Teaching and Learning Strategies

This page is an attempt to collate my posts which are explicitly all about different teaching and learning strategies I have compiled. It is handy for me to have them all in one place and hopefully for those teachers who read my blog too!

Questioning – Top Ten Strategies

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“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.”Albert Einstein

Questioning is the very cornerstone of philosophy and education, ever since Socrates ( in our Western tradition) decided to annoy pretty much everyone by critiquing and harrying people with questions – it has been central to our development of thinking and our capacity to learn. Indeed, it is so integral to all that we do that it is often overlooked when developing pedagogy – but it as crucial to teaching as air is to breathing. We must ask: do we need to give questioning the thought and planning time something so essential to learning obviously deserves? Do we need to consciously teach students to ask good questions and not just answer them? How do we create a ‘culture of inquiry’ in our classroom that open minds and provokes truly independent thought?

Most research indicates that as much as 80% of classroom questioning is based on low order, factual recall questions. What we must do is put questioning back to the core of our pedagogy and planning – we need to create is a climate of enquiry and engagement in high quality, high order questioning if formative progress is to be identified effectively. We need to carefully formulate questions with precision, as well as targeting the right questions with the right students. One key issue is that we teach in a ‘answer focused culture’ – students await to be spoon fed answers; they await the secrets to an exam that is typically closed to any breadth of thinking (many of our exams are awful – the English Literature AS level exam appears to have reduced the greatest literature known to man down to a reductive shopping list!). The entire system we work within appears to reinforce a close-minded ‘answers culture’; inquisitiveness, time to explore and think are rail-roaded into a one track exam system. Controlled assessment after controlled assessment – judgement after stultifying judgement. Yet, we can change the system from the inside: we can make our schools and classrooms a world within a world – one where we maximise creativity by encouraging the asking of good, thoughtful questions; one where we crucially foster a culture of enquiry. In a culture of enquiry, questions are no longer the domain of the ignorant; a tool to trip up the teacher – they become dynamic – more about critical involvement, stretching knowledge and enriching understanding.

Effective questioning is key because it makes the thinking visible: it identifies prior knowledge; reasoning ability and the specific degree of student understanding – therefore it is the ultimate guide for formative progress. It allows for flexible adaptations in the learning and the righting of misconceptions – it can be the key #marginalgain in any given lesson in terms of time, but it is often the key hinge point between students making progress. My top ten list is roughly organised by transitions within a lesson: beginning with 1 to 4 being questioning that initiates the learning process; 5 and 7 being core questioning techniques to develop the learning; and finally 8 to 10 being questioning strategies that are evaluative in nature:

1. Key Questions as Learning Objectives: what better way to foster a culture of inquiry than to spark the whole shooting match off with a big question that gets students thinking critically about what they are going to learn? By asking a big question you can initiate thinking and group discussion that immediate engages students in their prospective learning. By framing it as a question, it can raise motivation, as students feel like they have invested choice in their learning – and by getting students to subsequently formulate the learning objective they really begin to think about the nuances of what they are to learn and why.

2. ‘If this is the answer…what is the question?’

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Taken from ‘Mock the Week’, this simple little technique sparks the inquisitiveness within students – just by quickly reversing the standard question and answer dichotomy it can deepen their thinking. It could be a relatively closed answer, like ‘3.14159265359’ (the numerical value of pi); or something more open and abstract, like ‘religion’ (a potential powder-keg that one!). They can be given the idea by showing a short clip of ‘Mock the Week from’ on YouTube – but I would advise you to vet the video carefully first!

3. Thunks – These little gems are great to initiate deeper thinking, with seemingly simple questions opening up a complex array of higher order thinking. Thunks, such as: “If I ask if I can steal your pen and you say yes, is that stealing?” Or “Can I ever step on the same beach twice?” are great fun and thoughtful starters. These clever questions (see Ian Gilbert’s excellent ‘Little a book of Thunks‘ or the website: http://www.thunks.co.uk/ ) can simply be used to spark thinking or dialogue, or they can be more targeted towards the topic or subject at hand. As the students become familiar with thunking (they really enjoy it in my experience) they can begin to formulate their own thunks – a great way to get them to think about higher order, open questioning.

4. ‘Just One More Question…’ (said in the style of Columbo!): Given any topic or subject, they have to work collaboratively in groups to create an array of quality questions. They can then be given a series of challenging question stems to broaden their range of questions, using the following: What if…?; Suppose we knew…?; What would change if…? Suppose we knew…? If they write the questions on post it notes then they can be collated and saved – with the teacher returning to them further thrown the learning line. As the topic develops students can add ‘just one more question’, as well as answering the initial questions as their understanding grows. By following this method you can continue to foster the crucial culture of inquiry in the classroom – encouraging questions as a matter of course. Generating a range of such questions is a great way to initiate a topic, as it helps highlight miscomprehension immediately; it can foster collaboration and it can give the teacher precise and immediate formative feedback to shape their subsequent planning for the topic.

5. Socratic questioning and Socratic Circles – The old dog really can teach us new tricks! Socrates himself believed that questioning was at the root of all learning – and it is hard to disagree. The six steps of Socratic questioning creates a critical atmosphere that probes thinking and once more gets the students questioning in a structured way. There are six main categories:

Q1. Get your students to clarify their thinking, for instance: “Why do you say that?” ….“Could you explain that further?” Q2. Challenging students about assumptions, for instance: “Is this always the case? Why do you think that this assumption holds here?” Q3. Evidence as a basis for argument, questions such as: “Why do you say that?” or “Is there reason to doubt this evidence?” Q4. Viewpoints and perspectives, this challenges the students to investigate other ways of looking at the same issue, for example: “What is the counter argument for…?” or Can/did anyone see this another way?” Q5. Implications and consequences, given that actions have consequences, this is an area ripe for questioning, for instance: “But if that happened, what else would result?” or “How does… affect ….?” By investigating this, students may analyse more carefully before jumping to an opinion Q6. Question the question, just when students think they have a valid answer this is where you can tip them back into the pit: “Why do you think I asked that question?” or “Why was that question important?”

