Formative with Forthright in Formby

Friday was spent being Forthright with Formby. John Turner and I worked on our first day with the Secondary and Primary schools in the in the Forthright Learning Community as they further their journey to develop independent learners and independent learning across the community.

The schools are embarking together on an ambitious, self-funded project over the next two years to develop independent learning approaches across the schools starting from the infants. The schools within the community are already successful in their own right and have a tradition of academic success. The aspiration is to be even more successful in helping students be autonomous problem solvers who take increasing responsibility for their own progress.

Over two years it is hoped that staff in the schools can work together on agreed interventions which will help transform the learners’ experience. Amongst the possibilities which were offered for consideration

School level

  • Episodes such as problem solving programmes, learning to learn approaches
  • Events such Enquiry Week, Independence Day
  • Vertical tutoring challenges on big questions
  • Changing rewards and incentives towards independent learning behaviours

Classroom level

  • Reinforcement of essential attributes and skills
  • Development of common tools – such as an independent enquiry wheel with versions for all Key Stages
  • Shift from performing to learning orientation
  • Improved group work
  • Extended enquiry built into how we teach
  • More pupil choice
  • Lazy Teacher week!
  • Use of Critique method of authentic presentation and feedback

Learner level

  • Learner passports across the Forthright Community
  • Independent learner profiling
  • Fewer lessons led by the teacher, more challenges initiated by the pupil
  • A Students Commission on how we should learn
  • Improved use of the environment with better spaces for problem solving
  • Prop boxes for topics

John and I were very deliberately avoiding giving a ‘strategic lead’ in favour of consensus and collective ownership and so time was spent identifying what is meant by independent learning and how we would recognise the independent learner. We asked the group of nineteen to sub-divide into three and ‘characterise the learner’ before we then went on to isolate and rank the key attributes. This allowed us to agree the following working definition –

In the Forthright Learning Community, independent learners are curious about answers to the ‘big questions.’ They are prepared to be open-minded and resilient in their pursuit. Forthright independent learners are also:

  • willing to be actively involved in extending their own and others’ learning
  • flexible in approaching challenges and in learning from setbacks
  • able to make connections
  • optimistic, and ready to make positive contributions alongside others
  • able to apply and extend  reasoning
  • reflective, and in being so capable of improving their own learning
  • autonomous

The definition will be used to help shape all of the agreed activities. Going forward the group started to define what the signature features would look like at whole school, classroom and learner level with strategies to provide clarity, coherence and consistency for each.

The Forthright definition is pleasing because it has not been sourced from an academic, imposed by an agency or produced by a cabal and because it’s owned by the schools and emerged from honest debate it’s arrived with built-in durability; in other words, its forthright for purpose

Breeding Bidability

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wgi0t2ap-us&feature=player_embedded

Language, the choice of words and the attention we choose to give them shapes response*. Recently I’ve been thinking about the language we use to introduce very young children to classroom learning. I’m particularly interested in the notion of rules, how they signify classroom culture and how they are used to direct behaviour.

It seems every school classroom I’ve ever been in has had protocols formal or informal, stated or unspoken, to shape norms. On occasion a quick glance at the classroom rules tells you what no interview would.  Here for example is a photograph – taken last Thursday by a colleague – of a set of class rules from a secondary school in Tennessee,

Notice rule number four on attentiveness – ‘head off table, no snoring.’

I’m struck how quickly a school can socialize very young children. The teachers’ choice of the Golden Rules for classes 5 and 6 year olds quickly seems to become lodged in their minds as what is necessary for learning. I worry that what we do when we stick up this sort of sign – Listen and Silent are spelled with the same letters – is that we create passivity in our learners. This may have its place when children arrive at school with few social skills and little experience of interacting with others but, over time, it makes the task of developing independent learners and thinkers more and more difficult.

So we set out to put this theory to the test and to explore better alternatives. My colleague John Turner and I set up some interviews with very young children. We spoke to six children from KS1. They were very bright and personable, able to relate to what we were asking and for the most part stay focussed on the questions asked.

We started by asking what sorts of words came to mind when they thought of school: which words would they use if describing their school to an adult. – fun, learning, awesome, good games, amazing, fun (again) and fantastic. They were amused by the question and enjoyed thinking about their answers!

We next asked what sorts of words came to mind when they thoughts of a good teacher. we asked this question so that we could begin to obtain a view on what they thought about themselves as learners and what the relationship with the teacher might be. We asked which words they’d used if describing a really good teacher to an adult. The words used were nice, helpful, intelligent, kind, fantastic, very good, special, really good person and then kind and nice again! This was interesting because it was entirely bound up in the relationship and in being an open, friendly and accessible adult.

The next question was about them as learners: what do you have to do to be really good at learning? This was perhaps the most useful part of the interview process and was as interesting for what was not said as for what was said. The responses were:

  • listen
  • be nice to others
  • help others
  • be good at listening
  • don’t copy other people
  • if someone falls over help them up
  • help if someone’s stuck
  • do what your told
  • don’t be naughty

We then went on to ask about what was their favourite sort of learning. We were told:

  • Maths: because it helps you  learn quicker
  • Art: they teach you how to make stuff and you get even better and your drawing and writing gets really nice and neat
  • Literacy: you get neat handwriting and be a good story teller. More people like your story and you might be a famous writer
  • PE: its really fun and it gets you exercised up and my mum really likes it makes me tired

And,

  • Football: at sports day because I’m really good at scoring goals and saving 
  • Talking about famous people: everyone likes it and it gets you talking
  • Everything : I have so much fun at the end of the day I’m so tired when I get  home I have to go to bed straight away

We also asked about the hardest lessons and what was most difficult to learn. The responses included:

  • Maths: Year 2 expect us to do better and sometimes its too hard
  • PE: its really tiring and it really hurts your back and stomach
  • Maths: sometimes there’s really big numbers, that’s hard and counting

Finally we asked their views on why they had to come to school and learn. We asked specifically why they had to learn. Their responses included:

  • You have to learn because you just have to
  • So that when you are older you are clever
  • So that you can be a clever clogs
  • All the numbers and things
  • You learn things in the past and in the future
  • To be good at listening
  • To do GCSE’s
  • So that when you go to year 2 your teachers think you are intelligent

What caught our attention was that the children were very clear on what was expected and most of the behaviours they described were associated with being ‘good’ rather than being ‘good at learning.’ This offered an opportunity for the school to begin its work on creating independent learners early in their school lives!

