In keeping with my commitment to post-as-I-think as opposed to posting-when-I’m-finished-thinking, here’s what I’m working on at the moment, and still working on. I have created the diagram at the bottom of this post to aid discussions around the design of the curriculum in relation to models and narratives of learning.
All this began a very long time ago, starting from my exploration into what is meant by ‘conceptual thinking’ and how we structure learning so as to deepen ‘conceptual understanding’. For a very long time (and we’re talking years/ decades here) I have been interested in:
The cognitive development of conceptual understanding: How abstract concepts become tangible to learners so that they gain a secure understanding of them
The metacognition of conceptual understanding: The actual process involved in developing the understanding of these concepts so that learners have a greater understanding and awareness of how they acquired this new knowledge so that they might draw upon this in the future
This poses questions for me as to how (if it is indeed possible) we might identify specific moments within a learning session when metacognitive skills have been or could be deliberately developed and, at this moment, consciously recognised by learners. I am particularly interested in how this self recognition occurs authentically and beyond surface-level awareness of teacher-defined expected metacognitive skills. So that a learner becomes consciously aware of their deepening understanding of fundamental concepts either as they happen or as part of a reflective dialogue, taking place within particular subject domains or contexts.
I’m also intrigued by the emotional aspect involved in this process – how it feels to be faced with–>then grapple with and then–> finally–>grasp a difficult concept to the extent where it can–>then beapplied to new contexts and/or connectedwith existing knowledge.
Anyway, this is where my need to draw and visualise thinking kicks in.
The diagram below is a synthesis of my current thinking about this. It is an interpretation, a visualisation and an integration of a number of sources, ideas and inspirations from:
Above the dotted line (in blue) a sequence of metacognitive skills that I’ve been using as reference for learning dispositions for the past few years
On the lower dotted line (in orange) I’ve integrated a highly simplistic reference point from one of my favourite sources of inspiration which I’ve been using to help my thinking about curriculum design and learning models from Martin (@Surrealanarchy) Robinson’s book, “Trivium 21c“
On the arrow along the bottom of the diagram, the interrelationship between curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (mentioned previously)
I have attempted to indicate a non-linear pathway with a fat dotted line. Imagine this is one single learning sequence, whereas in reality, it is likely that it will loop or spiral back to previous stages, depending on the level of security the learner has at any given stage. I am by no means suggesting that learning is linear but wanting instead to map the experiences of a learner as a system or process.
The metacognitive skills are developed through the sequence (in blue) and the process of knowledge acquisition and transference through the three elements of curriculum-pedagogy-assessment which I’ve written about here) are depicted under the thin dotted line.
How is this of any use…?
We’ll, here’s how I’m using it…
Seeing learning as a narrative: I am using this visualisation as a way to describe learning experiences as narrative. Which is beginning to have some additional applications beyond the formal curriculum provision on offer in school settings.
Curriculum & Lesson Design Tool: I am hoping that this will be particularly helpful as I continue working on the deliberate design of the curriculum (longer sequences of learning) and any series of lessons within a fixed-term project or even individual sequences within lessons.
Project & Enrichment Learning Design Tool: It may also be of use when planning field trips, enrichment activities or end-of-term excursions, when seeking to ensure that as much ‘learning value’ as possible can be squeezed out of any organised visit to a museum, place of interest or gallery.
Self-Reflection Tool: This visual description is also useful in sharing with learners to VISUALISE their own learning and identify moments to either reflect on or expect it to be hard and difficult, and see any moments of struggle and challenge as an integral and necessary element of the process of learning. By using the diagram as a self-reflection tool, learners can identify the moments when they encountered struggle, challenge and success and use this as a script to articulate their own learning processes, the strategies that they used and how this might inform their approach to learning in the future.
Anyway, I’d be interested in any feedback and thoughts you have on this. Let me know if you can see a use for visualising learning in this way, perhaps if only to make the people we are working with (adults and young people alike) aware that we KNOW what we ask of them when we ask them to ‘learn’ and we are ready to support them in what is about to come…that they are about to place their unique footprints into the wet sand of a well-worn path. Or something like that…
This post has languished in my drafts for a year; you’ll see this from the date references. The main reason I didn’t publish over a year ago was simply because I didn’t want to wade into what was, at the time, an extremely highly charged debate about the place of research, evidence, and practice in education. My additional reasons for not publishing until now will, possibly, be covered in another post on another day.
Anyway, a year has come around and although the charge and passion of the debate is still high, it has, perhaps calmed and softened somewhat. l have spent the morning watching the second National ResearchED 2014 Conference online thanks to the wonderful technical expertise of Leon Cynch @eyebeams through the LIVESTREAM feed. Having listened to the first of the main hall speakers (@johntomsett@huntingenglish and @dylanwiliam) advocating a practical, wise approach to what we do in our classrooms, I thought I’d go back to this post from last year, take the plunge and publish.
I haven’t edited any part of it, and my only addition to it is the inclusion of a presentation by an inspirational education consultant, Dr Julia Atkin (@Juliaatkin) South Australia who I came across a few months ago. In this talk, Dr Atkin references the Aristoltlean view of knowledge, PHRONESIS, also referenced in Dylan Wiliam’s presentation today. Dr Atkin speaks brilliantly about the need for teachers to merge their own experience with research, through the lens of deliberate practice and analytical thinking.
