Staff soon discovered that it was more than just a ‘learning to learn’ scheme. Liz Solomon describes the challenges and insights gained from trialling Thinking Through School.
Corbridge Middle School, near Hexham, Northumberland is a 9-13 mixed comprehensive with approximately 350 on roll. Pupil attainment on entry to the school is generally above the national average, although the full range is present. In this case study, the process of trialling Thinking Through School is exemplified and the lessons learned are outlined.
At Corbridge Middle School we had been using various teaching thinking approaches for a long time but felt that we had reached a plateau and were unsure how to help pupils and teachers move on to a deeper level of understanding. We wanted to move from a situation in which there were isolated pockets of good practice in individual classrooms, towards developing the ethos of a thinking and learning community. Trialling Thinking Through School represented a possible step forward for us in that direction.
Challenging but valuable
To be honest, however, most of the staff who participated in the trial were not fully aware of this agenda and at first saw Thinking Through School as merely a ‘learning to learn’ scheme – a learning opportunity for their pupils. Only a short way into the programme, however, we all realised that it was just as much a learning experience for the staff and the school as a whole.
The resource engages most children due to the open-ended nature of the activities and discussion, and – in the right hands – the sense of ownership that pupils feel about the whole process. But the concept of sharing the agenda with pupils, 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 pupils with questions such as ‘What is school for?’, ‘What do I think of myself?’ and ‘What is learning?’, but when the pupils 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.
It has been a particular challenge for staff who tend to over-control the discussion and thinking within their classrooms. Where pupils disengage, it’s due to the above point – they are acutely aware of the balance of power in the classroom and attuned to what type of response a particular teacher is really prepared to accept.
Where they spot that no genuine enquiry is possible or welcome, they disengage. (I should add that, where pupils were enthused, the debate often continues beyond school – one parent commented that she could see that her daughter had started to think about learning more. In fact, because of her daughter’s ‘impossibly difficult’ questions, the whole family had started to think about learning more!)
Using Thinking Through School has therefore been a challenging, but extremely valuable experience – the insight we have gained into pupils’ thinking is perhaps the greatest value of the programme. Teachers have often been surprised by the maturity of their pupils’ ideas, their questions, their ability to think and reason for themselves – given the chance.
Responding to pupils
We are convinced, now, of the value of making ‘learning’ itself the focus of dialogue with pupils (as well as amongst ourselves!) but responding to the information and ideas we are receiving from pupils is also proving a challenging task. We are raising expectations – can we meet them?!
We’ve found that it’s very important for teachers who are facilitating the programme to keep pupils informed about how they personally, and the staff as a whole, are responding to what they are finding out from the pupils; what actions are being taken and how it’s influencing what is happening in lessons.
We have noticed that where pupils are kept informed about the feedback, they and other classes have been giving – the ‘results’ of their enquiries – levels of engagement shoot up. There was one teacher, in particular, who openly responded to some of her pupils’ suggestions and made changes to her practice.
The dynamic in that particular classroom really began to change – there was a greater sense of pupils and teacher learning with and from each other.
If I had to give any further advice to a school that was thinking about trialling Thinking Through School, I would add that it’s absolutely vital that participating staff are given enough time to plan, teach, review and learn from the sessions. It’s also vital for senior leaders to think about how they will make sure that the school as a whole engages with and learns from what is going on.
Our Year 7 pupils are being introduced to generic learning skills that underpin learning in all curriculum areas. The whole staff is now being briefed on what pupils are learning in Thinking Through School sessions so that they can facilitate the independent enquiries and help pupils to transfer what they are learning across the curriculum, and also beyond school into everyday life.