TLAB15 Conference report

On the 21st of March 2015, I attended TLAB15 in Berkhamsted! In order to get there, I travelled on the previous day from Hull to Dunstable – had to go through London for it – staying over with a friend, so I could more comfortably get there on the Saturday morning, but it was well worth it!

TLAB is a new type of conference – a kind I’d not experienced before. It brought together teachers from both the independent and mainstream sector – and this, in itself, was new to me. It also had this extremely fresh feel to it as it was run in such a friendly and happy manner – Nick Dennis’s upbeat, natural and friendly manner was incredibly infectious. In addition, the food and drink provided was not only of really high quality, but was arranged in such a way that it really did allow for easy talking and networking with other professionals.

Oh, and look at the photo of the badge I received – it was actually wooden – what a fantastic idea! (and sustainable!)

I have certainly learned a lot and broadened my horizons a lot! The event had two keynote speakers. I’ll report on what they said first, and then move on to the rather fantastic workshops that I attended!

Keynote 1: Sarah Jayne Blakemore @sjblakemore: The Social Brain in Adolescence

Sarah is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College London. She spoke of The Social Brain in Adolescence and the research she has conducted in this field – obviously rather relevant to any teacher working in the secondary sector!

At the beginning of her talk, she suggeasted that there exist different cultural concepts of what adolescence is, with some even thinking it’s an invention. But, she said, mental difficulties onsets usually occur between in people 18 to 25 years old. She has isolated for us certain behavioural characteristics of the adolescent stage of people’s lives – risk-taking and the heightened importance of peer pressure. These, Sarah said, exist across cultures, and are present even in animals. So, it might be said, cultural factors do not explain this phenomenon.

She then quoted what Shakespeare wrote about adolescents in The Winter’s Tale:

I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting–Hark you now!

(Act 3, Scene 3)

Adolescents, Sarah says, are more likely to die from risk taking. You should read this article by Steinberg (2008) on adolescents and risk-taking. It links peer pressure and risk taking.

Sarah told us about the research she has conducted, where participants were sat in front of a game where in a car they were supposed to get to their destination in a certain amount of time. This involved 13-16 year olds, and it turned out that the game involved more crashes where they were with friends – in fact, the number of crashes then tripled.

She also stated that being excluded socially results in greater drop mood in adolescents that in adults. She said that this social factor is a particular behavioural determiner in adolescence. This also means that talking about long term risks to teenagers simply will not work as the social determiner at that age is just too great.

There were other studies that she referred to, but unfortunately, I do not have great notes from these, but she did say at the end that adolescents’ brains are still in development (as opposed to “common knowledge” held by some) – they are malleable and flexible – Sarah says it is a great time for learning and development – they are influenced by their environment, and risk taking and social influence are very important developmental behaviours.

She also referred us to, developed thanks to an award she has received herself. The website contains interviews with a number of scientists – this can be used in schools to show to your students potential career paths into Science!

Very useful keynote, great reminders with clear relevance for our practice when working with our adolescent students!

Workshop 1: Ken Brechin @kbrechin: From thinking you have a good CPD to knowing you do

Ken Brechin, with Cramlington Teaching School Alliance, delivered a workshop on how to organize and think of the programme of CPD for staff. His workshop was called From thinking you have a good CPD to knowing what to do. First, he encouraged us to get familiar – if you’re not already – with National Teacher Enquiry Network, all about teacher development; it also includes a CPD audit and questionnaire for all staff. Rather useful if you want check the effectiveness of the CPD programme in your school.

The Cramlington Teaching School Alliance has developed a complete and thorough programme of CPD for their newly qualified teachers. You can read more about it on their webpage – here. I will write only about what I feel were the highlights of this original plan.

Ken said they had 2 hours of CPD every week, with 85% of that time spent on the collaborative planning of lessons (impressive!), with teachers discussing planning lessons for improvement and everyone having an equal voice in such discussions. At the end of August, there was a 3-day induction, and NQTs were taken for a weekend twice a year – to stop the emotional/workload dip from being too severe (autumn/early spring months) – good thinking there! All NQTs have mentors. After 3 years of CPD, it becomes voluntary, but the teachers become lead practitioners.

