Author Archives: Richard Donnelly

Becoming an expansive educator

“Those interested in expansive education believe that the idea that education must be centrally about expanding young people’s capacity to deal with real-world complexity and uncertainty and want to explore ways in which this vision can be turned into a practical reality” eednet.

In September I moved to a new school in a different city ready for a fresh challenge. I have been given a great opportunity to work in London in a new school. With time I hope to play my part in helping others to create a school that is known as a world class institution leading the way in 21st century approaches to teaching and learning. This sounds like a lofty ambition but I believe the facilities of the school give us a head start. We now need to fully embrace the human and social capital within the school to work with synergy to develop a multi-disciplinary curriculum that is relevant and fit for the changing world our students will enter when they leave school.

I want to become an ‘expansive educator’ and work with colleagues of a similar nature to allow for an expansive education for the students in our care. The inspiring book by Bill Lucas, Guy Claxton and Ellen Spencer ‘Expansive Education’ gives a range of examples from around the world where this is happening. I was also pleased to read about BLP and PBL in the book as two methods I have used and use currently to prepare my students.

I also want also to become a linchpin –an invaluable agent of change and progress in my school. I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s book linchpin and its definitely worth a read! I feel schools need people to drive progress because often they become static and I’m afraid to say I’ve met very few individuals who have that drive and creativity to think differently especially when it comes to curriculum reform. There is plenty of enthusiasm from some teachers and the will to do well for the students in their care, but this energy could be channelled more effectively in the ways of an expansive education. The educator who uses twitter as a CPD tool, who carries out action research and generally has a fascination for how students learn and can inspire others without doing it through formal school processes might be defined as a linchpin. I’m sure if you are reading this post and use the excellent you are more than likely to be developing that knowledge to enable an expansive education.

An expansive education can be achieved through using Project Based Learning (#pbl) when done well and is developed by people who know what they are doing. Students will carry out and create a project that imitates the skills they need in real life such as collaboration and problem solving rather than learning boring contrived content. In my school I dream of a year when #pbl is practiced across the curriculum. There are cross departmental projects each term and the most beautiful (all work because of redrafting and regular critique) is exhibited and celebrated with a real audience. Projects that are academically rigorous and well planned but also challenge students to think about real situations and real problems. Why teach key terminology and key subject skills when students can practice those through an authentic project. Projects that allow students to exhibit their work and are effectively assessed using real world criteria. Experienced and well trained teachers who can effectively plan for all these (using the 6as) and facilitate the project effectively are vital. A great project based educator will know how to debrief students learning effectively and make their progress (both content and process) throughout the project visible. They will know when to stand back and allow students to work independently and feel comfortable and confident doing so. They will also know when to intervene with individuals or as a class and potentially initiate some ‘just in time teaching’ and allow for deep thinking about their issues and ideas. They will know when to deliver a ‘master-class’ about a specific skill the students need to help them develop their understanding and give them a foundation of knowledge or skill to build upon for use in their project. Students will be given a choice about what interests them personally and over time students will become more discerning about what information is useful to them in the context of their project or their long term ambitions.

Some say pbl is a Marxist way of teaching. I’m happy to endorse that if it allows students to think disruptively and discern their own futures rather than being taught a curriculum that engenders compliance. A ‘traditional’ curriculum aims to create a future workforce ready to enter the capitalist system of working for a boss and doing as you’re told or to suit the ideology of the incumbent education secretary at the time. This is no good for the 21st century student and not the moral way of teaching.

We must allow students to be ‘disruptive thinkers’ not compliant robots. Students who are connected and able to learn from other disruptive thinkers around the world would be an ideal. The west teaching the east is not as applicable in todays connected world, rather we have a lot to learn from others in the developing world for example. It is no longer enough for students to learn a set curriculum that is often contrived and even pointless. As a geography teacher this always makes me think of teaching about ox bow lakes. In all my years of learning about them and even teaching about them (GCSE’s), I have never witnessed one in real life! Students need to respond to the real issues such as global and national inequalities, climate change, an ageing population and technological change amongst others. The world is changing and we are responsible for educating students who are going to build our local and international communities, hopefully into a fairer, more sustainable and equitable place. The work of Carol Dweck and developing a ‘growth mindset’ is also important here. I’m a huge fan of praising effort not intelligence and teaching topics that do not always offer definitive answers. Rather I prefer to allow student to think of various alternatives and even think through sometimes controversial and challenging issues. We also want students to have an ‘educated optimism’ about the future, where they are aware of the world they might be living in but also have the creativity and resilience to survive in that world without fear and pessimism. Students who are mindful and in the moment, a state of mind that a great facilitator will use to desired effect.