I like to exemplify the probing nature of Socratic questioning with the attack dog of relentless questions – Jeremy Paxman – and his logical stripping down of Michael Howard!

I am thankful to @dailydenouement for the following document that presents a really clear set of instructions to document the Socratic circles strategy: http://www.corndancer.com/tunes/tunes_print/soccirc.pdf. This approach is a fantastic way to structure dialogue and to involve all students in exploring and developing their arguments. It creates a variety of roles and stimulates collaborative thinking and learning. Once more, it is another way to get students to reflect upon the very quality of the questions and not just the answers, with the critique of students from the outer circle.

6. Pose-pause-bounce-pounce – This is a brilliantly simple but very important strategy. The thinking time at the ‘pause’ point is crucial – there is a great deal of evidence about how the quality of responses, and the confidence levels of students, is raised by even a short amount of thinking time. The ‘bounce’ is also crucial in that, once again, students are expected to constructively build upon the ideas of one another, which gives the teacher the crucial formative assessment information required. I will hand you over to Dylan William and his excellent explanation of the strategy and the importance of quality questioning:

7. Hinge point questions – This simple but effective question approach does what it says on the tin, but in terms of progress, planning using hinge point questions can be pivotal for formative assessment. These questions really are crucial to identifying formative progress. These can be relatively closed questions, such as in this History exemplar question: In which year did World War Two begin? A: 1919 B: 1938 C: 1939 D: 1940 This allows for a very swift hinge point diagnosis of student progress. But, you can deepen the thinking by asking a ‘Why’ question about the origins of World War Two. You can ask students to orally explain their rationale, or you can add further complexity by having two ‘right’ answers to a question. Regardless of the strategy, again the precision of the question is key to the answer, and the subsequent direction of the learning. Too often teachers plough on regardless to meet the demands of their brilliant lesson plan, when all the formative assessment shouts at them (sometimes literally!) to move in another direction. We should not be frightened by going back steps to consolidate the learning – repetition is at the heart of acquiring knowledge – and without knowledge, skills become meaningless. Like the Green Cross Code tells us, we need to ‘stop, look and listen’ to the quality of the question, and the quality of the answer, before we go anywhere.

8. Question continuum – The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ (from ‘closed factual questions’ to ‘open, conceptual questions’) – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. Having the questions very visible means you can also flexibly rearrange, such as selecting the ‘best’ nine questions and creating a new ‘diamond nine’ formation. As you can see, the possibilities are endless.

9. Questioning monitor: Once more, this technique constructively involves students in the evaluation and reflection of the questioning process – fostering my now well worn refrain of creating a culture of enquiry. A monitor, or a pair of monitors, would be given the responsibility to track and monitor the frequency of questions: teacher and student – open or closed: factual or conceptual. You can have them monitor for a given task, or relate more cumulative research by undertaking the monitoring over a week or two of lessons. By exploring the evidence you are signalling to the students that you value evidence, and you are diagnosing the quality of your questioning, and that of the students. You will then have the evidence to know whether you really do have a culture of enquiry – and if not, it illuminates some of the steps you need to take to develop one. The activity sends very powerful messages to students about how highly your value quality questioning.

10. The Question Wall (a design upgrade for a well-used technique) Many educationalists have put forward sound reasons for using a question wall, or a learning wall. The ‘Question Continuum’ clearly overlaps with regards to pedagogy with a question wall, so I would be wary of trying both concurrently with groups, as it could potentially confuse them. The ‘Question Wall’ in this instance is a working space for students to communicate questions about their learning. By giving students post it notes and asking them to commit questions to writing typically eliminates those questions that reflect a sense of ‘learnt helplessness’ – the ‘how does you spell such and such’, when they have a dictionary on their table; or, ‘what do we have to do’, in response to your lengthy and erudite explanation you have only just imparted! The question wall helps foster independence and, once more, makes the students think a little more about their questions. To add a level of nuance to the wall, consider creating simple quadrants with simple labels: students can be advised that closed questions are placed on the left of the wall, whereas more open questions are placed progressively to the right hand side. A vertical axis could indicate the timer he student would expect was needed for explanation: placing questions that need a high degree of support, and therefore time, higher up the wall than those shorter, typically more closed questions. This simple visual representation of their questions allows the teacher to make a quick visual judgement about what questions they have time to address, or may want to prioritise. It helpfully indicates the level of ‘stuckness’ of the student, which is important feedback.

*Note: You may have noticed that the vast majority of these techniques require, or could benefit from, the use of post it notes. I am a supreme convert of the humble post it! We have just invested in stacks of the larger post its (they are broader than the usual) to ensure they work more effectively as tools for the above strategies and more.

Added Extras:

Schools across the world are taking the basics of questioning and learning and making outstanding progress happen, with high order critical at the heart of learning. Other countries, like China, are hunting down education systems that foster a ‘culture of inquiry’ so that they can create their own system that helps create creative and critical thinkers. With this pursuit in mind, I found this interesting case study about project based learning in schools in Jerusalem, with their ‘Communities of Thinking’. There are some great questions to be found here at the root of some really interesting pedagogy:

http://www.learningtolearn.sa.edu.au/learning_workroom/files/pages/documents/Communities_of_Thinking_in_educational_leadership.pdf

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Top Ten Group Work Strategies

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If I am continually vexed by any one question in education it is ‘how can we enhance student motivation?‘ Of course, I do not have the answer, and if there is one it is multi-faceted, complex and, frankly, not going to be solved in this blog post! From my position as a classroom teacher, I am always on the look out for those strategies that create a state when students are motivated and in their element, where they work furiously without even realising they are doing so, without realising the clock is ticking down to the end of the lesson. There is no better compliment than when students question how long there is left and express genuine surprise at how fast time has passed, and that they have actually enjoyed that lesson!

