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Switching Kids On

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One of my aims as a teacher in recent years has been to develop approaches to learning and teaching which would allow me to involve my students in the planning of their learning to a much greater extent. The purpose of this page is to support other teachers who are trying to do something similar by sharing my experience and practice. My examples will obviously relate to my own practice as a Science teacher, but I would hope that similar approaches would be useful in other contexts. You will find many posts on my blog about all of this, but I’ve attempted to condense these posts down into one page for ease of reading.

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Why bother?

There are many reasons to involve young people in the planning of their learning, which I will explore briefly below. For me, it all began with Building the Curriculum 3 when I identified that I would need to change my practice if I was going to achieve the following:

“Planning should encourage participation by, as well as being responsive to, the learner, who can and should influence and contribute to the process.” BtC3, page 26

Since then, I’ve read, tried, reflected and explored the ideas surrounding this approach further. I’ll separate the reasons for this approach into three sections: literature, policy and practice.

Literature

Paulo Freire explains the need for a shift in education through teachers and students who “become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (Freire 1970, p.61). Head (2003) uses a social constructivist view of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development to explain the effectiveness of collaboration in learning. Based on this he argues for the creation of communities of learners where “teacher and pupils agree on areas and themes for research within an overall context” (Head 2003, p.59).

More recently, Guy Claxton (2008) uses what we know about learning to suggest that if we want our pupils to be “powerful learners” we need to provide them with opportunities to be “creative”, have “courage”, “explore and investigate”, “experiment”, have “imagination”, “reason”, be “social” and “reflective” (Claxton 2008, p.122-126) all of which could be provided by giving them greater responsibility for their learning.

Whilst there are many others who also make this case for a greater involvement for learners in their learning (Hopkins 2000; Rudduck 2003; Higgins et al 2008), not everyone agrees. Johnson (2004) thoroughly criticises the concept of “Personalised Learning” as put forward by the UK Government of the time. I feel that he starts with the extreme assumption that personalised learning means that every child is following a completely different curriculum from each other, which I do not envisage being the case. I aim to involve learners in the planning process, but only allow personalisation and choice at the individual level where it is practically possible.

Assuming we do want to give pupils greater responsibility for the learning process, how could this be achieved in practice? Given the title, one would expect that John Loughran’s (2010) recent book might provide some ideas. However, whilst he does make a strong case for giving students responsibility for their own learning (Loughran 2010, p.49) much of the remainder of the book is still very teacher-centred. Surprisingly, when describing the strategies required of learners to develop their metacognitive skills of “planning, monitoring and evaluating” he still discusses the use of these strategies in the context of completing “a set task” (Loughran 2010, p.143). In my experience, supporting pupils to develop these skills within a set task is not new and has limited success. I’m more interested in the extent to which young people can become involved in setting the task in the first place.

Chris Watkins (2005) makes the case for developing what he describes as “classrooms as learning communities” and gives some ideas as to how to achieve this in practice. Again, Watkins (2005) develops his case from the standpoint of social constructivism, or as he simplifies it “learning = building knowledge through doing things with others” (Watkins 2005, p.17) but in his book, he goes on to suggest possible approaches to achieving this, including:

“it is possible to consider how pupils might make classroom choices on:

  • what they learn;
  • how they learn;
  • how well they learn;
  • why they learn.

And on each of these dimensions there could be more or less significant choices made.” (Watkins 2005, p.76-77)

Harris (2010) provides a very useful account of student engagement. She classifies two types of student engagement: engagement in schooling and engagement in learning (Harris 2010). Harris argues that much of the literature on student engagement, such as the 2003 OECD report (Willms 2003), focuses on behavioural engagement. She goes on to point out that if we are interested in improvements in student learning we should be focusing instead on cognitive engagement. As a result of her work with secondary teachers Harris (2010) has a developed a continuum of engagement with associated approaches to achieving these levels of engagement.

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

This continuum suggests that if we wish our learners to see the purpose in their learning, or even to feel that they are the owners of their learning, we need to involve them as collaborators in the learning and teaching process.

Policy

The policy context in Scotland is increasingly in favour of this approach to learning and teaching. Much of this stems from Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that:

Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. This right applies at all times.