The space in the school I work in is ideal for a #pbl approach. Forum areas to launch projects, have large debriefs and critique sessions. Open learning spaces that allow for collaborative learning. We have lecture theatres and a hall for exhibition of work and for visiting speakers from the community or professional world to inspire our students about real world issues. A balcony overlooking London to launch a project on London! Students who see the relevance in every lesson they are involved in is a must. I always make the link between my geography lessons and the real world. I am happy for students to directly ask me what the point of the lesson is if they cannot make a connection with what they are doing and how it matters to them. This may be something explicit for example a recent geography lesson where students were researching new forms of energy such as shale gas and wind power. They were clearly able to make the connection to their own energy bills and the need for clean and reliable source of energy. Sometimes it could be a transferable skill such as their questioning habit they were developing by asking each other questions about the form of energy they had been researching. This was followed by a debrief of what makes a good question and why questioning is important (not compliance always). We also have the technology (ipads, laptops etc) for students to effectively use that technology to their advantage to make exciting projects but also to learn from others around the world to inspire their ideas.

Technology should not be used as a gimmick but used to manage time effectively or develop those expansive qualities students need. Flipped learning can be used to teach students the content they need for a particular project. The key terminology that needs to be used in a project or a key concept can be explained using an app such as ‘explain everything’ and uploaded to youtube. Or simple research tasks to find the meaning of certain terms could be used. There is scope to ‘teach’ didactically sometimes, especially with a difficult concept or where something needs to be learned quickly, this must then be immediately put into practice and into the context of their longer term learning or project. A blended approach to learning should be the future in my opinion. I would love to see students working on projects on a daily basis across all curriculum areas. I would love to see journals and digital portfolios of students work with deep reflections of their journey and learning along the way. I would love to see students rewarded for their progress with something of real value to their lives rather than a grade that often tells the student their learning is complete or not good enough. Learning is never complete in my classroom, there is always an opinion or more to find out or a redraft to be made! Mozilla open badges might be the option for an authentic real way to show the learning that can be transferred to the real world. I would love to see students working online towards courses using MOOC’s developed by the school that are available to anyone such as a GCSE course thereby enabling the exciting 21st century learning attributes to be developed and facilitated well in contact with adults at school.

This sounds great in my own head, but I do work in a school without GCSE classes just yet. The challenge then will be to overcome the specifications and use backward planning and possibly a blended approach to learning more effectively as opposed to an exam factory approach to teaching. One interesting way of teaching is to look across specifications and find common themes to develop into a common project. A colleague of mine has an interesting idea for a project on ‘imaging’ where across disciplines such as geography where they look at GIS and satellites, Biology at microscopy and physics/astronomy telescopes to complete a imaging project that crosses such boundaries at A level. A kind of ‘action project’ that students carry out in their self-directed study time where they will put their knowledge into practice. This sounds a bit vague but its not my project but sounds exciting nonetheless.

This sounds a bit vague but its not my project but sounds exciting nonetheless.  I can make a difference in my own small way as a Geography teacher by making learning authentic and explicitly linked to the real changing world.  We’re all capable of becoming expansive educators.  This may mean we need inspiring by school leaders or linchpins but we can also do this independently by taking our learning into our own hands. 


Campaigning to Save the Planet

On Tuesday afternoon the whole of year 7 showed what they have been working on in their ‘explore’ lessons to year 8 and staff at the school.  This involved splitting the year group into 2 and having a ‘campaign afternoon’ and allowing year 8 classes and their teachers to come and visit the campaign stands the year 7’s had set up in the school hall.  Campaigns were as varied as HIV/Aids, Landmines to the role of women.

This was a culmination of about 6-7 hours teaching time plus homework.  It began by launching the project and allowing students to research different issues that might interest them by looking at various images.  Students then used their questioning habit to distil further questions to help them focus their research when using the internet.

Students were asked to plan their campaign using De Bono’s thinking hats which gave them a structure to consider the different aspects of the campaign from facts (white hat) they thought should be included to creative ideas to get their point across (green hat).

The students were also asked to have academic rigour in their campaigns by producing both a letter the the Prime Minister and a leaflet (using maths skills e.g. graphs and to make it artistic).  These were then redrafted using the critique culture that the students are used to using regularly, students give warm and cool feedback to eachother and come up with their own criteria and rubrics regularly.

