News from the Market Place- Extension tasks in PE

In the PE department, extension tasks are in the lead- here are a few ideas picked up from the market place:

Extension folders: full of laminated GCSE exam questions from the new spec for those students finished with a GSCE task.


Chalk on a table tennis table: teachers write different learning objectives and questions on each table e.g. ‘did your ball bounce twice’ or ‘did it go up six inches’ – teaching the students the rules in a ‘tiny but huge’ way. This can also be used to present learning objectives in rooms without projectors or white boards.


And finally…using toy soldiers as targets: Giving students an aim!

Kemp’s Musings- Part 3

For the inspiring Teach Meet he organised, Stu Kemp talked about solutions to a range of issues we face daily. Here are some of his ruminations:

Bottom set year 9:

Entrance policy – They cross the ‘learning threshold’ of my lab.

They have 60 seconds to get their folders out. 

Sit down.

Open their book.

Get on with connect/create a summary of last lesson.

All in silence, they must be silent!

Exit policy – They must be sitting down, they must be silent.

I will not talk until all rulers, pens, etc. are away.

Movement in class – Do it like bacteria – quietly. Chairs cannot be scraped. Must be lifted.

Work hard on the relationships

Be assertive, authoritative and inspire confidence in your expertise. However, if students don’t connect with your human qualities- let them know.

‘I work for you. You work for yourself.’


Marking and feedback:

Photocopy brilliant work with your feedback on it.

screenshot-2016-12-14-at-20-42-17Hand it out; show the kids what great work looks like.

Ask the kids to make improvements based on what they know is great work.

When they improve their work, make sure they add the word ‘improvements’.

Get the pens out and live mark their work. 
When you are live marking they must be silent. 

DIRT time is important:


screenshot-2016-12-14-at-20-53-01Concept check:

When you introduce a new concept, check at least 3 times with three different students. Saves constant micro-
teaching and repetition.

Be relentless:


Infinite extension:

Every subject has concepts that take many steps to grasp, or skills that take hours to hone. Instead of always providing a different extension activity, why not offer an extension project- something for the students to work away at over the term or the year?

Finished? No. Never.


And finally, remind your students (and yourself, at times):


Kemp’s Musings – Part 2

Due to the popularity of last issue, here is a second collection of Dr. Kemp’s musings to peruse:

Image 1- We all need a reminder from Rita. If you haven’t already, watch this!


Image 2- Key messages for the students and maybe even the adults?

Image 3- Next time you are planning a lesson, remember this: If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.

Change it up, take a risk.


Image 4- Do teachers who make mistakes make better teachers?

I guess they do, but only if they put effort into correcting the mistake.


Image 5- Which one can you have a big say in? More than one hexagon? Have a think on it.  Follow @headguruteacher


Image 6- A big bag of balls.

Put answers on them, lob them at the students and then ask the students to generate appropriate questions.


Image 7- How many ways could you use  whiteboard dice? 4000?


Image 8- Students shrink their learning, another student then expands it.


News from the Market Place- A Level Feedback

A level feedback- not to be ignored!

Due to timetabling, it is often easy to mark an AS/A2 essay and never to refer to it again. The pace at A Level is fast, modules need to be completed in good time and so there aren’t always opportunities for in depth discussion about a piece of home learning. Sophie Minchell introduces a way to feedback to her students, both on a class and a more personal level.

Firstly, the students complete the work e.g. an essay. When marking the home learning, Sophie has a document entitled ‘class feedback’, which is dated and titled subject to the home learning. Using the assessment objectives (AOs) as her guide, Sophie writes out the particular, general strengths of this selection of home learning and of course, the common mistakes made, complete with quotations from the students’ work. At a more personal level, Sophie marks each individual piece of work, annotates it and selects a paragraph that the student can improve.

When students then have time to look at the feedback, included at the beginning of the lesson, or perhaps as the review, they are asked to start a new page, entitled progress task, ensure that they date it and using the Class Feedback Sheet, improve the suggested paragraph mentioned in their personalised feedback.

The students are then provided with a ‘progress sheet’ which is, of course, yellow. They are expected to use the language of the AOs to explain what they have improved on in their paragraph.


  • students get in depth feedback
  • students make similar errors and so once a document is created, it is quite easy to make a copy and keep some of the mistakes from the last round of marking
  • students are able to say that they are aware of the AOs, in their own words
  • more feedback at AS/A2 level, which needs to improve
  • the filing, when chronological, works to show progress


  • to create one of the documents takes time
  • not all students write the date/title- folders can get messy (but this is nothing that a folder sorting session after school can’t fix!)

