Are you eager to explore new ways of learning? For six years Fallibroome High School has been trying new ideas. Deputy headteacher Francis Power describes what they’ve learned along the way

Learning to learn is at best a vague term. It seems to describe a plethora of ideas ranging from learning styles, mind-friendly learning, project work, learning dispositions, Brain Gym, learner logs, formative assessment, collaborative learning, etc. Our venture into this area began some six years ago. From the start we were determined to focus upon those ideas that were most closely linked to day-to-day classroom practice and could point to convincing evidence that they made a difference. Now, not only can we look back at the quantifiable improvements that have been made in our own school context, but we have also developed an approach to the management of change that places us in a strong position to progress still further.

Phase 1: Cooperative learning
Having sent several colleagues to the international Brain Expo conference in Texas in 2002, we became aware of the ideas being developed by Spencer Kagan in the area of cooperative learning(1). These ideas appealed to us for a number of reasons. In the first instance, they were very pragmatic while addressing some quite profound issues about the way children learn. We felt they could easily be adapted to our own context and that our teachers would respond well to the apparent simplicity of the techniques being described. Secondly, Kagan was able to substantiate the benefits of working in this way by referring to extensive research evidence to support his claims(2). Thus, we felt reassured that the techniques were valid and that we could persuade our staff to begin to adopt them. Thirdly, while we were already regarded as a high-achieving school, our staff were anxious about the ‘spoon-feeding’ culture that an exam-dominated environment can generate. We hoped that an approach that placed greater emphasis on student independence and collaboration would begin to address this.

We quickly began to train our staff in the use of these techniques. Initially this involved sending colleagues for a week’s intensive training in America with the expectation that they would bring these ideas back to share with colleagues in school. Indeed, this is something that we have maintained ever since with many of our staff now trained in this way. A number of our staff have also returned to America to be certified as ‘Kagan trainers’, with two of our colleagues from the primary sector going on to set up their own company specialising in providing this training in this country(3). This has allowed us to accelerate our staff development programme by providing high-quality training more locally. This greatly deepened our level of expertise, but would have been insufficient on its own. We were keen to add breadth by engaging staff who were unable to participate in the formal training programme. We also wanted to add rigour by generating evidence from our context that these techniques could improve our practice.

In common with many schools introducing new projects, we tried to engage more teachers in the programme by setting up a working party of volunteers from each curriculum area. This group met regularly, discussed ideas, received some additional training and acted as a support to each other throughout. The key strategic decision we made at this point, however, was to evaluate the effectiveness of this approach and the cooperative learning initiative generally as part of a research project for submission to the Campaign for Learning. The findings of this research project were very favourable(4) and allowed us to share persuasive evidence of impact from our own context with our staff. Perhaps the most important outcome, however, was the perspective it gave us on the value of structured research projects in our school. More than validate our opinions about the effectiveness of our work, it persuaded us that change was best supported by an approach that was committed to publishing its findings. This helped greatly to clarify our intended outcomes at the outset and it guaranteed a rigorous evaluation against these expectations. We were to replicate this approach in future initiatives.

Phase 2: Assessment for learning
The overwhelming evidence supporting the use of formative assessment will be familiar to most schools. Our increasing familiarity with this data persuaded us to launch a major whole-school initiative in this area several years ago. Again, we used the working party model to engage staff with these ideas and refine our proposals. By this time, however, we were convinced by the value of including a formal research programme alongside new initiatives of this nature. This project was consequently systematically evaluated by a range of research papers from different subject areas as well as by a major whole-school evaluation of impact between 2004 and 2006(5).

This process has left us with clear evidence of the benefit of using systematic formative approaches in a school context. Somehow the international data, while being more substantial, carries less meaning for many teachers than evidence gathered by their own colleagues working with their own students. Equally significantly, the requirement to publish outcomes required us to establish our understanding of the key elements of high-quality practice in the area of formative assessment right from the outset. This clarity of understanding allowed us to design student and staff surveys to assess the quality of our practices in 2004 (as a baseline measure) and then repeat this exercise in 2006 to evaluate the progress that had been made in the interim. Encouraging as these outcomes were, we were especially impressed by the power of research processes in a school context. We have consequently further extended our commitment to this principle with nearly 20 teachers currently engaged in research projects as well as a ‘Student Enquiry Group’ in which more than 15 volunteer students participate in this process.

