#TLAB15... Summary and takeaways

I had wanted to attend TLAB15 ever since I read the twitter feed from those lucky enough to attend TLAB14.  And I have to say I was not disappointed.  The day was incredibly well organised with a range of different workshop talks to ensure universal appeal to the audience.  I always think the measure of a good day of learning is characterised by two things - the energy and engagement that you feel whilst you are there and the impact it will have on your practice once you get home.  So that's how I will structure this reflection - the thing or things that really engaged me and what that will mean in my current projects that I am working on.  I will include my usual disclaimer - apologies to any of the speakers in my interpretations are inaccurate/do not reflect the points you made - this is just my take on it.

Keynote 1: Sarah-Jayne Blakemore @sjblakemore
This was an incredibly interesting and engagement talk by Blakemore which reminded me of my days of studying Psychology and how much I miss it!!  The talk summarised a range of evidence into adolescent behaviour focusing specifically on risk taking behaviour and effect that peer influence has on this.  We learned about the paradox of adolescence in which the individual is the healthiest that they have ever been or will ever be but are most at risk of death due to the risk taking elements of their behaviour.  Furthermore we learned that an adolescent is most likely to take risks when surrounded by their peers because the greatest risk to a teenager is the risk of social exclusion. Professor Blakemore went on to outline the role of the brain in this risk taking behaviour and helped us to understand that this risk taking behaviour is not necessarily a bad thing that needs to be punished but more a necessary thing that individuals need to go through to establish their independence and identity in the world.  She pointed out that much of the advertising to discourage risk taking behaviour focuses on rational arguments like health which is unlikely to have the desired impact on teens as their brains aren't focusing on the rational, they are are focusing on the desire to be included.  For this reason, perhaps we would have more success in discouraging this behaviour if we took a social rather than physiological approach to pointing out risks.

This amazing talk had me entirely engaged and got my brain whirring!  I think my big takeaway from this session will probably be in terms of the Personal Development programme I am currently working on.  We have a topic called Peer Pressure which traditionally would be about teachers telling students not to make bad choices and what I would like to do is repeat some of the elements of Professor Blakemore's talk with the students - teach them about their brains and the psychology of peer pressure and risk taking and then trust them to make the decisions that they need to make.  I think they will find it really interesting - I know I did!!

Session 2: Ken Brechin @kbrechin
When I saw Ken was speaking I knew I had to attend his talk.  Partly because I heard him speak about 8 years ago at Cramlington and really enjoyed his presentation then, partly because the presentation was on CPD which has been all consuming me over the last couple of months and partly because the man likes baseball (a rare and precious thing in the UK).  I am currently working on a CPD package for staff at school and having just put the finishing touches to it, thought Ken's talk might provide me with some valuable reflection.  He did.  He started by completely reassuring me that I am on the right track by talking about some of the important influences on Cramlington's system - as Daniel Muijs book Effective Teaching has been my Bible for the last few weeks, it was nice to see that and NTEN recommended as useful tools in constructing the CPD model.  Interestingly though, what I took from Ken had nothing to do with what my model would look like but instead about the impact of it.  He asked us to consider whether we think CPD is having an impact and I confidently told my discussion partner @davidreynolds88 that yes I thought my programme would have impact.  Ken then asked how we would know and I had a bit of an 'oh bugger' moment.  Because I think what I have come up with will work quite nicely but I hadn't really considered the specific ways in which I would measure this.  Ken gave us some examples - analysis of student data, teacher behaviour proformas, teacher observations, teacher questionnaire, student questionnaire, anecdotal evidence - and emphasised the importance of context affecting currency.  To an extent it doesn't matter how you measure it, all measures do not need to be the same BUT you need to know what you want the CPD to achieve and ensure that you use an appropriate measure to see what impact it had.  One of my favourite takeaways from this was "It's the teachers and teaching that has the most impact in schools.  We should know what the impact is."

This was a great talk for me to attend and my big takeaway now will be that I will return to my CPD model and reconsider how I will measuring the impact - I already know why I have designed each programme, what I need to do now is identify the measure for assessing impact.  I also want to go bigger on my RQT programme, revisit some of the ideas I initially had but discarded based on my context.   I also wish I could promise my staff the kind of time commitment that Cramlington offer their staff but I am not sure I can in my current context, luckily my next talk from Tom Boulter had some thoughts on this...

Session 3: Tom Boulter @tomboulter
Tom talked about professional learning at his school Cherwell School and actually he did most of the hard work for me by giving me his 5 takeaways from the session.  These were fairly simple - restrict your focus, ignore stuff, respect capacity, make feedback count and accept that training sometimes make teachers worse at teaching.  I really liked Tom's focus on the important things and the recognition that when staff often say that time is the issue what we actually mean is head space.  He talked about the importance of teacher capacity and acknowledging that giving staff an extra hour is technically time but if there too much going on in someone's head - too many targets, foci or competing directions - then they simply do not have the capacity for anything else.  He also talked about the fallacy of whole school learning and teaching targets - he feels they are a mistake as they imply that everyone is at the same point in their career and their teaching and this simply isn't true - asking someone to focus on a target they do not need to focus on will simply reduce their capacity further.  What they have done at Tom's school is increase capacity by making things simpler.  He asked staff to consider school culture and professional learning culture and from this derived principles for professional learning.  By asking staff to consider what the lived experience of being in the school was, he was able to identify what needed to be done to create a culture of teachers as learners.  He did not prescribe a certain style of teaching but decided that as a team they would focus on four things that they knew had proven impact on students learning - at Cherwell School these four elements were learning intentions, tasks and activities, success criteria/modelling and effective feedback.  He then went on to discuss the importance of getting feedback right with teachers - they have removed lesson gradings, focused on identifying typical features, considered quality of thought over student progress and included pre-observation meetings.  When giving feedback they have developed a style that is somewhere on the continuum between coaching and directive feedback and draws on the work of Alex Pett in ensuring that observers 'hold their own opinions lightly enough'.  The final point he made, and it was an important one that is often overlooked, is that there is an implementation dip - training makes teachers worse in the short term and this is an essential part of improvement.  Observation and feedback processes need to acknowledge this.

