Guided home learning reflections

Rachel Evans, Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, writes a personal reflection on the past two months as WHS planned and implemented our Guided Home Learning programme, and considers what lies ahead.

It’s 16th March and I’m getting ready to leave school, knowing that I’m unlikely to be back at my desk with its view of the cherry blossom for a good while. My husband has called to say he has a temperature and cough, meaning self-isolation for my household. I gather some freebie cloth bags from BETT and cram them with everything I think I might need, leaving behind a stack of library books – I come to regret this later! Within a week I’m being video-called by a colleague who holds his phone aloft so that I can see and hear the whole school singing our school song as we close the site, and Mrs Lunnon says “Whatever happens, however long this is, be brilliant.” It all seems rather unreal.

As the Covid-19 crisis mounted in late February and early March, along with other schools across the world we began to plan how we could continue teaching and learning as our staff and students scattered to their homes. We have been committed for the past 5 years to integrating technology for teaching and learning – both in terms of hardware, with our BYOD scheme and Junior iPads, and software, as a Microsoft Showcase School. Nevertheless, the challenges of this unprecedented situation are significant, and like all use of technology in education, go far beyond simply having the right tech in place.

Back in January, Suzy Pett (Assistant Head Teaching & Learning) and I had been privileged to speak at the BETT educational technology show and share our WHS digital philosophy with a wider audience. What has struck me as we have rolled out our Guided Home Learning programme is how those values have been tried and tested in this unprecedented situation. Edtech should be an excellent tool, seamless and most importantly authentic. How did these principles guide us in practice?

An excellent tool

We’re always clear that we have a ‘pedagogy first’ approach to using technology and we’re careful to select software and systems that deliver value, rather than being gimmicky or distracting. This was helpful as we considered what ‘home learning’ would look like in practice. Teams allows video-conferencing, something we had only tentatively explored before between colleagues. Now we made the decision to offer at least some ‘live’ lessons remotely, and added in the practical details – the way we’d use Teams announcements to start lessons, our protocols for video conference lessons, and how our existing use of OneNote would fit into this model.

In the Junior years, we began with simple Firefly pages, then worked over Easter to move to a more interactive offering. Choosing Firefly Tasks was straightforward, while Flipgrid would offer some interaction between the girls and chances for personalised video feedback for every pupil from her teachers.

What skills did teachers need to feel confident and secure with these new features of familiar systems, and with some entirely new apps? We created a common approach to ‘lessons’ so that staff and students alike would have clear expectations and a consistent experience with a clear framework of skills to learn. We ran in-person training sessions for all staff, and then, after the site closed, online training in Teams (sometimes about Teams, which can be surreal!). We all became inexpert videographers, finding ad-hoc ways to make, edit and share videos of tips, and training sessions. We were grateful for Microsoft’s extensive support materials, and our GDST sister schools and other professional networks of colleagues, to share ideas and pool materials.

Above: Year 11 English Annotations

Seamless

As the weeks have gone by there have of course been peaks and troughs in the experiences of all concerned – both technical and human. On the first Monday as pupils across the world stayed at home, both Teams and Firefly faltered. We are all at the mercy of our home wi-fi connections with most providers having outages at times. No software or system is perfect, and we are often pushing at the edges of the original design and use cases which are mostly based on being together in physical school.  Teachers and parents alike feel the pressure of combining childcare, home learning and full-time jobs. But we do believe that alongside a plethora of subject-specific online resources, these systems have enabled us to continue with teaching and learning that has been effective, productive and not too impossible to manage for students, staff or parents.

Above: Year11-13 elective video call on Teams

Feedback and listening to the community in the first week led us to deliver new advice for teachers – we began to move away from trying to replicate an offline experience in an online environment. (There was much discussion of synchronous and asynchronous learning – terms bandied about which were unknown to non-experts the week before!) A video call in Teams can’t feel like a lesson – you can’t see everyone at once and interactions quickly feel stilted and frustrating. But making use of the chat, the thumbs-up emoji, limiting the time on the call and following up with text-based chat or collaborative work in OneNote makes all the difference. We started working differently: taking the pedagogical aim – for instance, the benefit of small group discussions in a lesson – and working out how to deliver that effectively in Teams – by having group channels with the teacher dropping in to listen and give feedback. We encouraged teachers to break away from the screen as well, for everyone’s wellbeing and to bring the variety of types of work they would to a ‘real life’ lesson.

Our wonderful teaching staff have a high confidence level with the technology because we use it every day, and that has allowed them to experiment and explore. This week, the Head of German and I have figured out how to add subtitles or voiceover in a foreign language to an existing film clip with the software we have or free apps. We’ve got some ideas and learnt some new stuff, and we know the girls will come up with even more. Everyone is rising to the challenge of exploring and integrating new tools and new ideas – whether that’s a deeper knowledge of systems we used already, or brand new work.

Authentic

Early in our planning, Fionnuala Kennedy, our Senior Deputy Head, came up with the three words to sum up our approach – clarity, consistency and connection.

Connection – use the technology at our disposal to stay connected with each other in as human a way as possible.

Whenever I speak about our digital strategy, I always put authentic first in the list. Our vision for digital technology embedded in our school life is a holistic and human-centred one. I talk about the need for the use of technology in schools to respect teachers’ professional judgements and their personal approaches. More technology is not necessarily better: teachers must choose their own path and my role is to encourage, guide, facilitate. Now we were all going off to our own homes to interact with one another entirely via screen, and one size did have to fit all in order to allow us a safe, consistent and calm remote learning experience. My peers on Twitter were jubilant that for digital specialists, our time had come! I wasn’t so sure it was that simple.

Above: Year 8 Spanish

I shouldn’t have worried. Our Wimbledonian spirit has meant that although we are all working in an unfamiliar and more standardised way, individuality has triumphed. Ms Phillips taught a remote sewing class, by voice and whiteboard from Teams; Dr Neumann encouraged her class to go outside, get a flower, dissect and photograph it; Spanish classes made board games; English classes acted out their text with soft toys; music groups made amusing remote ensemble videos; Junior girls in STEAM club explained their wacky home science experiments on Flipgrid. In among the functional necessity of online learning our authenticity and creativity has shone through.