Assessment for Learning: The Cramlington Teaching and Learning Model

– This issue we are looking at Assessment for Learning

The quote below sums up nicely how a positive learning environment should challenge and encourage young people to move forward in their learning. The following article contains many useful strategies and ideas that have direct application in all classrooms.

“There is no failure, only feedback”

An Assessment for Learning classroom Looks like…

1. Its part of every lesson, in every day for every student

2. All students’ achievements recognised.

3. Learning outcomes visible throughout the lesson.

Sounds like…

1. Students describing how they can improve.

2. Students describing how they learn.

3. All students giving and using feedback.

Feels like…

1. Calm, can reflect on their successes

2. Safe, students take risks in their learning, as feedback is constructive

3. Motivating, students look to make their own improvements

A Safe Environment

Develop a “No put down zone” in your classroom. Display a sign like this one on the door of the classroom. It is a simple statement to the students that they are in an environment where they are free to learn, where no one will laugh or make fun of what they say, do or the questions that they ask. In this environment students will be more likely to ask questions and seek out help and guidance. They will also feel more comfortable taking risks in their learning, knowing that if they make a mistake no one will make fun of them. Class teachers will endeavour to set up consistently apply this rule making the message clear that students should support each other in their learning.

No Hands Up Policy

The idea behind a no hands up policy is to ensure all students are involved, and expect to be involved, in learning. When the teacher asks questions the same students will often put their hands up to answer. It is easier for the teacher to accept these offered responses, as the lesson can proceed quickly forward. It is also easy for the other students who did not raise their hand because they know that they are unlikely to be asked to contribute.

They can ‘buy out’ of the learning process. Teachers must know their students’ names for this strategy to work, of course. Using a random name selector can add a dimension of anticipation here. We can use ICT to display names at random on the whiteboard, or simply pick names out of a hat! The idea is to keep challenge high, whilst keeping the stress low. If students perceive too much stress they will stop participating and thinking. To avoid this a range of getout clauses will help your students manage high challenge but with low stress:

1) Training students to respond “I do not know yet, please come back to me later” when stuck with a question is a good starting point. This buys the student some more time to think, look up answers and consult with friends.

2) Sell the idea that we learn by our mistakes so that offering their ideas is better than not. Students’ misconceptions can be great start points to lessons.

3) Give the students some educative guessing strategies, and model these regularly.

4) Employ an “Ask the Audience” device, similar to the TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The student with the impetus to answer opens up the question to the class who offer suggestions. The student still has to choose the response and therefore maintains ownership of this learning.

Why Feedback is Important

One easy way of increasing the value students add to feedback is to ask students for their thoughts. Record this conversation on flipchart paper so that it can be displayed and referred to throughout the year. The example below contains genuine comments from year 9 students.

Success Criteria

The agreeing of learning outcomes should be done at the beginning of most sessions. Some sessions, especially thinking skill lessons, are often better debriefed at the end so that the students reflect more on what they have learned.

Outcomes should reveal to your students the purpose of the lesson, so that they know what they know what they will be able to do by the end of the lesson rather than just today we are learning about “energy”, Anderson’s revision of Bloom’s taxonomy is useful here, as the words are active:

• Apply your knowledge of alkanes and alkenes to deduce difference between them

• Predict a heating curve for water

• These are very explicit examples of what success will look like, thereby making it measurable for teachers and students alike.

Increasing Student Engagement

As well as using positive language when selling the learning outcomes to students, raise interest and motivation by capturing their imagination and emotions. If students are to be really engaged in learning they must be able to see the point of it. Why should they learn about it? We must set the learning in context.

This can be done several ways such as WILF (What I’m Looking For) and TIB (This Is Because). The teacher outline what is to be learned and then gives reasons why this learning is important.

Although this is useful it is often more powerful to encourage students to create these links themselves. Once the lesson objectives have been shared, ask the students why it is important to learn about this. Once you get past the “I might get asked about it in an exam sir!” response, other questions can be asked to help students to make connections.

“What jobs or professions would find this information useful?”

“How does this connect with what you already know?”

“What will you be able to explain in your world with this knowledge?”

For example, a science lesson on heat transfer was linked to chefs, firemen and architects. By doing this the students saw their learning having real life applications.

