Where did you start your own educational journey?
I grew up in Glasgow and went to a state school there. My mother was an English teacher in the state sector and my father was a university lecturer. I tried my best not to follow in their footsteps but I was wholly unsuccessful! I did a modern languages degree at Edinburgh, then a TEFL (teacher of English as a foreign language) training course and went off to teach in Spain and France.
How did you arrive at Eton?
I was in my late 20s when I joined Eton in 2006 as a French teacher. I was always very technologically minded and always very much into the latest innovations and trends. Over the course of that first decade of this century and as I grew into my teaching, I integrated more and more technology tools into what I did. Back when I started out as a teacher, things were pretty primitive in that respect – Google barely existed and iPads definitely didn’t – so the journey was very gradual. Before coming to Eton, I spent four years at Harrow teaching languages. That was my first experience of an independent school and my first experience of a boarding school, so it was a real trial by fire, but I learnt a great deal.
You moved from languages to computer science?
Programming is just a different kind of language with its own syntax and logic, and it’s much more about problem solving than writing code. Computer science was very much still about teaching pupils how to use Excel and PowerPoint when I became Head of the Department in 2011. All that changed, however, when Eric Schmidt, then one of Google’s head honchos, made a famous speech in Edinburgh where he really lamented the fact that, given our history and our great involvement in computer science as a subject, we weren’t teaching computer science in the UK. That led to the Government putting its energy behind the vision which meant it was a fantastically opportune time to start teaching computer science as a formal subject rather than it being bundled in with IT. I still teach computer science, but I’m no longer Head of Department and have passed that baton on. As Director of Digital Education, one of my key areas of focus is to explore how we broaden the outreach of our digital work.
What does digital education look like at Eton in a practical sense?
Every boy and Master has an iPad as a teaching and learning tool, and they are used widely in lessons. During the device selection process, we tested the iPad in the hands of teachers and students, and found it to be intuitive, reliable and a powerful means of enhancing the experience, with its array of apps and the in-built classroom management tools. What we’ve noticed is that, for most boys, the device has become a productivity tool or work device. There is anecdotal evidence that students appreciate the divide between their personal mobile phone or laptop, and a dedicated learning/work tool. It means they are spending a good chunk of their day using technology really purposefully, not as a blind consumer, but as a proactive creator or co-creator.
So, the only way is digital?
I think the Covid lockdown has highlighted the importance of technology. We couldn’t have done this even 10 years ago and the pandemic has shone a very bright light on the digital divide in this country. I believe all students should have access to good devices and reliable Wi-Fi, and teachers need access to high-quality support and training so that they know what to do and how to integrate that knowledge into their teaching practice.
I helped set up EtonX in 2015. It’s an online platform offering courses based on Eton’s fundamental ethos which aims to help young people progress in their lives and be successful beyond the academic curriculum. Back then, it covered leadership, communication and collaboration skills. Fast forward a few years and it’s grown into a fully-fledged online learning provider offering a whole catalogue of courses. During Covid lockdowns, many state schools signed up for free access to the self-study courses for entire year groups. We also now have courses that help pupils make their university selections, prepare their personal statements and applications, plan for Oxbridge or medical school interviews, and other important elements that make up a pupil’s academic life that require specific preparation.
How do you see your role as an educator?
I think it’s to help a student find their own solution and to help them navigate through that process without necessarily taking away the pitfalls and failures. It’s an essential ability of any computer scientist (or indeed any student regardless of the discipline) to be willing to get it wrong, to embrace failure as part of the learning process. Real success comes from learning by doing and making mistakes along the way as we then develop a level of resilience and understanding that strengthens our ability and bolsters our confidence. We live in a complex and messy world right now and this generation coming up is the one that’s going to have to find solutions to some extremely challenging problems. As I see it, one of our jobs as educators is to help young people prepare themselves so that they are able to work collaboratively and creatively as they try out new ideas and approaches, without fear of failure, using well-honed problem-solving skills to tackle the challenges they encounter along the way.
Do you have any memories of a particularly good teacher?
The person who taught me on my TEFL course was outstanding in terms of how he turned the relatively dry subject of English grammar and vocabulary into something so engaging. He was so enthusiastic and I feel lucky to have been taught by him. I was able to learn from him how to use aspects of my own personality to create a good classroom experience for my own students.
What inspires you?
Without question, the pupils we have here at Eton. They are always full of energy, imagination, ideas, ambitions and curiosity about the world in which they live. I find the daily contact with them and our conversations encouraging and heart-warming. The great thing is that it never dries up as new generations come through and I never get bored. We really missed the in-person contact when the Covid pandemic interrupted us and it’s great to have them back and return to some semblance of normality. I’m a Deputy House Master and live here with my wife, Sarah (also a teacher), and our two daughters. It’s full-on during term time but I love that there’s never a dull moment. Term-time is intense; you feel a great sense of achievement and there’s a real buzz to the place. And we do get good holidays to compensate – and to sleep!