This was an interesting session that provoked a lot of thought in my own head and a fair bit of discussion over lunch!  I didn't agree with every point Tom made in terms of specifics and I think that this is because we work in different contexts but I did agree with his five takeaways and his overarching principles.  I think the idea of leaders being mindful of teacher capacity and workload is the most important preoccupation right now.  For me the big takeaway is that I need to engage teachers in creating the ethos/culture for professional learning before I implement any kind of process of programme.  The second big thing is that it consolidated my belief in teacher autonomy over their own development - allowing them to work on the things that are of specific benefit to their own development.

Session 4: Mark Steed @independenthead
My final optional session of the day was Mark Steed outlining how the appraisal structure works at Berkhamstead school.  Their structure is very detailed and complex and coherent and transparent and it draws on a number of core beliefs.  The presentation was posted here and will probably do it far more justice than I will http://independenthead.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/appraisal-and-performance-management-in.html?m=1.  There were a number of things that I really like about this system of appraisal.  I like that it is clear and transparent and has removed any arbitrary or subjective element on deciding if someone has demonstrated exceptional performance.  It is a genuine 'no surprises' model.  I really like that it emphasised the importance of knowing the 'why' before thinking about the 'how' or the 'what'.  For Mark, the purpose of appraisal is to develop staff.  It is a developmental process, about helping staff to improve and for this reason the appraisal structure is supported by a coherent and detailed CPD structure.  It also does not use results to assess the effectiveness of the classroom teacher as he does not see that as a true measure of teacher effectiveness.  Instead the model focuses on teacher attitudes and behaviours.  Heads of department are held accountable for results because in Mark's view 'Heads of department are the guardians of standards.  Great middle leaders set the bar for learning and teaching to drive success.'  The model makes use of 360 evaluations, peer evaluations and focuses on a 3+1 structure - 3 areas to develop and 1 area of strength that will be used as a source of support in training.  It is based on some of the principles of Novartis' talent management system and I absolutely liked it.

As I currently am not responsible for performance appraisal I am not sure what my direct takeaway will be but I do think that there was a lesson in leadership here in prioritising the why.  Additionally this is something that I will return in the future should I ever be in a position to reconsider the structure of appraisal.  

Final keynote: Barbara Oakley @barbaraoakley
The day was closed by an entertaining and engaging talk from Barbara Oakley who discussed how we can teach our brains to learn.  Barbara was an inspiring lady whose own learning journey was one that many of our students could learn from.  My brain was feeling pretty full by this talk but I learned enough to know that I will almost certainly be completing the MOOC (https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn).  Some top takeaways from this session were that to be an effective learner you need to get some sleep in order to think effectively, battle procrastination (it is on a par with addiction) by using the pomodoro technique (I am doing this now to complete this blog - 8 minutes to go), use spaced repetition and test your ability to recall information regularly.  I think the thing I liked most from this closing speech however was her final word on passion.  I have read a lot about how some schools are using student passion to enable their students to learn - Barbara challenged this by telling us that passion is a double edged sword and that some things take longer to learn.  She urged us to not just follow our passions but to broaden them and this was a pretty inspirational message to end with.

So TLAB15 - an amazing day of thought provoking CPD and inspiring role models from a range of contexts.  The day was incredibly well organised (great communication, big enough spaces, enough time to immerse yourself in the messages and question speakers) with lots of great touches such as the scones and the badges.  Seriously, the badges were awesome.

Thanks to all involved, see you next year!!    


  1. Great summary, Nikki - many thanks for sharing this.

    And I loved your description of your "oh bugger" moment! Absolutely agree about how important it is that we think carefully about, and attempt to gauge, the impact of any professional learning opportunity. Even if you experience, as you describe it, "the energy and engagement that you feel whilst you are there", without your second part, "the impact it will have on your practice once you get home", there's the sense that it could have been an entertaining waste of time! And as you/Tom point out, time is a precious commodity and we have to make the most of it.

    One thing I advise those who organise CPD to do is to be very clear at the outset about what it is they're trying to achieve, and what they expect those within the training session to do DIFFERENTLY as a result of having been there. Keep it simple and don't try to cover too much. I quite often ask teachers/leaders who have been in sessions I've led to identify three things they will do, as a result of being there, that they probably wouldn't otherwise have thought to do (and also identify when they will do these things, how they will check on themselves, what impact they hope it will have and what they will stop doing or do less of in order to make space/time for these three things). These aren't things I've suggested. These are things they've reflected on as a result of the time we've given to the topic, their discussions with each other and their own developing thinking.

    Thanks again for the post!

  2. Nikki: Just read and commented on Helena Marsh's staffroom post also in response to #TLAB15 and that has made me reflect more deeply on the issue of gauging impact.

    See my comment here. Would be interested in what you think, too!



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