Another way of involving students in this process is to ask them what they would like to find out about a topic. Students benefit from having a stimulus, such as books or magazine articles, while thinking about what they would like to know. It is vital that a response is taken from every student and that their ideas are recorded and displayed. This adds value to the students’ input, as well as increasing ownership of the learning.

This is ideally used at the beginning of a module so that a range of questions can be gathered and gives the teacher the chance to use these suggestions to plan lessons around. This gives students further ownership of their lessons, and as a result, should be more motivated.

Value Getting Stuck

“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of moving forward.” – Neils Bohr

Change the culture of finding tasks difficult. Explain to your students that no one ever climbed on bike and rode off into the sunset. Everybody falls off a few times, so why should learning in school be any different? Learning should be exciting and when they get stuck they are about to learn something new. That is why they cannot do it at the moment. Share strategies with students to help them solve problems when they encounter them .

Increasing Challenge in Lesson Outcomes

Use Anderson’s revised taxonomy to plan lesson outcomes that are challenging for your students.

Consider the thinking that would be required by these two contrasting outcomes.

1.Draw a cooling curve for water.

2.Predict cooling curves for different materials

The first one requires students to translate numerical information into a graphical form. The student is translating and therefore showing “comprehension”. Where as the second requires the student to identify the important pattern in previous graphs, adapt it to create a new graph and speculate on the outcome of an experiment. In the second one the student is “synthesising” information.

The Thinking spiders included below and are a good start point to planning lessons and questions. See Darren, Julie or Fergus to get hold of a set of spiders or to discuss the many ways in which they can be used.

Assessment Tools

These help students (and teachers!) focus on the success criteria of a piece of work. They help agree what a high quality piece of work will look like. Over time the following steps can develop students from teacher dependant to independent. These steps also increase the learners’ capacity for self-assessment.

Some examples of assessment tools.

1. The checklist. The first assessment tools you use may just be a simple tick exercise to acknowledge that criteria have been met. The next step will allow space for comment or guidance.

Teacher assessment tool for homework Example ‘Why is the Thermos (Vacuum) Flask the greatest invention of all time?”

2. Structure space to invite comments – simple graphic organisers. Example – Students are asked for two positives and one improvement. Positive can-do language will encourage valuable contributions.

Assessment tools are great way to start training students to give each other feedback, as they provide a structure for the advice. This is especially powerful if the students have an input into the criteria. Next time your students make posters, agree a list of five success criteria that a good poster should have, and then use this to feedback their successes.

Exchanging Feedback

When students have assessed the work of others, make them sit face to face to give their feedback. To do this the emotional environment in the classroom must feel safe. The feedback process is useful for both parties; as the person must really scrutinize the others work against the success criteria. This process helps them reflect on their own work. The student receiving the feedback will benefit from someone providing an alternative view on his or her understanding.

1. Beware – students find giving objective feedback very difficult, and tend to avoid doing so, preferring just to say positive things. To avoid this establish the following ground rules:

2. The group / person receiving the feedback must sit in silence and only speak if they are asked a direct question. This allows them to focus on the feedback, and makes it safer for the people giving feedback.

3. The person / group giving the feedback must feedback only against he agreed criteria. This helps to keep the feedback fair and open.

4. The feedback must include successes and advice on how to improve.

5. The feedback must be finished by saying I / we have finished our feedback. Thereby drawing a line under the feedback.

6. The person/group must respond “Thank you for your feedback” This shows that the effort made is appreciate.

7. No further discussion must take place after the feedback is over. To help with this it is advantageous to have groups feeding back to different groups that they received feedback from.

Teacher Marking

Teachers spend hours marking students work, but, how effective is it in helping students learn? To make the most of this effort it is most useful just to provide them with comments only. Research shows that when students receive a grade along as well the impact of the written comment is reduced.

Good written feedback

1. Informs the students if they are on the right track.

2. Encourages improvement

3. Provides guidance on how to improve

Steps to take

1. Plan key pieces of work into schemes of work that you will mark in detail. Do not aim to mark everything in a student’s book.

2. Use comment only marking. 3a. Make sure praise is specific, such as “You have listed some reasons behind global warning. I particularly liked the layout of your news article. Well done.” 3b. Only comment on agreed success criteria

3. Plan lesson time for students to respond to your feedback.

4. Plan opportunities for students to go back to the targets you set.

5. Plan self and peer assessment into schemes of work

Comment only marking strategies

Strategy 1 – Provide a hint.

