Archive | May, 2013

How do you develop a strong learning culture amongst staff?

26 May

Dylan Wiliam quote

CPD is a funny old thing. For some, it means being talked at for an hour accompanied by a dull PowerPoint; for others, it means logging onto Twitter and tweeting fellow teachers. The thing that most teachers agree on is that CPD delivered from the top with no input from staff contributes little to anyone’s development. Nobody wants something done to them. We want to be part of something we can believe in. The question is: how do you create a learning culture where there are myriad opportunities for staff to – in the words of Dylan Wiliam –  ‘improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better?’


Ofsted: the kiss of death for high-quality CPD



I don’t know about you but I am ridiculously bored of hearing about Ofsted. In my eyes, this word should hold the same status as ‘Voldemort’. I don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t make me want to be a better teacher; it makes me think about planning lessons for someone I don’t know rather than the students in my class. Should I stop a perfectly good activity to demonstrate progress? Should I spend 10 minutes banging out about my learning outcomes so the inspector knows I’ve thought about them? Shall I get them to do this activity as a group so they can show cooperative behaviour, even though I think they probably would do just as well working by themselves?

A couple of years ago, Mel and I ran a ‘Good to Outstanding’ programme to help staff chase the elusive grade. We received a lot of positive feedback from staff and a year later the school did receive an Outstanding. In retrospect, SLT were keen to market them in a very ‘Ofsted’ way’ but what we delivered should have been called ‘Great teaching’. There were three aspects of the programme: stretch and challenge; marking and feedback; and independent learning. What made the sessions worthwhile wasn’t making teachers understand what Ofsted were looking for but rather that we ran each session many times in order to have small group sizes. What made these sessions better than anything else we’d delivered up until that point was that a group of approximately 10 teachers got to sit down and talk about their teaching and think about what was working for them and what needed tweaking. However, I must admit, there was sugar paper in one session – I know that for some of you out there, that’s a complete no-no!

So it’s talking that makes teachers better?

The lesson to be learnt from that programme was that teachers are crying out for opportunities to talk to each other about pedagogy. If only we could replace the endless cycle of meetings with more time for coaching, sharing best practice and collaborative projects. At the recent #SLTeachMeet, @headguruteacher gave a presentation on Rainforest Thinking. One of his ideas is to scrap some meetings and replace the time with departments collaborating. Imagine spending time after school developing innovative pedagogy rather than being read to from a PowerPoint – radical!

To listen to @headguruteacher, this is his presentation: (his is the opening #SLTeachMeet presentation).

If we are agreed that the best chance we have of developing a strong learning culture is devising opportunities centred on staff talking and reflecting on their pedagogy, what steps should SLT take to make this happen? My assistant head teacher responsibility is to lead on teaching and learning and I want to get it right. Considering I can be a right old bossy-boots and known for never shutting up, I have to reign myself in and remind myself that it’s not all about me me me!

Luckily, there have been some great opportunities recently for me to listen to many teachers’ views on how to best create a learning culture. Two things in particular have made me stop and think about the direction I was taking. Initially, when I started my new job in January, I had too many ideas about what I was going to do (that’s even before I’d met the staff!) Now I realise that I need to slow down and listen to what they want and need. Recently, I had a great Skype conversation with @TeamTait – yes, he is just a brilliant in the real world! My plan had been to share all of my ideas for September to create this great learning culture. He said he was going to be doing a drip-feed over time, with lots of different ideas that staff could get involved in. This seems like a much better approach. Over the next half term, I’ll be sharing my drip-feed of ideas with staff and ask them which ones they think will be most useful in helping us to become a more curious and reflective group of pedagogues.

Finally, my headteacher shared with me research from The London Challenge entitled Butterflies for school improvement. The idea in this document is forget the big gestures: it’s the culmination of small changes that make a real difference.

In the spirit of seeking high leverage both in the important things in school life and in reinforcing how the important things are done, we believe that small interventions can have a disproportionate effect. We call them ‘butterflies’ after the chaos or complexity theorist’s story that if sufficient butterflies were to beat their wings in the Amazonian forest they could trigger a hurricane thousands of miles away. High leverage indeed – but sometimes, if you were to put yourself in the position of the butterfly, quite a lot of effort. Perhaps, too, an unintended consequence.

Tim Brighouse and David Woods, Butterflies for school improvement (p.9)

To read the whole document, you can download it here:

So that’s the way I’m going to try and develop a strong learning culture. Small changes over time that, when looked at as a whole, have shaped us into better teachers. Well, after all, our Twitter handle is @TeacherTweaks. We’re all for making a big difference through small changes.


