7 Questions with Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith

In this blog, Fiona Aubrey-Smith sits down with IG Schools to discuss her career in education, the role of EdTech in the future of education, and what matters most to her.

Q:
What motivates you to do what you do?

Children. It’s really that simple. One of the most wonderful things in all the world is the look in a child’s eyes when they realise that they can do something or when they make connections between ideas and discover something new. It’s that specific moment of learning where the metaphorical lightbulb lights up. Those are the moments which collectively will shape the life chances of that child – they are the moments that new knowledge, new skills and new ideas are born. So, we want as much of that as we can generate. Now, research shows us lots of findings about practical strategies that help improve learning which is great. Research also shows us that the greatest influences on children’s learning the quality of teaching. But there tends to be too much focus on teaching rather than teachers. We need to remember that the focus should be on learners and teachers, not just learning and teaching. It’s the people that matter more than the processes. But it’s a complicated space – there are a lot of influences. So, I’m keen to play a role in simplifying that complexity. How can we make all this research evidence about education, human behaviours, social interaction, psychology and so on – make a practical difference to that child standing in front of us. It’s all about them.

 Q: How did you get to where you are in your career?

Funnily enough, the reason I became a teacher was not because I was interested in teaching, but because I was fascinated by learning. I always had an interest in both music and maths - my first degree was focused on the analysis of music. I studied music analysis further as a postgraduate researcher and became fascinated by the ways in which the mathematical structures within music directly affect human breathing, heart rate, mood and behaviours. I wondered how the uses of specific types of music might affect children’s learning and won a scholarship to study that space. But I was rather sceptical of a lot of research which seemed to be undertaken in order to generate arguments for funding for further research. I wanted to close that gap between research and the classroom. So, I trained as a teacher with the intention of continuing research as a practitioner. As it happens, as well as conducting research ever since, it’s also taught me a lot about teaching, and an incredible amount about learning. That’s what matters isn’t it – what actions, whether small or large, can we undertake that will improve children’s experiences of learning and enable them to get the most out of their lives ahead.

In 2007, my school won a national award for Extending Learning Opportunities for our children. We received a lot of attention both nationally and internationally for the ways that we used online platforms and tools to meaningfully engage and extend learning for very young learners. As a school leader it was fascinating because the attention nearly always focused on the technologies that we were using. But actually, the thing that was making a difference to the children and their learning was something else. The value in what we were doing was about making connections between different influences that were affecting the children’s learning. For example, putting in place strategies that made home/school engagement a genuinely 2-way relationship, or making the effort to really deeply understand the source of each individual child’s aspirations or difficulties. It sounds a lot of work – but actually most of it is just about asking questions – of children, of parents, of colleagues, of community partners, and then really actively listening, reflecting, and looking for connections – to join existing practices together. It’s a bit like a ‘Dot to Dot’ drawing. The picture is already there – you just have to join things together to make it meaningful.

Since then, I have had the privilege of supporting children, teachers, school leaders and system leaders as an adviser, consultant, head of research and development for an EdTech company, head of primary for a national schools network, university lecturer and researcher. For me, all of these roles – even when far removed from the classroom - have been about looking and listening for opportunities that will make meaningful connections between the different influences in children’s lives. Sometimes this means working directly with children or with schools, and sometimes it means working with system leaders who can support these kinds of improvements at a greater scale. If it helps children’s learning – count me in!

Q: When did you realise that pedagogical equality was the area you wanted to specialise in?