This will help your students think through the problem whilst keeping ownership of learning. For example – Giving the first letter of the answer, or starting a sentence, or drawing their attention to where they have useful information in their book or worksheet.

Strategy 2 – Rephrasing the question can help students think about a problem in a different way.

Questions can lead students to the answer.

Strategy 3 – Provide a structure for your students to work in, such as sentences with gaps in so that students have to fill in key learning points. This can really help weaker students to focus on the subject.

“Some other ways to keep food fresh are r________ (make it cool), p________(heating to kill microbes), and i__________ (using gamma rays to kill microbes)”

Strategy 4 – Provide model answers.

Highlight them in the student’s work. Refer to them when work slips below the required standard. Use them as a targets for students to match structure and quality.

Strategy 5 – Colour coding student’s work

Using one colour, say green to highlight where the student has met the leaning outcome of a lesson. Where a learning outcome has not been met highlight using a different colour say blue. This could be used in connection with a praise sandwich – two pieces of positive feedback bread to one filling improvement.

Strategy 6 – Guidance can develop a students understanding.

Specific tasks should be quick to complete so that the student can see the improvement. For example, ‘A good explanation – insert these key words in to your answer: antagonistic, fulcrum”

Wait Time

During question and answer session the effective use of wait time can help students reflect more on their understanding. Teachers often answer their own questions, when a student appears stuck, often the time waited for a response is only around one second. So, this technique simply aims to increase the time to about 4 seconds. At first the silence of four seconds will feel uncomfortable, but once the students start thinking and responding with thoughtful answers it will seem worthwhile. It should be used directly after a question has been asked to allow the students time to think through possible responses.

When a response has been pause again. This sends a strong message to them that further elaboration of their ideas is required. Any response given by the teacher at this point may stop the student in their tracks. A smile would convey that a correct answer is being given, although it may not yet be complete. A furrowed brow may indicate that a incorrect answer is being given. Feedback can be this simple.

When listening to responses an open body posture and impassive facial expression will help the students complete their thinking. The effective use of wait time is an integral strategy in the assessment for learning classroom.

• It increases student motivation, shown by more student contributions and questions.

• It helps build confidence prompting students to be more speculative.

• They will test their ideas, as they know they are being supported

• It develops students’ ability to self-assess their answers. These are likely to become longer of better quality.

Celebrate Progress

The celebration of progress is also a big motivator for students. Rather than the familiar rank order of ability, this display can be motivating for all students, regardless of ability. The list is ranked in order of the degree to which students had beaten their own personal target. At the top the students had beaten their targets by more than those at the bottom. It is not a rank of ability. Watch out for this list grows each time it is used, and more students achieve and move beyond their targets. Certificates are awarded on the basis of how much they beat their target by. Gold by more than 15% Silver more than 5% and Bronze for achieving their target score. Clearly, those students who are very high achievers have a real challenge ahead of them to appear on this progress chart.

Adapted from TEEP

A rising tide lifts all ships

…why Gifted and Talented provision is less about labelling students, separate work or extension tasks and more about providing opportunities for all.

At the recent Gifted and Talented conference organised jointly by NACE and SSAT, Professor Deborah Eyre outlined her philosophy regarding G&T provision. What came as something of a surprise was the way in which she questioned the idea that G&T students should be given a separate diet from other students. Indeed, the ideas she outlined almost question the need to have a Gifted and Talented register at all.

Eyre started with the perennial problem of how to define and measure intelligence. Unhelpfully (or perhaps helpfully) over the past one hundred years of study, psychological opinion regarding conceptions of giftedness has fragmented rather than converged and definitions are now numerous and often conflicting. Educationalists and psychologists even over the last decade or so can’t agree, with Lykken (1998) arguing that ability is redetermined by our genes and can be measured, while Ericsson (2007) suggests the opposite; that there is no evidence of innate constraints in reaching high performance. Add to the debate Gardner’s suggestion (1983) that ability is multi-dimensional, while Sternberg (2005) suggests that ability is intelligence, creativity and wisdom, and the argument that we can both define intelligence and accurately label those that possess it becomes rather fragile.

