Can we level the playing field? (Part Four)

20 May

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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.

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2 Responses to “Can we level the playing field? (Part Four)”

  1. headstmary May 21, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    This looks a fascinating programme – real development of the students’ procedural and metacognitive knowledge and skills. I will be interested in how many make it through the Oxbridge interview process. Have you something planned for next year – The Extended Project Qualification may be ideal for these students and gives them something to chat about in detail at interview.

    Great work, what would this look like in Key Stage 4 or even 3?

    Am I off the naughty step now?

    • teachertweaks May 26, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

      Thanks for such positive feedback. Yes, next step to think about doing similar things with lower school. Oh, and you’d never be on the naughty step – you’re a V.I.T. (Very important tweacher)!

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