Clever Classrooms

I have recently been doing some research into indoor and outdoor play spaces, considering which designs and equipment can most benefit children. It has been good to have time to look at the latest cutting edge resources. There are some amazing bits of kit out there! However, I have come to the conclusion that things which encourage children to problem solve, work together,  explore and create are the best option. These are often simple, traditional items of play equipment and may sound old fashioned - blocks to build with, sand to dig, water to measure, frames to climb - but they continue to provide the foundations of high value play which develops both skills and resilience.

I was also very interested to come across a report which concludes that natural light, temperature, air quality, and colour are amongst the biggest physical factors impacting on pupils’ learning progress.

Forest Garden

All Saints Primary School, Gorton, is in the process of enhancing their outdoor areas, so was delighted to have support from MEEN and City of Trees to develop an under used area of the school grounds. This space was grassed over but slightly sloped and tended to get water logged, which made it unsuitable for sports, but perfect for a Forest Garden!

The Forest Garden will be a great addition to the wild area, which had been planted by children the year before with trees from the Woodland Trust, and builds on existing enthusiasm and expertise among the staff for outdoor and environmental education.

I delivered fun and active workshops to every child in the school from Nursery to Year 6. The reasoning behind these sessions was for every child to feel an ownership of and commitment to the new Forest Garden. 

Highlights included

  • Tasting! - Raspberries, kiwi, redcurrants, cherries, blueberries and blackberries

  • Measuring the space and using compasses to find North in relation to the space. We discussed the impact of the cold North wind on plants and which plants would prefer a sunnier warmer spot.

  • Looking at and comparing the roots of raspberry and broad bean plants, to understand more about what goes on under the soil.

  • Learning that the herb Rosemary can improve memory!

Talk for learning

After a term of working with me on Productive Talk, I asked teachers what the impact has been on their classes. Here are some of their responses:

  • More children are able to respond to teacher questioning.

  • Children’s talk is clearer.

  • Children are more enthusiastic about pair talk.

  • Better listening.

  • Better reasoning.

  • Less repetition.

  • Children are more engaged, alert and attentive.

  • Talk is more focussed and of higher quality.

  • Children are talking to and challenging each other – not always through the teacher.

  • Children are more confident to talk.

  • Less shouting out.

  • Children who don’t normally talk are starting to.

  • Much better, more in depth answers.

  • Not always the same children dominating.

  • Children getting better at working with all their peers.

  • Vocab improving.

Can compassion be taught?

One aspect of P4C which often gets missed is to identify the key concept in a question and then stretch it or explore it more to deepen understanding. If this is done, the dialogue in an enquiry can go much deeper. It can be done before an enquiry or even in the middle of enquiry.

P4C can also be a great way of engaging with a school's core values. For example, if one of your values is compassion it is worth taking time to think, What could compassion look like in our lives? In our school? Staff or students could generate and discuss their own examples, or they could sort these into which of these 10 examples are definitely compassion, which are not and which are borderline:

  • helping a friend

  • standing up to a bully

  • doing someone’s homework for them

  • putting your arm around someone who is crying

  • giving money to someone begging on the street

  • giving to charity

  • giving someone a hug

  • giving a present

  • being polite

  • going without food so someone else can eat


P4C Pupil Voice

I think it is useful because you get to share your own opinions.

I like it because it helps us listen.

It’s good because you can express your feelings.

I really like it because you can see what other people think about the argument.

It’s interesting because you get to hear your and others’ opinions about how they relate to the question.

You get to listen and share. You can build on your own opinion by listening to others.

You get to settle the argument. It’s a really fair way to settle arguments because sometimes arguments can be hard to solve.

Talk Audits

Research on talk in schools around ten years ago in the UK showed that high quality pupil talk was rare, that pupils’ thinking time was often very limited, and that most teacher questions were closed.

My experience in schools suggests that – sadly – this is often still the case, even in schools with good teachers and even in schools which are broad-minded with regard to their curriculum.  I am convinced that developing a culture of productive talk which truly values pupil explanations, questions and reasoning, can change the way pupils view teachers, and the way pupils see themselves. It can completely transform the learning environment.

I carry out Talk Audits in schools, spending a day listening to and transcribing the teacher and pupil talk. I then analyse this, and make recommendations.

Please get in touch for more details.


  Provocation at Challenge Partners Conference

Blackpool, October 2016

What is more important: developing curiosity or measurable academic progress?

I think we all agree that developing curiosity is important. Today I’m going to persuade you that there are at least two manageable opportunities to do this in your current situation.

I could stand here today and quote Einstein at you, and many other people who have said fascinating things about curiosity, but you can Google that. I could stand here today and tell you the results of the recent research using MRI scans. But again you can look that up – watch a TED talk. So in these few minutes today I want to say something to you which you won’t find on the Internet, and that is my experience, my experience that is possible to nurture curiosity in the current pressurised UK school system. It’s not easy and the stark reality is that today in most schools and most classrooms curiosity is indeed a very rare thing. But that is most schools, most ordinary schools. And I believe you are here today because you don’t want to be that. You want to be something better.

Your first opportunity is to ensure your team genuinely value pupil ideas. You may say they do. Sadly, research shows year after year that teachers dominate classroom talk and pupils are very rarely given time to think, very rarely given time to ask questions. Time to think, and time to try out ideas, is time to experience curiosity. If we give our pupils this, if we truly value their explanations, opinions and reasoning we will experience a shift. A very positive shift. But let’s be clear, it won’t happen by chance. Yes, it is something that your best teachers probably do naturally, but most teachers will need guidance and support to achieve productive pupil talk and deep dialogue. It is worth it - it affects learning in every area of the curriculum. It changes teachers. It changes pupils. It will change your classrooms, it will change your school (it will probably also change your results!). The difference between asking a plethora of recall questions and listening to a few reliable speakers give the correct answer (this is – research shows again and again – the most common type of talk in classrooms) vs a genuine dialogue with full engagement from all pupils… Which do you want in your schools?

Your second opportunity: incorporate some enquiry-based learning into your curriculum. We urgently need to make and protect space for developing curiosity in our students.  An easy, effective way to do this is through P4C – philosophy for children. If you introduce P4C carefully and systematically you’ll quickly see the benefits.  EEF research

There are numerous other models of enquiry based learning. At Forest School for example I have seen children who didn’t used to speak start to speak, children who were disengaged become engaged, children who were passive become active, children who were followers become leaders. And these changes, if you’re wondering, did transfer back into the classroom.

We are here today because we all want the same thing: better life chances for our children.

However, if we prioritise measuring academic progress, we will restrict our children’s development. If we prioritise data over learning, we will stifle our children’s progress. If we prioritise teaching children to pass tests above teaching them to be curious about the world, we will limit their future potential. Take a moment to think how much time and energy we spend measuring and desperately trying to evidence academic progress.

Is this really the best use of so much of our time?

Instead we could be using some of that time to spark curiosity. If we prioritise curiosity, if we encourage it, nurture it, model it… Then, and only then will we be fulfilling our responsibility as educators of the next generation.

I would like to end with a call to action. I’m not telling you to throw away your assessment grids. I am asking you to do two manageable things. ONE:  Make some space to train your teachers to deepen dialogue and genuinely listen to your pupils. TWO:  Make some space for enquiry-based learning, be it Philosophy for Children, Forest School or something else. For, if we do nothing, we will breed indifference and disinterest among our students. Let’s not leave the development of curiosity to chance.