Science & technology

ON PARADE Above and below, the Thorney Close Primary pupils giving their talks


ACK Coates has a passion for trains, especially the traditional, steam-driven trains that once connected us to our families, jobs and loved ones. As a child, he would visit York station to catch a glimpse of them. He drew on that experience last month to give a talk in front of an audience of hundreds at Sunderland University. Of course, the thing that makes him different from most university speakers is that he’s still a child. The Year 3 student at Thorney Close Primary School in Sunderland was one of 56 seven to nine-year-olds who prepared, organised and performed a day of talks at the Murray Library in late May. The group became the first under-10s to develop an event under the banner of TEDx, a programme which has inspired communities to create their own talks, whether they’re in Denver University, an all-girls college in Pakistan or a shanty church in Nairobi. The non-profit TED conference first appeared in 1984 to promote technology, entertainment and design, but its horizons have broadened in the last quarter-century. Now it’s a forum to allow inspiring speakers to share “the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes or less, and features an annual conference in Palm Springs as well as a satellite event elsewhere in the globe. Visitors to TED events have heard Bill Gates talk about philanthropy, Kevin Bales shine a light on the business of modern slavery and Dennis Hong discuss his quest to make a car for blind drivers using GPS and robotics. Now you can add Cameron Moulding to that list. He discussed the treatment of vampires in films, and how he preferred the more classic bloodsucker that didn’t wander out into daylight. Reece Cuthbertson warned of the dangers of felling trees, while Megan Terrance reduced her mother to tears with a talk about how we should always tell our loved ones what they mean to us. Sam Billingsley urged the crowd to

get fit, while Newby Coxon nudged them out of polluting cars and on to their feet and their bikes. Megan Forrest prepared a talk about her experiences with a form of dwarfism, which has seen her undergo a bone graft and have a metal halo fitted to her skull. She says: “I talked about my operations and my halo. I’ve had nine operations, but a couple of days ago I got a letter from my doctor and he said I won’t have to have any more operations until I’m bigger.” Year three teacher Sue Dixon said: “You have great expectations as a teacher. You wonder if this is maybe a little beyond them because you’re used to spoonfeeding them the knowledge they should have. Letting go of the reins is very hard, but whatever expectations you have, they exceed them. This class has hearing-impaired, blind and special needs children, and you want everyone to have a go. Everyone contributed.” The TedxKids@Sunderland event was organised in the final year of a three-year link-up between the school and Creative Partnerships, and featured Peter Hirst of every1speaks, creative organiser Gayle Sutherland and innovative learning company NoTosh. “The students booked the venue; wrote the TEDx applications. We wanted them to experience the real-life nature of organising something like that,” says NoTosh senior consultant Tom Barrett. “It was designed to apply some speaking and listening skills they may not have developed in the past, and to understand in themselves what was important to them.” The process began several months back. To help the school embrace and explore technology, NoTosh set up a space online for staff to record their experiences. Using the fairytale of Red Riding Hood, the group unpicked the secrets of great storytelling, and honed their speaking skills by narrating muted on-screen TED talks and developing vivid descriptions from images in the computer game Machin-

skills outside of the school environment. She says: “A lot of the children quickly became aware that if you read out something you’ve written, it’s different to giving a talk. There are children who are very capable writers but not able to convert that into public speaking. Speaking is an important life skill. If you can do that, the opportunities are huge.” The students also set about booking the venue. Finding the Stadium of Light was already occupied by Take That, they arranged a space at Sunderland University by phone, and were taken on a tour of the venue they’d booked before the event. Sue Dixon says: “The university turned out to be a brilliant place to hold the talks. This

is an area where they often don’t think it’s their place to go to university, to become a politician or a doctor or a Formula One driver. If it had been set anywhere else, I don’t think it would have had the same effect. “But it wasn’t just about the speech. We could have put the talks together by the end of week one. It was about the process; about teaching children more about confidence, learning about new vocabulary and using animation programmes.” As the event rolled around, messages of good luck arrived on Twitter from far-flung locations such as the USA and the Netherlands. As teachers gripped the seats off stage, there were talks about artificial

vomit, bikes and GCSE maths. The talks have all been recorded, and the students are now editing the footage to put online. Thorney Close head teacher Catherine Jones says: “We’ve done things like debating societies, with children delivering speeches on paper, but with this they were developing real life skills by learning to really talk to people. You wouldn’t normally have a child going on about Pokemon in a learning environment. But he learned about ICT and geography through that interest. “I remember every single talk by every single child. It’s stuck with me. I saw them not as children but as confident human beings who were experts in their passion. They weren’t coming over as young, sensitive and fearful. In a way it didn’t really matter what they were talking about, because the most important thing was their confidence. “It was the riskiest thing I’ve done in my time in teaching. But for the teachers, there’s no way they’re going to go back to the “turn to page 73 in your history books” approach after this. And when someone turns around and says you can’t do that, they can say, ‘Yes, you can, and this is how you might be able to do it’.”

GROWN-UP EXPERIENCE Students at Thorney Close Primary School
presented their own TED talk last month. Picture: Gayle Sutherland
arium. All the while, teachers were working with children to tease out the topics they really wanted to talk about. Year 4 teacher Lilian Colborn says: “When we first asked them what they were passionate about, they came up with the usual things like holidays, pets and football. “We wanted more than that. We wanted to make them question more, and think about what they really love. We wanted them to talk about something they were passionate about, but from an angle that no one had thought about before. “A big difference was that I was standing back and not having much input at all. It was quite hard at first but as it went on it became easier as they had such fabulous ideas. It was all about the conversation, not a script. It was about what they believed in.” Year 4 student Rhiannon Deary used to have three hamsters, a goldfish and a cat. She developed a talk on whether animals had their own secret language. She says: “I liked it because it helped my confidence. It felt scarier than a school assembly because there were more people there. But afterwards I felt very proud because I’d made it.” Gayle Sutherland, the director at A Creative Touch, believes the process helped pupils develop important communication


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