On the premise that you will get more of what you reinforce we looked again at creating a positive classroom culture with a new set of rules. John and I asked staff to look at the class protocols already used with a view to revising them in favour of learning behaviours. The learning behaviours included learning together to be even better at:

  1. Explaining things
  2. Asking good questions
  3. Learning something new
  4. Practising hard till you get it right
  5. Thinking carefully
  6. Listening carefully
  7. Trying different ways of doing things
  8. Being a learning friend who helps others learn
  9. Making someone else happy
  10. Becoming better at sharing
  11. Reading every day

Within hours of the teachers discussing and using the new learning behaviours children responded.  Teachers too had an emerging vocabulary – one which shifted them away from talking about doing towards describing the learning which emerged from the doing.

It remains to be seen whether the higher energy levels, increased persistence and improved engagement noticeable in many of the children remain but it has to be better than passive bidability which, long-term, will switch them away from understanding and enjoying their learning.

The most absurd rules are always the ones promoted by misguided adults. How would you as a six year-old respond to this one placed on a door in the main hall? “No pupil allowed in this cupboard – this is an adult cupboard”.

*Thanks to Geoff Barton for pointing me to the video!

Stick to the Knitting!

The phrase ‘stick to the knitting’ popularised by Tom Peters is interpreted as guidance to businesses to do this – to focus on what they know and do best and nothing else.

For over 200 years the small Dales town of Dent stuck to its knitting. Dent, in the north of England owed its prosperity to wool, and developed a cottage industry of knitters, mostly men. These knitters became known as the Terrible Knitters of Dent. Terrible then meant ‘awesome’ – surprisingly good! The knitters went at it night and day, sometimes whilst they herded sheep, milked cattle or repaired their roof! They multi-tasked using knitting ‘sticks’ tucked into the belt as one of the needles. The locals had to stick to the knitting to sell the products and keep starvation at bay. Needles often became bent and worn with use. An 18th century rhyme went:

She knaws how to sing and knit
and she knaws how to carry t’kit
While she drives her kye to t’pasture

The Terrible Knitters of Dent were awesomely good at what they had to do. They shared ideas, collaborated, maintained a high standard in their work and thrived together. They also did the other things but never stopped sticking to the knitting for a moment. Tourists would come from miles around to watch as they knitted with one hand and milked their cow with the other! We can learn from the knitters.

For me the lessons of the knitters are bound up in what my colleague,John Turner, calls the three C’s: Clarity, Coherence, Consistency. We might add a fourth, Community.

Organisations such as schools apply the three C’s when seeking to improve. By focusing down, by saying no more often, by avoiding the temptation to fulfil others’ agendas schools become terrible knitters. Clarity is found when agreement is reached over core purpose. For us core purpose is about planning, delivering, evaluating and improving quality learning experiences for and on behalf of the students – nothing else!. Top sports coaches talk of the power of focussing on process over results. A focus on results distorts preparation. We say focus on the processes of learning. For the knitters clarity was being sure that what they could produce was useful, locally owned and of the highest quality.

Clarity around what makes great learning precedes coherence. Coherence comes when we build and share agreement on the mechanisms for the delivery and scrutiny of great learning and each and every one of us buys in to those mechanisms. This means that we meet and talk regularly about what we do well and how to get even better; we monitor, support and challenge each other and we benchmark against the best. Coherence for the knitters would come as they sat around each others’ fireplaces and talked.

Finally a school achieves consistency when great learning is a matter of routine. Consistency is when, day on day, learning is optimised for the benefits of the students. This does not mean each and every lesson, every day is high in teacher energy and suffused with novelty. It means that students are actively and purposefully engaged often feeling a responsibility for their own learning and the learning of others. When a learning community comes together in support of an agreed purpose, you witness discretionary effort! The knitters survived as a community phenomenon into the 20th century. The Community adds leverage to any common goal. A community who invests in delivering great learning directs and schedule its efforts towards its day on day delivery.

Having worked with a community of schools over a period of 18 months we found remarkable progress once agreement on what comprised great learning was in place.  Once we had clarity over what great learning looked like, we were able to pursue coherence in delivery and consistency in its quality. Here is our clarity on Great Learning. Students across our community -

  • Value and Enjoy Learning
  • Are Actively and Purposefully Engaged
  • Are Safe, Secure and Self Confident
  • Build and Sustain Relationships
  • Stretched Through Challenge
  • Are Creative, seeking out Patterns and Solutions
  • Ask, and are asked, Great Questions
  • Make Progress Based on Feedback
  • Transfer Their Learning
  • Take Responsibility for their Own Learning and the Learning of Others

The Terrible Knitters of Dent endured without any sorts of checklists. The harshness of daily life alone reminded them to stick to the knitting. Be clear about, and focus relentlessly on, what needs to be done. Eventually as you become accomplished in your knitting you might be able to milk a cow at the same time.