Archive | April, 2013

Can we level the playing field?

29 Apr
This series of blogs is about how we are developing a programme of critical thinking with our Year 12 students. We will start by giving a context of why the programme was set up, then describe the stages we go through and the things that work well and not so well to show what we learn from the process.
The school has previously offered an A level course in critical thinking but as staff moved on, we no longer had suitable specialist staff to teach the course. The school has always been passionate about setting high aspirations and encouraging students to aim for the top universities but we sometimes found that the academically brilliant students were surprisingly unsuccessful at interview.
We wanted to work out what was different between our students and those from independent schools who seemed to breeze through the interview process. We believed that students needed to be given the opportunity to develop these specific thinking and arguing skills, so when the opportunity arose to work with the more able students who may have chosen the critical thinking A level, we jumped at the chance.
After a discussion about what the aims of the programme would be we decided that students should be given more opportunities to be critical thinkers earlier than Year 12, so we would work with students in Years 9 and 10 as well as Year 12.
Well, as an English/Film teacher and a Science teacher we didn’t know anything about the critical thinking courses and knew we couldn’t try and teach the full AS course without significant support and training.  Instead we decided to select some aspects of the course to construct a scaled down version and started by looking at specifications to identify the key areas of content.
We identified ‘argument’ and ‘making decisions’ as the main themes and wrote a series of 6 lessons for each area. The twist was that we weren’t going to be teaching them: the Year 12 students would teach the sessions to Year 9 and 10s. All students were identified from the gifted and talented registers as being the most academically able. The Year 12 students were put into groups of 3 and had  approximately 8 year 9 and 10 students in their ‘class’.  We started by meeting with the Year 12 students and explaining that the lessons would run before school and that they would be provided with a lesson plan and worksheets for each lesson in advance so that they could prepare for their 30 minute sessions.
The students were apprehensive but excited (“can we give detentions?”) and once parents had given consent, the programme began. The first unit on argument included sessions on the features of arguments, reasoning and common argument flaws. Although the students were keen and the first couple of sessions went well, the weaknesses in the setup started to become apparent. The problem was that the sessions were too ‘dry’ – we’d tried to make them easy for the Year 12 students to deliver but that meant that it just became ‘read this information together then fill in the worksheet’. It was interesting to see how the Year 12 students responded to this: some were super organised like ‘Boffin’ and read the lesson plans and resources in advance so they knew what to expect; others, like ‘The Professor’ just turned up and followed the plans without much enthusiasm (they were still half asleep having dragged themselves out of bed half an hour earlier than usual) whilst one student, who we will call ‘Maverick’ would turn up and make up his own version of the lesson, much to the delight of his group(ies).
The other problem with this programme was that the Year 12 students weren’t being taught at an appropriate level, so there was a limit to how much benefit they got from the programme. This became evident when we sat down with the cohort to evaluate the argument unit and the sixth formers all agreed they enjoyed working with the younger students but didn’t feel they were being challenged themselves. The year 9 and 10 students also unanimously agreed that the content was quite useful but the lessons were ‘a bit repetitive.’
The second unit on making decisions needed to be different. We decided to give the unit more of a real life context, so the students were told they were going to plan how they would set up their own ‘free school’. Each session was based on a decision that needed to be made. The groups were given a choice of options, for example deciding on the curriculum structure and the behaviour policy, and had to come to an agreement as a group and justify their choice. The unit culminated in a special event where each group would present their free school proposal to a panel consisting the head, assistant head and a school governor.
This unit was definitely less dry and the students took to it well. When the free school presentation event came around, the groups worked well together to present the justifications behind their decisions. The year 12 students were challenged more by being put on the spot to answer questions from the panel about their proposed school setup. This, however showed us the main flaw of the programme as it was: although some of the sixth formers were very good at performing under pressure, the programme had not developed these skills sufficiently to prepare them all for cross examination. This was supposed to be one of the main aims of the programme, so what would we do next?
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