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A Deeper Approach to Planning Learning Experiences
pillars

Engineering effective learning experiences: Motivated by a recent chat with the ever stimulating Carl Gombrich (@carlgomb) I wanted to take an earlier article where I discussed a form of Curriculum which synthesises Challenge Based and Collaborative Group Learning a little further.

In this article I wish to outline and extend an approach I and a number of colleagues apply when designing long term (curriculum) and short term sequences of learning experiences. The approach, presented here as steps and in diagrammatic form, acts as a learning driven planning framework which provides a foundation for a range of pedagogies, especially those aligned with a Group, Cooperative or Collaborative Group Learning Process, to be applied.

Step 1, the opening move: Before any other step the concept/theme/topic to be explored should be chosen, an aligned Driving Question designed and the time available (in and out of ‘class’) for the learning experience established.

The concept being explored is Justice. This concept will be explored through the Driving Question: How could you make your world more Just? 6 weeks are available for this concept to be explored.

Step 2, establish the Core: Decide what subject/domain specific Knowledge, Understanding and Skills you wish learners to develop. Due to longer term planning such decisions about KUS should be shaped by where the learning is coming from and where it is going to; what has been learnt, what needs to be developed. The chosen K & U act as a Case Study to be investigated and to be used to model later Collaborative and/or Individual activity. It should be these three aspects which will be assessed and progress within them recorded and measured thus providing the learning experience with an academic core.

In this sequence of learning experiences (a unit of work) learners will have an opportunity to develop knowledge about The Holocaust. They will have an opportunity to develop an understanding of The Holocaust in particular the Political Social Economic factors that contributed to The Holocaust and the role People Ideas and Events played within its development. Through this Case Study Learners will be provided with opportunities to develop the skill of Historical Interpretation through Collaborative Enquiry and teacher led Master Classes and enhance the skill of Research & Record through application supported by targeted Master Classes. The development of knowledge will be assessed through a factual test (at the start and end of the sequence to measure K development), understanding assessed through a piece of extended writing about the causes of The Holocaust using agreed criteria (I can statements) and the skill of Research & Record will be assessed through the accurate application of the R&R criteria during preparation for the final artefact; a collaboratively written 5 minute speech.

Step 3, once the subject Core of KUS has been chosen: Decide what Personalised Learning Choices students can make to shape their own learning experiences. The nature of these choices should be informed, but not limited, by the Core. The semi permeable PLC’s can also offer opportunities to connect subject areas. Learners may be given opportunities to find, establish, explore connections between subject areas in terms of KUS relevant to the guiding topic/concept/theme or the Core. Master Classes may be planned to provide personalised support for KUS development.

Learners will have the opportunity to choose an injustice present in their world which they find interesting, they have a passion for, applying R&R to explore the causes of, the nature of and possible solutions to this injustice. Opportunities to explore the injustice along the lines of differing perspectives, for example connecting to Theology, Law, Philosophy, Sociology, Media, Politics, Biology to explore more deeply their chosen injustice. Master Classes will be provided in class and online to support learners to enhance their R&R skills and to attend to emerging deficits in knowledge related to their chosen injustice.

Step 4, rest it all on 6 pillars: These pillars have been chosen as they represent what I believe to be fundamental facets of an affective-effective learning process. Others may feel this selection does not align with their own philosophical, theoretical or ideological beliefs. Many hardcore Constructivists would switch out most of these pillars while Behaviourists would choose a wholly different complement of pillars (perhaps bells and electric shocks).

  • Pillar 1: Metacognition. What opportunities will be provided for learners to reflect upon and act upon their own and others approaches to learning?
  • Pillar 2: Feedback. What opportunities will be provided for self, peer and expert feedback and feedforward? How will feedback be acted upon?
  • Pillar 3: Collaboration. What opportunities will learners have to apply and develop the skills of and processes of collaborative group learning?
  • Pillar 4: Enquiry: What opportunities will be provided to investigate and explore challenges and problems? What opportunities will be provided for learners to construct their own questions and investigations?
  • Pillar 5: Authentic Challenge: What opportunities will be provided for personalisation, in terms of choice and support? How will the learning experience be made authentic? Can the assessment of learning be made authentic?
  • Pillar 6: Pragmatic Rehearsal: What opportunities will be provided for learners to practice exam specific skills?