Back in January at BETT, I quoted Georgia, a Year 13 student, talking about collaborating with her peers online:

“you’re helping others, they are helping you… It adds a new dimension to learning that doesn’t make it seem so stifled.”

This has turned out to be as true as ever. It’s been superb to see even the Year 5 and 6 girls who are new to using Teams and OneNote not only collaborating, but problem-solving and encouraging one another and their teachers in a warm and kind community.

Above: Year 10 Biology

What have we learned? And what comes next?

Although it feels a great deal longer, we have been away from our much-loved school building for 26 school days, as I write this. In a period characterised by fast-paced and ever-changing decision making, it’s salutary to pause and listen before we start thinking about the lessons we may have learned. We still have the challenge ahead of returning to our school site with social distancing in place. It’s clearer than ever that this is a marathon not a sprint, and that we’re all learning as we go.  Nevertheless, I’d like to share a few themes that seem to me to have emerged already.

Humility & Openness

Hardly anyone responsible for planning or delivering the remote learning taking place in schools throughout the world is an expert in the pedagogy and science of online or distance learning. It’s not part of our usual skill set. Remote learning is not like learning in a classroom and the two are not interchangeable. What those of us in education have achieved in the past eight weeks is our very best effort to ensure that learning is sustained for our students during a global crisis and unprecedented social lockdown. We’ve used our pedagogical expertise, and our deep knowledge of and care for our students and teachers to create a programme that works in our own context.

What we should do as we plan for the next academic year is make sure that we draw on expertise in the fields of online learning, instructional design and distance learning. We can then design new timetables, develop and modify our schemes of work, and put in place appropriate technology and courses to ensure that we can move to even more pedagogically robust guided home learning should we need to do so again. We can learn lessons from this experience and open up to new ideas for the future. A flexible, creative and exciting way of thinking about ‘school’ may lie ahead.

Above: Example of a Year 7 DT Class

Wellbeing & Community

We must remember that for all the cheerful social media sharing of birdsong and baking bread, for many people in our society this period may have been incredibly difficult – for reasons of economic disadvantage, personal risk of illness, mental health challenges and bereavement. Supporting the wellbeing of our own community and looking outwards to help others wherever we can – as our staff and girls have done wonderfully – has been paramount.

Within the school, finding ways to keep us connected digitally, both serious and fun, has been a privilege. Seeing staff and students create video assemblies, online quizzes, and share music and art have all been a joy. One of our students wrote:

“when watching the assembly this morning from Mrs Lunnon, I saw the views of the video rising. It was so satisfying and empowering to watch all the WHS seniors watching the same video as me at the same time.”

We may not want to abandon these entirely when we return to our school site, for the sense of connection they can offer.

International & National Collaboration

In this most global of crises, seeing the education community come together across the world has been inspiring. Through the Microsoft network, schools have shared their experiences and ideas. The value of online interaction and our new ease with video call technology has opened our eyes to new possibilities  – with friends in our international and local partner schools, and closer to home in our GDST family. This, as Jane Lunnon noted in The Telegraph this week, is a real opportunity to arise from this challenge. Sharing experiences, ideas and resources, working collaboratively, and learning with and from one another may be a positive outcome from this crisis.

Links

International collaborative work to plan for home learning: https://iscdigital.co.uk/coronavirus-continuing-learning/

Academic resources for remote and online learning: https://my.chartered.college/2020/03/online-distance-and-home-learning-selected-reading/

Our stories: @wimbledonhigh on Twitter for examples of our Guided Home Learning programme and volunteering stories from our community

 

 

 

 

Can a creative project prepare students better in English than exams?

Book

Sarah Lindon, an English teacher at WHS, reports on an experimental project the department ran in place of summer exams for Year 7 last year, and how it extended students’ horizons and ambition in English.

Though it is not by design, nonetheless it seems apposite that I am writing about the value of independent project work for students, now that children across the country are having to adapt to very different educational provision. I’d like to share what English teachers at Wimbledon High learnt last year from devising a poetry project for Year 7s in place of exams. Hopefully it can both inspire and reassure teachers, parents and students about the benefits of such learning.

How did we investigate?

As a department, we found it refreshing to put aside the annual exam training and investigate instead how our students’ education might better be served by a unit that fostered independence; balanced creative and critical skills; and made space to explore more freely their personal interests in the subject.

From experience, we know that students with a strong appetite for independent reading do better in Key Stage 4. Wide, adventurous reading confers benefits throughout the GCSE Literature and Language syllabus. So we wanted to nurture personal but scholarly enjoyment and independence among Year 7s in their own reading. Our hypothesis was that holistic engagement with the subject early in their secondary education would prove more valuable to their academic development ultimately than immediately drilling exam skills.

To this end, I adapted a format used in some university creative writing courses: researching a writer of particular interest in depth with the aim of extending and developing a student’s own writing practice, and developing analysis and reflections on both the reading and the writing undertaken. This entails a range of skills that are essential to the study of English at school: close reading, analysis, creative writing, reflection and evaluation.

We had three weeks’ homework time available as well as some class time. The first week would involve research, the second, writing, and the final week, evaluation and reflection. Our conclusions on the project’s success would be based on the quality of student work, our professional observations, and a student survey.

The design of the project

The Year 7s were given five poets to choose from. For the research phase they produced detailed annotations of three poems by their chosen writer, with comments on the ideas and the techniques found in them. The second phase involved identifying an aspect of the chosen poet’s work that they wanted to explore for themselves creatively. This could be quite freely interpreted and might be based on subject matter, form, tone, structure, style or technique, or a combination of these. The outcome was to produce a poem of their own inspired by the work of their chosen poet. The final phase was an evaluation, consisting of writing up analytical observations about the poems, followed by reflections on how they had responded to the stimulus pieces in their own creative writing.

Findings on reading skills

The investigation produced fascinating results. Some genuinely outstanding analytical and evaluative work emerged. Even without an exam structure, many of our students wrote to a very high level, demonstrating impressive insight into their reading, and writing with fluency and a sense of personal voice that seemed to flow from their extended immersion in and deliberate investigation of ideas and techniques that interested them. Students who usually expressed distaste for analytical writing were now motivated to get under the skin of the work they liked and figure out how to learn from it as ‘makers’. Foregrounding the complementary nature of analysis and creativity often seemed to engage them more deeply than dealing with either skill in isolation.