ORIGINAL POST (Written in September 2013)
There is always healthy discussion around research findings and sources of evidence and even more so thanks to the increasing availability of the work of academics and research centres online. Tom Bennett and ResearchED have responded to this debate in the establishment of a conference for teachers and researchers as part of ResearchED 2013 to be held at Dulwich College in London on Saturday 7th September 2013.
The growth in Master Level opportunities and engagement in accredited courses through the National College and Teaching School Alliances will continue to bolster the body of research findings and evidence for teachers to access. Alongside this, academic research is increasingly becoming more accessible through websites and direct engagement with researchers and there’s a tiny selection at the end of this post for reference. There are far more listed on the site of The Teacher Development Trust who also, on 20th May 2013, launched the second exciting phase of The National Teacher Enquiry Network: “A family of schools & colleges working for better professional development” to strengthen the link between evidence, practice and professional learning in schools.
But there’s nothing stopping anyone developing and researching their own practice right now and the summer term is a great time to have a go and try something different, new, or just to do more of the good stuff that’s already in place.
Individual practitioners can access reams of effectively communicated evidence from contemporary researchers such as John Hattie,Dylan Wiliam, Carol Dweck and Geoff Petty and even discuss their work directly with the authors through social media and by attending seminars and public lectures. The educational landscape and quality of teaching and learning is so much richer for this and for the debate and discussion these sources of evidence stimulate.
CPD: Thinking ‘as’ research
Our own evidence base and sources of inspiration continue to be drawn from the wider educational world and beyond; from business and advertising; from design and engineering; from fashion and space exploration and from medicine and architecture. As a result, we are able to adapt many different ideas, approaches, systems and processes from the many different contexts we encounter. Integral to this is access to an effective evaluation framework against which we can assess impact on learning outcomes.
Amongst all of the evidence that we have access to, it could be argued that the best evidence, i.e. themost valuable, important and accessible, is the evidence we have before us every day: the internal. First and foremost, it is this that we can begin to research, as it unfolds before us, immediately.
So we need access to everything that is available to us, in a digestible but not diluted format. We need researchers to continue to make their work accessible and practical. The Education Endowment Fund Teaching and Learning Toolkit has provided us with one highly accessible format for this. We also need to create a personal-professional evidence base drawn from our own research into our own practice. For it is only when we can understand and witness first-hand the real-life impact of teaching-decisions on learning-outcomes for our own practice and ultimately, for our own learners, that we will truly be able to bring our practice to life and have the greatest impact.
So…a mindset to adopt….? CPRD
This is my attempt to clarify the impact of ‘thinking-as’ a researcher; an activity of adopting ‘Research Thinking’. In doing so, a ‘Research-Thinking School’ will encourage a systematic implementation of Continuing Professional Research Development. Such an approach to professional development and system-wide innovation will engage practitioners in habitual meticulous self-reflection that result in deliberate and mindful teaching actions. These ‘mindful teaching’ actions will be both evidence-informed (external and internal) and research-based (external and internal). The result of this is to establish and sustain a culture where observable and measurable innovations in practice become an integral expectation and rationale of the systems throughout the organisation.
Sustainable school-wide systems that connect research, developmental lesson observations and coaching and place these at the heart of professional development will have the greatest impact. Many schools are using video to support a similar growth-mindset approach to professional development. When placed within a carefully personalised programme supported by skilled coaches and reflective practitioners, the benefits of such an approach are clear.
But the first port of call must be to establish a culture that both enables and encourages us to research that which we encounter every day. It is this that informs and inspires us more than anything else and it is this that we can analyse and interpret immediately and meticulously in every lesson designed and delivered. It is the activity of researching this evidence that sharpens our thinking and prompts us to pose challenging questions. It is a culture of active, on-going and daily research that will continue to excite and enrich us and, as a direct result, our learners.
Thinking and acting as a researcher of ourownpractice requires a habit of constant evidence collection (feedback) from our immediate experiences, often in the form of informal, ‘micro-research’ projects. These micro-research projects encourage Mindful Teaching that notice and describe rather than infer and interpret. There’s more on this on the Marginal Learning Gains METHOD page.
Couple the everyday evidence to the canon of wider research and evidence (incorporating evidence and research from the educational world and beyond) available to us, then we have a powerful framework for systematic and daily research of own practice:
(a) Discuss and share what we see, hear and sense (internal research) from our own experiences and
(b) Connect and compare our own research to the experiences and evidence from beyond us (external research) and between each other
(c) Understand and apply what we now know and understand to our own context and setting (the internal and external) so that it shapes and informs the design of the learning opportunities that we provide
(d) Research and evaluate the impact of its application so that we can
(e) Repeat the cycle from (a) and begin to embed it as everydaypractice
Thinking and acting as a leading research-thinker and constantly investigating the evidence of our own practice in this way enables us to engage in an overarching process where we can be part of a constant process of collating, analysing and applying evidence from beyond and within so that it directly informs our practice and brings about sustainable and systemic change. It has an impact on:
Frequency of feedback (an on-going cycle that includes in equal measure information from the learner to the teacher and back again)
Systematic reflective and collaborative professional practice across a whole school (and beyond)
Quality of specific language that communicates learning outcomes and success criteria
Effectiveness of the communication of teacher and learner expectations
Deliberately planned opportunities for learners to lead, take responsibility, articulate and evaluate their own progress
Instead of providing us with a detailed list of ‘teachableactions‘ that we have not developed from our own practice or professional conversations, ‘Research Thinking’ ensures that the evidence we have to hand can be used to directly, immediately and in a timely manner to inform ‘learnable behaviours’.