The photographs show some of the outcomes the students have produced.  The year 8s and other staff providing an ‘authentic form of assessment’ by giving feedback both verbally and in written form on a pro-forma that is then placed into a ballot box.  Behind the cakes, Ipads, landmines and fancy T shirts was some deep thinking and knowledge of the issue the students were addressing.  I and my team are very proud. Now it is important that students reflect on their individual role in their project and by using Guy Claxtons BLP learning muscles they are able to reflect on their learning throughout the project.

Feel free to contact me via twitter for more details about the explore curriculum.

Citizen Journalists An Update!

100% Student produced

This is one example of year 8 students ‘Freedom Newspaper’.  See my previous post about how I used project based learning and the 6A’s to plan the project for year 8 Humanities.  Students have also developed in their application of critique by giving each other warm and cool feedback (being Kind, Specific and Helpful) for their individual articles and their final newspapers.  This has enabled the students to revise and redraft their newspaper.  Each student had to contribute an article and the newspaper had to be 100% their original work.  SOLE’s and other questioning techniques were used in the planning stage and a student editor was appointed to oversee the project overall and make final editorial decisions.  Overall, the outcome has been successful, with many other good quality newspapers being produced across the faculty in comparison to the previous year.  Students will now be asked to reflect as learners, how the newspaper challenge has worked for them and a group using Claxtons 4R’s. The newspapers will now be displayed in the local community in cafes etc to give the work further authenticity.

Follow me on twitter or read my blog for future projects for example a ‘food campaign’ which is beginning shortly including hopefully students becoming Guerilla Gardeners.

Citizen Journalists…

Shortly after the Easter holidays the students in year 8 will be publishing final copies of their newspapers they have been designing in their ‘Explore’ lessons.  Explore lessons embrace the principles of Project Based Learning and build students learning habits and competencies based on Guy Claxon’s ‘Building Learning Power’ learning muscles known as the 4R’s.  They replace traditional Geography and History lessons.

The project began about 10 weeks ago when a ‘project tuning’ took place with a group of colleagues from different schools including a  colleague from High Tech High in San Diego (a pioneer of project based learning).   I presented my plan for students to create their own ‘Citizens Newspaper’ where students would create their own newspaper articles about issues in their local area and articles that fit into the terms theme ‘Freedom’.

The project was tuned and then I was able to present the project to my faculty team who were excited about the project.  The 6A’s were used to tune the project. The project would have ‘authenticity’ for example because the work will be exhibited in the local community.  When my class finish their newspapers I will take them to the local high street and ask local cafes, doctor’s surgeries and shops if they would display the work.  The students are particularly excited about this and are looking forward to finding out where their newspaper is to take family to go and read it!

The academic rigour will come through the range of subjects the students will research and most importantly through the critique and redrafting process.  Once students have prepared their first article, this is then given warm and cool feedback from the students based on the success criteria they develop.  In particular the students will make reference to their English lessons and look at how to write like a journalist.  For example by asking questions such as ‘is the article in columns?’ or ‘Who is the articles audience?’.

Some students will make multiple drafts of their work while others will write several articles for their newspaper.  By assigning each group an editor, usually a more able student, and the collaboration of the students has been strong.  I have observed ‘editors’ asking other students to make changes to their work in a constructive way and they are motivated as a team to work together because they know what their final outcome will be.   It is vital to debrief the students learning at regular intervals, by referring to the ‘learning muscles’ students have an accessible language to be able to talk in depth about how they could improve as a team.

Although the project is taking longer than anticipated (initially 9 hours over 9 weeks) the students have produced some fabulous work.  The project launch or ‘hook’ took place by using elements of Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLE’s).  For example in the lead up to students writing their articles they were given a choice of some abstract questions to research and present back in a SOLE style.  For example, ‘Are women free?’ this lead to students finding out about Malala, the girl who was shot in Pakistan and looking at women’s rights during the Taliban rule.  Or ‘Are animals free?’ this lead to a SEN student becoming absorbed in learning about ‘Bear Baiting’ and ‘Shark Finning’ and consequently given the motivation to write for him what is an amazing piece of writing.  Another student has written a fabulous piece about Bull Fighting and used several websites to discover a real understanding for the subject.  The students are even illustrating and using their own photography in the project – nothing can be copied!

Homework’s were set for students to research issues in their local town.  This has proved less successful, but some students have gone the extra mile at home to produce articles about recent floods in the local town and what they think should be done about it.

Please follow or contact me on twitter @travelgeordie or look at my blog for further updates and photographs of the newspapers when they are finally finished.