As already mentioned above, this shift was evident in BtC3, but it was prevalent in Building the Curriculum 5 also. Pages 18 to 22 of BtC5 contains the following statements:

  • assessment process need to promote learner engagement
  • assessment practices should be seen from the perspective of the learner
  • learners should be engaged in all aspects of assessment processes
  • and be afforded an element of choice and personalisation in showing that they have achieved the intended outcomes
  • learners need…feedback…about how well and how much they have learned
  • approaches to assessment that enable learners to say “I can show that I can…” will fully involve them
  • children and young people can develop their confidence through thinking about and reflecting on their own learning
  • including through personal learning planning
  • developing their skills in self and peer assessment
  • learners will build confidence and take ownership for managing their own learning
  • by focusing on the processes of learning
  • children and young people should agree learning goals and should record them in ways that are meaningful and relevant
  • staff should use assessment information from a wide range of sources
  • the learner, parents and other staff…all can contribute…to setting targets for learning

It wasn’t therefore a big surprise to me when the recently published new version of ‘How good is our school?‘ contained the following statements in the level 5 illustrations:

1.2 LEADERSHIP OF LEARNING

  • We provide a wide range of opportunities and support to ensure children and young people can take responsibility for their own learning, successes and achievements. Our learners are developing the necessary resilience and confidence to enable them to make decisions about their own learning and to lead others’ learning.

2.2 CURRICULUM

  • Our curriculum is grounded in our commitment to securing children’s rights and wellbeing.

2.3 LEARNING, TEACHING AND ASSESSMENT

  • Learners exercise choice, including the appropriate use of digital technology, and take increasing responsibility as they become more independent in their learning. They understand the purpose of their learning and have opportunities to lead the learning.
  • Learners are fully involved in planning learning

2.4 PERSONALISED SUPPORT

  • Children and young people are at the centre of all planning, as active participants in their learning and development.

3.1 ENSURING WELLBEING, EQUALITY AND INCLUSION

  • We ensure children and young people are active participants in discussions and decisions which may affect their lives.

3.3 CREATIVITY AND EMPLOYABILITY

  • They are motivated to explore and challenge assumptions. Children and young people take ownership of their own learning and thinking. They are imaginative, open- minded, confident risk-takers, and appreciate issues from different perspectives. They can ask questions, make connections across disciplines, envisage what might be possible and not possible, explore ideas, identify problems and seek and justify solutions.
  • They feel supported to make suitable, realistic and informed choices based on their skills, strengths and preferences. They are supported to develop an international mind-set equipping them for the rapidly changing and increasingly globalised world.

How good is our school? 4th Edition

Due to the volume of reform which has accompanied Curriculum for Excellence, this challenging change in practice has perhaps yet to be fully explored in Scotland’s schools – particularly in the Secondary sector. However, now that it has made its way into the self-evaluation and inspection documentation in such a prevalent fashion, this may now result in increased activity in this area.

Practice

As important as literature and policy are, you will most likely be wondering what the benefits will actually look like in your classroom. I can only speak from my own experience in this regard. Every time I have tried this approach I have been astonished by the responses from the students. From my perspective, the learners have generally been more enthused, engaged and better behaved. They tend to have a much better grasp over why we’re doing what we’re doing and the learning is much more relevant to them.

I have of course asked the students what they think of the approach, and the responses are generally very positive. They normally see the benefits of the approach, however they sometimes have ideas on how to do it differently, which we then try out.

Feedback1 Feedback2

The thing which always strikes me however when I try this is the questions it unearths from the students’ minds. This approach to learning and teaching really switches the kids on and encourages them to ask the things they’re curious about. Check out this following list of questions from one recent S1 class:

  • 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?
  • 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?

Obviously a list like that brings its own challenges in terms of how on earth do you cope with them! I’ll come back to that later, in the meantime, it scares me to think that these are the sorts of questions that our learners walk into our classes wondering and we make almost no time to even ask them for them, let alone attempt to answer them.

Surely it’s our job to do the planning?

This is a common objection to taking this approach. As I pointed out in this post, involving learners in the planning process is not straight forward. Some people feel that students shouldn’t be involved, while some think that they can not be – either because of time or because of the capacity of the young people they’re working with. I’ve tried to address the issue of whether learners should be involved in the section above, but what about the issues of whether learners can be involved.

Firstly, I’d like to contradict a common misconception that many seem to have about this approach. I’m not talking about handing over 100% of the control of the learning to the students. Before I tried this out, I probably had 100% of the control, and I’m advocating relinquishing about between 1% and 5% of this control, at least to begin with. The benefit of this is that, I would estimate from my experience, this then feels to be about 10% and 20% of the control from the perspective of the learners, as they do not see how much you are in practice tweaking plans that were already in place. Given this, the amount of time it takes to involve the learners can adjust to the amount of time you feel that you have. I would argue however that time really ought to be made do this in some way at least for the reasons outlined earlier. I have an issue with the quantity of experiences and outcomes in my own subject, and if this is an issue for you also we really ought to be attempting to involve our learners as instructed in the policy documents and then arguing for a reduction in the experiences and outcomes to allow us to do it more and better.