Pillar 1: Regular opportunities will be provided within learning sessions for students to reflect upon there own learning (WWW & EBI approach). At least two opportunities will be given for the Learning Set to reflect upon their group learning processes. This will in part be stimulated by peer and teacher feedback.

Pillar 2: Peer and teacher feedback will be provided with Warm and Cold forms. Follow Up Time will be built into Learning Sessions enabling learners to act upon the feedback, planning the next steps in their own or the Learning Sets learning. Feedback will be verbal and written, provided for in and out of class learning and following on from each assessment. The assessment of understanding will be followed by feedback and a planned opportunity for learners to respond to feedback. Feedback will also guide which Master Classes should be attended during the injustice investigation.

Pillar 3: The Learning Set will provide for ongoing collaboration, in particular through discussion. Collaborative processes will be activated during The Holocaust interpretations activity following on from The Holocaust Master Class. In particular collaboration will be undertaken through the planning of and undertaking of the injustice investigation (planning for and sharing research) and through the co-authoring of the final 5 minute script for the presentation script.

Pillar 4: The collaborative investigation will require question construction, both driving and research in nature. R&R will facilitate collaborative and individual enquiry into the chosen injustice.

Pillar 5: Authenticity through Learning Set choice of investigation. They will own this investigation, its topic and the questions designed to enact the enquiry. Learners will be encouraged to choose a topic they are passionate about or directly effects them. The final assessed speech will be delivered to a real audience made up of experts, staff, peers and parents.

Pillar 6: GCSE criteria will be applied to the extended paragraph on the causes of The Holocaust giving students a flavour of GCSE expectations.

An additional step could be implemented at this stage to add further sophistication to this planning process. A promotion of Learner Attributes or, as seems very popular with the establishment right now, Character through learning experiences may lead to planning for how each attribute is covertly-overtly developed. Similar to the pillar approach above one may consider how each and every or selected attributes are developed. For example how will I provide opportunities for learners to develop the attribute internationalism through this sequence of learning experiences? How will I recognise it when that attribute is developed? How can I measure the development of that attribute? (My next article ‘Facilitating and Measuring the development of Learner Attributes’ will address each of these questions).

In summary, within much ‘lesson planning’ the process seems to stop at Step 2. Such shallow planning for teaching rather than learning, if I may be so bold, is a hallmark of many classroom. The approach outlined here takes planning, informed by learning, deeper, creating a truer framework for learning and a guide for curriculum as well as ‘lesson’ planning.

I have provided the table below as a structure to guide the planning of sequences, a table which perhaps could replace the somewhat pointless lesson planning proforma many teachers endure while knowing it serves little purpose.

learning experience planning framework

Encouraging and developing questioning skills
Learners writing their questions on the board.Learners writing their questions on the board.

Whilst looking online for new approaches to encourage learner questioning, I found the Right Question Institute. They suggest that questioning is not a skill that learners are routinely encouraged to undertake, and is one that is often not explicitly taught. A strategy that they have developed to address this is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), which encourages learners to formulate and articulate their own questions.

In this post I will briefly outline the steps involved in the QFT, full details of which can be downloaded from the Right Question Institute (it is free to sign up). I will then describe my first attempt at using this approach in class, which produced some good questions, along with a few amusing ones!

Summary of the QFT

1. The question focus – this can be anything that is used to stimulate learners’ questions, for example an image, a video, or an article.

2. Produce questions – based on the question focus, learners are instructed to:

  • Ask as many questions as they can
  • Don’t stop to answer, judge, or discuss
  • Write down every question exactly as stated
  • Change any statements into questions

Once questions have been generated, learners could write them up on flipchart paper, on the board, on Post-It notes etc.

3. Improve questions – Learners are encouraged to improve the questions. This could include, for example, a discussion around closed versus open questions, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

4. Prioritize questions

Learners review the question list and choose the three questions that in their opinion are most important.

5. Reflect

Have learners reflect on the original question focus, what has been learned so far, and discuss how this relates to the topic at hand.

The QFT involves a shift in practice, where learners ask questions instead of the teacher. Three key thinking abilities are encouraged with this approach:

  • Divergent thinking, which may be broader, go off on a tangent, incorporate other topics, or make links beyond the classroom.
  • Convergent thinking, which allows learners to focus and prioritize.
  • Metacognitive skills, encouraging learners to think about thinking, how to ask questions, which questions are important and why.