‘Research Thinking’ provides a bridge between the evidence before us (internal) and the evidence and research from beyond us (external). It demands that we
analyse and dissect teaching language and actions
clarify our understanding and interpretations
so that we can…
define our concepts of learning
forensically analyse its implications, inferences and impact on learning
‘Research Thinking’ enables us to actively and habitually search out examples, experiences and findings from beyond our context so that we can make sense of ourselves and our practice in our context.
“This is my evidence.
There is much evidence like this. But this evidence is mine.
FINAL Quick note: When it comes to ‘Research Thinking’ all I am attempting to do is to articulate my own approach to pedagogical pedantry (a pejorative term that I therefore dislike) and with this, my approach to curriculum innovation and designing systemic research-driven opportunities for professional development. This post is an attempt to explain the ‘Why, How and What’ it is I try for myself and practitioners to ‘be like’ when we’re thinking and talking about learning. This approach is illustrated in the Marginal Learning Gains Theory project.
In this typically engaging short video piece from Hans Rosling, the world-renowned data visualisation and data-entertainment guru (see his brilliant TED Talks for more), identifies the power of explaining using props. He emphasises that although video can be used to explain some concepts, (see Ted-ED for examples to use if you’re looking to implement some flipped learning in your lessons), nothing replaces the teacher and their ability to make learning fun through the explanations they can offer. For teachers and presenters alike, being able to draw upon a vast repertoire of explaining is fundamental to being able to meet the needs of all learners/ listeners. As a result, there’s a great opportunity to keep refreshing ‘explaining techniques’ and consider the many ways we can employ quality teacher talk to differentiate, challenge and encourage learners to understand new concepts and think in new ways.
I’ve included a screen shot of an observation format I use very regularly for you to have a look at: ‘Explaining – Improving the Quality of Teacher Talk’ The original version plus others that I regularly use, adapt and tweak can be found in “Full On Learning”. You’ll notice that this is a very focused observation tool, as it ONLY looks at the quality of teacher talk in relation to EXPLAINING. Hence it can be used as part of a developmental coaching approach..which is just how I use it.
I use this particular one as part of my pedagogical coaching toolkit. I’ve got others that focus on questioning and a more generic one that looks ONLY at ‘Pupil activity during the lesson’. They’re all developmental in design as they are limited by their focus on a very specific element of pedagogy. In practice, they work as a simple tally sheet during the lesson. You can add additional layers of complexity, according to what the teacher wants to focus on, but my watchword is and always has been to keep it SIMPLE when it comes to observing the complicated world of teaching and the similarly complex world of learning.
The strength of this tool is:
1. When you work with a group of teachers to create and amend the observation format you get into wonderful discussions and sharing of expertise. In fact, it’s at THIS point when you get the really crunchy discussions about ‘quality teacher talk’ and how various concepts can be explained and what else could be used to aid the communication of complexity, of topic fundamentals and of core concepts so that learner understanding is secure.
2. When used as part of a pedagogical coaching programme, the results can be put into a simple spreadsheet to generate a visual chart (Hans Rosling would be proud!). This then forms the basis of your coaching discussion, as it places the focus of the discussion on the teacher, enabling them to reflect and consider their own practice.
3. Coupled with a skilled coach possibly also with video, you get rewarded by by using this as part of a MARGINAL LEARNING GAINS approach and find that you get those sought-after MULTIPLE GAINS from one simple pedagogical focus.
Over the past few months, I have been fortunate enough to work in a wide variety of contexts around the country with fabulously open and highly reflective practitioners. Of late, I have been involved in engaging and often very challenging debates around the ways in which all forms of observations are used in schools to improve the learning experiences of young people.
One of the main areas of my work is concerned with how to develop and sustain a safe and effective culture of quality professional reflection. An integral aspect of this involves the design of dynamic professional development programmes that integrate a culture of coaching, action research and developmental lesson observations.
the constant testing and revision of all observation formats
clarification of the purpose of all observations
agreement of the intended and expected outcomes of all observations
reflections on the language for and of learning
creation of a range of observation tools (different tools for different purposes)
systems that reflect and embrace the values of truly developmental and highly reflective professional learning
An often neglected area of the process of all forms of observation is the post-observation conversation*. In establishing a culture where developmental lesson observations are used to develop the quality of learning opportunities alongside and not instead-of or as separate-from judgmental or graded observations, the challenge is to find the most effective way to ensure that every post-lesson conversation is about professional learning and not professional telling.
Quality post-lesson conversations
The conversation following any type or style of learning observation can, and should, make as many of the demands on the professional expertise of the observer as on the practitioner whose lesson has been observed. This is just as true for a developmental lesson observation as it is for a graded / formal / judgemental lesson observation. It’s certainly true that just because there’s no grade to be given doesn’t make the complexities (practical, emotional and professional) of the discussion any more straightforward.
