James Nottingham's Blog

Reflections from a World of Education

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Learning Detectives

Learning Detectives

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

At the start of each day, Louise chooses two children to take the role of Learning Detectives. 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.

How Much Challenge?

Ava and AniMatch

Getting children to play pairs (matching one card to another) is a great way of improving their memory skills and strategic thinking. But how many cards should you start with when playing the game with nursery children? Most foundation stage teachers tell me 8 cards (4 pairs) or thereabouts.

So, what about starting with 20 cards and playing the game with 3-year-olds? Way too many, I hear you say and last week I would’ve agreed with you. But not now: during half-term, my 2 ½ year old daughter and I downloaded Animatch, a game of pairs for the iPhone that comes with 20 cards as standard. Thinking this is too many for Ava to deal with, we simply listened to the sounds that each animal makes and named the creatures as we went along.

However, within 10 minutes of playing around with the programme, Ava had worked out the object of the game and was merrily matching the cards to their pairs. Her initial strategy was to pick one animal and then keep going until she’d found it’s pair before moving onto another animal. She soon realised that this is an inefficient strategy and so moved on to working out what was under each card and matching as she went along. It now takes her 90 seconds to complete the game without the need of any guidance or encouragement.

I wonder where I can find a game with 40 cards to match …?!

Three Apples

Three 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 intrigued 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’s ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it (and that’s what gets results)

Clown!

Clown in the classroom

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 thing; 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 thing 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!

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!”

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:

STAGE 1: IDENTIFY THE KEY CONCEPT
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.

STAGE 2: CHALLENGE
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.

STAGE 3: CONSTRUCT
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.

STAGE 4: REFLECT
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.

Notes

  • 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

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!