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

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Primary Twitching

I heard a great suggestion from the owner of Alnmouth Grocers, Alan Tilmouth, recently: twitching for children (taking children out regularly to spot birds!) As he says, "Bird-watching should be compulsory in every primary syllabus. It is a great activity for kids; it improves listening, observation, memory, counting, colour recognition and gets them outdoors more."

Alan is of course biased. Not only is he a father of 3 young children, but he is the co-author of Birds in Northumbria and Editor of a regional weblog Bird North East. That said, he makes a good point! This, I'm guessing, would also be an activity of which, Reuven Feuerstein, recognised as one of the leading psychologists of his generation, would approve highly of.

Feuerstein's programme of intervention, Instrumental Enrichment, upon which so many of the world's curricula for children are based, theorises that the skills of thinking and learning are best developed by children when an adult encourages them to focus upon events, patterns, characteristics or notions that the child wouldn't otherwise notice. So when a young child is building a tower with Lego bricks, we might draw their attention to the colours of the blocks, or prompt them to create different patterns with the tower. Or when teaching a child to swim, we'd encourage them to notice their head position and not just to focus on their arm movements. This mediation is at the core of teaching and learning, and indeed helps to distinguish between outstanding and average practice. And so it would be with bird watching: focussing children's attention on birds' colours, size, flight patterns and so on.

So why not give it a try? The RSPB site gives a lot of ideas and resources. Or, if you're in Northumberland or the North East, I'm sure Alan would be only too happy to advise or support you. There's also a retired police officer turned twitcher, Per Eidsten in Tonsberg, Norway, who I know would be the perfect guide for a spot of twitching!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Creating Questions

The Question Quadrant is a powerful tool developed by Phil Cam to elicit and generate questions that can be used to conduct a philosophy lesson. The purpose is to initiate and model the types of questions that can be used to produce in-depth discussion with communities just starting P4C. The Quadrant can be used to distinguish closed and open questions that relate specifically to the text; or closed and open questions that stimulate intellectual curiosity.

The Question Quadrant can be used in small groups or as a whole class. Trent Burns at Cambewarra Primary School in New South Wales, Australia has been using the approach to role model the types of questions that P4C seeks, placing the Question Quadrant in the middle of an inquiry circle.

The questions show in the diagram were taken from the picture book More Spaghetti I Say by Rita Golden-Gelman.

As Trent says, "The discussion generated is valuable as students give reasons as to why they have chosed a specific part of the quadrant to place their question. Having students fill out a blank question quadrant after listening to a story is also a valuable teaching tool and requires students to develop their own questions for discussion. After all it is the questions that make the inquiry come alive within the classroom."

For more information about this approach, both Trent and I highly recommend Phil Cam's new book, Twenty Thinking Tools as well as his excellent introduction to P4C, Thinking Together.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Maps from Memory

Another favourite strategy from the Thinking Through team is Maps from Memory.

To start with, these were literally maps but the approach has been used very successfully to encourage students to recreate diagrams (eg, the structure of the ear), Mind Maps, processes (eg the Water Cycle), and pieces of music (either listening to music and then re-creating it, or reading sheet music and reproducing it in written or auditory form).

Nice applications for this approach can be found in Thinking Through Primary Teaching, More Thinking Through Geography and the soon-to-be-published, Thinking Through Music by Martin Renton.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Fortune Lines

In the mid-1990's I was part of the Thinking Through Humanities project - a group of teachers from Northumberland working alongside David Leat and colleagues at the University of Newcastle. Among the strategies that we explored and developed were Fortune Lines, so I was particularly pleased to come across this strategy being used with 5/6 year olds recently.

Fortune Lines aim to map the feelings of one or more of the main characters in a story along a timeline. So whilst reading the Gruffalo, for example, the teacher encourages her children to think about how the mouse is feeling at the beginning of the story when he is minding his own business, then how he might feel as he is threatened by the fox, the owl, the snake (and how he feels when each one of them heeds his warning about the Gruffalo and retreats) and then, at the end when the Gruffalo turns up and scares the living daylights out of the whole forest!

An important aspect of the approach, as with all the so-called Thinking Skills strategies, is to challenge children's first answers thus calusing them to think more. For example, "Would the mouse have been sad the moment he med the fox or only once the fox had threatened to eat him?" or "Are you always sad when you're scared?"