The learner-generated questions can be used for a variety of purposes, including to:

  • Guide lesson planning
  • Increase engagement and ownership
  • Demonstrate inquiry in the classroom
  • Stimulate a fun introduction to a topic
  • Be a driving question for project-based learning
  • Make the classroom more democratic, and give learners more of a voice
  • Encourage study skills, rather than simply ‘delivering’ content

Using the QFT

I recently tried out the QFT with some of my Year 13s – they are Thai students who receive the majority of their lessons in English. This term we are taking an in-depth look at evolution. I begin this topic with a peer-teaching assignment based around the evidence for evolution. Learners work in small groups, with each group focusing on a particular strand of the evidence for evolution: fossil evidence, morphological evidence, molecular evidence and so on. I decided to try out the QFT as an engagement activity at the start of this assignment.

The question focus was simply a pair of images: photos of a platypus, and of a ‘crocoduck’ – a Photoshopped image of a duck with a crocodile’s head. The aim was for students to formulate questions based on their thoughts about these two images, and how they may relate to questions around the evidence for evolution.

There were some good questions that came up, for example:

  • If these two have the same ancestor, why do they evolve to adapt to environment differently?
  • Can crocodiles fertilize with ducks?
  • Are these two animals related to one another?
  • Is there a crocoduck in real-life, and will it be carnivore or herbivore?
  • How can (the crocoduck) balance its body.
  • Does the platypus live in water?
  • Does the crocoduck fly?

There were also a few amusing questions:

  • What software was used to Photoshop the picture (of the crocoduck)
  • What the hell do they eat?
  • Is this the creation of an evil organization?
  • Has science gone too far? Illuminati confirmed!

On reflection, this was a fun and engaging activity, which did produce some good questions. Due to time constraints I was unable to spend much time with the students in terms of refining and improving their questions. However, when asked to prioritize the questions that they considered most interesting or useful, they chose the questions I would have also chosen, such as the first one in the top list above.

Another thought that has occurred to me since doing this activity is to repeat it towards the end of the course, possibly with a different artifact as the question focus. Hopefully the questions asked will be somewhat more sophisticated and the students will gain an appreciation of just how much they have learned.

I would definitely use this approach again, although I would use this particular example slightly differently, such as an engagement device prior to an assignment based around natural selection, adaptation, and environmental selective pressure, given the questions it elicited. In general though I found the QFT to be engaging for learners and very useful for generating questions.

How can we differentiate in a way that gives pupils ownership of their learning pathways?
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I’m a big believer in pupil ownership of learning. After all, it’s not my brain that’s doing the work; it’s not my skills that are developing; and it’s not my exam result on a piece of paper at the end of the year. As teachers, I see our role as facilitators: enabling pupils to achieve their potential in a way that develops the skills to do it time and time again. For pupils to do this, they need to develop the independence and resilience that comes from making their own decisions about how they learn; what pace they learn at and how to approach success and failure.

I’ve been trying to achieve this with a group of Higher Biology students. These pupils are in a slightly unusual position of studying a two year Higher beginning in S4. Although this gives a lot of time for teaching the course and developing understanding, I find they often lack the independence and study skills that you might expect from older pupils taking a Higher course. To try and encourage them to make their own decisions about learning, I’ve been using SOLO taxonomy stations as a way of structuring- and differentiating- revision or flipped classroom lessons.

The idea is to use a simple quiz- usually multiple choice questions- alongside a SOLO taxonomy framework to help pupils self-assess their current levels of understanding. Once they decided which level they are working at, they set about on the task designed for that level, sometimes physically moving between tables designated for each station. The pictures below show the SOLO taxonomy framework and the recommended next steps. So for example, a pupil who is pre-structural or uni-structural may need to catch up on notes or work on keywords. At the multi-structural level, pupils are ready to try Knowledge and Understanding type questions that help them revise the facts; whilst those moving to relational are ready for more challenging questions that link the topic together, such as an essay. Finally, pupils who are working at the extended abstract level are challenged to apply and link up their knowledge, either to problem solving or new topics not yet studied.

