Mandi Horwood describes how a project to investigate how students saw their learning and how they can have a say in it revealed the vital contribution that they have to make

In 2006, three advanced skills teachers for assessment for learning (Linda Baines, Lucy Watts and myself), from three Leading Edge secondary schools in Cornwall, planned a joint project on learning. We wanted to investigate how students saw their learning and how they could have a say in their learning. We planned an outline which would be cross-phase and cross-school spread over three years. The idea was to appoint eight learning detectives in each school who would study learning through training and lesson observations in their own and each others’ schools and present their findings to the staff of each school. Following this first year – and depending on its success and evaluation – we planned to use the original detectives to train a new group of detectives who would investigate learning in two of each secondary school’s partner primaries. Finally, in year three, we hoped to tackle Key Stage 5 in a similar way. This was very ambitious and it was decided that we should try a pilot project first.

The pilot

My school, the Roseland Community School, which had already been involved in the three-year Learning to Learn study with Newcastle University, offered to run the pilot with the agreement and support of the headteacher, Jane Black. This would then be shared with the other headteachers, depending on the success of the pilot. Linda Baines from Penair and I planned  the idea of ‘learning detectives’ and presented it to Year 8. From this presentation, students were invited to apply for the role; we selected 17 for interviews. As neither of us actually knew any of the Year 8 students we had no preconceived ideas about them. However, we did use cognitive ability data to help shortlist because, ideally, we wanted a cross section of ability. In the interviews, there were obvious questions about reasons for applying and their thoughts about learning but we also added a question that asked ‘If you were an animal, what would you be and why?’ That brought some very interesting answers and certainly helped us sort the original thinkers! One boy was particularly fascinating. He sat outside the office, waiting for his interview, slouched, kicking the chair and with a baseball cap on (firmly against school rules). When he talked to us, it was like watching a bud unfold. His interest and understanding were perceptive, detailed and fascinating. When he had left, Linda and I looked at each other and simultaneously said ‘wow’. We appointed him! We actually appointed 11 detectives at first although during the year, through natural wastage, this became eight – our ideal number. Parents were consulted and signed an agreement form. Clearly, this would have some impact on the detectives’ own learning as some lessons would be missed and parents needed to agree that the gains would make up for that. In December, the learning detectives had a full day’s training with Diana Pardoe, an educational consultant from Bristol. The detectives looked at how learners learn, how talk can be helpful or unhelpful and what should be looked for in a lesson. I think we, the teachers, learned as much about the perceptiveness and understanding of the learners themselves on the day as they did about looking for effective learning. Interestingly, the first point most of the students gave on that day, when asked for what makes a good learner, was being quiet and listening – ie passive learning. Now their emphasis is on discussion and activity, with listening seen as a skill integral to these – a move to active learning and taking responsibility for their own learning! Following the training, Linda and I designed two lesson observation sheets for the detectives to use, and we gave these to the detectives to discuss what they thought of them. On return, they told us they liked one sheet but not the other – so they had redesigned it. It was better than ours! The Roseland School is an innovative school and the teachers are constantly looking for ways to improve their own practice, so I was fairly confident that they would accept the idea of students observing lessons. However, we decided that the detectives would observe two lessons in their pairs with either Linda or I coming along for the first observation as quality control and reassurance for the teacher. The observation sheets tracked either the activities in the lesson or observed the learning behaviours and did not directly focus on the teacher. Following the lesson, the two detectives had time to discuss their findings and record these on a response sheet. The second observation was done without one of us there. (One factor that we did not consider carefully enough was allowing time for the detectives to feed back to the teachers, all of whom wanted to know what the detectives saw – a point for the next stage.) Finally, the group of eight discussed their findings and how to share them. Their key findings focused very much around the strategies assessment for learning and Learning to Learn promote. They formulated some points that they felt should be shared. These were:

  • Knowing what we’re learning and why – the learning objective should be written and left throughout the lesson so that learners could remind themselves if they went off task.
  • Group work – focused speaking and listening promoted learning.
  • Motivation – learners had to take responsibility.
  • Timed work – lessons should have pace.
  • Knowing what good work looks like – modelling and exemplars helped.
  • Visual – pictures, models, interactive whiteboards, animation, colours all added to learning.
  • Fun – this, they felt, was vital.

