“The best opportunity for any innovation is time; time for educators to form relationships and know their learners and what is best for them, time to learn from other educators to share experiences and collaborate, time to try new ideas, time for learners to be involved themselves.” – Jo Debens, UK

When we first asked Jo Debens to be a part of Daily Edventures, she was hesitant. “I felt a fraud, and said as much,” says Debens. “I kept thinking I’m ‘just’ a regular teacher, I’m not senior leadership, I’m not a big public speaker (though it happens sometimes). But even if I only ever have an impact in my classroom, that is still an impact on hundreds of children who may go on to have an impact on others. Ripples become waves.”

In truth, Debens is much more than “just a regular teacher.” For starters, she is a Partners in Learning Innovative Teacher, an attendee of the Partners in Learning European forum in Moscow where she presented her project, Space Explorers: Space Creators, and a blogger — both for her own blog, and for the Guardian Teacher blog. Her colleague, David Rogers, who has also been featured on Daily Edventures, is a strong advocate for Debens, and wrote about her project and experience at the European Forum here.

“I’m privileged to work in an industry that can change lives,” adds Debens. “It sounds trite, but it’s what I believe.”

We are thrilled to feature Jo Debens on today’s Daily Edventure.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I am fortunate to work within a department where I have been given opportunities to get involved with exciting projects even from the very start of my career. Whether it is mobile device or technology-based learning, student voice, outdoor learning or “guerilla geography,” our work is varied and challenging. I am most proud of empowering young people of all abilities to take part in the BBC’s School Report, where they have created and starred in their own news reports, were then successfully selected for broadcast on national news programs, and were invited to interview Lord Coe for the Olympics after our geocache project. In addition, my work is characterized by getting students involved and able to get their voice heard.  All too often the pupil voice is a token effort. One of my favorite lines from student feedback afterwards was, “I was really nervous before about speaking aloud but we have practised now and they (adults) are just human! I realized they probably didn’t understand us either.”

I’ve ensured that our young people have participated in making decisions about school change, have consulted with school leaders and external professionals, and have been included in evaluating and co-constructing our curriculum. I have been involved with or led projects surrounding geocaching, experimenting with and introducing mobile device use in lessons, and encouraging staff with exploring learning outside the classroom. I was incredibly proud to receive a Microsoft Innovative Teacher award in 2010 and to be selected as a UK representative to take part in the 2011 European forum, too, for a project based on student voice and collaboration using technology. Sometimes the “innovation” I am involved with may be small scale, but little ripples grow to waves.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

Students are now more engaged within the school community and feel more confident at getting involved in enterprise initiatives. They feel their voice is more respected and effective. I would like to think that I have also encouraged staff in school to experiment more with their teaching; through coaching and workshops I have worked with staff to innovate and explore outdoor learning, ‘messy’ learning, using technology, and being more flexible to enable students to learn independently.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Firstly, it is important to trust young people. Take small steps at first and make changes at a classroom scale, then ramp it up to take on whole school challenges. Sometimes it’s better to try something and fail, then learn from those mistakes. We expect children to make errors along the way, and they come out stronger and wiser – educators should be prepared to do the same.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I strongly believe that it’s not about the devices and software that teachers and learners use, but about the learning and behavior that takes place. I’ve been involved in pioneering the development of our Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy and helped develop live blogging and other projects in the field. I use technology as appropriate and to engage young people, but education is about using the right tool at the right time. I’ve written articles and spoken on radio to advocate the use of technology and mobile devices in school, as I believe when used well, these can inspire and engage, through social media, research, creative presentation, or simply recording homework.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

It can be difficult to encourage other educators to try something new, especially if it requires more time and energy in a profession where there are already so many pressures and time limits. If staff had more time to reflect and collaborate maybe some would be less wary of change.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

There are some fantastic support networks coming to the fore through conferences, TeachMeets, regional networks, Twitter and professional supportive networks such as the Microsoft Partners in Learning Network with free tools and ideas, or the Guardian Teacher Network blog.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

Educators need more freedom from constant central curriculum changes to allow time to try, evaluate, adapt – they need to be able to be the professionals they are with the focus of helping children, which is why we do the job in the first place.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Innovation does not have to mean technology; it can be a simple idea. The best opportunity for any innovation is time; time for educators to form relationships and know their learners and what is best for them, time to learn from other educators to share experiences and collaborate, time to try new ideas, time for learners to be involved themselves.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Try to broaden your horizons and experiences through networking (which I always find scary but great). This could be virtual networking through Twitter, Facebook, Partners in Learning, etc., or through regional subject networks or conferences. Remember why you became a teacher. Remember that you have an impact. Remember why you are needed.

And I believe that, “If we didn’t think we were going to change the world, we wouldn’t be here,” from Gapingvoid, which is our department mantra. So don’t be afraid. Try something. And most of all – ALWAYS be a learner yourself. We expect it from our children, why not practice it ourselves?

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Using technology in lessons, particularly mobile devices that can be used for outdoor learning or using students’ own devices for independence, is definitely a help. I am a Geography teacher and the subject seems to harness and incorporate technology perhaps more so than other subjects, and I have seen the increasing use of various devices and software enable students of all abilities to engage.

The main facet that hinders learning is attitudes; thinking that any one trend — old or new —  is the best and only tool is shortsighted and ineffective. Or focusing only on a set of lessons or an exam. Educators need to think larger scale, consider all tools, and focus on the big picture. I don’t believe education is about a conveyor belt set to produce an atypical student with a set of letters and results after their name (although clearly I do aim to help my students achieve and succeed!). For me, education should be more holistic and about enabling our learners to enjoy learning, to experience, to develop a set of skills not just pass a test. If we get that right and provide the necessary tools to facilitate then the results will follow, too.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Probably a networked mobile device to enable learning by any means, in any place. And a copy of “How to be an Explorer of the World,” by Keri Smith or “The Mission: Explore Books by the Geography Collective,” because learning should sometimes be messy, different and happen outdoors, too.

About Jo Debens

  • Birthplace: Ashford, Kent
  • Current residence: Portsmouth, United Kingdom
  • Education: St. Catharine’s College Cambridge University for BA (hons) MA (cantab) Geography degrees, University of Brighton for PGCE Secondary Education Geography
  • Websites I check every day: Twitter, www.davidrogers.org.uk, Facebook!
  • Person who inspires me most: Personally, my mum for her devotion to education and caring for children – I saw from a very early age how she as a teacher made a difference. And my dad for simply getting up every day with humor and faith despite everything. Professionally, David Rogers (my boss), who, despite being a hard task master and the man to blame for much is also an inspiration in terms of passion, drive, innovativeness, and sheer determination to improve the quality of education provision whole scale. He’s tiring to keep up with.
  • Favorite childhood memory: I used to visit my grandparents often and had a balanced domestic upbringing of baking ginger biscuits or manual labour. One such time involved me, age 4, clambering up to find my granddad on the shed roof and offering to assist with tacking down the felt while muttering “I came to help, not to watch.” Guess this has been with me ever since.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Iceland 2013 school trip!
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why?: Today, giggling over my brother-in-law’s Christmas present – possibly the most boring gift I have ever bought. No offence if you too had ‘The Financial Times 2013 Guide to Running a Business’ on your wish list, I hope Santa brought you one.
  • Favorite book: “Time and Chance” by Sharon Penman or the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
  • Favorite music: I’ll listen to most genres depending on mood!
  • Your favorite quote or motto: I have a couple: “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.” (Louisa May Alcott), “I am still learning” (Michelangelo) and “If we didn’t think we were going to change the world, we wouldn’t be here.” (Gapingvoid)
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