Nevertheless, Eyre suggests that intelligence can be divided into three broad categories. The first of these is analytic intelligence, which is a general intelligence, where ability can be demonstrated through success on IQ and similar tests. Creative intelligence is the ability to think what others don’t think and often children are very good at this. Finally, practical intelligence is the ability to bring your intelligence to bear on practical problems or situations. Currently our whole school G&T cohort is defined as those exhibiting the first of these types of intelligence, as the criteria for inclusion on the register are based on CAT scores, KS2 SAT results or KS3 Maths results. Subject specific criteria for identifying students that have exceptional ability in individual subject areas are more flexible, as they are based not just on data but also on ‘soft’ skills such as demonstrating curiosity, using language or materials in a creative way or demonstrating a practical skill.

The age at which a child should be labelled as G&T also creates problems. Bloom’s research in 1982 concluded that, contrary to popular belief, gifted adults were seldom child prodigies. This research was supported by Lohman and Korb (2006) who found when cohorts of children are tested at a young age then regularly retested over time, the scores show substantial year-to-year regression, disproving the common myth that a child considered gifted at aged six would still be considered gifted at sixteen. If, the implication is, that early identification doesn’t necessarily lead to better educational achievement and, indeed, those that are G&T may not actually show their ability until much later in life, what is the point of the register at all?

Eyre moved on to look at the three different ways in which G&T students can be provided for educationally. The first of these she called the ‘Unique Level’ and this would accommodate the needs of a unique individual, the ‘child genius’. This would be a special educational pathway and, perhaps ironically, would not necessarily be provided by the school, as the educational system may be of little importance to the achievements of such a child.

Second, is the ‘Cohort Paradigm’, where a group of G&T students is identified as being different from others and follows educational programmes that separate them from others in terms of the concepts and content covered, the skills developed and the learning attitudes nurtured. Key issues for educators using the cohort paradigm include choosing the cohort, defining the learning conditions needed and designing the optimal curriculum offer. There are a number of pros and cons to such a system and these are outlined below:

The main arguments against the Cohort Paradigm view of G&T provision can be summed up by Shore (2000), who in a meta-analysis of able pupils’ learning found that G&T students do not seem to use strategies that others never use, and though they differ from others in their creativity and the extent to which they draw upon a repertoire of intellectual skills these are nonetheless available to others. Sternberg (2007) also suggests that traditional education tends to “shine the spotlight” on certain students almost all of the time, and on other students almost none of the time. The result is that some students are placed in a much better position to achieve than are others. The students who are not placed in an optimal position to achieve may be just as able to achieve at high levels as the students placed in a position to achieve. Moreover, the advantaged students will not necessarily be more successful later in life.

So what should the educational objectives for Gifted Programmes actually be? Gallagher (1985) suggests the following:

• Gifted children should master important conceptual systems that are at the level of their abilities in various content fields.

• Gifted children should develop skills and strategies that enable them to become more independent, creative and self-sufficient searchers after knowledge.

• Gifted children should develop a joy and excitement about learning that will carry them through the drudgery and routine that is an inevitable part of learning.

Sounds familiar? Well much of this ties very nicely in with the philosophy that underpins our KS3 curriculum in the JLV, as well as the new National Curriculum, especially with its focus on personal, learning and thinking skills and subject specific key concepts. Independence, creativity and self-sufficiency overlap with responsibility and resourcefulness, while mastery of conceptual systems surely involves both reasoning and reflection. Finally, what carries children through the ‘drudgery and routine’ that is an inevitable part of learning better than a healthy dose of resilience? As Eyre points out, learning shouldn’t need to be ‘whizz-bang and exciting’. Rewards come from mastering something that requires hard work and easy success is ultimately unsatisfying.

But if Gallagher’s are the kinds of skills, attributes and competencies that we are seeking to develop in all students, how can we accommodate the needs of the most able and show we are providing appropriate levels of stretch? Well this brings us to Eyre’s third approach to G&T provision, the ‘Human Capital Paradigm’.

The ‘Human Capital Paradigm’ operates at the macro level of education, in that it provides G&T opportunities for all students. Using such a model, G&T students would not be a pre-defined cohort but would instead emerge, much like a butterfly from a chrysalis, having been provided with the right kinds of conditions for optimum development. G&T students are therefore defined as those that actually reach high levels of performance and their development is significantly influenced by environmental and personality characteristics. Such an approach to provision demands an ‘expert performance approach’, as defined by Anders Ericsson et al June 2007: “The expert performance approach starts by identifying reproducibly superior performance and then works backwards to explain development of the mediating mechanisms.” Such an approach does not place a numerical limit on the number of students seen as capable of achieving exceptional levels of performance.