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I’ve had a lot of success with these lessons. Firstly, it gives a quick and visual way to assess individual confidence and understanding of a topic around the room, by the level at which pupils choose to work. Although I generally encourage collaborative working, it’s good to see that pupils tend to work at the level they feel confident at, rather than just following their neighbour. Secondly, it gives me the chance to provide support to ALL pupils at appropriate level. Because everyone is working at their own pace, everyone is able to at least start the task independently- even if they may require help over small challenges- which means I’m not stuck trying to help one or two of the pupils who are struggling most. This means that all pupils, including the most able, get some of my time, and get the support and push they need. Thirdly, over the course of a lesson, pupils make progress that is obvious to me and them. The tasks are designed so that around two levels can be completed in a lesson (and sometimes I use timed targets to encourage some of the lazier pupils to achieve this!), so pupils can clearly see how they have improved by moving up the levels over the course of the lesson. And from there, they know what they need to do next to achieve a deep understanding of the topic. If they get the self-assessment stage wrong, and their understanding was better or worse than they thought, they quickly realise the task is too easy or too hard and adjust their working level appropriately.

I was observed a while back delivering this style of lesson to a Higher class. Whilst the feedback was very positive, the observer posed one key question: if this were a large class of challenging S2 pupils, instead of my eleven delightful Higher pupils, could this still work?

I was intrigued. Could it? Could my S2 class, who find self-assessment and working independently a real challenge, cope with making decisions about their learning in this way? Would they engage with the challenge, or would they simply use this as a way to avoid anything difficult? Inspired by a wonderful resource I found on the TES website, I used the idea of Nando’s takeaway menu as a lesson framework for a revision lesson on space and forces, with pupils selecting a starter, main course and dessert task:

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Just like with the SOLO stations, pupils took a quiz prior to choosing their tasks, and used the result to inform their decisions about what to do next. Pupils choose their three tasks based on its heat level: from extra mild through to extra hot. There was a nice twist here, as I have been working with this class on higher order thinking skills, and as the heat increased, the thinking skills required became gradually HOTter… get it?!

So… was it a success? Well yes, hugely in my opinion- and that of the colleague observing my lesson. Pupil engagement was massively improved compared to other lessons with that class. Pupils had a clear understanding of what they needed to do and seemed to be genuinely enjoying undertaking the tasks set. Misconceptions were being quashed left right and centre, as I found I had more time to spend talking about the topic with individual pupils. Pupils were tackling tasks involving applying, evaluating and creating with confidence, and pupils were also clearly proud of what they were achieving at each stage. And best of all, pupils could explain clearly not only why they had chosen each task, but what thinking skills they were practicing by doing it- developing metacognition around their own learning that I’d just not realised they were capable of.

Next week I’m leading a learning conversation about this at the BOCSH conference, Talking About Learning 2015 at Inveralmond High School. I’d like to talk about the opportunities but also the challenges I’ve found using these strategies, and how others are achieving these aims. My questions will be:

1. How can we help pupils to identify current understanding, to inform their targets and next steps?

I’ve found SOLO taxonomy to be an excellent framework for helping pupils to identify the current level at which they are working. However, it is limited by how well pupils understand what is required at each level. Do they comprehend the increase in understanding required to progress? What other strategies do people use to help pupils self-assess?

2. How can we ensure pupils challenge themselves, but have the chance to succeed?

Even if pupils understand what is required at each level, are they making good decisions about what task is the most likely to help them progress? Interestingly, boys often select tasks from a level above where I would have put them; whilst girls often work below where I think they are capable. Is this due to confidence? Are they too scared to fail at the more difficult tasks? Pupils often state that they are ‘making sure they get it’ before they move. This seems like a good thing, but maybe it’s a barrier to their progression. I often encourage pupils to revise ‘outside of the comfort zone’: to revise the topics or skills that they really don’t want to- because they’re hard! How can we encourage pupils to work outside of their comfort zone, without them losing confidence in what they’ve already achieved?

3. Perhaps most importantly, how can we help pupils identify the progress they have made, and understand how they got there?

Through these lessons, pupils can see what progress they have made in their understanding, and I often ask pupils to reflect at the end of the lesson what progress they have made, and what kind of studying has helped them achieve that progress: be it revising content, applying knowledge or creating links. Is this valuable? Does it help pupils to see where they’ve come? And what strategies do others have to achieve this?

