Have you ever wished for an educational ‘reset’ button? A way to restore a student’s self-esteem and change a teachers viewpoint? A way back to the stage when everyone was hopeful and everything was possible? A Superlearners Day is no magic button, but it may be the next best thing.
By Karen Faulkner and Tim Gamble
Babies are wonderful. They have infinite potential and everyone thinks the best of them. By the time we get to meet them, twelve or thirteen years later, things have very often changed. Maybe it’s puberty, perhaps it’s the peer group, but one way or another, it happens. Too many teenagers have come to believe that they just can’t learn at school, and too many teachers have come to agree with them. These beliefs support each other, and that makes it very hard to change them. The best way is to find something that makes everyone pause for thought at the same time, and shows them a better way. That could be a Superlearners Day.
The belief system we want to challenge is simple enough. It holds that only some students can succeed at school because only some students are smart. What a devastating belief that can be. If you’re not smart at school and never succeed, then school really doesn’t have much to offer you. Of course you don’t give much in return, and the rest of that story is all too well known.The view we want to support is just as simple. Everyone can learn, everyone can succeed in their own way, and everyone can enjoy it. All our students can benefit from school and all of them can contribute to it. There are any number of research papers to support this, but research papers do not easily impress students. They need to see it working in practice.
A Superlearners Day works best when it’s organised for a whole year group, and when it’s built around a single unifying theme. There are three important stages.
- The first stage is a presentation, introducing students to what we know about learning. This covers ideas about multiple intelligences and different learning styles. It includes a questionnaire so that students can begin to identify their own preferred approaches. The focus is the central message that everyone is smart – everyone can learn – everyone matters. As with any lesson, it’s vital to capture the audience right away. Use music and lights, make the questionnaire into a quiz show, have your visitors on stage, in costume, and ‘on message’. Do just whatever you have to do, but get their attention!
- The second stage is a series of activities based on the agreed theme, but all using different learning styles. Include a full range of visual, kinaesthetic and auditory stimuli and challenges. For these, the students should be organised in very small groups, supported by teacher assistants, peer tutors, class teachers and other adults. It’s a great opportunity to bring in members of the local community. There will be any number of local groups and you will find them all keen to help. Roman re-enactors, medieval musicians, and amateur astronomers – your assistants are out there! When you’ve got your helpers it is important to make sure they are well-briefed, and everyone understands the messages about self-esteem and learning styles that you want them to put over. Then, once you’ve begun, you need to keep up the momentum, so of course break and lunch are just two more themed activities – make the food the message! This is designed to be total immersion learning – there must be something for everyone.
- The third stage is a time for students and teachers to reflect on the experience of the day, to identify what went well and what didn’t and – crucially – to remember those things from today that will help them to become better learners and better teachers tomorrow. This has to be done really well if you’re going to build on the benefits. You could use thoughtboards to get feedback, have them write poems, finish by making “I’m good at …” badges… you could do anything – just send them away feeling smart!
Choosing the theme can be difficult, because once you start to think about it there are so many possibilities – you might think of space travel, the natural world, the history of the school, and many more. We had a Superlearners Day based on life in a medieval castle, a theme that everyone can relate to and that offers a wide range of activities in different learning styles – and the opportunity to dress up! The students responded with terrific enthusiasm and, crucially, so did their teachers.
Done properly, a Superlearners Day is such an overwhelming experience that everyone is excited, everyone is moved, and everyone succeeds in their own way. The key is then to hold tight to the success and the self-esteem,to build on the under-standing of learning and how to learn well, and to use the day as a foundation for a long-term programme to support and develop brain-based learning. This is how you can really reap the benefits. Super-learning leads to super-everything. As Henry Ford famously said, “If you believe you can, or if you believe you can’t, you’re probably right”. Superlearners believe they can, and Superteachers agree with them.
Tim Gamble leads Natural Sciences and Technology at Northampton Academy, and is a past winner of the Institute of Physics Teacher’s Award.
Karen Faulkner leads Key Stage 4 at Northampton Academy. She is an accredited UFA trainer and specialises in advanced teaching and learning techniques.
First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 9 Autumn 2005