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Reflecting on Involving Learners

I recently mentioned the powerful questions which my S1 class came up with when I involved them in planning our first topic together. Well, I’m pleased to report that we’ve recently finished this topic with a high degree of engagement and learning, from my perspective at least. However, an outstanding question for me was what did they think of being involved in planning the learning? There’s an obvious tension in my pedagogical approach here in that I’m trying to involve them in the planning process, but without first asking them if they want to! I’m comfortable with that tension as I believe that as a teacher I have a role in leading the learning still…however, although I had no real intention of stopping this approach, I did need to find out what their perceptions of it are in order to review, adapt and improve it.

It just so happened that the night before I was planning on asking their thoughts on our learning in the first topic that I was reading this paper in preparation for the Edinburgh Uni professional enquiry masters module I’m involved in delivering. The paper shares an approach to supporting learners to share their thinking by using thought and speech bubbles – I reckoned this would be perfect for my purposes and so gave it a go the following morning!

The class completed various thought and speech bubbles in pairs for the stages in our learning process so far, including being involved in the planning process. You can see the full document I asked them to complete by clicking on the image below.

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Their responses were fascinating. I’ve included the raw thought and speech responses for the planning stage in the table below.

Write the things you were thinking here… Write the things you were saying here…
“i was thinking i hope i will learn a lot”
“i was thinking i think this is going to be fun!”
i had lots of different question to contribute when we were writing them on the post it notes.
i had lots of different ideas and questions that i wanted to find out while doing the topic.
I was thinking about all the questions we were writing and how we were going to learn them.
I thought the planning of the topic was a bit boring because it took over 3 lessons to have a planned topic.
i was wondering what topic we were going to do.
i was wondering if this was going to be fun.
This planning just plain boring can’t we just do it.
i was thinking i barely know anything about biodiversity or the other things the teacher was talking about.
i was thinking what a wierd name for a topic
If it was going to be a hard topic.
What will be the name of our topic and what will it be about? this class is funny!
i wanted to do it on volcanos
What if I don’t know anything about anyone of the topics.
i was saying “i dont know a lot about this”?????
i was saying “i think i am going to learn a lot!”
i was saying some of the questions i was thinking of to contribute to the topic .
i had lots of different questions but most of the time i didn’t say them in front of the class.
I was saying about how long is the topic. I was saying that the topic contains alot of variety in the tasks we would do. (experiments,writing,reasearch)
what topic are we doing.
what do you do in this topic
wow this is fun.
will it be very hard and will i understand it
i was saying what order to do things in.
Saying ideas for the topic.
lets call our topic the wonderful wizard of life?! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!
same as thought
What if you don’t know what the topics were.

There were a few interesting responses here. Firstly, some of them thought that the planning process had taken too long, or was ‘boring’. Also, others clearly felt a bit threatened by the process and so I then asked them the following question in order to stimulate a discussion around the purposes of involving them in the planning process.

photo 1

Obviously, my question was clearly loaded in the positive, but that is because I had no intention of stopping…the purpose was to share the reasons for the approach, which I think we managed.

I also responded to their request to try and complete the process quicker. So, for the next topic I set a homework task which involved a few pictures which were related the learning and asking them to come up with some questions with someone at home to bring to our planning lesson.

The planning lesson then consisted of a series of quite controlled stages which they completed in groups within the hour…

  1. They shared their homework questions with their groups and transferred them to post-it notes.
  2. They then organised their questions with the four experiences and outcomes associated with the topic.
  3. They then devised further questions which they would need to be able to answer in order to have successfully learned each of the four experiences and outcomes.
  4. They then had to decide on the order we should learn the four experiences and outcomes and come up with a title for the topic.

You can see their completed planning sheets in the images below. The yellow post-its are their own homework questions, the green post-its are their added curriculum questions.

They completed this process remarkably effectively in the hour, so they were right – it can be done quicker! We were lacking in time though to discuss the topic as a class and I’ve had to bring their separate plans together on my own without their input, which is not ideal. It was great though for them to have responded to the challenge of completing the process in an hour.

And so, we now begin the process of learning our new topic…I’m not sure what it’s called yet as they haven’t voted yet…but it will be one of the following titles;

  • We are Stardust
  • Everything is Atoms
  • #supercalafragilisticexpiealadoshusubstance
  • #Atoms
  • #supercalafrajalisticexpialiatoms!

Now we’ll see how we get on with our new Chemistry topic…


At our in-service day today, teachers had opportunities to attend workshop sessions on four of the stages from our school’s learning cycle. I was on demonstrate. I used the prezi above to talk through why I think it’s an important part of the learning process and then got them to come up with the features of a good demonstrate stage and what approaches you can use. You can see their fab ideas at the end of the prezi.