Using ideas around metacognition to tackle examination questions
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I’ve seen the term ‘metacognition’ banded around on Twitter recently and it’s definitely something I want to read up on. I also watched a video on John Tomsett’s blog (@JohnTomsett) of friend and ex-colleague Lisa Kirby teaching a maths class about simultaneous equations. She used a technique I often use which I sort of thought was intuitive but it seems it has a fancy name: metacognition! According to the TEAL website, metacognition can include doing the following:

“Teach learners how to ask questions during reading and model “think-alouds.” Ask learners questions during read-alouds and teach them to monitor their reading by constantly asking themselves if they understand what the text is about. Teach them to take notes or highlight important details, asking themselves, “Why is this a key phrase to highlight?” and “Why am I not highlighting this?””

It’s something I always do with GCSE and A-level questions, especially towards the start of the course, to get students used to how to approach questions. Rather than assume that they have an intrinsic understanding of what to do, I model my own thinking. I’ve made my Year 9s a booklet of past GCSE questions to prepare them for their end of year exam and the first question was horrible! Not in terms of subject knowledge but it’s got pages of graphs and diagrams to work through. The question was Question 9 from the June 2013 BL1HP (AQA) about feeding relationships and pyramids of biomass.

I gave the booklet out to one of my Y9 classes yesterday and was very quickly met by puzzled faces and lots of questions like “what do I do on this page” (referring to a page with no questions, just graphs and text). Today, I took a different approach with another Y9 class and modeled my thought processes with them. MUCH different results!

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I used the Visulaiser to project the image of the question on to the board. I started with the basics – making sure I had a pen and highlighter to hand. I tried to talk aloud every thought process which came into my head which is a little bit weird as lots of things we do without being aware of them (as experienced adults). I read each part of the information carefully, highlighting key words, but more importantly talking about why I thought they were important and what background knowledge I could link to them.

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We looked at the graph showing the population of animal and plant plankton over a year. I talked aloud about things I noticed, like the y-axis scales being different on the left and right, and patterns I noticed in the trends. I talked aloud about the summer being warmer with greater light intensity. I modeled reading figures from the graph and why I chose to do a rough reading rather than a precise one.

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When I’d verbally analysed the data we moved on to look at the questions. I read the questions aloud and talked about the command terms and bullet pointing and looking at how many marks the question was worth.

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To look at this 5 mark question took about 15 minutes. I explained to them that this would happen much more quickly in real life as they’d become faster with practise. I was so impressed with how attentive they were; even the ones who like to race ahead and get on with their work were patient and could see the value in what we were doing. They were really positive when we’d finished the question giving unprompted comments such as:

“I would never have thought to do that”

“I never would have been able to do that”

The power of the red pen!
red pen

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As a teacher I value pupil voice and understand the importance of quality feedback which needs to be more of a conversation than a statement. In practice though it can be difficult to achieve this without it becoming unmanageable. One change to my teaching practice this week has really made a difference to the quality of the feedback between myself and my class. The red pen!

End of the red pen as a teacher’s weapon

Under guidance from GwE our school dropped our use of the red pen this year and switched to green. I have never really appreciated the negative connotations of the red pen and believe that if you switch colour any negative connotations pupils do have towards one colour pen will simply be switched to the new colour. As a result of our switching we had a stock of red pens going spare in the store cupboard.

Reintroduction of the red pen for pupil voice

Red is naturally a prominent colour that stands out and it stands to reason that as a teacher you want to hear the learners voices as loudly and clearly as possible. Giving learners ownership of the red pens in order to make comments on their own work has really made the thoughts of the learners obvious within their exercise books and highlighted any changes they make to their work as part of the editing process following completion of draft pieces of work.

The result of red pen revival

Since using the red pen learners have really thought about what the good points of their work are and also been keen to show that they know how to improve. As a teacher this saves me from making suggestions for improvements that they can make for themselves and instead focus on the more subtle ways that they can raise the quality of their work. It is such a simple and effective idea that I can’t understand why I didn’t think of it earlier.

Viva la red pen!

Cross-posted from Enjoying Education

Boarding Pass – @FernwoodDT
Used as a starter (Boarding Card) and plenary (Departure Pass)Used as a starter (Boarding Card) and plenary (Departure Pass)

I saw this idea on Twitter originally and like most of our resources it was amended to our students. The concept is simple the ‘Boarding Pass’ is given to students as they enter the classroom and are instructed to fill in their name and ‘One fact from last lesson’ the teacher then goes through some of the answers with students writing them on the board. G&T students and students that finish early are encouraged to write down a ‘key word’ from last lesson too. Again these are reviewed and shared on the board. This is a great way to link previous learning.