Now, it all looked rather impressive, but it was, in the past, difficult to actually say what the direct impact on pupils this extensive programme of CPD actually had. The programme involved spending a considerable amount of money – we should know what impact our CPD has on our pupils. So how can measure this impact, exactly? Well, in case of Cramlington, they:

  • analysed how the NQT’s children were performing over the previous 2 years
  • reverse the order of looking at things; i.e. previously, they were thinking in this order:
    • 1. reactions of staff
    • 2. learning of staff
    • 3. students’ behaviour
    • 4. students’ learning outcomes
  • Now they start the thinking with the pupils – no.4! and work their way back to 1!

In order to do this, Ken said, we need to look at student data, teacher behaviours (not personality) – schools need a shared language of effective teaching, be clear of what it looks like, and the ability to see yourself on video (like IRIS, but there are other videoing ways you can try out).

Another idea that Ken shared – which I thought brilliant – was that someone should watch and assess a teacher leading CPD! Have you ever seen / experienced that done? – I’ve not seen this, but it’s such a good idea to measure the effectiveness of in-school CPD!

Workshop 2: Mike Grenier @MikeGrenier1: Thinking, Fast and Slow

This workshop, delivered by Mike, who works at Eton College, essentially blew me away! As a language and EAL teacher, the ability to reflect on language itself, and seeing a teacher getting subject teachers do it, with such originality and ability to engage, I truly did appreciate it!

So what was this about? Mike wants us to get our students to do slow thinking – which promotes reasoning and concentration skills, rather than fast-automated-instictive behaviours, often present in adolescents.

He presented us with the following sentence (I believe originally written by Chomsky):


So what does it mean, Mike asks? Chomsky says that this sentence is grammatically perfect – but in terms of meaning, well, it doesn’t make sense! Our brain expects collocation, Mike said, e.g. it doesn’t expect green after colorless. Whatever age they are, children can play with language. As a group, at this stage, we engaged in trying to come up with potential meanings. For instance, you might notice that “colorless” is American spelling, and thus “colorless green” might suggest “American dollars”. Thus, could “colorless green ideas” be uninteresting business start-up ideas? You can see where this is going – we can make sense of it and see the metaphors, but we have to slow down and think about it.

Mike suggests that we teach our students to read slowly, get them to focus on individual words. One idea that I am planning to implement from April 13 (so straight after the current Easter break), with my students, is marking a text with the following: it’s a brilliant brilliant way of getting your students to think of their understanding of a text and to engage them with texts:

catsSo now, try and apply this marking idea yourself to the “colorless” sentence as printed above in this post.

At the workshop, we also applied the same marking system to a poem, and it worked brilliantly. What a fabulous – and simple to use – way to get your students thinking. What is great, you could adapt this rather easily to your EAL students if you have them in your class – perhaps words like confused/puzzled and phrases like contradicts my expectations can be explained or rephrased so they can benefit from them, but of course cognitively they will benefit from this type of marking much like anyone else!

Another idea Mike proposed, which I see as being very much in line with Pauline Gibbons’s work , is using a line of text, such as a poem, and creating a gap-fill exercise. He used a bit of the poem we’d just used and suggested this:

giant finned cars nose forward like __________

a s______ [adj] servility.

Here, of course, he encourages students to think of not just words, but grammar of these words, e.g. “like” in the first line cannot be followed by a singular verb as you would need an article (a/an/the) there, but it’s only one word that’s missing, so it has to be plural. The “s” in the second line makes them think of alliteration, perhaps, but also teaches them to realise that they’re dealing here with an adjectival phrase, i.e. article (a) + adjective + noun (servility). So the students get to be not only creative (it’s a choice of their own words), but have to slow down to think of the language itself.

He provided other examples of how to teach slow reading, using images of paintings, for instance, where you can talk about shapes, colours, landscape…

Then, he moved on to slow speaking. He referred to, here, Grice’s maxims of quantity, quality, relevance and manner. (please see here for a short explanation of these). These, and Labov’s Narrative Structure are important for speaking, and need to be taught (abstract – what is it about?, orientation – who, why, when, what, where?, complicating action – then what occurred?, resolution – what happened in the end?, coda – story over, back to the present, evaluation – what was the point of the story?)

