Microsoft Stories podcast: episode 10 – Cornerstone Academy Trust

Hello and welcome to Microsoft Stories, a podcast about technology and innovation.

In this episode we focus on Cornerstone Academy Trust, which is based in Devon and oversees four primary schools. Its staff place innovation at the heart of teaching and learning.

Cornerstone has forged strong partnerships locally, regionally, nationally and globally, and also provides teacher training, professional learning, leadership development and school-to-school support at both primary and secondary levels. It has been appointed a Microsoft Training Academy, a DfE English Hub and a Science Learning Partnership, and is also part of the West Country Computer Science Hub.

Like every school in England, Cornerstone has had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and the knock-on effect that’s had on their pupils’ education. In this podcast, you will hear from Jonathan Bishop, headteacher and CEO of Cornerstone, about how innovation has helped his staff continue to provide first-class learning to their classes.

You will also hear from Chris Rothwell, Head of Education at Microsoft UK, about how schools are working together and sharing that innovation.

Click the play button and join us on our journey.

Click here to visit our Podcast page. Alternatively, you can listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Transcript of this episode:

Hi, I’m Andy Trotman, Head of News at Microsoft UK. Welcome to Microsoft Stories – a new podcast looking at technology and the people who use it.

In this series, I’m trying to answer the question: what is innovation? It means different things to different people. Innovation can be as simple as adding an eraser to the end of a pencil or as complex as sending people to the Moon.

What does it mean to be innovative? How do you know you’re being innovative? Along my journey, I meet people using technology in amazing ways, and discover what innovation means to them.

Join me on my journey.

There are more than 10 million schoolchildren in the UK. In January, most of them were told to stay at home as the Government once again introduced measures to tackle the spread of Coronavirus.

It meant yet more disruption for the UK’s education system which has had to adapt to remote learning, through video calling services such as Microsoft Teams. Some schools had already become used to using remote technology to teach and the transition from learning in schools to learning at home was seamless. Some struggled, as they accelerated digital plans that they had hoped they wouldn’t need to roll out for a year or more.

Pupils using laptops in a classroom

Whether you’re a teacher, a pupil or a parent, digital skills have suddenly become one of the most important parts of your life. You’ve had to learn how to join Teams calls, share work via OneDrive, use Stream to record videos. Even more kids are using Minecraft: Education Edition to find out more about maths, history and science.

But for teachers, the aim isn’t just to use technology to just replicate the classroom, it’s to use the new format to inspire pupils, kickstart their creativity and foster collaboration.

JONATHAN: Teaching is about thinking outside of the box. The innovation in teaching is getting children to think creatively, to think innovatively. It’s not a prescription of: do A, then B, then C, then D. Therefore, for a teacher to be innovative, it’s not a bolt-on of buying some tech and working in a techie way, it’s how can you create that innovative, creative, collaborative practice that happens in a classroom but utilise the technology to support that and underpin it, and then take it off into that virtual arena.

That was Jonathan Bishop, headteacher and Chief Executive of Cornerstone Academy Trust. Cornerstone is a small academy trust that started with Broadclyst Community Primary School, in Exeter, and now oversees three other primary schools in the area, with a total of more than 1,000 pupils.

Cornerstone also oversees a number of curriculum hubs, which offer support and training for other schools, and a teaching school, which does what it says on the tin – it trains new teachers.

Using technology to spark innovation among staff and improve learning for children has always been incredibly important for the trust. For Jonathan, technology is another tool in the toolkit. It’s a way to bring new ideas into the classroom – and beyond. Filling schools with rooms full of tech isn’t going to improve learning, but giving teachers the best tools to enable them to use their own voice, their own personality and their passion for a subject, is.

JONATHAN: So I think innovation, in terms of a school context, is not about throwing out what the core job is and replacing the teacher, simply having a bank of videos that children could watch, remotely and learn all they need to do.

