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Edtech gets REAL

RM Education's annual REAL event gave inspiring, real-life examples of tech's role in modern teaching

Posted by Stephanie Broad | May 10, 2016 | Events

What do Dr Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, Abdul Chohan, Director of Essa Academy, and Bear Grylls, the face of outdoor adventure, have in common? They all believe in success against the odds. 

Speaking at RM Education’s REAL event, Dr Sakena Yacoobi spoke of her journey setting up the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), the first organisation to bring human rights and leadership training to women in the region. After the Taliban closed girls’ schools in the 1990s, AIL went underground and educated 3,000 young women by smuggling education supplies into the country. Before the Taliban era, women could not even leave the house, Dr Yacoobi says. Now, they are working and even in politics. She now wants women to be able to access university – at the moment, higher education is male-dominated and intimidating for Afghan women, and an all-female, English-medium institution will help them to progress. Dr Yacoobi is also pursuing partnerships with UK schools via the British Council. A delegate from the National Governor’s Association (NGA) asks how AIL can keep their ethos strong as the organisation grows. Dr Yacoobi says recognition for your team is key, listening to their ideas and showing compassion – something that is sometimes lacking in society.

Abdul Chohan, Director of Essa Academy in Bolton. A Chemistry teacher for 13 years with a passion for using technology in learning, Abdul spoke about the impact of a 1:1 handheld device programme at the academy.

Abdul says there is a difference between belief and interest.  You need two things to change belief, he says simplicity and reliability. Otherwise people won’t use the new system and, in his school’s case, carry on printing reams of paper when technology is deemed to have failed.

Essa Academy was the first school in the UK to give out iPod Touch devices to all students, before the iPad was available. Now, students use iPads and iTunesU as a basis for all learning, and even create their own content and textbooks to share with others. The technology, Abdul says, creates seamless communication between staff and students, who take their devices home.

The six most expensive words in education, Adbul says, is ‘We’ve always done it that way’. By using handheld devices, printing and photocopying costs have dropped by almost two thirds - but it’s not about being ‘paperless’, Abdul insists, as students still need to develop writing skills. 

Abdul is passionate about how education promotes social mobility. Students at Essa Academy speak 46 different languages and 80% of the cohort come from areas of deprivation. The formerly ‘failing’ school has changed dramatically through a new building, converting to academy status and introducing the 1:1 programme. The programme benefits parents, too – they can come and visit, use the various apps and learn about how learning works at Essa. The programme also promotes accountability for teachers, as Abdul says: “You can’t plan a rubbish lesson at Essa Academy, because everyone can see it!” 

L-R: Dr Sakena Yacoobi takes questions; Bear Grylls delivers the keynote speech

Highlighting a pressing issue in today’s schools was Alex Holmes, head of anti-bullying at The Diana Award. Alex received a Diana Award in 2004 for his efforts in tackling bullying at his school, and is now responsible for leading the anti-bullying campaign, which works with tens of thousands of people across the UK. 

We spend 11,000 hours of our lives at school, Alex says, and bullying has an effect on mental health as well as future employability. Sixty per cent of Diana Award participants have experienced verbal bullying, and 23% have experienced cyber bullying, which is an important part of their campaign. 

The Diana Award involves young people in the design of their programmes, as it’s important for students to be ambassadors for their school. Alex believes students are more likely to listen to their peers than a ‘lecturing teacher’ and recommends several activities for schools:

  • Making a 30-60 second video interpretation of the school’s anti-bullying policy, starring pupils
  • Asking pupils to count on five fingers who they can go to if they are experiencing bullying 

After an impressive lunch overlooking the Thames, author, broadcaster and youngest-ever Chief Scout, Bear Grylls, gave the day’s keynote speech. Bear shared his story of the epic journey to the top of Mount Everest, in what emerged as a powerful metaphor for determination, strength and grit. A warm, witty and engaging speaker, Bear left us suitably inspired for the afternoon sessions. 

Given the rapid developments in education policy so far this year, a panel debate offered participants and audience to discuss the important issues of the day. Hosted by Jeremy Vine, the panellists were: Dominic Norrish, Group Director of ICT at United Learning Trust, Jonathan Simons, Head of Education at Policy Exchange, Graham HC Donaldson. Author of Teaching Scotland’s Future, Sir John Townsley, Executive Principal at GORSE Academies Trust, Jenny Smith, head of Frederick Bremer School (subject of TV documentary Educating the East End), and Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the NGA.

Understandably, the hottest topic was the DfE’s plans to make every school an academy (now cancelled following widespread criticism). Panelists said the movement to academisation was too rapid and there were more important issues in schools, such as teacher recruitment and testing. Sir John Townsley said that while there’s a lot of lesson learning taking place in the academy system, there are great examples of academy success – but it’s not as black and white as people think. Emma believes schools should be able to convert if they want, but shouldn’t be told to, and that capacity and funding were more pressing issues. 

On recruitment, the panel suggested that teaching is no longer seen as a lifelong profession, and that many drop out during their career progression because they don’t want the stress of becoming a headteacher. How to fix the pipeline? Stop changing everything, they said, and give teachers more respect.

An inspiring day of CPD, RM Real was full of bright ideas on tech, teaching and finding joy in an ever-changing profession.

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