Author Archives: kennyodonnell

Hole in the wall learning?

Cross-posted from Odblog

I’m sitting here trying to mark prelims for S4 and my thoughts are already turning towards the Higher. Anyone who has taught or is familiar with the structure of the Higher course will know that it is impossible to do full course coverage by January and there is a real pressure of time on teachers. Furthermore, we sometimes find ourselves in the situation of hurry-up teaching, where learning becomes lecturing and notes instead of engagement and thinking.

As such, I had been worried that a highly technical topic, atmosphere, would be fudged and would be barely understood in such circumstances. My solution (and it remains to be seen whether its right) was to create space for what Sugata Mitra might call ‘Hole in the wall’ learning. For those not familiar with this, as I myself wasn’t until a couple of days ago, Sugata Mitra tried an experiment where a computer was placed in a hole in the wall of an Indian slum. The natural curiosity of children led to self tuition, the central assertion being that children learn best by collaborating with one another as opposed to adult led tuition.

Mitra tried the same with a class in the UK, who were given GCSE problems they had no content knowledge of, grouped them into 4 and gave them one computer, encouraged free movement between groups and even copying. The average grade on the responses was 76%. To prove deep learning had taken place, he assessed the same group later in a formal exam and the average grade was exactly the same. I have mirrored this with my higher and included some of their resulting work. It will be interesting to see if a seed has been planted when we revisit both the topic for a brief pre prelim run through, and the questions themselves.

A little bit of random goes a long way

A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted about a lesson where the style of demonstrating learning was chosen by students from a random list. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the invitation to talk about this in a little more detail here, and should probably begin with removing any credit for the idea. I was simply using John Davitt’s Learning Event Generator, which has become something of a staple in my classroom over the last wee while and is well worth trying if you haven’t already. I find it lends itself well to making researching a topic more interesting (which is how I used it for this group of lessons) and moving away from having a powerpoint and kids talking from a page as the means of showing what they have learned. I think it also requires a deeper understanding of their topic to pull it off succesfully, and I can hopefully show some examples of where the students in my S3 geography class have been able to do this.

To set the scene, we were covering a key part of the physical geography in Standard Grade, features of glacial erosion. This is often the type of lesson where teachers (myself included) are guilty of just ‘telling’ classes the answers without any real thought process, as in our minds, how landscapes have been formed doesn’t change, so neither does the learned answer for exams. In effect, the students often never really have to think about what they have written in jotters until they are trying to rote learn it for an assessment. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to move away from this approach. A couple of weeks ago, I told the class that we would be learning about a landscape feature called a U-Shaped Valley. We shared the important terminology that should be used if we were to explain their formation successfully. Once we had established these, we moved on to how we would show our learning. I gave the students access to various materials which would provide the neccessary information and then showed the learning event generator. Students worked in groups of 3 to 4 and first of all had to decide which event they would present. We ended up with the following:

U shaped valleys as a childs book

U shaped valleys as a recipe

U shaped valleys as a hanging mobile

U shaped valleys as a Dylan card sort

U shaped valleys as a 3D model

U shaped valleys as a board game

U shaped valleys as a shopping list

U shaped valleys sung in the style of Bohemian Rhapsody

Although the students picked their own event, I’ve used this in the past as an entirely random assignment. I find that by giving the choice instead, the activity loses none of its fun appeal, motivation is high and the engagement of all groups in this instance was outstanding from the outset. I’ve selected some of the students work, much of which is already on our Marr Geography twitter page.

Video of the Dylan card sort

This was a mini homage to the Bob Dylan short film which accompanied his ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. The boys in the group decided to pick what they thought were the key words to remember and Calum, the narrator, carried this through unscripted, using only the cards as a prompt – in effect, how some students revise.

Some images of the childs book

This was a nice piece of creative writing where some girls in the class borrowed from the ideas behind earlier river stories in June and used them to illustrate glacial processes. I have argued with classes in the past that glacial landscapes are nothing more than a story anyway, with a clear start, middle and end. A great advert as well for how literacy is not just something to be developed in English. I’ll make a small apology here for the extra pictures – as a blogger user, I had a bit of a fight trying, unsuccessfully to remove the pictures of the mobile (next).

The hanging mobile

This was my favourite piece of work, purely because of the amount of effort and creativity that went into it. We had been using dried spaghetti in class a day before with an S2 class, making earthquake proof buildings. The group of girls doing this exercise gathered some unused bits to form the frame of the mobile, from which they hung diagrams of the valley formation using paper clip chains with full explanations before taking an age to work out the balance!

The board games

Some classes created board games last year in S2, and I think this was maybe a ‘safe’ option which nevertheless gave the option for groups to show a real understanding of formation sequence. The most difficult part of this exercise was the framing of the chance card style questions and meant that the students doing this had to truly understand the content so that they could understand what they wanted to ask.


Although I haven’t shared all of the work that we completed, hopefully this gives a flavour of how this type of activity could be used in almost any scenario to show evidence of learning. The most satifying aspect for me was the recall after the activity, and I feel confident that knowledge and understanding is significantly stronger than if I had taken control of the content and delivered it all myself. Moreover, it was really pleasing to witness a class full of students who seemed to be enjoying what they were doing, were motivated to learn and collaborated purposefully to meet the learning intentions. My former PT at my previous school, an individual who I admire greatly, used to always say that kids liked to work to established routines and, though I know what he was saying in terms of expectations and so forth, I think this is a valid example of where breaking from routines can create some of the most rewarding learning experiences.