Lesson objectives/todays outcomes are then presented to the class by the teacher. Students are asked to digest this information and fill in an individual ‘target for todays lesson’ and ‘what level I aim to achieve’ these are kept by the student throughout the lesson.

At the end of the lesson students are asked to fill in the ‘Departure Card’ (which is eventually torn off via a perforate edge). Students write ‘One thing they have learnt’ and ‘What level did you achieve’ based on the learning in todays lesson. Students then love tearing off the Departure Card with the perforated edge and handing it to the teacher as they leave the lesson. The ‘Departure Card’ can then be used at the beginning of the next lesson again linking prior learning/showing progression and/or stuck in a work book. Questions can be changed to suit the lesson/subject I imagine it could be used in all subject areas it has worked particularly well in our schools MFL lessons too. This shows fantastic knowledge and understanding of a topic in an engaging yet simple method!

Here is a link to a presentation that shows how the boarding pass is used/presented to the students – Boarding Pass – PowerPoint

Here is a link to the guillotine we use – http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/A4-Paper-Trimmer-4-in-1-Card-Crease-Wavy-Cut-Straight-Cut-Perforation-/281181932948?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_3&hash=item4177bfcd94

See @FernwoodDT and @Me77ors on Twitter https://twitter.com/FernwoodDT for more ideas and resources

Any questions/feedback please email m.mellors@fernwoodschool.org.uk :)

Learning by Mistake
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Learning by Mistake

Over the last few months I’ve become enthused by Carol Dweck’s work on the concept of a growth mindset. As a result of this I decided that it was time to make much better use of students’ learning mistakes in my classroom. Typically most students tend to not want to dwell on mistakes they’ve made, as they don’t want to be reminded of what they and others perceive as failure.

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My Best Learning Mistake

My year 8 Geography classes had been working on an assessment about Cheddar Gorge and today was the day they were going to find out how they’d got on. I always allocate a whole lesson dedicated purely to feedback and reflection when I return an assessment but today I added a new activity to our usual repertoire. I asked students to identify their best learning mistake – the one that they’d learnt the most from. This is actually quite an abstract concept, the class I first trialled this with found it tricky. I had another year 8 class after break so did some tinkering and provided a framework to help them structure their answer. I could almost hear both classes’ brains stretching as they completed this activity.

 

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Mistake Marsh
The second activity I created evolved after reading about the concept of a learning pit. I wanted to develop a variation on this theme and add a geographical flavour. Marshes are notoriously difficult to cross, so to is climbing to the summit of a towering mountain – a good analogy I felt for a learning journey. I returned assessments to year 9 and we did our usual review and reflection but added the ‘mistake marsh’ to our menu of activities. This was the final step in our evaluation process. Students were asked to note three mistakes that they’d made in the boxes on the marsh – these represented mistakes they’d made on their learning journey. They then had to decide which mistake was the most important one and write it in the box at the base of ‘Mistake Mountain.’ Once again there was lots of silence and cranking of brains. My hope is that by identifying crucial mistakes they will not make them again.

 

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I know that these strategies are not ‘perfect’ yet and that students will need more practise; I plan to revisit and refine as well as devising new activities to get the most out of mistakes. There always has to be a starting point and being afraid to make a mistake shouldn’t be a reason not to have a go!

I feel a bit like that about this first post – it’s the first blog post I’ve written for years and I know that I’ve made lots of mistakes but one thing I know for sure is that I’ll get better :)

Marking Grids
March 8, 2015
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I saw this post by Fiona Old on twitter about marking grids and thought that it would be useful in science. Recently I set my Y7 groups a takeaway homework on particles. I had some wonderful examples of work handed in : comic strips, 3D models, songs, posters and cake! I wanted to provide detailed feedback as the students had put in so much effort – but found myself wondering why I hadn’t thought about the marking when I set this homework to two classes in the same week.

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I decided to try using a marking grid. I looked through the homeworks to get an idea of comments that I would give and what pupils would need to do to improve. I also looked at some level ladders for the topic and the ‘I can’ objectives for the unit and came up with some statements for the grid. I think that some of the statements probably need to be modified but as a first attempt I think it was successful. I highlighted 2 things that I thought that students had done well and I also highlighted something that they could do to improve their work. I then left them a question that they could answer related to the improvement in DIRT time. I found that the grid made marking much quicker – but hopefully the quality of feedback for the students is not compromised. 

