Chinese whispers

This is a simple activity that I made up for use with some year 10s. The students had to learn some small paragraphs of information on evidence for evolution and I couldn’t think of any other way to do it.

The activity involves the students getting into groups of 3 ideally. Each student is given a number 1, 2 or 3, and then has a piece of information to learn and memorise in a given time period (5 minutes or so).

After the students have memorised their information:

• the number 1 students have to teach the number 2s all of the information they learnt (it is important that the number 3s cannot hear this section).

• then the number 2’s have to pass on the same information to the number 3s

• finally the number 3s have to pass this information back to the number 1s – the point of this is so that the number 1s can correct the information or add anything that has been left out (number 2s should be involved in this section too)

If this is repeated again with the number 2s starting, and then the number 3s, then it means that each student has had to memorise, and then pass all 3 sections of information – but in a more interesting way that also allows feedback and improvement if necessary.

The students who did this activity with me enjoyed it and were able to learn the information effectively. The test for this came during a speed-dating activity a few weeks later where the students remembered this section of the topic particularly well.

The 3 questions given to the students were:

1. What were the first living things? And when did life start?

2. Where did life start?

3. Why did organisms get bigger?

Poppy Saltonstall


Trajans column and the 5 from 3 quiz

Small group and whole class challenge

This lesson took place towards the end of year 9 as the students’ collaboration skills were becoming more refined. This task was designed to develop the skills of planning, researching, problem solving and collaboration further.

Trajan’s column, in Rome, is often referred to as the very first action picture, as it tells the story of the Roman emperor Trajan and his conquest of Dacia (Romania). It is basically a 3d spiral storyboard. I chose it as a presentation tool / product for students as it would require careful planning to construct and decorate with the story of the changes in the earth’s atmosphere. I also thought it could throw up a few potential problems for the students to solve along the way.

After an initial review of what they already know about the atmosphere, the students were put into groups of 4 or 5 and issued the challenge. They were given a little time to discuss the task, then we reconvened to discuss what they were going to do during the lesson. The students were shown some images of Trajans column in Rome to clarify what they were working towards. With this idea in hand the students set of to complete the challenge.

The students correctly attempted to divide the task up, most groups assigned each other roles along the lines of researcher, constructor, artist and sculptor for the object that had to be placed on top. This would lead to difficulties for these groups, as very little planning of the actual task took place. It is clear that some students were not even thinking about the science, especially the student who had been given the job of constructing a sugar paper tube with a pair of parallel lines spiralling it.

A lack of planning became apparent when the students could not draw on to their columns without flattening it. So problem solving task number one was revealed and most groups abandoned their roles to solve the problem together. Some students backtracked and unravelled their tubes, and figured out where the images would need to go, while others just drew the pictures onto paper and glued them on! In terms of the science being taught the students had now begun to sequence the information.

The tricky construction of the column forced the students to collaborate and share the information amongst the group. If the product was a conventional poster, these restraints would not be there; students could have divided the poster up into their own sections and not collaborated or shared the information.

The penny drops!

After these problems students began to value a more careful planning procedure and actually went back to the beginning of the task and started again, reassigning tasks. Groups researched before they sketched out what they could produce. One of the students who had previously been in charge of creating an object to summarise the information, had found this onerous to the point of frustration. This student had asked each member of their group what he should make to symbolise the history of the earth’s atmosphere Each student in turn duly scratched their chins for a moment and replied, “mmm, I don’t know yet”. They gave a truly honest answer! How could they summarise their learning, when they had not yet gained an understanding of the topic. The students therefore decided that this job was best left until the end. Although I must add that despite this rethink, I was a little disappointed by the quality of these objects. In fact some groups failed to place an object. Those that did, tended to be simplistic such as a cloud or the earth itself. This was partly due to time and partly due to the difficulty of the task itself. Next time, I would consider giving an example of a richer object; for example a ‘half earth, half watch’ image with clouds around the middle to represent the change of the atmosphere on the earth over time. I hope this would encourage the students to think more deeply about the construction of the object. It must be stressed, though, that the purpose of this activity was not one of presentation, but of collaboration, planning skills and scientific content. On completion of the task the students used the success criteria to assess and feedback to another group. This also allowed the students to review their own learning by looking for specific bits of information in the work of others.