We can employ as much reassurance as we can think of in the form of…
‘It really IS developmental, there are no judgements here’ OR…
‘Remember, I’m not using the criteria to form any judgements in this, so don’t worry’ OR…
‘The lesson observation format I’m using doesn’t allow me to look for evidence that could be used to grade the lesson’
…BUT until a reflective and developmental culture is established (and even after it is), it is worth remembering that it is likely that it may always feel, for the person whose lesson has just been observed, that the ‘grading elephant’ is present in some guise in the room.
This is particularly true at that critical point of the commencement of the post-lesson conversation when the crowd of learners have packed up and their backpacks have disappeared towards their next lesson. For most, it is worth noting that this is when heart rates spike again, for both the observer and practitioner. It is at this point that the sophisticated skills of the observer have to be fully deployed into the situation, immediately and expertly.
A typical structure of much of our feedback conversations with learners involves providing some positive reinforcement and actively noticing some elements of effective practice followed by some ‘points for development’. This is often encapsulated as ‘What Worked Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ or ‘Two Stars and a Wish’ AfL-style feedback. At other times, it comes in the form of a ‘feedback sandwich’, where the effective element is followed by a developmental point and finished with another effective element. This structure has been adapted by many schools for observers to use with practitioners as part of the post-lesson conversation. The actual structure has many merits, whichever version or adaptation is used.
What I have been reflecting on most recently, however, is the relative impact of the effective elements (WWW) against the impact of identifying the (WWW) developmental points.
It’s a bit like going to a gallery to see an exhibition and finding pieces of art that we really like but noticing that the weather wasn’t very nice.
What often happens is that the person receiving the feedback does’t really listen to the WWW, however fabulous these are because they are waiting for the EBI. So whether there is a formal judgement hovering and waiting to be delivered or simply a non-graded developmental EBI, or both, the ‘EBI’ can still act as an unhelpful sting in the tail of the conversation, regardless of how massively positive the impact of learning has been as a result of the WWWs. And however accomplished the practitioner has been whilst employing these WWWs.
One of the main reasons for this is:
(1) The WWW and the EBI are often, although not exclusively, presented as two very separate, distinct elements of the observation.
(2) The source of these separate elements is often very different. This is because the process of identifying the elements of effective practice and the elements that we would consider as goals for development, even during the lesson itself, tends to involve an entirely separate search.
So the observer might see…
(1) (WWW) The lesson structure is clear
(2) (WWW) The Learning Outcomes & Success Criteria were communicated effectively to students
(3) (EBI) The teacher-questioning didn’t encourage expansive answers from the learners.
All three points are really important, but when this particular post-lesson conversation occurs, there is a danger that all the practitioner hears is point (3) and leaves the lesson thinking, ‘My questioning isn’t good enough’. In doing so, they may fail to acknowledge and or even care that their planning was really effective and that the construction and communication of learning outcomes and success criteria ensured that all students knew why, what and how they were learning throughout the lesson. These elements may constitute two things into which they’ve invested huge amounts of time and energy and with this, elements of practice that another practitioner two doors down the corridor would really benefit from seeing in action. But they leave the experience thinking, ‘my questioning isn’t good enough.’ and add this to the infinite ‘to-do list of a self-imposed ‘must-do-better’ mindset.
The M.O.T.** and avoiding the STING
So, in implementing Marginal Learning Gains Theory, the observer has the opportunity to be as meticulously selective as the reflective practitioner for whom they are observing the learning. In doing so, they can identify a specific area for development directly from the effective elements alreadyinplace. This means that the onus is on the observer to make a clear and specific connection between the elements of the lesson that have been effective and identify how more of this will enhance the quality of the learning experienced. This also means that as observers, we have to really up our game in making a highly sophisticated professional analysis of what really needs to be ‘grown’ from existing practice that will make the biggest impact on the quality of learning.
Obviously, in a coaching relationship, the options for what to focus on in terms of growth are identified and prioritised by the practitioner, but the elements from the observed learning presented by the observer still need to inform and enhance the depth of this conversation.
So, here’s one very simple strategy (and yes, it will very soon be appearing as a Marginal Learning Gain) and the bonus is that is has an equally transferrable application for peer and self assessment activities with our learners.
The fear of the EBI (Elephant Behind the Insight)…or something like that.
When the MOT leaves us knowing we’re on track and have the skills already in place to keep going…
* I am deliberately not referring to the post-lesson observation conversation as ‘feedback’ because in doing so, it still feels like I’m describing something that is predominantly a one-way process. This is regardless of how much we insist upon the need for there to be several feedback channels where the ‘loudest’ feedback channel is that from the ‘learner’ (or the practitioner’s lesson being observed in this instance) to the ‘teacher’ (the observer in this case).
**And yes, this means I have a new acronym (because I really don’t think we have enough in education).
I would be amazed if there was anyone who works with children and young people who was not inherently curious. For therein lies the strength, if not the lifeblood, of not simply what we do but, who we are. We are insatiably curious. We exercise this curiosity every moment of our professional lives because it sustains us. And it is probably why we do what we do. Seeking out a battery of ways that enable very different learners to make a connection with the ideas, concepts and information that we lay before them is driven by our curiosity to understand, if not, decode the complexities of learning.
