Sell me the benefits of having seats on the wings of an aircraft!” This might seem like an unlikely starting point for a workshop on great teaching and learning in FE, but the answers – many of which a certain low cost airline is happy to charge extra money for – illustrated the art of the possible to the 70 people who gathered at the Hellenic Centre in central London last Friday, and energised an event that produced some truly inspirational visions for the future.

Supported by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), the 157 Group has been working in partnership with the Institute for Learning (IfL) on a series of events and activities to build on ‘Leading learning in further education’, a thinkpiece published last year by the 157 Group and CfBT Education Trust.

The aim is to set out not only a vision of what great teaching and learning looks like – both now and in that uncertain future we all face – but also to think about how we make it happen.

What set last week’s event apart from the norm was its style and the nature of the participants. Deliberately challenging and creative, those present started by visioning a ‘gold standard’ of pedagogy, sharing their own greatest learning moments and highlighting what it truly feels like to be experiencing greatness.

The resulting ‘Wall of Great Teaching and Learning’ served to back up the view that what feels good is not one particular pedagogy, but rather trusting and being in the presence of teachers with particular attitudes and skills and, above all, a passion for enabling student success.

This output was all the more powerful because it came not just from teachers themselves, but also from curriculum managers and senior leaders and, perhaps most importantly, from learners themselves. The 70 who attended were drawn from FE colleges, work-based learning providers and adult education services, and, possibly for the first time, the event was able to capture a truly cross-sector view of what great teaching and learning is.

Unfazed by the range of people there, young and adult learners of all ages asserted that the best teaching happens when they have some control, when relationships are good and when content is delivered with passion. There was remarkably little to choose between the views of learners, teachers and leaders too, when the event moved on to consider what helps to bring about this greatness. Freedom was a highly prized commodity, and the fear of being judged a failure, which leads to teachers not taking risks, was palpably present for everyone when they thought about what might get in the way.

These conclusions reinforce the findings in IfL’s most recent review of CPD that teacher autonomy is preferable to top-down development activity, and it was fitting also that the event served as a launchpad for a report jointly published by IfL, the 157 Group and the Institute of Education (IOE), ‘Learning and letting go: building expansive learning environments in FE’, which details the outcomes of a powerful seminar on expansive learning environments, held earlier in the year at the IOE.

“Good teaching is born of innovation, and this involves a degree of experimentation that is unlikely to happen if an organisation is highly controlling or risk averse,” says the report.
In the afternoon last Friday, participants split into teams to begin to produce real ideas to help that innovation take place.

There was an energy and emotionally intelligent feel, as groups considered the attitudes, skills and systems that need to develop by drawing on analogies from the world of sport, art and the military. These discussions provided a novel opportunity to challenge some of the preconceptions about how things are usually done. Over 50 ideas for ‘doing things differently’ were generated and, at the end, participants voted (with love hearts) for the ones they thought would have the greatest impact.

The challenge now is to build on the energy of the event and to use the kind of action research that it represented to really make a difference. The 157 Group, along with IfL, is committed to leading more thinking and action in this area, and, once the hundreds of ideas from Friday’s event have been synthesised, we will publish the outputs and detail next steps on our teaching and learning journey.

What we know at the moment is that there is a huge will in the sector to engage with a process that made everyone involved think afresh, and that 70 people will have returned to their respective situations all the more inspired to lead and teach and learn in a ‘great’ way. Some said they want to replicate the event for colleagues. You will know you’ve got an enthused participant in your organisation if they suggest flying you to Alicante in a way that gives you free air conditioning and great views … by sitting on the wings.

Andy Gannon is a project manager at 157 Group