Sharing the findings

The next step was to share the findings. We wanted to share with the headteachers, whose support and permission was vital, so that the next planned stage of the project would go ahead. We also felt that an assembly presentation would be a good idea. However, as with all the decisions, the teachers left it to the students to make the final choice. They wanted not only to present to Year 7 – (Year 8 was too traumatic – ‘They know us!’) – but they also wanted to teach a PSHE lesson to Year 7. Linda and I quietly gulped and then bravely agreed. The detectives planned their assembly, which was to explain the process of becoming a learning detective and the activities they had been involved in or were planning to do. It finished with the announcement: ‘And now we are coming to your PSHE lesson.’ They also planned an active lesson (‘I never realised planning a lesson took so long’). They used the carousel idea of sharing ideas on ‘What makes a good learner?’, ‘What stops learning?’, ‘What is helpful talk?’, ‘What is unhelpful talk?’ They added in a quiz about how you learn, an anagram puzzle and completed the lesson by asking the pupils to create a class pledge on learning. They began and ended with learning objectives – one of which was to have fun – along with asking for a quick feedback from the pupils as to how they felt they had achieved them. The assembly presentation followed by PSHE (which is on a rolling timetable) was on a Friday afternoon. All teachers will know that Friday afternoon can be very challenging as all involved are often tired and tetchy! We asked the tutor of each Year 7 group to be there but not to take part unless requested. We did, however, ask them to help formulate the final pledge – that was our safety valve! Actually, the paired detectives were more than capable of running the whole session. Our drama teacher filmed and edited the lessons into an excellent 20-minute film which clearly shows the power of allowing students a say in their learning. The following week, the Year 7 tutor groups worked on more focused understanding of what makes a good learner. Two of the groups had their two detectives with them as this was a process they had already undertaken themselves. One tutor commented: ‘I was not needed. The detectives knew what to do and basically ran the lesson.’ The next big challenge was taking an active role in the first ever assessment for learning children’s conference in Cornwall, entitled ‘Whose Learning is it Anyway?’ This was run by children for children. It consisted of a keynote speech from Diana Pardoe – whom the detectives were pleased to see again and to be recognised by – followed by three sessions where a total of 18 workshops were either run or attended by the learners, including adults – although unless accompanying students, adults were banned. The detectives ran two workshops, splitting their group into two. I was delighted at the skill and panache with which the detectives coped with students and adults of widely varying ages. They concentrated on explaining their brief and then giving a carousel activity plus some games. The learning objective was at the beginning and end! Having dropped in and out of as many sessions as I could, I do feel that the learners in our Cornish schools are achieving all of the Rs (readiness, resourcefulness, resilience, remembering, reflectiveness) that the Learning to Learn campaign concentrated on!

What’s next?

In September 2007, the learning detectives will present their findings to the staff of the Roseland School. Following that, they will present to the new Year 8 students in Roseland and Penair. From each of the schools, eight new detectives will be selected, trained and begin the process of understanding learning, sharing their ideas and showing that the learner can take responsibility. This time, we hope that the experience will be to share lesson observations and findings with a detective from another school. We may also, by then, have been able to involve the third of our Leading Edge schools, Richard Lander, whose AST, Lucy Watts, was involved in the original planning. Depending on the outcome, primary schools should be involved in 2008-09.

This has been a learning process for all of us. However, on a personal note, the impact on my teaching, from working with these students, has been an enrichment of my own understanding of how best to develop good, independent learners, an acknowledgement of the vital role and contribution that my students can and should have on their own learning and, most of all, real pleasure in watching these students evolve into confident independent learners.

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