To exercise professional curiosity requires elements of introspection and outrospection in equal measure. We need to be introspective and insatiably interested in our place in a world that is the world of our classroom and our school community. We then skilfully employ the powers of outrospection to reveal for our learners how what they are learning and experiencing relates to the wider world.
When it comes to outrospection, our creativity and ingenuity has an opportunity to jump to the fore. Forging connections between our world (that of our individual classroom and school) and the world beyond (other schools and external research and evidence) is a natural process. The opportunity and challenge to be truly curious is to make connections between our classrooms and the worlds of business, engineering, fashion, design and scientific exploration, to suggest just a few. To consider the ways in which business and industry has created systems to engage their employees and / or their customers can provide valuable insight into ‘What motivates us?’ as in this post and to learn about the underpinning design process for the London Underground offers opportunities to devise powerful approaches to differentiation or even how to organise the traffic flow in school buildings, as in this post on ‘Phased Disclosure’. Just one look at www.Informationisbeautiful.net and the accompanying book, ‘Information is Beautiful’ by David McCandless enables us to see the power of visualising data to explain complex information and processes…and how we might encourage learners to use visualisation to present their learning.
For a great talk on ‘outrospection’, here’s an RSA Animate production. It’s a far-reaching talk by philosopher Roma Krznaric about the importance of EMPATHY as a powerful force to bring about change and there are some interesting applications to the realm of educational sharing and development which are too many to include in this post.
The professionally curious are the professionally enriched. It is because of this that they are also the enrichers, the inspirers, the synthesisers and the generators.
SECOND: ‘It is our professional duty to share’
This ties in with some of the themes covered in the RSA video above, but the importance of sharing as professionals was brought to my attention by a comment made by the fabulous educator, John Tomsett (who tweets as @johntomsett and blogs here), who simply stated that every educational practitioner, ‘…has a professionalduty to share’.
Trying to encourage educators to blog, to document and to Tweet comes down to just this, a ‘professional duty to share‘.
Every day, we share our understanding, knowledge and our experience with our learners so that they can relate and connect with new knowledge. This is made possible through a repertoire of learning strategies, the skill of pedagogy and the design of the curriculum. When it comes to professional conversations, through informal and formal opportunities, most of us just can’t help ourselves when it comes to sharing our ideas about learning. It is, after all, what we do every day. Our business is, fundamentally, a sharing business.
Ensuring that our schools grow as regular and habitual places of such sharing comes about through a systematic approach that actively expects sharing to take place. Many schools who have this in place are now no longer in a position to require educators to share because it is now so embedded that it is part of the culture and, they might say, ‘just the way we do things here’. The challenge is for us to move to a place where the process of sharing is an institutional priority that underpins (and thereby facilitates) daily practice. It then becomes an integral part of the culture of the school and the habits of the members of the school community.
The aspect of Tim Harford’s book, Adapt: why success always starts with failurethat most struck me was his proposition that the best ideas come from those who know their context best; from those on the front line, on ground level and who are front-facing. So the duty to share extends from an individual duty that all practitioners have to becoming a duty of schools to seek out and implement the most effective ways for those practitioners who ‘know best’ to connect.
Organisations such as schools who find ways to capitalise on the informal opportunities for sharing that in the frenetic pace of school life are already on the front foot. By taking the next step and committing time to designing systems that create formal opportunities specifically and exclusively for the sharing of effective practice, for problem solving and solution-finding, the interactions and genuine collaboration will flow. The first step in this process is to make it a requirement for practitioners to share ideas and spend time with each other so that the second step evolves very naturally for practitioners and sharing in all manner of ways becomes a habit.
I read recently that Yahoo! has caused controversy by ending work-at-home arrangements. The anger from those affected resulted in the publication of this internal memo and the initiative was reported in “All Things D”. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of working from home (that’s definitely one for another post), but the rationale for Yahoo!’s change in policy is fascinating, particularly in light of the type of company that Yahoo! is. It would seem from Yahoo!’s stance that they have made human contact and physical interaction a priority for on-going innovation. In this, it would seem that they acknowledge that the value of both informal and formal opportunities for collaboration is too great an opportunity for the company to miss out on, “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts from being physically together…Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, its about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices”…interesting indeed.
THIRD: ‘We have a duty to acknowledge’
Finally, we must never lose sight of the third point of the professional triangle, the ‘duty to acknowledge‘. In our collective endeavour to increase and secure our understanding of the oceans of information in which we swim, it is all the more important that we acknowledge the wise words, new insights and droplets of ingenuity that wash over us. Somebody once quoted the famous words of Isaac Newton to me when I was creating a bank of footnotes in an article, stating, ‘The thing is, Zoë, we all know that we stand on the shoulders of giants…but there’s no need for the giants to be in the shot’. I have thought about this for a long time and I disagreed at the time and I still do. It is absolutely imperative that we keep the ‘giants’ in shot. The sharing of an idea that is inspired by a conversation or reading is far more meaningful when the original spark of inspiration is placed centre stage in the spotlight. This acknowledgement is an integral part of professional curiosity.It encourages others to seek out and connect with the origins of the idea for themselves. So that others can adapt and create new meanings, thereby enriching the initial spark and fuelling it to shine brighter and for longer.
