The heart and craft of teaching – GDST Annual conference 2016

The GDST’s annual conference in June brought together heads, chairmen of governors, trustees and senior staff from the GDST’s 24 schools, two academies and head office, on the theme of ‘The heart and craft of teaching’.

Helen Fraser, Chief Executive, opened the conference by reflecting on what she had learned in her six and a half years at the helm, the increasing pressures on teenage girls to be ‘practically perfect’, and how schools are helping them overcome that by challenging their inner critic with the voice of their ‘inner cheerleader’

Dr Kevin Stannard, the GDST’s Director of Innovation & Learning, introduced the results of the GDST student survey on ‘what makes a great teacher’. With over 11,900 responses from girls from Year 4 to Year 13 (including some wonderful drawings by the younger participants like ‘a recipe for a great lesson’ with the teacher adding ingredients in the kitchen), its main finding that, whereas in Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 pupils value personal qualities like patience, willingness to listen, and kindness, as public exams approach they mention attributes like ‘gives good notes’ and ‘quick feedback and marking’. 

This led Dr Stannard to comment on the ‘bottleneck effect’ of GCSEs on learning in the classroom, saying ‘The standout difference is represented by the influence of the battery of external exams at age 16’ which was ‘a distracting factor’ that forced students into a state of ‘learned helplessness’. Thankfully, as pupils move into the Sixth Form, they focus again on teaching that enthuses and inspires. Download our infographic for a summary of the student survey.

The conference also had a challenging and inspiring address from Professor Guy Claxton, emeritus Professor of the Learning Sciences at the University of Winchester, who asked whether teachers went into the profession in order to say proudly that they had produced generations of ‘passive and compliant’ students. He attacked the giving of notes, saying that the message it gives to pupils is that there is one version of the truth (hence ‘passive and compliant’) and that the quality we most need to be encouraging in our students is scepticism – something which the coming referendum on Europe, he said, would demand in spades. Guy Claxton mentioned that he had appeared in the Telegraph for his campaign to ban erasers from the classroom – ‘mad prof wants to ban erasers’ – because they made pupils aim for perfection, not learning. 

We also heard from Professor Alison Cook-Sather, Professor of Education at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges in the USA, who talked about student voice, and in particular how secondary students could become ‘critics and change agents’ in their own schools, and how students could help teachers design engaging lessons. 

Finally, a panel of pupils from Year 6 to Sixth Form discussed what great teaching meant to them.

Read more about the media coverage of the conference, or view our Storify to read tweets from the day.