The key is also that students learn they can develop, improve and progress. “From the outside, it seems like talented people don’t have to put in a lot of effort. They make it look so easy,” said Ericsson in a recent interview. “But when you look closely, the opposite is actually true. The best performers are almost always the ones who practise the most. I have yet to find a talented person who didn’t earn their talent through hard work and thousands of hours of practice.” This kind of philosophy is similar to that of Carol Dweck , who in her book Mindset, suggested that ability is not a fixed thing but something that, with the right kind of mindset and the determination to succeed, can be developed. This sounds a lot like resilience again.

Eyre suggests there are various aspects of the Human Capital Paradigm that need to be developed for it to be successful. These are outlined below:

School structures

• Advanced curriculum running alongside normal curriculum

• Advanced curriculum characterised by problem-solving, enquiry and creative tasks

• Teaching focused on developing high levels of subject knowledge plus the ability to ‘use and apply’ it

• Learners in active dialogue with their teachers encouraged to challenge ideas and deal with cognitive conflict

• Offer is personalised wherever possible to offer choice

• No age-related ceilings imposed on achievement


• Ambitious aspirations on behalf of all students

• Rewards for high achievement in a variety of contexts

• Emphasis on striving and persisting and overt rewards for doing so – practice, practice, practice

• Openly appreciative of individuality – students and staff

• A learning environment where staff demonstrate the value of learning through their own engagement

• An academic climate that aims to build intellectual confidence in individuals and enables them to practice articulating and defending ideas

Management of Individuals

• Use of ‘assessment for learning’ techniques

• Regular review meetings between students and personal tutor (coach)

• Identified ‘SMART’ targets for improvement and timeframes for achievement

• Access to e-library of information, advice and guidance for secondary students

• Use of diagnostic tools to identify strengths and weaknesses

Close scrutiny of these should offer some reassurance that we are heading in the right direction at Cramlington, with our focus on a personalised approach, student choice, assessment for learning, the CASKE curriculum, ICT access, shared success criteria, learning conversations and the development of the role of tutor as a learning guide.

Eyre’s philosophy can be summed up as follows: “Meeting the educational needs of the Gifted and Talented is about building on good general school provision, not about providing something entirely different,” and she communicates this through her visual ‘English Model’, shown below.

None of this looks terribly far from where we are regarding our current practice with all students. The question still remains, however, that if we are providing such a rich diet of opportunity for all of our students at Cramlington, how can we ensure we maximise achievement, particularly with regard to top grades? Clearly we aren’t getting it completely right at present, as although our most able students achieve well at KS4, coming out with a positive value added score, they aren’t doing quite as well as other groups within the school. Those of you that like nothing better than scrutinising a bit of data might like to take a look at the RAISE Online package, which shows that where there are negative value added scores in different subjects at KS4, these tend to be among the A/A* students.

Perhaps we need to reflect more on our current classroom practice and think about whether we are actually providing appropriately challenging tasks for students, tasks that truly require higher level cognitive thought and resilience, or whether we are making things a little too easy, chunking the learning too much and teaching to the middle. Here too, Eyre has a suggestion. While most of us may plan a lesson then think about how to adapt it for the most and the least able, Eyre suggests that a better approach is ‘top down’ planning, whereby we plan first for the most able students, then adapt the lesson and resources for the range of the ability spread in the class. Such an approach to planning, while seemingly simple, should ensure that an appropriate level of challenge is built in automatically and should also provide opportunities for all students to rise to the challenge if they are capable.

And finally, what about that G&T register? Well, despite Eyre’s suggestion that a national register may be a flawed idea, it looks like it isn’t going to go away any time soon. The DCSF asks all schools to identify the top ten per cent of their students for inclusion on this register, which we dutifully do each year and justify this on the grounds that it raises the aspirations of staff, students and parents. Perhaps we should follow the example of some of the more subversive schools, who have sent their returns to the DCSF including all of their students on the register and while we’re about it, why not set A* as everyone’s target? Now that’s aspirational!

Karen Blackburn

Student voice

– What Students Tell Us About Our Teaching

How often do we listen to our students, our customers? I like to think I do, but, I must confess it’s probably at a cursory level. This article is me really listening! It is based on thirty reflections completed at the end of a project by my students. It is purposely anecdotal rather than statistical as students are too often reduced to a number.