Education is about those social interactions, that social interaction with their peers, that social interaction with their teachers, but when I say social, I don’t mean sitting chatting and gossiping. What I mean is that collaborative problem solving, cognitive development. Education is a lot more than simply the imparting of knowledge. It’s important that we do teach knowledge and we get children to retain knowledge, but if we don’t get children to develop the skills to use that knowledge and to apply that knowledge to solve a problem, it doesn’t make them a rounded, educated person.

What Cornerstone did was empower teachers’ innovation. Those teachers set up a class team in Microsoft Teams, their pupils would log in from home on their devices, take notes in a OneNote document embedded in that team and answer questions using Forms. The whole call would be recorded, automatically saved in Stream and shared with children who were unable to attend.

Whether it’s one-to-one mentoring, 180 children across three schools taking part in a lesson, or more than 1,000 watching an assembly, those youngsters are continuing their learning journey. That was critical during lockdown.

JONATHAN: So as a teacher, you are speaking to children, getting children to talk with children, children to respond to you with good questioning, as you unpick and explain a concept. It’s more than simply imparting the knowledge that they need to have, because otherwise we’d all sit and read an encyclopaedia. Once we’ve taught them to read, it’s that modelling, it’s that questioning, it’s that problem solving, the culture that teachers need to create, therefore, the dynamics of a classroom around those, the management of the teacher, with the children in that classroom organisation, so when you take that online, you suddenly have brought about a very different dynamic. If what you’re doing is upskilling your workforce in another business to work remotely and to collaborate together, you’re upskilling them on a few digital tools. What we’re doing is trying to translate not just the teaching … as the work, the teachers as the workforce, but we’re trying to translate all of that education that happens with all of the children, often, whom are quite young, to work in a very different way. 

I’m finding all this fascinating, and of course I hope you are, too. Looking back at this podcast over its first series, most of the episodes have explored innovation as a way of creating something new and pushing the boundaries of what you can do – underwater data centres, helping children with blindness recognise people around them, using mixed reality to revolutionise patient care in hospitals.

In this episode, at least from what Jonathan’s saying, innovation is about trying to find new ways to work to strengthen something that has been happening for thousands of years – learning. Fundamentally, it’s about ensuring children keep learning in the most engaging way possible. While in lockdown, teachers had to use Teams and Microsoft 365 to ensure the school routine continued for pupils. Now children are back in classrooms, those digital skills are still being used to share ideas, collaborate, submit work and prepare for lessons.

The other thing I’ve learned during this podcast is that path of innovation never runs smoothly, and the education sector is no different in having challenges to overcome.

Pupils using laptops in a classroom

Here’s Jonathan again.

JONATHAN: Yeah, I think that there’s some obvious challenges that teachers, schools, the education sector have faced in terms of ensuring they’ve got the right technologies and the right confident staff to be able to use those technologies and get the efficiencies that you want out of it. I think the first challenge is always around connectivity. If you are going to be bringing children together from their homes, from across schools into a new way of working in an online platform, connectivity is absolutely fundamental. And we know that to a degree that might have a connection with whether you’re more disadvantaged or advantaged in terms of income, have you got the bandwidth, are you able to afford that connected difference? But secondly, I think it’s not just about wealth or opportunity, it is about rurality. There are whole areas where connectivity is more challenging in the UK.

That’s interesting. Innovation is affected by your environment, and even your social and economic situation. A school in rural Scotland, for example, might want to be a cutting-edge school using a range of virtual tools, but if teachers can’t connect with pupils and vice-versa, then that innovation won’t happen. Equally, if you’re from a low-income family that can’t afford high-speed broadband, then you may not reap the benefits of technological innovation.

I want to understand what other barriers teachers and pupils have to overcome in order to be innovative.