Five from Three Quiz

This technique, discovered through PEEL, was employed next as a way for students to demonstrate their new learning and receive feedback to enhance their understanding of the topic. A full explanation of this procedure can be found on the PEEL website.

It is essentially a group quiz, where the students are provided with a few questions, in this case six, to be answered in any order. They are told that each question will be scored out of three points, so one sensible contribution will gain one point. A fully answered question will gain three points out of three. If the students include more relevant information to enhance the answer an extra point will be awarded, bringing the score to a possible four points out of three. This idea really got the students discussing what good answers should look like. At the end of the quiz all of the answers to each question were to be compared and the best answer was awarded an extra mark to make five out of three.

The students now had a competition on their hands, which worked wonderfully in motivating students to discuss their learning and gain feedback from their teacher. I must admit it was a pleasure to sit and watch students scramble across my classroom and say, “Sir, how can I improve my answer”. Now, that doesn’t happen every day!

This was one of those lessons that you are never sure the students have learned what you want them to, until you give them a different task to do using the same information. I chose to use a 5 from 3 quiz as it maintained the group work ethos and it gave an opportunity to give students feedback instantaneously. They were designed to cover the important aspects of the content. Comment only marking helped the students move beyond simple responses. I was satisfied that the constructing activity allowed the students to make their own meaning, and that the demonstrate activity was sufficiently different, so that the students did not have to regurgitate the information, but use what they had created.

Darren Mead

Whole Class Challenge!

Following on the from the success Darren had enjoyed with his Trajan’s column, I decided to up the ante with my year 11 and create challenge that would involve all 32 students. They got on reasonably well and had worked together in a variety of groupings previously. By coincidence the topics I wanted to revise was the development of the atmosphere and the changing surface of the earth since the dawn of time, or there about. I have included the challenge which has been annotated to explain the careful thinking that went in to planning this challenge, so that it was as effective as possible. On the face of it the challenge seemed insurmountable but, having had group work discussions before when we look at the number of person hours available to a group, they realised that their 80 minutes in the chemistry lesson was effectively over 40 man-hours, the challenge becomes more feasible – as long as it is managed effectively.

I offered no guidance to this group and, as expected, they all set off working on different parts of the task with no cohesion whatsoever. About 15 minutes in Jo, who had been getting increasingly agitated, yelled to everyone in the room “Right everyone get back in a circle, we’ll never get it done like this”. It was to the palpable relief of everyone in the room, myself included, that someone was willing to take control. I read through the key requirements of the challenge and went through the criteria checklist with the whole class (this had not yet been done). She them asked people to volunteer for certain jobs that they felt they would be good and formed teams to concentrate different aspects of the science. Later, in good time, she got everyone back together to reform into new groups according to the timings at which the geological events occurred. This was necessary in order for the final column to be chronologically accurate. The feeling of pride and the respect she received from the group was immense.

One important aspect of this type of large group activity is that roles emerge that do not present themselves in everyday smaller group work. Especially leadership and the responsibility for completing individual tasks that might otherwise scupper the final project.

Included below are a couple of reflections, including Jo’s. This consolidation brought closure to a hectic learning experience and is an essential part of the session.

Following this there are some examples of the five from three quiz, which shows how progression was easily made using this fun assessment strategy.

Fergus Hegarty

The Muse will be taking a break next week because of half term.  Back on  the 10th June!  -Ed.

Kagan Structures

-Circles of Decision

While teaching my more challenging BTEC science class about the intricacies of the atmosphere, I wanted to continue developing effective team work. I have recently been introducing a number of Kagan structures, which explicitly develop the collaborative skills students need to work effectively in groups, in to my lesson planning.

The students are capable of working in teams for short periods of time without swearing or hitting each other, and regularly do in activities such as ‘ask the expert’, but still struggle to communicate effectively for longer periods of time. In order to try to build these skills and reinforce their knowledge I have adapted a Kagan Circles of Decision lesson which worked extremely well.

Initially the students were split in to groups of three. The number is important for this activity. The Ninja Hamster grouping, which the class were familiar with, was used this time. This particular group structure is mixed ability with no obvious friendships. Before the lesson three hula hoops – agree, disagree and don’t know – were stuck on the ceiling. After students were introduced to these ‘Circles of Decision’ they were posed an openended question such as: “Plants are good for the atmosphere” and “Modern technology shall save the world from global warming”.

