Northern Rocks: A Curious Beast

Northern Rocks is, indeed, a curious beast. It’s based on the odd premise that five hundred teachers will travel great distances to spend their Saturday learning more about teaching. Even more curious is that for the past two years (and it’s only in its second year) tickets have sold out.

I bought my ticket back in November, having been too late to secure one for the previous years event. It was my intention to spend the day passively ingesting talks from others whom I have admired and followed (in a twitter way – not a stalker-type way) for some time. Then a couple of months ago Mark Healy @cijane02 (lover of words hardly anyone else understands) suggested that we co-present a session on Mindsets. I responded in my usual way – by ignoring him. I like Mark and have bucket loads of respect for him, but public speaking has a habit of filling me with dread and my tactic for dealing with impending doom is to pretend it doesn’t exist. Eleanor Roosevelt is cited as suggesting that we should all do something everyday that scares us, so I mulled over Mark’s proposal for a while, initially sending him a fairly non-committal reply.

To be honest, teaching still scares the bejesus out of me but, for that very reason, I don’t think it counted in the Roosevelt sense. So, knowing that once I said ‘yes’ there was no turning back, I, well, said yes. So Mark and I delivered a session entitled ‘Mindsets: The Good, the bad and the unknown’ (I was the bad – thanks mate!). I’ll blog separately about that later.

…We were up first, so I’ll skip to session 2.

My on-off relationship with Positive Psychology naturally drove me towards Alastair Arnott (@Alastair_Arnott), who was accompanied by Professor Mick Waters. Alastair is a former teacher, author of ‘Positive Failure’ and a man who seems to have been marinated in positivity. He is passionate about the positive side of psychology with an infectious insistence that schools should be ‘happy places’. I couldn’t disagree with that. I must admit, much of what Alastair said wasn’t new to me (my research at York is closely related to Positive Psychology) but certainly tweaked the interest of the audience. The gist of the talk was that pupils should be allowed, and even encouraged, to fail and that failure shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing. Alastair completed in MSc in Positive Psychology so I suspect he’s spent a great deal of time reading some of the books that adorn my shelves (most by the godfather of PosPsych, Martin Seligman and all with titles that contain the words ‘Happiness’ and ‘Optimistic’).

There were some concerns from the audience, however. One delegate asked how long somebody could fail and still carry on while another appeared sceptical about all the psychology in education (he asked Mark and I the same question in our session – I’ll try and answer it another time). Of course, the former question is about learned helplessness and Alastair used the term ‘inoculation’ several times. The idea of inoculation stems from Seligman’s early research into learned helplessness. The general idea is that we can help learners develop positive coping strategies, allowing them to develop the kind of mindset that keeps destructive negative thoughts in check in the same that the measles vaccine inoculates you against the measles virus. I’ve mentioned before the idea of building ‘positive psychological capital’ in learners and I suspect this is what Alastair has in mind.

Session 3 was a tricky one for me but I eventually opted for Tait Coles (@Totallywired77) who successfully ripped into the insane idea of teaching British Values in schools. Teaching in a predominately white middle-class school, I hadn’t really experienced much of what Tait discussed, nevertheless, his sentiments still managed to resonate.

The session debated a little about what we meant by ‘British Values’ and if they were, in fact, just human values. Tait admitted that he was using his ‘white privilege’ to discuss institutional racism and drew our attention to the fact that there was only one non-white speaker at the event (Amjad Ali – @ASTsupportAAli ). Tait, who isn’t exactly universally loved by all in the teaching profession, is the author of ‘Never Mind the Inspectors: Here’s Punk Learning’ and a vice principle at a Bradford secondary school. Tait is another passionate individual who appears to despise inequality in all its manifestations – I liked him a lot!

John Tomsett (@JohnTomsett) tried to teach us maths – I tweeted instead. I’ve had a great deal of love for John for some time (he even appeared on a slide in my session earlier in the morning), he is the kind of headteacher I would want to be (if I actually wanted such a scary job). Like, Alastair, John was discussing something I knew a good bit about – meta-cognition. I’m not sure if it was the topic or John himself, but the lecture theatre was packed and I had to sit on the stairs (that’s me in the photo!). What John did was bring the whole idea of teaching meta-cognitive awareness into the classroom in a practical way – I now need to get myself a visualiser!


But John moved on from meta-cognition, widening his remit to speak passionately about the emotional side of teaching and learning. Like me (and Alastair), John fears that young people are suffering psychologically from the pressures of the system and that it’s only going to get worse. Many believe that we shouldn’t try to psychologize education – I disagree. Emotional responses to stress and anxiety are too destructive to be ignored, and while teachers don’t have the skills to treat, they do have the power to make things easier and show a little bit of compassion. Teaching, insisted John, is as much about building positive relationships as it is about teaching content.

The day was certainly exhausting (especially for us introverts – I think I might organise a conference for introvert teachers – Northern (hiding under the) Rocks?). I’m certainly in awe of Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) and Emma Hardy (@emmaannhardy) who managed to organise it all!

In a society where the teaching profession is so often consumed by negatively, it was great to spend the day with people who, against all odds, remain so positive about what we do. I am also so very pleased that I said yes to Mark – our session went well and people seemed very enthusiastic about what we said…

Can’t wait for next year!


One thought on “Northern Rocks: A Curious Beast

  1. Brian

    “I think I might organise a conference for introvert teachers – Northern (hiding under the) Rocks?)”

    A great summary. Thank you.

    The above quote still has me laughing out loud every now and then. It has been suggested that “little things please little minds”

    I would love to see a copy of your presentation if you are going to publish it here. I have now (again not in that stalker sort of a way) followed you and will return to look for such as well as more positive and incisive observation.


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