JONATHAN: I think the second barrier is access to a device. And although Office and Microsoft 365 is fairly device agnostic, meaning you can access it off a phone or an iPad, or an Android device or a Windows device or a desktop computer, ultimately having the right device that enables you to work efficiently, as a student, as a member of staff, you’ve got to have access to it. And in order to grapple with and be innovative in its use, you’ve got to get a device and, therefore, schools and trusts have got to have procurement replenishment programmes that enable the students and the staff to have access to the right devices. And where maybe schools and trusts haven’t seen this coming, it hasn’t been a priority, and there haven’t been those investments, there’s a massive catch-up, and that will be a barrier to innovation.

Jonathan believes there is one more barrier to innovation that schools are currently grappling with. And this one can be very challenging to overcome.

JONATHAN: I think, though, the hardest barrier to overcome, the biggest barrier that faces schools is the upskilling, the retraining and the enabling of staff to work in new ways. And that’s not to say that teachers and school leaders are resistant to it, but when we’re taken outside of our comfort zone, having to work in a new way, then it comes with teething troubles. For example, you may find that you start to deliver your first online lesson and children are joining your lesson who shouldn’t be in your lesson in a physical classroom. If a child rocked up in your classroom who shouldn’t be there, you’d have a conversation with them, direct them to the right classroom. If it’s a virtual arena, suddenly, you could be thrown by that. And being confident to talk down a webcam and to engage with people remotely is quite a different skill for teachers than being stood in front of a class of children. If you’re streaming content, like an assembly to 1,000 children, they can’t all turn on and contribute. It’s a very different skillset to being stood in front of 1,000 children and asking for response and Q&A and eye contact. So then new skills, new ways of working and, therefore, to really get a vision, a strategy and a training programme that upskills your staff isn’t an overnight, one-trick-horse. It’s something that is going to require time and commitment for that ongoing professional development, and I think that’s one of the biggest barriers to innovation.

So, for Jonathan, innovation in schools is closely aligned to having the right people with the right digital skills.

That means upskilling teachers and removing the “fear factor” that is often associated with new ways of working.

But something incredible happens in the education sector that makes upskilling easier than it first appears. There is a culture of sharing that’s deeply embedded in schools, with teachers passing on what they’ve learned to other teachers. It’s a way of thinking that’s common in the public sector,.

Here’s Chris Rothwell, Director of Education for Microsoft UK.

CHRIS: I certainly think that the sharing of innovation, and the network effect is really common among educators. There’s still a little bit of competition between local schools, maybe a bit of a rivalry but in the main people are in the sector because they want to make a difference for young people and are passionate about that and the profession and the joy of teaching, actually helping people learn new things. That leads to a mindset of “great, I found a better way of doing this and I would love other people to take advantage of it”. And particularly with the network of people on Twitter or on things like the educator community, that facilitation of network connections and sharing and questions, it’s such a vibrant, thriving community where people ask questions, get responses, share resources, connect to different products, things that they found that work.

Teachers share experiences, learnings and ways of working in order to improve the experiences of children in other schools in other parts of the UK – perhaps even other parts of the world. What that does is create a safe foundation for teachers to build on and say “OK, I can trust that this will work in my classroom, but what if I added this to it?”

Pupils using laptops in a classroom

Once again, there’s this idea that innovation is a chain reaction, something that grows as one person builds on the work of others. Here’s Chris again.

CHRIS: And of course, those things will build up over time and become a really solid foundation that then enables people to say, “Hmm, what if I did this and this”, and that adds back into the melting pot. So I see it as a profession that is naturally quite collaborative and open, and that fuels more open innovation and sharing and trying to make sure that people don’t get left behind ultimately.

However, there is an added pressure to innovation in the education sector, because those new ways of working directly affect children and how they learn. The entire school needs to support innovation and champion it at the highest levels, in order for it to have a positive impact. Because part of the innovation process is trying things. And if they don’t work, you try something else.

CHRIS: Because then no matter how much you say, “we want to try new things, we want to be innovative”, you cannot hope to be innovative if you’re not tolerant of mistakes, because that’s just part of the process. So it’s less about viewing those as things that have gone wrong, but more about “that was a step in the journey and we’re going to learn from that, and we’re going to try something different”.