60 seconds were given to talk about the question after which time the three students in each group had to go to a different circle of decision, and be able to justify why they were standing in that opinion circle. A number of students were prompted to explain why they were standing in a particular circle and most could give a decent explanation. Where a student was struggling they were allowed to ask their group to help them out once, but they were encouraged to answer the question themselves the next time. This meant that the group had to discuss the question and understand how they could both agree and disagree with the statement and also be unsure about their opinion.

Some of the students displayed a fantastic degree of knowledge and understanding far beyond the scope of recent lessons. Everyone participated pretty equally during the discussions. During the lesson Paul Hopper and I were circulating round the groups and recording key words or sentences the students used in their discussion. We displayed these on the white board for discussion during the debrief. We then went through these statements with respect to the five R’s plus 1 and demonstrated to them the extremely high level they were working at.

They were also debriefed with respect to the level of thinking they used. They were impressed to identify they were employing some high level thinking throughout the session – Empathising with and defending positions they did not necessarily agree with, creating and evaluating arguments and frequently making links to prior understanding.

All in all an extremely successful lesson, which got students really thinking and talking about science, and considering more than one side of an argument. I am looking forward to using this again with different ability sets in the near future.

Steve Welsh

Inside-Outside Circle

Students stand in two circles – the inside circle faces out and the outside circle faces in. Every student has a partner, if there is an odd number, the spare student can ask questions then swap over half way through. The teacher (or spare student) should ask a review question then give the pairs an opportunity to discuss it. The teacher then selects a pair to answer.

Both partners need to know the answer, and if they don’t know they should consult with the pair on either side. This is a fast-paced activity in which all students are aware that, at any moment, they may be asked to share their learning with the rest of the class. It is, therefore, imperative that a safe environment is established within the group, so that all students feel confident speaking to their peers.

As you can see, a variety of styles of questions was asked. Though the same questions can be asked of every pair of students, it is possible to differentiate this activity by asking specific individuals to share certain answers, prompting them appropriately.

Consider having gentle music on in the background while they are discussing (like musical chairs) then when the music stops, the teacher asks a question. The students had fun and found the activity useful to review and reinforce new material. Add an element of speed-dating to this activity by rotating the inner, then the outer circle one place to the left after each question. This mixes up the pairs for every question, giving students access to a wide range of perceptions and levels of understanding.

Linda Rowe

Introduction to Teaching and Learning (Issue 7, Conference June 2010)

– An insight into the Cramlington Model 

Our teaching and learning model is our answer to the question — WHAT DOES GREAT LEARNING AT CRAMLINGTON LOOK LIKE?

We believe that great learning happens when clear learning outcomes are combined with engaging learning activities through an understood model of teaching and learning.

The Cramlington model puts fundamental stages of learning in the right order i.e. learning is CONNECTED to prior knowledge. Learning is introduced through the SHARING OF NEW INFORMATION. There is an opportunity for students to develop their understanding through student centred ACTIVITIES and to DEMONSTRATE their new knowledge. Learning is also REVIEWED throughout the lesson.

This learning model and the principles underpinning it are described in this article. Essentially our model is in four parts:

(i) A lesson planning template which puts the important parts of a learning experience in the right order.

(ii) 5 ‘touchstones’ of our pedagogy which are Accelerated Learning, Assessment For Learning, Enquiry, Thinking for learning and ICT to support/enhance learning.

(iii) Developing independent learners through progressively developing learner skills (communication, thinking, collaboration) and learner attributes – the 5R’s (Reasoning, Resourcefulness, Resilience, Responsibility and Reflection).

(iv) Effective teacher behaviours – which describe the type of things teachers do in the classroom to bring lessons to life and to ensure all their students make good progress.

Assessment for Learning

Clarify your learning intention at the planning stage: What’s the purpose of the lesson and how will the students demonstrate their learning to you?

Discuss our learning outcomes: clarify/state what you expect the students to have learnt by the end of the lesson (content), how they will go about learning it (process) and why they are learning it (benefit). Discuss/ share how the students will know how they have been successful and agree the success criteria. Help the students to know and recognize the standards they are aiming for.