I really do think that providing challenging opportunities for learners to show you, themselves and each other how much and how well they’ve learnt is a crucial element in the formative assessment process and yet this is only a relatively recent realisation for me. I think in the past I too often gave students something which I knew they would be able to do in order to allow us to proceed with the content, rather than stretching them to see if they’d really got it and what they still needed to learn. I suppose this is why I’ve become slightly obsessed with the demonstrate stage and therefore really enjoyed the opportunity to share this obsession this morning! Huge thank you to my fab PL colleagues for tolerating my obsession and contributing so much to the sessions.

Switching kids on…

Earlier this year I shared the outcomes of approaching a new topic with my S1 class differently. Basically, rather than starting the topic with the title, learning outcomes etc., we started with a discussion which generated questions…

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 19.07.04

Once we have the students’ questions, we add in the experiences and outcomes and begin to bring together a topic together as a class. They then name the topic. This year it’s called ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Life’ – a fantastic title which I would never have come up with myself. What has really blown me away this year however has been their questions. The following questions are the ones they came up with which we were able to easily align to our experiences and outcomes:

  • What species are there?
  • Is there life only on Earth? How and why was life on Earth formed?
  • How was life on Earth found?
  • Why did humans evolve on Earth and not on Mars?
  • How did we change from monkeys to humans?
  • Could there have been life on Mars because there was water?
  • How does life continue every day?

However, for some reason we had a much greater variety of questions this year which left us with the following to answer…

  • Why do hammer head sharks have a hammer head?
  • What made the countries split up?
  • How do natural disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes occur?
  • How was the Earth made?
  • Could humans survive a meteorite hitting Earth?
  • How can animals survive in Chernobyl (Ukraine) and we can’t?
  • Where do deadly viruses come from?
  • Why were the dinosaurs killed through meteors?
  • How do viruses transfer to humans?
  • Will there ever be WWIII? What will happen if it does?
  • How does gravity work?
  • How do volcanoes erupt?
  • How far away is space?
  • What did space look like before Earth was created?
  • How does Earth stay together?
  • What will happen if meteors hit the Earth?
  • How did the Earth’s core get made?
  • What are the planets made from?
  • How big are all the planets?
  • How was the sun made?
  • What did space look like before the big bang?
  • Why is there no ozone layer in Australia?
  • Is there anything which could destroy Earth?
  • What if the hole in the ozone layer gets too big?

Wow! Remember, these students are in S1…which means they’re about 12 years old. Our curriculum will perhaps attempt to answer some of these over the next six years, but not all. How did we answer all these I hear you ask…well they each chose one to research at home and share back to the class as a homework project which they did brilliantly on Friday of last week. Not a perfect solution, but at least they had the chance of exploring at least one of these big questions and hearing from others about their questions too.

This whole process has really made me think…if that’s the questions they are arriving to us with, why is it so hard for us to make the space to answer them? Also, if we make no attempt to try and answer their own amazing questions is it little wonder that many of them eventually switch off to schooling? Imagine instead of being so obsessed with content in S1-3, we instead focused on those skills and attributes which we so wished our students possessed in S4 onwards? I’m not saying knowledge doesn’t matter, but I don’t think everything necessarily needs to be taught to everyone at the same time.

One of my favourite papers contains a much more complex version of the table below. Harris suggests that to get learners to see the purpose in, and even ‘own’, their own learning they need to be collaborators in the learning process:

Continuum of Learner Engagement (What) and how teachers can achieve these levels of engagement (How). Adapted from Harris (2010).

Continuum of Learner Engagement (What) and how teachers
can achieve these levels of engagement (How). Adapted from Harris (2010).

I love this idea and have been striving to find a way to make it a reality in my classroom for some time now. It really shouldn’t be that hard given that there is significant overlap between this idea and the capacities we are tasked with developing as part of the curriculum.


So, for me there seems to be a contradiction here. If we want our learners to own their own learning and develop the capacities we want them to have, we need to be able to allow them to be collaborators in the learning process. If they are to be collaborators in the learning process then we need to make the space to take their complex and challenging questions seriously as part of their curriculum.

Ultimately, if we want our kids to be switched on we have to somehow find a way of decluttering the curriculum and making the space for it to happen…

The year ahead…

I was recently asked what my priorities are for this academic year, and I realised I hadn’t given it that much thought. It’s good to know what it is you want to achieve if you want to have any sort of chance of actually achieving it, hence this post.