Though some struggled to annotate poems independently, they were often able nonetheless to articulate thoughtful responses to their reading in the write-up, usually thanks to the freedom they had to give particular attention to the aspects of the work that intrigued them the most. For others, trying to employ for themselves techniques used by their chosen writer prompted new understanding of the skill and thought behind producing a poem. Sometimes, the application of ideas and techniques in their own creative work revealed greater sensitivity to the poetry they had read than they were able to express analytically in annotations or in prose, through adept application of techniques or ideas found in the poems.

Findings on writing skills

Virtually all of our students showed notable progress in their own creative writing. In many cases, the leap in quality of the work was really marked. In others, familiar subjects and methods from previous pieces returned but with a new twist. The Year 7s quite often identified this phase as the most challenging, despite performing very well in it, perhaps reflecting a productive sense of ambition and ownership in their work at this point. Working from good literary models in creative writing can spark much more robust experimentation than students might otherwise attempt.

Often, it was the very idea or technique that a student found most challenging to work on that they had most success in, revealing their real investment and care. There was interesting evidence of the degree of work that went into some of these pieces, including rough notes and drafts, the gathering of lines over several days, as well as whole other pieces discarded and new ones started. The combination of freedom and structure engendered by the project’s design seemed to encourage a spirit of both adventure and discipline.

Writing

Student reflections

Evaluations often went beyond the 800-word limit, implying that our students were keen to report all of their thinking. Some took the opportunity to explain how important the independence had been to them. Across the ability range, they expressed enthusiasm and enjoyment of the project, even where they believed they were not very good at some of the work. So it seemed that they valued the sense of autonomy and scope for creativity even where the final ‘product’ might not have been at the level they would ideally like to achieve. This is surely a key foundation for a resilient, intrinsically motivated approach to reading and writing.

Many students were interested by the fact the project allowed them to look at a poet’s work more holistically, not just at isolated poems. This allowed them to consider differently how and why a poem is made, as well as generating a sense of personal connection to the writer. Their definition of what poetry is, and of what it can arise from, was broadened.

Closing thoughts

As teachers, we were very impressed by our Year 7s’ commitment and the quality of the work they produced. Based on observation and student voice, it is clear the experience was very enriching for them, and their independence and enthusiasm carried over into their Year 8 ‘Unseen Poetry’ work this academic year. They gained nourishment, autonomy and recognition for their personal interests and talents, thanks to the freedom of choice and freedom of expression engendered by the project. Some also went on to perform their work at our lunchtime Spoken Word events, alongside other students right up to Year 13s. It was very special to see them more than hold their own in this arena, reading with conviction and aplomb.

As part of a mix of teaching and learning strategies, there was no sense in which this project seemed a poor cousin of exam preparation in terms of educational value, and we are excited to be starting the unit again with this year’s cohort this term. You can see some of our students’ thoughts below, along with a small sample of their work. I hope this example of an extended project can boost your confidence in the benefits of carefully designed independent learning.

Student comments

‘I thought overall the most enjoyable thing about the project was the fact that it was totally independent, we were given a free rein to do what we liked. We weren’t given any guidance, we weren’t told we had to do something specific, and I feel I produced some work I’m proud of.’

‘The creative task allowed me to use my imagination, which had been shaped already by reading [the poet’s] work. Overall I really enjoyed this and the tasks complimented each other very well.’

‘Now that I have explored Maya Angelou’s poems in detail, it has slightly changed my way of writing poems by making them more mature in a way of finding an inner meaning and using more techniques. Now, I would do this task again but with a different poet, to see how it alters the way I write poems further.’

‘I have really enjoyed this English Project because it has made me feel so much more confident of my work. I have felt a lot less pressured because of the timing.’

‘Something that I found thought-provoking was analysing the poems because it showed the thought process that Maya [Angelou] went through when she was writing the poem, and it was amazing to see it.’

‘I liked how the essay we wrote was based on everything that we had done in the project, instead of just one part.’

‘I found it challenging to find the right balance when copying my poet’s work because I wanted my own voice in the writing, not just an impersonation of Clarke’s work.’

‘The work was more independent, meaning that I had to figure some things out myself. I liked this because although it was harder to get started, it was a lot easier for my writing to flow once I did get started.’

‘I learnt how to take inspiration from others’ writing.’

‘I learned how to be creative whilst writing in a set form and what poetry is really about. Not just a few lines rhyming with each other but deeper meaning.’

‘I learned that everyone has their own unique way of writing poems, books, stories, and that it doesn’t have to be perfect at all.’

‘This project changed my views on poetry and the poets that write them in the sense that so much thought goes into poems. As well as this more thought probably goes into the structure of the poem than the actual words.’

‘It explored the more creative side and it made English seem more exciting in the sense that you can create your own work in this way.’

‘Completing this project changed my understanding of English because it showed me how to link creative writing with analytical writing which before I found unconnected.’

Sample creative work 

Misty

“fear” is a thing with horns –
That tips you over the edge –
Chanting the cries from hell –
That never stops – at all –

The nest of a new born bird –
Burnt to charcoal ash –
Left alone and banished –
From the life of all living –

Abandoned on the island –
With only rotting wood –
Chanting the cries from ocean floor –
Reaching up with skeletal hands –

Sample analysis and evaluation

Anita

From [Gillian Clarke’s] poem ‘Lament’, the line ‘the oceans lap with its mortal stain’ in the third [stanza] gave the poem a furthered and deeper tone. This line is a play on words since it could have a few different explications. One possible way of interpreting this line could be that the stain is fatal and killing the ocean (which is the truth) as one definition of mortal is deadly or lethal. This carries across a feeling of action, as though it is telling the reader that it could kill the ocean and they should do something to stop it. Another way of interpreting the line could be that we, ‘mortal[s]’ have caused this stain on the ocean as the other meaning of the word ‘mortal’ is someone subject to death, as opposed to immortal. This is more liable to make the reader feel a sense of guilt, as they have helped towards this huge oil mark on our ocean’s surface.

