James Nottingham's Blog

Reflections from a World of Education

Archive for 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!
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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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.