My, admittedly non-scientific, observations are that many of the times students are in ‘flow‘, or their element, in my lessons is when they are collaborating in group work. Why is this then? I believe that we are obviously social beings and we naturally learn in such groups (not always effectively it must be said), but that, more importantly, when working in a group we are able to correct, support, encourage, question and develop ideas much more effectively. The power of the group, guided by the expertise of the teacher, accelerates learning, makes it richer and demands a learning consensus that can push people beyond their habitual assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong, there are pitfalls and obstacles to group work. This constructivist approach should build upon expert teacher led pedagogy – ensuring that students have a good grounding in the relevant knowledge before undertaking in-depth group work. Group work can also be beset by issues in many nuanced forms: whether it is subtle intellectual bullying, where the student who shouts loudest prevails; or the encouragement of mediocrity and laziness, as students let others do all the work; or simply by poor, distracting behaviour. Another issue is ‘group think’ miscomprehension – indeed, how does prejudice flourish if not in social groups? Yet, this failure is often great for learning as long as the teacher can illuminate the error of their ways. Of course, no teaching strategy is foolproof and plain good teaching should remedy many of the potential ills of group work, just as good teaching can make more traditional teacher-led ‘direct instruction’ wholly engaging and effective.

I am intrigued by the idea of ‘social scaffolding‘ (Vygotsky) – the concept that most of our learning is undertaken in group situations, where we learn through dialogue and debate with others, not simply by listening to that voice in our head! That being said, I am not talking teachers out of a classroom here. The role of the teacher in devising and planning a successful group task takes skill, rigour and utter clarity and precision. Students need to be clear about a whole host of things: from their role, to the purpose of the task and the parameters of expected outcomes to name but a few. Teachers need to keep groups on track, intervene appropriately to improve learning and regularly regain student focus. Teachers have a pivotal role in guiding the group work at every stage. Group work certainly isn’t the lazy option: it takes skill in the planning and the execution, and sometimes, despite our best laid plans, it still fails. That shouldn’t put us off – aren’t all teaching and learning strategies subject to such risks?

If I was to define a simple and straight-forward basis for the rules for group work it would be:

– Have clearly defined tasks, with sharp timings and with the appropriate tools organised
– Have clearly defined group roles
– Have clear ground rules for talk, listening and fair allocation of workload etc.
– Target your support and interventions throughout the task, but make them interdependent of one another, not dependent upon you
– Always be prepared to curtail group work if students don’t follow your high expectations.

So here it is, my entirely subjective top ten strategies for group work that I believe to be effective (ideas for which I must thank a multitude of sources):

1. ‘Think-pair-share’ and ‘Think-pair-square’.

Well, no-one said this top ten had to be original! This strategy is one of those techniques that we employ so readily that we can almost forget about it, it is simply so automatic for most teachers; yet, because of that we can easily forget it in our planning. We need to use it regularly because it is the very best of scaffolded learning; it almost always facilitates better quality feedback by allowing proper thinking time and for students to sound out their ideas and receive instantaneous feedback from peers. ‘Think-pair-square’ adds a touch of added flavour, involving linking two pairs together (to form the ‘square’ to share their ideas before whole class feedback). Once more, it is about adding depth to ideas, stimulating debate and collaborative thinking. I defer to this blog post by @headguruteacher for the skinny on ‘Think-pair-share’ here.

2. Snowballing or the Jigsaw method

Similar to the ‘square’ approach mentioned in ‘Think-Pair-Square’, the ‘snowballing’ activity is another simple but very effective way of building upon ideas by starting with small groups and expanding the groups in a structured way. As the metaphor of the snowball suggests, you can begin with an individual response to a question; followed by then pairing up students up; then creating a four and so on. It does allow for quick, flexible group work that doesn’t necessarily require much planning, but does keep shaping viewpoints and challenging ‘answers’ is a constructive fashion.

The ‘jigsaw method’ is slightly more intricate. David Didau describes here how it is the “ultimate teaching method”, but that it benefits greatly from careful planning. Put simply, when researching a topic, like the causes of the Second World War, each member of a group is allocated an area for which they need to become the ‘expert‘, such as ‘the impact of the Treaty of Versailles’, or ‘issues with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary’ for example. With five or six ‘Home‘ groups identified, the ‘experts‘ then leave that group to come together to pool their expertise on the one topic; they question one another and combine research, ideas and their knowledge. Then each ‘expert‘ returns to their ‘home‘ group to share their findings. It is a skilful way of varying group dynamics as well as scaffolding learning.

3. Debating (using clear rules)

As you probably know, our own inspiring leader, Michael Gove, was the President of the Oxford Union. Clearly, these ancient skills of rhetoric and debate have seen him rise to dizzying heights. Perhaps we need to teach debating with great skill if we are to produce citizens who can debate with the best of them…and with Michael Gove! The premise of a debate, and its value in enriching the learning of logic, developing understanding and the simultaneous sharpening and opening our minds, is quite obvious so I will not elaborate. If you are ever stuck for a debate topic then this website will be of great use: http://idebate.org/debatabase. The Oxford rules model is an essential model for the classroom in my view. It provides a clear structure and even a level of formality which is important, provide coherence and greater clarity to the debate. The rules, familiar steps though they are for many, are as follows:

Four speakers in each team (for and against the motion)
First speaker introduces all the ideas that team has generated
Second speaker outlines two or three more ideas in some depth
Third speaker outlines two or three ideas in some depth
Fourth speaker criticises the points made by the other team
Each individual speaker has two minutes to speak (or more of course), with protected time of thirty seconds at the beginning or the end
The rest of the team is the ‘Floor‘ and can interject at any time by calling out ‘Point of Information‘ and standing. The speaker can accept or reject an interjection.

You may wish to have the other groups work as feedback observers on the debate being undertaking (a little like Socratic circles – number 8). This has the benefit of keeping the whole class engaged and actively listening to the debate.