Can we level the playing field? (Part Four)

20 May

Word cloud

So, could Mel cope without the lovely Debbie? One thing is for sure, she’d have to do a bit less thinking and a bit more talking. The plan was to hand over some leadership to the students, so Mel would observe and ‘lead’ one group discussion and the students would take it in turns to lead the other group. The students were reminded that their role would be to get the discussion started and record the main discussion points but to try to have as little involvement in the discussion as possible. They needed only to observe and drop in the odd comment or question to encourage the discussion.

This has worked well and proved to be a good challenge for the students in different ways: some have found it difficult to hold back from the discussion whereas others have been challenged by the requirement to summarise the main discussion points and feed them back to the other group. It has been a good bridging activity for the students in preparation for the next step: leading a seminar completely.

Throughout the ‘taught’ sessions, some students have shown very strong opinions and interests in particular areas, which meant that they were keen to come up with their own ideas for seminar questions (for example, ‘Passionate’ led with the question ‘Should the freedom of expression be absolute?’) This has been particularly interesting because the student leading the seminar has been instructed that, just like the teachers during the ‘taught’ sessions, they were to encourage discussion amongst their peers rather than simply presenting themselves. I have been pleasantly surprised that students who clearly want to say more have managed to control their natural urge to contribute and simply drop in the odd ‘So are you saying that….?’ Or ‘Would you include….?’

For those students who didn’t have a critical question in mind and didn’t really know where to start, I provided a list of 100 Oxbridge questions (thanks to Emily Wiser for these). This was an interesting process to observe, because students started off reading through the list and wondering what ‘the answer’ was. When I reminded them that the idea is to think differently and deeply, and to consider how the question could be linked to other aspects of the subject being studied, the students went quiet, and disappeared into their thoughts.

We have definitely seen students grow during the programme; the most rewarding for me has been seeing the progress of ‘The Scientist’ (a student with an autistic spectrum condition). This young man is an extremely able scientist and mathematician and has gone from sitting on his own and saying almost nothing, to joining in with a group and starting sentences such as ‘Are you saying that…’ or ‘ Maybe (student x) means that……’ The Scientist’s seminar also amazed all of us; he chose the question ‘Can you imagine a world without laws?’ and managed to link how laws are used within cosmology to quantum theory, thermodynamics and the laws of nature. As a science teacher (but definitely not a physics specialist!) I had to be honest and say that I was very impressed but completely lost for most of the discussion. Many of the students also found the discussion very challenging but they stuck with it and managed to find aspects they could comment on.

The student led seminars last between 30 and 45 minutes and my only input is to sometimes, if necessary move them on between questions and generally guide them toward an end point! The final part of these sessions is for each student to fill in a small slip of paper, answering ‘What did today’s seminar leader do that helped with the discussion?’ Answers to this have included ‘questioned what we were saying’, ‘didn’t show her opinions; instead asked questions’, offered alternative interpretations’ and ‘provided interesting stimulus material’.

One student ‘Pensive’ who we have also seen flourish on the programme, when asked this week how she has found the sessions said, “The sessions have helped me to be more assertive with my opinion. I have learnt how to present arguments and speak confidently.” I felt like a proud parent!

We will evaluate the programme in more detail at the end of the year to find out anything specific that students feel they have gained and to identify any areas that could be developed or adapted for next year. Obviously, the best indicator of impact will be finding out how successful these students are at interview, however the skills they are developing have a much broader scope than university interviews.

Well, as I write this I am having serious CT withdrawal! The Year 12 students are sitting their exams, so I don’t get to enjoy the remaining seminars for a few more weeks. Once all the students have had their turn the plan is for them to work in pairs or threes to lead sessions with groups of Year 9 students. As the highlight of the first year’s critical thinking programme was the ‘making decisions’ unit focused on setting up a free school, the plan for these sessions will be something similar, culminating in a presentation by each group. When the plans for this part of the programme are finalised we will update this blog.

Please post any comments, questions, suggestions or requests for more information about the critical thinking programme below and please feel free to share with colleagues or friends that you think might find the subject interesting.

Can we level the playing field? (Part Three)

12 May


This is the third in a series of blogs sharing our experiences of setting up a critical thinking programme with Year 12 students.