In 2007 I completed a Masters degree which explored the relationship between school strategic development and the use of technologies. In a nutshell, technology just magnifies existing teacher beliefs about teaching and learning. So, when we are developing strategies and policies about technology what we are actually doing is reinforcing existing ideas around pedagogy. These are big ideas – things like What is the relationship between Schooling and Education? What does it mean to be a teacher and to teach? What does it mean to be a learner and to learn? How does knowledge come to exist? So, whilst we think about schools as teaching children what they need to know to be secondary ready, or to be economic contributors, or to be active and engaged citizens, or whatever the political focus of the day is, we are actually also planting some pretty powerful seeds in our children about how they see themselves. We are shaping how they see themselves as a learner. What do I mean by this – well, if you ask a child a question about something they don’t know – how do they feel? Do they feel inadequate for not knowing – well that’s a result of knowledge being valued more than the person right? Do they feel a sense of expectation that they should find out an answer regardless of how interested they are – that’s a result of a culture of being focused on outcomes. Or do they feel a natural inquisition – a spark of interest when there is something they don’t know yet – and immediately want to find out – by asking questions, exploring, looking things up, testing, reflecting, challenging, debating. That’s a result of a culture where the world that surrounds us is seen as relevant and important to us. I see pedagogical equality as a phrase that reflects a commitment to enabling everyone to learn. It’s subtly different from other ideas around equality – that tend often to focus on specific barriers to learning – perhaps economic, social, emotional, physical or cultural, or about applying particular teaching and learning strategies that raise standards or engagement. Pedagogical equality is more about helping every learner to see themselves as a learner in a way that is meaningful to them and the life that they are leading and aspiring to. It’s more about the wider influences which affect each individual human being.

 

Q: How does it feel to be named as one of the 50 most influential people in education (2021) by Education Business?

Over the last year, the majority of my work has been championing a shift in thinking from EdTech to PedTech. From Teaching to Teachers. From systems to humans. In other words, encouraging a more precise, more forensic way of looking at what we do in school – but focused on human beings not just practical processes. The PedTech message has resonated with colleagues in schools, in industry, in policy – it’s a simple message. Education Business have been incredibly supportive in helping that message to be heard. That encourages conversations which result in practical actions which do the most important bit of all – shape children’s learning and future lives.

 

Q: Is EdTech here to stay as an integral part of teaching?

Technology permeates our lives. We see this through the way that we communicate, the way that we buy and sell things, the way that we travel and plan, amongst so much more. Education has been slower to see these kinds of transformational benefits. Research evidence suggests that this is because the attention has been about trying to get the technology to fit into education rather than using technology to solve pedagogical problems or to make possible pedagogical aspirations. The pandemic and remote learning experiences reinforced that research evidence. Technology itself just magnifies existing pedagogical beliefs – it’s not what you use that matters, it’s how you use it – including your communication choices and your practical behaviours. That’s why we need to focus more on pedagogical beliefs – that’s what shapes everything else – what we say we will do, what we intend to do, what we actually do, and the reality of what our student’s lived experiences are. It’s what children experience that matters most – which can be different from what we had intended, or what we think they are experiencing. Perception is everything. That’s what students will internalise. Our choices of what technology is used and how it is used convey subtle but very powerful messages to our students about what it means to be a learner, and those messages genuinely change lives. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true – as teachers we are shaping the extent to which children see themselves as a learner.

 

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to any teacher looking to get to grips with technology in the classroom?

Pause thinking about the technology for a moment. Think about what you think learning should look like – in an ideal world. Really think hard and deep about that – avoid being distracted by problems – focus on identifying clear and tangible aspirations. Now think about the children in front of you – what’s the gap between today and that ideal world? This is the gap that technology can help with. This is the problem that technology can solve. This is where you will either see a solution that uses technologies or features that you are already familiar with, or where you have something very specific to go looking for. Wonderfully - this is where there is a huge EdTech community of teachers, networks, partners, events and resources out there ready to share ideas with you. But make sure you know precisely what the problem or aspiration is first so that technology is a solution not an extra.

 

Q: What excites you most about the future of teaching and learning? 

Children! The more we enable children to meaningfully see themselves as learners, the more they will discover, create, solve, open up, connect… That creates a brighter, better world for them, and it creates a brighter, better world for us all.

Students stood in front of an interactive whiteboard.