On the final day of a spectacular Indian summer, as thousands of students marched for climate change in cities and towns across Ireland, a small gathering of school principals, vice-principals and educators arrived at Brooklawn House at The King’s Hospital School for the school’s education conference, The Assembly.
While climate change was not on the conference agenda, some of the most topical issues pertaining to students and young people in a modern age, were up for discussion.
Opening the event, School Principal Mark Ronan thanked the delegates for coming and welcomed the speakers from overseas to a country, he said, “was an optimistic and positive place” where people “understood the need to look outward and engage with others”.
He spoke of privilege – his privilege of being principal of the school, of being in education and being able to bring The Assembly speakers and educators together in a “smaller venue” which would facilitate a “greater depth of conversation”.
Delegates were divided between two airy, sun-filled rooms where speakers delivered their talks with passion and captured their audience with ease.
Dermot Moloney and Deirdre Saunders from school catering company Sodexo kicked off the presentations with a short address on Powering Performance through Healthy Eating and Nutrition. Diet and nutrition are not only important for physical health but can also have positive benefits for mental health.
Issues around mental health were explored throughout the day. Author and mental health campaigner Natasha Devon introduced her audience to the topic of mental health through a brief recollection of her own experience of mental health difficulties. She spoke about communication and language – which, she believes, is not always adequate for young people trying to explain their feelings.
She suggested strategies for helping young people to express themselves. For example, she said, walking while talking is a good idea: “There is lots of research to show that shoulder-to-shoulder communication is more effective because it takes away the intensity. It also gives you an activity to cover any awkward silences.”
She talked about resilience in education, saying that while students are often told they need to be more resilient she believed “resilience is a by-product of being well supported”.
And she spoke about tackling gender issues and about body image and social media.
Social media permeates our society and particularly how young people interact with each other whether it is through phones, computers or tablets. Screen time – the amount of time spent on digital devices – was a topic taken up by psychologist Aric Sigman.
Strongly opposed to “the overuse and misuse of screens”, Dr Sigman spoke about screen time and the growth of screen time dependency. Citing a wide range of studies and papers, he explained how screen time was adversely affecting children and how it was linked to increased body fat, sleep deprivation, mood changes, attention problems and mental health issues, among others.
“Screen time is a form of consumption, measured in hours per day,” he said. “Limiting screen time is key.”
He made a strong pitch to schools and families to exercise positive role-modelling and to put screen time rules in place. He spoke about the importance of physical activity and social activity in a child’s life. “Don’t be scared of boredom,” he said, “boredom is good for creativity”.
Digital technology of course can be a force for good. The positive uses of digital technology were explained by former special school teacher Chris Williams. He explained Chatta – an innovative teaching technology using and creating audio-visual story boards – in the context of children with autism.
Chatta is a powerful evidence-informed teaching approach which “uses digital technology to link experiences with language and memory”.
He demonstrated how it works, and how it can make an impact in many areas of learning – from early years to exam level senior students, special needs including autism and dyslexia, and in the learning of languages. “To explain anything, pictures support the explanation,” he said.
How education must change to meet the evolving needs of students and society was also on agenda. Kirsty Bashforth, whose book Culture Shift was published in July, spoke about how to approach culture transformation in education. She pointed to the core foundations: “Culture and strategy must be aligned,” she said. “Culture and strategy must be treated on an equal footing, and shifting culture involves behavioural economics.”
She spoke of the pitfalls and risks involved in a change of culture and talked about her time in BP when she was tasked with changing the culture following the environment oil spill disaster Deepwater Horizon in 2010.
She said to change culture, there needed to be passion there to do so. You also need patience, pragmatism and “a bit of pig-headedness to see it through”.
The Assembly was a thoroughly engaging, thought-provoking event which dealt with and addressed the challenges and opportunities facing educators today.
• Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman – well known internationally for his lectures and papers on managing screen time and preventing mental health problems in children.
• Author Natasha Devon – delivers talks and conducts extensive research on mental health, body image, gender and social equality
• Chatta co-founder Chris Williams – education innovator whose evidence-informed teaching approach uses digital technology to link experiences with language and memory
• QuayFive founder and chief executive Kirsty Bashforth – helps corporate teams to improve performance through focusing on their culture. Her book, Culture Shift, was published in July.