Gillian Penny
Innovation carries risk and fear of failure. Gillian Penny talks to Douglas Blane

At one point in our conversation Gillian Penny mentions the support she gets from her education authority despite her maverick style. It seems an unlikely word for the creative head of Gavinburn Primary, West Dunbartonshire, a school where new technology is firmly harnessed to pupil learning.

“I think some people see me that way,” she explains. “You have to bend rules sometimes. If you do things exactly the same as everybody else you're not going to innovate, are you?” Taking risks is essential, but they have to be calculated and well controlled, she says.

“You need to be aware of what they are. It’s one of the things we were commended for by HMIE [Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education] on a recent visit to our school.” Band in a Box is a good example, she says. “It's the high point of the year for all our children, and not just the Primary 7s who are directly involved.”

The annual, cross-curricular project begins with the computer game Guitar Hero, she says. “In groups of four the children form rock bands with their own names and identities. They write lyrics and compose songs. They create a rock video and promotional material.

'It all culminates in The Gavins – a big, red-carpet, shiny, sparkly do'

“They plan a virtual tour of France and take part in a radio show in French – which is challenging. They put on a show, singing live with their own recorded tracks. It all culminates in The Gavins – a big, red-carpet, shiny, sparkly do, at which they present their videos and explain their learning to parents.

“It's a huge project, not just in time – it last eight weeks – but in experience for the children.” This is the third year of Band in a Box at Gavinburn and it's been fascinating, she says – and a little mysterious – to see how each year the quality of the children's work has improved. “The first year I was impressed by what they did. The following year was even better – we got one or two songs with lyrics. By the third year we were getting vocal tracks, songs and much more sophisticated videos from every group.”

Different children are involved each year so this is puzzling. The explanation, she believes, goes to the heart of Curriculum for Excellence, the radical shake-up of pedagogy and content that aims to put the learner at the centre of the learning, in all Scottish schools.

'Children are setting their own targets'

“What’s happening I think is that our children are setting their own targets. The Gavins is part of school tradition now, so the younger ones see all the preparation and glitter. They look forward to it. They watch what big brothers and sisters do – and they’re keen to do it better when it comes to their turn.”

But there is more to it than that, she believes. “When our teachers introduce something new, such as animation, it gets easier with each new class. You can introduce it at a younger age. I believe it's about anticipation, expectation, sharing the learning, conversations in the playground. There’s such a lot goes on in a school beyond what we teach them in class.”

DalekDr Who stimulates all sorts of creative workThese unseen and often unsuspected learning channels can be “incredibly powerful”, she believes. “So for some time now I’ve been thinking about how to make that kind of learning more structured. It's one of the most important things that will come through Curriculum for Excellence – teachers guiding and supporting the learning, not simply delivering all of it themselves.”

Gavinburn TV, which is about to be launched, is designed to exploit and enhance these hidden channels, she says. “Around the school we produce lots of digital media – wee films, animations, slideshows. During a topic, our classrooms can be absolutely beautiful. We want to share all that. So we’re talking to companies who can deliver the technology to stream out to interactive whiteboards around the school.

“Our Primary 7 media team will pull all that content into a 30-minute broadcast and stream it once a week to every class in school. We’ve had the skills to do this for some time. We’ve just been looking for the right technology.”

All this sounds like great fun and Gillian admits that sometimes parents ask, only half-jokingly, if their children have too much fun at Gavinburn. “If teachers and pupils are happy and enjoying themselves that makes a big difference to the learning. But there is a distinction between activities that are just for fun and those that produce enjoyment.

Children can get enjoyment from a real hard challenge.” It’s a distinction that was obvious to anyone who visited Gavinburn at its most spectacular last year, when the school was invaded by Cybermen, Daleks and Doctor Who lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat – who just happens to be Gillian’s brother.

There was plenty of fun for a packed hall of pleasurably petrified pupils, and thousands of others who took part through Glow, Scotland’s national intranet. But Gillian made sure it was more than just fun by priming her brother with a message of aspiration.

“You always think you’ll never be the person who gets that really cool job,” Steven told the children. “The truth is anyone can make that journey, from anywhere.” Teachers’ packs for the latest Dr Who game, which will be released in October, are currently in preparation, and Gillian is writing them. “I’ve been involved from the start, thinking of ways to link it into learning. Games are very powerful in the classroom and you can add hooks to make them more so – like a child character in this latest game, which is all about the Gunpowder Plot.”

There is no single key to good learning, Gillian says, but creating enjoyment is a big part of it. “You find what already engages the children and help learning grow from that in the classroom – rather than pulling them away from it. You bring in games or genres. You set up realistic contexts, like running a hotel or a flower shop.

“If children’s heads are full of Dr Who you use that rather than fighting it. You focus on the learning. That is the most important thing in a school. It can also be the hardest thing.”

Conditions for innovation

  • You take calculated risks. You have to give people permission to fail.
  • When you see something good, you want to do more. You look for opportunities. The children are making great videos – so what else can we do with them?
  • Ideas don’t come in isolation. They grow from dialogue, from stimulus in conversation. It’s human. It’s organic.
  • Personally I’m very hands-on. I take new ideas so far myself then identify the right members of staff to take it further.
  • You always need good people around you.
  • You need to realise that you can’t change everything you want to
  • Like teachers in class you start with a plan, but it alters when you see the whites of their eyes, when you see how people are reacting.You need to be flexible.
  • Meeting people with a different perspective – like the BBC and the games industry – can be great for generating new ideas.
  • Twitter is brilliant. You meet new people and get ideas about education every day, one sentence at a time.
  • If you think too much about it, you might not be able to do it any more. So you can stop asking me questions now!

Sources of inspiration

  • My earliest sources of inspiration were my father Bill Moffat and his colleagues. He was a primary headteacher and would regularly meet and work with his friends Bill Michael and Sid Smith in our house. They were early pioneers of what we now call the Storyline method – a methodology we use extensively in Gavinburn Primary. I would listen to their sometimes intense conversations and debates on how children learn and how important it was to provide opportunities to develop their thinking. Those conversations reflect much of what we discuss and strive for in education today.
  • More recently my sources include well-known educationists, such as Sir Ken Robinson, Professor Stephen Heppell and Professor Sugata Mitra, as well as two inspirational innovators based in Scotland – Ollie Bray and Derek Robertson.
  • There is my former headteacher and colleague Maureen Denningberg – who always demonstrates strong and child-centred leadership – and of course the many colleagues from across the UK and beyond I converse with regularly through Twitter.

Gillian Penny on Twitter
Gilian Penny's blog
Gillian Penny is an Apple Distinguished Educator

Douglas Blane

Douglas Blane is a journalist and teacher. He runs his own Real Science website. You can follow him on Twitter.

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