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Christmas is coming!

Unless you have been living in a cave located in remote Outer Mongolia, you cannot help but be aware that Christmas is fast approaching.

I took it upon myself to bake the family christmas cake. This was not an inconsequential undertaking, my Mother’s christmas cakes being legendary - not least for the fact that it wasn’t safe to drive a car or operate heavy machinery after a slice.

Apron donned, I surveyed the kitchen with a certain degree of trepidation. Where to start? Well, I’ve watched Bake Off, how hard can it be?

I know what a Christmas cake should look, smell and taste like, so in theory I could make an educated guess at the ingredients and see what happens. Fortunately, I’ve watched Bake Off and so I know that the first cake is likely to be a disaster. But that’s okay, as a scientist I can look at what needs to be adjusted and have another go, test the results again, learn from them, until I have produced the perfect cake.

This is the essence of learning and underpins scientific discovery: nobody honestly expects to hit upon a successful outcome on their first attempt, we learn to ‘fail forward’. But, tempting though this approach might be, I’m not sure that I have the time... or the funds for a new wardrobe of clothes to accommodate the enlarged waistline that will surely follow. So, this ‘experimental’ route to culinary success was out.

The alternative then is to use a recipe. Essentially, someone else has already done the experimentation on my behalf so I can learn from their experiences. In this way, I can shortcut the scientific process and (in theory) achieve success more or less immediately. This has been a perfectly normal strategy in science for hundreds of years.

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
Isaac Newton

Learning from the experience of others is also a core part of school, our students learn from the discoveries and histories of other people. 

But, how much do we as teachers continue to learn?

The temptation to reproduce what we were taught when training to be teachers or experienced as students is understandable, but the context in which we work is not static. If we are to remain relevant to our students learning, then it is essential that we strive to grow and develop as practitioners.

Of course, each of us could experiment, but it makes much better sense to learn from each other. There are something like 457,000 teachers working in the state sector in the UK - a vast reservoir of knowledge, skills and ideas to draw upon. It is not always easy to collect all of that information and present it in such a manner that we can learn from it.

Fortunately, this is where technology can help - if there is one thing that computers can do, it is crunch numbers and data, and present them so that they are easily digestible. The right technology solution will enable us to not only measure which cohorts of students are performing well, but also gain an insight into why that might be the case.

If we understand both sides of the learning equation, then it is much easier to adjust the inputs (classroom practice) in order to maximise the output (learning). To paraphrase John Hattie, once we know our impact on learning we are better placed to help our students realise their potential.

While there may not be one single recipe for the perfect teacher, we can all see what the effect of a dash of Growth Mindset, a pinch of Visible Learning, or a healthy teaspoon of Flipped Learning might have on our own practice simply by talking to each other and sharing data more openly.

Recipes are by nature derivative and meant to be shared - that is how they improve, are changed, how new ideas are formed.
Molly Wizenberg

On that note, in the spirit of sharing data, here is my Christmas gift to you all. When you are eating your Christmas cake this year, be bold and try it with cheese - a tangy cheddar, for example. I know it might sound like a step too far, but the combination of the two tastes is truly magical - happy Christmas everyone!

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