In the last part of his workshop, he called for the creation of Slow Schools. He spoke and criticized a lot of educational talk, policies and practices, linking them to the kind of language that is used in them: e.g. British values (not just values: British), the language of school reports, the language of school mission statements and finally, the move from calling teachers’ appraisals to calling them performance reviews. He referred to the requires improvement language that Ofsted uses.

By doing so, he draws our attention to the fact that language is important. My own comment here is that language can, and very often does, equals to holding power and is not incidental. Language is linked to who yields power and who gets access to what, which is precisely what I was talking about in my Critical Literacy presentation at the very recent London TeachMeet. Bottom line is, we need to teach students to look closely and deeply at the language used in all manner of texts.

I absolutely love the idea of slow education that Mike is proposing. We live in the time of education which too fast. A lot of it has become about assessments, GCSEs, A to Cs. Mike, writing for The Guardian, criticizes the UK education for being very much like a McDonald’s production line! We truly and genuinely should oppose this! When the teachers at the London TeachMeet were asked if they are – now – the kind of teachers they wanted to be when starting out, barely any hand actually went up! I am convinced one reason for this is that we all want to teach well and thoroughly, but there is no time for that, is there?

So slow the education down! Mike is involved in the work of the organization called Slow Education (please sign up to them now!): they promote the depth of education, and believe that the most important aspect of education is the quality of the interaction between teachers and learners – more important than judging students by standardized tests. I am wholeheartedly behind them. (Oh, and by the way, in terms of EAL learners, we do not actually have standardized reading/spelling tests in the UK that would do EAL learners any kind of justice – we judge them on the basis of their monolingual peers, not taking their bilingual/diverse backgrounds into consideration; wouldn’t it be better if we slowed down, not rushed to assessment, and assessed them slowly, as human beings, not robots?)

Workshop 3: Dr Steve Wilkinson: Academic Literacies

Another fantastic, interesting workshop, from the language and EAL perspective. This one was delivered by Dr Wilkinson. He spoke of the importance of realizing that literacy and language varies across different subjects and domains. That is, there are different linguistic (academic) requirements placed on learners in different subjects – this will be particularly important in the secondary sector. So, for instance, writing a summary in Science will be different to writing a summary in Geography – as different linguistic grammatical forms might be required. This is something I am particularly interested in, so it was a fabulous workshop again!

First, Dr Wilkinson referred us to Lea and Street’s (1998) Student Writing in Higher Education: an academic literacies approach, which, whilst focuses on higher education, should give you additional idea of the kind of issues behind the approach, and what kind of teaching might be required.

Before providing us with some paper-based examples of the different language/literacies used in different domains at schools, he noted that, for instance, at universities, in some domains you are not supposed to use “I” to express your ideas, but you are allowed to do so in some others. He added, in schools, there is a significant difference between KS1-2 scaffolded texts children are asked to write and the unscaffolded ones from KS3. This makes it very difficult for children.

Most people acquire language by osmosis, he said, which means that many professionals forget how complex the use of language actually is!

He then explained what the Academic Literacies Approach is: it encompasses and includes the following 3:

  1. Study skills: which see students in need of grammar, spelling and memorization techniques
  2. Academic socialization: which sees students in need of acculturation
  3. Academic literacy: which is interested in students acquiring language used for formal / specific reasons (but involves negative, conflicting different subject practices).

Thus, the academic literacies approach, rather than treating these areas as separate, treats them as a whole.

We looked at some examples of how the same content, when presented in different subjects, may differ in terms of different grammar used. Dr Wilkinson provided us with examples texts from different subjects. In the first example, the entire text was written using active voice present simple verbs (soaks, falls, evaporates, runs off). This was taken from a Geography book (I believe). However, another text, from a Biology lesson, was using a number of passive voice expressions (is broken, are needed, are produced). It would appear, then, that Geography favoured active voice sentences whilst Biology was full of indirect passive voice phrases. Obviously, this means that a learner would need to understand this and, if you are an EAL learner, this might pose considerable difficulties.

