TLAB15 ‘All in the Mind’

IMG_2510.JPGOn Saturday 21st March, Berkhamsted School – and particularly the ever enthusiastic @nickdennis – hosted the third Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference Berkhamsted (TLAB). It was another wonderful conference with a delectable range of talent on show and I was delighted to be able to attend for a third year running. I wanted to outline a few things that I took from it (by no means an exhaustive list, it was a bit of a whirlwind as these things often are!)


The beautiful name badges made for a great start! As usual there was plenty of lovely coffee, cakes and a delicious lunch later on.



Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore – The Social Brain in Adolescence

On either side of the three workshops there were keynote speakers. The first was Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, @sjblakemore, who had led a workshop last year and had such an effect on those that attended that Nick was desperate to have her back to open this year’s conference. I don’t want to go into too much on these, but they essentially decided the theme of the conference: ‘All in the Mind’.

Sarah works at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL and is particularly interested in development of social cognition and the factors affecting decision-making. She spoke brilliantly and really gripped the audience, telling us about just how much those in adolescence are affected by peers. There is a lot of research that shows they are greatly affected whereas adults typically are not, or are influenced far less.

She did provide us with the definition of adolescence, which is the period of time between the start of puberty – which of course varies from person to person – until you can function independently…..which has so many factors that its precise point varies by person, by country and by culture. Psychologists disagree about the definition but from Sarah’s presentation it seems that most studies consider the ages of adolescence from around 11 years old to 18.

My challenge is to now ensure that the decision-making of my students is positively influenced by peers!

Click for Sarah’s TED Talk about the adolescent brain.

Dr Barbara Oakley – Learning How to Learn

Nick had been studying on a MOOC led partly by Barbara Oakley, @barbaraoakley, and was blown away by what she offered and from day one he was certain that she must play a leading role in TLAB15.

Interestingly, Barbara’s talk looked at quite every-day phenomena: the difficulties in studying for long periods of time, the difficulty of recalling in our short-term memory and the difficulties in learning complex tasks. One highlight for me was where Barbara simplified our brains as having two distinct modes: focused mode and diffuse mode. This was illustrated through the use of a pinball machine where in focused mode you have many firmly positioned nodes of knowledge that are rigid. Diffuse mode was equally modeled using a pinball machine but it was less densely packed with these nodes and so there was more room for exploration.

The idea here was that when you have a thought and you can’t find an answer – perhaps in solving a complex problem – that you should not always remain in focused mode as you will get caught up in one part of the pinball machine and unable to access the other parts. If you drift into diffuse mode and back to focused you have more chance of success. I’ll certainly be reiterating the importance of moving your mind away from a complex task and returning to it as part of my teaching and in preparing the students for examinations.

Barbara also focused on ‘chunking’ and how this can lead to improved learning. We’ve all heard the idea that we can return X pieces of information in our short-term memory, and chunking improves that. Chunking involves grouping items together so that they become automatic – a bit like driving a car, it becomes automatic: you don’t think about each and every aspect of it as you are doing it. This then makes one chunk a single item as part of the X pieces of information that you can recall. Of course, that chunk is more than a single item within itself thus increasing the amount you can recall.

Click for Barbara’s TED Talk on Learning How to Learn.


Ken Brechin – From Thinking you have a High Impact CPD Programme to Knowing you do


When I saw that Ken (and Darren Mead) were coming down from Cramlington Learning Village, I was pretty excited. They’ve been doing innovative work in CPD for years and to be part of their workshops was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.

Ken (@kbrechin) was speaking about their incredible CPD programme and, importantly, how they could judge whether it was having an impact. It came to a point where they were running a great deal of CPD without knowing that it was working. I mean…they knew, but how did they know?

What struck me was the clarity of their programme – they have robust pathways that are embedded as part of the structure of the whole school. It’s fascinating, and presumably took a lot of time and effort to get it to where it is! Ken drew to our attention the need to audit your CPD (they used NTEN) and this highlighted a number of gaps that they just weren’t aware of (e.g. pastoral and support staff CPD provision).

They developed a culture of teacher behaviour, based largely on Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds book Effective Teaching. I think this is something that is really missing from ensuring you have a truly vibrant learning environment and an effective group of teachers. CPD is too often focused on T&L strategies, but without the effective teaching and teacher behaviours there will be little impact from knowing a range of strategies. This is something I’ll be taking back to my school – looking at teacher behaviours. What this also allowed was a common language of teaching and learning in Cramlington Learning Village, where all teachers were reading from the same hymn sheet.

