Research and Development: Learning About and Learning From

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in some of the very best learning conversations. I recognise these as the ‘best’ learning conversations because they are characterised by those (seemingly) luxurious and in-depth reflections on existing practice and observations. They are characterised by a meticulous observational analysis of learning and they are punctuated with frequent checks against assumptions and generalities. The way I know I’m really in one of these quality learning conversations is that the flow of dialogue is interspersed with an exchange of phrases such as, “…that reminds me of the work of [x]…” and “…ah, you should read the report on [y]” and “…I don’t know if you’ve come across it, but, I think you would really love the work of [z]”.

The on-going challenge of plate-spinning in the day job means that simply finding the kind of relevant research from leading thinkers and academics to draw on during these conversations is a task in itself. Actually having the time to make sense of the research so what we can apply it to daily practice is a whole other challenge. I am constantly fascinated by the wealth of research available to educationalists but it can feel like a full-time job to keep up with it all; a job I welcome with open arms, eyes and mind, nonetheless.

The power that external research can have on thinking and practice cannot be underestimated. But when it is coupled with internal research and contextual evidence, the potential for innovation is massive.

That’s why I am so excited about the rapidly growing numbers of individual teachers and whole school communities (staff and students together) who are already experiencing the benefit of designing professional development and learning opportunities around their own action research projects.

With that in mind, I am building (very slowly…these things take time!) a page of readings and resources that I hope will be useful for anybody wanting to develop their work in this area. I hope that these readings will be helpful in their own right, but they come from organisations and sources where some great work is happening, so if you have the time, I recommend going to the point of origin to see what else you can find. If you have any other recommended sources, please let me know so I can add them to this site for others to find.

My role over the next year includes some discreet projects and opportunities to be immersed in working in this way and I am really looking forward to sharing some of it here and reading about your experiences through your feedback.

Where practitioners and whole school communities are actively encouraged and supported to collate evidence from the learning they design, deliver and see everyday, the establishment of schools as communities of learning will become more commonplace. If in-school research can be married with external research findings, this can only be a good thing.

In Religious Education, there are just two attainment targets: “Learning about religion” and “Learning from religion”. I have always really liked the simplicity of these two targets. I wonder if they can be applied to the development of reflective practice? Something like, “Learning about research” and “learning from research”…?

The task of becoming a reflective practitioner is not an easy one, but it is certainly one that time and time again, reaps long-term sustainable benefits to both teaching and learning alike. It all promises exciting times ahead for professional development and innovation…

The power of creative explanations

The Higgs Boson Explained from PHD Comics on Vimeo.

Just take 8 minutes out of your busy day and watch this awesome explanation of The Higgs Bosun and what they’re up to over at the Large Hadron Collider. For those of us who are constantly trying to find ways to celebrate clever-endeavour and the joy of intelligent curiousity, this creative and engaging animation is a pretty good way to start.

Just imagine the discussions that could stem from this…

Joyous!

Coaching to develop questioning expertise

“What makes a great questioner?”

 

In my coaching work with practitioners, I work with them to un-pick the skills involved in expert questioning.

At the heart of our coaching conversation, the practitioner breaks down the whole of the issue at hand, in this instance, QUESTIONING, into its constituent parts. This enables them to build on the specific strengths of their questioning strategies. This may identify times for them when they may have used a framework such as Bloom’s to construct their questions, but found that they haven’t waited long enough to allow ALL learners to come up with a range of quality answers.

Alternatively, they may know exactly who they need and want to ask as part of an inclusive questioning strategy to ensure that everybody is included in their questioning, but when they get a response, they get over-excited, particularly when they hear the one they were waiting for and use this as a prompt that everybody is ready to move on. This then misses the chance to use the answer(s) received as an opportunity to adapt teaching to meet learning needs.

So often, the difference between good and outstanding teaching comes down to just such missed opportunities.

 

So here’s what I’ve been working on in coaching sessions with practitioners who want to develop their expertise in questioning. I hope you find this deconstruction helpful!