That’s led to some great examples, especially during lockdown. Teachers have held virtual cookery classes with their students, or virtual playgrounds so children could still talk to their friends in a safe space.

Then Chris told me about another innovative lesson, one that was so inspired and engaging that I wondered how anyone could come up with the idea.

CHRIS: Probably one of my favourite examples of someone using our products in a way that we never intended is the creation of OneNote escape rooms. So if you’ve done an escape room, you’re kind of familiar with that: you get locked in, you have to try and solve all the puzzles in order to escape. In OneNote, the same principle applies, but using the fact that it’s different, so you can set passwords for different sections of OneNote. So when you solve a puzzle in one section of OneNote, it gives you the password to unlock the next section, which gives you the password to the next session, and so on. That’s just such a cool way of using, ultimately, what was and is a security feature or a privacy feature within OneNote to create a whole new learning experience and self-discovery and a bit of a challenge that groups and individuals can work on. I think that’s such a cool example of where people have used our software in a way that we didn’t ever really plan that.

A OneNote escape room is just a fantastic idea. They can be designed to be relevant to the subject being taught, and provide engagement, problem solving, critical thinking, risk taking, communication, and collaboration in addition to an element of fun and competition.

This example is from a history lesson: The year is 1837 and your students are United States spies headed to London to discover how Great Britain is producing goods. Their mission is to gather information about the Industrial Revolution by solving clues to unlock the next part of their adventure.

It’s a great tool for teachers because they are easy to set up, can be amended very quickly, can be easily accessible for small groups or individuals, contain built-in accessibility tools, students don’t need a Microsoft account to take part and they can be easily shared with a link or QR code.

It’s a great example of a teacher using tools at his or her disposal to reach children in a new way, to engage them in learning, to be excited about problem solving. It’s a great example of innovation.

Because without new ideas you become stuck, you don’t move forward. You stay the same. That’s bad for any sector, but especially when you’re trying to inspire the next generation of people who will run the world.

CHRIS: If you think specifically about education, the world is changing really fast, from a technology, social, democratic point of view. It’s a very different place every year. So I think we need education to be looking at those things and asking great questions and challenging the way things are done, and innovating every element of intricate education, that experience for people and families, and how education is delivered and what’s possible with technology and all of those things. So we absolutely need education to be innovative. And we see that it’s going to be vital for the sector and to the country as we continue.

One of the ways Microsoft is playing its part by running a Showcase Schools programme, which collaborates with schools to transform learning and deliver success. Obviously, there is a big focus on technology and digital transformation.

According to Jonathan, the headteacher and Chief Executive of Cornerstone Academy Trust, that’s a solid foundation from which to build on.

Pupils using laptops in a classroom

JONATHAN: If you’ve got confident staff with the right device with the right hardware and bandwidth, what you will find is the children … the teachers, then and the children will be able to push the boundaries and be that vanguard, those entrepreneurs, take them out of their comfort zone; with no sort of support and training with poor quality devices, people give up and go home.

What’s also important, Jonathan says, is to rethink how we, as a society, measure student achievement.

JONATHAN: The actual wellbeing of people has been a real challenge for schools education and the wider community. And there isn’t an easy matrix or scorecard or KPI for tracking that creative, collaborative communicative skillset that we really value as people and in the workforce to provide that adaptive creative workforce. You can’t get that assessment by sitting in an exam hall in silence at a traditional pen and paper test. But does that mean the pen and paper test is wrong? Of course it’s not. Like most things in life, you need a range of matrices, good assessment, combined with a full understanding and picture of that child.

At the heart of all education is the aim to inspire children’s imagination, give them a broad range of skills and send them out into the world with the skills and determination to shape their own lives in whatever way they choose.

Using innovative ways of teaching can be a powerful tool to ensure that happens.

This has been a fascinating look at innovation in the classroom (and outside it) but I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for today. Thanks to Jonathan and Chris for chatting to me. And thank you for listening.