So, this year I want to…

  1. Become a better teacher. This seems like an obvious one, but in the past I think I’ve sometimes been so busy with all the other things I get involved with that I’ve lost sight of this the most fundamental aspect of my job. In particular, this year I really want to try and further develop my ability to involve learners in their learning. I’ve already started this with my new S1 class by kicking off the year by planning our first topic together which I hope to evaluate more fully than I have done in the past.
  2. Develop a great new Higher Biology course. This is probably the reason that I hadn’t considered my priorities for the year already. The development of the new NQs has a tendency to be all consuming, even more so than I was expecting to be honest. I think the CfE Higher Biology course is a significant improvement on the old Higher and so I’m happy to be delivering it but, finding the time to make it fab is an ever present challenge.
  3. Become a better mentor. Our department is lucky to have two NQTs this year and I’m a mentor to one of them. This is the first time I’ve mentored an NQT surprisingly and I’m looking forward to learning how to do it well as the year progresses.
  4. Develop and embed our school’s fledgling approaches to supporting professional learning. Last year we piloted our PLPL programme and developed our Learning Coach model both of which need more thought and energy this session.
  5. Continue to manage, grow and develop the Pedagoo phenomenon. I’m looking forward to (and petrified by) our coming event at my school this September and hopefully a PedagooPrimary event later in the year.
  6. Give as much energy as I can to the external groups I’m a member of. These include the Edinburgh Uni Teacher Education Partnership, Education Scotland’s National Digital Learning Forum and the GTCS Research Engagement Group. Once upon a time being a member of these sorts of groups meant going along to a meeting, saying what you think and leaving the actual work to someone else. Increasingly these groups now involve a higher level of commitment than this, which is great in terms of the engagement you get as a result, but also places greater challenges on your time obviously.
  7. See if I can support colleagues in other schools. Although all of the above, on top of also being a dad and husband, doesn’t leave a lot of ‘spare’ time, I’m keen this year to see if I can find the time to explore whether or not I can be of assistance to other schools. I’m already talking to a couple of folk which is perhaps enough, but if you think I could be of use to your school maybe drop me a line? I’m thinking I could possibly be of use in the areas of developing classroom practice, leading professional learning and using technology.

Yikes. That’s quite a list. Chances are I won’t manage all of this but it’s good to set yourself high standards…


@kennypieper and I seem to have created a little Pedagoo annual tradition. We meet up in Edinburgh before term starts to chat about Pedagoo, and many other things, in the midst of the fringe without actually taking part in the fringe. This year was our second year of this and was just as enjoyable as last year. One of the biggest differences however between this year and last though was our thoughts on where the Pedagoo community is going. Whereas last year we had a number of concerns, hopes, plans and ideas…this year I think we were both a lot more comfortable with how things are going just now. A couple of years ago we were constantly plotting and planning new Pedagoo things, but now we’ve reached a point where we’re a lot clearer about what we’re about and have managed to arrange things so that the community is (just about) manageable on top of our full time teaching jobs!

The one thing we’d both still like to see change about the community however is an increase in participation from our primary colleagues. Pedagoo is all about sharing classroom practice, no matter what the sector, but there is a bit of a bias towards Secondary. We do have loads of fantastic primary folk contributing, but the community does seem to have many more secondary teachers sharing. Kenny suggested we run a Primary event to try to help rectify this. In the past I’ve been very reticent about any such themed events. Our events, like our website and #PedagooFriday, have always been open to all with the core focus being classroom practice, and I would like things to continue this way. I believe we’ve got a lot to learn from colleagues from other sectors, and the more we know about each other’s roles the more we’ll be able to understand and support our learners’ education journey as a whole.

However, Pedagoo has been going for over three years now and we’ve still to attract primary teachers in the numbers we’d like…perhaps it’s time to try something different. So, I’m up for the idea. We could have a Pedagoo event which aims explicitly to attract lots of primary teachers along to share and join in. I can’t think of a better way of doing that than calling it #PedagooPrimary. To be clear though,  I don’t see this as being the first of a series of events. I certainly don’t envisage there being a #PedagooSecondary or anything else of the ilk. I would like to see the rest of our future events having the open and collaborative approach we’ve taken up till now, but hopefully with more primary folk joining in having been persuaded by their participation in the #PedagooPrimary event.

Given that I’m a secondary teacher, I’m not actually organising this proposed event…there’s already a group of primary teachers taking ownership of the idea (and you can join in too if you want by checking out the #PedagooPrimary hashtag). So, this’ll be all I have to say on the idea. I just wanted to be clear in why I’m supportive of this idea and yet still cautious about any further suggestions of themed events. Pedagoo events already have a focus: classroom practice. #PedagooPrimary should help us to broaden the conversation at our future Pedagoo events and online.