Phase 3: Wild tasks
Alongside the work described above, we have been monitoring the work that other schools have been involved in around curriculum reform and generic learning skills. At the heart of this movement lies the desire to place less emphasis upon the acquisition of specific subject knowledge and skills and more upon the development of generic skills that can be applied in any context. At the same time there appears to be a desire to make the content that is taught more engaging, relevant and interesting to students. While schools have approached these issues in many different ways, the increased use of project work appears to have been a common element.

We have been cautious about our approach to curriculum reform. Where some schools have been bolder and reduced the length of key stages or collapsed timetable arrangements to facilitate project work and other activities, we have paused to consider if more fundamental questions should be asked first. In short, we wanted to ensure that if we made space for alternative curriculum provision, we could fill this space with something better than the current diet. Our previous experiences with cooperative learning and assessment for learning suggested that we ought to:

  • precisely define the desired outcomes from the outset
  • design research tools that would allow us to measure our current position against these desired outcomes
  • pilot alternative provision strategies and measure impact using the developed research tools
  • expand the project to a whole-school level only when satisfied by the quality of outcomes from the pilots.

We have been particularly attracted by Guy Claxton’s work around ‘building learning power’ and ‘wild tasks’(6) as it places such strong emphasis upon the importance of student engagement, the development of desirable characteristics and generic learning dispositions. We used his vocabulary about the key constituents of ‘wild tasks’ to design a student survey that we gave to 240 KS3 students. This gave us a baseline measurement of the ‘wildness’ of our current provision. We are currently piloting these ideas in a range of subject areas and have set up a working party to discuss and share our experiences. Each subject pilot is being assessed using both our student survey as well as structured staff reflections. In this way, we hope to develop a bank of tasks that the students have assessed as being ‘wilder’ than our current mainstream delivery and that staff have reflected upon as being successful. In the near future we expect to begin the discussion about the additional curriculum space that will be required to deliver this at a whole-school level. We hope to begin this project in the secure belief that the changes implemented will be a demonstrable improvement upon our current arrangements.

This approach to curriculum reform is slow, but justifiably so in our view. We felt that ‘project work’ done badly could be significantly worse than the current curriculum for our students. Project work seemed especially prone to illustrating the ‘metaphor of work’(7) where students appear active and busy, but are learning very little. It is also prone to replicating many of the issues of unequal participation and poor student accountability that are inherent in group work and are studiously avoided by cooperative learning. Furthermore, in our view the development of generic learning skills like resourcefulness or resilience could not be assumed by participation in longer assignments supported by vague statements of intent. It required the careful communication of these expectations to students. Our experiences with assessment for learning indicated that, if we were serious about developing generic learning skills, we needed to develop clear assessment criteria in terms that students could access. The provision of time to discuss and act upon such an assessment process would also be a prerequisite of such an initiative. A further problem lurked in the nature, style and expected outcomes of the wild tasks being developed in different curriculum areas. We needed to be wary of exposing students to repetitive experiences with duplicated outcomes. In short, in the same way as we have drawn clear distinctions between group work and cooperative learning, we made great efforts to establish the differences between project work and wild tasks.

This journey has brought real benefits to our school. It has clearly improved our classroom practice and enhanced the day-to-day experiences of our students. We have presented these ideas at many national conferences and been overwhelmed by the positive feedback from other schools. We currently struggle to cope with the number of requests we receive from other schools wishing to visit and discuss our work. Perhaps the most unexpected outcome, however, is the impact our initiatives have had on our view as ‘teachers as learners’. We are undoubtedly a more professional, reflective, learning organisation as a consequence of our engagement with high-quality research projects that are centred on our own school. This has allowed us to not only systematically review the progress we have made to date, but to look forward to future change with some confidence.

References1. Spencer Kagan; Cooperative Learning (Kagan, 1992); ISBN 1-879097-10-9

2. www.kaganonline.com/KaganClub/FreeArticles.html
3. www.t2tuk.co.uk

4. See research paper titled Learning Together
5. All of these papers are available here
6. www.buildinglearningpower.co.uk/blp/Publications.html
7. Charles Desforges, On Learning and Teaching