I must confess I love the final half term of school, the exams are finished and a small window of opportunity to experiment with the curriculum is granted. This summer, the Science department at our school tried something different, very different. We turned over the lessons to our students in a very real way. This is our attempt at training our year 9 students in how we want them to learn come next September. Ken Brechin was the genius behind the marvellous “Brainiac” challenge. Brainiac Science Abuse is a Sky TV show that performs weird, wacky and wild scientific experiments. This was our chance to really enthuse our students about science and give them “intellectual control”. This article is a summary of the students’ experiences and what we as teachers can learn from them.

So what was the Brainiac Challenge?

Before we proceed a brief synopsis of the Brainiac challenge will be useful. Students were assigned to groups, then had to storyboard and script an episode of Brainiac Science Abuse, and present their ideas to executive producers – their class mates. They had free reign of what science they did and which experiment to perform and explain in front of the class. They were given a substantial 6 hours of lesson time to prepare. To reflect on their experience of the challenge students were given a choice of questions to respond to.

So what did they make of this, and what does it tell us about teaching and learning?

Tough beginnings lead to first success

Overwhelmingly the students found this experience “fun”, “enjoyable” and “exciting”, although this was very much a summation of their overall experience. Progress was slow at the start since the task was so open-ended. They found it difficult to make the decision on what to do and found this frustrating with one student commenting

“Once we started designing our show I was not very enthusiastic towards it, but after a few lessons I started to enjoy it. ”

It became clear that the ownership of the learning was the enjoyable part. Would the students enjoy these lessons to the same extent if they were teacher led, or if only a short time was allocated to develop the task.

“I remember thinking and panicking are we ever going to get anywhere with this, and when would the group start working together and getting things done. ”

This quote also illustrates initial trepidation, but shows they were investing emotionally in the activity. Having an extended period of time is essential for students to properly take intellectual control over their learning, though I hope they will get quicker as time goes on. They are used to short, fragmented lessons with many and varied teacher input. They are not used to doing so on such a scale.

Our students are lucky enough to enjoy a Learn to Learn course in which the 5 R’s (Resilience, Reflection, Resourcefulness, Responsibility and Reasoning) are taught and developed. It is when students are challenged that they really get to apply the 5 R’s.

“I had to be really responsible and resilient to complete this project rang truly one comment. It was indeed the students showing these qualities, though it was a show of resilience on my part not to jump in! ”

Blank pages are full of opportunities

The open-ended nature of this challenge allowed students to take control and use many skills such as; “making decisions”, “adapting”, “team working”, “negotiating” and “solving problems” to mention a few that I did expect, as well as a few that I did not expect; “listening”, “drawing”, “designing with restrictions” and “independent learning skills”.

What struck me most, however, was the sense that students were developing and improving these skills, so what initially seemed like a large chunk, nearly two weeks, of science teaching time became a mere 6 lessons. I am wondering if we dedicate enough time to these skills within our lessons.

It is important to make it clear that the teachers did retain actual control of the class (without the students realising). This was achieved by the detailed creation of the challenge, keeping perspective on what our success criteria were and our provision of quality feedback to our students on these criteria. Another trick I used was to provide grids at the beginning of each session, which students could use to agree success criteria for themselves.

They also had the opportunity to review at the end of each session. This gave each lesson purpose and direction. We were able to comment on them in between sessions too. Students did find these useful with six students using the term success criteria (despite it not being mentioned on the review sheet. This shows that success criteria are valued by students and helps them gain a sense of achievement.

Comments ranged from “not very exciting” to “I felt proud of what we did”. Whilst others found it difficult to make comments at all “because we were so involved in the challenge”.

This highlights the need for teachers to organise and run a quiet reflection time each lesson. It would be a shame if they did not get to articulate their feelings about the experience.

Pros and Cons of group work

I must signal a word of warning, that this style of teaching does create pressure that may not always be positive. Students’ skills in negotiating and delegating can be crude and therefore could lead to inequalities in labour division. Yes, the challenge of getting things done to a strict deadline is helpful, and it is evident in the reflections that it played a major part in their learning. But this can put some individuals pushing over the edge of their comfort zones.

A lot of pressure was put on me and I didn’t like it. It was a hard job. I struggled with the script and didn’t manage to finish it.”

Although only one student reflected upon this, teachers must be aware, and spend time developing the community of your classroom. Most students made their task easier by relying on their group for assistance. One student makes this perfectly clear:

I thought this challenge would be really hard but when everyone in the group thought about it together it didn’t seem that hard anymore. ”

Students were grouped using my knowledge of their strengths, a balance by gender and one or two classroom management decisions. This class is used to working in different groups. They are familiar with the routine of arriving at the lesson, and checking the board to find out which groups they will work in that day. So new groupings are very much taken in their stride.