An example:

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I have used this approach with my Y7 and Y8 classes so far and the response from pupils has been positive. They find it easy to see the things that they have done well and what they need to do to improve their work.

Originally posted on my blog here.

Using hinge questions for formative assessment
Image by flickr.com/photos/75001512@N00Image by flickr.com/photos/75001512@N00

I’m trying to get better at formative assessment. I work in a sixth form college and so pretty much everything I do in the classroom is about exam results. The students that come to our college arrive from a broad range of feeder schools and have a similarly broad range of skills and knowledge. It’s a constant challenge to make sure they are learning the content on the spec at the same time as developing the skills they need to reach their target grades. In the rush to get through the syllabus I find it’s all too easy to forget to check whether students have actually understood what I’m trying to teach them. I’m guilty of assuming that students have understood the content because they’ve scribbled down the 3 things they’ve learnt that lesson on a post-it note in a rushed plenary bolted on at the end. It’s with this in mind that I’ve turned to Dylan Wiliam’s, Embedded Formative Assessment, and started to implement some of his strategies in my teaching.

One of the first techniques I’ve been trying to master is hinge questions. These are diagnostic multiple choice questions used as a mini-plenary at a turning point in a lesson. It’s a pause in proceedings to check understanding before you move on to the next part. I used it last week with year 12 when we studied several theories about the relationship between population and resources: Malthus, Boserup and the Club of Rome. The students did a jigsaw learning activity to get down the main points and answered a set of questions as a group. I then gave them two hinge questions:

The principle behind Malthus’ theory is…

  1. There is a fundamental mismatch between population growth and resources.
  2. Fundamentally, humans have no way to increase food supply so food shortages will lead to population checks.
  3. People cannot control how many children they have.
  4. Food supply increases geometrically and population increases arithmetically.
  5. Positive checks increase birth rate while preventative checks reduce death rate.

Boserup’s theory states that…

  1. Malthus was wrong: there is enough food in the world.
  2. Population pressure doesn’t lead to food shortages.
  3. As population reaches carrying capacity, societies are forced to make agricultural changes to ensure there is enough food.
  4. Population checks are preventable through the use of technology, as seen in the Green Revolution.
  5. Optimum population can be reached through the inventive use of technology.

Each student wrote and held up their answers on a mini whiteboard for me to see. At a glance I could see whether they’d understood the two main theories or not. One class had, the other hadn’t. Satisfied, I moved the first class onto the second part of the lesson where they completed an evaluation of the two theories, culminating in an exam question. The second class had far more students who got both answers wrong so I explained the answer to each hinge question (and why the 4 other options were wrong) and then set a different task. They mind-mapped the theories using a different text and a set of key words I’d prepared and then answered some different questions as a plenary.

I’ve also used hinge questions as an end-of-unit test for A2 Geography and have also got students to write them themselves as part of team quizzes and revision activities. The trick is to make all 4 (or 5) answers sound plausible. This forces students to look (and think) beyond the obvious and become more precise and subtle in their writing. Hinge questions are hard to write and hard to answer if you’ve done it right but that’s the point.

There are some clever ways in which you can use a Quick Key app on your phone to do diagnostic tests using hinge questions as well. Simon Renshaw discusses this technique in his blog http://srenshaw.wordpress.com/ extensively. I haven’t ventured that far yet, but it’s something I plan to.

Hinge questions are a simple but very effective method of formative assessment which any teacher can use. I’m currently writing them about oxbow lakes and meanders: the true realm of a Geography teacher.

Using Hexagon Learning for categorisation, linkage and prioritisation
Students at the International School of Toulouse studying the rise of Stalin using the hexagon approachStudents at the International School of Toulouse studying the rise of Stalin using the hexagon approach

Hexagon Learning Case Study: The Rise of Stalin

The ability to select, prioritise, categorise and link evidence is a valuable skill that students learn in History. It is also highly transferable to other subjects.

Using hexagons is a particularly simple and effective way of developing these skills, as the following case study seeks to demonstrate.

