In this month’s in-depth focus Anne De A’Echevarria talks about the Thinking Through School approach to learning-focused innovation. She describes the model and, using examples, explores successful implementation in schools and how the impact can be seen to be more than school-wide

Thinking Through School was published in October 2006 by Chris Kington Publishing and is currently being trialled in schools across the UK. Addressed to pupils in Year 7, this book does three important things:

  1. It helps pupils to think about learning and themselves as learners – it is about learning.
  2. It also helps teachers and schools with the process of consulting pupils 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 pupil voice.
  3. It helps both parties, pupils 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 ground-breaking ability to learn how to learn. Rollercoaster rides, crazed robotic floor vacs, ravenous ostriches and the ongoing search for the 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 Philosophy for Children. By engaging with the different characters, pupils 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.

Secondly, Thinking Through School takes an enquiry-based approach to learning to learn. The story draws pupils 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 pupils, this resource is just as much a learning experience for schools and teachers, as for pupils.

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

Each chapter ideally takes two one-hour sessions to complete and is based around a key idea as outlined above. The teacher and pupils read the chapter together as the basis for their enquiry. The pupils try out some activities and share their reactions and ideas. Following this launch lesson, the pupils 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 is very powerful – pupils reporting and reflecting on their learning experiences. In the follow-up session both pupils and teachers are reporting back – as a community of enquiry. 

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

  • learning to learn
  • pupil 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, are using it in specially timetabled ‘learning to learn’ sessions. Others, such as Corbridge Middle School, have placed it within extended weekly tutorial sessions. In Northumberland, two middle schools have plans to use it 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, schools aim to tie it in with their coaching programme and base their CPD programme around the issues that emerge from the joint pupil/teacher enquiries.

The potential for using it as a self-evaluation tool comes from all the feedback from pupils in this 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 pupils. 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.

We are learning that the ingredients for the successful use of Thinking Through School are:

  • an overall enquiry leader, who is either part of
    the senior management team or very well connected to it
  • one or more open-minded tutors/teachers – one per class that will be involved
  • some committed and regular timetable time – perhaps 20 lessons in total – it is worth it!
  • time for the enquiry leader and tutorial leaders/teachers to meet to do some initial planning, review and final analysis
  • one or more Y7 classes who you wish to empower and enlighten – pupils that you really want to hear from – this is not cosmetic, you have to be serious about listening
  • and finally a willingness to learn on the part of all – one of the biggest challenges.

Thinking Through School may be categorised as a ‘learning to learn’ resource, but its impact on learning – whole institution learning – is proving to be really 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 pupil-centred pedagogy and a student-voice approach work. For the teacher there are some critical tests:

  • Sharing the text in a meaningful way, which may be reading it oneself or getting student volunteers.
  • Inviting and sustaining genuine dialogue with pupils, 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 pupils feel, it is only right that they get support. Collaborative discussion, planning and review are critical in giving participating teachers the chance to learn in conjunction with their pupils. This is illustrated in the Corbridge Middle School case study, available here.

Anne de A’Echevarria
Thinking for Learning, Northumberland LA: www.thinkingforlearning.com

For more information on the Opening Minds Curriculum visit www.rsa.org.uk/newcurriculum