Lara

[In my work, Maya Angelou’s] ‘The Mothering Blackness’ influenced the idea of separation and division between the two people, however instead I thought it would be thought-provoking to show the separation and division between the same person through comparison. Throughout all of Angelou’s poems, she also uses her own structure, with irregular rhyming, so I carried that through, with my poem using short lines, but longer sentences to capture the sense of life carrying on. Like ‘Awaking in New York’ my overarching theme is universal, however it is written like ‘The Mothering Blackness’, with a more specific story. Once I had come up with the idea of using a comparison, I got most of my structural inspiration from Caged Bird, however the initial ideas of the poem, were slightly influenced by ‘The Mothering Blackness’. Once I had come up with my idea, I was very certain of it and did not have any second thoughts. Once I had written it, I shortened the lines and cut the sentences off at random points to give a sense of enjambment linking to the fact that life still flows on and can be messy, or not in neat, straight lines. This meant that I had to have very powerful word choices to fill each short line, so I used a Thesaurus to find the most evocative words I could.

Can outdoor learning create thinkers, risk takers and environmental pioneers?

Mrs Sarah Brierley, Miss Tiffany McIntyre and Miss Jade Mayes explore the impacts of learning beyond the classroom on pupils’ social, emotional, physical development and academic progress.

We are the Wild Girls

Outdoor Education is an umbrella term for any educational session which takes place outside the classroom; from Maths lessons in the playground, to visits to the Tower of London. For us, Wild Girls provides our pupils with the opportunity to jump in puddles, build shelters, write poetry in the woods, fly kites and learn to love nature. As we like to say, there is no Wi-Fi in the woods, but you’ll find a better connection! Children are also given permission to play freely, to explore their natural environment and take controlled risks.

Meet the facilitators with a vision

Participants are destined to achieve. The Wild Girls’ facilitators aim to make observations based on each individual girl, in order to scaffold their learning and allow them to take controlled risks.

Sarah Brierley:
I moved to the centre of Wimbledon 4 years ago, from the beauty of The Lake District, which offers a different outdoor classroom for each day of the year. As a mountain leader and RYA dingy sailing instructor, when I shared my vision with my fellow outdoor instructors from the Lakes, they were bewildered at how I could possibly suggest delivering outdoor education in central London- but we’ve done it!

Jade Mayes:
As a Year 1 teacher, I fully understand the importance of hands on, child-led learning. I have a background in Forest School Education, and bring this knowledge to our new initiative. My vision is to foster a community of individuals, who have just as much love for the natural world as I do, and in return will take care of it for future generations.

Tiffany McIntyre:
As a Reception teacher, I aspire to make this project more than just taking learning from indoors into an outside area, but to go further and provide opportunities that cannot be achieved within the confines of a classroom. Once the walls are removed, children have a sense of space and freedom that allows their young minds to investigate, explore and create on a larger scale. They move freely, building confidence through shared enterprise and hands-on experiences. Whether this involves building a pirate ship or investigating the best consistency of sand to build a sand castle, it all supports the children in the acquisition of skills and encourages them to develop independent thought, where the possibilities are endless.

The importance of learning beyond the classroom

We can learn so much from nature. The trees in a forest care for each other, communicating through their roots. They warn each other about dangers and use this network to decide when to seed. We can learn so much from this ‘wood wide web’ (Flannary, 2016.)  The lessons trees provide us about team work are endless. Isolated trees have much shorter lifespans than those living connected together in the woods (Wohlleben, 2016.) Surely, this is a lesson that will support our pupils as they progress through life.

Our KS1 sessions include the use of a range of activities and resources to encourage our pupils to participate. Nature provides a therapeutic environment for pupils to truly be themselves and grow as individuals. This point of view is supported by Carl Roger in his book A Way of Being – ‘I love to create such an environment, in which persons, groups, and even plants can grow…real relationships with persons, hands dirtied in  the soil, observing the budding flower, or viewing a sunset, are necessary to my life’ (Rogers, 1995). This concept is at the heart of our practice and has already been successfully implemented within our Junior School.

Holistic pedagogy

The holistic approach is naturally engrained in the structures of a Wild Girls’ session, as emotions, fears, conflicts and friendships form an intrinsic part of each session. This offers children the opportunity to grapple with challenging processes, as they play freely within the woodland setting.

In an urban environment, it is essential for children to have access to nature. For us to be able to extend these opportunities as part of our Wild Girls programme is invaluable.

In addition to this, children need nature for the healthy development of their senses and consequently their learning and creativity. Asking children to use their senses to interpret the world around them can be challenging for those who have not had the opportunity to develop these faculties.

These classrooms come cheap too. London provides the world’s largest urban forest, ‘8.4 million trees for 8.6 million people’ (Wood, 2019.) In London, most areas of outdoor space are free to access and close to transport networks making it easy and free for schools to use them.

Wild Girls in Action

At Wimbledon High Junior School, we have created different activities for our girls to explore whilst outdoors.

In Year 6, our pupils study navigational skills in a woodland setting, in order to learn how to use compasses and read maps. These are skills that could be potentially get lost in the high-tech world our children are being brought up in. When learning about directions on a compass, one misconception emerged when a pupil suggested that North is always dictated by the direction of the wind! Even if she never uses a compass again in her life, she has been afforded a valuable learning opportunity.

In Reception, these experiences are focused on inviting the pupils to be a part of their environment, to observe and respect what they can see, hear and feel. Using stories as a starting point, we connect with nature and encourage the girls to lead the learning experience. However, the most fun our girls have had was splashing in the puddles on their way into the forest! These opportunities provide the foundation for these young learners to grow and to develop as they move through the Junior School.

Year 1 pupils have used free play to explore the woods, making wind chimes and mud cakes, whilst coming across many mini beasts to identify. In the outdoors, nature is in control. Although you can predict what the weather is going to do, you can’t predict what children will learn the most from in the natural classroom you’ve created. This is the beauty of outdoor education.

Final thoughts

This opportunity to roam unchecked and learn life skills in the outdoors is arguably the most important education any child can have. It is enriching for the soul and brings out character traits that may be hidden whilst learning indoors. In the short space of time that we have been delivering ‘Wild Girls’, we have observed social connections becoming stronger and more universal, and an even more cohesive sense of community emerging. Personality types who may be naturally more reserved, have been given the space to show the qualities of leadership and collaboration. In an ever-changing, evolving world, giving children the space and freedom to be a child, has never been more important.


