Monday, 15 June 2009

The Learning Pit

One of the frameworks I regularly share with teachers is that of the Learning Pit, a model that explains how and why challenge is necessary for learning. Having first heard Dr John Edwards in 2001 using a "pit" to explain how organisational growth more often than not involves getting worse before getting better, I thought that the metaphor was an ideal way to explain to my students why I was consistently making things more difficult for them. Since then I have developed the idea into the following four-stage lesson plan:


The learning pit always begins with an important concept, since it is through conceptual analysis that students gain an understanding of their world. Example concepts include: art, bullying, culture, democracy, existence, growth, indentity, justice, knowledge, language, music, number, originality, poetry, questions, reality tv, science, tourism, and so on.


In July 2008, Professor John Hattie began an address on behalf of his Visible Learning Laboratory in Auckland with: "The major message from my work with 240m students, 800+ meta-analyses, 50,000+ studies is... Challenge Challenge Challenge Challenge Challenge". Stage two of the learning pit is concerned with just that: challenging students to think more deeply, purposefully, critically and creatively.

This is the point at which students co-construct an undersanding of the key concepts through continued dialogue and study with each other. According to many notable educational theorists such as Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget and John Dewey, there is no such thing as knowledge "out there" independent of the knower, but only knowledge we construct for ourselves as we learn. Stage three recognises this by creating the conditions necessary for meaningful dialogue.

If you reflect on anything you have learned, you soon realise that it is the product of repeated exposure and thought. Thus, stage four is concerned with students revisiting and reflecting upon their learning journey.

  • The Learning Pit will be published in my new book, Challenging Learning, this autumn. To reserve your copy, please click here
  • For an article covering the background, lesson ideas and outcomes of the Learning Pit, click here
  • The photo attached to this posting comes from Lacey McCarthy,whose Year 2 students at Douglas Park School in Masterton, New Zealand have been using the Learning Pit to deepen their learning.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Billie: the Reading Dog

Another great aspect of Douglas Park School is their dog, Billie, a 5-year-old Golden Labrador. Owned by Annie, the school manager, Billie hangs out in the entrance hall welcoming all visitors and enhancing the family feel of the place.

Doing what dogs do best, Billie offers a sense of security for children, particularly those with emotional or social difficulties; she brings a sense of fun to heated debates (she is tactically deployed to defuse any tense situation involving an irate parent or a pompous inspector); and she is the favourite attraction for pre-schoolers who look forward to patting her whilst Mum or Dad drops off their older siblings (I bet this "sales pitch" is one of the many reasons why Douglas Park recruits more and more children every year).

Now though, Billie is training to be a Reading Dog. Basing herself in the new entrants room (for 5-year-olds), Billie sits attentively, listening to a child reading or watching whilst they show their latest piece of writing. Being a wholly appreciative listener, the children really enjoy having a captive audience all for themselves!

Monday, 18 May 2009

Assess: to Sit Beside

This is the first of two postings inspired by a couple of wonderful days I've had working with the staff and students at Douglas Park Primary School in Masterton, New Zealand.

Once per term, every child at Douglas Park is encouraged to invite their parents into school for a Learning Conference, during which he or she explains what they've been learning, how much progress they've made and where they intent to go next. (See Learning Conference guide).
Their rationale behind these conferences are twofold; the first is straight from John Hattie's book on Visible Learning:

"Parents should be educated in the language of schooling so that home and school can share in the expectations and the child does not have to live in two worlds - with little understanding between home and school. Some parents know how to speak the language of schooling and thus provide an advantage for their children during the school years, while others do not know this language, which can be a major barrier to the home contributing to achievement."

Second of all, as they explain: "Assess comes from Latin, to sit beside, so our learning conferences give parents the perfect opportunity to "sit beside" their child; to encourage our students to take personal responsibility for their learning; to develop their communication and organisational skills; to clarify for themselves and their parents their sense of progress and to further enhance the school-home communication and relationships.

For more information about this, take a look at the Learning Conference Guide on the Sustained Success website or email the school.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Norwegian Mental Models

Now that there are 15 schools and nurseries in Norway in the Community Designed Education network, with 6 more due to join this summer, I thought it about time I posted a Norwegian blog (for the English version, use the translator at the bottom of the page). And how fitting that the picture should come from Hogsnes oppvekstsenter, the first school in Norway, and indeed in Scandinavia, to join the CDE network.