 

As part of the coaching conversation, I focus on the following elements:

 

1. Decide on the purpose of the question

  • Why are you posing the question?
  • To prompt deeper thinking or because you and your students need to ‘cover the ground’?
  • To illicit a range of responses or a achieve specific response?
  • To assess security of understanding or reinforce existing knowledge?
  • To find out what you need to do next in your teaching or to reassure yourself that you can stick to a fixed plan?

N.B. There is no judgement on any of these suggested purposes. It is just a way to reflect on whether questions are ‘fit for purpose’

 

2. Construct the question

  • How can you use a thinking framework, a taxonomy or a graphic organiser to design your questions? For example, inference squares, 8-way thinking, 5 Ws, Bloom’s, De Bono’s hats, SOLO, P4C and so on are all great tools and processes to construct quality questions, develop deep thinking and foster curiosity.
  • Who’s question is it? Do all the questions come from you? How do you design opportunities for students to ask their own authentic questions?

 

3. Deliver the question

  • Who will you ask what questions and at what stage of the lesson do they need to be asked for greatest effect?
  • When will you use your deliberately planned ‘Big Bang Questions’ (BBQs) and what questions can you rely on as your standard ‘go-to’ questions to ‘scatter’ throughout the lesson? How can you deliberately design lessons in response to students’ questions?
  • How will you pose your questions? What ways can you deliver your questions in a creative and engaging way? In what ways might you be able to use technology to deliver your questions for you, using apps to animate your questions and surprise pupils as the lesson progresses. Just one example, ‘Talking Animals’ is great for this but there are loads of different ways to animate your questions.
  • How could you design learning so that questions are presented as clues hidden and slowly revealed during the lesson or placed around the room or site, or give them to pupils for them to make their own meanings collaboratively?
  • Will you be the sole questioner or will you delegate some questions to be asked by students, groups or as individuals?

 

4. Wait for the answer

  • How we you ‘grow the thinking gap’ . That is the time between the question being asked and the answer being expected? There’s a load of research about  the power of such wait time, but here’s one nice summary from the Independent Thinking Blog.

5. Respond to the answer

  • What will you do with the information that comes back to you in response to the question you have asked? Handily, this links back to the first element of questioning expertise, “What is the purpose of your question?”
  • How will you respond to inaccuracies in understanding? What kind of inaccuracies are you likely to encounter? How will you use these as critical teaching moments ‘CTMs’? How will you handle the completely unexpected response? What will you do if your question illicit nothing but the ‘tumble weed’ effect and how will you adapt your teaching to address a whole-scale misunderstanding or lack of confidence with the learning?

 

Trying to develop expertise in questioning involves reflecting and developing all of these elements in order to master one coherent approach to achieve the greater goal of, “Fostering curiosity”. In a coaching conversation, focusing on developing questioning expertise provides a rich vein of exploration and many opportunities for very specific formative lesson observation. 

 

The complexity of learning is constantly matched by the complexity of teaching. I am always mindful of the dangers of un-picking expertise in this  very specific way. If we’re not careful, teaching could be reduced to a mechanical activity.  We may then start to think of it as a straightforward checklist of processes, rather than the more organic craft that we all know it to be.  So having deconstructed these elements, the trick is to coach the practitioner to be able to stick everything back together, ready to be applied with confidence back in their busy classroom.

 

For me, then, questioning continues to be hold my fascination. I use a variety of formats to support formative lesson observation as part of my coaching practice. Each one takes a specific element of questioning and limits the focus of the observation to describe (not interpret or judge) what takes place in a specific time period within or over a series of lessons. I am always testing new versions so that I make sure I can capture exactly what it is the practitioner has asked me to look for. 

 

Once we become expert questioners, we are likely to be far more confident to continuously model what great questions sound like and, more importantly, the effect that posing a great question has.  This is equally true for coaches and practitioners. In this way, students are far more likely to develop confidence as expert questioners in their own right. It is at this moment, when students take responsibility for the lion’s share of the questioning during a lesson that curiosity will reign supreme!