Plan in advance the questions you are going to use. Use questions to create new knowledge/learning rather than rehearsing existing knowledge. Show how you expect everyone to be ready to answer questions by using the no hands rule and give students time to respond (think time).

Feedback written or oral should cause thinking:

• Say what he/she has done well

• What the student needs to improve

• How they can improve

• Give the student time to think about your feedback and respond to you thereby creating a dialogue about their learning.

Create shared responsibility for learning through students:

• Assessing each other’s work (e.g. using a rubric)

• Self assessing their work against the agreed success criteria, a rubric or exemplar work you have provided

Adjust your teaching appropriately in light of student responses.

Points to consider:

• Is it an expectation in your classroom that everyone is ready to answer questions? Do you use the no hands rule?

• What do the tasks you set tell you about your students learning?

• Do you amend your teaching plans in light of the feedback you gather in a lesson?



• Teachers plan activities which engage students in higher order thinking

• Students have a vocabulary to discuss and explore their thinking

• Students are explicitly taught how to be better/deeper thinkers

• Students are able to select appropriate thinking tools to help them organize and structure their thinking

The National Thinking skills are defined as the following:

Information-processing skills: These enable students to locate and collect relevant information; to sort, to classify, sequence, compare and contrast; and to analyse part/whole relationships.

Reasoning skills: These enable students to give reasons for opinions and actions, to draw inferences and make deductions, to use precise language to explain what they think, and to make judgements and decisions informed by reasons or evidence.

Enquiry skills: These enable pupils to ask questions, to pose and define problems, to plan what to do and how to research, to predict outcomes and anticipate consequences, and to test conclusions and improve ideas.

Creative thinking skills: These enable students to generate and extend ideas, to suggest hypotheses, to apply imagination, and to look for alternative innovative outcomes.

Evaluation skills: These enable students to evaluate information; to judge the value of what they read, hear and do; to develop criteria for judging the value of their own and others’ work or ideas; and to have confidence in their judgements

Points to consider:

• Do you model thinking out loud in front of your students?

• Do you plan for the use of thinking tools and graphic organizers?

• Do you encourage students to reflect on their thinking (metacognition)?

Accelerated Learning 


• Learning is social

• Learning is active

• Learning is connected to prior learning

• Students know where the learning fits into the wider context (big picture)

• Learning is activated through emotional hooks and engaging questions

• Learning allows for multiple ways of accessing and processing nformation (VAK and multiple intelligences)

• Learning takes place in a positive emotional environment

• Learning takes place in an appropriate physical environment

• Learning happens best when learners are stretched and challenged

• Learning takes place when it is rehearsed and reviewed on a regular basis

Points to consider

• Do you engage students through stories, props, humour and interesting questions

• Do you use a variety of teaching and learning strategies to accommodate students who learn in different ways.

• Do you organize your lessons to allow for students to learn in different ways?

• Do you build meaningful relationships with students and know them well – is your classroom a ‘no put down zone!’.

• Do you make full use of the physical learning environment e.g. questions walls, constextualising display, room layout, keywords etc

Enquiry Based Learning 

An Enquiry is based around a question to be answered or a problem to be solved.

Enquiries can be:

• Structured OR Unstructured

• Short OR Extended

• Individual OR Group

For example

‘How can we ensure that everyone on the planet has access to fresh water?’

– Could be the basis for an extended, unstructured, group enquiry with students coming up with their own ideas and solutions.


‘Does changing the temperature affect the rate of a chemical reaction?’

– Might be a shorter and more structured enquiry designed to run over a lesson with the teacher asking each student to demonstrate their understanding through a lab report completed as homework.

Characteristics of an Enquiry based classroom

• Learning is based around a question to be answered or a problem to be solved

• Students are encouraged to generate (sub)questions of their own

• Learning can be Messy – doesn’t always go in a “straight line”

• Students are involved in active exploration and research

• Students may have some choice over what, how, and with who they learn

• Students do the thinking-teacher doesn’t do it for them

• Questions can be complex with multiple possible solutions

• Students will get it wrong sometimes

• Teacher is facilitator/resource/ critical friend/architect of the learning experience

• Learning outcomes are focussed

on process as well as content

• Students present their learning to an audience

• Debriefing the “what” has been learned and the “how” did we learn it are absolutely vital

Enquiry based learning becomes Project based learning

• When enquiries are set in real world contexts i.e. real problems to be solved

• With meaningful outcomes i.e. the result of students learning culminates in an outcome that makes a difference in or to the community

• When adults or “experts” other than teachers are consulted or involved.

