Using evidence to improve outcomes for children
For two years I led the 'Dialogue' sessions of the Moving On Together (M.O.T.) collaborative learning programme for Manchester Teaching School Alliance. I prepared and delivered the intensive half day sessions to bring teachers up to speed about both established and cutting-edge research on dialogue and pupil talk.
After they had been confronted with the research findings, I challenged them to think critically about their own teaching, and decide how they would apply these findings to maximise achievement in their own classrooms. Participants valued the time to reflect deeply on specific aspects of their own practice as well as the practical, participatory and active approach to the session. My approach enables them to walk away with techniques that they can implement immediately.
This was a powerful experience for many, who despite being good teachers, were not implementing well-documented findings such as 'no hands up' which have huge potential to transform learning environments.
The power of P4C to transform writing
I have practised P4C (Philosophy for Children) for ten years and have facilitated countless fascinating enquiries with children. I have also witnessed many times the power of oral rehearsal of key phrases to improve children's writing. I wanted to understand how P4C could contribute to this.
I made cue cards with phrases used in formal persuasive writing. For example, “I strongly believe...”. At the beginning of writing lessons, I left these cards on the floor in the middle of the circle, and led a P4C enquiry. As the enquiry progressed, the children started to use the key phrases. Later, the children wrote. The impact on engagement with writing, attitude towards writing, and ultimately the standard of writing, was phenomenal. The children were able to use the higher-level phrases accurately.
Next came whole-school training and the approach soon became something of an institution at my school. The phrases from the cards became known as the 'P4C phrases'. The phrases were used in P4C from Nursery to Year 6, and the impact was felt on spoken language as well as written language. Over time, the children used the phrases beyond the context of P4C - in other classroom discussions and debates, in guided reading sessions, and so on. Visitors were frequently amazed by how articulate the children were.
I am passionate about children having a positive experience of writing and would love to work with schools who want to develop this further.
Give them a reason and they'll write
As a Year 6 teacher I took a decision to teach writing almost exclusively through purpose. To test its effectiveness I started the year with a 'traditional' writing task (an account of the children's summer holidays), with disappointing results. The next day I started the lesson by asking if anyone had any advice for a boy I knew who was in trouble at another school. They all wanted to give their suggestions so I asked whether anyone would like to write him a letter. Everyone wanted to!
The letters were fantastic; the effect on handwriting, vocabulary, and punctuation was striking. The children's writing had risen immediately by two to three sub-levels without any other intervention.
As Writing Leader I showed 'before and after' examples from these two exercises to my colleagues. They were struck by the contrast. Writing for purpose, we agreed, was critical for optimal performance. This is one of many simple, proven techniques for delivering better results, and yet something seems to stop teachers applying it to its full potential. I found that it was possible to unblock this for teachers in a busy mainstream primary school and quickly impact on standards.
Capacity building through teamwork and leadership training
I have attended meetings in a number of countries and have realised that across the world we all face similar problems in meetings: people who dominate, people who don't participate, poor time management, going off track, lack of preparation, people on their phones... I've also observed that a few simple techniques and increased self-awareness can made a radical difference and raise the effectiveness of meetings almost immediately.
In Central America I fundraised for a new innovative training institute, then designed and implemented national and regional capacity building programmes. As my reputation grew, I ran intensive team building workshops with groups of nurses and workshops with local councils on How To Improve Meetings. In the different settings, people acknowledged how transformative it was to use a participatory decision making process. They could hear everyone's voice. Their meetings and teams were more creative, and more productive.
So much of our time is spent in meetings. Let's ensure they are pleasant, positive, useful and ultimately that they contribute to our aims and objectives.
DEVELOPING COMMUNICATION AND CONFIDENCE THROUGH FOREST SCHOOL
I set up, led and delivered (as a qualified Level 3 Forest School practitioner) Forest School at a Manchester primary school (www.manleypark.com/forest-school). It is now embedded, expanding and has become a strong selling point for the school. I took the opportunity to lead research about the impact. The children I worked with had typically spent little or no time in the outdoors and I have many stories to tell about the almost magical transformation in the children's connection with nature.
