James Nottingham's Blog

Reflections from a World of Education

Archive for P4C

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)

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

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.

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!