4. Project Based Learning/Problem Based Learning

I have to admit I have only ever undertaken project style work on a small scale, but in the last year I have been startled by the quality of work I have observed in project based learning across the world. The principals of Project Based Learning are key: such as identifying real audiences and purposes for student work (a key factor in enhancing motivation); promoting interdependent student work, often subtly guided by the teacher at most stages; letting students undertake roles and manage the attendant challenges that arise; learning is most often integrated and spans subject areas; and students constructing their own questions and knowledge. Truly the best guide is to survey these great examples:

http://www.hightechhigh.org/schools/HTHI/ The curriculum here is founded upon the PBL model.
http://brookfieldcyclingproject.blogspot.co.uk/ A brilliant PE based PBL.
http://deeplearning.edublogs.org/2012/12/02/meet-the-ancestors/ A great Art centred project.

The Innovation Unit has also produced this brilliant must-read guide to PBL in great depth here.

‘Problem based learning’ is clearly related to the project model, but it explicitly starts with a problem to be solved. It is based primarily upon the model from medicine – think Dr House (although he is hardly a team player!). David Didau sagely recommends that the teacher, or students in collaboration, find a specifically local problem – this raises the stakes of the task. Clearly, in Mathematics, real problem based learning can be a central way to approach mathematical challenges in a collaborative way; in Science or Philosophy, the options to tackle ethical and scientific problems are endless. There is criticism of this approach – that students struggle with the ‘cognitive load’ without more of a working memory. Ideally, this learning approach follows some high quality direct instruction, and teacher led worked examples, to ensure that students have effective models to work from and some of the aforementioned working memory.

5. Group Presentations

I would ideally label this strategy: ‘questions, questions, questions‘ as it is all about creating, and modelling, a culture of enquiry by asking students questions about a given topic, rather than didactically telling them the answer – then helping shape their research. The teacher leads with a ‘big question‘; then it is taken on by groups who (given materials, such as books, magazines, essays, iPads, laptops, or access to the library or an ICT suite etc.) have to interrogate the question, forming their own sub-set of questions about the question/ topic. They then source and research the key information, before finally agreeing to the answers to the questions they had themselves formed. The crucial aspect about presentations is giving students enough time to make the presentation worthwhile, as well as allocating clear roles. High quality presentations take time to plan, research and execute. Personally, I find the timekeeper role a waste of time (I can do that for free!), but other roles, such as leader, designer and scribe etc. have value. Also, the teaching needs to be carefully planned so the entire presentation is not reliant solely upon any one person or piece of technology. Developing a shared understanding of the outcome and the different parameters of the presentation is key: including features like banning text on PowerPoints; or making it an expectation that there is some element of audience participation; to agreeing what subject specific language should be included. The devil is in the detail!

6. ‘Devise the Display’

I have a troubled relationship with displays! I very rarely devise my own display as I think displays become wallpaper far too soon considering the effort taken to provide them – like newspapers, they become unused within days. I much prefer a ‘working wall‘, that can be constantly changed or updated (or a ‘learning continuum’ for an entire topic when can be periodically added to each lesson). That being said, I do think there is real high quality learning potential in the process of students devising and creating wall displays. It is great formative feedback to devise a wall display once you are well under way a topic. It makes the students identify and prioritise the key elements of their knowledge and the skills they are honing.

I find the most valuable learning is actually during the design ideas stage.You can ‘snowball’ design ideas with the students; beginning individually, before getting groups to decide collaboratively on their design; then having a whole class vote. I do include stipulations for what they must include, such as always including worked examples. Then, the sometimes chaotic, but enjoyable activity it to create the display. I always aim for the ‘60 Minute Makeover‘ approach – quick and less painful (it also makes you less precious about the finer details)! I think they also learn a whole host of valuable skills involving team work, empathy and not to annoy me by breaking our wall staplers! I think it is then important to not let any display fester and waste, but to pull it down and start afresh with a new topic. I know this strategy does put some people off, because it can be like organised chaos, but if everyone has a clear role and responsibility the results can be amazing. [Warning – some designs can look like they have been produced by Keith Richards on a spectacular acid trip!]

7. Gallery Critique

This stems from the outstanding work of on Berger. Both a teacher and a craftsman himself, Berger explains the value of critique as rich feedback in his brilliant book ‘The Ethic of Excellence‘. It can be used during the draft/main process or as a summative task. This strategy does have some specific protocols students should follow. The work of the whole group should be displayed in a gallery style for a short time. Students are expected to first undertake a short silent viewing (making notes to reflect is also useful here). The students make comments on the work – post it notes being ideal for this stage. Then the next step is a group discussion of ‘what they noticed‘ in particular, with debate and discussion encouraged – of course, the feedback should be both kind and constructive. The next step for discussion is talking about ‘what they liked‘, evaluating the work. The final stage has the teacher synthesise viewpoints and express their own; before ensuring students make notes and reflect upon useful observations for making improvements.

8. Socratic Talk

I have spoken about this strategy before here. What is key is that like the debating rules above, a clear and defined structure is in place, particularly with ‘Socratic circles‘ which embeds feedback and debate in a seamless way. It takes some skill in teaching students how to talk in this fashion, but once taught, it can become a crucial tool in the repertoire. In my experience, some of the most sensitive insights have emerged from this strategy and the listening skills encouraged are paramount and have an ongoing positive impact. It also allows for every student to have a role and quality feedback becomes an expectation.

9. Talking Triads

Another simple, but highly effective strategy. It is a strategy that gets people to explore a chosen topic, but with a really rigorous analysis of ideas and views. The triad comprises of a speaker, a questioner and a recorder/analyst. You can prepare questions, or you can get the questioner and the analyst to prepare questions whilst the speaker prepares or reflects upon potential answers. This can be done in front of the class as a gallery of sorts, or you can have all triads working simultaneously. If they do work simultaneously, then a nice addition is to raise your hand next to a particular triad, which signals for other groups to stop and listen whilst that specific triad continues, allowing for some quality listening opportunities.

10. Mastery Modelling

This involves a form of formative assessment from students, whereat the teacher gives a group a series of models, both exemplar models and lesser models, including some with common errors that students would likely identify. The students need to do a critical appraisal of the these models as a group and identify their summary assessment of the models first, before then devising and presenting a ‘mastery model’ that is a composite exemplar model of work. This strategy works in pretty much every subject, with the subject being either an essay, a piece of art, or a mathematical problem. This presentation should include an explicit focus upon the steps taken leading to create the ‘mastery model‘ during the feedback – this unveils the process required for mastery for the whole class.

