The moment Stephen Heppell knew he had to teach

Professor Stephen Heppell taught in some of London’s toughest schools and now works with governments, schools and communities around the world as a widely and fondly recognised leader in the fields of learning, new media and technology.  Stephen is Professor of New Media Environments, Centre for Excellence in Media Practice at Bournemouth University.


We’ll ask the questions!

Q1. Who was the first teacher to truly inspire you?

It was at primary school, of course, in Chenies, Buckinghamshire. She came in one day and said, “You know that flood in the Bible? I think we should try to find out all about it, if it happened, was it true?” and off we went over the year into an in-depth exploration of Sumerian and Babylonian history, of the geography of the Tigris and Euphrates flood plains, of mummies and more. We felt like we were discovering history as detectives and it ended with a visit to the British Museum (where everyone was primed for our questions – our teacher was very well connected I later realised!) – and all this at 6 and 7 years old. I visited the museum the other day and just standing by the Ram in the Thicket statuette was like being in a time machine. She was an astonishing teacher.

Q2. When did you realise that you wanted to become a teacher yourself?

After university I did accountancy exams. One day a senior accountant said to me “You know Stephen you are very good at this; in ten years time you could be sitting in my desk”. It was a defining moment for me: I could imagine nothing worse! My head knew then what my heart had been saying since I was tiny: I wanted to teach, in tough schools in London. So I did, and loved it of course.

Q3. What’s the worst mistake you’ve made in a lesson. 

I was tired (!) I wrote SAILOR on the board, but misspelled it. And I AM a sailor!! I still feel bad about it now!

Q4. And the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

It doesn’t matter if you waste a year here and there, just try not to waste a decade – you don’t have many of them.

Q5. What are you most happy no longer happens in schools?

Well, bad things still do happen, sadly, but running a project for disengaged and excluded children – we had about 1,000 a year – it was clear that their parting of the ways with education usually came from a moment of profound humiliation: a sarcastic comment too far, bullying, being singled out in an assembly, and so on. There is less of that these days but it hasn’t all gone by any means.

Q6. What are you most excited about, and its potential impact on learning?

Well obviously that would be the impact of learner led projects – way beyond the co-construction of learner voice, this is asking the students to lead: to research better learning, collect the best ingredients from around the world and blend them into a local recipe for great learning with a tight budget. The metacognition, the reflective practice that result are always wonderful – but the learning improvement is flippin’ stellar too. What’s not to like!

Q7. If you could ask Britain’s teachers to try one thing to shake things up in the classroom what would it be?

Well, it would be to stop looking for the one thing! Blended learning, iPads, IWBs…  we’ve seen the “one thing” marketed and over-promising too often before. The reality is that Learning, and the teaching that goes with it, is really complex. It’s a craft and it’s a science. But although it is complex, none of that complexity is difficult. Salt is fairly straightforward in cooking, but if you muddle it with sugar things go badly wrong. In Learning, all the details matter too. So we need children and teachers to work together on the complexity of all this and to be clear that there is no “one thing”, no silver bullet.

Q8. Which country do you believe is doing the most exciting things educationally?

No one country – Hong Kong says “learning to learn is at the heart of our education”, Denmark still values playfulness and danger, Australia is fab at collaboration… everyone has good ingredients! But no-one has quite got the recipe, or the menu, right yet.. In the end of course it won’t be governments, it will be communities that move forward to do the exciting things and I’m lucky to be involved with some wonderful communities all around the world.

Q9. How, and when, do you relax?

I lead the most extraordinarily busy life (trying not to waste this decade!). Having projects all round the world it is often a 24/7 life too. Weeks go by without a single day off. But I race a wonderful 107 year old Oyster Smack – all the races are fixed in my diary and nothing would deflect me from them. It’s exhausting, and sometimes quite scary, but it is very different and that is relaxing.