On the issue of the capacity of the learners, I’ve heard it said sometimes that the students aren’t capable of being involved. I’d say two things to this. Firstly, as I’ve already said, I’m not talking about handing over the full responsibility to the class, in which case you are still there as a guide and facilitator. I often share my own thoughts, opinions and ideas with the class also and if something isn’t possible, I tell them so. The difference is that they’ve been involved in the conversation and have heard the reasons for the decisions, rather than all of that happening in my head. Secondly, isn’t it our job as teachers to help our learners to develop? If our students are incapable of having a discussion about what and how they are going to learn something, we really need to start involving them in those discussions to help them to get better at that in order to help them to become lifelong learners themselves.

The last objection which I can envisage is around behaviour. What if you have a difficult class? From my experience, I’ve found that this works really well with students who find it difficult to behave normally. I’ve used approaches like this with a variety of classes in two “normal” Scottish state comprehensive schools, and as I pointed out in this post, it can in fact improve behaviour and then allow you to access even higher levels of engagement than just behaving. If anything, it can be the relatively academic kids who can struggle with this approach and really need convincing that it is beneficial to their learning.

How do you it then?

Here’s a list of the sorts of things I do with a topic with a new class if that’s of use as an idea to get started:

  • Firstly, I explain in advance how we’re going to learn and discuss with them why we’re going to learn in this way and how best to learn in this way. Some classes in the past have thought that I was just being lazy when I’ve not explained it properly!
  • I don’t start with the title of the topic. In fact, I never tell the class what the topic is called in our schemes of work. I start with a hook. Challenging, interesting and relevant questions which get them thinking, discussing, debating and questioning. I then capture and rationalise these questions either on post-its, or in a Google Document.
  • I bring out the experiences and outcomes for the topics and we unpick their meaning as a class. We decide what questions we would need to be able to answer to satisfy these experiences and outcomes.
  • We then bring in their own questions from the stimulus discussion. Do these overlap with any of the questions from the experiences and outcomes? Do any of them fit in with the experiences and outcomes? Which ones don’t fit in?
  • We then decide how we’ll approach the topic. We discuss which of the experiences and outcomes we should do when and how we’ll address their questions which didn’t fit in (this is quite often a research and present task).
  • They then come up with possible names for the topic and vote on it.
  • I then use all of the questions which have been generated to create a set of tailor made ‘learning outcomes’ for the topic and then use all of this to go off and modify the schemes of work to what we’ve planned together.  I normally find that this can just be done by making a few tweaks to what was already there because they were made with the same experiences and outcomes that we’ve just explored as a class. In terms of any summative assessments for the topic, if these have been well written from the experiences and outcomes then they shouldn’t be a major problem either…however, I’ve sometimes found that the topic tests have been tests of the scheme of work rather than a test of the learning outcomes and in these cases I adjust the test questions so that they relate to the actual learning outcomes in the experiences and outcomes, but maintain the same structure and numbers of marks etc. I also try to ensure there are opportunities for the students to demonstrate that they understand the answers to their own questions also.
  • As you and the class become more confident you can then do the above more quickly and begin exploring involving them in the development of success criteria, assessments and evaluations…but one step at a time!

Obviously, this is just the way that I approach topics, but it will be up to you try it out for yourself and develop your own approaches.

What do the students think?

As mentioned above, the students generally respond very well to this approach. However, don’t take my word for it, have a look at the following amazing video made with one of my classes in conjunction with Children in Scotland’s Leaders of Learning project in which they explain their ideas on how to go about involving students in planning learning:

How could I give it a go?

I can’t recommend this approach more highly, but how could you go about giving it a try? Here’s a few tips…

  1. Believe that it is desirable, and possible, to involve learners in the learning process and it is worth trying. If you don’t, or are not sure, read this (free) book.
  2. Try to take an enquiry approach to your change. Don’t just do it because you’re being told to by Education Scotland, your leadership team or even me, research it for yourself. As well as enhancing what you do, if you propose the change as an enquiry you are more likely to get approval from your leadership team if that is an issue for you. There’s more on enquiry on the GTCS website.
  3. Start small. Choose one class which you think you could work with on this to give it a try. Talk to them about it in advance and explain why you’re doing it. Aim to do it for just one topic and then evaluate it after that.
  4. Don’t try to do everything at once. This may be new to the learners as well as you, although it may not be if they’ve experienced this at primary, which many will have in some way at some time. When I first tried it I wanted the learners to collaborate on the planning, teaching and assessment…it was all a bit much. It takes time for the class as a community to work together in this way so don’t rush it. You can involve them a little to begin with, and if it works, involve them a little more in the next topic.
  5. Make use of ICT as much as you can. Digital tools are fantastic for supporting this approach to learning and teaching, use them and encourage the learners to find their own ways of using them.

Useful Resources

Here are some links to useful resources. If you know of more, let me know and I’ll add them.


I hope you’ve found this guide useful. Feel free to contact me if you’ve got any further questions, comments or feedback.