Of course, this approach doesn't apply to young children. Various books in the Thinking Through series give superb examples of using Fortune Lines with 13/14 year olds studying events leading up to an historical event, or mapping the changing fortunes of a community as it moves from a primary industry such as coal mining through factory-based work to tertiary industries such as call centres. For more information, take a look at Thinking Through ... Geography, History, Maths or other subjects.

Friday, 6 March 2009


A wonderful innovation that's well worth exploring is Out-Smart. Developed by Paul Dearlove during his time at the award-winning N-RAIS project (Northumberland's Raising Aspirations in Society project), the approach combines outdoor adventure with thinking skills strategies.

Though many people will say that problem-solving activities in the outdoors are nothing new, Paul's approach is different: Out-Smart focuses as much on the reflective process and on making thinking visible as it does on the "initiative games".

Key questions that Paul asks Out-Smart learners include: what is an appreciative team; what learning dispositions do we want to grow; how can our response to challenge in the outdoors be applied to learning in the classroom; and can reflection be as active as adventure?

To find out more about Out-Smart, visit Paul's website or read Radical Encouragement by Williams and Wegerif. JN

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Innovation: the solution?

Following on from the previous posting, I came across the following quote when reviewing notes I’d written during a course led by Prof Michael Fullan a couple of years ago: “One of the most critical problems our schools face is not resistance to innovation, but the fragmentation, overload, and incoherence resulting from the uncritical and uncoordinated acceptance of too many different innovations.”

For me, the answer to this issue lies in the work of the Community Designed Education network. Started in 2001 by Dr John Edwards in Australia and Bill Martin in the USA, I have been part of this growing community of schools, businesses, professional sports teams and industry since 2005. The underpinning belief of this network is that organisations grow best from a combination of the personal, practical knowledge of its people, together with a rich culture of evidence based, action learning.

Beginning with the identification of a shared vision, the CDE process encourages organisations to take a year to identify the best ways to achieve their goals (as opposed to diving straight in with any innovation that seems promising). This allows rich data to be collected and a number of cycles of action-learning to be completed so that decisions are ultimately about what works BEST rather than simply about what works.

For more information about the CDE network, take a look at or visit Bill Martin’s leadership blog

Innovation: the problems!

It might seem strange to have a warning about innovation overload on an "innovation in education" blog, but as a big fan of John Hattie's work I am particularly keen to cite his work.
In his new book, Visible Learning (pictured), Hattie warns that it is almost a trivial claim to say that a policy or innovation works because almost everything works! In fact, his research shows 95% of everything we do to improve education can be shown to have a positive impact on student achievement. So the challenge is not so much to find something that works, but to invest time, effort and money into innovations that make a SIGNIFICANT difference to student progress.

He goes on to say that teachers average an effect of between 0.20 and 0.40 per year on student achievement. So, schools should be seeking an effect size greater than 0.40 for their achievement gains to be considered above average and greater than 0.60 to be considered outstanding.

Teaching test-taking, homework, competitive learning, audio-visual innovations, ability grouping, initial teacher training and healthy schools are all included in the LESS than average (below 0.40) typical effect size. Whereas in the over 0.60 category (outstanding) can be found creative curricula, phonics instruction, cooperative learning strategies, Piagetian programmes (teaching students at one level above where they are at) and feedback.

For more information, I highly recommend Visible Learning published by Routledge.

A Question of 3 Apples

Ian McKenzie has been helping his students at Viscount School in Auckland develop their questioning skills using a really interesting experiment. He gave them 3 apples to consider: one fresh, one plastic and one... not there. The students were asked to try to explain how and when they know for sure that something is real.

As Ian explains, "These 12/13yr olds have been working with me for about two terms now and have been learning to use a range of questioning techniques in order to facilitate deeper thinking skills. They know to use questions to gain clarification and to garner reasons / evidence from each other. They then ask each other to consider their own assumptions, before hopefully testing out some alternative ideas."

This group were also given some images to consider and to use their questioning techniques to think about whether what they were seeing was 'real' or 'not real'. It's a question which intrugued them because they all considered themselves to be deeper thinkers, but found it very difficult to question their own religious beliefs in the same manner (The Polynesian community being committed Christians). However, some brave souls found a way to make alternative suggestions and this lead to a deeper level conversation about some beliefs not having the same reasons and evidence behind them.

What I find particularly fascinating about this experiment is that the 3 apples idea is something I've often used with nursery/reception children to begin to explore whether something has to be seen to be real. And yet here is Ian using ostensibly the same task to push for a far greater depth of reasoning, questioning and understanding. Which just goes to show that Bananarama were right - it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it (and that's what get results).