References

Wohlleben P, The Hidden Life of Trees, London, William Collins, 2017

Wood P, London is a Forest, London, Quadrille, 2019

What is the single most important thing for teachers to know?

Pile of books

Cognitive Load Theory – delivering learning experiences that reduce the overload of working memory

Rebecca Brown – GDST Trust Consultant Teacher, Maths and teacher at Wimbledon High School – explores how overload of the working memory can impact pupils’ ability to learn effectively.

Above: Image via www.teachthought.com

Over the summer whilst (attempting to) paint and decorate my house, I was truly inspired listening to Craig Barton’s podcasts[1] and the opinions and theories of the fabulous guests that he has interviewed. In particular, his episode with Greg Ashman[2] where they discuss Cognitive Load Theory. I feel slightly embarrassed that I have managed to get through the last twelve years of my teaching practice and not come across this pivotal theory of how students learn before now!

Delving into this deeper, I have since found out that in 2017, Dylan Wiliam (another of my educational idols) tweeted that he had ‘come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory[3] is the single most important thing for teachers to know.’ As a self-confessed pedagogical junkie I immediately wanted to know more – so what is Cognitive Load Theory and what impact could it have on the learning of my students?

What is Cognitive Load Theory and where did it come from?

“If nothing has been changed in long term memory then nothing has been learned” – Sweller

In 1998, in his paper Cognitive architecture and instructional design[4], prominent Educational Psychologist Dr John Sweller helped demonstrate that working memory has a limited capacity. He put forward the idea that our working memory – the part of our mind that processes what we are currently doing – can only deal with a limited amount of information at one time.

In essence, it suggests that human memory can be divided into working memory and long term memory. Long term memory is organised into schemas. If nothing is transferred to long term memory then nothing is learned. Processing new information puts cognitive load on working memory, which has a limited capacity and can, therefore, affect learning outcomes.

If we can design learning experiences that reduce working memory load then this can promote schema acquisition. Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory suggested that our working memory is only able to hold a limited amount of information (around 4 chunks) at any one time and that our teaching methods should avoid overloading our working memory to maximise learning.

De Jong[5] states that ‘cognitive load theory asserts that learning is hampered when working memory capacity is exceeded in a learning task’.

Put simply, in early knowledge acquisition, if we can simplify how we deliver material to students, to focus on what really needs to be learnt so that they are not using up too much working memory, then we have a much higher chance of being able to help the learning stick in their long term memory.

Types of Cognitive Load

The theory identifies three different types of cognitive load:

Intrinsic: the inherent difficulty of material being learnt. This can be influenced by prior knowledge that is already stored in the long term memory. For example, if students know that 5×10=50 this can be retrieved without imposing any strain on working memory but if the calculation required as part of a problem was 398 x 34, students would have to begin to retrieve information on how to do long multiplication which would take up working memory required for new material.

Extraneous: the way in which the subject is taught or the manner in which material presented. Extraneous load is a cognitive load that does not aid learning and should be reduced wherever possible.

Germanic: the load imposed on the working memory by the process of learning itself. That is, moving learning from the working memory into the schemas in long term memory.

So, if we can manage intrinsic load, reduce extraneous load, allow more room in the working memory for Germanic load then we have better chance of learning being transferred into long term memory.

Moving forward

In his enlightening and motivational book How I Wish I’d Taught Maths, Craig Barton[6] summarises that the essence of Cognitive Load Theory is getting students to think hard about the right things in order to facilitate the change in the long-term memory necessary for learning to occur.

Whilst I am so far from being an expert in Cognitive Load Theory, from the research that I have already read, I am positive that my teaching practices will be enhanced by continually considering ways of reducing Cognitive Load and ensuring that students working memories are not overloaded with information that is not conducive to learning.

My next steps are to look further into the research from Mayer[7] on Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning to develop how I can best present learning opportunities to students.


References

[1] http://www.mrbartonmaths.com/podcast/

[2] http://www.mrbartonmaths.com/blog/greg-ashman-cognitive-load-theory-and-direct-instruction-vs-inquiry-based-learning/

[3] Sweller, J., Van Merriednboer, J. J. G. and Paas F.G. W. C. (1998) ‘Cognitive architecture and instructional design’, Educational Pscycholgy Review 10 (3) pp. 251-296

[4] Sweller, J., Van Merriendboer, J.J.G and Paas, F.G. W. C. (1998( ‘ Cognitive architecture and instructional design’, Educational Psychology Review 10 (3) pp. 251-296

[5] De Jong T (2010) Cognitive Load Theory, educational research, and instructional design: Some food for thought. Instructional Science 38 (2): 105-134.

[6] Barton, Craig 2018 How I wish I’d taught Maths

[7] Mayer, R.E (2008) ‘Applying the science of learning: evidence-based principles for the design of multimedia instruction’, American Psychologist 63 (8) pp. 760-769

 

Taxi drivers, not bus drivers

Suzy Pett, Assistant Head Teaching and Learning, looks at individual learning and discusses some of the benefits of this approach to teachers and learners.

As a school, our first strategic objective is for pupils to ‘step in’ and ‘be known’. As such, individualised learning goes to the heart of what we do. I’ve heard teachers described as bus drivers rather than taxi drivers, but I don’t think that reflects our ethos at WHS. We know that every pupil will get to the destination – we have the same high expectations of all our pupils – but we know that the route and journey will be different for each pupil. At WHS, we do not offer a mass transport education system, but we think of our pupils as individuals.

WHS RS Class
Above: WHS RS Class in action

Last year, John Hattie, author of the game-changing book ‘Visible Learning’, added some new categories to his meta-analysis of factors relating to student achievement. Coming in third out of 252 influences is ‘Teacher estimates of achievement’ with a value of 1.29.[1] To put this in context, the average effect size of all the interventions studied is 0.4. So, clearly, this is a big deal. This rating reflects the accuracy of an individual teacher’s knowledge of pupils and how that knowledge determines the kinds of classroom activities and materials as and difficulty of the tasks assigned. So, knowing your pupils is vital. It makes sense.

