This e-bulletin continues our exploration of how the QCDA personal, learning and thinking skills framework can be put into practice. For the summer term, our focus is on the final key competence of the framework: that of ‘effective participators’doc-7762494

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This ebulletin is the first in a series that looks at how we might encourage young people to actively engage with issues that affect them and those around them. We will look at a range of different approaches and strategies that have been used to help young people play a full part in the life of their school, college or wider community.

In this issue and the next, we will look at the use of story and story telling as a student-led enquiry method and agent of organisational change. This issue we will begin with a student voice project that uses story as an organising framework for student-led enquiry into learning and how this might be improved. We will look at how the project is structured and consider some feedback from schools where the project has been successfully implemented.

The Thinking Through School project
Thinking Through School, a programme published by Chris Kington Publishing in 2006, is currently being followed in over 270 schools across the UK. Addressed to students in Year 7, the project does three important things:

  1. It helps students to think about learning and themselves as learners – it is about learning
  2. It helps teachers and schools with the process of consulting students about their learning so that they find out more about their experiences of learning, what helps, what makes sense, what gets in the way – it is about student voice
  3. It helps both parties – students and teachers – have some fun and build trust on the way to a new and potentially stronger relationship.

In order to encourage young people to speak about their learning experiences you need something a bit different, and we believe that Thinking Through School has two significant features.

Firstly, it is structured not as a series of factual, text book-style sessions about learning, but as a story which unpacks fundamental issues about learning and being a learner. The story of eLfi and Jaz is about a young girl’s struggle to pass off a malfunctioning artificial intelligence as a human being. Jaz discovers eLfi in a skip one day and, without realising it, is propelled into the first ever field test of an AI, with the groundbreaking ability to learn how to learn. Rollercoaster rides, ravenous ostriches and the ongoing search for eLfi’s mysterious inventor lead Jaz on a journey of discovery – an exploration into learning and what it means to be a learner.

Stories have a unique power to engage our interest and also provide a meaningful and accessible context in which to explore new ideas (as so powerfully demonstrated in Philosophy4Children). By engaging with the different characters, students find themselves, like Jaz, embarking upon their own exploration into learning. They discover the skills and dispositions that underpin all learning – the skills and dispositions that can provide coherence to an often disconnected, subject-based curriculum. The story makes them visible and memorable and invests them with meaning and relevance. As one Year 7 student commented:

‘The story sticks in your head. It helps you to understand the new ideas… it’s a completely different way of showing kids how to learn and why it’s good to learn, and finding out what they think.’

Secondly, Thinking Through School takes an enquiry-based approach to Learning to Learn. The story draws young people into an enquiry about their learning experiences in and out of school – an enquiry that can help them to derive greater meaning from what they are learning in different curriculum areas; an enquiry that can help them to make connections between school and everyday life. And by enquiring into the learning experiences of students, this resource is just as much a learning experience for schools and teachers as for students. As one senior teacher commented:

‘Only a short way into the programme we all realised that it was just as much a learning experience for the staff and the school as a whole… the concept of sharing the agenda with students, giving them more autonomy and letting them join you as ‘equals’ in an enquiry was very new for some members of staff and has sparked some valuable debate. Many teachers were taken right out of their comfort zones. They used the story to challenge students with questions such as “what is school for?”, “what do I think of myself?” and “what is learning?”, but when the students responded with their thoughts, they found themselves being challenged at quite a profound level regarding their beliefs about what learning is all about and about what good teaching involves.’

This enquiry covers the 10 key areas detailed below. Students are also encouraged to influence the agenda and suggest their own lines of enquiry as much as possible.

Chapter Key idea
1 What’s school for? Students explore their own motivations and attitudes towards learning and the dangerous topic of the role of schooling.
2 What do I think of myself? Explores issues of self-concept and confidence.Explores issues of self-concept and confidence.
3 What is learning anyway? Encourages students to think about how they learn, including issues such as memory.
4 Think on your feet! Students think about whether ‘good thinking’ can be taught; they begin to collect together their own ‘thinking toolbox’.
5 What’s wrong with the way I talk? Students explore different types of talk and examine the value of using ‘exploratory talk’ to think together.
6 Flipped?! Students figure out how to keep a positive attitude in difficult situations, to give them some confidence in their ability to influence things.
7 Picture this! Investigates visual thinking, introducing students to the important skills of reading images, visualisation and representing thinking visually.
8 What’s the big idea? Hunting for the big concepts and skills that underpin learning in different subjects and helping students to find connections between subjects.
9 Just listen to yourself think! Allows students to focus on the ‘how’ not the ‘what’ of learning – aka ‘metacognition’ – to make learning more accessible to them.
10 Recycle it! Introduces students to the concept of learning for transfer; making connections between school and everyday life.