Sentralt i CDE-prosessen står undervisning av de mentale modellene som er nødvendige for å virkeliggjøre skolens (eller barnehagens) visjon. Mentale modeller er de dypt forankrede antakelser, generaliseringer eller bilder vi har, som avgjør hvordan vi forstår verden, og hvilke valg vi gjør, hvilken praksis vi velger.

For eksempel, hvis en lærer mener at barn lærer best hvis de får motta informasjon som de siden skal huske, vil denne læreren legge opp sin undervisning ut fra det. En annen

lærer, som mener at barn lærer best når de får stille spørsmål, tenke gjennom sine begrunnelser og trekke sine egne konklusjoner, vil gjennomføre en helt annen type undervisning. Begge disse lærerne handler ut fra god tro, ut fra en tro på at deres praksis gir gode muligheter for læring, men de befinner seg i svært forskjellige virkeligheter. Dette er grunnen til at mentale modeller har så stor betydning, og grunnen til at de "riktige" mentale modeller må identifiseres og undervises i, hvis skolen (eller barnehagen) skal kunne realisere sin felles visjon.

Da personalet ved Hogsnes Oppvekstsenter skulle identifisere de mentale modellene som var nødvendige for at de skulle kunne realisere visjonen sin, gjennomførte de først en brainstorming. Deretter stemte de fram de viktigste, blant de mentale modellene de hadde identifisert ut fra visjonen sin. (Resultatet kan dere se på bildet.) Utfordringen deres ble deretter å modellere, snakke om å undervise i disse mentale modellene, hver dag, med alle medlemmene i læringsfellesskapet.

Det gleder meg å kunne si at de har gjort store fremskritt! Faktisk så store at Ragnhild Isachsen, rektor på Hogsnes, er invitert til å holde et foredrag (keynote speech!) på den 14.Internasjonale Tenkekonferansen i Kuala Lumpur neste måned!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Teaching the ASK model

Two of the schools I'm working with, one in Doncaster (UK) and the other in Cambewarra (Australia), are trying a new approach to their curriculum that places an emphasis on Attitudes and Skills, as well as Knowledge (ASK). In a previous blog, (see Teaching Attitudes on 18 March 2009) I shared the Attitudes work of Sandringham Primary School. Now, here's an insight into the Skills work that Cambewarra Primary School are doing.

Selecting five key thinking skills, Processing information, Reasoning, Inquiry, Creativity and Evaluation, Trent Burns and his colleagues are ensuring that at least one of these skills is at the heart of each lesson. For example, when studying the environmental impact of technologies, the children would be asked to "paraphrase" the contributions of another, and then to add a "reason" to that opinion or argument.

Of course, since the children would have to use their thinking skills in order to answer a question or complete a task, some might say the deliberate focus on a particular type of thinking is unnecessary. And yet to improve any skill, expert practice concerns itself with breaking the skill down into parts. For example, in addition to swimming from one side of the pool to the other, a swimmer wishing to improve his/her skills would be well advised to at times focus almost exclusively on head position, then perhaps on the timing of his/her arm strokes and maybe another time on the frequency of kicks. And so it is with thinking - breaking the whole skill down into parts so that the whole might be improved bit by bit.

Furthermore, Trent's students enjoy the added dimension that a focus on thinking skills brings to their lessons, referring frequently to the PRICE model either by identifying the skill they believe they are using to solve a task, or setting out to improve a particular skill by finding opportunities to practise it.

Look out for an update on their progress after my visit there in June.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Enigma Table

The "Enigma Table" is a really nice idea that Kate McIntyre uses with her class of 4 and 5 year olds at Newport School in Middlesbrough, UK. As Kate explains:

The 'Enigma Table' stands alone in our Classroom and at the beginning of the week I put an interesting but not immediately indentifiable object (see photo). During the week the children come up to the table (independently) and have lots of interesting discussions about what the object could be. There is a pencil pot and post it notes available for them to write their ideas down (great for monitoring their writing and honic skills).

At the end of the week, we have a class circle time where we talk about our ideas. At this point, the children usually challenge each others' ideas about why it 'can't be'. We finish off by showing them what the object is for, usually followed by cries of "that's what I was going to say"!