Mentoring was a big focus for the school. Not only do NQTs have a mentor throughout the year, but NQT+1 and NQT+2 groups have mentors and receive similar levels of support. Beyond NQT+2, teachers continue on the relevant pathway and receive further training should they wish – e.g. the SSAT Lead Practitioner programme.

If you want to read more on the design of their CPD programme (believe me, you should want to), then click here. You can also find their PDF booklet that outlines the details here.

The assessment of whether the CPD programme is having an impact remains a grey area, despite Ken’s efforts! As I discussed with him after the session there are so many factors at play that make it difficult to say “Yes, the NQT programme had this direct effect”. Interestingly, CLV have used years of NQT classes exam data from across schools to make a bit of a judgement on how much of an impact NQTs have been having. The data has improved each year. Use of questionnaires from teachers and students provides an indication of effectiveness, and lesson observations and teacher behaviour proformas can help provide further evidence. It is all just evidence, as opposed to true knowing.

I’ll be taking their Training School Programme to SLT, and the idea of doing a CPD audit, mentor schemes for NQT+1, NQT+2, and for having a clear outline of our pathways (as we do already offer a lot).

Darren Mead – Classroom Implications of Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners


Darren (@DKMead) was full of enthusiasm and drew us in with a great starter, subtly already using some of his techniques without telling us (until the end!) His starter focused on some of the considerations from Nuthall’s book, whilst also asking us how much of a critical thinker we felt we were. Every delegate who contributed an answer regarding Nuthall’s challenges were asked to rate their critical thinking.

He said he did this with a group of NQTs where they’ve come in at the end of the day, exhausted and busy and wanting to be marking their books – as we can all imagine! Part of his starter required everyone to think about how motivated they were to be there. One of those NQTs who came in totally side-tracked with the days chaos said to Darren at the end that the very fact he was asked to judge his motivation caused him to be motivated.

Darren suggests that using this with your students allows you to subconsciously develop their mindset towards whatever you need them to be (motivated, critical thinker, fast-thinking, and whatever else you need them to be in that particular lesson). I’ll certainly be introducing this!

Pre-assessment was a particular focus of Darren’s, explaining that knowing students’ prior knowledge is obviously vital. He showed us a video of his son constructing an electric circuit and it was evident where his prior knowledge was and how the remainder was through deduction – he didn’t know how to do connect something, he just figured it out from what he had in front of him. Similarly Darren highlighted just how effective peer influence is (linking to Sarah’s keynote earlier). Darren also shows Nuthall’s findings that irrespective of perceived ability, all students have the same capacity to learn.

Incredibly students of the highest ability learn just as much from their peers as they do from their teacher! Darren quite rightly said this scared him! It shows how important it is to allow students opportunity to work with each other and learn from each other. I’ll be ensuring my students groupings allow for effective learning and give each student the opportunity to learn from each other. Nuthall suggests that students make constant comparisons with when they hear other students speak and judge whether they could have said the same thing. He also found that hierarchy restricts access to information, often unseen restriction through social boundaries (e.g. the ‘coolest’ kid in class shuffling the book away from someone in their group so they can’t use it properly). Groupings are important!

Finally Darren outlined how mapping out pedagogical content knowledge across year groups helps curriculum design, such that students learn content in the most effective order. The Science department at CLV are building this into their assessments and lesson planning and will provide students with regular feedback through carefully designed pre-assessment and mid-topic assessment. It all sounds great, and I was becoming increasingly jealous of CLV having just sat through Ken and Darren’s workshops.

Michael Smyth – The Twenty Five Four Percents


Michael (@tlamjs) is a greatly enthusiastic Head of Biology at St Albans School. This workshop title was a twist on Sir Clive Woodward’s idea that winning the Rugby World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but doing one hundred things 1% better. Michael didn’t have time for one hundred things and using his astute mathematical know how his session became twenty five four percents.

This was a fantastic workshop full of 25 brilliant ideas to enhance teaching and learning for any subject. I want to try all of them! I was particularly taken by:

Six Words, Three Pictures where you could produce a worksheet for students to write out definitions of key terms in six words and to illustrate a key concept using three pictures.

I also liked the idea of a revision bookmark where students are given a week by week breakdown of what they could be doing to revise, placing the onus on the students to revise independently, following some guidance from the bookmark.

It reminded me of just how important it is to develop an ethos/vision within a department where all students are singing the same song. Read the Question (RTQ), Answer the Full Question (ATFQ) and Box command words, Underline key words and Glance at the marks (BUG). If they’re everywhere around your department, students will get the message.

Finally, I am keen to get my colleagues Top Exam Tips where each teacher provides an idea of the most common mistake they see, their top tip for exam success and their top revision tip. These could be put around classrooms or on a double-sided A4 page and given to each student.

There were loads more – check out Michael’s blog.

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