So, we’ve identified our Year 12 cohort and it’s difficult to work out who is more excited about starting: us or the students. We could exaggerate and say that there was a buzz spreading across the school but we’ll just say that a small number of students and staff were looking forward to getting started.

Let’s start with how we designed the ‘taught’ aspects of the course. We wanted the sessions to encourage lateral thinking but also to be relevant and accessible to the students. We came up with a basic structure for each session as follows: begin with a ‘big’ critical question and ask students to write down their immediate thoughts individually. Next, introduce a stimulus to potentially support or challenge their initial ideas. Examples of stimuli we use include video clips from Newsnight, Have I Got News for You and QI. Again, students have a few moments individually to reflect on any ideas they have developed or changed and jot down their thoughts.

The main portion of the session is then divided into three follow up questions for the students to discuss. Our role in this section is to observe, listen and try to say as little as possible (a particular challenge for the verbose Miss Light!) We split the group in two for these discussions and each one of us observes the dialogue of one of the groups and makes a few notes (this kept Debbie busy so she didn’t have a chance to say too much!) After discussing each question for about 7 minutes, the teachers give a quick summary of the ideas they have heard during their group’s discussion (comparing the different directions that the thinking takes proves to be very interesting) and then the students have an opportunity to jot down any key points from the discussion before the groups are mixed up and the next question introduced. Once the three questions have been explored there is time to revisit the initial ‘big’ question and the students record any final thoughts on their notes sheet.

The ‘lesson’ lasts an hour and at the end of each session we collect in the notes sheet from each student. This is nothing to do with marking – we simply find it interesting to read the thoughts of each student and see how their ideas develop throughout the session. We give the notes back to the students in the following session so they can reflect on their own thinking. We’d be interested to hear any thoughts on marking for these sessions – would anyone be inclined to add comments and questions onto these notes sheets?

It can be a bit difficult to picture a session when it is explained in such a functional way, so we thought it best to give an example of one session. We’ve chosen the one that we had the most fun writing (apologies to our colleagues who had to try and work in the staffroom while we howled with laughter putting the slides together!)

To begin the session the ‘big’ critical thinking question is introduced: ‘How important is a shared language for communication across the world?’, and students jot down their initial ideas. Next, the stimulus material is shown: firstly, a video from CBN entitled ‘English no longer the global language’ showing a news report about primary school students in the US learning Mandarin Chinese, then we follow this up with some slides showing various gestures, and task the students with guessing the meaning of each in a particular language (see the picture above).

Students record any further thoughts following the stimulus material and then sit in two smaller groups to discuss the follow-up questions. These questions are: ‘Are words always the best form of communication?’, ‘Can we have thoughts without words?’ and ‘Should it be business that determines what becomes the global language?’

Students then have a few minutes to reflect and record their final thoughts as they are reminded of the initial question.

Memorably for me, this particular session raised some interesting discussions on whether students who are multi-lingual always think in their first language or if they automatically think in their second language(s) if their knowledge of those languages is strong enough. Interestingly, some students said they read something and thought about it in words, whilst others pictured what they were reading. It appeared to us that those students who thought in words were those that were quick to speak about their opinions whereas those who thought with pictures seemed to be more considered and slower to speak.

Reflecting on this process we wish we could have filmed each session because it is difficult to remember all the fascinating discussions that occur. The reason we decided against it is that we didn’t want to intimidate the students and affect how naturally they would participate in the discussion.

So, back to the programme, what happened next? Unfortunately for the programme, (but very fortunately for her new school) Debbie secured a promotion at another school and moved on at Christmas. At this point we had completed 6 out of 10 sessions of the taught programme and the students had taken to it very well. Mel was devastated to have to ‘go solo’ for the remainder of the programme, but it was a great opportunity for the students to take more of a lead. We will discuss how this worked out in the next blog and describe the student led seminars.

As promised, before we go, the answer to the barber of Stubblington question is that the barber must be a woman. This can be explained in many ways but the key points are that the barber shaves all the men who don’t shave themselves and only the men who don’t shave themselves – if the barber was a man, whether he shaved himself or didn’t shave himself he could not meet both of these requirements.

Can we level the playing field? (Part Two)

5 May

Occam's Razor

In the first blog in this series, we explained the reasons for developing a critical thinking programme in our school and described what we learnt in its first year.  In this blog we’ll tell you how we rewarded the hard working sixth formers from the first year’s cohort and how we took inspiration from a visit to another school to make improvements to the programme in its second year.