However, the idea of differentiation is fraught. Rather than being the elixir of learning, differentiation conjures an array of fears. Quite rightly, the negative potential of differentiation comes under fire. In our context of motivated and ambitious pupils, I cringe at lesson plans which explicitly seek to limit outcomes through so-called differentiation. The once popular tripartite formula of lesson plans – ‘all will’, ‘most will’, ‘some will’ – seemed a quick way to show your awareness of the different abilities in your class. Really, what it did was reveal a lack of confidence in all pupils achieving mastery, and your skills as a teacher to facilitate that. It resulted in a lower expectation of what “less able” pupils could achieve.

Above: WHS Classics class in action

A second concern about differentiation is that it can oversimplify learning. With the benign intention of making learning accessible for some pupils, excessively scaffolded tasks in fact remove the challenge and the opportunity to find things hard. A frequent mantra we hear in the teaching community is: “A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult”. Deep learning comes with struggle, something that educationalist Lev Vygosky also suggests: our pupils should operate within their ‘Zones of Proximal Development’. This involves facing challenges just beyond their current capabilities, with the right level of scaffolding to point the way.[2] Although disproportionate struggle has a detrimental effect, the danger with differentiation is that, keen to support those who will find it hardest, we remove the struggle altogether. The completion of the ‘dumbed down’ task at a lower level is the learner’s modest prize.[3]

A third concern is around teacher workload. The teacher is frazzled with creating multiple routes through the lesson, concocting various worksheets for the same task and putting on ‘clinics’ outside of lessons to cater for all needs. There is no time to reflect on what is working in the classroom, accurately assessing pupils and responding by planning creative and engaging lessons. Pupils are equally frazzled, spending lunchtimes yo-yoing between ‘clinics’.

So what does excellent individualised learning look like in a class setting? For me, assessment is the compass for differentiation. To really know our pupils, we need a sharp sense of what they struggled with and where they misunderstood ideas. It’s not got enough to find this out in a ‘clinic’ and to put it right then. Assessment and the resulting differentiation needs to happen in class. So rigorous Q&A is vital, as is effective and regular low-stakes testing. During class discussion, we need to focus as much on error as on what pupils got right so we know where the gaps are. We need to find out where the sticking point is for some members of the class, and then put in place plans to address it within lesson time.  Knowing your pupils is vital and responding to that knowledge in small, sometimes incremental ways, is what differentiation is all about. Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest, summarises this brilliantly in a blog post: “You may feel that John is coasting a bit; he needs a push this lesson.  It may be that Albert has looked a bit bored of late. He might be finding things a bit easy; let’s really crank it up this lesson.  The last time Rory handed his book in it was a bit of a shocker; I need to sit with him this lesson and get a few things sorted out.  Daniel is always just below the top level. Why is that? Maybe he needs to do some re-drafting and I need to absolutely insist that he does it again and again until it’s hitting the top level.”[4] It’s not all about the separate worksheet, or the extra clinic. It’s about the sustained and regular interactions we have with pupils on a daily basis. That’s individualised learning.

Bibliography

https://learningspy.co.uk/research/teachers-think-differentiation/

https://www.cem.org/blog/is-it-time-to-ditch-differentiation/

https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/01/07/differentiation-doesnt-work.html

https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/oct/01/mastery-differentiation-new-classroom-buzzword

https://teacherhead.com/2019/01/24/rescuing-differentiation-from-the-checklist-of-bad-practice/

https://teacherhead.com/2014/02/01/dealing-with-day-to-day-differentiation/

[1] https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

[2] https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/oct/01/mastery-differentiation-new-classroom-buzzword

[4] https://teacherhead.com/2014/02/01/dealing-with-day-to-day-differentiation/>

GROW 2.0: a Review

Mr Ben Turner, Assistant Head Pastoral at WHS, looks at some of the key messages from last week’s Grow 2.0 conference, looking at what it means to be Human in an A.I. World.

 

Panel
Discussions and debate from our recent GROW 2.0 Conference

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the troubling determinism of social media and the corrosive effect of echo chambers on our beliefs. At GROW 2.0 however, Robert Plomin talked to us of a different kind of determinism. In a mesmerising, if slightly worrying, lecture he enthralled us all with his ground-breaking work into, what he calls, the ‘DNA Revolution’. I say worrying because, according to Plomin, 60% of any child’s GCSE attainment is down to their genetics. The other 40%? Well, there are no systemic factors, that scientists have yet identified, that make a discernible difference in a child’s attainment.

Plomin debunked outdated notions of nature vs. nurture and instead asked us to think about our genetic predispositions.  He warned that we must never mistake correlation for causation. If, for example, a parent reads to their five-year-old every night, it is easy for us to believe that that child’s predilection for books and literature later in life is because of their parent’s diligence at that early age. Plomin would argue however that we have missed the point entirely and ignored the correlation of the parent’s love of reading being passed, genetically, to their child.

This is a powerful message to share with teachers and parents. As a school and, in these turbulent times, a sector we offer a huge variety of activities, interests and passions to those we educate. It is all too easy, as a teacher, parent or pupil to put on your GCSE blinkers and ignore the world around you. If 60% of the outcome is determined by our genetics, why not embrace that other 40%? Fill that time and energy with all of the ‘non-systematic’ activities, trips, hobbies and sports that you possibly can. Because, if we are still not sure what actually makes a difference, variety of engagement is surely the best possible choice.

 

We were lucky enough to also hear from Professor Rose Luckin, a leading thinker in artificial intelligence and its uses in education. It was inspiring to hear the possibilities ahead of us but also reassuring to hear the primacy, from someone truly immersed in the field, of the human spirit. Rose talked about an ‘intelligence infrastructure’ that is made up of seven distinct intelligences. The most important of these for her were the ‘meta-intelligences’, for example, the ‘meta-subjective’ and ‘meta-contextual’. It is our ability to access others’ emotions and our context “as we wander around the world” that Luckin believes separates us from even the most exciting advancements in A.I.

VR
Does VR have a role in education in the future? How can it not have a role given the exciting opportunities it offers?

 

As an educator, where I think I gained the most excitement from Rose’s talk were the possibilities for bespoke and tailored learning for every child. The use of data to help us with the educational needs of learners has some amazing possibilities. One could imagine every child having an early years assessment to understand the penchants and possibilities that lie ahead. This could lead to a bespoke path of access arrangements and curriculum for each child. A possibility that, as Rose said, is truly exciting as we will finally be able to “educate the world”.

