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 (http://www.wiserwords.co.uk/). 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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