So, how would we adapt a critical thinking based programme to develop and challenge our Year 12 students? To help us answer this a North London Independent school, with whom we have a good relationship, were kind enough to host a visit for us to find out more about what makes them so successful with their university applications.

We were relieved to find that their students were very similar to ours, there wasn’t any particular discrepancy in academic ability but after speaking with some teachers, it seems what is different is the mind-set of these students: they simply expect to get into the top universities. How on earth were we going to deal with that?!

The other thing that really impressed us was their programme of ‘Critical Method’. Rather than offering Critical Thinking as an A level option, all Year 12 students participate in the programme, which includes a taught element looking at argument, reasoning and subject based critical questions alongside a series of student-led seminars. We were able to sit in on a seminar where a student led a discussion with a dozen of his peers on the subject of ‘Is everything Maths?’ This was the inspiration we needed. We wanted our students to have the confidence and the skills to be able to lead a seminar so effectively.

Back at school we convinced the school to let us set up a timetabled programme of Critical Thinking lessons (albeit in an after school ‘twilight’ slot) for those students with the potential to apply for the top universities. We also secured funding for a reward for the students who were now in Year 13 and had run the critical thinking sessions the previous year with the younger students.

We were excited about the funding, so went ‘shopping’ to find a trip or visiting speaker to inspire our students to have high aspirations in their university applications. Well, as two keen online shoppers we were sorely disappointed at the lack of opportunities to spend the money. We searched every combination of relevant terms we could think of and could find nothing that was suitable. Disappointed was an understatement, the money was just asking to be spent, but out of the blue an email was forwarded to us from Emily Wiser, who runs a company called Wiser Words ( Emily was running a session at a local school and wondered whether we would be interested in meeting with her while she was in the area to discuss the enrichment sessions her company offered. After looking at their website, we decided this could be what we were looking for and arranged a meeting to find out more.

We’re not going to be doing the hard sell but we thought the session with Emily was very good. She ran a series of activities that required students to thing logically and laterally and highlighted the importance of reading around your subject so that you can draw parallels and discuss aspects of the subject in greater depth at interview.

The first activity really got students thinking – they were told the following information: ‘In the village of Stubblington is a barber who shaves the faces of all and only the men who do not shave themselves.’ The students then had to decide whether the barber was a man, a woman or it was impossible to tell. It was a pleasure to observe the thinking process going on and to see whether the students changed their minds when their peers explained why they had chosen their answer.

The sessions identified the students who were ‘definite Oxbridge material’ or ‘definitely not Oxbridge material’ and those who had the skills for interview and the depth of knowledge/interest but who unfortunately hadn’t worked consistently enough to achieve the required grades. The feedback from students was largely very positive and some who hadn’t previously considered Oxbridge applications said that they might consider applying.

So, back to the new programme for Year 12 students. How would we apply what we had found from our research visit and last year’s programme to our current Year 12 students?

We started by identifying suitable students based on their average points score at GCSE. Each of the 14 students on the list was invited to a meeting where they were introduced to the programme. We explained that the programme was critical thinking and was aimed at developing the skills that were useful in many contexts, but were particularly important for success at interview with the top universities.

Then followed the fun part: The X Factor-style auditions. Each student was offered a choice of 3 questions and had to select one to present in a 2 minute time slot. They were given 10 minutes to prepare and were only allowed to bring a few written notes with them. The 3 questions offered were, ‘Can there ever be nothing?’, ‘Is it always right to speak truthfully?’ and ‘Is something boring because of you or because of it?’ Well, we were excited at the prospect but didn’t really know how it would turn out. We knew we weren’t expecting too much because the whole point of the programme was to develop these skills but we hoped to see some sparks of potential that we could then work with. What a fascinating experience. Each student went down a different pathway and some even left us utterly speechless.

One example of interesting reasoning was ‘The Scientist’, an extremely gifted young man, who tackled ‘Can there ever be nothing?’ with such a good understanding of quantum mechanics that Mel (the scientific one!) was struggling to keep up and Debbie just resorted to smiling and nodding. He was followed by ‘Argumentative’ who managed to speak for two minutes about how the fact that the word ‘nothing’ exists means it must be something.

The two of us as judges were in agreement as to who should make it through and by the time we had finished we had a group of 11 students who were invited to join the programme.

The next stage would be to prepare a series of taught sessions to prepare these students for the ultimate aim of the programme: running an individual seminar for their peers.

If you’re still wondering about the barber in Stubblington, you’ll have to think about it for a bit longer, the answer will be in next week’s blog…

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