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MPW Cambridge tutor delivers a talk at the Cambridge Schools Conference in Bali

Posted by: Fleur McLennan - 13 January 2020 - Activities & Sports - Read time: 3 Minutes

Dylan Wiliam once remarked that “learning is about causing long term changes in our brains”; I love that idea because it means that learning is deeply embedded within us and if we have learned it properly it causes a physical response that is life-long.

I was lucky enough to be selected to speak at the largest ever Cambridge Schools Conference in Bali, Indonesia, to talk about what makes good learning, how teachers can get the best from their students through meaningful feedback and how teachers can use and improve on the impact that feedback has on further assessments. The conference was attended by 435 delegates, from 271 different schools, with over 37 different countries represented. It was AMAZING!

Fleur at ConferenceThe power of effective feedback has long been known in the realm of teaching to have one of the biggest impacts on student learning and progress; it has so many benefits that are so important to prepare students for further education and employment too. Firstly, it builds a culture of engagement where learners feel free to express their ideas, opinions and reasoning, secondly it builds resilience and perseverance within learners – they learn from their mistakes by employing new strategies to their thinking, learning and writing; if they are doing this consistently then, over time it has incredible success with improving work habits, assessments and preparation for exams. Similarly, it also engages the teacher to be more effective in planning lessons as the feedback from the learner to the teacher shows areas of need in learning that can be addressed and built upon in future lessons. Feedback is a two way street and talking through areas of difficulty is the key to successful implementation.

So why does feedback matter? The research is quite clear – the impact of effective feedback can improve student attainment by more than 1 grade over the course of their GCSE study; the Educational Endowment Foundation has also noted that it gives +8 months of learning to students when used effectively and consistently and has the added bonus of being low cost to implement. This means that students can learn more efficiently, contexts and strategies are established that make it easier for the brain to process new information and connections between concrete and abstract concepts are more easily understood. This causes long term changes in the brain and reinvents the “pattern” of learning – over time practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent, by focussing on the process of learning and not the outcome. It occurred to me over the course of this conference that MPW is beautifully positioned to meet the conditions for success when it comes to effective feedback. Small class sizes are incredibly important to providing personalised, specific and clear feedback – and this regular feedback through Timed Assessments is quite powerful in providing a timely response to what the students can do to improve, as well as an opportunity for the teacher to pause and re-teach concepts and skills. Effective feedback also leads to a “growth mindset” where students view their effort as the path to mastery and not an inherent, unchangeable characteristic – changing patterns of behaviour is hard, consequently learning to master various subjects is harder still – but it is causing those long term changes to the brain that stay with us for many, many years after formal education has ceased.

Bali BuildingSimilarly, other key note speakers talked about the nature of teaching and the elements of great teaching that were closely aligned to my presentation. Great teaching is not just about curriculum-related subject knowledge, but a whole raft of behaviours and attitudes about teaching and learning like: cognitive activation of learners (or, creating the inspiration), managing the classroom environment, building strong classroom culture and relationships, knowing about education and being professional in setting high expectations and levels of challenge. It is often the case that when we reflect on what “good” teaching means as adults we remember the teacher and how we FELT when learning, rather than what we learned – so great teachers also cause long term changes to the brain.

Furthermore, in aiming to improve our learners, and teachers gaining an insight into their students’ learning, this has added long term benefits in developing a culture of continual growth within the school and also allowing growth in the professional identity of the teachers. I feel this is a particular strength of MPW, as without this sense of collegiate support and growth, I would never have been able to attend this wonderful learning experience – so I would like to close with another borrowed quote on the philosophy of teaching:

“One who learns from one who is learning drinks from a running stream”