One of the strongest messages from my Forest School research is that some children learn better outside. Several case studies demonstrate a marked difference in learning behaviours. Some children who were virtually silent in the classroom became confident, calm, articulate individuals at Forest School. The transformation was striking and undeniable. A boy, who had never addressed the class as a whole, not only spoke up when it was his turn to share his feelings around the fire, but also began to lead activities. On the day new bark chip was delivered, he organised where and how it should be moved, and carefully and purposefully ensured that the job was carried out with a high quality result. His attention to detail (the thickness of the bark chip and the evenness of the path) and fairness (whose turn it was to use the wheelbarrow) was exemplary. It was a side of him that had never been witnessed in the classroom.
The implications of these findings are immense. The child we discovered at Forest School is the real child. The disengaged child sitting silently in our classrooms for months before was stifled, and waiting for a chance to learn. We cannot expect all children to conform to the ‘thirty children sitting down in a cramped classroom’ model. How are we going to adapt our teaching and learning styles to enable every child to learn? As well as schools who want to implement Forest School and other outdoor learning approaches, I would be very interested to hear from schools who want to explore innovative ways to allocate resources to allow more active and participatory learning to take place.
PROMOTING BIODIVERSE OUTDOOR SPACES THROUGH COMMUNITY ACTION
I delivered a Lottery funded Community Biodiversity project in a primary school. This contributed to school priorities on community participation, enhancing learning opportunities in the wider community in relation to food and environmental issues, and enabled further development of the school grounds. Extracts from the end of project report:
Increasing biodiversity makes our neighbourhood a better place to live. We planted new hazel, elder and ash trees as well as wild garlic, ferns and snowdrops. We have created important wildlife habitats. Our new pond makes a big difference – animals can get a drink and we now have frogs in our school grounds!
Our woodland was underused and suffered from graffiti. Now, passers-by can see our beautiful mural, our cosy fire circle and our new trees.
In our improved school grounds we can have better outdoor lessons and run community gatherings. Generations of children to come will benefit from an enhanced connection to nature. For example, they can experience fresh fruit direct from nature.
Raising standards through a whole-school research programme
In a Manchester primary school I worked closely with a senior leader, and colleagues from Manchester University's Coalition of Research Schools, to develop and set up a programme involving all staff as researchers. We consulted teachers and teaching assistants about what they were interested in researching; we facilitated sessions to consider data collection methods and how to write a good research question. The outcome is six enthusiastic research groups all investigating different aspects of pedagogy to improve standards and most importantly life chances for children.
IMPROVING OUTCOMES THROUGH PEER LEARNING
Working in Latin America I witnessed first hand their Popular Education initiatives which demonstrate how effective peer learning models can be. Back in the UK, I used this experience to develop sections of the Peer Education for Global Citizenship: A Tool For Transition* teaching pack to assist with transition to high school. The teachers who we worked with commented how the structured, extended and purposeful programme, where high school pupils taught primary school pupils, added far more value than the 'question and answer' sessions they had previously arranged.
Encouraged, I again used the power of peer-to-peer learning by instigating, designing and carrying out a successful Eco Peer Educators project in a primary school. Over the year, children became experts in a specific area (being an eco-citizen) and were empowered and skilled to transmit this knowledge to their peers using various fun, participatory and active techniques. This simple model quickly allowed six classes - 180 children - to be taught important information on a very personal level. Suddenly there was much less litter in the school grounds. The logs from the log habitat were no longer continually moved. The children had taken on the messages and had changed their attitudes and actions.
I believe this is an under-used and under-valued resource in schools. Research (including pupil voice) suggests that if a child of a similar age and background explains something to another child they can be more likely to take this on board than if the message comes from an adult. So, absorption of key learning points can be faster and deeper. Engagement and behaviour during sessions is consistently good. A flexible peer learning approach can also be combined in the classroom, for example in a maths lesson, with AFL techniques such as critical point questions to address misconceptions quickly and effectively. Children like teaching their peers. Children like learning from their peers. Contact me to discuss how this could be implemented in your school.