• And when students present what they have learnt to a real audience

• At Cramlington students are taught a process for “stepping” through an enquiry. This is the

• Enquiry Cycle and its purpose is to give students a way to “scaffold” their journey through an enquiry.

Mark Lovatt

Cooperative learning – more than just group work (Issue 8, January 2011)

How often have you planned a lesson involving a well resourced enquiry which requires students to work in teams and things don’t go to plan? The dominant characters bulldozing their way to take over everything, the quiet and shy students too frightened to get involved, the lazy taking a back seat and the disruptives (ever the opportunists) seeing a group activity as their ticket to start the circus?

This was a familiar scene in my classroom during my first term of teaching and I sometimes took the view that cooperative learning was ‘more trouble than it’s worth’. That was until I heard about cooperative learning and was introduced to Kagan’s cooperative learning structures. These easy to implement and enriching strategies have transformed my own teaching practice and dramatically improved the way in which students interact and engage with mathematics and each other.

Activities such as sage and scribe, travelling heads and stand up hand up lead to the development of positive peer relationships. This has become a particular focus of mine whilst working with a low ability year 8 group, and I have used cooperative learning as a way of improving their social skills and providing structure and focus to group tasks. Students are starting to become accustomed to working together in an environment of mutual respect by offering encouragement and coaching as opposed to being isolated within a group. Techniques such as modelling encouraging behaviours including nodding, smiling, giving eye contact and thanking each other have helped to eliminate negative social comparisons.

As an introduction to the Cooperative Learning professional enquiry group we looked at the power of the Kagan structure stand up hand up pair up.

Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up involves students being asked to do just that.

Teacher gives the instructions and students pair up with somebody else in the class. Students do this by raising their hand and giving their partner a high five. This very small amount of physical contact is important, helps break the ice and forms an important part of building peer relationships (some students will take ownership with this, and have all sorts of different greetings, hand shakes and high fives going on). The teacher gives the students a question or topic to consider, for example ‘how many angle facts do you know?’ This can be used at the start of the lesson to find out what previous knowledge students have allowing the teacher to differentiate from where learning is at (as opposed to differentiation by outcome).

After posing the question students are allocated think time. This is very important and the teacher should unpack with the students why we need think time, e.g. to process and interpret the question before formulating a response. Students then discuss the question posed. After this they are asked to thank each other, then sit together and be prepared to share their findings with the class. Whilst students are engaged in learning conversations, the teacher can go around and actively listen in and intervene if students are struggling by pairing them with an ‘expert’ pair. In this case a pair becomes a group of four, with more able students being challenged by having to explain their understanding in a way that a ‘novice’ can understand. This activity then becomes success orientated with students measuring their own success through peer assessment.

This particular activity can be milked for all it’s worth by sharing academic success criteria with the class and allowing each pairing to level and assess their verbal responses.

Angle Facts - Tracking progress level by level

I shared these success criteria with the class. Here students can see where they are in relation to their target levels and see the content they need to access in order to make further progress. In the mini debrief of the activity it is important to draw out the processes experienced and discuss the benefits, e.g. students need to demonstrate good communication skills through using think time effectively, articulating their understanding clearly and actively listening. One particular student asked:

“Why do you always get us to explain stuff to other people?”

I knew in my head what I wanted the students to get out of the activity but did not make this explicit to them. Showing the students visually, using the PET scans images seemed more powerful than any long winded explanation I could come up with. By sharing the benefits with them they engaged more with explaining their reasons in subsequent lessons.

PET scans showing regions of activity in the brain. This visual is very powerful with students quickly seeing how much their brain works when they have to explain their understanding to a partner, as opposed to reading information.

In the How Do We Create Cooperative Classrooms? professional enquiry group we will explore and experiment with a variety of cooperative learning strategies, and the thinking behind them, personalise them to our lessons and our students.