Useful links:

A great research paper that analyses group work and its importance:
‘Toward a social pedagogy of classroom group work’
By Peter Blatchford, Peter Kutnick, Ed Baines, and Maurice Galton

An excellent National Strategies booklet from back in the day when the DfE was interested in pedagogy. I particularly like the ‘different grouping criteria’/’size of grouping’ tables:
Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools Unit 10: Group work

Nice step by step guide to the implementation and the delivery of group work
Implementing Group Work in the Classroom

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Post It Note Pedagogy – Top Ten Strategies for Using Post It Notes for Learning

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The Ultimate Low Cost, High Impact Teaching Tool?

The humble post it note – sometimes you don’t need to invest in a fleet of iPads, interactive whiteboards or Visualisers to make the learning visible and to have a positive impact upon learning. Some of the best things in life are simple…and yes, cheap! The post it note is so flexible, easy to use and multi-purpose that it most surely must qualify for the ultimate low cost, high impact teaching tool.

Not only are they cheap and flexible learning tools, the very nature and size of them (varied as they now can be) encourages, even demands, a precise and concise use of language. Rather than pages of notes, students have to be selective, synthesise and exercise higher order thinking to use post it notes successfully – it can be very much a case of less is more. The original purpose of note making still stands, and is brilliantly fit for purpose, but they can be used to develop pedagogy in a variety of ways. Progress has become the de rigueur term for OFSTED, and has spread beyond her ivory towers and has become a new byword in schools, like it never quite existed before OFSTED began browbeating us all about it! Before it became a buzz word, teachers were busy helping students progress and learn in blissful ignorance – the post it has been a perennial tool for such teachers. The post it has outlasted most technology to provide a quick but highly effective tool for instant formative feedback, for effective questioning and a whole host of other aspects the makes progress visible in student learning.

The humble post it actually began as a failed invention. Dr Spenser Silver, in 1968, was aiming to create a super-strong adhesive, but instead he created a ‘low tack’ adhesive by accident. Even the famous canary yellow colour was due to the simple fortune of the neighbouring lab having spare yellow paper! Such serendipity leading to such a gem of a product reminds me of the often instantaneous impact and the spark of creativity that the post it can engender in the classroom. The post it is now so iconic it has even been established in different digital apps on MacBooks and tablet devices. Their usefulness knows few bounds – by limiting my list to a ‘top ten’ I am acutely conscious that I am merely scratching the surface of their use in the classroom and their pedagogical potential!

Our faculty has been undertaking an approach to making the learning visible (influenced by Hattie and the Harvard ‘Visible Thinking’ approach). We are utilising a trio of core tools to help us do this: iPads, multiple whiteboards on the walls in classrooms and the simple post it. We are tweaking the environment, but aiming to shift the pedagogy – the post it is the cheapest of the lot and it has an impact that punches clearly above its weight!

The following list of teaching and learning strategies is based upon the use of the basic post it, with no requirement for a rich array of colours or sizes, although that has become one of the enhanced facets of the humble post it:

1. Secret Teacher Feedback: this a practical classroom strategy that works brilliantly and with great subtlety. Post it notes are the tool to provide subtle feedback, praise or critique, in a ‘secret’ manner when you want students to work independently. You can establish calm, purposeful parameters for the classroom atmosphere, whereat students can write/learn quietly or in silence, should the task benefit from such an atmosphere. I find it is unobtrusive but a supportive guide to better progress. I find it works best in conjunction with point 2 on the list! This idea is directly inspired by Zoe Elder’s ideas for using post it notes for feedback in her pedagogical masterpiece, Full on Learning‘. Buy it, read it, cover it in post it notes to track your burgeoning ideas!

2. Question Wall: there are endless variations on a ‘question wall’ (I have explained this in more detail here: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/questioning-top-ten-strategies/.The post it note provides a simple method for placing their questions onto the wall. It also allows you to write on answers in reply, particularly, if like in point 1, you are looking to establish an atmosphere of purposeful independence. These post it notes can be grouped by sectors on the wall, depending upon the question type, as explained on the aforementioned post. The post it is moveable and flexible, so you can even use one question from one student and have another student communicate the answer – the options are endless.

3. Post It Note Formative Feedback: formative feedback is essential for progress. The post it note provides a quick option for feedback, as in point 2, but you can also use post it notes for peer assessment, or for teacher feedback on draft work. The rationale being that the post it can encourage more independent engagement with their own work – one or two judicious targets in a post it can really shape any ongoing classwork. It also encourages concise, targeted teacher feedback. OFSTED are particularly enamoured by literacy and book marking at the moment. Why not use the post it as a method to have students assess their peers for written accuracy (this does need to be delicately handled at times)? Given a literacy support document, they could identify patterns, then make notes on the post it and they then have to make their own corrections/improvements. The teacher could easily fulfil this role. Having a succession of spellings corrected for them is little help for students, but a post it note regarding a spelling rule, with some hints for improvements could initiate some productive self-reflection and proof reading.

4. Key Subject Specific Vocabulary: another important literacy strategy is identifying the key subject specific vocabulary of any given subject. As crucial subject specific terms arise in the lesson they can be identified by using post it notes, which can gradually build in spit a useful lexicon of terms for a given scheme of learning. If students are working in groups, or as a whole class, one student could be allocated the responsibility of recording key words from the lesson and noting them on a post it. As a plenary, the student or the teacher could reflect upon these post it notes. The teacher could initiate enquiry about whether they form into a pattern. The post it could be a way of organising the terms into a distinct sequence or diagram, to reflect relatedness or hierarchical patterns – see point 6.