The way in which educational professionals engage with Twitter is, for the most part, an exemplary testimony to a shared professional endeavour to SHARE, BE CURIOUS and ACKNOWLEDGE. There are lessons in this for our students as they immerse themselves into the exponentially increasing banks of information that characterise all our lives in the 21st Century and when we discuss the uses and opportunities presented to us through social media.
So now, perhaps more than ever, as technology continues to give us the opportunity, we should actively embrace our individual and institutional professional duty to share, to be curious and with this, our duty to acknowledge.
Alex Battison (@alex_battison) tweeted: “Hi Zoe, harkness tables, at Exeter Philipps university (and prolific at Wellington college), are good things to investigate…they have rules to create group work that is completely student led. I have also looked to develop this in my lessons…students have created a list of rules for effective group work.”
Paul Sturtivant (@paulsturtivant) tweeted: “Is your ScaRf NEAT? Successful group work Roles for learning Noise Equipment Attitude Time”
So, if you’re doing some thinking, maybe some action research or simply reflecting on learning design and considering what ‘quality group work is all about, here’s some resources to keep you going…not a bad effort for a Sunday afternoon. And all the while, this rich vein of expertise was flowing in, I was walking in the sunshine in a beautiful National Trust Property…who has time for educational Twitter?
In high quality learning environments, risk-taking and mistake-making go hand in hand. Establishing a learning community that is both safe and challenging represents a fascinating tension. We know that encouraging a risk-embracing culture in any organisation is critical to the effective growth of a productive community of learning. The challenge is to find ways to make it okay to take risks; where mistakes are welcomed as learning opportunities rather than failures. In practice, however, this presents us with complex tensions.
We need to explore those times when taking a risk may simply be recklessness. After all, to become an effective risk-taker, we need to employ sophisticated skills of discernment and analysis of the situation. We need to use our ability to think through the consequences of the potential outcomes but this is a tough call when we may be trying something entirely new and the possible outcomes are, by definition, unknown. That’s where we need to be clear about our intentions and expectations.
Similarly, making mistakes may or may not be the result of risk-taking. A mistake may simply be indicative of carelessness, lack of time or stress, rather than an overt effort to take a risk. For a mistake to be a learning opportunity, we need to be able to communicate what the expectedintended outcome was going to be. This is particularly true for us when we find ourselves staring at the disastrous wreckage of our Great Plan. If we don’t know what we want to achieve, it is hard to know how we can learn much from it when it goes catastrophically wrong.
Is there any such thing as a mistake?
One of the first conversations worth having with groups involves interrogating what we actually consider to be:
(a) a risk
(b) a mistake
After all, one person’s risk is another person’s ‘piece of cake’. For one, working independently is a massive risk whereas for another, it is a dream to be able to work alone and develop ideas without having to defer to group consensus. We need to develop a shared understanding of the individual risk-parameters present in any group, whatever the age.
And what exactly do we consider to be a ‘mistake’? It is worth thinking about how many ‘mistakes’ have become ingenious discoveries. Take the humble yet powerful sticky note, as just one example. The result of ‘inventing’ a glue that didn’t stick very well is now at the top of the list of every stationery order in almost every business and school around the world. So how many mistakes can never really be considered to be anything other than a mistake, and, therefore, worthless? You could argue that every time we do something wrong, we actually get closer to doing what is right (or so St Thomas Aquinas would argue with the ‘Via Negativa’ approach to learning)…so is there ever any such thing as a mistake?
There are some other questions worth consideration and that could form the basis of co-constructing a risk-taking culture where it is acceptable to make mistakes in lessons:
1. What is our PERCEPTION of risk?
Creating a continuum line of risk-taking is a helpful way of asking learners to assess what level of risk they are either (a) prepared to take in their learning and/or (b) have taken as part of their learning. Encouraging them to discuss what we actually mean and understand when we talk about taking a risk is integral to agreeing a set of qualities of risk taking behaviours that we would, as a group, either encourage or discourage.
(Painting excerpts from Edvard Munch)
This also works as a handy progress measure as the group can keep a record of the level of risk they are prepared to undertake over a period of lessons and try to increase it OR see if, by developing their levels of confidence, their perception of risk is reduced.
2. What is an ACCEPTABLE mistake?
Discussing examples and scenarios where making a mistake results in such catastrophic fall-out that it cannot, under any circumstances be ‘understood’ and, thereby, forgiven is a valuable aspect of developing a culture of risk-taking. For example, we have all experienced the highly developed, some might say over-developed, sense of justice that young people often hold. When it comes to confronting and commenting on mistakes during a self or peer assessment session, agreeing the expectations and etiquette of what actually constitutes a ‘mistake’ is a crucial part of ensuring purposeful comments and feedback.
3. What are the implications of encouraging an all-embracing mistake-making culture?
Aren’t there some situations where there really is a ‘right’ answer, a correct way of doing things which basically means that the time it takes to make a mistake is wasted time?