Historical Context

How Stalin was able to emerge as leader of the USSR against apparently overwhelming odds is one of the most intriguing questions which we study at IB Level. In the years that following the Bolshevik Revolution, due to a series of blunders and miscalculations, Stalin had lost the support of the party leadership: so much so that on his deathbed, Lenin dictated a formal ‘Testament’ describing Stalin as a liability who needed to be removed from his post. He was also hated by Lenin’s closest ally, Leon Trotsky, who was widely expected to step into the leadership position after Lenin’s death. Yet just five years later Stalin was undisputed leader of the USSR and Trotsky was in exile.

The story of how Stalin transformed his fortunes so dramatically is a great story revolving around Stalin’s treachery, cunning and downright charm. But the danger of this is that the essays that are then written become mere narrative, storybook accounts which do little more than provide a step-by-step account of the main events between 1924-1929.

The Hexagon Approach

After a study of the events culminating in Stalin emerging as leader of the party, I made a list of factors which could be used to explain why Stalin became dictator of the USSR. I then put these into my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator to create two single-page documents containing a total of 40 hexagons.

Stage 1: Selection and Categorisation

The class was divided into pairs for the activity. Each pair of students was given a copy of the first sheet of hexagons, which they cut up and started to organise on their desks into categories of their choice. This process, involving the categorisation of 25 hexagons, took about 20 minutes. Students were encouraged to come up with no more than five categories overall. They could also choose to leave some of the hexagons to one side if they were considered less important than the others.

We then spent five minutes comparing the different categories that students had identified. Each pair of students took turns to suggest one idea for a category heading until all the ideas had been shared.

Following this, I gave each students a blank sheet of hexagons. The challenge was to identify other factors which could help to explain Stalin’s rise to power and write these directly into the hexagons. After five minutes, each pair of students took it in turns to suggest an idea. If this was a valid (and fresh) idea, then the other students copied it into their pair’s version of the sheet, and the students who shared the idea were each given a sweet (we had a bag of these left over as a result of our ‘Rise of Stalin through sweet-eating’ lesson which had preceded this lesson!). This process was repeated until the students had run out of ideas.

Each pair of students then cut up this new sheet of factors and used them to develop their existing diagrams. In some instances this involved merely adding fresh evidence into existing categories. Sometimes though it involved adding new categories, or amending earlier categories.

Finally, each pair of students was given the second sheet of hexagons and the process of categorisation continued.

Stage 2: Linkage and Prioritisation

By this stage, the students had decided upon the main factors to explain Stalin’s rise to power, organised into key categories. Each of these categories could form the basis of a paragraph in an essay. However, it was still necessary to decide two things.

Firstly, students would need to decide in which order to deal with the points in each paragraph. It would not be enough to simply introduce the category title, then randomly write about each piece of evidence from the hexagons in that group. This is where the hexagons are particularly useful. The six sides mean that factors can be placed alongside each other in various combinations to highlight connections between batches of factors within categories. After students rearranged their factors in this way, they stuck them down onto sugar paper with a glue stick. They could then write the title of each category over each batch of hexagons, and annotate around each group of hexagons to explain why they were arranged in that particulary way.

Secondly, students had to decide how to connect their main categories together to create an overall thread of argument. They did this by drawing arrows between the factors and explaining their connections over them. For example:

“Economic problems in the country > created > Divisions in the party > exploited by > Stalin’s Cunning”

Stage 3: Essay preparation

The final part of the process was to use the completed diagrams as an essay plan. I photographed each of the diagrams and shared them with the students. Their task was to use the diagrams as the basis of their essay on “Why did Stalin become leader of the USSR?”. Each paragraph was to focus on separate categories of hexagons, and the points made in each paragraph should have some logical order and ‘flow’. Moreover, the order of the paragraphs should be dictated by the arrows linking the categories, with the opening sentence of each paragraph after the first one being based on the explanation over each arrow.

Reflections and Conclusions

The ‘Hexagon Approach’ worked very well. It steered students away from a narrative approach and into an analytical frame of mind. It helped them frame categories of analyis, build up their command of the material step-by-step. It provided them with the opporunity to easily change their initial assumptions, connect factors together both within and between categories, and give them a very effective basis of an accomplished written piece.

It is also a very simple approach that can be transferred to other topics and other curriculum subjects. All that is needed is an initial list of factors – contributed either by the teacher or the students – which can then be written into a blank hexagons template or turned into hexagons automatically using my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator. Thereafter, all that is needed is a pair of scissors, some sugar paper and a glue stick. And, ideally, a bag of sweets!