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5. Petite récits: okay – they anglo-saxon description would be ‘mini-narratives’, or micro-writing – I just thought the French made me sound more cosmopolitan (the truth is my French is Bartonesque!).There are endless opportunities for students to hone their skills with compressed narratives – or the myriad of ways of creating a creative response within the limited space the post it allows. They could present generic narratives in ten words for example. I have witnessed terrific ten word mystery stories, or you could boil down the meta-narrative of World War Two into a simple ten word response. One idea I particularly liked was the ‘six word memoirs’, with the simple but creative idea to compress an entire biography into a concise gem of a few words. See tese examples here. It is a great strategy across the school curriculum for any ‘character’ or historical figure – great as a swift starter, or even a summative plenary. Try it for yourself! Similar models are prevalent across the web, such as ‘Seven Word Stories’ e.g.youngwritersproject.org/node/19338. This compression of language (which students skilfully hone of their mobile phone each day!) gets them to really focus in upon the essential information, whilst providing another useful cross curricular literacy strategy.

6. ‘The Ideas Tree’: a description for any activity where you get students to brainstorm ideas for a given topic or concept. The teacher can shuffle the post it notes around creatively to organise the ideas to give form to their collective ideas (there are multiple variations in reorganising post it ideas to shape meaning, from ‘diamond nine models’, to a ‘pyramid of priorities’ that reflect a more hierarchical model to organise their ideas). These ideas can provide a semi-permanent resource in the classroom for students to utilise and support their learning, and they can provide the teacher with a ready made resource to recap prior learning or to provide a read made plenary to reflect upon progress.

7. ‘Guess Who/What?’: the simple party trick of common fame that students love. Place a key word/character/concept etc. onto a post it and place it upon the forehead of a student – they subsequently have a limited number of questions they can ask before they guess the term/topic on the post it. It can place a pedagogical focus upon good questioning, or more simply provide a fun group task to stimulate talk and recall key information.

8. The Post It Plenary : students leave a post it on a board/wall/door which reflects upon the learning of the lesson – perhaps with a simple ‘Today I learnt….’ sentence stem to scaffold their response. Some or all of the student responses can be revisited in the subsequent lesson; whilst the teacher can use the responses to inform planning. Another variation on the strategy is to have a learning arrow which indicates various degrees of progress, such as shown on the following image (kindly donated by my talented colleague Heather):

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The post it note can be placed appropriately on the arrow to reflect where the students believe they have progressed towards in the course of the lesson. Is provides very visual and instantaneous feedback for the teacher that can and should shape future planning. By taking a photograph of the arrow, with post it note feedback, it can provide another useful resource for the following lesson and the future learning.

9. Opinion lines: students have to decide where their post it would reside on an opinion line to represent their viewpoint, with some concise justification for their views. Again, the post it note is perfect because of the flexibility it provides – with subsequent teacher, or student led, feedback, the post it may shift along the opinion line. The humble post it provides instantaneous correction – the opportunity to change the position on the line once each post it point or idea has been discussed.

10. ‘Pin the Post It on the Donkey’: essentially, this is a catch-all description for when you project an image onto the whiteboard and ask students to provide a written response which they then place on the relevant area. In Maths, this could be placing the answer on the relevant point of a graph, with explanation; in History, it could be quickly placing a post it upon a historical figure with a concise explanation; in English, it could be a powerful descriptive image and asking students to write a brilliant sentence or two for one aspect of that image, or a quick-fire analysis of a presentational device on a media text (multiple responses can deepen the quality of analysis).

Added Extra – Nice idea for literacy across the curriculum: Post it Review: A lovely idea, though not strictly a teaching and learning strategy, was to encourage students, and adults, to place post it note reviews into books surreptitiously in school libraries, bookshelves in classrooms – anywhere where reading is happening! Leaving in a post it note review as this secret gift promotes reading, making the reviewer synthesise their reading, whilst the prospective reading gets a lovely surprise to stimulate their desire to read.

Any ‘top ten list’ is a cap on ideas, feel free to add more – there is certainly more to do with post it notes…

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Oral Formative Feedback – Top Ten Strategies

People who have read my #marginalgains blog posts will know I am going over old ground here – intentionally so – as I am looking to dig deeper towards the key marginal gains that have the biggest impact on learning. For me, formative oral feedback and questioning are the two key ‘hinge point marginal gains’ that make for great teaching and learning. My previous #marginalgains blog identified new teaching strategies for these tow key area ad pedagogy, but here I wanted to use this blog to reflect on what I view as the most high impact formative oral feedback strategies that I have been using in my everyday practice. I want to use my list as a reminder, each time I plan lessons, of the key strategies to use – as it is too easy to forget and slip into autopilot planning, forgetting even our most effective of strategies.

In the latest OFSTED guidance, they have clearly stated that lesson planning should not be inflexible, that teachers should react to the progress, or the lack thereof, of their students. This is heartening recognition of what we have known all along – and that is that teaching and learning are contingent activities. Learning is often problematic, changeable, non-linear, beset by a host of unique factors that cannot be exactly replicated (but with experience we can determine common patterns). We must therefore be constantly tracking the evidence of learning with as much precision and skill as we can. That is why effective teaching hinges absolutely on oral formative feedback and questioning on a lesson by lesson basis. It appears to me that the greatest benefit of experience that I observe in excellent teachers is the recognition of how and when to elicit feedback, with the nuanced understanding of what questions to ask, how and when. I have drawn upon this wealth of experience for my top ten – indeed it is my inept stumbling near the shoulders of giants that is responsible for the whole lot!

In nearly all of these examples the feedback includes all three parties possible in the class: the learner, peers and the teacher. I dispute the idea of peer feedback as an undertaking exclusive of the teacher – we are always there steering the feedback, establishing ground rules and success criteria, modifying and adjusting the feedback of peers – that is why we are the paid experts! Therefore I do not differentiate between ‘teacher led’ or ‘peer’ feedback in my list.

