go wrong, mistakes are made, things do not always go to plan. We therefore have to dig deep, to have courage in our convictions and keep our integrity. Col Lucy Knight captured this best when she said “leadership is doing the right thing on a really difficult day when no one else is looking”. It is on those days you have to dig deep, have courage in your convictions and be true to your principles. I could not agree more and I hope these are principles we can instil in our girls.

Hearing our girls’ voices

This week I have had the pleasure of attending the bi-ennial conference of global education. Women leaders across the world highlighting what they have been doing to inspire, motivate and encourage girls to lead fulfilling lives, empowering them through education. I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, the desire and the excitement to help girls succeed. How do I capture this energy in a blog?

The conference opened featuring a conversation with Azar Nafisi – an Iranian American writer who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi taught English literature at Tehran University, but struggled against the implementation of the revolution’s ideas and procedures. In 1995, in disagreement with faculty authorities, she quit teaching at the university, and instead invited seven of her female students to attend regular meetings at her house, every Thursday morning. They studied literary works -including some considered controversial in post-revolutionary Iranian society- such as Lolita and Madame Bovary. She also taught novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen, attempting to understand and interpret them from a modern Iranian perspective. If you have not read the book then I highly recommend it.

In the audience we felt privileged to be listening to her voice. She highlighted to all of us the importance of choice. No Government, no religion has the right to tell a woman how to worship, how to dress and if millions of girls refuse to comply then there is little a state can do. It is this collective strength that makes regimes nervous. She quoted James Baldwin in saying that “authors are here to disturb the peace” and because novels give characters voices that have to be listened to, it makes novels democratic, which is perhaps why they are often banned in repressed regimes.

She highlighted that victims in realising they have power when they use their voices can turn victimhood around. But having a voice does not give people the right not to listen. And it is therefore our role as educators to give pupils both voices but most importantly ears with which to listen.

We should be challenging students to question knowledge, not to be imprisoned by the knowledge of specialists, and give them the courage to speak out. These messages resonated over and over again at the conference. I have felt empowered, enlightened and proud to be part of a collective, a collective whose sole ambition is to ensure that the pupils we teach have a purpose.  A collective who want our pupils to have principles and a collective who want our pupils to have the courage to live by these principles. The stories around the world are not dissimilar and it has been humbling to be part of an inspirational group sharing this narrative.

To capture it in one blog is a disservice – more will to follow!

The World of Work

I always enjoy alumnae events. It gives me a chance to meet women from our legacy schools, and increasingly, to meet alumnae from BGS who have now left university and begun their careers. What strikes me is, first, their quiet confidence. They acknowledge the impact their education has had on them and how it has shaped them powerfully in such different ways. Secondly and perhaps, more importantly what struck me was how their career paths have unfolded in ways they were not expecting.

This was reiterated at the most recent alumnae event held in London last week. Women of many different generations gathered and almost all agreed that what they set out do was no longer, what they did.

For many, since leaving school, it was about recognising and honing their skill set, searching for the job that would make the most of those skills. For others it was about being flexible, trying out different options and adjusting to the many varied work environments; for some it was about taking risks by stepping out their comfort zone and trying something completely new. I loved talking to former students, for one it was about the challenges and joy she would experience in travelling to Thailand in the next month to work in an elephant sanctuary, something she would never had contemplated on doing when she left school. For another, it was about the courage to leave a very safe and prestigious job to follow her passion and set up her own calligraphy business and how she felt liberated in using her skills, and for another it was about trialling working as an editor on an Economics magazine looking at global risks, seeing if it used her formidable skill set she had been accruing both during school, university and in the working world.

Schools should be about providing pupils with skills and attributes to help them adapt and flourish in an ever changing world, providing them with the resilience and confidence to face challenges and take risks. However, as I watch, this week, our current generation of girls sit public examinations, girls who have worked for weeks storing copious amounts of knowledge in their memory cells to apply in a fixed pressurised time frame, with no collaboration, I question how long this system of assessment can remain. It is testing and measuring them for skills they will not have to use, these assessments do not allow the girls to demonstrate the depth of their talents. Many of the alumnae I met last week were flourishing not because of their success in these assessments but because of the values and attributes that they had learned at School. We need to reward and recognise these skills and to celebrate these confident independent women striving to make a difference to the world.