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.



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.

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

Relay Review (Issue 9, January 2011)

– On your marks, get set, RELAY!!!

The relay review is one of those “simple on the surface” classroom activities, that has a certain pedagogic richness when used with a little bit of thought. Nominally, to use this you split your class into two teams, assign a colour and a piece of flip chart paper to each, then ask them to run up one at a time and write down something that they have learned that lesson. The first team up to say twenty facts wins. That’s it, a simple and quick review task.

It is at this point that I can restate why I believe having pedagogical purposes are essential for teachers. Without them this article ends here, with a simple a tool to use in the classroom.

Tools and toolkits are not enough.

I have not hidden my passion for SOLO taxonomy (see insert), and it has been revealing to reflect upon to what extent the pedagogical purpose of this activity matches the different levels of it. It has given me different lenses though which to consider my classroom practice.

If you use the Relay Review in your class one of the first things you’ll notice is that your students will enjoy doing it. I must admit that I was being slightly pejorative in labelling the FUN aspect of this tool as prestructural (the lowest level of SOLO taxonomy). This stems from my lack of ability to define fun properly in an educational setting.

On a personal level I learn more when I’m challenged, find things difficult, when I’m intrigued or curious, when I can see the benefits to me. I also enjoy a satisfying, stimulating, thought provoking and safe learning experience, none of which I would describe as fun but things I certainly enjoy. I’m sure there is a great debate to be had on the Pedagogy of Fun as the arguments for it embrace engagement, motivation and risk taking by learners.

A quick Google search reveals the diversity of opinion, but this one really caught my eye: [apologies for broken link, will try to rectify! – Ed].

Most of the “tool” uses of the relay review I have classified as Uni-structural due to the limited amount of student learning associated with this task, after all no new learning is taking place here. It is a simple ‘remember what we have been doing task’. So engagement through competition and increasing blood flow to flagging students’ brains are all valid uses of this tool, but they bring nothing new to the students learning.

With a little adaptation this activity renders some whole class formative assessment information. To do this I provided a little more structure to the flip chart, so that student responses become more targeted.

A simple grid with the key topics quickly displayed not only what the students had learned but also what they had not i.e. a multi-structural use. Instantly the learning in the classroom becomes visible and the students’ next step is obvious to me and to them. The photograph included here [see end of article – Ed.] was taken approximately 3 minutes into an activity, it was so obvious what they were avoiding! Being aware of the order of responses is actually giving me useful information to use in my teaching.

This kind of thinking takes the use of this task from a multi-structural to a relational use. This can be augmented, by debriefing what a quality answer/ response would be. Over a sequence of reviews you would hope to improve this over time.

A limitation of this tool is that you are only assessing the whole class, so using this as a hinge activity for individuals is problematic. It is possible to stand betwixt the two flip charts, and scrutinise the contribution of individuals. In fact this is a potential way of differentiation being more challenging to more able students. Simple feedback can be given at this point too. If you are feeling particularly astute you could stand with your mark book and note who writes what down, although this is blurred by the confluence of student learning. Hence my focus on the process and sequence of this task rather than its finished product.

If you observe your students when they do this, you notice that as they wait their turn students break out of the line and form small huddles, where they vibrantly exchange facts, and clarify ideas. Taking photographs will aid debriefing the quality of the teamwork, the pictures providing non-judgemental feedback. A well structured discussion can lead to ways forward and the building of a safe community of learners, and makes it clear that skills like teamwork are learnable.

Further discussion can take the implicit and make it explicit, getting students involved and aware of that “secret teacher business” Namely that learning is social (is this where the fun’s at?) asking who helped you learn that? How did they explain it so that you understood? Likewise that learning involves repetition. What did you do when you realised that someone had written down what you were going to? How often did you have to keep checking what was on the list already? Was it helpful to recheck ? How often do you recheck your work normally? Will try to do it more often? This makes it clear that metacognition and learner behaviours are learnable.

Perhaps the strongest message is that it is fine not to know everything. Simply by having a conversation around what is our next step and then changing the lesson plan/ route as a result of this makes this clear. This is difficult for teachers but this activity gives opportunity to engender a culture of students seeing feedback not as criticism but as an essential part of learning. Research by Black and Williams highlights the academic impact in having formative assessment in place.

Darren Mead

Co-construction made easy (Issue 8, January 2011)

– A clever idea for reviewing learning

What is co-construction?

It is allowing students to take the learning into their own hands. It is allowing students to develop their own individual thinking patterns. It is allowing students to shape the way our school operates and works.

It is also so much more but these are just some of the key reasons why co-construction is so important in our teaching and learning.

Co-construction, like anything, needs to be scaffolded. We cannot create co-construction in our classrooms instantly. However one very simple way of doing this is to put the power of learning into the hands of the students within the review section of the cycle.

A simple but effective way is to use review cards. The following are examples I have used recently:

–          Today I have learnt…

–          The skills I developed today were…

–          The outcomes of today’s lessons were…

–          I have…

Review cards can also be subject / module specific with specific sentence starters given to students to allow them to show you “what” they have learnt. These cards allow students to think about what learning has taken place in the lesson.

It also hands over control of the review to the students, allowing them to offer information to do, each other and themselves. Having a generic bank of cards also allows us to select cards for each student enabling us to differentiate and really personalise those all-important reviews.

Jen Hill

Further reading:

Metacognition essential to assessment (Issue 8, January 2011)

 – Given encouragement, structure and a little time, students are pretty good at identifying how to move theselves forward

When I started marking the end of module mock exam, it was clear that the group as a whole had underperformed. This was for a variety of reasons – lack of revision, misconceptions, misreading the questions and failing to make use of information provided were the most common. I wanted to use this as an opportunity for students to identify the reasons for underperformance and begin to address them.

I have always found ‘going over’ the exam paper, however, to be a very unsatisfactory exercise and wanted to make the task more productive. So I structured the lesson after the exam carefully to facilitate this.

For bell work students completed a graphic organiser so that they knew, not only knew which topics they had underperformed on, but also the reasons for underperformance. Next, they completed a concept map, starting with the concepts they had found most problematic. This ensured personalisation of the task and increased the relevance of the lesson to each child.

Following this, they had to pair / share with someone who was working on the same aspects to find additional, information and try to provide feedback to the other person.

Finally, the students were given a set of topic-specific, grade-related criteria and a task that related to the concept map. They were asked to carry out this task to the standard of their MQT initially, then their UQT when they had satisfied those criteria.

The lesson review was to answer the following questions, relating to the mock exam paper:

• Are you aware of why you did badly?

• Can you improve on your answer?

• What advice would you give yourself before the next end of module test?

The answers had to be emailed to me after the lesson, to encourage the students to reflect on their responses. This structure allowed the students to identify and address specific reasons for underperformance and led to a genuinely personalised learning experience for all in the group.

The reviews were thoughtful and showed that most had spent some time considering how their understanding had developed [see example resposnses below, Ed.].

Finally, the graded task was performed at a far higher level than the test – although this might have been expected of a different mode of assessment, the students were confident that their performance in the real module test would be greatly improved as a result of the exercise –

I’ll let you know…

Ian Nelson