My Oral feedback Top Ten

‘Making the Learning Visible’ – Oral Feedback on Worked Examples:

This heading captures a variety of methods and tools to essentially do the same thing – showing student work in the midst of the process. Whether it be through an iPad and Apple TV; a Visualiser; a video camera or still camera, or more simply pinning ongoing work up onto the wall or a display; making the work ‘visual’ is a powerful tool for assessment for learning. For one, it raises levels of pride, giving students a keener sense of purpose, and it often instills a healthy competitive edge to the learning. It is also evident that most successful students have an innate sense of what ‘good work’ looks like, but many students simply don’t have this degree of self-efficacy. Making visible exemplar work, and breaking down its component parts, is a simple and powerful way to modify the learning of each student – helping to enhance what Ron Berger described as the crucial assessment going on “inside students”. Having used an iPad this year, I have repeatedly photographed student work, put it into the ExplainEverything app and immediately annotated through the projector, whilst giving formative feedback. Students are more then willing to get involved (a handy benefit is that good work can be saved and shared through the iPad), given clear modelling and parameters for effective feedback. Student feedback regarding this approach is highly positive.

Guided Writing:

Ostensibly, the strategy is a writing task – but it is the ongoing oral feedback at the heart of this strategy that is essential in establishing where the learners are and where they are going with their learning. This is one of those activities that teachers often shy away from, perhaps through a sense of fear of making a mistake in their writing, or not having absolute control of behaviour whilst undertaking the writing (a neat trick is to select a student to scribe the guided writing to allow you to freely roam the room; or going one step further and having an object passed around, like a conch(!), for which students need to hold to contribute). Working effectively, it can harmonise a symphony of understanding. Given any topic the teacher can begin with a prompt to the writing to oil the wheels, before students are asked to contribute subsequent ideas and sentences. As an English teacher, I love getting embroiled in debate about the semantic meaning of one individual word choice over another! Once more, it has the attendant benefit of modelling excellence in a very collaborative and fulfilling fashion.

Peer Response Partners (or ‘think-pair-share’):

This style of peer feedback is well trodden and nothing new, but it is worth reflecting that it is the aggregation of understanding provided by learning in groups which provides the positive impact inherent in collaborative learning. Some people complain about the aggregation of misunderstanding that can occur in group work; however, that ‘failure’ isn’t necessarily negative at all, for it gives the teacher the chance to modify the misapprehensions in whole class feedback, indeed, it opens up new avenues of learning – coming back to the contingent nature of learning! The ‘think-pair-share’ approach has been elaborated upon better than I could possibly explain – so here is a useful blog on the activity and its importance from @headguruteacher: http://headguruteacher.com/2012/07/17/the-washing-hands-of-learning-think-pair-share/. I would add that it is crucial that success criteria is shared with students and that they have a rigorous structure for feedback – whether it be a ‘Two Stars and a Wish’ approach, or something similar. Ideally, it follows from some quality modelling, as exemplified in points 1 and 2 of my list.

Critique:

Once more, it is Ron Berger I have to thank for this. Put simply, it is a systematic approach to peer feedback that is structured, clearly and positively, depersonalising the feedback, whilst honing in upon the steps required to improve towards excellence. A fuller explanation can be found here by the venerable @DKMead: http://pedagogicalpurposes.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/by-josie-and-emily.html and here, by the man himself:

http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=1znB1ox0_EI&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D1znB1ox0_EI

One-to-one Teacher Feedback:

This is as old school as ancient Athens I know! Yet, in the hurly burly of thirty GCSE students rumbling along in unison, the prospect of one-to-one feedback appears slim to non-existent far too often. Yet, we all know the power of the swiftest of one-to-one oral interventions. Too often our elegant written commentaries are ignored or simply misunderstood. We need to talk it through. With our KS3 groupings in our English and Media Faculty we have allocated one-to-one weeks for each class each term. We are going to ensure students work with peers collaboratively ‘marking’ prep books for SPaG in their preparatory writing, before undertaking independent reading and writing challenges. Every student will spend five minutes with their teacher reflecting upon their progress, targets and their finished, or ongoing, work. At GCSE, you may find that mock feedback would be doubly useful given an oral one-to-one to supplement a written commentary. How about setting up a small group task where students devise their own exam questions and answers – a higher order thinking task that requires some scaffolding support, but which is a tried and tested success – whilst undertaking that crucial one-to-one feedback.

Opinion Lines:

A lively debate can ensue from this kinaesthetic strategy. Select topic sentences that convey a clear opinion and then use both sides of the room as an opinion continuum, from ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree’. This is an ideal task at the beginning of a topic, to determine their understanding, or at the end – perhaps it is a good way to book end learning to identify changing opinions after a topic has been studied. Students must orally feedback their opinions, justifying their ideas with evidence, building upon or challenging feedback from other students. The feedback can be made visible by a student scribing the continuum on the board in note form (photograph it and save it for later, or use it for ideas for a subsequent written activity).

The Secret Teacher – ‘The Power of the Post It’:

I must commend Zoe Elder aka @fullonlearning for ideas related to the humble post-it note, found in her luminous book ‘Full On Learning’. I have embedded these techniques with real success and with real ease – even though their aim is moving slightly away from oral feedback as such. Firstly, the ‘secret teacher’ aspect comes in when you have students work independently, for example, on a piece of writing (for me it was students working on Recreative writing in preparation for a controlled assessment). Students were asked to note any questions on a post it and place it on the ‘questions wall’, as they worked away. This small step was helpful in eliminating those helpless and distracting questions, like ‘How do I spell such and such…’, when a dictionary is in a box in front of them! The freedom from answering these questions meant my teaching assistant and I could go around quickly giving feedback with limited interference, whilst casting surreptitious glances upon the work students were doing. Rather than interrupt the flow of the whole group by stopping to talk with individuals (students, like adults, are inherently nosy!), we simply made a note on a post it and placed it on the desk of the student – from a simple ‘Proof read your punctuation’ to ‘Should you develop your scene direction further?’ These little nudges actually moved away from the notion of oral feedback explicitly, but the nudge and modify approach is exactly in tune with the notion of oral formative feedback. In reality, you cannot simply use the post it notes without some verbal feedback at times, but that feedback becomes very precise and concise. The hum of learning when this strategy goes well really is a pleasure to behold.