More photos of the event on Flickr

Can the Harkness approach to delivering Maths lead to a deeper understanding?

Mrs Clare Duncan, Director of Studies at WHS @MATHS_WHS, describes the Harkness approach she observed at Wellington College and the impact that this collaborative approach has in the understanding of A Level Maths.

Named after its founder, Edward Harkness, Harkness it is a pedagogical approach that promotes collaborative thinking. Edward Harkness’ view was that learning should not be a solitary activity instead it would benefit from groups of minds joining forces to take on a challenging question or issue. What Harkness wanted was a method of schooling that would train young people not only to confer with one another to solve problems but that would give them the necessary skills for effective discussion. Harkness teaching is a philosophy that began at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the 1930s.

Edward Harkness stated:

“What I have in mind is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

This was very much what the classroom looked like when I was lucky enough to observe Maths teaching at Wellington College last term. Their newly refurbished Maths rooms had floor to ceiling whiteboards on all the walls. On entering the classroom, the students were already writing their solutions to problems that were set at preparatory work for the lesson. Whether the solution was correct or not was irrelevant, it was a focal point which allowed students to engage in discussion and offer their own views, problems and suggestions. The discussion was student led with the teacher only interjecting to reinforce a significant Maths principle or concept.  The key learning point is giving the students their own time before the lesson to get to grips with something before listening to the views of others.

The Maths teachers at Wellington College have developed their own sets of worksheets which the students complete prior to the lesson. Unlike conventional schemes of work, the worksheets follow an ‘interleaving’ approach whereby multiple topics are studied at once. Time is set aside at the start of the lesson for students to put their solutions on whiteboards, they then walk around the room comparing their solutions to those of others. Discussion follows in which students would discuss how they got to their answers and why they selected the approach they are trying to use. In convincing others that their method was correct, there was a need for them to justify mathematical concepts in a clear and articulate manner. The students sit at tables in an oval formation, they can see one another and no-one is left out of the discussion. The teacher would develop the idea further by asking questions such as ‘why did this work?’ or ‘where else could this come up?’.

The aim of Harkness teaching is to cultivate independence and allows student individual time to consume a new idea before being expected to understand it in a high-pressured classroom environment. This approach can help students of all abilities. Students who find topics hard have more time than they would have in class to think about and engage with new material and students who can move on and progress are allowed to do so too. In class, the teacher can direct questioning in such a way that all students feel valued and all are progressing towards the end objectives.  It involves interaction throughout the whole class instead of the teacher simply delivering a lecture with students listening. It was clear that the quality of the teachers questioning and ability to lead the discussion was key to the success of the lesson.

Figure 1: WHS pupils in a Maths lesson solving problems using the Harkness approach

This was certainly confirmed by my observations. The level of Maths discussed was impressive, students could not only articulate why a concept worked but suggested how it could be developed further. I was also struck by how students were openly discussing where they went wrong and what they couldn’t understand; a clear case of learning from your mistakes. Whenever possible the teaching was student led. Even when teachers were writing up the ‘exemplar’ solutions, one teacher was saying ‘Talk me through what you want me to do next’. Technology was used to support the learning with it all captured on OneNote for students to refer to later. In one lesson, a student was selected as a scribe for notes. He typed them up directly to OneNote; a great way of the majority focusing on learning yet still having notes as an aide memoir.

Although new to me, at Wimbledon we have been teaching using the Harkness approach to the Sixth Form Further Maths students for the past couple of years. Having used this approach since September it has been a delight to see how much the Year 12 Further Maths pupils have progressed. Being able to their articulate mathematical thinking in a clear and concise way is an invaluable skill and, although hesitant at first, is now demonstrated ably by all the students. The questions posed and the discussions that ensue take the students beyond the confinements of the specifications.

References
https://learning.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/harkness-teaching-and-uk-education/

The importance of collaborative learning

How can we encourage collaborative learning? Alex Farrer, STEAM Co-ordinator at Wimbledon High, looks at strategies to encourage creative collaboration in the classroom.

Pupils’ ability to work collaboratively in the classroom cannot just be assumed. Pupils develop high levels of teamwork skills in many areas of school life such as being part of a rowing squad or playing in an ensemble. These strengths are also being harnessed in a variety of subject areas but need to be taught and developed within a coherent framework.  Last week we were very pleased to learn that Wimbledon High was shortlisted for the TES Independent Schools Creativity Award 2019. This recognises the development of STEAM skills such as teamwork, problem solving, creativity and curiosity across the curriculum. Wimbledon High pupils are enjoying tackling intriguing STEAM activities in a variety of subject areas. One important question to ask is what sort of progression should we expect as pupils develop these skills?

The Science National Curriculum for England (D of E gov.uk 2015) outlines the “working scientifically” skills expected of pupils from year 1 upwards. Pupils are expected to answer scientific questions in a range of different ways such as in an investigation where variables can be identified and controlled and a fair test type of enquiry is possible.

However, this is not the only way of “working scientifically”. Pupils also need to use different approaches such as identifying and classifying, pattern seeking, researching and observing over time to answer scientific questions. In the excellent resource “It’s not Fair -or is it?” (Turner, Keogh, Naylor and Lawrence) useful progression grids are provided to help teachers identify the progression that might be expected as pupils develop these skills. For example, when using research skills younger pupils use books and electronic media to find things out and talk about whether an information source is useful. Older pupils can use relevant information from a range of secondary sources and evaluate how well their research has answered their questions.

The skills that are used in our STEAM lessons at Wimbledon High in both the Senior and Junior Schools utilise many of these “working scientifically” skills and skill progression grids can be very useful when planning and pitching lessons. However, our STEAM lessons happen in all subject areas and develop a range of other skills including:

  • problem solving
  • teamwork
  • creativity
  • curiosity

Carefully planned cross-curricular links allow subjects that might at first glance be considered to be very different from each other to complement each other. An example of this is a recent year 10 art lesson where STEAM was injected into the lesson in the form of chemistry knowledge and skills. Pupils greatly benefited from the opportunity to put some chemistry into art and some art into chemistry as they studied the colour blue. Curiosity was piqued and many links were made. Many questions were asked and answered as pupils worked together to learn about Egyptian Blue through the ages and recent developments in the use of the pigment for biomedical imaging.