We also saw some more straightforward examples: a Food Technology text with a set of instructions to be followed with imperative forms of verbs (add, peel, cut, fry). Finally, and this was my favourite example, we got to see a page from a History book: with a timeline and a corresponding text. The timeline included short phrases written in Present Simple  (e.g. US Department of Homeland Security is set up) whilst the longer text written in Past Simple (e.g. Americans believed the sacrifice was a worthwhile one). The same page, the same topic, the same facts – but nobody here took the effort to produce it in the same tense – clearly, no recognition of how confusing this might be – linguistically – to learners!

Dr Wilkinson then showed us an image from a book on the topic of The Water Cycle (the same Geography lesson as above). He asserted that, whilst the image was presented much like a graphic organizer (a labelled picture of landforms), for an EAL learner, it would be extremely difficult to follow the cycle and what it was actually all about.

tlab15_02Now, have a look at the picture on the right. This is what Dr Wilkinson suggests – rather than just provide labels with language EAL students wouldn’t be able to access, and arrows confusing them (because they don’t understand the language), he proposes the graphic organizer (with words to be filled in in the box below). That way, they are dealing with individual words (which can be taught), will be able to follow the process, and now the arrows actually make sense. This is, of course, the proper and distinctive EAL pedagogy! (which is what had me instantly excited as I was sitting and watching this!)

But, there is more here. If you look at the word visible in the bottom-left part of the picture here, you will see the word “rises”. Now, this is an active form of the verb rise. If you were to teach how to write a similar text in Science, which as we saw above uses passive form of verbs more, then we would need to change the same to “is risen” or “was risen”. And that would show the students that academic literacies do differ between subjects (whilst, of course, teaching them appropriate grammar at the same time).

Hopefully, this is a food for thought for you when you next design your lessons and think about the language demands that your subject places on your students!

Keynote 2: Barbara Oakley @ barbaraoakley: Learning How to Learn

The conference finished with a keynote from Dr Barbara Oakley. She is a professor at the Oakland University (Rochester MI) in the United States. She gave an entertaining and thought-provoking talk on how people learn. I’m picking just a few points from her talk here.

She said that our brain can operate in two modes: focused mode and diffused mode. Focused mode operates when, as the name itself suggests, you need to focus on something very specific. Diffused mode will, however, allow you to learn new things – to see the bigger picture and then “zoom in on” what you need to concentrate on. But – we can’t be in both these modes at the same time (shame).

She provided us with several ideas for how to learn effectively and some research-based insights about learning and memorizing:

  • Pomodoro Technique – 25 minutes in focused mode without any distractions; then go into diffuse mode for a few minutes
  • Sleep is important for learning: allows us to think more clearly; synapses form as a result of both sleeping and learning (therefore spaced repetition is important)
  • Exercise often: exercise builds neurones
  • Working memory can hold about 4 numbers at any one time, but it doesn’t work if you’re distracted by other things (so put those mobiles away)
  • Having poor memory means you are more creative

Finally, particularly important for our work in our classrooms – use:

  • Tests/assessments
  • Recall – look away and see what you can remember
  • Interleaving – don’t do the same type of exercises all the time
  • Passion – develop what you’re good at, but remember that some things take longer to develop: persevere

Dr Oakley has created a free online course Learning How to Learn at the University of San Diego. Should you like to complete it, please click this link.

This was the end of this very successful conference! Neil Dennis said goodbye and thanked several of the contributors… and we got free scones and coffee – very tasty! – before we left.

This was one fantastic conference, with great networking opportunities, an excellent choice of inspiring workshops and presenters. In particular, however, it was the fact that it was the collaboration of both the state and independent sector that I made it so memorable – when and where else does it happen? And it was so super-friendly!

I have already registered interest for TLAB16!

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3 Replies to “TLAB15 Conference report

  1. Hi Kamil, great report on the day and glad that it has stayed in ‘diffuse mode’ for this period of time! I hope to catch you at #TLAB16.

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