TSSSTSSS:

This simply strategy relates to the method of questioning to elicit oral feedback. The ‘Teacher-student-student…’ approach explicitly rejects the ‘tennis style’ teacher led questioning, to instead encourage students to feedback upon the ideas of one another – bouncing ideas around the room like a basketball team (without the heavy ball obviously!). It is a timely reminder to ensure students still own their learning, building upon the ideas of one another.

ABC feedback:

Closely related to the previous point is the very simple model for students to respond to one another – A = Agree with… B = Build upon… C = Challenge. When students know this structure it is a finely tuned short-hand for effective collaborative learning that enriches the quality of feedback. The teacher is the ultimate guide, but students can develop their thinking more independently. This style does work better with a meaty topic where students are grappling with an argument, or questions, that requires higher order thinking. It also helps if students are given notice that they will respond, as it ensures they listen ever more keenly.

‘Learning Spies’ Feedback:

Taken from the eponymous @LearningSpy himself, David Didau, this strategy works great for group work where you want students to remain on task purposefully throughout the lesson. It is a great way to celebrate and feedback upon positive learning, making explicit what good learning looks like, sounds like and feels like. I used this strategy a lot in the last couple of years with eager Year 7s, who were energised by the opportunity to seize some teacherly control! By making explicit before the task what behaviours you expect of good group work, the two ‘spies’ (I found a gender and ability mix for the pairing worked well), would note each group at work; making notes about skilful contributions, good leadership, levels of engagement and active listening. At the end of the lesson, they would feedback with real skill about the learning habits displayed by the group, identifying the best insights and behaviours on show. Try it with one of your most ‘challenging’ students – we all know the type – it really gets them reflecting and can be very powerful way to get your group learning about how to learn. Admittedly, it isn’t something I would use daily, but with complex group work of some extended length, it is a great strategy. The excellent @davidfawcett27 has produced his own spin on the idea: http://reflectionsofmyteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/learning-detectives-and-spies.html?m=1. I particularly like the recording of evidence idea from the blog – with the iPad learning spies could photograph or film exemplary learning – an incredibly powerful strategy that gets students really focused reflecting upon their learning.

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New Teaching Ideas – Making the Marginal Gains: Questioning and Formative feedback

My most recent post on #marginalgains was an attempt to move my thinking forward and explore what I view as the most important marginal gains for my teaching, as well as exploring what I see as the essentials of teaching pedagogy. The two key areas I see as being the key ‘hinge point marginal gains’ (marginal in terms of shaping often lengthier learning activities, as well as being usually only one of two minute spells in the overall lesson time, but crucial in terms of making progress) are questioning and oral formative feedback.

See: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/using-hinge-marginal-gains-to-go-from-good-to-outstanding/

I see these two areas of pedagogy as essential in oiling the wheels of learning and making progress visible. I want to continue to make marginal gains with a laser-like focus upon these two areas of pedagogy. With this in mind, I am making these explicit in my planning for the coming half-term.

The following teaching strategies were partially inspired by Harvard’s ‘Project Zero’ thinking skills approach to learning. I am planning to trial them all over the course of the next half-term:

1. Oral Formative Feedback and the CSI routine

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Now, apologies for my false advertising, there is no criminal investigation, no Who music dramatically emerging from the speakers to herald the activity (although that may actually be a good idea!). It is simply an acronym for the thinking routine – ‘Colour, Symbol, Image’. With any given idea or topic, students can show their understanding by making simple, but potentially sophisticated relational links to the idea/topic. I see it as a simple oral feedback approach, perhaps conducted through a ‘think-pair-share’ approach to oil the wheels still further, undertaken quite swiftly. It is a simple but precise approach that may work better with certain topics and ideas, but is eminently flexible and a great hinge point to identify progress.

2. Oral Formative Feedback and the 3-2-1 Routine

This strategy is similar to the ‘CSI routine’ in that it provides a quick and precise language, and a routine for feedback (students love a good sign-posted routine!). The 3-2-1 routine stands for ‘3 thoughts or ideas; 2 questions; and 1 analogy‘. I like this step by step approach as it can provide effective differentiation in their level of response – with the the questions and the analogy clearly stretching student understanding. Once again, the quality of response clearly demonstrates how much, or how little, progress students have made with a given topic or idea. It can therefore provides a real hinge point to the lesson.

3. Questioning and ‘Creative Questioning’

A very simple idea in many ways, but I think it is an effective strategy for generating creative questions and getting students to generate their own questions that can be imaginatively transformative. For any given object or topic students can work in pairs to create an imaginative list of questions, using the following prompts:

– How would it be different if… – How might it be used differently… – What would change if… – How would it be different if it was used by… – Suppose that… – How would it look differently if…

In the past I have had students make brilliant Dragon’s Den style persuasive sales pitches to sell a plastic bag or a left shoe to great effect! Given the new possibilities, students can select a question to magi natively explore, thinking around the new possibilities. It could provide a stimulus for writing a narrative, creating a piece of art, devising a drama piece, or a new design technology creation. The question prompts exemplify students the imaginative and transformative impact simple questions can have upon their learning.

4. Questioning and the ‘Great Question Continuum’

This involves reflecting upon questions deeply in a very visible way. A few weeks ago I noted some great questions related to the English Literature staple, ‘Of Mice and Men’, on Twitter (from the sage David Doherty aka @dockers_hoops). It involved asking which character would and should be the next American President; followed by which character would you least like to sit next to in class. These ideas were brilliant gems that got me thinking how far an original question can take the learning. The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. By reflecting deeply upon question quality and the breadth of thinking inspired by the question the students could better independently consider different responses and interpretations – a definite marginal gain, and potentially definitive one, for their continued learning.

2 responses to “Teaching and Learning Strategies”

  1. oliver caviglioli says :

    Regarding Post It notes and Group Work, have you read Gamestorming? A book for business team thinking, it has been adopted by schools in the States.

  2. Carol says :

    Great blog, glad I found it, shall be back often. Thank you.

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