How does it work?
Each chapter ideally takes two one-hour sessions to complete and is based around a key idea as outlined above. The teacher and students read the chapter together as the basis for their enquiry. The students try out some activities and share their reactions and ideas. Following this ‘launch lesson’, the students continue the enquiry by investigating an aspect of their learning in a selected lesson or in everyday life over the following week. This is their ‘independent enquiry’ and it is very powerful – students reporting and reflecting on their learning experiences. In the follow-up session both students and teachers are reporting back – as a community of enquiry. This model can be summarised as follows:

Students involved in the project have been acutely attuned to the sort of feedback a particular teacher is really prepared to accept. Where they have spotted that no genuine enquiry is possible or welcome, they have disengaged. But where the invitation for students to speak honestly about their experiences has been a genuine one, the impact on student-teacher relations and classroom culture has been significant, as in this example reported by a Year 7 teacher:

‘When they saw that I genuinely wanted their help in figuring out what was going on, it really started to work. They gave me great feedback and I explained at the end I was keeping my own ‘teacher log’ of the lessons about how much I had learned about them and me and the learning. They were fantastic at pinpointing what had interfered and what needs to change, including their own approach in two cases. We are moving forward – really. Even in a short space of time, the group dynamic has visibly changed and now completely different characters are contributing to the group work and oral feedback and taking a lead.’

Thinking Through School is being used to complement a wide range of initiatives that are presently engaging schools:

  • learning to learn
  • student voice
  • personalised learning
  • school self-evaluation
  • thinking skills
  • talking to learn
  • assessment for learning
  • citizenship
  • motivation, behaviour and attendance
  • curriculum development.

Some schools, such as Stanchester Community School in Somerset, Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes and Maricourt High School in Liverpool, are using it in specially timetabled ‘learning to learn’ sessions. In Northumberland two middle schools are exploring its use with smaller ‘intervention’ groups of vulnerable children to boost their motivation, engagement and self-esteem, and in Lancashire, it has been incorporated within the Opening Minds Curriculum (RSA project). Elsewhere, several schools have tied it in with their coaching programme and based their CPD programme around the issues that emerge from the joint student/teacher enquiries. The potential for using it as a self-evaluation tool comes from all the feedback from the student enquiries stimulated by each chapter, which can be expected to raise serious issues. Furthermore, the structure and habit of communication that it engenders promises much in terms of developing some substance to personalised learning.

As these brief examples show, it is a powerful vehicle for enacting change. Any significant change agenda in school, whether chosen internally or imposed from outside, requires an engine. This needs to be a practical format that fits with the educational values of staff and where appropriate, as in this case, appealing to students. Abstract ideas may be attractive but they demand something that can be put into operation that begins to change the way that staff and students think, feel and behave. Without this impact the abstract ideas remain inert.

Thinking Through School could be used by an individual teacher as a ‘learning to learn’ resource, but when used strategically across a whole year group its impact on learning – whole-institution learning – is proving to be much broader than that. There is the well known phrase that there is no curriculum development without teacher development, and Thinking Through School must be seen in this light. The successful use of the story can be seen as a diagnostic test of individual teachers and a school to make a student-centred pedagogy and a student-voice approach work. For the teacher there are some critical tests:

  • Bringing the story to life in a creative, meaningful way.
  • Inviting and sustaining genuine dialogue with students, encouraging both openness and respect.
  • Responding to student comments and feedback in an honest way.
  • Encouraging quieter or disenfranchised students to participate.
  • Thinking on one’s feet and dealing with the unexpected, from a basis of intelligent planning.
  • Feeding back to colleagues the implications and lessons from the experience.

Given the demands on teachers and the risk they take in engaging in such an open-ended enterprise with the chance of really tapping into how students feel, it is only right that they get some support. Collaborative discussion, planning and review are critical in giving participating teachers the chance to learn in conjunction with their students.

For further details about the project and the accompanying materials, please see:

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2010

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.