Only one student claimed they would have been more productive if they “worked with their friends”, but this was countered by multiple responses that said “my group was nice”, “ I liked my group” and even “it was good to work with people I wouldn’t normally work with”.

The student presentations were a revelation to me as, although I had been observing closely their progress each lesson, I had yet to see a final product. Their quality, with some variation was exceptional. They explained ideas succinctly and made it obvious that they had researched and asked questions.

A particularly pleasing outcome was the fact that they felt they had learned from other presentations. Some reflections were “the presentations we saw were filled with information and facts”, “I was impressed”, “I enjoyed watching other groups”, and my personal favourite “we didn’t just learn form our own experiment

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, but also from everyone else’s.”

The presentations were surprisingly slick for 13 year olds. Many of the presentations were enhanced by the use of ICT, images and music. Like the TV show the students had raised many questions to answer by performing an experiment or scientific demonstration.

* Which vegetable is the strongest?

* Do fruit flavoured sweets taste like fruit? – (This involved me being blindfolded and taste testing lemons and limes, I may be too trusting, though no misfortune befell me!)

* Is it possible to put Humpty Dumpty together again?

* Can you make a milk bottle fart? The students were keen to pose their own questions and took the opportunity to use question dice to help formulate them. Their quest was then to answer them with real science.

The students were asked to feedback to each other in small groups and had designed feedback tools that they distributed. This is an important reflective activity and can provide stimulus to students in future activities.

“When we watched other groups presentations I couldn’t help feeling that they were so much better than I expected ”

The peer feedback was welcomed and was based on the agreed success criteria

“We met the success criteria, getting good feedback from Mr Mead and the other teams. ”

I am glad I was mentioned here. It is nice to see my students value my feedback. They give and receive feedback consistently with me and each other, so I need not be worried peer assessment will lack the rigour that makes it valuable to its recipients.

The learner qualities of 13 year olds

Problem solving is a feature prominent in many of the student reflections, with the solving of problems adding to the enjoyment of this challenge. This was pleasing although they were not usually forthcoming in describing the thought processes involved – an area for development here. “Teamwork” and “Togetherness” were common phrases and, intriguingly, one student claimed “We overcame a problem by using black hat thinking”. This student does not embellish this thought, but he has obviously seen it as a tool which he found helpful.

During the end of lessons reviews students were issued with a table of thinking words with one group utilising these well in describing their thinking “We all imagined our end products”, “We distributed tasks and interpreted information, “We identified tasks that we have to do”, All this leads me to the conclusion that my students are just starting a journey of using tools to aid thinking, but they have begun and I hope the next step is exponential.

Target setting was also a keen feature of their reflections; these were honest about work rate with direct targets such as “Instead of wasting time talking I would get started straight away” (although I disagree with this as I observed barely any off task behaviour), or technical ones like “I would have included a PowerPoint (maybe with some music)”, “We would have rehearsed”, “Learn the script and be more enthusiastic”.

All of these would have improved the quality of their presentations. These targets show that students have high expectations of themselves and, if anything, are overly critical of their performance.

My final thought on these lessons is on the last activity my students and I did, and what inspired this article. This being the honest and expansive reflections that my students so generously indulged in. It is clear that they feel successful and proud, not only of their achievement, but also of their ability to learn.

As I said at the beginning of the article, I love the final half term where the imagination can run wild, learning is unrestrained and the students have a chance to teach me things. And these things are….

1. Plan open ended activities

2. Allow time for students to make mistakes and correct them

3. Learning is fun, as long as some challenge is provided

4. Teachers must value the 5 R’s (and other learner skills) as much as content

5. Success criteria are essential

6. Provide a variety of opportunities so that they can take control and make decisions

7. Teacher feedback is essential

8. Build a safe, risk taking environment

9. Consider student groups carefully and use different groupings regularly

10. Have high expectations of students – they will pick up on this and adopt them for themselves.

11. Plan time for reflection

12. Students are a resource for each other

As an afterthought I noticed a marked similarity between what my students told me and the “PEEL principles of teaching for quality learning”. I have faithfully listed these here for you to make a comparison for yourself. It is unsurprising to see that our students are experienced learners and know what’s what when it comes to how they should learn. To find out more all we have to do is listen.