Well, perhaps the time-element is the crucial factor here. Perhaps if we respond to a wrong answer’ or a ‘mistake’ by simply stating that it is not right thistime, then we can overtly communicate that this particular mistake does not represent the end of the world and doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to get it right or that you are rubbish at this and always will be. Instead, we can reassure that although thistime, it’s not right, there’s a chance to learn from it, do it differently and get it right nexttime. This approach digresses slightly from the effort-focused conversations endorsed by Professor Carol Dweck in that it confronts and uses the mistake itself as the focus for the learning conversation. In this way, the inaccuracy, misconception or gap in knowledge and understanding that has lead to the mistake becomes the learning opportunity we want it to be.
4. Mistake response: What was your INTENTION?
In establishing a culture that embraces mistakes and expects risk, being both specific and overt (you would expect me to say that, I am sure) works well. Being overt about what we, as a group, understand and expect to see in an environment where learning stands proud and tall on the foundations of error, mistakes and misjudgements will enhance the quality of reflective learning conversations.
Perhaps the answer to all of this is to define mistakes as the product of intentional risk-taking i.e. ‘having a go’. This means that mistakes can simply become learnable moments. A bit (very much, actually) like all learning. This is a sort of silver-lining approach to thinking about mistakes. It also needs us to recognise that in the grand scheme of things, there is almost always something we can salvage from the embers of a ‘failed’ endeavour. If only to agree to never do it like that again.
5. MAKE A MISTAKE MONSTER AND FEED IT!
The inspiration for this post came from a conversation I had recently where the concept of creating a ‘Mistake Monster’ or ‘Elephant of Errors’ was being discussed. A colleague had set a challenge to the students to actually design and create a personal mistake monster. During the term, they would ‘feed’ the monster with their mistakes. At the end of the term / unit / topic / lesson, the students can have a critique the mistakes they have made rather than discarding them. They would employ the pre-agreed criteria for what actually constituted a ‘mistake’. From this, there would be discussions and classifications of ‘good mistakes’ ‘helpful mistakes’ and so on, to the point where the process of learning (progress) was truly at the heart of the conversations between students and teachers.
As we discussed the possibilities of this, I started to imagine students and teachers creating their very own actual ‘Mistake Monsters’ and installing a ‘Mēlée of Mistake Monsters’ (for that is, I am sure, the collective noun of Mistake Monsters) as welcomed members of a risk-taking community of quality learning.Inevitably, this made me wonder what my own ‘Mistake Monster’ would:
So, I am now well into a reflection-development phase of the Marginal Learning Gains work. This has to centre around, as with all educational endeavours, “What impact will the Marginal Learning Gains approach have on the quality of teaching and learning and how will I know?”. It is early days, I know, but I am a front-end evaluation sort of thinker and I like to be clear about the intended impact and outcomes from the outset. I am always looking to refine and learn and to do that, I have been asking a few questions of MLG. My own experiences with MLG mean that I have been part of a launch of MLG and I am privileged enough to have been made aware from feedback to this blog, emails, ‘actual’ (!) conversations and through Twitter that many, many people are also now well underway in developing Marginal Learning Gains as a way to reflect and develop their own practice with colleagues and staff.
This post is an acknowledgement to the amazing amount of MLG interest, positive feedback, ideas and fantastic sharing of thinking over the past few weeks about the implementation Marginal Learning Gains (MLG). People have been sharing how they are already using MLG to develop quality learning opportunities in individual practice, within teams and across a school.
Although it is tempting at this point to simply say, “Just try it and see” or, “Take a look at what people are saying in their blogs and tweets about how they’re using MLG and the impact that is having” that’s not enough for the evidence-based researcher in me.
Marginal Learning Gains: The missing verb
When it comes to impact, there is one word missing from my blog posts, our tweets, the marginal gains hashtag on Twitter and even the Marginal Learning Gains website itself that is most likely to provide an answer to how we will see and know there is impact. Although described in the original Dave Brailsford documentary and in his interview here, the one word missing from MLG is the verb, “AGGREGATION“.
For it is in what we DO with the many small Learning Gains we identify, analyse and develop that will lay the foundations for sustained improvement. This will also avoid the inherent danger that some people have rightly noted and commented in our discussions of recommending Marginal Learning Gains as a way to ‘just find some (possibly random) little things to improve’ which may result in pressurising us into implementing a frenetic series of disconnected teaching activities that will only serve to confuse, disrupt and overwhelm. Which is the exact opposite of what MLG is all about. It is designed to give clarity to what we want to develop and improve so that we can think, reflect and discuss what great learning needs to look, sound and feel like for our learners. Have a look at the Ofsted survey on the Learning Goggles section of this blog, placed at Number 4: ‘Some myths about teaching and learning’. This has a description of what might constitute ‘over-teaching’ on pages 12-15 of the Ofsted Survey and illustrates this point about ‘overwhelm’ with teaching strategies.
Criteria: what is a Marginal Learning Gain?
A Marginal Learning Gain is one that can be identified as onesmallconstituentpart and incorporated into the whole of a teacher’s practice and used to enhance the daily learning experiences of learners. Ultimately, if there is to be an authentic sense of AGENCY and AUTONOMY in this process, the MLG is entirely up to you. It is for you to reflect on your own practice so that you can select what to focus on as what you believe will make the greatest difference. Drawing on your own wealth of expertise and the advice and observations of others around you is probably the best way to select your first few Marginal Learning Gains.