If you have any ideas what the object in the phot is then post your answers here:

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Learning Detectives

Here's a really nice idea from Louise Brown, the deputy head and reception teacher at Amble First School in Northumberland.

At the start of each day Louise chooses two children to take the role of Learning Detectives. They then each put on some headwear (crown for the girls, a viking hat for the boys) to denote they are the Learning Detectives for that day. Their task is to record their classmates engaging in whatever the focus might be for that day/week.
At the beginning of the academic year, Louise tends to focus the children's attention on social language and social skills (for example, listening to each other, working together, agreeing and disagreeing). She then moves them on to thinking about the skills of learning (for example, asking questions, giving reasons, making links and decisions).

At the end of the lesson or day, Louise asks the 2 Learning Detectives to feed back to the other children when and where they witnessed the particular skill in action. This feedback comes in the form of written notes, digital pictures or diagrams that are drawn on the interactive whiteboard. All are used as part of the plenary session during which Louise encourages them to reflect on their thinking and learning throughout the day.
The idea has now spread across the school, with Learning Detectives appointed to spot good behaviour, friendly actions and sociable children (and adults!) in the playground and around the school.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Variation on the Hot Air Balloon

Following on from the 3 Apples experiment, here's another contribution from Ian McKenzie at Viscount School in Auckland. He's been working with a class of 12-year-olds on values, using a variation of the hot air balloon scenario (a balloon's going to crash unless a few people are ejected from the basket). As Ian explains:

We began with a discussion about where ideas of 'good' and 'bad' come from, and how these 12-year-olds had picked up values without ever thinking about them (this was their realisation rather than something I told them). We then decided to explore their values a bit more using the old hot air balloon debate. We seated ourselves in a pentagonal, with a chair in front of each bench. The students on chairs were nominated as the talkers, though anyone could give them a suggestion, and those on the benches were the listeners. Whenever someone was persuaded by an alternative view from someone else, then they were encouraged to move seats to show they had changed their mind, or at least were wondering whether this counter-argument might be worth considering more.

In this variation, the groups were asked to represent drug addicts, teenage mums, homeless people, ex-convicts, disabled people and so on. The students then challenged each other's assumptions about those people, as is the case with most debates, but the physical fluidity of students literally moving their positions helped to challenge stereotypes and lazy assumptions. And, as the dynamics of the groups changed, so too did the dynamics of the inquiry.

Mostly, I find this an excellent vehicle for students to have to use some ALTERNATIVE thinking. What always seems to happen though is that kids get stumped when someone has the courage to ask them WHY they have a certain value or assumption. The real thinking begins then!

Friday, 20 March 2009

An Early Years Target?

I've just begun working with Eikefjord Nursery in Florø on a 3 year project as part of the Community Designed Education network. And, as usual, I asked for some background information before designing the training to ensure everything was tailored to their context. What came back was a wonderful insight into their nursery, courtesy of the headteacher, Susette Esp. Here are some of the edited highlights, as I'm sure colleagues in nurseries and primary schools in other countries would be fascinated to read them:

Eikefjord Barnehage has three classes for children from the age of 0 - 5, and is surrounded by beautiful nature all around that we frequently use in the education of our children. We have a beach right in front of us and the woods just a step out of our gate. The rooms are divided by age:

Piglet is for 0-3 year olds, with 9 places and 3/4 adults
Winnie the Pooh is for 20 children age 3-4 and 3/4 adults
The Hundred Acre Wood is our outdoor group for 12 five-year-olds and 2 adults

We have different aims and goals for our children in the different rooms to ensure new challenges and progress. One of the unofficial goals is for children to be able to climb onto the roof of our toy-shed. As long as they can make it up there independently then they can sit on the top, but they are not allowed to use cases or anything else to help them get there. This gives us information about their physical skills and strength, with most of the children able to achieve this by their last year in kindergarten.