There are many other examples of how subjects are being combined to enhance both. The physiological responses to listening to different types of music made for an interesting investigation with groups of year 7. In this STEAM Music lesson pupils with emerging teamwork skills simply shared tasks between members of the group. Pupils with more developed teamwork skills organised and negotiated different roles in the group depending on identified skills. They also checked progress and adjusted how the group was working in a supportive manner. A skill that often takes considerable practise for many of us!

Professor Roger Kneebone from Imperial College promotes the benefits of collaborating outside of your own discipline. He recently made the headlines when he discussed the dexterity skills of medical students. He talks about the ways students taking part in an artistic pursuit, playing a musical instrument or a sport develop these skills. He believes that surgeons are better at their job if they have learned those skills that being in an orchestra or a team demand.  High levels of teamwork and communication are essential to success in all of those fields, including surgery!

Ensuring that we give pupils many opportunities to develop these collaborative skills both inside and outside of lessons is key. We must have high expectations of progression in the way that pupils are developing these skills. Regular opportunities to extend and consolidate these important skills is also important. It is essential to make it clear to pupils at the start of the activity what the skill objective is and what the skill success criteria is. It is hard to develop a skill if it is not taught explicitly, so modelling key steps is helpful as is highlighting the following to pupils:

  • Why are we doing this activity?
  • Why is it important?
  • How does it link to the subject area?
  • How does it link to the real life applications?
  • What skills are we building?
  • Why are these skills important?
  • What sort of problems might be encountered?
  • How might we deal with these problems?

Teacher support during the lesson is formative and needs to turn a spotlight on successes, hitches, failures, resilience, problems and solutions. For example, the teacher might interrupt learning briefly to point out that some groups have had a problem but after some frustrations, one pupil’s bright idea changed their fortunes. The other groups are then encouraged to refocus and to try to also find a good way to solve a specific problem. There might be a reason why problems are happening. Some groups may need some scaffolding or targeted questioning to help them think their way through hitches.

STEAM lessons at Wimbledon High are providing extra opportunities for pupils to build their confidence, and to be flexible, creative and collaborative when faced with novel contexts. These skills need to be modelled and developed and progression needs to be planned carefully. STEAM is great fun, but serious fun, as the concentration seen on faces in the STEAM space show!

Twitter: @STEAM_WHS
Blog: http://www.whs-blogs.co.uk/steam-blog/

What can Literature teach us about Teaching and Learning? – 12/10/18

Having recently changed roles from Head of English to Assistant Head Teaching and Learning, Suzy Pett decided to turn to Literature to think about a couple of pedagogical ideas.

“A chapter having been read through twice, the books were closed and the girls examined.  The lesson comprised part of the reign of Charles I, and there were sundry questions about tonnage, and poundage, and ship-money…Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (1847)

From the caricatures of Gradgrind (Hard Times) to Thwakum (Tom Jones), Victorian literature is brimming with parodies of the education system. Here, we can see Brontë’s wry nod to the testing of seemingly meaningless facts at Lowood School.

Whilst education today is mercifully a far cry from that of the 19th century, the learning and testing of facts is still a hot topic. With the power of Google and Wikipedia at their fingertips, do pupils of the 21st century need to memorise information? Surely, without this encumbrance, we can focus on developing skills, interpretation, application and creativity?

Well, actually, long-term knowledge committed to memory is necessary to free up the working brain to process new information. Our brain is made up of about one billion neurons, each forming about 1000 connections to other neurons. With this capacity for deep memory, we can be more agile in our skills of problem solving: the more knowledge we have, the more flexible we can be in our thinking. Our working memory can only hold three to seven pieces of information at once, so relying on our long-term memory is important.

We can all agree with Brontë, that learning facts in isolation is pointless. However, our pupils continually use their deep learnt information to reflect more broadly and creatively about the bigger picture; about how they might apply these facts to be proactive, probing and provocative thinkers for the radically changing world of the 21st century. Thus, we can debunk that dichotomy of facts and skills: they are not separate pedagogical approaches. A rich curriculum does both together.

“ “But you must know that story?”

“No,” she said, screwing up her eyes as if she referred to the files of memory. “Tell me.”

And he told her the story.

The Years, Virginia Woolf (1937)

As humans, we are programmed to love a good story. Additionally, we are inherently wired to construct narratives from what we hear and see. Educational blogger Tom Sherrington recently likened the curriculum to a story and gave the following examples of learning-as-narrative:

  • How climate change flows from excessive carbon emissions
  • How humans came to exist on a planet orbiting a star
  • How poets convey the realities of war through imagery and emotions conveyed in the language and structure of their poems
  • How fossils of sea creatures can be found half way up a mountain
  • How we can derive and use equations that can tell us how objects will move in the future
  • How in 1854 John Snow came to understand that cholera was water-borne

(https://teacherhead.com/2018/09/23/great-teaching-the-power-of-stories/)

Just like stories, curriculum teaching requires careful ordering of ideas. We want to instil in our pupils a sense of direction like an overarching plot narrative; there are subplots, twists and turns making a topic more complicated; we require a narrator (i.e. a teacher) who grips the interests of individuals; and a reader (i.e. a pupil) who is invested, intrigued and wants to metaphorically turn the page.

As teachers, it is our job to bring to life a topic/idea/concept and to decide when and how we build on pupil understanding; how we capture pupils’ innate curiosity for ‘what happens next’; what cliff-hangers we build into learning to ignite pupils’ independent thinking to hypothesise beyond the classroom.

‘Knowledge organisers’ have been called “the most powerful tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer” (Joe Kirby, educational blogger): they sequence facts, concepts and definitions, creating a clear narrative of learning. They provide that overarching plot as well as the intricate detail. They allow us to ‘foreshadow’ later knowledge (to steal a literary term) so that further down the line pupils are ready to make a cognitive leap or to approach a ‘bigger’ more complex topic.

As teachers, we are crafting and delivering ‘bestsellers’ – with an author’s skill we ignite our pupils’ passion so they keep turning the metaphorical pages.

So, thank you, Brontë and Woolf, for whetting both my literary and pedagogical appetite.