Here are three possible sources of evidence you may choose to use to refine your definition of your own Marginal Learning Gains and make an informed selection:
1. SELF AWARENESS: The here & now: What and where are the missed opportunities that we frequently observe in our own and each others’ lessons, see in written work or notice during learning walks? What are the small adaptions we could make that would avoid the reflection, ‘…if only…’ in response to how learning is delivered and organised. Where we know we could have provided students with opportunities to think more deeply, make connections across and between topics, discuss with confidence, synthesise their prior and present learning and apply their expertise to new situations?
2. EXTERNAL RESEARCH: The known & reported: What does research say really makes a difference to the quality of learning outcomes? Which of the most powerful teaching techniques or approaches are worth really making a part of our standard practice?
3. JUDGEMENTS: The accountability framework: What does Ofsted say aids (a) the flow of learning and (b) the quality of progress over time of every student? How do we avoid trying to do everything listed be discerning about the few things we can identify in our own context, analyse these and develop them accordingly?
There is an inherent danger in taking an ‘only-do’ approach to MLG in that although it may well lead to identifying some (possible very small) aspects of teaching that, if given attention, can be analysed and then developed, this may not be something that, when aggregated, makes s direct contribution to the ‘whole’. There is one level of impact in reflecting in this way, for sure. The trick is, as is always the case, to consider how to make this learning gain an ACTUALGAIN and with this, ensure that it is sustainable and can be aggregated (incorporated into the whole so that it has impact). The key to the MLG approach is to ensure that every learning gain made can be embedded and sustained as part of everyday practice, ensuring that this will not be one of those ‘missed opportunities’ at a later date.
So here goes…the Marginal Learning Gains approach with a methodology to accompany it. One that can be used time and time again so that gains can indeed be aggregated. As Dave Brailsford says, it is only when you put the marginal gains together and embed them as part of your standard practice, that you will start to see the TOTAL impact. In this case, on the quality of teaching and learning.
So this is my first attempt (of several, I am sure) to explain just how integral and manageable ‘MICRO‘ action research is as an integral part of the Marginal Learning Gains approach. It is an approach I have used for years and as part of the MLG process, I can only see how will benefit anybody who wants to ensure that MLG thinking will have a sustained impact over time for quality teaching and learning.
For me, any form of research is about developing a reflective mindset and with this, it has a direct a impact on practice. In working and thinking in this way, we get to the point where we are confident enough to implement the small but meaningful changes (MLGs) in teaching practice that will make a big difference in learning outcomes.
The MLG tool: Micro Action Research
Micro action research is the methodology that is most suited to implementing Marginal Learning Gains in your practice and ensuring that the aggregation happens. If Marginal Learning Gains is the philosophy, then micro-action research is the methodology. At the end of which, the Learning
Gains can be pulled together (aggregated) to ensure sustained impact. There’s clearly a synergy between the methodology and the philosophy of MLG.
In micro action research, you focus on developing just one aspect of pedagogy (which you have identified from one or all of your three evidence sources listed above) with a specific group within a limited timeframe. Once you have developed this one aspect, embedded it and sustained it as part of your practice, you simply identify another key component and apply the same process. That’s where the Aggregation of Marginal Learning Gains starts to really take a hold.
This is how it works…The Micro Action Research Question
Rather than asking, “How can I improve my teaching from (x) to (y)?” and with this question, getting frustrated because you feel that you’re doing everything you know you should be doing, micro action research requires you to reframe the question in SPECIFICS, so that you can easily and systematically assess the impact of any specific changes you test out. So your question will sound more like this,
“To improve my teaching from (x) to (y)…” becomes…
“How can I use [SPECIFICSTRATEGY] (e.g. paired discussion) SO THAT I see an improvement in the [LEARNINGOUTCOME] (e.g. quality of learning talk) with [FOCUS GROUP] (e.g. five Year 9 boys) over [TIMEFRAME] (e.g. three lessons) ?”
The handy thing about this approach is that the research can be undertaken without making massive changes or requiring hours of pre-planning. By adopting a reflective mindset in the first lesson, you are using the Marginal Learning Gains (IAD) approach at a meta-level and in doing so, embedding it in your own thinking.
In your first lesson, you IDENTIFY what your focus needs to be. Between the first and the second lesson, you ANALYSE the characteristics of what you EXPECT when you listen to ‘quality learning talk’ in this instance and then, in the second and third lessons, you can DEVELOP those specific characteristics through the small changes you implement.
In doing this, you don’t have to undertake a whole-scale re-programming of your teaching preferences and style but instead, you are free to focus your attention on a specific aspect of your repertoire. You can then engage in a highly reflective process that will not only develop this specific aspect of teaching but, more importantly, shape the way in which you design learning at the outset.
If you merge this with some developmental lesson observations as part of a focused MLG coaching programme, then you’ll have a model for teaching and learning development that is sophisticated in terms of depth of thinking and quality reflection but simple in terms of manageability. This is a Low Input: High Impact model for professional development. And if you want to know more about how the developmental coaching programme works, I’ll be posting about that soon.