We follow the national curriculum and strive to make sure we meet all the standards. The outdoor group do most of their activities in and through nature, though they have the use of a candle-lit hut for some of their activities. The other groups meet the needs of the children through a learning environment that is age specific. Our targets over the next 3 years are to grow our leadership capacity, use P4C to help children grow their language, thinking and collaboration skills, and to ensure that we make the most of the digital equipment that we have.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Teaching Attitudes

During my time as Director of the award-winning RAIS project, I worked with a number of schools to investigate the impact of children's attitudes on their ability to make progress. Not surprisingly, we were left in no doubt that students with the best attitude towards learning (focus, determination, effort and so on) were making significantly more progress than other students who were either complacent, uninterested or simply not engaged, even if the latter students had better grades initially. This led to the development of the ASK model, a framework that allowed for the teaching of Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge as part of the curriculum.

Having shared the ASK model with staff at Sandringham Primary School in Doncaster during their work with the Community Designed Education network, I am delighted to hear that they have really gone to town with the teaching of attitudes.

As Emily Smithard, the deputy head explains: "Having been working on attitudes in school for a while now, we have been able to see just how much of an impact they have had. We are trying out a variety of systems in classes and feeding back every fortnight how things are progressing; sharing good practice and any hiccups we may have had along the way. We did a walk of the school last half term to see what was visible in the classrooms and at that point things were just emerging but last week I visited every classroom when everyone had gone home and now attitude displays are in every classroom, in both halls and along many of the corridors. Assemblies are also linked to the school attitudes. Our plans for the future include a kick-start for each of the attitudes, and an "Attitudes Day" when the children can brainstorm, act out and know what it feels like to carry out that attitude. It's all exciting stuff!"

What I really like about this approach is that Sandringham are not following, for example Habits of Mind or Building Learning Power, but are creating their own structures based on what their children think. Each class has brainstormed the attitudes they think are necessary for learning, then taken a vote to identify the top 4 or 5. From these they are designing ways to develop each attitude through a process of teaching, investigation and practice. Their sense of purpose and of ownership is inspiring. Congratulations to everyone concerned.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Core Values

At the heart of the Community Designed Education process is the identification of a set of Core Values. Though most schools have a set of "virtues posters" dotted around the place, this approach is different in that a) it identifies just 3 or 4 of the most important ones, b) focuses attention on these top values so that they are far more likely to be embedded, and c) ensures that the chosen values become part of the curriculum and the culture of the school, and not just a topic for assemblies now and again.

For one school in the CDE network, the effect of this was remarkable. All of the staff voted for the top 3 values, with "Everyone feels valued" coming out as the top one. At the time of the vote this was a primary school doing a good job in a challenging area; they had lots of posters around the school extolling various virtues and the staff were trying their best to teach a whole range of positive behaviours. But by their own admission, not everyone was feeling valued. So they challenged themselves over the coming weeks to ensure that everyone they came into contact with, children, colleagues, parents (even Mrs Smith who is making her 5th complaint of the week) would be valued. Within a few months, the school felt a different place: more positive, supportive and more caring than ever before.

If you're considering this approach, then remember that pretty posters are not enough! Core values need to be modelled, articulated and taught. As you can see in the photo of Cambewarra's display, they have not only identified their main values but described each one as well as listed behaviours one would expect to notice when these values are being practised/maintained. They also teach these values through form tutor time, in assemblies and throughout the curriculum.

For more information and ideas about core values, I recommend the CDE website and Bill Martin's Leadership Blog.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Clown around today for Red Nose day

I recently attended a Clown in the Classroom workshop led by Mark Labrow. Despite initial reservations, we all had an absolute blast. And not only that, it gave us some wonderful ideas for enhancing creativity and spontaneity in learning.

None of us were required to put on big feet or big baggy trousers; a simple red nose was enough to signal we were clowns. We learnt the key is to react to everything around you as if it is the first time you've ever seen such a think; in a way, to become more child-like. So, picking up a mug as if it's just a work of genius, or sitting on a chair as if it were the most wonderful, beautiful and imaginative think you've ever come across is the way to go. And of course this attitude is infectious, causing the audience, particularly if they are children or child-like themselves, to be filled with a similar sense of awe and wonder. And to wet themselves! So go on, have a go! What better excuse do you need than Red Nose day next month?

Footnote: this posting is dedicated to Rebecca Bell, the tremendous clown in the picture and to Mally Milne, my old geography teacher whose favourite phrase was "Clown"! No matter whether you'd labelled your glaciated escarpment incorrectly or defaced a picture of the queen, the only punishment you'd get from old Mally was to hear the shout, "Clown!" JN